Situation: The CEO of a consulting company is frustrated by lumpy revenue and profits. From quarter to quarter it has been difficult to predict either number. Unpredictability reduces options in valuation and exit exercises, as banks and acquirers favor predictability. How do you generate a predictable P&L?
Advice from the CEOs:
The objective is to construct a revenue base built on predictability, even if this is at lower margins. Given a predictable base, the company can complement predictable revenue and profits with higher dollar and margin opportunities as they arise.
Analyze the projects that the company contracts for both revenue and profitability. Some projects will be bread and butter situations which are more common and predictable, but which generate less revenue and profit per project. Others will be customer crisis driven. These latter projects will have higher revenue and profit, particularly if the company is the vendor of choice; the tradeoff is that the frequency of these contracts is unpredictable.
If the objective is predictability, the company’s base should be built on bread and butter projects. As the company grows, focus on this base. Customer crisis projects can then be added as they arise to bump both revenue and profit.
The objective will be to become one of the top 2-3 outside vendors of the choicest clients. Target projects may be ongoing maintenance of older projects in the client companies’ portfolios.
How would this model be pursued?
Focus on the company’s top 5 customers. Reduce risk by optimizing customer leverage as a proven entity and offer them strategic deals.
The focus is long-term project based with guaranteed delivery at lower cost.
Identify the fear or insecurity that exists within the customer and provide sleep insurance.
This model works well in the new economy – get lean, manage infrastructure size and cost, and grow with the economy.
Alternately, identify an area where the customer may not have enough resources and provide a solution that allows them to address this without adding additional personnel or by using existing personnel more efficiently.
Another option is to develop a virtual office model. Provide resources for $X per month, with an evergreen provision.
Situation: A CEO is faced with three strategic options that the company could pursue. He seeks guidance on how the company should evaluate the three options. What signs should they be watching for in their marketplace? Are there steps that they should take while completing their evaluation? How do you decide between strategic options?
Advice from the CEOs:
Go with what sells! Listen to the market, and your key customers. Make sure that you have ears out there that will give you early signals.
Until there is a clear indication from the market place as to which is the stronger strategy, keep your options open. A hybrid strategy – maintaining your current strategy while evaluating the strongest strategic option – will allow you to do this and continue to drive revenue from your existing base while the market determines dominance among the new platforms.
Look at the cash flow from your current strategy and each of the new options that you are considering.
What difference is there in upfront payments versus ongoing residuals?
Look closely at your cash flow needs compared to the timing of receipts from each option.
Are there ways that you can strengthen your cash flow depending upon which strategy you select? How will you bridge the gap between current and future cash flows from each strategic option?
Consider hiring a full-time manager in business development.
This will help you to learn more about your customers and what they will buy.
Select someone who has relationships with the key people in your target markets, and who knows what the insiders are doing at important existing or target customers.
Select someone who can give you access to new opportunities and help steer your strategic development.
Consider a long-term strategic partnership with a leader in your market.
Situation: A company is doing well, but the CEO is concerned about emerging hurdles that may stall momentum. The key issue from a systems development perspective is changing a “one-off” project based focus towards a modular mindset – essentially shifting a short-term to a long-term view. How do you align expectations across the company and transition to a broader focus?
Advice from the CEOs:
Start by clearly communicating your expectations. Work with your managers so that they communicate a consistent message to developers. Look for organizational changes to better align talents of individuals to roles taking advantage of these talents. You may want to refresh the gene pool by bringing on additional people.
One company with multiple teams creates healthy competition against performance objectives between teams with recognition and rewards to the top team.
If the change involves creating greater alignment between functions, create opportunities for individuals from different functional areas to work together. For example, have an engineer accompany a sales person on a critical call to close a deal. If the deal meets spec objectives, is closed, and the project completed on schedule and on budget, the engineer is bonused on the sale.
One company rents a lake cabin every year. Use of the cabin goes to teams recognized for meeting objectives, deadlines or other outstanding performance. An added benefit is that on the way to and from the cabin as well as while they are there, teams spend time talking about the next performance coup that will get them the next use of the cabin.
Look at your organization – both your Org Chart and the physical space. One CEO found that his engineering organization was stove-piped both in terms of reporting and incentives, and physical barriers prevented groups from easily interacting with one-another. To create better coordination between design engineering and manufacturing engineering, the teams were relocated to a new shared space, without physical barriers. Also, the Org Chart was adjusted to increase incentives for collaboration between the functions.
Situation: A small company has a long term clerk employee. This individual is responsible for AR/AP, Payroll and also HR manuals and reports to the CEO. This individual has been a good employee, but doesn’t perform well in this role. How would you structure accounting and bookkeeping in a small company?
Advice from the CEOs:
This is a key role, but there are a number of options. One is for the individual to continue reporting to the CEO, but train someone else to back them up. This will enable you to either shift the individual to another, more appropriate role within the company, or to continue with minimal disruption if the individual leaves.
Because of history and loyalty, this is a difficult emotional issue for you as CEO. It is important to consider what you would do if you could remove your emotions from the issue. If the answer is that you would eliminate the clerk position and hire a qualified, experienced bookkeeper at the appropriate salary, then this is your answer.
Packard’s Law – from one of HP’s founders – is that no company can grow beyond the capabilities of their employees. Hire the right person. This individual must be process-oriented – someone who routinely checks their own work to make sure that it is right. There is an adage in accounting that good accounting is 20% knowledge and 80% double checking the work. Hire a person who loves to do this.
Take care of this position in the best interests of the company, and look for another, more appropriate within the company job for the clerk.
Situation: A company has a long-term clerical employee. While this individual has handled a wide range of responsibilities, they have not significantly grown their skills even though cumulative yearly pay raises put this individual on the higher end of the company pay scale. Increasingly, the individual is refusing to do work requested. In your experience, what can the CEO do to get this individual back on track?
Advice from the CEOs:
Recently the CEO hired a personal assistant. The position was offered to the individual in question but declined because of hours and expectations. The personal assistant has supplanted much of the contribution that this individual historically made to the company. They are likely hurt by the resulting reduction in their role. This may explain the refusal to do certain tasks that used to be routine.
To have the best chance of recovering this individual, it is important that your approach be positive, not punitive.
Instead of going over performance variances in your next review, bring the individual into your office and let them know that “we need you.” Present a vision of the company and its future growth. If the individual shows a willingness to turn around, take them into your confidence and show them your plans. Ask them what role they see for themselves in the organization chart.
Simultaneously, be frank. The company has changed and is poised for growth that was not possible two years ago. Tell the person you want them on the team and set forth long-term goals. Establish and agree on objectives for 90 days and measure from this meeting forward.
Either the individual will rise to the challenge or will let you know within the 90 days that the company is no longer the place for them.
The key point is that this must be a caring and heartfelt discussion.
Analyze how this situation arose so that it isn’t repeated with other employees.
Hire for both current skills and the potential for growth. Develop new and existing staff in line with plans for growth. This is how you achieve extraordinary results with ordinary people.
Situation: The Company has both an annual and a 5-year plan. These are discussed in both company meetings and in 1-on-1s with managers. The CEO fears that he’s starting to sound like a broken record. How do you maintain the focus to stick with your plan?
Advice from the CEOs:
Break the 1-year plan into quarterly objectives. Don’t just divide annual objectives by four. Vary objectives for each quarter so that the total sums to the annual plan.
Divide your broad plan into a series of milestones. Celebrate the achievement of each milestone. This helps to maintain momentum and keeps everyone engaged.
Establish metrics to assess your progress against the plan. These will enable you to evaluate progress against plan and the degree to which you are above or below plan. It will also help you to evaluate whether underperformance is a matter of externalities or a flaw in the plan itself. If there is a flaw, fix it as soon as you find it.
Evaluate your “worst case” scenario so that you know the implications. This enables you to compare current performance against “worst case.”
In his book “Good to Great,” Jim Collins found that an important difference between G2G and non-G2G companies was the ability of the G2G companies to maintain faith and to slowly build momentum regardless of the apparent obstacles faced. This allowed good companies to establish the momentum that eventually made them great. Non-G2G companies continually changed direction and never built sustainable momentum.
Key Words: Plan, Annual, Long-Term, Objectives, Milestones, Celebrate, Momentum, Engaged, Underperformance, Worst Case, Good to Great