Giving up on the 1-Yard Line: Finding triumph over mistakes that companies make

This article was published by CMC Canada in the Summer 2019 issue of Consult.

In my many years as a business advisor and venture capitalist, I have seen companies make a lot of mistakes.  There have certainly been successes, but mistakes, unfortunately, are a lot more common.  Some of the ones that are the most damaging are those that are analogous to “giving up on the 1-yard line”, where after a prolonged period of time of working, pushing forward, and focusing on their game, a company’s leadership throws up its collective hands and says, “I’m done”.  Why is this so harmful?

First, this situation tends to occur when facing challenging tasks that are integral to the success of a company; examples include areas such as properly conducted business planning, implementation of fundamental systems and processes, and successfully attracting financial and strategic partners.  Appropriately addressing these areas tends to take far more work than business leaders anticipate; they also represent initiatives that might be entirely new.  As a result, the keen enthusiasm that is apparent when a project begins tends to fade to an attitude of “we don’t need to work this hard”.

Second, companies sometimes have difficulty focusing on priorities, as key areas tend to be far less glamorous that the “fun” aspects of being in business, such as designing a new logo, touring office space options, or chatting up prospective partners that the company has little potential of actually attracting.  Days get filled with these activities, that are more about busy-ness and less about results, decreasing the amount of available time to focus on the real work that needs to get done.  This is a hard lesson that business leaders tend to discover far too late, and can be as damaging as losing key customers or running out of money.  Full stop.

A better approach is recognizing that advisors who have “been there” and “done that” are in a unique position to provide the important leverage that companies need, to ensure that they are focusing on the right things, conducting their work at a quality level, and not running out of steam.  How can this be achieved?

  • Priorities are not always obvious. Amazing, but true.  Business leaders can get so caught up in the challenges of running the company on a day-to-day basis, dealing with staff members, and responding to customer needs that they are unsure (or unaware) about the steps that should be taken to make meaningful progress on a corporate level and might lack the experience of what is required in order to do so.  Advisors can play a key role by identifying and prioritizing task items and keeping the implementation process on track.  All of these areas are common pitfalls and represent the difference between starting something and actually getting it done (activity does not equate to meaningful progress).
  • Experienced advisors are the “acid test”. Advisors with a strong experience and qualification base understand where important initiatives need to “get to”, such as what financial partners need to know in order to make a decision.  Companies tend to take the view that “what we provide to them will be good enough”, failing to understand the woeful inadequacy of this approach.  Using raising capital or financing as an example, experienced financial partners have typically reviewed more opportunities than they can count and operate in an environment of limited money and an investment mandate that guides selection.  They very quickly slot opportunities into a category, and chances are, it won’t be the “yes” file.  Experienced advisors have a skillset that is extremely valuable; one that can help a company put its best foot forward and anticipate what is required in order to get to a successful outcome.  Be sure to probe an advisor’s qualifications to ensure that they are the right fit for the particular initiative at hand.
  • Utilize skill to get there, faster and better. Teams who spend the whole game running around on the field, for the sake of running around, don’t win very many games.  Coaches of successful teams know how and when to utilize resources in a manner where they can make the best contribution, including recognizing that there are times when specialized help is needed.  This is where an experienced advisor can play an important role, providing the necessary expertise to quarterback complicated plays and get to the endzone more quickly.  Business leaders sometimes do not appreciate the value of resources with the right experience; this fact tends to get reinforced in times of poor advice, from those who are not qualified to help, or when receiving no assistance at all.  A company might not recognize the weaknesses that result, but the external party that they are trying to impress likely does.

These lessons might seem relatively straightforward, but reality reflects something quite different, as fumbles and mishaps in all of these areas, and numerous others, are quite common.  What can make a big difference is perspective; stepping back to see how far an initiative has come, the relatively short journey that remains, its level of priority, and what success requires.  If business leaders did this more often, there would be far fewer companies walking off the field with only one yard left to go.

They Used to Call it “Sexist”: Taking action against systemic gender bias

I’ve been in the business world long enough to remember the days when a person or organization that didn’t treat women fairly was referred to as “sexist”.  This term took a wide path; be it a lack of promoting women to more senior roles, paying them fairly, making inappropriate comments, or worse.  Although the terminology has advanced from this simple reference, the journey to reaching gender parity has made far less progress.

Statistics and research findings are readily available to support a lack of gender parity; be it the inequity of women in senior roles, Board of Directors positions, equal pay, or investment capital for female led companies.  While some have approached the issue with a musing of “we must do more” or claim that “mentoring young women and girls is the answer”, such commentary is woefully inadequate and off the mark.

As a former executive and venture capitalist still active in the industry, I have spent more time than most working in traditionally male dominated fields and certainly know what it’s like to be the only woman in the room; doing so has never bothered me.  I am bothered, however, by the relative lack of progress that has been made in advancing women to a point of parity in a range of senior areas over the last quarter of a century.  I recall unequal pay and the “glass ceiling” being regular topics of conversation when I was completing my university degree, which was some time ago.  In 2019, these issues are still very much a reality.

Given that there is an abundance of women who are qualified to hold executive roles, run companies, serve on Boards, and seek investment capital, the lack of progress is not due to insufficient supply; something else is at play.  Although there are certainly exceptions, this suggests the presence of a “systemic bias” that has not allowed women to progress as equally as men in some areas.  An example is as simple as filling a Board or senior executive vacancy by utilizing a “who do we know?” approach to identify possible candidates, drawn from the current members of the group and their network; we know that the majority of these are men.  The result, too often, is a disproportionate candidate pool that under-represents some groups, as well as inclusion of those who are less than ideally qualified.

Changing this reality requires more than wishing it away or “giving it time”; tangible action is needed on various levels.  Whatever the vantage point, there’s a role to be played in eradicating systemic gender bias:

  • If you are a member of a Board of Directors:
    • Refrain from relying solely on the “who do we know?” approach to fill senior roles and cast a wider net when seeking candidates. Ensure that the network that is approached has a balanced gender mix and engage an experienced advisor to draw candidates more broadly (don’t forget to request information about their diversity mandate).
    • Ask the business leader for a copy of the Company’s diversity policy (if this is met with a blank stare, engage a qualified advisor to help), set milestones, and monitor progress.
    • Ensure that Board and Committee meetings are kept at a professional level and that proceedings are respectful and comfortable for all. Diverse perspectives actually improve a group; studies have shown that the presence of women in corporate leadership generates better results.
    • If you see gender or any other type of bias, call it out.  A Board represents an important part of an organization’s leadership, and if this represents an area of discomfort, think twice about holding the role.
  • If you are a CEO or Senior Executive:
    • Ensure that the Company has a diversity policy in place and that equity is present, in terms of compensation and access to senior roles. If this is not the case and/or “we can’t find qualified women” seems to be a common complaint, seek advisory assistance.
    • When implementing strategies to enhance diversity, ensure that the approach that is being taken isn’t “tone deaf” to those that it is meant to help.  Too often, poor or less than thoughtful implementation results in the process backfiring, leaving a situation worse than it was in the first place.  Seek feedback from those who are skilled in the area of diversity initiatives and/or a sample of the target group, in advance, to avoid costly and embarrassing mistakes.
    • Track diversity progress and recognize that an organization that is gender balanced, viewed as “fair”, and comprised of diverse views will lead to better performance and be more appealing in the marketplace. Companies that achieve this in a meaningful way can showcase their accomplishments, while others face the prospect of being unfavourably labeled and less attractive to qualified candidates.
    • Remember that a company’s diversity reflects on its leadership in the Executive office.  Ask the hard questions: are you proud of what has been achieved in this regard during your tenure?
  • If you are responsible for managing the human resources function:
    • It is incumbent upon you to ensure that this functional area is managed fairly, regardless of whether you are a human resources professional or a manager who has been assigned this responsibility (such as a CFO). Where additional knowledge or expertise is required in order to do so, request it.
    • If the Company lacks a diversity policy, equitable compensation, workplace respect, or has other problems, it is not acceptable to stay the course and relegate the situation to a talk track of “it’s always been this way”. Meet with the business leader to discuss these areas and make an assessment of where progress can be made.  Be sure to seek professional guidance in situations that are truly unacceptable.
  • If you are a human resources advisor or consultant:
    • Have a diversity policy that guides recruitment and selection activities and be prepared to educate those who view this approach as “giving unqualified people jobs”. In many, if not most cases, there is a diverse range of qualified candidates.
    • “Walk the talk” with candidates and ensure that a diverse range is contacted on a regular basis. Situations where women, for example, are added to a candidate database so that it can be promoted as “diverse”, only to never be contacted or put forward for a role, is a legitimate complaint.  Rest assured that word travels quickly through the very network that is being sought.
  • If you are a business association or organization:
    • Although it might seem dated to make this statement, associations and organizations that have traditionally been targeted at men also need to walk the talk when it comes to diversity. Adopting a “we need to find more women” mantra, without doing the work to make a service offering diverse or to actively engage female participants is unacceptable.
    • In this type of situation, women are left with the perception of “being on a list” or having been “hoodwinked” to demonstrate an organization’s progressiveness, with no real intention of engaging them in a meaningful way. Not only does this represent a service delivery failure, it is also unprofessional and biased.
  • If you are a staff member:
    • In the event of inequitable treatment of others, speak up. Initial referral points can include a human resources officer, through a corporate “whistleblower” or code of conduct policy, or an employee assistance program.  A lack of respect or professionalism should not be tolerated.

And, if you are a qualified woman (and there are many of you!), the last word is for you:

If you are not being treated fairly, speak up; If you are qualified, but not given an opportunity, show up; When an organization proves to be a “dead end”, move along.  There are places that will value your contribution, progressive leaders that you can learn from, organizations that will promote your talent and ability, equally. Seek them out and pursue what they have to offer.

Recognize that the problem is not you and those who are stuck in the days of “sexism” don’t (and won’t) appreciate your ability.  For so many years, the future has been regarded as distant and aspirational, but in many aspects of our world, it is now.  Never forget that you are not alone; numbers brings comfort, perspective, strength, and a better path forward.

Escaping the Demographic Trap

Many family business leaders have the expectation that their company will eventually be passed to the next generation and maybe even to the one after that.  Perhaps this is why they established the company in the first place: to provide for the family’s financial needs over the long term, building wealth and security in the process.  Having possession and control of this type of “economic engine” brings with it the power of options and the benefits that are associated with not having to rely on others to earn an income.  Achieving longevity isn’t so easy, however, as research indicates that successful passage of a company to future generations is not typical.

The current environment in which we live is characterized by a number of important realities that impact long term business survival: many companies are led by aging business leaders, most do not have a formal succession plan, and the next generation is getting restless.  Couple this with a backdrop of significant disruption, in terms of technological, economic, political, and social factors and it’s easy to recognize that these days are like no other.

Let’s briefly consider what the current demographic environment means, in the context of family businesses:

  • Business leaders are remaining engaged with their companies for a longer period of time, as traditional retirement has become less of a rite of passage and people are more inclined to lead an active life that includes work.  The other side of this trend includes realities such as needing to work longer to support lifestyle expenditures and indecision around how a company should be transitioned (and family squabbling doesn’t help).
  • Potential successors are seeing little advancement in terms of succession, resulting in the decision to consider other options, beyond that of the family business.  As successors themselves get older, this is understandable, however, it can blindside a founder, leaving them to wonder how their “succession plan” could have gotten away.  This could have serious implications for the future of a company, leaving the business leader to revisit the issue of succession entirely or little in the way of viable transition options.
  • The number of potential successors is limited, in that the next leader is only a realistic option if they have the necessary skills, interest, and capital to undertake a transaction.  This group is further reduced by family members who have moved on to pursue other opportunities, in a demographic group that is already smaller than the generations ahead of it.

When it comes to demographics, you can run, but you can’t hide.  At some point in time, all companies will require new leadership if they are to continue to operate, and the extent to which this can be done successfully is largely dependent on one thing: thoughtful and formal transition planning.  As simple as it might sound, research has shown that the vast majority of business leaders do not do this.

Learn more about the implications of demographics and how you can avoid the “trap” by reading Defusing the Family Business Time Bomb.   Use promo code familybusiness to save on the price of multiple copies, and pay no taxes and shipping costs on all purchases of our book, through January 27, 2019!  The future of your company and family’s income stream will thank you for it.

EVENTS: Speaking at the Business Builder Retreat

Pleased to announce that I will be speaking at the Business Builder Retreat in Quebec City this November, with tips to rethink your strategic plan, given the unique challenges and opportunities associated with the “new economy”.  Business leaders are facing the most robust macro-level dynamics in a generation, in terms of technological advancement, industry disruption, economic change, and financial uncertainty: are you ready?

The Business Builder Retreat is designed for growth oriented business leaders.  Experience a unique educational event designed especially for business owners on an exponential growth path. Explore topics critical to your leadership development, with a network of business owners from across Canada who understand the challenges you meet daily, competing in a world awash with unprecedented change. The focus is equally on healthy living priorities and the strategic business decisions required to prepare your company, and the stakeholders around it, for opportunities in today’s new economy. Take 24 important hours to refresh and refocus and get more of the personal and business results that you seek.

Details and registration are here.  See you at the Retreat!

HAPPENING NOW: Book News

The summer months are a great time for writing and I’m pleased to announce that I have a new book project in development.  As I celebrate 10 years as an independent business advisor, it’s important to continue sharing knowledge with the goal of helping leaders to identify strategies to build stronger companies and is consistent with my previous books, courses, and the many articles that I have published over the years.

In my travels, I see various “leadership” resources; however, many lack practical tools that could be readily implemented to generate meaningful results, while others bring little in the way of direct business experience.  To each their own, however, I prefer to focus on fundamental actions that business leaders could take to build value in their companies, while filtering out areas that detract from doing so.  As an executive, I’ve had a direct role in launching, growing, and transitioning companies, which is a very different type of experience than the norm (if you’ve done it, you will know what I mean).  Focusing on strategies that get results and having a resource who has been in the trench is an approach that can move companies forward more effectively and this has never been more important than in today’s new economy.

I have a theory that companies find reasons to opt out of what is in their own best interest.  Take a moment and think about what that means.  Those who resist this temptation, and instead, face the challenge of building a better business head on, represent the relative few who are positioned for market leadership.  This is a powerful mindset and ability, representing the companies that are the choice of strategic partners, investors, successors, and of course, customers.  With the right strategies and assistance, this could be your company.

I hope that everyone has an enjoyable and successful summer.  Stay tuned for book publication and release details coming soon.

MEDIA FEATURE: Consultants Who Love Consulting

I’m pleased to be featured in the April issue of Consult, a publication of CMC-Canada in the Consultants Who Love Consulting section.

First things first, what is a CMC?  The Certified Management Consultant (CMC) designation is the profession’s only international certification mark, recognized in over 40 countries internationally.  It represents a commitment to the highest standards of consulting and adherence to the ethical standards of the profession.  I have held my CMC designation since 1997 and have found that it separates professional consultants from those who represent themselves as consultants or advisors, perhaps by way of having knowledge in a particular area, but without formal education in terms of the consulting process (yes, there is a consulting process, and utilizing this knowledge makes a significant difference to client engagements).  You can learn more about the CMC designation here.

So, now, here’s a bit more about my personal interest in consulting.

Early in my career, I knew that a “narrow” path of focus wasn’t for me, as I had (and continue to have) an innate curiosity about the holistic workings of a business, in terms of how all of its parts are interconnected.  Like a sports team on their field of play, success isn’t likely without the coordinated effort of all members, working in the same direction.  Too often, organizations seek “quick fixes” in a particular area, such as marketing, and wonder why their efforts are not successful and fail to achieve the desired results.  Simply put, marketing isn’t just about what goes on in the Marketing Department.

I also found myself much more interested in tangible outcomes; action that could be taken to make a company successful, as opposed to just wandering along an undefined path.  The ability to do this is tremendously powerful and separates an advisor such as myself from those who spend their time in more theoretical or long term oriented areas.  There is nothing wrong with these perspectives; they serve a different purpose.

Not surprisingly, I spent almost 10 years as an executive in the fast-paced venture capital industry, where getting things done and generating results were daily priorities.  I believe that bringing this type of experience to client companies can create a competitive edge in the marketplace, BUT, business leaders have to actually want to make it happen.  Doing so isn’t for the faint of heart, as real progress isn’t always easy and the commitment to persevere often takes much more than anticipated.   These leaders, however, know that there isn’t another option, as they are not the type to continue on their existing, less than ideal path, ignoring the obvious signs that charting a new course is needed.

Bottom line, I believe that being in business is all about opportunities, and it’s up to business leaders to make the most of them.  Those who are driven to do so wouldn’t take these steps without sound advice, from those who have “been there”, “done that”, and truly understand the tremendous opportunities and challenges that are at stake.

As a CMC, I wouldn’t have it any other way.  Anything less is, well, less.

Lifting Off to a Whole New Level of Teamwork

In honour of today’s historic Falcon Heavy launch, here’s a new spin on lessons learned from Canada’s Astronaut.  I was fortunate to meet him not that long ago and his perspective was inspiring and highly relevant to the business world.


I recently attended the Canadian Venture Capital Association’s annual conference, of which I have been a longstanding member.  Although there was a lot of great information to utilize and reflect upon, I found the comments of Colonel Chris Hadfield, “Canada’s Astronaut”, to be particularly insightful.

Although paraphrased and representing just a portion of his powerfully illustrated keynote address, here are some concepts that especially resonated with me:

  • How are you going to finish and what are you going to do next?  When considering any achievement, it’s important to think about the task at hand, recognize where you need to “get to”, and what it will take to finish strong.  The power of the words “finish” and “strong” is not lost on those who excel, but is often not well achieved (or fully understood) by others.
  • What does success look like and are you prepared to achieve it?  Visualizing successful outcomes and practicing the skills that are required in order to get there can greatly reduce the risk of failure.  Be clear on what it will take to cross the finish line, visualize it, and practice every step.
  • What does failure look like and how can it be avoided?  Visualizing failure requires a thorough understanding of it and getting to this point often isn’t easy.  Ask yourself if you have enough knowledge in order to resolve it, should failure loom.  Having said that, “the beauty of failure is that it is deep in learning”; such a powerful concept.
  • Teams need special attention. Words and communication alone are not enough.  Having a shared vision of what success looks like, watching for changes in actual behavior (not just talk!), and celebrating success often can help to bring a team together to achieve great things.

These areas are fundamental for individuals who strive for success and are essential, in the case of teams.  How true this is when considering the pioneers of space, who often only have each other to rely upon, including identifying and resolving problems.  Although astronauts train extensively to address challenges, it doesn’t mean that trouble arrives with advance notice.

Considering life and death, mission critical situations should make everyday teamwork seem much more attainable; but why is it often so difficult?  Perhaps the answer is found by reflecting on one final thought: Impossible things happen; do something unprecedented.

I’m ready to board, are you?

MEDIA: The Diversity Files

I was recently interviewed by CBC News Network Radio regarding a story about an organization devoted to the advancement of women in the workplace having selected a man as the Chair of their advisory board. Although I’ve never been one to point to my gender as impacting my career progress, it served as a reminder of what an important issue this is.  I’m taking the opportunity to discuss this topic in a new blog segment, The Diversity Files.

Having women in leadership positions provides a tremendous role model opportunity, in terms of what can be achieved in the business world.  I was fortunate to grow up in an environment where I believed that anything was possible, in terms of the career that I could have.  It was not until I was much older that I appreciated the fact that not all girls (and boys, for that matter) have this experience.  There are also many points in a person’s career where discouragement could set in; being passed over for an advancement opportunity or pay raise, encountering difficult co-workers, or the boss who doesn’t support your efforts (or, perhaps, has the audacity to take credit for your work!).  These moments can call into question if it’s worth the effort, if that lifelong goal is really achievable.

It’s no secret that, even in 2017, women are still underrepresented in a number of senior level roles, including that of business owner, the executive ranks, and on governance Boards.  In too many cases, women are so badly underrepresented, it is difficult, if not impossible, to explain.

Studies have found that companies who employ more women in the C-Suite are more profitable, and those who have women on their Boards generate better performance at the governance level.  Since strong financial results and better corporate performance are integral to building shareholder wealth, it begs the question: why are there not more women in the senior ranks of so many companies?  Why?  Based on these findings alone, it doesn’t add up, not to mention what it means on a human level; the very thought that one being is somehow lesser than another.

This reality points to the business world itself.  Could there be something systemic that makes it less likely for women to progress to senior levels?  Unlocking the code to resolve this problem isn’t a casual matter; rather, it is integral to driving better results and fostering inclusion.  It is also simply the right thing to do.

It is not as if there is a lack of qualified women, educated in business and in the corporate world, to fill these roles.  Solutions lie in more women pursuing senior level positions, being supported when they do, as well as given their fair amount of the opportunity; they have earned it!  Women, without question, have the ability to perform well in senior roles, and doing so just doesn’t drive results; it represents a powerful opportunity to set an example for the next generation.  Heaven knows, they are watching.

NEWS: Executive Business Builder Program Now Available!

As the lead instructor, I’m pleased to announce that the Executive Business Builder Program is now available!

This program is designed to help business leaders build a future-ready company, including building value and best practices, through courses, mentorship, and access to a powerful network of inspirational, like-minded people.  Learn practical strategies for building a company that can generate solid performance and be positioned for transfer to someone else in the future.  Value doesn’t just happen, and leaders need to take tangible steps to enhance their company.

The first course, Strategic Business Planning, is already available, and additional courses are already in development.  Don’t miss out on this opportunity to move from business leader to business builder!

When Leaders Get it Wrong

As a business advisor, I’m always amazed by leaders who don’t act in the best interest of their own company.  It’s something that happens more frequently that one would expect, and examples of this non-productive behavior include:

  • Ignoring obvious problems
  • Hiring people who don’t have the skills and ability to do the job
  • Needing to be the “smartest person in the room”
  • Not being receptive to advice that could help them to be more successful

And the list goes on.  From my perspective, the most bizarre of these are the last two on the list.  Both tend to be related to ego and insecurity issues that end up taking precedence over the company at hand.  People who exhibit these behaviors miss the opportunity to build a better company, which, in turn, would reflect well on the leader.  A complete disconnect!

Consider the following alternatives, both of which lead to better outcomes:

  • Surrounding yourself with the smartest, most competent people is one of the best things that a leader can do.  Not only does this significantly raise the likelihood that a company will perform better (to the benefit of all involved), but it also provides a powerful opportunity for a transfer of knowledge.  A collaborative learning environment strengthens the senior team, as well as the leader.  In my own experience, the smartest leaders I have known have never been afraid to say “I don’t understand it”, while taking steps to do so.  Why is this important?  Because even the smartest, most accomplished people know that there is always more to learn, and they are never diminished by saying so (in fact, it makes them better leaders).
  • Experienced advisors bring a wealth of knowledge that can improve almost any situation.  Why would a leader not be receptive to such a powerful opportunity?  Not recognizing a good idea when they see it?  Ego?  Insecurity?  Thinking that the issue has already been resolved (when it hasn’t)?  Poor judgement?!  Whatever the reason, this lack of receptiveness will eventually catch up with the company, often at the worst of times.  Investors and financial partners screen for this tendency, and those who aren’t receptive to advice often don’t end up on the financing list.

I’ve long since had a theory that there are lots of business leaders who will opt out of what is in their own best interest, as well as in the best interest of their company.  Ironically, these people are the ones who tend to need the most help, not the least, and they might just have to learn this lesson the hard way.