Developing A Transformational Leadership Approach
While Customer Success (CS) is still in its infancy, it has quickly established a new level of maturity and prominence over the last few years. Yet, compared to legacy organizations like Sales and Support, Customer Success still has plenty of room to grow. A major factor that will guide and drive the path forward is to champion transformational leadership. Customer Success itself is undergoing an immense transformation that is reshaping the industry. In order to meet the upcoming challenges and opportunities, and drive a successful transformation, CS leaders need to level up their skills in transformational leadership development.
To find out how you can successfully lead the charge, Valuize’s Founder and CEO, Ross Fulton, spoke to Oracle’s Sr. Director Customer Success Enablement, Peter Armaly. Peter’s 25-year career spans Sales, Support, Services, and Customer Success at leading technology organizations like Eloqua, BMC Software and TSIA. Peter is a trusted thought leader and co-author of Customer Success Attitudes to Training, Certification & CPD. During their conversation, Peter shared his expert insights on the rapidly-evolving landscape of Customer Success and how CS leaders can level-up their skills and knowledge to lead a necessary Customer Success transformation.
Q: A lot of your energy is directed towards Customer Success leadership development. Can you tell us more about your efforts and focus in this area?
A: “Three years ago, I was asked by one of our leaders at Oracle to take on the responsibility of leading our CSM enablement and design the curriculum geared towards team and leadership development. I have worked with a lot of subject matter experts to create content for Customer Success professionals, and we’ve developed a solid program of knowledge and training for our CSMs. Over the years, this has expanded to include other roles within Customer Success, including Customer Success Executives and Partner Success Managers. I’m responsible for making sure that the training program is inclusive of these roles and that the curriculum reflects their unique needs. This focus on enablement means I’m deeply involved in the design of the service model; It’s a big job but it provides me with the opportunity to get engaged in important conversations, especially on LinkedIn, around the best methods for teaching and training CSMs and what leaders should focus on to foster their leadership development.”
Q: What do you think is driving this need for the development of Customer Success leaders? Why does the CCO, VP of CS and the Director of CS need to evolve their skill set, which is distinct from more general leadership development, to make them successful?
A: “The unique aspect of the need to develop collectively as Customer Success leaders is the particular inflection point we’re at in Customer Success. In the last 3-4 years, Customer Success has gained a lot of notoriety and prominence in the business world. Up until now, Customer Success didn’t necessarily have an equal seat at the table in comparison to other legacy organizations; that’s now changing and CS is emerging in the spotlight. As SaaS is accelerating, it’s forcing most senior executives to be extremely nimble in the way that they think in order to keep up with what’s happening in their target market, what’s happening with their customers and what’s happening with the teams that work with those customers. It also pushes them to examine what these teams need to be able to deliver on the mission the organization has committed to, which is usually around driving up retention rates and expanding revenue – the big rocks that Board-level executives are concerned about.
A lot of people within the CS community are very accomplished and passionate and believe they’ve got the right vision and mission to drive this transformation. But, if you speak to them individually, everyone has frustrations. The key is, you have to be able to communicate your vision and mission with a lot of clarity. Secondly, you have to get people working with you – including leaders, managers and directors – to fully understand that and coach people to align with the overarching mission and vision. We’re trying to develop a leadership training program that helps VPs and Directors understand their role in making sure that the vision comes to life through the processes and programs that they’re responsible for and improve the way they communicate its importance.”
Q: One of the concepts I strongly believe in is this builder mindset. Enterprises are going through a transformation right now and there is building to be done and then we have to maintain it, which brings us to this builder vs. caretaker mentality. Are you seeing a trend, in terms of the leaders you work with and the curriculum you’re creating, in the need for that builder mindset? Or, do you think Customer Success is reaching a point where caretaking is actually a suitable approach for a VP or Director?
A: “No, I don’t see Customer Success being in the place where caretaking is a viable leadership approach. There’s still a lot of room for Customer Success to grow as a domain to make a more visible and measurable impact in the markets, and within their own companies, in terms of revenue attainment. I can’t imagine finding any leader in the SaaS space right now who doesn’t believe that they’re a builder. I think this is partly because Customer Success is intrinsically tied to digital transformation – you want to help your customers transform the way they do their business through your products, so that they can improve the way they deliver their own products or services to grow their companies. So, Customer Success is part of the digital transformation story.
If you’re going to play in this arena, you need to be honest about the processes that you’re running with your teams and understand that they are probably not as digitally transformed as they should be. You should always be looking at ways to improve your processes to keep moving forward. Nothing can stay static, because your customers and the economy keep changing. The transformation in the SaaS space is forcing the management realm to really look at itself as individuals and ask; what do I need to do to stay relevant and to stay vital in this role? Today, I don’t believe that you can ever think that you’re just going to take a caretaker approach.”
Q: Your work around building leadership curriculum for Customer Success leaders is so important because the curriculum is enabling leaders to walk the walk as well as talk the talk. While we can’t break down your curriculum entirely, what are some of the fundamental building blocks that really enable a CS leader to embody a transformational leadership approach?
A: “The curriculum is structured around two dimensions: cultural and individual. In terms of culture, you really want to encourage and nurture an environment where customer data and market data is fully appreciated by everyone; ideally, you create a culture where everyone understands the power of data, information, and insights to drive actions. In terms of the building blocks for individuals looking to drive transformation, leaders need to be outward looking. CS professionals should understand that their jobs are going to evolve and that they won’t have 100% control over how it’s going to change in the coming years. These roles are going to be influenced by external forces, so taking an outward looking perspective and embracing developments and technology along the way is the way to really thrive.
Another crucial building block is a collaborative environment. Leaders should aim to make it collaborative; nobody has all the answers so you should break down the walls and invite a variety of opinions through skip meetings and town halls. If we have an initiative at Oracle, I go through the process of discussing it to our senior leadership team, then the directors and ultimately the CSMs, helping everyone understand and contribute to the value of the initiative and their role within it. This process allows for true collaboration because there’s no one person dictating exactly how things are going to end up; everyone is encouraged to contribute their input along the way.”
Q: Data is certainly a frontier that is ripe for progress in Customer Success. What other areas do you think people should focus on? What’s your general sentiment about the future of Customer Success and the opportunity for leaders in this space?
A: “Customer Success has made a lot of progress, especially in the last 3 years, in elevating itself and being taken a lot more seriously at the most senior levels of companies. Customer Success is generating a lot of buzz, energy and exciting developments right now, which is wonderful. The flip side of that is, the expectations are rising too. I feel like Customer Success is at a risky point; if the Customer Success domain isn’t able to positively impact the revenue of the companies that they’re working within in a programmatic way, there’s a chance that there could be some backsliding. But, and this is where the optimism comes in, I think we have the right sense and understanding to navigate this change and the resistance to being attached to revenue is just draining away. Customers, ultimately, don’t want to just be talking to you about the relationship, they actually want to talk to you about growth and more and more people are realizing and appreciating that because of data.”
Transform Today, Succeed Tomorrow
Customer Success is in the midst of a colossal transformation. To navigate the ever-evolving landscape, leaders need to adopt a builder mentality and commit to a transformational leadership approach through leadership development. By developing a culture of true collaboration, customer data appreciation and continuous learning, leaders can ensure their organization is ready to gracefully meet the challenges of the future and exceed business targets for years to come.
Listen to Peter’s full interview on the Customer Valuecast podcast for a deeper dive into how you can champion transformational leadership and level up your skills through continuous leadership development.