The one thing I pride myself on is that I didn’t let the great people I’ve met over my career retire without gaining from their experiences. It’s been an interesting journey. And over time I realized that the best executives seem to do almost the opposite of what we read about and what we see going on in most companies. Here’re a few examples of what I mean.
Think about the rocks
In most firms I worked we spent too much time on plans and budgets and not enough on getting things done. Execution was seldom a major part of the culture. Getting it done was expected to just happen. And why not? For a generation now, we’ve believed execution is easy. Like Nike says: “Just do it.” So why didn’t we?
Well, margins were high so we got away with being sloppy. It reminds me of the school project where the teacher gives the students a jar and tells them to fill it with rocks, sand and water. The students make the mistake of putting the sand and water in first. Then they try adding the rocks and complain the jar isn’t big enough. The teacher encourages them to try again, waiting for someone to ask the smart question.
Some companies, like Lawson & Jones, had executives who were really good at asking questions. They’d compare the cost sheet against the estimate every day and probed until they could improve the docket profit. These executives focused on the most important things—getting the rocks in the jar. They didn’t have time for sand and water—the small and fuzzy issues. They had rocks in their heads. And I find executives with rocks in their heads have a healthy respect for and focus on profit. They can link everything they do to the bottom line. It’s amazing to reflect back and realize how few people I’ve met in the business world who are concerned about the bottom line.
Develop a culture of delivering
I’ve found that corporate waste usually results when there are too many people in a company. Whenever I had a division that couldn’t get things done, it was often overstaffed. It was my signal to reduce people. In contrast, I recently worked at a company with a culture of delivering—an executive had to make the budget he or she created, no excuses. No bigger jar! However, this is rare. Most companies allow executives to make excuses. And it’s easier to rationalize that the executive is a good person and maybe next month will be better. But next month is never better.
There is no silver bullet
Another big gripe for me is the budget process. Many executives confuse the “hunt for the silver bullet” with budgeting. I’ve never found the silver bullet and in my experience looking for it in the budgeting process makes the experience worse than a dental extraction. Very few executives have actually had any training in devising a budget that works. Most make these common errors:
- making the process too long
- allowing too many cost categories (making it too complex)
- not double-checking the assumptions
- having unrealistic sales projections
- not including enough contingencies
- not getting the buy-in from employees to make it happen
Stick to simple
Executives know organizations can’t handle too much change at once so they introduce one idea a month. Employees smell this one a mile away. “Flavour of the month,” is one of the most damning comments from employees and it’s an excuse to do nothing. They can put off adopting anything new and wait a month until management comes up with the next great idea. What you need is one simple message that you repeat every day, every week, every month until your spouse hears you say it in your sleep.
If I could do it over, I would stick to simple. You can’t grow the bottom line unless you get people to make it happen, and making it happen means making it simple. Which doesn’t mean it’s easy. Remember the simple seven…
- Simple means pick only a few goals that everyone understands
- Simple means make the big decision
- Simple means a consistent message (until employees can recite the message better than you!)
- Simple means asking questions
- Simple means encouraging employees to eliminate the dumb things
- Simple means breaking big jobs into small steps
- Simple means making sure you’re always short-staffed so people only have time to do the most important stuff.
Keep it simple, be an executive with rocks in your head.