I will always remember the business colleagues who called me or showed up at my doorstep after my wife died. And the ones who flew in to attend the funeral. And those that I lean on for guidance and support when I need to make difficult decisions. None of them has to do it. It goes well beyond our vendor agreements.
So, why do they do it? It’s because they genuinely care. While talking to a few of them recently, I also learned that it’s because they have received so much from our relationship as well. Marco has helped them become better in business, too. It goes beyond the bottom line or even being their biggest customer. We’re partners.
The word “partner” can almost feel like an overused term that is sometimes used interchangeably with “vendor.” Not all vendors are true partners, and that’s OK. I prefer to reserve the word for those vendor relationships that are mutually beneficial. Hundreds of vendors support Marco as a business, but I’d only consider about a dozen of them “partners.” They’ve become trusted advisors and have a hand in making Marco a better business.
Sometimes we can take good vendor relationships for granted. At Marco, we recognize the importance of them. It’s one of the pillars of our Gold Standard and an area that we plan to focus more on this year. We want to be good customers. We also want to be good partners.
So, what makes a good partner?
Deep and wide relationships in the organization. Partners do not just have one or two connections in the organization. They build and maintain relationships beyond procurement. They invest time in your people and develop relationships across multiple areas of the organization.
Trusted to look out for our best interests. Every day, there are opportunities to build and diminish trust in a business relationship. While partners get paid for providing a specific product or service, they have greater value because they continually look out for what’s in the best interest of our organization. They are good advocates for our business personally and professionally.
Respected by executive leadership. Good partners are connected to the executive leadership team and respected for the value they bring to the organization. When they need something, they know they are going to get a timely response. When all things are equal, the leadership team will always err in their favor.
Show up in unexpected ways. Partners see their role beyond the contracted agreement. They show up when it counts. They care about us personally and support us during both the highs and lows. I wouldn’t think less of them if they didn’t, but it definitely is a lasting impression that solidifies our relationship when they do.
How many of your vendors earn the title “partner?” I’m grateful for the ones we have at Marco and the opportunity to help one another and be better together.
Jennifer Mrozek started at Marco in 1998 in leasing before becoming our controller and being named Chief Financial Officer in her early 30s. Today, she serves in a key role as the Executive Vice President of Business Development and Operations.
She’s a leader to know in the community and our industry, and I have had the privilege of learning from her over the years. Jennifer has been part of our leadership team since I became president of Marco. She’s a big part of why our culture is recognized for being both fun and high-performing.
Early on she became a trusted advisor of mine and I have watched her serve others well, too. She is the next leader I am highlighting in the Leader to Follow series that has included Scott Roeder, Barry Opatz, Steve Gau and Trevor Akervik. I see all of them as “untraditional” in their roles. Jennifer has never been a traditional finance person either.
Here’s a look at a few attributes that make Jennifer worth following:
Understands our sales culture If I had to choose a single defining characteristic that makes Jennifer so successful at Marco, it’s that she understands that “sales” is our core competency. As a finance person, she has been very supportive of our direct sales strategies to drive growth. It’s unusual for a numbers person to be so collaborative with sales.
Responsible risk taker Jennifer’s primary role is to execute on Marco’s acquisition growth strategy. While she is responsible for mitigating and managing our risks as a company, she’s also willing to initiate some. Naturally analytical, she can negotiate creative deals and figure out how to get them done.
Self-aware Jennifer knows herself well and plays to her strengths. While she may be an “accountant” by trade, she has never limited herself to that label. She has a strong understanding of the client interface, the importance of a sales engine and the value of relationships. She is one of the smartest people I know, but she’s also very humble.
Sees the big picture She does a good job coaching others (including myself) to look beyond the tactics and take a broader perspective of the situation. This is especially evident in her leadership role for acquisitions and operational excellence. Jennifer probably has the best end-to-end view of our business.
A committed mom Jennifer is proof that a successful business woman can also be a fully-committed mom. She manages her household well and is very active in the lives of her two teenage kids. As a busy executive and dedicated mom, she’s a great example for others to follow.
It’s been a lot of fun growing the business with Jennifer over the past 20 years. She is a trusted advisor and good friend. Jennifer is a respected leader in our company, community and industry, and she continues to use her strengths to make us better.
One of the best pieces of advice I received in my career is this: Minimize your highs and maximize your lows. We can easily get too confident when we win – or have a series of wins – or get too down on ourselves after a loss. Neither are productive.
I was at U.S Bank Stadium for the playoff game when the Minnesota Vikings were losing to the New Orleans Saints. The feeling of defeat was already in the stands – with only seconds left in the game.
Then, Stefon Diggs pulled off that historic catch in the final 10 seconds to win the game and the “Minneapolis Miracle” celebration began. It became the #1 NLF play of the year and likely will go down as one of the best NFL plays of all time.
After that unbelievable win, I wondered if the players would be able to minimize that high to stay focused on the next game. It wouldn’t be easy, but it would be necessary for them to earn their spot in the Super Bowl. The same psychological hardiness that leaders need to overcome challenges and defeat is needed to ground them in the highs of victory.
Being a performance-driven technology services company is not that different from a professional sports team. Like a Super Bowl team, even high-performing companies lose sometimes. The teams that effectively come back after a loss seem to be the ones that end up in the championship.
After the Vikings’ disappointing playoff loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, a millennial I have had the pleasure to get to know asked me – so how do you come back after a loss? He thought it would be a good blog topic and I agreed. Here’s my response:
Balance your perspective. Practice psychological hardiness by staying steady. In the final seconds of the Saints’ game, Vikings’ Quarterback Case Keenum demonstrated the calm and steady demeanor that he had become known for all season. Even when under pressure, he didn’t seem shaken. He positioned himself to launch a “Hail Mary” to wide receiver Stefon Diggs. Unfortunately, he didn’t carry over his calm demeanor to the next game.
Break down the plays. When we lose there’s an opportunity to evaluate performance and uncover the lessons. The high performers know where things went astray. Professionals analyze what went wrong and make the necessary adjustments. Often in business we think we lose out because of price, but that’s rarely the case. Let go of excuses, own what you can and find ways to up your game next time.
Move on, expecting to win. This is easier said than done. You shouldn’t dwell on the past, but instead focus on your next game. Whether you win or lose, you need to move on and focus on the next opportunity with the confidence that you will be successful. At Marco, we go into every opportunity thinking we are going to win, even if the odds may not always be in our favor. Confident players know the value they bring and the attitude it takes to be a champion.
Whether we’re on the field or in the board room, we need to be as good of a loser as we are a winner. We all know some poor winners and good losers. Sometimes it’s not about who wins or loses (although I much prefer winning) – but how they handled it. Stay humble when you win. Don’t lose your confidence when you lose.
As we start the new year, it’s natural for us to focus on implementing some new initiatives. Yet, one of the best moves we can make for our business is to fix what’s not working. It may sound simple, but too often it is one of the hardest tasks in leadership.
I think it’s fair to say all organizations have opportunities for improvement. Most of these negatively impact us financially or from a client and employee satisfaction standpoint. We all know it and talk about it. But for some reason, we shy away from taking the necessary actions to resolve it. And we find that the issue doesn’t just go away.
Before you initiate anything new this year, fix what’s not working. If it doesn’t fit your strategy, get rid of it. If it does, put in the work to make it better. I shared the thought process we go through to determine if it’s worth fixing in a previous blog.
Here are the steps that we use to fix parts of our strategy that aren't working:
Call a timeout. When you know part of your business is underperforming (we all have them), it’s your job to call a time out. You need to set an attainable goal and achieve it. Identify and hold accountable the appropriate leader(s) to make sure your organization executes. One of the first items that we successfully fixed at Marco was our copier service margin. We were performing well below industry standards. So we called a time out and committed to changing it. Today we operate at the top of our industry.
Call in help. Too often we think we can do it alone. We’ve seen better and faster results when we engaged third-party consultants that hold us accountable. We tend to justify practices that become normal to us, but actually may be part of the problem. Consultants can see what we are overlooking and bring insight into what better looks like in our industry.
Undergo a continuous improvement exercise. It’s a good practice to adopt a continuous improvement discipline so when something’s not working or stuck, you can address the problem using a consistent, systematic approach. At Marco, we have committed to Lean as our continuous improvement process. This has proven to be invaluable for working through and solving complex problems. If you’re not using some form of continuous improvement, I highly recommend you consider it.
Don’t be afraid to restructure. Restructuring can be a necessary move to fix an issue. Laying out a new structure is not overly complicated. It’s the implementation that can be taxing. I recommend you take the individuals out of the equation and identify what you’d do if you were to start all over. Ask the question, “If it didn’t matter where people reported, how would we do it?” It is a sensitive issue because we’re talking about people’s “turf”. Giving something up always seems to be harder than taking something on. So you’ll need to manage the psychology with the change.
I’ve been called a “wedge buster” in our organization because I’ve gotten pretty good at getting things “unstuck” and promoting change. It’s a trait that I think all effective leaders need to have. We all get stuck sometimes. It’s when we see it and make the necessary changes that we become high-performing organizations.
I often encourage leaders to try new things to keep their saws sharp and challenge themselves. It really doesn’t matter if they are new to management or long-time veterans.
I recently took my own advice. After procrastinating for decades, I checked off a long-time item on my (short) bucket list. I took formal dance lessons. I could dance – just not very well – and it usually took a bit of “liquid courage” (a martini). Every time I saw a couple who could dance well together and clearly enjoyed it at an event, I’d get dance envy, wishing I could do the same. I barely knew the basics and questioned if I had the ability to pull it off.
So, with some encouragement, I stepped out of my comfort zone in October and signed up for dance lessons at a private studio ironically called StudioJeff in St. Cloud. I set a deadline of learning to dance “better” by Holly Ball, an annual formal event and significant fundraiser held in the St. Cloud community in early December. I didn’t necessarily expect to be great; I just wanted to be better and experience the enjoyment that I saw my friends have while dancing.
I’m a pretty confident guy. But the moment I stepped on the dance floor, that changed. I knew I was supposed to lead, but I didn’t know how and it made me feel vulnerable. I felt clumsy and wondered how I would ever be able to perform well after 10 lessons.
I was consciously incompetent. I was not very good and I knew it. I had a lot to learn. We started that first night with the basics and the “rock step” – four steps that are my go-to today. By the fifth or sixth lesson, I finally felt like I had progressed. I became comfortable on the dance floor and actually learned a few moves that I felt I was pretty good at.
I received an opportunity to test my skills one evening with friends. They wanted to go out dancing. Although I wasn’t overly enthusiastic, I knew it was something I needed to do if I was going to advance my skills. I did not want my first time on a dance floor to be at Holly Ball. So I did what I tell others to do – practice and then apply. The experience actually gave me more confidence because I proved to myself that I could feel the beat, do the moves and, most importantly, have fun.
I encourage you to step outside your comfort zone this year and try something new. Here’s my advice when you do:
Take the first step as soon as you can. The first step is the hardest and it’s easy to make excuses. Just do it and don’t worry about planning it all out. You’ll be thankful later.
Set a deadline or a goal. The Holly Ball event provided me a deadline and helped me stay focused.
Practice, practice, practice. It likely won’t come easy. The only way you’re ever going to achieve your goal is to practice. Commit to the time and find ways to apply what you’re learning.
Find a partner. This person (or people) should encourage you and hold you accountable. If you’re in it together, the journey will be much more fun.
Today I’d consider myself consciously competent at dancing. You can see my progress by checking out the video below. I’m still taking dance lessons to keep getting better and reinforce what I’ve already learned. It’s made me think about what else I may take on.
Are you ready to commit to something new this year?
A key attribute of a high performing organization is a team of leaders that don’t want to let each other down. When something doesn’t go as planned, high performers are usually harder on themselves than any reprimand they would receive. They don’t want to let us down and when they do, they feel it instantly – before a word or look is shared.
I feel the same way about my performance. I’m often brought into situations where there are either significant opportunities, or to the contrary, significant problems. People count on me to do a good job, and I don’t want to let them down. This is a motivator for me, and I think it is for others, too.
Here are five steps to consider when you need to communicate an “opportunity” with a team member:
Assume good intent. Mistakes are never intentional – obviously people don’t screw up on purpose. Before you say anything, focus on the track record and character of the individual. “You should’ve known better” or “I told you so” may naturally come to mind, but there is no place for them in conversations. If you’ve done your job right, they already get it.
Acknowledge it as a one-off event. Start with the concept that this is not a recurring issue. If it is, you’re not communicating to a high performer. Recognize that the person probably has already reprimanded themselves and is on the way toward resolution. It is important, however, to acknowledge you’re in the know.
Provide professional correction. I often refer to this as a “one minute reprimand.” Moments like these provide valuable coaching. I affirm that they will ultimately orchestrate the solution like they typically do. Then I discuss lessons learned and clear expectations moving forward. Check in regularly to ensure a resolution has been reached.
Help them let it go. In my experience, high performers can overthink their mistakes – sometimes for too long. As leaders, we need to help them gain a bigger perspective and move on. We don’t want people to be afraid to make decisions.
Reconfirm the relationship. I often wrap up a situation by saying “We’re good.” Sometimes, I add “We don’t need to talk about it anymore” to let them know that I am not concerned about it. You can then move forward in support of the person. Don’t look back.
Mistakes can be costly – and not just financially. But if you have a high performing team, accountability should already be part of the equation. Good people know what’s on the line and want to perform. Nobody has to tell an NFL kicker when he misses the extra point that he made a mistake. They’re professionals – they get it.
Some leaders are well-liked. Some not as much. Likability by itself doesn’t make a good leader, but there seems to be a direct correlation to the results they get.
People are better followers of people they like. And it also helps attract and retain employees – and desired clients. I’m not advocating that the likability of a leader be a popularity contest, but all things being equal, it does tilt the scale favorably.
I try hard to be likable, inside and outside the company. I have also worked to instill it in the leaders around me. Why? People enjoying working for and buying from people they like.
One of the most likable leaders on our executive team at Marco is also our newest. I’ve enjoyed watching people gravitate toward our new CFO, Chris Pudenz. They often tell me how much they like working with him and his team.
How likable are you? We cannot change our core personality, but we can modify our behaviors to increase our likability. Here’s a look at the key behaviors that seem to impact the likability of a leader:
Acknowledge the presence of others. Make it a point to say hi to everyone you pass by in the office, whether you know them or not. Call them by name whenever possible. It communicates that you see them and value them.
Show sincerity. We know sincerity when we see and feel it. Take an apology – or even a compliment. When it is genuine and sincere, we know and accept it. When it’s not, it can cause more harm. It has to be natural and usually include specifics for validation. Likable leaders can even effectively deliver a reprimand well.
Make yourself easy to get to. Titles can naturally be intimidating and deflect people from connecting. While approachability can become more challenging as an organization grows, it becomes even more important. Go beyond keeping your office door open to intentionally inviting people in as you see them walk by. Spend time away from your desk, walk a little slower in the hallway, take your time in the break room, don’t rush out of meetings and keep your eyes open for opportunities to connect.
Be responsive. Good follow-up matters in leadership. It’s a courtesy that leaders can easily do or delegate as the demands of the job or growth of the organization increase. A lack of follow-up indicates that you’re not interested, whether that is something you intended or not. Even if you don’t have the time to fully address something, at least acknowledge you received it and that you will follow-up.
Be transparent. Be willing to expose your weaknesses. Likable leaders are vulnerable and open. We all have opportunities to improve and it’s okay to let people know that. I think some of the best leaders aren’t afraid to show their vulnerability. It makes them more approachable.
Think of a likable leader in your organization. How do you compare? If you had to give yourself a likability score, would it be high, good, average or poor? Self-awareness comes into play here. Take the time to assess where you’re at and the behaviors that you can improve to get better results.
It’s natural to connect an organization’s difficulty in finding qualified workers to the tightness of the labor market. Attracting talent has always been a part of the business dialogue; however, it doesn’t seem to be as closely connected to unemployment rates or other labor indicators as we may think.
If we can’t find good talent, what does that tell us? In my experience, it’s a reflection more on the organization, than the market. What we have found is that it has less to do with the labor market and is more related to elements that you have control over as an employer. Certainly, the industry you are in matters. But you can still be the best company to work for in that space.
Here’s what we’ve found are the key qualities that attract talent:
Growth Rate People like working for growth companies better than shrinking companies. If we had to choose a single attribute that attracts talent, this likely would be it. Employees want to be a part of a winning team and growth creates more paths of opportunity for team members. It’s also important to have a consistent track record of growth – usually three years or more. What does your performance say about your organization?
Good Culture We know a good culture when we feel it. It’s not one quality that makes the culture stand out, but rather a collection of traits that naturally draws us in. Everyone claims to have a good culture, but seldom can validate it. We’re seeing more third-party tools help job seekers assess it. A go-to site, particularly among younger workers, is Glassdoor. This job site allows individuals to read reviews, see what an organization pays by role and city and dig deeper into benefits. As I wrote this, Marco had a 94 percent recommend rate. How does your organization rank on Glassdoor?
Fair Compensation Notice that I did not say high compensation. People often think that Marco pays more to attract talent. In most cases, we don’t. (When we do, our expectations also increase). You cannot make up for the other elements that attract talent by paying more. We provide a fair compensation package. We aim to keep our compensation and benefits at a competitive level and will pay in the upper quartile for hard-to-fill positions. How does your compensation plan stack up?
Strong Leadership Job interviews are not a monologue, but a dialogue. Top talent is interviewing you as much as you are interviewing them. They’re assessing your leadership to determine if you’re someone they want to work for. The likability of leadership is becoming more important to attracting key talent. How you portray yourself and your organization during an interview will have a strong impact on the outcome. How likeable is your leadership team?
It’s easy to point to labor statistics as to why an organization may be struggling to find qualified workers. But in most cases, I think it should be directed more toward leadership. Are you creating a culture that people want to be a part of? Are you performing in the top of your industry? If not, take steps to improve. We have more control over the talent we attract than we give ourselves credit for.
Humility. It’s an essential leadership trait and one that only gets harder to reflect as you grow in your role, status, influence or compensation.
A definition of humility that I like is “a modest or low view of one's own importance.” Webster describes it as “freedom from pride or arrogance.” With humility, comes wisdom.
Leaders can put themselves in positions where they lose their grounding. What they may intend as a comment, even validated with facts, can be perceived as bragging.
I have definitely been reminded about the importance of humility as I have gone from a young sales guy trying to prove himself to an executive that’s constantly being watched. There’s a fine line between confidence and cockiness. Yet, the most admired leaders are both humble and confident.
We know humility in leadership when we see it - and when we don’t. We can accept honor with humility. A situation can teach us humility. But how do we live it out each day? Here’s a look at how leaders can stay humble:
Be kind when it’s least expected. When a mistake is made that impacts the business or you personally, step back and be calm. It’s important how you handle these situations as a leader. Relationships are defined when things don’t go as planned. Graciousness and humility often go together.
Titles don’t define leadership. The world recognizes hierarchy through titles – whether you’re in the military, running a nonprofit or leading a for profit business. But you don’t have to have a title to be an effective leader. It’s not what it says on our business card or where we fall on the organizational chart. It’s our work performance that defines us.
Distribute credit constantly. Leaders don’t take credit. They give it to the people around them. Even if they thought of the idea, pulled together the team or created the plan, they recognize others who played a role. Whenever we think we have to “prove ourselves,” validate our performance or build credibility, we risk our humility.
Be mindful of your dialogue. Choose your words carefully. A quick comment could be perceived as cocky or entitled. It can be as simple as using “we” rather than “I” – it sends a better message.
Talk about your failures. Vulnerability breeds humility. Be willing to talk about your mistakes. All good leaders experience failure at some point in their careers. We can’t win all the time. Don’t be afraid to show others how your failures have taught you valuable lessons.
As leaders, we need to be constantly mindful of how important it is to be humble. Above all, be sincerely genuine. You can’t fake that.
How are you sizing up and profiling your potential customers? While profiling is a taboo word today, it is a common business practice and it should be.
An example of this is a woman entering a car dealership with two kids who gets directed to buy a certain vehicle (aka minivan) one day. She could arrive the next day in a sports car wearing a business suit and be pointed in a totally different direction.
We have a tendency to spend other people’s money. We decide what they can afford, what features they are interested in and who we think the decision maker is.
We often get this wrong. A better practice is letting people spend their own money. It sounds straightforward, but it takes intention and even a different process. Here’s a look at how businesses can more accurately position themselves with prospects:
Make eye contact with everyone involved. It’s common to gravitate towards who you think the decision maker is in a meeting – or who is at the top of the food chain. The decision maker may be different than you think. Therefore, it is important to recognize everyone is an influencer or they wouldn’t be there. Make it a point to connect with every person in the room.
Get a ballpark budget. People are typically reluctant to share a dollar figure. It’s more common that they will indicate a range that helps you begin to understand the likely scope. Don’t narrow it too quickly. Usually, they want to be educated on what their options are and then alter what they’re willing to spend accordingly. Quite often we help people set or build a budget based on their desired outcomes.
Determine what’s prompting the purchase. This is usually based on one of three things: 1) their current one is broken, 2) they desire to expand or increase efficiencies or 3) there’s a new decision maker (with different preferences or priorities). Asking and understanding the “why” for the purchase can help you better assess their needs and understand the budget and timeline.
Evaluate their expectations on outcomes. Take time to understand what the expected and desired outcomes are of each member of the decision-making team. They may not be all the same and you could help prompt or facilitate a necessary dialogue among the team that helps identify a shared set of priorities. To get started, I often ask each person to complete this sentence: “This project or engagement will be successful if….” It can be the most important question we ever ask. Begin with the end in mind.
Assess and communicate the complexity of a project. People sometimes want more than they can afford and may not understand what it takes to meet their requests. Identifying how simple or complex a project is helps to determine a timeline and price. At Marco, we have made it a part of our process to engage pre-sales engineers when necessary to better identify and explain the complexity of the solution. This helps our customers be more confident in our competency to deliver what is expected.
So the next time you think about what your customer might be willing to spend, think again to better understand what they really need and are willing to pay for. Don’t spend your customers’ money until you know what they want.
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