Elephant in the Room

The Elephant in the Room

Ever been in a conference room with multiple people where the dialog circles around without coming to closure? It eventually dawns on you that the one big issue blocking a decision isn’t being discussed.  Then you realize why. Now hold that thought.

In Getting Naked, Patrick Lencioni says willing to be vulnerable is a virtue for those of us who advise CEOs and their teams. Calling out the elephant in the room is a prime example. He suggests sharing what your intuition tells you, even at the risk of being blazingly wrong. While you might experience occasional embarrassment, overcoming your fear enables you to provide far higher value over the course of your client engagement.

So, let’s pop back into that meeting where everyone is circling… the reason for lack of progress is obvious – it’s an issue that could humiliate someone or at least cause some discomfort, right? In this case, let’s say it’s a boss with an intimidating presence who has directly or indirectly made clear his or her desired outcome. Everyone else in the group knows the solution is impractical, yet they fear the CEO’s wrath or lowered respect if they point it out.

For a trusted adviser, this is a defining moment. We clearly have a moral obligation to do what’s in the best interest of our client, regardless of personal consequences. While it may be tempting to focus on staying in the CEO’s good graces, being willing and able to directly address the issue openly while maintaining and even growing rapport requires business acumen and emotional intelligence that distinguishes advisers from consultants.

Stuck? 5 “Non-Urgent” Paths to Growth

In companies who have plateaued, the leader may be absorbed with urgent matters like managing finances and addressing operational issues, while neglecting less urgent but critically important issues. In our work advising CEOs, five common “non-urgent” factors repeatedly arise that can hinder or accelerate growth.

Take a few minutes to think about where your company stands on these 5 issues:

  1. Clarify (who are we, and what sets us apart?)   A shared understanding of purpose and unique assets increases efficiency. With a crystal-clear picture of who the company targets, what problems the company uniquely addresses, and other elements of strategic positioning, managers and employees can act faster while reducing the number of meetings and emails; in short, more gets accomplished.
  2. Comprehend (what direction will lead to increased value?)  Finding the right direction in a complex and competitive market accelerates growth. By comprehending the needs of potential acquirers, acquisitions, and partners, you can identify and target those market segments with the highest growth potential.  
  3. Communicate (what key messages will attract prospects?)  In an interconnected world filled with noise, every business needs a brand that associates the company with its unique qualities. Identifying key messages that flow from the strategic positioning and repeating them frequently will reinforce existing customer relationships and open new ones.
  4. Connect (which relationships will help increase our reach?)  Too often CEOs have been burned by partnerships that fail due to poor planning, unrealistic expectations, and unmonitored execution. Self-fueling partnerships with potential acquirers and industry leaders drive new revenue through access to new markets, extended geographies, enhanced product and service offerings, and staff augmentation.
  5. Convince (how can we improve sales execution?)  Too often significant time is wasted on non-buyers. Eliminating them early through rigorous qualifying saves time and money. Based on clear positioning, high potential markets, strong messaging, and self-fueling partnerships, the right qualifying questions lead to rapid elimination of “no’s” and enable a focus on “maybes” – real prospects.

Obviously, other important factors (e.g., operational excellence, product and service strategy, customer relationship management) impact success, but less obvious, non-urgent issues are often the root cause of stagnation.  Dealing with them may be the shortest path to getting your company unstuck.

Poke the Box – Now

Seth Godin’s latest little book (little in size, not in ideas) called Poke the Box takes its name from a “buzzer box” an MIT Ph.D. uncle built for a cousin decades ago. “The box had two switches, some lights, and a few other controls on it. Flip one switch and a light goes on. Flip both switches and a buzzer sounds… A kid sees the buzzer box and starts poking it. If I do this, that happens!

As the CEO of a business, it’s easy to get trapped in a comfort zone that provides a false sense of security (“I have this all under control”). While you’re “running the business” (translation: working on operational issues and managing finance), your competitors are finding ways to deliver better, faster, and cheaper products and services. You can delegate much of  running the business, but the buck stops with you when it comes to guiding the company through the constant change needed first to hold your position and then to grow.

One way to poke the box is to partner with a company that has related interests. Consider a list of companies that (a) could acquire your company someday or (b) would grow your value through an alliance or acquisition. Take the initiative to determine what mutual or complementary interests exist:

  • Expand geographical reach?
  • Extend product life through new capabilities?
  • Enter currently underserved industries?
  • Increase product deployment and service resources?

Once you’re in the swim with a partner, market feedback will flow in and lead you to your next move. If you act, you have no guarantee of success, but if you fail to act, you’re almost guaranteed to fail in the end.

Regardless of what you need to do to grow your business, Godin’s point is that life is a buzzer box, and if we don’t poke it, we don’t learn. All actions in business have risks, but with competitors constantly pressing ahead in a globally connected world, sitting still doesn’t decrease risk – it increases it! Doing nothing cuts us off from feedback that can guide us to value.

Get into the flow now, and adjust as you learn. And read Seth’s book for inspiration.

Three Steps to Growth Through Clarity

So many companies I meet aren’t getting the results they expect. The most common reason is a lack of clarity about (a) who they are, (b) what to communicate, and (c) how to accelerate sales. Correcting the problem enables a level of focus and efficiency that’s otherwise impossible to attain.

Here’s a three-step process to increase clarity in your business:

  1. A successful business begins with clear objectives, but that focus erodes over time as the mix of customer relationships evolves. To accelerate growth, resharpen the company’s current market positioning and gain alignment from your team. You’ll enhance their ability to evaluate potential growth initiatives, and the byproduct will be renewed energy and commitment.
  2. Based on the updated positioning, identify three key messages to communicate through all forms of marketing, including social media. This short list will quickly permeate everything written about your organization: web site, blog posts, sales presentations, tweets, analyst interviews, white papers, and articles. All interested parties – prospects, customers, employees, analysts, investors, press – will speak more clearly and forcefully about the company and its products and services.
  3. Once key messages are identified, develop five key sales qualifiers. Many organizations send salespeople into battle with shotguns instead of rifles. The result? Huge amounts of time are wasted on prospects who could have been eliminated early on. What seems like a tactical issue – qualifying statements for Sales – is often a strategic one. Armed with the right qualifying questions, Sales can quickly eliminate prospects that will never buy, thereby allowing them to spend most of their effort on promising prospects.

While creating this post, I received an unsolicited email from a current client who has used this process. “We have worked on several projects where we needed clarity and proper visual communication in areas of sales, marketing, business development and strategic corporate dealings” and he talks about how our work together has refocused the company.

Need a tuneup? Follow these three steps and lead your team to better execution!

Filling the Gaps

In a post called “Chief Marketing Obstacles: The Treacherous Trail to CMO Success” in Texas Enterprise, the authors did a marvelous job of laying out the challenges that chief marketing officers face in gaining the management clout needed to operate effectively. In responding to the article, I noted how the CMO can fill the gaps that exist in the organization.

For me, filling gaps has been a recurring theme for years. After taking my first management job in software development with absolutely no training, my psychology education helped me observe the group’s interactions and notice what was required for success. It became obvious that I needed to fill any missing gaps in the group’s combined competencies if we were to be as successful as possible. Whenever possible, the gap filler was me.

I noticed an interesting parallel after moving into product management. When the goal is to contribute a “whole product” solution, it can require capabilities outside an organization’s ability to deliver. Options for filling the gap include staff training, contract or consulting help, or partnering with another organization to acquire the needed product capabilities or features.

As I climbed the ranks and handled senior management positions in several functional areas, that early observation about filling the gaps proved to be valuable once again. Given a finite amount of people in any organization I managed, competency gaps had to be filled without additional headcount. Options included staff training, contract or consulting help, or partnering with another organization, yet the one always available was… me. If it were possible for me to learn the needed skills, then we had the resources to achieve our objectives.

If you manage a company or part of it, it’s good to keep in mind your responsibility to deliver a “whole product” and consider all the options available to fill the gaps.

Shoot the Runt: Stay in Touch

Here’s the second in a series of CEO/mentor dialogs being published on a web site called Shoot the Runt that will eventually be a book under the same title. This chapter’s about keeping a close eye on what customers are saying about you, i.e. staying in touch with their sentiments about your company.

For more detail about the series, check out an earlier post describing the series. I’d love to hear any comments or suggestions about the dialogs or ideas for the book.

Understate or Overhype?

“Marketing slime!” I used the term back when I developed software, then became its target after moving to the dark side (marketing).

Such statements are usually good-natured, yet tension can arise between software engineers and marketers when discussing appropriate language to describe a product. Engineers by nature must be very precise and may prefer to losing a prospect over misleading them. Marketers want to draw attention to a product by describing it in the most compelling terms possible and may prefer to stretch the meaning of a desirable word rather than lose a prospect.

Each group has a point. Prospects notice quickly and lose interest when a product description exceeds reality. On the other hand, an opportunity to address their problem can be derailed if a product description is devoid of words that connect with their needs.

Think about it like this. The diagram below represents the continuum between understatement and overhyping. Overhyping product capabilities hurts prospects by misleading them into thinking a problem can be solved when it can’t. Understating capabilities prevents them from solving their problem because they don’t fully understand what the product can do.

Clarity is the goal. What does the product do? What types of problems can be realistically solved? Language that both clarifies and motivates is the goal. Sales success is the result.

CEOs, Company Culture, and Performance

How often do you get to sit in on a conversation with a room full of CEOs? That’s exactly what I did recently when I moderated a CEO Roundtable for TexasCEO and Somerset Consulting Group at the Hotel ZaZa in Dallas (great venue).

We brought together seven executives who run significant businesses in varied industries: communications, commercial construction, manufacturing, chemicals, health and fitness, franchising, and financial services. Each is a recognized leader in their respective industry, and each contributed a unique perspective on the topic of the day: how does company culture affect employee performance?

Everyone naturally agreed that an organization’s culture is a key determinant of its performance. It’s also clear that a CEO’s actions and performance are major factors in creating and preserving that culture. So, what is it that determines who is a CEO?

Having accumulated a number of accomplished CEO friends over the years, I’ve concluded it’s not something that can be taught – CEO’s are a breed unto themselves. You can gain more knowledge by taking B school classes and by reading about others’ experiences in being a CEO (shameless self-promotion), but the basic attributes that drive a classic CEO start showing up early in life:

  • the need to succeed in a unique way,
  • the willingness to do whatever it takes,
  • a desire to have a hand in deciding what’s going on around them,
  • and the courage to take responsibility for failure.

The reality of being a CEO is that it requires the level of focus, dedication, and sacrifice that most people aren’t equipped to make. If you disagree, please state your case!

[For more, check out the article about the Dallas CEO Roundtable in the May/June issue of TexasCEO magazine.]

Shoot the Runt

After a long career in high tech that includes a rare combination of C level experience in both large companies and startups, I’m privileged to know quite a few serial CEOs, i.e. those who have led two, three, even four companies to success.

Each CEO has developed principles enabling them to quickly assess a situation and deal with it effectively.  Every CEO I’ve approached has been eager to share what they’ve learned so other business leaders can make positive moves and avoid mistakes made by others. I’m compiling these valuable insights into a series of CEO/mentor dialogs (and ultimately, a book) that highlights these principles in an easy-to-absorb format.

The dialogs you’ll read illustrate a single principle from an experienced CEO. While the dialog will be central to each chapter, the book chapters will add a discussion of what it means, plus takeaways and references for further reading. The goal of publishing these dialogs now is to strengthen the discussion portion of the book by drawing on comments and discussions from you and other readers.

I welcome ideas and suggestion for the book, so feel free to email them to bob@2020outlook.com. Thank you in advance for helping create a useful collection of mentoring advice by adding your own experiences through comments.

Now, here’s the first dialog called, what else? “Shoot the Runt” of course.

Strategy versus Tactics: One or the Other, or Both?

If you have trouble telling whether it’s your strategy or execution that’s lacking, you are not alone. When we don’t get the results we want, it can be challenging to distinguish whether the problem is what we’re doing or how we’re doing it.

In the Imperial Sugar cover story of the just-released issue of TexasCEO magazine, CEO John Sheptor describes how he did both, making tactical changes to stabilize the company before leading it through a more fundamental strategic transformation. For many CEOs, though, the dilemma is choosing one or the other – should I focus on improving execution or should I change the overall strategy?

Marketing expert Seth Godin offers one way to decide:

If you are tired of hammering your head against the wall, if it feels like you never are good enough, or that you’re working way too hard, it doesn’t mean you’re a loser. It means you’ve got the wrong strategy. It takes real guts to abandon a strategy, especially if you’ve gotten super good at the tactics. That’s precisely the reason that switching strategies is often such a good idea. Because your competition is afraid to.

Once you decide to change the strategy, begin by examining your company’s current positioning vis-à-vis the competition. Most businesses initially have a crisp vision of how they are positioned against competitors, but that vision gets fuzzier over time as compromises are made to land new business. Clearly understanding where you stand now by highlighting current strengths and weaknesses makes it easier to create a new vision for growth.

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