By Katherine Shao

Are you caught in the brackish water of re-defining the value you add to your business? Welcome to the modern workplace.

Whether you are in marketing, sales, HR, IT, Learning & Development, R&D, or any other function within a business, chances are that there’s some kind of pressure on you and your team to drive toward goals that are audacious, not incremental; high impact, not business-as-usual; major shifts, not tweaks here and there. Our businesses, responding to greater and more complex customer demands, are creating the increasing sense of urgency to produce and progress to business outcomes that match our customers’ reality.

What’s actually happening, under all that pressure? What kind of results are being generated, as one function supports another in the service of a business’s goals and strategies? What kind of value is produced, between one team and its beneficiaries?

Those are pretty heavy questions, framed as systemic issues. What does this all have to do with one person being caught in brackish water?

To zoom into the issue, I’d like to tell a story about me and my colleague, Scott Santucci.

Scott and I go back almost 10 years now. Those of you who know him are well aware of his work in the field of sales enablement; his thoroughly holistic point of view; his deep expertise as a systems thinker and architect of business outcomes. When the event in this story happened, it was such an “a-ha” moment that it would surface over and over in the years to come.

Once upon a time, when we first started working together, Scott and I were involved in producing a “meeting” for our customers. I put the word “meeting” in quotes because it is such an inadequate word to describe what we were actually setting out to accomplish. While our company had plenty of experience in putting on customer events, we had no language to convey that the “meeting” was really just a vehicle for a much more important goal: to gather senior leaders from different companies, debate and discuss the common challenge of making their businesses more relevant and valuable to customers, and arrive at a common definition for the enablement of that objective. Just a little thing, you know.

What’s important to note here was the difference in what Scott knew about this meeting, and what I knew, at the time.

That morning, we arrived early to set up. With about an hour to go before our start time, he was getting mentally prepared for a long day of complex facilitation.

Back then, I guess you could say I was a promising, smart individual with a lot of different skills and a diverse background, and knowledge to offer in areas that complemented Scott’s. I was ready to engage. We are going to have a greatmeeting, I thought.

While he paced the room, getting in the zone, I approached him with a question.

“How can I help?” I asked.

At the moment, however, he wasn’t really thinking about me – he was thinking about the executives in the meeting that was about to start, and what he knew about them. He was thinking about their diverse perspectives, their roles within their companies as sales and marketing leaders, and how those perspectives needed to be blended into something new.

In short, he didn’t have a specific answer at the ready for me. His brain full of the concentration of his own task at hand, he could only respond with a wave of his arm,

“I don’t know – just go add value.”

I am sure that my face looked blank, then perplexed, then frustrated. What the hell is he talking about? What am I supposed to do with that? I thought. My self-assuredness dissipated quickly, and was replaced by some not-very-excellent feelings toward Scott. I didn’t know it then, but it was the start of a working relationship that would see its share of friction as it evolved.

After standing still for a good minute, I turned around, looked around the room for the first thing that looked like it “needed doing,” and arranged branded pens at each seat on the table. Next, some participants arrived and I greeted them with name tags. I started conversations with them, introduced them to each other, and after a while noticed the time – five minutes past the start with no one in their seats. I walked over to Scott, who was deep in a conversation, and interrupted him, “Time to get started.” He looked around suddenly, hadn’t noticed the time. Announcement were made, people settled in their seats, and the session started.

This meeting was the first of many that would lay groundwork and structure for a radically different way to tackle an immensely complex and costly business problem: The inability of businesses to communicate value to their customers is eroding their margin and driving their irrelevance. A systemic problem, indeed, that keeps CEOs up at night. I can’t really do it justice here for this writing; the point is, here we were, doing this important work, and the expert in the room had just told me to “go add value.”

If I think about my mindset on that day, here is what I was thinking, and how I handled his comment:

  • This is an event
  • There are tasks that have to get done
  • Once those tasks are done, I will ask someone what I should do next
  • In the absence of clear direction, I will think of “stuff” to do

For this writing, when I asked Scott about what he was thinking that day, this is what he conveyed:

  • This is an experience for clients (to do some deep problem-solving)
  • Their experience matters during the whole session
  • I assume we all have the experience in mind
  • Those who are working with empathy for customers don’t need prescriptive direction

These two mindsets are radically different. Both are well-intended – after all, I was just trying to help, right? What I didn’t know then was that I was minimally helpful in that situation. I didn’t really know how to add the value that was required.

As we worked together over the years, we would continually bring up this moment, the puzzle it presented. Back then, it just hadn’t dawned on either of us that one would not have the same mindset as the other…after all, weren’t we both working backwards from the same goal?

Or were we?

Later, Scott would tell me why this moment was so important for him. He said, “the fact that you were dialed into the event and the tasks, and I was dialed into the experience and the customers, illuminated what I see all the time between top sales reps and the folks trying to help them. Those reps have so much pressure on them, and while it’s true that people want to help them – the help is just distracting in the end.”

Nowadays, I see what he sees. The gap between those who sit with customers to solve their problems, and those who are supposed to “help” – the leaders and teams of marketers, curriculum developers, technologists, operations leads. There is no shortage of good intentions – everyone wants to help and is eager to add value. But their activities reveal a mindset oriented around event-driven activities that miss the bigger point. Just like me on that day, most are not even aware of the gap, let alone what’s required to overcome it. This isn’t about pointing fingers in judgment. Back then, I just couldn’t see how things around me had changed. Now I see that others have the same blind spot.

— How can I help?

— I don’t know; just Go Add Value.

What this little exchange conveys, in so few words that it’s practically a work of art, is the difference between an old way of thinking and working – where activities and tasks are discreet, known, and incrementally helpful; and a new way of engaging and collaborating, where the requirements are fuzzy and undefined, but the implications and impact are radical and breakthrough.

I’ve seen Scott prescribe an exercise we call the “Self of the Future.” It’s a way to get insight from people who have gone through a pivot and emerged with changed thinking. He asks them, “If you could go back in time and visit your former self, what would the Self of the Future tell the Self of the Past, to help that past-self overcome the obstacle?”

Here is my Self of the Future exercise for that past Self. I would say, “Dear former Self, you can only learn this by doing it, but here are some examples of what you can actually DO that are part of the different mindset; and here’s how they contrast with the old mindset.”

When you really start working on a list like this, you’ll discover that the Go Add Value side will have many, many more possibilities on it. Like, orders of magnitude more.

Looking back on it, here’s what I have learned about the two mindsets.

The phrase, “How can I help?” reveals a mindset that is oriented to:

  • Adding incremental value
  • Waiting passively for direction and instructions
  • Places the burden on the person being asked.

When one embraces the idea of “Go Add Value,” the mindset is oriented to:

  • Being thoughtful ahead of time about what might be needed to help bring the whole group closer to the outcome
  • Proactively offering ideas, and acting on them
  • Places the burden on oneself to do the work.

It is surely much easier to get coffee for people than to do the work required in the Go Add Value column. That kind of engagement means you have to prepare ideas ahead of time, and communicate them, and this takes practice. No one is spared from having to do the work. 

If, like I did, you are summoning your steely determination to figure it out, be forewarned, the shift is not easy or straightforward, and is constantly fraught with ambiguity. You make yourself vulnerable. After all, what if Scott didn’t like my ideas? What if my outputs drew criticism from customers? Here, I had to embrace a different way of working – instead of trying to magically come up with “answers” all by myself, without any iteration or input, I realized I could choose between one big colossal failure, or a series of fast, small missteps that can be corrected and collaborated to produce success. It’s humbling. And amazing.

Maybe you are reading this and asking, “this is great and all, but how do I get others to see their gaps?”

Unfortunately, I don’t have the answer for how you get someone to “see” their mindset based on stories or sermons. The things that I learned, I was told many times, but didn’t understand it until I lived it, with customers. It therefore follows that the closer you can get yourself or your team to customers, the more you will close the gap.

This is just a start to a view of what it means to add value in the modern workplace. Adding value means engaging and being a leader, regardless of “stature.” It means putting yourself out there and sometimes looking stupid, until you don’t look stupid anymore. If you get as close as you can to customers, and always ask yourself how you can do something more to “add value” toward an outcome, I believe you will, eventually and amazingly, be able to just Go Add Value.