Being in the Zone: When Work Just Goes So Right

By Jeffrey Whitford
Jun 14, 2019 9:10 AM ET

I recently had the fortune to visit one of our customers, and this visit was unlike any other I’ve ever had. To understand how we got to this day in March, let me give you some flavor of how these experiences usually go for context. 

There’s route one: Our sales team emails or calls and says, “Hey, our customer is asking what we do for sustainability.” Typically this happens in April — Earth Month, of course — and other times during quarterly customer reviews. They ask for a few slides or send a questionnaire. This is my most loathed format because, from my end, I don’t see much done with the data and these requests take time. The sales rep is concerned because the request is steep and the details are tough, especially for those who aren’t subject matter experts. They also want to make sure we’re responsive and considerate of our customers — which is great. My team partners with the sales team to get these issues addressed and find ways to try to do more with these requests and bring our sales team along on the journey. Then there is route two: Some of our sales team members realize the differentiation potential. They are engaging with us on a frequent basis and are looking for ways to engage their accounts on sustainability. 

Incidentally, I was supposed to visit a customer in February. My health apparently had other visions when I got kidney stones again — this time gifting me two emergency surgeries. I’m pretty sure any customer visit — even the worst imaginable one possible — would have been better than the surgery option. So, with my visit cancelled, my colleague and I worked to find a new date. In the meantime, the customer came up with a pretty radical idea. They wanted to bring in four main suppliers in one category and do a session to see what our thoughts were on how they could improve their RFP process in four key areas — one being sustainability. 

Honestly, I was originally like, “Are they for real?” To be fair, I framed it a little differently in our meeting with them when they sensed our hesitancy and pushed us to speak up. I said sheepishly, “To be honest, I have yet to see a customer take action that backs up statements that say we’re going to make a decision with our wallet that matches our ambition in the sustainability space.” And that is just the point: Making changes is difficult; there is just no way around it, especially when you are working on a global scale. 

Then, we dove in. It was a round robin, so we rotated between the four areas over two days. Sustainability was the first session for MilliporeSigma on day one. I remember meetings like these in the past. Even though I knew our material inside and out, it was still a bit nerve-racking — mostly because I felt that in this space, it still seemed like we are always trying to prove ourselves. Over the years of our portfolio development, we have created a wide range of solutions and, most importantly, we have data — and data that even I can learn to embrace.

The team had a list of questions and, looking back, I don’t think we got through them all because we started to explore the opportunities. We were ready with data and examples of the things we were already doing together that weren’t known by the team in the room. We then shared a host of our programs that they weren’t taking advantage of — and not because they necessarily cost more, but because they weren’t a priority (even though they could make a big impact for their sustainability profile). I was like a kid in a candy store — apparently so much so that two different people said to me, “You sure are passionate about this.” I know I should take this as positive feedback, but, as I’ve said before, I’m constantly thinking about how I did and if I should adjust. I thought, “Oooof, I hope I didn’t come on too strong.” 

It’s true though. I am passionate about it — and how can you not be when working in this space? After the close of the acquisition in 2015, our MilliporeSigma Corporate Responsibility team members who are focused on greener products and solutions spent the better part of three years getting ready for this year. We formally launched several initiatives, such as our SMASH Packaging Plan, Cyrene™ solvent (which you hopefully read about in my article last month) and our DOZN™ 2.0 platform — which helps scientists use data to make better environmental choices in their research. Additionally, for our Biopharma Recycling Program, we announced a quarterly recycling total that puts us on track for 20 percent growth in recycling volume — and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. 

In that moment, I realized how much I loved sharing our ideas and solutions with our customers, and how we could help them achieve their ambitious goals. I believe in what we’re doing and, let me tell you, I’m not that good of an actor to fake it. As one of my colleagues frequently tells me, “Fix your face, Jeffrey.” But we need passion and a ton of ambition. The challenges we face are not going to be solved by one giant sustainability act — at least that’s not how I see it. They’re going to be solved by iterative change that happens piece by piece — and hopefully more rapidly. We need to do a better job of recording and amplifying those changes so that everyone can see the collective progress; but I guarantee you it’s happening. 

I stepped back to think about reasons why customers may not make the change, and my takeaway is that it’s not only on them — we’re responsible, too. We need to have compelling, clear and well-communicated programs that are grounded in meaningful improvements to give a strong business case for making a change. We don’t do this just because it’s good for the planet or people, but also because it makes sense for business — providing the win-win-win. 

I was texting my boss about how the day was going. After it was all done, she said to me, “I could tell you were in the groove; I could feel it.” Sometimes being in that zone is a blessing in disguise. It energizes you; it creates space for new conversations that spark new ideas and it can also validate your work. So, with that, I’m ready for more time with our customers because the zone is calling my name!

Jeffrey Whitford is head of corporate responsibility and branding for MilliporeSigma.