Tony Jaros, CEO of CultureIQ, Former President & CPO at SiriusDecisions has spent his career helping businesses of all kinds drive innovation and foster great cultures. Read more about his thoughts on these pillars, and what product marketing executives can do to drive innovation and strong culture within their own organization and the larger business:
Megan: Can you tell us a little bit about your background and the evolution of your journey?
Tony: I went to school to be a journalist. I graduated from Northwestern University and started my career as a magazine copy editor. There were a couple of things I knew pretty quickly: Number one, I knew that editors didn't get paid particularly well. The second thing was that I saw the writing on the wall in terms of the way that journalism was changing. This was back in the early 1990s; there were a lot of publications that were starting to shut down, newspapers were laying people off.
I said to myself, “I'd like to be able to take the communication skills that I've developed and use them in business,” because business was always of significant interest to me. From the consumer publication that I worked at, I wound up kind of falling into a job at a company called Simba Information, which was a company that had a suite of B2B newsletters. Those newsletters were all focused on media, and in the mid-1990s they had started to build a practice around new media. I became the editor of a newsletter called Online Tactics, which was exactly what it sounded like--helping organizations prepare to have their presence felt on the internet.
It was new for all of us and it was a great learning experience. In the meantime, I also decided to go back and start my MBA, because I knew that there were skills and training that I didn’t get in my undergrad work, and that if I really aspired to get further in the business world, I was going to have to fill in skills like accounting, economics, finance and marketing.
At Simba, we had a consulting practice in addition to the newsletters; the guy who ran it wound up leaving the business. So, at the ripe old age of 27 years old, they tapped me on the shoulder to run it. I started to work with clients on custom projects, in both traditional media and new media, and I did that for a couple of years. Tom Niehaus was the individual who had left the Simba consulting practice, and he had gone to a company called Peppers and Rogers Group, which was focused on one-to-one marketing. One-to-one marketing was a concept that had been pioneered by Don Peppers and Martha Rogers in the early-1990s.
Tom invited me to come joining the consulting practice they were building at Peppers and Rogers, and so I did. I really didn't know much about that particular area, but I was really eager to learn and started to do work for a number of different clients--1-800-Flowers, Volvo, Rockwell Automation, and British Airways. (At British Airways, I actually got to walk onto the Concorde before it disappeared.) I spend a lot of time with marketing leaders and with sales leaders as they were trying to realize this concept of one-to-one marketing. I saw a lot of the disagreement and lack of alignment between sales and marketing as it pertained to the concept.
Fast forward to 2001, Peppers and Rogers rises like a meteor and then crashes down to Earth. Peter Beal, who I had worked with at PRG, had met up with a couple of guys (Rich Eldh and John Neeson) who had an idea for a business called SiriusDecisions. I had been laid off at the end of 2001 and was looking for work; Peter knew the background I had in writing/communications and the work that I had done around sales and marketing alignment. I wound up signing a three-month freelance contract with SiriusDecisions; that turned into 19 years at that organization.
I would take over as the head of research and eventually would add a number of different disciplinary areas under my remit, which included not only building and leading our whole analyst team, but our consulting practice, our e-learning product--which we built from scratch--and an events business which we grew from zero to nearly $20 million by the time that I left. It really was a true American story, right? You start from nothing and all of a sudden, you find yourself in a company generating $10 million, then $25 million, $50 million and then close to $100 million when the business was sold. So I did get the very fortunate chance to be able to help to build a business, eventually to sell one, and to integrate one into Forrester, who bought SiriusDecisions.
I spent 14 or 15 months at Forrester and decided that a larger company really wasn't for me; I wanted to get back to building something again. CultureIQ was an interesting company because it was brought together in 2018 by a private equity firm out of Chicago called ParkerGale. Of the two companies that ParkerGale brought together, one was five years old at the time and the other was 50. The most recent incarnation of the 50-year-old company known as Workforce Surveys and Analytics (WS&A) had been purchased by Corporate Executive Board (CEB) in the early 2010s.
Ultimately, when CEB was purchased by Gartner, WS&A became a part of Gartner. ParkerGale had spoken to the CEO of CultureIQ over the years about his business, but at the time, the CultureIQ business was just too small for ParkerGale to invest in. But when the WS&A asset came onto the market, ParkerGale decided this would be a great opportunity to marry the concept of high-tech, and a really good software platform to assess employee engagement across a variety of dimensions, with high touch. That kind of combination of software and services was really ultimately what we wound up building at SiriusDecisions, so the first thing that intrigued me about this business was that combination of having assets of both product and service, because that's what I've been doing for the past 20 years. The second thing that intrigued me was it was an opportunity for me to get into a new space, a learning opportunity, which I always really like.
When you look at my journey and my history, I think it's been circuitous at best, and you never would have been able to guess--I certainly would never have been able to guess--that I would have wound up where I am today, starting where I started. Along the way I've always tried to continue to learn, to build skills that I don't have and to apply what I do know to the organizations that I'm in, and it seems to have worked out fairly decently.
Megan: Now that we’re up to CultureIQ in your journey, maybe you could tell us a little bit about the space that they're in, because I think this is really relevant right now. So many companies are struggling with how to understand the needs of their people, and how to support those needs, how to think differently about how to support those needs and what culture means right now.
Tony: CultureIQ is in the employee engagement space, but we really focus more on the aspect of culture. Other providers often equate engagement with culture, but we don't see it that way. We see culture as the superset and engagement as the subset. The real pain in this market right now is the fact that a lot of organizations intuitively know that culture is important, but they really have a hard time getting their arms around what that means. So, they know it's valuable, but it's still really hard to quantify the value.
I've been with this organization for more than nine months and that's really what we've been working to do during that time--to help reposition our business to be a better partner, not just from a data gathering perspective, but rather really doing three things: One is to help companies clearly define with good culture means to them. The second is to assess how close or far they are from that ideal. The third is, once they can pinpoint opportunities within culture, how can we take our knowledge assets to be able to help them address opportunities or close gaps?
Megan: It's a really critical space right now and it sounds like you guys are seeing some opportunities to help companies think differently and practically about how to make their culture part of who they are and how they do things. Let's talk a little bit about innovation. One thing we knew at SiriusDecisions was you had to keep innovating or you wouldn't be able to continue growing. What would you say, in general, companies need to think about if they're going to innovate to grow or shape their culture?
Tony: I think true innovation is driven by doing one of two things: it's either finding pain where it exists and addressing it in a better way than anyone else can, or creating pain where it doesn't exist, causing people to think to themselves, “You know, what? I never knew that I had a need here. But as a business, you’re able to put that need in front of me and tell me how it's going to benefit my business. It's going to benefit my function. It's going to benefit me personally.” So if you can do that on those three levels, I think that's really where innovation takes off.
That means you have to have an incredible knowledge of your buyer, the types of organizations that they exist in, the work that they do, what they think about that work now and what that work could possibly be. That is what we have focused on very heavily at CultureIQ. It's not that there's anything wrong with the business of surveying employees, but I think what tends to happen with that approach is that the solution is saying, “Well, I'm going to drown you in a bunch of data and you go figure out what to do next.” When that happens, companies wind up defaulting to finding the three lowest scores in the previous survey and applying a new benefit or a new process or a new committee to fix those. But that's a very tactical approach. Businesses should be wanting more out of the work that they're doing around culture, and that’s what we’ve been focusing on.
Megan: How is CultureIQ supporting innovation for customers while supporting the building of culture?
Tony: We believe that there's a very formalized way that you can go through and actually link your culture and the work that you're doing on culture to the way that you want your business to grow. If you combine those two things, not only does it provide a very clear vision for the business in terms of where it’s heading, but it can really start to refine your data gathering process, focusing it on only the elements of culture that will be most important for you to foster. Ultimately, when you refine your data gathering, you're going to refine your actioning.
So to me, innovation comes out of really just sitting back and saying, ‘What could this be? Could this be better?” If you can get people to say, “This can be better. We can do something better and think about this differently.” That really becomes fun. That is, to me, the best part of innovation--when you put a new idea in front of somebody who thought that they had already solved that problem and get them to think about it in a different way. Once you can do that--once you stimulate that thinking--you've really changed that relationship between company and customer. It becomes a joint relationship versus a push relationship, and that's really what we want as a business. I want the customers who are coming on board with us right now to not only be raving fans of ours but actually help us to be able to continue to innovate into the future.
Megan: Well, it is a nice connection between the culture that you're creating at CultureIQ today and how your customers can evolve their own culture to support innovation. That's exciting stuff. Is there anything else you want to share about the path of innovation you're on today?
Tony: One of the things that we've recently implemented is a list that we publish of every sales call and customer call that we're going to have in the next week. We allow any associate in the organization to sign up to sit in on those calls, just as an observer, so that they can listen to how we pitch to customers. They can listen to the questions that customers are asking us, or here how they're challenging us and pushing back, and they can think about and listen to how customers are expressing their needs. To me, if you are limiting innovation to your executive leadership team, I think you're making a significant mistake.
I know that the best ideas that will come out of this company over the next three to five years won't come from me and they probably won't necessarily come from members of the leadership team. They're going to come from someone sitting on one of those calls, maybe someone in engineering or marketing or finance, who says, “You know what, have you ever thought about this?” That's where innovation really is. I think the more that you try to convert your culture into one that is truly innovative in nature and look for unexpected sources of innovation and you provide opportunities for people to interact with customers, that's really where your innovation ultimately will come from, especially when people understand your vision and where you're trying to take the organization.
Megan: Why do you believe B2B organizations today need product marketing?
Tony: Of product management and product marketing, product management tends to be the inward-looking function and product marketing is the outward-looking function. As an example, when we think about feedback, we understand that feedback comes from many places within an organization--sales, customer service or customer success.
"But a lot of that also comes from product marketing, through the activities that product marketing has put in place to listen to the market and from the distillation of a lot of feedback from numerous sources that product marketing receives. I think that that's really critical for organizations because when organizations fall into the trap of listening to disparate feedback from many disparate sources, pretty soon your road map becomes a bunch of one-off things that result in a very scattered way to deliver to customer needs. That's the last thing that you want."
It's really a patchwork of a solution for a variety of customers. To me, one of the best things that product marketing does is to distill that feedback and to help the organization understand it much more clearly, and frankly, to be able to sort through some of the noise. It's really easy to fall into the trap of, “This big customer wants this, therefore we should do it.” We should always be putting feedback through a set of tests: if we do this, is it going to help our customers do the work that we aspire to help them do better? Does it move us closer to fulfilling what they would consider to be the ideal way to solve a problem? Does it even extend their thinking beyond what they think is ideal right now? Companies without product marketing are much more apt to fall into the trap of just building things for buildings sake, or building one-off things because a certain customer asked for them. Product marketing is a real glue function.
Megan: How can product marketing leaders use culture to their advantage to help their teams deliver more and get the most out of the work that they do?
Tony: There are components of culture that we feature in our own culture framework that I think product marketers can be exceptionally helpful with in terms of fostering culture within the business. Purpose is one of those. Employees want to know that they are working for a company that has a purpose beyond just making money. I think that product marketing’s role in understanding customer needs, distilling them and communicating them back into the marketplace has a huge role in driving purpose within a business and helping employees understand it. The second component of the culture framework that immediately comes to mind is collaboration. Product marketing sits in a very strategic place in the business between sales, the rest of marketing, customer success or customer service and the customer base. They are the glue in many cases that drives that collaboration between those functional areas, so that's another area that I think any great product marketing leader, has the ability to contribute to from a cultural standpoint.
Megan: What advice do you have for product leaders who want to move into general business leadership, much in the way that you've done? What are some things that you've had to learn or do differently, or things that helped you from your product background as you moved into more senior leadership roles?
Tony: Take a hard look at yourself and say, “Where am I strong? Where am I weak? What don't I know right now?” Every opportunity that you get to interface with a function that you don't know that much about or really isn't your area of comfort--functions such as finance, accounting, customer service and customer success, sales or manufacturing--is an opportunity that you should immediately take. When I look back, what prepared me for this job were the opportunities that I was given at SiriusDecisions to participate in a variety of areas of the business--to be a part of the product creation process, the selling process and the renewal process, where you have to go in and in some cases re-win business.
Another helpful experience was the process as we sold the business, working with finance and going through the integration of the Sirius business into Forrester. Every time in my career that I've gotten an opportunity to do that, I've welcomed that. Ask yourself, “Where are my gaps?” If you've got an opportunity to fill them, do it, because that makes you a well-rounded executive who can see things from more than just your own vantage point when you get into this chair. If you only see the world from a product standpoint and don't understand what it's like to sell or don't understand what it's like to create a marketing plan or don't understand what it's like to deal with an unhappy customer, you won't be as effective in an executive leadership role.
Megan: Thanks for your time today, Tony.
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