Richard Lucas was speaking to Joe Tarantola CEO of Kline: PMR has been a close partner of Kline for many years, with strong cultural and personal affinities. Joe Tarantola is CEO of Kline, a highly successful worldwide consulting and research firm which has been in business for nearly 50 years. Following a brainstorming session in our HQ in Cracow – in Central Europe – I proposed an interview for the blog. I didn’t know what Joe was going to say, but I knew the results would be interesting. My questions and Joe’s answers are presented below:
1 Building a happy thriving global company is not an easy occupation – What motivates you and are there any downsides?
JT: Historically, Kline was basically a U.S.-centric company with 95% of our staff located in our headquarters. Our friendly and collegiate environment fostered strong and lasting ties among the staff and I believe these relationships in large part helped us to successfully transform into a truly global organization with several formerly U.S. based employees relocating to our worldwide locations. We had some brilliantly effective employee engagement strategies that meant that we were able to keep our best talent and even persuade them to move abroad to work for us. The benefits we give them are second to none. I committed myself to doing whatever I could to maintain the camaraderie and mutual respect we had always enjoyed here and to extend that corporate culture throughout all our geographies. And that means frequent international travel to meet with staff. Our ability to meld people of different cultures and backgrounds into the firm, and accept what they have to offer to improve what we do and who we are, has been particularly gratifying to me. The only downside is the time spent away from my family while travelling.
2 People often say that competition has never been fiercer. Do you agree, and if yes, how do you account for Kline’s success in this context?
JT: I would certainly have to agree that, on the surface, competition for strategic consulting engagements and market research clients is tougher than we have faced in the past. However, I believe that Kline has positioned itself uniquely within these market spaces so that we can continue to compete with and prevail against much larger organizations based on some powerful points of leverage we possess.
3. Kline’s clients traditionally are large successful companies from North America. Do American companies have different challenges from their European and Asian competitors?
JT: Actually, although the majority of our business does presently come from North American — and European –based companies and our largest client is headquartered in Europe, we have invested heavily to increase our business development capabilities in Asia and the Middle East. We tend to serve the largest competitors in the markets we target, so almost all of them have become truly global entities to meet the realities of their businesses. You could argue that American companies face the additional challenge of having to manage their long-term plans and initiatives versus the short-term expectations of the investment community. These pressures have clearly had a negative impact on such things as research and development and innovation.
4 Big companies from developing countries feature among Kline clients. Do companies in advanced economies have much to fear from new competitors or will the reasons that rich countries stay rich remain intact for another generation or two?
JT: Businesses change and evolve much more rapidly these days, so I think that a generation or two is a virtual eternity for our clients. There is certainly a large amount of fear of what the impact of these new competitors will be. But I think that this fear will naturally turn into an interest for collaboration in many instances, and the global markets will benefit from this.
5 Some people say that national stereotypes sometimes contain a grain of truth. Do you agree? Are companies losing their national identity as staff becomes more multi ethnic and mobile. Do you think Kline will cease to be an American company – or has that already happened?
JT: I do believe that there is a thread of reality in some of the stereotypes you hear. In fact, we often enjoy a fair bit of laughter at Kline from these typecasts as we joke amongst ourselves in a firm that contains most nationalities one can think of and teams them together on a regular basis. I think that it is those differences that make the world interesting and the commonalities that hold it all together. We are rapidly approaching the point where over 50% of our staff will be located outside the United States and more that half of our senior leadership are from Europe and Asia, so I no longer think of Kline as an American company.
6 Costs. Keeping costs under control by off shoring and the use of new technology is nothing new. Kline is a heavy user of Skype and Webex. What would you say to companies that prefer face-to-face meetings? Will they be forced to change, and what will happen to the old fashioned ways of doing things?
JT: Nothing is more effective in business than a face-to-face meeting. Body language, facial expressions and eye contact are all important measures for any human being. However, the reality is to successfully grow and compete globally companies must embrace the technologies that provide alternative ways to communicate and collaborate. Otherwise they will need to expend a huge amount of resources just to maintain and operate local offices in proximity of their customers and suppliers. At Kline we use both Webex and Skype services heavily for internal communication as well as for frequent and efficient interaction with our clients and partners. Our clients are embracing this necessity at a rapid pace and our staff use these tools effectively to build relationships and share knowledge. Are there are times when nothing can substitute for face-to-face? Certainly, but perhaps a lot less than you would think.
7 Competition. The CEO of a major and successful French industrial concern said to me recently, “we all have access to the same people, capital, technology and tools, so the dynamics in which we can compete are strategy and execution. History verifies the strategy, but how can we guarantee outstanding execution. That is the challenge” Do you agree? And how can large companies become great executors of their strategies?
JT: I do agree that, for the most part, success lies in execution. The most brilliant strategy can easily become eroded without the diligent and committed execution of the plan. On my desk right now is the book Execution by Larry Bossidy, Ram Charan, and Charles Burc and I keep it close to me for that very reason. I also strongly believe that successful companies operate in an environment of trust amongst the team members. You have to know that everyone will do what they say they are going to do, and almost as importantly, will not end up doing what they promise they won’t do. Unfortunately, we do see our clients sometimes struggle with the execution phase of strategic change. Their staffs are smaller than they were in the past and everyone seems to be working harder than ever. As such, implementation and execution of new initiatives can often suffer. Certainly, the alignment of goals, objectives and roles is critical as is the organization of the team implementing the strategy or change. Individual performance objectives must also be in line with the goals of the greater organization in order to increase the likelihood of true success. All these types of initiatives involve change at the organizational and individual level and some people are more well-suited than others in embracing and dealing with change. Getting assistance from outside consultants who are expert in these issues can yield true benefits over the long term.
8 What is the biggest change in the last 25 years of your business experience, and what would you like to see happen in the next 25?
JT: I feel as if 80% of the change that has occurred in my 25 years at Kline has been in the last three years. We have taken a well-known, 50-year-old market research firm, chosen a path to a market space that is full of challenges and pitfalls, and embraced a process of change and improvement that will carry us forward for many years. Twenty-five more years? I don’t know about that, but what is most important for me in the future is to see Kline realize its goal of becoming a truly excellent firm, recognized for making our clients successful while enjoying and respecting both what we do and the people we work with within the firm. Our people all deserve that kind of success in their futures.
9 If there was one piece of advice you would give to executives planning their long term careers what would it be.
JT: On my wall hangs the I CHING image for Chaos. I keep it there to remind me that change and improvement is needed and necessary, and that we all must continually push ourselves beyond what is comfortable and known to us. I would say to chose a path and career that will allow you to constantly test your own limits and abilities, so that when your career is over you can look back and be confident that you have hopefully exceeded your own expectations.