Learning Agility Pays Off If You Pay Attention

Does anyone remember that year?  I do.  It actually ushered in a new form of PIVOT … maybe the first major, widespread technology-driven anxiety attacks and hyper-mania.  The role of IT shifted and CIO’s got a seat at the table in some of the C-Suites.


Were you one of the many staying up extra late and wondering … what is going to happen at midnight December 31, 1999??  Some were making doomsday predictions of widespread computer systems and therefore business failures around the world because the computer clocks did not anticipate a new year starting with a “2”.  What would happen to banking systems, travel systems and any other time-based business models? It was definitely an interesting and profound moment that highlighted the shortsighted, somewhat arrogant nature of business-as-usual.  There was a complacent mentality that never anticipated  the need for universal clocks in programming and operating systems.

My memories of 1999 are very different since at that time I was fully focused on being the recently appointed VP/GM of a roughly $100mm hosiery business with Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club as major customers.  After a couple decades of leading HR teams and then heading up Strategic Planning, I got my chance to finally “run” a business in 1996.  At that time, the business was mired in complexity, excess inventory and was hopelessly unprofitable.  Thankfully, there were some positive customer relationships due to a few dedicated sales team members.  Over the next couple of years, we did what we now call a PIVOT.  We quickly called TIME OUT and re-examined the business blueprint and concluded there was urgent need for triage on the complexity front and only one sensible strategy … superior customer focus and responsiveness.  Today, we can call that agility!

While the Y2K mania was going on, we were taking this proud picture of total team accomplishment when we won the 1999 Sam’s Club Vendor of the Year award for all of the Softlines category.  In this picture, there are a couple of very wise mentors for me (in blue third from back right) as a young leader.  Ron Hicks, on my left, was our salesman in Oklahoma City who first convinced Sam Walton that our socks were better than any others so he began wearing them himself.   The gentleman in the dark blue shirt is Jim Branam, the long retired and highly respected GMM of the Sam’s Club apparel category for many years.  Both Ron and Jim taught me many lasting lessons about the importance of ground truth, unpretentiousness, innovating to create real value and the power of simplicity.  Here is an article that gives some good background and insights about the start-up of Sam’s Club. More than anything else, I think these were the lessons and attributes that propelled our team to win that award, drive the highest sales velocity in the sock industry and turn this business from most unprofitable to most profitable part of the company’s portfolio.  I can’t underscore strongly enough the importance of listening to your team and your customers.  That is the kind of “learning agility” that delivers power in the form of sustainable payoffs.

This was a long time ago but the lessons remain the same.  Are you paying attention to the customer-driven signals available to you?  Are you taking advantage of the data inputs and facts that can inform your success?  Do you recognize that you must be re-inventing yourself constantly if you expect to stay fresh no matter what industry or field you operate?  The stakes get higher and more consequential everyday.  There are wise mentors out there if you pay attention and listen to the wisdom … but use your lens and forward-looking view to shape the future!

The real learning agility that matters most in building AGILITY AS AN ADVANTAGE is your capacity to learn how to:

  • Anticipate change better because you are actively wired into your customers, suppliers and team members
  • Generate more confidence everyday with your customers, team members and supply ecosystem - largely because you are focused on the right things with right value system
  • Initiate action better and faster both with your customers externally - but also internally with your own teams - what we do at home defines us.  Right?
  • Liberate more active and fresh thinking with all stakeholders invited and engaged in the equation
  • Evaluate results that matter where everyone in the enterprise (customers, team members, suppliers, owners, strategic partners, etc) know and see success measures

I invite your thoughts and inputs.  What were some of your lessons from the Y2K experience and others like it?