Business Planning and the Art of Motorcycle Touring

One of my favorite hobbies is long-distance motorcycle touring. I’ve been doing it for thirty-five years and during that time much of it has been spent in long hours of thinking on open roads. One conclusion I’ve come to is that there’s a lot in common between planning a successful cycle trip and operating a successful business.  While each trip and business is different, there are a few important lessons I need to observe if it’s going to be a good trip.

Set realistic goals. The keyword here is “goals”, not “realistic”. While realistic goals are important, it’s the absence of any destination or goal that concerns me. I’ve never left home without some idea about what part of the country I was heading to, maybe even a specific location. I’ve seen people in business put on a lot of miles and never leave their cul-de-sac because they’ve never determined a destination other than to stay in business. The scenery on that trip is not very attractive and tomorrow usually looks like today.

Have a general route in mind. I always leave with a route plugged into my GPS, but that can be short lived. I’ve often chosen my day’s route based on the morning’s weather report. Where I can, I re-map to head in the general direction of where the sun will be shining. I also leave the door open to road detours and other direction changes that look interesting. You may have had a plan for your business but the market sunshine is in another direction. Consider how a route change could benefit your journey without compromising the destination. In business today, an annual plan that’s six months old is already in need of some revisions. Don’t throw out the destination, just re-route to get there. A strategic plan should be a work in progress that evolves in accordance with long-term goals.

Set some benchmarks to measure progress. I seldom make hotel reservations preferring instead to find my night’s stay wherever I may be when I feel the need to get off the road. While my trip may not be scheduled I still need to pace myself to ensure I get to my destination and back in the allowed time. In business and travel, strategies and plans can’t be successfully achieved without feedback that comes from reporting systems and milestones that communicate progress. A daily review helps to measure and clarify where we need to be to accomplish the mission. My loosely held milestones enable me to hold myself accountable for the day’s performance.

Travel light but take enough of the right supplies. The size of a motorcycle places some hard constraints on what I can pack. Through experience I’ve learned how to travel well within the limited space available to me. It’s much less than I would take if I were in the car but I always seem to have enough. The lesson I’ve learned from this is not how to pack more on the motorcycle, but how to pack less in the car. In business, past success or the mistaken belief that we can’t operate without something can load us down and burn precious cash; the fuel of business. When that happens we lose our nimbleness, the ability to respond quickly to new opportunities and threats. Pack light. If you run out you can always get more. It’s a better condition than overtaxing the vehicle by carrying more than you need.

Anticipate the conditions and prepare for it. If I’m going to be on the road for a while, it’s not a question of if I’ll hit rain; it’s only a question of when. To make the best of my journey it’s important that I plan for a rainy day. In anticipation of that I have my rain gear ready and accessible. In business rain gear is liquidity. Every business, if it’s around long enough, is going to experience rain, sometimes even a downpour. It might be the loss of a large customer, an economic downturn or the presence of a new competitor. It happens at different times and places for everyone, but the rain is coming and you probably can’t avoid it. Therefore, when the sun’s shining build a balance sheet that can handle a little rain. Pay down liabilities and build a cash reserve for the rainy day.

If you’d like to talk about how to prepare your business to weather the next journey, call or reach me through the “contact us” tab on this page. Happy trails.

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Stop Being So Nice

Recently I’ve been working with a leader struggling to improve the performance of his employees and his company. He’d implemented a number of employee-friendly policies and reward systems, only to have them back-fire. What I discovered was that in his sincere effort to be kind to his employees, he’d become nice to them. The result was a lack of consequences for poor behavior and performance and a lack of respect for his leadership. His “niceness” had weakened him.

Being kind and being nice aren’t the same. Kindness has elements of fairness, compassion, confidence and discipline. Niceness involves equality, positive emotions, and pain avoidance. Kind parents set boundaries for their children and have a structure for their growth and development. Nice parents give the kids what they want and strive to be their best friend. The same is the case for leaders. Kindness is not softness. It’s not weakness and it doesn’t always have to be nice.

Kind leaders are externally focused. They are confident in themselves and engage in the growth of those in their care.  In their confidence, the kind leader doesn’t avoid confrontation. Sometimes kindness requires them to be tough and direct. They are generous to others but only to the point where their kindness doesn’t harm the ones they care for.

In contrast, nice leaders are inwardly focused. Their niceness is often an invitation for their own validation. They have a desire to please and as a result, can have a hard time saying no or making tough, unpopular decisions.  Nice leaders move underperforming individuals around the organization rationalizing their decision to avoid a termination. They allow deadlines to pass and poor performance to persist without taking appropriate action.

Sometimes, letting someone go from their job could be the greatest act of kindness you could show. It frees them up from a job that’s not the right fit and allows them to pursue something more appropriate. Kindness in termination is often respected by the employee once the emotion subsides. Tough action could be kindness in a lesson learned for the employee or a problem addressed for the rest of the organization. No one enjoys having difficult conversations, but in the spirit of the Hippocratic oath of leadership, we’re doing no one a favor when we avoid pain or suffering in the face of a problem. Failing to take the needed action can be far more damaging than the kindness in an honest conversation.

New leaders sometimes fall into the trap of being nice. They may lack the self-confidence and experience needed to lead and consequently settle on pleasing those that work for them. Such is the case sometimes where the leader originated from within the group they now supervise and are unsure of how to build a new relationship with previous co-workers. The consequence is that nice leaders create weak organizations and can be taken advantage of.

The kind leader is less concerned about what others might think and more concerned with doing the right thing. Out of their kindness for others, their style is infused with a heavy dose of empathy. Kindness requires compassion and a basis of trust. It is also essential that you always act with integrity and honesty. It means that at times you must present the truth of a situation in a direct, but respectful way. You don’t need to be nice to be kind, but you must make people feel heard, cared for, valued and respected.

The truth is we’re inclined to follow and respect the kind person showing confidence and look down on the nice person who’s trying too hard to please. My leader is a very nice person. To become the effective leader he wants to be he has to also become a very kind person.

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Developing a Positive Response to Negative Events

Recently I was working with a company that had a lot going wrong. They had lost customers, key employees and money. I was asked to help restore what was lost. Before I could do that I had to address their greatest loss, that being hope. The negative events had sapped their vision of a brighter future again. What was worse, the organization was in an all-out panic which was producing fatalistic attitudes, worse than the truth itself. I knew that if they stayed focused on the negative they’d only get more of the same which eventually wouldn’t end well. They would fulfill their prophetic thoughts.

Panic stems from a feeling of no control. When we lose control we feel a strong need to regain it. Unfortunately, much of what affects us is out of our control. Our response then should not be to control what we can’t, but to respond to the situation with what we can control, that being us.

The first step in that process is to control our thoughts and words. There are doom-and-gloom people, sometimes even leaders, who for their own reasons sap others of hope. The issue is more complex though than just “looking on the bright side of things.” There are specific approaches to changing how we think and also wrong ways to do it.

The first step is to be careful who you listen to starting with yourself. This is important because it’s very easy to let others determine what we believe. A negative narrative we run ourselves can spoil a recovery. When we think the worst case long enough we lose the spirit to fight on. We also give up on engaging the creativity and problem-solving abilities that are inherently human and present in every organization. As a leader, you can poison an entire organization with the wrong words. A hopeless attitude is a dangerous attitude, no matter how “real” the facts might seem.

When we frame our thoughts properly we create an attitude of resilience. The ability to bounce back from life’s downturns is a powerful tool for success. The ability to respond effectively in times of upheaval requires honesty and courage. Leaders are not successful in spite of their setbacks, they are successful because of them. Real leaders embrace their setbacks and learn from them. They grow smarter, tougher and more resilient. While others linger in defeat and negative thought, the resilient leader sees beyond the current reality to a better and brighter future.

Being resilient requires courage, courage to face the brutal facts of the situation and to push ahead when you may be disappointed or embarrassed. Resilient leaders have to build an attitude of optimism even when it doesn’t feel natural. It’s the organizational fuel for a recovery. Leaders must operate efficaciously with a positive expectancy knowing that, despite their circumstances, they can figure out and overcome the obstacles. Their goal is not just to bounce back, but to bounce forward to a better position.

The most successful companies and leaders all experience setbacks or problems, but they see them as temporary. Sometimes the best ideas emerge from our toughest situations. As a resilient leader, you must also inspire others to participate. It’s an attitude that draws people together. The sense of a community working together to solve a problem is a powerful thing. There are few problems an inspired team cannot accomplish when working together, no matter what the obstacle.

A lot of what looks like luck isn’t luck at all. It’s the result of the right attitude. Good business practice tells us that we can only change what’s within our control. But often we fail to change the most important aspect of business, one we have 100% control over, that being our attitude. For my client, it would be wrong to not take very seriously their circumstances. But despite those conditions and how they felt, an attitude of hope in the face of their despair would not have been foolish either. If you look for reasons to be negative, you will find them. However, if you choose to look for reasons for hope, you’ll easily find them as well.

If you’re feeling burnt out and beat down from business conditions and would like to discuss how to create a brighter, more optimistic outlook, call or reach me through the “contact us” tab on this page. Better days are ahead.


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Culture as a Strategy

In my line of work I have the opportunity to see a lot of different companies and situations. What strikes me is how some succeed despite the odds against them while others struggle even in the best of times.  What differentiates the extraordinarily successful companies from the others?  How have they been able to succeed when others failed?  Make no mistake, business fundamentals and a plan for profitable growth are always at the core of successful strategy. But it’s more than that. I’ve seen companies with good systems and strong financials struggle too. There’s more to the formula than just the tools.

The key ingredient is less tangible, but more powerful than market factors.  The major distinguishing feature in these companies, arguably, their most important competitive advantage, the factor that they all highlight as a key ingredient in their success, is their organizational culture.  Sustained success has had less to do with market forces, financial resources and strategy and more to do with company values, personal beliefs and vision.  In fact, not every successful company has a great culture, but almost every company with a great and identifiable organizational culture succeeds.

In small companies, culture is often created by the founder, most often accidentally. Success comes when management takes an intentional approach to strategically evolving the culture in a systematic way to fit the company’s market and competitive strategy.  Culture is the set of beliefs that drive employee behaviors. These are things everybody in the company knows and shares as truth. An organization rarely has only one culture type but most organizations have developed a leading culture style. Companies struggle when dominant style is not in alignment with its business strategy. As part of a strategic planning process companies should intentionally consider the beliefs and behavioral characteristics necessary to implement the business strategy.

Certain business strategies work best when supported by a matching dominant culture. Some will thrive in a family oriented, collaborative style. Others require an entrepreneurial innovative culture. Still others need a competitive market driven or structured and efficient model. Knowing which one best suits the business strategy and then shaping the culture to fit that is the essence of a strategic culture.

Planning for a strategic culture has also come a long way in the last few years. Historically, culture transformation has been seen as an art rather than a science. That’s still the case, but with the advent of effective cultural assessment tools, there’s now more science to it than there’s ever been. Today’s assessment tools enable a company to quantify and measure a cultural style and the strength of that style. The outcomes of assessment tools help leaders identify gaps and areas of misalignment. With a descriptive picture of the current and preferred culture, companies can approach a culture transformation by developing plans to eliminate specific behaviors and adding others designed to operationalize the business strategy.

The process of transforming a culture takes time and effort. Behaviors that have been taught and assimilated over years can be difficult to change. Employees need to change what they’ve come to accept as normal. That’s never easy, but as the grease that lubricates the engine of the business strategy, it may be the most important component of a business strategy.  The company must analyze the people they recruit, employee goals, and how they manage and reward them. They must also assess succession planning to help ensure that future leaders will model behaviors that support the business strategy. The payoff is worth the effort.

The rapid rate of change in the marketplace continues to challenge businesses of every size, requiring ongoing assessment of the business strategy. Research shows that organizational culture is the reason why most mergers and reorganizations fail. A strategy that is at odds with a company’s culture is doomed to fail. Put another way, when culture and strategy are in conflict, culture wins. Before a company embarks on a new strategic direction or if the current strategy is struggling to get traction, the company should look closely at its dominant culture as the barrier or accelerant to business success.

If you’d like to discuss how culture can play a more strategic role in your organization, call or reach me through the “contact us” tab on this page.

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Harnessing Your Horsepower

Horses are interesting creatures. They’re actually very smart animals, much smarter than cattle or sheep. Horses enjoy learning and can be taught complex routines. Teaching takes great patience. Push a horse too hard to do something they’re not ready for and you’ll turn them off, maybe for good. There are also many different breeds of horses, each with its own unique capability. There are speed horses, agile cutting horses, and strong work horses to mention a few.

You too have horses, maybe a lot of them in your barn. They each want to learn and work using their own unique skills. If you see your business culture as a Kentucky Derby, the sprinters may perform well but others won’t. Likewise the sprinters may tire quickly pulling the heavy load you have from time-to-time. Speed horses love racing and work horses love plowing. It’s not about passion or training, it’s about breeding. Like a balanced investment portfolio, long-term success begins with knowing the horses in your barn and having the right mix for the culture and strategy you’re pursuing.

Coaching for peak performance involves getting the right horse assigned to the right role. You don’t create their talent, you develop and nurture it. You don’t create their passion, you ignite and release it. The challenge then is figuring out what type of horse you’re working with. There are a number of ways to know your breeds. Some are obvious from having had them in the barn for years. Others that are showing up at the gate can be identified through assessments and other objective means. Unlike real horses that we can size up by appearance, human horsepower is not as obvious. Knowing their wiring and preferences is important. Otherwise, if you need a race horse, you’ll be frustrated and disappointed if you get a workhorse. Also, unlike a single purpose event like the Kentucky Derby where only one breed matters, your best chance for success comes from mixing your breeds to fit the horse to the job. It can be a mistake to look at business as either a sprint or a pulling contest that requires only one breed.

Once you’ve inventoried the different horses in the stalls, you can begin to assign them to the right tasks. Here’s a few tips from a guy who’s stepped in enough horse apples in his career to know what works and what doesn’t.

  1. Find out what they love to do and exploit it. Tap their intrinsic motivation. When you see someone light up, figure out what happened. When you understand it, you’ll know how to ignite their joy and interest in work. Don’t dump your work and walk away. Include those who are both passionate about the issue and capably talented. But expect them to work.
  2. Pay attention to what goes on in the corral. Who needs to run and who needs to pull? Who’s chomping at the bit for opportunity? Who has succeeded in the past at the task? Who’s best at breaking and training the young colts?
  3. Conserve your precious feed. Just because you have horses in the barn doesn’t mean you need them. There just aren’t enough stalls in the barn for horses unwilling or unable to work. They may have outlived their usefulness. The wrong horses can drain precious resources away from the others. They’re a burden not an asset. When a horse doesn’t fit the work to be done, don’t send him to the glue factory, trade him for a breed that better fits the task.
  4. Don’t beat your horses. Spurs and whips are tools that combined with the right training and coaching can contribute to peak performance. Ask any professional jockey. But misused, they are tools of motivational destruction. Your tone of voice and the way you ask questions can have a lot to do with the cooperation you get.
  5. Take the reins and be the leader. Without direction horses will either go nowhere or run everywhere. They know if you’re leading and if you’re not they’ll do what they want which may be nothing. You can’t fake it, you have to step up into a leadership role and take charge. Nothing else will work.

Horses take us on many journeys. They can take us at great speed or bearing heavy loads that we could never handle on our own. To be at their best they need our individual attention and nurturing. Whether you’re racing in the Kentucky Derby or implementing your next business strategy, the culture you create for the herd will be critical to your success.

If you’d like to have more horsepower in your organization, call or reach me through the “contact us” tab on this page.

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