Tag Archives: Business Planning

Learn from Giants

 

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Future Thoughtful Entrepreneur

Right out of college I went to work for GE and spent the next seventeen years there, learning what life in the world of business/industrial marketing/strategic business planning was all about. It was an exciting time for me, and a somewhat different business world than exists today. I grew a lot during those GE years, and learned a great deal about the world of big business and a little bit about myself. When I opted to leave GE for an opportunity to become a part-owner of a small manufacturing company, I doubted whether I would ever again be surrounded by so many capable people. Twelve years later we sold that company, and I became a full-time coach for owners of small businesses, a profession in which I remain involved.

As a small business coach, I preach the value of peer advice, having learned that a small business owner values the advice of another business owner above all other sources of business information or advice.

Back to GE. Those of us paying attention have witnessed this business icon stumble. As a result, the company’s stock has been the worst-performing in the Dow Jones Industrial average for more than a year. Many are asking, “What in the world went wrong at GE?” I won’t take your time here to repeat the details of this saga since they can easily be found in various business media. Rather, I believe there are powerful lessons here for any CEO of any size company, and I want to share them.

First, you need to be brutally honest with yourself regarding your numbers. The financial performance of any company, as portrayed by periodic numbers reporting, contains both positive and negative messages. As the owner, you know what’s really going on behind your numbers, and you need to face the negatives, the warnings, the hidden truths, as well as the confidence-building interpretation designed to cause majestic music to swell in your mind, or your employees’ minds, or your lenders’ minds.

Second, while continuously on the lookout for new opportunities, maintain an objective decision framework to guide you – and stick with it! Avoid becoming emotionally involved when deciding whether to commit company assets in pursuit of a new adventure.

Finally, discipline yourself to do contingency thinking, if not full-scale contingency planning, to prepare your mind for abrupt changes in the business, changes such as the loss of a major account, the resignation of a key manager, or the unexpected interruption of your operations due to a natural disaster.

There are significant differences between leading a giant organization and leading a small business. However, the successes and failures experienced by huge companies sometimes offer universal reminders of key basics of private enterprise.

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Watch the Super Bowl and think about the other S-Word

CoachChalkboardYou’re a competitor, so there’s a good chance you’ll be watching the Super Bowl on Sunday. Can I get you to think “Strategy” while you’re watching? It will actually enhance your enjoyment of the game, and you can watch guilt-free because your CEO gray matter will be working on your business at the same time.

The yet-to-be-determined winner of the game has built a season based on effective strategies. I can guarantee you that they both had the same BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) in mind at the start of the season – to win the Super Bowl. Each team had a set of values and an effective team culture that they stuck with throughout the season. They studied and understood their opponents, and they had short-term goals (weekly) of defeating that week’s opponent. They established game plans for each game that included appropriate contingency plans. If we fall behind early, here’s what we’ll do. If we aren’t able to establish our running game in the first quarter, here’s what we’ll do in the second quarter. If our quarterback gets hurt, etc. In short, they built strategies for each aspect of the competitive environment, with detailed action plans that were subject to change as conditions warranted. And they’ve repeated that strategic planning process in preparation for this week’s big game.

So, as you watch the game Sunday, draw parallels with your business and its environment and the competition you face each week. Challenge yourself. Is your BHAG clear? Are your short term goals understood by your “players”? Have you taken the time to outline, in writing, the goals and action plans and individual responsibilities for the next quarter or for the entire year?

Enjoy the game. Allow it to provide motivation to define and communicate your business strategy.

Your Black Labrador

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Oscar

Oscar, my black lab, looks a little different from most black labs. His legs are shorter, his fur is shorter, and his head is smaller – not to mention his entire body. But he’s a black lab because, where we have recently moved, everybody has a big dog, and many are black labs. So, he needs to be a black lab.

When we hike a trail with his new best friend, Delmar (who looks a lot closer to a black lab than Oscar), Oscar invests himself in the walk almost completely. He wants to keep up with Delmar. His short legs churn at blazing speed (OK, maybe not blazing, but faster than normal), constantly trying to catch up to Delmar. This attempt at speed is in dramatic contrast with a normal Oscar walk which is more of a saunter, a meandering, a sashaying, guided by his nose, and at a pace resembling that of the occasional slug he confronts on our garden path.

Oscar’s metamorphosis when walking with Delmar is not unlike some small businesses. When they get around larger businesses, they develop more of a spring in their step. Large customers, large suppliers, large potential investors, and large member companies in their peer advisory group can cause the business to step it up a notch.

As a result of hanging out with Delmar, Oscar is healthier and his self esteem is elevated. He’ll probably live longer because of his new friend. He dares to try new things (like actually getting close to the creek that runs along one of his favorite hiking trails).

If there’s a downside, it’s the potential for injury as he tries to keep up with the big dogs. He could experience a heart attack, or he could develop the confidence to leap into a fast moving stream that whisks him away prematurely to doggie heaven.

Business lessons? Acquiring large customers or large suppliers or large investors, or joining a business owner peer advisory group with some larger members can be helpful to your business growth, if you’re willing to run faster to make up for your shorter legs. While it’s OK to tell fellow business owners that you are running a $10 million business, even if the best year you’ve ever had was $7.8 million, do not let that bravado lead you into overburdening the business with debt, or seriously overcommitting to large customers.

One of your challenges as CEO is to balance your view of your business against reality. Dreaming of a bigger business can be the beginning of a true metamorphosis. Driving the business considerably faster than its current capabilities allow can lead to a bad ending. The best CEO is a balanced driver.

The Long and Winding Road

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Indian Creek Trail – Hood River, OR

How does that Beatles song title grab you as a description of your business journey?

Earlier this year, my wife and I moved to a new state and a new home. The house itself is situated adjacent to the Indian Creek Trailhead. The first time we hiked this segment of the trail, I knew generally where it ended, but of course I had never actually made the journey. As we began our short expedition, certain attributes of the trail became evident. The path itself was dirt in some places, gravel in others, with various amounts of pine needles and leaves covering it (as well as an occasional bit of dog poop). It was a winding trail since it was following a creek, and our trek was compounded by many ups and downs. Seldom could we see more than a hundred feet of trail ahead.

I have had countless discussions with business owners regarding the relative merits of business planning. The winding road metaphor is a good one for arguing how much business planning is optimal. Any business journey is filled with twists and turns, hills and valleys, good footing and poor footing. The important thing is to determine the general direction you want to head. The planning process is paramount in establishing this destination or waypoint. It’s key to deciding major strategies for how you will move in the direction of your goals. But the unpredictable nature of the path itself renders detailed planning useless.

We’re just over  halfway through the calendar year. Summer is always a good time to review how you’ve handled the surprises of your snaking trail thus far, and to recalibrate your compass.

Creating positive change in an organization is one of the most difficult tasks facing a CEOYou don’t have to look far to find books or articles proclaiming how to accomplish effective organizational change.  Many of these are worthy of your attention.

But if you happen to be the proponent of an upcoming change for your business, you would best start preparing by engaging in some serious introspection. Let me explain my point using a very personal example.

My own personal vision and life circumstances have recently combined to cause a lot of introspection. My spouse and I are in the throes of planning our “next chapter”. It will involve substantial change. It has caused me to reflect on a handful of some of the most important changes I have experienced since birth. Here’s a recap, ultimately tied into a business lesson.

My personal journey down memory lane led me to conclude that some of the most memorable changes in my life occurred in my youth. Changes like being pushed from the nest into nursery school; or transitioning from elementary school to junior high, where we had to change classes multiple times each day; or graduating to high school where my sophomore class size was 1100 students; or saying goodbye to a large high school and hello to a small college; not to mention seven job changes and relocations within the first 17 years after college.

Now, after living in the same home for 29 years, change finally looms again. We have grown comfortable with our house, our neighborhood, our friends, our church, and our surroundings in general. But our children and grandchildren are on the other side of the continent. Emotion suggests that we stay where we are comfortable and buy lots of plane tickets to enjoy being with family multiple times a year. Yet logic relentlessly pushes for relocation closer to family.

At this moment, the concept of change is very real and very personal. I believe I’m in an appropriate frame of mind to understand how your employees might feel when you are bringing a major change to the business or to their role in the business. I believe the most important factors involved in the inherent resistance to change are:

  • The involuntary nature of most change, viewed from the perspective of an employee
  • The relative comfort of “the present”, again from the perspective of the employee

In my personal situation, our upcoming relocation is, in a sense, forced. It’s forced by our advancing age and the anticipation of the inevitable decline in health. This makes it difficult.

Since our present circumstances are comfortable, since it will be difficult to leave good friends and familiar surroundings, score another blow for difficult change.

However, the rest of the story is more important than these two realizations. The attraction of being a larger part of our children’s and grandchildren’s lives; of being more available to help out; of being present to celebrate birthdays and holidays; is strong. The attraction to get to know new territory, to get to make new friends, to prove that we remain vibrant and significant as we approach seven decades on the planet – this attraction to relocate a couple thousand miles and make a difference in new ways also imposes a seemingly magnetic pull. And the magnets enumerated are strong.

As a business owner who is leading change, you will be most successful if you can identify with those specific fears or perceived losses that make the change difficult for each individual employee.  Then, identify and clearly articulate the “magnets” associated with your proposed change. Feeling their pain and showing them the positive tradeoff of the change should be central to your change strategy.

Are You Asking the Right Questions?

2015 again holds a high degree of uncertainty for CEOs

Deja vu?

You’re racing to the end of another calendar year and, guess what?  For a CEO, this one ends just like the last!  Not the details, of course, but you’ve been here before when it comes to the overall uncertainty about the business environment.

The U.S. economy has experienced its fastest 6-months growth in the past ten years, and yet the rest of the world economy looks much less sanguine, and many are concerned about how this may affect the U.S. economy.

On the national political scene we will have both a Republican House and  a Republican Senate come the New Year, and yet the most credible voices are predicting that gridlock in Washington will continue.

Technology continues its relentless advance, providing new tools for operational efficiencies; and yet it simultaneously confounds and frustrates most of us when it comes to marketing and the “promise” of social media.

With regard to finance, the business bankers are speaking more sweetly, but their banks are still behaving like the man who offers you an umbrella when the sun is shining but can’t seem to find one for you when it’s raining.

This uncertainty is nothing new to you!  A CEO deals with it, planning for it and managing through it.  But the real rub for most CEOs is on the personal side.  With the holidays upon us, and with the end of another year at hand, I encourage you to ponder:

  • Are you having any fun?
  • Are you making money?
  • Are you becoming more skillful at something?
  • Are you generally headed toward your destination, toward your vision?

Underlying these questions is the really big one: “How ARE you??”  That is, how are you doing intellectually, physically, and spiritually?

Do yourself a favor. Find a few minutes, no later than January 1st, to answer this question, in writing:  Indeed, how the heck are you?

 

Specifically, address your intellectual state, physical state, and spiritual state.  Then commit to taking actions that will result in progress in one, two, or all three areas in 2015.  After you’ve done this, go back to those four questions regarding fun, money, skills, and vision, and take a crack at them. It’s a great way to clean out the cobwebs and launch your next twelve-month journey.

I wish you the very best in the New Year!

What if your car came without a dashboard?

Great CEOs have  identified their Key Performance Indicators and track them relentlessly.Are you a better driver because you can easily determine how fast you’re traveling, how much fuel remains, and what time it is? Are you more likely to safely reach your destination because you can readily see the compass direction of travel and because you’re immediately alerted to a loss of oil pressure or tire pressure?  Does the dashboard improve your overall ability to travel efficiently and effectively?  Would you be upset if the auto manufacturers decided to reduce the cost of their vehicles by eliminating all the instrumentation and alarm lights?

Now consider your business dashboard. Have you identified and do you regularly review your key business performance indicators (KPIs)?  Here’s why every CEO should:

  • Identifying your KPIs forces prioritization of data.  The total data available can be overwhelming and you have to keep your eyes on the road.
  • The correct KPIs provide a regular monitor of business historical performance, as well as the outlook for the short-term future. They enable you to stay on track.
  • The habit of routinely reviewing your dashboard (KPIs) creates a powerful sense of having your “arms around your business”, regardless of how well or how poorly the business is currently doing.
  • Your dashboard provides a jump start for when you need to:
    • Create a long range business plan
    • Create a marketing plan
    • Apply for a bank loan
    • Discuss the business with a potential investor
    • Interview a candidate for a key position
  • As a habit, your review of your KPIs is an excellent accountability tool for you personally as well as for your entire business.

You wouldn’t drive your car without a dashboard. Is it any less dangerous to drive your company without one?