Supply House Times

Professionals, Control-Freaks and Carrier Pilots

July 20, 2010

There are two basic types of employees inside most firms: internal and external. The internal staffers have functions in operations and finance. While these internal functions have impact on the invoice paying customers, for the most part, these employees mostly interact with one another to complete the paying customer’s order. The external employees are sales and marketing personnel whose jobs are to interact with the end customer, and sometimes the customers’ customers.

The external employees don’t have, as many people would like to think, the same attitude and emotional investment in the inner workings, politics and organizational challenges of the internal staff. Their world and work is more vague, more unplanned and of a different kind than that of the internals. A big mistake made by many top managers is to try to make their internal and external employees work together toward some warm-fuzzy common goal. They beat to death the “teamwork” mantra and, too often, blame their externals for their problems.

Top management often has little idea of how to manage external professionals. They tend to see their top priority as catering to the needs and issues of the internal staff, rather than freeing up the externals to beat the bushes for business in the field.

A Colossal Waste of Precious Time

Recently I was invited to review the sales function of a sizable distributor whose sales were declining and top management couldn’t figure out why. It is notable that the top management was young, well­-educated and good with numbers and planning. I was one of a handful of consultants vying for a chance to help them with a sales force problem.

I was whisked into a glassed conference room with the latest office furniture, where the executives proceeded to show me their great plans where “everyone was on the same team,” along with state-of-art tracking and reporting systems for their sales force and marketing department. The technology was truly impressive, enabling them to track the daily activity of their outside sales force with a variety of electronic gadgetry and laptops. They broke down statistics on calls per day and per type of customer, including the time spent and what was discussed. They could sort, sift and spit this knowledge out in great detail and with vivid graphics.

During this display, I noticed an old salt, the last remaining guy of the old-school, in the corner and noticeably silent. During the graphics display, when all eyes were on the wonders of technology, I locked eyes with the old guy and winked. A wry smile came over his face. 

After showing me their version of the eighth Wonder of the World, the young execs looked at me for some type of approval. I asked instead for some key information about the sales force, including resignations of former top sellers, customer defections and how much face time their reps got in a day. The execs grimaced when giving the answers.

It seems the best sellers had left long ago and took with them some of the best customers, and the losses were accelerating. The execs couldn’t understand, with all this technology and superior planning, what the problem was.

I told them that their reliance on technology was the problem. I told them that all of the information required of the marketers and sellers took a tremendous amount of time away from listening to the customer. I explained that most outside reps are lucky to spend 50% to 60% of their day in front of a customer. And, if their day gets cut short by an hour or two by filling out detailed call reports, they were cutting their productivity and potential by 25% to 50%.

I told them the reporting was a vast overkill and a “colossal waste of precious time.” I also told them that there likely was a strong correlation between the resignation of key reps and the implementation of the super-duper call reporting technology.

The execs winced, grew quiet, called the meeting to a close, and quickly whisked me out. I was glad to leave, having identified them as control freaks halfway through the technological fireworks. I didn’t get the work but that didn’t matter much. Any work that I could do for the betterment of the firm would involve sacking the technical wizards who called me in.

Sales and Marketing Professionals

Good outside salespeople and top marketers are professionals. They spend time in a variety of ways interacting with suppliers, customers, customers’ customers and one another. Their work is not geared to the clock. Ten-hour days are routine, longer days not uncommon. The success of their work is gauged in the incremental business and profits they bring in.

Their methods of success are hard to quantify. Training them to be more sensitive to the internal employees, working a standard predictable day, and filling out detailed call reports are, largely, a waste of time. The way externals see it is that the internals are there to support them. It is up to the internal staff to give the externals the tools they need to fight the battle for the paying customer. If the externals don’t have the proper tools or are tied down with “teamwork” talk or detail to the max reporting, they become ineffective. 

Of course external professionals need to do some reporting and recordkeeping. Professionals make time for this but keep it to a minimum. They know that recordkeeping is necessary, but battles for the end customer are never won by call reports or presentations to executive management. The end customer doesn’t give a damn about these things.

Some portions of the sales and marketing functions, including product management, service marketing, and inside sales, require a lot of interaction with the internal staff and their success is dependent on these relationships. But the top marketers and sellers are professionals who are “out there” getting it done. Executives who are worth their salaries understand the needs of their professionals and do everything in their power to free up the marketing and sales professional to win the customer over. Control-freak executives who try to make them a “part of the team” often are building a coffin for the firm in the process. 

In these blogs, I often argue for better measurements, processes and just good thinking. There is, too often, a dearth of this in distribution and a lot of profit is lost because of it. Some accuse me of being an anal-retentive numbers jockey. I go through the numbers, in detail and exhaustively, to prove to executive management what goes on and why they should change. But I don’t confuse generating numbers and analysis with securing the end customer.  

The Carrier Pilot

Many years ago, in a class on professional services, I was given an article, written by a carrier pilot about how to manage the flyboy. It was a great piece that had great influence on me. As I have come to this stage of my career as a consultant to marketing and sales entities of industrial firms, I am convinced that the sales and marketing professionals are, too often, destroyed by the control-freaks and growth suffers. The Carrier Pilot article explains this all very well and I include it as a finishing part of this blog installment.

MANAGING PROFESSIONALS: THE CARRIER PILOT
by David Kinser, MD  

During the Second World War, I flew in the Navy off aircraft carriers. We were called the Air Group.  It included three squadrons - fighters, dive-bombers, and torpedo bombers. The squadrons broke down into wings, divisions, then sections. The two‑plane section was the smallest unit of aerial command.

All of this was laid out neatly on the organizational chart. Within the squadron the line stair-stepped up to the squadron commander, or skipper, who reported to the air group commander. The air group commander’s line stretched horizontally, then vertically without break up to the executive officer and captain of the ship.  In other words, the air group was on a line with all the other command departments of the ship‑‑Navigation, Operations, Engineering, Gunnery, Air.  

The Air Department, as distinguished from the Air Group, was responsible for all the services and maintenance of aircraft. It should be noted that the Air Officer, with responsibility for the planes, and the Air Group Commander, with responsibility for the pilots, were equals in the line of command, with neither in a position to order the other around.  

Looking at the organizational chart, you would say at once that this was the orthodox line and staff organization and that the Air Group was an integrated, functioning unit of the ship. There was plenty of evidence to indicate that the high Navy brass of those days thought so, too.  

But this was another organizational chart that concealed much more than it revealed. The group most responsible for divorcing it from reality was the pilots.  

This chart was one of the things, among many others, the pilots of those days labeled as “strictly oatmeal.”  

We knew, you see, that this was our ship. It had been created for us. Obviously, therefore, the officers and crew of the ship were in our service. If they weren’t they belonged on shore. In our minds, these points were beyond argument, as changeless as revealed truth. We weren’t helping the ship carry out its mission; the ship helped us carry out ours. After all, what good was an aircraft carrier without pilots?  

We weren’t at all impressed by the ship’s organization, probably because we rarely thought of it as such. To us it was a place to land, a kind of floating service center where all the details incidental to our missions were accomplished. The ship therefore had to gear itself to us. The ones that accommodated themselves to us most swiftly and efficiently were the best ships.  

The fact that they all made a try at doing this only served to confirm our point that the chart was just another piece of Navy paper. With the pilots’ interests in mind, the Navy had applied an overlay of special privilege that almost concealed the ship’s formal organization. For instance, our ready rooms were the only spaces aboard with air conditioning, except for the captain’s quarters. A meal was always available to us, but not to other officers, on the off hours. We were the only ones that could get legal “drinking whiskey.” A pony bottle of brandy, a good jolt, was served up to us after each strike.  

We were the only officers that weren’t obliged to stand a ship’s watch. The ship’s day was split into three equal segments and its officers and crew were parceled out so that the ship’s operations were fully covered at all hours. But our day was not the ship’s day. It was never that predictable. They couldn’t occupy us with routines, because we had to be ready to scramble for our planes on very short notice. So we did a lot of waiting. Often we did our waiting in the sack in wardroom cabins. That was another privilege. If a pilot was found in the prone position during general quarters, it was because he was tired. Any other officer so occupied would have been up for court martial.  

The pilots, in fact, could be counted on to break even the most rational of Navy regulations with regularity. We were unquestionably the sloppiest group aboard the ship. Anyone who has seen a Navy crew at sea knows that is quite a distinction. It used to amuse us when senior career officers would suddenly be confronted with one of our unkempt and unshaven pilots. He would turn his head, pretending he hadn’t seen him, and walk the other way.  

We were convinced, though, that the privileges of perpetual readiness were more than offset by the responsibilities. Sometimes it meant taking off so late we had to land by night, or else taking off so early that we had no horizon as we mushed off the end of the deck. Sometimes it meant long stretches of furious, rushing activity without sleep. The hard part about these periods and what made them so exhausting was that, all the way through, you never felt you could let yourself make a mistake.  

While we were never happy about this aspect of the carrier pilot’s life, we were, to the last man, proud of it. This, we were convinced, was the ultimate reason why we were set apart from (and above) the ship’s organization. The rest of the ship, we said, was geared to the clock; we were geared to the demands of our calling.  

The training period was an eternity of torture. In no time, it had almost erased our lazy and carefree pasts from memory. The only direction we could see was ahead. Dangling on the horizon was a pair of Navy wings, which not only had become a symbol of nearly impossible attainment but were, like the flight pay, a perquisite in themselves. After all, who else but pilots could wear wings?  

When we finally did make it, we had become so single minded about our ultimate position and function that all our other “selves” were nearly invisible. There was not the slightest doubt in our minds about what we were. We were Navy pilots, members of a tight and united community of Navy pilots, the most select, the most promising, the most needed, the most God‑gifted of all men.  

Not content with just educating us, the Navy had to study, test and evaluate us, too. In the later stages of the war, sociologists, psychologists and an assortment of other obscure functionaries in the human relations field began to close in on us. The word had gotten out and up, you see, that the pilots were “a problem” all through the fleet. One central thesis had apparently won full acceptance - that if someone could just figure out a way to build an identity of interest between pilot and ship, the war would quickly be won.  

Our response to all of this wasn’t exactly gratifying to the Navy. The pressure seemed to create its own resistance. Being preoccupied, we were easily bored with this kind of attention. Besides we quickly found that about half the ideas they had for us didn’t work. You don’t teach anybody to dogfight an F6F at 30,000 feet by writing a memo and holding a meeting, but these things were tried.  We went to meetings sure that none of the ideas were any good.  

Sometimes it got so heavy that whole squadrons would work themselves into a kind of frenzy. “Why don’t they leave us alone,” we would ask each other, “and spend their time learning how to keep the damn canopies clean.”  

The point is this: The only real “team” relationship the pilots had was with the other pilots.  This had meaning. When the fighters, dive-bombers, and torpedo planes did what we called a coordinated attack on an enemy ship, and actually coordinated it, that was teamwork. This was something quite different from our relationship with taximen, wing folders, or mechanics. They had to accommodate themselves to us, like the trainer on a football team. Certainly it was important to work smoothly with them, but when they asked us to understand their problems and make their jobs easier‑‑in the analogy, run interference for them‑‑they were asking too much.  

We were rightfully suspicious of this kind of “team” talk. It is significant that it was most prevalent on the worst ships. That the men in command really were asking was for help in solving their problem. They had to make a complex sometimes-unwieldy organization work; it was all too easy to blame its failures on the group upon which all activities focused.  

Those who spent more time coordinating and perfecting these supportive activities had many less problems with the pilots. This is where administrative genius could have been used to good effect but usually wasn’t.

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