In 2022, the focus was on digital transformation. Do you have ecommerce? Are you using a CRM solution? Have you created a roadmap for digital transformation?

This year has a different focus. The past couple of years have put many through the ringer. Now that distributors have the time to breathe easier, they can adjust and be future-focused.

The hallmark of 2023 will be a bridge. Distributors will have the opportunity to bring together the critical elements of digital, the rise of data and analytics, and the importance of talent and culture (your people). The connection—and success—of these elements will be the determinant of a growth leader.

Weeding out the Laggards

This is a revolutionary statement: Leaders are the ones moving forward. They’re the ones saying, “OK, I’m over the pandemic and its effects. I’m not sitting around anymore, waiting to see what’s going to happen next.”

Leaders are forward-looking. They’re asking themselves what the next step is … then the next and the next. And given that path, what do they need to do today to prepare for the future? These distributors are creating their own initiatives. Leaders used the past several years to build strong foundations and upgrade management and talent. The initiatives they thought up in 2021 came into play last year, and they’re doing well.

Laggards, on the other hand, are operating under a survivor’s bias. They survived the pandemic by doing an effective job of passing on the price increases to secure profitability, but now they’re stuck—maybe still a little afraid of taking a step outside of “what do I need to do to get by?”

These companies will never come out ahead.

Future-focused distributors employ the following strategies:

Stop looking back.

It’s all about forward momentum. Make your own path forward instead of waiting around to see what the next external obstacle is. Invest, take risks and be innovative. Use digital solutions as vehicles to change your sales structure, reevaluate your business model and set yourself apart, armed with solid insights. The distributors that do those things will be the leaders in 2023, without a doubt.

Create more value in relationships.

There are opportunities to play a more proactive role in how you create value for your partners, vendors and customers. Use analytics to identify the big payoffs within your customer base. Be transparent. Distributors are poised with leverage to create significant value—up and down the chain.

Be a better leader.

Distributors are playing with the same cards. The difference lies in how you make your moves. Treat employees as humans, not cogs in your company machine. Invite them to participate in something you’re thinking about. Host a town hall or ask for companywide feedback about a new initiative. Your actions will affect your employees the most and, by being involved in the process, they’re more likely to help those initiatives succeed. Ownership in the outcome is everything.

How Distributors Can Differentiate Themselves as Growth Leaders

Start with a pencil and paper test. Conduct an employee engagement survey.

Ask everyone who works for you to complete it by answering the question: What are the top three strategic objectives for 2023 that will have an impact on customers?

Reading the responses will be a shocking, humbling experience for leadership. Many managers, because they don’t pay attention to these yearly goals, are playing the same old game. No purpose, no thoughts and no initiative required.

But how well employees understand companywide objectives directly relates to how they interact with customers and how much engagement they have with their jobs. Everyone needs to be aware of strategic objectives and understand the role they play in moving the company forward because everyone—from Janet in HR and Ron in marketing to Nancy in operations—plays a role in the success of a company. So why keep your employees in the dark?

The key to becoming a growth leader is a combination of process, discipline, quality leadership and transparency. You can do a few things that don’t cost any money but create energy, excitement and engagement within your ranks.

  • Hire good talent. Top-tier leadership attracts good talent. It’s a trickle-down effect.
  • Be transparent. Educate your employees on what’s going on and ask for feedback when it makes sense. Allow this transparency to infiltrate your relationships with customers and vendors, too. Invite it to become a two-way street. This awareness will be beneficial to all parties.
  • Be disciplined. Throw out the PowerPoints and meaningless words. Commit to acting. Yes, you need the strategies and processes, but actually take proactive steps forward. Remember the old saying? Actions speak louder than words.
  • Create a process. Use your employee engagement results to develop or adjust processes. Use data analytics and other tools to aid in your digital transformation.

At the end of the day, it takes good leadership to make any and all of this work. Talented people won’t hesitate to jump ship if the person they work for, from direct management to the CEO, is a jerk. Do right by the talent you have by creating a roadmap for digital transformation, taking action and getting the benefit of their experience


Mike Marks is co-founder and managing partner of Indian River Consulting Group, a consulting firm to distributors and manufacturers. He specializes in helping distributors and manufacturers accurately diagnose problems and identify risk-bound alternatives. Contact him at or visit

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