Is your company in overwhelm? Doing too much but never seeming to move forward? Time and again, I see this in the clients I coach. When I speak to employees or interview leadership teams, this is often their biggest frustration. As they grow and take on more business, they feel pulled in different directions and lose their sense of forward momentum.
It’s so important to take a step back and bring some laser-focus to your business. It may seem like a huge feat, but it doesn’t need to be. Invest time and energy now to find a clearer direction and it will pay you back in spades. Your company is much more likely to achieve the growth you know it’s capable of.
First off, you need to get super-clear on your purpose. This should act as a north star, providing constant direction to steer you forwards. It may mean letting go of some things and attaching more tightly to others. You may need to learn to say ‘No’ more often than you’re used to.
A good place to start is Jim Collins’ ‘hedgehog concept’ from his best-selling book ‘Good to Great’. He bases this on the ancient Greek parable of a fox trying every trick in the book to eat a hedgehog. No matter what cunning strategies he attempts, the fox loses every time, ending up with nothing but hurt pride and a sore nose! He never learns that the hedgehog knows how to do one thing perfectly – defend itself.
In the same way, Collins argues that your company is more likely to succeed if you can identify the one thing you do best. Sounds simple but it will take time to define this, working through three specific areas. Firstly, isolate the things that give your company energy and passion. Look at what gets you and your team out of bed early in the morning and keeps you working late voluntarily. Secondly, define the one thing that you can be best in the world at – something you know you can do better than anyone else. You’ll reach this conclusion by recognising what you’ll never be best at. Be honest and don’t shy away from this. It’s all part of working out your true strengths. And finally, examine the things that drive your economic engine in terms of profitability and market potential.
Where these three areas overlap is your company’s ‘hedgehog concept’. As Jim puts it, ‘Transformations from good to great come about by a series of good decisions made consistently with a Hedgehog Concept, supremely well-executed, accumulating one upon another, over a long period of time’.
Once you’ve worked out your purpose, you can use it to bring focus to everything that you do. Many of my clients also have a ‘BHAG’ or Big Hairy Audacious Goal – a 15 to 25-year target to aim for. Not a bad idea to have something inspiring that creates a sense of urgency and excitement in your company.
So once you’re clear on your purpose and BHAG, what next? You need to focus on your core customer.
I’ll often talk to people whose businesses have got stuck at a revenue of around £1 million. The reason they’re not growing is they’re doing half a dozen things for half a dozen clients. No specialisation. No focus. Their company has gone wherever the business is, randomly and opportunistically. In these organisations, there’s a feeling that any revenue is better than no revenue. Trapped in an execution/cash cycle that they can’t escape, they have no strength in depth.
I tell them they have to pick something. They need to find their niche. Boy – do they find this difficult. It’s often the first time they’ve thought about it. They worry that by specialising, they’re foregoing future revenue. But evidence shows time and again that the tighter you can get around your core customer, the more successful your company will be.
When I was MD at Rackspace, we had a saying - ‘We’re an inch wide and a mile deep’. There was loads of stuff that we didn’t do and we got good at saying ‘No’ to taking it on. We were crystal clear on our offering - delivering managed services on specific platforms to specific customers. We weren’t selling a product - our customers had already decided on their platform and knew they wanted to outsource. But what they were looking for was off-the-scale service. We offered ‘Fanatical Support®’ and brand promises with guarantees. Our NPS® was off the charts and we had tonnes of social proof from existing clients.
Drill down to the identity of your core customer and identify the problems they have that you can solve. It’s useful to think of this in terms of vitamins versus painkillers. Just like people are more likely to take an aspirin for a headache than a vitamin to improve their health, customers are more likely to buy something that solves a painful problem than something that’s a nice improvement. Work out what’s giving them pain and design your business around how you can take this away.
In the past year, I’ve been working closely with a digital marketing agency in Sussex. They are now super-clear that their core customer is SMEs, specifically where they’re working with the owner-manager and not a marketing manager. They’ve started to turn work down that, in the past, they’d have taken on. Having worked out their core customer, they know this other business would drive their revenue and resources in the wrong direction. Clarity over core customer has led us into conversations about profitability per customer – something they’d never considered before. This knowledge has led them to develop new products that are much more lucrative.
There’s every possibility that even with clarity over your purpose and core customer, you still feel overwhelmed by the amount you have to do. So, the next stage is to bring focus to execution. Work back from where you want to be in three years’ time. Once that 3HAG (three year highly achievable goal) is decided, what do you need to do each year to get there? Then you can decide your 3-5 key objectives for the next 12 months, breaking this down into what you need to do each quarter. Eventually, you will arrive at your objective for the immediate 90-day horizon.
As I’ve written many times before, a 90-day rhythm can do wonders for a business. Once you’ve decided the theme, work out how to measure it in ways that show daily progress towards your key result. Then communicate, communicate and communicate some more! It’s imperative that the whole organisation is crystal clear about what you’re trying to achieve. Ensure individual OKRs are designed for every member of staff that link with the theme. As you start to bring a regular focus to everyday working patterns, you can have conversations around resources and uncover why the organisation does too much. People need to be realistic. By nature, human beings tend to be over-optimistic, thinking they’ll get more done than they actually can.
As I support clients through this process, I’m asking them to build new muscle and new ways of thinking. I task the executive team, not just the CEO, with accountability for certain areas. This is often new to them. So is the mentality of putting the success of the executive team above the success of their functional area. Their focus has changed and this shift in mental attitude is crucial to success.
In the daily huddle, there should be clarity on what it is that the company is relying on employees to do. There’s a fair bit of research that says most people only do four hours’ worth of focused work in an 8-hour day. Those who are naturally productive at this core of work will break it down into chunks. For those who aren’t, it can be powerful to help them time block their day. Getting into the habit of switching off phones and other distractions helps with this. Air-plane mode is a wonderful thing!
Bearing in mind that integrated teams tend to perform better, it’s worth getting your managers to focus on creating shared experiences day-to-day. As well as daily huddles, make sure they schedule breaks and lunch hours together. This may feel a bit like going back to school, but if teams work and socialise together, evidence shows they work more effectively. Regular interaction builds mutual understanding and trust. There’s nothing worse than sitting in an empty canteen on your own! A regular cadence of integrated activity will make information-sharing better and build team cohesion.
As your company grows, so will the number and range of opportunities. There will be many more choices to make. Always remember that if you pursue too many different courses, you’ll lose your focus and the result can be disastrous. With deliberate practise and effort, you’ll gradually learn to get better at saying, ‘No’.
Dominic has spent 14 years working in sales, marketing and business management within the IT sector. He has held executive positions at Peer 1 Hosting, IT Lab and Rackspace. At Peer 1 he built the UK business to £30m run rate in 5 years. He won many awards for creating a great place to work. At Rackspace Dominic built the UK company from four to 150 staff, and increased annual revenues from £595,000 to £25 million in just four years. Under his management, Rackspace was recognised as one of the most outstanding workplaces in Europe, and won several service awards for its Fanatical Support TM. Dominic has a BSc in Agricultural and Food Marketing from Newcastle and a MBA from Sheffield Business School. Dominic is also a regular public speaker on creating great places to work and achieving continuous client satisfaction and an assessor on the Sunday Times Customer Experience Awards.