Saturday, July 31, 2021

8 Levels Of Responsibility Lead To Change In Business

accountability-levelsMost business managers preach that the key to success is holding employees accountable for actions, but I have found that successful entrepreneurs are all about holding themselves accountable. They skip the blame and complain game, and make things happen despite major obstacles. As a startup investor, I view any evidence of a victim mentality as the kiss of death.

In reality, the picture is a bit larger than this, as outlined in the classic book “Leading with GRIT,” by Laurie Sudbrink, a well-known business leadership coach and speaker. She defines GRIT® as Generosity, Respect, Integrity, and Truth, with accountability being a major component of integrity. With all these elements, people can move from accountability to total leadership.

To explain accountability, she and I are strong proponents of the Accountability Ladder, which has been included in every Management 101 class for many years. Unfortunately, most entrepreneurs never get the opportunity to take this class, and many corporate managers seem to have forgotten, so I’ll summarize from my experience in business the eight basic rungs:

  1. No accountability, person totally unaware of failures. These are business people, whether they be employees, managers, or entrepreneurs, who don’t have a clue about what is required or the devastation they leave behind. Usually these people think they are doing a great job, and are totally oblivious to their unhappy customers or cash drain.
  1. Use blame and complain in lieu of accepting accountability. Some business people always play the victim, finding someone or some natural force as the cause for all their failures. An example of this would be finger pointing at unfair managers, blaming economic downturns, and irrational customer expectations for missed commitments.
  1. People deliver excuses rather than results. It’s easy for an entrepreneur or an employee to convince themselves that they would have been successful if they had more time, received more funding, or had the proper training to do the job. Usually the real culprit is procrastination, lack of focus, or low productivity and lack of metrics.
  1. Wait and hope for a miracle. Entrepreneurs with the mantra “if we build it, they will come,” and executives who don’t communicate their expectations, fall into this category. Employees can’t be accountable if they don’t know what is expected of them. Entrepreneurs won’t be successful if they have a passion, but no plan and no target.
  1. Accountability starts by acknowledging reality. Business people at this level recognize the magnitude of the workload and the specific tasks required for success. Smart entrepreneurs know they must deliver a quality product, develop a winning business model, and attract real customers. All that’s left is to commit and deliver.
  1. The next step is to accept ownership and responsibility. Moving forward into the business realities requires courage, commitment, and determination to succeed. If the motivation is not strong enough, it’s easy for people to fall back down the ladder and cover their lack of ownership with excuses, blame, and complaints.
  1. Apply known solutions to predictable tasks and challenges. Most good employees and executives perform at this level of accountability. They admit to owning the situation, and pride themselves on their professional abilities. Yet, when the totally unexpected happens, they may be quick unload the problem up the line, or fall off the ladder.
  1. Accept total accountability and make it happen. These are the cherished entrepreneurs who succeed despite tough odds, and the employees who come up with new approaches to delight your customers, achieve breakthrough goals, and develop innovative new products for markets you never imagined.

From my perspective, accountability should be the guiding principle for entrepreneurs who seek to change the world, as well as for employees who want to stand out above the rest. Before you start assessing accountability in others, it usually pays to take a hard look at yourself in the mirror. Are you accountable to be accountable?

Marty Zwilling

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Friday, July 30, 2021

8 Keys To Being A First Responder To Market Changes

Neon_sign,__CHANGEThe recent pandemic was a strong signal for change, and I see most of you entrepreneurs and business owners responding to the business changes required and new opportunities presented. Unfortunately, in my role as business advisor, I don’t see the same response to more common weak signals, like the move to phone texting instead of voice, or politics invading social media.

Of course, no business wants to be the next Blockbuster, which kept charging straight ahead despite subtle clues that the Internet was changing everything. While you all recognize that reacting to weak market signals is critical to staying in business and staying competitive, I find that many don’t have the skills and focus to trigger change decisions on a timely basis.

Here are some key strategies that I recommend to prompt you when changes to your business may be required:

  1. Look for a changing customer sense of value. For example, I find that more people now look for a great total experience, including selection choices, ease of return, and friendly support, versus just the lowest cost transaction. You may be getting killed today by customer expectations you never worried about just a few years ago.

  2. Scan for unmet needs to match new products. New technologies drive the need for support and attachments, which could be your opportunity or loss. When sales fall off, you need to dig deep for the “why,” rather than just assuming the price needs to go down. Make sure you think creatively to add as many new items as you phase out old ones.

  3. Don’t dismiss any new thing as a “flash in the pan.” Often new competitors do fail, but they may highlight a consumer trend that you can capitalize on now, before it comes back to haunt you later. It may be time to start your own home delivery service, or subscription offering, or time to acquire a struggling competitor to scale your business.

  4. Proactively evaluate new technologies for impact. Just like Blockbuster should have recognized the Internet as a potential impact, it’s your job to look ahead in your industry. If you wait for a crisis, it may be too late to recover, or the impact is large. An example is the transportation industry moving to electric – key player positions are changing rapidly.

  5. Establish and evaluate metrics at multiple levels. In addition to total sales, you need to look at categories and trends at lower levels. These are where you are likely to see weak signals of change that you must react to quickly. As times change, you may need new metrics, such as total experience, web site hits, and social media complaints.

  6. List potential new opportunities outside your domain. A smart business owner always maintains a list of the top five current and future areas that may be ripe for growth, and has one or two experiments going. A good way to start this activity is to participate in industry conferences, and build relationships with peers and other leaders.

  7. Investigate broader implications of disruptive events. It’s easy to see the immediate impact of disruptive events, such as the pandemic or big political changes, but only a few foresee the probable financial impacts and new regulations. Be a first responder, rather than the last, to make business model and strategy adjustments to compensate.

  8. Trust your intuition and team input as weak signals. As an experienced professional, you should realize that running a business is more than data. Sometimes premonitions are real, especially if backed up by employee and customer input. I look for business owners that have confidence in their insights, as well as supportive data and teams.

I have found that today new entrepreneurs are much more likely to respond to changes in the marketplace, especially weak ones. Even from these, as they morph into mature business owners, I see less and less focus on the need to read the market, and respond in a timely and competitive fashion.

Now is the time to take a hard look at your own operation. If you aren’t identifying weak signals in your weekly strategy sessions, and making changes equally often, you are likely losing ground in the struggle between long-term success and failure. We need your urgency and creativity.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 07/15/2021 ***

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Wednesday, July 28, 2021

8 Entrepreneur Attributes Proven To Attract Investors

entrepreneur-investment-fundingAs an angel investor in early-stage startups, I’ve long noticed my peers apparent bias toward the strength and character of the founding entrepreneurs, often overriding a strong solution to a painful problem with a big opportunity. In other words, the entrepreneur quality is more important than the idea -- in investor jargon, people invest in the jockey, and not the horse.

I’ve often wondered if anyone has quantified the implied assumption that leadership character is indeed a critical element of the success equation for startups, so I was pleased to see the classic book “Return On Character,” by Fred Kiel, a renowned leadership consultant. He has completed a study of more than 100 CEOs, with feedback from over 8,000 of their employees on this topic.

His research concluded that CEOs who received high scores for character also achieved much higher business results – nearly five times the average return on assets (ROA) during the two-year period covered. On the other hand, those CEOs with the lowest character scores (self-focused) were distrusted and suspected of telling the truth only slightly more than half the time.

Through interviews, Kiel identified eight common traits and habits exhibited by all the CEOs with a top character ranking (deemed virtuoso CEOs – masters of the skills and art of leadership):

  1. Displayed and demanded high moral principles. These are summarized as the four keystone character habits of integrity, responsibility, forgiveness and compassion. The authors found these to be achievable through self-training and practice, rather than requiring a genetic endowment. That means all of us have a chance.
  1. Embraced a worldview of positive beliefs. The scope of the positive leadership views included human nature, organization life, and personal purpose. The lower character leaders were consistently more negative and pessimistic in their worldview. In both cases, the beliefs tended to become realities.
  1. Developed a higher level of mental complexity. A leader judged high on cognitive complexity tends to perceive nuances and subtle differences that a person with a lower measure does not. High leaders continually challenged their own ideas and were quicker to adapt them to encompass new information, experiences, and meaning.
  1. Sought out and listened to critical feedback from others. High scoring leaders seek and positively respond to feedback from three critical groups: peers, customers, and direct reporting team members. Self-focused leaders, on the other hand, are more likely to resort to denial when faced with unpleasant feedback.
  1. Find and enjoy the company of one or more mentors. The leadership benefits of mentoring start in childhood, but are just as important at the mature CEO level. Virtuoso leaders recognize and seek three types of mentoring – career mentoring for the longer term, peer mentoring for tactical guidance, and life mentoring for quality of life balancing.
  1. Demonstrate the ideas and behaviors of self-determination. Leaders with a high level of self-determination continually seek more competence in their chosen domain, relatedness and connectivity to other stakeholders, and the autonomy to act in harmony with an integrated view of themselves.
  1. Virtuoso leaders know their life story. By crafting a coherent narrative of their life, they are better able to understand the major events and influences that have shaped their personal development and use that understanding to assess and improve their response to new situations as they arise.
  1. Sought and accepted help from many supportive people since childhood. Leaders who have sought help from natural helpers since childhood, including parents, teachers, and business influencers, usually feel more accepted, respected, and affirmed, and pass that feeling on to followers.

While Kiel’s focus was not specifically on startups, I believe the insights and conclusions apply equally well, if not more so, to startup environments. Every entrepreneur needs to understand the importance of character and leadership is to their growth and success, as well as their ability to attract investors. The return on character in business is well worth the investment.

Marty Zwilling

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Monday, July 26, 2021

6 Strategies To Maintain A Spotlight In Your Business

Lighting-Spotlight-BusinessIntuitively, many entrepreneurs and businesses believe that the key to faster growth and success is more products, features, and markets. Since we all have limited resources, and can’t add more hours to the day, the result is usually more things done poorly, rather than a few key things done better than anyone else. Every advisor and investor will tell you to keep your focus or spotlight.

Good examples of startup focus before success include Google with their search engine, Facebook with friends networking, and Apple with personal computers. Later, after that initial success builds resources, and your penetration of the target market approaches 30 percent, it’s time to expand your horizons and make anticipatory changes to your focus. Don’t wait for a crisis.

For larger and mature companies, the hard part seems to be giving up the familiar space that isn’t working so well anymore, so that you can focus on a new segment or opportunity. This was highlighted in the classic book “Do Less Better,” by John R. Bell, an experienced business expert, who highlights the power of strategic sacrifice in today’s complex business world.

Bell calls this change hesitation the failure to kill your darlings, or the fall from a specialist to a generalist. All entrepreneurs must succeed first as specialists, using pivots as required to zero in on the real and current market. It’s a tough world even for big-company generalists, who take on the complexities of product diversification. Just ask J.C. Penny, Radio Shack, and many others.

I particularly like Bell’s discussion of business culture characteristics that create the necessary focus and being the best in any business environment. This culture must be maintained by every company at every stage of maturity. I’ll paraphrase several of the key elements here in the context of entrepreneurs and startups:

  1. An overriding sense of urgency and passion. Nimbleness and urgency to get the job done will set you apart from your competitors in so many ways, particularly with customers. It comes naturally with a small highly motivated team, but it’s increasingly difficult to maintain in the face of size and success. Build it at the start and don’t ever lose it.
  1. Well-articulated goals and metrics. Your success or failure must be quantified by such key business indicators as market share, financial ratios, brand awareness, new product launches, and execution within the deadlines. Like the refrain of an old country song, if you don’t know where you’re going, you will probably end up somewhere else.
  1. Innovation-driven mindset and actions. Startups can’t hope to outspend a giant with a fat balance sheet. Rather you must outsmart the giant with innovative thinking, pivoting on a dime, and impeccable execution. Innovation initiatives of any appreciable scale require a formal, intentional resource commitment, and work best bottoms-up.
  1. Zero tolerance for complacency and status quo. Always strive to increase your lead, and while competitors scramble to catch you, unleash your next breakthrough product, service, or promotion. It’s easy for complacency to creep in unnoticed in the face of initial success. Continually move up the bar to re-test your personal limits and your team.
  1. Maintain an intimate knowledge of the competition. You must know what your competitors are planning, and how they think, corporately and individually. Study their moves and engage your team for an analysis of updates. Avoid egotistical price wars and emotional outbursts, but make competitors think you are prepared to win at all costs.
  1. Focus on the few things that really matter. No organization, large or small, can manage more than five goals and priorities without becoming unfocused and ineffective. Keep these balanced and aligned between people and process, and keep the scope realistic. Concentrate your actions on preemptive projects that are within your control.

In the long run, to have a long run, your company needs a narrow and memorable focus that is constantly being updated in innovative ways. It’s easy to think that doing less as a company means you’re slacking, but results and longevity are all that count. Every entrepreneur and executive must learn how to build and maintain a culture of doing fewer things better.

Marty Zwilling

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Sunday, July 25, 2021

6 Keys To Positioning Your Disruptive Solution Today

Primavera De FilippiEvery entrepreneur with a new technology tells me that his innovation will be industry-disrupting, meaning that it will render the existing technology obsolete, and create a new market. Yet truly disruptive innovations, like the smartphone from Apple and the rise of the Internet, are very rare, and are generally unpredicted. So why would any investor ever believe any of these claims?

In fact, as a mentor to entrepreneurs and an investor, I recommend that entrepreneurs avoid using the term disruptive with investors, since many see it as implying extra high risk, a long time for payback, and extensive marketing to build the new market. Yet a win in this department clearly has huge implications for success, and a very real potential to change the world.

Thus, it’s worth some extra effort to understand attributes of the market, in concert with your new technology, which might really indicate that industry disruption is possible with your innovation. In a classic book, “Disruption by Design,” by the renowned innovation consultant Paul Paetz, I found a list of common patterns and recognizable attributes that I like, called disruption fingerprints.

I suspect that several of these will surprise most entrepreneurs as being counter-intuitive to their thinking. Entrepreneurs tend to look for big changes and big markets when seeking disruptive opportunities, when the opposite may be more effective. I agree with Paetz that the following approaches are often more likely to find a disruptive opportunity around the corner:

  1. Initially address a small market niche. Disrupting a huge market intuitively has greater potential, but it’s also like turning an aircraft carrier. It takes a long time and lots of effort to overcome existing momentum, and both investors and customers want to see results on a small scale in their lifetime, before they line up to join the movement.
  1. Pick a technology that somehow seems inferior to the major incumbents. Existing players normally think in terms of bigger, better, and faster, whereas more customers may really be satisfied by smaller, cheaper, and simpler. Think personal computers compared to mainframes, or smartphone cameras compared to professional cameras.
  1. Target large but moderate-to-low-growth segments. Usually these are low-growth for a reason – a new technology or price point could easily be the trigger to a large opportunity. On the other hand, high-growth segments may look more attractive, but are likely being attacked by the big players and many other competitors.
  1. Look for sizable customer populations unattractive to incumbents. These may be people who can’t afford existing products due to income levels or location, but need the solution. Remember the explosion of cell phones throughout the world when cheap versions and new pricing models were introduced a few years ago.
  1. Explore industries where you are an outsider. Most business advisors recommend that you stick with the business area you know, where you have inside knowledge. Often entrepreneurs are more able to think outside the box and bring disruptive change to less-known business domains. Consider Apple’s move into music, telephones, and watches.
  1. Compete against non-consumption and non-existing markets. The most disruptive products are ones that never existed before, and no forecasts are even available to size the opportunity. Facebook built the social media market before customers even knew they needed it. Naturally, these are very high risk efforts, but have unlimited potential.

Of course, entrepreneurs looking for disruptive opportunities should never forget the more likely disruptive alternatives, such as bypassing existing channels to go direct to the customer, finding an order-of-magnitude cost breakthrough, addressing underserved needs, or offering dramatic improvements in ease-of-use and convenience to new and existing users.

Yet, even with these alternatives, market disruption is rarely predictable – it’s obvious only in hindsight. Every entrepreneur should aim for it, but restrain themselves from highlighting that focus to early investors, or even early customers. It’s one of the quickest ways to lose your credibility, and maybe even your opportunity. Pitch your innovation against today’s market.

Marty Zwilling

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Saturday, July 24, 2021

5 Strategies For Recognizing Early The Need To Change

Autonomous DrivingEvery entrepreneur realizes that change is now the norm, and they have to adapt their business quickly to survive and prosper. In fact, the best entrepreneurs seem to see breakthrough changes coming even before they really happen, and are able to turn them into huge new opportunities. In the trade, this rare capability is called the ability to see around corners.

While only a few people seem to be born with the right genes, I’m convinced that it is also a skill that can be learned and even institutionalized. In the classic book, “The Attacker’s Advantage,” by world-renowned business advisor Ram Charan, I found some real guidance on what skills are required, what to look for, and how to react in time. Here is a summary of his five basic strategies:

  1. Always on the alert, sensing for signals and meaning of change. Technically, this is known as perceptual acuity. Smart entrepreneurs compare perceptions with a diverse group of leaders and experts on a regular basis. They search for impending changes across multiple environments, and reflect on these to spark new ideas for growth.
  1. A mind-set to see opportunity in uncertainty. Uncertainty is an invitation to go on the attack and entrepreneurs need to be always ready to take their business to a new place in the changing landscape. They should never be defensive, and accept reality when core competencies are actually a hindrance to moving in a more promising direction.
  1. The ability to see a new path forward and commit to it. Leading entrepreneurs don’t wait for everyone to agree with their view of where to take the business, and have the courage of their convictions. They pursue new opportunities with tenacity, identify the obstacles they need to overcome, the blockages that stand in the way, and attack them.
  1. Adeptness in managing the transition to the new path. These entrepreneurs stay connected to both external and internal realities to know when to accelerate and when to shift the short-term/long-term balance, with a sharp eye on cash flow and debt. They create and meet short-term milestones to win credibility with investors and stakeholders.

  1. Skill in making the organization steerable and agile. No business leader can succeed in driving change without being able to bring key people on the team along. They learn to be agile, or steerable, by linking the external realities in real time to assignments, priorities, decision-making power, funding, and key performance indicators.

Examples of recent entrepreneurs who exemplify these attributes include Steve Jobs, who moved Apple from a computer company to smart phones and music, Elon Musk, who seems to be capitalizing on structural changes in the auto industry and space travel, and Jeff Bezos, who parlayed selling books on the Internet to a whole new paradigm for shopping from home.

Too many entrepreneurs allow the pressures of daily crises and total immersion in tactical details to narrow their thinking and to lower the altitude of their view. Everyone needs to find and hone the techniques that work for them in maintaining that perceptual acuity. Here are a few that both Charan and I recommend to get started:

  • Set aside ten minutes of each weekly staff meeting for that purpose.

  • Seek contrary viewpoints from people you respect, rather than compiling support.

  • Regularly dissect the past, to look for change signals you and others missed.

  • Continually increase your mental map of key changes in multiple industries.

  • Evaluate who might use an invention, patent, or new law to create a bend in the road.

  • Use outsiders to multiply your capacity to scan for disrupting patterns.

  • Watch the social scene, looking for new consumer behaviors and trends.

  • Be a voracious reader in all forms of media, both online and offline.

Even if you can’t see around the corners, it helps to have the perceptual acuity to see bends in the road before others. With that, and the courage to accelerate towards them as opportunities, rather than slowing down to mount a defense, you too can be a winner, rather than a victim in today’s uncertain but unlimited market.

Marty Zwilling

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Friday, July 23, 2021

6 Management Strategies To Maintain Brand Leadership

protect-your-brandEvery one of you business owners I know has worked hard to build your brand, and recognizes the critical value of instant brand recognition and leadership. You have done everything to register your brand legally, including domains, copyrights, patents, and trademarks. Yet, as an outside advisor, I often see slippage over time on protecting your brand, which can be costly.

The specifics of these shortcomings are hard to nail down, but I was impressed with the good summary provided in a new book, “Make It, Don’t Fake It,” by Sabrina Horn. She is a widely acclaimed C-suite advisor, speaker, and founder of HORN Strategy, LLC. I add my insights here to her top six key strategies for keeping your brand authentic and above reproach:

  1. Avoid changes that may compromise quality or image. We all strive to reduce costs and improve efficiency, but the ultimate test is the potential to erode values, culture, and brand image. Every change has possible downsides, and it your responsibility to quantify and balance these against benefits. Don’t let your bean counters devalue your brand.

    For example, a few years ago Wells Fargo seriously damaged its brand trying to grow the business by creating accounts without proper customer consent. This resulted in lawsuits and fines, angered many new customers, and the Wells Fargo brand is still recovering.

  2. Evaluate the brand impact of proposed market moves. The push is always on to grow your market with new geographies, new products, and new market segments. Yet every change can cause brand dilution or competition you don’t need. Always check language nuances and translation issues. Moving in or out of the wrong market can kill your brand.

    Most of us can still remember when Ford expanded into Brazil with the Pinto model, not realizing the translation had a negative sexual connotation, which severely hurt Ford’s brand in many countries for all models. There are many comparable examples of big hits.

  3. Recognize that employee morale impacts your brand. If employee morale is down, your brand will be negatively impacted. Thus you need to see and be seen with your people, and walk the talk. Don’t wait for quarterly morale surveys, or feedback from HR. Ask employees for feedback, and commit to fix problems before you feel brand impact.

  4. Never argue with customers, public or private. Pay close attention to social media and online feedback, and never respond defensively. Create and truly listen to your customer advisory council, and focus on removing opportunities for them to be disappointed. Customers, more than advertising, make your brand image in the market.

    Of course, we can all agree that the customer isn’t always right, but it does your brand no good to debate the issue. The best approach is to listen and learn from them – and clarify your brand marketing, customer service, business model, or just find the right customers.

  5. Accommodate and integrate multiple cultures. As you expand the business into new geographies and market segments, focus on culture inclusivity rather than trying to manage multiple subcultures. Use global online “influencers” and common values to seek communication across groups, and keep the focus on your brand rather than differences.

    In this age of the Internet and global communication, it is virtually impossible to isolate individual subcultures, and market your brand uniquely to each. Attempts to do this have resulted in more confusion than value, as well as high management and marketing costs.

  6. Differentiate your brand based on a higher cause. Be different based on a unique value proposition, not just better quality or cost. Know yourself as well as your customer, and make your brand a statement that they can relate to, and want to be a part of. Keep you image authentic, fresh, and harmonious, and firmly based in reality.

    For example, TOMS shoes differentiated their brand of common shoes by highlighting a higher purpose from founder Blake Mycoskie of donating a pair of shoes to the needy for every pair sold. He found that the return was far greater than the cost of donated shoes.

Building and protecting your brand is the ultimate responsibility of every business owner and leadership team. It supersedes all other responsibilities, and should be top-of-mind in everything you do. Don’t let the day-to-day pressures from customers, competitors, and scaling push you into shortcuts that look good on paper today, but may damage your brand image in the long term.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 07/09/2021 ***

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