Situation: A company has grown through its expertise consulting for other companies. For its next growth step the CEO and Board want to shift to a project basis. This entails several changes, from compensation to organization and focus. How do you shift culture as the company grows?
Advice from the CEOs:
Risks & Challenges
Biggest risk – dissatisfied employees who see less billable income per hour and may not see the “more hours” part of the picture.
The biggest personnel challenge will be those who have been with the company for many years, and who will see the most change – maybe not to their specific practices if they can bring in business, but on the project side.
Communication is a critical challenge, and also the best way to avoid landmines. Put a velvet glove on the presentation of the opportunity: “This is good news – we know that the low hanging fruit is now mostly gone, and that the remaining fruit is higher; to counter this we now have more options.” Carefully prepare communications to both management and consultant team members.
Another potential landmine – the impact on the company’s reputation if it blows up after a year. Set appropriate expectations – the company is introducing a new program rather than a wholesale rebranding.
Countermeasures to Mitigate the Risks
Maintain a structural option that preserves the old model for those who can bring in new projects and who prefer this model. For them, the new model is just an option that can help tide them over if there are gaps between the projects that they bring in.
Present the project option as new opportunity. Give more senior and experienced consultants priority in choosing whether to participate or not in new project work.
Plan and create the ability to assess the old consultancy model vs. the new project model. This will be especially important when individuals are spending part of their time in each area.
Create a set of metrics for each business – the consulting and project businesses – to measure whether they are on track. Identify and monitor the drivers for each business.
Keep the title Consultant on consultants’ business cards – Consultant, Sr. Consultant, etc. Allow them to continue to take pride in their role.
Move to the new model through a planned phase-in but retain the option to adjust the speed of transition between the old and new models. This will allow sensitivity to changes in the environment.
Don’t consider an immediate and complete rebranding – think in terms of introducing a new product under the company’s well-known brand. Plan a gradual transition of business to the new model. Introduce the new product as a new offering. As it picks up steam, gradually move brand identification and promise to the new model.
For the new project model, create incentives for project performance. Show team members that while the hourly rate may be less, if they perform as a team they will share the upside through project bonuses.
Situation: A CEO perceives that the company has a conflict between performance and planned timelines. Of concern is performance against key metrics like pipeline performance and closing new business. A sense of urgency isn’t present. How do you create and communicate urgency?
Advice from the CEOs:
Management knowledge of company financial status and performance against key metrics – particularly key drivers like pipeline performance – is critical to their being able to assist the company.
A company decision to focus on project profitability may have the unintended consequence of exacerbating the lack of urgency. If revenue growth lags, the only option for managers who are tasked to hit a profitability target is to cut expenses. This delays projects and can negatively impact morale.
Accountability comes from meetings. Not 1-on-1 meetings but team meetings. Peer pressure is an important component of accountability. Nobody wants to be the individual who is consistently behind on projects or initiatives.
The challenge may be more external than internal. When business closes more slowly then everything else slows down: hiring, new development, investment and profits. All of these are driven by new business acquisition.
Another CEO has same issue with her contracts. All contracts include a timeline. If work or deliverables slip, the customer wants to slow down delivery and billings. Her solution is to include stop work and delivery delay fees in the contracts.
What actions would others take to address this?
Institute progress payments. For example, instead of charging 50% up front and 50% on contract completion, shift to, for example, 50/30/20 with the 30% due on completion of project framework. This way, only 20% can be delayed due of customer timing issues.
Built financing into total pricing. The customer is free to delay projects, or aspects of projects, but there is a charge calculated into delayed delivery which covers the cost of money and additional management.
Situation: A US-based company is in the process of merging with a foreign company. The US company has multiple locations across the US, and there are cultural differences between these locations. The CEO has worked diligently to mitigate these differences. The foreign merger presents new challenges. How do you maintain company culture in a merger?
Advice from the CEOs:
Between some of the US locations, there has been a “we make money, but you spend money” perception. How did the company get past this?
The company adjusted metrics to demonstrate the contribution of each division to short and long-term profitability.
This information was communicated selectively to key opinion leaders within the company.
Use the lessons from this experience to plan post-merger communications and protocols that will contribute to team integration post-merger and improve the chances of merger success.
Focus on the common vision and interdependency of the teams. This accommodates differences in culture and encourages teams to appreciate each other’s contribution. Use the same technique during the merger.
Have lunch with CEOs of other companies that have been bought by foreign firms. Learn how they adapted to the new reality. Ask what worked or didn’t work. Seek specific details of solutions that were developed that could be applicable to the planned merger.
Become better educated on business culture in the country of the company with which you will merge. Seek experts who can give seminars to company employees on what to expect and how to work most effectively with workers and executives of the foreign company.
A young company is in the process of hiring new employees. Good customer
service, including excellent communication skills and empathy are the most
important qualifications. Good follow-up skills are more important than
educational background. How do you train new employees?
from the CEOs:
Training new employees may be putting the cart before the horse. The first task is to solidify the company’s business model. The next task is to determine what roles and positions fill that model. Only then can the company determine how best to train employees.
Build an organizational chart for a $1 million company.
Who will the company serve?
What are the positions and roles?
This is future that the company will be building and determines how to select and train people to fill the positions.
Suggested Reading: The eMyth Revisited by Michael Gerber – a guide to envisioning the future of the company and how to build it.
A word of caution. As CEO, you don’t want to be training people like yourself. This is both difficult and risky. You may be training future competition.
As an alternative, think of a series of distinct roles or functions that make up the business, then select and train different individuals to handle each role. It’s difficult to find people who can do it all. It’s much easier to find people who can bring in new clients, establish and nurture relationships with partners, network to develop a referral base, or counsel new clients on alternative solutions to fit their needs.
Organizing this way means training and creating experts in segments of the business, but nobody knows the full business the way that the CEO does.
Each position within the company will need individualized objectives and performance evaluation criteria. What are the key metrics for each position? This helps to build efficiency.
Think about both one-time and recurring income models. This may call for different employees or at least a different sales activity to build each business segment.
A company has a good accounting system, but the CEO is concerned that they are
not making the best use of metrics to drive the business. He senses a lack of
shared understanding of key metrics and goals. He senses the appearance of
financial disarray, despite his clear grasp of the business. Do you have
control of the numbers?
from the CEOs:
A good accounting system may be in place, but if it is not being used to drive the business and monitor the achievement of milestones then the company is not gaining the best advantage from it.
If there is a sense of financial disarray, this suggests that the company lacks financial metrics. Employees and managers may be doing their jobs, but without financial metrics it is difficult to tell how well they are doing their jobs.
Start with basic metrics:
Where are sales coming from?
What is the profitability of sales by customer segment and product line?
What is the company’s profitability?
What are the profitability trends of the company and key segments of the business?
Once a company is tracking these metrics, it is easier to focus managers and employees on products, product development, operations, sales and marketing issues that are most essential to the company’s success.
The company needs the equivalent of a CFO. This means a financial person, not an accountant. An individual who knows how to look at the numbers. A CFO will help the company to
See the strategic trends in the business,
Uncover the best opportunities for growth, and
Understand the greatest potential threats to growth of the business.
the grim reality. In volatile markets, forecasts are meaningless. Instead of
fretting over forecast accuracy, focus on increasing billable rates and
generate additional revenue per project, add a flat percentage charge for
project management on top of time and materials. This is often treated by
clients like a sales tax or a gasoline cost adjustment and may not penalize
it possible to build a sustainable revenue source to resolve profit lumpiness? There
maintenance projects. After building a box add a provision for maintenance/upgrades
as new capabilities and technologies are developed. This can cost-effectively
extend the life of the box and long-term profitability of the product that the
box supports, while gaining an annuity revenue stream.
a maintenance add-on service to leverage the company’s core competence on an
ongoing basis. Provide technology upgrades through a maintenance subscription similar
to software companies adding optional access to all new releases over the
course of a year for a fixed subscription cost. The cost to the company for upgrade
downloads is essentially nothing, but it gains an annual annuity revenue
a help desk service to sell via subscription to small companies. Most clients use
less than they anticipate; however, they prefer the security of a flat price
additional info can be gathered through sales to better drive sales forecasts metrics?
Look at the past several years: is there any seasonality in a multi-year
analysis. It may not occur every year, but if you there’s a pattern it may
enable the company to proactively reduce costs where there’s a predictable dip
in project demand.
sales people responsible for both maintaining client relationships and creating
new business? Most companies split these
functions because maintenance is like farming while new business development is
hunting – few sales people excel at both.
in development, the company develops IP, can this be used? When there’s
down-time can capacity be leveraged to develop the company’s IP portfolio? Look
at IP licensing opportunities. This provides an additional potential source of
it is important to figure out an annuity revenue stream, the principal lesson
from the discussion is that most CEOs say that margins are better on fixed
price projects than on time and materials. The key is to control to client
requests for add-ins or adjustments and to include provision for these in
Situation: A company is considering purchasing a line from another company to complement its existing product line. They would split commissions with the current owner, and gain an additional employee with knowledge of the products to be acquired. The purchase would add to the company’s offering, as well as rights to additional products. The CEO sees this as a low risk move. How do you evaluate an acquisition opportunity?
Advice from the CEOs:
In evaluating a commission split opportunity, will the commissions that you would receive exceed the cost of both the additional employee which you will add, plus the support that it will require to maintain the new business? Do the new commissions cover the anticipated costs, plus a reasonable profit?
Have you vetted the numbers to demonstrate that this purchase provides a suitable return on investment vs. other potential investments that you could make? Is the marginal revenue that you will receive greater than the marginal cost that you will bear? Is the ROI of the new line greater than your cost of capital? If not, what can you do to improve the return?
Looking at your current operations, do you have your existing shop in order? Have you calculated the metrics that will allow you to understand, where you’ve been, where you are, and which provide a clear vision of where you want to go? If not, the question is whether you are ready to take on another line.
The bottom line question is – how do you know that this acquisition is the best use of your funds?
Situation: A tech company is having difficulty with a customer. Given three options – high quality, low cost and rapid delivery – the company can deliver any combination of two, but the customer wants all three. When the company asks which two are most important, the customer responds that they want all three. How do you respond to unrealistic demands?
Advice from the CEOs:
The Devil’s Advocate response to this question is to look at your processes. Is it possible to do all three, and if so under what circumstances?
Think from the perspective of the customer:
What will you need and when?
Integrate the customer into the decision process as much as possible.
Demonstrate where trade-offs exist, and work through these in binary fashion until you reach agreement on the scope of work, delivery timeline and price.
The challenges change depending upon who within the customer company you are working. For example, the engineers understand the challenges and complexity of the product in question. However, the purchasing agents do not necessarily understand the product, its complexity, or how critical it is to their final product.
In this case try bargaining with the purchasing agent – if the purchasing agent goes back to the engineers and gets their agreement that your company can change the quality or delivery spec, perhaps you can be flexible in your pricing. Put the ball in the PA’s court – but make sure that the PA knows that he/she will be responsible for any project delays for not giving you the order today
Use stories to set expectations – better yet, use stories, combined with metrics about the costs associated with attempting short-cuts to develop authoritative arguments in support of your position.
Create a User Guide for your customers – paper and web formats – to sell your story. Sell fear, uncertainty and doubt; for example, if the PA wants to go another route here are the potential costs in terms of time, market share and profits lost.
In particularly difficult negotiations, use the real estate mantra: Some Will, Some Won’t, So What, Who’s Next?
Situation: A company started a new branch office last year. This office started with three people and has remained at that level with some turnover. Morale is low because the branch office team doesn’t feel supported by the home office. The CEO is concerned that this could kill the branch office if it is not fixed. How do you boost morale in a branch office?
Advice from the CEOs:
The problem is most likely the home office, as they assert. There have been few visits from home office personnel – particularly the company president. In addition, they are being criticized in weekly reviews for not hitting the same metrics as the company’s established operations.
Remediate this situation by scheduling weekly executive visits and monthly visits by the president until things are up and running and there is a track record of profitability.
Clarify your expectations to everyone – this is a new office running to different metrics until they establish themselves. Once they are established, they will run to the same metrics as everyone else. Coach the heads of other divisions that the new office needs support, not criticism, until they establish themselves.
Allow the branch office to bid low for market share until they are established in their new location for a period – at least 6-12 months. Create a different set of metrics for a start-up office, and review these during weekly sales meetings.
The role of management is to show the colors in the new location and manage peer feedback from established locations. Help them win! Establish start-up metrics like lunches with potential clients to establish relationships. Since the branch office is generating business for other locations, create separate general performance metrics from territory specific metrics for this office and show both in staff meetings.
Situation: A company’s staff is highly paid. Historically, annual raises have been 4-5%; however some individuals are above industry salary ranges. The CEO doesn’t want to lose key individuals who would be expensive to replace. The company is planning salary increases for the end of this year. If the level is lower than historic averages they are concerned about the impact. Are planning for salary increases this year? How will you communicate your decision to employees?
Advice from the CEOs:
What’s the problem? Even in an improving economy your employees are lucky to be making what they do! On top of this, you need to consider profitability compared to last year as well as historic levels. Selectively share financial data with your employees as well as financial realities – your and their top priority are to keep the company healthy.
Gather data on salary ranges for roles in your industry. Good sources are Salary.com for national data (it may be dated) or Assets Unlimited’s Silicon Valley Survey for up-to-date salary information by industry and position. This will help you to prepare for conversations with employees who are currently paid above the range for their positions.
If you have employees above the range and do not want to give them raises, give them bonuses or spot bonuses for work well done.
Formalize your bonus system – base bonuses on performance metrics. Consider tying bonuses to net margin performance for the company or for departments that can impact new margin.
Whatever you decide, make announcements about salary levels a positive event.