As part of my series about the “How Businesses Pivot and Stay Relevant In The Face of Disruptive Technologies,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Michelle Diamond, CEO of Elevate Diamond Strategy, a growth strategy and execution advisory, consulting, and interim executive firm has 25+ years’ strategy, general management, marketing, finance, go-to-market, audit, M&A, and operations experience.
Michelle has strong expertise helping companies scale, developing, evaluating, and implementing diverse, yet innovative growth strategies, strategic plans, and go-to-market initiatives for acceleration and long-term value creation, leading mergers and acquisitions (pre and post), creating competitive advantage and differentiation, and in turnarounds/ restructuring to optimize profitability.
Michelle is an expert, operational executive, and entrepreneur who worked with 50+ organizations from startup, early/growth stage, small/middle market, private equity/venture capital, to Fortune 50 companies in 25+ industries including CIGNA, Colgate-Palmolive, Elsevier, MetLife, NRG, Constellation Energy, DEKRA, and Daimler — just to name a few.
Prior to Elevate Diamond Strategy, Michelle was the creator and Head, Competitive Intelligence for the $1B+ Group Insurance Division at CIGNA. Prior to that role, she oversaw CIGNA’s $20M Printing & Distribution business, was Manager of Strategy at Accenture, and in Mergers & Acquisitions and Assurance and Business Advisory Services at Ernst & Young. She also held financial roles at Colgate-Palmolive and Citibank, and was selected for Goldman Sachs and Proctor & Gamble camps.
Michelle holds an MBA from Duke University, a BS from Morgan State University (Summa Cum Laude), and attended Wharton Executive Education. She is also a nonpracticing Certified Public Accountant.
Michelle is a former Board President of the INROADS Philadelphia Alumni Association, a member of Extraordinary Women on Boards (EWOB), and has led efforts and volunteered for the United Way, March of Dimes, Boys & Girls Club, Big Brothers Big Sisters, and Habitat for Humanity. She was a speaker and facilitator for the Women Presidents’ Organization (WPO), the National Association of Professional Women (NAPW), and a growth expert on radio shows Accelerating Your Business™ (creator and host), Executive Leaders Radio, and The Marketing of Business.
She is also the author of the book, How to Grow & Expand Your Business in Times of Feast or Famine.
Michelle currently resides in Beverly Hills and enjoys sports, dance, entertaining, and travel.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I grew up in Queens, New York and started my career in Accounting & Finance. I worked at several corporations (Colgate-Palmolive, Citibank and others) and then at a large accounting firm, Ernst & Young (now EY). After getting my CPA and then my MBA from Duke, I worked in strategy consulting at Accenture and at large organizations (i.e. CIGNA), where I began to focus on growth and expansion strategies, marketing, new market entry, competitive intelligence, finance, and general management.
After building the Competitive Intelligence function for one of the key divisions at CIGNA, I realized I missed the variety of working with multiple companies and decided to go back into consulting. However, at the time, I did not want to ‘live out of a suitcase’. I told myself if I could not find a firm that provided the balance I wanted, I would start one myself. When I did not find what I needed, I started my own firm.
In addition, I wanted to serve clients of all sizes, especially small to midsize companies who did not typically retain growth strategy advisory and consulting services for their companies and provide innovative, yet PRACTICAL and EXECUTABLE strategies and solutions for all companies of all sizes to help them better drive and accelerate top and bottom-line results.
I then came up with a business name and registered the business. I also reached out to individuals I knew (‘my informal advisors’), that created and ran successful consulting and other high-end services and advisory firms to gain a better understanding of how they were able to achieve their success. Their advice was invaluable because it helped me to better plan, recognize timing, and overcome obstacles.
After several months of networking, I got my first client. That was more than 16 years ago.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
When I was told by my informal advisors that it may take between 6–12 months to get my first client, since in essence, I was starting from scratch, I decided to create a resume business. I knew that I could easily start one and generate revenue quickly. I had been writing and reviewing resumes for years, achieving a 100% placement rate. I never mentioned the resume business during networking for the growth strategy business, as I looked at them as two separate businesses, with two different types of customers.
However, at one networking event, I was approached by a woman who asked me if I knew how to write. I was thrown off at first, because I had no idea why she was asking me this. She said she saw that I have a resume business. At first, I was bothered because I was working so hard at that time to build up my reputation and personal brand as a high-end growth strategy advisor and consultant. I told her yes, I know how to write. She then asked me if I could write an advertorial for one of her firm’s clients.
I had never heard of the term, advertorial. I told her I did not know what it was or how to do it and then walked away. I always want to ensure that I am honest and upfront with people about what I can and cannot do.
That was a mistake. Fortunately, for me, I mentioned what happened to someone else and they told me to go back to her. I did and told her even though I had not done one previously, I would give it a shot. She said ok. I then called a good friend at the time who was a marketing expert. She gave me insight on what it was and the format to do it. I had seen advertorials all the time, I just did not know the terminology.
That ended up being my first client engagement. It turns out the woman worked for a small consulting firm that was always looking to partner with other like-minded or complimentary skilled consultants. Their process is to give independent consultants small engagements first, and see how they do, before providing the option to put them on larger engagements. I got $1,000 for writing the advertorial. I also got a partnership with that firm for the next two and a half years, where we worked on multiple clients together.
My takeaway from that experience is that sometimes you never know where business will come from or what form opportunities may take. It is important to stay open. A lot of running a consulting and advisory practice is that you are constantly planting a lot of seeds. You do not always know when those seeds will turn into opportunities, but many inevitably will.
If I did not go back, I would have not only walked away from $1,000, but a multi-year relationship that ended up generating significant revenue for my firm.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Carol. After fighting for months to make Competitive Intelligence my role when I was at a $1B+ Division at CIGNA, I finally got the buy-in I wanted and began getting some ‘wins’ in terms of coming through and providing insight that no one else in the Company had regarding certain existing and emerging competitors for the Board of Directors, Division President, Sales, and other stakeholders.
I had also created processes and built up a knowledge base and Intranet site, while starting to monitor competitors and the competitive landscape on an ongoing basis.
However, despite these accomplishments, I became bored. I wanted another challenge and did not know what to do. Fortunately, I spoke to a C-Level executive named Carol, who encouraged me to share the insights I had with other executives and leaders throughout the Division and Company and to ask them directly how I could help them as well as listen to their challenges and goals, so I could offer what I believed would benefit them.
It was so simple, but something I had not yet done. After doing that, the demand for competitive intelligence exploded. My role then became an area as I had to bring on staff to handle the ongoing competitive intelligence efforts, so I could focus on the more strategic projects and initiatives.
I ended up working on projects for the Board of Directors, C-Suite, Division President, Senior Management Team, and functional areas throughout the Division and Company including Product Development and Management, Corporate Marketing, Sales, Finance, Investor Relations, Human Resources, Public Relations, Pricing, and Operations.
Major offensive and defensive efforts included product development and management, competitor positioning, trend analyses, Six Sigma process redesign, brand strategy, sales training, staffing strategies, benchmarking, and many others that helped to achieve sales of over $300M for the Division.
That would not have happened if I did not obtain Carol’s great advice and then acted on it. I am grateful.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
As mentioned earlier, I started my business because I wanted to serve organizations of all sizes, especially small to midsize companies who did not typically retain growth strategy advisory and consulting services for their companies and provide innovative, yet PRACTICAL and EXECUTABLE strategies and solutions for all companies of all sizes to help them better drive and accelerate top and bottom-line results.
I also created a credo (see below) for my firm, as I believe the way a company goes about achieving its results is just as important as reaching and exceeding their goals.
I believe that as companies grow, they create more jobs or are able to pay employees more. Having a productive and well-paid workforce automatically gets rid of a lot of our society’s problems.
Elevate Diamond Strategy Credo
Elevate listens to you and meets your needs with customized, tailored solutions.
Make Complex Solutions Easy to Understand
Elevate believes solutions should be easily understood by all stakeholders, to enhance effectiveness in both the short and long term.
Operate with Integrity
Elevate only does work we know how to do and consistently strives to give you over and above what you need.
We have a genuine interest in relationships and in seeing companies meet and exceed their strategic and growth goals.
Focus on Execution
Elevate begins with the end in mind, is results-oriented, and has a “get it done” mentality. We are not interested in pretty decks. “Strategies do not belong on a shelf.”
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you tell our readers a bit about what your business does? How do you help people?
Elevate Diamond Strategy is a growth strategy and execution independent consultancy, advisory, and interim executive business expansion and profit improvement firm, focused on helping startups, small to middle market, early/growth stage, private equity/ venture capital, and Fortune 1000 companies get to the next level and grow faster and more profitably than they could on their own — accelerating their speed to success.
Michelle Diamond of Elevate Diamond Strategy also advises CEOs, business owners, and executives when they need a ‘second set of eyes’ and an unbiased point of view.
To date, Michelle Diamond of Elevate Diamond Strategy has worked with 65 companies in 31 industries.
Since 2005, Elevate Diamond Strategy has worked on investor, Board, SME, and CEO/C-Suite issues, helping public and private companies scale, identify and capitalize on growth opportunities (organic/M&A), and achieve or defend their competitive advantage — whether they are losing money, experiencing stagnant growth, need assistance managing rapid growth, or are seeking to grow exponentially.
Elevate Diamond Strategy focuses on providing strategies and solutions that ‘grow the top line while keeping the bottom line in mind’, making complex solutions innovative and effective, yet simple and easy to implement and understand, to drive execution and provide extraordinary results for clients.
Elevate Diamond Strategy’s motto is “Strategies Do Not Belong On A Shelf.”
Which technological innovation has encroached or disrupted your industry? Can you explain why this has been disruptive?
I helped many of the companies I worked with pivot in the face of disruptive technologies.
One example is when I worked with a Fortune 1000 Chemical Company who was #1 in the Pulp and Paper market for decades. They were disrupted by the move from paper to online and overall digitization that has taken place worldwide.
After their stock price dropped due to not growing the top line, the Company obtained pressure from their Board to do more than keep cutting costs and downsizing. I was brought in to help find growth opportunities and create a growth and market entry strategy that could help them start growing again.
What did you do to pivot as a result of this disruption?
I helped the Company pivot into the domestic and global Biofuels (Fuel Ethanol and Biodiesel) market.
This required not only a different level of analysis in terms of identifying ‘white space’ and new market opportunities, but a huge mental shift on the part of the employees of the organization, who did not believe they could be successful in any industry other than Pulp & Paper.
Was there a specific “Aha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path? If yes, we’d love to hear the story.
The ‘aha moment’ occurred after the ‘acceptance moment’. Just as there are stages in grief, there are steps that companies and employees have to go through before reaching the pivot moment.
In this case, the moment occurred when looking at alternate uses of the Company’s chemicals. That came from conducting external research in multiple industries as well as working with R&D to identify potential new avenues for growth.
I also looked at existing products and services could be easily leveraged.
Fortunately, due to the shrinking paper market, the Company had excess capacity in its plants to produce chemicals for the new Biofuel industry verticals. That made the shift a lot easier.
So, how are things going with this new direction?
Great. The Company still operates in this space today.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started this pivot?
The individual who would ultimately be responsible for leading this pivot effort into the Biofuel market had a background in Sales and did not believe the pivot would work (he was of the belief that Paper was the only market the Company could effectively serve), did not understand what a growth strategist did, and did not put a lot of value in my work or in the process.
He simply wanted the answer and to go forward without learning. However, despite the fact that I understood his hesitance and certain level of unbelief that this could be done, I still took the time to share my approach with him as well as how I was able to put together the analysis.
I then walked him through the strategy and plan and oversaw initial execution into the new existing Biofuel (Ethanol and Biodiesel) markets as well as oversee and teach the go-to-market and entry strategy into the new emerging Biofuel industry verticals (on both a domestic and global multi-country level).
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during a disruptive period?
To remain steady, communicate effectively, train your mind to see opportunities regardless of the situation or environment, focus, execute, and maintain a strong level of belief and confidence.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
Show the team through words and actions that we will all overcome and that there is a clear path (once discovered) to move forward. Also, incorporate any productive feedback or input. All of the insights on how to pivot successfully (from both a strategic and execution basis) don’t always come from the leader.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Be transparent and remain steady. Communicate effectively.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make when faced with a disruptive technology? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
Some common mistakes include the following:
- Ignoring that the disruptive technology exists or that it will have an impact.
- Continuing to do things the same way you have always done them.
- Not making the necessary adjustments to provide offensive or defensive strategies to rather capitalize on the disruption or fight against it.
- Throwing in the towel and giving up hope because the disruption occurred and then failing as a result.
Ok. Thank you. Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to pivot and stay relevant in the face of disruptive technologies? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Assess the situation (current environment).
- Assess the company (understand every aspect as it pertains to its current state, trends, and strengths and weaknesses).
- Identify growth opportunities based on company capabilities and market opportunities.
- Once identified and selected, shift the organization to the new paradigm (communicate, communicate, communicate).
- Execute and track results (making course adjustments where necessary).
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I actually have two, but they both have the same premise regarding being prepared.
The first one is “It is better to be prepared and have no opportunity, than to have an opportunity and not be prepared.” The second one is “Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.”
These resonate with me because I realize the importance of being prepared ahead of time for both opportunities and issues, not only in terms of business acumen, but being mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and sometimes physically prepared.
There were some opportunities and issues that came throughout the course of my life and in my career that I was not prepared to handle and as a result, I had some regrets or suffered some losses. However, learning from those mistakes and making these quotes my life lessons, has enabled me to always strive to be prepared going forward.
How can our readers further follow your work?
I can also be found on LinkedIn — https://www.linkedin.com/in/michelle-diamond-51693aa/.