Tag Archives: Strategic Planning

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.

Advertisements

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.

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?

A Costly Entrepreneur Mistake

CEOs participate in professional conferences, trade association meetings, and industry gatherings In late August I participated in the annual conference held for the benefit of TAB facilitators worldwide. Since 2002, I’ve missed this conference exactly the same number of times that I’ve forgotten my wedding anniversary.

As in years past, I came away with several pages of prioritized notes listing possible strategies and tactics for improving my business. I accumulated these during the assortment of presentations, breakout sessions, and casual networking that takes place at every conference.

As I reviewed my trove of takeaways on the flight home, it occurred to me that I seldom hear from my business owner friends and clients about their awesome experiences at their industry meetings, trade associations, or professional society meetings. I’m thinking that’s because they don’t attend.

There is a tendency for an entrepreneur to start or acquire a business and then proceed to become so buried in the work that they cannot get away to sharpen their saw at an industry conference. This is a symptom of the “too busy working IN my business to take time to work ON my business” disease.

If you don’t participate in industry-wide sharing of ideas and practices, you’re starving your business. This business starvation condition presents as the sound of anxious breathing or wheezing.  Unfortunately, in most cases, the source of that sound has proven to be the business owner.

Lesson? Stay connected to your broader industry or profession!

By the way, I’ve never forgotten my wedding anniversary.