Issue. Corporate restructuring and rebranding Industry. Consulting Key. Communication, early and often, is a key component of making changes within a company successful.
Jan Mercer Dahms used to be criticized for her eclectic resume. Now she's sought out because of it.
Dahms' resume includes posts as chief financial officer of International Planned Parenthood; vice president of accounting for Teach for America; director of Girl Scouts of Eastern Massachusetts; and women's studies and sociology instructor at the University of Massachusetts.
Dahms, 45, now consults for a variety of large public companies on brand experience, change management and organizational restructuring. Based out of New York City, her clients range from a global news company and a high-end cosmetics company to a well-known airline and a credit card company. She also consults with entrepreneurs on fashion, technology and biotech. She doesn't name specific clients “because they come to me when something's not working,” she says.
Dahms is also managing director of Plum Alley, a three-year-old crowdfunding firm aimed at female entrepreneurs. Clients have attempted to raise more than $14 million through Plum Alley, says Dahms, and the company's campaign success rate is twice as high as Kickstarter.
Dahms recently visited Tampa for a Startup Grind event in Ybor City. She met with the Business Observer to share some of the most common pitfalls companies experience when restructuring or rebranding. Here's an edited transcript of the interview:
What's one of the biggest challenges you've observed?
We are in a world now, because of our technologies and access to information 24/7, that there are always a million different fabulous ideas in a team's pipeline or in the hopper or in the CEO's mind. It becomes challenging for that company to determine what to tackle first, because they haven't taken the time to step back to see the forest through the trees. That's a large part of what I do — help a client prioritize.
How should executives prioritize?
Think about what you do best, where you'll gain quick traction and develop some scale, and then we'll add the extra benefits and revenue streams on, after you have the main proof of concept. That's one of the challenges because people become so emotionally tied to their ideas and they fall in love with them. We go through a series of exercises where we remove that emotional connectivity to the idea, concept or product. We're not forgetting about this all together, but we're putting it on the sideline for now.
What's another common problem you've seen companies encounter?
I help well-established companies understand how entering into the digital space in a different way impacts their current client base and how to keep those current customers engaged, particularly if they skew on the older side or in a demographic that's not used to the higher technological touch. There's such a divide between millennials and baby boomers, particularly if you are in the tech space.
How do you build a product that is hip and cool but doesn't alienate your current customers?
Sometimes it's focus groups; sometimes it's interviews with current clients. Sometimes I go into clients and my team acts as the shopper, we interact and engage directly with the company to really ascertain whether our experience matches the way that the company wants to be seen from the brand experience.
What's the best business lesson you've learned?
Because we can shoot off 20 emails in a few minutes and jump from one trail of thought to another, we're oftentimes making decisions and giving feedback and not taking a step back and saying how do we really feel about this? From a branding perspective this is really important because you do want to be engaged with a brand and you do want to feel something.
That's how I make decisions now. I take a step back and say, how does this make me feel? If I feel red flags, even if I can't articulate what those are but my intuition tells me this is not a wise decision, it's probably not a wise decision.
What's a common pitfall for companies?
Communicating transparently internally with teams before large decisions are communicated externally. If that doesn't happen, employees feel like the company has betrayed them. I've seen that happen many times, where it hasn't been an intentional oversight, but the oversight itself results in a lot of morale issues.
How do you win the trust back?
I think coming clean and admitting that a mistake was made is the first step. It's not enough to just say, “I'm sorry,” employees need to feel like you mean that you're sorry. Say this is how we're going to ensure this isn't going to happen again, whether it is through an official process or a development of a different form of communication channel to employees or something else.
I think sometimes companies miss the boat in understanding that employees feel respected and valued in ways that often don't cost the company money. Not everything is tied to a salary structure, for example.
What's a big challenge during operational restructuring?
One of the largest issues I see companies have is when they think about restructuring they usually equate that to cost cutting. Cost cutting often means looking at the budget to see where the biggest line items are and slashing those line items. For many, personnel is one of the most significant. I'm a firm believer that there are other ways that companies can save money and restructure without first looking at their talent pool.
What would be some of the things they could look at?
Look at how much they are paying for packaging, or who their suppliers are, or how they negotiate health care benefits. Many companies are revisiting the necessity of having all of their employees in one location or multiple locations and understanding that many employees would probably be attracted to a virtual workspace.
What's your best advice for an executive preparing for restructuring?
Get buy in from all of your stakeholders. Engage your employees at the frontline because the employees who you pay the least are often the ones who have the direct contact with your clients and they're often overlooked for providing feedback for what's going wrong within a company. In terms of saving money or making processes more efficient, it's often those frontline employees that have the most creative, best responses because they experience it day after day.
What's your advice to a company hiring a consultant?
Companies will often hire consultants to make recommendations for what product lines to keep or slash, what teams to replace or let go, what divisions to close. I think external people are good because they can give a fresh perspective. But any restructuring plan has to happen collectively across multiple disciplines and the employees themselves are the ones that really carry the knowledge with them. I always advise executives to give employees an opportunity, no matter how well or how bad things are going, to provide feedback on an ongoing basis and to provide it in an anonymous, confidential way. A consultant can help facilitate that.
You're a big proponent of hiring smartly and firing quickly. Does that apply to other decisions?
There's a problem with changing too quickly, but there's also a problem with not changing fast enough. The same goes to how you make strategic decisions around product lines or processes. That means always paying close attention to the numbers and understanding the financial statements. Make sure that the finance team is engaged and given the autonomy to be able to tell the story. So it's not just being able to read the P&L statement, but really understanding the meaning behind significant variance shifts or trends. Sometimes executives don't pay attention to that until it's too late.