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Xerox: Built here with home-grown talent

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Dave Veale interviews Martin Chiasson, VP Inside Sales, Xerox Corporation as part of the Leadership Unleashed series of interviews with leaders.

In my brief time with Martin, he shared his thoughts on risk taking, making tough decisions and the important soft skills required to lead.

Martin Chiasson has loved every minute of his time in New Brunswick. He arrived in Saint John in 1995, tasked with building a Xerox Canada Customer Service Contact Centre from the ground up. This journey began with just him and an empty building, but by 1999, he had also launched the first inside sales centre for North America.

Martin Chiasson led a team of home-grown talent in creating an innovative, results-oriented group for Xerox in Saint John. Martin, who is now the vice-president of inside sales operations for Xerox Corporation, spent the first 13 years of his career at several Xerox locations across Canada. What is fascinating about Martin’s story is how he led a team of home-grown New Brunswick talent in creating a unique, innovative, results-oriented organization in New Brunswick that Xerox locations around the world are watching and trying to emulate. One recent example is in October of 2010, when the president of Xerox China, along with four of his senior leaders, came to Saint John to benchmark the organization as they are about to launch an inside sales organization in China and want to learn from the best.

Because Martin spent time in Halifax, Fredericton, Toronto and Calgary before arriving in Saint John, I began our conversation by asking him what is unique about the leadership qualities in people from New Brunswick:

A: I’ve often thought about this. I have led people for 27 out of the 29 years I’ve been with Xerox. I’ve seen the Toronto style, the Calgary style. I think the thing that is so powerful here in New Brunswick is, number one, the willingness to take direction. I find it incredibly refreshing. They believe so much in the vision that they will say, “OK, if this is what we have to do, this is what we’ll do.”

Q: So people have strong faith and belief in their own abilities?

A: Yes, and faith in the road that you are building. They also have a very polite and professional way of pushing back. I think that is incredibly powerful because, in Saint John, we are an outlier within Xerox. Xerox has a very strong culture of sales and direct selling for 75-plus years. In Saint John there is a tremendous pride in quietly executing and saying, “W’ll let the results speak for themselves” – nothing seems to really scare people here.

Q: How do you develop a deep level of commitment in people that is required to build a business?

A: I think there has to be tremendous trust on both sides. I read quite a bit about what makes good leaders and good organizations. I think there are times we speak about giving people authority or empowerment – its one thing to say that you will give it, but it’s another thing to actually give it. People over time appreciate when we say, “Hhey, if you think it is the right thing to do, then go for it.” This builds a tremendous bond and people are prepared to follow you. We gave our people a lot of rope and they responded.

Q: When you came to Saint John in 1995, you took a big career risk in agreeing to build a Xerox customer service center. What helped you take the risk?

A: It was really a “we thing” for my wife Giselle and me. We would always ask the question, “What’s the worst that could happen?” It was really not more complicated than that. What really helped me make my decision to come back to New Brunswick from Calgary was reading an article in Business Week. (Business author) Tom Peters was talking about the art of risk-taking and cited a number of examples; one of them was taking an assignment in the boondocks where nobody else wanted to go and proving yourself.

Q: In the Xerox world was New Brunswick considered the boondocks?

A: Xerox didn’t have any presence here. When my peers in Calgary heard I was moving New Brunswick, I could tell they were thinking, “Did you screw something up?” I could feel it – I wasn’t getting sincere congratulations on the opportunity to move to Saint John.

Q: How did you react to this perception?

A: I have always had a sense of wanting to be part of what you would call the “underdog” – doing something that was not considered the norm. The Saint John office was so young compared to the rest of the organization – that’s what’s kept me excited. There was also the question of could we sell Xerox products virtually? Could services that have been done face-to-face for 75 years possibly be done virtually with the customer feeling as impressed?

Q: How has Xerox responded to the approach of going against the norm and selling products and providing customer service virtually?

A: It is interesting that you mention this – we get visitors from Xerox here constantly. We know we are making progress because, six or seven years ago, the view of Saint John and what we did here was, “Wow, you have very enthusiastic, positive-attitude type people here.” In the last 36 months, it’s been exactly these words plus, “Man, are they ever competent.” And that is what you need to stay in business.

Q: What are the toughest business challenges you have to deal with as a leader?

A: Within our North American inside sales organization, one of the biggest business challenges is figuring out how best to be creative, bold and innovative while working within the guidelines of a huge corporation. Inside sales is all about “unleashing entrepreneurial spirit,” as we are experimenting with sales techniques and coverage models never tried before at Xerox.

Q: What is the biggest lesson you have learned?

A: The colour grey is important. I think as people become new managers and new leaders there can be a black-and-white mentality. I think people forget there are very few issues in business that are truly black and white. You somehow have to learn to keep that in mind and be curious and ask more questions.

Q: To lead effectively what you would say is the most important or critical soft skill?

A: There are two. Steven Covey talks about listening. I remember him saying there should be courses in our high schools on listening. Who would think you’d need a course? But it’s one of those secret skills that we really underestimate. Natural curiosity is the second important element. I try to practise that quite a bit because it’s very important.

Q: Could you finish this sentence “A leader’s job is to …”

A: A leader’s job is to create the right business environment for others to succeed.

Dave Veale is a business and leadership coach and founder of Vision Coaching Inc. in Saint John. He can be reached by email at Dave@VisionCoachingInc.com. His column appears every other Thursday. To read past columns go to www.LeadershipUnleashed.ca

Published Thursday January 27th, 2011 in the Telegraph-Journal

Photo: Kâté Braydon/Telegraph-Journal

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