From 50,000 feet all water looks drinkable

From 50,000 all water looks drinkable.

I need to credit my former manager Paul Giroux at Sun Microsystems with this nugget. It’s one of several bits of sound advice he offered over the years.

Altitude sickness can be a hazard for managers. This is especially in larger companies. From afar, things may look simple, but down at sea-level things can get choppy and complex indeed. The tech sector is uniquely challenged in this regard. The sheer pace of change, and waves of innovation can quickly invalidate past experience and undermine judgement. History is of limited use when fundamental shifts are occurring, turning winners into losers.

  • Are sales declining and you’re not sure why?
  • Is your strategy to expand into a new market failing miserably?
  • Did an upstart competitor seemingly come from nowhere and threaten your installed base?

It may be that you have a blind spot, but more likely you’re just not getting close enough to see the problem. Your best sales and technical people can likely tell you exactly what is happening. Senior managers have a unique bird’s eye view that others lack, but they can entirely miss subtle but crucial market shifts that can have a devastating impact on sales.

Sometimes the issue really is technical. I’ve often observed that when a competitor comes up with a product or technology innovation and starts taking market share, the instinct of senior managers is to blame the sales force. “They don’t understand how to sell value” is a common refrain, even though that same sales force may have been perfectly competent the year before. Certainly it can be true that some sales people don’t know how to sell value, but if sales effectiveness is dropping across the board, statistics say that something else is afoot.

Good managers need to periodically do “deep dives”, keep an open mind, and really understand what is going. A competitor may have feature superiority, and this is not the end of the world by any means, but companies need to understand their weaknesses, and “message around them” even while innovating on their own product to close gaps and develop features that will outflank the competition. This is the essence of technical marketing.

Technical people need to be aware of this phenomenon too. As a sales engineer, I recall often positioning solutions to clients thinking “I wouldn’t buy this if I was them”. I knew that the competitors product made more sense for the clients need, and I could explain why. I assumed that my managers and executives were aware of these issues. After all, they were managers and executives and certainly knew more about the industry than I did. I realized after, that they really had no idea why we were losing, and that the insights I had as an engineer would have been invaluable to product managers, strategists and sales leaders. I saw this also when we were winning. It was clear to me why we were winning, but thinking back I’m not sure company leaders were completely clear on this either. Competitive dynamics are like calculus – a complex interplay of many different dynamic factors.

The moral(s) of the story?

If you’re a senior manager, be very aware of what you cannot see from afar. Dive deep and dive often.

If you’re closer to the surface, and the boats are taking on water, don’t assume your management can see you drowning!