I made a comment to several company leaders last week that gave us a good
laugh – and a good insight.
My wife and I got into a fight a few weeks ago over …[wait for it]… whether
or not we have effective communication. (Yes, that brought huge laughs…) As is
often the case, we were both right, and there’s a lesson in our argument for
My wife thinks we have effective communication because 90-95% of the time it
works. She’s right, and we should feel good that we’ve created that.
I think we don’t have effective communication yet because the 5-10% of the
time that it doesn’t work are the most important and challenging issues. We
cover the basics well, but the really hard stuff is where a lot of the value
The reality is that those are 2 very different types of communication. For
the basics, the point is to handle things quickly and efficiently – “minimize
the administrative overhead,” which is why standard processes and tools are
helpful, and why my wife and I can do this well after 20 years together. For
the hard stuff, the point is to take the time to build a mutual understanding
of the situation, create several possible solutions, clarify what’s important,
and have a deliberate decision process – which is why having 20-year patterns
in our marriage can work against us when new issues inevitably show up, and why
it is helpful to keep trying new things and listening to experts when we take
on new issues.
The lesson for business leaders is this: most of the time, it just takes
some effort to make your business perform. If you put in place some relatively
simple management tools and processes, you’ll take care of 90-95% of what’s
happening. That’s good.
But 5-10% of the time, it’s going to be hard and complicated. If you just
focus on the 90-95% that’s being handled well, you’ll feel good on the surface,
but you’ll be limiting yourself and hurting your business in the long run.
Because there’s a lot of long-term value in those few items that are
The key is to make most of your business simple, so that you then have the
time, money, and energy to deal with the hard issues.
Handling the simple stuff with simplicity, and the complicated stuff with
sophistication, is how you get great performance from your business. (…and satisfaction
in your marriage…)
If you’d like to improve communication in your business, check out the book Crucial Conversations.
Did you ever see the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup ads that showed one person with a chocolate bar, and another with a tub of peanut butter. They run into each other, and discover that chocolate and peanut butter are “Two great tastes that taste great together.”
Click here to see one of the ads.
Those ads remind me of budgeting and strategy – two great processes that go great together!
Now, if you’re an early Stage 2 company, you may not be doing either. If that’s the case, you have a chance to leapfrog over many later-stage companies, because many do either budgeting or strategy, but not both.
Strategy is a qualitative process in which you assess your situation and draw conclusions about what parts of your business have the best opportunities to develop or worst problems to fix. Budgeting is a quantitative process of allocating resources based on the conclusions you draw in your strategy process.
If you have strategy without budgeting, then you haven’t really determined how you will handle all the commitments you want to make. Later, when it comes time to spend money, there will be other things that also need money. If you haven’t decided during your budgeting process what gets money and what doesn’t, then you will make a tactical decision. If you’re lucky, it will still be a good investment. If you’re not lucky, you’ll find you’ve spent your money on the wrong thing.
If you have budgeting without planning, then you will just get more of what you’ve always had, which is usually 10-20% better…until one year you realize that it’s not 10-20% better, and you’re not sure why, and you’re not sure what to do about it. If you haven’t decided in your strategy process what deserves investment, you’ll find yourself realizing too late that “more of the same” only works for a limited time. If you’re lucky, you’ll find a new path without too much investment. If you’re not lucky, the weak area of your business will become a quagmire that costs you a lot of money.
Just as the Peanut Butter Cup combines chocolate and peanut butter in one convenient package, the Business Case combines strategy and budgeting. They’re not hard, but they’re not easy either – there are a few tricks to making business cases work for a Stage 2 company.
So, you’re thinking about what life will be like at your company when you’re gone. Congratulations. Really. It’s a sign of maturity when a leader has the courage to imagine being out of the picture, and the foresight to care before it’s forced to happen.
Having worked with dozens of Stage 2 leaders, what recommendations do I have for you about succession? A few thoughts come to mind immediately when thinking about my clients.
First, those of you who are strong leaders… we love you, and it’s amazing what you have accomplished and do accomplish… but this may be the biggest challenge of your career. The strength that you have in your role means that your shoes are going to be hard to fill. And, strong personalities have a hard time handing things off, so it’s never going to feel like the right time, and your successor is probably going to seem far from ready when you start the transition.
Second, having a healthy company is important to managing a succession. You want a healthy company to retain or attract the best talent. And, successions take resources, because transitions always put a burden on an organization. (Think about how many coaches have a “transition year” when they start even if they’re good and have good players.)
Third, start as early as you can. Succession is best managed not as one big event (“OK, here’s the company…don’t screw it up”), but as a series of small hand-offs. Most of my work on succession is on choreographing the series of small hand-offs based on the departing CEO’s capabilities, the incoming CEO’s capabilities, the needs of the business, and the needs of the transition process itself.
Fourth, don’t look for another you. He or she is going to be too hard to find. Use this as a chance to build up your company’s strength in a new area. (You’ll need to do some strategic planning to think about what area that should be.) I had one client hire an experienced sales and marketing exec because they realized they were weak there. I had another hire someone strong in operations because they were going to need to tighten up that area if they were going to be able to grow. Was the new exec everything that they needed in a CEO? No. But neither are you! You have a whole eco-system around you that complements and supplements your strengths. You may have forgotten about it because it’s designed around you, but no CEO can be everything – and the search for another you is based on flawed thinking that one person can lead your company.
The good news is that, if you plan out and use a succession process, all of these issues are manageable.
I work with a relatively small Stage 2 company that recently changed over 40% of its staff – and is far better because they did.
When I started with them, they had several employees who had been great during the start-up. They handled the relatively focused and simple work that needed to get done, and they were flexible.
But then the company started to leave the start-up stage – client work came more regularly, there was less experimentation…and there was more work! The work got harder and more complicated, and it needed to be done on schedule.
After almost a year of struggling as a company, the leaders realized that many of their struggles were tied to not getting the productivity out of the team that they needed. The employees were still good people and good workers – but the company had different needs, and these people were no longer a fit. And, because these employees weren’t in jobs that fit for them, they were starting to create a negative culture.
This wasn’t an easy decision. Some of the workers were friends. Some had helped build the company. And, truthfully, the decision took probably twice as long as it needed to because of the loyalty the leaders felt to these staff.
But when it became clear that the business needed new team members, the leaders made the decision, and gave the old staff generous severances.
Then they found the right people for the environment, taking their time and thinking about what they needed.
The results are dramatic. The team is happy. The finances are strong. The work is interesting and fun. It really is a different company – because it’s a different team.
In Stage 2, the team is what is most important, not the quality of the work. I know it’s not easy to make personnel decisions, but there are huge dividends for Second Stage companies that take an active approach to Talent Management.
The Futurist magazine had an article several months ago titled, “Innovating the Future: From Ideas to Adoption” by Peter Denning. In it, Mr. Denning described “the work of innovators,” which included 8 types of activities that need to take place for innovation to happen.
The article is interesting to consider when thinking about how small business innovation happens – especially for Second Stage companies.
Remember, growth companies are often led by very inventive and creative people – which is a huge asset in the start-up phase. But in Stage 2, that needs to be supplemented with structure and discipline. Denning’s 8 innovation practices offer a good model to show what’s going on in growth-company innovation.
Second Stage companies are good at these 4 of Denning’s innovation practices:
- Sensing new possibilities
- Envisioning a compelling story about the possibilities
- Leading and mobilizing people to adopt innovations
- Embodying the innovations in their own actions
On the other hand, Second Stage companies are typically weak at the other 4 of Denning’s innovation practices:
- Gaining preliminary customer buy-in to start innovating
- Overcoming resistance to change and creating customer commitment to try the innovation
- Helping customers integrate the innovation into the environment and stick with it
- Managing all commitments to completion
What’s the difference between those 2 lists? The first one – the things Stage 2 leaders do well – leverage inventors’ strengths of vision and passion. The second one – the things Stage 2 leaders struggle with – involve dealing with the complexity of customers, teams, cultures, markets, and projects.
As I say again and again, the only way to deal with all that complexity is to create some structure, process, and systems to handle it. Not a lot…but some.
All 8 of Denning’s innovation practices are important to commercializing new ideas. So, it’s no surprise that many Second Stage companies have a lot of great developments going, but struggle with making money from them.
As your company grows in Stage 2, you should use your sales process to drive more value – yes, for your company…but also for your customers. The only sustainable growth comes from win-win sales, so your sales process will benefit you and your customers.
One of the most important ways that your sales process can increase the value you bring to and get from your customers is by uncovering what the real need is. Oftentimes, customers don’t know what they don’t know, and by managing the sales process well, you can help them realize what they really need. In doing that, you also make sure that you’re paid for any premium value that you give them.
Price is a function of value, and the surprising fact that you need to know is that value is established when the need is defined, not when the solution is defined. If a customer comes to you and tells you what they need, then they have already set the price in their mind. On the other hand, if a customer comes to you and asks you to help define what they need, then you create the value together.
If you’re like most Second Stage companies, it’s hit or miss whether you’re talking to customers about the answer or the problem. It takes a clearly-defined market strategy, and a disciplined sales process, to ensure your conversations consistently focus on the need. That takes some work, but it’s also the best way to grow your small business in Stage 2.
As a small business emerges from the start-up phase, and becomes a Second Stage company, the sales process can and should be formalized.
It can be formalized because you now have enough experience with sales to know some standard steps that you usually follow.
It should be formalized because you need to start building consistent expectations with your customers, you need more consistent information for your team, and you need to start to build up systems around your sales that will need some standardization.
I’m not suggesting you go overboard on this – just some general guidelines or steps that you’ve learned help you.
How do you create a (somewhat) standard sales process?
As a first step, think about the customers or orders that your team handles smoothly. What usually happens when those orders come in?
Then, think about the customers or orders that are a hassle. What usually happens with those orders – and what do you notice doesn’t happen with those.
When I asked these questions of a 20-person manufacturer last year, they realized that most of their sales followed 4 basic steps – but also that complex, unclear orders (which happened to be their highest-value work) needed a different process. They outlined the two different processes, and when I met with them 3 months later, they said, “We’re handling all of our orders much, much better. And the customers are a lot happier.”
If your small business has grown into a Second Stage company, your team and your customers will appreciate you starting to understand and standardize your sales process.
Once you have segmented your customer base, the question is, “What can I do for my best customers that will drive value for them and us?”
The answer to that question should be captured in an Account Plan, which outlines the relationship and opportunities you have with a key customer.
Here’s what I recommend you include in the Account Plans you write for your Second Stage company:
– History and highlights of the relationship
– Background on relevant people you know at the company
– Description of why they work with your company and why they think you’re valuable
– Immediate and next-year opportunities that you’ve identified, as well as the 3-5 year potential for the relationship
– Likely relationship and engagement for the coming year
– Plan for additional activities to expand or enhance the relationship and engagement in the coming year
You’ll be surprised at how much you learn about your customer and yourself when you write an account plan.
Like many other areas of the business, sales change significantly in Second Stage companies. Because there are so many customers that you’re dealing with, you can’t manage them the way you did when you were a start-up – responding to whoever had the hot need at the moment, or treating everyone the same.
No, in Stage 2, you have to start to differentiate your customers. To start to do that, ask these questions:
Who are your best 5 customers?
What are the characteristics of the Top 20% of your customers?
What are the characteristics of the Bottom 20% of your customers?
When I asked these questions at a recent seminar, one executive said that she realized that they were spending most of their effort on their worst customers, instead of on their best. That’s the kind of thing that happens if you manage your sales with a start-up mindset when you’re a Second Stage company.
But once she realized her mistake, she was able to refocus her team and her energy to her best customers – something that her best customers, and her own team, appreciated.
I’m working with a $2MM firm right now to build in a performance-based aspect to their compensation program.
Usually, I would follow a process of compensation strategy (guiding principles for how we make comp decisions) > compensation framework (the components that go into comp decisions) > performance framework (the specific definitions of performance). (If you want a full description of the process, you can get it from my book, The Stage 2 Owner’s Manual.)
But with a small firm, we’ll be able to skip the comp framework step. That’s the step where “What does it take for you to stay in the game?” changes to “What is the right amount to pay you?” It looks at things like market pay rates, and what the role of the person is.
If you’re a small Second Stage Company, the most important things to address when you upgrade your compensation program is why you pay people what you do – the overarching principles that are at play, and the specific performance drivers you look at. When you get bigger, or when compensation starts causing you problems, you can fine-tune your pay program based on some more sophisticated thinking about what makes up employee compensation. But that’s a short-cut that, in most cases, is fine to take when you’re smaller.