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.
Congratulations, Second Stage CEO. You’ve gotten customers, survived cash flow crises, created a vibrant team. And, now, at last, created job descriptions! You put it off as long as you could, because job descriptions are so un-startup. But you’ve realized that it’s time to get clear on what people are responsible for, so that there’s more accountability, and so that it’s clear whether that new hire is getting the job done (or not).
If you’re a young Stage 2 company – say, 10-30 people – your job descriptions can focus on people’s responsibilities – what they do…their functional tasks.
But if you’ve passed 30 people, you’re going to need more from your job descriptions – rather than responsibilities, you’re going to need to focus on competencies.
What are competencies? They are the things that people are able to do – which could mean making copies or putting a design into AutoCAD, or could also mean handling angry customers or juggling multiple priorities. Sometimes competencies are the functional tasks, but frequently competencies are behaviors that go beyond the task. Competencies give a much deeper view into what a person, position, or team is capable of.
Responsibility: process assessments
Competency: recognize errors and problem-solve when one is found
Responsibility: respond to customer inquiries
Competency: empathize with customers in pressure-filled situations
You need to know the functional responsibilities of your people. And if you look at the competencies you need in a position, you’ll paint a much richer picture of who can be successful, and what training your people might need.
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.
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.
Want to succeed as a Second Stage company? Become a master of systems thinking.
Systems thinking is at the heart of my work. A Stage 2 company is moving from a Simple System (few parts, simple cause-effect, straightforward thinking) to a Complex System (many interdependencies, complex cause and effect, deeper analysis). Simple System thinking won’t work anymore…and Complex System thinking needs to be used in doses that start small and get bigger as the company grows.
One of my favorite books for introducing Complex Systems is Once Upon a Complex Time, by Richard Brynteson. He has assembled a range of 2-page stories that show how things are more complicated than they look at first glance.
A good example is how he starts his introduction…
“I could never figure it out. If my parents really cared about me, they would quit smoking. They knew that it irritated us kids. They should just stop doing it. Just like that! Now that I have worked with systems thinking, I realize that they couldn’t stop, just like that. There is the smoking system – the process of lighting up, inhaling, exhaling, and flicking the ashes (and, maybe, coughing). But other systems also surrounded smoking: social systems, body addiction systems, emotional systems, thought systems, memory systems, drinking systems…and social systems.”
If you’re running a Stage 2 company, you could probably go out to any person in your company right now, and read that quote, and that person would be able to replace “smoking” with some bad management practice that is holding them, and your company, back.
Everyone in the company may even know what it is.
So, why haven’t you changed it? Because you’re probably trying to solve a Complex System problem with a Simple System approach.
Brynteson goes on to explain that systems thinking…
- Uses a wide-angle lens, not a telephoto
- Sees connections between parts, not just the parts themselves
- Sees the patterns and structures underneath events, not just the events themselves
- Examines time and distance between cause and effect
- Is circular, not linear, thinking
At Phimation, our consulting, coaching, and training takes a Complex System approach, and teaches your team how to, so that you can make the major shifts that you need for solid growth and sustainable success.
I named the business Phimation because that’s the force that enables Simple Systems throughout nature to transform and thrive as Complex Systems. And Stage 2 companies are a key leverage point for phimation – they are living the transition from Simple to Complex System every day.
If you’d like to learn more about how to apply Systems Thinking to your Second Stage company, register for our monthly Stage 2 Secrets call.