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.

Getting to Better Budgeting: 5 ways to up your budgeting game

Published by the Canadian Golf Superintendents Association in GreenMaster (Fall, 2017).

The very thought of budgeting can conjure up feelings of an abundance of effort for little in the way of outcomes.  Ask people how successful they are when it comes to meeting (or beating) their budget and many will say “not even close”.  Suggest that a budget should be prepared before getting started with a new fiscal year or venture and the response might be “we can’t predict the future, so why bother?”.  And when all else fails, there’s always the familiar excuse of “nobody looks at those things anyway”.  These viewpoints are more common than one would expect, but actually, they are far from accurate.  Why is this the case?

The simple reason is that budgeting is a learned skill, and practice makes it better.  When considered in this context, here is what the comments above actually mean:

What They Said Translation
“Not even close”

The budget wasn’t reasonable.

We didn’t pay enough attention to the budget once it was developed.

“We can’t predict the future, so why bother?” We don’t know enough about our organization to prepare a meaningful budget.
“Nobody looks at those things anyway” We don’t understand budgets.

Experienced advisors know these misconceptions all too well, and the only way to overcome the challenges of budgeting and improve outcomes is to take action.  This means implementing a sound budgeting process, upon which an organization can build over time.  Here’s how:

  • Assign the right resources: Those who are responsible for conducting the actual budget work should have relevant experience, including a professional accounting designation.  Since budgeting is a specialized area, in the event that an organization’s staff members have not previously conducted budget work, the necessary training and education should be provided in advance.  Advisors can also be helpful in this regard.
  • Have a game plan: Developing a budget doesn’t just happen, and it’s important to have an action plan that identifies all critical activities, timing, and responsibilities.  The budget should have a standard format, including an Income Statement, Balance Sheet, Cashflow Statement, as well as supporting schedules and assumptions that provide the rationale for how amounts were developed.
  • Engage the senior team in the process: A budget shouldn’t be developed in isolation, such as by an organization’s leader or the “Accounting Department”.  This approach can result in those on the senior team taking the view that the budget “doesn’t belong to us”.  In order to avoid this scenario, all members of the senior team should be involved, by way of developing the budget assumptions that pertain to their area, as well as review of drafts and finalization.  This approach gets everyone on-side, making the budget that of the organization and its team.
  • Draft, review, and revise: Budgets don’t typically come together on the first try, so it’s important to prepare a draft version, review and critique it as a team, and revise where required.  This process might take a few drafts, but it is rich in learning for everyone involved.
  • Implement and monitor over time: A budget only means something if it is formally implemented and monitored over the full period to which it pertains.  Common mistakes include developing a budget and either not formally implementing it (so people think it doesn’t matter) or failing to compare actual performance to budget on an ongoing basis.  Either scenario leads to poor outcomes.

The good news is that the work is in getting started and these efforts can be leveraged over time, through re-use and enhancement of what has already been put into place.  Starting now creates the opportunity to get on the path to making the process easier sooner.  What’s more, the good performance that can be generated will add some distance to your game.

Generating Results

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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 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?

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.

Reliability

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Many of us grew up with parents who always challenged us to be our best.  “Take pride in everything you do”  “Do the very best you can before turning in your assignment” “Check your work!” Given the many times these lessons were repeated during our childhoods, it’s a reasonable assumption that the outcome just might be an attitude of high achievement that comes from within and lasts a lifetime.  If this is the case, why is it that the impact of so many of these lessons seem to be absent from the workplace?

Most careers begin by starting out in an entry level position and progressing forward, as skills and competencies develop and opportunities for advancement emerge.  One of the important factors that employers consider in this regard is the degree of self managed initiative and “ownership” that a staff member exhibits in performing their job.  In other words, are staff members challenging themselves to generate the best possible work, or are they simply putting in a marginal effort and passing their output to the next level without any real accountability for the results?

Experienced executives know that there are a number of skills that are crucial for achieving success in their role; consistently demonstrating high quality results is certainly on the list.  Taking the initiative to understand and adopt these important skills can differentiate you from others in your peer group and generate better results today, while helping to prepare you for advancement tomorrow.  In this series, we have already considered the importance of comprehensive reading and clear communication.  Here’s more about why taking ownership of your role to generate great results is so important.

Where it Goes Wrong

Here’s some information that might be a bit of a news flash to those who fail to advance in the workplace: it is not your supervisor’s role to find the mistakes in your work- it is your responsibility to do so.

Yes, it’s true that supervisors and managers do find errors in the work of others, but quite frankly, this often occurs in the course of performing their actual role (i.e., being responsible for a particular area of a business), and also, unfortunately, because too many staff members don’t take enough care in completing their work.  As a result of this situation, staff members who live by the rules of always putting their best effort forward are easily differentiated from their peers and often have the best opportunity to advance to more senior roles.

Put yourself on the executive path by remembering the good advice that many of us received years ago- take pride in your work!  Gain the reputation of bringing quality and reliability to everything you do; here’s how to get started:

  • Understand the requirements first. When approaching any task, take the time to fully understand what is required. Read instructions fully and make the effort to ask for clarification where required (flashback to our first article in this series: it’s amazing how many people don’t take the time to read thoroughly!).  Time to prepare well is time well spent.
  • Take notes. Experienced executives recognize that the corporate world is complex and the number of tasks at hand can be extensive.  Thinking that you will remember it all doesn’t make you look smart; it makes you look inexperienced!  Taking notes on how to complete tasks and workplace assignments is an important support to generating a quality result.  It also allows you to build your own reference manual.
  • Check your work.   Once you have completed a task, step back and review it from a fresh perspective.  Make yourself accountable for finding any mistakes or areas of improvement before passing your work to the next person.
  • Learn how supervisors and managers approach their review role. Take the opportunity to speak with your supervisor to learn more about what they look for when reviewing the work of others. Ask them what success “looks like” for the particular task in order to visualize and better understand what you need to do to generate a successful outcome.
  • Document and learn from your mistakes. Treat every experience where feedback is received as an opportunity to learn and improve.  Remember that supervisors expect staff members to learn from these experiences and not make the same mistakes in the future.  Challenge yourself to never make the same mistake twice.

It’s often been said that work that is done quickly, but not correctly, is of no value.  This is true.  Add up your time to complete the task initially; your supervisor’s time to review your (substandard) work; and the time to revise and review the work again and this lesson becomes crystal clear.  The real risk, however, is situations where poorly completed work somehow makes it through the review process into a larger realm, potentially damaging the company and, perhaps, others.  This risk alone is reason enough to check your work!