The Leader’s Role: Leverage Your Soap Box
In this edited excerpt from his book “The Open Organization: Igniting Passion and Performance”, Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst discusses that by having capable, engaged people who recognize the importance of the goal and then expecting them to solve it in their own way is a much richer and subtler approach than a top-down planning process would generate.
As Red Hat has grown and the customer base has expanded beyond the early adopters who are technology savvy and value the technical merits of our solutions, I’ve worried about whether the company is truly focused on the needs of our mainstream customers. While organizations like the New York Stock Exchange Euronext and DreamWorks care about the performance of our products, most mainstream IT customers care more about issues like ease of use and quality of documentation. In addition, as Red Hat has become a larger part of our customers’ IT infrastructure, and as they begin to use more of our products, they expect us to understand their businesses. They expect us to offer solutions to their problems, not just offer great technology.
So clearly Red Hat needs to become more customer focused as it grows. The question is where to start. Some areas are clearly apparent, like making products easier to install. No one would disagree with that. Other areas are subtler. For instance, we need to ensure that our product road maps meet the needs of customers, such as by including ease-of-use features. But that’s not necessarily what open source focuses on. Open source is known for driving great technical solutions, and developers pride themselves on offering tremendous flexibility to the user. But they frankly don’t worry as much about whether the resulting products are simple to use. It’s almost a badge of honor to “drop to the command line”, which is techno-speak for using a text-based, terminal window that looks like it’s from circa 1970. So while I clearly want Red Hat to listen to customer needs and be responsive, I also recognize our core source of competitive advantage is built on using the power of open source.[ms-protect-content id=”5662″]
In a conventional organization, the answer to my desire to improve customer focus would be to form a team to develop recommendations on a plan. The team would analyze products and processes and would develop a set of recommendations for where to improve specific initiatives and actions. I would then announce a “focus on the customer” initiative that would be rolled out across the company.
At Red Hat, I can effect the same result by simply talking about it. Using my stage, I “sold” the idea that this is an important thing for us all to address. I explained how, by listening to and working more closely with our customers, we might make the technology even more powerful and the company more successful as a whole. I also explained my concerns about the trade-offs of staying on the bleeding edge of technology and also being responsive to mainstream customers. But that was it. I didn’t lay out any specifics about how we could go about making ourselves more customer focused. I didn’t charter a team. Rather, I laid out the context that helped illustrate how critical moving in that direction could be for the future of the company. In that way, what I was selling was a “half-baked” idea.
What happened was that people throughout the organization began to do things to improve engagement with customers. Multiple initiatives emerged across the company. For instance, Marco Bill-Peter, who heads Red Hat’s global support organization, took up the challenge in his own way. Without any direct orders issued from me, he created a unique approach to solving customers’ problems. Rather than the conventional approach in which a customer calling with a complex problem would be bounced around before he or she would finally connect with the expert who could actually solve the issue, Bill-Peter and his team came up with the concept of a “swarm”, which comprised cross-departmental teams of service reps and engineers with different levels of knowledge capable of handling just about any kind of issue. That meant that any time a customer called in, he or she was connected with a team that was motivated to find a solution rather than just punting the ball farther down the line.
Just as importantly, the introduction of the swarm doubled the number of customers who engaged with us, while simultaneously cutting the cost of support as a percentage of the company’s overall revenue. The results earned Bill-Peter and his team accolades from around the industry and from publications like The Economist, which wrote a case study about Red Hat’s innovative solution to delivering enhanced customer service. The swarm approach to connecting and engaging with customers has become so effective that teams across the business – from product documentation to legal – are starting to form and join swarms. “As a company, we see this collaborative model going into other fields”, Bill-Peter told The Economist. “It leads to innovation across the business and makes people think about how they do things.”
More to my point in this chapter, Bill-Peter heard me and went about connecting the dots in his own way to tie Red Hat more closely to customers, which is something he admits he would not have had the freedom to do at his former employer, the tech giant Hewlett-Packard. That’s a great thing, because I’m not sure I would have been able to think of doing such a thing myself and then trying to get someone else to implement it. Again, Bill-Peter wasn’t following an order; he made up his own mind that it was an important task to undertake, and he and his team came up with their own unique way to implement a solution.
I am convinced that the resulting activities that we’ve undertaken are better than we would have identified with a formal team. I’m comfortable admitting that I just don’t have all the answers, and that no ad hoc team can fully specify all the appropriate activities. By having capable, engaged people recognize the importance of the goal and then expecting them to solve it in their own way, thousands of small tweaks can be made across the company. That’s much richer and subtler than the handful of big initiatives that a top-down planning process would generate. And things happen much, much faster throughout the organization than if I wanted to control every decision that was made on a regular basis.
Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from The Open Organization: Igniting Passion and Performance by Jim Whitehurst. Copyright 2015 Red Hat, Inc.
About the Author
Jim Whitehurst is President and Chief Executive officer of Red Hat, the world’s leading provider of open source enterprise IT products and services. Whitehurst is an avid advocate for open software as a catalyst for business innovation. With a background in business development, finance, and global operations, Whitehurst has proven expertise in helping companies flourish – even in the most challenging economic and business environments. Since joining in January 2008, he has more than doubled the company’s revenue. Under his leadership, Red Hat was named to Forbes’ list of “The World’s Most Innovative Companies” in 2015, 2014, and 2012; added to Standard and Poor’s (S&P) 500 stock index in 2009; and named one of the best places to work by Glassdoor in 2014.