“Drive Transparency through the organization. Transparency fuels accountability. Talented people cannot be accountable for what they can’t see or understand. The more effort that goes into fueling their ability to make great decisions for the business, given their proximity to the client outcomes, the greater our collective success.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Michelle Hayward, Founder and CEO, Bluedog Design, 2013 Illinois Small Business of the Year award-winner and 18-year growth consultant veteran.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your "backstory?
I grew up in the world of grocery retail. My parents were entrepreneurs who owned a rural I.G.A in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. You could say, the power of the packaging design - if it did or did not connect with consumers - had a direct effect on my family’s livelihood.
As a naturally curious child, I wanted to know “Why?” I can still remember being so excited on Mondays, because that’s when the new products arrived and I could examine them in detail. I would make mental notes of what would be a hit, and more importantly, I was curious to know WHY shoppers were drawn to certain items over others. What was driving this connection?
After graduation from Michigan State University, I found myself in the center of the creation of the brand strategy with some of the biggest food companies in the WORLD. The late 90s was a time of experimentation in building brands for the emerging mass markets like female fitness and Hispanic, remaking iconic brands like Cheerios, and growing new ideas in the marketplace.
Still, I found that there were true limitations to the work we were doing in the traditional agency world, as they were failing to reinvent their services to meet the changing market. This inspired new thinking for me, and I envisioned a new type of agency built toward the future that business was demanding. While we employ the tools of strategy and design, we need to be agile and work toward the business goal, not only toward the execution, like an ad or a package.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Eight years ago, the owner of a competitive firm out of New York approached me to help him build his business in Europe. The interesting part was, he clearly hadn’t done his homework – he didn’t realize I was the owner and CEO of Bluedog Design and couldn’t be poached.
He was intrigued by our success and probed to learn about our talent funnel. I confidently explained to him that we only hire experienced talent due to the nature of the work we do. He abruptly interrupted me and declared that I was naive to believe hiring the more costly, seasoned talent was truly a sustainable business model! That was eight years ago. Last I heard, he was out of business.
So, what exactly does your company do?
A lot of businesses are drowning in complexity. At Bluedog Design, we work collaboratively to deliver clarity that helps organizations and teams to ultimately move forward. We are ‘sense makers’, clarifiers, and storytellers. We are hired under many umbrella terms like “growth consulting, innovation consulting, strategy, design”, but our clients come back again for the clarity derived from working with us. They need to deliver growth. We illuminate the path forward, and often straight into a marketplace.
Our approach is rooted in the principles of Design Thinking. After decades of practice, we’ve mastered the art of uncovering insights, the discipline of iterative ‘doing’, the storytelling approach to influence organizational buy-in and adoption, and the gift of translating complexity to clarity. We don’t just inspire progress, we make it happen—all within a journey that gives our partners deeper, more intuitive understanding of their consumers, businesses, and organizations.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
A client recently said to me, “Bluedog is a once in a lifetime good. Your team is special. They care about my business as much as I do. That is rare.”
Each person that joins our team has their own unique talent that they’re cultivating. We call this their Onlyness (thank you Nilofer Merchant!) Bluedog Design is a collaboration of intentional problem-solvers who have an innate desire to grow their craft personally and collectively towards a common goal: growth.
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?
There is a long list of generous people that have fueled me and the growth of the consultancy. Chris Padgett, Vice President of Marketing at Nestlé, immediately comes to mind as an early advocate for me, and one that changed the trajectory of Bluedog Design. He initiated us into his division as brand agency of record in 2000, and later into the broader, global organization. I’ve been reflecting on the many women and men who have boldly held the door open for me, an ambitious female business leader. In a business environment where it is still commonplace to be called ‘aggressive’ or ‘overly-ambitious’ for pursuing growth opportunities that live within leadership of many male-dominated firms, I find myself thankful for those that have been advocates for the potential they have seen in me and our team.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
At Bluedog Design we have created and seek to maintain an environment of psychological safety, inclusion, and high performance for our team. Our culture is crafted to deliver freedom over top-down direction and for personal growth and accountability over stifling little organizational boxes.
What are your "5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO" and why?
1. Make the implicit, explicit. Every time.
2. Drive culture throughout operations. What worked for others, doesn’t work for us. We are crafting a modern agency. We build our own cultural tools to support individuals and enable professional growth. We challenge our own models and frameworks to continually deliver next-gen solutions. This is challenging work, but the advantages are that we are intuitively grounded in our business from the inside out.
3. Be vulnerable. As a woman, I used to feel I had to be tough, strong, confident all of the time. I’ve learned that my best moments in leading an organization are when I show my belief in an approach stemming from a strong emotion drawn from a stumble, or a blind spot – some learning that showed me a new way forward.
4. Drive Transparency through the Organization. Transparency fuels accountability. Talented people cannot be accountable for what they can’t see or understand. The more effort that goes into fueling their ability to make great decisions for the business, given their proximity to the client outcomes, the greater our collective success.
5. Define the Business. A great CMO once asked me “What business am I in?” What a great provocation! The answer greatly impacts where investment is funneled.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she just might see this!
My hope is that someone I don’t yet know in your readership will find me! I would like to make connections in the world of Climate Change. Who is thinking about new to the world technologies that would offset or reverse climate change? Our great skill is in making the complex clear and understanding how to link the impacts to consumer motivations and change behaviors. We are interested in getting a “think tank” connected to our consumer strategy brains and endeavor to make their vision realized.