Put a mark on the wall

You already know about failing to plan.  Here’s another axiom:  it’s only a goal if you write it down.  Otherwise, it’s just a hope and hope is not a strategy.  Each of us strives for something – relevance, clients, credibility, results, but how much of just happens and how much is the result of a calculated effort.  That doesn’t mean you script every moment of life, it means you do not go into things totally blind, you have an outcome in sight and adjust to changing conditions in order to reach it.

Earlier this year, I left the corporate cocoon and struck out on my own for the first time.  Scary as hell.  The first lesson was that the 1st and the 15th are just two days in  the month, no more or less significant than the 28 or 29 others.  (Or the 26 others in most Februaries.)  I had an outline in mind and filled in the blanks as they surfaced.  On occasion, I colored outside the lines and that’s not always bad.  It helped to formulate a good part of the path for 2015.  The outcome for next year is my mark on the wall; that’s what I am preparing for as this year winds down and the next one unfolds.  Spots on the calendar are filling in, ideas are taking shape, projects are coming together.

Military folks love to say every plan is genius until the first round is fired down range and that is true in business, too.  You can scheme out every step but reality is going to force you to adjust. Your initial idea gets refined and sharpened as you try it out, it extends beyond its original bounds as ideas take root, it heads into areas you had not originally considered as your network expands.  This isn’t just some guy BS’ing you; I am living it.  What started has taken at least two turns I did not envision, and that’s to the good.  That came from having a goal and the ability to adjust to unforeseen opportunities.

Unforeseen opportunities, the philosophical mirror to “foreseeable consequences are not unintended.”  I realize the latter is a double negative but give it another go:  when actions have predictable outcomes, you cannot act surprised at the results.    Too often, you hear about someone being “victimized” by outside forces or bad advice or flawed strategy, but that sounds a bit like rationalizing bad ideas.  If you take a wrong turn when driving, it usually does not take long to realize your mistake.  Same thing with plans and strategies; you have some benchmark in mind and if the meter is not moving in a positive direction after a reasonable period of time, reconsider your approach.  It doesn’t mean you are 100% wrong and have to start over; you just have to be aware of the variables that surfaced along the way, how they impacted what you were trying to accomplish, where adjustments need to be made, and keep moving forward.

A colleague of mine in a networking organization has based his philosophy on removing negativity from your life and focusing on the positive direction in which you are headed.  It’s not happy talk.  If the goal is to drink a glass of water, then the glass being half-empty is moving in the positive direction of totally empty.  If the goal is 10 meetings this week or three new clients this month, and you get seven of the former and two of the latter, you are moving in a positive direction.  Look, all these motivational speakers and success coaches and productivity experts are in demand for a reason – whether or not what they offer actually works, people think it does and they are willing to pay for a dose of it.  No one shows up at work and says “how can I screw up today?”  And while I  believe in the notion of “first shown up, then see what happens” to a point, it is conjunction with a desire outcome and the part about ‘what happens’ is the variables that may surface.



You Don’t Fix the Roof When it’s Raining

According to the Kauffman Foundation, one-fourth of all new businesses that were started last year were founded by people between the ages of 55 and 64.  In fact, the number of people in that cohort who have struck out on their own has doubled in the past two decades.  So what, you ask?  Only this: every one of those people leaving your shop is taking with them decades of experience, a bevy of contacts, and the institutional knowledge on which your enterprise runs.  The question isn’t “so what?” It’s, who is going to take their place?

Apparently, it is not going to be the Millennials, where the outlook drifts from pretty bad to frightening depending on the metrics being used. There are plenty of alleged boogeymen who are more like straw men:

  • unpaid internships (even though those are mostly about connections and are short-lived)
  • a lack of entry-level positions (even though the departure of senior-level people would, by definition, create openings)
  • baby boomers not having the decency to retire and make way for the young ‘uns (looks like someone did not read the Kauffman report referenced at the top).

Time for a Vince Lombardi moment and a bit of strategic thinking common to sports: next man up. It means when you lose a player, someone must be ready to step into that role. Next man up is not a suggestion or a good idea, it is a defining principle of how an organization moves forward when reality strikes. And the reality is that everyone will leave a company at some point and not just to start a business.

At a networking event I attended earlier this week, a 50-something member told us that she had just taken a job with a competing firm. Now, maybe she’s right and the company she is leaving is so large that the relationships she has built won’t be missed, that someone has been groomed for her job and that person’s position also has a ready successor, and on down the food chain to the entry-level position that will be created for a Millennial to fill. But what if she is wrong? Because the evidence, for the most part, says she is.

We talk a lot here about talent gaps, about engagement, about workplace diversity, about the “human” aspect of human capital, usually topics that focus on the present. There is not as much material on the future and I get that. Organizations tend to live in the now; it’s what pays the bills, drives promotions, and makes headlines. The present just by its nature is more real than the future and people like to see the results of their planning, which is more readily done in the short-term than the long. Still, between the veteran workers and those joining the workforce, there are positions that will come open and budding talent in need of direction on how to fill them.

Some of you, no doubt, are aware of an upcoming event on this subject. And it’s a concern north of the border, too. Stories like the ant and the grasshopper represent simple truths and unheeded, simple truths can devolve into malicious truths. One need look no further than the juxtaposition between Apple and Hewlett-Packard with regard to forward planning. One company had a clear plan for the future, the other did not. Which would you rather be?

About that bus; step in front of it

It’s the workplace question with its own Wiki entry. But there is a far less dramatic, and potential more serious, organizational perspective to consider: what happens when senior talent leaves? In many organizations, the apparent answer is chaos. Nearly two-thirds of companies do not have people ready to backfill key organizational roles. About one-third have no succession plan at all. If only there was some old saying about failing to plan.

John Hancock has a series of ‘what-if’ ads and one is called “The Meeting” where a middle-aged man is called into his boss’ office. In one of the endings, he becomes a statistic but not the one you are thinking about and this is where art imitates life. The fictional character is among the very real people in the 55 – 64 cohort who will launch nearly one-quarter of all new businesses.

These are real people exiting for reasons that have nothing to do with wayward busses: they start companies, they teach, they move to non-profits, they indulge hobbies, or they simply retire. And with each exit, an organization loses decades of institutional knowledge, innumerable customer contacts and relationships, and a part of its culture.

You don’t fix the roof when it is raining. And you don’t start looking for new leaders and managers after the old ones are gone. External pressures tend to guide internal processes – first know where you want to be, then figure out how to get there. Take inventory of who and what your organization is today, and who and what it is likely to be in five years:

  • What will the competitive landscape be and how does your business strategy address it?
  • Will it be easier or harder to find qualified staff to meet those objectives?
  • Will that talent be more or less expensive, available locally or not?

Now assess the roster:

  • How many people are likely to retire/take other jobs in the next five years?
  • Is there a pipeline of replacement talent in place?
  • Who are the likely candidates for mid- to senior-level leadership roles?
  • What must be done to prepare those individuals to that level and how long will that take?

By their own admission, CEOs do a terrible job of succession planning even though they are fully aware of its importance. Maybe it’s because so many organizations focus on the here and now, on this year’s revenue targets, on next year’s product launch; maybe it is the Melba toast quality – dry, process-driven, no immediate reward – of succession planning; maybe it is the result of calling it planning.

Organizations and individuals plan a lot of things, but the value in those things comes from doing them. And that means a succession program, with measurable results because execs love things that can be quantified. Associate a metric with an activity and someone is either doing that activity or answering “why not?”

Being forced to look over the horizon is challenging and may be a shock to the here-and-now psyche, but no leadership team lasts forever, no CEO sits in that chair permanently, and this is not a bad thing. It is the natural progression of the workplace, just as natural as adapting to any foreseeable event, and organizations that are unable to adapt are usually unable to survive.