The Difficult and the Daunting

You may have heard recently that Amazon is pulling back a bit on hiring and warehouse space. With all their vast resources in strategic planning, the executive team there overshot on leasing square feet their forecasts no longer support. I suspect they will manage through this just fine in the long run with little impact on earnings, but it is a powerful reminder of how difficult it is to predict future business both when you’re in an up-market and a down one.

We all get this wrong now and again. It’s normal and usually navigable. The problems come when balancing present challenges heavily compromises a company’s future, or betting only on the future sours a company’s current performance to the point where no one cares about the future.

I am often humbled by the nagging paradox of making tough business decisions every day at the relentless pace of 24x7x365. Running a company in response to everyday circumstances in the present will always be difficult, Running a company for an opaque future will always be daunting.

We have to do both well to accomplish our current goals and set the table for the next generation of growth prospects. Favor either the present or the future too heavily and the question becomes whether you want to lose now or later. While that’s not an option any leader wants to consider, if we don’t see the delicacy in how one affects the other, our intentions can be undermined by our outcomes.

We often hear about the pressures of being a public company, how corporate leaders make choices to focus on quarterly earnings from which they financially benefit immediately over building strong companies for the long haul. I do think this happens at some companies where short-term stock performance can dramatically impact executive compensation. Too often those companies fall prey to what Clayton Christensen famously has called The Innovator’s Dilemma and allow their long-established norms of success to be fully disrupted by more nimble competitors.

There’s a more ironic take on this notion, where equity markets sometimes forgive emerging companies for failing to produce earnings at all in the near term in the hope that someday they will have gained so much market share that they will prove invincible. This all-or-nothing strategy has paid off handsomely for companies like Amazon that didn’t produce earnings for years, reinvested heavily in their growth, and today reap the benefits of that bet. Sadly, this example has been exploited by too many newly public companies that don’t even consider near-term profitability a goal, allowing lazy business models to overshadow unfounded optimism that someday their customers will reward them with enviable positions.

A company that bets only on the future, never becomes economically successful, and runs out of cash can be train-wrecked just as decisively as a once successful company that fails to address The Innovator’s Dilemma. If the executives steering either of those failures happen to be selling shares along the way to a company’s demise, a feast of lawyers will follow.

Inflation and rising interest rates make the cost of doing business higher for everyone. We painstakingly decide how much of these costs we pass along to customers and how much we absorb. The benefit of preserving current operating margins is always tempting, but the rewards of long-term customer loyalty and lifetime value speak for themselves. How do we decipher the balance between current and future financial results? Data will often shine a light on the path, but there are no conclusive textbooks with clear answers to these calculations.

It truly is hard to run a company both for today and tomorrow. We have to consider the staff sizes we need, the leases we’ll require, the stability of our supply chains, price elasticity, and the promise of our brands. We also carefully must watch cash flow, our balance sheets, compensation, incentives, technology advancements, and investments in future product cycles. What works today may or may not work tomorrow. It is seldom that what works perfectly in one set of conditions works just as well in another.

There are no perfect answers, but the fluidity of making a decision now for its short and long-term impact usually weighs heavily on those who wrestle with the impossible crystal ball.

Covid-19 has been a good reminder of how difficult and daunting decisions can be. We were all blind during Covid and it was easy to misread fluctuating data. No leader had substantial experience with stay-at-home working conditions. No one knew how long the pandemic would last, how it would impact supply and demand, or how it would impact investor sentiment. If that wasn’t enough of a challenge, most of what we thought going into Covid proved to be wrong, and most of our assumptions about how employees, customers, and investors would behave post-Covid have been equally wrong.

If you want to be humbled, try making decisions that address the unknown with this level of frequency. You’ll likely realize you’re wrong more than you’re right, but the less tangible skill we develop is how to rethink and react quickly when we discover we are wrong. That’s why the rewards for creating a company that is “built to last” are immense, but the odds of lasting fifty years are long.

When it comes time to decide short or long, know you have to do both, and do your best you to keep dialogue and debate flowing among diverse opinions. The decisions we make have an impact we might be able to see today, but unless you know someone who has a gift the world has never seen, we are almost always speculating on the impact a year or more from today. Sometimes it’s decades before we find out if we were right or wrong.

We choose to sign up for the difficult and the daunting. The longer I do this, the more humbling it is.

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Photo: Pixabay

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The Upper Hand

Think you’ve got leverage? You might. Now think hard about whether you want to exert it.

The success of a business reveals itself over long periods of time. The same is true of a career, even more so.

At any given time, circumstances may go your way. Cheesy television shows that gloss over the true workings of business may suggest this is the time to seize control of a weakened opponent, play the hard angle of opportunism, lower the boom on the boomless.

Certainly that’s one way to play the game.

You’re a property owner and the market is tight. You can play hardball with potential tenants. Maybe that works and they sign the lease without much choice.

Are you 100% sure that’s a great idea?

You’re a well-educated graduate entering the job market where positions that capitalize on your skillset are abundant. You are offered a very fair salary at an employer where you can grow, learn, and evolve your talent. You ask for 50% more. Maybe they say yes because they have a job that needs to be done right now.

Are you 100% sure that’s a great idea?

You’re a broker of commodity supplies suddenly in demand for construction or renovation. Longtime customers ask for your support in quickly completing a needed project without breaking the budget. You tell them you’d like to help, but new customers are willing to pay three to four times what you’ve been paying for the same materials you have stockpiled in inventory. Maybe you get the new asking price from your original customer and your margin soars.

Are you 100% sure that’s a great idea?

Here’s my take: You’re blowing it.

In all three of the above examples, the true price of hammering home your isolated moment of glory far exceeds the devil’s bargain you might be invoking.

You are sacrificing the establishment of trust.

You are shredding the notion of loyalty.

You are establishing a set of ground rules where the nanosecond leverage shifts, you are going to get swatted with a mirror version of the upper hand you thought was so nifty.

Think I’m wrong? Think business is just a cycle of gamesmanship where everyone longs for effective application of the upper hand? If that’s you, I am sure you are confident in your convictions. Relish the spoils of your conquest, but do us both a favor: Seek others who are like you and leave the rest of us to apply a much longer view.

Deals are short. They come and go. Want to win every single dispute, argument, and arcane point of negotiation? Try to build a brand, reputation, or legacy on that.

One day you will lose the upper hand because no one has it forever. When that day comes, you will get what you get. You put it in motion, you own it.

Am I suggesting that you should rollover and take less than you are due in any meaningful negotiation simply to be nice? No, that’s not the takeaway. Always figure out what you need, convince yourself through the other side’s eyes that your position is reasonable, and then fight for it with cordial determination. At the same time, consider the possibility that the few pennies you may choose to leave on the table today might be a stealth investment in a future windfall you can’t yet see, but might have the foresight to envision.

Being clever is seldom obvious. There are too many other clever people always around you. Being consistent in your values with an obsession for integrity is way more valuable and easier to benchmark.

Wise investors know that equities trade in cycles over decades with an upward trajectory. Timing the market is a fool’s game. You play long. Same with customers, same with brands, same with careers.

Seriously, why?

Because in the next down cycle, you are going to need help. You are going to need to pick up the phone and humble yourself. The question is, will someone answer?

I often say that one of the few good things about getting older is that you’ve accumulated the experience to navigate events with a framework for predicting a myriad of outcomes. Challenges are both temporal and lasting. Knowing the difference provides you with context for better decision-making.

As I also often say, the great tragedy of too many careers is that the learning you wish you had in your earlier years doesn’t come until much too late, and then you’re out of time.

Get ahead of the pack. This won’t be the last boom. A bust is coming. No one knows when, only that it absolutely will happen.

Then another boom and another bust. Rinse and repeat. Those are variables. The constant is you.

Play the long game. Build your network with reciprocal give-and-take. Be the kind of person in business people want to call all the time, not just when either one of you has a temporary advantage. The inspired upper hand is less about brute force, more about wisdom.

I’m 100% sure that’s a great idea.

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Photo: Pexels

Air, Water, Food

AstronautThere’s no time like the present to set goals. Here’s a framework I use for myself and those I manage or advise.

I generally try to classify projects into three levels of priority before I consider adding resources to anything on deck: Air, Water, and Food.

In the unlikely event everything classified under Air, Water, and Food is done and behind us, I might move onto the next realm of importance, but generally, if it’s not Air, Water, or Food, it is going to get a very low priority,

I’m stealing broadly from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, but suppose you were an astronaut in orbit and the red light in the capsule appeared. How do you set priorities? Largely by survival.

Without air, you have seconds to live.

Without water, you have days to live.

Without food, you have weeks to live.

Everything after that is discretionary.

Whether you are setting high-level goals or project priorities, try ranking your options into these categories.

What is Air?

In a services business, it might be customers.

In an e-commerce business, it might be secure uptime.

In product development, it might be an innovative, competitive technology solution that is worth marketing because it will surprise and delight customers.

“Air” initiatives are the items on your to-do list that if not attended to immediately may cause a business to be gone very soon. Sometimes they are obvious. Take the examples above. If you don’t protect your customers in a services business, you don’t have a business. If you don’t have a product worth selling, you don’t have a business. If you are selling online and you are not safely live to the world, you don’t exist.

It’s relatively easy to see the obvious examples of Air, but sometimes they are counterintuitive. I often write about People, Products, Profits—in that order. Are people, or the talent that drives your company, Air? The answer is absolutely yes—we cannot accomplish much of anything without the right team, but none of us has the unlimited capacity to hire everyone we want. It is precisely because talent is Air that it takes discipline to know which people you need now and which may have to wait. Your budget will always create some constraints, as will the availability of people you wish to recruit and the forced ranking of your priorities.

Of all the choices you make, Air should be the least subjective. When you feel it leaving the room, you know you are doing something vitally wrong. Don’t let Air get away from you, or the next two points won’t matter.

What is Water?

In a services business, it might be tailoring what is offered to individual customer needs.

In an e-commerce business, it might be sufficient variety of differentiated listings to attract and retain customers.

In product development, it might be the process management that lets you create a dependable schedule.

“Water” initiatives are what you need to build the business once you are certain the Air around you is sustainable. These are the projects in your organization that are essential, the ones that cannot be postponed unless there is an Air-eliminating crisis to address. Of course, if there are too many crises in an organization, you will never get to Water, and that will only keep you going slightly longer than losing Air.

Consider the example of product development: Air is ideation, the vision that will set your offering apart from those of your competitors. Water is the ability to deliver it. If you can’t create a project plan and product development schedule that you can actualize within your financial means, the concept won’t have any value. You need to be demanding about Water, but you also need to be realistic.

How important is knowing Water when you see it? Take the metaphor to its extreme: Suppose you have an abundance of Air, but you can’t get to Water. How long will you last? That’s how important Water is. It’s not Air, but it’s not far behind. Use discipline when you deem something Water. Everything that isn’t Air can’t be Water, or you’ll never have enough.

What is Food?

In a services business, it might be referrals, reputation, or word of mouth,

In an e-commerce business, it might be reliable customer service.

In product development, it might be the parsing of features and benefits to plan generational updates that improve upon each other.

“Food” initiatives allow you some discretion. You can live a relatively long time with just Air and Water, so you get to decide what constitutes Food and how to procure it creatively. If you make a mistake anointing something Food, perhaps prioritizing one product feature over another, if you’re wrong it probably isn’t the end of the world. That doesn’t mean you can be cavalier about determining your alternatives, but at least you’re out of the realm of immediate time pressure and into a set of choices where course correction is possible, even if you make a sizeable error in judgment.

I often suggest to people that one of the common elements of Food is time. Some people will think time is Air or Water, but a ticking clock is not the same as a clock that is not wound or has no power source. Time is something we all have to navigate, and we never have enough because of the deadlines we establish for ourselves or the demands of meeting customer needs. I prefer to manage time the way a good sports team works the game clock. There is an element of urgency with a game clock, but not desperation. You can use it as a motivational tool, or as a way to outsmart competitors. Time is always critical, but when it is too critical, innovation can take a hit.

Balance the Elements

Have a look at all the conflicting priorities around you. Force yourself to rank them into Air, Water, and Food. Chances are you’ll discover you are trying to solve for Food when you should be trying to solve for Air or Water. That might be why you are going in circles or nowhere at all. I have taken part in some heated constructive conflict about how to classify any given task in an organization, but I have seldom seen the framework for this kind of healthy argument fail to create a productive dialogue.

Agreed priorities are empowering. When you achieve consensus around Air, Water, and Food, you are making critical progress in your team building and goal setting. Measurable success is often lurking in meticulous editing.

Most important, if what you are working on is beyond the scope of Air, Water, Food and you’ve left these priorities behind, stop what you are doing immediately and rethink your course of action. If you haven’t got Maslow working in your corner at that basic level, the battery in your clock may be about to take away all your choices.

Own the clock. Always own the clock.

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Photo: Pixabay

8 Warnings That Your Company is Toast

Last month I reminded you that no big-brand company lasts forever, and few of today’s technology phenoms last long at all. One of my readers emailed to ask if I might dare to note some of the warning signs that suggest company extinction might be zeroing in on your own workplace.

Of course if I knew the full answer to that, I would spend the rest of my career shorting all those imminent losers traded in the public markets. Creative destruction is difficult to see in its earliest phases because it often begins simmering silently in the background when your company is riding a wave of enormous good fortune. Funny how that infecting vulnerability sneaks its nose under the tent precisely when a business seems to be at its healthiest peak.

While the corrosion can be deceptively invisible at first, there are usually festering symptoms we can observe, watching the makings of a crash in slow motion long before opposing forces collide. Here are eight thumbnail questions to help diagnose the severity of your company’s illness and whether it’s likely to be terminal.

What is the company’s R&D budget as a percentage of sales?

If research-and-development spending is declining as your company matures, it’s possible that company is being harvested by its owners as a cash cow. While strong cash flow is an indicator of company health, take notice of how much of your business is being driven by recent successes vs. legacy brands. If new products aren’t breaking, sniff around and see how much of that cash is being invested in next-generation ideas. If increasingly more cash is going to ownership and less to building your company’s future, you may have reason to worry.

Is your CEO surrounded by people who hold the same views of the company’s excellence?

Without gadflies who question everything, you’re likely to keep doing the same things. That could make you a cash cow, a one-hit wonder, or any number of limited-thinking results. Great senior leadership in a company encourages constructive conflict, because no single viewpoint in management can possibly see around every corner or predict a competitive threat. If lots of ideas are flowing, you have a much better chance to reinvent yourselves. Where dialogue is limited and funneling to a singular point of view, trouble is coming.

Does senior management actually use the product or service you produce?

This is the old argument for eating your own dog food. If the people who make and sell something only talk about why it’s great rather than obsess over what will make it even better, it’s likely to stay the same. If there is cynicism around your success and products become passionless widgets, customers will see that soon enough. Your customers can’t reinvent your products, just reject them. If you’re not a fan of what you’re doing, why should they be?

Does senior management regularly sample, investigate, and dissect competitive products?

If you think what you’ve got is the best and don’t even bother to see what could soon be eating your lunch, your lunch will soon be eaten. Be paranoid, be aware of everything competitive, commission and dissect research, never be comfortable that your moat is impenetrable. It’s okay not to use your competitor’s products day-to-day. It’s not okay to ignore them. If you happen to like them better than your own, wake up, the nightmare is about to become real.

In your company’s last earnings crunch, was marketing expense an early and severe casualty?

Marketing is an investment spend. If the money you are spending on marketing doesn’t add value to profitable sales, it should be cut now. If it’s driving profitable sales, it’s downright irresponsible to cut it. Marketing should be seen as a profit center, not a cost center. If there is no measurable return on your marketing spend, you’re already killing the company from within. If the return can be quantified, cutting it in bad times is senseless and irresponsible.

Is great marketing intended to help a mediocre product perform better than it deserves?

Said another way: outstanding marketing helps a bad product fail faster. If the product is garbage, all marketing can do is get it in the hands of early adopters. Once these market influencers trash the product, all is lost. If the product needs refinement before you invest to take it to market, take the extra time to get it right. If the product stinks and can’t be saved, kill it without a dollar of marketing spend.

Does your company culture resist rather than embrace change?

Also earlier this year I suggested that you keep your ears open for the phrase “But we’ve always…” whether it’s uttered in the break room or a key milestone review meeting. If your colleagues have unending excuses as to why you should stick with tried-and-true ways to fail because your company has always utilized a set of urban legends in your planning, you’re going to find it hard to carve a new path into the future. Doing what you’ve always done simply because you’ve always done it that way is a great way to succeed in any business that isn’t dynamic. Go make a list of businesses today that aren’t dynamic and tell me you should remain set in your ways.

Are you patching your platform or re-envisioning a new one?

Never confuse maintenance with progress. Think about just how fast industries are moving. I recently had the pleasure of watching the movie First Man. One of my favorites lines reminded me that it was a mere 66 years from the Wright Brothers first motorized biplane flight at Kitty Hawk (1903) to Neil Armstrong walking on the moon (1969). If you’re anywhere in the vicinity of 60 years old, that doesn’t seem like much time at all. If you’re fixing your biplane while your competitor is building a Saturn V rocket, it doesn’t matter that you’ve happened upon some world-class glue. When the rocket launches, you’re toast.

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Image: Pixabay