During the last 5 years of working closely as a business mentor and a leadership coach, mostly with 5 to 20 year old businesses stuck in a low growth rut, one challenge I have seen with most of them is a weak second line that rarely challenges the assumptions or decisions or the leadership style of the owner – right or wrong.
The common problem faced by a variety of this category of entrepreneurs across sectors is that a business owner is rarely a good IT, Technology, Sales, Marketing, HR, Finance, Legal, Production, or a Team leader all rolled in one. Yet they call the shots in all these areas, except in cases, where there are more co-founders who come with their respective skills sets or investors, who come with their own exit priorities. But that can lead to more divergence and delay in decision making process, which negatively impacts businesses in a fast moving sector.
On the other hand, I have had many clients, where the leaders were humble enough to realise their own limitations and look at ways of bringing in a more professional approach to driving change without letting their ego come in the way.
I have attempted to capture the learnings from these various Case Studies into an actionable form for anyone facing these challenges. If I were to sum up what entrepreneurs or leaders did differently from an experiential viewpoint, they would broadly be around these 10 steps:
1. Accept that the owner or CEO may be a significant part of the problem, with their distinct management style – directive or controlling or indecisive style. The problem is who tells them this – not the team for sure. I, for once, have never hesitated to tell leaders upfront that they are the problem and the change has to start with them and their management style.
2. Call in external experts (in some of the top 3-4 problems areas) – be it for improving productivity on the shop floor or of the sales team or for areas like Marketing, HR, and IT to help bring in a structured approach, documenting processes or policies and defining clear measures. It should certainly not be seen as a sign of weakness of the leader, but the openness to accepting short term professional help from hands on experts to set a stronger foundation.
3. Define the goals with clear goalposts, as part of a documented and well thought out Marketing and Financial Business plan. The power of a good and dynamic business plan gives short, mid and long-term goals with clear capturing of opportunities, threats, competition, product and pricing, and branding should never be underestimated. When backed up with clear assumptions, strategies, actions, and investments needed and accountabilities of the leadership team with clear timelines, it certainly helps increase the likelihood of the goals actually being achieved.
When I see an excel sheet as a business plan, in 9 out of 10 cases, to start with and some random growth plans, it makes me shudder. No wonder the goalposts itself keep shifting during the year and the plans get missed.
Here’s a classic example of one of my clients, who wanted to grow his Rs 5 crore business 10x in 5 years, but had not thought through the nuts and bolts of how it would happen. So with that mandate the whole discussion I had with the leadership team in the first year was to set some aggressive milestones for the second and third year, work backwards and radically change the go-to-market approach, and team’s mindset with a very clearly thought out business plan and a structured review process to measure progress. And four years later, the client’s business grew 7x from where they started!
That is the power of big thinking combined with the eye for planning, detailing and focus on execution. Big thinking in isolation remains just that – dreams in the mind.
4. Move from the short-term crisis management mindset to a long-term framework, with clear milestones and measures of progress. After all what is the fun in firefighting all the time, if the other skill of the leader is creating these fires in the first place and keeping the whole team on the edge with constant crises and criticism.
5. Step back from micromanaging every decision. Most entrepreneurs and leaders just do not want to LET GO – from cheque signing to decisions on spending even small amounts, to keeping on deferring decisions on hiring people and to not trusting their team members enough. So the teams get used to coming to them for every small decision, which clogs up the leader’s time and bandwidth. Hence, this leads to a ‘lack of time’ situation for longer-term strategic thinking or for critical areas like networking or client relationship management.
6. Bring in documented processes, technology tools, business reviews and management dashboards, which help business owners to step back from day to day operations yet stay connected wherever they intervention is needed. This should be the next step to slowly distance themselves from the day to day operational issues.
7. Building a stronger second line, empowering them and making them accountable, as profit centre or functional heads with clear targets and deliverables would be the next step. With the letting go of some power and encouraging the next level to step forward and take ownership, a whole new energy seeps in and a more open culture gets established in the organisation.
8. Invest in coaching and developing the team members to become more entrepreneurial, more strategic and more effective team leaders who feel like a part of the core or leadership team. It’s amazing to have seen first-hand with many of my clients how suddenly these ‘Yes’ men, who waited for instructions or kept their thoughts to themselves, now start contributing ideas, become more participative, confident and ready to move to bigger roles and challenges in the process once a few of the key leaders went through individual coaching to address their personal development areas.
9. Expose the core team to a more outward looking opportunity based approach vis-a-vis a usual inward looking constraint based approach. It really is surprising how this opens up their eyes to a world of opportunities. Currently, I am working with a client who has a sub Rs 50 crore turnover with less than Rs 10 crore coming from one product category. As we started with the competition benchmarking and looked at the key players and their size and scale, it came out that the market in that segment was upwards of Rs 6,000 crore. And here they were talking of 30 per cent growth on their figures, as if that was the biggest challenge! Now they are going for 2x this year for starters! And can go for many more 2x or more going forward.
10. And lastly, many of these owners need to give enough attention to HR good practices and policies. This is what helps retain, train, develop, engage, recognise and reward to build a performance and merit based culture.
What is most energising for the clients’ teams and for me is to see the transition from the initial resistance to change to the acceptance, from a culture of openness to the seemingly innocent questions – so what is stopping you from changing. And then moving to the next level of the why, what, where, how and when questions?
Entrepreneurs who get atleast five of these areas right and consciously work on some of the others are the ones who are usually better off in terms of a stronger foundation and more consistent and sustained performance.