In the last week, I’ve had a couple of strategy meetings where the simple idea of going with the flow came up.
In the first, a decades-old company is finding that it’s not as easy as it used to be to get customers. They are facing the prospect of having to cannibalize their current customers to sell something that will have broader appeal – the plan being that the new sales will outweigh those lost from the cannibalization.
The go-with-the-flow idea? “Sell what they your market is buying.” After about 15 minutes talking to a salesperson, whose first reaction was to tell me all the reasons that customers aren’t buying the legacy product, he then said, “You know, there’s one big prospect on the East Coast who would be really interested in this new version we’re talking about.” And from there, we’re off…selling what the market is buying.
In the second meeting, we were debating which of several initiatives should get funding support. We were looking at 6 different programs, with varying degrees of success. Some were clearly “popping” and gaining traction; others were struggling though everyone thought they should have lots of potential.
The go-with-the-flow idea then? “Go in the direction of what works.” The path of least resistance was to double-down on the ones with traction. We didn’t abandon the others, but the question of where to put the discretionary budget we had available was answered pretty simply.
Sometimes business isn’t a struggle. Sometimes the market gives us the answer, and we just have to listen…and go with the flow.
There’s a cost to growth
Here’s a universal truth that doesn’t get enough airtime among business leaders – and that many leader teams, therefore, don’t fully appreciate:
Growth must be funded.
I started working with a company recently that developed a BHAG of doubling in size over the next 5 or so years. The first year went well – but last year was rough, and they’re now feeling pulled between the commitment they made to their BHAG, the desire they have to distribute profits at a level they’re accustomed to, and the need they have to correct some operational issues.
They have a newfound appreciation for the fact that the decision to grow often comes at the expense of the ability to harvest profits.
What does it mean that growth must be funded? Here are a few of the things that you’d need to invest in to grow – that you wouldn’t need (or wouldn’t need as much of) if you weren’t growing:
- Expanding your training and talent development efforts
- Developing new marketing programs
- Hiring more salespeople or programmers – and if they’re hard to find or need training, then you need to hire them before you have the revenue to support them
- Expanding into new facilities or adding equipment
There can be many more, but you get the idea.
On top of those tangible investments, you’d have two more hidden costs: the time that your team spends solving issues associated with the growth, and the inevitable inefficiencies you’ll have the first time you do things.
This isn’t to deny the wonderful benefits of growth, which include more people and customers to make your stuff better, more resources to solve problems and offer rewards, and more impact and influence on your markets and community.
But as you develop your BHAG, realize that you’ll also benefit from having a Big Heavy Accessible War Chest. And that’s why I often recommend that the first 2 years of a growth strategy focus on increasing your profitability and building your reserves. The path to your BHAG will be a lot more fun and manageable if you have the money to deal with the challenges you’ll face.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Many of you reading this post are 10%ers. And there’s something in the back of your mind eating away at your conscience. You know there’s something not quite right about it, but you tell yourself that 10% has always served you well.
And you might be right. You’ve probably gotten along well enough with your 10%. Then again, you may feel like it no longer has the same effect that it used to. So let’s take a look at your 10% and see if it’s still serving you.
I’m inspired to write about 10% because I met with a guy last week who said, “It’s just what I’ve always done. I don’t really have a reason for it, and sometimes I wonder if it’s what I should be doing. But I’ve never known how else to do it.”
Later on, after our discussion, he said, “Yes, that’s what I want – that would help me, and it would help my team. They’ve always been a bit confused and defensive about the 10%.”
What am I talking about? Let me use his words, “We did a strategic plan back in 2008, but we’ve never updated it. It was helpful and we did some things because of it. But for the last 5 years, I’ve just said that we should grow by 10% next year. And that’s what I say at the start of each year. I kind of know that I could or should have more to my goal, but we’ve been OK just trying for that 10%.”
It’s something I’ve heard many times before. So, let’s look at the good, the bad, and the ugly of the “Let’s grow 10% next year” approach to strategic planning.
The good is that it’s an easy way to communicate that you want to grow, but not too much. It says, “Let’s get better at what we’re doing.” It’s also quick – most leaders who use 10% as a goal (I just can’t bring myself to call it a strategy!) need about 1 second to access their intuition and come up with that number. And it’s also good that most leaders who use 10% don’t enforce it – some years they’ll decline 1%, and others they’ll grow 20%, and both are received equally.
The bad is that 10% doesn’t tell anyone how to achieve 10% growth, and, since the person who used it likes a planning process that only takes 1 second, they usually won’t commit the time to strategy and planning to figure out how to get the 10%. And so, they just react to whatever the marketplace offers. That’s not good, but often times 10%ers are bailed out by a strong market, and so reacting is bad but OK.
Which brings us to the ugly, which arrives when a 10%er is managing a business in a market that is seeing substantial change. If that’s the situation, 10% is of no use, and in fact may be counter-productive. Because at the heart of 10% is “let’s change, but not more than we’re comfortable with.” And that can breed complacency that appears to be fine…until it’s too late for any small adjustments to work. And if the only goal you’ve ever had is 10% growth, you and your team are not going to be prepared when you need to lead your company outside your comfort zone.
So, if you’re a 10%er, you have a choice – to be passive or active. Either keep enjoying that comfortable feeling until you’re forced to do more…or lead your team to have a new set of discussions that develop your company’s ability to identify opportunities a little outside your comfort zone, go after them in smart ways, and stay ahead of the market.