Key Principles For Business Success In Hard Times

The ugly reality in our industry is that we are fighting two wars. The first is the usual one of simply operating a printing business. Many of you have been fighting that one for years. You know many of the principles there. The second is doing combat with a tough economy—steering your business ship through the troubled waters of a sharp recession.

What makes the second one daunting is that it often involves making substantial changes.

When I’m not consulting in printing businesses I enjoy coaching boys varsity high school basketball. Here are two coaching stories involving turnarounds that apply to making business decisions and changes in tough times.

In the first, a new coach came into as dismal an athletic environment as one could possibly enter. Here is the school’s boys basketball history.

Previous 4 Yrs Previous 20 Yrs.
18 wins62 losses

What we have here is consistent failure. The team had but two overall winning seasons in two decades, and had never won a conference championship.

Now let’s take a look at the new coach’s record.

First YearSecond Year

In those two years under the new coach the team won a conference championship both times. I would call that a turnaround.

In the second story a new coach—one familiar with turnarounds—was brought in to reverse the fortunes of a program very similar to the first. Here is the history:

Previous Year Previous 4 Yrs.

There were no overall winning seasons in those four years and none in the team’s division (conference). It went 1-9 in its division the year before.

Coach’s Record—4-12, (2-6 in Division)

He was released with five games left on the schedule in that first year. I would not call that a turnaround.

It was the same coach in both stories, and the coach was me.

So what happened? Did the coach (to keep it in the 3rd person) go soft in the head as he went from one turnaround situation to another?

Let’s take a closer look. In the first story the coach was also the Athletic Director, giving him administrative control over the program and job security in his role as coach. As such, he could ignore second-guessing fans; players troubled by being challenged to think differently; and parents uneasy as he drove his team through the stages of transformation.

More than that, he was able to surround himself with loyal, dedicated assistants to help him through it.

In the second story, the coach was brought in only to coach, to turn polluted basketball water into wine. His fate was in the control of an Athletic Director, one sensitive to player complaints, fan second-guessing, and anxious parents, while expecting improvement with a minimum amount of turbulence.

There was still another difference. In the first scenario, the coach had time. He was hired the previous spring and immediately founded a summer basketball camp.

In the second, the coach was hired less than two weeks before the beginning of basketball practice. Everything was new--the coach, the players, and the system.

That aside, the team in the second scenario did improve. As the year progressed, it went from being impotent in the face of frequent blowouts to becoming much more competitive and was actually on pace for a better record than the year previous. It also had only one senior and was a “team of tomorrow.” The previous squad was a senior dominated team. The team was slowly turning around. The coach, however, did not survive to complete the task.

Lead Your Team Forward

There are four principles that emerge from these stories that are applicable to making key major business decisions involving change.

1. Make certain you are the “Athletic Director.”

Be sure you are truly in charge and beholden to as few others as possible. You cede away your personal potency if you have to accommodate outsiders’ points of view and seek their good opinion of your decisions.

Poor leaders, or those with sensitive egos, often fall into that trap. Thirsting for approval they abandon their own otherwise good judgment in favor of a butt-covering consensus. They want to be popular more than they want to be right.

Wear the pants. You will be making some unpopular decisions. Get used to it.

Seek the counsel of others, those you respect. But in the end, you have to make the call and infinitely more important than anyone’s feelings, it needs to be the right call.

You lower the odds when you allow yourself to be distracted by anything other than getting it right.

I once went to New York City division of a huge corporation, to turn around the fortunes of a $40 million operation, spending $41. I made rock certain I had the full support of the owner of the larger corporation and the cooperation of the president of the NYC division.

Without their support I would have had no more influence than the friendly golf pro that lounges around the country club.

I told the president, “I don’t want to have the power to hire or fire anyone, because I am here for a limited period of time and you have to live with my decisions long term. I do want this: If I recommend a hire or fire, I want you to let me know within 24 hours whether you will support it.”

He agreed.

The troops, knowing my authority and the desire for change in the corporation, gave me little resistance and the turnaround was successful.

You don’t do turnarounds by committee. Yes, you should have a management team and others to advise you, but you must have the hammer.

In difficult times employees often feel more safe in a business dictatorship, in which the person at the throttle is confident and willing to be there, than in one in which they are not sure who will stand up and be counted at decision time.

The U.S. government has three branches, but that in large part is to protect its citizens against an abuse of power by the person in charge—the president.

In turbulent times you must have a leader. Title matters little. What matters is that you are the engineering the train and everyone knows it.

2. Know who your friends are, and more important, who your enemies are.

Remember the statement in “The Godfather”: Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer? The corollary during critical business times is to know who your allies are—people who will tell you the truth and are committed to the company’s success—and who are your critics.

Assume nothing. Find that out from those who are truly the closest to you. They will tell you. And you may be surprised at what you hear.

Listen to Your Advisors

In coaching, the critics may try to slay you politically, or at least dampen enthusiasm and drag back progress.

The coach has little power over those outsiders. In business, these people are on the inside and they work for you. You cannot let them undercut and undermine your efforts.

I could have saved a pile of dollars in some business ventures had I listened to my wife’s admonitions about Tyler. I liked Tyler. He boosted my ego and comforted me when I was upset. I liked him too much to look at him objectively to see that all the while he was defrauding me. Emotions are strange things and often have a blinding effect.

Sometimes you will have some superficially friendly and charming people who for some reason are not behind you. Maybe they resent being passed over for some opportunity, or feel they should be compensated better, or they just don’t like your style. You need to know who they are by engaging in some discreet but candid conversations with your known allies.

You often do not hear the assassin’s bullet. Key people may not necessarily want you to fail, but if they are not truly on the train they will not move with the requisite cooperative urgency necessary for success. Moreover, their critiquing nature affects others and slows their efforts. Sometimes the resistance is even more sinister.

Working a business turnaround in Chicago, I was disturbed by my conversation with Fran, the CFO. Unbeknownst to Bob, the less than robust owner, Fran was severely critical of his leadership. She was not his friend. Bob had taken over the business at the death of his father and Fran had convinced him that without her, he would be doomed.

I didn’t think so. In fact, I felt Fran, and her Middle Ages accounting system and financial advice were a major impediment. I felt she was more into protecting herself than in saving the company.

I explained to Bob that Fran was far more the problem than the solution. Bob, however, was simply intimidated by Fran. Even though I showed him how we could move her out without imperiling the financial situation or control of the records, he was terrified of Fran and couldn’t shake the fear that she would sabotage the company if she were let go.

Fran knew I was on to her. Now the issue was joined. Only one of us would survive—Fran or me. It was Fran. The company went out of business a few months later.

You may not have a Fran, but you don’t need people who resist, or are reluctant warriors. And if you do have any of that, you need to address it. In crisis, your people need to know that it’s get on the train, or stand on the platform and watch as it pulls away.

3. Make sure you know how much time you have.

Basketball is a game. In business careers, jobs, fortunes and livelihoods are all on the line. Time is key.

You do need at least two years to do a basketball turnaround. The coach in the second scenario assumed he had at least two years based on the school superintendent’s assurances that he would “have a long honeymoon period” after the sad tenure of his predecessor, and the parents and fans all talking long-term talk. But he didn’t have those two years in writing.

In business you do not have the luxury of asking for a period of time to right the ship. You may be able to beg off the bank and a few investors, but for the most part, the amount of time you have to make key alterations is dictated to you by the current financial and market condition of the company.

You need to know how much time you have in every situation. In my experience the major reason why major changes in business are not successful is that they were instituted too late. Married couples in crisis often go to the marriage counselor about six months too late. That is also the case in business concerns.

Time is money, but money—cash on hand-—can buy you time. If the wolf is several miles away rather than chewing through the door, you may still need to turn a few things around, but you can move more gradually and effect an evolution.

If, however, you can hear that beast howling and scratching, you may need a bit of a revolution, and time will be as important a factor in your business’ survival as the decisions themselves. In fact, time will drive and affect the very nature of those decisions that must be made.

4. You can do this.

The coach decided to set his mind to the task in both scenarios, choosing to believe that he could do the job. You need to do the same. Managing through a recession is challenging, but does not require the training of a neurosurgeon to succeed.

It requires being in charge, having trusted and candid allies on the train, assessing how critical each matter is in terms of time, and then-—as the phrase promoting the famous basketball shoesputs it— just doing it.

You can reach Dr. Claerbaut through is web sites, and or call him at (773) 808-4049.