One of the precepts of the EOS program is, “The answer is in the room.” It’s a phrase that’s used to emphasize the importance of discussion in addressing important issues, and I am a full supporter of that idea.
The problem is, the phrase itself is not quite right.
WELL…SOME KIND OF ANSWER IS IN THE ROOM
A more accurate phrase would be, “An answer is in the room.”
And it’s the job of the CEO to know whether it’s the answer or an answer that is in the room – whether your team has the right stuff to understand and evaluate the issue and the options for solving it…or not. Because if they don’t, but they think they do, then you are wading into dangerous territory.
It’s not that dangerous if the issue is minor. But if it’s a major strategic decision…having the wrong answer is a big problem.
EVALUATING THE QUALITY OF YOUR TEAM’S ANSWER
So, how do you gauge whether you are getting an answer (a poor or bad decision) or the answer (a good decision)? Here are some questions you can ask:
- Have we seen this situation before? Or something similar? Or has someone on our team?
- Can we come up with a list of risks that would make our banker (or some other knowledgeable skeptic) proud for how pessimistic the list makes us appear?
- Can we come up with 3 strong options for handling the situation?
- Is there more than one person who is worried that the answer may not be in the room?
A CAUTIONARY TALE
Let me talk more about that last one. The biggest business mistake that I have witnessed was when a client decided that the answer was not in the room for them. They hired me to write a plan for a new initiative, discussed and agreed to the plan as a team…and then 2 weeks later the CEO came up with an alternative “short cut” approach.
That short cut ended up costing the company between $2MM and $10MM, depending on how much you count the indirect impact that decision had. At the time the leadership team was discussing the short cut, there were 3 members of the team who said, “We just paid for a plan, and we all said we liked the plan – why are we not following the plan? Why do we think we have a better answer than the plan now?” (Which is another way of saying, “The answer is not in the room.”)
HOW THEY GOT IT WRONG
Why did most of the team change their minds? Because the CEO had a long history of running and building the business, and the majority of the leadership team said, “If you think this is the right thing to do, we trust you.” What they missed was that the CEO had not pursued a strategy like this before – it was a new area for him, and it was more complicated than anything he’d worked on before.
The team needed to listen to the skeptics more – and there’s a lesson there for you, dear CEO, if you find yourself in a similar situation.
YOU BE THE JUDGE
If you’re a CEO listening to your team debate a topic, you have another role you need to play – you need to raise yourself above the discussion, and look down on it, and critique whether the sophistication of the discussion matches the complexity of the issue and the quantity of the resources you’re going to commit to the answer.
What do I mean by prioritizing your priorities? Why is it important? Why is it hard?
It’s fairly easy for any business to come up with a dozen ideas for improvement – and most businesses wouldn’t stop there, generating dozens of possibilities. The challenge for any leadership team is to pick the right priorities to focus extra attention on among all those many options.
It’s easy to say, “You should have 3 big rocks that you focus on.” It’s muuuuch harder to say, “These are the 3 rocks that will give you the best outcome.” Why is it harder? Because there are many variables to consider in coming up with the answer. I’ll highlight 2 as examples:
- What’s the balance between financial outcomes and intangible outcomes? You could work your staff hard for two years, get your financial results up, and then sell your business for great personal gain. But many small companies have more connection to their employees, and so are willing to support work-life balance at the expense of financial performance. In that case, you can’t just decide on priorities based on financial ROI.
- What if short-term success and long-term gain are not aligned? Often they aren’t! Short-term, it almost never makes sense to upgrade your systems. But if you never upgrade systems, that will eventually undermine your results. How do you balance those competing interests? How do you decide whether long-term payoff is the right thing to aim for now?
So this is a hard task. Why not just avoid it?
Because focus is a key part of success. Spread yourself too thin, and you won’t have the energy to see your initiatives through to success. As we all know, juggling 6 balls is far harder than juggling 3 balls.
Although there are tools that can help you prioritize your priorities, this is not something that is driven by tools. A SWOT or Gap analysis will not solve this problem. A 1-page sheet that puts long-term vision, annual goals, and quarterly objectives…will not solve this problem.
The center of this solution is wisdom and judgment. It takes experience, insight, creativity, foresight, and thoughtfulness to prioritize your priorities. Whereas operating a business is more akin to an industrial “assembly line” process, guiding a business is a craft that has as much art as science. That’s why venture capital looks foremost at people when considering an investment.
One of the great things about working with Stage 2 companies is that there is usually a strong team operating the business, and any gaps they have in operations can usually be filled with a toolkit from EOS or e-Myth or Rockefeller Rules. Whether they are a strong team leading the business depends a lot on their ability to prioritize their priorities and pick the right things to choose on.
I’ll be posting a self-assessment soon for you to gauge how your team is at leading your business. So…well…this is just the placeholder until I get that! But if you’re reading this and are interested, send me an email – or give me a call and I’ll share what I have in draft form.
As usual, the TV show Mad Men is a hot-bed of intrigue again this season – and it’s especially fun to watch the workplace as a management consultant. There are a few lessons that Mad Men can teach Second Stage leaders about Talent Management.
The focus needs to be on people, not work. As Second Stage companies grow, they need to spend less time focusing on how the work gets done, and more time focusing on who is on the team and how they work together. The firm’s partners are still focused on their work, not on managing their team, and I expect that we’ll start to see the team dysfunction increase as the season goes on. (If it does, it would be natural for the firm to break apart at some point – team dynamics usually overtake good work.)
Culture needs to be managed. Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, like every company, has a culture – the question is whether it’s consciously acknowledged and managed. And the key to culture is defining just a few principles that drive the culture. In this year’s premier, Megan calls out one of SCDP’s principles: cynicism. There’s no inherently good or bad principles – they just have to work for the company. My guess is that the other principles for SDCP would be creativity, individualism, and fun. It’s hard to have principles that don’t fit the executive team.
Manage your high potentials. Pete Campbell is a huge asset to the firm, but because there’s no one helping him manage his development and career path, he’s a problem. High potentials are great – in many ways the heart of Stage 2 companies. But they come with a cost – you need to make explicit, valuable investments in them.
I suspect SDCP could use a better strategic planning process, too, but that’s a topic for another post…
One of the pleasures of working with Second Stage small businesses – the largest part of the economy – is that I can mostly ignore Wall Street. It’s not the people – I’m sure there are good people and bad people working there. It’s just that for the small business economy, money is the benefit of good work, not the reason for it.
But today is different.
Greg Smith, a leader at Goldman Sachs, has pulled back the curtain on Goldman Sachs culture in an Op-Ed article in the New York Times. Not surprisingly, he portrays a culture focused on making money, sometimes to an extreme.
Although small businesses mostly ignore Wall Street, there’s actually some value for us in what Mr. Smith has to say – because he highlights 2 key ideas about culture.
First, company culture comes from leadership. For a small business, this means that leaders have to be aware that their little behaviors get magnified and projected in the organization. There are many benefits of being a small business leader, but one of the burdens is that you may need to crimp your style for the good of the company.
Second, culture must be evaluated in the context of strategy. Strategy provides the direction, but culture provides the energy. So, before you work on “solving” culture problems, you first have to make sure your strategy is right. It sounds like Goldman Sachs has done a good job of aligning its culture with its strategy – with enough clarity that talented and motivated people who aren’t a fit are self-selecting out. Although there may be long-term problems with the strategy, you have to give the Goldman Sachs leadership credit for being focused.
You’ve probably made a difference in 5 or 10 small business’ cultures by your article today, so thank you Mr. Smith and Goldman Sachs for the lesson.