Most business leaders have a vision for improving the customer experience, and a plan for how to get there. They outline all the tools that they think they’ll need to make the vision a reality—from new technologies and analytics to systems and operations.
But, the truth is, unless the entire organization is aligned around the same vision, bringing it to life is nearly impossible. To help make the transformation easier, we produced a new book, “Drivers: A Story of Transformational Change.” Through its story, executives can start on a journey toward organizational alignment and customer experience excellence. The following is an edited excerpt of the book’s early chapters.
Enabling a vision
Alex Dalton’s leadership team gathered in Infinity Investments’ boardroom. The senior executives were clustered at the end of the table nearest the whiteboard. HR head Heather Wong had her coffee—an especially large one, Alex noticed. Kathryn Chivers, director of communications, brought in a Japanese teapot and a single discreet bowl. They all had notebooks in front of them. Sales Director Michael Stockley, the most visual thinker of the group, had a few pens in different colors. And even he, usually the most eager to get through any meeting and back to work, had brought a bottle of water.
Alex was uncapping a marker pen when the door opened again and CIO Lee Washington walked in, wheeling a small suitcase behind him. “I cut short my trip,” he said, looking at Alex as he took a seat next to Heather. “This is more important.”
Alex nodded and turned back to the whiteboard. On the right-hand side, he wrote the words “Life-changing investments.” On the left of the board, he drew a question mark. On the opposite side, he drew a large X. He drew an arrow across the board—from the question mark to the cross.
“Yesterday,” he said, “we agreed we were going to stand out from the crowd by not just being any investment house. We asked what brings us together and what our purpose is as a company. The answers to those questions told us we want to become the investment house that changes lives. Today, we need to think about how we’re going to get there. But we can’t do that until we’ve answered one more question.”
He took off the jacket of his suit and arranged it over the back of his chair at the head of the table. Turning back to the board, he pointed the marker pen at the cross on the right-hand side of the board. “This is where we’re going. X marks the spot,” he said, writing the words ‘life-changing investments’ under the cross.
“The question,” he continued, circling the question mark in red, “is: Where are we now? If we asked our clients or our own people about us, none of them would say we’re changing their lives. Getting to that point is going to be a journey, but we can’t even start making plans until we’re clear where we’re starting from.
“If being a better employer is something we’re serious about offering, for example, then we need to offer it explicitly,” Alex added. “We need to make a commitment. Heather, we’re part of the way there, but I want you to think about how we’re going to make a promise to staff that working here will be life-changing.”
“I’ll talk to my team, and come up with some ideas for how we’re going to build it into our employee value proposition,” Heather answered. “If it’s going to be explicit, we need to have it in all the messages that potential employees might see, whether it’s our LinkedIn page or in what our external recruiters are telling candidates when we start hiring again. One thing’s for sure, we won’t have any competitors making similar promises.”
“I’d like to work with you on that,” said Kathryn. “What we’re communicating to potential new employees will need to sound the same as what we’re saying to everyone else. It’s somewhere Communications and HR should definitely be working together.”
“But we need some substance to be working from,” said Lee. Alex’s reminder that you couldn’t make plans to get somewhere unless you knew exactly where you were starting from was second nature to Lee, who started his career as a computer programmer. “We can’t just guess how people feel about working here.”
“It’s a good point, Lee,” said Heather. “We need to get a sense of what we’re doing well and what we could be doing better so we know what we can promise based on what we have already and what we need to work on.”
“We could take a survey?” Kathryn suggested.
“There are some good tools out there,” said Lee. “I’ll have one of my guys talk to you about what’s on offer and how we can help you analyze the results.”
Taking a client-first approach
“If you three can work on that together, that would be perfect,” said Alex. “Which leaves you, Michael. How do we go about letting our clients know we’re in the business of changing lives?”
“I haven’t talked to my team yet, but I thought about this hard last night,” said Michael. “It’s a new focus for us. It’s not how we’ve thought about products and positioned them in the past. I realized we needed a radical rethink. We need to look at every product from the bottom up, to see if it fits. If it doesn’t, we’ll see whether it can be reworked to fit. I can see more than a dozen products we can retire straight away, and I’ve got a few ideas for new ones.”
“Retiring products that don’t fit the vision is a good idea,” said Alex. “Change isn’t only about what we’re going to start doing differently. We do have to think about what we’re going to stop doing, as well.”
“I’d need to look at what our competitors are doing to make sure our offerings are different,” Michael said. “Maybe we could focus on investing in companies that are developing products with the potential to improve lives. Maybe we could find a way for customers to vote on what we invest in.”
“A Kickstarter for a new fund?” said Lee.
“Something like that,” said Michael. “Or at least a facility to give up-votes to investment choices within a fund.”
“We have to be clear when we say ‘life-changing’ whose life it is that we’re changing,” said Alex. “What we agreed yesterday is that we’re about life-changing investments for our clients and everyone who works here. But if we’re going to rally Infinity around a vision, it has to be crystal clear. First and foremost, I want our clients to know it’s in their lives where we’ll make the biggest difference. That’s the primary lens we should look through when making decisions. Then, I want the people who choose to work here to know that working here will change their lives. If we can be a positive force in anyone else’s life, that’s fantastic, but it’s not the focus.”
“Point taken,” said Michael. “I’ll sit down with the team and work up some of my ideas, and see what they can come up with too. For our part, we know we absolutely have to have a portfolio that fits the vision.”
“There’s someone else you should sit down with, though,” said Alex.
“Who?” said Michael.
“Our clients. We need to make sure we’ve got products that match our vision, but that’s no good if they don’t meet the clients’ needs as well.”
“I can have my team look at the data,” said Lee. “We know a lot about our customers and what they want already. Just off the top of my head we’ve got web analytics and call center records to start with. We’ve had lots of feedback already; we just haven’t been looking at it thoroughly.”
Working as a team
“We’re not going to be able to do this if we’re going off in different directions,” Alex said, pleased with the progress of the group so far. “Let’s get down on paper what we’re going to do after this meeting. Michael?”
“Top of my list is making sure our existing products fit the vision of life-changing investments. Next is coming up with some new funds, ones that really stand out. And making sure everything we offer meets client needs.”
“What do you see being the most important things to do there?” asked Alex.
“For the existing products, it’s a review. I’ll divide the products among the team and ask them to hold each one up to the light. Does it have the potential to make life better for the person who invests in it? For the new products, my team needs to have a brainstorming session, and we need to check what we come up with against what our competitors have. The new products really need to stand out if we’re going to put our flag in the ground.”
“What about the clients?” asked Alex.
“I’ve got other client meetings before the end of the week. The team has more. I’ll work with them to come up with some questions to ask. If I’m not on a sales call, the team will give me feedback and I’ll make a point of going to see our top five clients specifically on this point. I think they’ll appreciate being asked, aside from anything else.”
“That’s good,” said Alex. “What about you, Heather?”
“Same as Michael. I’m going to look through all our recruitment material to make sure it’s in line with the vision. I’m also going to speak to our recruitment agencies to make sure I know exactly how we’re seen in the market. This recruitment freeze won’t last forever. I want them to be in the picture when we’re ready to start hiring again, so we get the right people in.”
“We’ll be working on the messages together,” said Kathryn, “but first we’re going to survey the company so we’re basing what we do on facts, not assumptions.”
“In IT, we’ll be supporting both streams by helping them get the best data for making decisions—or at least for testing theories,” said Lee.
“All right,” said Alex. “The priority is customers. I want you to test everything you do against what’s going to be best for them. It’s because of customers that I’m taking the employee angle to be a priority, too. People who feel their lives have been changed by Infinity are going to be much more open to the idea that we can do it for our customers. They’ll be looking for new ways to do it. And to keep ourselves honest, especially our sales team, Michael, how will we know what we’re doing is working?”
“Sales is one of the most transparent parts of any business,” Michael answered. “Either you’re selling or you’re not. There’s nowhere to hide. In this case, I’d say we’ll know we’ve got our side of things on track when we can come to you with clear recommendations for products to scrap. And we’ll have the outline of products built with the vision and our customers in mind—products you can look at and say with confidence there’s nothing like them on the market.”
“For our part,” said Heather, “we’ll know we’re on track when we’re able to come back to you with a status report on what needs to be changed in our recruitment messages, based on what we’ve learned from recruiters and new hires. We’ll also have the survey results of where we are now in relation to the promise of a life-changing employment. With that, we’ll have recommendations on how to get from there to a place where we’re living up to the vision.”
“We’ve come a long way in a couple of days,” said Alex. “I think it’s definitely time to bring your teams into the picture. But I don’t want you to come back just to me with recommendations. As a team, we have to stand by what we’ve decided. So, it’s right that we present what we find back to this group for discussion. You’ve got a week, then we meet again.”
Vision to Results Insights
The leadership team is starting to plot a strategy to take the organization in the direction of its vision of making life-changing investments for clients and in employees. They have recognized you can’t plan a route to a destination unless you know the starting point as well as the end point.
Coming up with a strategy to achieve a vision requires:
1. A clear and honest view of reality—where you stand now. It’s better to make decisions based on facts and data rather than assumptions. For Alex and his team, this will include an employee survey and insight about clients taken from their behavior on the website and their feedback to Infinity’s call center.
2. A list of priorities. There will almost always be too many things to do. It’s important to prioritize action. Infinity’s executive team could be doing any number of things toward the vision, but they leave the meeting clear on what’s most important.
3. Cohesion. Alex’s leadership team is not a cohesive unit, likely the result of a sustained period without clear direction. They are agreed that things aren’t working the way they are and they’ve fallen in behind the vision. If they didn’t agree on the vision, getting anywhere at all would be difficult and would require some level of intervention or executive development.
4. A customer lens. Leaders should never create strategy for strategy’s sake. Strategy should be created for the customer’s sake. Alex has been clear with his team that everything they present to him from now on needs to have been thought through in terms of the benefit to the customer.
5. Clarity. The focus areas have been written down and they’re unambiguous. At the team’s next meeting, there will be no room for anyone to say they didn’t know their exact responsibilities. In our experience, limiting strategy to the key three to five core focal areas helps achieve this goal.