Category Archives: Uncategorized

Analysis, Anxiety, Action

Yacht“He seemed to understand my business, but…”

I was sitting with a CEO of a $4 million business several months ago. Call him Jay. Like many small business owners looking for continued growth, Jay was wrestling with a thorny decision. He had contracted with Kevin (not his real name), a marketing consultant, to develop a comprehensive marketing plan for the business. At the time of our discussion, Kevin had just presented a plan that consisted mainly of an analysis of the business’s current situation: markets served and unserved, competitive strengths and weaknesses, market position, and so forth. Jay found the data informative, but kept pushing Kevin for detailed recommendations – suggestions for reasonable sales growth goals and action steps both short- and long-term to achieve those goals. Kevin seemed to be dodging that question, instead hinting that Jay could contract with him on a retainer basis to guide the implementation of the plan over the upcoming months. Jay was wary.

This situation is not unusual. It’s not really a communication problem as much as a perception problem. Both Jay and Kevin are focused on “results”. However, Jay’s mindset is that of an entrepreneur; Kevin’s is that of an analyst. For Jay, achieving consistent growth is the result. For Kevin, defining the market and competitive situation is the result.

Stated simply, Jay wants to be reasonably confident that “If I do this, then I’ll achieve that.”

This difference in perspective is why consultants have such a challenge selling small-to-midsize businesses on their services. When they fail to secure a contract, they chalk it up to the assumption that the entrepreneur didn’t really have the money to spend anyway. But they are often mistaken, and they’re missing an opportunity to participate in this market.

In Jay’s most optimistic view, Kevin has opened the gate to the lock that can elevate his yacht to the next level. Now Jay wants Kevin in the boat, as his “marketing first mate”, for the next part of the journey.

A key to unlocking the door to a win-win consulting agreement is the willingness of the consultant to be paid on a sliding scale, proportional to the successful achievement of longer term goals.

Agree or disagree?

 

The Case of the Renegade Case

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I recently took a trip, several hikes, a brief leave of my senses and, finally, matters into my own hands. That’s a lot of “taking”, during which I learned a lesson about delegation. Lots of business leaders struggle with “the big D” and my sharing my personal experience might light a path or reduce some stress for you.

My wife (call her Karen, since that’s her real name) and I took several days to relax at a resort 130 miles from our home. The morning of our return trip, we packed the items we would be bringing home from the condo, hopped in the car, smiled at the blue sky, and had a series of really good conversations over the next two-and-a-half hours. Got home, unpacked, and then…are you familiar with that sudden realization that you’ve overlooked something really important? For my body, it manifests itself north of my neck. Kind of a numb feeling as my face flushes with reality setting in. Kind of warm too, but not in a good sense. I realized I had left my packed briefcase in the dining area on the floor next to the table and invisible from the front door.

I always travel with a briefcase. Always have. Can’t stand to be without useful files and magazines – not to mention my iPad – on any trip. Suffice it to say that this briefcase on this particular trip had not only interesting stuff inside, but also important and sensitive information…and did I mention my iPad?

Within minutes, I was on the phone, confirming that Housekeeping had recovered my briefcase. I quickly made up my mind to retrieve it the next day. Karen looked at me like I had just volunteered to cook dinner (i.e., in disbelief). Why would I travel 260 miles the next day, knowing I am still rebuilding my body from a back injury that can be exacerbated by sitting for long periods of time in the same position, only to personally pick up a briefcase that could easily be overnighted to me?

At first, I couldn’t explain (at least not clearly) why I had already decided to personally retrieve the briefcase. She ignored me, called the resort, talked with Guest Services, and got them to agree they could retrieve the case from Housekeeping and get somebody to take it to the Post Office. When Karen persuasively told me this, it made some sense. I really wanted some of the contents ASAP, and if the resort reacted quickly, I could have them in my possession within 24 hours. So I called Guest Services. Kelsey explained that she was trying to reach the lady who drives the van to pick up and deliver guests as well as the mail, and that she was hopeful that Cathy would return her call soon. This was about 3:30PM on a Friday and I was aware that most small town Post Offices did not stay open all night. Long story short, within 30 minutes I learned that the briefcase could be delivered to the Post Office the following morning and I was advised I could call the Post Office directly to discuss overnight delivery or other special handling for returning the runaway briefcase.

What had started to seem like a sensible approach less than an hour previously now gave way to my overwhelming feeling that I had to personally get this thing done.

Can you identify with that?

I have worked with several hundred small business owners over the past dozen years, and the tension between Control and Delegation is almost always a stress point. Very few find it easy to delegate important tasks, even though they are aware that a successful, growing enterprise requires lots of delegation.

What I realized in “the renegade briefcase” caper is that, whether it be a personal or a professional challenge, the decision to delegate rather than maintain personal control involves more than simple reason and trust. It also involves instinct…your gut. And, as any nutritionist worth her weight in tofu will tell you, your gut is very important. Going against your gut can cause extreme discomfort.

My instinct that Friday became overwhelming. The world would not end if I did not have that briefcase back in hand for three or four days. But it would have been VERY inconvenient, and my world would have been filled with stress until I got it back. I would be counting on at least three different people, more likely five or six, to get the communications straight and to protect the contents of that case.

This episode caused me to reflect on a number of discussions with CEOs regarding their resistance to delegate certain responsibilities that seemed to me at the time to be no-brainers. For example, I once had a client who ran a $50 million business who insisted on opening all the incoming mail, every day. I now have a better appreciation for his gut.

This story is not a plea for you to delegate less and work harder than ever to grow your business. Rather, it’s intended as a stress reduction aid. You don’t have to justify driving 130 miles one-way to your wife, to pick up your briefcase. You don’t have to justify opening all the mail every day to your business coach. If you gain significant peace of mind, in addition to the certainty that the job will be done in the best possible way, then it’s OK to maintain control and do it yourself. Heck, if you simply enjoy writing software code or installing systems or stocking shelves, allow yourself some time to do that fun work occasionally. It’s your business, and it’s not supposed to be 24/7 stress.

Once you pick your spots, once you select the task or tasks you will personally handle, allow any ancillary benefits to accrue to help justify your decision – and provide additional peace of mind. In my case, seeing an April sunrise in Central Oregon was a big plus, in addition to the fact that 90% of my drive time was either through piney forest or up and down high desert buttes. I’m not used to that type of scenery, and I hope I continue to hold it in awe.

If you are willing to share your own thoughts on Control versus Delegation, please do.

An Inside Job

My wife and I have lived in the same house for 29 years. We raised three kids in this house. We’ve entertained countless friends in this house. As we’ve been active in our businesses and in our community, this house has been our center of operations. Now we’re going to move. Not across the street. We’re going to move 2700 miles away – to the opposite side of the continent!

I have a brilliant (in my opinion) visual (borrowed from another) that I’ve used with many of my business owner clients. It depicts the five key elements of any effective organizational change:

  • Vision
  • Skills
  • Incentives
  • Resources
  • Action Plan

I now realize that these are also critical for a successful personal change. More importantly, I now realize that major change is really an inside job. Above all else, the leader of the change must know in their gut that it’s the right thing to do. That it’s worth the investment of real time and money. That it’s worth the sacrifices that must be made. That it’s worth leaving some people behind.

As in all things strategic, the Vision drives the process. The change leader must see clearly the end result, and must communicate it effectively to all others involved. This is where my personal change has been considerably easier than a company’s organization change. Both Karen and I share the Vision. We reinforce the Vision in each other. We don’t have to transform the thinking of dozens of others in order to point our ship in the right direction. That makes it easier. But the leader of a 5-person or 50-person or 500-person organization must help create the Vision for all stakeholders – not once, but over and over again. Falling short here will pretty well doom any organizational change initiative.

The bottom line on change is…it’s difficult! But it’s an inside job from start to finish. Your head has to be right. You have to be committed. Your Vision must be compelling. All else is secondary.

It Takes All Kinds

There is no "right" behavioral style for a CEO

Checking the Day’s Skiing Performance Stats

Does your management team share common behaviors and talents? Should they?

I recently had the good fortune to spend three days and four nights with five other adult males skiing in Colorado.  Lots of guy talk and guy smells and guy consumption of unhealthy foods along with a small amount of alcoholic beverages.

I took the photograph shown here during an afternoon après-ski gathering.  My friend of some forty years is in the process of studying his day’s skiing statistics (number of runs, vertical feet skied, top speed) through slightly bloodshot eyes.  Every day, he and one other from our group (who has the same ski app on his cellphone) compared data, mainly to determine who skied the fastest. Some really lively dialog ensued regarding who posted the top rate of descent. (Clarifying note: Only two of the six in our group kept the stats and competed for the land speed record among six old farts.)

As I listened to the third day of competitive comparisons, I snapped this photo as a reminder that it’s OK when personal behavioral differences exist among cooperating groups of humans.  The freaks who compete on skiing speeds are no righter or wronger than the freaks who are slightly anal making sure we show up on time for a dinner reservation. Our group comes together annually for a few days of skiing and camaraderie, and we certainly have some common values and interests; but we’re far from clones when it comes to behavioral styles or attitudes.  Is there ever friction?  Sure.  Is it a more effective “team” because of some differences?  I think so.

As CEO, have you intentionally put together a leadership team with very similar styles?  How about similar perspectives?  Common behaviors and values normally lead to increased harmony.  But ask yourself whether your business has a greater need right now for harmony or for great strategy and execution.

Assembling and working with a “team of differents” can be taxing. Every time Kevin becomes confrontational, Laurie shuts down. Mike is so laid back and slow to react that it drives Julie nuts. Emmet looks at everything from a return-on-investment perspective, while Jules is committed to providing jobs and support for the local community at almost any cost. Blending this type of team together for weekly staff meetings or quarterly strategic reviews is exhausting. But is it likely to produce a stronger business than a “team of similars”?

I’m sure you have some thoughts on this. Let me know where you stand on the traits of a strong management team.

(By the way, the top speed recorded this ski trip was just over 50 mph.)

Dismount!

Every CEO sometimes holds onto a bad idea too long.

Riding a Dead Horse (not really)

There are some subjects that are difficult to approach positively.  This seems to be one of them.

Every CEO occasionally finds himself or herself riding a dead horse.  It could be that new product program that is consistently delayed and where the projected cost to manufacture is much higher than the original estimate.  Or that new employee whose performance is so far below what you anticipated three months ago during the final interview.  Or it might even be your entire company.  Maybe you’re worn out, ready to move on, and have never really created the entity that you envisioned when you founded it.

Regardless of the situation, you feel the right decision in your gut.  Your gut understands that you are riding a dead horse and that the only appropriate next step is to dismount.

Contrary to my opening statement, this negative post really does have a silver lining.  Dismounting creates a better situation.  Killing the new product program frees up resources that can be more profitably applied elsewhere.  Terminating or reassigning the failing employee eliminates drag on the organization and allows the individual to find their true niche – either within or outside your organization.  Selling your company to a strategic buyer who has the resources or market position to make it a success is good for you, your employees, and probably the overall economy.

The timely dismount can be every bit as potent for your company as any new initiative might be.  So, how are your feet stuck in the stirrups?

Out of the Ashes…

Any business can be devastated. It's what happens after the fall that matters.

Remnant of 1990s war in Croatia

I recently returned from a journey to Eastern Europe.  I briefly visited towns in Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Romania.  The tour caused me to reflect more seriously than ever on the freedoms and opportunities we enjoy in the United States.

We took a photograph of a bombed out building in Vukovar, Croatia, located on the Danube River. Someone had placed beautiful blooming flowers in several openings of the building where windows used to be. The symbolism was intense.

My professional life for the past fifteen years has been devoted to working with leaders of privately owned businesses.  Most small to midsize businesses cycle – from relatively good times to relatively poor times. Occasionally a business is devastated. Even in “normal” times, my clients face difficult challenges. Some are fighting serious diseases while still running their businesses. Others are unable to pay themselves a salary for months at a time due to negative cash flow. Some are angry with and frustrated by lending institutions who offer little or no support.  Still others must struggle through broken family relationships that are exacerbated by the demands of the business.

So it’s not surprising that businesses are sometimes figuratively blown up.  Maybe more surprising are those occasions when, out of the ashes, something beautiful emerges. Individual perseverance and guts, and the unbending support of family or friends or customers or suppliers, produce bright color where only gray existed before.

Now, back to Eastern Europe.  Having met and heard the stories of a number of people who once lived behind the Iron Curtain, I am struck by the power of having the freedom of choice.  I’m more appreciative of having a system of checks and balances in a government that sometimes seems to be gridlocked.  I’m grateful to live in a country where any entrepreneur has the freedom to choose his own next step.  Doors may not be wide open at every decision point, but at least the doors exist.

Has your business ever seemed like a mere shell of the structure it once was? And you’re still standing? Then my photo from Vukovar is for you!

Is Your Dehumidifier Working?

CEOs must stay current with technology

New Technology

I bought the dehumidifier in 1979, and it lived in three different homes over the years. When I finally decided to retire it, the machine was still working! That is, when I plugged it in, the compressor began running. If the temperature of my basement was below about 75 degrees, the coils would freeze up. The simple on/off switch no longer worked. The control knob for adjusting the humidity setting did not work.  When running, it was very noisy and threw off a lot of heat.  But it still removed moisture from the air when the conditions were right.

The new unit I bought 35 years after the purchase of the old one works better.  It removes more moisture, more quietly, radiating very little heat, under almost all operating conditions. And I can run a hose to the basement sump for continuous draining. With the old unit I had to empty the bucket twice daily because the plastic hose connection was stripped long ago and leaked.

I know CEOs who, like me, stick with the old technology too long. The ancient computer operating system causes all kinds of interrupts and lost productivity. The phone system is cumbersome for customers as well as employees.  The printer/copier/scanner still prints, although the paper feed jams regularly and the scanner feature has never worked right.

Inertia and penny-pinching sometimes combine to make us stupid.  Running a great business requires relatively current technology.  What’s your dehumidifier?

Oh, just one more thing…

CEOs are alert to all inputs when making critical decisions.

Lt. Colombo

Do you remember Peter Falk’s character, homicide detective Lt. Colombo?  In almost every episode of that TV series he would interview the suspect in a non-threatening manner, start to leave, then turn and ask that incisive question that began, “Oh, just one more thing…”

As CEO, you often play the role of the suspect in the Colombo dance.  And an employee, or customer, or vendor, or creditor plays the role of Colombo.  They are wrapping up an important meeting with you when they say those fateful words, “Oh, just one more thing…”

What follows is generally another piece of information or a request, rather than the type of interrogation question that Colombo would spring on his unsuspecting target.  But it is just as important as the Colombo question, and your senses should be on full alert.

Even though the deal has all but been done, they are about to toss a grenade that they hope you will ignore in your haste to tie a bow around a decision finally reached.  Don’t be too hasty.

“Just one more thing” is often way more than an incidental comment.  “Just one more thing” is often the real crux of the matter for your Colombo character.

Being the chief decision maker in your company can wear you down.  Make sure that your weariness on any given day, regarding any important decision, doesn’t lead to your dropping your guard at the critical “just one more thing” moment.

Go!

Inspiration to initiate

Poke the Box

I recently re-read Seth Godin’s Poke the Box.  In the words of the author, this book is “a manifesto about starting”.  I re-read it because of the frequency with which I encounter the disease of not starting.  CEOs I work with sometimes become frozen for a period of time in a state of non-starting.   In addition, everyone who has employees has, at some time (constantly?), had to deal with an employee who refuses to take any initiative.

I have lifted the following four statements directly from the book, Continue reading

Coach CEO

In your role as business leader and on your own path to excellence, you need to be an outstanding coach.  Drawing parallels to professional sports coaches can be illuminating.  Your responsibility is to win with the team you have (even though you might be trying to improve that team via the hiring process).

In Good to Great, Jim Collins writes compellingly about Continue reading