The Sure Thing (Issue 966)

In which we are reminded to include all significant client stakeholders in our proposal development and sales processes.

“All right, boys, this project is over.”

Neil Kursch, a gravelly-voiced, squinting, close-crew-cut man in a tired olive-green suit spoke from just inside the office door.

My colleague, Larry, and I, wearing our finest blue pinstripes, were sitting in a West-facing window office on the 22nd floor of a regional bank‘s headquarters tower. We had just started a project to create a competency model, sales process, sales management process, and comprehensive sales training plan for the bank’s commercial banking group. The bank’s Vice Chairman and Managing Director of Commercial Banking considered the project critical to his priorities for providing developmental pathways for a younger commercial bankers; increasing consistency of culture and process across the bank‘s regions (comprised of banks acquired over the previous seven years); and boosting sales of the bank’s full range of services beyond loans.

Engaged by and partnered with the bank’s Director of Training, we had enrolled the Vice Chairman in our approach to the initiative. He trusted her, she trusted us, so we got the job.

We were very excited about the project. When my manager asked, “How confident are you about the revenue?”, I replied, “We have the Vice Chairman’s support. It’s critical to the bank. It’s a sure thing.”

In the first two weeks, we had completed our initial interviews, deepened the work plan, and requested information from HR, the product organizations, and the commercial lending regions.

“Pack up your stuff and get out. I want you out of the building within an hour.”

Larry and I looked at each other. I glanced at my phone.

“And don’t worry about calling the Vice Chairman. I have spoken with him; he is on board with this.”

Neil slunched out of the office. I called the Director of Training. She was not available. Her assistant didn’t know when or where she could be reached. That didn’t sound good.

Although the long knives were out, she survived. We didn’t.

A few days later, I reached her and asked, “Are you OK and what happened?“

She was OK, happily, and it turns out that the Vice Chairman, as respected and as powerful as he might have been in some matters, had not fully consulted with his direct reports, the acquired-over-the-last-seven-years Commercial Lending Regional Presidents. When they got wind of the project through the Vice Chairman’s introductory email and our data request, they got together over golf balls or dinner and decided that they didn’t want any part of it – they thought the Vice Chairman had overstepped his authority. In their view, they didn’t need a consultant telling them how to run their businesses and, furthermore, if the Vice Chairman insisted, one of their own team members, Neil, should have been tasked with the project.

Our “Sure Thing” flash-burned and crashed. We had launched forward based on a “headquarters suit’s” word for it; we hadn’t met, engaged, or enrolled the distant Dukes in the field. It was an early-career tutorial in organizational cultures and informal power, a lesson by constructive humiliation.

Nick Miller trains banks and bankers to sell to small businesses. He is President of Clarity Advantage based in Concord, MA. Additional articles on Clarity’s web site.

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