We sell the big picture, but we coach the connect-the-dot path

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One of the most powerful best practices is simply this: Chart a course and make it clear. Everyone on the ship has a number that makes them row, together, to our destination.

When we chart a course, it is like a GPS coordinate. It has a compass bearing. There are no straight lines to the goal. Only straight destinations. The greater the endeavor, the greater the delegation required. It is also best to set a destination and course correct weekly. Fast succeed and stay the course ,or fast fail and correct, weekly.

We must put our leadership, management and accountability into clear communication. Clear expectation. And relentless inspection. Tenacity.

The most amazing performance will look more like a controlled zig-zag line than a straight line. The success is in controlling the zig and the zag.

Revenues have flattened. Profitability is off target. Expenses are now out of proportion to budgeted expectations. This year’s budget looks flat, again. Your best leaders and players tell you why, but they cannot tell you how to fix it. You are getting excuses, reasons, industry trends, reinforced support for status quo, yet those very people want to be paid the same or more regardless of results. You have a seasoned staff of sales and business development players who own the relationships, yet they are not driving new business and their existing client base’s revenue is slowly eroding. The issues of flat or shrinking markets, flat or shrinking customer budgets, and increased competition are being hailed as insurmountable, and you feel held hostage. Is this as much a catch-22 as it seems?

The real crux of the matter is that when we are in the arena facing a ceiling, we are many times blind to the solutions. It takes a fresh perspective, unrelenting focus on best practice, and a willingness to get out of comfort zones to break through a ceiling like this.

A fact to declare early in this post is that in some cases, you may be riding a dying horse. There are scenarios in which you cannot outsmart and optimize into a new and healthier bell curve. Having said that, in many, if not most cases, we can. There are ways to focus, identify and resolve some key issues that can positively break through a current ceiling and kickoff a healthier revenue and profitability matrix.

We must be open to optimizations, changes to market approach, relationship management, business development, sales energy and effort, sales style and a willingness to change what we are saying and what we are getting, operations, client support and focus, and leadership focus. It is not a tweak. It is also not a damn the torpedoes reckless approach. It is bold, though. Having been a change agent in breaking ceilings many times in my career, I will readily admit that it is not a pure science with a perfect record. It is hit or miss, adjust, fast fail, adjust, with a great deal of best practice and engagement of the right people in the right seats. No two are the same, but all change management scenarios share similarities.

Ceilings are a natural part of business and life. They are a chance to sharpen ourselves and our teams to strengthen the core business, expand the core business, embolden a current bell curve or kickoff a new bell curve. It is opportunity masked in a riddle.

Here are ten (10) best practices to consider when faced with a ceiling breaking, change management challenge (in no particular order of importance):

  1. Culture eats strategy for breakfast. When we hit a ceiling, it is highly probable that we need to assess several culture benchmarks. We may find gaps or that we score below the mark on some of these. In those cases, we must be willing to address them.
    1. Do we have clear core values and are we hiring, promoting and firing based on them?
    2. Do we have a clear and well communicated vision agreed to by all?
    3. Would the first word out of our teams’ mouths to describe our culture be “healthy”? If not, then we need to get there. This, alone, is like a dead weight being pulled behind every player on our team.
    4. Are we open and honest behind closed doors, and do we address issues and elephants in the room with grace and safety?
    5. Do we have a healthy meeting cadence, and do we have solid agendas that render focused, prioritized solutions every week at all levels in the company?
    6. Do we do what we say and live up to our promises to each other?
    7. Have we swept inappropriate and/or unsavory things under the rug with a powerful leader or player on the team that should have been addressed and that person, potentially removed from the organization? Hope not. If so, get it handled.
  2. There is no valor, excellence or gumption in giving up in a scenario where we could have won. Yes, we can, and yes, we will. The most important element in doing anything hard that is going to take ingenuity, effort, change, and hard work, is to be optimistic, believe it can be done, and lead like it. Take charge and lead the way. Many days will look bleak. Many meetings may end with no clear solution. People will tell you why we cannot… you need to tell them to stop talking about problems and start delivering solutions. For the switch to flip on problems to solutions, we must first flip our own switch to believe we can do it. Never give up. Find the way. Be tenacious. Expect and command the same from all leaders. If we are to break through a ceiling, then the first one is in our head.

“90 plus percent of winning in anything you try to do in America today, you’ve got to be excited. People in America won’t follow or believe in a negative, dull, disillusioned, frustrated, dadgum cry baby. People want people that are positive and excited and enthusiastic and tough.” ~Art Williams

3. We start doing our jobs at our quota, goals, and we need to reshape how we perceive this. In a previous blog post I address this. Are you unwittingly promoting a culture of “Almost Hitting Goals?” It is exceedingly mind-opening and liberating for an entire organization to reset expectations to exceeding goals. Hitting a goal is barely doing the job. It is admirable, but it is not extraordinary. In ceiling breaking scenarios, I find many in the enterprise are almost hitting goals, and that seems to be acceptable. In a best practice organization, almost hitting a goal is failing. It may be barely failing, but it is not succeeding. In a best practice organization, we start doing our job at 100% of goal.


4. Structure first, people second. Have we structured our business smartly around delivering our products and services efficiently to our clients? Did we go astray and structure our business around people and now we have something that is not smartly focused on our brand and our clients? In order to break through ceilings, we must have the tenacity to address the structure issues and the people problems. Many times, we walk past these and they fester. In order to break through a ceiling, we must address both.

5. Problem worship versus problem solving: In a healthy enterprise that can and will break through ceilings, we will push problems down and solutions will be pushed up. This is contradictory to what we normally find in a stalled business. Let me reiterate, we are describing a successful company that has excelled and prospered, but now finds itself stalling. What worked is not working as well. The solutions are not coming up. The problems are coming up to the top and the expectation is that solutions will flow down. This post may be enlightening to offer more on this subject. “Oh Mighty Problem. We Worship You!” Do You have A Culture of Problem Worship?

Leading is making a long path into shorter, more easily measured sprints. To get from A to H, we must aim for “H” and run mini sprints towards “H” from A to B, then recalibrate towards H and get to C. And then to D, but always looking at H. Fast succeed or fast fail, and course correct accordingly. And so on. It is a zig zag.

6. Drive-by meeting culture: When we stall out and hit a ceiling, we may find that our meeting style and approach has become choppy, interrupting, and inefficient. We should command an efficient meeting culture whereby we avoid throwing monkeys off on each other and respect the priority focus and organization of our peers. Here is a post on the drive-by meeting culture. I think you will find it helpful if you have this worst practice running wild in your organization. What is a “Drive – By” meeting culture and how costly is it?

7. We must be willing to look openly at our value proposition to our clients. How client-centered are we? We need to make client experience a major focus. Are we easy to do business with? Do we solve a major client need, and if so, are we marketing ourselves clearly and simply to reflect that? How well represented is our value proposition to our clients in our sales pitch, our websites, our collateral, our trade shows and events? This is where the discomfort and resistance come in with a seasoned team that is eloquently selling “why we cannot” up to management instead of “how we will” up and to the clients. We need a team finding the way to sell our products and services at or above quotas to the clients. We may need to listen to the clients and the sales and marketing team to see what is needed to hit goals. Having said that, we start where we are, and we hit goals now as well. This is a stare down moment, but we also want to be sensitive and trustworthy so that we win the good people over. We are not trying to run off good people who will get on our side of the rope. We may have to win a discussion and lead them on a new path that is best practice and hits goals, though.

Mediocrity is unacceptable. Period. Your leaders must abhor mediocrity. We must embrace excellence and best practice as liberating and refreshing.

8. Executives, marketing and sales – take a client tour and find out how we are perceived. What do our clients need? How well are we targeting their needs? Are we delivering well? Are we easy to do business with? Get face to face with some of our best clients, from all client categories. Be willing to hear and adjust. We may find the root issue with revenues and profits by getting belly-to-belly with our clients. It is important for executives, marketing and sales to go together and be open to reshaping our offering and value proposition. Most of the time it will not be reinventing the wheel, but rather reshaping the wheel to a rounder wheel.

9. Be willing to address and correct product/service delivery fallacies, operations mediocrity and customer care mediocrity. What if your sales and marketing teams have delivered at a best practice level and they are trying to pull a carriage with square wheels? I have encountered this many times when engaged to correct a “poorly performing sales and marketing team.” When assessed with no bias or predetermination, the facts showed that the sales and marketing teams were the strong point, and they were carrying “protected” mediocrity behind them. It is also likely that the sales and marketing team will have lost some of the fire in their belly or even taken up some worst practices themselves. So, we have to all be willing to raise all bars to best practice to break through ceilings. It is truly a team effort.

10. People are miserably comfortable in their current state. This has always perplexed me, but it is well documented. When asked to complain or explain, most people stuck in an impenetrable ceiling have inexhaustible energy to eloquently describe problems, ascribe blame, and then express how it cannot be remedied. That drives people like me crazy, but I am wired differently. Where is the energy to solve the problem? What is your proposed solution? Please understand that in order to break through a ceiling, we must push people out of their respective comfort zones. They are more comfortable in their current misery than they will be in the new discomfort to remedy the root misery. So, understand this going in, and be compassionate, yet relentless, in leading them out of their comfort zones across the pathway to the new solution. They will either wear you out or you will wear them into a boldness to step out of their respective comfort zone. Someone will win, and the ceiling will not break if they wear you down.

In closing, I hope these points help frame some of what we face in breaking through ceilings. Ceilings are a natural part of business and life. They are a chance to sharpen ourselves and our teams to strengthen the core business, expand the core business, embolden a current bell curve or kickoff a new bell curve. It is opportunity masked in a riddle. These are inherently complex for us because it pushes us into new perspectives, new realities, a more reflective and honest mirror, and the guts to take it on. If you face a ceiling, use your peer groups and look for some help. Hitting a ceiling is not easy, and it will happen to all of us.

Until next time, cheers!

  1. Great message yesterday Mel. Loved the description of riding a dead horse. I’ve said this many times when working to get everyone on the same page. “Sometimes in management we feel like we are riding the horse sitting backwards with no saddle” – John Duane Scott.

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