Have you ever found yourself running around the house wiping things down and straightening up BEFORE the housekeeper arrives. It sounds crazy, but we’ve all been there…embarrassed or unwilling to let the world see what’s REALLY going on, how bad the mess really is.
Businesses fall into this same trap when it comes to working ON the business through strategic planning and execution. There is always one more thing to clean up or straighten out BEFORE they can rally the team to build and execute a strategic plan. The list of examples we’ve run into is long.
- “It’s been really busy. Once things slow down a little bit and everyone catches their breath we will be ready
- We just hired a bunch of new people and it would be better if they had some experience first
- Our controller has been out dealing with an illness and we really need her at the table before we do something big like that
- We just started converting our systems over to a new software package and it’s got everyone buried. They won’t have time until we’re done
- Our new sales manager really needs everyone’s help to get things cleaned up in that department before we can talk about business strategy
- We are changing locations and that’s going to be very disruptive. It would be better to wait.
- There’s a new product line we are introducing and that has our full attention right now
- Our org chart is going through some big changes and until that settles down we just can’t manage any more change
- The CEO is about to go on sabbatical for two months.
- There’s a recession coming, let’s get through that before we start building plans to grow the business”
What is it that makes all of these excuses irrelevant?
First, to call them excuses isn’t quite right, because they are born out of a misunderstanding that comes from inexperience in the disciplines of strategic planning and execution. They aren’t excuses so much as they are the reality that faces small business teams every day. They are the whirlwind.
In their book The Four Disciplines of Execution Chris McChesney, Sean Covey and Jim Huling coined the term “the whirlwind” to describe the day-to-day responsibilities, fires, rabbit holes, dead ends, employee crises, and customer headaches that exist in our jobs. The whirlwind is inescapable because it is everything you are getting paid to do as part of your 40-50 hour per week job description. In fact, in our work with leadership teams all it takes to be extraordinarily successful over the long term is just 2-3 hours per week away from the whirlwind. This is time when you close the door, go to a coffee shop or work from home on your biggest 90 day priority. The rest of the time we know you will be mostly reactive, living in the whirlwind.
Let go and let your team
It is usually the leader that is trying to manage the whirlwind hoping that one day it will subside and there will be time to actually work on the business. Unfortunately that day is never coming.
The alternative is to let go and allow the team to manage the businesses in the midst of all kinds of whirlwind activities. I said earlier that we have seen every one of the items above used as an excuse NOT to work on the business. You might be surprised to know that we have also seen every single one of those items listed as a strategic priority tackled by a team that was growing the business. That’s right, one business’s excuse is another business’s strategic priority.
What’s the difference between a team that is just trying to survive the whirlwind and one that is tackling huge whirlwind issues and making them strategic priorities? The simplest answer is growth. Businesses trying to survive are usually stagnant. Those with leadership teams addressing the whirlwind in the context of a strategic plan are growing the business. Both businesses are going through the same set of circumstances. One is growing and one is maintaining the status quo.
Status Quo vs Actual Performance
Leaders struggling to maintain the status quo are rarely measuring the actual performance of their leadership team. They have taken on too much of the responsibility themselves, and rightly perceive that it’s not fair to hold people accountable for performance they haven’t been given the freedom to improve.
A different approach is to be transparent with the team and admit that yes, the house is a wreck. However, from this point forward, it is the team’s responsibility to get things in order, not just the business owner’s responsibility. The owner is simply one member of the team and cannot be expected to do it all.
The owner and the team can then decide how performance will be measured. Note we’ve said nothing about the owner setting an unrealistic expectation for performance in the face of overwhelming whirlwind responsibilities. We haven’t introduced expectations at all. We are just measuring how the business and individual leaders are actually performing.
Some important things happen when we start measuring what is actually going on in the business.
- Leaders who belong on your team accept responsibility for their areas of performance.
- Those who don’t belong on your team quickly self identify and look for a way out.
- Reality sets in and people realize that even in the midst of the whirlwind performance needs to continue and improve over time.
- The biggest whirlwind items, those that affect the entire team, become priorities that marshal the full attention and resources of the team.
We Aren’t as Special as We Think
I met with a business owner once who went on and on about all the reasons now wasn’t a good time for him to work with the team on growing the business. He rattled off three things that I remember well. First, he had just made a big tax payment and needed some time to rebuild cash reserves. Second, his inventory software was changing over to a cloud based system. Third, his controller and right hand person was looking to retire. He was in the pool building business.
So I said, “wow, it must be tough to be the only pool builder in the country with low cash reserves, a big systems upgrade and a key vacancy to fill all at the same time.”
We both knew he wasn’t that special. He had just finished telling me how a friendly competitor had grown 30% while the owner’s wife was battling breast cancer. We both knew a former employee of his who had started a landscaping company that managed to double in size despite losing half his equipment in a trailer fire….without insurance.
My point is that we all think our whirlwinds are special and that they make it infeasible to grow the business right now. But there are other business owners out there facing the same things we are, probably worse. Not only have they accepted the whirlwind as a fact of life, they have made the biggest, most difficult whirlwind problems priorities in a strategic plan to grow the business. And they’ve let go of any need or compulsion to protect the team from the whirlwind or from an expectation that the business still needs to perform and improve.
Start working on the business today. Building a plan to tackle your nastiest whirlwind items is a great place to start. Then get out of the way and let your team do the work. It is likely some of them won’t be up to it, but don’t let that stop you from letting the rest of your leaders shine. Don’t worry, they already know the house is a mess. It’s part of their job to help clean it up. Give them a chance and start growing again.