A person I work with but have never met sent me an email the other day asking me to elaborate on my concept of buidling a personal cabinet. I recalled that last year I discussed different ways to get good feedback, from within your own company (your internal customers) and also from real customers and partners.  

In addtition to the customer survey sources (like our semi-annual customer & partner satisfaction surveys), trip reports, direct relationships and avenues for listening to customers and partners (like our internal Frontline program), I suggested that they do something I’ve recommended in the past: build a cabinet. No, I don’t mean a cabinet in the sense of where I keep my sox, but a cabinet of trusted advisors from across the company (internal), and another consisting of key customers and partners (external).

The initial idea of building an internal, personal cabinet was brought up when I was in Windows Client and introduced to Brian Valentine's cabinet alias on email: this is a list of people within the company interested in areas important to his group. If Brian sets up a broad cabinet of individuals, people who are copied on interesting information and mails, and are solicited for input and feedback, perhaps other employees at Microsoft should establish a personal cabinet.

Internally, you may have a need for a set of advisors, especially as we are so focused on what we do day to day: it’s often beneficial to get additional perspectives outside your core work group... perhaps even some outside your comfort zone. A good cabinet of 8-10 people can ask questions, listen and provide feedback on what’s most important. They can help you, encourage you and be a valuable asset, whether you’re deciding on a course of action in your group or planning your career. In a good scenario, a cabinet also communicates and works together as a virtual team to help you see things in a different light and you get to the answers you need.

Externally, developing a list of people with particular insight and experiences can work the same way; you may approach the set up differently, working individually with the list of people on your personal cabinet, unless you’re able to bring a non-competitive group together. This group may be made up of customer and partners you meet on the job, ISV Buddies, customer Frontline participants… people outside the company with whom you can knock ideas around and get feedback in a timely way.  It’s not a focus group, but a quick-hit check when you need feedback – and a group that you may ping a couple of times a year. And let them know that you value their feedback, candor and trust when you contact them.

In my cabinet, I talk to many of these people once or twice a quarter on average, and some maybe only once or twice a year at an industry event or trade show. For me, I look at people who are…

  • Insightful and provide a pro/con view of issues and challenges
  • accessible and give good advice (it often goes both ways, and they ping me with questions)
  • good at breaking down problems, with good gut instincts
  • strategic specialists in their field
  • thoughtful, and often frank 
  • happy to refer me to their own trusted contacts (the next degree of separation) when something is beyond their scope

As an FYI, I found that Cisco devoted a couple of stories in their quarterly ezine on how customers and partners should consider issues to consider when looking for their own trusted technical advisors. Some of the same principles can be applied here.

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