Friday, December 22, 2017

A brisk and inspiring morning at Arlington Cemetery

Last week I had the chance to be in Baltimore and spend a day or so with my dear friend and longtime work partner Cathy.   We have known each other, and have worked closely together, for more than 20 years and if I do say so myself, Cathy and I make a pretty darn good team!  Using the visit as planning time for our consulting practice and a good trip for the soul, we spent part of our time “wrapping up” 2017 billing and tax plans and turning our eyes towards 2018 and trying to pre-plan the client list and travel plans for as much of Q1 as possible.  The consulting business is thriving and while I never quite know where the next new clients might come from, it has been an exciting year with 14 clients year-to-date and 8 active client projects underway as we finish the year.  I feel very fortunate to have a thriving business that crosses so many companies and industries, with so many wonderful clients, and I feel especially lucky to be able to keep working with Cathy!!

Well it was a chilly morning last Wednesday in Baltimore, a high of 25 and a howling wind, but that didn't deter us! Once we finished the planning work for the business, we headed out into the cold and drove down to Arlington National Cemetery.  Cathy’s mother-in-law is buried there and I had never been there in all my trips to Washington over the years and was very eager to pay a visit.

Even though the sun was bright it was bitter cold, and bundling up in scarves, hats, gloves, etc.  we parked the car in the main parking lot and headed out to walk around the cemetery and visit a number of sights.  Arlington National Cemetery is a stunning place, massive in size and beautiful in its rolling hills and amazing vistas of the city.  Heading out of the visitor center we headed south to go find Cathy’s mother-in-law’s grave. 

Regardless of the bitter cold, funerals were going on in the cemetery that morning and we came upon two where troops of soldiers on horseback were pulling caissons carrying flag-draped caskets.  It was a sobering and inspiring moment, literally something out of a movie, hearing the lone drummer leading the horses and soldiers, heading to a corner of the cemetery for a graveside service with families in the procession.  A sobering reminder of the fragility of life and the massive sacrifice made by so many on behalf of our country!  Pausing in respect for the passing caissons, we continued our walk and quickly found our way to the grave of Cathy’s mother-in-law, Norma Jean (“Penny”) Halberg.

I never knew Penny but she had an incredible life story that included her service during WWII as a “Women Airforce Service Pilot” or “WASP.”  You can read more about this amazing group at the following link but what an inspiring story of these young women, serving our country during the war, “ferrying” aircraft all over the world. (

Moving on from Penny’s grave we made our way up to the tomb of the Unknown Soldier, with a sentry standing guard to honor the fallen all over the world.  Clearly inspiring in it’s own right, I was struck by the vista from the height of the monument.  The way the cemetery is built, the tomb of the Unknown Soldier sits up on a bluff, and looks down across the sea of gravestones, then across the Potomac and straight to the U.S. Capital. 

An auspicious sight to say the least, and one that struck me dramatically.  With all of the political machinations of the current day, this tomb, and this entire cemetery, stands as a poignant reminder of the service and sacrifice of so many for the ideals and promise of our country.  This service and sacrifice calls for those in the capital building below, and candidly all of us, to put away our petty partisan squabbles and intrigues and renew our focus on the truly important values of  “freedom, tolerance and equality of opportunity” (quoted from a speech given by JFK just before his assassination in 1963, who is buried not far from the tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington.)

With a special thanks to Cathy, and inspired by her mother-in-law Penny, I left my visit to Arlington National Cemetery inspired and uplifted, focused and energized by the potential that lies in our future, built on a massive foundation of service and sacrifice of those that have come before us!

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Plan “the How” not just “ the What”

It may seem like a simple idea, but I have often been faced by the reality of great (or even just “good”) ideas failing in the marketplace because of a lack of implementation planning.   Too often most of the time is focused in the planning stages of a business on the “whats”; “what” has worked in the past, “what” is competition doing, “what” has been successful in a limited market or region, “what” do our customers need from us, “what are our ready-now innovation plans, etc.
 A litany of “whats” but very little time spent on the “hows.”

This came to life recently in a meeting that I had with a client in my consulting business.  We are working on a major brand/organization restructuring project and at a break I asked one of our client contacts about past “change initiatives” that have been executed by his company.  He described a few different examples of initiatives over the past few years, each of which had “gone off the rails” at one point or another.  I asked his opinion on why the initiatives had struggled, and quickly he responded that once they got 80% of the way to a conclusion, they “pulled the trigger” and moved on to the next issue/opportunity, not waiting to insure the first idea was executed fully and successfully.  That conversation reminded me of this dynamic of businesses and their leadership teams being so focused on the initiatives to deploy they forget the critical importance of executing those initiatives well…. Too focused on the “whats,” not the “hows.”

While the following is not an exhaustive list of ways to insure the “hows” are anticipated and planned for, these three ideas should be helpful in taking steps to insure that “the hows” get the right amount of focus:

Implementation Map

Before completing any project plan, ask the question to see the implementation plan or “map,” and if you are part of the project team, remember that no project is compete without one!  While not a hard and fast rule of thumb, if you haven’t spent at least 10-15% of your project planning time in building the implementation map, you have probably NOT given it the right amount of attention.  Insure that you map the steps required to “get the job done” with distinction.  Think of yourself as the general contractor on a building site, and push yourself to see what steps need to be taken to complete the project ahead of time, under budget, and at a very high level of quality!  No small task but if you don't take the time to ask yourself how to accomplish those outcomes, it is rare to accomplish them!

Competency Grid

Once the implementation map is drafted, start piecing together the “competency grid,” in other words the skills that are required to achieve success on this initiative.  If we want or need to rebuild a planning system, do we have the talent in-house to achieve that goal or do we need to go outside for the resources?  Don't get stuck on “how many” or “how much” you need (that is coming in the next phase), stay focused on the needed skills.  Working with a client recently who is in the middle of a major new product rollout, we realized that the organization didn't have any resources to call on or cover the targeted retail stores and check shelf placement and on-shelf pricing post rollout and have now scrambled to put that in place.   A better approach would have been to identify the competency required (in-store merchandiser coverage) as part of a “competency grid” and had that in place before the rollout.

Capacity Plan

Now we need to work on the “how many” and “how much” of the project plan.  Remembering the “implementation map” and the “competency grid,” now we need to actually analyze and build a model of the quantity of the capacities needed to fulfill or exceed the requirements of the “implementation map.”  This is so crucial in order to accurately build an implementation budget, so often either forgotten or only built at a surface level to fulfill project plan requirements.

As you dig into the work ahead, remember these three steps and most importantly remember to put your attention on the “hows” of your project/business, not just the “whats.”  As I have shared in earlier essays, “good” ideas executed brilliantly typically exceed the impact of “brilliant” ideas executed adequately…. Focus on the “hows!”

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Inflection Points of a business… focus on fewer things to insure success!

Over the past year, I have had the pleasure to work with more than a dozen different clients in my consulting practice, ranging from small technology and food startups all the way to global biotech leaders.  While the work is extremely varied, it has been fascinating to see a number of “common denominators” that I keep bumping into regardless of vertical, size of organization, or the specific nature of my assignment.  In many cases I see the importance and impact of personal leadership, at times as moments of success & acceleration, and at times as major barriers/impediments for organizational growth.  In many moments I have seen the importance of taking decisive action in the marketplace, turning strategies/concepts into “real” tactics and actions to affect the challenges/opportunities facing the business at the moment.  Today, I want to highlight a third “common denominator” that I am seeing in my consulting work, that being the need to narrow your focus (focus on fewer things) at the key moments that are inflection points of an organization and a business.

It has been exciting to be brought in by CEO’s/Founders, or boards to work on the challenges and opportunities facing the leadership teams of my clients.  Often times, the call to bring me in is precipitated by a critical event or issue facing a business and often times those businesses are at critical inflection points:

inflection point
·       1Mathematics 
A point of a curve at which a change in the direction of curvature occurs.

·       2US (in business) a time of significant change in a situation; a turning point.

At times these might be moments of rapid expansion and growth for a startup, or in another situation a major pivot for a large established company; but regardless of the specifics, the moment facing the business/organization is critical to its future success.  Reflecting back on this past year, these “inflection point” moments abound in my consulting work and I constantly find myself working with senior execs and leadership teams to narrow their scope and focus on fewer things.

Often the circumstances surrounding these “inflection point” moments are filled with complexity, and there is a tendency for senior leaders to try to focus on all of the moving parts at the same time.  While sometimes “do-able,” this scattered approach typically gives all things a little bit of attention, versus giving a few VITAL topics complete focus.  I am currently involved in an assignment where a young startup organization is in the middle of a major marketplace launch of a new product line.  While its certainly true that future innovation, expanded funding sources, team capacity/capability issues, along with a myriad of other topics are facing the senior team and the CEO, the truth is that if THIS launch fails, there is a high likelihood that the company will fail!  (A true inflection point for the company, and a moment that requires complete and maniacal focus on the new product launch and the work/actions required to insure its success. ) While this example pertains to a startup company that I am working with currently, the lesson is one that I continue to touch across my consulting practice and client base.

As you look at the business situations that you are dealing with, think about the “inflection points” facing your company/organization today and push yourself to “narrow your focus”, push aside as much of the “noise” of extraneous tasks in your day-to-day work life and maniacally “focus” on turning the “inflection point” that you are facing into a major moment of success!

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

First ask “why” … then do it 5 times!

Its interesting how many times I see senior executives (and maybe a few consultants like yours truly) feel like they need to have the answers … all of the answers … and they always have to be right.  As crazy as that sounds, think about your own situations.  Consider how many times you have been in front of a senior exec, a board member, or a highly paid consultant and you DIDN’T expect them to have all the answers.  No leadership team or single executive, nor a board member or board, nor a consulting practice or a single consultant can or ever will have all the right answers.  It’s unrealistic and frankly not appropriate.  What is key is that we need to expect and require those same senior executives, board members, and consultants to ASK the right questions all the time and that process starts, and always starts by asking “why?”

While it may seem simple enough, we often start with the two “wrong” questions if we even start with questions versus misplaced proclamations.  Typically, we start with “who” … (“who’s in charge?”, “who’s responsible for these results,?” “who is working with whom to get this mess fixed?”, and the list goes on.) If we don’t start with the “who” questions, we often go straight to the “how much” set of questions …( “how much are we behind plan,?” how much did this budget variance cost?,” etc.)    I want us to consider that we all need to first start by asking “why”, trying to understand the core issue at hand before we do anything else.  “Why has this situation happened?” or “why is this problem continuing to recur?” or why do you feel we aren’t making progress against our goals?” are all three good places to start.  Using “why” questions is a good way for everyone, senior execs, board members and consultants in particular, to frame the issue at hand and to use the discipline of “questions” to work to gain common alignment on the problem that is trying to be solved.  A HUGE step forward in all strategic work is to define the problem you are trying to solve and to have a common understanding of the problem at hand.

First asking “why” is key and in my experience it is pretty rare especially at senior levels.  While I clearly think it's a “required” first step, it is rarely “sufficient” to do the job at hand … thus my encouragement to then “ask why” 5 times!  While there is no magic specifically in the number 5, there has been a lot of work done in this approach, focusing on the best approach to get at the “root cause” of any issue and the “ask why 5 times” is a fundamental element of that approach.  Pioneered by Toyota in the 1950’s, this discipline/technique has been applied broadly across industries, companies and functions and is one of those fundamental business skills worth NEVER forgetting.  I learned this approach in early training classes at
The Coca-Cola Company in the early 90’s and I still refer back to them today.  The image above is a simple tool that helps the process and I have filled quite a number of flip-charts over the years with these “fishbone diagrams.”  To understand more of the approach, it’s background, and application, take a look at the following link,

Regardless of the intensity of the moment or the risks at stake, work hard to try to start with a question and hopefully that question begins with “why.”  If you can frame the situation with a “why” question, then gather the team to do some “digging” and work your way to keep going, “ask why 5 times” to get underneath the veneer of the problem at hand and have a deeper understanding and deeper alignment on the root cause of the problem that needs fixing!