Our world, our universe is characterized by constant change. Stars are born and die, storms transform the landscape, nations rise and fall, people change over time. In the business world economies grow and collapse, business models evolve, industries transform and even the Top 100 list of leading companies completely changes in a matter of a few years.
But sometimes the speed and scope of change is extremely rapid, its consequences unforeseeable and unpredictable. This makes planning and decision making highly risky because it is so difficult to see what the future holds. “Everybody has a plan,” said championship boxer Mike Tyson, “until they get punched in the face.”
To help explain the often sudden, fluid, rapidly evolving and dynamic forces of change – that “punch in the face” — the U.S. Army War College created the term V.U.C.A. to describe and ultimately deal with highly dynamic, shifting and challenging situations.
“Write down a change you would like to make in an organization that you are currently with…or change in the marketplace. Any kind. It can be a big change, it could be a small change – strategic, tactical, something you want people to start doing, something you want people to stop doing,” says Jeff Leitner as he looks around a room filled with CEOs, CFOs, CIOs, and other C-Suite executives at this year’s InterimExecs’ RED Team meeting. He continues “You’re change is absolutely, almost certainly going to fail. It’s not your fault. It has nothing to do with your particular genius – has nothing to do with your insights. Changes fail. They almost always fail.”
Jeff Leitner knows a thing or two about change and innovation. He spent the last 20 years improving organizations from the US State Department to NASA, Starbucks, Panera, and the Dalai Lama Center for Peace. In a world where innovation and disruption is key, the question is why does change rarely stick in organizations, markets, and society? Jeff has dedicated years to studying why change fails and in his most recent speaking circuit, is sharing what leaders can do to be more effective in leading change initiatives.
As an executive who has spent his career growing companies, taking companies public, and successfully selling businesses, Charlie Shalvoy says the first thing he does when he parachutes into a company is begin with an assessment. Whether the company is venture-capital backed or private, or in manufacturing, energy, semiconductors, or industrial equipment, figuring out the current state of operations is always the first step. Charlie divides the stages an interim executive goes through in taking action in a new company into four phases:
Phase 1: Taking Hold (90 Days)
When a company seeks to expand into new markets or scale operations to support current and future growth, Charlie takes on a role ranging from Interim CEO to Executive Chairman, where he coaches and serves alongside the CEO and management team. He describes that in the taking hold phase, an interim executive identifies what’s broken – even fast growing companies need repairs. What is getting in the way? What is causing distress?
We just experienced possibly the largest wave of CEO departures in recent history. Was it due to falling profits? Poor succession planning? Or is there more drama behind the scenes? Think firings, hurt egos, politics, and personal infighting. Author Isabelle Nüssli uncovers one of the big reasons for turmoil at the top ― the fractious relationships between egos at the executive level, particularly between CEO and chairperson. Hence the brilliant title of her new book, Cockfighting: Solving the Mystery of Unconscious Sabotage at the Top of the Corporate Pyramid.
“When you read the news, usually the reason [given for the CEO leaving] was strategy misalignment or different leadership style or different chemistry, etc. But the story that is not put out to the public is that there was a relational conflict, which apparently is the case most of the time,” says Nüssli.
IT department leaders are usually left out of the early M&A meetings during the pre-merger or pre-acquisition phase. “IT systems integration” discussions do not include IT managers until it’s too late. This phenomenon is all too common when it comes to understanding the full scope of IT priorities and what each organization brings to the tech table to ensure successful M&A experience for employees and customers.
According to the 2018 Deal Value Curve Study, only 19% of M&A professionals surveyed believed there was sufficient due diligence on IT systems and assets before a merger or acquisition. This pitfall may stem from the fact that decision makers do not fully grasp the complexity of IT. Worse yet, they may fail to realize just how dependent the organization’s business goals are with IT systems.
Surprisingly, IT system integration is not top of mind during M&A discussions. That’s detrimental for two reasons:
In a merger or acquisition, discord of company cultures and disparate systems can cause the demise of a once-promising partnership. About 70% of acquisitions fail when post-acquisition results don’t meet pre-closing expectations. Many of these M&A failures are caused by poorly executed integration.
What’s surprising is that M&A failures are avoidable with careful integration planning and strategic post merger integration. Pre-acquisition, it takes a lot of forethought on how company cultures might clash and how their systems will integrate. Post-acquisition, it takes a ton of strategic elbow grease to rapidly align systems (and eliminate some), retain productive employees, keep customers, and make stakeholders happy.
Lose weight. Exercise more. The new year’s resolutions are in full gear right now. Whether it’s getting to the gym, reading more, or eating more greens, January usually begins with a reflection of how we did and what we can do more, better, faster this year.
We focus so much on being proactive in our health and personal care. But what about our business health? Is it just business as usual, again? Or do we have bigger business goals for 2019?
Talking to company owners and investors over the years, we have discovered a lot less proactivity than you’d expect and a lot more complacency. We don’t mean activity – everyone has lots of to-do lists – where busy work mask over big or growing problems.
We often get calls when the house is on fire: cash is draining away from the business, employees are jumping ship, frustrations are mounting, or lack of fresh thinking, innovation and true leadership have led to stagnation in the market. Owners say to us my ‘business is failing, what do I do’.
It’s hard not to think how many sleepless nights could have been avoided for an owner if they would have just acted sooner. We mean solve the issues not just by trying to dive in themselves or harangue the management team more, but instead through resources or tools that could extend their capabilities and help make vision a reality.
No organization is immune to challenges, not if it has any ambition. But how do we as owners and leaders put our strategy hat on to see down the road, or attempt to see, to predict where markets will go, how customers will act and react? To play the great game of chess in the real world – which is strategy.
Sometimes that is easier said than done. The eloquent Mike Tyson put it so well when he said, “everybody has a plan until I punch them in the mouth.” We would do well to remember how limited our brilliant strategies in fact are, how fragile in the face of ambiguity, uncertainty and future black swan events.
Just look to history to see how companies have been blindsided with the punch they never saw coming. Kodak invented the first digital camera in 1975, but put launch on hold in fear of cannibalizing their film business. We all know the story from there….Kodak who? Or take Blockbuster – which failed to pivot when Netflix showed up. And then Borders and Barnes & Noble, crushed under the Amazon onslaught. And the examples of business strategy gone wrong go on…
“A man’s got to know his limitations.” Clint Eastwood’s immortal line as San Francisco detective Harry Callahan in the movie Dirty Harry stands true today when board of directors and management teams think about how to evaluate executive candidates. If you have been in management, ownership or board leadership long enough, sooner or later you’ve learned that no one has a perfect track record when it’s come to hiring.
So how do you increase your chances of success?
You’ve already taken the first step – by thinking of interim executives in order to mitigate your risk. You are making sure you have a clear roadmap and understanding of the leadership skillsets needed to get you where you want to go before committing to anything permanent too soon. That’s good.
Whether interim or permanent, there are questions to ask and ways to evaluate your organization’s fit with an executive leader.
I was having a conversation with company founders in a healthcare startup who made the comment: “we’re new to being entrepreneurs.”
That was their opening for free advice. It’s hard building and scaling a business when most startups fail or have a tough time and that’s not celebrated enough. Instead we just marvel at the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and aspire to be like Uber, Facebook, Google.
The truth is that most every new businesses – it’s a slog. A grind. A tough battle at some point in their existence, if not in fact for many years. Steve Ballmer of Microsoft had a phrase for this: the long middle. He said its fairly easy to be creative, think up a brilliant new product, and decide to charge forward. Then comes the middle: the long slog.