Business leaders envy those exceptional firms that consistently thrive year in and year out through good times and bad. Do these firms have extraordinary management, or is it something “mortal” firms can learn? In my experience, the most consistent performers are culturally committed to the constant pursuit of three common goals:
- Looking for better ways to do what they do
- Seeking ways to navigate through uncertainty rather than around it
- Finding ways to prosper in times of austerity.
Every leader mouths these goals, but only a subset doggedly and methodically pursues them. Of this subset, even fewer remain committed when times turn flush and it’s easy to see them as less critical at the moment and push them to the backburner. Extraordinary leaders motivate people to do each of these intuitively, but they rarely can explain how, limiting the growth and reach of their firms. How do you motivate people at all levels of your firm to seek out better ways to do what they do, navigate through uncertainty, and find ways to prosper in tough times? To the rest of your firm, this sounds like your job description as CEO. But, the CEO can’t do this alone. One person doesn’t create leverage. An Organizational Design (OD) specialist would encourage you to incent supporting behaviors. Designing and managing the needed incentive structures for these types of soft objectives is a stretch for larger firms, and generally beyond the capabilities of most small to medium-sized businesses. Force of personality works on occasion. Once in a while, a company just gets it, but rarely is able to articulate a systematic methodology for getting there. Looking for a better way, navigating uncertainty and prospering during austere times are timeless business challenges that appear to tie together tangentially at best. Each is a major undertaking that could be a cultural lodestar for an organization. Addressing them as three separate initiatives without clear contemporaneous metrics is daunting. Doing what most companies do, waiting until danger is on this side of the horizon requires attempting change while the business is under stress and maneuvering room is limited. Being unprepared for lean and uncertain times makes facing off against innovative competitors an even greater challenge. There’s no obvious way to link these traits when viewed as discrete goals. Long-term success requires addressing them persistently through good times and bad. If it were easy, business leaders wouldn’t hire consultants or join peer groups such as Vistage seeking answers to this question.
It’s not about marketing, but it’s all about marketing
The answer lies in seeing a search for a better way, navigating uncertainty with aplomb, and viewing lean times as a growth opportunity as by-products of other behaviors. That is, the desired results are correlated with success rather than its cause. Consistent growth across business cycles is a nearly universal goal of my clients. It’s beyond my powers to eliminate boom and bust cycles in highly cyclical industries such as construction and consulting. Instead, I focus on making my clients the most attractive firms in their segment by instilling four fundamental beliefs.
- Positioning is the bedrock of managing your business. That is, strategically, marketing is an important horizontal function, not merely a vertical one. Marketing helps potential prospects self-select whether to enter the sales process. The same effect works for recruiting and hiring when HR is part of your firm’s marketing culture. Read more about how a marketing culture strengths your firm here.
- Customer referrals are a secret weapon. Everyone knows how valuable customer references are, and yet they remain one of the most underutilized tools at most companies. Read more about the opportunity:
- You can market effectively with available resources. Learning more about what you should do equips you with the tools to identify activities and programs you can stop doing. Re-invest the savings, and you can self-fund a variety of more effective programs.
- Use fundamentals to navigate uncertainty. Good marketing is timeless. New technology creates new tools, but it doesn’t change the essential job of marketing to assist your company in building relationships. Stop chasing shiny objects and focus on fundamentals.
This list could form the basis of yet another to-do list for companies to aspire toward. An a la carte approach burdens you with up to five initiatives to manage while missing out on the leverage of a coordinated pursuit and a common mechanism for self-reinforcement that ensures long-term success. None of the three common traits we set out to pursue, looking for a better way, navigating uncertainty or prospering during lean times, are marketing-specific. Yet, firms with a mature marketing culture see the three as innately interrelated. More importantly, they see each not as a discrete goal with separate actions and metrics, but as by-products of a healthy organization. A marketing culture adds tools to accomplish much more. As with any organizational culture, a marketing culture requires commitment. Think silver bullet rather than a magic one. Despite ties to a functional area, a marketing culture encompasses the entire organization, so it can’t survive on the force of a single leader’s personality. Building on logic rather than emotion, implementation is a straightforward process, albeit an execution sensitive one.