Entrepreneurship

Americans want to be Bill Gates. Canadians want to be careful

Originally published on July 15, 2014 as a Guest Column in The Globe and Mail: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/small-business/sb-digital/innovation/why-improv-comedy-is-the-key-to-business-success/article19072177/

Someone recently asked me if I found any differences between the audiences I speak to in Canada and the U.S. The answer is yes. “Americans want to be Bill Gates. Canadians want to be careful.”

I’m not sure why this is. While Canadians are known for their more conservative approach in general, our entrepreneurs were at least as daring as the Americans’ in opening up the West, building the national railway, and pushing back the frontiers of communications, medicine, and technology. Still, when I speak about entrepreneurship and innovation in the U.S., there’s buzz about success and fortune; you can almost hear the American Dream springing to life. In Canada, however, the word entrepreneur is still painfully associated with the term ‘small business.’

Across Canada, at cocktail parties and banker’s offices, our should-be heroes of industry and innovation are still too often dismissed as wild risk-takers who needlessly put their savings and financial security on the line. But entrepreneurship is so much more than that. Businesses that employ fewer than 500 people in North America have accounted for two-thirds of job growth in the past 10 to 20 years. The dreamers and the risk-takers are the growth engine that drive our economies. So let’s not label the entrepreneurs behind these businesses and the opportunities they pursue ‘crazy.’ Rather, let’s go with ‘crazy important.’

Still, there is something to be said for the Canadian approach to entrepreneurship. While we need more people to take initiative and champion change, there’s merit in doing so conservatively. I like to advise entrepreneurs to dream big, but proceed with caution. What exactly does this mean? There is never a shortage of opportunities in business; they’re everywhere. The key to success lies not in putting all your hopes — and life’s savings — into the first Big Idea you see, but in taking time to define the very best venture you will actually choose to pursue.

In last month’s column, I addressed the process of bringing together your team to generate great new business ideas. We talked about the power of the group dynamic and the “Yes, and…” process that enables your team to generate a wall of Post-It notes full of ideas.

Once you’ve done that, however, you need to begin culling those ideas into a manageable short list. More importantly, your ideas should be relevant to you, your business and your prospective customers.

Sounds obvious, I know, but judging by the number of times that I read about companies selling off non-core assets or dropping unprofitable clients, I realize that dreams of glorious short-term returns too often overcome solid analytical thinking.

I approach opportunity assessment with a rigorous, three-pronged approach. I like to rank each business opportunity according to three criteria: global (which includes ensuring that each new idea aligns with your company’s high-level, strategic direction, its vision, its mission, and so on), sales and marketing (rigorously identifying the ideal customer, target markets, time-to-market, and the competitive landscape) and financial (analyzing the projected top-line revenue, contribution, productivity ratios, net profit, and so on). The bracketed examples are, of course, only a few of the concepts you need to think through; there are many others that your team will think of or may already have in place.

Before anyone on your team gets carried away by a shiny new idea, it’s extremely important that you rank each opportunity you are considering against all three of these criteria. Don’t fall into the trap of saying, “this is a great idea, even though it’s not in keeping with the long-term vision of the company. I’ll worry about getting back on-strategy next quarter.”

Unless you rank new opportunities thoroughly and objectively, ruthlessly matching them to your strategy and capabilities, you will have little chance of converting even the best new ideas into successful and highly profitable new products.

The moral of the story? Embrace the American dream, believe in the possibility of success, but exercise good old Canadian caution along the way.

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How to avoid becoming your company’s biggest liability

Originally published on March 3, 2014 as a Guest Column in The Globe and Mail

notaliability

I was on LinkedIn recently when a news update popped up. In the story, a CFO asks the CEO: “What happens if we invest in developing our people and then they leave the company?” The CEO answers, “What happens if we don’t, and they stay?”

This vignette resonated with me: When I was a 20-something entrepreneur, I was that CFO. It’s not that I didn’t value my employees, but I was always cynical about investing in people who were likely to leave the company before our investment in their training and development had paid off. Now, as a 40-something entrepreneur and CEO, I’m happy to say that I have turned the corner.

Over the past few years, I have worked on culture, values and team-building than on any other part of our business, and it’s had incredible impact. Yes, the environment has changed. But I know the level of our employees’ participation, engagement and satisfaction have all changed, too – and our clients are the ultimate beneficiaries.

This is one of those ‘hindsight is 20/20’ or ‘if I knew then what I know now’ situations. As entrepreneurs, we come by our (lack of) strategic people skills honestly. When we start out, there’s only ‘me’ or ‘you.’ We founders do everything on our own, with no one to rely on but ourselves, which is the reason why it’s natural to put the ‘me’ ahead of the ‘team.’

But as the business grows, it’s important to recognize that it will take more than just you to get things done. It’s a big step to acknowledge that you’re not going to be good at everything. It’s an even bigger step to realize that if you don’t broaden your perspective, and understand the areas where you need support, you could become your company’s biggest liability.

Recently, I took it upon myself to ensure that this wouldn’t happen to me. I completed a straightforward behavioural assessment that involved 10 minutes of reacting to words that best (or least) described me. Going in, I was reluctant and dubious, wondering how such a brief test could summarize a lifetime. To my surprise (and perhaps chagrin), the assessment hit the nail on the head. The results declared me to be assertive, competitive, direct, driving and forceful. Not bad for a leader and entrepreneur. But not necessarily good for someone who should be participating in HR leadership and detail management.

What an entrepreneurial wake-up call. There were actually some things that others could do better than me. Imagine my shock! The bottom-line is that this tool – this awakening – has set in play a process that will help me focus on the strengths I bring to the business, and help me attract and build a team that complements not only my skills, but those of each other’s.

Want to make improvements in your own company? Here are the three key areas that will make or break your business: attract, retain and perform.

To attract the best people, successful organizations must have a brand that speaks to talented prospects who align with the company’s goals and values. To compete for talent today, companies must satisfy workers’ desire for a complete experience, not just a job.

With select employees now in place, winning companies turn their attention to ensuring these people stay. To retain great people you have to deliver on the brand promise you made at the hiring stage. Organizations must get to know their employees as individuals. Know what each worker needs to succeed, and give them the tools and the environment to be the best they can be.

The final and perhaps most significant opportunity is perform. Are your employees the best in the business? Are they constantly coming up with new ideas on how to do their jobs better and move the organization forward? Your leadership, shared goal-setting, and ability to promote the right behaviour are the biggest single influence on your organization’s ability to perform.

Through a culture of continuous innovation, leadership development, team effectiveness and employee engagement, organizations can measurably boost alignment and performance. But it all starts with you.

So nudge your ego aside, and make room for some company at the top of your company.

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This three-letter word can lead to greater business growth

Originally published on February 12, 2014 as a Guest Column in The Globe and Mail

3letterword

If you’re one of those people who gets out of bed each morning eager to find new opportunities for your business, your commitment to innovation is alive and well.

Business is all about attitude, and the drive to make a difference to our customers, families and community. The truth is that building a business means sacrifice, risk and uncertainty. The great entrepreneurs and leaders will tell you that success comes from the heart, attitude and determination you bring to each problem, every day.

I urge all entrepreneurs and change makers to adopt an ‘and’ mindset. Be open to finding new ways to serve your customers and offer more value.

This can be difficult for entrepreneurs just starting out, surviving on thin margins. As a young entrepreneur, I remember rubbing my credit card for good luck before buying supplies, hoping I had enough credit left to buy what I needed.

I encountered a similar mindset in reading Bruce Poon Tip’s new book, Looptail. As the founder and visionary behind Toronto-based G Adventures writes: “When I started the company in 1990 with a couple of credit cards, I was living in a garage apartment and had a vision. I never thought that it would become what it has. I wasn’t given the tools from my upbringing to think big.”

As entrepreneurs, we need to build on this combination of passion and sacrifice to push for more. To make the impact we want, we need to struggle beyond our constraints to create value – something different and engaging that will inspire and capture a whole new group of customers.

Roger Martin, the innovative former dean of the U of T’s Rotman School of Management, crusades against “either-or” decision making. He says too many business leaders approach decisions in terms of choosing between two or more alternate paths. “This or that” thinking represents unnecessary compromise; it’s the easy way out. I believe in ‘this and that.’ After all, ‘and’ means more: more value for the customer and ultimately more opportunities for my business.

Mr. Poon Tip’s success was founded on this same principle of more. In his view, “there was room in the industry for a travel company offering package tours using local services – giving visitors a chance to experience a real flavour of their destinations, rather than to just stroll around a few notable landmarks.”

He had a clear vision and a burning desire to create a new level of value and satisfaction for a largely ignored segment of the travel market; those who didn’t want to be stuck within the confines of posh, antiseptic resorts. But he also recognized that average adventurers did not want to have to plan, chart and tour the more remote, exotic locations of the world on their own. With G Adventures he combined tours and local flavour, creating unique experiences that ultimately built one of Canada’s most unique and global companies.

As entrepreneurs, we need to push our teams as hard as we push ourselves, to find new ways to combine separate ideas into one new vision, a breakthrough innovation. Your success could begin by changing one simple word. But what a difference one word can make. Thinking in terms of ‘and,’ rather than ‘or,’ can be game-changing. The word ‘and’ is the jet fuel of innovative thinking.

Most importantly, this attitude generates maximum value to the customer. By focusing on it, we choose to add value, not compromise it. Challenge your team to explore the power of this simple word, which can lead to success and sustained growth.

And what more could anyone ask?

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