Thursday, April 9, 2015

Who Could Want Me As a Mentor?

Over the years, colleagues have approached me with a request that sounds benign and that has been increasingly common, “Would you be my mentor?” For reasons I haven’t fully understood, I find these requests uncomfortable; recently, I have been trying to understand why.

It’s not the time commitment that bothers me. I am more than happy to help, and am willing to invest in the development of a colleague. 
Rather, it’s the presumption that I have any wisdom worthy of sharing that nags at me. I interpret the question with more formality than it likely deserves, but can’t seem to think otherwise.

To find the most effective way to diffuse my anxiety, I’ve recalled mentoring situations from my own past.
In my first job out of college, I rose through the ranks of an ultra-scientific firm doing research on the early forms of computer networking. I wasn’t smart enough to discover new science, so I focused on the management side of the business. 

Bill Dlugos was a recently retired USAF Colonel and he was hired into a role that oversaw my scope of responsibility. While I reported to Bill, he also served as a coach and mentor to me, without either of us ever using those words. 
Over the next few years, Bill would ask me how I was approaching problems and generously offered his time to give me advice around how I was thinking about the tasks at hand. The projects I was leading were cutting-edge and complex: deploying a communications capability to the FBI, connecting NATO’s operating locations across Europe, and working on sensitive intelligence programs.

I listened intently to Bill because he was experienced in the business and thoughtful about me. I can’t recall him ever directing me. He always asked what I was thinking about a situation, and what alternatives might be practical. Being a junior manager leading my first complex assignments, this was uplifting because of the confidence it showed Bill had in my abilities – even when my judgment was poor.
A few years later, in a job for which I felt similarly unprepared, Don Bowen (retired USAF Brigadier General) recognized my anxiety and reached out with an offer that we have coffee once a week to talk about what I was experiencing. No agenda, just coffee.

Both of these men initiated the mentoring relationship. They didn’t wait for me to ask for it. Both of them were in positions of authority, but never used their positions as the framework for our conversations.
Bill and Don were career military officers, accustomed to structure, discipline, planning, and order. For whatever reason, they saw in me a potential that warranted the investment of their precious time.

I hadn’t thought about Bill Dlugos or Don Bowen for many years. I lost touch with them long ago.
As I place these memories in the context of being asked by colleagues to serve as a mentor, I am ashamed. I should not need to be asked, I should initiate. There does not need to be any formality to the act; it ought to be natural and casual.

In fact, much later in my career when I carried considerable management responsibilities, the CEO of my firm said to me one day, “Your value is much greater by BEING, rather that DOING.”
I work today with a great group of young professionals, and maintain a rich network of past colleagues. I will be offering coffee more often than before. I may just be old enough now to overcome my insecurities.

Peter Allen has many years of operating experience as a top executive of rapidly-growing multi-billion dollar companies and in assessing sales and marketing effectiveness. He is now a Boston-based Managing Director at Alvarez & Marsal.

Image: wallyg/Flickr





Monday, April 6, 2015

To Go Digital, Go Find Excellent Partners

For four years I led global sales and marketing for a large IT Services company, and experienced first-hand the powerful impacts of digital transformation. To deal with digital initiatives, many of the CIOs with whom I worked grappled with the choice between buy/subscribe versus build/operate.
This experience really emphasized for me that digital transformation redefines the nature of any underlying business, and changes the nature of services partnerships. This is not outsourcing as the industry previously defined it. 
In most cases, companies must increase their proficiency in the use of services partners (i.e. buy/subscribe), because the very nature of Digital business models demands agility and networked ecosystems. 
Getting comfortable with the structuring of external partnerships and a central strategy for driving a Digital agenda is no small feat. Here are five lessons I tallied during my operating experience:
1)    Digital is a Business Model, not a Technology. Companies that are well established in their markets recognize that digital enables new operating structures. This doesn’t just mean mobile; many others are emerging quickly, including social networks, multi-modal communications, edge computing, sensor-based data models, in-memory database processing, and others. 
Beyond the established organizations, look at the new entrants that are building their operations around a digital ecosystem. Both start-ups and carve-outs, many fueled by venture capital and private equity, insist on running their business via digital operating models; they are leaving behind the organizations and systems that defined business of yesterday.
The Internet-of-Things (IoT) conversation is a business model discussion, not a technology discussion.
2)    Digital is Everyone’s Business.  Even the most mundane industry segments are faced with digital threats and opportunities. If you’re a manufacturer, or a distributor, or a maintenance company, or a services entity … you’re likely spending time considering new ways to develop, sell, and service your customers using digital techniques. 
I’ve been impressed by some otherwise traditional business segments that have teams of people working to conceive new sources of operations through the use of emerging digital techniques. Many are using crowd-sourcing ideation programs to engage their employees in this process – a testament to the urgency of bringing everyone along on the journey of change.
3)    Digital is a New Muscle. Most of the companies that I work with readily admit that they are lacking in the expertise to transform their business via digital. The expertise they need is well beyond technological skills. They are missing a fundamental understanding how to conceive and operate new digital business models.
In most case, two realities fuel a burning ambition. First is the competitive threat that exists across industries from more nimble entrants who are more aggressive in embracing digital operating models. But the more powerful forcing function comes from reimagining how customers want to do business. When you apply an outside-in perspective, it’s often a liberating experience for employees who can see new ways to operate the business.
4)    Digital is Holistic. Unlike the era of Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) platforms that focused on efficiencies in back-office operations, the digital promise touches on every aspect of the business cycle. It’s about how you win the right to serve your customers, all the way through the management of your supply chain.
5)    Digital Requires Partners. If you buy into the shift to digital in how business is conducted, then you are implicitly buying into the need for a robust eco-system of partners. Digital, by definition, implies the knitting together of buyers and providers through platforms and channels of commerce. 
This last point resonates most intimately with my own background in shared services and outsourcing. Executives are looking to their existing back-office service resources through the lens of enabling a digital ambition. Can the current shared services organization acquire the skills, orient the service model, and reach forward through the business?  Can the current outsourced service providers bring purposeful investments to bear through leveraged services in a digital business model?
It is the responsibility of executive leadership to mandate service partners to foster innovation in the delivery of front-office, mid-office, and back-office innovations. They can do this through automation, analytics, interconnectivity, and all of the other features of a digital business model. Digital is as much how as it is what.
The excellence of your service partners, and in the dynamic use of built-for-purpose solutions, is what will enable your business to be a leader in digital transformation.
Peter Allen has many years of operating experience as a top executive of rapidly-growing multi-billion dollar companies and in assessing sales and marketing effectiveness. He is now a Boston-based Managing Director at Alvarez & Marsal.
Image: sachman75