Tag Archives: Strategic Planning

Fresh Eyes

FreshEyesRichard Nixon was early in his first term, the Detroit Tigers had won the World Series for their first time since 1945, and Fred Borch was CEO of the General Electric Company, when I came out of college and began a 17-year career with GE, a historically strong company, often emulated by other enterprises around the world. The company continued to build on that reputation well into the twenty-first century.

Few manmade constructs last forever. GE’s CEO for the past 16 years has just retired, and the new CEO is wasting no time making changes. Investors have been disappointed with GE earnings and strategies and performance for some time. They now have fresh eyes at the top and new directions and predictions of performance are being established.

My emotional ties to GE (even though I left prior to the turn of the century (how depressing does that sound?) have drawn my attention to their current circumstances. Having spent the final 15 years of my working life as a business coach, and having worked with a number of outstanding entrepreneurs, and having witnessed the making of numerous business decisions of consequence, GE’s current situation reminds me of the power of Fresh Eyes.

If you have operated your own business for a few years, you may or may not realize the upside potential of Fresh Eyes. Ingrained leadership can be very bright, very competent, very hardworking, but locked into a particular view of the business, its employees, its customers, and all its other stakeholders. Fresh Eyes can provide a path to improved performance, particularly when nothing the current leadership is doing appears to be working.

My suggestion is not that you look for a CEO to take your place (unless you are ready to exit your business), not that you get an eye exam and new prescription glasses, but that you seek the advice of trusted outsiders. One of the most effective approaches – in my experience – is to become part of a peer advisory board, a group of non-competing business owners, a collection of openminded leaders, an assemblage of generous entrepreneurs. Once you’ve become a board member, use the board effectively: do your homework; keep your board members advised of your business progress; seek their counsel prior to making key decisions.

You’re still the decider. But your decisions can benefit from the clarity of vision and variety of alternatives identified by Fresh Eyes.

As always, your thoughts are welcome and you may share them below.

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Your Black Labrador

oscarexposed

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.

A Big Fish in a Small Pond?

small business hiring corporate manager

Salmon Coming Home

Not long ago I read John Dini’s excellent blog post on importing a manager from a large organization into a small company. When I recently heard a tour guide comment on sockeye salmon migration, it brought to mind John’s exposition. Let me explain.

The tour guide had declared that as the salmon return from the vast ocean to the stream where they were hatched, they must make the transition from salt water to fresh water. He highlighted the fact that, as they entered the brackish waters near the mouth of the river or stream, they lingered – maybe days, maybe weeks – allowing their body to make some important adjustments to their new environment. [Although I have no empirical evidence to offer, I suspect the percentage of salmon making it all the way home has increased since the advent of those navigational apps for their cell phones. I mean, really, how do they find their way back? But I digress.]

It’s been my experience that a significant percentage of the Corporate Migrants decide to return to the sea, or are asked to find another body of water in which to swim.

As a business owner, you may have several good reasons for wanting to bring an experienced large-company person into your fold. Their background in systems, in planning, in structuring, and in thinking broadly about crucial decisions can be invaluable to a small business management team. If you are positioning the business for your own eventual exit, they bring an outside perspective and professional expertise that can be very attractive to a potential buyer. However, in the words of Paul Simon, “…a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.” True of business owners, be they men or women. So don’t disregard the risk that the imported large catch can also be ineffective or even disruptive.

Like salmon, some who leave Corporate America are indeed returning home. They see small business as a better fit for them, for whatever their reasons, and they are correct. Others, however, are simply looking for a resting spot prior to returning to the sea. Your recruiting, hiring, and onboarding processes need to take this into account. Here again, you will likely be tempted to hear what you want to hear and disregard the rest because you consider the candidate such a valuable find. In truth, you may be flattered that they would even consider coming to work for you. Get past that. Dig deep to try to determine all the motivations for the candidate’s interest in your company.

Then, if you both agree to move forward, bring them aboard in a manner that allows them to acclimate. Both the migrant and the organization need time to make adjustments. They will probably see many areas where changes would strengthen your organization. But they also have the potential to damage a healthy culture in the process of pushing for change. You are the filter through which their initiatives must pass. It’s your job to help orient the new hire to a significantly different environment. If, after a fair amount of time in your brackish waters, they are not meshing, it becomes your job to return them to the sea. By that time, they have probabl come to the same conclusion, even if they haven’t yet admitted it to themselves.

I’m not saying you should never bring a Corporate manager into the fold. I’m saying be diligent if you do.

The Long and Winding Road

business planning

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.

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?

 

Rebuilding Year(s)

The business owner CEO does not have the option of resigning.I’m a Philadelphia Phillies fan, which means I’m following the team with the worst record in Major League baseball right now (July, 2015). It’s a “rebuilding year” for the Phillies, a pretty rough period.

In baseball, a rebuilding year generally causes more than a poor win-loss record. Management changes are inevitable. Fewer fans attend the games. High-priced players are traded for younger, cheaper, potential-laden minor leaguers. In the case of the Phillies, all of this is happening, and more. The manager they brought on to see the team through this difficult transition grew weary of losing, and resigned. (That’s right. He wasn’t fired, he resigned.)

For the past six years, I’ve been coaching a CEO (we’ll call him Tom) who decided to take on a “rebuilding year”. Sales were flat, profits were meager and cyclical, and the competition was intensifying. Tom’s tendency was to try to do everything himself, and he longed to discover effective marketing and sales processes, areas that he considered to be personal weaknesses. His relationship with his business was unhealthy – his description: “I feel like a slave”.

Tom’s rebuilding year actually took about four. It included the following:

  1. Developed a new product that addressed a shift in customer preferences – earlier than was recognized by his competition.
  2. Pushed his VP Marketing & Sales hard to identify and grow new opportunities. When he didn’t, he was replaced.
  3. Took a personal interest in an area of marketing that was integral to their future success, and brought others in to do the work after he understood what was required.
  4. Through some trial-and-error, figured out how to recruit, hire, and mostly keep talented people needed to stimulate and sustain ongoing corporate growth.

It was a bumpy ride. The new product development effort sucked up resources that the company did not initially have (both human and financial). The development of a larger organization included the usual complement of bad hires and redirection. Boot-strapping the financing of the growth, rather than borrowing a bunch of money, caused serious frustration in the early going. But Tom persevered, knowing that neither resignation nor termination were options.

While the “rebuilding year” (four) is now in the rearview mirror, it’s not over. The vision that Tom developed for his enterprise has the entire team working towards “the next big thing” for the business. His bank account is healthy, his workforce is high caliber, and the team has a sense of direction. The need for rebuilding has been replaced by a drive to stay on top.

The Phillies should be so lucky.

Not Quite Broken

Many CEOs have dealt with the prospect of a business collapse

Down But Not Out

I wanted to write on this first day of 2015 about what a great time this is for the CEO to be engaged in planning.  I had planned to offer a few comments on the value of strategic planning, a discipline many of us resist.

But a couple days ago I saw the movie Unbroken.  I had read the book of the same name by Laura Hillenbrand about a year ago.

Let me explain why this changed my blogging plans.  The subject of this movie, Louis Zamperini, served in World War II as a bombardier on a B-24 in what was then the U.S. Army Air Forces.  His plane went down in the Pacific Ocean 850 miles south of Hawaii.  He was one of three crew members (out of eleven) who survived the crash.  They had no fresh water, little food, and a life raft.  He was afloat on the ocean for 47 days before reaching the Marshall Islands, where he and Russell Phillips were captured by the Japanese.  (The third survivor, Francis McNamara, had died at sea on the 33rd day afloat).  Zamperini was held captive by the Japanese, brutally beaten and generally mistreated, until the war ended in August of 1945.  He had been assumed dead and, in 1944, his parents had actually received a formal condolence note from FDR.  (His actual death occurred 70 years later, in 2014.)

Many CEOs I know have faced extremely serious struggles with their businesses as well as in their personal lives.  Some have faced life-threatening illnesses and business-threatening near-collapses.  Many have downsized significantly.  For the most part, these challenges are not quite in the same league as surviving a plane crash, then a month and a half drifting on the open sea, followed by two years of brutal captivity by a wartime enemy.  But the parallel is legitimate.  Running a business can be brutal.

There are many stories of survival that inspire.  I am in awe of the Louie Zamperini story.  And I’m also tremendously inspired by the survival of so many businesses that have been through something akin to a plane crash.

Maybe this is your story that I’m telling.  Or maybe you know somebody who has lived this scenario.  Someone who has been through hell personally or professionally but was not quite broken.  If so, I would urge you to begin 2015 by celebrating their (your own?) survival.

Quickly thereafter, get your strategic plan together.