Business Rocks – Perfect Partners

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This week’s focus: The ability to partner is becoming one of the most important, yet unrecognized, organisational capability. In fast moving, unpredictable markets with ever-shortening product life cycles it no longer always makes sense to try and do everything on your own. Instead, it is quicker and preferable to share the risk and reward of new opportunities with complementary businesses. That is what has happened historically in high technology industries and is increasingly important in virtually every market.

Earlier this week I ran a meeting between two organisations looking to find new ways to work together. Despite some understandable misgivings on both sides in the early stages of our session, new opportunities quickly emerged that were previously out of reach for both organisations. By the end of the two-day session, the participants had found half a dozen ideas that they had turned into action plans and left the meeting with a new sense of optimism about the relationship between the two businesses.

What new opportunities could you pursue if you were able to effectively partner with other selected businesses?

Off the record: Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own by U2

Tough, you think you’ve got the stuff

You’re telling me and anyone you’re hard enough

You don’t have to put up a fight

You don’t have to always be right

Let me take some of the punches for you tonight

© Stuart Cross 2016. All rights reserved.

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Managing Strategy: 9 Best Practices

Have you ever wondered what strategy leaders think about strategy? A while ago I ran a strategy director’s workshop. Our attendees were from leading companies including Alliance Boots, Carillionm BAe Systems and Dunelm. As part of our work together we identified some shared best practices – here are the Top 9.

  1. Keep It Simple, Stupid. A simple solution is easier to understand, easier to explain and easier to deliver (90% of the time); Instead of pages of analysis, ask “What are the five bullet points?”
  2. Be bold, and don’t be afraid to use explosives where necessary. Don’t be incremental – sometimes you need to make waves
  3. A good strategist is a good story-teller. Need to tell a compelling story over and over again; Requires vision, passion, clarity and great examples
  4. Acknowledge the moose on the table. Challenge assumptions and conventional wisdoms; You need to be prepared to tell it straight
  5. Definition of strategy: ‘Informed choice, timely action’. Strategy is about choices and trade-offs – these require useful data, not ungrounded opinions; Action is the essence of good strategy; the timing of action is crucial
  6. Focus. You can only be successful if you focus on a few (no more than three) key areas of business; Dabbling in too many things will drive failure.
  7. Own the growth agenda. The strategist should own the growth agenda over the next 2-5 years; Operators own the agenda over the next 12-24 months – nobody is interested beyond 5 years; Growth is essential to strategy – a rising tide floats all boats – and can hide a multitude of sins
  8. Ideas are our currency – spend freely Be a big spender in giving your ideas away; Measure your success by other people presenting back to you your ideas as their own
  9. Avoid getting caught up in the planning process. It’s not where strategy tends to get developed – it’s more about control; Operating managers simply do not like it or the people who drive it

Which of these best practices could transform your strategy and your business growth?

© Stuart Cross 2016. All rights reserved

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These 3 Questions Will Transform Your People Strategy

I was running a strategy session with the executive leadership team of a FTSE-250 retailer last week, when we started to discuss the role of ‘people’ as a strategic enabler. Business leaders often talk about the importance of people, argued one of the directors, but very few businesses are able to create an environment where its people have truly become a strategic asset.

IMG_2020 copy

Our conversation focused on the critical success factors for increased engagement and performance and, as the discussion progressed, I drew the chart above, identifying three questions that people ask about their role in any organisation:

  1. Is this meaningful work? This includes whether the organisation, and its mission, is something people want to engage with, whether their role within the organisation provides them with the right level of challenge, and if other, like-minded people are also attracted to the business. Many innovative, fast-growing companies – Google, Amazon and Apple, for instance – attract people because they represent an organisation that has a culture of doing something that is leading-edge and meaningful.
  2. Can I make my mark? The second question focuses around whether people are able to use their strengths, have the elbow room and have the clear objectives that enables them to contribute fully to the mission of the organisation. In too many corporate organisations, the lack of elbow room and the profusion of policies and processes can inhibit people’s ability to contribute, which leaves them feeling frustrated.
  3. Will I develop and grow? The final question demands that you provide the development opportunities, the supportive feedback and the ability to further build your people’s strengths. During my meeting last week, it quickly became clear that a lack of growth opportunities was contributing to high levels of colleague turnover in certain areas of the business, and so the team has started to develop solutions in this area.

Critically, all three questions must lead to positive answers if you are to create an organisation where all your people continually deliver high performance and become a strategic asset of the business. Focusing on these three questions can help you cut through to the most important issues.

How well does your business rate on each of these three questions and how effectively are you helping your people become a strategic asset of your business?

© Stuart Cross 2016. All rights reserved.

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Business Rocks – An Innovative Spacewalk

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This week’s focus: There have been over 200 EVAs  – spacewalks and moonwalks – over the years. The first was by a Russian over 50 years ago, while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin carried out the most famous EVA during the first moon landing in 1969.

The newsworthiness of EVAs has since fallen down the pecking orders here in the UK. Until last week that is, when Tim Peake became the first Briton to carry out an EVA on the International Space Station. Peake’s achievement led the TV news on all the major channels, was on the front page of most newspapers and was the main subject of a series of BBC Stargazing Live programmes.

Innovation doesn’t only happen when a business becomes the first to apply a creative new approach. It also happens when an existing approach is first applied in a new market. Peake’s achievement wasn’t new – it’s over half a century old – but it was new for the UK. Similarly, Ryanair’s low fare business model in Europe was a copy of Southwest Airline’s successful approach in the US, just as B&Q’s big store growth in the 1990s borrowed from the success of the US retailer, Home Depot.

As TS Eliot once wrote, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” What ideas could you steal from other markets to create innovation for your business? You never know, it could become big news.

Off the record: Another Girl, Another Planet by The Only Ones

Space travel’s in my blood

There ain’t nothing I can do about it

Long journeys wear me out

But I know I can’t live without it

© Stuart Cross 2016. All rights reserved.

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Business Rocks – David Bowie’s Genius

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Given the news earlier this week that David Bowie had sadly passed away, I have decided to repeat a post I wrote in May 2014 about Bowie’s genius…

This week’s focus: In the last few weeks I’ve been delving into the brilliant back catalogue of David Bowie. One of the things that struck me is how Bowie has succeeded through true collaboration. He might have his name on the album sleeve, but, more often than not, he developed a partnership with other talented and creative musicians to take his music to a higher level.

In addition to his work with long-time co-producer Tony Visconti, Bowie, for example has worked with these people: Brian Eno, the keyboard player for Roxy Music and long-time producer for U2 and Coldplay produced several albums including Low and Station To Station; Robert Fripp, the peerless guitarist from King Crimson, created that unique guitar sound for Heroes; Rick Wakeman, the keyboard player from Yes, wrote and played the intricate piano on Life On Mars?; and Nile Rodgers, the funk guitarist and producer who is the driving force behind Chic and recently co-wrote the Daft Punk hit, Get Lucky, c0-wrote and produced songs including Let’s Dance and China Girl.

In business, as in music, it can be tempting to try and do everything yourself and keep complete control, but as Bowie has shown, you can achieve so much more through true partnership and collaboration with other talented people. What opportunities do you have for greater collaboration?

Off the record: Heroes by David Bowie

Nothing will keep us together

We can beat them forever and ever

We can be heroes, just for one day

© Stuart Cross 2016. All rights reserved.

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Pace Is A Leadership Issue

In a couple of month’s time my new book, First and Fast, will be published. My aim with the book is to provide busy executives with practical tools to increase the speed and pace at which their organisations can grow, change and develop.

The book includes chapters on strategy, implementation management, customer relationships, innovation and organisation. But, what I really found as I researched the book is that pace is, at its heart, a leadership issue.

Newton’s first law of motion declares that all objects in motion will remain in that state unless an external force is applied to it. Leadership provides the external force necessary to accelerate organisational pace. Better processes, structures and strategies can all help, but without the commitment and direct involvement of the organisation’s leader, they will not deliver change required.

One of the leaders I spoke with as I wrote my book was Richard Baker, the chairman of Whitbread plc and the ex-CEO of Boots the Chemists. I was working at Boots when Richard first arrived from Asda, and his impact was almost instant. From an organisation where decisions took forever and accountabilities were as clear as a 1950s London smog, things actually started to happen and, as a result, the retailer returned to growth.

From my conversation with Richard, I identified four factors that made the difference:

  1. Strategic focus. As Baker puts it, “You can’t spray and sprint!” From an organisation that dabbled in many different initiatives, Baker refocused the business on its core activities of pharmacy and health and beauty retailing.
  2. Higher expectations. On his first day Baker shared his expectations with his new executive team. His memo covered several factors, including integrity, but its main focus was the need to work at pace and for the executive team to set the standard for the rest of the organisation.
  3. Lean organisation. One of the first initiatives in Baker’s tenure was to reduce the head office organisation – by 1,000! Despite some nervousness and objection from members of his leadership team, when Baker announced the change to the head office workers there was a round of applause. People knew what was needed to make the company great again, and allow managers the elbow room to take action, even if it might make their own lives more uncomfortable.
  4. Continuous communication. Baker’s personal ‘balcony briefings’ became a regular feature of his time at Boots. By regularly providing an update on progress, he demonstrated his commitment to action and pace.

Richard Baker’s time at Boots was not plain sailing, but it did enable the business to return to growth and to dramatically improve its ability to act quickly. As a leader of your business, what steps could you take to drive the pace of your organisation?

© Stuart Cross 2016. All rights reserved.

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Engaged Staff And Happy Customers Don’t Always Mix

Here is a copy of my latest blog post for the EngageCustomer website:

Employee engagement and customer engagement are inextricably linked. But in my experience the linkages between the two are far more complex and subtle than many business leaders anticipate. As a result, businesses risk wasting both money and opportunity in taking a simplistic approach to building colleague and customer engagement.

Over 15 years ago, for example, I undertook a project with Safeway, the UK grocer that was subsequently acquired by Morrisons. The retailer had launched an employee engagement project on the premise that by raising the satisfaction of store colleagues, customer satisfaction, loyalty and sales would improve.

The only problem with the company’s approach was that the stores with the highest levels of staff satisfaction were those where customer satisfaction was lowest. While colleagues enjoyed working in stores where managers allowed a more relaxed working environment, customers were happiest in stores that were more tightly run and operating standards were higher, even if this was at the expense of colleague engagement and satisfaction.

Around 10 years ago, when I was working for Boots the Chemists, the retail director came back from a conference excited by an insight he’d picked up that a 4% improvement in customer service scores would deliver a 1% improvement in sales. He quickly launched an initiative to drive up customer service standards to help drive store growth. Yet, despite the improvement in service, sales improvements were negligible.

These projects were, admittedly, some years ago, but the same rules still apply. Only last year, for instance, the CEO of Amazon came under fire for creating a working environment that was said to be excessively stressful for its people, many of whom had become disillusioned and disengaged. And yet, customer satisfaction with Amazon continues to grow.

My point is not that you should make your people miserable, but that each company is unique and the relationship between employee engagement and customer perceptions is less straightforward than you might expect. This means that you need to find the employee, customer and technological solutions that are right for you, and not simply accept and copy what’s worked elsewhere.

At the recent 2015 EngageCustomer Conference, one of the big insights was that engaged employees were 3.4 times more productive than disengaged colleagues. This average might be true, but it is unlikely to apply to your organisation. In your business, the multiple might be 10, but it could also be a lot closer to 1. You will only know if you develop, test and refine the right solutions for you.

Getting engagement right is hard work, and often takes years of effort and persistence. What steps are you taking this year to make sure that you create an engagement strategy that is right for your customers, your people and your organisation?

© Stuart Cross 2016. All rights reserved.

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Business Rocks – The Alignment Magnet

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This week’s focus: Now that we’re all into the swing of 2016, and our New Year’s resolutions are starting to fade away, it’s time to think about what you really need to focus on to achieve your goals this year. One of the most underrated, yet critical leadership activities is that of building organisational alignment. Without it, you will never achieve your bigger goals.

Organisations are like a pile of iron filings on a table. Each filing points in its own unique direction. Yet, if you wave a magnet over the filings, they will magically point the same way. Your job is to become that magnet, and point your people and your organisation to a shared ‘true north’.

Your ‘alignment magnet’ includes a compelling and coherent strategy, a clear set of priorities and integrated set of initiatives, shared values and beliefs, clear roles and accountabilities for everyone, carefully chosen rewards and incentives and effective performance management.

How effective is your ‘alignment magnet’ and how confident are you that the iron filings of your organisation are all pointing to the same end goal?

Off The Record: Constant Craving by k.d. lang

Maybe a great magnet pulls

All souls towards truth

Or maybe it is life itself

That feeds wisdom to its youth

© Stuart Cross 2016. All rights reserved.

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Ready, Steady…. Relax!


There is an interesting article in today’s edition of The Times – at least it’s interesting to men, like me, aged 50 or older! It is called Less Is More: How To Be Fit After 50, and shares a study by Dr Peter Herbert, a 70-year old fitness expert who has found that gentle daily exercise, interspersed with 30 minutes of high-intensity interval training every four days, makes the biggest impact on men’s health and fitness. In other words, he recommends minimizing training to get the best results.

I have seen a similar pattern in businesses. Many managers are so busy and stressed out they are unable to perform at their highest level. They attend relentless meetings, catch up on emails and call their teams to provide the latest updates. But they do not find the time or space to work on the big ideas that will really drive their company’s improvement.

Conversely, some of the most successful business leaders I know are those that are able to carve out time – through a combination of effective delegation, work prioritization and time-management discipline – to allow their minds to relax so that they can consistently and relentlessly focus on developing their big ideas.  What’s more they achieve their successes at a significantly faster pace than other executives, as they aren’t trying to do everything that the organisation is throwing at them.

It is easy to get caught up in the whirlwind of organisational life, but if you do so you run the risk of being extremely busy and tired, but disappointingly ineffective.

What is your aim for 2016? Is it to be busy or to be productive? If it is the latter, then I suggest that, like lycra-clad fitness fanatics described in Dr Herbert’s article, you develop the discipline to become less busy but more focused on the actions that will make the biggest difference.

© Stuart Cross 2016. All rights reserved.

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Business Rocks – Sick Of Change

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This week’s focus: A month or so ago, I was driving home from a football match with my son when he said the fateful words, “Dad, I don’t feel well.” Three nanoseconds later he was violently sick. He was sick on his clothes, sick on the seat, sick on the carpet, sick in the drinks holders, sick in the ashtray, sick in the door pockets. Let’s just say he was very, very sick.

After getting him home I took my car to be cleaned at the local car wash. The guys did a good job, although when I got back in the car I did have the vague impression that I could still detect a slight hint of ‘eau-de-vomit’. I hadn’t noticed any smell however for the past few weeks, however. Until last Sunday, that is, when my wife got in the car. “Oh my god,” she shrieked, retching, “It stinks!

We quickly get used to our environment and can, over time, fail to notice its problems and limitations. We learn to live with things. If you want to focus on improving performance, you often need a new and different perspective. That’s why new executives and leaders to an organisation can make such a difference in their first few months. After that period, they no longer smell the stink quite as clearly. Other ways that you can get some fresh air into your lungs include benchmarking your business against other companies, organizing an external review of your business, or investing in some personal development.

What are you doing to get a new perspective and to ensure that your environment and organisation is healthy and effective?

Off The Record: Cars And Girls by Prefab Sprout

Little boy, got a hot rod

Thinks it makes him some kind of new God

Well, this is one race he won’t win

‘Cause life’s no cruise with a cool chick

Too many folks feelin’ car sick

But it never pulls in

© Stuart Cross 2015. All rights reserved.

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