Greg Bicket needed to get his company back to the basics.
Over the years, Cox Target Media Inc. had diluted itself. The approximately 1,000-employee wing of Cox Enterprises, a $15 billion media giant that includes cable television service provider Cox Communications, had covered a lot of ground in its quest for growth. Over the past couple of years, as the economy faltered, Bicket came to the realization that Cox Target Media had become too diffused. The result was a company that performed decently at a number of endeavors but wasn’t striving for greatness in any single area.
He decided that his company which produces Valpak promotional products needed a renewal of focus. And that it would need to start from his perch as the company’s president.
“We were trying to cover too wide a waterfall,” Bicket says. “It made staying in the same spot an unattractive option. We had built a new plant, which represented a lot of capital invested, and it was not unlike the Airbus, where you have a tail made in Portugal, an engine made in Britain and a wing made in Germany. It took a very complicated set of tasks to bring it online, and it took awhile. Then you combine it with other issues around increasing competition and the global economy turning sour, it all converged and created a kind of semi-perfect storm.”
Cox Target Media needed to renew its focus on understanding customer needs and wants, understanding the markets it serves and creating materials that stimulate transactions for customers.
“It was really the essence of our brand, so to a degree, it was really like returning to the roots that built the business, but doing it in a more focused way,” Bicket says.
Refocusing a business unit of 1,000 people takes a vision, followed by consistent and constant communication of that vision. It’s why the process needs to start at the top of the company.
What followed for Bicket was a process of logging air miles, delivering speeches and soliciting feedback. It sounds like Business 101 blocking and tackling, but threading through it all has to be an unwavering belief in your plan and a desire to do whatever it takes to get employees at all locations and levels on board.Cascade your message
Delivering a new concept to hundreds or thousands of people is something that one person can’t accomplish alone. As the company leader, you need to involve your management team in a cascading approach that engages and creates buy-in level by level.
After Bicket and his team made the decision to shift the focus at Cox Target Media, they took one of Cox Enterprise’s corporate jets on a nationwide barnstorming tour to spread the word. In three days, Bicket and his team met with about half of the company’s franchisees, representing 80 percent of its business.
The face-to-face factor was critical because cultural changes happen on a personal level and need to be communicated as such. When an employee decides to embrace a new direction, vision or set of values, it’s a personal decision at which each person arrives individually not a directive that is issued and then followed.
“First, we mobilized the leadership of our people the managers and supervisors to explain to their people what makes a change necessary and how the changes we envision will meet the challenges we are facing,” Bicket says. “From there, you have to focus on the personal decision that each employee will make. Each employee needs to understand their individual role in effecting these changes and why we think the specific tactics that we are rolling out will be not only worthwhile but the right thing to do for the company in the long term.
“It’s the business variant of the old song about how all politics is local. In the same vein, all cultural change is personal, so you really do need to get out there and communicate face to face.”
Employees need to decide for themselves, and that is how you need to approach communication. It’s seldom a one-and-done deal, in which you appear before a crowd, deliver a speech, disseminate your e-mail address and assume that the mission is accomplished. Different employees will have different concerns and questions. You need to appeal specifically to those individual issues if you expect widespread buy-in on your initiatives.
As the president of a franchisor, Bicket oversees a large number of workers under the Cox Target Media umbrella who are business leaders themselves and needed to see the logic behind the decisions before buying in.
“We had to connect the dots for people who have an entirely different set of priorities,” he says. “Our franchisees needed to see the logic, see the strategies and hear about where all of this was going to take us. They needed to decide for themselves whether this business case was sound.”
If you’ve worked your way up through the business ranks, chances are you held some kind of a sales position at one point or another or at the very least, held a position that required some kind of salesmanship on your part. When you’re trying to sell your organization on a new concept, you need to go to that place in your own mind. You need to dig down and locate the salesperson within.
“I’m always amused at leaders who don’t consider themselves salespeople or that sales isn’t part of their jobs,” Bicket says. “The best leaders sell concepts and initiatives and new ideas. Whether they’re trying to win the hearts and minds of front-line production people or pitching a capital investment to the board of directors, it is really embracing and selling that idea.”Channel feedback
Effective salesmanship allows people to reach their own conclusions about a concept or product. You won’t make people believe what you want them to believe. You have to lay out your case and let them reach you with questions or feedback until they’re satisfied with the answer.
It goes beyond the oft-referenced open-door policy or personally answering your e-mail or walking the halls each day. Those are effective mediums for engaging employees and initiating dialogue on your idea or plan, but the best leaders use those interaction opportunities to continue building their case for change.
“A manager or employee that is not generally sold on a concept is not going to be able to convincingly engage other people,” Bicket says. “You have to make sure that not only the public dialogue but also the private dialogue with oneself or with colleagues confirms that they get it. You have to surround your managers with your message because everybody must be given the respect of learning where we’re taking the company and why.”
Bicket concluded all of his initial barnstorming speeches with his telephone number and e-mail address as a means of gaining some basic feedback. But really what you’re attempting to do by setting up feedback channels is to develop relationships with your people. You can’t have every moment of every day wrapped up with employees who want to pull you aside and critique your latest communication. But you do want a corporate culture in which employees aren’t afraid to pull managers aside all the way up to the executive team and air out an idea or concern.
“You have to do it face to face,” Bicket says. “Quite frankly, I’ll give myself credit for getting some things right directionally. But the fine-tuning, many times, came from sitting down with me or catching me in the hallway or the next time I’m at a given location and talking things over. I’ve had many great mentors in my life, and many of them have told me that the most reliable truths a leader will hear will come from their team the people who are closest to the customer and closest to production realities. If you start those relationships and don’t maintain them, don’t follow up with them, you’ll start to lose credibility.”Engage skeptics
Most employees who are skeptical or outright resistant regarding a change have a vested interest in maintaining the old way of doing things. Change might mean a different job description, lost customers, the termination of friends or associates, or something else that drives their resistance.
As the leader, you and your management team have to drill down with dissenters, particularly those in key positions, and find the root cause of their resistance. Sometimes, there are legitimate concerns, and sometimes it might require some tweaking to the plan. But you do have to get them on board because there will come a time when they’re either coming along or they aren’t.
“Most of the early resisters are typically very faithful to the company and concerned about the direction,” Bicket says. “When you engage them, talk to them about what is driving their concerns, what is feeding their worries about a course of action, oftentimes you’ll discover that they are concerned about a broad policy that is counterproductive for their group. Sometimes there are legitimate reasons to modify or fine-tune. But with the hard-core resisters that are risking mobilization of the plan, sometimes you just have to remind them that, right or wrong, this is the direction we have to go, and all you can do is ask them for their support.”
You can help win over department-level dissenters by breaking down the walls and silos that limit lateral communication. If a department’s employees get a better sense of how their work fits into the larger picture, their willingness to buy in to your organization shift increases.
“In some organizations, I’ve seen a kind of FOB, or ‘freight on board,’ attitude regarding a department’s work,” Bicket says. “A marketing department that is charged with developing promotions and campaigns might pull together a really attractive plan and just sort of throw it over the department wall. The divisiveness of that act is intolerable. It permits a situation where work can be done, but wins can be had solely on a departmental level. That is a very corrosive situation to have.”
You start to solve that problem by building teams that span across departments and developing metrics that can measure the success of an interdepartmental project.
“If a marketing project is carefully coordinated with production and then carefully communicated and executed by the sales group, that is a polar-opposite outcome of the first example,” he says.
As 2010 progresses, Cox Target Media is generating success with its newfound focus on employee knowledge and customer service. Cox, a privately held company, doesn’t release revenue for business units, but Bicket says his unit had a successful 2009.
“I don’t think people tolerate a lot of success that isn’t a win for the entire company,” Bicket says. “I don’t think people work that way. Employees are smarter than that, and they’re concerned about how a plan makes a company more competitive and whether it helps put the company in a stronger strategic position.”
How to reach: Cox Target Media Inc., (727) 399-3000 or www.coxtarget.com