Situation: Much of a company’s work is non-standard. Each customer’s solution is individualized. Finding the best solution in each case frequently requires a stretch. The CEO’s approach is to simplify the problem to its essential components and from this develop a unique solution. However, several of the staff responsible for developing solutions shy from this approach when confronted with a new challenge. How do you create a bias for action?
Advice from the CEOs:
Company culture is defined by the CEO. In this case you wish to establish a culture of innovation. This might be defined by the phrase “we don’t do simple things.” This means that you need innovators or creative people in the problem solving positions.
Consider breaking the roles apart. You need experienced and balanced but creative people to develop the unique solutions. People like yourself. On the other hand, you need methodical, reliable people to put the solutions into effect. These two roles usually require teams of different personalities. They don’t conflict, but are different.
Look at Landmark Worldwide as a resource for your staff. Landmark specializes in teaching people to expand their horizons. This doesn’t mean changing who they are, but facilitating their ability to team with others with different but complimentary talents to achieve original and effective results.
To help the team understand what you want to accomplish, bring in an organizational development consultant to help communicate your vision and assist with culture transformation.
It is important to recognize that these individuals are likely as uncomfortable with this situation as you are. This realization helps to craft a win-win solution that will strengthen the company.
Situation: A company has a technology road map and a flexible set of technical capabilities. To date they have elicited broad interest from a variety of different markets. They currently don’t have the resources to pursue a large number of different markets, and will likely need their next round of funding within the next year to year and a half. How do you focus your sales and marketing?
Advice from the CEOs:
A race to generate interest from a number of markets is a valid strategy at this stage of your development; provided that you raise or generate the cash to survive. This caveat describes your critical challenge – determining how long you can afford to maintain and fund a broad strategy.
Look at your burn rate and timeline. Pursue options that will generate cash before your next round of funding. Your top objective is to validate your ability to generate revenue prior to your next round.
You haven’t yet found the fish. You are fishing and have nibbles but no bites. Look at what your people are doing and start to eliminate options that are less likely to pay off both short and long-term.
To preserve development cash, create a new rule. Any project that you accept must come with development dollars. This will eliminate some smaller prospects and targets but will help you to focus on others which are more immediately promising.
When one company was in this position, their rule was that the first PO gets the engineers. No PO, no commitment of resources.
Another’s company’s policy is that they don’t work for free.
A softer version is to give the prospective client 30 days to produce an LOI for the proposed project or you will go elsewhere.
Even better is an LOI and $50K up front.
A third company’s strategy from the beginning was always to hunt for elephants – even when they had no money. This has worked well both short and long-term. It represented the level of faith that they had in their technology and capabilities.
Situation: Early stage companies often find it difficult to raise funds from traditional sources. An experienced CEO wants to help certain new companies of which she is aware in two ways – assisting them in receiving funding, and then helping to assure that they reach key milestones. What is the best way to profitably address this ambition? How do you fund a start-up?
Advice from the CEOs:
Build relationships with a few select sets of local investors – venture capitalists, angels, and private investors – with whom you have strong credibility. For a retainer or fee, agree to bring them a number of new pre-vetted companies in the next year, and post-finding, help the companies to succeed and hit milestones. From the companies that you bring to funders, ask for equity in return for securing funding and providing guidance.
Put yourself in the shoes of the person who will pay you – what do they want and how do you deliver this for them? Develop statistics from your past successes that highlight your capabilities. Don’t be shy about your accomplishments.
What are you passionate about? If the answer is development – linking technology entrepreneurs to strategic partners and then being an accountability partner to assure that milestones are met – this will be your focus and your pitch to both funders and tech companies.
Your value is linking the entrepreneur to the funding source and being an accountability partner.
Situation: A company has a key employee who is a high performer; however the company has not developed a good accountability structure to direct this person. The CEO wants to add additional accountability to cover everyone, both current employees and new people as they are hired. The system should be fair and apply to all. How do you hold high performers accountable?
Advice from the CEOs:
High performing employees are essential assets to a company. They thrive on meeting and exceeding expectations. However they need to recognize and accept accountability for the inevitable mistakes or misjudgments that will occur.
Lay out the challenge, and ask your high performing employee, and this individual’s manager, to help design the system for monitoring accountability around results.
Within position descriptions, include not only the role and expectations within the description, but also expected progressions for development. These should be objective, measurable and based on specific skills or capabilities within the development progression. Gather input from current employees as you create position descriptions, so that they reflect the experience of employees rather than idealized generalities.
Set your expectations for new employees appropriately. Expect perhaps 60% of optimal performance early on. As new employees gain understanding of the company and their roles, coach and expect them to increase their performance over time. Provide training to assist their development.
James Fischer, in Navigating the Growth Curve, argues that expectations, for the CEO, management and employees, change as a company grows from start-up to a large firm. If a company is small, it doesn’t want the same structure or processes required to operate a 250 person company. Too much structure stifles creativity and growth if applied to small, nimble companies. Institute a level of structure appropriate to the size and stage of the company.
Situation: A company has learned that a competitor has cloned their client development approach. This approach enabled the company to gain early market share. They have since moved up-market and have enhanced their sales tactics. How should the company respond to the competitor’s tactic?
Advice from the CEOs:
Reconnect with the market contacts that got you where you are. Be sure that they are aware of your track record, the value that you provide your clients, and reinforce your current market development focus. Now that you are established, position yourself as the proven producer who consistently produces results.
Study what the competitor is doing, who their target customer is, their close rates, and what if anything they are doing to enhance their close rates. Learn from them and copy or improve on their practices where this will yield benefit.
If your sales development is based on referrals, enhance the rewards to contacts who bring you new business in your prime target markets.
Your principal concern may not be your client base, which is likely unaware of the differences in your versus your competitor’s approaches, but in the referral structure that is your primary source of new business. Focus effort and resources to shore up your relationship with your referral base.
Focus on your strengths – performance and excellence in managing client relationships.
If the competitor is focusing on down market accounts that you no longer cultivate, then expect them to succeed in this market. Become the provider of choice to up market accounts and the natural referral choice for these accounts. If the competitor stumbles, you may pick up unexpected business.
Situation: A company has been approached by an international business development specialist who wants to help them expand into Asian markets. The company would need to hire local resources to support business that was generated. Most of this would be cookie cutter as opposed to creative work. How do you work with an international business development person?
Advice from the CEOs:
Research the country markets where the specialist can help you and focus on the more developed and promising markets first.
If the specialist that has approached you has a local presence in the markets in which you are interested, lean on this person for help getting you started – office space, staff support, and so on.
One company started a subsidiary in Canada. The CEO believes that you must have a highly trusted person to own the project. Success is all about the relationship with this individual and their knowledge of both local and American culture.
Another company hired very promising business development person for a large Asian market. As the relationship progressed, they found that this individual was double dipping – working for them and their competition at the same time. Apparently this is acceptable in that culture.
Many cultures are relationship based. Local contracts are critical. Does your specialist possess these, and are they premier companies or also-rans.
Talk to individuals in your industry who have experience in the region.
Have your eyes open and recognize that this is will not be a quick process.
Situation: A company has been approached by a foreign company that is interested in their expertise. The foreign firm says that they are only interested in their own domestic market, and want the company’s help developing new products for their existing domestic clients. How do you develop products with a foreign firm?
Advice from the CEOs:
There is great variability between companies in different locales and on different continents. Before proceeding with negotiations, get references from the company and check them carefully. Research the company and its local market.
Relationship will be critical. You want to meet with their CEO. This is an important factor working with any company. Watch the commitment level of the CEO and top staff. Take an expert with you – someone knowledgeable about local mannerisms who can read the body language in meetings. Position this individual as someone who is assisting you in the negotiation.
If you proceed with negotiations toward an agreement, make your enforcement jurisdiction either the US or a neutral country with a western judicial system. For example, if the company is Chinese, make the enforcement jurisdiction either Hong Kong or Macao.
Will intellectual property be a factor? If so, get an IP attorney knowledgeable about both the market of the other company as well as your preferred enforcement jurisdiction.
Could this help you to augment or fund your own development? If so, ask for rights to produce and distribute products developed through the collaboration in the US and other markets outside of partner’s domestic market.
Situation: A professional service company is intrigued by LEAN and Six-Sigma approaches to increasing production efficiency and reducing costs. Most of the examples that they see of LEAN and Six-Sigma in action are in production or manufacturing settings. Do LEAN or Six-Sigma programs apply to processes in a professional services environment?
Advice from the CEOs:
LEAN and Six-Sigma are heads-down approaches to process improvement. In a customized solution environment, standardization of processes has less pay-off. As an alternative, consider Agile Development and similar heads-up process solutions.
Agile Development is both a philosophy and a process. Steps to introducing Agile Development to a professional services environment include:
Identifying high risk areas of individual project plans,
Double resourcing high risk areas to increase the likelihood of fast, satisfactory solution outcomes,
Looking for collaborative synergies and scenarios,
Scheduling regular team meetings to enhance collaboration,
Working opportunistically rather than systematically to increase efficiency, and
Using project post-mortems to refine systems and processes.
One professional services company which has adopted Agile Development assigns Senior Engineers as outside consultants on projects. These individuals bring a more experienced perspective, and can identify more efficient ways to find solutions and produce a more cost effective and timely result.
A company has focused on developing future leaders and managers. They do this both to increase their managerial and leadership bench strength and to boost employee retention. What has worked for you in developing managers and leaders?
Advice from the CEOs:
Trying to make a leader doesn’t work. Leadership is a trait, not a skill. Leaders can arise from anywhere within the organization. An effective CEO recognizes this and works with both the leaders and the managers, whatever their position.
The Gallup Organization found that exceptional managers and exceptional leaders are not often the same people. Usually, the best managers are people who excel at bringing out the best in their employees, but may not be either visionary or strategic thinkers. Leaders, on the other hand are those to whom others look to for guidance and direction. Good leaders know how to identify and delegate to good managers.
Identify and develop strengths within your people; don’t try to fix weaknesses.
Gallup found that talented people have identified and developed their strengths. Instead of fixing weaknesses they find ways to work around weaknesses so that they are not harmed by them.
Use informal mentoring. Assign mentors to employees, and include cross-departmental mentor assignment to extend skills development, as well as managerial and leadership development.
Ask mentors to report progress to the CEO on occasional basis.
As you develop your talent pipeline, track the number of employees added to the pipeline per year as a key company metric. As an additional metric, look at the number of individuals in your pipeline compared with the number that you believe you need to fill future needs.
Interview with Trevor Shanski, Founder, eWORDofMOUTH, Inc.
Situation: A company with a new lead generation solution is ahead of the curve for their market segment, and ready to transition from a product development focus to a full-scale business development focus. This means developing new capabilities on a limited budget. How have you made the transition from product development to business development?
Advice from Trevor Shanski:
The reality of early stage companies is that they live on scarce resources. Founders and early executives have to be able to work for lean base salaries during the learning curve. They will be individuals who have selective characteristics.
They will be able to accept conservative salaries near-term, as well as during financial bumps in the road. Their focus will be growing the company’s value and their incentive will be having a material stake in the company.
They will have limited outside demands on their time and attention so that they can work long hours.
They will appreciate the challenge of heavily performance-based compensation, with the potential to win big if they can deliver.
They will have a network of connections and relationships upon whom they can call to gain early business traction.
Characteristics for successful early stage executives include the ability to work intimately with the founding team. Early stage companies are idea and capability incubators where things change quickly. Players must be able to get the job done with little support.
It is critical to have a clearly defined set of expectations for the first few months as you bring on new executives. Early foci will include:
Immersion in understanding the product capability and possibilities.
Sitting down with a white board and openly looking at fresh thoughts for how the market should be approached. Founders frequently suffer from tunnel vision after a long period of development and need a fresh outside perspective on the market and messaging. What partnerships could accelerate market development? What knowledgeable experts should be leveraged to build awareness? What potential is out there that the founders are not seeing?
After these factors are defined, the next step is to develop an action plan and milestones to guide plan execution, plus a budget and alternatives under different resource scenarios.
Once the plan is in place, the focus will be to gain early feedback on the company’s product and capabilities, and then iterate quickly to find the right message to target significant segments of the market.
The focus of early stage companies has to be on quickly developing plans, and then executing.