• To MOVE the needle, you’ve got to SEE the needle

    28 February 2016
    Comments are off for this post

    Wellhead Pressure Gauge

    Crafting a dashboard that works

    I’m going to be talking about dashboards on the Rising Leader webinar in March, and as I prep for that session, I’m reminded of why you should create a dashboard in the first place.

    It may seem obvious on the surface, but a dashboard keeps visible and helps you track two things:

    • What in your business will “move the needle” for success
    • What you want to focus your attention on

    Companies with fewer than about 25 people often don’t need a dashboard (which doesn’t mean they wouldn’t benefit from one). At that size, the team instinctively knows what’s important, and the leaders are close to the action.

    Bigger than 25 people, though, and a dashboard is useful. Unfortunately, a dashboard is also harder at that size, for several reasons:

    • There are simply more parts of the business – more things that the company is doing, many of which seem important. What is really important to put on the dashboard?
    • There become several levels of “frames” that can be used to understand the business. There’s the tactical/trenches level (returning a customer’s email), the “strat-tactical” level (customer service), and the strategic level (the customer experience). Once you identify a part of your business that’s important, then you need to figure out if you measure it at the 100-, 1,000-, 10,000- level, or 50,000-foot level.
    • There often is no immediate, easy source of data for issues that are important. For example, most people would agree that employee engagement is important to most companies – but how do you measure that? [Note: there are some pretty simple ways.]

    So, crafting an effective dashboard takes thought.

    Many companies have an annual budgeting process – they recognize that coming up with financial plans is complex enough that they should spend time figuring it out.

    Well, you should also have an annual “dashboarding” process that figures out what’s important to your business and what you want to focus your attention on. Some things will always be important; others will come and go.

    If you’re a middle manager or a high-potential employee, you can join the Rising Leader Program and hear more about dashboards this month in our webinar. Visit phimation.com/start to find out more.

    Continue Reading
  • Important hire? Here’s the strategy…

    1 February 2016
    Comments are off for this post

    You don’t need to hire every position with the same approach. Sure, some companies have the same hiring process for everyone, and it often involves spending 6 months on each hire and only hiring A+ people. In theory, that’s what you should do, but in practice, there are some hires that deserve more effort and some that deserve less.

    How do you tell when to invest more or less? I’ll be talking about that on my webinar this month – the 3 different approaches to hiring, and when each one is appropriate.

    For this column, I want to focus in on the highest-investment approach.

    When does a hire deserve a heavy investment? The primary drivers are (a) the impact the position can have on the organization, and (b) the experience your company has with hiring that specific type of position. In other words, you should invest more heavily in your recruiting process when you’re hiring:

    • Executive or key manager positions – because the impact of that position will be a multiple of the costs of even an elaborate hiring process
    • New positions – because you don’t know what you’re looking for, and because you need to train your organization on what the new position will do

    What does it mean to invest heavily in a hiring process? You should spend more time…

    • Planning the position before even starting the recruiting process
    • Choreographing the hiring process – who to include when
    • Building a bigger candidate pool
    • Interviewing candidates
    • Confirming your final choice

    It’s OK not to go all-out on every hire. What’s important for growing companies is having the wisdom to know when a more extensive recruiting process is needed, and having the discipline to invest the time needed when it is required.

    If you do that, you’ll avoid the costs of a bad hire, which can be dramatic – around 2-3x the person’s compensation for a manager, and 5-10x the person’s compensation for an executive.

    Continue Reading
  • Repeat and repeat and repeat

    22 November 2015
    Comments are off for this post

    Leadership and the under-communication crisis

    As the writer of this article, I’ve evaluated all of the possibilities I could focus on, and decided that we should give our attention to communication.

    We all need to communicate more, and will be doing things in the coming months to do that.

    Any questions?

    Not enough for you? Keep reading to see what you should be doing to communicate as a leader.


    When I was a debater in high school, my coach gave me the following formula for success:

    Tell them what you’re going to tell them

    Tell them

    Tell them what you told them


    As a company leader, the same formula applies, with a change:

    Tell them what you’re going to tell them

    Tell them

    Tell them what you told them




    This is the time of year when you’re setting your annual priorities, which will be followed in a few weeks by the need to communicate those priorities to your team. I was meeting with a COO last week, and after spending an hour talking about one of his 2016 company goals, I asked how he was going to communicate the goal to the organization.

    “I’ll have the VPs tell their groups.” (Mind you, last year, some VPs told me that their colleagues would often communicate very different messages about the same topic.)

    “Can you spend time on this in the company meeting?”

    “No, we don’t have time. We need to keep those to ½ hour, and we have too many other things to cover. The VPs can cover it.”

    Huh? Um, no they can’t – at least not by themselves. In addition to the VPs’ communication, all company staff need to hear a single version of the message directly from the highest leader. It ensures consistency of the message, and ensures that people know it’s important.

    The closer a message is to something that people already know and already do, the less energy you need to spend on it. However, it would be unusual for a topic that rises to the level of an annual priority to be something that people already know and already do. So, it’s going to take energy to communicate.

    Extra energy.

    And probably extra extra energy.

    Here’s what most annual priorities should get:

    • Monthly review by the CEO in a company-wide forum (ideally a meeting, but could be a newsletter)
    • Monthly review by the VPs in their department or team meetings
    • More frequent attention as needed by the relevant manager – such as the head of HR or Sales

    “That’s a whole lot of communicating,” you may be thinking. But it’s actually still a small proportion of the overall communication that your employees are exposed to in all of the hours they’re at work. And we’re talking about a message that’s really important.

    “People are going to be bombarded by too many messages,” you may be thinking. And if that’s true, then it highlights the need to reduce the number of priorities. The need to communicate is the need to communicate. If you’re not able to meet that need, then you have to focus your attention more.

    Most business leaders are going to under-communicate their 2016 goals to their organizations, and that’s going to hurt their companies in an environment that requires as much efficiency and effectiveness as your team can muster. Are you going to make that mistake?

    Continue Reading
  • Money makes it stronger

    24 October 2015

    Use your budget to juice your strategy

    A few years ago I wrote an article about why it’s important to do both strategic planning and budgeting. It even has a link to a fun old Reese’s commercial.

    So let’s look at what is involved in an annual budgeting process.

    There are 4 basic components:

    • The revenue forecast
    • The baseline budget
    • The strategic investment portfolio
    • The profit allocation

    For those of you in my Strategic Leader and Rising Leader programs, we’ll be talking about how to do each step in upcoming webinars. But for now, let me give a quick overview of them.

    The reason most people don’t do a revenue forecast is because of the uncertainty of trying to predict future sales. That uncertainty is pronounced in small businesses – though revenue starts to get more predictable in Stage 2, and that’s why a revenue forecast starts to become a good idea. But a poor revenue forecast is better than no forecast at all, and you’ll get better each year you do them. (Warning: if you have a poor forecast, do not rely on it for major spending decisions!) If you just end up with a range of “between $1.2MM and 2.0MM” or an observation of “our forecast only gets us to 40% of this year’s revenue level,” those are still useful in charting your strategic course.

    The baseline budget has all the costs that are involved in continuing your business. The easiest way to start to come up with the baseline budget is to take last year’s budget and replicate it. I suggest you group expenses into meaningful categories – it’s more useful to know your combined spending on rent, insurance, utilities, and other basics is, say, 30% of the budget, than to have each of those items listed separately.

    The strategic investment portfolio comes out of your strategic planning – it’s the investments needed to accomplish the goals you’ve set. That information should come from business cases you do for each of the major goals you have. (Detailed instructions for a business case are part of our Strategy Toolkit that is included in our Starter Kit.)

    Finally, the profit allocation divides the profit that’s left over into 3 buckets that show how much is actually free and available, and how much is reinvested in the business.

    Remember that these steps can be adjusted to be simpler or more sophisticated for your business. To turn an old phrase…it’s the budgeting, not the budget, that matters.

    Continue Reading
  • My Goals Can Beat Up Your Goals

    Making Better Goals with a Strong Annual Planning Process

    Although it seems like just yesterday that the days were hot and we were at the local swimming hole, this is the time to start thinking about annual planning.  Some of my clients have small, simple businesses and handle their planning in an afternoon.  Others are larger and more complex, and we spend 4 days over the course of 3 months.

    No matter the extent of the process, they all have the same underlying process:

    –          Assess the environment and identify areas that have potential to improve the performance of the business

    –          Select the areas that have the best potential impact, and create initiatives to address those areas

    –          Define and justify the investments needed for the initiatives

    –          Develop action plans

    –          Launch the initiatives with managers and staff

    There’s a rich set of best practices and tools for each of those steps.  For example, many people like to use the SWOT framework to assess their situation.  But I’ve found that reviewing hits and misses often provides better insight into areas of improvement.

    On my Monthly Strategy Slice webinar, we’ll be looking at a small slice of the annual planning process – how to make sure you have a strong set of initiatives to focus on.  On the webinar, we’ll talk about tools to evaluate your initiatives along 4 dimensions:

    –          Are you focusing externally (e.g., developing new markets), internally (e.g., reorganizing), or a combination of both?

    –          Are you focusing on initiatives with short-term payoff (e.g., a marketing campaign to existing customers), medium-term payoff (e.g., hiring an important new position), or long-term payoff (e.g., launching a new product)?

    –          Do you have a mix of initiatives that will have a big (transformative) payoff and smaller (incremental) payoffs?

    –          Do you have a mix of initiatives that have different investment profiles – some requiring relatively little investment, and others needing heavy investment?

    We’ll talk about how to evaluate annual priorities, and how to apply the evaluation tools to your business on my webinar – please join us if you want to see these in action.

    Continue Reading
  • The Sales Process Mash-Up Your Small Business Needs


    I’m going to be talking about sales process on my webinar this month, and I want to focus in on the most interesting part of the sales process for this article – creating a “mash-up” of assertiveness and empathy to engage a prospect about the needs they have.

    But before I do that, I first have to talk about an important part of the sales process.  If you want to get paid the value you deserve for the expertise you have, you have to make sure that your discussions with prospects start with a collaborative dialogue about their needs.  If they’ve already defined their needs, and they’re just talking to you about a solution, then you will not get the value you deserve.

    The problem is, though, that most prospects think that they’ve already defined their need.

    So, how do your salespeople provoke prospects enough to change their thinking – to throw them off the path they’re already on for a solution, and get them to think more about their needs?  To do that, your salespeople need to be assertive – they need to prove that they know as much about the prospect’s situation as the prospect does, and it will pay off for the prospect to listen to the salesperson.  But your salespeople need to do that carefully – if they’re too assertive, then they’ll probably be dismissed.  So they also need to be empathetic.

    And that’s the hardest challenge your salespeople have today – how do you be assertive enough to get people to talk with you, and empathetic enough that they want to talk with you?  That’s the sales process mash-up that every growth business needs to figure out.

    We find the answer to this challenge in the playbook of a Trusted Advisor.  Trusted Advisors have independent perspective that the person values (that’s the Advisor part) and the connection and understanding that reassures the person (that’s the Trusted part).

    I’ve worked with several clients recently to create “Trusted Advisor Tools” for their people to use in sales discussions to build trust and provoke prospects to question how they’re thinking.  I think every business needs these tools.

    The salespeople usually see immediately how valuable these tools are and are enthusiastic to start using them.  And many are actually relieved because they haven’t known how to push back against prospects in a supportive way.

    We’ll develop some sample Trusted Advisor Tools on my webinar – please join us if you want to see these in action.

    Continue Reading
  • Developing Your High-Potentials – The No-Brainer You’re Missing

    If there’s one thing in Stage 2 companies that does not take a lot of thinking, it’s identifying who your “High Potential” staff are.  They come to mind immediately whenever I ask leaders who they are.

    But, as much as it’s a no-brainer to get the most out of the people who offer the most, Stage 2 companies do a consistently horrible job of actively developing their High Potentials.  Why?  Because the Well-Oiled-and-Balanced Wheel is easy to ignore (and besides, it has a lot of weight to carry and can’t afford much “down time”.)

    The first step I’d recommend in developing your High Potentials is to come up with a model that you can use to identify your High Potentials.  Since it’s always obvious who they are, why would you need a model?  Two reasons.

    First, you need a program to develop your High Potentials, both to get the benefit of the full value that they can give you, and to keep them engaged and hopeful about their future at your company.  And in order to have a program, you need to explain to people who is part of the program and who is not.

    Second, you also have people who are Good Potentials.  Most of them will never make the jump to High Potential – but some of them will.  And to do that, they need a model of what they’re aiming for – what a High Potential is.

    I have a 1-page model for talking about High Potentials.  It’s a graphic that you can put in front of High Potentials to talk about why you value them so much and how you want to continue to develop them.  And you can show it to Everyone Else to explain in simple terms what it takes to be (and be treated like) a High Potential.

    If you want to see my model and learn some tips for using it, sign up for my upcoming August Strategy Hour webinar (even if you can’t make it you’ll get a copy), or go to the Contact Us page and reach out to me to request it.

    Continue Reading
  • The Simple Formula of Value Propositions


    Stage 2 companies must already have a clear and compelling value proposition if they’re successful enough to have grown out of start-up, right?

    Well, yes and no.  They do have enough traction in the marketplace to show that they have a value proposition that works.  But it’s actually unlikely that the company has a systematic way to communicate the value proposition.  And if that is the case, it will find that revenue growth is harder and harder to achieve – and in a competitive market, the company may start to lose ground to other companies who are communicating their message better.

    What should a value proposition look like?  When I started out in marketing, I worked with an excellent marketing agency, who explained that the “brand positioning statement” should follow a classic formula of, “For [market segment], Our Brand is the [product category] that [customer benefits] by [points of differentiation].”

    So, for a clear and compelling value proposition, you need:

    –          A clearly defined target market segment or customer profile – is it marketing directors who work with global brands, or owners small businesses in cities, or…

    –          A definition of the product category – the marketing agency I worked with explained that orange juice could be defined as a breakfast drink or as a health drink, so picking the product category has a big impact on how the product itself is perceived

    –          A description of the customer benefits – what are the pains you alleviate (lost revenue, production downtime, etc.) and gains you enable (new revenue sources, talent retention, etc.)

    –          The points of differentiation – choosing from all the ways that your product works or the ways you deliver your service, what are the ways that set it apart from the competition?

    Once you have your value proposition, make sure you reinforce it with everyone in your company, and you use it to focus your marketing and sales messages.

    Continue Reading
  • Designing Powerful Dashboards

    Sometimes I’m asked to help companies find the right path for their next 3-5 years – which qualifies as “long-term” strategy for a Stage 2 company.  Other times, my strategy work focuses on short-term performance.  In either case, it’s useful to have some way to measure progress and check to make sure we’re on the right track – to have a dashboard or scoreboard.

    In designing a dashboard, there are 2 main factors:  (1) what you will measure, and (2) how you will measure it.  I would rather have a precise description of the business driver and an imprecise metric than an imprecise description of the business driver and a precise metric.  In other words, it’s more important to understand what to measure than to have a top-quality measure itself – it’s not much help to have an accurate measure of something that doesn’t matter.  Or, said even another way, you should not pick your metrics by what is easy to measure – you should focus on what will drive your business, and then do the best you can to approximate a metric if there isn’t one easily available.

    As for the business drivers, when you’re measuring short-term performance, the first job is to decide what’s important to track – what’s going to move the needle.  In general, the items to track to improve short-term performance are going to be either revenue or costs/productivity.  However, I recommend you come up with more specific metrics that zero in on exactly how you’re going to drive those areas.  Examples would be:

    •          Revenues from our top 20 customers
    •          Revenues from new customers
    •          Revenues from a particular product line or market sector
    •          Costs or productivity of non-customer-related activities
    •          Costs or productivity in the areas of your largest expense areas

    For a situation where the short-term performance is OK and the focus needs to be on medium- and long-term initiatives, there are a broader range of areas that are usually represented in a dashboard.  Examples of long-term programs include:

    •           Development of new products
    •           Diversification into new markets
    •           Building a new way to acquire customers
    •           Changing the sales process
    •           Training and developing your people in general, or the skills in a particular part of the business
    •           Developing partnerships

    So, what do you do if you don’t have a precise metric available?  I’ve found that Green/Yellow/Red works fine as long as (a) there is a clear owner of the area that is being tracked, and (b) there is discussion about the status.  The benefit of having an actual metric is that good data leaves little open to interpretation.  (“Data ends discussions.”)  If you’re not working with good data, but instead using something like a color scheme, then you’ll have to make sure you spend time understanding and interpreting what’s going on.

    I’ll have some more specific recommendations for designing dashboards during my upcoming Monthly Strategy Hour – register to hear more and ask any questions you have.

    Continue Reading
  • Bigger, better decisions

    Man playing chess

    Not all strategic decisions need the same amount of analysis.  This is something that many founders understand intuitively.  But it’s also something that becomes more complicated as a company grows.

    Why?  Because the decisions get bigger and more complicated, what worked for a Big Decision in the past often doesn’t work for the Big Decisions of a bigger company.  In addition, the “decision environment” gets more complicated, with more potential participants and more dynamics among them.  Who do you include?  When?  How?  Who provides input and who participates in the decision?  How is the decision actually made?

    What qualifies as a Big Decision?  Something where the payoffs are extraordinary – say, it could have an impact of 20% or more of a company’s revenue, or it could impact more than a third of the employees – and/or where the risks are extraordinary – say, it could take 20% or more of a company’s discretionary resources to implement.

    Decisions fall on a continuum – as the stakes rise, so does the need to treat the decision more seriously.

    And how do you do that?  As the decision gets bigger, you should add more information, more structure and process, and more focus and energy on the decision before its made.  If you don’t, you can be pretty sure you’ll be spending more time than you’d like or expect after the decision.

    Continue Reading