Updated: Sep 15, 2020
The Challenges of the Past
Last year I was working with a company that was having a very bad year.
Sales were declining and profit was negative. Team members were frustrated. After deteriorating performance led to technical defaults on loan covenants two times in three quarters the bank had had enough. The bank gave the company 90 days to find another bank, began charging exorbitant default interest rates, and put all sorts of restrictions on owner and management compensation.
Things were not good. The company’s ability to allow over 250 employees to continue to provide for their families was very much uncertain.
During one particularly difficult interview a member of the bank’s workout team asked some difficult questions about the rhythm of the business and who was accountable for setting it. The even more difficult answers finally gave ownership the understanding they needed to adopt some of the things we had been recommending.
A particularly talented manager whose region consistently outperformed the others was promoted from within to Chief Operating Officer. As he prepared for his new role I worked with him to set expectations. Up to this point in its history the business had been a selling organization. When things were tough, everyone was asked to simply work harder and sell more. The business needed a vision, team alignment, a scorecard for performance, and an operating rhythm for driving everyone toward making the vision a reality. I strongly recommended the new Chief Operating Officer read Traction by Gino Wickman. While this company was larger than the intended target audience of the book, it needed everything the book recommends.
If I didn’t know better about the tough discipline that drove the change, I would have thought a magic wand had been waived over the place.
He dove in and started strengthening the often less-obvious back-end pieces of the business bit by bit. A vision session was followed by a scorecard session which was accompanied by a regular rhythm meeting for establishing the cadence of the organization. The team participated in defining the vision of the company and each department created its rocks within that vision. The weekly rhythm meeting started keeping everyone informed of progress toward goals and aware of all issues real time. Instead of reacting to what last month’s performance was as they had done in the past, the team now proactively used concrete performance metrics to steer the current month by making course corrections each week.
Ownership’s initial skepticism (over taking so much time in planning meetings that didn’t involve anyone selling anything) quickly faded as EBITDA started to improve. Within 3 months the company was outperforming its previous year and paying off overdue AP at a rapid pace. If I didn’t know better about the tough discipline that drove the change, I would have thought a magic wand had been waived over the place.
Today the company culture is much more positive and its challenges revolve around figuring out what to do with the free cash flow. Pay off more debt? Invest in a capital project? Buy a competitor? Make a distribution to the owners? All much more fun challenges to solve than the ones that needed solving last year.
While this example is one from before the pandemic, many business are going through similar challenges today. Even if external factors have led to a decline in your business, your internal responses will determine how your business comes out on the other end. It is more important than ever to establish an operating rhythm for your business and rally your team around a vision and your purpose for existence. If you don’t have the discipline to follow through on championing an at least weekly rhythm, hire or contract with someone who does.