All posts by Chas Holden

Reaching outside the comfort zone

Guest post by Michelle Sievers, Executive Development Program (EDP) alumni

Michelle SieversI’m the community relations manager at PEMCO Mutual Insurance Company – the quirky Northwest company that’s a lot like you; a little different. PEMCO was founded by an educator, so it goes without saying we inherently foster a culture that encourages continuous training and education for our employees. As a community relations manager, my position requires me to creatively engage and influence colleagues, our leaders, and the organization to help our Northwest community be a better place to live, work, learn and play. I was achieving this, but I wanted more for PEMCO, my community and myself. I looked to professional development as a key to unlock my potential.

The opportunity to participate in the University of Washington’s Executive Development Program came at a time in my life and career at PEMCO when I needed a “disruption.” I yearned for a positive disruption that would challenge and push me both personally and professionally. I wanted to innovate. I wanted to think beyond the rules and authority that confined my professional role. I wanted to learn from others. I wanted to get out of my comfort zone.

On my first day in class, I had an overwhelming feeling of insecurity. As my classmates introduced themselves, I suddenly became intimidated by titles. Executive Director. Chief Executive Officer. Vice President of Operations. Physician. Is this the right place for me? Do I belong here? Mission accomplished: within the first thirty minutes, I was out of my comfort zone. It didn’t take long for me to realize that in the end, titles and positions were secondary to the people: their experiences, their perspective, their voice. And what each of them brought to the EDP for me completed a rich, comprehensive curriculum.

With the Executive Development Program, I gained a deeper understanding about business strategy, leadership, innovation, financial accounting, macro-economics, marketing, communication, decision making and organizational leadership. And specifically within organizational leadership, I had an opportunity to work closely with a subset of classmates to problem solve and recommend solutions on a real-life organizational problem. One of my biggest takeaways: organizational problems regardless of their size are mere symptoms of deeper challenges with an organization’s people, process and structure. Again, the opportunity to work and learn together with a diverse group of EDP classmates provided a perspective beyond the readings and lectures. The final group business case project pushed us all to think creatively, strategically and play to each of our strengths.

It’s been almost two years since that first day in class. In the past two years, I’ve continued to stretch myself personally and professionally. I’ve accepted leadership roles on two local nonprofit boards. More important, I’ve taken on more leadership responsibilities within PEMCO that has enabled me to innovatively improve our programs and positively “disrupt” our thinking and actions about what it means to be “a lot like you, a little different” in our community.

The Executive Development Program is a nine-month, part-time certificate program that explores each facet of business enterprise from an executive’s top-level view. The program focuses on practical business applications and provides a progressive, entrepreneurial learning community where students can access advanced business education without a significant burden to their work, travel and family schedules.

Fashion changes, values do not

It’s not every day that the president of a billion-dollar company hands out his email address to a group of undergrads. But not every company president is like Blake Nordstrom.

Nordstrom
Blake Nordstrom discusses the importance of company culture in an undergrad retailing class.

On April 30, Blake Nordstrom, president of Nordstrom, gave a brief presentation and answered student questions in an undergraduate retailing course. He began his presentation with a wide smile and disarming honesty. “We have a motive here; we’re hoping some of you will come work for us,” he said.

After a little backstory on the humble beginnings of both the man (who started in the stockroom of the shoe department) and the company (which started as a Seattle shoe store), Nordstrom launched into a discussion on the impact of company culture. “Fashion changes, values do not,” he said. Over the course of the presentation Nordstrom emphasized his company’s commitment to both their customers and employees. He attributed much of their success to an inverted pyramid model where customers are at the top, followed by the employees who work most closely with customers, and management is at the bottom. “Our business works when we live that pyramid,” he said.

Nordstrom elaborated on his company’s commitment to customer service and customer experience. “It’s all about making the customer feel good,” he said. He underscored the importance of making the customer feel empowered, as if it were their name, not his, on the door. Online shopping is one part of that customer empowerment strategy. “Ecommerce helps customers shop on their terms,” he said. On the subject of the retailer’s liberal returns policy, he stated believing in the customer creates trust, which in turn creates sales volume.

Next, Nordstrom talked about the importance of employee growth. “We really believe leadership development is grounded in experience,” he said. He emphasized the company’s practice of promoting from within and how they strive to give managers hands-on training, citing that most managers cut their teeth on Nordstrom Rack stores before moving to full-line stores. He then discussed the company’s commitment to social responsibility—embodied by the Nordstrom Cares project and its motto, “leave it better than we found it.” Nordstrom emphasized importance of having workers who want to be associated with the company and its values. He stated job seekers should make sure a company’s principals align with their personal principals.

Nordstrom ended the presentation by discussing the company’s internship program—and its 80% retention rate—before opening up the floor for questions. Students asked questions ranging from potential international expansion to the impact of social media. On the subject of social media, Nordstrom discussed their success in creating excitement and energy. “We’ve got to try new things. If it doesn’t work, we learn from it quickly and move on,” he said.

MBAs sharpen consulting skills with local non-profits

ServiceCorp7MBAs at the Foster School are honing their consulting skills and giving back at the same time. The Net Impact Service Corps initiative matched teams of Foster students with local non-profits that needed assistance with a specific business problem. This year, 20 MBAs worked on projects with the YMCA and the Children’s Therapy Center, an organization that serves families of children with special needs.

Foster Net Impact, with the help of MBA Career Management, organized and brought together Social Venture Partners, McKinsey and Accenture around the Service Corps projects. Paul Shoemaker, executive director of Social Venture Partners (SVP) – an organization devoted to cultivating effective philanthropists and strengthening organizations that drive community change – provided preliminary contacts with local nonprofits needing strategic consulting help. Paul came to Foster to launch the Net Impact Service Corps initiative and discuss how MBA skills can be leveraged in ways that make a huge impact to nonprofits. McKinsey and Accenture played a key role in mentoring Foster students, helping them develop business models and consulting skills that were used in working with their clients.

ServiceCorp5During the course of the project, the MBAs attended seminars where Jun Kamata, a former McKinsey consultant now in charge of strategy at Nordstrom, presented models used by consultants on how to manage project workflow, manage client engagement, present data and make recommendations to clients. Mike Quinn of Social Venture Partners instructed students on how to navigate from the profit to non-profit world while building consulting skills with clients.

The student’s primary goal in working with each of the non-profits was to enhance their current effectiveness in the non-profit sector while also investigating opportunities to diversify the non-profits into opportunities that might support the core mission. For Children’s Therapy Center, the students helped the center develop a sales and marketing plan for products that would provide additional revenue opportunities for the organization. The students helped the YMCA develop a new donor strategy to increase annual funding.

As Jun Kamata, director of strategy at Nordstrom noted, this collaboration is a win for the nonprofits, for the students, and for the consulting firms. Nonprofits get needed help in developing their strategy and effectiveness, students get hands-on experience with some of the leading consulting firms in the world, and McKinsey and Accenture get the opportunity to mentor and engage with Foster students

ServiceCorp11According to Jon Botten, executive director of the Children’s Therapy Center, “We have been blown away by the commitment of the students! They asked probing questions, listened to our needs, generated quality ideas and delivered beyond our expectations. I can honestly say that we will be implementing many of their suggestions, and as a result, the children we serve will be that much closer to reaching their full potential.”

Foster students benefit too. John Czerniak, a first-year MBA who accepted a McKinsey summer internship, stated, “As a part of Net Impact’s Service Corps program, I have had the opportunity to work with some amazing people – including our client, Children’s Therapy Center, and Social Venture Partners, McKinsey, and of course, my Foster teammates. I have been able to use the skills and classroom experiences from my MBA to influence a real business decision for an organization making a big difference in peoples’ lives. In addition to the wonderful parts of the project, we have faced several challenges that only come with working on a real-world project. Working through these challenges with my team and client was one of the most valuable parts of my Foster experience thus far. As I go into consulting for my internship this summer, I’m confident that my Service Corps experience will serve me well in working with clients and solving complex business problems.”

Building a loved brand

Jim Weber, CEO of Brooks.The success of Brooks Running Company and their CEO Jim Weber is a classic underdog story, a come-from-behind victory that every sports enthusiast loves. When Weber joined Brooks in 2001—their fourth CEO in two years—the company was on the brink of bankruptcy. Thanks to Weber’s tremendous leadership and insight, the company successfully rebooted, repositioning itself in the market, and has since experienced years of double-digit growth and industry recognition.

On March 5, as part of the Leaders to Legends Breakfast Lecture Series, Weber came to the Foster School of Business and recounted the story of how he turned his company around. “I feel like I have the best job in Seattle,” he said. Weber’s passion for building brands and businesses is matched by a passion for athletics, reflected in his previous professional experience, which includes positions such as chairman and CEO of Sims Sports and vice president of The Coleman Company.

After his arrival at Brooks, Weber explained, the company made a major shift in its market focus. It’s common knowledge that many athletic shoes are never used for athletics, which Weber refers to as “BBQ shoes.” According to Weber, roughly half of their sales were in this “family footwear” category when the company made the bold decision to focus on a niche market and double down on technical performance running shoes. At the time, it was considered heresy for a company like Brooks to focus on just one sport. Conventional wisdom stated that a table “needs more than one leg to stand on,” as Weber put it. Now, after years of growth as a result of this decision, Weber looks like a visionary.

Part of Brooks’ strategy is to compete in a different way, Weber explained. True, there is good old-fashioned product leadership, the years of research and development in biomechanics that leads to a superior product. But Brooks also competes using its corporate culture, e.g. the way it “celebrates the run,” and invests in the sport that supports its business.  Weber said the Brooks recipe for success is combining an incredibly serious technical product with a brand known for its unique, fun-loving energy. Corporate culture is instrumental to this success— “Run Happy” is much more than a tag line. “Our brand is positioned in a very welcoming way,” he said.

An important aspect of leadership is knowing how to pick your battles. Weber mentioned that it was impossible for Brooks to compete on the “visual technology” front, i.e. improvements that make the product pop off the shelf. “Nike will spend more on marketing by noon than we will in the whole year,” he said. Instead, Brooks focuses on “runability” and servicing as a niche expert. Every brand has a center of gravity, Weber explained. For Brooks it’s the trail and the specialty running stores that are at the heart of the running community. By focusing on those retailers and developing relationships with key influencers like coaches, leading athletes, and sports medicine practitioners, Brooks works to win the trust of its customers. “We create trust every time someone has a good experience with our product,” he said.

The lecture concluded with a Q&A session where students and faculty posed questions on topics like supply chain challenges and reactions to the barefoot running movement. On the subject of international expansion, Weber stated that his company is executing the same strategy, but still had much to learn. He explained that, thankfully, the brand ethos of “Run Happy” translates well across cultures and resonates with people around the globe.

Watch the full lecture below:

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Pivoting for success: a CEO panel on adapting for growth

DempseyPanelWhen most people hear the word “pivot” they imagine the agile, effortless movement of an experienced athlete. But, for CEOs like Chet Kapoor, Christopher Cabrera, and Joe Ruck, pivoting in the business world–making sharp turns in strategy to capitalize on new opportunities–is anything but effortless.

On Thursday, November 21, in a room packed with students and faculty, a panel of three CEOs discussed their theories and hands-on experience in adapting their businesses for growth. The event was moderated by Professor Charles Hill and hosted by Neal Dempsey–the Foster School’s visiting 2013-2014 Edward V. Fritzky Chair in Leadership–who brought the three Silicon Valley CEOs to Dempsey Hall.

The discussion began with each CEO describing how they knew when the time was right to “pivot”–i.e., redefine and reconfigure their business–and how they managed to enact such drastic change. Afterwards, the floor was opened for audience questions. Prompted by students, the CEOs launched into a discussion on the difficulties of managing both internal and external buyin. Cabrera emphasized the need for decisive action: “You’re the CEO; you’re on the ground; you have to make the decisions.” Kapoor mentioned transparency as an effective method of earning internal and external trust, and Ruck underscored the importance of having a core team of true believers.

The three CEOs combined brought over a half-century of experience to bear in the discussion. Kapoor, CEO of Apigee, has spent more than 20 years in leadership positions in innovative software and hardware companies. Cabrera, founder, president and CEO of Xactly, is a seasoned executive with more than two decades of successful senior management experience at both early-stage and public companies. Ruck, President and CEO of BoardVantage, held marketing and executive positions at several software companies prior to leading his company from being a startup to its current position as a technology leader.

Over the course of the evening, Cabrera, Kapoor, and Ruck discussed topics such as how to foster a culture of open dissent, how to react when pivoting goes awry, and what the life of a CEO is truly like. They offered a diverse array of strategies and opinions; however, on the subject of the challenge of maintaining a competitive advantage, the three CEOs professed similar beliefs in maintaining momentum by being open to new opportunities. “You don’t win a race by looking back. You win by looking ahead,” Kapoor said.