June 05, 2007

Being Humbled

Early in my tenure at Nordstrom, I was asked to fix the way we forecast how well a potential new store would perform.

My team spent about four months developing a new process, and sure enough, the new process was a lot more accurate than the old process.

We were happy with our performance.

But somewhere along the way, I failed to communicate to our executive team that we developed a new process that was working better. I said the words to our management team. I shared the powerpoint slides. But due to my failure to communicate, or for reasons not shared with me, management did not feel like my team and I did a good job.

What do you do when you work at a big company, and you need a problem solved? You open up the wallet, and call in the big guns at a management consulting firm.

In came an army of consultants, well meaning individuals tasked by management to solve a problem that I apparently failed to solve.

If you are an analytical professional, especially in a leadership position, there are few ways to be humbled more than being at the mercy of the folks from a management consulting firm.

First, you have to sit through a couple of days of "fact finding". The consultants are given one of your prized conference rooms for eight weeks, ensuring that you are always a few feet away from serving their needs. They ask a lot of questions. "Have you ever thought about using your online buyer data as a proxy for new store performance?", or "Can I see the exact methodology you use today, including all relevant spreadsheets, and can I have that information delivered to me with the actual raw data in fifteen minutes, thanks?!"

This makes you feel defensive. Of course you've thought of everything the consultants are talking about, in fact, you already implemented those ideas, and improved the process!! The management consultants have a job to do, however. They take detailed notes on their laptops, and move on to the next set of question.

Over the next week, the consultants begin asking your executive partners for their ideas. You're not allowed to be in those meetings, but you know they are asking your co-workers about your strengths and weaknesses as well as asking them business questions they should be asked. This will lead to trouble in eight weeks, when the project is over.

For the next two weeks, you start a new job. Your job is to give the consultants whatever they want, whatever data they need, shaped however they need it. And they have a lot of needs!! You lose grip over your day job. Your team is strung out, they want to know why they are being stepped on.

Next thing you know, you have about a month of peace.

Then the project is about to wrap up. There is a presentation. Your management team, the management consulting team, and a select few members of your humble group of underpaid analysts are gathered to hear the findings.

The findings are not significantly different than the work your team did. You are surprised that a company could spend this much money to get a product that is barely any different than what your team previously created.

When the management consultants finished their work, management told me they were thrilled with the outcome of the project, and communicated their excitement over seeing my team implement the solution created by the management consultants.

Yet the outcome was not significantly different than the work my team did. Obviously, something was wrong with my perception of the situation, or management wouldn't be happy with the work that the management consultants did.

Within days, the management consultants left. My team had to implement their solution.

One of the biggest challenges facing individuals with a skew toward numbers and analysis is communication. Communication problems magnify themselves as you ascend the corporate ladder. Analytical individuals use a style of language that is not easily understood by leadership. We often attack this problem by hoping that management will adapt to us. We talk slower, using the same language that failed to work properly in the first place.

Take time to learn the hidden language of your management team. Ask direct questions about your performance, and listen closely to the choice of words used by management. Realize that management decisions aren't always made on the basis of facts and figures. Realize that management does not see facts the same way you see them. Realize that management may be under pressure from their Board of Directors, causing them to make decisions that appear mysterious in nature.

Most important, invest a lot of time in the adaptation of your communication style. Your job may depend on your ability to adapt.