It’s been almost a decade since I first heard Verne Harnish speak at a two-day “Mastering the Rockefeller Habits” workshop in Washington D.C. about “Scaling Up” a small business. It was, to put it bluntly, engrossing, overwhelming and life-changing.

Passion, without a Process

I fell in love back in 2000 when I first started working with small and mid-market companies. Having spent the first ten years of my career with the Fortune 500 (really the Fortune 50), the ability to have an impact was intoxicating! To be able to work directly with the CEO and their team, create a strategic plan, guide the leadership through implementing that plan and get results that could be seen and felt thru out the organization was an amazing experience. A phenomena that’s incredibly difficult to achieve with companies who measure the numbers of employees in the tens (if not hundreds) of thousands and whose revenues exceed $1B.

But there was a slight hitch that spoiled my new-found enjoyment. Far too often there was a resounding complaint from the leadership of those small mid-market and middle-market companies as we’d work through their plans and challenges.

“All of the best practices from P&G and J&J and GE are great except we can’t do all of that,” the CEO’s would tell me. “We don’t have the resources, people or money. It’s just not possible.” To which I would reply, “No, you don’t – you can’t do everything that the “big guys” do but you can do some of the most vital things.”

Initially I was stymied by their response. But, like any good engineer, I started to create my own “model” for small and mid-market companies to follow based on my readings from thought-leaders like Jim Collins and the Gallup Organization and Patrick Lencioni.

Then, I heard Verne. 

Listening to Verne Harnish is like drinking from a fire hose. More illustratively, as one of my fellow Lehigh alums would say, listening to him is like drinking from the beer bong of business learning.

There’s so much to absorb, it’s nearly impossible to keep up. And if you’re not quick enough, you could drown. Six or seven hours into his workshop, as my head was going under water for the umpteenth time, I decided I needed a life vest.

So I started to capture the “highlights” from my learning to help me remember as well as focus. Two days later, I had thirteen points that summarized my key insights, my takeaways, which in turn would guide my behaviors in the years to come – in my own consulting business, which I was working to grow as well as with my clients who were working to grow their businesses.

As pertinent today as they were ten years ago, I offer them to you to consider for your own 2018 planning. Along with an added “homework” question for you and your team to consider to help ensure you have a successful and prosperous 2018!

Which one will be your focus for the coming year?

1. Mastery requires 10,000 hours or 3 hours/ day for 10 years. Attributed to Malcolm Gladwell and his work in “Outliers: The Story of Success”, Gladwell was talking about how much effort was required of very elite performers. Verne’s take, in sharing the quote, was to quantify for his audience of entrepreneurial leaders just how much work is required to achieve excellence. And – how incredibly important it is to allocate time to what’s important, not just urgent – every week. Question to Consider: When do you schedule time to practice your technique as a business leader?

2. The three most important words in the English language – “Please help me.” Human beings by our very nature get a “kick” out of helping others. When you put yourself out there and ask for help from someone who has the knowledge or experience that you need to be successful, it’s amazing what you’ll find out. Question to Consider: Who do you need to reach out to in the coming year to get perspective, gather insights and refine your plan?

3. If you have a problem or an opportunity ask yourself, “Who’s already doing this and how are they doing it?” We spend way too much time re-inventing the wheel. Verne taught me that most business problems have been solved by someone else. You just have to figure out who that is, and reach out. (See Lesson #2 above for your next step.) Question to Consider: What problem have you struggled with in 2017 and who’s already solved it?

4. The most significant decision that you make as a Founder is your #2. We can’t all be good at everything. And one of the best ways to fix a weakness is to find a partner, a second lieutenant, who brings talents to the table that you don’t have AND will take some of the load that growing a company requires. Too often we find someone who’s like us but that won’t help us to grow. Question to Consider: What gap in your own performance do you need a #2 to fill in?

5. A great habit: 10 minutes per week ask yourself (and your team), “What did we learn from the market this week?” In this tumultuous, fast-moving environment, you are NEVER done when it comes to tweaking and refining your Strategy. And staying on top of what’s occurring, and what’s not, as well as what your customers are saying about your performance, is vital to making the right strategic decisions about what opportunities to pursue, as well as what NOT to pursue. Question to Consider: When are you having this Strategic conversation with your team?

6. The Four Customer Questions:
a. How are you doing?
b. What’s going on in your industry/ community?
c. What do you hear about our competitors – negative?
d. How are we doing?
Enough said on this one. At a minimum every member of your Leadership Team should be reaching out at least once per week to gather market intelligence using these four questions. And digging deep to hear what’s not being said in the first go around. (HINT: Then take what you’re hearing and go back to Lesson #5.) Question to Consider: Who are the top Customers that you need to reach out to in 2018?

7. How long does it take for $1 spent to make it back into your pocket? i.e. Do you know what your CASH cycle is? Growth sucks Cash. Every company should have a Core Capital account of at least two or three months operating revenue – minimally. If you don’t have a profitable business model OR you’re not taking some of your profits and creating a “fortress balance sheet” when the storm hits, you won’t have the freedom that a strong Cash position gives you. Worst case your business is vulnerable to upsets and downturns. Read “How Fast Can Your Company Grow” (Harvard Business Review) by and then do the numbers. Question to Consider: What steps can you take to shorten your sales cycle, your make/ buy cycle or your billing cycle to have access to the Cash you need for growth?

8. Leadership is about bridging the gap between your accountability and your authority. What are you doing as a leader to build influence on your team, with your peers and in your company? Do you have strong Core Values that drive everyone’s behaviors? What do people in your company do when they know that they’re not being “watched”? Take an hour with your team and evaluate how well you’re each doing as Leaders with modeling your Core Values. Question to Consider: What value are you falling short on that needs to be a focus for the first quarter of 2018?

9. The Talent Challenge – How to double your revenues/ employee in the next 5 to 10 years and increase wages by 50%? A Players want to be paid well for the work that they do but money isn’t everything. And we know that engaged workers who are able to do what they do best every day are significantly more productive and drive higher levels of Customer Satisfaction. Question to Consider: What are you doing to improve engagement in your organization? Check out Gallup’s 12 questions and see how well you score.

10. The Question to ask every employee – “What am I doing to de-motivate you?” A very scary and possibly painful question to consider as a leader but worthwhile and insightful. As long as you’re prepared to act on the advice that you’re given. Question to Consider: Are you up for having this conversation with your team?

11. The Question to ask in your strategic planning sessions – “How would we beat us?” You know your weaknesses best. If you’re open to hearing your customers, you know where you’re falling down on meeting their expectations. Schedule an hour or two to have this discussion with your team. Question to Consider: What’s your Achilles’ heel and what steps do you need to take in 2018 to fix it?

12. When you find yourself in trouble – talk to your customers. We strengthen our relationships when we ask for help and often our customers are the best qualified to give us perspective and assistance on our business and our direction. (Remember Lesson #2 above.) Question to Consider: What do you need help with in the coming year and what customer would be able to give you some perspective on the issue?

13. Meeting rhythms – Tactics, Priorities, Big Issues, Strategy – The key topics for the Critical Meetings that every company should have to stay on track and proactively work through “stucks”. The Weekly Meeting focuses on key Tactical Issues and what’s getting in the way of achieving the plan. Once a month you should allot time for issues which require more time to dig in, work through and problem solve so that issues stay resolved. Every quarter (90 days) your company’s priorities and your team’s should be evaluated and re-set for the next 13 week race. And if you’re not re-visiting your Strategy as a team once every six months you’re probably missing an opportunity, or leaving yourself open to a liability. Question to Consider: What’s your Meeting Rhythm and are you covering all of the bases?

Feel like you’ve been drinking through a fire hose? Don’t let yourself be overwhelmed.

Take another look at the list above and just pick one or two key items for your “to do” list for the 1st quarter of 2018. Let me know which one hits home for you. I’d love to hear from you.

And all the best wishes in 2018 for you, your family and your business!