If you’re lucky, then you probably spend a lot of your time as a leader or executive knowing, more or less, what you should be doing. But that surety of purpose doesn’t mean that things can’t go off the rails. That’s why it’s important to stay attentive and listen to what the world around you is trying to tell you. Personally, I think of it as listening to the jungle drums.

This harkens back to when I was a kid watching Tarzan in black and white on the TV. When something was happening in the show, drums would play to communicate messages across the jungle. I was enamored with this (to my experience) unconventional means of communication, and now I see a striking resemblance between the world of my career and that of the show.

In leadership, you’re often distanced from your customers. After all, your role is to be high up on the hill for a clearer perspective and use that information to guide your people and point them in the right direction. But while this position is useful, it does make it harder to know what’s going on down in the jungle. Hence the utility of the drums.

But the drums are only useful as long as you’re listening for them, and it’s easy to miss their rhythm if you’re focused on other things.

Specifically, you need to be listening for things that don’t fit your normal paradigm. It can be tempting to dismiss outlying data as a fluke — sales were down on a certain day because it was raining. And while yes, sometimes a blip is just a blip, it’s important not to dismiss it out of hand. If you discount any information that doesn’t coincide with what you already expect, you won’t have any opportunity to adjust course as the weather changes.

So how do you follow up on this data to determine if it’s a fluke or a sign of coming change for which you need to plan?

The best places to start looking are with your customer service logs and your people. Do you see changes in the types of issues that you’re hearing? New objections to price or the quality of your products/services? A significant change in the amount of returns that you’re seeing?

Look for new patterns emerging in the data. Individual data points may not be of any great importance, but trends are what the jungle drums are all about. And when you see them, jump on them to figure out why they’re happening and what you need to do to either prevent a disaster or capitalize on this new opportunity.

I don’t want to keep this entirely theoretical, though, so let me show this concept in action with my own experience of trying to listen to the jungle drums.

Many years ago, our media company was having troubles with one particular delivery route where we had a high volume of complaints coming from one end of the street. We talked to the carrier and our other staff about this, but it never seemed to get resolved (or not for long, at least).

After several rounds of back and forth, we discovered that there was disconnect with a particular manager who was having trouble accurately describing the orders from the top. Hence our company’s repeated mistakes with this part of the route.

If I hadn’t listened to the jungle drums, we might never have figured out what the issue was and just written it off as a fluke. But because I took note of the spike in complaints and didn’t let the short-term fixes be the extent of our response, we discovered a breakdown in communication with our delivery crews and were able to circumvent larger problems before they could grow and start impacting other routes and other customers.

That’s a micro example, but a larger version happened in the 2016 presidential election. Famously, Clinton was projected to have a substantial lead in the polls. But of course, that Tuesday evening in November, many people were stunned to find that things hadn’t gone as they’d anticipated.

A lot of them were left wondering: What happened?

Well, the same thing that happened with our delivery route. There were signs that things weren’t going to work out in Clinton’s favor, but many (not all) pollsters were unable or unwilling to listen to the jungle drums of discontent. Whether that was a good or bad day for you, it’s a strong example of the necessity of listening to the world around you.

So go forth and keep an ear open for the jungle drums. And when you do hear them, don’t let yourself ignore them as background noise or random anomalies. Take them seriously, and use the information they give you to put yourself and your enterprise in as advantageous a position as possible.

In this column, I spend a lot of time talking about the things you should be doing. And I’ve gathered a lot of this advice by doing the wrong thing and learning the hard way over the course of the past 30 years. The crux of the issue is that I can give that kind of advice because it’s within the context of, “I did this wrong, but I learned my lesson and you can too.”

This time, I didn’t learn the lesson. Or at least, not as fast as I should have. Early in my career when I worked in advertising with retail clients, our sales team would sit around a table and talk about all the things our customers foolishly weren’t doing: they weren’t merchandising correctly, missed advertising opportunities, and were just generally behind the game. If only they’d listened to us, we cried, they’d all be doing so much better!

Well, that was an attitude that I carried to other places in my career, including when I was buying and managing businesses as an executive. I say this to emphasize that I absolutely had the following events coming to me.

I recently jumped into operating a franchise with my son. And we chose a franchise specifically for all the guard rails and guidance that came with it. This gave us a long road map of how to get from our concept to our official opening, and when we picked out a date to launch six months in advance, we felt like we had the situation well in hand with our spreadsheets and weekly plans.

I believe it was Mike Tyson who said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

As we got closer to the grand opening, we started running into more and more problems. While we had very sound, well-researched plans, for some reason that didn’t seem to matter to the permitting department, vendors, the utility company, or literally anybody but us, in fact.

As the date got closer, we were quickly running out of time to actually get the doors open. At one point, my son and I were so close to getting mad at each other that we just broke down laughing. We were both giving it our all and our staff was doing great work, but there were about eight things that were supposed to be ready by then that just hadn’t come through due to a smattering of logistical issues.

Looking back on it, some of what got in our way around this pitch point was that we just weren’t using the playbook. That’s a little embarrassing because, as I mentioned, we chose a franchise operation specifically to have access to that kind of instruction. But as we got busier and busier, it became easier to skip the extra instructional videos because we knew better and already had so much on our plates.

Now, it seems obvious that doing the extra training would have saved us more time in the long run — you’d be shocked to learn how much faster inventory goes when you know how to do it the right way. And I’m mostly kicking myself because this was a lesson that I already knew.

Throughout my career, I built a record of success by sticking to the playbook. And that didn’t mean just following it myself — it also meant making sure that my team knew the playbook and knew how to use it. Because there are times and places to be innovative or creative and make big, sweeping changes. But when it comes right down to it, almost any business’ core operations can be written down in a playbook and followed.

The point of this exercise isn’t just to offer some long-overdue apologies to my former clients who were going through something that I didn’t understand at the time. I also want you to consider, do you remember your playbook? And if you do, are your people still following it? I know how things can fall to the wayside as new ideas take up focus, but don’t forget to stick to the core practices that keep your business afloat.

In the end, we had a successful launch that could have been a bit better but was still good. We were able to dig ourselves out of the hole we found ourselves in, but if we’d followed the playbook from the beginning, we wouldn’t have had a hole to dig out of. We’d be on a hill and have a better vantage point to see further and with more clarity.

Revisit your playbook and make sure that you’re not accidentally getting lost like we did and losing sight of your business’ core processes.

In my career, I’ve closely examined many different types of organizations working in different areas. But for all the many differences I see in business perspectives and how an organization is run, I find that businesses tend to fall into one of two categories: yesterday businesses or tomorrow businesses.

A yesterday business falls back on “well this is how we’ve always done it, so this is how we should continue doing it.” And for a lot of American history, this strategy has been enough for plenty of businesses to succeed.

But in the last 20 years, we’ve seen a growing class of disruptors who take the old model and find a way to change it for tomorrow. Think of how money-transferring services like PayPal have all but replaced paper checks as an example.

When discussing this dichotomy, it can be easy to think that the default is that everyone should be a tomorrow type of business. But at present, the old school and the new school are coexisting more or less peacefully in most sectors.

That likely won’t last forever, but if you’re not worried about what could change in 20 years, then you may not have a reason to be concerned about looking into the distant future.

I recently saw an example of this dichotomy when my most recent car lease ended. Yes, every financial advisor I know hates my three-year leasing cycle, and no, I do not plan to change it, so please be kind, readers who work in finance.

In my leasing cycle, I’ve seriously considered going electric many times, but I felt that the industry needed more time to mature. So when my lease ended, I decided to take a look at Tesla.

This experience was completely at odds with every car-buying experience I have ever had in my life. I’m used to the poorly lit car dealership where they try to upsell you on packages, nudge you into something else, and then send you home so you can come back in a couple of days to sign a mountain of paperwork.

My Tesla experience barely involved talking to other human beings. It started by going on their website to schedule a test drive, putting in my driver’s license information, and selecting my location (depending on where you live, they’ll even bring it to you).

When I arrived for my appointment, I didn’t even need to show my ID. Instead, they gave me a card to start the car, and away I went because the car had GPS and they already knew who I was.

So I went out to the lot, found the car that I’d scheduled a drive for, and I was off. I came back and told them I was interested and wanted to hear what they had for sale. The associate told me that they had no idea what was currently available, so my best bet was to check the app.

Thus ended the human interaction portion of buying a Tesla. I went on the app and picked a car that I liked, and was pleasantly surprised to find that everything was simple and clean without any “comfort packages” or other upselling opportunities.

While I could’ve had it delivered to my door, I decided to go to the service center to pick up my new Tesla. After giving them my credit card number and some basic leasing and insurance information, I was all set to pick up my new car.

The point of all of this isn’t to endorse Tesla or anyone in particular. It isn’t even to say that you should get a fancy app or a shinier product.

The point is that Tesla has combined a shiny new product with an entirely new experience that makes you feel like you’re shopping in the space age fantasy of what the future will be like.

After all, Tesla is far from the only manufacturer of electric cars. But the reason they stand out, and why they’re undeniably a forward-looking business, is that while other organizations are selling new products the old way, Tesla has invented a completely new way to sell that matches their futuristic product.

This is what a tomorrow business does. It takes risks and it isn’t afraid to start over from scratch to be unlike anything else a competitor can offer.

Does this guarantee that Tesla will one day vanquish the old guard? Not necessarily. And I wouldn’t say that every business needs to reinvent the wheel (or the whole car in this case).

Rather, the message here is that a sufficiently inventive organization can change the game and quickly acquire vast amounts of market share. And whether you ultimately decide to be an inventor or a member of the old guard, it’s important to know which direction your business is heading and what’s on the horizon for your industry.

FOMO, or the fear of missing out, is a powerful thing. It’s so powerful, in fact, that learning to utilize it is the cornerstone of every Sales 101 course. And it works for one very simple reason—fear is an extremely potent motivator.

As human beings, fear is a fact of existence and has been since before our ancestors were even walking upright. In a more primitive setting, fear of the saber-toothed tiger can keep you from being eaten and fear of poison keeps you from eating something you shouldn’t. In other words, being afraid keeps you safe and protected.

But fear is an inherently defensive feeling. It can get you to a place to hunker down and weather the storm, but staying safe and growing are two very different things. And in business, these two actions may even be mutually exclusive at times.

Fear may have worked as a motivator to keep our ancestors out of the jaws of predators, but it’s not half as effective in the workplace. And strong fears at work come in many forms, whether that’s fear of the boss, fear of doing the wrong thing, fear of taking a risk, etc.

This doesn’t just apply to people at the bottom rung of the organizational ladder, either. Whether you’re in middle management, the CEO, or a solopreneur, fear can limit your options and send you down specific, unpleasant paths.

I know because I’ve seen it.

Early in my career, I ended up in a culture that was dominated by the presence of someone dead-set on instilling fear. When someone stepped even a toe out of line, the response was always that person’s yelling, their censure, and an overall slew of unpleasantness.

And for a while, I was able to hunker down and handle it. My work got done, and I got through the day by mentally calculating how to follow the rulebook and avoid bringing any penalties on myself by doing something new.

My motivations were entirely rooted in fear, which precluded me from trying to find new ways to grow my role or help the company. And if that sounds both unhealthy and unproductive, that’s only because it was extremely unhealthy and unproductive.

I was able to handle the situation all right—after all, getting through the day isn’t hard when you know what buttons not to press. But I didn’t like coming to work, and I, like a lot of my talented coworkers, quickly found a way to leave on my own terms. For the rest of the staff, they decided to hunker down.

That organization collapsed not long after a lot of us left, and I firmly believe that the leadership’s culture of fear had everything to do with that. The leader that everyone feared was himself so afraid of mistakes that he made it impossible for any growth to happen within the organization. And this led to its inevitable end—a stagnate, failing business.

As you look at your motivators, ask yourself this question: Am I playing to win, or am I playing not to lose? My fear-driven boss was playing not to lose, so the business never had any wins to keep it going.

As you’re examining your motivators, try to identify sources of fear. Maybe that’s fear of conflict at work, fear of being fired, or even fear that your spouse isn’t happy with your hours or how much money you’re bringing home.

Don’t just stop at your own motivation, though. What about your company as a whole? Does the sales team fear getting yelled at? Or do they feel supported to try new things and stretch their talents to get the best results?

What about your directors? Are they motivated to color in the lines so they don’t get in trouble with the board, or are they empowered to take risks and try to create new growth for the organization?

After I left that culture of fear, I found a new culture of empowerment. And eventually I learned that making a mistake didn’t have to be like stepping on a landmine, that instead of resulting in carnage, mistakes could be resolved with honest discussions about how to make better decisions in the future.

I started to flourish in that role, I was happy to be in the organization, and I brought in better results because I wasn’t trying to keep my head down and avoid the sabertooth. And in my career today, I work hard to enable others to take those same risks in their work.

If you’re seeing a lot of fear in your workplace, then it may be time to make some large changes. Like I said, fear is always going to be a part of being human. But it shouldn’t be the primary motivator for yourself or your organization. Because if those are the only management tools being used, then the only possible outcome is collapse.

In many organizations, and certainly within organizations of size, a role tends to arise out of necessity: the fix-it guy. (Author’s note: For our purposes, “fix-it guy” is a gender-neutral term that can refer to an individual of any gender who is routinely called upon to save the day.)

This person has a particular talent for getting things done without planning. So when a problem suddenly arises or things get stuck, they’re the one that everyone rushes to.

Some people make entire careers off of fulfilling this role—but, in reflecting on my own role in several organizations, I’m asking myself if the fix-it guy is actually good for the overall health of an organization.

Here’s the source of my doubt: When things suddenly fall into the lap of the fix-it guy, most people just thank their lucky stars that someone was there to catch the pieces. But what they tend to overlook is examining how things got to the point where they needed a fix-it guy in the first place.

In my career as an executive, I’ve found myself in the role of the fixer more often than I’d like to admit. It usually happens like this: There’s a product launch or a new opportunity that I know is coming down the pipe. But instead of mobilizing the organization to get resources ready, I get wrapped up in other projects. Then, when that opportunity or problem finally comes to a crisis point, I find that I’m the only one with the ability to handle it on short notice.

This happens a lot in a venture where I’m providing some operational support. The executive runs the organization and does a great job and has assembled a team of talented, driven professionals. But every now and then they'll come across an issue, and it’s easy to say, “Doug, can you take this?”

And let me be clear; they are not the guilty party in this. At least as often, I’ll find myself going to them and saying, “I know this thing is coming up and we should have talked about this, but now it’s too late and I have to pull a rabbit out of a hat.”

Why do I let it get that far? Well, to be honest, I have a lot of hats as a result of a long career, and finding rabbits in them can be easier than mobilizing the entire organization. But lately, I’ve started to doubt this way of operating. Because yes, I’m solving problems for the organization, but I’m not helping to develop any skills or resiliencies for the organization as a whole.

Healthy organizations can respond to situations through established processes and planning—not through crisis management every few weeks. And as I write this, I’m currently on deadline for two things that I should’ve worked on last week, but I kicked the can down the road because I knew I’d be able to pull it off.

This is the crux of what I’m talking about. Does what I’m doing work? Sure, the job will get done. But it’s not contributing to the health of the ventures that I’m trying to grow. And the more I think about it, the more I’m starting to suspect that I’m actually doing a disservice to these groups by fixing disasters maximizing potential opportunities instead of helping them build processes to address these in the proper course.

So what should you do instead? I challenge you to try to identify when you or your organization’s fix-it guy is being called into action. When you see that happen, don’t let one person fix it all. Instead, try something like, “I know we’re running late, but how can we peel this apart and deal with it in a way that’s not so reactive?”

If you can, try to enlist help from other people so it doesn’t all end up on one person’s soldiers. But you should expect to have to coach people on how they can help, especially at first. These don’t have to be in-depth, but give people a lead-in on how they can contribute. Try things like, “Hey Kim, there are three parts to this thing coming up, could you help me with this part?”

For myself, I need to remember that if I want to help this enterprise, then I should help the organization grow its own strengths instead of letting it rely on my shelf full of magic answer books.

That said, I really am under tight deadlines for two different projects. So I’ve committed myself to dissecting one of the issues in a team meeting and getting other people to help, even if that means that the final product is a little late.

The other one? I’m going to have a late night and pull a rabbit out of a hat. Recovery isn’t always linear, so do as I say and not as I do!

Many moons ago, I was a salesman new to the media world, and I was young, hopeful, and indisputably did not know what I was doing. At another time we can get into the journey of how I got my position without being strictly qualified, but one way or another I was there, and I had to figure out how to make it work.

As part of trying to figure out how to make the position work and not lose the paycheck that I very much needed, I happened to sit through a seminar with a passionate speaker who shared their skillset, and I still remember that feeling of the world suddenly opening up to me.

Out of nowhere, the things that old salespeople told me off the cuff and without context were being explained as a process and tools that I could use in my career, instead of vague recommendations steeped in wit and a certain glib nature.

And one of the most helpful things I learned in that seminar, although I didn’t fully appreciate it at the time, was something you’ve certainly heard dozens of times: time is money.

Undeniably, you’ve heard the concept before. But for me, hearing it and understanding it were different things. Before, I used to think that it simply meant, “Do things faster, go go go!” But it wasn’t until that seminar that I started to think of time as an asset that I could deploy to my advantage.

To get us thinking about this old phrase in new ways, the speaker wrote on the chalkboard (I’m dating myself, I know), “Time is…” and prompted all of us to fill in ways that time is money. After some ubiquitous dead stares, we started giving suggestions: Time is like money because you can spend it, save it, invest it, waste it, etc. We riffed for a while, but it the end one thing was clear: Time and money are both fungible assets.

Of course, being young and in the early days of my career, I didn’t incorporate this message as well as I could have, and I proceeded to create a work style that centered around trying to get too much done in too little time. And only as a manager did I realize that I wasn’t treating my time like it was my money.

But as a manager, you have to make a balance between the things that need to get done and the time available to you. And so I started looking at my time: Was I spending it wisely? Or was I wasting this resource on things that other people could have been doing? And that kind of examination is absolutely crucial to getting the most value out of your time.

This came up recently in working with an executive who has had a lot of success in growing their organization. A lot of success, in fact—about 50% growth in the last few years, largely driven by this individual’s zeal and enthusiasm.
As they’ve been adding people to their small-but-growing organization, the executive hasn’t really changed their routine to account for these new circumstances. In other words, the organization has acquired a lot of new resources, but those resources aren’t coming together cohesively because the executive self-selects what they do and when they do it.

I’m still working with this executive, and we recently started to talk about where, why, and how they’re spending their time. And a lot of that time is going to communicating with clients, something that this person loves to do, but probably isn’t the wisest use of time if their goal is to keep growing their organization.

And I want to be clear—the executive didn’t have to change anything, in the same way that nobody can stop you from spending your money on lottery tickets or expensive cars. But we talked about their options, and it took an investment conversation for them to decide if they wanted to spend their time in a client-facing position or if they want to spend their time growing their business.

Ultimately, this executive decided that their priority was in growing the organization. And in our conversation, we identified ways that they could secure their personal time and more wisely invest their time at work into projects and processes that will advance the organization.

We’re still in it, but I have every confidence that we’ll be able to keep finding ways for them to invest their time in a way that’s getting them closer to the goals that they want to reach. And while I don’t have a worksheet or a guided activity for you, I’d encourage you to think of how you’re investing your time.

So, how’s your investment working out?

No matter what industry you’re in, at least part of your organization’s core function is to communicate information to your target audience. Whether that’s telling them how to make good dietary decisions or providing information on your latest sale, you are usually seeking a reaction. Because if you don’t understand their perspective, you are going to screw it up.

Recently I’ve been working with two organizations in planning for their annual conferences. One of the companies just had theirs, and it was a success. And it’s not hard to identify why: They started planning nine months ago by starting with broad things like who would come and what they would want to learn. Only after defining these aspects did they move inward to more granular aspects of planning.

These more detailed plans included an agenda, social events, and by far most importantly, the reasons why someone in their audience would want to go to the event. In this process, they reasoned that people would come to develop their skills, network, and share in some camaraderie with others in their field.

Once they knew why someone would want to come, they made sure to push that message in their marketing. They then monitored the results, pivoted slightly in response, and then it was just wash, rinse, and repeat. At the end of it all, they had constructed a successful conference.

This is markedly different from the approach that the other organization took in planning their annual conference.

Instead of identifying why their audience might want to come to the conference, this organization’s message centered around simple messages like “You should come!” or, if they were feeling more verbose, “You should come because the bosses will be there and they say it’s important!”

It’s not exactly “We shall fight on the beaches,” is it?

I was engaged to help because the organizers were coming down to the wire and they’d gotten little engagement from their audience on this and even fewer sign-ups for their conference. Until that point, the only thing they’d tried was saying the message louder and in more places, but the core information had been unchanged.

When we started talking about what could be done to get more people to sign up for their conference, I used the first group’s example and suggested creating a list of value-adds that the conference will create for attendees. Because even the most banal frat party has the core message of, “Hey, we’ve got booze, and it’s free!”

At the start, I asked why someone would want to come to the conference, and the organizer said, “Well, because it’s good for them.” Good for them like broccoli and eight hours of sleep? That’s not what entices people. I don’t doubt that it’s true, but “it’s good for you” didn’t work when your parents wanted you to finish your Brussels sprouts, and it’s not going to work now.

After working through it, we came up with a much clearer value proposition, that essentially boiled down to:

“You are a part of this organization for reasons A, B, and C. Well if you come to the event, we’re going to show you how to do A better! The conference will also have people who succeeded in B to share their stories, and we’ll have experts in C there to talk with you about how you can make C happen for you.”

We retargeted all of the people who’d gotten the old messaging and sent them our new, value-oriented information. And to be honest with you, I’m not sure how much of a difference this is going to make.

At the time of writing, this all happened a few days ago, and the clock is ticking. So the time crunch couldn’t be much tighter, and even with them pushing this new messaging out across their various marketing channels, I’m not sure what the results will be. It’s hard to convince someone to give up several days of their life for your conference, and that’s even more challenging on short notice.

I’d encourage you to get ahead of your messaging so that you’re not put in this sort of uncomfortable situation. And a good place to start is to be aware of the gap between what you care about and what your audience cares about.

If you’re a true believer in your organization, then you already know why your product/service/event is so special and fantastic, so that can feel old-hat to you. And as an organizer, you might want to brag about something new, like how great and accommodating the hotel staff are!

That’s nice, but nobody has ever gone to a conference for the polite hotel staff.

The question to answer, from the perspective of your audience on anything you want to sell is always, “What’s in it for me?” Focus on spreading the message of how your offering is going to improve the lives of your target. Do that, and do it from the beginning, and you’ll be in a much stronger position to meet your goals.

Throughout literature, television, and nearly any other form of media, there’s a recurring trope of the jezebel: the homewrecker, the other woman, the person who steps in and ruins a happy relationship.

Whether this threat is the eponymous Jolene from Dolly Parton’s hit song or Jacob Black of Twilight fame, you’ve certainly seen examples of someone coming in and threatening an existing relationship.

I’d posit that this role also exists in the workplace. And, if I may be so bold, I’d also go so far as to suggest that you should be filling this role, because there is a lot to be gained from becoming “the other job.”

Right now, we are well past full employment, and most businesses are scrambling to hire more people. There are, of course, high-profile instances of tech giants implementing mass layoffs, but these noteworthy examples are by far the minority. Indeed is still bursting at the seams with job listings in most industries, and employers are desperately seeking new talent.

And if the current situation is challenging for employers, it’s certainly no easier for working class individuals. At present, 62% of Americans in the workforce are living paycheck to paycheck. Blame that on the high cost of living, wage stagnation, or whatever else you like, but the reality is that more than half of the American workforce are in a pretty desperate situation.

I’m not just telling you this to tug on your heartstrings. I’m telling you this because a lot of your employees are probably in the same position, and if you’re not careful, there exists the potential for “the other job” to step in and offer them something better.

You see, this is the problem with the legend of the other woman (or man, or person). The myth is that two people are in this perfectly content relationship, then a temptress steps in and ruins everything.

And it’s just that: a myth.

The truth is that stable, happy relationships don’t have anything to fear from outside intruders. Put simply, you can’t sell to someone who doesn’t want to buy. Similarly, employees who are happy with their current employers aren’t likely to be tempted into another position.

So how do you make sure that you don’t lose your people to a new, more appealing offer? Simple. You become the other job. Instead of the boring person at home, you become the mistress.

If you have part-time workers who have another, “main” job, start courting them. Make sure they have a good wage and a pleasant work environment. If they need you to be flexible around their main position’s hours, then happily work around that schedule and impress them with how fair and reasonable you are.

The goal here is to slowly let your employees realize that you’re the more appealing employer. Then, as time passes and you prove that you’re stable and reliable, maybe your part-time employees become full-time hires.

For the last several years, I’ve worked with a company that has done this brilliantly. Routinely, they bring people in as part-time help and then slowly become their main employer. And honestly, the strangest thing about this practice is that it’s not particularly difficult.

This is certainly not the highest-paying job out there. But management makes sure that it’s a nice place to work, that there’s a culture of empowerment amongst employees, and that each employee has a variety of duties and responsibilities so they feel like they’re growing and gaining valuable skills.

Once you’ve made a good place to work, all you have to do is start offering some extra hours. People don’t usually go from 20 hours to 40 right away, but slowly but surely, this organization becomes the primary employer for most of their staff,

Not sure what you can offer your employees to tempt them out of another role? Ask them. Monetary compensation is always a good place to start—yes, your labor costs are going to increase, but they’ll do that anyway (and worse) if you have to keep hiring and training new people.

The reality is that we are past full employment. So if you want to stay competitive in the job market, it’s time to look at better pay, more robust benefits packages, and anything else that will keep your people choosing you as their preferred place to work.

There are a lot of potential employers out there. And if you’re not willing to become the other job that steals away employees, then you can bet that somebody else will.

Isaac Newton’s first law of motion is fairly simple: An object at rest will stay at rest until acted upon by an outside force. Similarly, an object in motion will stay in motion until an outside force stops it or changes its direction.

This is a foundational law for our understanding of how matter moves through space, but I find that business operates along similar rules. And just like with Newton’s laws of motion, people tend to overlook the impact of what this means.

Business momentum tends to be a more significant factor in gauging how a business is doing than many people think. Some of what is happening to you may be of your own making, but it’s important to remember that you’re surrounded by outside forces that could change your trajectory.

In Newton’s example, “outside forces” are things like gravity, friction, wind resistance, etc. But in business, those forces look like a variety of things—some you can control, and some that are completely beyond your power to change.

I’m referring to things like decreasing sales in a product line, consumers choosing Bundle A over Bundle B, drop offs in returning customers, etc. In my world, these are trends, and Doug’s first law of business is that the trend is the trend until an outside force changes it.

Much like gravity or friction, you often don’t have a lot of direct control over many forces. But you should be able to identify them, because whether you can or not, they’re going to impact your business. And in some cases, a negative force might come from within your organization without you realizing it.

Your business cycle has trends that may be hidden. Finding these often with a broad look at numbers through time and across product lines. I like to find unexpected patterns—recently in working with a subscription-based company, we identified a very unexpected hot spot. Only by laying activations out across five years did we identify a strong seasonal bump in one subscription type, hidden by a weakness in another. It was big and opened the door to create sales pressure where we had never thought it logical before.

This is an example taking note of the areas that I have the power to influence within the “trend” of outside forces. Things like my management style, how we price, quality of our products, sales pressure, etc.

Once you have a clear understanding of what’s in your control, then you have a path forward to impacting the trends—if that’s something that you want. If, on the other hand, the trend is favorable, that may not be ideal. Just like you can turn around a negative trend, you can also unintentionally mess with a trend that’s working in your favor.

I saw this firsthand when working with a client who wanted to add an extra incentive to a certain product line. Their reasoning made sense: If I give customers another reason to buy this product, our sales will increase.

Except that wasn’t really how things turned out in this case. The trend was that sales had already been perfectly acceptable for this product line. But once an outside force acted upon the trend, it changed directions, and suddenly sales for that product were noticeably decreasing.

The client and I each started doing some research and reaching out to customers, and we both reported the same findings: By increasing the incentive to buy, we cheapened the product in the customers’ perception.

If we hadn’t taken note of the lower yield in sales on that product line, we would have been completely ignorant to this new trend and thus unable to remedy the situation. As it was, the client had to back off on that product line for a while, until a later date when the market will be more receptive at the higher price point.

For your own research into the trends impacting your business, I recommend starting simple. I like to make a sales graph, print it out, then lay a ruler across it. It’s a little rustic, yes, but it’s also an excellent way to identify sales patterns, which allows me to work from there to figure out what trend is causing the results that I’m seeing.

As you look back at your sales, try a couple different time periods: several months as well as several years. When you can see clear up- or downswings, try to identify the trend that was working with or against you at that point. Were there a lot of layoffs that year? Was your community going through a financial rough spot when sales dropped off?

These can help you identify the trends that have impacted your business in the past, which is an essential step in figuring out how the next trend is going to hit your bottom line.

Once you have an understanding of the trends that have been working on your business, you can start tackling the issue of changing your behaviors to adjust them. Or, if you’re lucky, you can identify what’s working in your favor and make sure that nothing messes with it.

We’re well into the new year, and by now you certainly have some sense of what you want to accomplish in 2023. I know, because it seems like everyone has been forced to identify some goal, direction, or thought for the year. But setting up a goal, or “strategic objective,” is not the same thing as executing one. And none of this is a vision—which is where the North Star reference comes in. We are not taking on the vision monster today.

This season, I’ve been intrigued to watch how people approach goal setting and, more honestly, how many people do it poorly, myself included.

Recently I was engaged to work with a business on a large-scale strategic plan, something on a scale that the business had not attempted in living memory. It was a good, engaged group of people who had a lot of thoughts and were happy to contribute. Everyone worked hard on it, but when we finally sat back to look at what we’d accomplished, I was surprised to see that the overwhelming majority of what they came up with were tactics, not strategies. Things to do, not reasons to do them.

If you already know the distinction between these concepts, then bear with me as I re-explain them. Put simply, your strategy is your defined, large-scale goal: “I want to accomplish X by doing Y for the reason Z.”

Tactics, on the other hand, are the smaller steps of how you accomplish your strategy. If your strategy is where you want to be, then your tactics are the steps that get you there.

(Other consultants, please suppress the urge to send me hate mail. This is a working definition, not an in-depth analysis.)

As you look at your list of things that you want to accomplish this year, consider your objectives through this lens. Because what I often find is that when I sit down with people to discuss what they want to get done, the conversation becomes very tactical very quickly. And this isn’t just something that happens to people who don’t know any better—anyone can easily make this mistake.

Not too long ago I was in a session that was attended by a company principal, their leadership team, and an outside marketing firm. The goal of this meeting was to discuss the organization’s needs for the upcoming year.

Early on, the principal asked, “How do we do X?”, and, him being the principal, figuring out how to accomplish X immediately became the focus of the session. This tactical, granular discussion went on for about half an hour before a junior marketing individual spoke up.

“We’re here to talk about strategic goals for the year, right?”

Everyone agreed that yes, that was the objective of the session.

“So why did we spend the last 30 minutes talking about how to accomplish something that we haven’t established as a goal? Shouldn’t we be deciding if we want to do this, and if so, what we want to get done with it?”

The principal said, “Huh. Look at that. Yeah, we just went down a rabbit hole.” Thank goodness the junior marketer said something, because nobody else was going to tell the emperor that instead of setting his sights on the stars, he was just digging a ditch.

(Full disclosure: Yes, I was the hapless principal, yes, I should have known better, and yes, I’m very grateful that the junior marketing member spoke up.)

The North Star has become a popular metaphor for one guiding thing that you’re following (e.g., world domination, destroying competition, wiping out the last of House Stark, whatever floats your boat). But how can you avoid my mistake and make sure that you’re not confusing your North Star for a strategy?

I find that performing a gap analysis is helpful in this venture. Put simply, in a gap analysis you identify your current state (things as they are now) and your desired state (things as you’d like them to be in the future).

When making your current state list, you could record something like, “I spend six hours a week working on this task that has very little return.” Then on your desired state list, you could write down, “I want to spend an hour a week on this task for the same return.”

That’s it. Don’t overthink it, and don’t be afraid to go as small- or as large-scale as you want. Once you have both of your lists complete, pick one item for which you can identify a few ways to get from your current state to your desired state. That becomes your strategy, and those ways that you move from current state to desired state are your tactics.

Try this lens of analysis for yourself, and see if your North Star is just a dressed-up tactic. If all of your plans are hyper-granular without a guiding strategy, you’re only treading water and iterating, not growing. And who doesn’t want to grow in the new year?

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