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Joe Heel: Apprenticeships and Partnerships

We interviewed Joe Heel, Chief Revenue Officer of Zebra Technologies.

We discuss how to develop a team responsibly, given a blistering pace of opportunity among both existing verticals and new capabilities.

Joe's got plenty of advice for other sales leaders looking to earn their own growth stripes and shares some of that secret sauce here.



Adam Conner (00:56):

Joe, how you doing? It's great to have you on the show. How are you?

Joe Heel (00:59):

Thanks Adam. I'm doing well. Nice to meet you.

Adam Conner (01:02):

I can't wait to dive a little bit more into what Zebra is and does, but before I get into that, your journey growing that business, let's start with you because I was looking through your LinkedIn and checking around a little bit and saw that you went to school for electrical engineering and computer science came out of MIT with a PHD in 1991... The Twitter page for the MIT 1991 class calls it the well-rounded class. I guess, so if you went from that into a world of sales. How'd you make that transition?

Joe Heel (01:34):

Yes, I wasn't aware of that label for the class of '91, but I certainly would offer my journey as an example of that if I could. Yes, after attending MIT, which wasn't the most straightforward thing for me to begin with because I was German, gone to school in Germany, went to college in Germany and then was accepted for graduate school at MIT. After that, or sort of towards the end of my PhD time at MIT, I was exposed to McKinsey for the first time. It was more of a coincidence where an office mate of mine said, would you like to go and interview for McKinsey? That turned into a 13 year career in consulting, which I really enjoyed.

Joe Heel (02:23):

At the end of that, I said I'd like to go and do something more operational and ended up with Sun Microsystems, which sort of combined the two things that I had learned before. One being computer science and the other being how to solve problems in the business setting, which I think McKinsey taught me. I spent some time at Sun Microsystems and then some time at IBM and more recently, I've joined Zebra. Well, it's already seven years ago now that I joined Zebra, and that's where I am still today. It has been a bit of a journey, but all the more, an experience that has shaped me into what I am, and I'm excited to have had all those experiences.

Adam Conner (03:08):

Making that transition into something slightly more operational makes me wonder, what do you take today, still from that time on the consulting side, which helps you grow teams because of course the operational nature is something that you left for, but I'm guessing that team curation and growth is something that you learned there as a start?

Joe Heel (03:26):

Yes, indeed. I mean, McKinsey taught me a number of things. How to work in a team was certainly one of them. In academia where I was before, that wasn't necessarily the way that we worked. It was more the individual contribution that mattered. The other important thing that McKinsey taught me was really problem solving. how to apply scientific problem solving to business situations. That's still one of the sort of core principles on which I operate today, is good problem solving, I think, is at the heart of every successful business initiative. That's something that I learned at McKinsey.

Adam Conner (04:08):

Well, then let's go right into the business problems that Zebra is solving. I'd love to know, and just for our audience, let's give them a little education. What is Zebra and what does it do?

Joe Heel (04:16):

Yeah. Zebra's a company that few people have heard of, but once I describe it to you, you'll start to see Zebra literally everywhere. We are a company that is transforming from a barcode technology provider to a leader in digitizing and automating workflows. Now this company started over 50 years ago. It was a hardware company, basically made one product, which was a barcode thermal printer. The types of labels that you see on packages come off of those kinds of printers today. In 2014, just after I joined, the company made a very pivotal acquisition and that was of a significant portion of what was Motorola at that time. That business made both scanners, the types of things you might see at a checkout in a grocery store, and mobile computers for enterprises, the type of thing that a courier might be holding in their hand, as they deliver a package. Together, those three big product families, printers, scanners, and mobile computers provide the kinds of capabilities that you need to work with barcodes.

Joe Heel (05:27):

Now, barcodes, of course, are everywhere today. You find them in retail, you find them in healthcare, you find them in transportation and logistics. 94 of the Fortune 100 companies buy products from Zebra today. What we do is we provide solutions for workflows. You might go into a grocery store and you'll see clerks in the aisles, restocking shelves using our products. You go into a warehouse, you see them putting things onto shelves or retrieving them from shelves, or you see a courier delivering a package. Those are all things that Zebra does. Now more recently, we've expanded beyond those products into more of the solutions, in particular the software that's driving those solutions. That would be some of the acquisitions we made, companies like Reflexis and Antuit and Fetch, that are allowing us to grow into additional strategic areas on top of what you can do with barcodes.

Adam Conner (06:28):

The business is very, very broad. It seems that you're very well penetrated into some of the largest businesses out there. Yes, listeners, maybe you'll go through that Baader-Meinhof phenomenon where you'll see Zebra everywhere. When it comes to going to market, though, you've got a very broad team as a result. I understand that channel is central to that go to market strategy, and so I'm interested to learn how your role as a sales team leader evolves to build collaboration with those folks, with your partners, to engage their customers, your customers, and deliver them the best value. That's quite unique for the show so far, most of the leaders that I've spoken with are growing their own teams within their four walls and not so much with partners. I would love to hear your expertise there.

Joe Heel (07:12):

Indeed. This is one of the special features of Zebra and a place where I think Zebra does very well, and I've certainly learned a lot as I've come to Zebra about, how do you build a successful go to market that is based on partners. Zebra goes to market first and foremost through channel partners. 80% of our revenues goes through channel partners and we have over 10,000 of them all around the world. This is very central to what we do because it multiplies our market presence and it allows us to reach literally every corner of the globe and many different use cases that we couldn't reach otherwise.

Joe Heel (07:51):

What you have to think about is this, when you look at the customers for these barcode type technologies, they range from a small restaurant on the corner that might buy a scanner once every five years to a large retailer like a Target or a Walmart or a Home Depot that buys hundreds of thousands of these and deploys them in many different countries around the world. We have to cover that entire spectrum of use cases and the needs of those customers are very different. The bridge between us and those customers are the partners. The partners allow us to reach those customers physically and get the product to them, but they also provide the expertise and the add-ons, if you will. The software, the service that the customers need in order to successfully use our products. That's very important as we serve this very broad range of different types of customers, is that we work with partners.

Adam Conner (08:55):

Back in August of '21, you noted that digitization and automation within the customers that you serve was moving ahead like it had never been moving ahead before, which makes sense. A lot of that happened in 2020 in a forced nature, but you've been going after this quite longer than that. My question is around how you as a sales leader manage this unprecedented demand, which is probably one of the best problems to have... Of course you want to capture every single opportunity that you can, but is it fair to say, how do you responsibly drive this extraordinarily growth in sales given resources, which as you noted have an endured that sort of unprecedented demand.

Joe Heel (09:35):

Yeah. Indeed there has been an amazing surge in demand for digitization automation that was accelerated even further by the pandemic. A good example is if you think about your grocer. Grocers had to find new ways to get products to customers when they couldn't come into stores in the way that they did in the past. Many of them created an ability for customers to either order online or to at least come to the store and pick up an order that was already put together for them, so called buy online pickup in store. That kind of capability requires the kinds of technology and solutions that we provide. If you want to deliver an online order, you have to have someone that will go into the store, find the right products and put them into a cart and then ultimately into shopping bag or a tote and have it ready for you or deliver it to you.

Joe Heel (10:35):

That's the kind of digitization that we support. Usually the people that do these things will have one of our devices in their hands. Next time you see one in a supermarket aisle, take a look at what they're holding and you'll see that it's a Zebra device most likely. That's the example of the surge and demand that we have seen. The challenge has been that, as you've probably seen elsewhere, the supply chain hasn't been able to keep up with that surge in demand. It's not that the supply chain is broken down in any way, it's delivering more or less what it did before, but the demand is so much higher. That's what's really happening here.

Joe Heel (11:15):

As a sales team, we have had to be extraordinarily creative and extraordinarily patient at the same time in order to keep our customers somewhat satisfied. On the one hand, the fact that we have enormous goodwill and fantastic customer relationships certainly has helped us customers trust us and they know that we're trying to do the best that we can and allow us to be flexible in how we deliver to them. But in other cases, we do have to find alternatives for customers. We have to find substitutes. We can tell them we can't deliver this product right now, but we can deliver a different product right now. We have to work with our engineering teams to say, can we change the product so that the component that you're currently not able to get can be substituted with a different component.

Joe Heel (12:09):

The salesperson becomes challenged by things that they normally don't need to do. Normally they're working to get the customers interested in buying our product. Here, they're being more of a mediator between a scare source of supply and a customer who's screaming for us to deliver to them because they need it for these new digitized workflows that they depend on to survive. That's a new situation for our salespeople. I have to say my team, our team is doing a fantastic job of doing that, but it's hard. It's very hard work to mediate between those two sort of constraints. It's certainly something that many people haven't done before, and hopefully won't have to do again in their careers.

Adam Conner (12:57):

Got any secret sauce for us to share about how you're managing it on the day to day?

Joe Heel (13:02):

Well, one of the secret sauce elements is that you have to have a good relationship with the supply chain. The first reaction in this kind of a situation is that the supply is the bad guy. The supply chain is the one who's not giving you the product that you need in order to make your quota or sell to the customer. If you adopt that perspective, you're unlikely to be successful, because the only one who can really help you is the supply chain team. We have been fostering and it really is paid off, we have been fostering strong relationships between our sales teams and our supply chain teams. In fact the supply chain folks sit at our table when we do all of our planning, when we do all of our forecasting, they're part of the team and that's really paid off. We've been able to avoid, by and large, this tension that seems to say, this is the enemy and they're costing me my commission, and instead have created a situation where we work to solve the problem. That's really the secret sauce.

Adam Conner (14:11):

You've been able to manage this unprecedented demand, given us a little bit of this secret sauce, appreciate that. But now want to talk about entering an industry. This unprecedented demand is surely growing the sectors where you are already present and strong, but I'm interested to know how that changes or how that develops when you enter an industry with a materially different or improved offering, compared to what they've seen before. Now, the reason I ask this is because I'm guessing that it's probably something that you all are doing within packaged goods and this is because of a new acquisition or a relatively new acquisition that you made in Antuit. That means that Zebra will go in with something they haven't been able to go in with before. I'm curious what your best practices are when that is the question, rather than how do I grow a currently strong segment with unprecedented demand. I'd be curious to know about like the net new side.

Joe Heel (15:06):

Yes. Expanding into new vertical segments has been something we've been actually working at for, I would say, about four to five years. Traditionally our vertical segments have been retail, transportation, and manufacturing. Those are the ones that we've very traditionally served. They're the ones where you find barcodes used very heavily. We started to drive into new segments, really with the advent of healthcare digitizing. You'll find these days when you go into a healthcare setting, in particular a hospital, that much more of your information is now digitized. Correspondingly clinicians and in particular nurses and doctors want to be able to also interact with all that digital information in a more efficient way, which means they start to carry mobile devices where they can access that information and they can process that information.

Joe Heel (16:05):

Before, when you used to get medication in the hospital, you would typically have the nurse make a notation on the chart, say, I've now administered this medication to this patient. Nowadays you would find them perhaps with one of our mobile computers in their hands, they would scan the barcodes on the pill bottle, as well as a wristband that you're wearing as a patient these days, and in doing so record that transaction much faster, and with far fewer errors than existed before.

Joe Heel (16:37):

This expansion into healthcare was really our first expansion into new verticals. Since then we have expanded that further. When we bought our Explorer rugged tablet business that took us heavily into the government business. That's where a lot of those rugged tablets are being used. For example, in police cars. when we bought Reflexis, they had a practice that they'd already started in the banking sector. Antuit, as you say, our most recent acquisition, has a strong position in the packaged goods market. Expanding into new verticals is something we have been working on and have been learning how to do.

Joe Heel (17:17):

What's behind doing that... well, the essence of it is that the use case is different and that's really central to all of what we're selling going forward is we have to understand the use case that's driving the workflow for which we are providing a solution. In the case of packaged goods for example, it's understanding how products are selling on the shelf of a retailer. That's what they're trying to do. Antuit provides them with the analytic capability to understand that. We've gained that capability with Antuit.

Joe Heel (17:53):

Now, the other part that I would say we're still working on, is then putting that understanding of the workflow in the hands of the sales people. That's not so easy, because you're now trying to train salespeople who are used to selling into one particular use case in one industry, and they now are selling into a completely different industry. Generally what we've discovered is that that's not a good idea, is to sort of retrain salespeople that are selling into retail to now sell into banking or into government.

Joe Heel (18:28):

What evolved here is more of a sales force that is more vertically focused. We now have salespeople that are dedicated to healthcare. We have salespeople that are dedicated to retail. In the future we're going to have more sizeable sales teams that are dedicated to government and banking as well. It's really necessary to have that level of dedication in order to get the expertise that the customers frankly expect when they're buying from us. That's proven to be necessary. It's driven a verticalization of the sales force, which we are not the first ones to do, but I think we're on a good path to doing that more broadly now, thanks to many of these acquisitions.

Adam Conner (19:11):

I do want to ask one question about training broadly, but rather let's just say curation of talent, and that is around apprenticeship. Zebra is embracing this concept. Anybody, listeners, you can go and see how they are on their site, but we're going to hear about it directly here. I love that you're embracing that concept. I began my career in SAS sales that were six seven figure deals. Frankly, I didn't really know what I was doing. I had to get a lot of training. I had to learn. It sounds like this is also something that you're embracing. I'd love to learn what apprenticeship specifically means for your team and how you find it when it comes to cultivating an effective sales force, no matter what vertical they're selling in to.

Joe Heel (19:55):

Yeah. I'm personally a big believer in apprenticeship. This is one of the other things that I learned in my McKinsey career is that when it comes to solving complex problems and providing solutions to clients, it's hard to teach that in a classroom. There are certain things you can teach a salesperson in a classroom, but really doing it effectively requires that you have some form of apprenticeship, which in practice means you have to pair up a newer person with a more experienced person so that the newer person can observe. How was the more experienced person taking this to a customer? How are they positioning it? How are they handling this? That's what apprenticeship is all about and I think it's essential if you are in any form involved in selling solutions. That's how you learn how to sell solutions.

Joe Heel (20:53):

Now, not everyone is comfortable with that model of apprenticeship. We have people who've been selling for 30, 40 years, and it's unlikely that they're going to become an apprentice for someone else in order to learn, let's say, a new vertical or a new solution. We also hire significant amounts of people every year that are early in their careers and need to learn how to sell a solution to a customer. This is becoming an integral part of how we do that. You can start to see in our sales teams, these types of relationships forming where you have, for example, a more senior salesperson who might be working with an inside salesperson or a business development manager, and they might be working together, which provides an opportunity for one person to learn from the other person of how they're doing this successfully.

Joe Heel (21:53):

The other opportunity that we have for apprenticeship is through our acquisitions. Through the companies that we've acquired. We have gained a number of very experienced sellers. In many cases, these sellers were practitioners themselves in the industries that we're now selling into. They have a very valuable experience set that again, we need to teach other people that are selling. The acquisitions have become a good source of apprenticeship for us as well. I think this is going to continue to expand and we need to keep evolving our capability to make apprenticeship available to as many of our salespeople as possible. That's in the end, how we'll be effective at selling solutions.

Adam Conner (22:39):

Very last question, very quick from your perspective as a leader, what is your top piece of advice for anybody seeking to become a world class sales leader in '22?

Joe Heel (22:50):

Well, I think for sales leaders, what has shaped my approach to sales leadership more than anything else is to always have good problem solving at the root of your approach. If you are in sales, you are constantly solving a problem. You're trying to win a deal. You're trying to enter a new segment. You have a customer who's not happy. Those are all different forms of problems. If you have a good problem solving capability, you can step back, you can analyze that problem. You can understand what is really the root cause. What is the source of this problem. If you can then effectively address that source, that will make for better outcomes, it will make for happier customers.

Joe Heel (23:40):

I apply that to sales leadership at pretty much every level, whether it's the level of a deal or it's the level of how do I organize my team for 2022. That's the principle that I apply. I'm also trying to impart that on our sales organization more broadly, is that that's an essential capability that a sales leader needs to have. By no means it's the only one, but I think in this time where things are changing significantly, both pandemic and the environment that it's created for selling, but also the technological capabilities we now have in selling... They all create new opportunities. If we use our problem solving capabilities in a smart way, then we can maximize what that brings as benefit to us as a sales team. That's, I think, more valuable than ever in the current year, in 2022 and beyond.

Adam Conner (24:40):

We all look forward to seeing how it develops for the advice and the stories that you've told us today. Joe, thanks so much for joining us.

Joe Heel (24:47):

My pleasure, Adam. Thank you for having me.

Adam Conner (24:52):

Thanks for tuning in today. To hear more conversations just like this one, head over to wherever you get your podcasts and search Growth Culture. While you're there, leave us a rating and review to let us know how you liked this one.

Adam Conner (25:07):

To learn more about and our other events, visit us at our website by the same name, or just send us an email at We'd love to hear from you about what you'd love to hear from us. Until next time I'm your host, Adam Conner signing off.

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