Joe Euteneuer: “Get to know your teammates!”

KYT (Know Your Team) — Get to know your teammates! This means not only knowing their professional skills, but also knowing them personally. If you understand an employee’s personal situation — for example, they need to leave work early to take care of their children — you can help them succeed by being empathetic to their responsibilities and make easy changes […]

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KYT (Know Your Team) — Get to know your teammates! This means not only knowing their professional skills, but also knowing them personally. If you understand an employee’s personal situation — for example, they need to leave work early to take care of their children — you can help them succeed by being empathetic to their responsibilities and make easy changes to the schedule so everyone wins. The other way to know your team is to hold staff/team meetings regularly. This is not only so you know what everyone is working on and what is the status of their progress, but for the rest of the team to be aware as well. I remember a situation I took over a department where there were no staff meetings at all. When I started bringing people together regularly it was amazing how they all realized the interdependencies of what they do. The most important result was the elimination of silos and the start of teamwork.

As a part of our series about the five things you need to successfully manage a large team, I had the pleasure of interviewing Joe Euteneuer.

Joe Euteneuer is an accomplished financial executive and Board member with a diversified history at some of the world’s largest publicly traded technology, telecom and cable corporations. He has led large-scale finance organizations, working with companies to improve their capital structure, while building an impressive track record of helping companies in need of restructuring, along with implementing new strategies to achieve long-term sustainable revenue growth and profitability.

Most recently, Joe served as Chief Financial Officer for Mattel, where he worked closely with the CEO, other executives and the board of directors to lead Mattel’s successful business transformation strategy. Prior to Mattel, Joe was co-CEO and CFO for Rivada Networks, and also served as CFO of Sprint and XM Satellite Radio. Earlier in his career, Joe spent 14 years at Comcast, where he held key financial roles responsible for expanding the company’s business. He started his career at Price Waterhouse Coopers and Deloitte and is a Certified Public Accountant.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?

I’m happy to speak to you! I’m originally from Chicago, born and raised not far from Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs. My Dad was born in Germany and immigrated to the US where he joined the Air Force.

As the child of an immigrant and former Air Force officer, it was instilled in me at an early age that in order to get what you wanted in life you needed to work for it. My dad used to say you have to do whatever it takes if you really want to achieve your goal. Growing up near Wrigley Field, there were large parking lots where fans would park on game days. Very often the lots would overflow, leaving people searching for parking near the Field. I saw cars circling my house and had my earliest entrepreneurial idea. We had empty space in our garage and I figured I could monetize it, giving some to my parents and keeping a portion of the money for myself. So at age 10, I started waving cars over to our garage and parked cars two at a time for a fee. Then it became 4 at a time and before I knew it, I was using every house on our block to park cars, splitting the fee with the owners of the house. This parking venture went on for several years and it still goes on today.

Leaving parking cars behind me, I went on to attend an all-boys public Catholic High School in Chicago. Here again the discipline of hard work was reinforced. In addition, playing team sports in High School brought in the importance of teamwork.

And those concepts of hard work and teamwork carried over into college. Playing sports was one of the most fun, enjoyable experiences of my life. I loved being part of a team and embraced the hard work associated with winning.

As an undergraduate I majored in accounting and in my first accounting class I met the man who would be one of the most important mentors of my life. He was the Assistant Dean of Business and he really took me under his wing. He not only counseled me on the right classes to take, but more importantly he helped me create a plan for my future and continued to monitor my execution over my career.

After college I joined what is now one of the Big 4 Public Accounting firms. During my over 6-year stint in public accounting I actually had the benefit of working for two of these Big 4 firms. During those years I benefited from the disciplines of hard work and teamwork I had learned early in life. In addition, I got to see how different industries work and what characteristics make a company successful. Through public accounting, I gained exposure to M&A transactions, the integration of acquisitions, proxy battles, large corporate restructurings and refinancings, IPO’s and methods to increase operating and financial performance (operational excellence). Being in public accounting was very satisfying as a career choice and it was an incredible experience seeing different types of businesses, both public and private, across all industries. It was a thrilling experience to see a little bit of everything.

After my stint in public accounting, I joined a serial entrepreneur who had started and sold several companies in the food industry. His goal was to create a gourmet snack food company before “gourmet” was a thing. Being his partner and learning how to build a business from scratch was probably the most practical MBA experience one could have asked for. We bought a small manufacturing company in Phoenix and built one in Minneapolis, eventually getting our product on every store shelf west of the Mississippi. We were also able to improve margins by focusing on yield in the manufacturing process. Specifically, we identified the differences in the yield of raw material sources. Paying attention to that level of detail allowed us to improve profitability while pricing our products competitively. When you are part of a startup or high growth company paying attention to the small details lays the foundation for both short-term and long-term success.Through this venture I learned first-hand how to build and run a business from scratch. After a successful sale of the business I moved on to a portfolio company of the large private equity firm, KKR.

My first experience with KKR was helping with a proxy battle for Storer Communications. Through this proxy fight, I learned the importance of presenting your story in a clear and concise manner in a very short period of time. We won the proxy vote. After that win I became the CFO of the Western Region where I learned the difference of operating a business for the short-term versus long-term. I also learned that if you want your business to outperform you must dive into the details and keenly focus on the key drivers that generate profitable growth. I appreciated the importance of having disciplined governance and oversight that was both informative and transparent. Whether it was the monthly operating performance meeting or deep dives into specific parts of the business, transparency is critical to having a productive dialogue on what is happening within your company and what needs to change going forward to achieve the desired growth. Ultimately KKR sold Storer to a joint venture owned by Comcast and TCI. My journey with Storer came full circle as I had absorbed so much on the operating side during those years and then in the end, got to be a part of the deal negotiations, helping the deal get to the finish line.

When the deal closed Comcast asked me to join them and I accepted. I jumped at the opportunity to be the Vice President of Corporate Development reporting directly to one of the founders and one of the best finance executives of his time, Julian Brodsky. Under Julian, I learned the importance of organic and inorganic growth and how imperative it is to get your existing assets to perform in order for acquired assets to become accretive. The number one priority for Julian and the leadership team at Comcast was to maximize shareholder value and it was evident in every decision they made. When I first joined, Comcast was an 800 employee company run by Ralph Roberts, the ultimate entrepreneur, Dan Aaron and Julian. In my first several years working for Julian we acquired or invested in several companies including E! TV, QVC, Wireless/Cellular, and were very active in the Cable industry’s consolidation. During this time of rapid growth, Comcast was disciplined in making sure “the knitting” — the internal structure — of the firm was properly taken care of by ensuring transparency in reporting and making sure management always received timely decision-making information. Ensuring this transparency and disseminating this information were some of my key responsibilities at Comcast. When Ralph seamlessly handed over the CEO reins to his son Brian, I took on additional operating financial roles. My last role was CFO of EMEA. By the time I moved on from Comcast the Company had grown to over 66,000 employees and 12 billion dollars in annual revenue.

After the great experience at Comcast, I spent the next 20 years in high profile CFO roles at some of the largest communications firms in the world including XM Satellite Radio, Qwest Communications and Sprint. These experiences capitalized on the foundation of operating and financial skills learned at Comcast and provided me with some of my most significant career milestones. Although in similar sectors, each company was unique in their composition and priorities. For example, launching satellites is different from transitioning from copper wire to fiber…which is different from deploying wireless infrastructure. I am sure some of you remember your first installed car phone or the first portable cell phone that looked more like a brick. In these roles, my ability to stay operationally nimble in the ever-changing technology world while effectively positioning a company’s capital structure for success was critical to the long term viability and profitability of these companies. At XM, Qwest and Sprint, I participated in some of the highest profile M&A transactions in the marketplace — transactions that changed the landscape of the telecom industry as we know it. Whether it was the 12.2 billion dollars merger of Qwest and Century Link or the 22 billion dollars merger of Sprint and Softbank, each transaction started with the positive momentum within each core business. This momentum came from one’s ability to successfully manage a team and focus this team on profitability.

My most recent position as CFO of Mattel was the kind of “outside the box” career move that I have often encouraged others to make. The move to Mattel was exciting and enabled me to expand my business knowledge beyond global telecommunications and into…the manufacturing and sales of children’s toys. Although a completely different learning curve in some ways, in others it felt very familiar as I was tasked to turn around a 5B dollars business that was underperforming for a few years. Exceeding the originally stated goal of reducing expenses by more than 650 million dollars, as well as getting the company back to free cash flow positive for the first time in many years, were two very rewarding successes that we accomplished as a team.

Throughout my career, various professional experiences have challenged me to not only test my negotiating skills and to hone my powers of persuasion in deal making, but also to enhance my managerial skills working with large teams. The finance function across industries is evolving in so many ways and I’m excited to see what 2021 holds for all of us. I am also excited about the Board Advisory roles I have accepted at Quantum Metric, NAX and Melody Capital. These are all companies that have great growth potential.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

I have learned so many things from so many people during my career. One story that stands out to me is that moment when I first learned the difference between long and short-term performance.

After leaving the snack food company I worked for, I became a regional CFO for Storer Communications, a KKR portfolio company that I mentioned earlier. During that time KKR taught me the importance of having not only a well-articulated budget, but to understand the importance of achieving that budget. During monthly performance reviews it was never enough to report on why something happened (or went wrong,) you needed to explain what you were going to do to remedy the situation. I remember in my first three monthly reviews we missed budget. I also remember being asked if I knew why we missed our budget. Although we actually had laid out all of our reasons why we missed, what they really cared about was what exactly we were we going to do to rectify the situation. During that third call I was asked if I was going to get our budget goals on track or did they need to find someone else who would do it. They made their point and we never missed the budget again.

As a business leader, performance is what counts and if you don’t perform you need to not only explain why, but what will change in our execution in the future. You can’t say you are part of the team if you are sitting up in the stands: you need to get on the field and play. I think that is so important for finance professionals to understand this. We are constantly asked to explain “well what happened?” during an earnings period, but we should be working with the entire team to implement changes in our execution so we don’t miss our performance goals. You can imagine after that last call with the senior managers at KKR, I never missed my budget again. I made sure to be on top of our performance every day so that I could make necessary changes before a “miss” actually happened. This nimbleness is another opportunity for finance to work with the operating team to be successful each month. Proactive execution is always better than reactive.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

In my career I have been fortunate to have many different opportunities. Generally, before accepting one of these opportunities I fully understand the situation I am walking into and appreciate the different challenges that lay on the horizon. When I was presented the opportunity at XM Satellite Radio I was fascinated with the concept of a subscription service for satellite delivered radio entertainment, especially since for the last several decades radio has been delivered terrestrially for free. In addition, this would be the first opportunity in the prior 14 years where I would not have the safety of having a large company like Comcast backing me. After several conversations with the private equity firms who owned XM and with XM’s founders, I made the switch. And it was quite a switch indeed.

The first thing you notice when you walk into XM is just the difference in surroundings…going from the high rise environment of Comcast to a converted warehouse. Second was moving from the formal office environment to the casual creative environment. Finally the differences in resources…well financed established company to a just-in-time financing start up. Given that XM had just launched, we were building the revenue base by first convincing the auto industry to put our radios in their cars and then convincing the consumers the satellite service was worth paying for. Given our situation, cash was king and our financial forecast would guide us on just how much cash we had left and how much we needed. So if you go back to what I learned at KKR/Storer… the importance of being proactive and knowing where you are everyday was a critical learning tool for my success at XM. Being the new finance chief I sat down with financial planning to review the operating forecast and understand where we stood in terms of execution. At that point in its development XM was focused on growth and not as much on the financial disciplines — which is exactly why I was brought in. During that review it was obvious that performance was not meeting expectations and as a result we would be burning through cash a lot faster than predicted. That insight was something that had not been well communicated. So being the new CFO with the task of improving financial reporting I had the responsibility to deliver a message no one was expecting or would actually want to hear. All I could think about was that safe cozy environment of Comcast. I was now on my own without a safety net. So luckily I remembered the lesson from my KKR/Storer days… “don’t tell me why, tell me what are you going to do to fix it.” That prior experience proved invaluable because we put together a plan to rectify our situation. At our peak of operations, we were selling our service to over one million customers a month. This growth resulted in an enterprise value of 20 billion dollars. This mistake turned success only happened as a result of paying attention to the details and working together as a team. Great execution can cure a lot of ills.

Ok, let’s jump to the core of our interview. Most times when people quit their jobs they actually “quit their managers”. What are your thoughts on the best way to retain great talent today?

Great question and you asked it in the right way…”quitting their manager.” We talk all the time about treating your employees as assets and developing these assets over time. However, your question hits the heart of the matter. We also need to train and develop our managers on how to treat their reports as assets. This doesn’t mean you need to spend thousands of dollars on PowerPoints or training materials, but rather show your managers the simple things they can do to make their employees feel more valued and part of the team. My simplest example goes back to the foundation of understanding why something happens, but also having a solution to fix it. As an accountant or financial analyst there is a core set of responsibilities. However, as important as these functions might be, people in those functions never really get to see the fruits of their labor and the importance of their work. So I would invite department managers and a few of their staff to the post earnings analyst follow-up calls. It was amazing for them. Not only does the finance manager understand the importance of their department’s function, but it was so valuable to have a dialog with them about what they are seeing in the numbers, what, if anything, are we missing, etc. Just the opportunity to participate post earnings improved the manager’s and their staff’s feeling of worth. The crowning moment is when a Wall Street analyst asks a question that the manager and their staff had proposed themselves. At that moment they feel a real part of the team and the process, and not someone just performing a day to day function with no idea of its value or benefit to the company. If you take this simple example and extrapolate it to other internal and external meetings across all functions you can foster a dynamic where staff feels their managers are respected, their manager respects and cares about their own professional development, and the entire department is truly part of the team. In my experience, no one quits a manager who shows they care about them.

As a society, we have become so end-goal oriented and so much team communication centers on accomplishing whatever the latest task is. You have the proverbial annual or “360” review and all those things tied to a snapshot of employee performance at a moment in time (like a personal balance sheet), but very rarely do we discuss someone’s career path. I think we need to be more transparent during evaluations and not be preoccupied with losing people. If someone is unhappy and unfulfilled, you will lose them anyway. You may have an employee who performs at a high level but in reality, is unsatisfied with their work. You have to step back and approach the unthinkable — suggesting that maybe this isn’t the best place for them. As a manager, you need to discuss their goals and be realistic about their path, while trying to find the right place for them internally (or externally.) In the end, it will be worth the effort — you will retain more people than you lose while engendering loyalty. As managers and leaders we need to keep our employees happy, engaged and satisfied, with opportunities to grow.

How do you synchronize large teams to effectively work together?

The foundation of synchronizing large teams lies with open communications. It sounds easy, but let’s discuss the component pieces. First you need a plan and a list of common goals that everyone has weighed in on. Once you have collective buy in on the plan you can move to execution. The execution process has to have clearly delineated roles and responsibilities with periodic review points to make sure individuals are on track. Then you need regularly recurring review meetings where leaders of individual segments give an update on their status. These meetings are important as they get everyone on the project on the same page and allow all participants to see and hear the bigger picture. This establishes a connection to the project and a feeling of being connected to the team. There should also be a continuous feedback loop in between meetings so you don’t need to wait until the next formal update. There needs to be a process for someone to escalate issues in off cycles. You never know when there might be personality issues, lack of resources, etc. Having that open loop in communications is critical to success.

Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your personal experience, what are the “5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Manage a Team”. (Please share a story or example for each, Ideally an example from your experience)

  1. KYT (Know Your Team) — Get to know your teammates! This means not only knowing their professional skills, but also knowing them personally. If you understand an employee’s personal situation — for example, they need to leave work early to take care of their children — you can help them succeed by being empathetic to their responsibilities and make easy changes to the schedule so everyone wins. The other way to know your team is to hold staff/team meetings regularly. This is not only so you know what everyone is working on and what is the status of their progress, but for the rest of the team to be aware as well. I remember a situation I took over a department where there were no staff meetings at all. When I started bringing people together regularly it was amazing how they all realized the interdependencies of what they do. The most important result was the elimination of silos and the start of teamwork.
  2. Understand their career possibilities. What is the pathway for your people and what are their goals? What do they want for their future? Meeting with people individually and helping them lay out a path to their future is very rewarding to you, but more importantly it creates loyalty as a result of you showing you care about them. When you take the time to not only talk to people about their career aspirations, but to actually help them execute on their growth plan, you are building loyalty. I had a situation where an employee felt their rise in the organization was time bound and not capability bound. They also felt they could go anywhere and duplicate the situation. I provided counsel to this employee, but I ran the risk of being viewed as self-serving. So I asked a well-respected outside recruiter to meet with this individual and give them direct, independent feedback on how a recruiter would view them and/or another company. The meeting with the employee was eye opening for the employee. The fact that I went outside to get independent help for the employee not only strengthened the relationship with the employee, but really improved the loyalty. In addition, it showed the rest of the organization how much I valued employees.
  3. All for one and one for all. As a manager, youmust get everyone on the same page by establishing common goals and strategy, ensuring that all opinions are heard. Getting everyone in a room or on a call to discuss an issue in an open and safe environment will allow for the best solution to bubble up, but more importantly it creates buy-in. Everyone had a chance to comment and then whatever the boss decides everyone should be on board. You can’t have grousing in the hallways. That type of behavior will only kill the project, but the culture you want to build as well. I remember sitting in a large project review meeting with the CEO where there were 50 people in the room. A group presented a project, there was discussion about the project, and then the CEO alone made a decision. After the CEO announced the decision, a person in the back of the room raised their hand and said they disagreed with the conclusion. The CEO allowed the person to come to the front of the room to properly voice their dissension. As a result of the new information, the CEO reversed their decision. This situation demonstrated to all present at the meeting that everyone’s voice matters and that we are all in this together.
  4. Don’t forget to listen. Be a good listener and always be open to feedback. With everyone working remote (sometimes on odd schedules) you just have to find the time to connect. The simple questions “are you O.K.?”, “is there anything I can do for you?” and “is there anything else you need to be successful?” are all important questions to ask your reports at this time. Remember as much as you might pride yourself in knowing what is going on in a COVID-19 or even a post- COVID-19 environment, you need to schedule the one-on-one calls so that you can stay connected to people you might normally see only by chance. When you see someone physically you see their true emotions in their face and in their body language. It is indeed harder when you are only working remotely. I once had a situation with an employee I would normally see every day. We had our one-on-one call and asked my normal questions…how are you doing, how is your family, etc. In listening to the responses I felt I was hearing a different tone than I usually do. Concerned, I decided to ask more probing questions. Sure enough the employee had a situation where they felt stuck and helpless in what to do. Once I heard the situation, I offered some help to rectify it. On the next one-on-one call the employee was very grateful for my concern. Listening for signals from your employees is crucial. Further, as much as it is important to listen when you meet in person, it is even more important when you are remote.
  5. Provide the leadership people need. It’s good to be collaborative and to solicit input and feedback, but at the end of the day you need to be the leader. Develop your own leadership skills as you develop that of others. Everyone is watching how you handle each situation. Since all eyes are on you, you need to build up wins one at time. That happens by being proactive in dealing with each situation and by having those individual one-on-one meetings. Don’t avoid dealing with tough situations. I remember starting a new engagement where problem situations were left to linger for years. Within the first six months on the job I dealt with the majority of these issues. This showed the organization that I was not going to run away from a tough situation, and would always make sure I had all the facts. I faced another situation where a turnaround plan clearly needed to be put in place, but nothing was done. Implementing a plan and then executing it, while measuring performance against it, demonstrated leadership that would move the organization forward.

What advice would you give to other executives or founders to help their employees to thrive?

Be considerate of the needs, goals and desires of your employees and figure out ways — thinking both inside and outside the box — to keep them engaged and happy. Constantly solicit feedback on how their experience can be improved and then, as a leader, make it happen. You will not be able to solve every situation, but being proactive and addressing what is at hand will allow you to build a loyal team.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

In the brave, new post-Covid world that we find ourselves in, everyone is experiencing raw emotions in one way or another. I think it would help if, at least once a day, every one of us could say something kind to another person. That might sound a little mundane but in practice, I think it would brighten up spirits across the board. In every facet of our lives — schools, workplaces, places of worship (remote or otherwise) I think we could benefit from more kindness. I often find that I actually feel better if I tell someone something supportive or sympathetic — it improves my mood to make someone else feel better. Or at least happier than they were. Kindness spurs hope and well, we all need hope now more than ever.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.” — Henry Ford

This quote embodies everything I have ever wanted to do in my career but also in my personal life. I have an internal set of responsibilities — my “knitting” — but I can’t fulfill them if I don’t engage others around me on my journey. Whenever I have started a new job, entered a new company, met the team from an organization as part of an acquisition or merger, it is always so important to come together, keep together and work together. You must keep talking to those around you and make sure you get everyone involved and take the actions necessary from the listening you did. Success comes from great execution and execution cures a lot of ills.

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