Learning from a legend: my conversation with David Cote

Call me boring, but there’s nothing I enjoy more than talking about business strategy and exploring new ways to power growth.

It’s even better when I get to pick the brain of a business legend, and a few weeks ago I was lucky enough to have a one-to-one with David Cote, former CEO of Honeywell and current Chairman of Vertiv.

David’s new book Winning Now, Winning Later is a modern business classic, and I could barely believe that I won this opportunity through the HarperCollins Leadership Book Club. Even now, it seems at times like a very strange dream since David did the whole conversation whilst enjoying a pre-workout cigar!

The interaction was completely inspiring – we got on so well that we continued way beyond the scheduled 30 minutes. We talked about the challenges of growing a company, the direct marketing business model and how to make time for big ideas, like his famous Honeywell (and now Vertiv) Operating System.

Here are some of the topics we touched on, and the things I’ll be taking away:

Running a growing small company is just as hard as running a big one

I breathed a sigh of relief when David brought this up – I’d been feeling our growing pains a little this year as we expanded beyond 200 employees and wondered if it was just me.

The thing with this size is that you have to learn that you can’t control everything, and your people have to be empowered and motivated to push for increasing profitability through lower costs and higher quality.

We’ve been lucky enough to grow without too much hierarchy, but we need to keep a constant eye on our processes to make sure they’re fit for purpose as we grow.

Building a change culture requires cross-functional teams

Change is constant; there is no endpoint. We have to bake this into our culture and make sure everyone is comfortable with that. Lately we’ve been running and running in the hope that things “settle down”, but we need to make sure that we keep that agility and flexibility without burning out.

I loved talking to David about how to prepare a team to live like this. His advice was to pick just one process to begin with, then build a cross-functional team of stakeholders to work on it. It’s important to bring in different viewpoints, since as David says, “the obvious is not always obvious to the person who has to solve the problem.”

By focusing on just one process to begin with, we’re more likely to have a success that will empower the team to move forward with the intent for future change.

Think of new strategies and models as part of your R&D

A tough challenge for most entrepreneurs is innovation – not just in terms of your product or service, but also with regard to pricing. This can be super sensitive as you’re really putting your profitability at risk; I certainly didn’t get into this business to lose money!

David made a suggestion for a new pricing model that might work in the direct marketing industry, and at first, I’m embarrassed to say that I went straight on the defensive with all the reasons it wouldn’t work.

As we discussed it further, however, I really saw his point that pricing can and should be something that we experiment with. Any risks that we take could be considered an investment in R&D – if we crack the code and find a more profitable pricing model, that could be totally transformational!

There’s so much more I could say about our conversation but I’ll leave it there for now. I’ll share a few clips from the recording over the next few days – let me know if you have any questions and let’s have a debate about some of these big ideas!

Finally, thank you so much to Rainer Stiller for advising me to pick up David’s book in the first place!