A Breakthrough MomentA Breakthrough Moment

Lara Lee, Senior Vice President, Customer Experience Design, Lowe’s Home Improvement

‘The CEO told us we’d presented the best business case he’d ever seen.’

Before she switched industries, from motorcycles to home improvement, Lara Lee worked at Harley-Davidson, where she experienced many successes. Below, the current senior vice president of Customer Experience Design at Lowe’s Home Improvement, recalls an early breakthrough persuasion success story

Can you give me an example of when someone said “yes” to one of your ideas, resulting in what could be described as a breakthrough moment in your career?

One of the earliest examples relates to the launch of Rider’s Edge: The Harley-Davidson Academy of Motorcycling. We were given a mandate to grow the pipeline of future customers, particularly females and under-35 prospects, by increasing rider training availability in the U.S. We also had to figure out a way to make the initiative pay for itself. After much research, stakeholder interviews, and business design and modeling, we concluded that the only way to achieve the desired strategic and long-term business benefits at scale was for Harley-Davidson to subsidize some of the administrative costs. Here’s what we told the CEO: “We’ve looked at this every way we can think of, and it is our belief that in order to achieve long-term benefits, this initiative can’t be structured as a direct money-maker. Here’s why.”

We then pitched the idea that if we sold just one motorcycle to five percent of the people we train over their lifetime, we’ll have covered our costs, and everything else will be gravy. “We think it’s still worth the trip,” we concluded. “What do you think?”

We then had a vigorous debate for the next hour. When it was over, the CEO told us we’d presented the best business case he’d ever seen. With each successive audience we pitched, such as dealers and state regulators, we led with some version of this: “We think this program will be tough to launch, and we’re probably going to ask you to do things that are inconvenient and even uncomfortable. What we’re proposing also will probably raise concerns for you that we haven’t even thought of. But there’s a lot of upside, and we think it’s the right thing to do. Will you talk it through with us, and consider getting involved to make the program better?”

At the first dealer discussion, our presentation was met with stunned silence. Then a longtime employee spoke up: “That was the grimmest presentation I’ve ever seen.” He then immediately offered to be our first pilot location.

Launching this program was one of the hardest things I’ve done, but 15 years later it’s still growing and has trained more than 300,000 people. Dealers call it “a customer creation machine,” and it launched a wonderful phase of my career as an innovation leader.

Credibility BoostCredibility Boost

Lara Lee, Senior Vice President, Customer Experience Design, Lowe’s Home Improvement

‘Pick a few battles in areas where it’s important to stand up for your position, and give tangible, practical examples.’

Lara Lee, senior vice president of customer experience design at Lowe’s Home Improvement, has spent most of her career leading change and pioneering new territory. Here, she presents three ideas to someone in the role of “outsider and change agent” who is bringing new perspectives and expertise to a mature organization.

What advice do you have for someone who is new to an organization and needs to build credibility fast?

1. Seek first to understand. Listen actively; solicit opinions;  and find out goals, aspirations and pain points of key leaders in the organization. Be present, and be alert for the messages behind the words. What motivates them? What are sensitive topics? What do they fear? Most people are trying to do the right thing, most people care about the customer and the enterprise, but they’re all coming from different backgrounds and have different vantage points. If you can assemble a systems-level picture of the wants, needs, and challenges of key leaders, you’ll be able to position your services and initiatives in ways that offer value for both the business and those key individuals.

2. Pragmatism trumps ideology. You’ve been brought in for your unique expertise, which is both intriguing and threatening. People need to believe that you are truly there to help the collective become more successful — not to reinvent everything that’s already been created and make everyone else look bad. Pick a few battles in areas where it’s important to stand up for your position, based on your experience and expertise, and give tangible, practical examples of the “why” behind your advocacy. Otherwise, go for substance over form, essence over accuracy.

3. Tell stories to make new ideas sticky and tangible. Use stories and analogies from a wide variety of sources to paint a vision of success, illustrate your points, gain buy-in for new and different ways of thinking, and get conversations flowing. For every example that’s about “what we did when I was at Company X,” have two more related to ones from other companies to bolster the idea. You were hired for your experience and expertise, but people will quickly tire of examples only from your previous companies. They’re real, they’re important, they’re part of what got you here — you don’t want to not reference them — but if they’re sandwiched in between other, more “neutral” examples, that will ease any potential friction and make your audiences more open to receiving your message.

No (Peer) PressureNo (Peer) Pressure

Lara Lee, Senior Vice President, Customer Experience Design, Lowe’s Home Improvement

‘Frame and communicate your ideas in terms of how they support your target’s goals and objectives.’

Sometimes, you must seek persuasion allies in other departments or organizations with individuals you don’t know well — or at all. You have no authority over them, and they don’t have to pay attention to you. Lara Lee, Lowe’s Home Improvement’s senior vice president of customer experience design, has found herself in that position too many times to mention. Which make her the ideal person to answer the following question:

What are your three tips for getting to “yes” with someone over whom you have no authority?

1. Meet them where they are. Mine all available sources to understand his current thinking, assumptions, concerns and hot buttons. Make it clear from the outset that you want to understand his operating reality, from his point of view. Work to express your ideas in terms that will be familiar and comfortable. If you need to introduce new terms or concepts, have stories and analogies at the ready in order to make him feel more comfortable.

2. Align with the other person’s agenda. Figure out what she’s trying to accomplish, both  for the organization and personally. Frame and communicate your ideas in terms of how they support your target’s goals and objectives. Ask for her input about how what you’re working on could better support what she’s trying to accomplish, and make sure you follow through. If you can incorporate her ideas, great! Let her know you are doing so, and be sure to share the credit. If not, give it another try by explaining the barriers you encountered and that you’re still eager to find opportunities for mutual benefit. Even if you don’t work it out for that specific initiative, the intention, effort, diligence and engagement you demonstrated will build a reservoir of credibility.

3. Craft a shared vision of success. Engage your peer in envisioning a future state in which your mutually beneficial activities achieve shared success. Make each party’s what’s-in-it-for-me explicit, so that you both have a clear understanding of what the other needs to see, feel and receive in order to be satisfied with the effort. Create a tight, compelling story about what you are doing together, why it matters for customers and the business, and why each of you find it  personally exciting and rewarding. When success is achieved, propose ways to share the story and make sure your partner is firmly in the spotlight.