John M. Abele is a partner in the executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles in Chicago, managing the firm’s global Marketing, Sales & Strategy Officers Practice. He is also a member of the company’s global Industrial Practice and conducts senior-level general management search assignments. Abele’s focus covers the entire breadth of commercial leadership functions across the industrial, consumer, technology, life sciences, and financial services sectors. He has successfully built the commercial leadership for clients of all sizes and ownership structures, such as corporations, private equity firms and small, privately held businesses. His responsibilities include placing marketing, commercial, sales, strategy and business development officers.
In the business growth field for 15 years, previously Abele spent eight years with McKinsey & Company as a leader in the marketing and sales practice and industrial sector. There he focused much of his time with clients in the industrial, technology, consumer, and services sectors. He has authored numerous articles and speaks on a variety of marketing, sales, and business development topics. Abele has helped clients develop corporate growth and sales strategies, navigate mergers and acquisitions, transform sales forces and distribution channels, improve marketing and pricing organizations, and successfully utilize technology as a means for growth. Earlier in his career, he was a manager with Hewitt Associates LLC and a consultant with Andersen Consulting.
Below, Abele speaks with Opptiv about the position of a growth leader as it relates to today’s new business environment.
Opptiv: Today there is a growing trend toward hiring one person who is responsible for the company’s growth strategies. How did this new position come about?
John Abele: Even as little as 15 years ago, very few companies had a person specifically charged with growth, such as a Chief Commercial Officer or Chief Consumer Officer. Growth strategy was mostly owned by the CEO or business general manager. Or, the responsibility of growing the organization was spread out among a lot of different officers or managers: No one person was quarterbacking these activities. Since growth was only part of their job, less attention was paid to it. Consultants were frequently hired to develop growth plans, but too often these reports ended up collecting dust on the shelf. Many included great ideas that were never put into place, and often the CEOs and their management teams focused more on directing their efforts toward other goals. Daily, monthly, and quarterly pressures put more concern on the short term rather than the next five to ten years. It came down to leadership. No one was making growth their night-and- day task at hand.
If you look at corporate America over the past 20 to 30 years, the ’80s and ’90s were all about operational efficiency. People made it to the top ranks at many companies because they were great at operations, manufacturing and engineering, six sigma, lean and whatever else was promoted at the time. Sourcing became big in the ’90s and cutting costs was still the end goal. At the end of the century and the rise of the Internet, IT began to explode with the Y2K and the dotcom era. However, many senior officers were still wired to think about how to do something more efficiently not for growth. The leadership gap continued. Even today, I would say that only one of every ten companies has someone specifically in charge of growth–doing it right.
Opptiv: How do you define “doing it right?”
JA: It means actually having the right talent on board who has a clear growth strategy and really understands the marketplace and opportunities. You need a lot of different factors in place that together lead to success in execution. If management says they have everything needed to encourage change, yet the company’s corporate culture does not foster growth, then it’s not going to work. Everything comes down to leadership driving the growth effort throughout the company.
Opptiv: What’s precipitating this focus on growth?
JA: First, many organizations have already done a lot of work in operations and are starting to see diminishing returns. They realize you can’t cut your way to prosperity. Growth is becoming one of the options for where they can turn their focus. Second, during the dotcom era, the entrepreneurial talent demonstrated “what could be” versus “what is.” Third, is private equity–an area that I believe is still understated. At the turn of the century and onward, many companies were taken over by private equity, and their number-one goal was EBITDA growth. Costs could only be cut so much. Recently, the emphasis on growth is being pushed even more by the rise of social media and content. Companies are now trying to get their hands around the whole mobile platform–you’ll see this area growing over the next several years.
Opptiv: What personality traits and skills are important when hiring these growth leaders?
JA: You need to look for both experiential and behavioral traits. People need to have spent significant time in marketing, sales or strategy, as well as in some innovation or commercialization processes. These are great building blocks in terms of a person’s experience and background. They also need to have entrepreneurial spirit. They are visionary leaders–not just an idea-of-the-moment people. They have the analytical horsepower to think past the creative issues. It’s the rare but important left-brain, right-brain person. It doesn’t need to be a 50-50 split, but not a pure analyst or a total freethinker: You need balance.
This person also needs courage to take a step, stand up for things and take calculated risks. I look for people who have demonstrated this ability in other departments like sales. They’ve worked in branding organizations and learned a lot from failure as well as success. Yet they also have to exert a certain sense of urgency about growth, or the ideas will die on the vine. Just as important is their passion–the spark in the eye and the five or six new ideas they analyze to determine the ones that are actually best for this company. It’s having the prudence to know when to push. The passion will allow this person who is thwarted to stick with it: That’s where the patience comes in. If their ideas are not immediately accepted, they don’t take their ball and go home.
Opptiv: What exactly are the growth officer’s responsibilities?
JA: There are primarily four areas they should be covering: Strategy, sales, marketing and innovation–R&D or other areas of development. The emphasis is on how to integrate these areas to have an arsenal of ideas in the pipeline. This is coupled with the ability to see market opportunities, promote new products and services and execute sales: It’s a holistic process that covers soup to nuts.
There are numerous titles for the person in charge of growth, since this position is so new: It’s like Baskin Robbins’ 32 flavors. Regardless of their title, these new hires are all focused around the growth agenda. An organization’s top officers are concerned about the next 12 months’ strategy; the growth leaders are instead focused on the long term–three years and out. The CEO has the vision of where the company is headed. The growth officer supports this vision, leading the troops and driving execution.
Opptiv: Are these growth leaders only found in larger companies?
JA: Actually, no. I’ve placed growth officers in billion-dollar companies as well as much smaller organizations, especially if they are private equity based. The CEOs are concerned about funding and responding to the needs of their board and external constituencies. They have a team in place to help them achieve strategic goals: The COO to oversee current operations, CFO to be worried about numbers and the chief growth officer (CGO) to complete the triumvirate by looking into the future.
Opptiv: And what about the type of culture needed?
JA: The company must be entrepreneurial in the broad sense. It needs to be an open culture where people are thinking about new possibilities. It must be understood that failure is only another step along the path toward success and not something that should be punished. The company needs to be willing to sponsor ideas, see them through and realize not all of them will pay off. Some organizations are so tightly managed–rightly or wrongly–cash flow is more important than future revenue.
As I noted before, the growth culture needs to be a lot more than words. A lot of companies have slogans and corporate value statements that say one thing and the company acts differently. Then they are kidding themselves. You get good ideas coming into the company that die. Eventually the people who are generating these ideas get frustrated and go elsewhere.
However, the growth leaders don’t always have to think out of the box and be completely innovative. They can still stay within the lines. In corporate America, you don’t have to exclusively be an innovator. If you do it better than everyone else, people will buy from you. This will generate growth in and of itself. It’s recognizing what market you are in and the best pathway to success–like Federal Express and UPS, which have done it better and become the industry standard. That’s what growth is all about. You have to see the pathway. Sometimes it’s already there. You just need to do it better.
Go back to management strategy theory 101. You need three different pathways to be successful: 1) Operations–more efficient than everyone else. 2) Innovation–better ideas than everyone else and 3) Intimacy–closer to customers than anyone else. Companies sometimes point to growth that is generated because they introduced a product or service that progressed because of a rising tide in the marketplace. The real question is if you can generate growth in a declining market. That, to me, is the better measure of success.
Opptiv: What are the benefits of focusing on growth?
JA: Improved return to shareholders and stakeholders, depending upon your organizational structure. Stakeholders can also include your employees and their salary increases and bonuses. All this can snowball in many positive ways. It can fuel an attraction for better talent and fuel returns for investor groups. It’s all of the things that corporate America hopes for.
Inteviewed and Authored by: Keary Crawford
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