By Eve Gumpel, California Business Journal.
When an executive recruiter told Julia Erdkamp she was selling herself short, Erdkamp took the observation to heart. “Your skill set and what you bring to the table really need to be at the top-level executive rank,” the woman told her.
Erdkamp’s inner voice had been saying pretty much the same thing. Her gifts weren’t being utilized the best way in her current job. “I was working with a great group of individuals, but I felt like I was losing my edge as a strategist and a transformational leader,” she says. “I wanted to make a measurable impact on organizations and businesses in a way that I could be proud of.”
She considered joining another consulting firm, but none of them seemed the right fit. “I had to do it on my own terms — not someone else’s,” she concluded.
So Coxswain Consulting was born in 2017. It wasn’t an entirely new direction for Erdkamp. She had owned her own consulting business since 2007, but it was more of a sideline.
With Coxswain, Erdkamp is all in.
Erdkamp chose the name “Coxswain” deliberately. The term refers to someone who’s steering or navigating a ship or a “boat servant”. “That’s ultimately my approach,” she says. “I consider myself a trusted advisor for organizational leaders. I come alongside them and help them navigate this massive ship called a business or organization to an incredible destination.”
Her breadth of knowledge and experience includes churches, nonprofits, public agencies and for-profit companies. She’s worked with companies engaged in engineering, environmental, water resources, renewable energy, waste management, information technology, residential and commercial development, law enforcement, cannabis, sales and use tax, manufacturing, construction, aviation and national security.
“It’s not just a career choice for me,” Erdkamp emphasizes. “It’s a calling.” Always active in church and in her community, she says, “To me, serving and making others’ lives better is what I’m here to do.”
Unlike some consultants, Erdkamp treats her engagements as relationships, not transactions. Invested in the long-term success of her clients, she says, “We’re on this journey together, and by the end they’re ready to soar.” She adds, “I’m pretty relentless about it. You’re going to win when you add me to the equation, because I won’t allow anything less.”
Erdkamp has had some impressive wins. For example, a previous client that provides energy-related resources was having major challenges with customers and stakeholders. The company’s systems had continuous issues. And when that company couldn’t deliver, it affected not only the company’s clients, but all of its customers’ clients as well.
Before Erdkamp started working with the organization, it was focused on fixing the IT system. Microsoft’s estimate for fixing the problem? $100 million.
“I came in and I said, ‘Let’s just pause and take a step back. Let’s take a look at what’s going on.’ Working with Erdkamp, the company identified its overall business requirements and what needed to change operationally to meet those requirements. The final piece was to determine what systems needed to take place to augment the operation. All of this at a fraction of Microsoft’s $100 million estimate. What’s more, says Erdkamp, the client achieved another $10 million in cost avoidance.
“That’s really at the heart of what I do and what Coxswain Consulting is about,” she says. “Real results having a measurable impact on companies and organizations.”
Erdkamp’s first task when she takes on a client is to listen – not just to the leadership, but also to the team. “And when I say listening, a lot of that is mainly observation,” she says. “When you talk to someone, their perception of how things are going versus what you actually see going on can be completely different.”
Erdkamp has worked with an extensive list of methodologies during her career. But typically they don’t aim at the C-Suite, and they don’t take a holistic approach to business problems. “It’s like a house — I can fix this leaky pipe over here, but if the rest of the house is crumbling, so what? If you’re really going to have sustainable, long-term results, you need to take a full picture of what’s going on,” she says.
Her research led her to the High-Performance Management System (HPMS) developed by Richard Palermo Sr., former senior vice president of Xerox. “What I really love about the methodology is, it’s very simple.” Executives don’t like a lot of minutia, she says. “We want to get straight to the point.” HPMS is simple, and sustainable. “I adopted the methodology, and then I enhanced it a bit based on my experience working with both public and private-sector organizations.
“Now it’s really the foundation of my advisory services.”
What it does is help organizations determine two things: What are the right things for them to do – and what is the right way of doing those things? Process improvement focuses on doing things the right way. But it doesn’t ask, “are we doing the right things?”
Conversely, if the company’s executives look at just doing the right things, they don’t examine their effectiveness or their efficiency. “You still have a lot of waste in the organization, so ultimately you’ll probably fail as a business,” Erdkamp says.
HPMS asks each company, “Who are you? What’s important to you? What’s important to your customers? What’s important to the people who are serving in your organization?” It also examines the financial performance of an organization.
From that, Erdkamp determines the essential elements of an organization. “Everything outside of those elements doesn’t matter anymore. We’re just interested in improving those essential elements,” she says. Then she takes them through the process to improve in those areas.
“There’s huge results from that,” she says. Measuring the impact three years later, she says, “there’ll be a complete shift in company culture and profitability.”
Erdkamp identifies her proudest accomplishment as an online video training series and a live support community for executives that is set to launch this month.
“What this is really about is teaching businesses how to fish,” she explains. “They only need a laptop or phone, and I’ll walk them step-by-step through the process to move them from where they are today to what I call a world-class, rock-star organization in the top three percent of those in their industry. I think that’s pretty incredible.”
Along with the six weeks’ worth of videos, participants get access to a clearinghouse of experts who will provide free consultations on sales, marketing, operations and finances. “These experts are in the top tier,” Erdkamp says. “They are making themselves available to my clients, and I’m really proud that I’ve been able to put that together to help those that participate in this online program.”
Participants also get the opportunity to connect with other executives, building relationships for the long haul and getting answers to their burning business questions. “They’ll have access to me and access to other executives in a safe place,” she says. “Without question, it’s going to be my biggest legacy.”
When an individual is running a company it’s difficult to take a step back because they’re trying to keep the business flourishing. Yet, as Erdkamp notes, “You need someone else to come alongside and say, ‘I’m watching all these pieces, and this is out of place, and you’re probably wasting a lot of energy here. You’re getting way off track from your core business over here and you’re spreading yourself too thin.’
“You need to have those conversations, but you need help having those conversations because they’re not intuitive for a business executive. Once you do it,” she says, “you’re laser sharp in your focus. If you can just focus down to what you’re supposed to be doing, it’s a powerful thing.”
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