Getting Started: Preparing for the world of entrepreneurial adventure (Managing Money)

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Although you might think you know the meaning of the phrase “the buck stops here”, working with a start up company will reveal an entirely new definition.  Call it life or death, the last quarter, the final frontier; money matters in a way that it never has before, and is a topic that will find its way into most conversations, from morning til night.

In comparison, most who work in the corporate world think about money in just a handful of ways: the paycheque (and when it’s coming), annual raises (and the likelihood of getting one), what the next job pays (and is it worth the trouble), and perhaps, whether the company has a budget for a particular initiative or event.  Most of these interactions seem distant, somewhat detached, and of a lesser frequency.  In a lot of ways, there is a relative amount of stability in these periodic musings.

Working with a start up or, what investors often refer to as “early stage”, company can be an exciting place, but it’s important to fully consider what’s involved before making the switch.  In this series, we will do exactly that, so you can make an informed choice, and perhaps, benefit from placing a greater emphasis on developing some of the skills that will serve you well in advance of when they’re actually needed.   So far, we’ve considered the implications of risk and the ever expanding job description.  Let’s move to the issue of money.

Why it Matters

Start up companies are often born from ideas, not to mention the endless enthusiasm of the entrepreneurs who lead them.  As with building a new home, start ups have a tendency to need everything, from supplies, to people, to technology.  These are basic costs that are often funded by the founders and typically have little to do with attracting customers.  Before long, a young bank account can find itself empty, and often much more quickly than expected.

With some of the novelty having worn off, (but, enthusiasm not dampened), entrepreneurs start to more fully appreciate just how much is involved in attracting and maintaining customers.  Familiar phrases at this stage include “long sales cycle”, “it’s more work”, and “not what we expected”.  Converting leads into sales and having the resources to fulfill the needs of customers require money, and guess what?  It’s often needed in advance of receiving customer payments, which makes the need for cash flow management (and actual cash) all the more critical.

Those who work in the start up world need to find comfort with this “edge of the razor blade” existence, otherwise what they’re trying to build probably won’t be around for very long.  The reality of being in this situation can be a shock to the enthusiastic system of those who truly believed that the world couldn’t live without their product.

Get Started

Building a new relationship with cash can be difficult, especially when it’s unexpected.  The good news is that you can plan for it, making the transition less daunting.  Here’s how to get started:

  • Review your expenses: Take a look at your current expenses to fully understand what they are (you might find some surprises during this process!).  Identify items that could be cut or reduced, and think about the lifestyle changes you could make, if necessary (is now really the time to get rid of your roommate?).  This will provide you with a baseline of information and some alternatives for when you’re ready to enter the start up world.
  • Build a war chest: Cash in the bank provides both security and options, and saving in times of a steady paycheque is seldom regretted in the future.  Recognize that working with a start up could (and likely will) result in unexpected expenses and an uncertain income stream, so take advantage of cash flow while you have it.
  • Take cash flow management to a new level: Cash flow forecasts are often something that is part of an accounting education; mechanical, at best, with less emphasis being placed on accuracy and outcomes.  Start ups live and die by their cash flow, and if you haven’t managed money in an environment where results are everything, expect a white knuckle ride.  Take the opportunity to get some practical experience by managing your own cash flow and see how well you do.
  • Expect the worst: You might be wondering where the “plan for the best” portion of this phrase went; no need to mention that, as entrepreneurs have it covered!  You can be a valuable resource by planning for the downside that will happen, particularly in terms of money.  Be sure to build in contingencies for delays and potential customers that will change course midstream.

One of the main reasons why young businesses fail is simply because they run out of money, and this can have little to do with the quality of the product or service that they provide.  Surprisingly, growth actually requires cash.  Learning how to work with money in advance of having to do so is a bonus on all levels: improving your comfort level (or managing your anxiety), providing realistic information, and increasing the likelihood that the company will survive.  You hold the key to ensuring that the buck stops on solid ground.

New Beginnings

Since leaving my executive role in the venture capital industry in 2008, I’ve been busy. After selling our business, I returned to my consulting roots, bringing along the valuable lessons I learned as a venture capitalist: all about building great companies. The result has been practical solutions for a host of entrepreneurs and business leaders, and I’ve approached my work in the way that I would appreciate as a client, having played a key role in growing, managing, and exiting a company myself.

Somewhere along the way, I was inspired to raise my voice and share some of the many experiences I’ve had, through articles, courses, webinars, books, and presentations. I’ve found that I have a lot to say, and my catalogue of published work has expanded as a result. Clients tend to find that the scenarios I write about seem oh, so familiar, with some wondering if I’m writing about them. The truth is, there are many similarities in what leaders encounter in the course of building a business, a fact that tends to be reassuring. It’s this experience that I’ve been able to tap into, bringing practical solutions to resolve issues and support future growth.

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Fast-forward to 2015, when I realized that it was high time to re-launch my website, to capture the experiences I’ve had and the knowledge I have to share. I’ve organized my website to reflect the main areas in which I focus: Work (business advisory services), Speak (presentations and seminars), Learn (courses, books, and webinars), as well as lots of information about my background. In this blog, you will find an archive of some of my published work, with lots more to come going forward.

Like the “behind the scenes” photo I’ve included here, we’re bringing a whole new style to the business advisory world! Being in business is all about opportunities, and in a competitive world, someone should benefit; why not your company? So, welcome to my website; I invite you to have a look around and be in touch to discuss how I can help your business.

Getting Started: Preparing for the world of entrepreneurial adventure (Responsibilities)

Low angle view of young businesswomen with laptop discussing while standing on terrace against sky

As published by CPA Canada in CareerVision:

If you’ve ever come across someone who works with a start up company, chances are, they will tell you how exciting it is. The thrill of building something new, perhaps, with products and services that the marketplace hasn’t seen before, not to mention the fun associated with dreams of hitting it big. It’s not uncommon for entrepreneurs to accentuate the positive, as they view start-ups as what being in business is all about. “In on the ground floor”, “there from Day 1”, “Microsoft before it was Microsoft”, risk/reward mentality. What could be better than that?

Although working with a start up or, what investors often refer to as “early stage”, company can be an exciting place, it’s important to fully consider what’s involved before taking the leap. Those who haven’t spent much time around the start up world might be surprised to find out what the flip side of opportunity looks like. In this series, we will consider exactly that, so you can make an informed choice, and perhaps, benefit from placing a greater emphasis on developing some of the skills that will serve you well, in advance of when they’re actually needed.

In Part 1, we considered the issue of risk. Let’s move to what just might be the dark side of the start up world; the ever expanding job description.

Why it Matters

Yes, mother told you there would be days like this; that is, days that don’t end due to what seems to be an endless task list of urgent “to do” items. It’s true that early stage companies attract individuals for their particular skill areas, such as engineering, sales, and a host of technical capabilities. All of these areas are essential to developing and moving a young upstart forward. What isn’t often part of the discussion is the long list of “other duties as assigned”, which could include tasks that you might consider to be well below your pay grade. This isn’t quite the same as your corporate job; you know, the one that actually has a description.

The bottom line is that start-ups have limited resources, in terms of people, time, and money. When things need to get done, there isn’t the luxury of delegating lesser tasks to a staff group or putting up the cash to resolve it. In a world of empty bank accounts, the buck stops with those who are around what is often a small table. Running errands, formatting documents, making the coffee, or cleaning up the workspace are necessary, and although it might sound funny, it’s amazing how foreign all of this can be after spending a few years in a large, established company. And in addition to these required, but time wasting tasks, you’ve also got to get your real job done; urgently!

Get Started

Working for a start up is an adjustment; there’s no two ways about it. And although the need to pitch in and do what’s required might sound petty, it’s surprising just how much of a shift this can be from what might be the norm in the corporate or professional services world.

Here’s how to get started:

  • Mindset is key: The secret to doing menial things well is having the right attitude. Check yours to ensure that you’re not looking down on tasks that you might consider as “someone else’s responsibility”, but rather, taking pride in a job well done and a willingness to help. Once you do, you’ll start to notice how many people are not willing to do so.
  • Organize where possible: Although you can’t plan everything that will come your way, it’s amazing how much actually can be organized when you make the effort. Look at the responsibilities that you have on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis and plan how and when to get the work done. When the unexpected comes along, the majority of what needs to get done won’t get derailed. This approach is one that will serve you well wherever you go and is a tactic of the highly productive.
  • Set short term goals: Keeping a keen eye on what needs to be achieved in a day, for example, can be helpful in planning your time and checking in to ensure that your task list stays on track. This approach can also be used to create the “positive pressure” and sense of urgency that deadlines tend to generate, creating windows of time for completing some of the more less than stellar items.
  • Plan for setbacks: Start ups tend to have more than their fair share of setbacks, with lots of time being spent at Square One. Recognize this, and take progress for what it is, as there will be days when the only success you’ll be able to point to is those menial tasks. Learn that even these are worth something.

There’s a certain pride that comes from the achievement of what isn’t exactly glamorous; the marathons, the mountain climbs, the cross country treks. In order to survive the start up journey, it’s important to recognize that it’s not the quick sprint to success that entrepreneurs tend to imagine. But, like many of the climbs that have characterized your path thus far, it might just be the time of your life.

 

Getting Started: Preparing for the world of entrepreneurial adventure (Risk Management)

Businessman smiling with his own reflection at the escalator

Published by CPA Canada in CareerVision

So, you want to work at a start up, or maybe, with that young company that looks like it’s going finally to raise some investment capital.  What could be more exciting than that?  Or, you might be at a place in your career where we’ve all been: one of seeking out new opportunities and fields where the grass is greener.  But, before you leave that corporate job, there are a few things you might consider, because, well, how to put it?  Working for a start up is different.  Is that bad?  You ask.  Or, is that good?  You wonder.  Well, the reality is, it could be both, but really, it’s just different from the world of larger, more established organizations.

Although working with a start up or young (what investors often refer to as “early stage”) company can be an exciting place to be, it’s important to consider some of the other aspects of the opportunity fully before making the switch.  Those who haven’t spent much time around the start up world might be surprised to find out what the flip side of opportunity looks like.  In this series, we will consider exactly that, so you can make an informed choice, and perhaps, benefit from placing a greater emphasis on developing some of the skills that will serve you well, in advance of when they’re actually needed.

Let’s start with the issue of risk.  Although risk, in general terms, can be one of those theoretical areas, when working with a young company, its existence is not only evident, it’s very much real.

Why it Matters

Start up companies, or those in the early stage of development, are usually not short of ideas, enthusiasm, and ingenuity.  Their world is often one that is emerging, including new technologies, new ways of doing things, and new markets.  The reality is, that although start ups can sometimes lead to success, they more often than not lead to failure (or, more gently put, a learning experience).  This might sound like an obvious statement, however, many who are involved in the start up world become so focused on the opportunity that the downside doesn’t matter much.  In reality, however, it is always there.  A lack of experience (or attention) can result in not seeing the downside for what it really is, including the risk that is associated with it.

Get Started

One of the things about risk is that the greater you understand it, the greater the opportunity to overcome it.  Too many entrepreneurs fail or refuse to acknowledge its existence, resulting in circumstances that too often cannot be overcome (and leaving many wishing they could turn back the clock).  In addition, the stresses of living in a risky world, day in, day out, can be too much to bear.

Get started on the right foot by putting risk in its place from the beginning:

  • Seek out risk management opportunities: Risk management is a learned skill, so if you’re currently working with a large or well established organization, it can be a good opportunity to learn how to identify and manage risk.  This represents valuable knowledge to address risk in future roles, and your start up partners will thank you for it.
  • Conduct an honest assessment: Since working with a young company could (and often does) mean uncertainty in a number of areas, ask yourself honestly if this is an environment that fits well with your lifestyle.  Can you adapt to an uncertain income stream?  Does moving away from a stable environment create feelings of discomfort?  What will you do if the business isn’t successful?  Ask the tough questions now and be mindful of both your logical and emotional perspectives.
  • Plan for the unexpected: In advance of moving into an environment of higher uncertainty, take advantage of where certainty does exist.  Saving, completing professional development programs, and seeking out learning opportunities all can be done well in a stable environment and can be something to lean on in leaner times.
  • Balance risk and reward: Although it’s true that young companies can be risky places, they can also have rewards, including new experiences, an opportunity to contribute significantly, and commercial success.  You might even also get the chance to own part of the company to share in future financial performance.   The key point is that risk and reward should be considered in balance, as seeing a situation only for its rewards can lead to trouble.

There might come a time when a start up opportunity presents itself and must be quickly pursued, regardless of your state of readiness.  Based on the inherently risky nature of early stage companies, this can be a mistake.  Rather than becoming frustrated with the situation, why not get started to plan for becoming well equipped to make the leap to playing a key role in a young company?  If this one isn’t right, you’ll be better positioned when the next one comes around.

The Executive Edge (“Must have” skills to get to the corner office)

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Published by CPA Canada in CareerVision

Throughout this series, we have explored a wide range of skills that are integral to performing well at the executive level.  Think of these as positive lessons.  There is much to be learned, however, by watching weak (to downright awful) executives at work.  Think of these as the executive you never want to be.  Look around; they’re out there.

Although it might be surprising, negative lessons have a way of resonating and reminding over the long term, perhaps serving as a guide to keep high potential executive candidates from wandering too far off the path.  Since careers are long and the executive journey often includes many challenges, regular reminders and “check ins” are a good thing.  Think of it as taking the time to gauge we’re you’re at and adjusting, as required.

One of the benefits of not being at the top of an organization is having a ringside seat to watch those who are.  Make this time worth your effort, by learning from both good and bad leaders.  Here’s a rundown of what you can learn from the “anti-bench strength” bunch.

Where it Goes Wrong (and Wrong, and Wrong)

Although there are lots of negative “leadership” examples, there are some fundamental types that you never want to emulate. See how many you can recognize from your career travels thus far.

  • Not sharing the wealth: From taking credit for the ideas of others to making sure that team members never see the limelight for a job well done, these people seem to hold the view that anything (and everything) good that happens in an organization is because of them. Team members might let this behavior go by a time or two, but after that, it too often becomes apparent t hat this type of person is no better than a thief!
  • Not having your back: This person gives the reassured impression that they’re “right behind you” and “on your side”, only to mysteriously evaporate at the first sign of trouble. Loyal to no one but themselves and always looking for opportunities, they’re like that person at a cocktail party who’s scanning the room while they’re supposed to be talking to you! Bottom line, this person can turn on a dime and cannot be counted on for support.
  • Not minding their own business: Simply put, this person meddles in the work of others to no end.  Instead of providing executive support, guidance, and direction when needed, they barge in where they aren’t needed; a disruptive force that, in time, runs the very real risk of creating a dependency between the organization and themselves, making the decision making ability of anyone else obsolete.
  • Not resolving problems: When difficulties arise in an organization, the staff group counts on management to resolve the issue; good leaders understand this.  Executives who kick the can down the road or listen to valid staff member concerns, but fail to take action can quickly lose the confidence of others.  Staff members eventually come to recognize that the leader “won’t do anything about it”, resulting in disappointment, a lack of respect, and, often, departure.
  • Not the learning type: If smart executives understand that knowledge is power and continuous learning at all levels is an investment, weak executives live with their head in the sand.  Put off by smart and keen staff members, this person would rather limit their knowledge, claiming that they “know enough” or that their business “isn’t that complicated”.  Organizations led by this type of person tend to become isolated, antiquated, and stuck in routines.  Over time, they often lose their market position, due to leadership that resists what’s needed in order to keep up with those who know better.
  • Not a nice person: Although it’s true that people can work together without really liking each other, on some level, the most basic of respect and decency are required to develop a relationship that can generate success.  Leaders who are rude, insensitive, or just plain unpleasant to be around are ultimately unable to generate loyalty, no matter how well they do their job in technical terms (and competency is no excuse for bad behavior).  Over time, staff members move on and word gets around that this is a person best left on their own, as it should be!

Although many executives who exhibit these behaviors thankfully don’t last long, enough time often passes for damage to be done; to companies, people, and sometimes, even more.  Using interactions with weak leaders to your benefit is extremely worthwhile, as each lesson is a valuable one.

Get the Executive Edge

You have the opportunity to chart the career path you’d like to travel.  Take the time to think about the type of leader you truly want to be, in terms of how you approach and conduct your role.  Technical ability aside (knowing how to do the job is a given), when you think of a leader, who do you see?

The reality is, successful executives know that they are always on the path of their journey and never quite at their destination.  There is much to learn, practice, and do, so take each step out to the very edge of your ability.

The Executive Edge (High Performance Teams)

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Published by CPA Canada in CareerVision

It’s been said that if you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room.  This statement has never been truer than in today’s business world.  As our global environment continues to grow and becomes increasingly complex, so must the many companies that seek to meet the needs of customers and stay ahead of the competition; in the absence of doing so, they will cease to be relevant.  As a result, leading businesses must continuously improve what they do and develop and offer the products and services that best fit with a rapidly changing world and ever discriminating consumer.  There’s no doubt that a high level of bench strength is required in order to do so.

Seasoned executives recognize that one of the most powerful components for generating success is a high calibre team, both at a senior level and throughout an organization.  It is through great minds, creativity, and heartfelt commitment that teams can soar to achieve uncommon things, to the benefit of the company and the consumers that they serve.  In these types of situations, barriers are overcome, new ways to do things are found, and true market leaders are made.  Team members recognize the unique component that they bring, and have the right attitude for encouraging the success of others, realizing that empowered groups can truly achieve more than individuals.  What is critical, however, is a talented leader to bring it all together.

In this series, we have already considered the importance of a number of Executive Edge skills, including generating results, role engagement, and professional development.  Here’s more about why successful executives understand how critical it is to surround themselves with high calibre people, always.

Where it Goes Wrong

One of the biggest threats to putting together a high calibre team is ego, closely followed by insecurity; there’s really no other way to say it.  When business leaders take the focus away from what’s in the best interest of the company and instead dwell on their own personal needs, making the right decisions can become elusive.  This is best illustrated by asking the question “why wouldn’t a business leader want to be surrounded by the absolute best people they can find?”  The answer, too often, relates to their own personal issues.

Although it might seem exciting to have a group of less accomplished people take direction and follow without question, this situation can quickly run its course, especially when competitive challenges, risks, and complicated issues arise (and, they will.  This is the business world!).  A loyal, but poorly equipped team of can quickly end up over its head, with few resources that have the capability to help the company survive the situation.  It’s at times like this when a business leader might look around and see lots of faithful colleagues, but little in the way of actual help.  And, as the ship slowly sinks, the realization that leadership is often judged by results brings into clear focus that success in business is much more about meeting customer needs than personal ones.

Get the Executive Edge

Striving for success on an individual level might be what’s needed to make career progress; however, the senior leadership level is much more about assembling a stellar team and working effectively to generate results.  Here’s how to shift your mindset and get started:

  • Define your strengths. Recognize what your best talents are and articulate them well, as this knowledge will help to identify your best team role. This is no different than determining if you play best at forward, defence, or “in net”.  Make a commitment and move forward from there.
  • There is no “I” in TEAM. Perhaps a cliché, but it’s true.  Being successful as a high calibre team member is understanding what your strengths are and bringing them into the group.  Integrate, participate, collaborate, and achieve results, together.
  • Focus on the business perspective.  Objectives should be derived from what’s in the best interest of the company, and this generally comes from what customers and the marketplace want and need.  Position the business for success and then focus on getting there, without interference from the inside.
  • Recognize the learning benefits. Being in a room with lots of smart and accomplished people is a great learning opportunity, and the knowledge that you gain is portable and can be taken wherever you go.  Think about it: spending your career years in a learning environment is so much better than the alternative.
  • Soar.  Perhaps, the greatest feeling in the business world: supreme success! Earn it, live it, enjoy it, and then, repeat.  This is what successful companies (and teams) do.

The day will come when you will be looking back on your career, instead of looking forward.  Ask yourself what you most want your achievements to reflect.  If real success is at the top of the list, chances are, it will only be achieved if you are able to be part of a “super smart” team that will challenge its members in the spirit of getting to the best result.  If you’ve been there, you wouldn’t have missed it for anything else.

The Succession Conundrum: Business leaders, the weak link to successors, and the companies who try to finance them (Part 2)

Published by the Canadian Venture Capital Association in Private Capital

If succession planning is a challenge for business leaders, potential successors might describe the process as mysterious.  While a business leader or founder has typically been at the helm of a company for some time (if not a prolonged period of time, in many cases), potential successors are often just trying to find a way to get to the table.  One day, the founder is keen to “step back” from the company, while the next day, “retirement” seems vague and far in the future.  For someone wanting to aspire to a leadership (and ownership) role, this type of situation can be a difficult to deal with on an ongoing basis.

Whether a potential successor is a longstanding “2-IC” (2nd in Command), management team group, or family member, their vantage point might provide relatively little information in terms of how the company actually operates, the business leader’s true expectations around succession, and what it would actually take for a transaction to occur.  Add in the mixed messages that can be so common with the issue of succession and it might be enough to cause a potential successor to scramble for the door, vowing to create an opportunity all their own (and on their own terms).

This reality should be sufficient to get the attention of business leaders who are contemplating succession, if not outright relying on it as a means to monetize their ownership position.  Given that a recent survey conducted by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (1) found that the top barrier to succession planning is finding a buyer/suitable successor (56%), those seeking to exit their business should recognize that finding (and keeping) a potential successor is not to be taken lightly.  Unfortunately, too many potential successors find just the opposite to be the case.

The Successor Perspective

Something that many potential successors have in common is that they are keen; to implement their ideas, take the company in a new direction, and just “get started”.  Many have a reasonable expectation that succession will occur at some point in time, either by virtue of previous conversations on the topic, or perhaps, in the case of a family business, where succession is “expected”.  Call it an informal succession plan.

As a result, potential successors want to better understand how and when a transaction might occur.

This is particularly true in the case of individuals who have invested a number of years working in a company, learning how it operates and directly contributing to building its wealth.  They reach a certain age or point in their careers when they truly need to know: (i) if a succession opportunity actually exists; (ii) when it would occur; and (iii) what the financial implications would be, particularly in terms of the cost to undertake the transaction.  In the absence of this information, a successor’s next best alternative is to move on to other opportunities, and given the effort they have invested in building the company (often, to the direct benefit of a shareholder group in which they are not included), this is understandable.

The Opportunity

Identifying a qualified and willing successor is only the beginning of the succession process, as there is often still plenty of learning to do in order to fully assume and conduct the leadership role.  But even before this can happen, the parties need to be able to arrive at an agreeable value and the successor has to have the ability to pay, either by way of their own funds or through securing financing (in the absence of either of these options, it often comes down to the departing business leader to agree to be paid over time).  Since the  Canadian Federation of Independent Business survey found that valuing the business (54%) and securing financing for the successor (48%) are the second and third highest reported barriers to succession planning, all involved in the process need to take note.

For potential successors to chart their course, there are a number of things that can be done on a proactive basis to better understand the particulars of the opportunity, as well as getting a plan into place.  Seeking advice from those who have undertaken or financed business transactions can help to bring context to the situation, in terms of its appeal and how to help move the process forward.  Here’s how:

Look in the mirror. The truth is, not everyone is cut out for a leadership role. Leading a company, in terms of both the role and ownership aspects, can be significantly different from the experiences of a potential successor thus far, including the scope of responsibility, level of risk, and degree of commitment.  As an example, in the event of insufficient cash flow, owners typically bear the responsibility to inject additional funds or decrease their own compensation to cover shortfalls.  This type of uncertainty might fall outside of a potential successor’s risk tolerance level.

Potential successors need to take a hard look at all aspects of assuming a leadership role, objectively balancing both the risks and rewards of ownership.  Advisors can help by providing independent feedback or helping successors to undertake a self assessment to better understand the types of roles in which they fit best, before proceeding any further.

Assess the situation objectively. Due to the inherent uncertainty that often clouds the succession process, potential successors need to be able to get to the heart of the situation, to first understand whether or not an opportunity actually exists.  This uncertainty is a relatively common frustration, and the reality is that succession is only going to happen if a business leader is committed to undertaking the process.

Advisors can help potential successors to see the situation for what it is, as well as suggest approaches to further discussions with the business leader or how succession could occur.  In addition, successors might need to take action to put the situation in context, by identifying other possible succession opportunities as a comparison.  Although business leaders might not like this very much, the reality is that there are situations where succession simply will not occur, no matter how much a founder might indicate otherwise.

Communicate.  Given that succession can be a sensitive topic, it’s not uncommon for the parties to have difficulty having meaningful conversations around the issue; this can be particularly true in family businesses.  Since succession represents a complex business transaction with numerous details to be considered and negotiated, it won’t just magically happen.  Given the sensitivities, these conversations tend to get deferred and delayed, making succession seem less likely as each day passes.

Starting the succession dialogue between the parties is critical, to map out an agreeable approach, but to also identify situations where an arrangement might not be possible, allowing both sides to pursue other opportunities.  Advisors can help to start the conversation in a non-confrontation manner, in an attempt to find common ground, where it exists, and cover off areas that need to be addressed.  This approach can also help to fill in knowledge and experience gaps that are common in the case of potential successors.

Financial implications. Discussing money is often tough, not just because of the calculations and various financing structures, but simply because the parties might find it difficult on a personal level.  In the case of family businesses, parents might be sensitive to the financial situation of their children, while the next generation might be concerned about not “offering enough” as compensation for all of the work that has been put in to building the company.  Couple this with a founder’s understandable desire to receive fair compensation to finance the retirement they have been dreaming of and negotiations can stall.

Potential successors often do not have a lot of experience in this area, and financial partners can be helpful in terms of transferring knowledge and suggesting approaches that could meet the needs of all parties.  Regardless, those who are serious about taking on a leadership and ownership role at some point in the future need to ensure that their professional development program includes business financing, sooner rather than later.

Although it’s true that good successors are in short supply, all potential successors need to take a hard look at not only what is required of them, but also whether or not the opportunity at hand is viable.  In times of investment (and that’s what succession is), bringing a professional approach to the table is a must to ensure that the right deal gets done.

Source:

Passing on the Business to the Next Generation, Canadian Federation of Independent Business, 2012

The Executive Edge (Market Focus)

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Published by CPA Canada in CareerVision

As much as executives have to manage what’s going on inside a company, external developments and the environment at large are at least as important, if not more.  If being in business is all about developing and delivering products and services, it is the marketplace (including customers and competitors) that makes this effort relevant.  Think about it; in the absence of a customer need for a particular product or service, businesses really don’t have much to offer.  Similarly, the presence (or absence) of competitors can also determine whether or not a company has a meaningful market opportunity.  This reality should be a humbling reminder for all executives.

Successful business leaders know that it’s critical to pay close attention to what’s going on outside of their company; committing at least 50% of their time to keeping a close eye on the external environment.  This includes monitoring things like customer preferences and demand levels, competitive developments, and emerging trends on a number of fronts, including consumer behavior, product development, regulatory matters, technology, and economic conditions.  Staff members at a less senior level might think that these areas don’t have much to do with “making the product”, but in fact, it is the marketplace that should drive a company’s internal efforts.  Afterall, what is the value of a product or service that no one wants, is obsolete, or readily available through multiple sources?

In this series, we have already considered the importance of a number of Executive Edge skills, including, risk management, generating results, and communication.  Here’s more about why successful executives understand the importance of integrating an external focus into their perspective.

Where it Goes Wrong

Companies have a tendency to get caught up in internal matters, including roles, staffing, and “the way we do things around here”.  Another area where businesses often spend a lot of time (and in many cases, too much time) is in contemplating the products and services that they deliver, particularly when technology is involved.  Although having great products and services is important, the level of effort in this area can at times far exceed what is actually required, often due to the natural passion so often associated with invention, as well as this area being at the core of how many businesses were founded.  Couple this with attention grabbers such as personalities, politics, and other people related issues and the risk of distraction from what really matters can soar.

When business leaders spend too much time focusing on the company and don’t pay enough attention to the external marketplace, they run the very real risk of the business veering off course and becoming out of step with the needs and expectations of customers.  In addition, less attention is paid to competitive and other market developments, which can result in displacement of position, as well as a decreasing relevance to customers.  And make no mistake, this can happen quickly!

Get the Executive Edge

Learning how to take a balanced perspective, including both internal and external viewpoints, takes practice and can be a significant shift from that of less senior roles, where the focus is typically more internal.  Here’s how to start developing the ability to have a greater external focus:

  • Understand the meaning of “industry”. An industry is a segment of the economy, where a company operates in its broadest sense, and is typically considered on a global or continental level.  Although some might ask “how does what’s going on half-way around the world impact my business?”, it actually does, particularly in terms of consumer and technological trends and developments.  Learn about the industry in which your company operates and monitor developments on a regular basis.
  • Understand the meaning of “market”. The market is the next level down from the industry, and often encompasses the area within which a company operates on a national or regional basis. Closer to home, developments are very relevant, particularly in terms of competitors and customer preferences.  Within markets, companies can chart an expansion strategy.  Consider this in the context of your business.
  • Articulate the target market.  The target market includes potential and current customers, and businesses need to have a strong understanding of developments and attitudes towards the company.  Know who your target market is, the potential for growth, and the level of satisfaction with your company’s products and services.
  • Stay connected with customers. Finding ways to connect with customers on a regular basis is a great way to integrate an external focus into your role.  Customer service calls, surveys, appreciation events, and seminars/training can be great ways to interact, receive feedback, and “be seen”.  Make a conscious effort to be active within your company’s customer base.
  • Get involved on an external level. Taking an active role in industry or community associations, participating in events, and networking help to keep the level of internal focus in check and provide a different perspective. Seek out these opportunities and choose wisely.

Over time, it’s not uncommon to notice a shift in terms of how time is spent and the increased external perspective that is generated.  A balanced approach is powerful, so make a real effort to “look out the window” every day.

The Executive Edge (Generating Results)

ThinkstockPhotos-497392002

Published by CPA Canada in CareerVision

Although it’s true that executive level roles have a greater strategic focus and are further away from the front line action, senior level people still have to be able to get things done.  Whether it’s helping a management team to solve problems, identifying an expansion path, or overseeing core business activities, executives are accountable for (and often judged by) results.  This is not an easy place to be, particularly in times of change or declining performance.

So, if people at the senior level of an organization are less involved in front line work, how do they get things done?  The answer might be as simple as comparing a successful executive to one who is less accomplished in this regard; think: sound planning and direction; ensuring that a company has the right systems in place that allow staff and management team members to do more; generating a motivating environment; and, of course, having all of the right skills on hand.  This could be described as a “gentle push”, that allows a company to move forward with decisive support, as opposed to stagnating or being plagued by indecision.  Smart executives know that getting things done is, in part, about decision making, but also about having the necessary experience and judgement to make good decisions.  It is this ability that fuels the critical act of implementation and the results that follow.

In this series, we have already considered the importance of a number of Executive Edge skills, including collaboration, professional development, and generating respect.  Here’s more about why successful executives understand the importance of implementation and getting things done.

Where it Goes Wrong

Executives who lose focus on the importance of generating tangible results might find themselves on the outside of relevance.   Whether leading a for-profit business or managing the limited resources of a not-for-profit organization, results and productivity matter.  Those who spend too much time on unfocused or theoretical efforts run the risk of leading an organization to a point where it will ultimately do less; this is the risk of becoming too far removed from the front line work.

Before too long, organizations can start to have a lack of urgency; a dangerous place to be in a competitive, and resource constrained world.  What doesn’t get done today gets put off until tomorrow, as the weeks and months go by with little achievement in the way of tangible results.  From a customer standpoint, who wants to deal with these companies?

Get the Executive Edge

Ensure that upward mobility on the career path includes sufficient focus on turning the wheels of productivity.  Here’s how to keep focused on generating results:

  • Use meeting time wisely. Meetings should be used to communicate important information, seek input, confirm action items, and move forward.  In order to ensure that the focus is kept on getting things done (and not just talking about it!), meet only when needed, maintain focus by using agendas and action items, and curtail non-productive chit chat.
  • Pay attention to standards and systems. Although some might consider processes and standardized approaches to be mundane, remember that they not only benefit the company, but also those who perform well enough to meet or exceed targets. Use standards and systems as an opportunity to accelerate performance.
  • Measure and monitor results.  Once standards are in place, they have to be managed, which means measuring actual results to target and taking corrective action where required.  Those who have the discipline and talent to do so are well regarded by the senior ranks.
  • Compensate based on results. Structures that include a meaningful variable component tied to performance tend to focus people’s efforts on what’s important.  Good compensation structures include short term and long term incentives, as well as measures for individual, departmental, and organizational performance.  Roles that are structured in this manner can be a good opportunity for those on the way up to demonstrate their worth in tangible terms.
  • Watch competitors and the marketplace. Paying attention to what’s going on in the outside world can be an important reminder that organizations need to take action in order to remain relevant to those that they serve. Remembering that any organization should be thinking about customers, competitors, and markets at least 50% of the time can help to instill a results oriented mindset.

The reality is that the more senior a position becomes, the more directly accountable it is for the performance of the entire organization, which, in turn, reflects how well the actual job is conducted.  This is a significant shift from that of less senior roles, so the sooner that the “results” skillset is developed, the better.

The Succession Conundrum: Business leaders, the weak link to successors, and the companies who try to finance them (Part 1)

Published by the Canadian Venture Capital Association in Private Capital

Business succession planning is tricky; part old, part new, part money, part emotion; it’s no wonder that so many business leaders put it off.  The reality is that an abundance of Canada’s small to medium sized businesses (more than half, according to a survey conducted by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business) don’t have a succession plan at all.  Since companies in this category are responsible for generating approximately one half of the Canadian economy, there is undoubtedly cause for concern.

Consider some of the key survey findings (1):

  • 51% of business leaders surveyed indicated that they don’t have a business succession plan.  Of the 49% that have a plan, only 9% have a formal, written plan
  • Approximately 48% of business leaders plan to exit their company within the next five years
  • 48% plan to exit their business by selling to buyers unrelated to their family, while approximately 37% plan to sell or transfer the business to family members
  • The top barriers to succession planning include finding a buyer/suitable successor (56%), valuing the business (54%), and securing financing for the successor (48%)

Those who have even a moderate interest in the issue of business succession likely realize that various surveys and sources of information have yielded similar results.  Delving beneath the surface, however, reveals interesting implications for business leaders, their potential successors, and those who seek to finance the transition, some of which should be sufficient to kick-start those seeking an exit anytime soon into action.

The Business Leader Perspective

Since over 85% of business leaders surveyed identified retirement as their reason for exit, it stands to reason that many have invested a considerable amount of time and effort into building their company.  As a result, a transfer of ownership represents the primary opportunity to monetize value that has appreciated over what could be a lengthy period of time.  Although this increase might be significant as compared to that of inception, business leaders are often dissatisfied with the offers they receive, which reinforces the need for thorough, early, and practical succession planning to maximize value wherever possible.

What’s even more compelling is how dependent a business leader’s ability to cash out at what they consider to be an acceptable value actually is upon the ability to identify a potential successor who has the: (i) skills to lead the business; (ii) interest in doing so; and (iii) ability to secure financing.  This is a tall order, since many successor candidates might only meet one or two of these requirements.  Couple this with a lack of experience in terms of developing a business plan to take a company forward in a manner that provides the necessary level of comfort to secure enough financing to close the deal.  In the absence of third party financing, business leaders are left with the gamble of whether or not the company, under new leadership, will be able to generate a sufficient amount of cash over time to pay what could be a significant portion of the proceeds related to the transfer of ownership, a scenario that doesn’t end well far too often.

The Opportunity

Business leaders and those in the financing field both have a vested interest in terms of how Canada’s succession planning future plays out; the former wants to cash out and the latter wants to roll cash back in.  In order to avoid a time-consuming stalemate in a situation where time is of the essence, an opportunity exists to help potential successors become real successors, by providing the tools to take companies forward; the right skills, plan, and leadership ability (and a bit of extra effort to help get the deal past the goal line wouldn’t hurt!).  Here’s how:

Business leader skills. Many potential successors have played a second tier role in their careers, without having had the opportunity to ascend to the CEO level. Since the top job can be quite different from what has been the experience thus far, potential successors need a transfer of knowledge, mentoring, and practice in abundance, prior to formally assuming the CEO role.

Existing business leaders can help by creating professional development plans, delegating areas of responsibility in a meaningful way, and taking the time to provide practical mentorship.  Potential successors often complain that leaders don’t take the time to provide meaningful coaching; sadly, this is too often the case.  Doing so can be the difference between a well prepared leader and one who stumbles out of the gate.

Investor ready business planning. Many potential successors don’t have experience with developing a business plan that is sufficient to secure financing, let alone the process of raising capital.  Business leaders who have lost interest in the company, not stepped up internal planning and control processes, or haven’t had the need to seek financing for long periods of time don’t help the process, resulting in a lack of information and competitive positioning to develop a compelling business plan.

Business leaders can make sound business planning a reality by ensuring that the right systems and information are in place within the company to support successors in putting together a plan that can be financed.  Making the effort to critique existing business models, consider new markets, and understand important industry developments can help to identify opportunities for the company well into the future, all of which bodes well with financial partners, and, in turn, benefits those who are seeking to exit.

Leadership ability. Those who have spent years at the helm of a company understand the importance of leadership skills, particularly in terms of the impact to the business as a whole.  Being a good manager doesn’t ensure that a company will be well led, a reality that is too often overlooked when passing the torch.

Recognizing the value of practical leadership development programs and forums and encouraging involvement can help to groom the business leaders of tomorrow.  Starting well in advance and providing practical opportunities to put learning into practice are not only a powerful combination for success, this approach can also identify situations where an individual is not a good fit for a leadership role.  Business leaders that do not encourage this type of development are effectively “boxing themselves in”, in terms of viable succession options.

Facilitating the exit. Financial partners can work with companies approaching (or well past) the need for succession by bringing options to the table, in terms of acquisitions, mergers, successor candidates, and other types of transactions.  In the case where financial partners identify “to do” items to improve a company or go-forward plan to the point where a succession transaction could be financed, facilitating the introduction to advisors who can help makes all the difference, as the complexities of the succession and financing processes make it difficult for business leaders and potential successors to identify the right advisory resources.

The reality is that business leaders have to “help potential successors to help them”; the same is true for financial partners.  In the absence of this approach, it might be difficult to affect a successful transfer of ownership in many cases.  Seasoned business leaders know that a big part of their role is to create an environment that will make those around them successful; addressing the issue of succession really isn’t any different, in this regard.

Where does this leave potential successors?  This topic will be considered in the next installment of The Succession Conundrum.

Source:

(1)  Passing on the Business to the Next Generation, Canadian Federation of Independent Business, 2012

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