Monday, January 10, 2011

Executive Decisions part 1

I've been really lucky as a businessman. I've had some incredibly (albeit not exclusively) positive experiences and learned a tremendous amount about how businesses run, what to do, what not to do, and what to do RIGHT NOW to be successful. Not even counting the amazing people I've been fortunate enough to work with, the knowledge I've gained about operating a company, small or large, is invaluable. It's easy for me sometimes to lose sight of that as I've transitioned out of the day-to-day business world and given how easy it is to focus on the things that stressed me out, pissed me off, and generally made "the office" a torturous, painful place to be. But it wasn't all bad, and there were definitely aspects of business that I loved and still enjoy.

One of my favorite things, being something of a Type-A personality and a bit of a show-off, was to be the expert who could swoop into a broken, troubled, or inefficient situation and put things back on track. Man I enjoyed that. Being the superhero with the creativity, experience and know-how to make peoples' lives better, help them overcome adversity and drive substantial business improvements was one of the greatest feelings in the world for me. I got to be that guy a few times and I loved it. Heck, just being an IT support guy, which was how I got my start, sometimes put me in that position multiple times a day. But I'm really referring to the work I did as an executive, when I was able to roll up my sleeves, climb into the guts of the business, and work with interdisciplinary teams to drive meaningful business change.

I got a reminder of that last week. Some friends of mine are operating a small service business, and after six months of operation they've had some pretty meaningful success. But it was pretty clear to them that they weren't optimized for success. They had "plans," but not "a plan." They worked, but they didn't really get work done. They were operating on pure tactics, without an overriding strategy to tie their daily and weekly activities into long-term business growth. So I sat down with them and we talked, and the more I talked and thought and advised, the more I remembered about the achievements and experiences I'd enjoyed in business. I thought this would be a good place to share some of the take-aways from our discussions.

1. Definition - the first step toward a meaningful, useful business plan is to decide who and what your company is, and what it is not. Knowing your product, your target market, and your definition of success is key to knowing whether any subsequent decisions you make are appropriate. You're less likely to find yourself running off in fifteen different directions or chasing radically disparate (or even mutually-exclusive) markets if you've defined in detail what your business is all about. I suggested breaking this into concepts such as a mission statement, a set of core values, a set of core competencies, and a set of key differentiators.

Bear in mind, these are all utterly useless unless they're used to inform what comes after. I remember I always used to hate working on mission statements, because they were always fretted and argued over ad nauseum and then immediately forgotten. What a waste of time. But draft a meaningful business statement that drives directly into your operations, strategy, and marketing plans, and now you've got something.

Mission Statement - this is a short one- or two-sentence description of your business's reason for being. It can encompass concepts like the nature of your product(s), the make-up of your customers, the distribution of your profits, or even your preferred working environment. If it's written carefully and honestly, it should be influential in every aspect of your business. If it's just going to be lipservice, don't bother. Better yet, can the whole company and go do something you feel is worth your time.

Core Values - these are the ideals your company wants to espouse. They'll keep you focused and honest when met with temptation to "do the wrong thing." Any company that's not trying to be deliberately evil should have a set of these and focus on them constantly. It's extremely easy to get lulled or tempted into making life miserable for other people in the pursuit of profit. If that's not your preferred way of operating, set some ground rules up front. And, frankly, if it is your way of operating, you would probably still benefit from stating your core values to remind you to rape and pillage at every opportunity. I'd just prefer you didn't.

Core Competencies - these are the game-changing skills, knowledge, talents and expertise that you plan to leverage to succeed. It might be anything from technical know-how to salesmanship to leading-edge product design. Your core competency might be to spot and capitalize on trends or to have the most efficient supply-chain in order to drive down costs. Whatever it is you bring to the table, get it out on the table so you never forget to utilize it, nurture it, and value it. And if it ever becomes obsolete, fix it or replace it. Bottom line - everything you plan to be good at as a company goes here, and then informs your priorities later on.

Key Differentiators - there are two categories of differentiators - positive and negative. Hopefully your list of positive differentiators is much, much longer. This category should encompass all the things that make your company unique or different from competitors and alternatives. The positive differentiators are the "good news" - and should be accentuated wherever possible, whether by actively developing them further, making them the centerpiece of your marketing, or factoring them into your strategic thinking. Your negative differentiators are the "bad news" - those aspects of your business where you're weak, where your competitors are legitimately better than you, or where you've got perception issues that limit your ability to succeed.

Once you know these four things about your business, you've gone a long way toward understanding who and what you're all about. Now get it up on the wall of your office somewhere and look at it often. These are your guiding principles and the key work is "guiding." Whenever you consider a major executive decision, check and see whether it fits with those principles. If it doesn't, think really, really hard before you do it.

Next step - visualization!

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