The Mystery of a Disciplined Process

“Mystery” and “process” aren’t often used together. A process is commonly thought of as a way to replace mysterious methods of accomplishing a goal with a well-documented, step-by-step procedure that, if followed precisely, always produces the desired result.

CEOs can be mystified when a competitor with seemingly inferior products and services is acquired by a larger company.  The response is, “Why not my company?” The answer often isn’t self-evident.

In his book A Whole New Mind, Daniel Pink proposes the need to combine left-brain analytical thinking with right-brain creative thinking for those who aspire to succeed in the 21st Century. They must combine both modes of thought in order to “connect the dots” faster than their competitors.  The 20/20 Outlook process demands right-brain and left-brain thinking from management teams who implement it.

A client CEO commented not long ago about how the process has precisely positioned his company for an exit. “At first we just wanted to determine where we fit in the marketplace. During the process, we identified twenty potential acquirers and then narrowed our focus to two industry groups. What we noticed over time was that a market for our products developed around those two groups as though the market was mysteriously growing toward us.”

The CEO came to realize that the illusion of the market coming to his company was the result of decisions he and his team made to follow the decision framework they had put in place. Now those decisions have put them in a position to achieve significant payoffs from relationships created using 20/20 Outlook thinking.

Attacking “Business Entropy”

Not long ago, I wrote a post on how clarity affects the bottom line. It emphasized the importance of a sharing a common vision among a company’s management team and laments how often it’s inadequate. “The lack of this understanding is so common among $10-50M companies that I’ve stopped being surprised when they can’t articulate a clear positioning statement.” The point has since arisen in several CEO discussions, and as I continued to ponder how it happens, a relevant term suggested itself from the fields of physics and cosmology.

Entropy. According to Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary, entropy is defined as “the degradation of the matter and energy in the universe to an ultimate state of inert uniformity” and as “a process of degradation or running down or a trend to disorder.” These words could also describe how the purpose, meaning, and direction underlying a successful business can lose strength over time.

When brand new ventures pursue funding, investors want to understand the business and seek answers to questions like:

  • What category of business is this?
  • What is its primary offering?
  • Who are its competitors?
  • What are the competitors’ weaknesses that can be exploited?
  • What makes the company’s offering unique in the market?
  • How will it gain advantage in the market and keep it?

and so forth.  In a well developed business plan, these questions are answered clearly and formulate the company’s strategic positioning.

As a business grows, it naturally changes, causing the strategic positioning to evolve. New competitors enter the market. The product strategy and product mix react to external economic forces. Customer requirements result in development of new products and services. Acquisitions occur. Partnerships are struck.

Such changes affect the strategic positioning of the company and also the shared management vision. If the company positioning is ignored as these changes occur, the business equivalent of entropy can begin and proliferate. The previous “uniformity” of vision gradually erodes. A “degradation” of the company’s messaging about itself, its products, and its services follows a “trend to disorder.” The lack of shared vision within the management team causes inertia and delays in execution.

Thankfully, the remedy to this “business entropy” doesn’t involve a comprehension of cosmology.  All it requires is foresight and a willingness to take action. Periodically, especially during and after significant game-changing events, the company’s strategic positioning must be reviewed and revised. Senior management and other key players should reach a consensus vision about the company, its market, its competitors, and its direction. And of course, outside assistance can facilitate the process.

Important Indicators are Up

Because I help companies define an exit strategy and grow value accordingly, I’m always seeking better sources of data that capture the current state of the investment world. Pitchbook is one source that publishes particularly useful information about fundraising, investments, and exits. A recent Pitchbook presentation suggests that we’re on the verge of significant growth in private equity investment during the next year, and that’s good news companies moving toward an exit.

One factor mentioned in the Pitchbook prez is that capital overhang is high and growing. When that happens, valuations tend to increase because so much money is looking for a place to land and produce a return.

Additionally, chart below depicts that the number of quarterly private equity exits through corporate acquisitions, initial public offerings, and secondary sales is on the upswing after reaching a low in early 2009.

Finally, one of the best analysts in the business, Richard Davis of Needham and Company, commented in his newsletter that it’s been 25 years since he’s seen so many companies in a great position for an IPO.

Taken together, all these indicators suggest that, despite the continuing malaise in the broader economy, a CEO who keeps his/her company’s partnerships, product strategy, services, and partnerships aligned with potential acquirers can expect to see greater opportunity this year and through the next.

Clarity Affects the Bottom Line

Last week I spent a morning leading a management team through a strategic positioning session to achieve more clarity about their business. The next day I read an article containing this quote by the leader of a technology incubator:

My team and I probably saw, heard or read more than 200 business pitches last year. And after about 75 percent of them, we didn’t understand the businesses. I’m convinced that this is a primary cause of entrepreneurial failure. Every entrepreneur needs to be able to clearly and succinctly communicate the essence of his or her business to an intelligent stranger.

While it’s important for startups to have an elevator pitch, it’s equally important for the management team of an existing business to share a clear vision that provides a context for making business decisions. The lack of this understanding is so common among $10-50M companies that I’ve stopped being surprised when they can’t articulate a clear positioning statement. Why do you think so many companies have trouble with something so basic and so important? I have a theory.

Recently a CEO friend in Dallas shared the “PerformanceManagement” matrix below. While the origin is unclear, it’s a useful framework for examining issues, and it offers a clue as to why so many companies lack the clarity they need to operate efficiently.

Urgent Important Matrix

For many CEOs, sustaining an up-to-date picture of the company’s value in the market is either neglected or delegated to Marketing because it lacks urgency compared to operation issues and cost management. This falls under the heading of “Poor Planning.” The CEO’s number one priority is growing shareholder value, and clear strategic thinking contributes directly by enhancing the quality of important decisions affecting future value.

If you’re a CEO, do you stay on top of your company’s value in the eyes of players that matter, especially potential acquirers? Or will you leave this non-urgent critical issue unaddressed until the day you’re shocked to read that your closest competitor was just acquired by a company with whom they’d partnered?

I’m On a Mission!

In Bob Dylan’s song “Gotta Serve Somebody” he points out that, no matter who we are, we all have to make significant choices:

You’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody

The implication is clear for our spiritual life, but the broader principle applies in our work life. At the core of what drives us are competing priorities, and the one at the top will be the “decider” most of the time. What is the top driver in your work life?

What drives me personally is a passion for building effective business partnerships. Over the years, I’ve seen great ones lift companies to new levels of value and effectiveness. Much more often, I’ve seen poorly planned ones consume significant resources with little or nothing to show for the effort.

Three principles characterize the most effective partnership strategies – context, planning, and execution:

Context means understanding your own organization and its offerings in relation to the market they live in. What kind of company are we? What value do we deliver? Whom do we compete against? How are we unique? A simple positioning project can bring great clarity of thinking and purpose, yet it’s amazing how unclear the answers to these questions often are.  If you don’t understand your own company, don’t expect success in partnering with others.

Planning partnerships is imperative. Stephen Covey’s second habit “Begin with the end in mind” is based on ancient wisdom from Aristotle that’s often ignored. Once armed with a clear understanding of your market positioning, you’re ready to think about partnering and what you want to accomplish. What is your vision for growing the value of your company? If you clearly understand where you’re going, business partnerships will help you get there faster.

Execution of partnerships requires effort and resources. Why expend time and effort in creating a business relationship only to let it die from lack of care? A partnership needs focus in order to produce expected benefits. Increasing the odds of success requires architecting self-sustaining elements into the partnership from the beginning, and that can only be done successfully through clarity of purpose and a clear vision for growth.

Anonymous, my all-time favorite writer, said it best:

“Action without Vision just passes time.”

Technology M&A Is Accelerating

A few days ago, I posted links to interesting articles in an exit strategy update. Indications are that the next 12-18 months  will produce an increase in the acquisition of technology companies, so having an exit strategy in place and aligning with potential acquirers remains top of mind for CEOs. Let’s review some of the evidence.

One significant indicator is that tech companies have started using debt to raise capital. A recent WSJ article said that “the decision to take on debt breaks from tradition in tech, where companies have typically preferred to raise money by selling stock. Debt has become a more attractive fundraising option largely because interest rates are low… Turning to debt is an especially big change for software companies, which typically generate lots of cash and aren’t saddled with large one-time expenses like opening a factory.”

While the focus of the article was on the largest companies like Cisco, Microsoft, H-P, Oracle Corp., International Business Machines Corp., and Dell Inc. who raised more than $20 billion combined in 2009 selling bonds, smaller companies are following suit. Salesforce.com’s $575M debt offering and Adobe’s of $1.5B, both in January, mean that the acquisition drive is broadening.

Yesterday StreetInsider.com quoted an FBR Capital Markets report that “software vendors are flush with cash given the cashflow-rich nature of the software model and more than a handful of vendors have even recently raised additional capital.” The FBR Capital report even suggested some likely acquisitions:

So what should CEOs of smaller technology companies who want to grow shareholder value do? At a minimum, three things:

  1. Understand who your most likely acquirers are and keep the list up-to-date.
  2. Ensure that your company stays focused on activities that increase your attractiveness to those acquirers.
  3. Create partnerships with potential acquirers and other companies who make your company more compelling to those acquirers.

Whether you want to be acquired in the short term or the long term, your company’s value is in the eye of the beholder, and the most important beholders are acquirers.

The Reality of Being a CEO

Tactics is knowing what to do when there is something to do.
Strategy is knowing what to do when there is nothing to do.
– Savielly Tartakower

The reality of being a CEO differs in many ways from the popular conception. After many candid conversations with CEOs, it’s clear that the media portrayal of the CEO role as being glamorous, highly lucrative, and psychologically rewarding is incomplete at best. All of the above are true at least some of the time for many CEOs, yet when they’re being candid, most will tell you that it’s far from being chocolates and roses all the time.

In fact, one business leader laughingly told me that people don’t realize how often a CEO gets to “experience sheer terror.”  Many things can go wrong that adversely affect the business and ultimately impact CEO priority number one, i.e. increasing shareholder value. What moves are competitors taking that we can’t respond well to? What drivers in the economy threaten the willingness and ability of customers to stop buying? Is our own inability to execute holding us back? Do we have a realistic vision for growing the company?

An earlier post about “The CEO Dilemma” discussed these and other challenges. Many CEOs live life on a high wire, balancing operational issues, cost and cash management, a realistic vision for growth, productive business partnerships, market presence, go-to-market and sales strategies, and many other priorities. Contrary to the supremely confident leader portrayed on-screen, a CEO is not always sure what to do.

Should we pity the poor, downtrodden CEO? Hardly! Most tell me they can’t conceive having any different role. They love what they do and feel fortunate that they have the opportunity. At the same time, life at the top can be lonely. The buck always stops there. As the CEO, you ultimately have to make the big decisions. And sometimes it pays to get assistance.

Where do CEOs look for help? If they’re lucky, experienced individuals on their board of directors are able and willing to serve as sounding boards, yet the fiduciary nature of their relationship may limit those discussions. Alternatively, the CEO may have one or more friends who are or have been chief executives whom they can trust for advice.

Often CEOs are more isolated than they need to be. Organizations like Vistage, CEO Netweavers, and others have evolved to meet the needs of CEOs over the years.  They comprise CEOs who are willing to give time to help other CEOs with advice in a trusted environment, often facilitated by experienced serial CEOs. And, of course, there are independent trusted advisers who work individually with CEOs as well as with groups of CEOs to share expertise and experience that can help companies reach new levels of performance.

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