Lose weight. Exercise more. The new year’s resolutions are in full gear right now. Whether it’s getting to the gym, reading more, or eating more greens, January usually begins with a reflection of how we did and what we can do more, better, faster this year.
We focus so much on being proactive in our health and personal care. But what about our business health? Is it just business as usual, again? Or do we have bigger business goals for 2019?
Talking to company owners and investors over the years, we have discovered a lot less proactivity than you’d expect and a lot more complacency. We don’t mean activity – everyone has lots of to-do lists – where busy work mask over big or growing problems.
We often get calls when the house is on fire: cash is draining away from the business, employees are jumping ship, frustrations are mounting, or lack of fresh thinking, innovation and true leadership have led to stagnation in the market. Owners say to us my ‘business is failing, what do I do’.
It’s hard not to think how many sleepless nights could have been avoided for an owner if they would have just acted sooner. We mean solve the issues not just by trying to dive in themselves or harangue the management team more, but instead through resources or tools that could extend their capabilities and help make vision a reality.
No organization is immune to challenges, not if it has any ambition. But how do we as owners and leaders put our strategy hat on to see down the road, or attempt to see, to predict where markets will go, how customers will act and react? To play the great game of chess in the real world – which is strategy.
Sometimes that is easier said than done. The eloquent Mike Tyson put it so well when he said, “everybody has a plan until I punch them in the mouth.” We would do well to remember how limited our brilliant strategies in fact are, how fragile in the face of ambiguity, uncertainty and future black swan events.
Just look to history to see how companies have been blindsided with the punch they never saw coming. Kodak invented the first digital camera in 1975, but put launch on hold in fear of cannibalizing their film business. We all know the story from there….Kodak who? Or take Blockbuster – which failed to pivot when Netflix showed up. And then Borders and Barnes & Noble, crushed under the Amazon onslaught. And the examples of business strategy gone wrong go on…
The Olympics are the perfect example of the difference between champions who win gold, silver or bronze, and everyone else who goes home empty handed. The winner could be winning by just one ten thousandths of a second.
Why do you think you or I are any different in our work – if we could improve our performance just a couple percentage points, we’d stand out from the masses clear as day.
Steve Jobs was genius at nuance, the subtle improvement that could cause massively asymmetric outcomes in favor of Apple. Thirty companies had MP3 products delivering hardware, software and content for streaming music. The category was done. Then along came the iPod. Not major changes, but so much better!
How many owners or executive teams are truly confident that their organization is operating at it’s best? How many have a true action plan for the future? And how many of those can actually execute on the plan?
Donald Sull, a lecturer at MIT and an expert on strategy execution surveyed hundreds of companies on how strategy is executed and found that many lack agility or have difficulties adapting to market circumstances. In a HBR article he reported that most organizations either “react so slowly that they can’t seize fleeting opportunities or mitigate emerging threats or react quickly but lose sight of company strategy”.
These fears are echoed by executives across companies and industries.
When I started my first company at age 26, I’ll admit, it was lonely. Even though we were only a team of six, there was a clear dividing line between me as founder and CEO, and my staff.
I learned how to pull in expert help, but I had a lingering feeling over the years that I took the business more seriously than anyone else on the team. Especially cash flow. And making payroll. Eventually I built a successful company, but not until hitting every pothole I could find. Hindsight is 20-20, but an executive-level leader alongside me would have spared so much pain.
This was my driving force to becoming an interim executive myself. Helping owners and founders to get over hurdles that, left to their own devices, would take years to master, and in many cases skills they didn’t otherwise need or enjoy. I focused on high growth tech companies, getting them to market and eventually for M&A events that would bring extraordinary returns to investors.
This is still what drives us today at InterimExecs: to empower companies to reach their full potential by building world-class leadership. Whatever it takes to accomplish projects, goals, growth initiatives, or in some cases fixing what’s broken.
Maintain a happy marriage. Live a healthy lifestyle. Surround yourself with good people. While every magazine headline and self-help book is throwing this advice at you, it’s just about as murky as telling companies to create a positive organizational culture. But just what does organizational culture actually mean?
In order to get a better handle on the specifics of organizational culture, I talked to John Childress, an executive advisor, keynote speaker, CEO, and board leader, whose latest book, “Culture Rules!: The 10 Core Principles of Corporate Culture and how to use them to create greater business success”, delves deeply into corporate culture, and why it is so important.
John bridged the gap from organizational culture as an abstract concept to a bottom-line issue by noting that, “…organizational issues….turn into people issues that then turn into business problems.”
In a digital world where everything that can be measured is measured, do you still need strong leadership? What difference does management make when data steers the ship?
Many technology companies have the mindset that data trumps all, but are some companies suffering as a result? Look to the news to see how this is playing out:
•Zenefits’ founder Parker Conrad was thrown out for creating a culture that violated insurance laws
•Uber’s CEO resigned for multiple behavioral reasons (writing code to defy local authorities; sexual harassment allegations; staff and senior team exiting or fired)
•Volkswagen techies wrote ingenious code to defeat auto emissions testing. Smart, but illegal.
Many private equity funds hear the words “interim executive” and think the only application is turnaround or short-term fill-in. But for PE funds seeking a great return, they look to interims for their unique abilities to build and transform companies.
Here are six major use cases for interim executives in PE-owned portfolio companies:
Interim Executives in Diligence
Most funds hope to spread their wings – work beyond industries where they’ve already had success, by looking at new industries where acquisitions may cost less and produce higher returns. The further afield they go, the more they need expert leadership removed from prior operating teams.
“Action and feeling go together, and by regulating the action, which is under the more direct control of the will, we can indirectly regulate the feeling.”
– William James
One of the biggest benefits business owners report when they take on fresh leadership, whether an interim or fractional executive is a sense of relief. Of having done the right thing. They report the feeling that someone else shouldered a burden that was becoming impossible. Just too large to handle alone, or with the current resources on hand.
The real reason behind this for all of us business owners is that the challenge is just too painful to deal with on our own. Whether it’s family dynamics, lack of future planning, or declining business, we get embroiled in the inertia of our organizations. Sometimes the pain is so vast, the only solution is to sell the company.
It’s a big day in Helsingbord Sweden – opening day for the Museum of Failure, which features such items as Harley-Davidson perfume, Bic pens for women and Google Glass.
Failure can be very entertaining – when it hits someone else. For company leaders, failure is to be avoided at all costs.
And yet, so many company builders report that their success was achieved after a spectacular failure. You would think this leads to a lifelong lesson to embrace setbacks, but for most it doesn’t. We seem to be hardwired to avoid failure.