IMD International

Harley-Davidson President and CEO Keith E. Wandell

presents transformational leadership strategy at OWP

June 30, 2011

Keith Wandell may have the enviable position of leading one of the world’s most iconic brands, but when he joined Harley Davidson, Inc. in May 2009, the company didn’t even have a strategic plan. Revenues had plummeted, demand wasn’t being met and disgruntled customers considered the company downright arrogant.

By October of the same year, Wandell unveiled a company strategy that would fire up Harley’s image and completely spin the company around. His plan focused on growth, continuous improvement, leadership, development and sustainability.

“It was a tough and grueling process, but absolutely vital to our success,” he told participants at IMD’s 2011 Orchestrating Winning Performance program (OWP).

The key was to introduce a production process that would allow flexibility in order to respond quickly to customer demand. “We fulfill people’s dreams,” Wandell said. “My job was to remove all the obstacles that kept people from doing their jobs,” thus ensuring customers expectations would come first.

Harley-Davidson also needed to expand its global outreach. Because young people today belong to the first truly global generation, “we need to be trans-generational and trans-cultural to satisfy our customers. We need truly global products,” he said.

This implied a deep transformational process for a company with different parts of the production line distributed throughout 43 buildings. Although all employees, according to Wandell, “have an unbelievable passion for the brand,” the resistance he faced from unions was predictably fierce.

“I told them, here’s the deal: 10’000 people cannot run this company, only one person can. I want your input, but we have to separate church and state. We have to make sure that the people who stay have a future. They knew that there was no second chance.”

The current organization is team focused, with each team leader followed by a supervisor. Built on the principle of the inverted work triangle, it allows any product in any line, at any point in time, with any worker to be completed in record time.

Leadership, Wandell said, is at the heart of any transformation, with even sustainability depending on great leadership. But it’s not just about being “best at what you do,” he underlined, “you also have to be a leader on how you behave.”

“When leaders cannot provide integrity and transparency, they’re done,” he explained his own take on the job. Accountability, the ability to focus on customers, creativity and innovation are also part of the evaluation process that he has put in place.

“Employees need to be fully engaged with their hearts and their minds,” he emphasized.

Of course, being part of the Harley Davidson dream and working for one of the best-known brands in the world is a big part of the picture. “Our product allows our customers to live our brand image,” Wandell said, naming freedom, independence, irreverence and the ability to rebel as the elements that the brand projects.

How many brands are actually tattooed on the customers, he asked. “Transformation is also about being everything for that customer,” he stressed, “and providing an outstanding experience.”

But the process works both ways, he reminded the OWP audience, because customers and retailers are expected to provide their input as well, especially in terms of product innovation.

The role of the more than a thousand independently-owned retailers who are an intrinsic part of Harley Davidson’s success story, “an unbelievable network of people who love and live the brand,” cannot be overplayed, he said. He also pointed out that 18 percent of the motorcycle-related revenue, which is itself 86 percent of the total USD 4.9 billion annual turnover, is generated by accessories alone.

With a current overseas growth rate of more than 11 percent, Wandell is confident that the profound restructuring that he has put in place is producing the goods. And now, as he said, “We have to communicate, communicate, communicate.”

Orchestrating Winning Performance (OWP) is IMD’s largest open enrollment program, drawing nearly 500 participants from around the globe to the IMD campus in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Watch an excerpt from the presentation on YouTube.

Follow the program on Twitter. Share your thoughts and keep the conversation going adding the hashtag #OWP2011 to your tweets.

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