Business dynamics shift in response to regulatory requirements and fields in flux
By: Jenna Lang Warford
“Go to your field and ask several leaders what your culture is. And if you get five different answers, then you probably don’t have a defined culture.”
— Darrel Starkweather, Vice President of Field Development and Support, Ambit Energy
“Starting with the employees is the fastest way to make a big impact.”
— Melissa Gurney, Regional Sales Manager, Norwex USA
“We’ve all been forced to raise the bar of scrutinizing everything, and it’s healthy for the industry. But we have to be mindful about how we go about it. I’m seeing cultures being destroyed by a really heavy hand on compliance.”
— Melissa Soete, President, Sales from Within
Regulatory scrutiny, an influx of distributors, supply chain issues, and the Great Resignation coming closely on the heels of the growing gig economy may have had an unforeseen impact on direct selling companies: subtle, unintentional shifts that are now being felt in company cultures.
“Regardless of what you may think the culture is, the collective response from your stakeholders is the true measure of what your culture is,” says Kristi Hubbard, recently named CEO of Norwex North America and former CEO of Younique. “I have found the best way is to just ask… For current employees, surveys are a great way to do this. You can get a good read on previous employees from exit interviews if you have done those. For the Field, interviews, surveys, and focus groups all work well. For customers, surveys or focus groups are good tools. And vendors are usually more responsive to interviews with those whom they already have relationships with.”
Darrel Starkweather, vice president of field development and support at Ambit Energy, says, “Go to your field and ask several leaders what your culture is. And if you get five different answers, then you probably don’t have a defined culture. But ask. And ask questions about anti-culture, such as ‘What things do you see as a field leader that are hurting our business?’ My guess is, on those topics the answers will be fairly consistent.
“What I’ve learned over the years is don’t underestimate how smart and aware and in tune your field is to how the company’s doing,” he adds. “They know what customers are saying, they know what is working and what isn’t.”
President of consultancy Sales from Within, Melissa Soete, agrees. “It’s 30-minute appointments of questions: what’s working well, what isn’t working well. It’s listening, observing and creating a safe place for feedback.” When the CEO isn’t the right person for doing a deep dive, consultants or field-facing employees may be a good choice. Soete, who has served with direct selling companies as a CEO and founder, says that training those people to listen is important. “When they’re getting suggestions from the field, they can just listen; there’s no need to explain ‘why we couldn’t do it.’ They can simply respond with, ‘Thank you for sharing that information. I’ll bring it back to the team.’ People innately think they have to give an answer, and then the field doesn’t feel heard; people really just want to be heard.”
Steering After the Baseline Is Clear
Charting the course to where you want your company’s culture to be can’t just be inspiring words from stage or slogans on a wall; it has to come from a clear understanding that culture is how people experience the company. “It’s important that those leading this charge decide what it is that they want their customers, their field, and their employees to experience,” says Melissa Gurney, who has worked on international and domestic sales and field development teams, and is now a regional sales manager for Norwex USA. “If the leading team assumes it’s all about them and they’re not really thinking about how others will experience it, it shows from top to bottom.”
Once the desired company experience is solidified, the priorities are simple, if not easy, according to Hubbard. “When you have demonstrated values and a clear vision on the direction the company is heading, establish measurements so you know if you are achieving success, and focus on continuous improvement and accountability.” She also emphasizes that it’s important to have a safe environment to stretch and to fail.
Starkweather, who has been with Ambit Energy since 2008, experienced an acquisition—and merging of cultures—during the fourth quarter of 2019, just prior to the pandemic. The first key to the successful merging of cultures began during the process of selecting the right buyer. He says, “There were numerous offers, but there was only one that really aligned with Ambit’s priorities and culture. Vistra truly wanted a direct sales model. They wanted to invest in the salesforce, not just take over a big customer group. And their culture was a fit. What’s important to them lined up really well with what is important to Ambit: doing business the right way. Sometimes, maintaining integrity means you have to do things differently and, quite frankly, that can be counter to sales goals. But the priorities of our culture say we have to maintain integrity. And if that means that we have a little shortfall on the plan for sales and new recruits, then that’s OK. Because doing it the right way matters more.”
Make People Feel Valued When Shifting Culture
“I have had the pleasure of working with high performing teams on several occasions,” says Hubbard. “The best cultural shift I witnessed first-hand was a company I joined that was in the middle of merging two similar-sized businesses with drastically different cultures. Both were worried about losing what was special about their company’s own culture. Stepped up communication was what made the biggest difference. I never cease to be amazed at how much people feel valued when you take the time to make sure they know what is going on. That makes them feel valued and a part of the transformation.”
The best place, in fact, to start in shifting your culture, Gurney believes, is with employees. “Starting with the employees is the fastest way to make a big impact. When the employees feel valued and believe that the corporate leadership has integrity, every person they touch experiences how that employee feels about the company.”
She recommends taking advantage of technology when beginning the internal shift. “I’ve seen a weekly Zoom call with all of the employees, from C suite to entry level, make a huge impact. It builds relationships across teams and makes a significant difference.”
But field connections, she believes, can require face-to-face interaction. “Have real conversations, get to know them. Then when it comes time for more difficult discussions, you’ve built the relationship and it’s easier to say, “It’s not in the budget,” or “It’s just not in the best interest for the company overall.”
Keep Culture Top of Mind
Success in optimizing culture comes at the price of intense focus, according to Starkweather. “Every training you do, every speech that’s given, every video that’s created should echo the values of your culture. You attract people that are like-minded to that, and it’s easier to find people who agree with you than try to change someone’s opinion.”
He also recommends that while integrating the emphasis of cultural values into daily goals and tasks, also recognize those who joined in and made the shift well.
Nuanced Conversations During Culture Shifts
When a culture shift includes corrections and redirections, such as situations that have the potential to involve regulatory agencies, Soete believes a consciously light hand is necessary. “We’ve all been forced to raise the bar of scrutinizing everything, and it’s healthy for the industry. But we have to be mindful about how we go about it. I’m seeing cultures being destroyed by a really heavy hand on compliance.
“Yes, compliance has to be consistently trained on, but when someone breaks a policy, that first contact needs to be delivered with kid gloves,” she says. “Send a note, then make a phone call and talk it through. Because when a direct seller gets a notification, ‘You’re out of compliance for policy X, Y, Z!,’ they may be at that common point where they’re weighing: Is this worth it? Is this not? Am I making enough money? You know what, screw it. I’m not doing this anymore.
“I believe that 95 percent don’t do it on purpose. What direct seller reads a policy and procedure guide? I know there’s some people that violate policies purposefully, but it’s a very small percentage,” Soete says.
Gurney advises that whether the problem is compliance or addressing less tangible issues, the opportunity to evaluate voice tone and body language is key to a successful shift. “Consider, what’s the communication process? How will you take action? They say that even though someone feels one way, if they’re trying to communicate in a different way, you can see how they really feel because people are intuitive.
“So when you have to have those hard conversations, maybe a Zoom is an option,” she says. “But I approach those conversations without assumptions, because it might be something that she’s not even really aware that she’s doing. Video lets you see body language and hear their tone.” This allows you to deepen the exchange. You can respond, ‘So I’m hearing this, or I’m seeing this; share some more with me.”
Starkweather notes that optimizing culture isn’t instantaneous, but that it matters intensely to the field. “At the end of the day, people choose to be a part of this. They don’t have to; we know it’s a volunteer army that they can choose to align themselves with—or not. If you think of them as volunteers aligning themselves with a movement or a cause because it aligns with their personal beliefs, their integrity, what makes them feel good and how it helps other people, you’ll make sure you’re offering an opportunity that people are proud to be a part of. It’s their reputation that they’re putting on the line when they go out. So I think you have to take that to heart and choose to protect their reputation.”
5 Priorities for Optimizing Culture
- Understand Corporate Culture Will Be Duplicated in the Field
“Like most things, you can’t say one thing and do another. Your field is very perceptive. They know exactly what you’re doing, and they will compare it to what you’re saying,” says Darrel Starkweather, vice president of field development and support, Ambit Energy. “One of the things that personally helps guide me is (our cultural initiative) to always do the right thing. And sometimes that’s admitting a mistake and then making sure that you correct it.”
- Keep Open Lines of Communication
“I am a huge proponent of walking around the office and having casual conversations with people throughout the company,” says Kristi Hubbard, CEO of Norwex North America. “Most people genuinely have the best interest of the company and other team members at heart, so they want to share how we all can be better. Listen carefully to that information. Oftentimes the team member knows the problems and already has the answers to resolve it. It is our job as leaders to give them the resources needed, remove any barriers, and give them the confidence to make the decisions—and sometimes the ‘air cover’ to take action.”
- Handle change with Respect and Empathy
“Change is inevitable, so part of the way that we create culture well is to establish ways that support people moving forward together,” says Melissa Soete, president, Sales from Within. “We have to be honest. People want the company to win, no matter how scary the change seems. Lay out all the why’s, honestly; address how it will impact them. Don’t try to brush over it with, “This is all so good!” It’s a relationship. So really understand where they’re coming from and address it.”
- It’s All About Mindset
“(For employees and the field) optimizing culture is mindset work,” says Melissa Gurney, regional sales manager, Norwex USA. For whatever you’re shifting or emphasizing, the key is often figuring out a habit, routine, or ritual that puts the individual or the team into a good frame of mind, starting with the corporate employees. “You can’t be in a bad place and try to tell people why they should be in a good place. For the field, finding that good space is usually a matter of reigniting the excitement for the product or their impact,” she says. For the employee, it may be less easy to define, but each one needs to have clarity on how to shift into a positive frame of mind.
- The Salesforce and the Corporate Office Are Partners
“It’s imperative that there is never a point that anyone is allowed to talk negatively about the field within the home office. There is no exception to this. It happens at virtually every company, and it has to be squashed,” Soete says. “Because it can be a cancer where employees start talking about how ‘they don’t read anything’ or how much the leaders are earning, and ‘do they really deserve that?’; it’s a constant ‘us against them’ mentality. When that starts creeping in within customer service departments or sales teams, the field feels it.”
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