Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Day 81: Know Your Own Business

Today is my one year anniversary at Highland.

I have learned many, many things in this role. One is what we try to accomplish as a company with our clients. At the core is the desire to be a trusted partner. We believe we achieve trust in three ways: We get to know you, the individual. We get to know your business. And we save you from yourself.

This is something I strive for with my clients, but in that process I've had a startling realization:

Most companies do not know their own business.

Before starting at Highland, I spent 10 years in the non-profit world. In that world, we took time every six months or a year to take a step back and ask fundamental questions about our existence.

  • Why are we here?
  • Who do we focus on?
  • What has been effective?
  • What hasn't been effective?
  • What do we need to focus on in the next six months?
Questions like these and others were asked consistently. Not only that, but we usually walked away with a plan as paid leadership to communicate down the line volunteer leadership and eventually to general participants.

Looking back, this was necessary because most of the non-profits I worked with had a very lean staff, but had a direct audience ranging anywhere from 500 to 15,000 people. The best way to keep volunteer organizations running well and growing is to continually cast a clear and compelling vision with a strong call to action. Without this, the non-profit doesn't gain momentum, doesn't grow, and could easily die. What this translated to was an organization, top-down, that knew its identity and what needed to be done to move forward.

While I've heard the statistic that 9 out of 10 startups fail and the one that survives only has a 10% chance of surviving beyond 5 years, there are still countless ways to make money and many companies do make it. We work with companies that are beyond the startup phase. They regularly generate revenue, have decent size staff teams, and don't have to really worry about survival. Added to this is the sad reality that many people are not working in environments that draw out their passion, their motivation may be as big as their paycheck, which is a far cry from what I've experienced.

The result is people at all levels of the company go through the daily motions and do not know their business. At the business level, much like the persona level, when the money is good, we stop asking some of the most fundamental, but necessary questions.

How do I know this? Because we ask. When we start a project with a new client, our first engagement is a consulting and planning engagement. We ask basic, yet profound questions. And when we ask, the answers aren't clear. When we probe deeper, we begin to hear "it's complicated" (how great would this field be in LinkedIn - "Business Model: It's Complicated"). The further we get into planning, it becomes clearer that most people don't really know their business.

I'm learning that those companies that are "the most admired" -- those like Apple, Salesforce, Zappos, Amazon, etc. – are those that communicate vision and direct action. They are bullish about who they are and who they are not and employees at all levels can explain this and wear it like a badge of honor.

But your business doesn't have to be enormous to do what they do. I actually believe that it may be good to do something different and check out a non-profit or some other type of organization that has a horde of volunteers to find out what they do to motivate, inspire, and lead them. I believe CEOs all the way down to the summer intern could learn a ton about what it means to know their business.

In turn, this means you can build systems, processes, training, job descriptions, teams – the whole gamut – with clarity and drive. And the litmus test is to ask the lowest person in the organization why the company exists, what it does, and how they contribute. If that person can confidently answer, I can pretty much guarantee that the company is not only going to be strong, but I bet the revenues will grow.

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