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.
A company delivers specialized consulting services. The founder CEO is also a
lead consultant. As the company has grown, the CEO has struggled to prioritize
her time as she shifts from consultant to leader. How do you reprioritize your
from the CEOs:
at the skill sets required to run the company and compare this with the skills
of current staff. While the company has excellent consultants, do some of these
people also have experience in business development or management?
the skill sets needed and focus hiring efforts on those that can’t be filled by
the CEO is also the chief rainmaker, then a top priority is hiring a manager/leader.
The next level of development within the company will require a level of
that the company can’t get an A+ grade on every project or detail. Learn to
accept a B when this is enough. It will do.
that as priorities shift, vacuums will develop. Identify what will be missing. For
job descriptions for the roles.
the leader’s roles with flexible teams instead of individuals.
financial resources to fund the transition as incentives for individuals to take
on new work and responsibilities.
at profit-sharing models. Use profit sharing to facilitate the shift in priorities
by adjusting payout incentives.
the risks within the plan. Think through these thoroughly and develop
CEO, you will not be able to do everything that you do now. In your new role you
won’t want to do everything you do now. Your view and responsibilities will
Situation: A company is at a crossroads. They are no longer growing as they have in past years. The CEO is assessing alternatives including a merger, selling the company or restructuring. What are the essential questions to determine whether you merge, sell or revive a business?
Advice from the CEOs:
Do you really have the information to determine whether it makes sense to merge, sell or revive the business? The questions to ask are:
Is your core competency important?
Do you have the talent required to revive the business?
How much of your business is from repeat customers?
Is your platform still being used by a significant number of companies, and are they likely to shift their software soon?
If the answers are favorable, then the only remaining question is whether you have the energy and inclination to continue.
Having developed a profitable business model, why would you give up control or ownership?
Tighten up the business by focusing on the basics and turn the company around.
Identify where you can make money, and
Determine which portions of the business need to be restructured or eliminated.
Essential questions are:
Do you have a clear picture of where the profitability lies within the business?
Do you have a clear statement of your key competitive advantage – your “Main Thing”?
Can you establish a pricing strategy that pays you fairly for the value you provide?
Look at bench time among current employees.
Identify, and fully utilize the most important contributors, perhaps by giving them additional responsibilities in other areas.
See that all retained employees are fully utilized.
Eliminate those who are on the bench the most, or transform them into contractors so that you only pay for active time.
Utilize contractors to fill the “full service” slots that are important to your service offering but which do not contribute significantly to your bottom line.
Most importantly, reformat your role so that you are doing that which you truly enjoy. Your own enthusiasm and passion are the most important long-term drivers for your business, and will be the most important motivators to your staff.
Situation: A company has contracted with a broker to sell the company. At the minimum acceptable sale price to the founder, the commission would be 2.5%. Is this reasonable? How should the founder think about earn-outs, residual payments, and role post-sale? What is a reasonable broker commission?
Advice from the CEOs:
The proposed commission structure looks reasonable. To validate this, ask merger and acquisition experts what they think reasonable commission rates on a sale of this size looks like in the current market.
Beware of earn-outs – don’t take them if offered, at least not without a fight. The challenge with earn-outs is that it may tempt the buyer to report the books in a way that minimizes your share. This will depend upon the terms, but experience advises against this alternative.
Similarly, you don’t want a residual payment conditioned upon your remaining with the company for a period following the sale. The buyer will ask because they see you as important. Counter with an employment agreement at twice your current salary.
Your job following the sale is assuring a smooth transition, not company growth. Growth is the new owner’s responsibility. They wouldn’t be talking to you if they didn’t see a growth opportunity.
Understand that their vision for the company is not yours. Accept this gracefully. Once the company is sold it is no longer your company.
Situation: An early stage company is wrestling with team dynamics and coordinating the achievement of critical milestones. The strategic picture seems to change on almost a daily basis. New employees who have big company experience want to see formal job descriptions and role definition. Older employees are jealous of the attention that newer, more highly qualified employees are receiving. Where should the CEO be focusing. How should she be handling these challenges? Should a start-up focus on team dynamics?
Advice from the CEOs:
At this point, the company is in start-up stage. The most critical issue isn’t team dynamics, it’s getting a product to market and demonstrating that you can sell it. If you don’t have a product, you don’t have a company.
Your top 4 areas of focus for the next 3-6 months should be:
Get the product out.
Close 3-4 good customers – preferably customers that you can reference.
Securing the funding – partnership or investor – that will get you to your next key milestones or to positive cash flow.
Build your organization and keep planning.
As an early stage company, distinct roles and job definitions make no sense. Your strategic picture is currently very dynamic. You need good people who can flexibly wear several hats and fill diverse roles.
If employees with big company backgrounds press you on job descriptions and role definitions, tell them that as a small company you must be quick on your feet, and that you need them to fill flexible roles. As you grow beyond 35 employees then roles will start to become more clarified. Ask for their patience.
If they continue to struggle with loose role definitions, then they aren’t the right people for an early stage company.
Employees who started with you early were great for the beginning. However, they may not be the best for you long-term. They may feel hurt as newer employees with deeper expertise and resumes start to replace them. In the interests of the company, the game is not longevity with the company; it’s about quality and putting the most competent people in the most critical roles.
If you are playing pick-up basketball, you play with whoever comes along.
If you decide to form a team and to compete, you need quality players. Some of your pick-up players won’t make the cut and need to go find another pick-up game.
Situation: A company is faced with the imminent departure or retirement of several key sales personnel. This presents the opportunity to rethink and rebuild the sales team. What is the best way to take advantage of this opportunity? How do you revamp your sales team?
Advice from the CEOs:
The timing is good. Take advantage of this opportunity!
You’ve identified the next generation of sales leadership. Now determine their role building the future.
This is an opportunity to reset your vision for the next 3-5 years.
The task of the new sales leaders is to learn the products, customers, and processes. One of the best ways to do this is in the role of sales engineer.
Be the listener first – become the solutions person.
Use existing company personnel as resources to develop closer relationships with key people within the company.
Have existing staff can introduce them to current customers and point them toward new opportunities. Focus on impeccable customer service.
What are the immediate priorities for the new sales leaders?
Do what must be done.
Observe experts on the job.
Listen and learn.
Ask lots of questions.
It’s scary, but don’t worry – just do it!
Let others assist.
They will make mistakes – it’s called learning.
Be sure to build an approach and team that can support both your existing core business and build new opportunities.
You need to replace the capabilities of those who will be retiring, and at the same time bring in new opportunities for future growth. This includes sales hunters who are good at finding new customers and helping them define their unique needs.
What fears or concerns do you see in the new leaders?
Fear and concerns regarding short and long-term roles.
Focus on the near term. The President is focused on the long term. Focus now on visiting customers, being introduced to them, and learning about them.
Are you fully focused on marketing of your services?
What is your Sandbox? What is your Value Proposition? What is your Brand Promise?
Define these and let the definitions guide your development of the sales leadership as well as the search for additional personnel.
Situation: A CEO’s “Number 2” is returning from maternity leave. He sees a role for her helping him grow the business and wants to give her an incentive for taking on that role. What is an appropriate incentive? What incentives do you offer your #2?
Advice from the CEOs:
Remember, first, that your #2 is a person with a new baby. Remember what it was like when you and your wife had your first child. How did your priorities change? How did your wife’s priorities change?
Never make her choose between child and job – you will lose. Offer her lots of flexibility. For example, allow her flexibility in hours to accommodate the needs of her child. This will mean a lot to her.
Find out what is important to her – what does she see as her role and goals. Be sensitive to the possibility that the birth of her first baby may have changed her priorities.
Here’s the message: “You’re valuable and I want you on my team. I appreciate your responsibilities with a newborn. How can we make this work for both of us?” Build a role around this – not an incentive program.
Many Silicon Valley and other urban families need two incomes. Work out something that works for her.
Have a Plan B in case it turns out that her priorities no longer align with yours.
Situation: A CEO wants to push project ownership down to lower levels of the company. This is not happening unless the CEO pushes. How do you delegate yet stay informed as you push authority down the organization chart?
Advice from the CEOs:
The company needs systems and guidelines to clarify on what and when the CEO wants to either have input or hear back, and what can happen without the CEO’s knowledge.
Set levels of approval – dollar impact or decision type – and clarify what decisions can made at what level, what decisions need higher level approval and at what level, where they must inform you, and where you must sign off.
Similarly, establish regular reporting and meeting schedules, along with guidelines as to what is to be reported – again by budgetary impact or decision type – and assure that this reporting takes place.
“The Great Game of Business” by Jack Stack describes a company which has implemented these systems with astounding results. It provides a template and describes in detail how the system is implemented and what bumps they encountered along the way.
Invest more time in setting roles and responsibilities for your direct reports.
Keep reporting systems aligned across the company.
Expect over time to adjust levels of authority as individuals grow in responsibility and accountability.
Most importantly, lead by example. If a team member comes to the CEO for guidance on a project, refer them back to the proper manager for advice.
2015 Top ranked software systems to manage projects and processes from selected searches:
Capterra: Microsoft Project, Basecamp, Atlassian, Wrike, Podio
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 founder CEO, after many years building a business, has lost the passion that he had early on. He needs to hire someone to succeed him, assuring the ongoing growth and value of the company while minimizing ongoing personal involvement. How does a founder hire his (or her) replacement?
Advice from the CEOs:
When a founder has lost the passion to continue running a business it is time to move on. Passion is critical to meet the day-to-day demands of a business.
Before you start looking, decide whether you will continue to have a role in the business, and what that role will be. Will you remain Chairman of the Board and give up the CEO role? If so, are you ready to let go of the CEO role so that the right person can take it on? Typical company structures for Chairman/Top Manager roles are:
Chairman focuses on growth strategy, select PR and critical relationships.
CEO/COO/GM handles operational planning and day-to-day management.
The candidate that you seek will have the following profile:
Good energy, loves the business, but not ready for the risk of building a company.
When the right person has run the business for you for a few years that person may become your exit strategy.
Go to your next trade show with the mindset to find the right person. Many of the best candidates will be on the trade show floor – now working for someone else, but inwardly looking for their next opportunity.
Spread the news ahead of time that you’re looking. See who seeks you out.