Situation: A CEO is in conversation about combining with another company. One option is for the other company to absorb his company. What are the pros and cons of this option? Are there other options that will better serve both owners and employees? How do you improve a business model?
Advice from the CEOs:
The company has a great model today. The option under consideration looks like a double compromise – it alters both the company’s strengths and its fundamental business model.
The company’s strength is lean and mean – moving from a hourly/fee-based model with high utilization to a salary-based model, as the option on the table proposes, will change this. It also changes the dynamics of who will work for the company.
The magic of the current model is that it attracts top talent by offering them the best of two worlds: high individual billing rates with ready access to billable hours. Over the long term this has also made it very profitable.
Explore an alternative – how does the company transform its existing business model while retaining its strengths – lean, mean, low overhead – while transforming the model so that it builds “products,” perception, and recognition for the company?
A longer-term alternative is to look for a financial acquisition of the company. It has good net margins, good cash flow, and even spins out cash. This is valuable to a financial buyer.
What is the role of the CEO right now? Another CEO was asked “Do you have a job or a company? What happens if you leave? If the company dies, you have a job. But it may not be necessary to change much to become a company.”
Situation: The CEO of a company is looking at her succession plan. The preferred option, from a family standpoint, is to groom one of her children to eventually become the CEO. A concern is how current key employees will react to this plan. How do you bring children into the company?
Advice from the CEOs:
As preparation for a key role at the company, have your child gain experience at a company that has been where the business is today but has grown to a higher level. Learn from them what they went through and what they would change were they to do it again.
How did Peter the Great become the greatest leader of Russia? As young man, and son of a czar, he apprenticed in England and Holland – in ship building and other important arts that were scarce in Russia. He was able to leverage what he learned to help build the country when he became czar.
Have them develop the leadership qualities and maturity that they need to run this company in another company – where there is the freedom to make mistakes and learn from them. Bring this wisdom and experience back to the company. It will help gain the respect and loyalty of company employees.
Have them take on tasks which are not comfortable – for example, sales. Don’t underestimate the value of being able to visit a new customer. This is the key role of the principal of any company.
A parent/child relationship can be difficult in business. It can get tense when business, money, survival of the company and making payroll are on the line.
The son or daughter must be aware that in a new role one doesn’t start out in control. This may be achieved in the end, but it is not the starting point.
An option, once experience has been gained in another company, is to have the individual start a new branch of the company in a different location. This will provide a valuable learning experience and will demonstrate both capacity and success to company staff.
Situation: The CEO of a company is wrestling with issues concerning change orders and high labor and materials cost. To get back into good financial shape, they are considering options including reduction in estimator time and selling equipment; however, either of these could gut the business. How do you manage through a difficult period?
Advice from the CEOs:
It is critical to get on top of change orders. This is potentially a big profit-loss swing for the business.
Does everyone understand what’s happening?
If the answer is yes, teach them more about the business nuts and bolts so that they can help develop solutions? Share a portion of the savings in the form of spot bonuses for those who develop solutions.
Take a lesson from The Great Game of Business. Let employees know about the challenges and challenge them to help develop solutions.
As an example, look at change orders and the percent of change orders that are not correctly completed, approved and invoiced as a critical number. Let’s say that 50% of change orders are not completed, approved and/or invoiced correctly. The objective for the year is to reduce this to 25%. Calculate the value of lost billings from the past year. If this can be reduced by half, the value will be $X. If the company can meet this objective, consider making half of $X available for distribution as gifts or prizes.
To support this, allow each new project to design its own minigame to reduce the number of incomplete and uninvoiced change orders.
The idea is to have the project and inside teams design the minigames and come up with ways to reduce incomplete and uninvoiced change orders. They will learn new ways of being more efficient from this process. This is the long-term benefit to the company.
If it is necessary to reduce staff, cut early instead of later. This is painful but laid-off employees can be hired back on a contract basis as necessary.
A common solution during a difficult period is to cut back to core, reducing overhead as a survival strategy, and focus on winning as may bids as possible to rebuild the business.
Look at all departments and the gross margin that each produces minus the overhead that each requires. Focus cutbacks on those that are not positive.
Increase annuity contracts – contracts with major companies that are growing and frequently require the company’s services.
Transfer equipment to a separate corporation. Lease it back as business requires. This increases cash flow flexibility – for example, don’t make lease payments when cash is tight.
Situation: The head of a small service company wants to become more strategic – more like a CEO. Ideally, he wants to create a small samurai team to help him expand. He prefers working with a range of clients to develop creative, out of the box solutions. How do you transition from boss to CEO?
Advice from the CEOs:
The eMyth Revisited by Michael Gerber is a valuable primer on how to bring in more clients and revenue. The critical question that this book helps to answer is “what do I want to build?”
The book walks you through the critical questions that will help to answer whether your true ambition is to be a Picasso with helpers or a company. The answer may be either, but how you build each is different.
The more that skills can tied to a tangible outcome the easier it is for clients to hire a company. Quantify past successes. Make it easy to justify hiring your team.
To add to your pipeline:
Help friends help you. Make it easy for them to refer you. This can be simple: YouTube videos or improving the company website to highlight past successes.
The company web site can’t be just OK – it must be the all-important credibility builder that the company needs. Recreate the site to wow the visitor and tell the company’s story. Make it fun and compelling.
Participate in groups or forums that your targets attend. Create presentations, webinars, etc. Establish the company as an expert with the answer and as a trusted resource.
Also present to professional organizations to establish expertise and credibility.
Testimonials are powerful – particularly if backed by metrics.
Collaborate with people with similar depth of experience who can help develop the pipeline. Offer them a cut of total job revenue.
Situation: The CEO of a company is finding it increasingly difficult to maintain the passion that she had when the business was young. Day to day work feels like having a monkey on her back with too much time spent on sales and business minutiae. Too little time is spent on strategy and growth. How do you maintain the passion for your business?
Advice from the CEOs:
Look at what you like and don’t like – delegate what you don’t like.
Delegate activities which are inappropriate for a top executive – like answering the telephone when others are present to do this.
Get everybody in the same boat – get them rowing in unison.
Delegate more responsibility – with the understanding that others will make mistakes. When they do, they must understand their responsibility for repairing them.
Prioritize tasks as they are delegated to reduce conflict or confusion.
Strengthen relationships with key suppliers and customers. This is a strategic move to reduce future risk to the company.
How did you get the monkey off your back?
Ask managers and employees for their input – have them develop solutions. If they push back that they don’t know how or don’t have the resources, let them know that their job is to provide solutions, not just to identify problems.
This takes time and patience, but if the CEO is steadfast this can yield results in a surprisingly short period of time.
Reduce time spent on sales. Become the closer – the only person who can do that little something to close a sale.
Have the others do the heavy lifting our qualifying the customer, developing the solution, crafting the proposal and presenting this to the customer. Limit the CEO’s involvement to reviewing the proposal prior to presentation, and to acting as closer ONLY if sales can’t do the job themselves.
Learn to take time off – develop other interests. This is the first step in being able to take longer periods of time off.
Situation: The CEO of a service company is focused on growth, which is driven by new contracts. This, in turn is driven by new sales contacts per week. Sales staff are paid on commission. The CEO wants to assure that quarterly objectives are met to grow the company. How do you maintain focus on quarterly objectives?
Advice from the CEOs:
Track and publish progress against weekly, monthly, quarterly metric objectives and key drivers.
Post charts around the office to maintain staff focus on objectives.
Put up whiteboards that show individual metrics as well as daily “top 3” focus items.
Identify key market sectors where focus will pay off for the company.
It’s OK to take a generalist approach as the company develops a new market sector. This helps to learn the dynamics of that sector.
As sector market penetration grows, develop functional or sector specialties.
Identify and focus on the gaps to company success.
Monitor and generate incentives to increase sales activity. The more fun that is involved in this, the faster the company will close the gaps.
Focus marketing on developing more prospects. Brainstorm creative marketing approaches that will generate prospects. Create a competition to develop the best new ideas with incentives or prizes to celebrate the most successful ideas.
If additional resources are required, currently beyond the company’s budget, investigate adding commission-driven contract resources with strong incentives for identifying new prospects and landing new clients.
Situation: A CEO founded his company with a partner. The partner is no longer deeply involved but retains a voice in company strategy and finances. The CEO wants total control. It has become complex trying to run the company with an absent partner. How do you gain control of the company?
Advice from the CEOs:
Get a formal company valuation as soon as possible. The expense is paid by the company or split 50/50 between the CEO and founding partner.
This exercise will provide the information needed to run the company. It is a much more sophisticated exercise than simply valuing current company assets.
It will provide a good third-party valuation upon which the CEO and partner can negotiate a buyout of the partner’s interest or place a value on a silent partnership arrangement.
Once the company has a valuation, how is the conversation started?
First ask what the partner wants. His response will help frame the discussion.
It’s OK to let the partner know that the current arrangement is not working for you.
As silent partner, instead of a salary the partner just gets checks – monthly, quarterly or whatever – based on net profits (EBITDA – Earnings before interest, taxes, distributions and adjustments).
The CEO’s salary is included in the expenses of the business.
If it is too painful to initiate the discussion on your own, hire someone to help you.
Once the CEO has control of the company, create an organization chart, including the roles and responsibilities of the key positions in the organization.
First, decide what you do as CEO – or want to do.
For the other roles, either hire employees or consultants to help.
The E-Myth Revisited by Michael E. Gerber includes an example of how Thomas Watson did this as he founded IBM.
This process can have surprising results. Another CEO doubled the size of the company after buying out his founding partner’s position. The partner turned out to be one of the top inhibitors to growth.
Situation: The CEO of a specialty component company wants to standardize documentation of company procedures covering sales, production and ISO documentation. This will take time and effort, and employees are concerned about accountability for poor results. How do you incentivize employees to document SOPs?
Advice from the CEOs:
Are employees are being asked for accountability without being empowered or rewarded for performance? Currently, there is nothing about employee performance that is directly tied to:
Dollars in raise, or
Share of the bonus pool.
Everything is determined at the CEO’s discretion.
Why would anyone want more accountability if they feel that they have little control over their jobs or future at the company?
To increase accountability and drive, employees must be given control over the factors tied to retention, pay and bonuses.
To create an effective system for employees to document standardized SOPs they need:
Incentives that are under their control to achieve the objective – creating standardized SOPs.
Objectives that are achievable with clearly stated rewards for performance.
Performance evaluations tied to clearly stated objectives, discussed with and agreed to by each employee, which drive raises, bonuses and rewards.
The messaging about these changes must be delivered with energy and passion. Employees must feel excited by this opportunity.
Understand that this may cost 10-15% in increased overhead but will boost the value of the company way beyond the cost.
Employees need to know the vision for the company and must be empowered to achieve the results to fulfill this vision.
The why behind the desire for standardized SOPs is just as important as the incentives created to achieve them.
The why must be clear, simple, and must be understood by the employees for everything to work.
To further motivate the team, involve them in designing the incentive program.
Ask what they want. Maybe it’s something as simple as a fun day with the team.
If they aren’t asked, the danger is that they will not respond to the incentive offered. Money is not the only, and in many cases is not the most effective incentive.
Situation: The CEO of a successful small software company is snowed under by day to day tasks. She wants to focus more of her time on business and infrastructure development. However, the company’s departments are not strong enough to run without her supervision. How do you free up more of your time?
Advice from the CEOs:
The first priority is to develop infrastructure that will allow the CEO to focus on strategic development.
To build this the company needs the right people to do the work.
Look at the daily task list and develop or hire new managers to oversee day-to-day non-strategic functions.
For example, offload payroll and back-end accounting to a bookkeeper.
Look at the gaps between where the company is now and where you, as CEO, want to be in terms of your time and responsibilities:
In addition to a bookkeeper, hire an experienced executive assistant – to keep you focused as CEO.
The company is growing rapidly. It is time to hire a human resources manager.
The company’s cash flow projection for the coming year indicates a substantial surplus.
Use this surplus to hire infrastructure.
In front of key clients, keep the impression that you are available to them; however, this is primarily for client relations. The CEO doesn’t have to do all the work demanded by clients.
Use the lawyer / rainmaker model. The rainmaker maintains key client relationships; however, the rainmaker has staff do 90% of the work.
The 7 States of Enterprise Growth Model indicates that the company is now in what’s called a Wind Tunnel. The critical activities in a Wind Tunnel are:
Letting go of methodologies that no longer work and acquiring new methods that do work, and
Situation: The CEO of a service company continually finds the company short of cash. They have just hired a new accountant, but it will take time for this individual to understand the financial situation and to generate recommendations to improve cash flow. How do you keep a company afloat short-term?
Advice from the CEOs:
Point #1: This isn’t just a question of controlling costs; the company needs to build the infrastructure to succeed.
If there isn’t someone on the team in a position of authority, who the CEO can trust completely, hire this person. The CEO can’t control all risks.
While the company has shrunk over the last two years, it is still a substantial company and needs professional management. To grow effectively, professionals are required in key leadership positions. If necessary, hire experienced outside talent
Look for teachable moments as challenges arrive. The CEO, instead of solving a problem, should work with employees and mentor them through discovering and implementing solutions.
How to communicate this to current staff?
Put the story together. Be able to make a clear statement to them, including the current situation and future possibilities for which the company must prepare.
Generate charts and metrics to support key points.
Use senior staff as the mouthpieces to present the story to the rest of the organization. Once they are onboard, have them help craft the message. Don’t underestimate the CEO’s authority. This is business, not a popularity contest.
Let others make mistakes – it is part of the learning process – no matter how critical the situation.
Point #2 – Return to the company’s roots.
The faster everyone accepts that a focused approach is the only way to survive, the faster the company will turn around. Reestablishing company presence in key markets with a new model that speaks to their desires makes a lot of sense.
Be very clear as to what flat-rate service pricing covers. Include this in the signed customer agreement. Don’t allow costs to creep up or it will kill the profitability of flat rate jobs.
Create an infrastructure nimble enough to adapt as market conditions change. Identify what really works and focus on this.