Monday Aug 04, 2008

Leadership Connections



If your company runs a complex business, like mine does, helping employees understand why things happen the way they do is a huge challenge.  Why, for example, did Sun pay around $1B for MySQL?  Why do we open source everything we can?  Why are we investing in university relations?  Why aren't we just focusing on our high-end servers and our big customers?  Especially when employees and investors want us to show them the money, and make that today - not tomorrow!

Even friends who love Sun almost as much as I do have said to me, "Terry, while I sort of think Sun is on the right track, your story is so darned hard to explain.  How can you expect investors to get it?"

Well, my job is not to explain our story to investors, but it is to explain it to employees.  More important, it's to get employees to believe in it and know how to align their goals and activities with it.  And to make that happen, the credibility of our leadership is absolutely key to the process. That means we better make darn sure our leaders can talk knowledgeably about Sun's path.

Communications will only take us so far.  Under the guidance of Karie Willyerd in Sun Learning Services, the company has put together Leadership Connections, a week-long learning adventure for directors and vice presidents that is nothing less than astonishing.  For two reasons:
  1. The value of the experience, from learning to networking with other leaders
  2. The commitment of the company, even in these challenging financial times, to mandate that 90 percent of all directors and vice presidents go through this program in one year
When I entered the course last week, however, I did go into the experience kicking and screaming. (One of my favorite trainers once told me that there are three kinds of people attending any given company training course: hostages, victims and true learners. Guess which group is the smallest.)  Despite my entry as a hostage, I came out a true believer - and a learner.  And I'm very excited to share what I learned with my team, so they can experience it as well.

Leadership Connections is an intense business simulation where you and your teammates compete with other teams for market share and long-term customer value.  Working under tight time constraints, you go through three years of business decision-making and results in three days.  Computer modeling predicts the results of where you've chosen to invest and how you're positioning yourself in the market.  We got to see what happens when you change sales coverage, when you focus on small or large IT spenders, when you invest - or don't invest - in your own IP.  We saw hiring decisions have unexpected reverberations, and quality issues crop up to undermine our strategy.  Perhaps most important, we saw how turning one dial impacts the rest of our very interdependent model, making every decision sensitive.

The timing of our session was particularly good, because the training week ended on August 1, when we announced our FY08 results.  Although the earnings call was at 5 am Pacific Time, I listened carefully to our results.  And for the first time, I understood at a much deeper level what was being said - why some investments are important although not paying off today, early indicators of future promise, and short-term struggles for long-term results.

I got it.  At a visceral level, not just an intellectual one. 

We still have a communication challenge, because we can't ask the world to go through a week of training.  But I walked away with practical ideas on how to make our story easier for our employees to understand and to tell.   Not only was this a week well spent, but a vivid reminder that Sun is a company that just plain does things differently - and in this case, differently in a very good way.


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