To expand their influence in the organization, learning practitioners can take a page from the masters of getting a foot in the door: salespeople. But to turn that foot into a seat at the executive table requires a new set of strategic sales skills.
“Executives are looking for strategic value that goes beyond the products and services you’re selling,” said Marc Miller, CEO of Sogistics, a sales productivity improvement consultancy. “The smart CEOs are reaching out to see who can answer that call — and they’re reaching out internally, too, to the people running their departments.”
Miller’s client roster includes companies such as GE, Sun Microsystems, Genentech, Diebold and Wolters Kluwer. His latest book, A Seat at the Table, tackles the evolving set of best practices around strategic selling.
“Salespeople don’t cut it anymore,” he said. “It’s really today about how do you turn a salesperson into a businessperson that sells.”
Making that shift requires that salespeople understand client goals and can deliver valuable solutions that align to those priorities. Failing to do that means they’re left out of the strategic decision making that leads to productive long-term partnerships. Internal learning leaders often struggle with a similar problem.
“Chief learning officers have a tendency to be shut out from having a voice in the strategic direction of their own companies,” Miller said. “[The] challenge for them is how to gain a little more power and influence in the big-bet decisions their employers are making.”
While CLOs have traditionally struggled to gain a seat at the table and be a strategic partner with internal executives, Miller said the time is right to make the transition. Companies today, regardless of the recession, are finding it increasingly difficult to create profitable growth. Along with increased turnover in executive ranks, organizations are grappling with rapidly changing business models and shrinking product life cycles that are sapping profitability. Executives are looking for strategic partners to help, but those partners need to move beyond a tactical approach focused on products and services.
“Those people have got to quit trying to sell us stuff,” he said. “They have to learn our unique market niche. They’ve got to learn our competitive sphere. They’ve got to learn how we make money. They’ve got to learn where we’re heading in the future and where we see premium margins in new markets.”
While the idea is simple in theory, attempts to gain a seat at the table often fall victim to a failure to connect to that vision.
“Essentially, it’s your know-how that makes the difference,” Miller said. “It’s how you apply your products and services to your client organization [in a way] that separates and differentiates them and makes them more productive.”
Miller said senior executives are dealing with short-term pressures, but they remain focused on identifying and executing the next stage of business. Successful selling involves focusing on the future and connecting with executives on their vision.
“This is not a conversation about problems,” Miller said. “It’s not a conversation about pain or angst. This is a conversation that needs to be about opportunities.”
Miller categorizes the big decisions that executives need to make into four quadrants: innovation, implementation, optimization and outsourcing. The first two, innovation and implementation, are “blue ocean” strategy, a term developed and popularized by W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne in their 2005 book, Blue Ocean Strategy, to describe a strategy focused on new products and services that lead to rapid growth. Executing on blue ocean strategies creates market differentiation and smooth sailing for the organization.
“If I’m a CLO, I want to learn two things about the blue ocean,” Miller said. “What new innovations are we trying to deploy, and how can I help my company get through that window very, very fast?”
The other two quadrants, optimization and outsourcing, are “red ocean” strategy, focused on the core business, including existing products and services in mature categories. Competition is fierce and the sharks are circling.
CLOs should think here about “How do we become more productive around our core offerings, and how do we take cost out of our structures?” Miller said. “It’s all about being lean and mean and efficient.”
He said becoming a strategic partner, and not just a provider of training services, involves honing in on where the company is headed in these areas and staying constantly aligned with that vision.
“What’s the blue ocean today — the best opportunities — [and] what’s the red ocean — the mature, commoditized part of our business? I want to connect to it [and] figure out how I can add value to the core strategies of my organization.”
It’s easy to get bogged down in putting out daily fires and chasing short-term gains, but that’s not where successful salespeople ultimately make money and learning professionals add value, Miller said. It’s important to deliver results in the short term, but also to connect to the future vision.
“The guys who figure out how to do both are the guys that end up on the top of the heap,” Miller said.