Atul Minocha Of Chief Outsiders On How To Take Your Company From Good To Great
Revenue growth for the sake of growth can be a red herring. Growth doesn’t lead to Greatness. Greatness can lead to growth. So, first, try to be great, before trying to become big.
As part of my series about “How To Take Your Company From Good To Great”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Atul Minocha.
Atul Minocha is a partner at Chief Outsiders, a marketing consulting firm that helps CEOs accelerate growth through the development and disciplined execution of well-crafted marketing plans. With experience in startups and Fortune 500 companies like Honeywell, Kodak, and Toyota, Atul works in a wide range of industries, from automotive and healthcare to industrial goods and technology. He has a degree in mechanical engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi and an MBA from Yale University.
He recently published a marketing guide for CEOs titled Lies, Damned Lies, and Marketing. An Amazon bestseller in multiple categories, it has also been named at the top of the list of 7 books Forbes recommends all entrepreneurs read for success.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Growing up, I wanted to be a car designer/engineer. Hence, I studied mechanical engineering at a premier institute in India. Long story short, when I graduated, I was lucky enough to be hired by Toyota. But instead of placing me in their engineering department, they placed me in their marketing team. That was a true ‘oh huh’ moment for me as I had a very low opinion of and an even lower desire to be a marketer.
The good news is that I swallowed my pride (and plans) and accepted this role in marketing. And lo and behold, in the very first few months of doing marketing, I fell in love with it. And that started my long and fruitful career as a marketer with major corporations like Cummins, Honeywell, and Kodak. More recently, as a partner at Chief Outsiders, America’s largest firm of fractional CMOs, I have been working with mid-sized and growth companies.
I also teach marketing at Hult International Business School at their San Francisco and Dubai campuses. I have found this mix of consulting and teaching to be extremely synergistic with each other. I can bring the latest in academic thinking to the real world while I bring the real world into the classroom for my students.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
I have been very fortunate at two levels. One, the diversity of assignments I have had. And two, for the most part, with maybe one or two exceptions, I have had very good leaders as my managers. Thus, it is fair to say that I have not experienced anything close to wanting me to quit.
I believe there’s another factor at play here. I am a very curious being and get a lot of energy from trying to answer “why?” Thus, anytime I face a difficult situation, the ‘engineer’ in me takes over to try and ‘solve’ it. This is another reason how I have been able to channel difficult situations into something positive, or at least a ‘learning moment’.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
Two or three years into my first job (at Toyota), I was busy working at the office one day when I got a call from the front reception that someone from a leading Indian publication was at the reception wanting to see me. I walked up to the reception to find a very attractive young journalist who wanted to ‘speak to someone regarding the new Toyota vehicle about to be launched’.
Not sure what I was thinking (or not thinking) but I offered myself as the best person to be able to answer her questions. The whole interview lasted a short 30 minutes and I thought I had done well in representing the company.
A few weeks later, when the article was published, I was called into the office by the General Manager of the company who was well known to be a very soft-spoken person. In his typical soft voice, he asked me how my interview with the journalist go? Remember, the interview had taken place a few weeks earlier. I knew immediately that this was not an idle question, and I was in some sort of trouble. Long story short, without raising his voice, he made it known to me that I was completely out of line in meeting with a journalist and had no business revealing certain ‘company secrets’.
I had no defense. And if he had fired me then, I would have accepted it as a ‘just outcome’.
But he didn’t fire me. He just made sure I learned from it.
On a higher plane, the lesson is about leaders that make a company great. The most productive role any business leader can play is that of a coach. And in this incident, the General Manager played that role perfectly.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Our company, Chief Outsiders, consists of former CMOs and Fortune 1000 type companies. We all have had very successful careers. However, when we join Chief Outsiders, we discover two things very quickly. One, all our peers are about as smart (or smarter) than the next; and two, we are expected to check our egos and pride at the door every time we work with our clients and with each other.
Because we believe that our best work happens when we approach it with the curiosity of a child (to understand the problems and situations we are expected to resolve), and the experience of a veteran problem-solver.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Always be learning. Be curious.
The pace of change in technology, business models, life at large, etc., is so high that one has to stay current by learning at the same pace of change.
If I had quit learning after my ivy-league MBA, I would be a good-for-nothing marketer today. The best thing I learned at my undergraduate and graduate schools was the ability to continue to learn. This is the only way to thrive. And learning new things is also a good insurance policy against burnout.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
This is a tough one as there are so many people who come to mind in the context of this question.
I already shared a story of my former General Manager at Toyota who could have fired me but instead chose to invest in me by making me learn from my rookie mistake.
Similarly, I had a manager in my second job (at Cummins Engine Company) who encouraged me to take on a job that I had no interest in taking. At the time, I was managing marketing for Europe and Asia and having a whale of a time doing it! This new job was based in the US with about 10X greater revenue responsibility. I am glad I was encouraged to take this, as it was my first exposure to US markets. This ended up being a critically useful foundation for my business career in the US and abroad.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. The title of this series is “How to take your company from good to great”. Let’s start with defining our terms. How would you define a “good” company, what does that look like? How would you define a “great” company, what does that look like?
A “good” company runs smoothly (most of the time) and is perhaps in the upper half of its group of peers. Its focus, for the most part, is on running without creating “too many waves”. It tries to grow at and average or slightly above-average pace.
A “great” company is one that, like its peers that are “good”, runs like a well-oiled machine. But, unlike its peers that are merely “good”, it feels uncomfortable with smooth waters and no waves. It knows that there are bigger and better opportunities out there to be had and it’s willing to take risks to achieve those goals. It is always on the lookout for changes happening in its market, and shifting customer needs and wants.
It also understands the fundamental connection between employee satisfaction and customer satisfaction.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to lead a company from Good to Great? Please share a story or an example for each.
The five things that can form the blueprint for any company to get from Good to Great are:
- Customers should be at the center of anything and everything the company does. This applies to ALL employees of the company, and not just the customer-facing departments of sales, marketing, and service.
- Only employees can make a company Great. Treating employees well, fairly and giving them opportunities to learn and grow are key to greater employee satisfaction which, in turn, leads to becoming a Great company.
- Revenue growth for the sake of growth can be a red herring. Growth doesn’t lead to Greatness. Greatness can lead to growth. So, first, try to be great, before trying to become big.
- Listen to your customers. Have a well-defined process that exposes all parts of the organization to customers and their viewpoints. Of course, sales, marketing, and service folks will have greater exposure to customers, but everyone within the company should have a good understanding of how their work impacts the company’s customers.
- Understanding the end-customer is very important even if you never sell directly to the end-user. A product (or service) is not really ‘sold’ until it is used or consumed.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. Can you help articulate for our readers a few reasons why a business should consider becoming a purpose driven business, or consider having a social impact angle?
Being “purpose-driven” is often interpreted as some sort of higher-than-capitalistic approach to business. In my view, that is a mistake. The crucial differentiating element lies in whether a company treats “making money” (or focus on its bottom line or share price) as its core goal, OR, does it treat these as outcomes of its core goal of solving well-defined customer needs or wants? A purpose-driven company will always be aligned with the latter approach.
What would you advise to a business leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth and “restart their engines”?
Very likely, initial growth was reached by focusing on and improving its internal operations. Almost all companies start that way (i.e., by fixing and tightening their internal operations). And they all run out of growth juice, sooner or later.
To “restart the growth engine”, they need to look outside of their four walls and understand their market-dynamics and customers. They need to become more market-focused on top of being operations-obsessed.
Great companies don’t choose between “operational efficiency” and “market focus”. They do both well.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
Often the best opportunities to grow come during tougher times. I know it sounds counter-intuitive but it’s especially true for smaller companies. Let me use an analogy to illustrate this point. Imagine you are in a car race. And let’s say you are in the middle of the pack in the race. Suddenly there is a crash on the tracks. It hurts everyone. (This is equivalent to tough economic times). In some ways, this is a great leveler. Whoever comes out of the crash the best now has a shot at winning the race.
Thus, when the business cycle is down, that is the best time for the companies to prepare and plan for better times that inevitably follow tough times.
In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
The very phrase “running a company” is interpreted by most CEOs as “operations-focused” i.e., a within-the-four-walls internal activity. But as we discussed earlier, Great companies have a strong market focus over and above their efficient operations. This external, market focus is the one that is most underestimated and under-practiced.
As you know, “conversion” means to convert a visit into a sale. In your experience what are the best strategies a business should use to increase conversion rates?
The best strategy to convert a visit to a sale needs to take place before the visit. This is the step to understand the pain points of your prospective customers and develop products and services that address these pain points well.
Of course, the main way to increase conversion rates is to create a trusted and beloved brand. Can you share a few ways that a business can earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand?
Keep in mind that a company brand is not its logo or tag line or even what the company claims to be its brand value. A brand is what sits in the minds of its customers. What thoughts and emotions are triggered when a company name or a product name is mentioned? That is the definition of a brand.
Yes, brands that are well established can go a long way in increasing conversion rates.
The best way to build a brand is to start with one customer. Understand her pain points. Deliver a product/service to address that pain point. Treat that customer fairly and serve her well. If something goes wrong, be open, honest, and fair in fixing the problem. And then rinse and repeat for each and every customer.
Great customer service and great customer experience are essential to build a beloved brand and essential to be successful in general. In your experience what are a few of the most important things a business leader should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience?
In my experience, a true mark of a Great company comes from how it responds to customer experience failures. Even the best of companies will, on occasion, fail. How they treat their customer, and how they make good any losses or disappointments the customer might have experienced, determines the true level of customer service and the greatness of the company.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
Most businesses are started on the backs of some sort of technology that is an improvement over what’s currently available. Even if this improvement is significant and obvious, it is easy to fall into the trap of “build it and they will come”.
Even if a startup is able to attract “early adopters” via, say Kickstarter, real business success comes only when the business can to attract the majority of users beyond the initial group of early adopters. To cross this chasm, one must invest in strategic up-front marketing. This is usually an area that most founders tend to ignore. They over-invest in technology and drink their own Kool-Aid believing customers will come. Instead, they need to also invest in marketing and business development so they can grow beyond the group of early adopters.
Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I would like to see people do good things for the satisfaction it gives them, and not necessarily for monetary gain only. Too many people make bad choices, in their careers and otherwise, driven exclusively by monetary metrics. Let money be an outcome, not your primary focus. Find your purpose. Answer you “why”.
How can our readers further follow you online?
Readers can follow me best on LinkedIn (I am easy to find) or via my website atulminocha.com/the-book.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!