Interview: Growth Conference Keynote John Kaplan on Seasons of Growth

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John Kaplan, Managing Partner and President of Force Management, a B2B sales effectiveness consulting firm, will be delivering the opening keynote at the 2018 MassTLC Growth Conference. In the keynote—“Maneuvering through the Seasons of Growth”—John will discuss how to manage through the various stages of a company’s growth. We had the opportunity to discuss some of the challenges that accompany growth stages.
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What are the key challenges companies have when trying to lead through seasons of growth?
I think the biggest challenge is just to recognize that there ARE “seasons” of growth.  A season is a set time of year marked by changes in things like weather, ecology and daylight. Just like everything else in life, it always comes down to preparation and execution. Those that are prepared and execute correctly through these seasons are the most comfortable.

What is the biggest mistakes organizations make when it comes to the sales organization in times of rampant growth?
Unfortunately, organizations tend to be caught off-guard in terms of the structural changes processes and tools they need to support growth.  Organizations are resistant to change. They try to hang on to the ways of the past. All of us have been brought face to face with the reality that “what brought us success in the past, might not bring us success in the future”. This reality is hard, but it is a necessary understanding. The processes and the people who got you there, may not be the ones to take you up the next mountain.

Can you have the same leader through all your company stages?
This is one of the hardest concepts in the whole conversation about growth and goes back to my earlier point. The reality is that it is very rare that you have the same sales leaders throughout stages of growth. We find is that the skill sets required are vastly different at each stage of growth. I am not saying that one person can’t do it or “pull it off”, but I believe in people’s natural resting states. When someone is in their natural resting state (a particular growth stage), they get energy from the task. When they are not in their natural resting state, the task takes energy from them. The most successful companies in the world, have leaders in place who get energy from the task.  If you have a sales leader who is passionate about process and executing on the developed process, he/she is probably not the right leader for an early stage company. At the same time, a sales leader who doesn’t like process, isn’t going to help you in your later stages. The key is breaking down the skill sets required at each stage and being honest with your assessment of the leader needed.

In the early stages of growth, one of those challenges is often how organizations translate that founder vision into a repeated process that enables revenue. Can you talk about how they enable that process?
This is a great question because it is one of the most critical processes that we see in this journey of growth. “How do you get the founder’s vision into the hearts and minds of the organization in a way that it can be successfully executed in front of a customer?” First of all, the founder has to believe that this is possible. If not, they try to be involved in EVERY conversation and in every deal. After a while, the organization just gets chemically dependent on the founder for everything. Obviously, this process is not scalable. The best way to handle this, is to simply get a messaging framework in place around four fundamental principles:

  1. What problems do you solve?
  2. How do you solve those problems?
  3. How do you solve these problems differently or better than others?
  4. Where have we done this before?

This allows your founder to put their vision into a sales consumable, outside in (custome-first) format. The most successful companies have a messaging framework that enables this process.

What are the best tech leaders doing right now to accelerate growth in their companies?
I think the best tech leaders are always very cognizant of providing their organizations with critical capabilities around key foundational elements for growth.

  • A clear and concise message that demonstrates a knowledge and understanding of customer problems and provides clear differentiation from competition that can scale through growth stages;
  • A clear and concise sales process and engagement model that aligns to the way that your customer prefers to buy, highlights who does what when and highlights specific qualification criteria;
  • A management cadence that produces qualified pipeline and a highly predictable forecast
  • A talent process that produces a clear success profile process that can scale through growth stages.

We know that alignment is important to leading through growth, but how do you as a leader foster that alignment?
The most successful leaders are always the ones who have organizational alignment. I believe the best way to do this is to get the organization to change the focus from inside-out to outside-in. It’s not about your product. It’s about the people who buy your product. It’s so much easier to get alignment when you put your focus on the customer first. We also believe in the concept of the tip of the spear. The most successful companies we have seen are aligned behind the sales effort, that moment of truth in front of the customer. Since we know that customers demand answers to those four essentials questions I mentioned earlier, it is easier to get the organization aligned around those answers. You simply can’t answer those questions without complete company alignment (sales, marketing, product, support etc.)

Talk about the connection of discipline to growth.
I think it is always about discipline. Ownership and accountability are critical. Do you have the things in place that allow people in your organization to know exactly what they should be doing and how? Have you provided the “why” for your organization? Without a “why” the what, and the how are debatable. Remember, everyone loves to be led. As a leader, you need to have the discipline in place that enables them to get to place they believe they can’t get to on their own.

What did your work at PTC teach you about leading through growth and specifically the sales organization?
It comes back to discipline and those concepts I just covered. We were the most disciplined and accountable sales organization in the world. We had a clear and highly differentiated message. Everyone knew what their role was and if you did not perform in your role you did not keep your job. We knew exactly how to forecast. In fact, we produced 43 straight quarters of double digit, profitable revenue growth. We did this without EVER missing our number to Wall Street in that period. That is more than ten years of calling the ball for investors! We were committed to our success profile which gave the organization a tremendous confidence that the person you went to work with every day was signed up for the same mission and more importantly knew how to execute.  There are several members of the MassTLC community that spent time at PTC during those years. They know very well the type of discipline and accountability that was required. It was a great team to work with.

Force Management is growing every year. What have you learned leading this company through growth?
That’s a great question because I have learned some very relevant lessons. I remember the day I was sitting in front of a customer who’s problem was morphing into something new for us to solve.  I felt that twinge of pain, realizing that we were not aligned to solve that problem and that most all of our customers would be facing the same challenges. In that moment, I realized that we needed to go through our own change of season. We needed to rethink the way that we offered our solutions. I remember specifically the tug of war happening in my mind between the comfortable way of our repeatable machine versus the need to change to support our customers. I think you are always safe by keeping your thinking outside-in versus inside-out. It’s always about the customer.

When you have to do large talks like this, how do you approach it?
It’s similar to this concept of outside-in. No matter the size of the audience, I always try to narrow my focus to providing an audience what they need. I find that when I focus my mind to make it all about the audience I am speaking to and not about me, the talks are way more successful and appreciated. The audience of one concept is something more personal for me. There is only one entity in my life that I am trying to impress. When I stay focused on that, good things typically happen.
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