My wife and I just dropped-off our very excited daughters at school. It’s the first day of the new school year. That means it’s GO TIME.
Every August I get extra revved-up at this exact moment. Why? Back to school season creates a collective consciousness in America that shows itself in work ethic and purchase habits. Summer vacations that recharge batteries and bond friendships have served their critical purpose. It’s time to transition to finish the year strong in your business and that effort starts now! We have exactly 120 days, one-third of the year, in front of us from now to the December Holiday break. Except for Labor Day, Thanksgiving and a couple faith-based holidays, the collective workforce is engaged and undistracted. At least the smart individuals are!
Are you ready to go on a run and finish this year strong? Here are my 5 steps to do so:
- NEW BOOKS: My daughters will receive new textbooks today. I will select some as well. I generally read business biographies in the summer, but today I will shift to books on strategy, leadership and execution.
- NEW SCHEDULE: Starting today, I get up a half hour earlier to have some quiet time for a devotional, make a cup of coffee, get breakfast ready for my daughters and text / tweet props and thoughts to friends and my team. When my wife drives the girls to school at 7:30, I am already at full speed.
- RENEW FOCUS: I ask myself, what do I need to get rid of so I can be unhindered? Is there any clutter on my desk – things that are weighing me down that I need to DO NOW or finalize or cross off? I always find a small list of things that were “pending” and take a specific half-day to “execute (do) or execute (kill/skip).” Try this and you’ll be surprised how well it helps you focus and feel ready to push ahead. It’s like cleaning out a closet – you feel good when it’s done.
- RENEW THE URGENCY: To experience the satisfaction (and rewards), go create a sense of urgency for you and your team. A few things could include: incentives and competitive goals for the team and a determine the reward for yourself / your wife & family that is paid for out of any year-end bonus. Create visibility so the competitive standings are known across the entire team. Text your people daily in your “mentor role”- one day to challenge in a positive way and the next day with any numbers along with specific encouragement about executing. Also increasing the frequency of 1:1 meetings, but shorten the duration – make some of them 5 minute stand-up meetings. These little tricks inject a sense of urgency across the whole team.
- RENEW VISION: What do you want to say about this 120 day run in January? Get specific and list 3-5 objectives. Some of those may require a simple adjustment on your part while others may demand new methods vs. last year. Either way, take your time to consider the list and put it on a wall where you can see it every day.
Are you ready to go on the 120 day run and finish the year strong?
Get to it!
One evening I was ruminating about management regrets. We all have them. Sometimes we learn… but too often we don’t.
I sent a flurry of emails to my CEO friends, asking, “Tell me about a time that when you made a CEO-decision that YOU KNEW DARN WELL you should have made much earlier but were nervous about…. but when you finally pulled the trigger EVERYTHING TURNED OUT JUST FINE.”
These friendly pillars of knowledge, offered these thoughts:
- Going slow on investing just leads to wasted time as one ends up investing down the line anyways. There is no investment better than investing back in a growing business. Do your ROI analysis – if you won’t lose your shirt… go for it.
- I’ve never regretted firing someone who wasn’t performing or the wrong fit, even after worrying about the decision for months. On the other end of the spectrum, I’ve never regretted making a much-needed, but costly, new hire “too early.” In both cases, I always look back a few months later at my team say, “Why did I wait so long?” JUST DO IT!
- Getting nit-picky in deals and ending up not getting them done! What a waste of time and loss of an opportunity – I was foolish!
- Not hiring fast enough, thinking I can’t afford headcount, but not hiring is what I could not afford. For example, It has been just about 30 days since our new VP joined, and he already has 15 multimillion deals in the pipeline with our existing partners.
- Never wait to be tough in negotiations with bigger companies. We were wrongfully being sued at the IP level by a big company because they were worried about us as a competitor. They presented an irrelevant but related patent and sued us to try to scare us into selling to them. Everybody around me was asking me to compromise and give up because it was just one of many market opportunities for us. I refused to compromise. We did the right thing and… extracted a very favorable settlement which gave what we needed in a very affordable way without having to go to the uncertainty of a trial (which the big player really didn’t want either).
- Quoting customers list price for an upsell the customer asks for! Salespeople are always nervous about offending the customer or losing a deal and I keep telling them there is nothing offensive about charging appropriately (never gouge!) for additional services. I joined in on a call and it took me less time to get the customer to say yes to an additional element than it took me to get my salespeople to stop whining about being afraid to quote it.
- Not saying “No” earlier in a deal/negotiation process whether it was for financing or revenue. I’ve found its the fastest way to cut to the chase as to whether a real deal can be struck, but also nerve-wrecking at the same time.
- Deciding to raise prices when the product value calls for it. Sales guys never want to deliver bad news. If we do our homework properly we usually get the expected result, but again, we’re always worried about irrational actors. Stop worrying and do it!
- Every time some one gets canned. Everyone knows it for months but nobody has the “guts” to do it so I STEP IN AND FORCE IT. Everything always comes out fine… actually, things get BETTER after the tumor is removed.
- Overthinking, Micromanaging, Delaying, Denying, Hoping and then Dying. You can’t layoff and cut expenses to get rich, you can’t hope your way out of a hole, you can’t micromanage your way to recovery. You need dry powder in the form of capital so you can invest in the business and manage through the tough times. This game is not for the feint of heart or the under-capitalized.
Hopes and dreams are not what they are cracked up to be.
Yes, I believe in dreams (up to a point) but I prefer to describe the concept as thinking big with a specific, measurable, actionable, reasonable, time-based plan. To me, there is no such thing as a dream home or dream vacation – there is only an earned home or an earned vacation. You eventually wake up from dreams and get back to reality where you only have what you earned.
Not long ago two alarming conversations took place with people I deeply care about. One involved a seasoned company founder hoping external macro factors would ultimately solve a revenue challenge. The other involved an individual dreaming and yearning for a particular future while metaphorically running in place without a plan or even a plan to make a plan. After listening, making innocuous comments and offering bits encouragement the discussion moved on.
Later I felt tremendous guilt. On one hand, there was guilt for not opening up a deeper discussion that could provide usable perspectives to my friends. On the other hand, there was a responsible, cowardly feeling because I avoided a deeper discussion only because I was not in the mood, or just too tired that day, to deal with potentially emotional responses.
Somewhere between being perpetually driven 24X7 “without a life ” -or- sitting around aimlessly hoping and dreaming while clutching a box of tissue lies a balanced response. It does not take much energy to make a simple plan to address the problem, or at least start to do so with some reasoned effort. After thinking, the dark side of dwelling hopes and dreams crystallized into 4 basic points:
- Dreams are often a morass of feelings and yearnings but these emotions too often betray us.
- Dreams usually have no action-plans and plans contain some level of accountability.
- Hope is not a method, it merely shifts responsibility somewhere else. (See also this book by General Gordon Sullivan)
- Hopes and dreams can mate which gives birth to the evil twins: excuses and self-victimization. (I was hoping that this would happen… I guess my dreams were not meant-to-be).
So, I am going back to finish both conversations without being a know-it-all or a screaming stepmother. If I am to be true to these two relationships, then don’t I have a duty to deliver an encouraging, actionable response with care and compassion? Both conversations will include my encouragement to turn hopes and dreams into action-plans with clear objectives, no matter how small. I will also give each person my commitment to hold them accountable and walk the path with them in whatever way they feel is most effective. If I care, which I do, then I owe it to them.
Do you have a coach? If you know me, you know I am fully convinced that business executives need coaching – not just feedback loops and occasional mentorship. Coaching is a realm unto itself.
CEOs are wise to implement developmental feedback loops with C-Level direct reports, but deeper changes and the personal vulnerability that comes with it can only be obtained from a seasoned, effective coach outside their walls. Beyond bringing a fresh perspective to business decisions and personal development along the way, there are 3 key reasons:
- Similar Experience:
Engaging an external coach who has “walked the same path” and “has the same scars” provides a foundation of familiarity that quickly builds trust. It’s also simply not possible to reflect on certain bad decisions with direct reports or the board. The decisions themselves (such as a bad hire) and the cure (fire and rehire) require humility and checking ego and pride at the door to say, “I really blew it.” An experienced coach can receive such topics in private and also look the CEO in the eye and draw out those topics for effective discussion asking, “You need to come clean and admit to yourself that you really blew it.”
- Disrupting Your Team:
An external coach is disinterested in raises, promotions or political positioning – all of which are realities that live in the hearts of those on your C-Level team. There is obvious value in being transparent with your team, and many will welcome the news that the CEO has a coach. Changes in the CEOs management behavior, participation in 360 interviews with the coach and observing optimized strategic decisions is positive evidence any team will welcome. That said, the sensitive content and conversations contained within any coaching process would cause significant disruptions in those C-level relationships.
- Boards Can Be Fickle:
While transparency and seeking counsel or even a little mentorship here and there from board members may work well, there is a chasm of difference when it comes to the level of vulnerability required in an effective coaching relationship. Boards, especially investors, are interested, rightfully and dutifully so, with enterprise value creation. They have a duty to address ANY risks or impediments along the path to value creation. A coaching relationship with a board member that brings deeper issues to the board’s attention can have some very obvious unintended consequences including loss of board confidence.
To state the obvious: This is a pithy summary that only begins to scratch the surface of an important topic and in no way is this an exhaustive examination.
So, do you have a coach? If not, why not?
If your time was a pie chart, how much do you serve to others vs. keep for yourselves?
Good question, eh?
The fact is that founders and CEOs are notorious for not only serving up too much of their pie to others but allowing others to steal their pie.
This is a question I address in engagements with founder CEOs. Regardless of the company, sector or unique skills of the founder CEO, the stories are remarkably consistent:
“Once upon a time I had a vision for the company and dedicated myself to sector relationships / product / whatever (pick one) and this consumed something close to 70% (the typical answer) of my time. We raised money, hired key staff and drove forward. Now, a couple years later as we cross $5M / $10M / $25M (read: real revenue) I found myself miserable – trapped IN my company vs. working ON my company. I want and NEED to get back to driving value by staying in my zone like I was on day-1… Please help liberate me from the other stuff!!”
After some questioning and prodding followed by honest introspection on the part of the founder CEO, the truth comes out: the CEO actually gave away his/her time or allowed it to be taken, it was NOT stolen. Along the way, many issues are revealed:
- Hired a Resume – into a key Sr. Mgmt position without examining true management capabilities.
- Allowed Upward Delegation – particularly critical problems in product, operations or sales.
- Feared Losing an Executive – and permitted performance issues instead of acting decisively.
- Refused to Delegate – holding on to issues that took time away from value-driving efforts.
- Micromanaged Delegated Issues – because the CEO had a previous aptitude in the area.
- And on and on and on…
When we cross this bridge and put the truth on the table, creating a plan is remarkably straightforward. This usually consists of a “before and after” org chart and list of 5 – 10 specific actions that the CEO will make in the next 30-60 days including hiring, firing, process modifications and personal behavior changes.
Executing that plan is anything but straightforward because humans are not robots and necessary discussions require brutal honesty and the conviction to make tough decisions and hold such discussions in the first place. With a coach and accountability, however, the CEO can pull it off and get back to a pie chart where 51% of their time is dedicated to the areas where the CEO uniquely excels and adds enterprise value. In the end, the organization and CEO are BOTH re-energized.
It’s not only unselfish to keep more of the the “time pie” to yourself, it forces your direct reports (read: well-paid Sr. Managers) to do their jobs and allows you to stay in whatever “your zone” is and drive the valuation of your company.
Is it time to stop serving it up and get back to driving value?
I was recently browsing through business publications and saw an article covering the concept of driving systems and processes vs. simply setting goals.
It reminded me of something I learned early in my career that I shared with students and I dug up the quote:
“We cannot exactly replicate achieving a goal. We can absolutely replicate executing our systems and processes and consistently improve them in the Japanese spirit of kaizen. The evidence that this is working is the attainment of new performances that exceed old performances. Yes the goal was to exceed those old performances, but we will seldom get there by merely setting a goal and getting emotionally pumped up about it. We get there because our systems and processes improve over time and we consistently expand the number of people who are experts at executing those systems and processes. If we achieve that, then achieving new performances takes care of itself, in fact we cannot help but exceed the old performances.”
My summation was by no means groundbreaking. It is been conceptually proclaimed by many people in many different ways over the years. But I was struck by the clarity with which I had summed it up. Blessed to have good mentors around me, I listened carefully to those whose proof of performance over time strongly suggested I lend an ear to their words.
I wasn’t born with this knowledge, I am only passing it on.