Annual planning is in full swing, and the Year in Review is a great place to start the planning process. But many companies stop there, and they miss out on a rich source of strategic insight when they do.
Looking at trends adds perspective that the Year in Review usually misses. The two sound similar, and there’s often some overlap, but most of the time there are many observations and issues that are raised only when you look at trends.
Why is that?
When we do Year in Review, we have our Doer hat on – so the question is, what did we do (or not)? When we look at trends, we have our Observer hat on – so the question is, what are we seeing? It’s remarkable what a difference that makes.
What specific questions do I like to ask to come up with a list of trends? I have about a dozen “thought-starter” questions I use that are designed to focus people on what’s important, and changing, in their environment.
Here are a few:
– What’s changing?
– What are you spending more time thinking about than you used to?
– What are your customers thinking about?
– What is your staff thinking about?
– What are the 3 most important forces impacting your market?
If you and your team ask those questions, you’ll open up a new set of opportunities that will stretch your thinking, your resources, and your purpose. And then the strategic planning can really begin!
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.
My sons love Legos. They love building the kits based on the instructions that come with them – and they love building their own creations out of a bin of parts that is the resting place of all those well-made sets.
When my son is building a triple-winged rocket, or an army base, it’s very clear that the creation process is not connected at all to the sales process. Yet, for some reason, when we are working on an innovation in our business, for some reason it’s much easier to think that the creative process is inherently connected to the commercialization process.
But it isn’t.
Being a business owner, I sometimes think as I watch my son and his Legos, “What would it take to make this little hobby a business?” My mind first goes to customers – their feedback, engagement, and money. And then it goes to logistics – managing the schedules, inventory, work flow.
You need creativity, customers, and control to commercialize innovations. The creativity part comes easily for Stage 2 companies – but if you don’t have customers and control, you’re just playing with Legos. Which, I can tell you from watching my sons, is engrossing and rewarding…but is not a sustainable business model.
I wrote several years ago about how growing companies need to manage their shifting need for innovation talent, referring to Ted Prince’s work with the Perth Leadership Institute. I’d like to highlight a few ideas about innovative people now.
First, Prince’s research indicates that relatively few people have the skills to be innovators, and someone can only learn to be more innovative if they have a high degree of “leadership agility,” as Prince calls it. So the first problem with hiring innovative people for a growing company is that there just aren’t many out there.
Second, the way innovation happens in Stage 2 means that more innovation doesn’t necessarily mean more innovators. Why? Because much of the innovation process is not about invention and creativity. There are other skills that are needed – sales and management skills being the two most prominent. Sales skills ensure that the company’s innovations are connecting with customers. Management skills ensure that the company keeps control of innovation projects. Sales and management skills enable your true innovators to do more of what they do best, so you will actually get more out of innovators even if their number stays the same.
So, for you Stage 2 leaders, the bad news is that it’ll get harder and harder to find truly innovative people for your growing business – and the good news is that you won’t need them as much as you might think.
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.
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.
Stage 2 management focuses on getting approximate answers, not precise ones – and then using judgment to realize when an answer can be more approximate, and when it needs to be more precise.
Have you ever thought about the impact of over-paying, or under-paying, the staff in your Second Stage company?
If you are over-paying, then you are taking resources away from other parts of the business that would give you a higher ROI. Over time, you’ll under-invest in the areas of the business that make your company stronger, and the result is a company that is paying its employees relatively well while weakening the business.
If you are under-paying, the opposite is true. You are “mining” your employees for the value they create, and if they don’t feel rewarded, you will be faced with a triple-whammy – you’ll lose someone who was providing more value to the company than you realized, you’ll have turn-over costs, and you’ll have to spend more than you expected to replace that person.
Compensation is about aligning the rewards that employees get with the value that they create for the business. As your business gets more complex in Stage 2, that alignment gets harder, and more important.
You’ll never pay someone exactly the right amount, but making sure you’re close is important for you, your business, and your employees.
I was reading the blog post Top Compensation Planning Mistakes (And How to Avoid Them) and there were a couple that stood out as particularly important for Second Stage Companies:
Saying one thing and doing another, which the blog says can be avoided by “avoiding secrets…and reducing exceptions.” The particular challenge for Stage 2 is that most leaders who are emerging out of the start-up phase don’t have expertise in compensation, and don’t realize how complicated it gets in Stage 2, and so they hide how they make compensation decisions in a “black box.” This usually works fine for some period and then starts to break down as they add people. In Stage 2, it’s especially important to think through a comp strategy so that you can avoid secrets and reduce exceptions.
Not preparing managers to talk about compensation, which the blog says can be avoided through training and scripting answers to key questions like “How does the organization set salaries?” and “Why did I only get this much money?” The particular challenge is that most Stage 2 managers don’t have expertise or experience dealing with compensation – and in fact what experience they have is with the start-up phase’s “What do you need to stay in the game?” approach. One of the most important aspects of a compensation program for a Stage 2 company is the messages that it communicates about how the company creates value and how performance is measured. If those messages don’t make it to employees – or, worse, if the wrong messages are communicated – much of the power of the compensation program is lost.