The Planning Side of Leadership

A plan is simply charting where you want to go. As Lewis Carroll once said, “If you don’t know where you are going, then any road will get you there.” As a leader, you need to know where you want to go.  Some say the term leadership was derived from the old Norse word “laed,” meaning to determine the course of a ship.

Charting involves some form of a planning process.  You need a process that facilitates the journey.  In my corporate strategy course, the corporate planning process taught was rather rigorous as the challenges of large corporations are complex. As a former Vice President of Corporate Planning, I can attest to that complexity and modeling. But the Silver Fox Advisors focus on entrepreneurs and small businesses which is the viewpoint this blog will take.

Envisioning Stage

A planning process is a natural sequence of activities the first being envisioning the business.  What business do you want to be in and why (often termed purpose)?  What will that business look like in the future. i.e. what are you hoping to achieve (often termed vision)?  What is the path or pathways that will lead you there (often termed mission)?  You may have been operating for some time and never thought this through.  It is hard to be a good leader without being able to articulate this vision.

In fact, leaders are good at visioning. Recall the Strategic Thinking strength discussed under Proficiencies in the 4 Inner Ps of Leadership blog.  My experience is that many people have difficulty in expressing big picture visions.  However, when presented with one, most people provide helpful feedback and commentary on whether they want to be part of that journey. Common sense is to have dialogue with others about your ideas to enhance and bring forth a common purpose for the journey.

There is an outward perspective as above, but do not forget the internal perspective of how the organization functions and behaves.  I find most often that small businesses do not think through their values as an example.  These behavioral rules will form one way or the other, so ensure they are positively impacting the organization by thinking them through. Think about three areas: conduct (e.g. respect), performance (e.g. accountability), and attitudes (e.g. customer centric). Again, involving your people enhances and develops buy in for your values.

As the leader, you cannot over communicate and dialogue this journey with your People. Get them engaged and excited regularly.

Opportunity Assessment (SWOT)

Will the journey be worthwhile?  Said another way, what is the business opportunity? Why do you think your vision will attract customers? Leaders think positively about the future that helps inspire followers to join the ride.

The next big question is who are your competitors?  Many times, small businesses answer there is no real competition for what I offer or intend to offer.  That is naïve because even in the remote possibility it is true and the marketplace likes what you offer, there soon will be competitors. There is an assortment of other threats to be considered particularly having enough working capital to sustain the business and so forth.

Thus, there will be competitors.  What are your strengths that you will/can leverage to attract customers?  What weaknesses need to be shored up or repositioned so that you have a viable product/service in your targeted marketplace?

This is a fast-paced world so be sure get as much input from others in the dynamics of this marketplace.  Be brutally honest in this assessment but positive in your game plan on how to achieve the vision.

Game plan

This SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) will lead to creating your customer value proposition that differentiates your offering from the competition. How then will you make that a reality?  What is the game plan that enables you to win the customer and beat the competition?  In planning terminology, what are your basic strategies?  Normally, there will only be a handful of these strategies that are key to your success. Don’t over strategize or you will lose focus on what is critically important.

The key is to concentrate on what really makes you different and better for your targeted customers. Do we have a better product or service and in what way (i.e. Product leadership)? Are we going to be more affordable by having some streamlined operations (i.e. Operational excellence)? Can we distribute or provide the product or service in a new way (i.e. Customer innovation)?  How will we attract customers via branding and what channels will we use to reach them (i.e. Marketing)?  How are we going to be more responsive to customers’ needs (i.e. Customer solutions)?  How will we raise or generate sufficient cash to run the business (i.e. Financial)?

Then, you need to put your action plans together. Given these strategies, what are the most important things that need to happen now, short term, and longer horizon? Again, be extremely focused on these tactics.  What is the objective to be accomplished?  Who is going to do it and be responsible that it happens? When will it be done and what are your checkpoints?

Think about strength-based leadership in formulating these action plans.  Get those who are going to be involved engaged in the specifics of what, why, and how. Remember that participative management leads to better performance.


Of course, the leader of a small business must be involved in the implementation of these game plans.  We will address this in a future blog the Performance side of Leadership. Keep the 3 Ps of People, Planning, and Performance top of mind. Planning is the catalyst that leads People to Performance.

Performance Feedback and Course Adjustment

The planning process is circular in nature.  Success rarely happens without continuously reviewing how you are Performing. Create a regular schedule to assess both your financials and action plans, monthly generally works well but at least quarterly.  Live your values in these meetings without demeaning people.  Think being objective. Make them more than status reports; chart out new actions as the situation dictates.  Celebrate success.

As a leader, address major opportunities, threats, and problems as they occur.  Be quick to react and when possible proact. Create separate sessions to address bigger picture topics or specific issues. Covid 19 is a good example.  Leadership agility has become critical in this world of accelerating and chaotic change.  We will share our thoughts on leadership agility and other adaptive skills in a future blog.

Ending Thoughts

In summary, the small business owner or CEO needs to be sure there is a planning process to set the course of direction.  Otherwise, there is just day to day fire fighting with little growth and questionable viability. My 4 Stage Growth Model for Small Businesses (blog post October 8, 2020) provides a great deal of insight into what you should focus on to progress to the next level.

Planning in small business cannot be a rigid structure.  Yet, you must write down your plans even in bullet form on paper and make it evergreen.  Otherwise, they just drift away.

There are those who question anything associated with planning/thinking beyond a couple months and perhaps annual arguing the world is moving too fast. Certainly, the cycle time of your business makes a difference, but for me that advice is rather naïve.  Envisioning will have a longer-term horizon.  You need specific plans for the here and now. But I find most business forget the mid-term.  What will be our next stage to bridge to our longer-term vision?  That is where the 4 Stage Growth Model can be helpful.  Identify the critical success factors needed to move up the growth curve.

Even though the activities of planning have a sequential logic, think of the process as parallel processing in real time shifting focus as the situation dictates.  Leadership shows forethought rather than panic.

Contributed by Lane Sloan, former Shell CFO and Silver Fox Advisor.

The 4 “Inner” Ps of Leadership

In my recent blogs, I have been advocating a leadership framework based on the 3 Ps of People, Planning, and Performance. 

Everything around leadership begins with People.  There is no leader without followers.  Followers need to know what direction to go.  That takes orchestrating facilitated by Planning.  Carrying out the plan requires integrating and executing to achieve the desired results.  People follow positive results, which broadly is all about Performance.

From a leadership perspective, these 3 Ps are what I would call “outer” things: the actions, interactions, and results from the leader dealing with his/her “outer” world.

What about the “inner” world of the leader?  What makes the leader behave, act, and respond to this “outer” world?

Let me advocate another simple framework based on The 4 Inner Ps: Purpose, Persuasions, Personality, and Proficiencies.  This is a little long for a typical blog, but I want to get the whole picture in your mind to help you with your leadership journey.

Personal Purpose

In my book Develop a Leadership Plan: Become a Great Leader, Purpose is a fundamental driver for the individual in journeying through life.  Many people have approaches to help develop personal purpose or missions such as Stephen Covey, John DeMartini, and our own Silver Fox Advisor Monte Pendleton. 

We explored What is your personal purpose?  in my blog posting of October 13, 2020.  Your Purpose is the centerpiece of your “inner” self.  It becomes a guidepost in building your leadership capabilities.


Persuasions are deep rooted beliefs, feelings, needs, perceptions, values, and morals that influence how you behave and act in the “outer” world. They persuade you in acting a certain way and create a filter or bias in dealing with the “outer” world bringing judgment in how to behave. 

Values, a key Persuasion, are quite important in setting priorities for behavior.  It is often surprising to find that people have not really thought through their values and what is important to them.  Recognize that needs can rearrange these value priorities.  You may well have a value of not to steal.  But if you are starving to death, you may override that value. 

Thus, needs are a big driver of Persuasions.  Your needs certainly change over time.  When basic needs such as safety and security are satisfied, then a new driver emerges such as a desire to belong and be loved, having a family, achieving some form of status and personal accomplishment, etc. It is worthwhile to understand what needs are driving your current behavior and actions.

Beliefs likewise have a real impact on behavior.  Do you think people like to work or need to be coerced? Are looks important for a leader and if so to what degree? Do you have religious beliefs or are you an atheist? And so forth. You may be keeping these beliefs from others.  Likewise, you may not know how certain beliefs are unbeknownst to you but playing out for others to see.

Perspectives are how we see the world and represent your reality.   It is valuable to understand your own perspective and reality. As a leader, understanding other’s perspectives can be invaluable in working with them. How can you do that?

As Eric S Burdonhighlighted in a short article in Medium in May 2018, there are two ways to open-up your perspective.   Perspective-taking is viewing the world from other viewpoints.  Perspective-seeking is using an objective point of view rather than taking sides.  The key with perspectives, is trying to find where the other person is coming from.  What is their view of the world or situation and why? Very rigid personal perspectives can handicap your leadership.

Morals along with the other Persuasions form your character, things like trustworthiness, respect, and fairness. In many respects, character becomes your license to operate as a leader.

Below is the concept of a Johari Window.


It gets at how you display your “inner” self to others in the “outside” world. My suggestion is to open your arena to include more of the Façade and to collaborate with others to ascertain Blind Spots. Really knowing your blind spots can be extremely helpful in effectively dealing with other People. This generally means talking about your Persuasions with your People.  In doing this, you will become more authentic which is an important attribute of a good leader.


Personality has a strong impact on behavior. It is much easier to read in a person than Persuasions, and typically falls in the Arena block of the Johari window.  Personality has many different aspects to it.  Things like being introverted or extroverted, funny or serious, generally positive or negative, energetic or lethargic, and so forth. 

Of course, there are various theories on personality and tests to measure different characteristics such as Myers Briggs or Birkman which are useful in understanding an individual. 

Having an extroverted personality or being dominant does not always predict leadership success.  Introverted individuals with a strong resolve and character can be successful leaders.

Personality does not really change that much. However, sometimes we have personality quirks that can be a fatal leadership flaw. For example, always having a negative scowl on your face in directing people. One should try to address any such flaws. They can derail your interpersonal relations with others.  Generally, these can be corrected with coaching.

I would put leadership styles under Personality. Are you a participative type leader, authoritarian, or consultative?  Do you have more concern for people or production? Are you flexible depending on the situation or is your approach highly rigid?  Are you team based or more of a boss?  

Leadership styles certainly impact Performance. You can change your style but be sure it is real and authentic.  Saying you are a participative boss and acting authoritarian is a worse outcome than simply being authoritarian.


Proficiencies are an individual’s capabilities and skills. Traits like basic intelligence and personal attributes have an underlying impact, but these must turn into Proficiencies such as the ability to solve problems, to vision, to influence, and so forth.

Thus, one foundation of Proficiencies is your traits. Many different authors have researched traits over the years.  I find Peter Northouse’s analysis in his latest text on Leadership Northouse Theory and Practice to be insightful. The five main traits suggested are Intelligence, self-confidence, determination, integrity, and sociability. 

The trait approach to leadership is often critiqued as not being a stand-alone theory to leadership.  I agree traits are simply one dimension of understanding leadership capability, and there is no generally agreed upon list. Traits are much more like Personality in that they are less teachable such as intelligence.  However, a trait like self-confidence can be built upon by developing the other Proficiencies below.

Another foundation of Proficiencies that drives competencies comes from knowledge.  First is your knowledge and capability about running a business.  Often entrepreneurs have a lack of understanding in general areas such as financial management, operational execution, marketing, and so forth.  Having a business degree can help here.  Over time this knowledge can be learned by working in the business but needs to be done consciously.

Second is your knowledge of the specific industry under which the business falls.  What makes for success and failures in the industry?  Who are the main competitors? How does the industry react to new players? And so forth. Experience and tenure in the industry is generally very worthwhile. It also helps to talk with those who have this industry experience as you well know.

A third form of knowledge can be considered technical capabilities often relating to specific professions.  Are you an engineer and what type?  Are you an accountant? If the business has a product of a highly technical nature, do you understand all the logic in how it works?  This type knowledge generally requires schooling or some form of training, in other words practice. Traits such as IQ, math competencies, etc. play a role in developing this knowledge base.

The third foundation of Proficiencies for me comes under the area of leadership skills.  There are many different theories that could be referenced.  My preference is for Tom Rath and Barry Conchie’s leadership strengths from their book StrengthsFinder 2.0 Strengths based Leadership. Their research through Gallup polling found 34 different themes. For me, the value comes from their grouping these themes under four major domains: Executing, Influencing, Relationship Building, and Strategic Thinking.

They contend and I agree that leaders will not have all these competencies.  The idea is to build on your strengths and find others to form your team that bring strengths that balance yours.  I recommend to my clients that their leadership team take the strength finder’s test from the book and then talk about the results in a team meeting.  This has proven very enlightening in every case.

I do think leaders need to be aware of their interpersonal skills.  Daniel Goleman’s groundbreaking book on Emotional Intelligence provides a complementary set of personal skills critical for leadership success.  EQ has become generally widespread and as you probably know has five components: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills. Most clients do well on an EQ test, but if not, it is a clear coaching area.  Fortunately, EQ can be learned, unlike IQ.

Just like the other three inner P elements, Proficiencies have a strong impact on actions and behaviors in the “outer” world.  Generally, many Proficiencies can be developed and often the focus of leadership training and workshops.  Most Proficiencies improve with experience and practice.  Having a coach bringing the wisdom of such experiences can certainly speed up the learning process.

Tying it together

We are complex because it is the interaction of Purpose, Persuasions, Personality, and Proficiencies that drive our leadership behavior and actions in the “outer” world.  Understanding one element is only looking at part of the “inner” self that impacts behavior. But, by focusing on each element in working to make improvements and enhancements, we can improve our overall leadership performance.

If we do this in concert with our understanding of the 3 Ps of Leadership from the “outer” world perspective, we can become a great leader.

In summary, the 3 Ps of Leadership focus on your actual behavior, actions, and results in leading your business. For example, how do you treat your People? What overall vision and direction for the company exists? Have you built a high-Performance team?  And so forth.

The 4 Inner Ps of Leadership focus on your capability to lead.

Developing these “inner” 4 Ps of Leadership can benefit by having a coach. It is helpful when you delve into these fundamentals to have someone to reflect and confidentially discuss them with you. Having someone with experience and wisdom enhances that reflection.  Think of a Silver Fox Advisor.

Contributed by Lane Sloan, former Shell CFO and Silver Fox Advisor.

resources Silver Fox Advisors

What Is Your Personal Purpose?

For business owners, when you started up your company you most likely thought through why you were in business and what you wanted from it.  That is, what is the purpose of the business? The same basic question makes sense for you personally.  What is your lifes’ purpose … What is your personal purpose?

Many people seem to ignore this core question.  I am reminded of my favorite novella written by Richard Bach entitled Jonathan Livingston Seagull.  This seagull had a personal purpose wanting to fly higher and faster than his brethren seagulls; he loved to fly. The flock concentrated on eating, searching for crumbs on the beach in a competitive frenzy only to wake up the next day and do the same thing all over again.

They floated through life.  Jonathan Livingston Seagull made a difference as he taught others there is more to life than just surviving. If you find yourself, floating through life take some time to think through your personal purpose. Do you want to fly high?

Here are some thoughts to help you along in discovering and empowering yourself with a personal purpose.


Monte Pendleton, one of the founders of the Silver Fox Advisors, wrote a piece on The Unlimited Power of the Personal Purpose. He says,” Man’s normal approach to life is reversed into ‘Do/Have/Be.’  It begins with doing instead of being, e.g., do your homework, then you’ll have an education, and then you’ll be a doctor. 

This approach misleads us into thinking that it is what we do that makes the most difference.” … “The truth is, the real difference we make in life is made, not by what we do, but by expressing who we already are (be). We already are magnificent.  We are a unique combination of virtues and qualities that have prepared us for a special task in life, to be on purpose in our world.”…

“You will love being ‘on purpose’ because it gives you permission to be exactly who you’d love to be, do what you would love to do, and have what you would love to have.” 

To zero in on what you want to be, you must prioritize what you love most. Monte suggests there are eight key life facets that you need to rank and force fit against the other. 

Here are the eight factors: career, family, financial, mental, physical, relationships, spiritual, serving.  With this ranking, then you focus on what you would love to be expressing with each.  For example: With my family, I would love to be expressing ____.  After a few iterations and a lot of discernment, your personal purpose tends to unfold.

Not unlike a business, Monte advocates you then develop your personal vision that is your dream of what you would love to Have or Have Accomplished at some point in the future. You go back to the eight factors and complete the sentences for each such as in my career, I would love to Have or Have Accomplished ____.  Then you set goals to do and achieve what you want to have.

There are many ways to explore and  develop your personal purpose statement.  Just search the internet and you will see. The concept is not new.  For example, the Japanese for centuries have been practicing ikigai, which fundamentally means a reason to live. 

In essence, what is the purpose of your life?  Ikigai has four components:  Passion—Do what you love; Profession—Do what you are good at; Mission-Do what the world needs; Vocation—Do what you can be paid for.  If this wholistic approach interest you, take a read of ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life by Hector Garcia Puigcerver and Francesc Miralles.

McKinsey’s Take on Personal Purpose

Recently, I came across an article from McKinsey & Co. entitled Do you know your life’s purpose? They suggest that life’s meaning comes from some combination of your values.

In their study, these are the values measured: achievement, conservation, caring, freedom, respect, tradition, enjoyment, stability, and equality/justice.  What I found interesting is that they uncovered three common patterns based on these values: free spirit, achiever, and care giver. 

That makes sense to me having always been achievement-focused wanting to contribute as much as possible in my short time on earth.  At this point, in my business role, the contribution is to help others become better leaders and successful in their business because a Leader’s impact has a multiplicative factor.

Uncovering your personal purpose does take some deep thinking and personal reflection on your part.  Many of the Silver Fox Advisors ( can coach you through the process that Pendleton recommends.  Is it worth the effort as Monte Pendleton proclaims?

What is the benefit?

In terms of benefit, I like Steve Taylor’s post in Psychology Today back in 2013 on The Power of Purpose which he felt was rather basic to leading a healthy life. First, he says that purpose causes us to look outward and less focused on our worries and anxieties.

McKinsey found that “People who have a strong sense of purpose tend to be more resilient and exhibit better recovery from negative events.” This is an exceptionally good thing in the middle of a pandemic crisis.

A corollary to looking outward is that we feel part of something bigger and less self-centered.  Taylor also describes the notion of flow, “the state of intense absorption in which we forget our surroundings and ourselves.” A strong sense of purpose brings more flow and the happier one becomes.  

I think that is obvious but a key benefit. And, when we follow our priorities of what we want to be, that leads to do and then have, we move into our comfort zone that increases our self-esteem and confidence.  Finally, he suggests having this direction and goals leads to hope.  There is a reason to live the next day.


My approach to personal purpose centers on self-development based on what you want to be.  For me, people can get a little tied up with eight or ten different criteria to evaluate their priorities. It seems to me there are really three basic macro areas: career development, personal development, and social development.

Under career development, I ask people to rank the following on what is most important to them and why:               

1) type of career (small to large company),

2) type of industry,

3) type of role,

4) financial livelihood, and

5) work environment.

This is generally done easily and varies considerably among clients. 

With personal, I ask them to again rank describing what is most important to them and why:                                                 

1) mental,

2) physical, and

3) spiritual. 

Again, there is little problem in general for people to rank these.

Finally, under social development falls

1) family,

2) friends, and

3) community.

Sometimes people ask to break out church from community. Often family comes to the top.

With each of these subsets of the macro areas prioritized, the real determinant of personal purpose begins. I ask them to rank the top prioritized item from each macro area against the other areas. 

In other words, does career development, personal development or social development have the top-ranking priority? We keep matching across the macro areas the top-ranking items until the list of priorities is complete.

To help people through this process, these type questions are interspersed: where are your passions? what excites you to talk about? what makes you feel good when doing it?

My clients are generally business owners or small company CEOs.  Thus, we morph what is going on in the business to their personal purpose map from the above development areas. This normally is eye opening.

In this regard, I usually introduce the COP model by Zener and Folkman from their book The Extraordinary Leader: Turning Good Managers into Great Leaders. It has some similarities to ikigai. Visualize three concentric circles overlapping like a triangle. One is based on your competencies, one on your passions, and one on organizational needs.  Where these three circles overlap, they call that the leadership sweet spot. It can be insightful on where to spend your time and effort within the business. This is similar to ikigai.

The Four “Inner” Ps

Personal purpose is one of the four “inner” Ps that I will discuss in an upcoming blog on my leadership model. An earlier blog on September 15, 2020 described The 3 Ps of Leadership (People, Planning, and Performance) that relate to your “outside world.”

I think it is crucial for a leader to have a strong sense of their purpose.  Being willing to share that with your people can excite them as they see your excitement.  It also leads to coaching to find out what their personal purpose is that helps create bonding and trust between you.

The Perfect Tool In an Imperfect World

Business owners and managers are worried about their remote workers. If you’ve never had anyone work away from the office before, it can be unnerving. How can they trust what is going on? Are hours being used wisely? How can I make everyone more accountable?

On the flip side, employees who work remotely worry they are not going to be given credit for the effort they spend and the work they produce.

Having this air of uncertainty doesn’t help anyone feel productive. I’ve heard of talk about upping your communication. What does that mean? More zoom?

Leaders providing clarity of purpose, assignment, and mission must have ways to drive accountability. Simply talking more won’t get there.

It’s Not a Perfect System.

How can the two sides connect to provide clarity of expectations and certainty of delivery? Well, you can have daily zoom calls, but who wants to do that forever?

You could build a giant database but who needs that burden piled on top of the already difficult process?

There is actually a very simple yet elegant system I’ve used for years. Calling it a system may scare some people away already. Maybe process or habit is better.

Explaining the Solution

The process is called Big 5. If you’ve followed my blog for any length of time I’ve written about this before.

But now is an especially significant change in workforce activity.

Big 5 can be the missing link for all you leaders who are worried about productivity and workers who wonder whether the boss knows your value.

Here’s How It Works.

On a regular basis, every employee (managers included) writes out five goals or expectations they have for the upcoming month. These would be your ‘big rock’ priorities or ‘must wins’.

Next you write down your five biggest achievements for the past month.

Neither of these sections is long text in paragraphs. No, it’s simply bullet listed items.

You can add some comments about resource needs, constraints, etc. But focus first on goals and accomplishments.

Then send it to your boss.

gratitude smile

The boss can review and give feedback. It becomes a flash moment of coaching between manager and employee.

“I like your goals 1 thru 4, but let’s talk more about number 5.”

“Wow, I had no idea you got so much done last month. Thank you for such a big contribution.” Or…

“Sam I like what you can do for us. However I see you’ve been struggling with this remote working environment. Let’s talk about ways I can help you.”

When the next period rolls around, the things you said were goals should become accomplishments. Now, you update the goals.

Take really big, longer term goals and break them down into those bite size tasks.

Frequency of Reporting

Usually, when I teach Big 5, we start with monthly check-ins. However, with the massive change in the workplace, like what we have right now, you might ask for weekly updates.

I once ran a large project with very high velocity, rapid-fire activity. A weekly check-in made more sense. I was providing my client with a status report every Monday, so I had my team do a weekly Big 5.

When they left on Friday, they dropped me their individual reports. I could compile them into a summary picture I gave the client on Monday.

It was powerful, productive, and very effective. Huge goals were achieved, deliverables were met, and the client was very happy with the results.

What About Me?

You might be saying I don’t have a team, but I do have a boss.

Ok, write your Big 5 and give it to the boss. When he/she says “What’s this?” Explain it to them. Say you want to create more clarity and you believe this can help.

That is exactly how I was introduced to Big 5. The colleague who created it actually worked for me many years ago. We were going through tumultuous times in our industry and days flew by.

Finally, one day he dropped a printed copy of his report on my desk. Sure enough, I said, “What’s this?” He explained. We had a brief discussion about the content. He left with perfect clarity of my expectations for him and his team.

Next month he was back again with an update.

And we thrived after that with better clarity, alignment, and a sense of achievement. Sure, we had meetings in between, but the big objectives were being conquered.

Fill the Gap

If you are worried about the productivity of your team, introduce the Big 5 process. If you don’t think your boss understands what you do, give them a Big 5 report. Rinse and repeat.

Big 5 has even replaced employee ranking and annual assessment tools. If you’re doing Big 5 monthly, when the annual review comes around, you have 60 data points to discuss. That, my friend, is powerful.

It’s by far not a perfect work world right now. Why not use a more perfect tool to manage the crisis?

Big 5 Performance is created by Roger Ferguson of ISIHRConsulting. Big 5 has a cloud-based app to automate the process. It even manages the reporting with the next level up managers. If the app is something you want for you, your team or your company click here.

4 stages of growth

Introducing the 4 Stage Growth Model

Small Businesses:  Understanding your pathway forward

When I taught corporate strategy at the University of Houston, publishers would send me Strategic Management books by their authors hoping they would be used in my classroom. 

For the most part, these were all very thick tomes with an assortment of large company case studies.  This was worthwhile for students wishing to pursue executive careers in large enterprises. 

However, as my focus shifted to advising small company entrepreneurs, these books were not something I could recommend to clients even though the concepts were very worthwhile.

Entrepreneurial Operating System (EOS)

Then, I was introduced to a book by Gino Wickman entitled Traction: Get a Grip on your Business.  It is specifically geared for small businesses.  Wickman has thoughtfully integrated the planning concepts espoused in Strategic Management books in a straightforward and thoughtful manner for the small business owner. 

It is very digestible and takes a wholistic systemic approach.  I have recommended this book to my clients and members of the Silver Fox Advisors’ CEO roundtables.

4 Stage Growth Model for Small Businesses

Clients have found it very worthwhile, but continue to ask the question of” What does the pathway forward look like for a small business?” Said another way, “Where am I at in trying to grow my business into a successful enterprise and what comes next?”

These questions plus work on developing a new approach for the Silver Fox Advisors’ CEO Roundtable led me to develop a 4 Stage Growth Model for Small Businesses. 

In this blog, we will look at the 4 stages with a high-level sketch.  In future blogs, we will examine in more depth the different stages and how the model can help guide you forward.  This is not a researched base model but rather a combination of my business experience, education, teaching, and advising small business clients.

Development Phase

When a business is in the early stage, revenues are not robust. Achieving a million dollars is often a goal. Cash is king and everything if focused on getting customers and limiting expenditures. The offering is the owner’s idea without a lot of customer validation.  Processes are not well defined and often ad hoc. Planning is sketchy at best and words like leadership are somewhat of a distraction.    In general, the time horizon is noticeably short with firefighting on a day to day basis.

Growth Phase

Owner(s) are getting excited about organization success.  Traction with new customers or expanding activities with current customers is generating a growing revenue base.  Typically, revenues run above one million and below ten million. 

The organization is approaching a going concern where the owner is less critical to survival and growth.  Revenues are providing cash to invest in the business and improve operability and to compete more effectively for new business.  Loss of key customers can prove devastating.

There is a fair amount of activity on generating new ideas for products/services/customers and more sophisticated approaches to attracting customers through marketing. Still planning is heavily oriented towards current year.  Planning still may be rather ad hoc lacking strategic focus synchronized with tactical game plans.  Planning framework including mission, vision, objectives, value propositions, target markets, strategic themes, competitor analysis, goal cascading, accountability, and so forth are often lacking.  Effort does not seem to match current rewards for many with the focus still on the here and now.

Other key players beyond the owner have evolved and perform critical roles.  Often, these players interact more, and teamwork is emerging.  Organization structure is still somewhat loose with not overly formal role definition. The size of the organization varies based on the nature of the product or service provided.  Often staff exceeds ten and but generally does not exceed fifty and almost always less than one hundred.  Contractors are used to avoid adding staff in many cases.  People can perform multiples functions.

Processes have emerged and there is a level of documentation and sometimes training.  Processes are often changing and adapting as more effective functioning progresses and customer feedback requires modifications to be made.

Local market continues to dominate customer base in most cases.  Customer loyalty has emerged and identified as key customers with a retention focus.  Expenditures for sales and marketing have expanded significantly. Often there are some dedicated people to sales beyond owner and budgets for improved web sites, marketing collateral, and marketing campaigns.

Owner and key players are beginning to think about how to motivate and retain employees. Decision making processes are receiving some scrutiny.  Delegation has emerged where owner feels comfortable with key players carrying out more defined roles.  Level of participation in decision making varies but generally still well controlled by owner.

Take Off” Phase

Customers are pulling business into extended and new offerings.  Revenue generation feels robust giving confidence to be more aggressive in investing and taking business activities to next level. As revenues trend towards ten million the excitement begins that the business could be much bigger.  This phase generally drives the business through doubling of sales approaching $20 to $25 million.

Organization has become a going concern and largely self-sustaining if owner were to disengage.  Thus, business also become sellable for potential multiples of revenue depending on growth rate of revenue and profitability.  Owners consider acquiring competition to expand current market or move into new markets.

Leadership team recognizes that making this leap forward requires much more sophisticated planning.  Planning exercises with key staff and down deeper in the organization occur.  Outside consulting assistance can occur with business plans developed and EOS type structures implemented. Current year still receives the greatest focus, but plans can extend out 2 to 3 years and occasionally to five + years particularly where new geographic markets are being pursued.

Organization has matured with more structure on roles and responsibilities. Delegation has taken shape. Developing staff for further growth is an agenda item as is how to acquire more of the right people to help drive the organization forward.  Often a human resource manager or responsibility is defined.  Owner will not always get involved in hiring lower level staff, but still heavily engage in getting the right team in place.  Management team is generally defined and often have team meetings.  Decision making generally becomes more participative.  Again, the size of the staff will vary depending on product and services offered but generally greater than twenty and may approach or exceed one hundred.

Operational and organizational processes are often seen as a competitive advantage as they have become fine-tuned for offerings.  Focus centers on developing capabilities that beat the competition. Accountability around the processes has become an important aspect of daily operations. Often computer system applications play an integral role with key processes.

Strategic account management for key customers has generally emerged.  Much greater understanding of competitors and their strengths and vulnerabilities.  These insights are often brought together to pursue new markets whether geographical or enhanced/new offerings.

The owner now typically sees their role as leader and that developing their leadership further will be key to breaking out.  They begin reading books on leadership and exploring support to improve their leadership and often that of their team. They begin to assess leadership of their key players.

Expansion Phase

Organization has matured to stage where planning systems have been implemented and natural ongoing routine with a comprehensive framework, guidelines, meetings, and so forth.  Accountability clear with target objectives and follow up for business units and individuals.

Revenues are significant exceeding twenty to twenty-five million but still with clear upside through organic growth and acquisitions. Sustainability is no longer an issue.  Company is fully functioning with vibrancy and robustness. Raising money for expansion can impact growth rate.

Generally, there are clear roles and responsibilities with multiple organizational levels.  Human resource manager/group is an ongoing function managing competitive salary and benefit offerings as well as performance management systems.  Management team is clear with defined accountabilities.  May have a board of directors or board of advisors. As with other phases, size of organization dependent on products and services however staff levels may be several hundred. Empowerment begins to emerge as a discussion topic. Values are generally well defined and seen as key to organization’s culture.

Almost always the processes are well defined and considered key to success.  As expansion occurs through mergers or strong organic growth, processes may need a revamp. Often more sophisticated computer application systems are installed for some key activities. Processes are generally considered owned by the function or management of the area.

Generally, the company has already moved into new markets from the original conception at the Development Phase.  Sales and marketing activities have matured in Take Off phase and often require revamp to drive further growth with greater sophistication.  The organization expects to move into new opportunity areas often into new geographies as local market’s growth may have played out but are highly leverageable for new entry. Markets and customers are well defined. Often company has developed a go to market strategy.

Value proposition seen as multi-dimensional. Company excels on various dimensions such as product leadership, operational excellence, and customer intimacy with one chosen as the lead theme. 

The organization begins to evaluate the quality of leadership.  Informal groups have emerged and can begin to counterbalance management team objectives. New levels of leadership sophistication become important to an organization’s success.

Contributed by Lane Sloan, former Shell CFO and Silver Fox Advisor.

COVID Fatigue is Real!

The United States is in a high state of uncertainty where the future is concerned. We’re a nation that wants our news, meals, and money right now. Once a big event happens, we are all consumed with Twitter, Facebook, and news outlets for a few days or even weeks. And then we move on.

We’re not able to move on from COVID, at least not yet. We’re still wearing masks, social distancing, working from home, dealing with childcare, loneliness, financial, and mental issues. We drag on wondering when this will be over.

I spoke with a group of CEOs recently that are highly concerned with employee fatigue. They’re seeing a rise in employee issues and considerable productivity drop off. Words of encouragement are falling on deaf ears when the actions following are not personal. “Just do your job” or “find a way” is not cutting it.

Each person is wired differently. How they act under fatigue may be quite different than normal circumstances and not easily recognizable.

If you want to combat COVID fatigue, you have to meet your employees where they are. Get personal.

team meeting

Here are some ideas for you to think about that I’ve heard were effective:

Conduct 30-minute discussions with staff daily. One on one meetings may not be doable but small group calls can be. Ask how are they doing at home, how are the spouse and kids, is there anything impeding their work that you could help with?

Proactively identify those at risk. If you already have a personality assessment on employees, dust them off. If not, consider getting one. Look for things like their Social Energy scores, or Restlessness, or Organizational needs.

Employee Surveys– Do a formal and confidential survey and get a pulse. Results may not be specific, but it can be a good starting point.

Professional Counseling – Many insurance companies offer some form of counseling for mental challenges. Inquire about eligibility through the Employment Assistance Option or consider purchasing an option for the employees. Whatever you do, make sure the employees know it is confidential.

No one is certain when the risk with the pandemic will finally subside. We should expect COVID fatigue to get worse before it gets better.

Get on top of it with your employees now. It is real.

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