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 company’s sales are bumpy. The CEO thinks that this may be due to a mismatch between products that they offer and their customers’ needs. They currently use online surveys to capture customer needs and input. How do you determine customer needs? How do you find your sweet spot?
Advice from the CEOs:
The most important first step for a smaller and growing company is to clearly identify the customer niche that they serve. This must be a niche where the company can out-serve their competition.
There are two types of niches to consider:
A product/service niche focused on a specific set of products and services – one where you can offer a differential advantage over your competition and become known for this, or
A customer niche – a specific set of customers that you dedicate yourself to serve in a way that provides a differential advantage.
An example of the product model is an individual who started an e-commerce site for lacrosse equipment – products not commonly stocked in sports stores. They offered a wide range of lacrosse products, built an online community, shared articles, etc. and became THE place for lacrosse players to get their equipment.
An example of the customer niche model is to focus on a population and build a concierge or member-only service. The niche here is the buying group. This can be employees of specific companies or government workers as examples. Costco grew using this model.
For an early-stage company, survival is about single pointed focus on that niche where you can provide better products/services or better serve your customers than anyone else. As you grow you can diversify based on the reputation and loyalty that you gained early on.
Look at competitors – how are they gathering customer preference information?
Look at your passion – is it products or people? Choose a niche that fits your passion.
Situation: A company’s current directors are all insiders. The CEO wants to bring in an outside director for greater perspective, someone who can help the company grow to the next level. What should they look for? How do you recruit an outside director?
Advice from the CEOs:
Look for an individual at a company in a similar market segment that is the revenue size that you want to be and which is selling to the same customers that you do. You want their sales process to be similar in type and complexity of sale but non-competitive with your company.
This can be an inactive founder or past employee who has been in GM role with P&L responsibility.
Write a list of the needs that you want this person to fulfill. Use this to evaluate prospective candidates.
Is it OK to hire a stranger?
Before you speak with a candidate, research their background and reputation.
You want someone who can provide information and a perspective that you don’t have now. During the selection process you will get to know the person.
Consider a high level individual from a company that has been a top customer. This individual can help you understand how you are viewed in the market, and how you can enhance your positioning and competitiveness.
Have lunch with a local recruiter who regularly recruits directors for companies. Get their perspective on how to select an outside director and what to look for in a candidate.
Situation: A company hired an experienced individual to sell for them as a consultant. The individual initially asked to be paid on an hourly basis. Results have come with surprising speed. Now the consultant is asking for a commission on sales. How much should you pay a salesperson?
Advice from the CEOs:
Tailor the commission structure to company objectives. For example, if the objective is to reward new business development, and to retain the individual, try something like:
Offer 10% commission on Year 1 sales.
If both the customer and the consultant are still with the company in Year 3, the consultant gets a 5% bonus on Year 2 and 3 sales.
Repeat this for successive years.
If the interest is a long-term relationship, determine the nature of the sales services where the consultant excels.
What is the individual’s focus?
Have a highly qualified sales expert do a telephone interview of the consultant and offer their assessment of the individual’s talents.
One successful sales model includes one measure to retain the job, and another to calculate commissions:
Set a dollar quota for sales performance – if the individual does not hit at least 85% of quota, they lose their job.
However, calculate commissions based on the gross profit that their sales generate.
This properly balances the focus between revenue and gross profit generation. To succeed, the individual must pay attention to both measures.
If the individual wants a substantial commission, then don’t pay a substantial base. Instead pay a draw against commissions to allow them to support themselves between sales.
Pay on receipt of payment, not on receipt of orders.
Situation: A small company uses a sales plan, but not a marketing plan. The CEO wants to know about marketing plans, and how they are different from sales plans. Most importantly, if a company has both, how do you coordinate sales and marketing plans?
Advice from the CEOs:
Sales and Marketing Plans are two aspects of the annual planning and revenue forecasting process. The difference between the two is focus – strategy versus implementation.
The Marketing Plan is strategic. It defines and quantifies the market that the company addresses, and also what markets the company does not address. It identifies the key attributes of the company’s market and products or services, and sets the broad direction as well as the high level objectives for the planning period – usually one year. It also covers both current products and product additions or extensions. The focus of the Marketing Plan is one-to-many.
In contrast, the Sales Plan is focuses on execution of the Marketing Plan. Ideally, the sales team takes the Marketing Plan and sets individual and team sales objectives that will meet the revenue objectives set in the Marketing Plan. The focus of the Sales Plan one-to-one – what each sales representative, and each division of the sales team (unit, district, region, country, and so forth) commits to sell during the coming year.
To coordinate the Marketing and Sales Plans, it is best to draft the Marketing Plan before asking the sales team to draft their Sales Plan. It helps the two teams to coordinate their projections for the coming year and allows the sales team to project sales based on changes to the product mix included in the Marketing Plan.
Situation: A company’s Sales Manager is likely to retire in the next two years, but has no strict timeline. This individual is the chief rain-maker and has been for many years. The subject of replacing this individual has been sensitive when mentioned in the past. How do you replace a Sales Manager and how do you manage the transition?
Advice from the CEOs:
Have a frank conversation with the current Sales Manager. For the company to thrive it is necessary to start selecting and training an individual to take his place when he retires. Have him help develop the recruitment and transition plan. Also involve your Customer Service Manager.
o Hire a person like the current Sales Manager and allow for up to two years for the new individual to get up to speed.
o Find someone who is currently associated with one of your key customers and who has contacts.
o Adjust your compensation scheme to focus on growth and customer diversification with enhanced commissions for bringing in these accounts.
To ease the transition, start to build a different customer relations structure – one where the CEO has more engagement with key customers.
An alternative to replacing the Sales Manager is to create a different organizational structure. For example, hire a COO who will eventually take over business development as well. Think longer term about to how you want the management structure to grow. Build your future vision of the company into this process.
Situation: A company’s CEO came from sales where she excelled in building relationships with important customers. As CEO she must adapt to new responsibilities. This seems to be working, but she misses her sales role as the face of the company to customers. She wonders whether this is normal. How do you adapt from sales to CEO?
Advice from the CEOs:
First, congratulations on your new role and responsibilities. It is clear that your Board saw your potential and has rewarded you with a new opportunity. You have a lot to feel good about.
Second, adapting to new roles is a necessary pain of personal growth. The company needs a different you now. Everyone in the room has gone through the same emotional trauma – and survived! You will, too, in your own way.
In your sales role self validation came from your ability to convert customers, satisfy their needs and solve their problems. As CEO, self validation must now come from managing, coaching and motivating others, not from doing the job yourself. Your new customers are internal as well as external. Many of the techniques that worked in sales can work in your new role. Look for potential wins and take pride in these just as you did in sales.
You are still the face of the company, but now in a bigger role. Enjoy this and leverage it for the benefit of the company. Take pride in team wins just as you did previously in personal wins.
You will never find someone just like you or who does the job the way that you would! Accept this, accept that others will add value different from your own, and that this has benefits. The more you can help others win the more success you will experience.
Situation: A company has experienced low sales early in its peak season due to bad weather. The CEO wants to develop additional leading indicators that will help predict whether sales will recover prior to the end of the peak season. What leading indicators have you found effective in predicting seasonal sales?
Advice from the CEOs:
Access to benchmarked research can be helpful, especially industry reports that cite growth indicators. Some industry report producers can generate drill-down reports of their base data for a fee. This allows you to tailor your own study based on their data.
Depending upon whether you set revenue projections by brand or product line, look for indicators within brands or lines that will provide you with clarity on sales projections. An example is product reviews in relevant newsletters, provided that these have effectively benchmarked to sales results in the past.
In addition to new leading indicators for existing products, there are a number of ways that you can reduce the impact of seasonality on your cash flow. These include: investments that will lead to future income streams; new product placements to compliment or extend current lines; new key customers or outlets through which you can expand your market; and increasing sales calls to create new demand. Also, use the current season to establish additional benchmarks that will be useful in future years.
Other tactics include evaluating in-house versus contract production of your products to improve your margins, and strategies to improve up-sales from medium to premium products where margins are better. You can also focus on smaller independent outlets rather than national chains which are dominated by national brands, and also regional explore private label opportunities.
Situation: An acquired company is poised for dramatic growth. The corporation that acquired them has questions about the current team’s capability to realize planned growth, and achieve their financial and operational targets. How can they assess whether the existing team is up to the task?
Advice from Gene Tange:
Think of this as an assessment process that accurately predicts the ability of the leadership team to realize planned outcomes while maturing key business processes. The leadership team is tied to both financial and operational outcomes that cover competence, continuity and alignment. This enables proactive management of organizational changes to support planned growth of the business. A real life example will illustrate the steps of the process.
The starting point was whether the current CEO had the right compliment of skills and capabilities to lead a high performance team. Could this leader see beyond the current stage of growth in terms of the talent and processes required for growth? Could he build a high performance team, align them and retain them to achieve results?
The CEO then laid out the future state organization. The essential question was whether he had teams of leaders in each of the key functions to assure success.
Specifically, the Product Development Team generated a competitive analysis comparing the current product with all others to assure a 2 year competitive advantage. They were also tasked with improving cost of manufacturing.
The Sales Team installed an integrated CRM system to support large orders, including internal cross functional communication to increase customer visibility and satisfaction scores.
The Operations organization moved from a traditional batch manufacturing process to a state of the art, focused factory organization, eliminating WIP, reducing operational costs and increasing the speed of order to delivery.
Finally, the Finance and Administrative functions were assessed.
As a result, in 16 months the company grew 5x in revenue and increased margins. Time from order to delivery was reduced by 16x. Headcount was reduced while shipping volume increased by 5x.
A disciplined assessment process that predict business outcomes and ties your talent to the bottom line can provide a significant advantage in today’s highly competitive environment.