The Point: At Tip of the Spear Ventures, we’ve seen firsthand how leaders can get into crisis situations without realizing that they are getting worse. They are not bad leaders. But these leaders often work under outdated paradigms and let the power of inertia take them along. If they don’t recognize that they’re in crisis, they won’t be able to realize that they must make a business transformation. Under normal circumstances this leads to poor performance, and as we exit the pandemic doing so will definitely lead there. So, in this article we’ll explore business transformation for post-pandemic success along with ten tips… Enjoy!
Business Transformation – Bad Leadership?
We all have heard the same regrets from leaders regarding why they failed to transform their business. Sometimes leaders underestimated the severity of their situation or were looking at incorrect data. Some took advantage of cheap capital to keep going despite poor performance and believed they could pull it off. Others got so focused on short-term returns they forgot to protect their company’s long term health, or even willingly sacrificed it.
Rarely is there a leader who takes the time to look at his or her plans objectively and asks, “Where are we going? Is this what will happen when we start down this path?” This is a problem, because admitting that your plan isn’t going to work/working is an important first step.
These then are the ten best ways for ailing businesses to get started on business transformation for post-pandemic success.
Looking to transform your business?
Download our 37 page | 128 question Business Transformation Self-Assessment Workbook!
Tip #10 – Don’t be Influenced by the Business Transformation
It is almost impossible to find a single definition of a company that is in need of transformation. And it can be dangerous to believe you might be in need of transforming your company. There are likely to be 25 business transformation signs depending on the situation. However, the problem is rarely made up of only one or two of these signs. It is more likely that a larger number of these things interact with each other and with external factors.
Tip #9 – You Must be Honest with Yourself about Your Plans
You can avoid most business transformation stress by reviewing your business plans regularly. You should include trigger points in your business plans, regardless of whether you are creating them at the beginning of the year, or at the beginning of a 3-year cycle. One simple reminder is enough: “If we don’t achieve this level of performance or the 12 items below by the deadline, we will step back and evaluate whether we are on the right track, considering what has happened since our last review.”
These trigger points should be oriented to both operational and market performance, as well as basic financial metrics and cashflow. Take a look at your company’s financial and cash milestones and compare it to the industry and other competitors. Your plan might be outdated if you are not moving along with the industry or outpacing it if the industry’s in trouble. To identify trends, look back at past cycles and examine your performance. Ask yourself why you aren’t meeting your performance goals.
Tip #8 – Expect More from Your Advisors
An advisor has enough distance to see the forest from the trees. This is the beauty of an objective advisor. However, leadership tends to view their advisors as a “necessary evil” that they must placate in order to get on with their businesses. This undermines the advisors role as an early-warning system for companies heading for business transformation trouble.
The advisors must also look at the CEO, CFO and chief operating officer (COO), and say “OK, we like the plan. Let’s now discuss what it would take not only to reduce costs by 3 percent, but also by 20 percent. Let’s discuss all the possible risks that could happen to the business.” While there is no typical business transformation situation, the company may have had only 18-24 months of poor performance and the advisor hasn’t been able to ask the right questions. This is where advisors can have a significant impact.
One company’s senior management team keeps a list of all business transformation risks that could affect the business, employees and plan. The advisors review these risks on a quarterly basis. This is a great way to have conversations you might not normally have with other people in your business.
Tip #7 – Cash is Your Priority!
The key to a successful business transformation is not about cash or cash returns, but rather focusing on cash as a whole. This means that a business must return to its core element of success. Are they generating or burning cash? What investments are making or losing cash in the business?
Here’s an example as if you were running an e-commerce (Electronic Commerce) store. You will want to ask fundamental questions such as: Is there enough cash in the register for the utility bill? Or to pay for the pallets of paint that will arrive next week? How much cash can I make by buying a new delivery truck? The actions required to get your business back on track are clear when you return it to its core elements. Many of the cases are focused on complicated metrics such as earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) or return on investment, which excludes major cash uses. Variations on EBIT, for example, often exclude amortization and depreciation but exclude rents and fuel. All these metrics are great, but there are always unpleasant surprises when you’re not focusing on cash.
Cash management is more than just keeping track of your bank balance. Leaders need to have a forecast that is both long-term and mid-term in order to avoid unexpected expenses. Companies are often end up in trouble if they fail to consider the cash component of capital investment. The projected net present value (NPV) can be the same regardless of whether the return is gradual, at year two, or dramatic at year five. If you don’t pay attention to the cash flowing out of the business while you wait for the year-five injection, you could find yourself in a situation where you have very little cash left. This could lead you into a downward spiral that you might not be able to recover from.
Tip #6 – Make a Difference with Your Business Transformation Story
Companies in business transformation fail to create a story about change that everyone can understand, which gives rise to a sense of urgency. Here’s an example: As chief restructuring officer for a SaaS technology company, we did a business transformation engagement. It was profitable, it returned a decent margin and it was cash-positive. The commodity price was falling and the advisors were concerned about the ability to generate enough cash flow to support capital requirements. We created a change story that said “Yes, we’re profitable. The whole point of profitability, however, is to have enough cash to grow and expand operations. If that isn’t possible, we are headed for a slow, steady decline in which equipment fails and lower production becomes the new reality.”
People will listen if you tell the story in one paragraph. Team members wanted their children and grandchildren to work for the same technology company. The change story inspired them to take action so that could become reality. The key to success was simple messaging and not fancy metrics.
Tip #5 – Every Business Transformation should be Treated as a Crisis
A stable company will respond to business transformation changes without a crisis mindset. Risk is to be avoided and incrementalism takes control. Your employees are expected to do more with less. You will see more aggressive ideas and slower implementation.
A business transformation crisis, however, requires immediate action. This is exactly what a distressed business needs. Leaders must use the words “crisis” and “urgency” as soon as they realize the need for business transformation. In a true crisis, a company will try things it wouldn’t normally consider. These bold actions can change the company’s trajectory. Leaders are encouraged to explore all options when faced with transformation.
Tip #4 – Quick Wins Can Help You Build Traction for Positive Change
Leaders tend to focus all their attention and resources on a few big bets to save a company in business transformation. This can lead to unnecessary high-risk decisions. Even though big bets may sometimes be necessary, they can take a lot more time and effort than they pay off. Imagine that you change your suppliers of raw material to source from a lower-cost country. You expect 35 percent lower direct cost. You’ll probably spend a lot of time and money on something that didn’t work out.
Leaders should not only focus on making big bets but also work hard to get traction in the company. These quick wins can be cost-focused, reducing the demand for an external service that they don’t require. It could also be policy-focused, like introducing stricter expense policies.
These moves not only improve the bottom line but also create support among team members. You’re almost certain to find support from twenty percent of employees in any company. They are hard workers. They will make changes if you ask. These are the people that you will want to spend the most time with and the ones you will promote. However, you may spend too much time working with the bottom twenty percent of employees. These people are low-achieving and resist change. They also look for ways to avoid it or are just difficult to lead.
The remaining 60% of the company is often overlooked. They are the fence-sitters and are tuned to action, not talk. These people see the changes happening and will support you if you work with them. If you don’t give them reasons to be positive about the company they will turn against you. This is why it’s important to make quick wins. You send a strong message when you take immediate action and those actions have an impact on the leadership team.
Tip #3 – Get Rid of Your Old Incentive Plans
In many cases, incentives are the most overlooked aspect of business transformation. Short-term incentive plans for stable companies can include a variety of goals that address safety, financial, operational, and personal performance. Many of these plans are so complicated that leaders often shrug when asked what they should do to earn their bonus. Why? They can’t figure it out!
Take a cue from the private equity industry — The other side of our firm at Tip of the Spear Ventures — to help you make a successful business transformation and ditch your old plans. Instead, give managers incentives that are specific to the things you want. Are you looking for $15 million in price improvement? Make it part of your incentive program for marketing and sales team members. You need $100 million in procurement. Your chief purchasing officer should set a goal. If they don’t reach their goal, be willing to forgo bonuses and pay handsomely to those who do (Skin in the game!)
Tip #2 – Business Transformation Turnover in Leadership
Our Business Transformation experience has taught us at Tip of the Spear Ventures that the best transformations are those where one or two of the top-team members are replaced. This doesn’t mean that there are “bad” leaders. In our experience, we have only encountered a handful of leaders that we considered truly incompetent. It’s not a reality, but there are still leaders who have to accept the decline. They are often incapable of making fundamental changes in the operating philosophy that they have believed for many years. They block the business transformation change, whether they realize it or they don’t. This is because they are determined to defend what they believe is true. It’s not easy, but it sends a signal to your stakeholders that you are willing to make hard moves and change.
Tip #1 – Hire, Train, and Retain the Talented
There are two types of talent that we look for, and they go beyond the leadership team. The first is those who have institutional knowledge. Although they may not be the top performers, they are able to understand the company’s intricacies. This knowledge is crucial for understanding the potential impact of any business transformation changes on the business. They are often the ones who are unhappy about the company’s performance. You need people who will be open to sharing the “unpleasant truths.”
Business Transformations are also an opportunity to identify the next generation of talent within an organization. Multiple crises have brought us to the realization that the people who had the greatest impact and added most value weren’t always the ones at the top. Sometimes, we find great leaders at the second and third levels who are waiting for an opportunity. The fact that they can save a company and be part of something greater than themselves is enough to keep them around and motivate them for even more!
In this article we’ve explored business transformation for post-pandemic success along with ten tips. While there are no identical business transformations in organizations even in the same industry sector, there are similarities in the business transformation mistakes that can be learned and not repeated.