CLP Beacon - Business Issues and Solutions

Thursday, May 26, 2016

How Successful Leaders Prioritize - When Less is More

An old Russian Proverb says:  If you chase two rabbits, you will not catch either one. Think about
that in the context of priorities at work and the resources companies need to employ to chase those priorities. How many of you have worked for a company where the boss indiscriminately piled on projects that sounded just too good to pass up? CEO said that the company is not doing enough and her desire was to see how many more projects can be handled? 

One of my colleagues, Dennis Drent, was a new CEO of a specialty insurance company. It was an operational turnaround situation and much needed to be done to correct course. With the best of intentions, Dennis tried to fix all the problems in his first year! Needless to say, nothing got done in that first 12 months. In year two, Dennis directed the management team to choose the three top priorities after rigorous debate. All three initiatives were completed and the results began to improve immediately.

When I worked for US Cellular, a new CEO came on board and while I did not subscribe to everything he said, I did like his approach to strategic initiatives. He told us that we will focus on doing one thing well and when that is complete we will move on to the next priority.

I personally believe that there is a middle ground whereby the resources and competencies of a company determine how many projects can be handled simultaneously. Yet even with multiple projects, when a critical need arises, resources are refocused on the top priority.  So how do you know what is really a priority?  How do you set priorities?  How do you manage priorities?  And how do you incorporate their prioritization results into a "business battle rhythm?” 

Here are 6 steps to setting and managing priorities.  If you want copies of these tools, please write to me at and I will send them to you.

 Clearly define the project or initiative. Make sure there is clarity of the end results and the metrics for success. One tool we use is the Opportunity Template, a picture of which is located here. 

Note that each project has a clear owner, i.e. the person defined as “A” on the top line and has the basic tasks and metrics laid out.    

      Develop and use a process to rate and score the various, and perhaps disparate projects. One tool we use is called the Analytical Hierarchical Process. It ensures that the evaluators and decision makers agree on the way the projects are evaluated. 

In this case, I show a one level system and the key areas of evaluation are strategic, financial, competencies, and operational. Each area is weighted and a score can be given on how well the project meets that criteria.  A total score is then developed and an ordinal ranking of the projects can be determined.  If there is a legal or regulatory requirement that must be completed in the planning cycle, that automatically goes to the top of the list.

While many executives don’t like a mechanical process, the exercise enables all projects to be evaluated in a consistent manner based on what the organization or company wants to achieve.  If there are lots of projects, the executives can see what is on top and what is on the bottom and can debate which project is to be staffed with the right resources. The goal is to help the decision making, not to let a mechanical process determine the answer.

Resource the project with the right people.  Develop a strong team. This sounds so simple yet sometimes is hard to do. At C-Level Partners, one of the tools we use is called RACI. This enables projects to be resourced correctly. Eventually, depending on the number of projects, companies will run out of the right resources as those resources will become a limiting constraint. RACI stands for:

  • Responsible:  who will be assigned to work on the project
  • Accountable:  who has the authority to make a decision and whose head will roll if something goes bump in the night?
  • Consulted:   who are the stakeholders that will be consulted before a decision is made
  • Informed:  who has to be kept updated on the project e.g. those whose work depends on the project?             
      Track progress through a dashboard and make the project part of the organization or businesses “battle rhythm.”A business battle rhythm is a way the organization manages its business activities, processes, decisions and control points.  If these projects are priorities, in my opinion, they should be part of the executive dashboard where the results are measured, tracked, and adjustments made to the plan. We use a stop light tool on the overall project as well as on the subordinate tasks.  Each task or project is given a Green light (things are on target and going well, a Yellow light (the project is in for some turbulence and this is an early warning of potential issues), or a Red light (we are missing milestones and metrics and need to put more resources on the project, change course, or abandon the activity). 

       Note on abandoning projects. Abandoning projects is something that is difficult. Many companies never kill a project because there is too much politics in admitting failure. At one company we worked, executives were brutal. If a project was off course and in retrospect they made a mistake the executives killed the project.  When I was a VP at Ameritech I publicly made a special award to people who made the right business decision and one award was to a director for killing a favorite project.  The person who received the award did not want it because he perceived it would kill his career.  It did not! People were in shock at first. But abandoning projects for the right reason yielded some discipline to the company as people knew if a project they were on didn’t perform there would be accountability.

      Proactively manage risks.  We believe in managing risk and the impact of those risks on any project especially those that are strategic, revenue oriented, or operationally critical. One way to do this is through a tool called the Risk Impact Matrix which lays out the risks to a strategic objective, a project, a product or other priority.  Once the risks and potential impact is specified, the person in charge of the opportunity or project will work with the team to determine ways to develop contingency plans.  These contingency plans will be put into place if the overall project or even some of the tactics veer off course. See Brian Newton’s blog on ways to measure and manage at

      Conduct post mortems. Every organization is a learning organization. What this means is that we learn from our successes but sometimes we learn more from our failures. After a project is completed or terminated, the team lead, the person accountable, should provide a post mortem debriefing to determine what went well, what did not go well, and share the learnings of the project with other executives and team leads.

An Example

Let’s see how one fictionalized company handled priority setting.  Let’s look at a fictionalized company called HyperCorp.  The executives developed a list of projects prior to an executive off site that each thought would be important to the company and their functional area.  The initial list of 25 projects was winnowed down to 7 based on their determination that these projects met their financial, operational, strategic goals and they had the competencies and skills to resource these projects.  Some projects would have high priorities for the executive team itself, others for HR, others for IT and still others for Marketing and Sales.

This executive team concluded that of these 7 projects, two – integrating a newly acquired company and updating operating systems to conform to a new regulatory compliance requirement had to be accomplished.   These two initiatives consumed a substantial amount of IT resources; yet the good news was that integrating two companies used operational IT resources whereas updating the operating system required application development. 

The Marketing and Sales team had to make a choice as it did not have the resources to perform more than one initiative and because IT resources were consumed on the two higher priorities, Marketing and Sales had to forgo launching a new product at this time. 

The team decided to focus on only four projects:
1.       Updating the operating system for compliance
2.       Integrating the newly acquired company
3.       Redesigning and updating the website to remain competitive and to improve customer acquisition
4.       Designing a new sales compensation plan to retain and engage the sales team

One executive was given primary responsibility (the “A”) for each respective initiative, was required to develop a detailed project plan using the RACI system, and was obligated to report the status in monthly operations reviews.    The initiatives were announced to the entire company with the CEO stating that if anyone is ever in doubt about priorities, these initiatives get “fed first” in the order listed.  Case closed.

If everything is a priority, nothing is a priority!!!  Accordingly, this blog provides some structure and tools to be used by corporate executives to manage their priorities.  The number of priorities may vary in different organizations. Yet, in my estimation, at the top level of each company or organization, there should be a clear focus on no more than 2-4 priorities which are properly resourced. As one priority is finished, then the company can move on to the next one. We, at C-Level Partners are here to help you and your company with determining your priorities and advising on managing these projects.

If you have questions, please feel free to contact me at  Also please like this blog and feel free to share it or forward it to your colleagues and friends who might have an interest. 

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Three Timeless Behaviors to Achieving Happiness

Although each generation is shaped by the events of the world during their formative years, people have not changed much at least since the origins of written history. The words of ancient philosophers still ring true today.

I often read that Millennials have different values and require different treatment in the workplace in order to be engaged. I believe these issues, such as putting work life balance before making lots of money, are peripheral since at the core every generation is seeking the same things. Perhaps the best one word to describe this life’s goal is “happiness.”

If we were fortunate to have earned a college education, or have a special skill, there is a good chance we are doing something in which we have a passion and interest. Since work makes up most of our waking hours this is obviously important. Although what we do for a living is a big factor in achieving happiness, how we live is perhaps even more important and that often boils down to our human interactions.

Speaking for myself, moments of both high and low happiness have been directly related to how I am getting along with people that are important to me. Although I receive satisfaction after accomplishing a project, the closeness I feel with the team members that made it happen is more real. When a project is completed despite team dysfunction, the feeling of accomplishment is not as great. One feels more of a sense of relief that it is over.

My humble advice to people of any generation seeking happiness is to focus on maximizing the quality of your interactions with others. The other side of this equation is to minimize your personal conflicts. The key question is how.

Two decades ago, I attended a seminar conducted by psychologist Rob Hicks. Rob said something that I will never forget.

 “If you want to live a long and happy life do these three things:
1.      Assume innocence in dealing with others,
2.      Learn to take things seriously but not personally, and
3.      Before acting, think about if you’d rather be right or effective.”

No matter what our age we are all somewhat hard wired to do the opposite of these three things. We assume ill intent, take things personally and tend to be self-righteous.  Of course, we all exhibit these behaviors to different degrees. However, think about the increased level of happiness you will achieve if you could consistently behave in accordance with Rob’s three recommendations.

First, how many times have we assumed someone had bad intent when there wasn’t any. For example, a simple question my wife asks me that I take as criticism (sometimes it is criticism – typically well deserved!). The work place is full of politics with people pushing their agendas. We are doing it ourselves. Having different agendas and points of view is natural and even healthy. When you find yourself reading other people’s minds and seeing ill intent, I suggest you buy them a cup of coffee and have a conversation.  What you might learn is that the person has a different perspective or a different interpretation of events.   Once these items are on the table, the negative response you might have had will be dampened.

Second, we all seem to think the world revolves around us so when someone does something that we don’t believe is in our best interests, we might take it personally. Perhaps a decision does not go our way. It is hard to imagine, let alone admit, that our position is not ideal so we conclude it is a personal attack or politically motivated. If you feel strongly that a mistake is being made it is appropriate to take it seriously and state your objection based on fact and opinion. However, it will be counterproductive to make emotionally charged accusations that the decision was wrong and the people making the decision are morons.   

Lastly, it feels so good to be right. However, the cost of being “right” may be significant if you are trying to improve a relationship or to achieve results through other people over time. Of course, life is not so simple that there is always one right answer. Even when there is a right answer and you have it; it can be counterproductive to “win” the argument. For example, there may be an emotional element to the issue. The other person is not interested in a rational argument but needs to overcome his or her related feelings. You must deal with the other person’s feelings to be effective. This will sometimes cause a delay in taking an action or even making a compromise. However, by doing so the relationship will stay healthy and movement toward the goal will take place.   

The critical advice wrapped around all three of these recommendations is that personal conflict must be addressed directly and the sooner the better. When we (or those close to us) assume ill intent, take things personally, and are certain that we are right, conflict is sure to follow and our happiness decreased. Unfortunately, our standard operating procedure for dealing with personal conflict is to “triangulate.” In other words, we seek comfort and counsel in a third person or persons. These well-intentioned people tend to take our “side” and sympathize with us especially if that third party is a friend.

Triangulation it is one of the most destructive behaviors in organizations of any kind. It breaks down trust and pits groups against one another. It is a topic for another blog.

In summary, although each generation has different values based on their unique experiences they all share the timeless goal of happiness. The differences in what each generation values in the workplace such as work life balance versus compensation is minor compared to the relationships we have with one another. Individuals of all ages seeking happiness would be well advised to consider Rob Hick’s three recommendations: (1) assume innocence, (2) take things seriously but not personally, and (3) be effective versus being right. Organizations and leaders that are serious about engaging employees of all ages should consider the extent to which these behaviors are part of their cultural fabric.

We at C-Level Partners are interested in your related opinions and experiences. Please feel free to comment on this blog, forward it to a friend or colleague, or write Dennis Drent at

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Preparing for Communication in Times of Crisis

John F. Kennedy once said, “The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word 'crisis.' One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger – but recognize the opportunity.” I would argue that one has to plan in order to exploit any opportunity that may arise, esp. in times of crisis.

Business disruptions are a prime example. Disruptions occur in a variety of circumstances. It could be a cyber-attack, power outage, fire, rogue employee or a weather related event. Weather related events readily come to mind and affect most areas of the country. This is something that is almost inevitable in Southern California with our earthquakes, wildfires, floods, landslides and even tornadoes. Many are unaware that early last century Newport Beach experienced a hurricane! So yes, these events are rare but they do happen. How does one prepare for a business disruption event?

Well, one can roll the dice and respond in an ad hoc way or be prepared. We believe in preparation. Straightforward planning, and practice, can improve a business’ resilience and result in tangible gains in their market.

Suppose a disruptive event occurs … how do you respond? At this point we assume the firm has been sensibly proactive and has in place a Business Continuity / Disaster Recovery plan that it formally tests each year. (Is this a fair assumption in your firm’s case?) This post is about the communication that is required as part of initiating this plan.

When an event occurs you must understand who needs to know. The first group is your company management so they can implement their response plans. Beyond management are the employees that produce whatever you deliver to clients. And let’s not forget the relationship managers that are directly serving those clients. How will all of these people be made aware of a disruptive event? Once you open the communication links outside of company staff, it is absolutely critical that the correct message be delivered to each affected party. Sometimes the message is the same yet at other times the message might be tailored to the affected party. The key is to ensure that the messages are consistent so as not to undermine your firm’s reputation.

One effective mechanism for ensuring that communication is effective is a Calling Tree exercise. Beginning with internal communication, every senior executive in the company should know what they need to do should an event occur. When they are apprised of an event’s occurrence, they immediately begin contacting their staff to inform them of the initiation of the recovery plan. Will staff be reporting to work as normal or will they now be working from home or, if available, at an alternative or disaster recovery (DR) site. If they’ll be at home, they should confirm their set-up is up and running so the executive can rely on their contribution to the firm throughout the event. If there will be a move to the DR site, they should prepare to report there as required.

External communications require specific action. In the event the firm is regulated executives need to inform their regulator of the event and how it is being addressed. If your company manages client money and experiences a disruption that impacts your investment process, the regulator will require evidence that your response meets your fiduciary responsibility to your clients. If you are an executive of a pharmaceutical company supplying a treatment to the US market and a firm in your supply chain experiences difficulties in producing contracted products, you need to inform the FDA so they are able to alert the market if the supply of your medications / products moves into shortage.

Even outside the regulated space, both your clients and supply chain need to be kept informed of the event status. So a plan must be in place with a clear chain of command and communication that confirms what messages are to be sent, to whom and in what time frame. This control can only be delivered if there is a single point of contact so that each third party only receives information from that contact. This is essential as incorrect perceptions of what is happening can be very damaging. Even if you have not solved the underlying problem, clients are more willing to understand if they see an appropriate and timely response to a disruption.

Executive management in all firms needs to be aware of these issues and have in place policies and procedures that deliver the desired results. This is not something that “can wait,” as too long a waiting period may rupture the business.

Let’s briefly describe a Calling Tree exercise. First, these exercises have to occur randomly and ideally at least once each year. It will be a refresher for those who participated in a previous exercise and any new staff will learn from the experience. An element of the exercise should be required review of the business continuity plan. Another requirement for the test is that these should occur outside of business hours. If an event occurs during business hours most staff will be in place and have at hand the necessary documentation. Conducting the test out of business hours will reveal which staff members know and understand what they need to do.

To evaluate the exercise, some data will need to be recorded. For example, if the COO initiates a test, he or she will want to know how quickly managers receive and confirm receipt of the notice. Next, response times for the entire call tree are monitored (i.e. the times that manager’s initiate calls to their team members to inform them of the exercise and how quickly the confirmatory replies come in if messages are left or SMS is used). Once word reaches those with external contacts (clients and supply chain firms) the timing of the required conference calls should be noted and the decisions taken during those calls should be recorded. All of this information will be necessary to grade the performance of the firm in responding to the supposed event.

As executives who might have been involved in similar exercises, I think you see the importance of planning to control and manage a disruption event. This exercise ensures the firm has the ability to react to an event with ease and competence. In the case of a real event, the follow-on communication with both clients and supply chain firms will be a positive signal that management is on their game. Any specific details communicated to clients will enable them to make adjustments in their own best interest. Likewise for firms in the supply chain, they will have reason to view management as capably in charge.

If you’d like to discuss how your business could benefit from conducting such exercises please feel free to contact me at or call me on (949) 680-8359.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Your Business and Brand Renewal: Critical Components for Survival

Time for business and brand renewal

Renewal of businesses and brands is critical for survival. That sounds trite but true. On-going businesses have challenges to stay relevant in their markets. A recent study indicated that of the Fortune 500 companies in 1975, less than 75 were on the Fortune 500 list just 40 years later. More than 500,000 new start-ups are created every year in the US alone. Of that, 50% are likely to fail within the first year. Within the first five years, another 50-80% are expected to fail.  There are many reasons for failure of businesses including a bad economy, lack of funding and lousy business ideas or structures. Certainly these are contributing factors. Yet, regardless whether you are a startup, small business or corporate giant, we believe that another big reason is a business' inability to adapt to changes and become “fast, fluid and flexible.”
How does one meet that challenge? The marketplace demands and expects businesses and brands to evolve over time. A proactive renewal process keeps a business relevant and in tune with customers’ needs and new business models, as they too evolve. Sometimes these changes are barely noticeable beyond the normal rhythm of business news and information. On other occasions. it is big, noticeable "in-your-face" change.

Consider the following three companies: GM, GE and Kodak. During the Great Recession, GM had to be bailed out from a distressed state and eventually streamlined their car line and brought in new management to affect the turnaround. GE, a model of growth in the 80s and 90s had fallen on hard times and while the company continues to expand, it is not the Jack Welch's GE of old. Kodak, one of the great brands that many of us grew up with is a pale shell of itself as its business models and strategic plans did not evolve and the company was not able to take advantage of the new digital era. I am sure that each of the readers can think of several examples in their industry of companies that were successful and unsuccessful in their attempts to renew their business model and brand.

An example of a successful company that went through business and brand renewal is Cintas. Cintas started its business in industrial rags and laundry in the early 1950's. They created a distinctive set of capabilities and its own business model called “The Cintas Way” which was a combination of products and services wrapped in excellence in process and technology.  Their   plant operations, a highly refined logistics capability and a customer intimate focus in its sales and marketing that combined service innovation with customer knowledge helped guarantee their success.  Why? Cintas took a very proactive approach albeit somewhat evolutionary. Cintas grew its brand through continuous growth along several strategic vectors in the “Ansoff Product/Market Matrix.” They created new markets, new products and services based on their ever evolving strategic capabilities, and through distribution partnerships. Think about this. Cintas went from rags and laundry to address the security needs of companies by building a secured document destruction and document storage business. How is that for business/brand renewal?

Over and over I've seen how businesses that adapt and change are much more likely to stay in business than those who fight tooth and nail to stay the same as they have always been.

I'm here to tell you that no business is too big to fail or too small to succeed. Let's look at companies like Borders or Blockbuster.  Borders failed because they relied too heavily on the brick and mortar retail business of their stores. Barnes and Noble, by comparison, added technology in the form of Nook was more aggressive with e-commerce of their retail products. As a result, they built an eco-system of digital content delivery to reinvent their brand and their business. Borders went out of business in 2011 while Barnes and Noble is still in business today. At this time, it looks like Barnes and Noble will need another reinvention/renewal as it is struggling financially as of late.

In a similar fashion, Blockbuster failed because they stayed true to their brick and mortar stores and did not see the threat from a little-known upstart named Netflix. They failed because they were unable to adapt to the market disruptions in their business, mostly because digital delivery of content were disrupting their traditional retail storefront business. By the time they responded to Netflix, it was too late as this article explains.

Business and brand renewal and growth

Why did this happen and could it have been prevented? The companies that were proactive, fast in making decisions, fluid in their response, willing to pivot and flexible in adopting new businesses and business models were successful. Of course, a company is only as good as their executives so we have to give credit to the vision and execution of their top teams. They all anticipated change and adapted their businesses to the realities of the new marketplace. Continuous improvement requires a feedback loop that continually evaluates, assesses, designs, implements and manages the change that is derived from the process. Those companies that were successful delivered on this key requirement.

It's important to note here that this improvement process is a result of a “business system.” What do I mean by system here? A system is a repeated course of action – a way of doing things that brings about a desired result. The combination of people, time, money, tools, systems and processes used to manage the business had a significant and critical impact on the ability of these successful businesses to adapt, evolve and improve over time.

Keep in mind that no company, large or small, gets it exactly right on the first try, which is why starting a business or building a brand is such an iterative, discovery-based process. Through each business cycle executives will learn something new and modify or evolve their business model to adapt to change. Sometimes that change is incremental. At other times, the change is much more significant. Business assumptions change and your business models will change as you will learn more about the customers and niche you serve. Changing directions, implementing a new business model or revitalizing your brand does not mean failure. In fact, that realization is the end result of a visionary and clairvoyant company. It may or may not result in a completely new vision and direction. It does, however, mean taking stock of everything and adjusting the strategy and plan accordingly.

Do you have any business renewal stories you would like to share? For additional reading on this topic, please check out our other articles on renewal in our April C-Level Beacon newsletter and on our blog available at  Also, there have been a couple of articles written in the HBR and TIM that focus on renewal that you may find interesting.

C-Level Partners focuses on profitable growth and we would be happy to chat with you about your brand, your business and your vision. Drop us a line at or

Adapted from my book, 'Brand to Sell', available on