Situation: The CEO of a company is wrestling with issues concerning change orders and high labor and materials cost. To get back into good financial shape, they are considering options including reduction in estimator time and selling equipment; however, either of these could gut the business. How do you manage through a difficult period?
Advice from the CEOs:
It is critical to get on top of change orders. This is potentially a big profit-loss swing for the business.
Does everyone understand what’s happening?
If the answer is yes, teach them more about the business nuts and bolts so that they can help develop solutions? Share a portion of the savings in the form of spot bonuses for those who develop solutions.
Take a lesson from The Great Game of Business. Let employees know about the challenges and challenge them to help develop solutions.
As an example, look at change orders and the percent of change orders that are not correctly completed, approved and invoiced as a critical number. Let’s say that 50% of change orders are not completed, approved and/or invoiced correctly. The objective for the year is to reduce this to 25%. Calculate the value of lost billings from the past year. If this can be reduced by half, the value will be $X. If the company can meet this objective, consider making half of $X available for distribution as gifts or prizes.
To support this, allow each new project to design its own minigame to reduce the number of incomplete and uninvoiced change orders.
The idea is to have the project and inside teams design the minigames and come up with ways to reduce incomplete and uninvoiced change orders. They will learn new ways of being more efficient from this process. This is the long-term benefit to the company.
If it is necessary to reduce staff, cut early instead of later. This is painful but laid-off employees can be hired back on a contract basis as necessary.
A common solution during a difficult period is to cut back to core, reducing overhead as a survival strategy, and focus on winning as may bids as possible to rebuild the business.
Look at all departments and the gross margin that each produces minus the overhead that each requires. Focus cutbacks on those that are not positive.
Increase annuity contracts – contracts with major companies that are growing and frequently require the company’s services.
Transfer equipment to a separate corporation. Lease it back as business requires. This increases cash flow flexibility – for example, don’t make lease payments when cash is tight.
Situation: A family-owned company has built a sustainable and modestly profitable business. They have built high quality, referenceable collaborations. The CEO is ambitious and wants to become a world-class company. They now seek limited partners as investors to grow the company. Which is more important – cash flow or value creation?
from the CEOs:
Both cash flow and value creation are important. There are several sub-questions to the question:
First, what is the fundamental business model?
Second, the CEO is the company’s charismatic leader. How best to follow his energy?
Finally, and most fundamentally, does the current business model make sense? Can it be simplified it to improve its scalability?
Currently there are three divisions, each with a different objective.
Operations – to be sustainable.
Services – low profit and low percentage of company revenue but also low overhead.
Investment – to achieve an acceptable rate of return.
How does the company get the best valuation?
Currently, the company is organized as a conglomerate.
Conglomerates are too diffuse and difficult to optimize to attract investors. Pure plays do better. Consider refocusing the company around its key strengths.
The family business model is fine. The question for the family – how does the CEO keep and attract the key staff like that makes this business work? Salary alone doesn’t do it. What are the future rewards for key personnel? Consider deal participation to incentivize key employees.
The investment and operations divisions are different companies – this is fine. Optimize both.
To attract the best LPs, the business model should evolve from a family to corporate model. This will make more sense to investors and improve their ability to participate in future growth and profits.
A company is in discussions with a competitor about a possible merger. The CEO seeks
advice both about how to proceed with these discussions, and how to communicate
the possible merger to staff. How do you merge with a competitor?
from the CEOs:
Until there is a signed binding legal contract everything must be business as usual.
Maintaining this attitude provides more leverage as the negotiation proceeds because the company is prepared for either situation.
If there is a differential in pricing between the company and the competitor, write short term contracts with customers that the company takes from the competitor. This creates the opportunity to revise the contracts and pricing if the merger is completed.
This issue begs the question – why do a deal now versus in 1-2 years? If current strategies are increasing the size of the company relative to the competitor, in another 1-2 years the company will be worth more compared to the competitor and will be in a position to complete a deal on more favorable terms.
At this point, most staff are unaware of the discussions. How is it best to proceed?
Consult an HR expert on when to start communicating, what to communicate and how to phrase the message.
The trigger to initiate top level staff communications will be the signing of a due diligence agreement.
The message to senior management: there is interest but no binding agreement, here’s the deal that’s being discussed. Then just listen to what they have to say.
Communications to staff create an important management challenge. Staff will be concerned about their futures and will want to have assurances that these are secure.
Situation: A growing technology company is faced with several opportunities. The CEO is too busy to devote the time to analyze each of these. In addition, the CEO wants to develop her staff so that they can take on more responsibility and mature into a full organization. How do you choose between opportunities?
Advice from the CEOs:
Everything starts with a strategic plan for the company. Either the CEO or an outside consultant should coordinate a strategic planning session to develop and rank the opportunities facing the company. The ranking exercise is best done as an open departmental or company-wide exercise so that everyone is involved in the process. This helps to build consensus and commitment to the opportunities developed.
Once the opportunities have been identified assign one to each of the employees that you want to develop. Each of the employees will be the champion for that opportunity.
Ask each champion to develop a business case and plan for their opportunity. This will include a development plan and ROI analysis. Allow each champion to access all company resources as they develop their plans. Set a deadline for all champions to complete their plans.
Once the plans have been completed, reconvene the group that participated in the strategic planning session and have the champions pitch their plans to the group. The group will provide feedback and suggestions for each plan. At the end of the session repeat the ranking exercise based on the new information developed and presented.
This will provide a wonderful training opportunity for the champions as well as valuable insight into their talents and potential for future development. In addition. Because the strategic planning sessions will be conducted as a company-wide exercise, they will act as team-building exercises and excite everyone about the potential facing the company.
Situation: A valuable tool for CEOs is Susan Scott’s book Fierce Conversations. This includes challenging conversations with staff. Scott characterizes Fierce Conversations as being robust, intense, strong, powerful and passionate. These are the traits that a leader must bring to challenging conversations instead of avoiding them. How do you have a fierce conversation?
Advice from the CEOs:
The first step is to master the courage to interrogate reality. This means confronting the difference between “ground truth” or reality and official truth or what we or others wish to believe. There is often a difference between the truth that we want others to see and reality. Jim Collins calls this confronting the brutal facts of our situation without losing faith in our ability to deal with it.
Be here, prepared to be nowhere else. The conversation must be your only point of focus when you are having it. Choose a location where you won’t be interrupted or distracted. Don’t allow yourself to be distracted by texts, phone calls or anything else.
Tackle your toughest challenge today – you gain little by putting it off for another day. Prioritize your challenges, and tackle the most difficult ones first. Handling these will make the most difference.
Obey your instincts – but remember that instincts are subjective and must be verified through reality checks. Trust your gut, but verify it objectively with evidence.
Take responsibility for your emotional wake – what he or she will remember after the conversation. Keep the focus on factors that the other party can control, and offer to assist. But be sensitive to how you deliver the message and how the other party responds. Don’t leave more of a mess than you had before the conversation.
Harness the power of silence – silence slows a conversation and increases your chances of making it meaningful.
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: The recovery continues to be uneven and uncertain. One company finds that both staff and their families are nervous about how the company will fare and the future of their jobs, and this has created strain. What are you doing to stay balanced and positive – both within your company and also in your personal relationships?
Advice from the CEOs:
Transparency and communication. These are critical in both business and personal affairs. You have to be honest, avoiding either pessimism or unwarranted optimism.
Share the metrics of where you are – the reality – and projections on your expectations of how things will go. This has been a long bump in the road, but eventually things will get smoother.
Involve your staff in difficult decisions. Do the same with family on difficult personal or family decisions.
Be frank with family, but keep communicating. Time is more important to family than money – they want you to be there with them. If you’re working long hours in the evening, at least go home and have dinner with your family.
Staff adjustments, where necessary, have been done as single events and weren’t drawn out. CEOs have communicated more frequently about the state of business and pipeline. Assure staff that the company is solid. Show them the runway.
Those most worried are employees without project work. Some companies focused them on infrastructure projects to keep them engaged.
Cross-fertilize your teams. One company brought professional service employees into product engineering. Both groups learned and benefitted from understanding each other’s perspective.
Situation: A company has received an inquiry from a large client requesting that they dedicate a significant portion of their staff to that client. The company hasn’t done this in the past, and the CEO seeks advice on the advisability of this choice. Would you dedicate significant staff to a single client?
Advice from the CEOs:
Provided that the terms offered by the client are favorable, the proposition may make sense. However, there are certain terms that you may want to assure are included in the contract:
In return for your dedicating choice staff to this project, ask for a substantial upfront payment – perhaps 50% of the total contract – to reimburse you for the opportunity costs that you incur committing your resources to the project.
Insist that the contract allows interchangeability of personnel if circumstances prevent initial personnel from continuing with the project.
Internally, work to assure that this project does not adversely impact your culture.
Talk to other companies that you know who have had similar arrangements with large clients. This will give you an understanding of the benefits and pitfalls of the arrangements.
Do everything that you can to assure that this project does not distract from your broader business strategy. Cash from the project may be nice, but if it inhibits your overall business strategy it may not be worth it.
If the employees assigned to this project are not happy with their assignment, the project may lead to unwanted turnover.
Situation: A company was recently acquired. The acquirer wants to merge benefit structures between the two entities. Both contribute a similar amount toward benefits; however the distribution of benefits between retirement and health plans, and other benefits varies considerably. How do you approach the staff to communicate changes in benefits following an acquisition?
Advice from the CEOs:
Ideally, you want to gather employee input on what benefits are important to them before the overall package is finalized. This will help you to negotiate in your employees’ interest.
Make sure that the acquiring entity is aware of state regulatory requirements that may force them to retain state-specific benefits.
National companies often employ a cafeteria benefit strategy that allows the employees to make choices among benefit options, and fund these choices either at a company-paid base level or allow employees to supplement their choices through pre- or post-tax payroll deductions. There are numerous providers who offer cafeteria plans.
What’s the best way to have a conversation with employees once the new benefit package has been finalized?
Emphasize that the company is offering and funding this benefit and specify the amount that the company is funding as a percent of salary.
Create a grid mapping the full program:
Amount of company contribution
Old Program and benefits
New Program and benefits
Changes in allocation and changes in the total value of benefits offered.
If you have access to industry or regional comparisons for like-sized companies, and those comparisons put your company in a favorable light, share these as part of the communications package.
If you know that a highly valued benefit is being reduced, consider a short-term subsidy to ease the shift.
Be sure that you are clear and concise in your communications of the new plan and changes to the employees. You may want to have an outside consultant on hand to cover specific questions.
Be sure that any decisions your employees must make in the new program are fully and clearly explained.
Situation: A company missed production milestones and had to reduce top and line staff by 20% to keep salaries in line with expected revenue. An executive who was very angry about being let go has asked the CEO to meet him for lunch. How do you manage communications with employees post-riff?
Advice from the CEOs:
If you haven’t already, call a company meeting to explain the situation, as well as the rationale for the riff. The company has to manage itself financially in line with current and expected future revenue to assure that it can take care of employees. Explain the connection between production milestones, revenue, and the company’s ability to afford staff. Employees generally understand these connections and will accept this well.
When you have lunch with the executive, first listen to what he has to say.
Anger expressed in an exit interview is part of a natural emotional response to difficult news or change. Listen for signs of ongoing anger or progress toward acceptance of the situation.
If the individual threatens the company or tries to bargain the severance package, don’t negotiate.
However, if the individual is reasonable and asks for assistance in finding a next position – references, introductions, etc. – then offer to assist as you can.
Should the CEO make an attempt to follow-up with others who were riffed?
No. If they contact you, then respond in a similar fashion as you are to the VP, but otherwise don’t try to contact them.
In the Silicon Valley economy, people are familiar that employment situations change and know that as this happens they can be affected.