A CEO is considering her exit strategy between five and ten years out. She
wants to do what is best both for her, the company and her employees, assuring
that both personal and company needs are met and the company is ready for
transition. What are your five- and ten-year plans?
from the CEOs:
personal side and the company’s future are closely linked. The solutions and
strategy must fit both the CEO’s priorities as well as those of the company. By
looking at the CEO’s role, the current and future needs of the company, and any
changes that need to be made, the CEO is preparing for an eventual exit.
CEO must decide what lifestyle she wants – both as she prepares for eventual
exit and as she prepares the company to continue under new leadership.
must decide what she wants to do with her time in an ideal world. What will
make her happy as she prepares for the future?
must be considered both for herself and her business partners. Have conversations
to align both business and personal expectations.
a strategic planning retreat on the future of the company as well as the
transition of leadership.
a talk with significant others to align personal expectations.
changes in leadership are necessary to implement the plan? What are the key
roles and who will fill them? What is the succession plan for each key role?
Are current personnel in place to fill these roles, or is additional hiring and
an ESOP or a virtual stock program to enhance employee incentives and sense of ownership
in the company’s future.
what exit means on a personal level.
from founder to leader gets the CEO more involved in the company.
on priorities and engage in ongoing discussions with key personnel to jointly
plan the future.
Situation: A company was created from IP originally developed by the founder at a large corporation that was not interested in commercializing it. The new company has now become successful and visible, with the large corporation as an important partner. The CEO wants to make sure that she has all bases covered to secure the future of the new company. How do you manage a key partner relationship?
Advice from the CEOs:
There must be clear agreement between the company and partner on ownership of the original IP – a legal document signed by both parties. You can bet that should a conflict arise, the lawyers representing the larger company will argue that their client owns the IP. Once this is secured, focus on developing and licensing software that you clearly own.
Develop contingency plans should the key partner decide to exit the business on which your relationship is based. Identify what other companies could replace lost revenue. Start to build these relationships.
If the partner helps to fund current development, take the money that you save and develop your own IP, independent of the partner relationship. As an alternative, at least develop critical components of the software as your own IP, without using the partner’s funding.
This will free you to develop other customer segments to broaden your business base.
What concerns does the partner have? Strategically, large corporations can be uncomfortable if they feel dependent upon a much smaller company. There are two things that you do:
Makes a concerted effort to assure that you are essential to the large corporation’s overall business.
Make change as painful as possible.
How would you get paid if the large partner exited the relationship?
Negotiate a contract with a 2-year window to any change that partner wants to make. This will provide you with the room to develop new clientele should the partner exit.
Have contingency plans to rebuild capabilities that might be lost and sell it to other clients.
Customize your software by client. In the process, you will develop new methods to keep your edge over competitors.
Keep critical parts of your processes “manual” so that they are essentially trade secrets and not easily replicable if the partner were to try to take over the IP.
Situation: A tech company competes in a rapidly changing marketplace. The companies they serve constantly evolve their platforms. The company must respond rapidly to assure compatibility with both hardware and software innovations. Users adapt to new platforms at different rates, and the company must address their needs, as well. With so much time spent tending these diverse needs, how do they plan for market evolution?
Advice from the CEOs:
In the market you serve you must constantly reinvent yourselves as technology changes. Some platforms make changes on a 5-year cycle, while mobile platforms are currently on a 6-month cycle. This may force choices as to which platforms to serve. You also may want to focus on platforms where what you bring to the table is most useful.
You have made the strategic choice to tie the future of your company to a few large companies that dominate their markets. It is imperative that you cultivate close relationships with the technology as well as strategic leadership of those companies. This will give you more advanced insight into their plans, and they may even involve you in discussions about how the market evolves. If so, you will have positioned yourself for that evolution. These relationships may also become your exit strategy.
Businesses run on cash, or access to cash. As you cultivate relationships with your key customer companies, look for opportunities to invest in developing markets on a subscription basis which will provide ongoing annuity revenue. Figuring out how to leverage advertising or positioning options into your offering offers an additional revenue stream.
Situation: A CEO feels overworked, fatigued and ready to retire! The core problem is a long-term employee who is constantly resisting the CEO’s the company’s strategic direction. How can the CEO alleviate this situation? How do you work with a resistant employee?
Advice from the CEOs:
If this individual is valuable, try to work with him first.
Can you give him a different focus – another role within the company for which his talents are suited and where he will make a significant contribution?
For a change like this to be effective it must be offered and accepted with the condition that this becomes his focus and not your strategic leadership of the company.
How is it best to have this conversation?
First, clearly state the direction of the company.
Then ask a question: What do you want to be doing for the next 5 years?
You may be surprised by the response to the question. It may lead you to a win-win solution; or it may become clear that this individual needs to be doing something else.
Conduct the discussion in two stages – but without a lot of time between these two discussions.
“You are valuable but things have to change. I prefer that you remain as part of the team, but on the strategic front you have a choice – are you on board or not?”
If after consideration the answer is that he is not on-board then you must let him go.
Don’t blindside this person. Think of a Resurrection versus a Come to Jesus Meeting.
If it turns out that you must get rid of this person you will wonder: why you didn’t do this 6 months ago.
Situation: A company’s accountants advise them to make distributions for tax purposes. Simultaneously, the company’s future is based on technology and staying ahead of the competition. This requires ongoing investment. Do you focus on taxes or investment?
Advice from the CEOs:
The focus of the answer is distributions and company morale, not tax planning. Think about the impact on the team. Are there considerable differentials in compensation within the company? If so, this may be impacting morale.
Differentiate bonuses from variable compensation. Make bonuses special. This starts at the top. The attitude should be that if someone works hard, they will be compensated. Once bonuses become assumed, they are just regarded as part of the overall compensation package.
Smaller geographical units can help retain a small company atmosphere and drive. As a company grows, similar results can be achieved with Tiger Team projects.
If the organizational structure enables this, foster friendly competition metrics between offices – and publish the results.
One company distributes performance data to top staff – with color-color coded red/yellow/green metrics based on performance. All red and yellow numbers require an explanation. The company has seen a significant reduction in red and yellow metrics since they started this.
At company meetings – publicize and recognize top 10 performers in various areas. Recognition boosts morale.
Company events boost teamwork and morale. These may include company barbeques, in-house cooking shows created and run by staff, and quarterly outings – bocce ball, tubing, sailing on the Bay.
Growth is accompanied by change. When a company starts it’s a mission. After 15 years it’s a job. This is a function of growth, and it takes ongoing creativity to keep individual employees excited about their job and role.
Situation: A company recently changed their BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) to focus on premium customer acquisition, but as a small-to-medium sized company has a 3-year focus instead of the typical 10-20 year focus of a larger company. They want to make this a company-wide effort. How do you make the most of changing your BHAG?
Advice from the CEOs:
First, it is measurable and specific – grow to 10 times your premium current customer base in 3 years. Your marketplace is changing quickly, so a shorter-term BHAG makes sense. Call it your 10/3 Program or 10/3 Challenge.
Is it too shallow? No – this is something that people can rally around. It represents significant company growth.
What happens when you achieve the goal? Celebrate in a big way, and then set the next BHAG.
How do you create excitement? Every time you hit a milestone, bring in pizza, or conduct a special event. Celebrate.
Success = Change. What does that next milestone mean for the company and your capabilities? This isn’t just about new clients, but also includes scaling your delivery systems and customer service. Rally your non-sales staff around these important tasks.
Create milestones not just around sales numbers but also around timelines. Tie incentives to achievement of BHAG milestones.
Conduct a company meeting to announce the BHAG, and announce progress in future company meetings.
Progress against milestones.
Share pipeline data to maintain excitement.
Develop scale-up programs and share progress of non-sales departments as they ramp up services.
Think about building a competition around the goal. As long as this fits your culture it can add excitement to achieving both milestones and the BHAG itself.
Note: The term ‘Big Hairy Audacious Goal’ was proposed by James Collins and Jerry Porras in their 1994 book entitled Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies.
Situation: A mid-sized company has taken over management of the supply chains for several large customers. The products that the company manufactures have long lead times both for sourcing materials and manufacturing customer orders. Sometimes customers either ask for additional production on an existing order in process, or ask for deliveries to be spread beyond contracted timelines. Either situation has a significant impact on the cost of producing the order and company profitability. How do you manage customer change orders?
Advice from the CEOs:
The issue is one of managing contracts and customer expectations. Because this is hurting the company, prime the customers now that things will need to change in the future. Depending upon the level of comfort the response can be reactive or proactive.
A proactive response: because this happens with some frequency, establish a change order schedule and share this with the customers. Your message will be that you are happy to accommodate changes in orders, but you need to recover the cost of these changes in order to be able to continue supplying the customer. Include the change order schedule in future customer purchase contracts. This may cause them to have second thoughts about requesting changes in orders.
A reactive response: the next time a customer makes these demands the response can be: “We’ll take care of you this time but when we draft our next contract we have to adjust the terms of the contract so that it is a win-win.”
The appropriate response depends on value of each customer’s business to the company – both revenue and profit – and your confidence in the relationship with the customer.
Situation: A CEO manages more than one company and is overcome by the complexity of the task. The biggest challenge is the oldest of the companies which is increasingly resistant to change. How do you overcome resistance to change?
Advice from the CEOs:
Regardless of the age or experience of any company, meeting on-going performance objectives is critical. The fact that strategic imperatives have led to the formation of spin-off entities does not change this. Managers and key personnel are expected to perform to reasonable expectations, whether in a family or non-family business.
Resistance to change may be a symptom of more fundamental issues. Is the older business receiving adequate attention from upper management? Are they receiving sufficient funding and resources to complete their objectives? Do they have the latitude to make decisions necessary to achieve their objectives? If the answer to any of these questions is no, then address this first.
Presuming that the answers to the questions mentioned above are positive let the key personnel in this company know that they remain a critical business entity. Telling them this 1-on-1 is not enough. They need to hear this in public forums within the company. They need to be clear on the opportunity that the company enjoys, and what this means both for the company and for them as employees.
You cannot over-communicate the vision, mission and opportunity. They already know that you are juggling multiple balls and need ongoing assurance that they remain important.
Make sure that you have a right person handling day to day matters in the core company and in each of the other entities so that as they grow that they can support themselves.
Situation: A CEO wants to build a new bonus program for the company’s professional services team. He wants to include a customer satisfaction component, because the group is historically weak in this area. Does it make sense to have a different bonus plan for professional services personnel and managers than for product development personnel and managers? Can bonus plans differ between departments?
Advice from the CEOs:
Many companies have different bonus structures for different departments. This is natural because different departments have different functions. For example, Sales may evaluated for bonuses based on a combination of revenue and gross margin achievement, while Finance is evaluated on profitability and Product Development is evaluated on hitting product launch schedules and new product sales.
Changing bonus structures can be a sensitive matter. If the team impacted is not included in the process of drafting the new plan, changes may be perceived as negative. If this is the case, it’s better to frame the new program so that you limit your commitment to it to just one year, and let the team know that this may change this next year.
How do you go about including customer satisfaction surveys as a component of bonus calculation?
If you want to use customer satisfaction as part of the plan, benchmark customer service satisfaction before you launch the plan. If you don’t benchmark, how do you know whether performance improves?
Survey response rates will be an issue – you won’t get 100% and may get a survey response rate of 10% or worse. Be prepared for this and make sure that data with a low response rate will support your objectives.
A survey is a lagging metric. If you can find a measurable leading metric to use as well this is better.
Be careful of how the survey is drafted and who conducts it. Both can bias results.
As an alternative to making customer satisfaction part of a bonus plan, consider starting a customer satisfaction or loyalty program. The most important question to ask will be: would you recommend us to your peers? Any low response guarantees a follow-up call from the company.
Situation: A company’s contracts are based on milestones versus time and materials. This is common for their industry. However, end products are poorly defined at project outset and product requirements frequently evolve and change, making milestones squishy. How do you negotiate milestone contracts and payment schedules?
Advice from the CEOs:
In addition to payment schedule, there are four elements to a project negotiation – specifications, schedule, project flow, and budget. Tell the client that to hit their budget target, they need to give you control of any two of the other three factors. This means that if they want to specify budget and schedule, then they have to yield you control of the specs and project flow. Any change to these means that they have to be willing to change budget and/or delivery date. Finally, to keep the project going on a timely basis, they must make milestone payments on time and on schedule.
Try to transform the project, as much as possible, to time and materials. Here’s your talk line:
To give you 100 hours of effort on a fixed bid basis, we have to budget 110. Time and materials, in the long run is less expensive because you only pay for what we need to deliver your product.
Your credibility to deliver on a time and materials basis will be based on past performance and the relationships that you have developed with your clients.
Milestone contracts are especially difficult in low margin industries because of project variability. One solution is to bid 130 hours cost for 100 hours work. The challenge is that this looks uncompetitive, especially compared with offshore resources. Therefore, an option is to develop offshore capability so that you can deliver your projects using a variety of resources with variable costs. Price everything based on domestic prices, but use offshore resources to improve your margins and your ability to cover project overruns without killing your profits.