company vision

Does The Wizard of Oz hold the secret to your business success?

Originally published on June 5, 2015 as a Guest Column in The Globe and Mail:

My son popped in the other day and told me that he had signed up for his first ‘group’ at university: The Graduating Class of 2020.

Impressive,” I said, “since you just received your acceptance yesterday.” He then reminded me of my own words over the years: “You’ve got to have a goal.”

Any parent reading this will recognize what a monumental moment this was for me. Not that my son was off to university, but that he had actually remembered one thing that I had said to him during his first 18 years! Actually, he went on to tell me his sub-goals. Having joined a co-op program that offers opportunities for international placements, he has mapped out the places where he hopes to visit for both work and study terms during each year of his program.

How many of you have a five-year vision for your business that includes not only strategic goals but also sub-goals – those small steps that will lead you to where you want to go?

I can honestly say that at my company, we have such a plan. As our horizon spans the next five years, I call it our 2020 Vision. But it’s not a perfect, sealed document preserved under glass for people to marvel at for the next five years.

Quite the opposite: It’s a working document, clearly and succinctly articulated on a whiteboard in plain sight. It includes the over-arching vision for the company, and highlights our five key strategic pillars which range from the high level (the refinement of corporate vision and values) to the pragmatic (revisiting the eight steps that we follow to acquire and delight customers), as well as the purely practical (upgrading our technology infrastructure).

Running an emerging boutique-sized organization, I can fully empathize with the pain you may feel when you hear the phrase ‘strategic plan.’ Sure, planning requires work. But it doesn’t have to be overwhelming. And it doesn’t have to be a static, hold-your ground plan. There will be many unpredictable elements that affect your businesses in the next week or month, let alone five years. So, your plan needs to be flexible.

This is why I break the strategy process into planning and discovery. To (over)simplify, think of it as six steps:

1. Engage in a free-flowing discussion with your senior team about your organization’s five-year goals.

2. Identify and articulate your company’s strategic pillars (exploring five top-level areas of focus is a common outcome).

3. On a board, summarize those five (or so) pillars, each in about 100 words. Have bullet-point steps under each heading, along with anticipated delivery dates and the name of the person charged with getting these things done.

4. The person-in-charge should put together a top-level plan for his or her project. Again, this doesn’t have to get cumbersome. A couple of pages can usually summarize the project’s goals, objectives, milestones, timelines, resources and desired outcomes.

5. Meet monthly with each of the project leaders – individually and as a group – to monitor progress and see where you or the full team can help out if a project starts to flounder.

6. Allow for changes, refinements and updates. How? Read on about the second element of our planning process, which we call Discovery.

Discovery acknowledges from the get-go that things are going to change. And that your organization, team and plan have to be elastic.

John Cardoso, the founder of Spyder Works, likens this part of the process to the epic journey that takes place in the 1939 film, “The Wizard of Oz.” Pushing your organization in a long-term strategic direction is akin to the film’s storyline of Dorothy embarking on an epic journey towards a defined goal: going home. During the journey, team members join her and eventually learn a lot about themselves, their potential, and their ability to cope with problems along the way.

Working together, thinking beyond tomorrow morning, galvanizes us as business teams. Learning to recognize, adapt and adopt to changes around us makes us hardy travelers and formidable competitors.

Dorothy’s journey in the movie also reminds us that we must rediscover and embrace the sense of wonder and curiosity that most of us gave up in grade school. Encourage ongoing questioning and refinements to surface organically as new evidence and opportunities arise.

This is why we double-back and add in the sixth step to the process.

6. Allow for changes, refinements and updates. To encourage creative input, I place Post-it notes and a pen beside our strategy board so that anyone can add their future-forward ideas (be they high-level or project-specific). This may sound like a minor part of the process, but it isn’t. It reminds the team that these (and all) projects are not static, but fluid. They are not perfect plans, but opportunities we have shared that we think about regularly and build on continuously.

Throughout your strategic journey, you will encounter unforeseen situations and daunting challenges, (e.g., competitors, social change, new technologies), just as Dorothy did. But the strength they gained in travelling together helped Dorothy and her unlikely leadership team discover the tools and talents they needed to reach their strategic goal. For Team Dorothy, those tools and talents included perseverance, intelligence, empathy and courage – probably the same characteristics you want to see in your own teams.

What colour is your company’s yellow brick road? Where is it going to take you? Plans can change, yes. But that is no excuse for not making them. You never know when your business will encounter lions or tigers or bears – but with a plan, you’ll see them coming a lot sooner.

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Why you can’t be all things to all customers


Originally published on October 14, 2014 as a Guest Column in The Globe and Mail:

When you first start your business, the ideal customer is simple – she’s anyone who walks through the proverbial door with money in their pocket. How do you decide what services to offer her? Usually, you’ll take on anything that sounds even remotely close to what you think that you can do.

This is what I might call the “yes, absolutely we can do that” phase. Of course, once the client is out the door, “yes absolutely” is quickly followed by, “who do we know that actually knows how to do what the customer is asking for?”

Saying yes to customer requests is a very exciting phase of building a business (or a new business division). And, frankly, that excitement should never completely go away.

Customer requests do two things: they identify market needs, and they push entrepreneurs to think about their next product or service offer.

As your company matures, you tend to realize that you can’t be all things to all people.

But that’s okay. As you figure out what it is you do best, there may even be some existing customers that you have to let go – and that’s okay, too. The key to sustained business success is to identify a substantial, pre-qualified group of customers who are willing to purchase your products or services at a profitable price-point.

Identifying your core clients – so that you speak their language, support their interests, and listen to their feedback – is the most important job in business. Here are three steps I like to suggest:

1. Generate a comprehensive list of both your current and the potential target customers that you have in mind.

2. Once you have that universal customer list, identify the target groups that you think have the highest potential. Study the wide range of attributes that you believe are important for a prospect to become a customer of your company. You need a cross-section of criteria that include demographics (characteristics such as business sector, title, age, gender), psychographics (psychological factors such attitudes, values, likes and dislikes) and geographic attributes (proximity to your business or its distribution network). To be clear, you must go deeper than simply describing where your customers live or how old they are. You need to work across all the ranking areas to create a useful customer profile. For example, simply specifying adults aged 18 to 49 who live in Washington D.C. is too broad. Create profiles of your various target groups based on what they like and don’t like, and on what they think, watch, eat, wear, visit, experience, and so on. Essentially, you need to think of your customers not as points on a graph, but as people.

3. Create a ranking system to measure the quality of the leads (potential customers) that you are trying to sell to. At my company, we use a tool we created called the Lead Quality Index™ (LQI). Essentially, it’s a grid. We list potential customers down the left-hand side and our ranking criteria across the top. We use categories such as corporate sector (e.g. retail, consumer goods, services), title (co-ordinator versus CEO), location (Toronto, rest of Ontario, rest of Canada, or beyond) and mindset (forward-thinking, pioneering versus market follower). The LQI is no guarantee of success, but it helps us think through and stay focused on our highest potential opportunities.

We only have so much time in a day. Staying focused on who we are selling to and what we can offer them is all-important in establishing long-term, mutually beneficial relationships.

The voice of the customer needs to be heard throughout your business. Remember, you don’t buy what you make — you create your products and services to sell to other people, so it’s their vote that counts.

I was once on a conference call to plan the relaunch of a national store brand for a leading retail chain. Because many of the client’s products required explanation to shoppers, a member of the chain’s merchandising team asked if they should set up the stores’ ‘help’ section to suit the needs of the company, or the shopping behaviour of the customer. One of the owners piped in to say, “set up the section to the liking of the customer, and I’ll adapt.” He had it right.

As Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton famously said: “There is only one boss; the customer. And he can fire everybody in the company from the chairman on down, simply by spending his money somewhere else.”

Bottom-line: Know your customer. Think like a customer. Delight the customer. In return, they will delight your bottom line. And they’ll point you in the right direction for the future.

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Ready. Aim. Fire! The rallying cry for successful change initiatives

We all know that the only constant is change. And with about 70% of all change initiatives failing what that means in today’s challenging business climate is that, while all the more critical, it continues to be challenging to make change happen.

Even after thorough and proper planning change initiatives commonly meet reactions from employees like “that’s not the way we do things around here” or “this is the latest flavor of the month”. One thing I find that companies struggle with and that would make your change initiative more successful is creating and bringing to life a compelling vision for change.

A compelling vision is more than just having a meeting where you share an acronym with a logo and a catchy tag line for the undertaking. For a vision to truly be captivating it has to be motivating and inspirational so that people eagerly move toward the new destination created by the vision.

Part of being a good leader is being able to create and communicate your vision. For significant change initiatives, leaders need to be masterful in creating the vision of the new destination. This takes skill, time and repetition of the message. Leaders also need to be authentic about challenges to be faced, commitment needed and what to do if people don’t feel up to the task because being on the bus but not being an active participant is not an option. Consider for example the programs that both Zappos and Amazon have in place for paying employees to quit.

One of the most commonly missing pieces I find when crafting a compelling vision is creating a “burning platform”. The burning platform makes it clear that staying in the current position isn’t an option. Change is uncomfortable. What leaders need to do is make it more comfortable to move forward than to remain where you are currently.

So how do you create the burning platform that is inspirational? Let’s break it down…

The burning platform for me is visually depicted as a wooden bridge that acts as the transition between what your business has been and what it can become. The wooden bridge has a very deep canyon below and the bridge is on fire. Now imagine you are standing in the middle of the burning wooden bridge. As the fire continues to burn it becomes more and more risky to stay standing on the bridge. The art of effectively creating the burning platform for change is enabling people to be brave enough to walk forward to a place unknown.

To be successful leaders must:

  • Make the vision clear and compelling drawing people forward enabling them to overcome their natural fear and resistance to new and different things
  • Ensure forces are stronger drawing people forward than their inherent desire to return to what is familiar and comfortable
  • Create a sense of urgency around making change happen

An example of where this was well done was a leader in a segment of the quick service restaurant industry. It was faced with the challenge of creating the compelling need to change while being a leader in their category. To create the need for change the point of comparison was reframed. Rather than being satisfied at being a leader in their category the gauntlet was thrown down that it wanted to be the leader in the fast food restaurant overall industry. That completely changed the landscape. The goal was clear. The company wasn’t number one but it could see the taillights of the industry leader and now all it had to do was close the gap. The sense of urgency came from the fact that the industry leader was moving forward. The vision was clear, the rallying cry went up and the company was able to drive change with this renewed focus.

One thing that companies can do to significantly increase the success of their change initiatives is create a burning platform. Once the vision is clear you need to delicately set the torch to the platform to create the sense of urgency around the need for change compelling people to move forward. This is one area time and time again I see as an opportunity for companies to be more successful with the change initiatives.

As you begin your strategic planning for 2015 ask yourself: Are you ready? Have you thoroughly planned out your change initiative? Is the aim of the vision clear and laser focused? Is your vision compelling including a burning platform for change that is really on fire? These questions will help lead you to achieving greater success with your change initiatives.

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