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Working Wider Changes Who You Should Hire

by Christopher Meyer on 01/19/2010

Analysis Group Economics (AG) is a Boston based consultancy that provides economic analysis to lawyers for securing or defending damage awards.  AG’s numbers have to convince a jury which means the numbers as well as the authority and explanation behind them must be clear and beyond reproach.  To meet this challenge, AG has surrounded their business with a constellation of “Academic Affiliates”.   Academic Affiliates are world class experts drawn from major universities in their respective fields.  Here’s the key:  working with AG is secondary at best to the Affiliates primary responsibilities yet the Affiliates provide AG’s signature competitive differentiation.  It’s a great example of harnessing world class talent by working wider but what is the impact on those who work within AG?

Whereas most firms hire and align internal staff for efficiency and value delivery to customers, AG’s staff needs to be just as skillful at delivering a superior experience to Academic Affiliate network as they do to their lawyer clients.  To achieve this, AG hires top Ph.D. economists who have the intellectual horsepower to work side-by-side with top academics and the emotional intelligence to manage academics’ unique personalities and egos.  The employee bargain is that when you work at AG, you constantly get to work with the leading thinkers in your field.  Martha Samuelson, AG’s leader, has built a culture that makes nurturing the Academic Affiliate network a responsibility of all employees.

Edgewater Networks CEO David Norman fuels his company with a combination of internal engineering, Open Source contributions and superior customer relationships.  When Edgewater began, they outsourced many tactical design elements.  In contrast to HP or Cisco who resource projects with staff engineers, Norman recognized that managing a wider network of outsiders requires a different set of leadership skills inside.  Edgewater hires experienced systems architects who can design, integrate and adjust on-the-fly the direction of outside engineering teams.  Edgewater thrives by hiring “architects” who also have the experience and temperament to coordinate external “builders”.

Using Open Source software enables Edgewater to save time and money but open source also makes it tougher to differentiate Edgewater products as well as sustain competitive advantage.  Edgewater addresses this by isolating proprietary from Open Source designs that must be shared in line with Open Source guidelines.  Their real edge comes from the emphasis placed on building extremely rich customer relationships and rapid response.  To pull this off Edgewater hires engineering, marketing and sales talent that have superior customer interaction skills and work well across functional boundaries.  Narrow technologist skill sets aren’t enough when working wider is the norm.

These leaders regularly share Edgewater product road maps with customers.   Be clear, this isn’t a one-way marketing presentation of Edgewater’s future product plans.  Rather it’s an exploratory discussion that helps inform customers of technology trends so that customer issues and requirements are dialed into future product generations.  Changes are solicited and expected.  Leading this discussion requires business model acumen, understanding each customers’ domain requirements and a willingness to explore alternatives.

Blub is a custom book publisher in San Francisco that relies on a network of outsider printers, book designers and graphic artists to create custom books for corporate and consumer customers.  Blurb designs the software that provides the process backbone from design through production.  Since they have no sole source partners and internal staff experts are represent just one user group, Blurb tools must be tailored to work for the broader community, not just Blurb employees.

Blurb’s evolution with their printers has gone through several stages of learning.  At first, printers were not used to shipping directly to end customers.  A myriad of seemingly simple things required immediate attention.  For example, think of the Blurb consumer customer who creates a once-in-a-lifetime 50th Anniversary Commemorative book.  The shipping box for such a keepsake requires more elegance and caring than the low-cost, stenciled cardboard boxes printers use for commercial jobs.  From the outset, Blurb’s leaders saw it was their responsibility to do more than highlight these needs to printers.  They needed to work with their printers to find ways to make these adjustments in a way that also addressed printers’ cost and handling requirements.  Working wider requires hiring people who will understanding helping partners win is not optional.

Blurb customers frequently ask for additional support such as design services and graphic artists.  Rather than add these people to their own staff, Blurb created “Blurb Nation,” a network of support resources that provides these services directly to Blurb customers.  Blurb Nation has become a critical component of the Blurb ecosystem such that CEO Eileen Gittens makes it a point to host Blurb Nation gatherings during her business travels.  Each meeting is followed with “Eileen’s Notes from the Road” that funnel back learning to Blurb staff.  Working wider requires people who not only reach out but also can reach back in with what they’ve learned to influence home base.

AG, Edgewater and Blurb each underscore that working wider requires different internal skills, norms and work practices.  Here are six lessons from out examples plus one that came up time and time again in our research:

  1. Working wider requires more “architect” vs. “builder” skills to design, integrate and lead a broader set of dispersed resources.
  2. Superior emotional intelligence is essential to engage and lead key contributors who have other responsibilities, needs and egos.
  3. Richer relationship skills to draw out emerging issues, needs and opportunities.
  4. Building tools must be tailored to work for the broader rather than just employees.
  5. Flexibility is essential to address new and different requirements while also being sensitive to cost and operating issues
  6. Nurturing the wider network’s evolution requires reaching out and channeling findings back to those at home

Number seven comes from Mike Biddle, CEO of MBA Polymers, an international plastics re-cycling firm.  When we asked Mike what the most quality for any leader working wider, his reply summed up what he heard often.  “Take a deep breath – everyday you’ll be faced with things you didn’t plan on.”  No matter how well you plan, once you step beyond familiar boundaries, there are bound to be surprises.  Look for folks who can see patterns, anticipate problems but most importantly, react with grace when the unexpected strikes.

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