How Leaders Drive Alignment: Erik Olsson, CEO of Mobile Mini

Leadership Series  by Ali Parnian
 

Published January 30, 2019 in the Phoenix Business Journal

I had the opportunity to meet with Erik Olsson, CEO of Mobile Mini at their beautiful Phoenix Corporate Headquarters. Mobile Mini is a public company with over 175 locations in the US and UK that employs over 2,000 employees worldwide. They are the world’s leading provider of portable storage and are one of the leading providers of tanks for storage of liquid and solid waste in the Petroleum industry. This is what Erik, with over 12 year’s experience leading public companies, had to say about Alignment.

Erik Olsson Investor Day

What does Alignment mean for you? 

Having everybody working towards the same goal. Everybody pulling in the same direction. Nobody questioning or wondering why we do things a certain way.

Why do you feel Alignment is important?

Alignment is critical to achieve great results. We want our customers to have the same great experience no matter where they do business with us. We have 160 locations in the US and 15 in the UK and Alignment is critical to provide that customer experience and provide an efficient and great result.

When parts of your organization are misaligned, what do you observe and what is the impact on results?

The impact on results is obviously negative and pretty immediate. When some branch or department is not aligned, we start to see customer complaints, or our Net Promoter Score starts to dip. We do a lot of customer engagement questions every month just to keep a tab on things to see that everyone is aligned. Our lead indicator is customer complaints and bad results follow shortly thereafter.

What are some of the things you do to drive alignment in your organization?

Our leadership team does a lot of engagement and a lot of communication. We try to be out there, travel to our branches, meet with our employees and find 1,000 different ways to communicate the message of who we are, why we do things the way we do them and what is important. We use social media, we produce simple videos, we push out messaging to people’s desktop and laptop screensavers.

Tell me how you do your strategic planning and get everyone engaged with strategy?

We do strategic planning once a year. We have about 80 of the top leaders come to Phoenix and we spend a day together communicating and discussing the strategy and giving everyone the opportunity to ask questions. After that we expect the leaders to cascade the message further down into the organization.

Strategy is important but at the end of the day execution is more important. Spending that time to get everyone aligned around the strategy is very valuable. If you do the strategic work right, it shouldn’t change on an annual basis, it should have a longer life, but there are always some tweaks and areas of extra focus you want to put on certain things.

Let’s talk about intentional leadership and intentional culture.   How do you get everyone on the same page there?

You want to create a culture that people want to be engaged with. You have to be sure there is a connection between the stated culture and the real world. It is critical for people to see that the culture includes real values that they manifest on a daily basis and that is how things get done.

When I first joined the company, the culture piece was really important. I started with focus on safety to make sure the leadership level was engaged with safety including weekly reports and the sharing of all incidents with the leadership levels. We started to communicate that safety was more important than what the customer’s needs are, if it is not safe we were not going to do it. We started sending people home or letting them go if they were not a part of this culture. This sent a clear message that we were serious about safety, even if it hurt results in the short term.

 As leaders, you have to walk the talk, and if you don’t do that it can quickly erode the culture.

Of the three areas of alignment we discussed, Culture, Leadership or Strategy, which is the most challenging and why?

Culture work is difficult in the sense that it takes a lot of time. You can’t just establish or change a culture one day to the next, it is an ongoing process.

Strategy is perhaps more difficult because you truly want to have all 2,100 employees that we have now, understanding the strategy, living the strategy and doing the right things. In a distributed business like ours where we have people in about 180 locations it is a challenge to get the message out to each individual branch because it is not feasible to get everyone into a room at the same time. They are somewhat on an island so that is a challenge. At the end of the day that is where the leadership comes in and where you need to have people at all levels that are good leaders that can support and cascade this message down because I can’t meet with everybody.

Do you have a program to develop leaders?

We do have programs in place such as branch manager training and external programs for other leaders. There is nothing like hands-on training and we like to see people in the company make a few lateral moves to learn more about the business and the challenges.

If you can give advice to someone struggling to align their organization what would it be?

First you need to make sure what you are trying to align everyone to is the right thing. Then it's about engagement and communication. Find the champions of the change and make them successful first. Their success will enable them to draw others into the success of the initiative. In short “Work with the willing.”

Do you have an inspirational quote you wish to share?

Yes, I am all about doing things. My quote is from Herb Kelleher and it is, “We have a strategic plan, it's called doing things.”

Having everybody working towards the same goal. Everybody pulling in the same direction. Nobody questioning or wondering why we do things a certain way.

Ali Parnian is the president of Execute to Win, a business writer and leadership coach. He can be reached at ali.parnian@etw.com

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