2 Key Challenges Most Businesses Face

By Rick Houcek

A funny thing happened to me last week.  I was speaking to a group of CEOs in a small group, and about 20 minutes in, one of the CEOs asked me this question:

“Rick, what are some of the key challenges faced by all of your clients, and assuming we face those same challenges in our companies, how do we overcome them?”

And, I say it was a funny thing – and I chuckled to myself – because had he been paying close attention to the dialogue we had been having in the 20 minutes prior to his question, he would have heard every one of the key challenges faced by my clients.  They all surfaced in that 20 minutes.

I spotted them – they scream out to me – because I deal with them every day and it didn’t surprise me that he didn’t catch them.  Quite frankly, most of the big challenges faced by my clients boil down to 2 things.  There may be 15 or 20 in number, but they all really bundle together into 2 broad issues.

Number one is, my leadership team is not aligned.  They’re in silos; they don’t talk to each other; they don’t collaborate; they don’t communicate.  And, as a result, they are acting on their own agenda, different from each other.  We’re a resource-wasting mess.

And secondly, we have lousy implementation of big ideas.  Deadlines are missed; we have lackluster performance; we’re not getting the level of excellence that I expect and that the team should be expecting.

Well, first let’s talk about silos.  Silos happen everywhere.  Just by having different functional departments in your business will cause that.  That’s a good thing, not a bad thing.

Why?  Well, you have IT people because they’re specialists.  You have HR people because they’re specialists.  You have salespeople because they’re specialists.

Financial people don’t sell.  Your HR people don’t do technology, and that’s okay.  That’s the way it should be.  That’s not the bad thing about silos.

The bad thing is when you have selfish decision-making between leaders of the different silos.

What we have to do is get our silo leaders (aka department heads) to act in accordance with this mantra:  It’s not you against me, it’s us against the world.

Or, said another way:  All decisions we make have to serve a greater good, not our parochial individual interests.  It’s not what’s good for you – or good for only your department – but what’s good for all of us collectively together. 

Now, the reasons why these 2 key challenges are faced by clients are 5 in number.  This is what I’ve determined in my 40+ years of working with hundreds of small to mid-sized businesses.

  1. There’s seldom any buy-in of the leadership team to a mutually-agreed, long-term vision of the future. They don’t really know where they’re going.  They don’t know where they want to end up.  They’ve got nothing in writing, and so at best, they’re all acting on their own different visions of the future – none of which agree.
  2. They don’t have clear goals. Or if they do, they have poorly-crafted goals.  Goal writing is both art and science and not everybody does it well.  Most leaders became leaders because they have goals, but they don’t know how to author them well.  They’re not specific.  They’re not deadlined.  They’re not measurable.  They’re poorly communicated.  They’re not motivating.  They’re sometimes unachievable.  They may be too lofty or ambitious.
  3. They have no clear written action plan. And, I accent the word written because everybody will act on different things unless everybody knows what the actions need to be.  So, you’ve got to have an action plan, bought into by all on the team.
  4. There’s no true accountability. There’s no penalties for not getting things done, for missed deadlines.  People are allowed to slide when things don’t happen and that shouldn’t be.  A top gun team would never let that happen.
  5. There is no reliable performance of the leadership team – caused by the first 4. It stands to reason, if you don’t have the first 4, how can you expect anyone to meet deadlines that weren’t set, to achieve goals that aren’t clear.  There is no alignment, so nothing unified

And the result of all these 5 then becomes the 2 biggest challenges I mentioned at the beginning:  a leadership team with silo mentality… and lousy implementation.

So, what’s the solution for all of this?

Well, you’ve got to get your leadership team offsite.  Get them away from the fray and tackle all of these thorny issues and problems.  This is a large part of what I do with leaders and teams, and essentially there are 4 big things that have to happen at this meeting.

  • You have to start with a ‘greater good’ pledge. You have to get everyone to agree that we are not here for our individual selves.  We are not here to fight for resources – so I win and you lose.  We are here to make decisions that serve the greater good… that serve the best interests of our enterprise as a whole… our customers, our vendors, our employees, the community.  And so, we have to remove our parochial selfishness from this.
  • You have to create that long-term, 3-year vision – and this is going to take some time. You have to haggle it out; you have to debate it.  It will involve arguments.  Always argue respectfully and with dignity.  This could take all day and when I lead teams it does, in fact, take all day to describe and define what we want to be in 3 years and all come to a point of ‘buy-in’ to it.
  • You have to define short-term goals with clear actions, with people responsible by name, and deadlines for action. If any of this is absent, nothing will happen.  The vision – however clear and motivational it is – will never come to fruition because there’s no action plan.  Nobody knows what they’re supposed to do.
  • You have to create bullet-proof accountability. That means having consequences for non-performance.  These are best when team-created and team-enforced.  They should not be leader-created and leader-enforced.  Why?  Because if the whole team is going to create the vision and the goals and the action plans, let them also create their own accountability consequences.  In other words, what penalties will befall each of us if we don’t do what we said we would do?  That’s how you get buy-in… not only to the vision and goals… but also to the accountability.

Now, if you do all of this, guess what?  Those two problems of leadership team misalignment and lousy implementation will go away.

I know – I’ve led almost 300 strategy retreats – and it works.


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