Jim Champy: Selling with Ideas

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After arriving for a meeting in the executive suite of a Fortune 50 company, it took Jim Champy a while to get the CEO’s attention. “It looked like Darth Vader’s headquarters,” recalls the bestselling author, management consultant and former chairman and CEO of CSC Index, the management-consulting arm of Computer Science Corporation, and later Chairman of Consulting for Perot Systems. “There was a huge desk, pictures of him and Arab sheiks, a $20 million painting on wall… and he’s reading the newspaper. I’m the only person in the office, and I’m trying and get his attention so he’ll put the paper down.”

The company was undergoing a major restructuring and there was a serious lack of clarity about what was going on. Reluctant to confront their boss, the senior team had called on Jim – who first had to figure out how to get the CEO to put down his newspaper. “I needed a hook, I needed to wake him up,” he says. The senior team wasn’t aboard with what the CEO was trying to accomplish. There was system-wide confusion; but the CEO had no idea until Jim told him. “That,” he says, “woke him up.” The meeting, originally scheduled to last one hour, went for nearly three.

Jim Champy has been waking people up for most of his career. Legendary for his work in leadership and organizational change, his first book, Reengineering the Corporation: A Manifesto for Business Revolution, sold 3 million+ copies and spent more than a year on The New York Times bestseller list.

‘A dignity about work’

Growing up in Lawrence, Massachusetts, an industrial city north of Boston, Jim worked for his family’s construction business as a teen. “I was always struck by the work ethic of people in Lawrence,” he says. “There was a dignity about work.” That job-centered perspective stuck with him. “I’ve always thought about reengineering, not as downsizing,” he says, “but as a way of creating better jobs.”

In 1959 Jim arrived at MIT where he studied civil engineering, eventually earning a BS and MS. “Not many students had ever come to MIT from the public high school in Lawrence, and it was a challenging transition,” he says. MIT’s motto is mens et manus, “hands and mind.” The people he met inspired him by their brilliance and their practicality. “There was theory,” he recalls. “There were of course theoretical mathematicians, but most people wanted to solve real problems.” After graduation, Jim earned his JD at Boston College Law School. In 1969, he and two former MIT classmates founded CSC Index (originally Index Systems) with an initial investment of $370 each. Jim served as chairman and CEO until CSC acquired the $200 million practice in 1988.

The purest form of selling

With all that analytical and legal training, it’s no surprise that Jim’s approach to sales isn’t your typical features-and-benefits, close-the-deal model. That just doesn’t interest him. Besides, he figured out a better way. At CSC Index, he says, “I ran one of the few consulting firms that had a sales group who knocked on doors.” This team sold $40 million in research services. “Programs were sold by a skilled sales force that could talk to tech and line executives about their issues. And while selling these services, they would identify consulting leads.” The engineer in Jim applied “hands and mind” to devising mechanisms to generate selling opportunities.

CSC Index grew by 25% to 30% annually. The goal, says Jim, wasn’t to make money on the research programs, but for them to drive the business. Calling this a “wonderful model; we sold with ideas,” Jim says the sales process was more about listening to problems and needs of clients than serving as “box salesmen.” Jim pioneered this approach at CSC Index. “Thought leadership,” he says, “is the purest form of selling.”

Delivering value

Listening to a client’s key problems and helping to design a solution is a psychological practice, he says, not a scripted “box salesman” pitch. And of course, this will likely involve more than one listening session. “It might take a year or longer to generate a lead.” The key to successful selling at CSC Index, he says, was for the sales rep to develop an almost personal relationship with the prospect, to “continue to visit and have enough knowledge of the prospect’s business to have an intelligent discussion about their industry” even if there’s no immediate opportunity. “You need not have done a great deal of research,” he says, “but you should know enough to have intelligent conversations” that deliver value. “Offer a perspective or advice on what they’re going through” during the first conversation, he says. This, he says, “wakes up the person you are talking with, and you have the opportunity of engaging them.” But the wake-up call, he warns, comes with a caveat: “Look at the fragility of the person that you’re speaking to,” Jim cautions. “I always choose my words carefully. For some people, the unvarnished is the best, but you can’t be a straight shooter in every case.”

Hands and mind – from the heart

Years ago, management guru Peter Drucker gave Jim a piece of advice that he practices to this day: “Go walk in the marketplace,” says Jim, recalling Drucker’s guidance. “Get out there and really talk to people. There’s a huge amount of stuff going on out there, and a lot will not be successful, but you can learn from it. Pick a market and get to know its behaviors.”

Besides Drucker, Jim’s mentors included the late Tony Athos who headed up Harvard School of Business’ behavioral group. “Tony was the most brilliant behaviorist around people and enterprises,” he says, noting that the study of behaviorism taught him how to identify behaviors in an organization that are causing dysfunction or limiting growth. Typically, he’s brought in because the company’s struggling with change. If he can identify the cause of the dysfunction, he says, he can engineer a solution.

The resulting engagement builds a sustainable business better than any “get-rich-quick opportunity” Jim’s ever seen. “Since the last bubble in 2000,” he says, “there’s been a real failure to think about sustainability” – about developing people in their organizations and understanding what they want and need over time. This requires empathy, says Jim. “You have to really understand what the people you are trying to advise are going through.” Everyone has a story to tell. Knowing how to listen is mission critical. “Always realize how much you don’t know,” says the eternally humble 70-year-old bestselling author and consultant. “Every day, I’m struck by how much I’m still learning.”

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2 thoughts on “Jim Champy: Selling with Ideas

  1. Pingback: What she learned from her father ... and then sold over $1B dollars worth ... » Symmetrics Group

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