Whatever your role, from CEO to tea-maker, in any business these days you have to be an expert in your field. Sadly though, this isn’t always the case. Leading a business today is like conducting an orchestra of experts. If you feel instead as though you are fronting a school band, your chances of success in the digital economy are pretty slim. So, what does that mean for you?
I often work with large private companies and smaller corporates. Basically businesses that are immediately either side of an IPO (although not necessarily planning one) and many share one particular problem that is not only preventing them from transforming, but making it impossible to compete in the digital era. Many of them have significant numbers of people in roles they are unqualified for.
There are four common reasons for this:
- Sometimes this is the result of the employee having been with the business for an extended period, their loyalty having been rewarded with promotion. These longstanding employees may never have been particularly successful in any role, but the nature of a private company means loyalty is often prized above competence and promotion has been the reward.
- Occasionally loyal people who have a succession of failures behind them are recognised as underperformers and placed in positions where they can do less harm. There is no such role of course.
- In other cases, business or business leaders are unaware of the standards their employees have to attain to stack up against their counterparts in other businesses. “Family businesses”, for example, are often more “family” than “business”. Because they have no external investors their objective is only to provide an income for the family members and employees, but it no longer works. These businesses have only survived this long because their competitors haven’t been much better. Those days disappeared with the emergence of tech-savvy start-ups able to deliver a far better customer experience with the same or lower overhead. There is no alternative for these businesses than to get serious about business.
- In many instances I find business leaders who don’t understand the nature of a speciality appoint people with the wrong skills or who have a similarly misguided view of a role. This is particularly common where marketing or HR functions are concerned. Failure to understand the part these specialities are supposed to play in a business may even be the most common reason for business failure.
The loyalty dichotomy
Loyalty is great and the creation of a “safe” community is essential to the success of a business, but there’s a caveat. The fundamental factor separating successful from unsuccessful businesses is efficiency and if your loyal subjects can’t contribute to that you simply aren’t going to compete in any sector. You need an orchestra of experts.
You are only as good as your weakest link
It’s also true that you are only as good as your weakest link. I’ve just encountered another business that has a superb product, but it is let down by downright awful marketing and sales functions. Sales are poor, but the sales team comprises a miss-match of people with no real sales pedigree, many of whom were recruited for other roles that have since disappeared.
The head of marketing is a family friend of the founder of the business, but has no marketing experience and no clue. The CEO is concerned the product may not be right, because he sees sales as “easy” if the product is right. To some extent he’s right, but what he’s failing to recognise is not only are his sales team second rate he has no funnel or pipeline, there’s no customer journey identified and no brand equity. However great his product is, he wouldn’t sell many because his pipeline doesn’t just have a weak link, it has a gaping hole! This isn’t a small business, but it won’t be around for much longer if it doesn’t sort this out.
I once worked with a family business to take them to IPO. Their motivation for pursuing this was to give the owners an excuse for refusing to hire family members who had no particular skills. They could just say it wasn’t their decision, but that of the board or investors and thereby avoid a family row. This was a sensible move in one respect, but revealed a weakness of leadership that would always be a problem anyway.
The difference between success and failure is ultimately efficiency
No business these days can afford to pay people who aren’t performing. To be able to compete in today’s marketplace every one of your employees has to be a master of their role. You need to be leading an orchestra of experts.
Even if this hadn’t always been the case, the arrival of the digital economy has already ensured there was no hiding place for inefficient businesses. They would have all crashed eventually. The Covid-crisis and the economic crisis that we are now looking down the barrel of, has only served to speed the process up and raise the bar. And it’s done so to such an extent even businesses with high calibre employees will find the going challenging. In fact, comparatively few businesses are going to be able to shape up and sectors may well be fought over by just a handful of elite firms.
Don’t underestimate the return on training investment
Of course, if business leaders had been more astute in the past they would have recognised decades ago that when you promote somebody into a role it is your duty to help them acquire the skills they need to do it. Training has been undervalued and misunderstood by generations of business leaders.
Recently the CEO of a sizeable business told me that he wasn’t prepared to sanction training that wasn’t directly related to the current role of an employee. Yet, this same CEO was insistent that the career opportunity his business offered should make it an employer of choice. In fact, like every other business, it needed to be, because that’s the only way to get the pick of the talent. However, while businesses have been happy to talk about career paths and training, this hasn’t amounted to much in practice. Hence the underperformance of many managers and consequently the businesses they work for.
So, given that there is no time now to undo the mistakes of the past, what course of action is open to business leaders struggling to squeeze a last breath out of businesses that are on their knees?
Learn to work with the cards you are dealt
Your first step should be to audit your resources. Every organisation has something it can build on. For example, enthusiasm, while never being an alternative to skills or experience is a valuable asset, and it costs you nothing, apart from a bit of effort. If your competitors aren’t leveraging it to its fullest you may just gain a little ground in the short-term if you start with that as your focus. At least until you can address your more significant shortcomings.
Leveraging your brand community
This is where a strong brand is really useful. An organisation that understands brands as communities and has taken the time and effort to build a powerful one can achieve things other businesses cannot.
Brands are very much about focus. The focussing of minds. The minds of stakeholders, including employees. There is nothing more satisfying to witness than the growth of a business with a strong brand under strong leadership. We’ve all seen this with Steve Jobs and Apple, Richard Branson and Virgin and others.
Among the many advantages a strong brand gives a business is engaged and committed employees, but this doesn’t happen without concerted effort and even then it’s just the first step. Once you have established your brand community, you have to leverage it.
Time to get over command-and-control.
If you’ve created a hierarchical culture in your business you need to start with a leveller. This could be a meeting or a video message to all employees explaining that you need their help and making it clear that you value the input they can make to improvements within your business. A lot of traditional managers find this step hard because they have been brought up with a command and control mind-set. Those days are long gone, but some find it hard to accept.
The focus every business needs
To give your workforce focus you need an objective. There’s no need initially to make it complicated. Just get started and move on to develop the rest of your brand model introducing that as you go. This will enable you to refine the objective without making drastic changes to it that will confuse everyone. All you need to start with is a simple “this is what we are aiming for”. Most employees will instinctively know how to adjust their way of working to enable them to contribute more to this objective. Make sure you open up to their ideas. There are numerous devices you can engage to do this, from ideas boxes to rewards schemes, but they have to be managed carefully with clearly defined KPIs.
An organised brand development programme will reveal your objective. I use my Brand Discovery programme to help organisations define their brand model and with it their brand promise and objective. But there are many important coordinates to a brand model (twelve in the case of Brand Discovery) and you need to address them all, so call in an expert to help you with this. You simply can’t afford now to get it wrong.
Internal marketing – your most valuable tool
You need to drive engagement and ideas and this is where internal marketing comes into play. You could probably use someone full-time to manage this and it has to be a marketer. Don’t compound your mistakes by assigning the task to someone with no marketing experience. You don’t have time now to mess about. The same person could probably manage the wider programme provided they too are given a clear objective and KPIs.
The person managing the programme has to continually identify weaknesses and obstacles and come up with initiatives to remove them. There is no set way to do this. A lot depends on the structure and size of your business, but e-mail marketing, internal events, intranet, gamification, video content, training exercises and social media all have a role to play and a professional HR department should be able to make a valuable contribution. If you don’t have experience in these areas seek help from a professional.
Once the brand is defined and the game set you may well find some of your employees feel this isn’t for them. It’s always a pity when this happens, but it’s unavoidable and sometimes even a good thing. Letting these people go can reduce your overhead, improve productivity and give you the opportunity to bring in people who want to be a part of your mission and have the skills and experience to make a real contribution. Don’t, whatever you do, make exceptions for employees as this will defeat your bigger objective. People have to decide whether they are “in” or “out”. This is the start of business transformation.
Reversing your decline
However, all this is, at best, only going to slow your decline. Reversing it is a bigger project and will undoubtedly require investment. Debt is a major problem for businesses right now, so while you are building your orchestra of experts you should also be looking for cost savings. Even just the fact that you are seeking to make changes will encourage lenders to look kindly on you and that will help, but you may need to take more drastic measures like suspending production of less profitable products, at least until you have time to fix their problems. The process of creating your Marketing strategy will already have highlighted which products you should prioritise.
Initiatives like this could well originate on the shop floor. If you have a genuine brand community, they will come up with ideas and suggestions for cost savings. In today’s businesses it’s not all down to the senior executives to have the ideas.
In a few weeks time I hope to have some great news for businesses who are struggling to meet the financial cost of transforming their business, so sign up for my newsletter if you want to be ahead of the game.
Diversity drives innovation
In fact it’s known that the more diverse teams like those assigned to innovation are, the more successful a business will be. I’ve had the most junior shop-floor workers sitting around a table on equal terms with C-suite executives in innovation sessions and quite a few successful business initiatives have been the ideas of the most junior employees.
Most of all, don’t be the boss who, as was the case with a business I worked with recently, has employees with great ideas who were afraid to table them because — and I quote — “the boss wouldn’t like it”.
By being open and non-hierarchical you may discover the orchestra of experts you have been in need of was there all along, among your employees. You certainly won’t succeed without help and cooperation from every level of your organisation, but to get that you have to start earning their trust now. Once you identify your stronger players you should facilitate their development with professional mentors, training and encouragement to enhance their skills.
This is by no means the end-to-end strategy you’ll need to turn around a business right now, but it is something that any business can start with today. It’s the cheapest short-term option available and definitely a worthwhile first step.
As usual, if you need more advice you know where to find me.
July 22, 2020