Posted by Kristin Swenson, Distribution Industry Marketing Lead
Once a year, Dirk Beveridge- consultant, strategist, author and distribution thought leader- hosts UnleashWD, a conference truly in a category of its own. This thought-provoking, two-day event brings together distributors from across the country with inspiring speakers from a variety of industries, pedigrees and backgrounds to provide a forum meant to challenge traditional thinking in a historically complacent industry. While the conference includes many different topics of discussion, UnleashWD has one overarching theme: driving innovation and disruption in the distribution industry.
This year marked the sixth annual UnleashWD and, in addition to NetSuite participating as a sponsor, I was fortunate enough to attend the conference as a participant. Here’s what I would consider the top five takeaways from UnleashWD 2017:
A distributor’s vision and company culture play key roles in cultivating innovation
Consider your company’s vision. Has it changed in the last 50 years? Would your customers and employees consider it relevant? A company’s vision is an often overlooked, understated asset of an organization. However, simply stated, it is every company’s guiding principal. As such, it is important that distributors articulate and communicate a vision that demonstrates the gap between where they are today and what their business will become in the future. Without that vision as a guide, companies are more likely to remain complacent, content with the status quo, making it that much harder to stay agile to changes in areas such as technology, processes and trends. As you look for ways to be innovative, start by ensuring your vision is not only relevant, but also clearly articulates your company’s path forward.
Additionally, consider the culture that exists within your organization. Does that culture attract industry-leading talent? Do your employees feel fulfilled and empowered? Distributors must consider their company culture as not only a key differentiator, but an incubator of innovation.
What are the keys to company culture? To start, be sure that the people you hire align with your company’s culture. Perhaps my favorite quote from the event was, “Hire for character, train for knowledge.” Although character is hard to define and even harder to measure, it is something you cannot teach. Be sure that every employee’s character not only aligns with, but also drives your company’s culture.
Next, use company culture as your best defense against employee turnover. As an industry comprised of many hourly and entry level employees, distribution companies often struggle with turnover. To combat this trend, use your company’s culture to create an environment in which your employees feel valued, empowered, and heard. This will not only drive productivity, but will also encourage and reward innovation.
Finally, distributors must recognize the changes in today’s workforce and be sure their culture aligns. Millennials are now the largest share of the American workforce, and by 2025, they will be the majority. Unlike their predecessors, Millennials are known for their technology savvy and their lack of loyalty. When it comes to technology, Millennials will expect updated technology in the workplace as in their personal lives. Antiquated technology that detracts from their productivity will drive them away. As for their lack of loyalty, Millennials are not afraid of leaving an environment that does not empower or reward them. Rather than be fearful of this change in the workforce, distributors should use this generational shift as an opportunity to evaluate their company culture and the environment it has created.
Driving innovation requires transformative leadership
When asked at the conference, “Who do you buy from?” most of the audience was quick to respond, “From those we like” and “From those we trust.” Therefore, every company’s leadership are nothing more than salespeople. While I have never made that connection, upon consideration, it is true. Every leader has many different responsibilities, but at the highest level, they are tasked with selling their organization not only to the public, but also to their own employees. Whether you are a CEO or a regional sales manager, it is vital that as a leader you recognize the responsibility your title carries and ensure you are delivering transformative leadership from the top down.
To understand the value of effective leadership, we were asked to consider the cost of a failed leader. While difficult to quantify, the loss in productivity, as well as the detrimental effects on company culture and employee turnover, would undoubtedly take a toll on even the most successful organizations. Consider the recent happenings within Uber. Despite the company’s booming success since its forceful entrance into the ride sharing industry, the recent news of sexual harassment from founder and then-CEO Travis Kalanick has left both the public and the company reeling. The news not only affected Uber stock prices, but has also deterred both existing and potential employees from a company whose culture is now tainted with sexual harassment. It is situations like this that exemplify the importance of leadership.
So, what makes a transformative leader in today’s work environment? Among the most powerful recommendations shared at UnleashWD were the act of recognizing another’s worth and offering feedback often. These practices are even more relevant considering the changing workforce is now comprised mostly of Millennials. These actions can have a dramatic effect not only on employee morale, but also on company culture. On top of those recommended practices, it was shared that transformative leaders actively cultivate innovation. Whether accomplished through a business group or division focused on innovation like that within Google, who has a separate Google X research and development organization, the solicitation of employee ideas, either at a specific forum like an innovation summit or on a more regular basis, or simply through the empowerment of employees, leaders must recognize their role in driving innovation.
Adjust your business model for the future
Consider the stories of companies like Blockbuster and Kodak. Both were staples of their respective industries whose falls from grace are largely blamed on their inability to recognize key trends and innovate. As box office ticket sales plummeted and the video market followed consumers online, Blockbuster failed to recognize these trends or adjust its business model of in-store rentals to compete with companies like Netflix. As photography moved from print to digital, Kodak was slow to adjust its business model accordingly. Once they did, they failed to recognize the trend of sharing photos online, and focused instead on the ability to print photos at home. Both companies serve as extreme examples of what can happen to companies who turn a blind eye to the importance of recognizing trends and rewarding innovation. It is important for distributors to keep up with general behavior and buying trends of the consumer, such as the shift from in-store to online purchasing and the continued growth in mobile.
Rather than sticking to the same business model that has served you well in the past, do not be afraid to make strategic changes that would better serve your customer base. It is important that distributors think of their business models as fluid, rather than solid, open to adjustments and changes rather than stuck in one position. Open your eyes to the world around you, and be willing to adjust your business model accordingly.
Look outside of the distribution industry for best practices and inspiration for innovation
When you consider which organizations are well known for innovation, companies like Amazon and Apple would most likely be the frontrunners. It is no secret that unlike industries like software or biotechnology, the distribution industry has historically been one of the slowest to move away from traditional practices and thinking. An example of this can be seen by the number of distributors who have yet to move to selling their products online. Another is evidenced by the reluctance of distributors to embrace new technology, showcased by the fact that many are still running on outdated technology platforms. It is for that reason that distributors must break the mold and look outside of their own industry for inspiration and lessons in innovation. Do not wait for the competition or insist that the distribution industry is immune. If you do so, you risk becoming irrelevant and forgotten.
The key to innovation is looking for new problems
When asked for the best way to solve a problem in an hour, Albert Einstein answered, “I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute resolving it.” The reality is that most organizations do not follow these wise words when tackling innovation projects. Most often, companies are not appropriately defining the problems they’re attempting to solve. Instead, they are reactive to an existing problem.
Consider the business model of Airbnb, who recognized that consumers were frustrated with hotel shortages and invented the “space marketplace,” offering travelers a viable alternative to hotels with their peer-to-peer renting platform which allowed owners to make money and consumers to spend less. Also consider Rent the Runway, which recognized the dilemma women faced to look great at an event without repeating an outfit, and developed a platform that allowed women to rent inventory of high-end fashion. Both companies found innovation by seeking out new problems to solve. Distributors should embrace that mindset to deliver innovation. Whether through interacting with your own customers, or reflecting on your own experiences, actively look for problems to solve and innovation will follow.
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