Business Rocks: The Art Of The Possible

Can our politics get any more depressing? On both sides of the Atlantic, leading politicians of all persuasions are happy to pontificate and posture but seem temperamentally unable and unwilling to reach out, find common ground and understand what’s actually feasible.

Our politicians may have given up on the art of the possible, but this is still a key skill of any successful business manager and leader for two very good reasons.

First, as my own coach tells me, life’s about success, not perfection. In the end, seeking perfection is the road to frustration and depression. We need to be content with success and delivering what’s actually possible, rather than beating ourselves up for not achieving something that was never realistic.

The second reason is that, as another colleague once put it, our ability to get anything done is directly related to the strength of our relationships with others. No business leader is an island and, in the end, your own success is largely driven by your ability to listen, understand, persuade and encourage others to deliver the best version of your own priorities.

How strong are your skills in finding common ground and how effective are you at discovering and pursuing the art of the possible?

Off The Record: Common Ground by Frank Turner

If there’s hope to be found

We’ll find it in our common ground

And if that ground is to be reached

There are walls around us to be breached

© Stuart Cross 2019. All rights reserved.

 

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Getting Focused On Focus

 

One of the most difficult conversations I have with my clients is the need to develop a focused strategic agenda. Most business leaders are optimistic – and a little greedy – and wish to bite off more than their organisation can reasonably chew. As a result, initiatives aren’t properly resourced and find it difficult to get going against the competition of other, similarly important projects. As a result, progress is slow and the anticipated improvement in performance fails to materialise.

The response of many CEOs is that the business is big enough to get it all done, no matter how many priorities they set out. But, even in the biggest organisations, my experience is that the ability to make choices, focus on a few priorities and put less important ideas to one side is the key differentiator between fast-paced market leaders and the ‘also-rans’.

So, here are a few quotes from some of the world’s best business leaders. If you want your business to do everything, maybe these quotes will help you pause for thought!

  • Another thing to watch out for is taking on too many projects… But in company after company, the appetite is much bigger than the ability to digest, and wrong decisions get made. Too much is taken on that doesn’t come to fruition.” Larry Bossidy, ex-CEO and Chairman of Honeywell International, from Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done
  • If we think long-term we can accomplish things that we wouldn’t otherwise accomplish. Time horizons matter. They matter a lot!” A quote from Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, that you can’t do everything at once. Even though Bezos’s initial vision for Amazon was for ‘the everything store’, he started, very simply, with books and only added other products once that was working well.
  • Do I really want to be a bank? No, not really. I have got this lot to manage. That is not to say that you don’t look at these things, but I think you have to keep the business pretty mono-focused on what you want to achieve.” Allan Leighton, from a 1997 interview with Management Today when he was CEO of Asda
  • My first impression was that Boots no longer stood for anything. The company was a jack-of-all-trades and was going nowhere. My priority was to refocus the retailer on health and beauty; I wanted to put ‘The Chemists’ back into Boots. When it comes to strategy, you can’t spray and sprint!” Richard Baker, former CEO of Boots the Chemists, in an interview for my book, First and Fast
  • If there is any one secret of effectiveness, it is concentration. Effective executives do first things first and they do one thing at a time.” Peter Drucker, the doyen of management writers, from his book, The Effective Executive

And, of course, there is the master of focus, Steve Jobs. Here are just a few of his quotes on this subject…..

  • I’m as proud of what we don’t do as I am of what we do.”
  • It comes from saying no to 1,000 things to make sure we don’t get on the wrong track or try to do too much.
  • We’re always thinking about new markets we could enter, but it’s only by saying no that you can concentrate on the things that are really important.
  • People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully.

Finally, focus doesn’t mean having things easy. Far from it. Focus should lead to demanding results and the relentless pursuit of higher performance. As Jack Welch, the ex-CEO of GE, once put it, “An overburdened, overstretched executive is the best executive because he or she doesn’t have the time to meddle, to deal in trivia, to bother people!

Finding the most productive combination of focus and stretch is what the art of management is all about.

 

© Stuart Cross 2019. All rights reserved.

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Business Rocks: The Possibilities Are Endless

Has the Apple bubble burst? The first major business news of 2019 has been the sales warning from the world’s biggest brand and the impact this has had on Apple’s share price. What’s more, analysts are worried about what the sales slide in China means for the global economy.

At a time of the year when many people and organisations are planning their future development and growth, you might be concerned that Apple’s sales slip means that you should be a bit less optimistic about the future prospects for your own business.

But you’d be wrong.

Since 2004, Apple’s sales have grown from $8 billion to $265 billion – an average growth rate of 28% each year. During that time, the company has transformed the way we communicate with each other, the way we listen to music, the way we interact with the web and the way we think about design for everyday products. The iPhone – the company’s biggest seller and brand – now ships over 4 million units every single week!

The real lesson from Apple is not that you should be cautious about growth in 2019, but that you should be unstintingly ambitious about the future prospects for your business. As this amazing business has shown, the possibilities are endless.

Off The Record: What A Waste

 

I could be the driver of an articulated lorry

I could be a poet – I wouldn’t need to worry

I could be a teacher in a classroom full of scholars

I could be the sergeant in a squadron full of wallahs

What a waste!

 

© Stuart Cross 2019. All rights reserved.

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Business Rocks: Just Checking

Dylan, our eldest son, took his theory driving test last week. Or, to be more precise, he nearly took the test. The truth is that, when we got to the testing centre, he mumbled something about having forgotten his driving licence, which was needed to prove his identity.

Luckily for him, I am a man of infinite patience and so we drove the 50 minutes back home – in complete silence – and rebooked the test for a few days later. That day, we wrote a checklist of everything he needed for the test and ticked off each item before we set off (which, I’m pleased to report, he subsequently passed).

Checklists are a tool that can massively help improve operational and management performance. Pilots use them ahead of, and during, each flight to maximise safety, for instance. The use of checklists in healthcare has been shown to lower post-operation mortality rates by at least 20% and shorten hospital stays by as much as 50%. And, according to the song, even Santa checks his list a couple of times before setting off on his sleigh each Christmas!

In my experience, though, business managers don’t like to use checklists in their own work. Possibly, as with doctors when medical checklists were first introduced to operating theatres, managers believe that the use of checklists will undermine their professionalism. I can see huge upsides, though, to using checklists on a variety of managerial activities, including, for example, recruitment, decision-making, investment proposals, performance management, implementation management and communications.

Where could the systematic use of simple checklists help you better manage your business and improve its performance?

 

Off The Record: Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town

Written by John Coots and Haven Gillespie as far back as the 1930s, the song has been recorded by dozens of artists, although my own favourite versions are by The Crystals in the 1960s and the 1975 live version by Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band.

 

He’s making a list

He’s checking it twice

Gonna find out who’s naughty and nice

Santa Claus is comin’ to town

 

© Stuart Cross 2018. All rights reserved.

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Business Rocks: Problem Stones

Last week I found out that I have a relatively large stone in one of my kidneys.

Now, I have passed a couple of kidney stones over the past 10 years and can confidently confirm that passing a stone is more painful than childbirth (although, admittedly, with fewer subsequent nappies to change). To be honest, though, this stone is too big to pass (I hope!) and so will have to be removed surgically.

I guess that I could just live with it until the periodic pain I get from the stone is simply too frequent and too severe. Realistically, though, my life will be better if I am to get in there and take it out.

Businesses often suffer from the equivalent of renal pain and many try to live with it rather than taking the corrective action to properly sort it out. The wrong manager in the wrong role, an old and cumbersome IT system, a poor performing product range or an inappropriate customer service policy, for instance, are all examples of corporate problem stones.

What are the problem stones that your business is trying to live with when it should be taking the surgical action to remove them and improve performance?

 

Off The Record: And It Stoned Me by Van Morrison

And it stoned me to my soul

Stoned me just like going home

And it stoned me

 

© Stuart Cross 2018. All rights reserved.

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Business Rocks: The Best Time to Plant a Tree

I’m working with a client that is looking to develop a far clearer and more compelling strategy and proposition for its business. While the management team are excited about the emerging future direction, they are equally frustrated that they didn’t do it years ago. It’s so much harder, they argue, to catch up with the market leaders now than if they’d made this move much earlier.

The answer to this comes from a Chinese proverb that goes, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.

It can be easy to believe that you’ll never be able to catch up with the ease and convenience of the best on-line businesses, or match rivals with strong track records of product innovation or beat those that are able to sustainably deliver low cost solutions to their customers. Amazon, Apple and Ryanair, for instance, all planted their strategic trees at the very best time – 20 years or more ago.

But the second best time is still now. 

 

Ten years or so ago, for example, Tesco looked unassailable as the UK’s leading grocer. It might not have seemed worthwhile to take on this retail giant. Yet the investment and focus from Aldi and Lidl, in particular, has shifted customer behaviour and has completely changed the dynamic of the UK grocery market.

You may think that you’re behind your competitors in some areas of your business, but what new strategic trees could you be planting now that, over the next few years, could help your business to grow, blossom and thrive?

 

Off The Record: Let It Grow by Eric Clapton

 

Standing at the crossroads, trying to read the signs

To tell me which way I should go to find the answer

And all the time I know

Plant your love and let it grow

 

© Stuart Cross 2018. All rights reserved.

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Business Rocks: Hidden Successes

Not all successes are obvious or clear. During difficult trading conditions, in particular, it is tempting to dwell on the problems, rather than the opportunities. But even in the trickiest situations, my experience is that there will still be successes out there – if you’re willing to look for them.

One of my clients, for example, is struggling to deliver growth from its core product ranges. So, we segmented the ranges more carefully and found that although many of the cheaper sub-ranges were suffering declines, there were clear growth stories from some specific added-value products.

What’s more, customers were telling my client that no-one else had anything like these products available in the market. Unsurprisingly, my client is now working out how it can develop and drive greater growth from these ranges, and not simply determining how it can halt the drop in revenues from its entry-level products.

Twenty years ago, IBM shifted its business model – and its fortunes – from being a seller of hardware to becoming a much broader-based consulting and solutions provider. This shift followed the realisation of the new CEO, Lou Gerstner, that the customer service teams, which were a cost centre rather than a profit centre at that time, were seen by customers as a key point of differentiation. In other words, service and expertise were a hidden success and potential driver of growth for IBM.

Where are your hidden successes? And what steps could you take to find them, nurture them and exploit them to drive even greater growth for your business?

 

Off The Record: Suddenly I See by KT Tunstall

Suddenly I see

This is what I want to be

Suddenly I see

Why the hell it means so much to me

 

© Stuart Cross 2018. All rights reserved.

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Business Rocks: Attractive Markets Aren’t Always So Great

 

It was announced this week that New Look, the UK fashion retailer, is exiting from the Chinese market and closing its 120 stores. New Look’s Chinese failure follows in the footsteps of other major retailers, including M&S, Home Depot and Tesco.

China is the world’s second-largest consumer and retail market and has attracted investments from thousands of companies, both large and small. The size, growth and potential profitability of the Chinese market is a huge pull for any investor.

All of these enterprises face a strategic truth, however: it’s not the size or attractiveness of the market that determines your ultimate success. Instead, it’s your ability to establish and exploit clear competitive advantages that makes the difference.

Like its failed predecessors, New Look, was unable to establish advantages in China that enabled it to attract sufficient numbers of customers or produce the returns required to justify its investment.

And what’s true for New Look in China is similarly true for your business, whether your operating in Asia, Europe or the UK alone. Finding and spotting attractive new market sectors to enter is a key element of business growth, but only if you are able to profitably differentiate from your competitors.

What are your company’s competitive advantages, and what steps are you taking to identify build, sustain and create advantages that will drive your future success?

 

Off The Record: Tougher Than The Rest by Bruce Springsteen

Maybe your other boyfriends

Couldn’t pass the test

Well, if your rough and ready for love

Honey, I’m tougher than the rest

 

© Stuart Cross 2018. All rights reserved.

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Business Rocks: Running Ahead Of The Ball

Finney, our cocker spaniel, loves to play fetch with a tennis ball. I’ve noticed that he starts running for the ball when my arm is raised to throw it. Even before I’ve begun to throw the ball, he’s off and sprinting in the general direction I’m facing. As the ball arcs over him he’ll then make note of where it’s heading and makes the necessary changes in direction. And if the ball doesn’t appear in his line of sight within a few seconds he stops and looks back at me to understand what’s happening.

I’m currently working with a client that operates in a similar way. Teams across the business are proactive and get on developing, testing and delivering new ideas and changes before fully creating the detailed plans that may have been traditionally expected. At times, the company’s approach can create some confusion and uncertainty, but it also generates genuine organisational pace.

In truth, the uncertainties are relatively easy managed and the tweaks in direction and focus are quickly taken by the management teams in their regular, weekly meetings. And the upside of the company’s pace has been rapid growth, market share gains and greater profitability.

How is your business tackling growth and innovation? Are you waiting until you’re certain where the ball is heading before moving, or, like Finney and my client, are you anticipating the ball’s future trajectory and getting on the front foot, confident that you can make any necessary adjustments along the way?

Off The Record: Old King by Neil Young

King went a-runnin’ after deer

Wasn’t scared of jumpin’

Off the truck in high gear

King went a-sniffin’

And he would go

Was the best old hound dog I ever did know

 

© Stuart Cross 2018. All rights reserved.

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Business Rocks: The Sum of Our Choices

 

I think it was Albert Camus, the existentialist novelist, who said, “Life is the sum of all our choices.” In other words, it’s the decisions we make – or fail to make – that determine the life we live.

It’s the same in business. Your own organisation, for instance, is the sum of all the decisions and choices made by its leaders, managers and colleagues, both past and present. Your best chance of success exists when these choices have consistency and coherence and when decisions are mutually supportive rather than taking the business in different directions.

As a result, you must find a way to help align those decisions and choices. A clear purpose and mission, a compelling and focused strategy and an over-arching performance goal are all ways of building alignment and encouraging consistency. They act as a compass for decision-making, establishing a ‘true north’ for decisions so that everyone ends up at the same destination.

How strong and effective is your organisational compass, and how is it helping your teams and managers to make consistent and coherent choices and decisions?

 

Off The Record: A Town Called Malice by The Jam

A whole street’s belief

In Sunday’s roast beef

Gets dashed against the Co-op

To either to cut down on beer or the kids’ new gear

It’s a big decision in a town called malice!

 

© Stuart Cross 2018. All rights reserved.

 

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