The most asked question of us at MBA is “how is everyone else doing?” something we can only generalise about of course, client confidentiality is the life blood of any consultancy business (or should be!). My usual response is to wonder “why do you care?” Not because I am un-empathetic but because looking how everyone else is doing is an exercise in comparative performance that profits you little. If the majority of companies are failing and your business is failing slightly less does that make you feel better? What does that tell you about mindset? The same question of ‘benchmarking’ always rears its head when we are involved with performance improvement projects, lean manufacturing in factories. I don’t care how well ‘so and so’s’ factory is doing, it’s unlikely to be a direct comparison (different machinery, different products, different markets) in any case. I do care about what WE (our clients and MBA) are doing. Are we making the graphs, the important measures, go the right way? Are WE making money?
I was recently speaking with a client who tells me he loves this market; they have always been pretty proactive about sales and focussed on what they offer. The big difference now he told me was that when they called and asked to speak to a decision maker they got put through, had a conversation and very often achieved an appointment. People he was calling wanted to talk about what he could do for them. A chance to pitch. What does that tell you about mindset?
In the fabricator world we are seeing a market that is polarising, there are top performers who are growing sales, holding margins and reducing costs, there are far more poor performers who are waiting for a ‘market solution’ to their problems. I fear they will have a long wait, or possibly a short wait and then it won’t be an issue for them anymore. If that sounds harsh it’s not my un-empathetic side rearing it’s head again it’s reality. The middle ground is getting more and more thinly populated, ‘just doing ok, paying the bills’ is harder than it ever was and inaction is likely to lead to slipping down the slippery pole that is this market, you need to keep climbing just to stand still!
Why? Is the interesting question, why are some doing well and others failing, I’d offer a couple of suggestions, Focus, Grit and Playing to Your Strengths.
Focus is important You need to know:-
- Who is your customer, what do they want?
- What are we good at?
- What should we measure to keep score? (not just profit, that’s a result of your actions not an action in itself)
- What are we going to do TODAY to be a bit better than yesterday.
Focus is not always easy though and often ‘low hanging fruit’ takes companies off the path. They see what they think is an opportunity and chase after it but if it’s not your opportunity all that happens is at best a short term gain and no progress towards the real destination. There is a theory that it takes 10,000 hours to be an expert…in anything… and that given the physical (and we’d argue behavioural) limitations anyone who puts in that time will acquire skills that take them to that expert level. 10,000 hours focussed on practising the violin and you can reach concert performance levels (10,000 hours for those of you who don’t want to be bothered with the maths is 8 hours a day every day for nearly 3 and a half years!). Eisenhower who led what is arguably the greatest ever single cooperative endeavour, the invasion of Europe in 1944 summed it up, he said “We succeed only as we identify in life, or in war, or in anything else, a single overriding objective and make all other considerations bend to that one objective.” Business is a cooperative endeavour.
Continuing the American theme I was at a seminar recently where the speaker was making the point that focus is fine but you have to have stamina. His example was the pre selection process that West Point (the American military academy, their attempt to mimic Sandhurst) runs to try and reduce its drop out rate. It’s short and intense and called ‘beast barracks’. The clue is in the name! they run it because they have found that the single best predictor of success amongst a talented group who already have undergone intensive selection is what they call ‘Grit’, what you or I would call persistence! Just keeping at it.
But you need to make sure you are ‘keeping at’ the right thing. ‘Target fixation’ is a well known phenomenon; it’s what makes drivers crash into the only tree in miles and miles of empty desert. Focussing on something that’s failing or constantly trying to fix weaknesses leads managers to congratulate themselves for being the least bad. They focus on what is not right and study the heck out of it devoting man hours, resources, nervous energy and sleepless nights trying to fix it. Stop doing things you are not good at and do more of things you are good at. Think about other walks of life, top sports people concentrate on practising what they are good at, a concert pianist will practice the piano, not because they are bad at it but because they are good at it.
It’s good to stand back at times and as a business leader it’s your job to work on the business not just in it. How does your business measure up to Focus, Grit and Playing to your Strengths?
© Chris Ball June 2011