Category Archives: Corporate Strategy

Mark’s thoughts on developing and articulating winning strategies. Bringing you over 25 years experience and a track record of creating high performing teams, Mark shares his insight on the best ways to identify hidden opportunities, craft convincing strategic documents, translate the ivory tower thinking into actionable and energizing story lines, and get the entire organization behind the goals.

Best leadership reading from the web February 21, 2014

Dig out, some of you, take a few minutes and get some interesting perspective on leadership, financial services, and just fun diversions.

Business Leadership:
Leadership Gone Viral (Strategy & Business)
How I Almost Died: A Cautionary Tale (Inc.)
Finding a Role for Grace in Business (SmartBrief on Leadership)

Financial Services Insight:
Statistical illusions (Columbia Journalism Review)
Seeing the Big Picture (The Big Picture)
The Crushingly Expensive Mistake Killing Your Retirement (The Atlantic)

This Week’s Diversions:
There Are Whales Alive Today Who Were Born Before Moby Dick Was Written (Smithsonian)
The Dark Origins of 11 Classic Nursery Rhymes (Mental Floss)
41 Things To Know, For No Reason In Particular (Imgur)

Growth, Finding and Exploiting the Hidden Gem

Today we will talk about growing the hidden gem. That may be your entire business, some overlooked component of a larger entity, or a new way to think about a product or service in your arsenal. Usually doing this will require a fresh perspective, a change at the top of the organization. In cases where it is not the owner of the P&L, they must be open to change and willing to revisit core beliefs about the business. In other words, if the revitalization and rethinking necessary for growth is not coming from the top, it had better be a close lieutenant, with a supportive leader. Since that is the hardest case, where the leader does not change, we will consider how to drive growth in that circumstance.

Honestly, this approach to growth is no different, aside from the need to enlist the agreement and explicit support from the leader. The first order of business is to understand the environment, internally and externally. Figure out the values, beliefs and needs of the key constituencies, line employees, leaders, customer gatekeepers (if there are such people), any other intermediary customer and the ultimate customer. With your internal constituents, also seek out their thoughts on organizational strengths, weaknesses, and non-essentials. With all this, you can identify gaps in your product and service offering or even just misalignment in your messaging. You can also conceive of products, services and support that might not be expected or even wanted, but needed. In fact, that is one of your best avenues to growth, the unmet need, and a tremendous opportunity to stand apart from your competitors, too.

Done well you should also identify unnecessary processes or products (read costs) too. This could easily pay for whatever you might do on the growth side. Once you have a firm idea of the upside potential, sub-optimized, new or enhanced products or services, and non-essentials, you must pull together an execution plan – a path forward to fill the gaps, stop the non-essentials, and add where appropriate. Then you must create communication plan – both internally and externally – to gain consensus, momentum and support for change.

Now you have a solid foundation for growing your hidden gem. You have a clear understanding of just how everyone views your business, a good sense for the disconnects – whether that be product, process or communications, more than likely a way to pay for it all, a clear path forward for your operations and a well defined communication plan. Now go grow that business!

Execution … the Secret Sauce of Strategic Planning

Far too many leaders, managers really, are good at either developing strategies or execution. The fact is that execution is the secret sauce of strategic planning. Like so many dusty three ring binders of costly consulting projects of the past, the most brilliant and spot-on strategy, even when perfectly articulated, is not worth the paper it’s written on without great execution. So, how do you get a line of sight for all your constituents from their day-to-day to these lofty corporate ambitions?

I call it Tactical Translation. What I mean is the process of articulating a concept in ways that are meaningful for various constituencies. I most typically do this by driving the concept through a series of steps that makes it more and more tangible, while clearly demonstrating the linkages. Take a Strategic Vision, for example, where you are taking your organization in the most macro sense, along with a Mission, how your organization fits into the larger whole – whether that is the broader corporate structure or the community, and first talk about specific, measurable Goals. Those goals are readily translatable to Programs. These Programs are major thrusts of the organization, like cost control and risk management, which I discussed yesterday. I like to think that individuals in your call centers, processing facilities and field sales can look at these Programs and say ‘why am I doing this, it isn’t helping us with any of those Programs.’ By the way, you should encourage them to do that, too. Lastly, Programs are comprised of individual Projects or initiatives. This is the working level, where you utilize project management tools to bring effective and efficient closure to individual projects, and where individuals engage on teams to get the real work done. Taken in aggregate, the Projects move the Programs and drive the measurements that constitute the Goals. Utilizing intermediate, achievable, yet challenging Goals ensures that the organization is always on its way toward the Strategic Vision.

That is how you turn strategic plans into execution.

Why Not Focus on Growth?

With so much emphasis on cost control and risk management, I ask you why not focus on growth? That does not mean, nor do I advocate, taking attention away from these other two vital pillars of successful business leadership. It is a fallacy that you can cost and risk contain your way to a better, more sustainable business. Ultimately, you have to return your attention to the top line. I argue that three major themes is a better approach to leadership, especially in this prolonged low growth environment. Done effectively, your business will emerge not only much stronger, but also much larger. This is particularly true because so many others, your competitors, are so busy focusing internally.

Be bold. Look for market share growth. Find new outlets for your products and services. Deepen your relationships with existing customers. You might even find growth by tuning your cost and risk initiatives to focus on delivering the things your customers most need and want – and eliminating what they don’t. This is not a zero sum game. Your team can handle more than one or two major thrusts. Done intelligently, these growth initiatives need not be investment or expense hogs. Face it, more people are energized by customer focused activities than cost control or risk management, and if you can blend them, all the better.

In the end, you need all three, and you can have them. Your ultimate objective is to come away from this a larger entity, with a stronger balance sheet, higher customer loyalty and employee engagement, and a lower risk profile. Who can’t get enthused about that? So get started. Today.

Business Transformation Requires Balance

Successful business transformation requires all the elements outlined in, but, most importantly, it requires balance. Business transformation is neither a top line, nor a bottom line exercise. A balanced approach is essential, and the relative emphasis will depend upon the situation. There is no doubt, though, that focusing exclusively on growing the top line without any effort on the back of the house, business processes, productivity, cost and risk containment, will ultimately create much more challenging issues, if it works at all. A balanced refresh across the business is the hallmark of truly sustainable business transformation. Ultimately, all aspects of your operation from product or service to go-to-market strategy to business intake and fulfillment to billing and after sale support should get a hard look and refresh. Every constituency should feel the change. I have come to believe that properly executed the steps outlined in should not feel forced or dramatic. Rather, the best business transformations feel organic, like a natural evolution, not a sudden revolution. Remain focused and committed to your path and enjoy watching your customer and employee satisfaction scores rise inexorably. To them it just seems better, they may not realize the magnitude of change, and that is ideal. To you, both your top and bottom lines should improve, and your work environment should feel and be better, too.

Organic Growth on a Shoestring Budget

It remains a challenging environment, and you are looking for ways to grow organically without a big boost in your investment or expense budgets. Is it even possible? It is. There are multiple layers of organic growth to capture, often without changing cost structure. It starts with listening. The key to organic growth, incremental budgets or not, is to optimize your organizational strengths and market opportunities. The easiest way to do that is by getting into the organization, being accessible, and listening to front line team members. Then do the same with your customers and prospects. Listen, learn, and get a good sense for what works and what doesn’t. As a bonus, you learn how self-aware your organization is. Be open-minded, strengths may be organizational, ‘your customer support is way better than your competition,’ product related, ‘the xyz feature is unique,’ even intangible, ‘we feel good about our relationship.’ Now, develop a strategy to leverage those strengths, shore up the weaknesses, and promote them as differentiators. A little change of emphasis in your sales & marketing, internal communications, your own behavior (do not let this be a onetime thing, stay visible, stay engaged, keep listening), and maybe your metrics might be enough to change your revenue trajectory.

The next layer of organic growth may also be achievable on your shoestring budget. Listen carefully for opportunities – not just from your customers and prospects, either, your team members know your customers well. You may just uncover underserved or unmet needs. It is entirely possible that modest changes in product or organizational design can create breakthrough differentiators.

It all starts with listening, to your team, your customers and your prospects.

Leadership in Uncertain Times

With the continuing sluggish economy, stubborn unemployment and seemingly intractable partisanship in Washington, it seems more and more certain that this environment truly is the new normal. Just what does that mean for leadership and your personal leadership style? Should you and your business continue to play it safe, stay on the sidelines and hoard cash? With records on Wall Street, corporate profitability and corporate cash hoards, that has been the case so far. I argue it is time we begin moving forward. Face reality, the partisanship in DC is not likely to diminish any time soon because, whatever their logic, the never-ending push for the next election cycle makes demonizing the opposition a favored strategy in both camps.

So, take continuing uncertainty and lack of movement on the truly important issues (like tax reform, entitlement reform, Government spending, National debt, etc.) as the norm and begin pushing forward. Treat uncertainty as the sure thing and focus on growth. Go ahead, revisit your vision for the organization, odds are the world is quite different today than it was when you last thought boldly. Build out that path to your vision, and, yes, build some triggers in there for changes in the Federal equation – I am not suggesting that ignorance is bliss. The key is not to confuse your message to the organization with those triggers. Paint that path forward, fund it, be bold and be committed. You may even get a jump, a large jump, on your competitors if you embrace this now.

Leadership in a Matrix Organization (or any other)

Following on to my last post it seems worth expanding on the tactical elements of leadership in a matrix, or any other organization. The key to successfully engaging your entire team is multi-faceted. It begins with ensuring that each of your team members knows that they are valued contributors to the process. Looking back, that means their voice and insights are included in steps #1 Truly know your business and #2 Find the key intersections. Each team member must also be fully part of the dialogue that generate step #3 Define a vision and step #4 Paint a picture. From this immersion and level footing, each team member becomes fully invested in the process, the vision, and achieving the goals. They become emissaries for the business within their functional areas, geographies, or related business units. Their investment in the process ensures that when they represent the interests of the business, they do so with a firm grasp of the underlying reasoning that supports the chosen direction. This team of advocates – hopefully zealots – furthers the goals of the business by automatically driving step #5 Stay committed. Their commitment to the process and its outcomes keep them active, vocal advocates, and ready ambassadors to their larger constituencies – whether that be their senior management, broad organizations, clients, partners, etc. Using the process in this way provides you with an assurance that the business is on a thoughtful path, with broad support and multiple feedback mechanisms to stay on track. Each team member owns the vision, is enthusiastic, and has a commitment to achieving the goals. You have laid a winning foundation for your business.

Holistic Business Leadership, even in Matrix Organizations

I so often find myself addressing the basic tenets of leadership that it seems worth outlining my core principles here. Foremost, create an atmosphere of trust and openness. Lead from the front, and be sure you and your team are accessible and engaging. Make all your constituencies – clients and prospects, employees, vendors, and investors – feel a part of the company’s mission. Let everyone have a voice, and work with your team to assess and internalize those inputs. With that foundation, I say you jump into my five steps for setting your business up for great performance:

  1. Truly know your business – sounds ridiculous, I realize, but get underneath the hood and identify the key drivers financially, environmentally (in your markets), and from a business process and personnel perspective. Understand your business.
  2. Find the key intersections – from this sound starting point, identify areas where strengths and opportunities intersect. These are the ultimate leverage points, the vital few things that will truly accelerate business growth.
  3. Define a vision – how will your organization look in five years? How do you want others – customers, investors, employees – to think of your business at that point? In other words, where are you going? This should be quite resilient and static once you have defined it.
  4. Paint a picture – perhaps the toughest step is translating and articulating the vision in a way that it becomes accessible, understandable, actionable, and, most importantly, embraced by those constituencies.
  5. Stay committed – persistence, consistency, communications, awareness, and adaptability are all essential elements during the execution phase. Strive for operational excellence as you implement your tactical plans in support of the vision. Closely monitor progress and performance, adjust as needed, and keep your constituencies engaged and apprised as you notch victories or course correct over time.

This is an evergreen process. While it certainly makes sense to work through it once, steps four and five are iterative on top of a reasonably static vision from step three. Also, keep working steps one and two, offline if you will, to ensure you stay on top of developments and new opportunities. Keep your pipeline of great growth ideas current and full, and refresh your vision as needed to reflect new realities. A well-defined vision should rarely need major overhauls; in fact, layering in new initiatives from your current step two into step four should not even require tweaking your vision. Try it, share your thoughts, or contact me to go deeper.