It is the fourth week in January and the annual migration of the New Year’s resolution crowd is already departing gym’s across the United States; not to be seen again until this time next year.
At the start of each new year there is an enthusiasm to get back into personal shape. This same phenomena is present in the business world. Each year business owners declare, “This year will be different. We will have a well thought out strategic plan. We will have an actionable yearly tactical plan from which we will make decisions and judge our progress. We will hold regularly scheduled staff meetings to review our plans, assess the actions of our competitors, and examine our financial health. Yes, 2016 will be different!” And by the end of January.... they are back into their old routine, with the 'fire drills of the day' driving the bulk of the year’s decisions and actions. And like the fitness birds migrating through the gym at the beginning of each year, this cycle will sure to be repeated over and over again.
But it can be a different year. And I hope this story, one with exciting results and very much analogous to the business world, will inspire you to stick with your New Year's resolution - to get back into shape!
At the end of November, a good friend of mine sent the following text message, “I need help.” He wanted to get back into shape and after numerous attempts on his own felt the aid of an outside expert was needed. I agreed to be his personal trainer. But before we began I wanted to hear what goals he had in mind in order to assess if they were realistic. He stated two specific objectives; (1) get back down to 175 lbs and (2) have a 'pool-worthy' body for a beach vacation he planned in late March.
His current state; 5’11” and 198 lbs. That meant we had a little over four months (18 weeks) interrupted by Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years, to lose 23 lbs. and build some muscle. He was young and appeared passionate so I felt his goals were reasonable. But I warned him, it will require a very strong commitment on his part to reach these goals. He agreed to commit to a plan that I would help to develop and off we went.
Much like the human body, a company, without steady work “on” the business versus “in” the business, will too become out of shape and lose the market strength, once enjoyed.
So, how exactly do you get back into shape, or get into shape for the first time ever, and what can you expect from the process? Here are the 7 not-so-secret steps:
1. Look in the mirror - assess.
Are you happy with the current state? Is the performance what you expected? Do sales meet your expectations? Are you stronger than you were 2 years ago? Are you still as agile and responsive as you once were? How do your customers view you? What will you look like 3 years from now?
2. If you don’t like what you see or are not sure what direction you are going, do something about it.
Set measurable, realistic goals to be completed in a specific time. In the business world this means capturing your vision, and balancing that against a clear unbiased view of how you stand relative to the competition and the marketplace in which you compete. Steve Covey said it best in his book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, “Begin with the end in mind”.
3. If you have never done step number (2) or don’t know how, don’t let your ego prevent you from engaging an outside expert.
A business strategist brings three very valuable tools to the table; (1) a process for how to build a strategic and tactical plan, (2) experience working with a variety of companies in various industries from which you will benefit, and (3) they will bring objectivity and thus stop you from drinking your own bathwater - declaring something is core strength when in reality it is not all that different from your competitors.
4. Craft a realistic written plan and stick to it.
This means you review the plan regularly and use it to guide how you and your team prioritize your time, invest your resources, and select your people.
5. Accept the fact that change will involve some pain.
Operating leaner is hard and demanding. Holding employees and yourself accountable to specific and measurable goals is also tough. Fight through the pain knowing what you are doing is for the long-term health of your company.
6. Beware of excuses used to revert back to old behaviors or not complete an assigned objective on time.
It is not physically possible to complete everything in the fourth quarter because you either procrastinated or came up with reasons for why it couldn’t be done earlier in the year as originally agreed.
7. Know that progress will be quicker for younger companies than older. That’s just nature. Older habits and patterns of behavior are tougher to change. But don’t use this as an excuse not to.
Now for the rest of this fitness story.
The first few weeks were quite hard. He was a bit embarrassed being seen lifting such small amount of weights at the gym. He complained of being constantly sore. He would try to throw out an excuse or two for skipping a day. “Bad knees” and “I forgot my brace” were the excuses he used when I first suggested he start a running regiment to burn more calories. Despite the complaints he always showed up.
I knew we had turned a significant corner when on week eight he suggested going to the gym on one of our off days. That same week he set a goal to run a 5K. He had embraced the change in behavior. I was no longer pulling him along. His own goals and the measurable progress he himself witnessed were now providing the motivation.
With eight weeks to go he was down to 182 lbs., having lost 16 of the 23 lbs. we targeted. When we started he could barely run for 20 minutes, but now can run a full 5K in 30 minutes. 12 pushups in a row were now up to 40. He doubled the amount of weight he was able to lift and fits into clothing sizes he has not worn since college. We incorporated swimming into our routine and he soon started talking about making a triathlon a goal for next year.
Like your body, there is no shortcut to getting your company back into shape. It requires an investment in time and resources and an absolute dedication to follow through. The rewards however can be amazing. Your leaner, stronger company will be better able to compete and adapt effectively in an increasingly demanding, competitive, and ever changing world market. So, build a plan and then get back into the gym and make it a reality!
6-Months Later - an UPDATE: Change means introducing new behavior. The longer it is practiced the less it becomes 'new' and the more it becomes the norm. But this requires a certain level of forced discipline over time. My friend did not engage in this new behavior long enough to make it a habit - his new norm. First his visits to the gym dropped off. Then less running. And yes, he gave a lot of excuses for why. Then the old eating habits returned too. At first these were exceptions, then the violations came with less guilt. The weight returned. The strength faded. All progress was lost.
Extra Lesson: Change is hard for an individual. It is even harder for a business because of the multitude of individuals (employees) who have to become both believers and practitioners of the new way. As the CEO, you set the tone.
Do you have a plan? Are you sticking to the plan? Are you and your employees accomplishing things in the time you targeted or are these deadlines passing without repercussions?
As you can see here, it is easy to revert back to the old way.