When times are Uncertain: Strengthen Business Fundamentals

by Dr. Donald N. Sweet

What does the latest economic turbulence mean for the economy and your business?  Who knows!  As we all listen to the pundits we get very different messages.  The bottom line is no one knows for sure what is going to happen in general, let alone how it will affect your industry or your business.

What is a business owner or CEO to do?  How do you sort through all the conflicting data and opinions?  I, for one, don’t think you do.  I don’t believe that is the best place to invest your time and energy right now.   Both CEOs and their teams need to invest time and energy in the improvement of their business fundamentals at this point in time.

You have to do something.  Standing still to wait and see what happens, while an option, is not a good one, in my opinion.  Even in these times of uncertainty, we need to take positive steps forward.  As leaders, we owe that to our employees as well.  They need to have something they can work on that will strengthen the company and help secure their jobs.

I tell my clients to turn off the news, some of which, in my humble opinion, approaches sensationalism.  For many it only serves to depress them.  This is a time we all need to take action, positive action.  We need to do something that will make a difference in our companies, if nowhere else, at the moment.

What could be more fundamental than looking at our business organizational infrastructure?   My colleague, Dr. Brad Lebo, continually tells our clients how important having written core values are to an organization.  Having them is the first important step; effectively communicating them is next.

Core values define our business culture.  Perhaps seeing the glass as half full is a core value in your business.  Do all employees know that?  Do they see you modeling that value?  You get the message.  Perhaps it’s time to revisit your core values.  Maybe they just need to be dusted off and communicated.

The point is if we have positive core values, and what business doesn’t, this is an excellent time to remind everybody about them and for you as boss to walk the talk.  At the end of the day actions speak so much louder than words.  After core values, why not review your brand promises?  We like to see three, a lead promise and two supporting promises.  As an example, Southwest Airlines’ lead promise is Low Fares which are supported by lots of flights and lots of fun.

What does your business promise to the marketplace?  At this point you may be saying what we really need are sales, not brand promises.  While you may very well be right about needing more sales, having a well understood brand promise helps both your sales team and your customers do more business with your company.  Providing focus is critical to your success.  Brand promises also help define what you are not.  Employees and customers should not spend time and effort on what you don’t promise.

How about priorities?  Do you have a handful of company priorities for the next three months?  Does everyone on the team know what they are and what their role is in the execution of those priorities?  Let’s take those questions one at a time.

Priorities are key for the team members in the organization to know what is important.  Without priorities we don’t know what is most important to do next.  If we don’t know we should sail the ship north to arrive at our destination we might go south instead.  We need to have targets, and priorities supply them.

Only have a handful of priorities.  Too many and we lose focus.  We spend too much time doing less important items when we have 17 or 27 priorities.  Narrowing the list down is heavy lifting, but it is also where the payoff is located.  Taking the time and team effort to come up with five priorities for the next three months brings laser focus to the business.  These few priorities need to be tied to the long term goals of the company, too.

When we have a handful of company priorities, it becomes easier to communicate them to the team.  Many organizations bring the players involved together to have them map out what needs to be done to accomplish the priority.  These groups function much like LEAN teams.  The process owners are present along with the champion and folks impacted by the process.  Finally it is always good to have someone present who has no idea about the process that will ask the silly questions like, “why do we do it that way?”

This allows for a fully vetted process to achieve the priority.  Responsibilities are determined, completion dates of intermediate steps agreed, and resources secured.  Everyone should have a document laying out the individual commitments and group expectations.

We now have a number of positive things we can do in our business as we’re waiting for the economic picture to become clearer.  We will have invested this uncertain period in strengthening our organization’s fundamentals.  We will have taught our employees more about our culture, our priorities and how they fit into the overall picture.  We will be in a better position to take advantage of opportunities because our business has better alignment from the top down and from the bottom up.  We will function as a much more productive and happy team.  Be bold and take some positive steps in these uncertain times!