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2019: Courage, focus, and the fork in the road

2019: Courage, focus, and the fork in the road

Yogi Berra, the timeless philosopher and all-star catcher for the New York Yankees, famously said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” While his phrasing might not have passed the scrutiny of a high-school English teacher, Yogi’s notorious sayings never lacked for passion or meaning. And this quote hits a home run in terms of helping companies deal with their biggest challenge: creating a flexible strategy to power growth in 2019 and beyond.

In baseball, the catcher is the on-field leader, consulting with the coach, setting the infield and advising the pitcher. This natural gift for communication might explain how Yogi, in just 12 words, gave us such a useful model for addressing business purpose and change.

  1. The road: The choice of path that your organization will travel to make the most meaningful impact on its customers represents your strategy.
  2. The fork: How your organization manages ongoing choices and opportunities represents your tactical and operating plan.
  3. Take it: All organizations need a succinct framework and set of criteria to quickly assess new options. This is your decision-matrix, which incorporates strategic, financial and go-to-market benchmarks.

These three simple steps enable us to analyze opportunities at many different levels. They help us to balance the big picture and the details; act on those details in the most innovative way; and make the most of our limited resources.

There’s just one problem. In my experience, most organizations don’t recognize when they’ve reached a fork in the road, because they’ve never committed to a focused vision or an aligning strategy. Without this consensus, an organization is a traveler with a map, but no destination – making every fork in the road a potential peril.

I used to think this was just an issue for entrepreneurs: people who live by the gut, chase shiny objects and hold their breath. But, over my 17 years at Spyder Works, I’ve found ambiguity and hope influencing organizations of all sizes. At a recent meeting where I challenged the clarity of an organization’s vision statement, one senior executive actually said, “We wanted to keep it a little vague so as not to box ourselves into a corner.”

My direction? “Don’t be vague. You have to be fearless, focused and disciplined.”

Your organization can’t begin to be fearless, focused or disciplined if its leaders can’t describe what it is, what it does best, and why.  Leaders need to figure out what business they are really in, who their markets are, and what those markets really need. Yet most still work through guessing and assuming.

This is why many businesses get stuck running what already is, instead of understanding and innovating what could be. For instance, someone, somewhere, once asked: Can a gas station sell more than gas? Is a corner store in the business of selling milk, snacks and cigarettes – or does it provide a web of convenience for busy customers?

Strategic thinking begins by questioning the status quo. If you’re selling gas and sundries, it’s hard to differentiate commodity products – but you can deliver a difference through time and convenience. That’s why we have seen gas stations turn into multipurpose convenience centers selling fresh coffee and hot snacks, complete with drive-thrus, ATMs, lotto centers and grocery sections. This evolution is even evident in the branding, with new logos such as ExxonMobil’s “On the Run” aiming to build brand equity in the corner-store sector.

If you don’t understand what your customers value, and how you solve their problems, then it’s hard to determine which assets and ideas will get your organization where it needs to go. Or as Yogi Berra said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up somewhere else.”

Fortunately, it’s not that hard for organizations to rediscover their purpose and chart new paths. At Spyder Works, we’ve built a team of experienced business professionals who have helped their own organizations strategically expand their impact. In just the past year, we have helped clients find many ways to break through market clutter to achieve success:

  • Continuing an ambitious growth plan with a leading retailer to increase revenue by 50% in less than five years;
  • Beating a longstanding retail sales record for a mass consumer brand by a full 25% in only the 2nd year after launch;
  • Developing a targeted digital marketing strategy with one of Canada’s largest retailers that improved monthly sales performance by 20%;
  • Working with a financial-industry association to address the sector’s aging workforce with a platform that attracts new entrants and helps them build more fulfilling careers;
  • Designing and implementing a 12-month onboarding program that boosted employee effectiveness from Day 1;
  • Creating a holistic growth and transformation model, including quantitative and qualitative metrics and operational support, to help a client achieve its growth targets;
  • Combining journey mapping with customer insights to improve a national retailer’s overall customer experience;
  • Helping a wellness organization uncover and implement innovations in product, service and process.

These are just a handful of the benefits that accrue when companies figure out what paths to follow and how to navigate forks. With such skills, 2019 can be a year of courage, discipline and growth for any organization.

How to get started? Yogi Berra got it right again: “Somebody’s gotta win, somebody’s gotta lose. Don’t fight about it. Just try to get better.”

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Your Three Drivers of Success in 2019

Your Three Drivers of Success in 2019

George Carlin was one of the great humorists of the 20th century, drawing his observations from culture, politics and the restless world around him. One of his greatest quotes sticks with me: “Just when I discovered the meaning of life, they changed it.”

This quote reminds us that change is the only constant. For me, though, it also reinforces that I must never be satisfied in business, because satisfaction breeds complacency. My three decades of success as an entrepreneur (first in manufacturing, then in consulting and strategy) are very much grounded in a lifelong desire to create my own future. I bring the future into focus every morning by asking myself three simple questions:

  1. What am I going to sell today? (Sooner or later, you have to sell something! I like to make it sooner.) One of our best critics is my partner John’s youngest son, Quinn. Whenever we tell him our latest business idea, Quinn grounds us with the simple question: “That’s great; will it help you sell more?”
  2. What one thing can I improve in my business today? Change drives efficiency and customer delight, and “improvement” sounds much less daunting than “innovation.” I highlight one thing because success flows fastest when you focus on one activity at a time.
  3. How do my answers to the first two questions tie into my company’s long-term strategy? This question helps me stay on course, and avoid chasing shiny, short- term opportunities that invariably take our business off-track.

These three questions help me coalesce my thinking around growth and prosperity. They serve as a constant reminder that innovation comes from paying attention to customer delight, and that clarity drives growth. While these questions have served me for decades, the business environment has changed dramatically. That leads to three new insights I’d like to share.

  1. You can’t do it alone. Not any more.

    As entrepreneurs, we need to get out of our own way, as quickly as possible, to allow our businesses to reach their full potential. I get it. When we start a business, we’re alone. Look left, look right, there’s nobody beside us to help us. But as a business grows, so does the team around you, and business owners must make the leap from “island thinking” to inclusive leadership. The world is spinning faster, and product lifecycles are shortening. You can’t do it alone any more. Nobody can. The good news is that companies large and small are rife with engaged, entrepreneurial thinkers. Your new cadre of millennial employees (and much of Generation Y, the cohort that preceded them) were not raised like the boomers that came before. They were not told to keep your head down, put one foot in front of the other, don’t cause problems. They were raised to think independently, to make a difference. Growing up with social media, millennials are accustomed to interaction, dialogue, opinion and debate, about anything and everything. Today, smart leaders drive innovation and collaboration by making their workplaces more stimulating and engaging. You need to attract and retain the best of the best. Fortunately, this evolution is fueled the most basic of skills: listening, sharing and empowering.

  2. Low Tech may be your best tech.

    A few years back, a group of managers with a major company proudly presented me with 800 business-improvement ideas generated by their innovation program. The ideas were solicited through an online platform and stored on one individual’s laptop. What a waste! Languishing in a system dedicated to storing ideas, not adopting them, these ideas were old and often obsolete. The company had never devised a plan to turn these ideas into higher revenues, reduced costs, streamlined processes and improved customer engagement. Consider this advice from productivity expert Alan Henry on LifeHacker: “The best productivity methods keep your to-dos in front of you and prioritized so you never wonder what to work on next. Some are complicated, but others make it easy to see everything, organized by priority—so easy you could use Post-It notes if you wanted.” The organizations’ problem was founded in “out of sight, out of mind.” When the computer was turned off, the idea bank was closed. Change flourished through transparency and consensus. My solution, which I have implemented with clients and in my own business, is a simple 4’ x 6’ whiteboard. After identifying our top five strategic areas, we use masking tape to outline five columns on the board. Within each strategic area we then identify the top five “to-dos,” writing them on the board and assigning teams and critical dates. This board is left in open view for all team members to see and update. For occasional meetings, the board is rolled into our meeting room to help us assess progress, identity challenges and push the best ideas to market. Sometimes you have to go old-school. In offices driven by front-burner issues, opportunity can only compete by staying in plain sight.

  3. The future changed while you were sleeping.

    Just a few months ago I woke up to the news that researchers in Guelph, Ont. had used 3D-printing technology and a titanium skullcap to replace most of a dachshund’s cancer-ridden skull. A CBC report labelled it “a novel procedure.” “Novel?” That’s Canadian modesty for you. It was an incredible accomplishment driven by teamwork, technology, compassion and the drive to make another’s life better.

As George Carlin taught us, nothing stands still. We may not all be able to save a life, but we can (and must) find new ways to improve our customers’ lives. As the new year dawns, you must resolve never to be satisfied with the way things are. Because your customers will never be, either.

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Maximizing the value of mergers and acquisitions

Maximizing the value of mergers and acquisitions

Disney and 21st Century Fox. CVS Health and Aetna. Walmart and Flipkart. Loblaw and Shoppers.

In business today, the biggest headlines involve mergers and acquisitions. M&A has become the ultimate growth strategy, the easy way to boost market share, acquire technologies, break into new categories, or intimidate or buy major competitors.

In the first half of 2018, M&A activity hit a record $2.5 trillion – a sign of corporate leaders’ faith in this strategy. But the fact remains that most mergers don’t deliver the anticipated value. In 2016, leading business academic Roger Martin observed that “70% to 90% of acquisitions are abysmal failures.” There’s nothing wrong with the concept of M&A. When two companies provide complementary product lines, distribution and growth opportunities, 1 + 1 can indeed equal 3. Unfortunately, it’s the awkward merging of cultures – the coming together of two companies with different histories, processes and trajectories – that often results in sub-par outcomes.

One inherent problem in M&A is the tendency of the acquired side to feel like they “lost” in the transaction. This feeling of victimization can turn top leaders into reluctant followers, eroding the culture of success that made the acquired organization a desirable target in the first place.

It doesn’t have to be this way. In my involvement with acquisitions in my career, I have seen teams come together to make sure both sides win. Ironically, the biggest opportunity often lies with the acquired team. If they can shed the mantle of “victim,” they can create new opportunities for growth amid the larger reorganization.

I call this: “Be the cause, not the effect.” If we can focus management teams on creating their own best future – not clinging to past glories – we can make mergers and acquisitions a more predictably successful process.

In my experience, organizations on the selling side can take three steps to maximize the benefits of a merger for both sides.

  1. Cast off the “victim” mindset. Leadership is about powerlessness and passivity. Change the attitude of the team from “But, we’ve always done business this way” to “Let’s get on board and accept the mandate of the acquirer” – for everybody’s sakes.
  2. As leader, actively seek to understand the acquirer’s motivation. Why did they buy the business? How do they wish to unlock its value? As the true experts in this business, how can we help them achieve – and even exceed – their expectations?
  3. Create a culture of change, not stability. An acquisition presents a rare
    opportunity for a management team to push for substantive change. Ask,
    “What activities can we change (or drop altogether) to strengthen our core
    competencies? How can we manage our own affairs so we can reinvest in our most crucial activities?”

Let me give you an actual example of how this process has played out.

In one case, I was heading up a division of a multinational organization that had just been bought by a third party. I decided the best way to serve both organizations would be to take charge of change – and make sure my organization started contributing quickly and productively.

As soon as the deal closed, I actively pressed my new superiors for answers. “Why did you buy this company? Where do you want to take it?” Sometimes our new leadership didn’t have the answers yet. But by initiating these tough conversations, I ensured we became part of that dialogue.

I advised my team that the management that bought our organization expected to see us reduce costs by a certain percentage. That’s how acquirers unlock value: through synergy and simplification. But it had been some time since our organization had rigorously reviewed its operations, so I challenged my team to double that amount. “Tweaking” operations might get us through the current crunch, but it wouldn’t create new thinking. The acquisition was giving us a once-in-a-generation opportunity to ask, “How would we run this business if we could start all over?”

Our team went to work with gusto. No longer victims, they unleashed their energy and creativity to take charge of our future. We inspected every business fundamental with an outsider’s eye. With the help of external consultants to guide our discussions, we asked, “What’s necessary, and what’s not? Where’s the value-add in every process?” We discovered new epiphanies and efficiencies, and sacrificed some parts to enhance the whole. Given a situation we couldn’t control, we created a meaningful initiative that demonstrated we were still winners.

In the end, our team was so successful creating new value that we were able to reinvest some of the proceeds back into our business. By acting instead of reacting, we were still determining our own destiny. We were cause, not effect. Over the following year, as the two corporate identities fused into one, our people retained their pride and their faith in the future.

If your organization is wrestling with change initiatives, or anticipating an M&A event, remember that optimists accomplish more than pessimists. Focus your people on the bigger, positive picture. Help them win. There’s an old nautical saying: “I cannot control the wind, but I can adjust my sails.”

Saquib would be happy to meet with you to discuss how your organization can benefit from “Cause, Not Effect” leadership. Give him a call at 647-338-5762. Or email him at

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