Anchor or a Sail


The following story is a lesson from early in my career and it continues to resonate today.  Having perspective on how a business is performing and finding ways to share the learnings from the best performers across an organization never goes out of style!  Take a look and let me know what you think!

Are you an Anchor or a Sail?

This is an idea that hit me in an aggressive way almost 15 years ago and my desire is to share it not only to help you avoid an embarrassing moment but to give you a way to gauge and challenge yourself and your team.

As a young marketing manager at Coke, one of my roles was to help create, and lead, annual stewardship meetings with a number of our largest customers. These are sometimes called “top to top” meetings in some companies and it’s a chance for the senior executives from both companies to sit together and review past performance, focus on areas for improvement and help chart the priorities for the upcoming year. Later in my career, I looked forward to these meetings as a way to connect with our customers on a personal and professional level and when they are working well these are meetings where our collective perspectives of the business can come together to create great ideas for future growth. Fifteen years ago, these were “high wire” acts that you prepared for arduously and hoped and prayed would go smoothly and quickly.

In preparing the slides (yes, in those days we actually used slides in circular Kodak trays, lets just say the edits were a bit tougher than in PowerPoint) I started pulling together the story of the past year and the numbers were coming together surprisingly easily. Volume growth for this specific customer had been over six percent and their profit growth had grown faster at almost nine percent. Well that is a story I could tell!!! Combined with charts on the growth story, I included all the marketing programs, the crew support, and the operational initiatives that had lead to such impressive results. I had about forty five slides for a ninety minute meeting, just enough to be content rich but not too many to force us to rush. This was going to be a gangbuster meeting, not just something to endure but to enjoy in the presence of senior execs from both companies. I had visions of smiling executives, backslapping on the way home, notes of thanks and maybe even a quick promotion. Oh the naiveté of youth!

The meeting began well enough, everyone a bit nervous but I knew what was coming so I was loose and ready for a great presentation. It was on slide three where we summarized our results in a crisp, easy to read “joint scorecard”. After a quick review of the slide, the customers’ CEO stopped us to ask us to review the volume trend numbers and give him our opinion of the results. Even though the National Account Executive and I shared the responsibilities for the presentation, I jumped right in to say how the volume and profit trends were excellent. I reviewed the data sources to reinforce confidence in the numbers, and began to build the story of all the programs that drove those results. He stopped me gently and said he had a couple of things HE wanted to share. He began by reviewing his company’s performance for the past year and that his overall company’s sales and profit trends had been nine and eleven percent respectively, his same store sales trends were trailing a bit at eight and ten percent respectively. (like a deer in a hunter’s sights, I wasn’t even aware of the trap about to be sprung) He continued that in his mind, since our performance lagged his company’s overall trends, he viewed us at Coke as an “Anchor” not a “Sail to his business. We were obviously one of the elements of his business that was hindering the growth he was trying to achieve, rather than fueling the growth and leading performance. The room was pretty quiet when he paused and all I could think of was “ slide 3 , we were on slide 3 of 45, in a locked Kodak circular tray. I had nowhere to go, no plan B. Like the deer shot by the skilled hunter, I quietly slumped back into my chair.

The heroics of the moment came from our veteran VP of sales who assessed the landscape quickly and asked the CEO the question of the day, “this idea of “Anchors and Sails” seems powerful, how have you applied this to your company?” Not to be pedantic but it’s my experience that most CEO’s like to hear that their ideas are powerful and like to be asked to expound on them! The next twenty minutes had the CEO at the flipchart, showing us how he used this idea across his divisions, across his departments and even down to the store level. He showed how he used this idea across suppliers either in their cost management or in their sales growth.(our specific case!) The storm clouds of meeting disaster started to part and glints of sunlight started to emerge. We asked how we compared with other suppliers and what we could learn from them. What the best practices were in the “Sail divisions” and what we could learn from them. I happened to have our past year’s volume data broken out by their division in a computer report and I went up to the flip chart and wrote out (the slide projector had officially been turned off) our volume trends broken into the “sails” and “anchors” based on our averages. The meeting was free flowing, creative, honest and created great insights for yours truly and our entire Coke team. It opened my eyes to what customer interactions

COULD be, not things to be endured but creative experiences to be savored.

Think about your situation, your business, your team, and ask a few questions:

Am I or are we an “Anchor” or a “Sail” to our business?

What are the “Sails” doing that we can share with the “Anchors”?

Am I an “Anchor” or a “Sail” to our customers business?

Am I too busy telling my story and not busy listening to their (customers/team’s) story?

Am I on slide 3 with nowhere to go?

All of these ideas, and many other questions that you might think of are all good starting places. The key is to start! This idea of “Anchors and Sails” is an approach that never ends regardless of performance levels. It gets more powerful over time where you can start highlighting perennial “Sails” (or “Anchors). You can identify the biggest “Anchor to Sail” turnaround and many more permutations. The key is to get your organization to adopt this approach locally and organically. While it might require “Big Daddy/Mommy” from headquarters to launch the idea, my experience has been that it can become like an unwelcome inspection experience if it stays “top down”. Bring the idea to life and see if you can get your teams to adopt the approach; and whether they invite you into their “Anchor/Sail” work sessions is up to them. Please try to remember that the truth ( and power) about leadership is that it’s always about “them”, “Anchors OR Sails” !!!!

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