Highlights from Alexander Group's Operations Forum

On August 15 and 16, Alexander Group hosted the 12th annual Operations Forum in person for the first time in three years. Over 100 guests and speakers gathered to explore the role of the Operations function in creating Enduring Leadership. Following are the highlights of what we heard.

Enduring Leadership Defined

Enduring Leadership is the bundle of principles and practices that enable companies to deliver sustained growth over a long period of time. To understand this set of principles and practices better, Alexander Group identified companies that delivered BOTH consistent revenue growth AND stock price growth over the past 20 years—years that included the 2001 recession and terrorist attacks, the financial meltdown and great recession of 2009 and the pandemic of 2020. From a list of approximately 300 top companies, we zeroed in on 40 where we interviewed select executives.

From these interviews, we distilled two imperatives that Enduring Leadership companies appear to have in common and which they expect their leaders to practice:

  • Build loyal relationships with employees
  • Build loyal relationships with customers

All strategies and associated actions appear to be evaluated through the lens of these two imperatives. At no time, economic conditions notwithstanding, do they abandon or compromise these imperatives.

Bringing Enduring Leadership to Life

An impressive set of executives joined us as speakers and panelists to share their stories of how enduring leadership principles are manifested in their company operations:

  • Brenda Dennis, Global VP, Commerce Operations, Cisco
  • Paul Fipps, SVP, Customer & Partner Excellence, ServiceNow
  • Lance Gruner, EVP, Customer Care, Mastercard
  • Juliane Keppler, VP & Global Head of Sales Operations, Nasdaq
  • Omer Krugman, Head of Value & Analytics, Gong
  • Mahesh Kumthekar, VP, Strategy, Pricing & Commercial Analytics, Veritiv Corp.
  • Cameron McKenzie, VP, Commercial Operations, Pacific Biosciences
  • Sarah Personette, Chief Customer Officer, Twitter
  • Matt Renner, President, U.S. Commercial Operations, Microsoft
  • Melodie Schwartz, VP, Enablement & Operations, SPIFF
  • Amy Shor, EVP & Chief Customer Officer, Nationwide
  • Bryan Stevens, VP, NAM – Commercial Operations, Schneider Electric
  • Heather Underhill, SVP, Client Operations & Excellence, Teladoc Health
  • Kerstin Wagner, EVP, Global Marketing & Sales Ops, Laboratory Diagnostics, Siemens Healthineers

We asked them, “How do leaders operate in a company that holds these two imperatives to be sacrosanct?” Here is what they had to say.

Enduring Companies Have Powerful, Compelling Missions

Missions at such companies neither demand nor sanctify growth. They do demand that the company focus on and devote resources to serving customers. They use missions to create circumstances in which growth is both desirable and necessary.

Consider the Microsoft mission; to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more. This mission is noble and bound to attract and energize talent (more on that later). But it cannot be achieved or even attempted without growth and plenty of it. There is more. According to Matt Renner, president, U.S. Commercial Operations at Microsoft, the company’s mission “impacts how we drive our culture, our engineering, the way we interact, the way we face the customer, the way we actually operationalize everything we do with the customer in mind today and going forward.”

Mission also acts as a touchstone, a tool to keep large and diverse teams on the same page. According to Lance Gruner, EVP, Global Customer Care at Mastercard, “There really is no secret sauce. You’ve got to understand your purpose, understand your mission and understand your vision. Then make sure that everybody in your organization is aligned around those three things.”  Sarah Personette, chief customer officer at Twitter added; “The one single thing that connects us all in every country around the world as we aim to service and support our customers deeply and empathetically, is our mission… to serve the public conversation. I find that’s what gets everyone excited to wake up every morning.”

Enduring Companies Are Built on Powerful Cultures

Company missions are achieved through people. These companies and their leaders know that getting the most from their people depends on building the right culture. What defines “right”? The speakers and panelists indicate that enduring leadership cultures share the following characteristics:

  • A Premium on Learning: leaders up and down the ladder are humble and, despite success, are always in search of a better way
  • Dynamism: leaders always try to get ahead of issues and opportunities by being open to and embracing change
  • Trust: leaders know that change can also lead to occasional failure and that the organization will tolerate, perhaps even celebrate the learning that comes from it
  • Collaboration: leaders know that customer loyalty grows deepest when the entire marketing/sales/service ecosystem operates as one

Several examples of enduring leadership cultures were cited by speakers and panelists.

Kerstin Wagner, EVP, Global Marketing & Sales Ops for Lab Diagnostics at Siemens Healthineers shared, “In times of disruption you learn a lot about yourself. We learned five things. We listen first. We win together. We learn passionately. We step boldly. We embrace the challenges and push ourselves forward. And also, we own it. We take responsibility and accountability for our results.”

Matt Renner offered the following: “It starts with the values we’re propagating with our employees. One is respect, and that’s respect for all people. A second is integrity.  We don’t just talk about integrity. It literally will drive everything from compensation to your ability to do more at the company. Another important piece is listening. We do that in lots of ways; an example is MS Poll. We average between 90-95% participation by our employees.”

Paul Fipps, SVP, Customer & Partner Excellence at ServiceNow offered this: “The recent environment has strengthened our culture as we’ve rallied around the customer. I think culture comes to life in a company’s core values and at ServiceNow, our core values start with the team.

Amy Shore, EVP & chief customer officer at Nationwide added; “You must be as intentional about investing in the culture as you are about digitizing processes and procedures and creating digital experiences. How you invest in your culture through communication, through connecting associates and through reinforcing the values of your company matter even more.”

Enduring Companies Are a Magnet for Talent

While most companies today complain about “the great resignation,” enduring leadership companies excel in attracting and retaining talent. Why? From speakers and panelists, a pattern emerged in which enduring leadership companies tended to:

  • Invest in their people, year after year, economic conditions notwithstanding:
    • Training programs to keep them ahead of the game—think digital
    • Tools to keep them ahead of the game—think digital again
    • Mentoring and development programs to help talented employees capitalize on their cutting-edge skills
  • Trust their people to do the right thing by moving decision-making latitude to the field, closer to the customer. That means making it easier to work across functions to deliver value to the customer. And developing “hybrid jobs” that mix work in office and at home. Which, in turn, builds trust in the company itself.
  • Recognize that their people are indeed “the secret sauce.” Product and brand count a lot, but it is their people that make services and lifetime customer commitment come to life. Companies that depend on supplying customer empathy do so through their employees. This is made possible by attracting energized employees with a purposeful mission and investing in them as they strive to achieve that mission.

These companies are truly “people first.” Consider what our speakers and panelists had to say about talent at their companies:

Sarah Personette at Twitter commented: “In the seventies and eighties, most companies focused on training managers, people who could operationalize a plan. And then in the nineties and the 2000, people really focused on training leaders. Now you need a balance of both with a significant dose of empathy.”

Amy Shore at Nationwide added: “The degree to which the humans that we are hiring who are creating digital experiences or product offerings or interacting with customers, empathy and the ability to display empathy is just so much higher.” She went on to say, “We have a phrase that we use, empathy with expectation. It’s certainly fine to be empathetic, sympathetic and understanding of what associates and teams are going through. But the expectation is we are all still pretty much working for businesses, not nonprofits.”

Said Kerstin Wagner of Siemens Healthineers: “To break down silos, we make sure all staff are prepared to team by enabling them with strong collaboration, communication and cross-functional skills.”

Matt Renner of Microsoft commented on hybrid job design, “If you don’t offer hybrid work, you’re not going to be able to pull from the same talent pool, especially earlier in careers. And I think we have significant worries about not getting some of the earlier career folks out of their houses and getting them into the office at least a little. And so, we’re continuing to move down that path.”

Enduring Companies Build and Empower Operations Teams to Make People Better

Enduring companies leverage operational capabilities to listen, learn and invest in technologies that make people better. There were numerous examples. Here are two.

Lance Gruner of MasterCard tells us, “Everything in our world is mined for data. We use speech and text analytics. We listen for intent, we look at effort, we look at everything. All that information is packaged near real time, and it’s actually pushed out to leaders of sales organizations or developers, so they can at any one time see what the temperature is.”

Paul Fipps of ServiceNow added, “We surveyed 1000 customers and asked them what they expect from ServiceNow. We ended up building an entire product around their feedback.”

Around the Corner

What are the biggest challenges lurking just around the corner for operations executives? Panelists and speakers had this to offer.

Paul Fipps at ServiceNow: “For at least the next couple of years, it is going to be about driving productivity through all the macro crosswinds. Sales operations is uniquely positioned to understand the complexities of the organization and conceptualize how the organization really should work.”

Lance Gruner at MasterCard: “Privacy and personalization is going to be a big challenge, especially if you operate in different countries where the pendulum will likely swing toward more controlling and conservative.”

Amy Shore at Nationwide: “The push to increase productivity and improve the experience at the same time in an environment of rising costs.”

Matt Renner at Microsoft: “For salespeople, if you don’t talk industry, you don’t talk business relevance.  You are just not going to be as relevant to the customer and they’ll talk to the other five people that are knocking on their door.”

Kerstin Wagner at Siemens Healthineers: “Sales operations is the glue between the customer-facing organizations and the franchises, which are defining the products and product strategies. The most important skill for sales operations is to be able to turn data into actionable insights.”

Next Up

Let us know if you’d like to learn more about the insights from the Operations Forum or our research on enduring companies.

We’ll continue the theme of Enduring Leadership at Alexander Group’s Executive Forum, November 16 – 18, 2022 at the Waldorf Monarch Beach Resort, Dana Point, CA. Contact us with any questions or to register. We look forward to seeing you there.


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