6 Ways to Create Content That CEOs Will Read

Paul Gillin’s recent post about the purpose and value of editing inspired me to share six core principles I’ve discovered that drive creation of content that CEOs will read.

1. Keep the ROI high. 

More than other audiences, CEOs focus intently on using their time profitably. Content must provide a high return on investment. If you waste a CEO’s time, he/she stops reading. Even a minute away from the promise of ideas that promote growth will risk losing their attention.

2. Assume your audience is up to speed.

Don’t give lengthy explanations of terms you understand and are afraid your audience won’t. CEOs already have to keep up with current issues, so if they need more background, they know how to find it on their own.

3. Make every word count.

Every paragraph, even every word, must deliver value and encourage the reader to continue. To transfer a concept that helps readers become more successful may require ten or more edit passes. Emulate what Paul Gillin calls the Wall Street Journal’s “obsessive culture… with packing more information into less space.”

4. Watch your language. 

It’s imperative to be candid and use direct, active language. TexasCEO publisher Pat Niekamp points out that “pieces ghost written for a CEO by someone who’s never had the experience of having to meet a payroll or pay the rent or determine a long term strategy, or deal with killer competition may contain words like they might, could, consider… CEOs use active words like do, are, will.”

5. Get to the point.

Getting high ROI content read requires getting to the point quickly. Someone thankfully taught me early on not to make the audience wait too long for the punch line. If a CEO doesn’t get it by the second slide in a prez, for example, he/she will page ahead if they have paper copies, or they’ll get impatient and completely lose interest. Apply the same principle to your writing.

6. Get in and get out.

Similarly, keep your posts short and give some idea up front of the value and outcome, i.e. what’s in this for me if I read it. Short means blog posts that are about 500-1000 words, with the average closer to 500.

Respect is due anyone who’s willing to take on the CEO role. While I’m happy that the “open rate” for my monthly newsletter hovers at 35-40%, it’s a constant struggle to create higher ROI content for them. Hopefully these principles will help you do the same.

Please leave a comment below or drop a line to bob@2020outlook.com to share your thoughts.

[For a deeper understanding of social media, follow Paul Gillin’s blog.]

Mandela Story Offers Key Business Principle

In reading and listening to stories of Nelson Mandela’s life, one in particular jumped out at me. F. W. de Clerk told of Mandela’s focus on ensuring that Afrikaner desires were reflected in the agreement they negotiated to break up apartheid. Mandela apparently insisted that forming a successful partnership required adequately addressing the opposition’s needs, so he probed de Klerk to learn what they were.

Hearing this while driving away from consulting with a CEO and his leadership team about how to create partnerships, I found it fascinating that a political leader embraced a powerful principle that many business leaders miss. Strategic partnerships are often underutilized as a path to faster growth, and making them work requires the kind of transparency and active listening suggested by this story.

Leveraging another company’s resources (e.g., technology, branding, geographic presence) can accelerate growth (e.g., product development, market visibility, revenue), but three obstacles face any brave CEO who decides to drive a truly productive partnership:

  1. Stories of unsuccessful partnerships abound.
  2. Doing it right requires a high level of transparency.
  3. Deciding when to partner requires deliberate thought.

Stories of failed partnerships leads many CEOs to see diverting resources from organic growth to partnerships as overly risky. In fact, without adequate planning and process, they’re right. On the other hand, consider the huge payoff from a wisely crafted partnership like the one Apple consummated with AT&T to launch the iPhone. Apple got accelerated distribution into a large and growing customer base, while AT&T used the hottest product on the market to accelerate the growth of its base for several years before its competitors gained access to the iPhone. (By all accounts, Apple approached Verizon first but the two didn’t come to terms.)

The second issue of transparency is all-important in the partnership process. When do you play your cards? How many should you show? While controlling information is important in all negotiating, successfully initiating a partnership discussion requires a level of openness beyond the norm that doesn’t come naturally to many CEOs. Minimizing the risk requires investing the effort it takes to identify who best to partner with and how best to advance a compelling offer to them. That knowledge provides the confidence to move more openly toward a growth-enhancing relationship.

Timing a partnership can be tricky, but when two factors are simultaneously present, then it’s time to consider partnering: (1) a high-impact threat or opportunity has arisen, and (2) your company’s ability to respond is weak. In this dual circumstance, gaining access to the resources needed to respond faster becomes a matter of defining your organization’s needs very clearly, identifying and prioritizing a list of candidates with the right resources, and most importantly, being intentional about creating a highly compelling proposition before talking to anyone.

When you finally open the conversation, listen ala the Mandela story to confirm and refine your understanding of their needs in order to uncover where your resources can best help them in their areas of weakness.

Successful M&A Requires a Clear Vision

An astute CEO can often augment organic growth with acquisitions, but a majority of acquisitions fail to deliver expected returns. CEO Carol Koffinke of Beacon Associates says that “60 to 80 percent of all mergers and acquisitions fail to meet their merger goals.” Why do they fail?

Much has been written about acquiring companies’ failure to realize the value they envisioned for their acquisitions and the why’s: a lack of proper due diligence, cultural mismatch, lack of integration planning, unforeseen market factors, etc. However, of all the possible reasons for failure, M&A experts put the lack of a clear vision at the top of the list.

Source: “Creating and Executing a Winning M&A Strategy,” Merrill Data Site and The M&A Advisor, October 2013

While a clear vision can accelerate execution of any growth strategy, successful M&A demands a level of clarity most companies fail to achieve. Why do companies launch into an acquisition without sufficient vision and planning? Here are the most common reasons we’ve encountered in working with top executives:

  • Some CEOs don’t naturally think strategically. A CEO who’s risen through the operational ranks can end up with a “make stuff, sell stuff” philosophy and a view that strategy is merely a set of slides for board and investors, while in fact, a clear strategy drives revenue and profitability.
  • A CEO can be overwhelmed by the daily pressure of running the business. Periodically answering the question “are you working on or in your business?” can prevent the urgency of daily concerns that distract from the CEO’s paramount responsibility –  increasing shareholder value.
  • Pressure to make quarterly goals can diffuse and erode the shared view of a company’s purpose. A process called business entropy (e.g., repeatedly accepting non-core business) can eventually dilute the strength of a company’s brand and slow its ability to generate new business.

How can a CEO be more intentional about growing the company through acquisition?

  1. Find a way to set aside time to think and discuss new directions. In this new social media world, it’s easy to develop a chronic short attention span. Focused thought is required to create breakout strategies.
  2. Take an honest look to make sure you’re not hanging onto more than you should. How to cross the second chasm, i.e. growing a company from small to big, is described in Doug Tatum’s insightful book, No Man’s Land. Pick up a copy and read it this weekend. (If you think you don’t have time, you need to read it.)
  3. Discuss growth challenges with objective trusted advisors. Use CEO peers at Vistage and experienced consultants as soundingboards to call out any “elephants in the room.” They will help you establish the clear vision needed to drive your acquisition initiatives.

CEO Flow v. Multitasking

In a recent article in Small Business Trends, CEO Curt Finch of Journyx contrasts the benefits of “flow” over “multitasking” in achieving optimal employee productivity. Recent studies show that multitasking can be highly unproductive, while flow is much better:

“As defined by author and psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, flow occurs when you enter a state of intense and effortless concentration on the task at hand. It is often referred to as ‘being in the zone,’ and employees are far more productive while in this state than at any other time.”

That made me wonder to what extent the same principle applies to CEOs and how they use their time. Most CEOs are paragons of multitasking. Each day comprises formal and informal meetings and calls that address a multitude of topics across multiple domains. A CEO friend once described it this way: “It feels like I’m walking the halls of the office and people are ripping off pieces of flesh as I walk by. At the end of the day, I’m exhausted.”

As with employees, multitasking would seem to be the natural enemy of flow for CEOs. Of course a CEO must necessarily handle more than one issue at a time, but if you continually find yourself without enough time to adequately address important but not urgent issues, multitasking may be slowing your company’s growth.

Finding uninterrupted time to consider how to grow the company is a common CEO challenge. Achieving “CEO flow” may require a level of discipline above what you’ve applied in the past. Delegating more tasks to your executive team, encouraging them to be more mutually accountable, and becoming more protective of open space in your calendar can enable you to become the chief visionary officer that your company needs.

Are you spending time in the zone that’s needed to create the right vision, or are you always multitasking?

What You Think You Know May Blind You To Growth Opportunities

TexasCEO magazine just published my latest thoughts about partnerships. In addition to correcting myths about partnerships in general, it describes major types of self-fueling partnerships and the series of steps you can employ to accelerate the growth of your business.

As always, let’s hear your feedback, either below or the TexasCEO web site.

 

Three Steps Will Recharge Your Business

Washington Post, July 2, 2012: “Outlook for U.S. economy dims as manufacturing shrinks for the first time in nearly 3 years… ‘Our forecast that the U.S. will grow by around 2 percent this year is now looking a bit optimistic,’  said Paul Dales, an economist at Capital Economics.”

Being the CEO requires committing to a “no excuses” life. Others may offer plausible reasons for non-performance, but if your company plateaus, CEO excuses aren’t an option – you must take action:

  • Softening economy? Find a way to take advantage of a changing business landscape.
  • Lengthening sales cycles? Determine how to identify highly motivated prospects.
  • Shrinking margins? Examine whether your company is leveraging its strengths.

Changing your business to address these and similar challenges incurs risk, but the risk of doing nothing is greater. How can you adopt an effective breakout strategy that will recharge you and your executive team?

Here’s a rational, three-step process guaranteed to provide direction: (1) reexamine your company’s true value and what sets it apart; (2) in light of market conditions and competition, determine an altered direction that will maximize value; and (3) identify new business relationships that will open doors to new business. In other words, you need to clarify, comprehend, and connect:

Clarify – Who are you as a company and what sets you apart? What truly separates companies like Apple, Southwest, Berkshire Hathaway, and the NE Patriots from the rest, year after year, is a sense of purpose. Clarifying the organization’s purpose and unique assets beyond a simple mission statement actually increases efficiency. It’s imperative to get this right.

Highly successful companies perform at a high level because they focus on a clearly identifiable market with a differentiated solution. Even successful companies eventually let pressure to increase revenue force acceptance of business outside their primary focus. Since profitability grows by exploiting core competencies, losing focus erodes margins. Having a crystal-clear shared vision of who your company targets and what customer problems it uniquely addresses enables employees to make decisions more rapidly (fewer meetings and emails needed) so more gets accomplished faster and margins increase.

Comprehend – Once you understand your company better, update your understanding of your immediate market. What change in direction will maximize value? Finding the right direction in a complex and competitive market accelerates growth. How do you define who’s in it and who isn’t? What is your relationship to other companies in your space?

One proven method is to pretend you’re selling your company and identify a number of companies that could acquire you and another set that you might acquire or partner with.  By comprehending the needs of potential acquirers, acquisition targets, and partners, you will develop a value framework that identifies high value opportunities.

Connect – Which relationships will increase business the most? Whether your company is B2B or B2C, strong relationships with other companies can help it grow faster. That said, many CEOs have been burned by partnerships that failed due to poor planning, unrealistic expectations, and unmonitored execution.

The solution? Design self-fueling partnerships that continually reinforce each partner’s objectives. Partnering with potential acquirers and industry leaders will drive new revenue by providing access to new markets, extended geographies, enhanced product and service offerings, better branding, and staff augmentation.

By following this three-step process, breaking out of flat growth may be easier than you think.

Too Broad, Too Narrow, or Just Right

Driving down a major boulevard in a city where we lived at the time, my wife spied a new restaurant in a place where many others had failed. In the window, it advertised food from multiple ethnicities, including both Mexican and Chinese! I’d be surprised if “Bueno Wok” lasted long.

There’s a truism about how a lack of focus can kill an enterprise. Being “a mile wide and a quarter inch deep” is widely recognized as a cause of failure.  Typically, a desire to increase revenue leads to pursuit of business that doesn’t leverage the company’s strengths and results in lower margins and muddled branding. But, are there instances where too narrow a focus can be just as harmful?

The diagram below categorizes organizations according to two attributes, focus and potential. The Focus axis ranges from single domain to multiple domains through all domains, while Potential ranges from restrictive to growing through saturated. Companies focused on several verticals are distinguished from those whose offerings are truly horizontal (i.e. domain-independent). Of course, each axis represents a continuum so that an infinite set of combinations is possible, allowing for the unique positioning of any specific company.

Back to the original question: is it possible to be too focused? Consider the example of a company providing a niche offering to several vertical markets. In the diagram it would be classified as “saturated domain-specific.”

Suppose you’re advising a new CEO hired to grow this “plateauing” company, Your first inclination may be to assess each of the company’s currently targeted vertical markets in hopes of focusing on the one with greatest growth potential. However, if the frequency of opportunities within each vertical domain is found to be sporadic and sensitive to changing business cycles, it may make more sense to remain diversified. Finding additional verticals that the company can target may represent a more fruitful direction.

So a key factor in opting to narrow or broaden our focus ia available market opportunities. Other factors include strength of brand, plus the company’s ability to execute (e.g. capitalization), integrate, partner, and acquire. These affect companies in each of the diagram’s nine categories in different ways. (NOTE: future posts will consider how, so if one of the nine categories is of particular interest, let me know when you sign up on this page to be notified by email when the next post is available.)

Translating the CEO’s vision for growth into breakout strategies requires careful thought to determine the best way to target and deploy finite corporate resources. Too often a new direction is based on an unrealistic view of the company’s position and capabilities. While it takes an optimist to run a company, it takes a realist to lead one toward its highest value.

 

TexasCEO and Vistage

“Symphony…is the ability to put together the pieces. It is the capacity to synthesize rather than to analyze; to see relationships between seemingly unrelated fields; to detect broad patterns rather than to deliver specific answers; and to invent something new by combining elements nobody else thought to pair.”

— Dan Pink in A Whole New Mind

Vistage CEO Rafael Pastor spoke this morning at a breakfast organized by TexasCEO magazine. He covered a range of topics near and dear to my heart (e.g., “what makes America great? its restlessness”), then reviewed the results of the most recent Vistage member survey, a reliable leading indicator of GDP and hiring trends (good news: CEO confidence is heading back toward the 2004 level).

Finally, he shared four traits of a good leader that combine to produce character:

  1. Confidence – uplifting and inspiring all constituencies to higher performance
  2. Curiosity – looking around and asking questions to learn new ways of thinking
  3. Courage – having determination to risk and innovate
  4. Collaboration – creating and learning from external relationships

How does an organization exhibit these traits? Consider TexasCEO as an example:

  1. Confidence – Driving the creation of the magazine was a desire to distribute information that helps CEOs grow their enterprises. TexasCEO founders were confident they could draw contributing authors from multiple industries to deliver value through lessons that cross domains.
  2. Curiosity – By continually meeting with CEOs and advisors from multiple industries to understand their expertise, publisher Pat Niekamp and staff provide a continual stream of challenging articles on business development, people matters, marketing, sales, leadership, finance, governance, professional development, and other topics that CEOs must track.
  3. Courage – Does it take courage in a down economy to start a combined print and online magazine? Of course, but that courage was based on a clear analysis: no statewide business publication existed in a business-friendly state.
  4. CollaborationTexasCEO continues to build relationships with groups and individuals that share their passion for helping CEOs achieve their dreams. Like Vistage, they appreciate the power of collaboration to broaden our vision. Rafael Pastor said it best when he quoted Marshall Goldsmith: “What got you here won’t get you there.” Often we can learn what works from our peers.

Joel Trammell recently told me about becoming a CEO. “Many people think that the CEO job is just the next progression after being a senior executive in a business… the CEO job is actually a unique role that doesn’t really have much in common with the other executive roles in a business.” He then related how he quickly learned to reach out to other business leaders when he became a CEO.

Vistage and TexasCEO were founded on the common goal of sharing CEO knowledge and expertise to improve business performance. With that common focus, maybe a new partnership was born this morning.

“It’s Hard to Understand If You Haven’t Lived Here”

When I was recently interviewed for a Wall Street Journal article, answering questions about doing business in Texas came remarkably easy. The interview was nominally about Rick Perry, but almost all our time was spent discussing the state’s relatively healthy job scene.

When asked why Texas is special, I told Dan Henninger about a Brooklyn native and friend named John who worked for me in Dallas in the late 80’s. After having lived in half a dozen cities across the country during his career, he deliberately targeted moving to Dallas when he and his wife were ready to start a family. What inspired him was the attitude of businesspeople in Texas when they lived there once before in the early 80’s.

At that time, the energy sector was spiraling downward at a record pace, but he remembered that, instead of bemoaning their situation, the Texans around him were talking about what they were going to do next. In some cases it meant starting over in new areas of the energy sector, while others were planning how to start anew in other markets. No one spent time crying about their dire situation. The optimism he saw in Texas was like nothing he’d seen elsewhere, so he and his wife deliberately returned a few years later.

My friend Ed Trevis (also quoted in the article) provides another perspective from a non-native Texan. As the long-time CEO of a high tech embedded computing business in Silicon Valley, Ed finally became fed up with California’s overbearing tax and regulatory environment, so he surveyed locations in many other states, looking for the best place to relocate. His criteria included a strong, well-educated labor force, less government interference, and an attractive cost of doing business. Texas came out far ahead in his analysis, and the city of Cedar Park outside Austin provided the perfect place to move his business, which has thrived there since the move two-and-a-half years ago.

To be fair, there are great people everywhere, there are thriving businesses in other states, and there are spots that beat out Texas in one way or another. What is unique about Texas, though, is not only its labor force, its supportive governmental policies, and its low cost structure, but the optimism and collaborative attitude so prevalent among its people. As David Booth, who moved Dimensional Fund Advisors’s headquarters to Austin from California, said, “It’s hard to understand if you haven’t lived here.”

 

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.

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