Directions for Business Success in Challenging Times

Some months ago we used this space to discuss some key principles for success in these challenging times. Because the times continue to be challenging us printers, particularly for occupants of the executive suite, I want to use our time here to look more closely at how we can manage for success.

To keep us all singing out of the same hymn book, here is a quick recap of the principles we discussed last time.

  • Make certain you are in charge—a plane piloted by committee is not going to reach its desired destination. There needs to be a clear path to the goal.
  • Surround yourself with people you can trust—you need loyal, truth-telling people with whom to confer, get information, and carry out directives. Move any saboteurs out as soon as possible, irrespective of their skills.
  • Know how much time you have—challenging times dictate major changes. Avoid being impulsive, but don’t put off the inevitable difficult decision. The reason most wars are lost can be reduced to two words: Too late. Be sure you are living in reality now.
  • You can do it—set your mind to engage the challenges confidently and boldly. This latter is much more important than most people realize. If you don’t seize the moment as the leaders, none of your followers will either.

Common Directions
There is no single, it-works-every-time formula for steering a company through challenging times, or almost every company would succeed swimmingly. There are, however, some directions you can take, whether you are trying to maintain your current success or even recover from a potential ocean of red ink.

These directions are not merely numeric, not a formula or a series of statistical calculations. Keeping a company moving north or turning one that is heading south at NASCAR speed takes much more than that. In fact, if it were simply a set of calculations you wouldn’t be reading this. You may very well know the numbers involved in keeping your business profitable, even realize that it is well within the scope of feasibility to reach those numbers, but still not know how to get them.

In my consulting career I have worked with highly successful companies, moderately successful ones and a number needing a business turnaround. In the latter instances some succeeded, others didn’t. But here’s the punch line: None of the companies—even the ones that didn’t make it—were utterly hopeless cases. In my judgment, they did not turn because the leader in charge (owner, president, general manager, whatever) did not take the right steps to make it happen.

You may have some holes in your company that can be filled by current personnel. It’s worth a try. I once spotted a young man with leadership potential driving a forklift truck. We groomed him for supervision and he quickly became a long-term key manager in the printing company.

There are at least three dimensions to address in giving yourself the maximum odds of maintaining or moving your business in a successful directions. Depending on your orientation and personality, you may be tempted to dismiss the one or two that are not in your sweet zone. Dismiss them at your own risk. You need all three and you can get all three done. Notice I said get all three done. You may need help with one of them outside your comfort zone, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that you address all three of them.

The Numbers
Let’s get this one out of the way immediately, because it is the most common and widely accepted dimension. In some of the cases of companies that failed, the leaders simply didn’t work the numbers. It was just that simple. Author Jim Collins in “From Good to Great” talks about facing the brutal facts. In the last analysis, a business is little more than a series of numbers, with successful ones characterized by larger numbers in the revenue column than the ones on the expenditure side. Those numbers are the business equivalent of the won/lost and team stats in baseball. Fail to face the numbers, and the numbers will remove your professional face.

We can talk a good deal about financials, about cutting, ratios, compensation, all that sort of thing. You need a business strategy and the numbers will dictate a good bit of it. Study them. Even if your company is going well, have others look at them. Get their reaction. Make your strategy coexist with the numbers.

But there’s much more than that. There are some first-rate number plumbers out there who cannot direct a business successfully. Working the numbers—important as it is—is simply not enough. In fact, there are businesses out there that have been on the ropes and received a healthy cash infusion, only to slide right back on the ropes as soon as possible.

Internal Mindset
Here we pick up the issues of being in charge and believing you can do it. No sports fan of sound mind will dispute the importance of the mental side of the game. You can call it mindset, the mental game, the proper psychological approach, the inner edge—what have you—the point is the same. When a coach and a team are not ready mentally to play—to perform—the odds go way up on the losing side. Moreover, when a team goes into a game scared, or simply lacking confidence, they often get blown out.

If you are in a tough business environment you most certainly have every reason to be nervous. Your business, your livelihood, your professional reputation may all be on the line. What’s more, you have the livelihoods of any number of other people on the line as well. You have to be at your best mentally in that crucible. What’s more, you have to be so ready that you can influence the mindsets of the key people around you.

It’s okay to be nervous, but if you are besieged with doubt such that you are not embracing the pressure-packed but exciting challenge of turning your business around, you should either (a) change your mindset, (b) hire someone to run your business if you can, or (c) lock the doors. You have to be as on top of your mental state as you are the numbers to make it happen. It all flows from you, and you can’t hide. You either transmit what I call an Internal mindset or you lengthen odds of going down.

How important is this? It is so important enough that I lead off every seminar I do with what I call the internal mindset. Your mindset—how you think as you move forward—is the fuel that drives every component of your business engine. In fact, without it the engine doesn’t run.

Space does not permit me to go into the details of the internal mindset, but here are the high points. An internal mindset is based on responsibility. It means the leader takes 100 percent responsibility for how he or she feels, thinks and acts at all times. If, for example, you are feeling negative, angry, or in a bad mood, take ownership for that mood—take responsibility for it rather than blaming some external force for “making you feel that way.” Although it may be understandable for you to feel the way you do, there are indeed many people who would feel differently.

The situation is what it is. How you choose to handle it is in your control. In fact, leaders who use this technique quickly learn to ask the same question when facing any challenge: What am I going to do about it? Sometimes there is nothing you can do other than to let go and move on. Often, however, this question clears away the excuse-making and finger-pointing and generates options. Using internal mindset is something at which you consistently work. Being intelligent is not enough. I have seen brilliant minds descend into external (blaming, excuse-making, etc.) thinking, and I have seen some ordinary ones achieve great things by being internal.

The People Make the Difference
You are not going to do this alone. Be sure of that. It will be your people’s performance that will bring victory or defeat. As such, you are a coach. You have to assemble your team and get your players to play. Unless you are a one-person operation, you will rise or fall on the actions of those in your employ. Many business owners do not understand the coaching dimension. They are ready for the challenge and understand the numbers in their sleep, but they don’t coach.

Although most people think of coaching as getting the most out of your players—and yes, that is perhaps most important—it is more than that. It also means getting the right players, getting rid of the wrong ones and being certain the ones you have are playing the right position.

We’ve talked about getting the right people and moving out the wrong ones in an earlier edition here, so let’s focus on that last one, playing the right position. More than one losing coach has paid dearly for having the right players, but having them deployed in the wrong positions.

Think through your roster of valued employees. What are their strengths? More important, what are their potentials? Get your supervisors together and have them review their people. Maybe there is a quality person in production who should be in customer service, or vice-versa. You may have someone with sales skills (along with the requisite ambition and work ethic) currently employed in another department. In a tight economy people often hire in based on available positions, not what they are best at doing. Furthermore, some of our people may not realize their own potential.

You may have some holes in your company that can be filled by current personnel. It’s worth a try. I once spotted a young man with leadership potential driving a forklift truck. We groomed him for supervision and he quickly became a long-term key manager in the printing company.

Although we can separate these dimensions rather neatly on paper, they are inseparable in the real world. They are interactive—synergistic. The whole of these three in combination far exceeds the sum of their parts.

A team has to have the right mindset to perform on the scoreboard (working the numbers), while being coached to victory. It all happens at once.

So it goes in business. You have to be mentally right, have the numbers in the frontal lobe at all times, and forge a team of employees together, guiding them to success.

Master your business by mastering these three dimensions. Apply them to your situation. I don’t need to tell you that every business is different, and every struggling business faces unique challenges.

I will, however, tell you this. In my professional consulting experience, businesses have a lot more in common than may appear on the surface. I have worked in businesses ranging in volume from under $1 million to more than $100 million, and I have yet to enter a business in which I was not pretty clear as to what its issues were by lunch time. That is not a boast. It is simply a way of saying that there are principles for success and principles for failure. And just as some coaches can turn almost any team into a winner because they understand the principles undergirding success, a business leader can do the same by applying the correct principles to his or her situation.

Call David Claerbaut with a question at (702) 448-6622 or visit his Web sites at and