Strategic Thinking . . . The Way to the TOP!!

During my career, I had the opportunity to work directly under two different Harvard MBA’s- coincidentally both were females.  Both of these Harvard MBA’s intellect were far superior to almost everyone I ever known, and  I always wondered if they rose to the pinnacle of their career due to their intelligence, their education, or their ability to think strategically far and above the ‘rest’ of us.

During my tenure under these Harvard MBA’s, I felt almost invisible, and became little more than a statistic.  From my experience and as we go through our career, as our proposals end up in a pile, and like everyone else we get a raise every once in a while, we’re referred to as applicants, employees, or human resources, and we sense our individuality became buried.

Jack Welch called this feeling of anonymity “being in the pile,” and he recommended thinking as the means of escape. Most people go with the ‘herd’ doing what’s asked of them but not much more. In Welch’s estimation, the key to elevating your business is to go above and beyond expectations whenever someone asks you question or you have a customer or employee complaint.

As Jack Welch wrote, “If you understand that the question is only the beginning, you will get out of the pile fast, because 99.9 percent of all employees are in the pile because they don’t think. If you understand this principle, you will always be given more critical questions to answer. And in time, you will be the one giving out the questions to others!”

I would like to offer five ways to begin thinking your way to the top.

1. Where to think . . .

Today’s work environment is incredibly fast-paced and fraught with demands and huge workloads. Unless you’re deliberately get away from the noise of day-to-day operations, you will never break free. The first step to getting out of the pile is giving yourself permission to disconnect. You have to get away from all the daily challenges by retreating to a space free of any and all interruptions. Initially, you might think that scheduling this time feels incredibly unproductive. However, this is the only way and the beginning to gaining perspective to working smarter and more strategically.

2. Shape your thoughts . . .

In the beginning most ideas lack clarity. Our initial ideas are unclear due to the clutter in our mind. As a leader, challenge yourself to translate your gut feelings into distinct ideas and plans, which you can document and articulate to your team. Next, strategic ideas never come fully formed. As a leader, your job is to test your ideas by asking critical questions. Does the idea proceed from reasonable assumptions? Does the idea align with the mission, core values and strategic vision of the organization? Does the idea make sense given the structure and strengths/weaknesses of the organization? Lastly, thoughts spring into existence with huge possibilities. However, they must undergo tests. For instance, how would the idea actually take shape in your organization? What would it cost to pursue? How long would it take to implement? What significant changes (positive and negative) would impact the business?

3. Stretch your thoughts . . .

Throughout my career, some of the best ideas have come from others. Many times my ideas start out small until we got ahold of them and found ways to stretch them to their maximum potential. Isolated leaders never obtain as much influence as those who surround themselves with an inner circle of key advisors.

4. Land your thoughts . . .

Before an idea can take shape, it must take on a concrete existence. The number one question to ask when landing or implementing an idea is: Who will own it? Who will champion the idea and push it forward? A leader must prepare the way for the idea to touch down safely. This means winning the support of your team and communicating clearly with those most likely to be impacted by the idea’s implementation.

5. Fly your thoughts . . .

If you wanted to fly an airplane, you would begin by taking lessons from an instructor.  To fly an idea, you first need to learn from an instructor or a practice flight. Testing your idea on a small scale will expose weaknesses before a major launch. Sometimes the flaws are fixable, and the idea can be reworked. On rare occasions, you may even have an idea that tests out brilliantly on the first attempt. However, other ideas are not feasible in real life and ought to be scrapped. A practice flight confirms that an idea can actually withstand the challenges of real-world application.

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Today’s Business Challenges

iStock_000001004534MediumIn this pending mid-election year, how have the daily challenges business owners face changed? I found a recent survey which addressed some key business issues. The business owners responses are presented below in no particular order.  First, ask yourself how have things changed in your business in the past 12-48 months?

1. Finding Profitable Customers

The biggest challenge for any business, NOT just small businesses, is finding and keeping profitable customers- not just any customers, but customers that make you a profit.

2.   Team Issues. . .

The biggest problem is finding, recruiting and hiring employees that can truly help your business grow. It’s difficult to compete with the larger businesses for the same talent when you have limited funds.

3. Cashflow . . .

The biggest problem is when you have to invest your entire cashflow in client projects that last several months, which result in a huge growth in receivables. But when you should be celebrating, you find that cash is thin preventing further growth.

4. Focus on What You Can Control

Uncertainty continues to be the major challenge facing all businesses. The solution is to revisit  your Strategic Business Plans; determine where course corrections are necessary. Then, focus on what you can control instead of what you cannot control.

5. The Elephant in the Room

Health insurance- the cost of which now exceeds my mortgage, never mind the $7K deductible. The potential is that business growth and innovation could increase when dollar $12,001 of an entrepreneur’s income no longer equals dollar one of an employee’s.

6. Make Friends with the Bouncer!

Remember standing in line for hours trying to get into a popular club only to be turned away by the bouncer at the door? Marketing your business on the Internet is no different. You can spend hours canvassing for friends, linking profiles, and even mastering the ad game. But if consumers do not have a sense that they can trust you, your product, or your service, they will turn you away. Your business friends guard the gates to a whole new world of consumers.

7. Asking for Help

The single biggest challenge for business owners is breaking free from the mentality that says, “I have to do it all myself.” Business owners struggle with this continually. When they finally ask for help, they find that problems get cleared up in a matter of minutes that previously took days to solve.

8. To Social Network or Not

I work with small business owners every day and one of the most common questions I get is “Should I be doing social media as part of my marketing?”  The short answer is “YES!”

9. The Economy

The biggest challenge facing small businesses today is the lousy economy. It is difficult to get new customers and generate sales when people and businesses are not spending. This is why it is so important to distinguish your business (brand) as being “different and better” so people/businesses receive a strong benefit from doing business with you that they do not receive anywhere else. Just being another “me too” business in this economy will kill you.

10. Loosen Your Grip on E-mail

E-mail is an abysmal tool to rely upon solely for selling. Last year, your average customer spent 8+ hours per week plowing through their inbox– that’s one entire business day! Furthermore, the amount of 1st class mail has dropped by over 46 billion pieces in the last five years.  So what is the best way to stay in touch with your clients?

11. Too Many Hats!

Business owners notoriously wear too many hats! Not only does the business owner have to provide expertise, they also have to manage all aspects of the business. You’re the accountant, the marketing manager, the schedule keeper, etc.

12. How to Hire a Millennial

Hiring Millennial generation employees can be a big challenge; their attitude and thoughts about work and their work environment are total different than the Baby Boomers.  The difference ranges from continually checking Facebook and texting all day to pushing back against HR policies-  while expecting a speedy promotion. Learn to hire them for their strengths; they handle social media, create grassroots marketing strategies and work well together to play off each others’ strengths.

13. Business as ‘Usual’ Equals Death

The story goes . . . A business starts, struggles through all of the issues, and finally gets to a profitable and comfortable status. That’s the challenge; the comfortable status is a death warrant! The next day everything changes, the market, the competition, the technology and now your company is behind!