Are you trying to put the eggs back together or are you making omelets?

There’s a world of difference between the two approaches.

COVID-19 and the economic shutdown have wrecked the economy and created new social expectations.

People are unlikely to gather closely together until there’s a vaccine or herd immunity.

Open office plans – Good riddance.

Work from home or from remote locations is no longer scary. More employees are going to demand these options. Your culture needs to treat in-office and remote as equals or you will have two classes of employees.

Online conferences and training are productive and far less expensive than doing them in-person. There are trade-offs, of course, but leaders now have options.

It’s tempting to want to put the broken eggs back together, to return to the way things were in January 2020.

For some leaders, that’s reasonable.

For many, though, it’s a fool’s errand.

You will miss opportunities to restore your growth as you cling stubbornly to past practices and expectations.

You won’t adapt your flywheel, so your competitors will pass you by as you spend time, energy, and resources trying to recreate the past.

Your top talent will leave because you are out-of-step with people’s expectations. It’s like asking Millenials to accept a Mad Men workplace. Not going to happen.

Imagine what it would be like to be making omelets while everyone else is fumbling around with the eggshells?

This is exactly where you want to be – ahead of the curve.

Here are some practical questions to help you do that.

1. What emerging social and economic trends are affecting your customers?

2. What steps can you take to meet these new needs and expectations?

3. What trends, such as remote workplaces, are affecting your culture?

4. What steps should you take to meet these expectations?

5. What resources do you need to take these steps?

You got it. Five clarifying questions that help you make omelets when everyone else is staring at the broken shell and drifting yolk.

Overcommunicate is a terrible term, because it’s imprecise, confusing, and can lead to all sorts of goofy outcomes.

What, exactly, does overcommunicate mean: talk more, have more meetings, speculate out loud?

We have seen the outcomes of these kinds of practices. Some teams have tried cyber-micromanagement – keeping their people on an open video line all day.

Others have ramped up the frequency of meetings – many that have no clear agenda or outcomes.

We have seen the fear, anxiety, and confusion that comes from leaders speculating out loud, ruminating about internal deliberations, and providing fact-free timelines and promises.

Stop overcommunicating.

Start communicating clearly and building confidence that you’ve got the judgment to lead your team through the COVID crisis and into the recovery.

Here are some practical tips for doing that.

1. Set your cadence. Your rhythm of meetings and routines needs to be purposeful and predictable. These become your team’s handrails through the uncertainty as you cross the COVID-chasm below.

2.  Open channels. Make informal town-halls part of your cadence. Take questions from people during the session. Stick to the facts as you know them. Feel free to say, “I don’t know” and “We’re still discussing that and haven’t made a decision. I’m very interested in your ideas, too.” Make sure these are sessions where people feel safe to voice ideas, opinions, and concerns.

3. Get moving. Put together three-to-five simple scenario plans. What are the common elements? Once you identify those you can start moving forward. Identify the forks down the road and the information you need to know to decide which path to take.  

4. Keep everyone engaged. Let people know the what and the why as you get moving. Empower them to figure out how. This simple practice lowers the chaos, boosts confidence, and increases your command of the situation.

5. Watch, Listen and Learn. You’ve got two ears, two eyes, and one mouth. Watch and listen at least four times more than you speak. Ask questions and get people thinking and solving problems.

You got it. Five tips to stop the babble and build confidence in success. Bam!

How well are these tips working for you?  Send me a message and let me know.

Make a new mistake

Are you Ready to Make New Mistakes?

There are many reasons not to trust people who say they have never been wrong. Every leader who dares to grow, innovate, defy conventional wisdom, or make a positive impact makes mistakes and experiences failure. To err, after all, is human. We all make mistakes.

Good leaders, though, make new mistakes.

They learn and avoid repeating the errors they have made — especially the expensive ones. Your new mistakes, though, can be expensive. Some are catastrophic.

Leaders in a competitive market who rely solely on personal experience are particularly vulnerable to business-ending new mistakes.

They only learn in the school of hard-knocks where the tuition is really expensive. Sometimes those hard-knocks are knockouts.

How do the most successful leaders avoid these problems?

They learn from their own experiences and those of others. The very best leaders make truly new mistakes. They avoid the mistakes that they have made themselves AND they avoid the mistakes that others have made.

Reading is the fast track to learning from others.

How do you know which books and articles to read?

That’s exactly why we’ve created this reading list. It contains some of the best books and articles on Leadership, Culture, and Strategy, so you can avoid wasting time on nonsense.

We have also organized the list by theme, so you can focus on the issues most important to you.  For instance,

Our Leadership Themes include:

  • Lead Well: Trustworthiness, Respect, and Stewardship
  • Practice Empathy: Your Short-Cut to Gaining Cooperation
  • Take Responsibility: How to promote innovation
  • Connect the Why: Gain commitment through Common Purpose

Check out our Culture Themes:

  • Forge Balanced Teams: How to Strengthen Diversity and Inclusion
  • Align Values and Practice: What Happens in the Halls Trumps What’s Written on the Walls
  • Build Resilience: How to Bounce Back Higher
  • Stop Toxic Subordinates: The Altar of Short-term Results is the Fast Track to Failure
  • Position High Impact Leaders: Put your Top Talent in a State of Flow

How are these for Strategy Themes:

  • Strategy governs Plans: How to Make Sure the Dog Wags the Tail
  • Manage Silos: How to Avoid Letting Success Fall through the Cracks
  • Embrace Complexity and Uncertainty: How to Create and Seize Opportunity in Chaos
  • Courage: Developing the Strength and Wisdom to Decide
  • Learn and Adapt: How to Make New Mistakes

So, are you happy to repeat your errors and those of others…

Or, are you ready to make truly new mistakes?

Get the Reading List HERE

If you already have our Reading List, check out these webinars:

Wait? These webinars say they are for Cyber Security Leaders.

That’s true, but the same concepts work for anyone who leads human beings.

Ready to make truly new mistakes? Get the Reading List HERE

When you are ready, here are four great ways to work together

Speaking: Do you want a professional keynote speaker to talk with your team on leadership, culture, and strategy? I’ve talked to business, NFL, academic, government, nonprofit, and military audiences. I always tailor the presentation to you, so the message inspires action for you and your team. I’m a professional member of the National Speakers Association, which means I have a proven track record of professionalism and performance.

Training: If you want an even higher impact for your team, training and workshops are a great way to go. I teach teams and organizations on a range of Leadership, Culture, and Strategy themes, to include: how to elevate your team’s performance, how to build a culture of excellence, how to slash employee burnout and turnover, how to develop a winning strategy and how to prevent expensive mistakes. Programs for you range from half-day primers to three-day intensives, to include offsite at places like Normandy and Gettysburg.

Self-Directed Courses: Do you want your team to stay engaged on these key themes but do not want to send them away to an executive education course? We have a suite of online programs that are perfect for you. The courses are excellent ways to follow-up a training event to keep your team learning at your own pace.

Consulting: Do you want to improve your leadership development programs, build a culture of excellence, and create a winning strategy? Unlike the big, gucci, consulting firms that are slow, bureaucratic, and stick you with junior MBAs, I work personally with you and your team, so you get results quickly and cost-effectively with no hassle.

What results can you expect? Check out these video testimonials.
Reach out to me anytime you are curious about working together.

The Only Victories that Truly Matter are the Moral Ones

By: John O’Grady, Founder and Owner of O’Grady Leadership Consulting Services

Victories that Matter

An often-used phrase in sports is, “there are no moral victories.” This phrase is extolled by coaches, fans, and players alike whenever their team loses a contest. It places primacy on the score as the only outcome worthy of acknowledgment.  I am guilty of having uttered these words to youth teams I have coached, my daughter, who is an athlete, as well as teams I have been a member of. I suppose I did because it’s easy to adopt a catchy phrase without much thought, especially one so frequently used. As is the case with most unexamined things in life I have come to realize I have been wrong and exceedingly small in my thinking. Now that I am a little wiser, completing a career as a decorated combat veteran, and launching my leadership consulting business I realize that the only lasting victories are the moral ones – regardless of the score at the end of the game. The actual wins worthy of celebration in life are, in fact, the moral ones – I am now playing the long game. This concept became crystal clear for me while I observed the indomitable human spirit, brotherhood, and competitiveness of the Wagner College Football team as they lost their season opener, 24-21. This loss came to a twenty-one point favorite, University of Connecticut (UCONN) team.

This story starts back well before I even became associated with the Wagner program. It starts on 30 December 2018, when one of the young men on the team, Tyamonee Johnson, was senselessly and tragically killed while home for vacation from Wagner. The 22-year-old man, a father of a then two-year-old, recently graduated and decided to return to Wagner in pursuit of his Master’s Degree. All that changed on 30 December as did the contour of the Wagner Football teams upcoming season without their brother and teammate “T.”  The staff and the team faced their first tough choice of a new season… be consumed by the pain and senseless nature of this horrific event or take control and ownership for what they could control. They chose the latter in the coming days and weeks that passed as they navigated through this hard life lesson, resolving never to forget their teammate and friend. They decided to draw closer as a team, relish the precious moments together regardless of how difficult, and re-dedicate themselves to the rigors of the off-season, preparing for the season without “T.”

Fast forward to the last week in July of 2019 some seven months later.  I was invited to deeply embed with the football team in my capacity as a leadership and culture consultant. I spent a full eight days with the team during the start of summer camp. I was given complete access thanks to Head Coach, Jason “Hoss” Houghtaling, and Associate Head Coach/Defensive Coordinator, Del Smith.  I lived in the dorms with the players and ate meals with them. The dog days of summer start at 600AM and last until approximately 1030PM each day and I was present for all of it. The first thing that struck me about the coaching staff is that they intuitively understand that they are in the business of coaching people and teaching football.  This wasn’t something explicitly spoken, but as I observed them, it was exceedingly clear.  These were men of character built for selfless service for other men. They were deeply invested in the type of leaders they wanted the young men they coached to become. In fact, we spent an entire morning session discussing what it meant to be a “Wagner Man,” and another whole day discussing the topic of cultivating trust with intention.  Now, anyone who knows anything about summer camp or a football coaches’ life, in general, knows time is the most precious resource second only to players. The time investment and subsequent discussions during the week demonstrated how committed the staff was to building men of character, focusing only on what they could control and what was right in front of them each day with the statement, ‘What’s Important Now – W.I.N!”.  Many other staffs would prioritize X’s and O’s over everything else – not Wagner. 

Throughout the remainder of the week, I was offered the opportunity to have breakfast with Coach Hoss, where we spoke at length about leadership and cultivating a values-based culture. Additionally, I met with his leadership council of players where we talked about the season they wanted to have and what they were willing to do to achieve those goals.  I offered up they conversely consider what they would not tolerate while attaining their goals. Throughout this entire process, I sensed this was a unique group of people, invested in each other’s growth, first as humans and second as players, genuinely committed to a pursuit of excellence in all things – no excuses. 

In my parting speech to the team, I challenged them to do three of things as they moved forward. First, don’t sacrifice the future on the altar of today. Second, love your future self as much or more than you do your current self. Lastly, recognize the genuine miracle it was that they were present in this moment, despite the day to day grind, never forget this and understand they had a responsibility to treat it as a miracle – no excuses, put in the hard work and make the hard choices necessary to ensure that all three challenges were met. My promise to the team, “I’ll be watching, and I’ll call you out if you aren’t achieving your full potential.” 

Graciously I was invited back to travel with the team to their season opener.  Fast forward to kickoff, 24 August in the season opener at UCONN. What I witnessed for 60 minutes of football was a group of young men of character, led by men of integrity, fiercely compete.  It’s a small nuance, but it was clear these men didn’t only play with one another; they were playing for one another. They had 100 reasons to relent even before the start of the contest. But like back in December of 2018 they chose not to. During the game, they had another 1,000 reasons to lay down, fold, or quit. Instead, they decided to compete with an unrelenting spirit. Each time they made a conscious choice as individuals and as a collective to begin to define further the men they wanted to be, not just on a football team, but in life. They became winners in life.

For this experience, I became filled with an incredible depth of gratitude that is hard to accurately articulate. I am so thankful for having been able to witness up close this astonishing demonstration of what the human spirit is capable of and be a small part of their journey. It allows me to re-affirm my passion for working with athletes, coaches, and teams, helping guide them toward the best version of themselves. In doing so, I become a better version of myself. I am forever better and inspired because of the choices these men made, play in and play out, and how they departed the field with class.  

I am reminded of an Edwin Markham poem, “Creed.”  The following is an excerpt, “There is a destiny that makes us brothers; None goes his way alone; All that we send into the lives of others comes back into our own.”  In sports, the human spirit is offered the opportunity to express this symbiotic dance in ways rarely found anywhere else. We must never forget this. We should always celebrate this. This is the moral victory, far more impactful and everlasting, and ever-present regardless of the score, win or lose. Yes, there are moral victories. I witnessed one, and I celebrate it, you should too.

Email: [email protected]

LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/john-o-grady-leadership

Twitter: www.twitter.com/OG_Leadership

Why Help the Restaurateur?

Why Help the Restaurateur?

Serving those who serve

Why am I passionate about helping the restauranteur?  After serving in the military for 23 years, why would I now choose to work with restaurateurs and quick-service franchisees?  The answer is quite simple: I want to continue to serve by serving those who serve!  Can you think back to some quick-service restaurant that broke the monotony of your day-to-day?  What fast-casual dining restaurant answers the age-old question of “what’s for dinner?”  Food remains integral to building relationships, our country’s economy, our culture, and our way of life. The restaurant industry is one of the most dynamic, cut-throat, and often unappreciated sectors in today’s marketplace. 

GUTS – Radical Courage

It is no easy road to be an entrepreneur entering such a demanding industry.  It takes real GUTSradical courage—to join such a space.  Food expenses are rising.  Operating costs, to include the rising cost of wages, are a challenge. The increasing price of leased real estate is a looming foe.  In addition to these costs, the complex nature of marketing, sales, and communication make running a restaurant no easy task. Never mind trying to infuse a level of sustainable growth.  

Key Trends

In the NRA’s 2019 State of the Industry Report, they highlighted five key trends that continue to be at the forefront of the challenge:

  1. A competitive business environment.
  2. Staffing as a top challenge.
  3. Pent-up [customer] demand remains elevated. 
  4. Technology incorporation continues.
  5. Food preferences continue their rapid evolution.

Past performance does not dictate future success

Unfortunately, these trends do not soften the statistics of the past two decades either.  As you often hear it said, past performance does not dictate future success, but hindsight makes it clear that it is a significant challenge to be a successful restaurateur in today’s environment.   The numbers are staggering, with no relief in sight. Research has estimated some 60% of restaurants don’t survive their first year; Anywhere from 70-85% of restaurants either change the owner’s hands or go out of business in the first five years according to a 2005 study.  And personnel turn-over within the restaurant space is commonly observed to be as high as 70% annually. There is much to be gained as a restaurateur. However, it takes something special to not only survive but grow. 

How can I serve you best?

I have spent the past six months transitioning from my career in the Army and thinking about this VERY blog.  My aspiration: how can I serve YOU best?  I have visited a countless number of quick-serve and fast-casual dining restaurants.   I have watched and spoken to the men and women who are doing it, day-in and day-out, and my hats off to you! 

Three action steps

Here are three small things that may serve you well in your endeavor to be the best in your business:  

  1. Take deliberate time to reflect on this year’s five trends, and rate your restaurant? How are you doing in those challenge areas?
  2. Rank order them. Which presents you with the most formidable challenge? Is it staffing? Are you meeting customer demands? Are you integrating the newest tech? Is it staying food-relevant? Rank-order them, one to five.
  3. Do ONE thing about the top three. You can’t fix everything, but you certainly can do one to three tangible tasks to make your business better today.

You can do IT!

Don’t know where to start? Please feel free to reach out. You can do IT. Whatever IT is.

5 Reasons Why Your Development Strategy is Failing

5 Reasons Why Your Development Strategy is Failing

THE RIGHT FOUNDATION

“Kim” was searching for the right development strategy. As the new executive director, she wanted to boost the nonprofit’s revenues and invest marketing resources for the biggest payoff. Some told her to invest in Direct Mail, others to focus on major donors and foundations. Yet other experts suggested a video-centric social media effort aimed at individual donors.

As I began asking Kim some questions about the nonprofit, the reasons for the fundraising problems came clear: she took over a nonprofit that had not gotten the right foundations in place. Until that occurred, no amount of fundraising tactics would work.

A SOLID FOUNDATION FOR GROWTH

Here are the five elements to a solid foundation for growth:

  1. Board governance. Does your board govern effectively? Does everyone on your board donate? Major donors and foundations, especially, will avoid supporting nonprofits that have ineffective boards or directors not willing to put their own money into the organization.
  2. Transparency and Accountability. Watchdog ratings are a quick check to assess whether the nonprofit is using resources wisely. Would you prefer to donate to an organization that has high marks or low marks? Poor ratings are donation killers.
  3. Strategy. Donors want to know the nonprofit has thought through the challenges and has an approach to the mission that stands a reasonable chance of success. Donors expect you to be able to explain your strategy in clear, simple, and believable terms.
  4. Impact. Are your efforts doing any good? Too many nonprofits measure efforts rather than outcomes. Serious donors want to know that their support will make a difference. A combination of personal examples and quantitative measures is the gold standard.
  5. Personal Connection. Donors with a deep, personal connection to the cause are likely to support your nonprofit sustainably. How are you creating such bonds?

Without a solid foundation in place, fundraising tactics are the noise before failure.

GET THE FUNDAMENTALS RIGHT

Kim is now focused on getting the fundamentals right so the development effort has a chance to succeed. Her efforts look like a list of best practices for new nonprofits. She is:

  • Working with the board chair to establish key governance committees and board director expectations.
  • Providing charity watchdogs, such as Guidestar, Charity Navigator, and Give.org the needed documents so they can begin rating her nonprofit. She has also learned from them their standards so she can make sure the right transparency and accountability measures are in place.
  • Developing a sound strategy and implementation plan that she can explain in clear, simple terms.
  • Establishing a compelling set of outcome measures so they can begin collecting and assessing the right data, while also gathering powerful personal stories from beneficiaries of their work.
  • Developing creative ways to create personal connections to the mission for her ideal donors.

BRAVO, KIM!

So many nonprofits are understaffed and overloaded with work. This can create a situation, as it had for Kim’s nonprofit, in which the executive director is overwhelmed trying to keep up while the volunteer board is not fully aware of the costs. This is often a recipe for slow failure. Dedicating time and effort to the 5 important-but-not-urgent issues at the top of this article can help your nonprofit create a solid foundation (and will probably reduce the volume of daily crises, too!).

Five secrets to doubling your workforce

(without more people or gizmos)

Five Secrets to Double your Workforce

Only about one-third of employees in the United States are engaged at work

Julie, we will call her, was so frustrated. She was in charge of a nonprofit that supported an important cause. She had talented people and enough budget to execute their programs. Despite all this, they just couldn’t seem to get anything done.

According to Gallup, only about one-third of employees in the United States are engaged at work. The other two-thirds are physically present but mentally absent.

Julie’s challenge was a bit different. Her employees were engaged but only about one-third of the time … and, of course, at different times. The other two-thirds seemed to be consumed in backbiting, frustration, and unproductive churn.

These 5 low-cost, high-impact efforts are changing all that.

  1. Take the time to explain WHY. Julie would get frustrated when her employees asked her to explain certain policies and decisions. She believed she was being second-guessed. After reflection, she recognized that most of her answers could be summed up with “because I said so.” She discovered that her reaction to the questions was part of the reason for the backbiting and friction.

According to Forbes, explaining WHY has a tendency to improve employee confidence, productivity, as well as the employee’s ability to problem solve and innovate.

A Change in mindset

Julie began using a different approach. She changed her mindset and began to interpret WHY questions as indicators that her employees cared. She took the opportunity to validate their concerns and explain her rationale. When she found that she could not offer a compelling answer, she worked together with the team to come up with a better policy.

  1. Take Responsibility. Julie prided herself on high standards. She set tough goals and challenged her team to meet them. When questioned by the board of directors about a shortfall, Julie often began the explanation with “the person responsible for X is working very hard, but …” She thought she was backing her team. They believed she was throwing them under the bus and blaming them. They never took risks or tried new approaches. Like others, her employees concluded that following the status quo was the safest way to avoid getting blamed and, perhaps, fired.

When Julie realized that her approach had these inadvertent negative effects, she changed her language to “That’s my responsibility. We’ll get to work on it.” She also made sure to distinguish between accountability and blame. She held her employees accountable for things under their control, like developing sound plans to achieve goals and then executing those efforts to standard. But she also made clear that no one was to blame for outcomes that were beyond their control. This reduced the finger-pointing that was wasting time and damaging morale.

  1. Hire for Culture. Every organization seeks the best possible talent and Julie was no different. She carefully outlined the skills for each position, diligently combed through candidate resumes for the right background and experiences, and conducted interviews to choose among the finalists. Normal practices.

Julie’s nonprofit had an average employee retention of 24 months. Every two years, most of her twenty-person team changed. Of those who left within two years, most were due to a culture mismatch — numbers consistent with national trends. With an average salary of $70,000 and an estimated turnover cost at 75% of annual salary, Julie was burning over $1 million in the revolving door.

Determine the ideal culture for your team

Julie used our tool to determine the ideal culture for her team. She discovered that a Collaborative team best addresses the nonprofit’s mission and challenges — one focused on teamwork and innovation. She had been hiring highly-qualified people who were individually competitive, which was undermining coordination. She was also hiring process-oriented people who wanted the comfort of executing routines rather than explore new ideas. Both were creating workplace friction and frustration.

Hiring for culture only works if you have clearly defined the values and expectations of your desired culture. Now, she can begin hiring the right people. Cutting turnover in half will save her nonprofit $500,000.

  1. Put people in roles that match their leader persona. Part of Julie’s turnover challenge was burnout — a common problem for nonprofits. Good people worked very hard, grew exhausted, and burned out. Their last six months on the job were marginally productive. Julie’s team was physically diverse, but most tended to think the same way.

Our leader-persona assessment led to some interesting observations. First, her team was imbalanced toward detail-orientation. This partly explained the innovation problems — she did not have Mavericks or Pioneers who were hard-wired to challenge the status quo. Her Operators and Reconcilers worked very hard to come up with new ideas, and some ideas were very good. But the work exhausted them, contributing to the high turnover for these positions.

Second, she had Jim, her only Maverick, working as the chief of staff, which meant he was trying to play the Reconciler role of building and managing consensus among the team. Jim was a super policy advocate, but he was terrible in this new role. Julie, an Operator, found herself constantly refereeing disputes among the team – something Jim was supposed to handle. She was tired of it. Jim was growing frustrated, too, and she did not want to lose him.

Julie put Jim back in the advocacy role. She is seeking more Mavericks or Pioneers to support her need for innovation and is hiring a Reconciler for the Chief of Staff position.

5. Involve your team in creating the annual business plan. Like most nonprofits, Julie had a 5-year strategic plan. She outsourced the work to a team of consultants. They listened carefully to Julie and the board about the challenges the nonprofit was facing and the main capabilities and initiatives to advance their cause. The consulting team produced a very well-organized strategic plan that was supposed to result in $2 million growth.

The problem was that no one other than the consultants really understood the theory of success, so everyone just kept doing what they had been doing. This was not going to yield better results. Her team was like the other 90 percent who failed to execute their strategies successfully.

Create a new strategy

Julie worked with us to create a simple new strategy to address the changes in the environment. She explained the updated approach to her team and how each of their efforts contributed. Using SLA’s implementation plan model, she had her teams develop their annual tasks and requirements. They were, in effect, aligning their own work plans for the year to the strategy. Dedicating three one-half days to this effort was painful.

But the payoff was immediate. There were no more unresourced, pie-in-the-sky ideas, disconnects between activities and desired outcomes, or competing silos. By outlining the needed resources and setting their own deadlines, the teams gained ownership and accountability for the execution.

Julie reckons that change alone boosted employee engagement from about one-third to about two-thirds.

These five new habits are helping Julie double employee engagement, effectively doubling her workforce’s productivity at very little cost.

Julie is an amalgamation of clients who have experienced these challenges and outcomes.

 

what's the difference between a strategy and a plan?

What’s the difference between a Strategy and a Plan?

Here are three things you need to know.

What’s the difference between a strategy and a plan?

We were executing our plan perfectly. All of our metrics indicated that we were on an upward trajectory. We were working hard, creating efficiencies, and consistently improving. We felt very good about our performance.

And yet, we were not succeeding.

That was exactly how I felt after the first 60 days as a commander in Afghanistan. I learned that while successful organizations perform at a high level, the reverse is not necessarily true.

When we begin talking, many of my clients express the unsettling feeling that something is missing – and that missing “something” is creating a gap between high performance and success.

The normal approach to this problem is to stay on the trajectory but work harder, in the belief that this will lead to incremental progress and greater efficiency.  

The problem, however, is that high performance does not necessarily equal success.

This is a difficult truth to swallow, especially for leaders. To admit that is to recognize that the plan is flawed. What we are directing our employees to do, what we are prioritizing, and what we are measuring may all be off-target.

Leaders excessively concerned with execution can begin to drink their own Kool-Aid, believing that blips in performance are leading toward success. This can reinforce the blinders and refuel the desire to do the same things over and over again, but expecting different results. The technical term for this is confirmation bias.

This is where strategy comes in.

Strategy helps you expose disconnects between success and performance, ask the right questions, and adjust as the marketplace shifts under your feet.

Here are three critical differences between a strategy and a plan:

  1. A strategy faces outward, first. A plan faces inward
  2. A strategy orients on factors you don’t control; a plan focuses on what you do control
  3. A strategy measures success; a plan measures performance

Let’s break these down.

A strategy faces outward, first. A plan faces inward

A sound strategy begins with a diagnosis of the current marketplace and your place within it. This establishes the context in which you will advance your vision and mission.

This context is always dynamic. The marketplace is in a constant state of flux, influenced by factors like technology, social and political changes, government policy, competitor choices, and so forth. Your strategy should identify those factors most likely to affect your outcomes. How you believe they will unfold and shape the future become your assumptions.

Once you have outlined the context, you can develop your theory of success. This expresses what you intend to do to succeed. A good strategy process will develop and evaluate more than one theory of success, so you can choose the one you think is best.

Your plan faces inward. It focuses on how to execute the course of action delineated in your strategy. A good plan ensures these tasks are integrated and properly resourced.  

*PRO-TIP: THIS 5-D PROCESS HELPS YOU DEVELOP A STRATEGY

What's the difference between a Strategy and a Plan?

A strategy orients on factors you don’t control; a plan directs what you do control

As outlined above, a wide range of factors will impact the environment within which your business exists and may potentially impact how successful you can be within a given context. You cannot simply wish them away. But what you can do is develop a tool that monitors and addresses these external drivers of change. That tool is your strategy.

A strategy is not a crystal ball that foretells how your organization can move toward a desired end-state. Nor is it a blueprint of the bridge from the present to the future. These analogies are too deterministic and too self-centered for a dynamic and uncertain marketplace.

A strategy is a hypothesis based on your diagnosis and chosen theory of success. It is a best guess that relies on assumptions about the future and factors you so not control. A proper strategy is explicit about these assumptions, allowing you to monitor them as the future unfolds.

Revising your assumptions later on is not a sign that you were wrong, but a reflection that you have been sensitive to the salient changes in the environment. When you revise your assumptions, you may need to modify your strategy.

*PRO-TIP: DISCUSS THE STRENGTH OF YOUR ASSUMPTIONS DURING YOUR QUARTERLY BOARD MEETINGS

Now that your strategy outlines how everything fits, you can make an implementation plan to direct the activities under your control. These activities should be properly resourced and integrated, and then broken down into team and individual workplans.

*PRO-TIP: HAVE THE PEOPLE RESPONSIBLE FOR EXECUTING THE PLANS DRAW THEM UP.  MORE OWNERSHIP LEADS TO BETTER EXECUTION

Strategy measures success; a plan measures performance

Your strategy should outline your mission, vision, values, and goals. Your goals should focus on the impact and outcomes you seek to achieve. These become your strategic measures.

Your plan outlines the critical tasks you selected as important to implementing your strategy. Measuring performance enables you to assess the strength of the execution.

Keep your impact and outcome measures separate from your performance measures. This is because impact and outcomes are influenced by factors you cannot control.

High performance on your implementation tasks coupled with low achievement on your strategic goals is an indication that factors outside your control are undermining your ability to advance your mission and vision.

You need to understand these factors and adjust your strategy and plan accordingly.

*PRO-TIP: MINDING THE GAP BETWEEN SUCCESS AND PERFORMANCE WILL HELP YOU ADJUST FASTER THAN YOUR COMPETITORS 

Getting the strategy right enabled our team of paratroopers to succeed in Afghanistan. A sound strategy helps our clients to create sustainable growth and impact.

To learn more about the difference between a strategy and a plan (and why a “strategic plan” tends to be a reverse Goldilocks), see our short video “Strategy versus Strategic Plan.”

How sustainable is your business or nonprofit? This chart will help

Is your business or nonprofit a zombie or a volcano?

Use this Simple Chart to find out and learn what to do about it.

Zombie or Volcano?

By the end of this article, you’ll be better positioned to answer three crucial strategic questions for your business or nonprofit:

  1. Is my organization sustainable?
  2. How can I realistically assess the situation and avoid confirmation bias?
  3. How can I frame my strategic options so that I make the best decisions?

Just about every small business owner and nonprofit leader I know is incredibly busy. You are so passionate that your work stops feeling like work and becomes a part of you. You love what you do and do what you love. But is there a downside?

As a matter of fact, there is. Leaders can get so caught up in their product, service, or cause that they become blind to the first strategic question: how sustainable is my business or nonprofit? Ignoring or avoiding this question can lead an organization to become a zombie (sleepwalking to failure) or a volcano (suffering catastrophic growth on the way to failure).

A zombie is an organization that is no longer increasing its revenue or expanding its impact. It is merely paying the bills and keeping the lights on until the money runs out. The problem, of course, is the drain of talent and resources entailed by clinging to the status quo. Zombies do not fail fast—they linger.

A volcano, on the other hand, is an organization that grows faster than it can manage. Often, leaders fail to recognize the problem until too late. They get distracted by the euphoria of success and drawn into the chaos that they fail to develop their leaders and systems to handle it. At some point, growth becomes unmanageable. A major crisis or scandal often breaks the organization.  

There are simple and common reasons for these problems.

Confirmation bias is one of them. This refers to the tendency to place excessive weight on data that conforms to our existing beliefs and to discount information that does not. Confirmation bias can help explain why nonprofits cling to causes that too few donors will support, and why businesses fixate on products and services too few customers want to buy.

It gets worse. Those with confirmation bias tend to dig-in their heels when confronted with disconfirming facts and information. Highly-selective data drives their decision-making. Like the sooth-sayers of old, people invested in the status quo may be at higher risk of searching the entrails for hidden messages that everything is fine.

The result: 50 percent of businesses are no longer around after five years and only 28 percent of nonprofits report any financial activity after ten years.

A disciplined look at the big picture may help leaders make better decisions.

This simple quad chart could be useful. The north-south axis depicts profitability: the + direction means revenues exceed expenses. The east-west axis is for impact. The + direction denotes the tangible impact on your cause or mission.  

Is Your Business or Nonprofit a Zombie or a Volcano?

Four strategic directions emerge from this quad chart. The upper right quadrant is the ☺ place. Solid revenues and clear impact give your organization a strong foundation for growth. The danger in this situation is growth beyond your ability to manage it – catastrophic growth.

To avoid that problem, you will need the right team in place and a sound strategy.

Within the upper left space is a situation in which revenues are ahead of expenses, but the actual impact of the product or service is unclear. This is a dangerous position because you may be tempted to hire more staff and commit more resources. If, after some time, you cannot clearly articulate your impact, then revenues are very likely to dwindle. This means layoffs and possible bankruptcy. One of my clients found himself in exactly this situation; saving and repositioning the business was painful but ultimately successful.

A sound strategy in this situation is to maintain your current scope and scale but fix how you measure and explain your impact of the mission or cause.

If that becomes impossible, then merge with another organization. The ideal time to do so is when you can bring substantial resources to bear. This gives you leverage and influence. Too many organizations make this decision too late and have little bargaining power.

The lower right is where many organizations turn into zombies. Your team is making an impact, you believe, but your revenues are insufficient. This may be the result of one or more problems. The way you are measuring and explaining impact, for instance, might not be convincing. Your strategy could be causing you to miss important shifts in the marketplace, or your business plan could be wasting time and resources on activities that are no longer valued.

Again, you have two options. First, try to fix what is impeding your progress. Get a comprehensive and thorough strategy review and organizational assessment to determine if the required changes are feasible. If yes, give yourself a decision-point for knowing when to move to the second strategy option: merge.

If you decide that your organization is unlikely to recover, your best option is to merge.

The lower left quadrant is the place – insufficient resources and impact. Your best option here is to harvest: shut down, learn from the experience, and begin again with something different. Failing fast successfully requires you to measure your revenues and impact from the very beginning and to set a decision-date to establish whether your business is viable.

This chart should be a part of every business or nonprofit strategy. It is a constant reminder to determine the compelling impact you are trying to make, measure it, and explain it clearly to your customers or donors. The aim is to create a virtuous cycle: compelling impact results in positive revenues and greater revenues lead to higher impact. When one or both of these elements is flatlining or declining, you need to diagnose the problem quickly and decide whether to improve your organization or close it down.

Are Battlefield Lessons Useless to Business Leaders?

Are Battlefield Lessons Useless to Business and Nonprofit Leaders?

Dear Business and Nonprofit Leaders,

Your instincts are right: many so-called battlefield lessons are useless for you and your team. Stories of hardship, heroism, and sacrifice might be inspiring, but their practical utility is often minimal. This is because those lessons haven’t been tailored to your organization’s needs.

Those of us offering insights from a military perspective must work harder to understand issues through your lens and present feasible, practical, and implementable ideas. Our failure to customize military leadership lessons to your needs has, understandably, resulted in waning enthusiasm. If the trend continues, the pendulum may complete its swing toward the view that military experience is interesting but irrelevant.

But battlefield lessons are useful to non-military contexts; the right framing just hasn’t been applied to them. Let’s take a few common examples and provide some simple ways to make them more relevant to you.

Staff Rides and Battlefield Tours.

Militaries have long used staff rides as part of leader education; I used them several times in my commands. A group of leaders or students studies a particular battle in advance and then takes a trip to the actual grounds to discuss what happened there, why it happened, and what lessons they can learn. Done correctly, staff rides can have a tremendous impact.

Battlefield tours for business leaders are less useful because they normally devolve into sightseeing. In most cases, the military tour guide explains in great detail what happened at each point in the battle and then challenges the audience to determine how to build agile leaders, good decision-makers, expert planners, and so forth. The absence of context and a clear connection to the audience’s contemporary challenges undermine the business utility of this leader development experience.

What to look for.

Find programs that focus on learning about you before offering advice. The best ones begin with an assessment that helps you and your leaders see your salient challenges and opportunities. Next, they should coordinate learning objectives and preparation work, such as readings and individual research. On the battlefield or historical site, the emphasis needs to be on linking key lessons to your business challenges.

Boot camps.

For the military, boot camps and other forms of initial entry training are essential parts of transforming civilians into soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines. These intensive courses last several weeks and are often followed up by additional training before the service members arrive at their first organization. The development of military skills and values are essential for them to be able to function effectively in their first assignment. My initial training as an officer lasted nearly a year. Few businesses and nonprofits, of course, could devote even a fraction of that time for new employee education and training.

Leadership boot camps run by former service members may promise the same transformational results but in record time. Some leadership boot camps promise that a 3-day experience will result in a “quantum leap” in a leader’s performance. You know this is unlikely. Improvement is a long-term process that relies heavily on self-development: leaders sort through a wide array of concepts and ideas to determine what is most meaningful to them and then work on those attributes.

What to look for.

Assess what each workshop and boot camp is offering, and use common sense to determine its likely utility. These kinds of programs can be helpful, but anything that sounds too good to be true probably is. Workshops can play an important role in your team’s development. The best programs customize their workshops to your organization’s particular needs and objectives. Doing these as a team can have a much higher payoff than individual leader’s programs.

The boot camp analogy can be very useful in discussions about culture, too. Boot camps are part of the military’s onboarding process; how your organization onboards new employees is equally essential to sustaining your culture. Programs that help you define your culture, hire talented people who fit, onboard to set them up for success and continue their development on the job are likely to help you achieve high levels of employee engagement. [Did you know, according to Gallup, that nearly 2 of every 3 employees in America reports being unengaged at work?]

Strategic Planning.

“Plans are nothing, planning is everything” World War II Allied Supreme Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower famously remarked. Good commanders drive their staff to identify possible contingencies, threats, and opportunities, and have branch plans or sequels to address each one of them. The planning process, in
military parlance, is never completed. Commanders often get detailed playbooks that aid decision-making for every permutation a creative staff (the strategic planners) can possibly think of in the time they are given to think. The results are often impressive.

The desire to bring the military-planning process to a business context is understandable. There’s one problem: very few businesses in the world can afford to have highly-skilled people spending all their time making detailed plans about things that will probably never happen. In fact, most businesses and nonprofits outsource their strategic planning. Here’s what you normally get: highly detailed plans that few employees have time to read. There is little to no sense of ownership. Even worse, your situation may be so dynamic that detailed plans soon become irrelevant. It is no wonder then that, according to one estimate, 90 percent of business plans are not executed. They gather dust. This might not be a big problem for the military, but it is for you.

What to look for.

Businesses and nonprofits that want to grow sustainably need both a strategy and a plan. A strategy helps you understand your situation, select a way forward to meet your goals, and manage a dynamic environment—to know when to stay on course and when to change. A plan helps you coordinate the activities of your team to implement your chosen way forward. With the right guidance, the best plans are ones written by your own team. If they have authorship over the plan, they are more likely to own and execute it.

Bottom line: the strategic plan can be counterproductive – a sort of reverse Goldilocks: not quite a strategy, not quite a plan, just plain ignored. Develop a sensible strategy and then put together an implementation plan that your team owns.

Is military experience useless for businesses and nonprofits?

Not at all. In fact, they can become an essential tool for organizations that feel stuck, want to implement change, or are trying to manage unexpected growth. Breakthrough insights, many leaders find, come from looking at your challenges from different points of view. Battlefield lessons can expand your perspective – your mental framework – and enable you to connect ideas from a different context that help your team grow sustainably.