Situation: A CEO faces challenges with clients. The first is vague customer specs because they don’t understand the product. Second is misunderstandings as to timelines. Third is insistence on strict timelines while simultaneously demanding revisions to previous work. How do you add more discipline to quotes and pricing?
Advice from the CEOs:
Is the company’s technology strategy aligned with its capabilities? Currently the company is trying to build advanced solutions in multiple international markets with a small staff. There does not seem to be the technology or development discipline to convert current capabilities into a sustainable market advantage.
For near term focus, because of commitments and milestone payments due from the key customers, focus resources on finishing the last piece of these projects. Once this is done, step back. Look at options and determine the company’s technology strategy moving forward.
The key challenge is to define ONE beachhead on which the company will focus and which they can dominate. The objective is to leverage existing engineering creativity to create a sustainable competitive advantage.
As this exercise is designed, start with a clean slate. Don’t burden the process with a lot of restrictive assumptions. Consider using an outside facilitator to help facilitate this process.
Until this exercise is completed does it really make sense to seek additional work or to commit the company to the next phases with current customers?
Once the company has selected and committed to a technology strategy, the decision process becomes different.
The objective is to develop laser-like focus on the technology. Minimize distracting the team with other opportunities.
It may be OK to lose money on development projects if this work will significantly impact or accelerate the development of the company’s core technology.
How does the company justify asking for payment for development for future projects?
First, determine and clearly state the company’s technology strategy. Evaluate all future development projects and decisions in terms of their alignment with this strategy.
Second, if a particular project is completely aligned with the technology strategy, the company may waive the requirement of payment for development. This, ideally, will be the only exception.
Ask for a limited time/scope project to jump start and define new projects. This provides proof of company capabilities and establishes its credibility.
If is it necessary to negotiate or bid, start high and bargain down to but not below the best estimate of the cost of development.
Remember that deciding what NOT to do or quote is often harder, but just as critical, as deciding what to quote.
Situation: A CEO has a staffing issue. The company has four product areas but only three strong leads. There are no back-ups for these leads. The CEO feels that the company can’t afford full-time back-ups and is concerned that the presence of back-ups may threaten the leads. How do you create an effective staff back-up system?
Advice from the CEOs:
There are two problems, not one.
The leads may not be great managers and may not even like managerial responsibility.
The company has one administrator with support from the leads.
The company’s vulnerability is having an effective lead leave and taking their key core team members with them. This would create a significant hole in the company’s offering.
Change the structure – put manager administrators at top and let the leads do what they love to do. Fit the jobs of the leads to their skills and talents.
Hire the best #2s that can be found to back up the effective leads. Replace the less effective lead with a new lead.
Replace current team members who aren’t as good with new staff. This will provide the funding for the new people.
Then separate managers from architects in terms of role. This does not mean a change of compensation, or necessarily even titles. It means aligning roles with talents. It will also mean that individuals will be happier in their roles and will be less likely to leave.
Don’t do this all at once, but in gradual stages to avoid panic and allow individuals the time to adapt to their new roles. Act as a coach adjusting the whole team to a new playbook.
Consider adjusting the compensation structure to retain the key leads.
Situation: A company currently has inside and outside sales teams, and coordinates efforts with SalesForce.com software. Their strategic initiatives are to double inbound leads, create a triage approach to new leads and to lower the cost of sales. How do you optimize your sales organization?
Advice from the CEOs:
When outside sales claims that they have limited band width, it is necessary to find how they are spending their time.
If they are not spending most of their time developing and closing sales, adjust the system so that they are concentrating their efforts in these two areas.
Decide what the sales teams are selling – set up the organization so that it complements the sales goals and objectives. Below are alternatives used by others.
One company has evolved “product managers” who are like sales engineers but more experienced. They are highly paid and highly skilled. They are business oriented, with good communication skills, well rounded, and have successfully closed sales.
In contrast, the role of this company’s “salespeople” is to follow up. Lower level salespeople are tasked with generating leads for the product managers
Another CEO observed that what the company has done up until now all has worked well. The question now is how to mature their system?
This company’s solution has been to use outsourced Inside Sales Support (ISS) based abroad to find prospects.
ISS personnel are teamed with and managed by the company’s salespeople. Salespeople develop their own system. The ratio is 1/1, but outside personnel are ½ time for each salesperson.
This allows the company to reduce services quickly if they become overwhelmed.
A third company uses a 3-tier system:
Inside sales for lead evaluation.
Outside sales – get hot leads from inside sales, develop, close.
Consider this alternative: instead of a shotgun approach, target three accounts – Elephants. One company did this with an intense 6-month focus. The President and CEO drive these sales. The result: they have closed one, one is pending, and a third is likely to close.
Another CEO observed that the essential issue appears to be an efficiency problem.
Too much of the outside sales time adds limited value to marketing or the company.
Redirect their efforts to hunting.
Once an account is closed, sales is out of the picture. The customer transitions to the customer service organization for additional sales and service.
Situation: A small tech company’s Board of Directors is made up primarily of founders and advisors. The CEO wants to know how other companies structure their Boards. Concerns include increasing accountability of management, obtaining an objective view of company operations so to counteract group-think, and accessing opportunities for strategic alignment. How do you structure a small company Board?
Advice from the CEOs:
In a small company, the fewer the number of board members and owners, the better. There are two considerations: control of the destiny of the company and complexity of the transaction in case of an investment or buy-out opportunity.
It is important to differentiate major from minor shareholders, including incentive-based owners.
What are the advantages of a Board of Directors?
Sounding Board – a group that can help management evaluate product and market opportunities.
Accountability – Board meetings provide an opportunity to assure that leadership and management are focusing on the best opportunities for the company.
Exit – knowledge of the industry, ties and introductions to potential acquirers.
Given new Federal regulations, the proper role of a Board has changed. Key responsibilities of Boards include:
Oversight of Corporate Governance.
Fiduciary Responsibility – to the shareholders.
Work with local or regional experts on Board role and structure. Experts can provide introductions to potential Board members that fit the company’s needs.
Good Board members will want Directors and Officers Insurance coverage.
Consider developing an Advisory Board, to compliment a stronger Boards of Directors.
Look at the key talents that the company is missing internally.
Ask friends, business partners and associates who they know who can add these talents.
Before kicking off a formal Advisory Board, start with informal discussions. Consider a facilitated dinner to share ideas.
One company has eight outside advisors who each receive 1/8 of a percent of the shares of the company for three years of service. The share offer required for service may be a function of the eventual forecasted exit value of the company.
Special thanks to the late Bill Rusher for his insight and contribution to this discussion.
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.
A late stage private high-tech company wants to know what questions are most critical for managing the next stages of growth. This includes factors that can help differentiate good opportunities from poor ones. What questions would you ask about managing a late stage private high-tech company?
Advice from the CEOs:
Never compromise on your team. Is this a team of individuals who will be effective together, and can you make changes where necessary to build and manage the team that you need?
There is no room for someone who is not a cultural fit – do the team members work well together and does everyone see and support a win?
Who are the key stakeholders, and what drives them? Are these drivers compatible or in conflict? Can you bridge potential conflicts, or will they defocus your efforts?
Market & Strategy
Are your market projections realistic or fluffed?
Will your value proposition appeal to a large enough market to justify the investment of time and resources?
Is there a strong, realistic plan?
If you do a full SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis, is the net positive?
Finances & Capital markets
Are the revenue and financial projections done correctly and achievable?
Raise money when you can, not when you need it – will the timing of your deal or opportunity, given existing financial markets, allow you to raise the funds necessary to bring the opportunity to fruition?
Is there openness to all potential capital or financing options? Financing is a personal relationship – how strong is the relationship?
Boards & Governance
Investors are investors; don’t overestimate their industry savvy. Are they aligned or in conflict? Are they fresh or tired? Will they support your efforts, and do they have the ability to generate extra funds as required?
It is impossible for a CEO or deal to be successful without the full support of the board – will you have full board support for your opportunity?
Is there clear differentiation between governance and management?
Looking over these questions, is the balance positive or negative? That balance will help you to accurately assess whether a given strategy or opportunity makes sense for the company.
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.
Situation: A company is in contact with an Eastern European company that seeks outsourced business from the US. The CEO seeks guidance on challenges managing as well as formalizing this relationship. What is your experience outsourcing to Eastern Europe?
Advice from the CEOs:
Location in Eastern Europe is important. There have been concerns with both corruption and IP protection in Russia. Some other Eastern European are more aligned with US/European values and farther up the ramp as outsource partners.
Experience of other US companies suggests that your spec must be written much more tightly than if you were doing the work here. If you can’t write a tight spec on the work, don’t outsource it!
Contract outsourced work on a fixed fee basis with the bulk of payment due on completion. This helps to assure that you receive timely delivery and the quality of work required.
Set up thresholds for the circumstances to engage an outsource partner.
Say one US worker is economically worth 5 foreign workers in your domain. Do you have enough work to support this?
Determine who will manage the outsourced work. A European is fine, as long as they have experience managing outsourced work.
Someone on your team will become their Project Manager. This can be VERY time consuming.
Consider setting up an offshore company to shelter some of the revenue from the outsourced work.
You want to locate the offshore company in a tax-free country, and to have them handle the funds connected with the outsourced work.
The contact in the tax-free country will likely be an accountant, lawyer or both. There are many reputable individuals who do this in tax-free countries, but be sure to check references and background carefully.
Situation: A rapidly growing company is expanding both in its primary market and into new verticals. A number of companies are interested in strategic partnerships. How do you select the right partner in the right space?
At the end of the day it’s about a connection with the partner which extends across both organizations.
Look for cultural synergy with the other company. Do your and their managers and employees “click” or are they oil and water? This is a gut assessment.
Is the quality of people in both companies complimentary? Is there similar drive for quality and attention to detail?
Will technical integration be smooth? Are systems complimentary? At a minimum are there the right skills on both sides so that this won’t hinder the project.
Are sales and marketing approaches compatible? Will teams be able to work together? What about other departments?
You need to have strategic commitment across both organizations.
Partnerships don’t work if there is only alignment at the top. Executives can’t shove a new opportunity down the throats of those who report to them. There must be excitement about the opportunity across both sides of the partnership.
There must be complimentary competencies, capabilities and commitment.
Is there a clear understanding of the goals and objectives succeed?
Reward structures and incentives must be aligned down through the two parties. Conflicts will lead to struggles.
There must be a strategic alignment between the two organizations so that both see the partnership as complementing their broader strategic plans.
There must be a fundamental strategic win-win. The venture must be seen by each party as core to their business, plans and results. If this isn’t present, the collaboration can be drowned when a better opportunity that comes along.
Look for some gauge that the partnership is as important to the other party as it is to you. What other partners do they have? Is the size of the opportunity enough so that you are assured of their ongoing attention?
Situation: The Company has an off-shore business partner. Primary concerns involve team performance, process documentation and anticipating sales/marketing problems before they become issues. What have you found effective to monitor these areas?
Advice from the CEOs:
At the executive level, keep things simple – identifying the major goals and pieces of projects that are the make-break points.
Simplify the high level summary and make sure that all of the supporting activity is aligned with and supports key project or company goals. Some members manage projects with weekly or bi-weekly meetings.
The benefit of keeping it simple in your own mind is that you can always return to this simplicity when dealing with detail level queries from the partner. It keeps you grounded and on track.
One company uses project timelines that clearly show each of the teams where they fit into the project and how important it is for them to complete their portion of the project on time and to spec. Keep everything simple and direct.
Sales tracking and management is different from development projects. Drive monitoring off forecasts, pipeline, and achievement of metrics that track with the forecasts.
In working with your off-shore partner, organize your presentations so that the key points of emphasis are readily visible. Have back-up slides to show detail aspects of particular projects or initiatives, and be prepared to cover the details if needed. This will help to build confidence between you and your business partner.