As Jim Collins worked on the book “Good to Great,” he and his team of researchers uncovered something they named “The Stockdale Paradox.” Jim Stockdale spent eight years in a North Vietnamese prison camp and was tortured more than 20 times.
The Stockdale Paradox says that a leader must retain faith of prevailing in the end—regardless of the difficulties being faced—and at the same time, confront the most brutal facts of the current reality, whatever they might be.
Collins wasn’t alone in his thinking because other team members raised similar findings as a key difference between the companies they were comparing. “Good to Great” researched, on various levels, the differences between Wells Fargo and Bank of America, Kimberly-Clark and Scott Paper, Pitney Bowes and Addressograph, and Nucor Steel and Bethlehem Steel among others.
Before making the leap to “great”, the leaders of these companies were running less than stellar organizations, had people problems, cash flow concerns, profitability issues, sales and marketing challenges, tough economies, and even tougher competition. Yet, in the end, they prevailed. How did this happen? Four key things took place to make the transition.
Four Key Steps
The first step was the understanding that survival and success could not be left to chance. The leaders tuned out noise, confusion, and distractions and focused on what became known as the “vital few.” These were those things with the greatest positive impact for survival and growth.
Second, the leaders set up systems forcing them to continually face the brutal facts of their current reality. Reality changes constantly, thus the need for continual focus.
Third, these leaders never gave up. They took a long term view that they would prevail to outlast and outperform their competition. Never giving up was likely in their individual DNA, but the determination hardened as the challenges grew.
The fourth and most important step in the transition process is to communicate the plan and expectations to those who need to hear it. The message must be simple, it must be easily understood, and it must resonate with those who hear it.
Apply the Lessons
Now, how do you apply the Stockdale Paradox to your business?
Hope is not a strategy. The economy will get better, but don’t count on a better economy to automatically improve your sales. Set your strategy by concentrating on what you do well and what our industry analysts feel will be the best growth opportunities. What do your competitors envy about your business? What do your employees think they do best? What services and products are either growing or not declining in our industry? Find these answers and determine your path forward.
One of the brutal facts in the printing industry is that offset printing is declining and will continue to decline. Digital printing and wide-format output are growing. You need to find ways to raise revenue in non-print services, find niche markets that are growing, find niche products that you can sell such as large-format, mailing, or signage.
I have had a few clients really struggle through the recession and say they are ready to get out or just shut down. The reality is that is not an option for almost all print owners. While you may feel emotionally drained as you watch sales drop, the truth is that some printers have had sales increase in the past couple of years. Find out what they have done differently and make changes to your business model.
Once you decide on your new plan and the strategies to meet the objectives then meet with your staff and communicate your vision and share the plan. Get feedback, change your strategies where necessary, and engage your employees in the action steps required execute your plan. Get their buy-in and make them accountable for your company’s plan. Challenge your staff to be great.