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.

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.

Ownership of Open Source

Writing about open source issues has been on my list for awhile because it’s so important to have a good strategy for using it. Thanks to John Curtis at Quotient for taking it off my list with a great post. Check out “Let’s talk about ownership” for a clear discussion of the major issues.

The Evolution of Internet Access

Long-time friend Paul Gillin is an acknowledged expert on social media who has written several books on the subject. I highly recommend subscribing to his excellent blog and newsletter where he continually shares what he’s found through helping firms work out their social media strategies.

In my own busy end of the year, I overlooked a piece in one of his December newsletters until this morning. In it he summarized five important insights picked up at the Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco:

  1. Make marketing a service to customers
  2. You need a mobile strategy, and faster than you probably thought
  3. Social is the killer app (surprised, right?)
  4. Simulations are a powerful incentive to engage
  5. Everything on the Web

Supporting point #2 he included these projections regarding the transition we’re making toward mobile devices supplanting notebooks as our primary platform:

What implications does this have for your business? Will mobile devices totally supplant notebooks? Not likely, any more than notebooks have made desktop PCs disappear. What we’re seeing is a proliferation of devices in multiple form factors, all driven by data accessible via internet, with the user interface being packaged applications in more cases and browsers in fewer instances:

“Google’s Eric Schmidt made an interesting point: smart phones are actually more useful than PCs because they know more about the user, including location, and can deliver a more personal level of utility. This doesn’t mean PCs are going away. Rather, the plunging price of flat-panel displays will make PCs more of a dashboard for a user’s business and entertainment needs. However, the browser will be only one of several ways people will access the Internet.”

For more information, check out “Five Lessons from the Web 2.0 Summit“!

What Is It About Texas?

A few nights ago, I attended an event honoring the subject of TexasCEO magazine’s current cover story, Clayton Christopher. I met some other amazing people there and have been thinking since about the experience since then.

(Full disclosure: I have an article the print edition that will also be posted on the TexasCEO web site soon.)

The manner in which our country was born resulted in a population that loves being free to follow their dreams, and for 200+ years, millions of other dreamers have immigrated here. Over a 30-year career in high tech, I traveled the United States meeting wonderful people everywhere I went. Living recently in the Detroit area for several years is a prime example where, despite its exaggeratedly negative reputation, I found incredibly intelligent and highly motivated people building new companies and pursuing their careers with great passion.

If you’re a native Texan or an adoptee of this state, though, you can’t escape what a distinctive place it is. You’re deeply aware of the unique loyalty of its residents and the power of its brand. The shape of the state and its flag are recognizable by people living all over the globe. Many people who grew up in and live in other states have affection for those places, yet nowhere else do you find people who so deeply identify with the state they live in. Why is this true?

When I lived in Dallas during the 90’s, I made a good friend who’d grown up in New York City. By fifteen years into his career, he and his wife had lived in six cities in vastly different regions of the country. When I asked how they came to reside in Dallas, he said they had made a very deliberate decision to move there.

The couple had lived in Texas once before. It was during the 1980’s immediately after a huge downturn in the state’s then-dominant energy industry. The memory of how Texans responded to the economic crisis had stuck with them ever since. Instead of the complaints and despair they might have expected, the universal attitude was optimism. The general attitude was “OK, what can we do now?” and people started planning a new business or a new career. When they started their family, they made a conscious decision to move back to Dallas because they wanted to rear their children among people with a can-do, optimistic outlook on life.

Another anecdote: a CEO friend relocated his company to Austin from Silicon Valley in early 2009 to take advantage of  the large pool of available technical talent and the friendly business climate. While those reasons prompted him to move, what also keeps him here is the love of the state’s optimistic attitude which he mentions often.

Targeted at the state’s business leaders, TexasCEO magazine published its first issue in May 2010. Its articles continually reflect that Texas optimism. The current January/February edition focuses on bootstrapping a business. It’s full of stories about people in different industries and different parts of the state who have successfully created new companies.

So what it is it about Texas? What I’ve encountered upon returning after living out of state several years are people who recognize obstacles yet choose to believe they can overcome them with creativity and hard work. Having grown up around people like that is something I truly appreciate.

So for Texas friends, am I way off base? What is it that you like the most about the state?

For non-Texas friends, does this resonate with you, or are all of us Texans just weird?

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