Having just finished up a recent engagement that involved implementing Oracle’s Merchandise Financial Planning (MFP) software at a global apparel retailer, I wanted to spend some time reflecting on the engagement and the “little” things that make consulting so rewarding for me. From the client’s locale, the people, and to the company’s unique operating structure, this engagement was full of surprises that further reinforce the fact that no client engagement is ever identical, nor the actual work or the environment the work is delivered in. While sometimes challenging, I believe this is what makes consulting life interesting.
First off, the client’s location in the “upper” Midwest was a nice change of pace from the “lower” Midwest that I call home. I particularly enjoyed the rolling hills of grass and farmland that became our daily backdrop while we commuted from our hotel to the client’s campus. We chose to stay a little further out from the client’s small home town so that we would have access to many of the creature comforts that are taken for granted by people who don’t travel weekly: diverse restaurant choices, easy access to pharmacies, supermarkets, and other shopping, as well as a hotel with a 24-hour gym that supports more than two people at a time. That’s not to say the little town that the client called home lacked any of the above, just that there was typically only a single choice for each.
When you travel regularly, simply having the option to try something new is absolutely worth the extra 20-30 minutes of the morning and evening commute. Throw in heated, underground parking during the winter season and the value-add becomes almost impossible to quantify. One simple telling metric would be the number of times our rental car thermometer showed a number with a negative sign preceding it—this past year there were quite a few mornings when the temp was in negative digits. The summer and fall on the other hand, were wonderful from a climate and scenery perspective. Fields of corn, soybean, and wheat covered the landscape while dairy cows roamed and grazed in the shade of tall trees, and if you caught the light just right when the sun was rising or setting in the distance across the rolling hills, it could truly take your breath away. Amber waves of grain Americana sort of stuff—cue “America the Beautiful.”
Arriving at the client’s campus, tucked away in a quiet corner of a prototypical small midwestern town, you really are able to appreciate how they grew from one small retail store to a global, multi-channel retailer. The campus is dotted with several buildings of various architectural styles, all serving as a bookmark to the period in time when this retailer’s growth necessitated further construction, either to accommodate organizational changes or to support an operational need. All of the buildings are walkable from spring through fall, but given the extreme winter climate, they are connected by a series of tunnels that are essentially secret passageways, not only saving your fingers and toes from succumbing to the cold but also serving as a walkable, free museum that proudly shows off a lifetime of every company catalog ever produced, mounted in chronological order along the tunnel walls.
Stumbling upon a cover that I distinctly remember in my mother’s catalog pile from my childhood home took me back in time (and reminds me how old I am really getting.), and then transitioned my view to a catalogue cover from which we purchased my daughter’s first school backpack only cements the history in these corridors.
During more temperate months, free, loaner cruiser bikes are available to ride between buildings, which underpins the fact that you really don’t need to go to Silicon Valley to enjoy creative ways of working. During rainy days, a shuttle is just a phone call away, and I have yet to figure out how they magically appear almost instantaneously after hanging up the phone. It is really quite amazing—Uber doesn’t stand a chance here.
Aside from the beautiful views and unique campus layout, another memorable aspect from the engagement has been the people. Apparently, “Midwestern Nice” is a requisite for locals, and I can attest that the associates from the most junior to the most senior exhibit this extraordinary trait daily. This characteristic is a true differentiator, especially in today’s impersonal digital age. Don’t get me wrong, nice does not mean pushover; this group works tirelessly and expects the same from their partners. However, as with most things in life, it all comes down to delivery…and this remarkable array of retail professionals deliver the good and bad, easy and tough with a genuine amiability that immediately puts one at ease and makes you want to deliver the expected value for them with even greater ambition.
The final memorable nugget from the project is the global operating structure that required our team to acclimate to language and cultural differences regularly, while also adapting the solution to ensure it delivered value to all of the international units on par with the larger US business. My retail background has been primarily domestic US-based, so adding in this international wrinkle brought about many unique challenges that required agility and creative problem solving. Even the simple things like conducting status meetings or asking a quick question forced one to pause and think through the scheduling challenges that come with a 6 – 12-hour time difference. Here again, the amicable Midwestern persona (with a European and Asian twist) emerged, and objections about start times before or after typical local working hours were rare.
I quickly made it a goal to return the congeniality with favorable meeting times for our international partners, which occasionally led to “conference calls with cocktails”—not necessarily a bad thing—as these strengthened our collaborative team spirit. Aside from the international component, the US-based associates were some of the best clients to work with—available, open to new ideas, willing to experiment, and flexible. Over the course of any project, when applying best practices or lessons learned from previous clients, and mixing in new processes and systems, it is inevitable that things will go wrong. What we experienced was a client who acknowledged things are not perfect from the outset but were willing to roll up their shirt sleeves with us and dig in to overcome the issue. It was truly partnership at its best, one team, regardless of what business card you carried, side by side tackling the tough work required to bring about change and prepare for the future growth.
The last 14 months have been an amazing experience. The work is indeed challenging; things don’t always immediately work as designed, stuff changes, decisions get reconsidered, people and facts evolve, extra effort is required. In consulting, all of that can grind on you if you’re too singularly focused on the work and don’t take minute or two to appreciate the things that also matter, like rolling hills of grain in the waning twilight of a summer day, secret tunnels that transport you back to your childhood, or a group of hard-working partners who epitomize the very definition of “Midwestern Nice.” It’s these little things that are the icing on the consulting cake and what helps me enthusiastically see what awaits as I exit the plane in the next client’s home town.