“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.”

 

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!

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.

Are You Working On or In Your Business?

In a recent post, I mentioned that an article I’d written for TexasCEO magazine would show up soon on their web site. Here’s a link to the article and a picture from the party held at Annie’s in downtown Austin to celebrate publication of the current edition.

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“!

Choose Your Diet Carefully

A good friend shared an analogy. He described a scientific study of bears where one group of bears ate a diet of nuts and berries while a second group ate marshmallows. All seemed content with their diet, and both groups increased their weight. The result? Bears eating nuts and berries successfully survived the long winter, while those on a marshmallow diet couldn’t make it.

Marshmallows represent business activities that make us feel good, like a calendar full of meetings. They trick us into thinking that we’re doing something worthwhile, when in fact they are wasting time.

For many companies, the current economy equates to a long, hard winter. To survive and thrive, focus on the nuts and berries, i.e. focus on tasks that move you toward your business goals – and skip the marshmallows!

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