What Business Executives Can Learn About the Power of Authentic Conversations
If you’ve ever seen the Paul Newman movie Cool Hand Luke, you might remember the hard-boiled egg eating contest, but that’s another subject. The iconic line we all remember, after several failed attempts to bring Luke in line, is when the prison warden remarks, “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”
Knowledge and open communication are highly correlated to business performance. Having hands-on and personal real-time knowledge of what’s going on in your business is a challenge and having the confidence and willingness to do something about what you’ve learned is another.
Why do business owners and executives procrastinate when it comes to improving their sales and marketing fundamentals necessary for growth? A CEO client summarized the rationale well when he said, “I cannot immediately forge ahead without the truth and the people to execute a sound go-to-market plan.” While, confident that accelerated revenue growth was within his grasp, the CEO was frustrated at not being able to create or implement a plan based on real facts and timely information to solve his sales and marketing issues. Without a reliable revenue engine, he knew his business was destined to stagnate or fail.
Maybe you have a desire for authentic business conversations, transparency, and an end to organizational procrastination. Tired of “hearing what they want me to hear” and “the spin” versus the real facts? Aggravated at recognizing dysfunctional business patterns, with no one acknowledging or acting on your desired solution or helping create one? Let’s look at the reasons frequently preventing business executives from discovering the truth in their sales and marketing performance, as well as those preventing a bias toward action.
Endemic Message Filtering
- Truth and Politics: “As a business owner, why don’t I get the real facts?” At times, employees are overly optimistic or create their own version of reality for numerous reasons including job security, personal agendas, and not realizing the organizational implications of sharing challenging facts. Some days you feel like Sergeant Joe Friday in the old 1950’s Dragnet TV series: “Just the facts, ma’am, just the facts.”
On a higher level, personal and political goals can be aligned to be complementary to company goals or undermine them when not aligned. When goals are aligned, political agendas will be subordinated to sharing the truth.
- Authenticity and Communication: Honesty is an important quality for genuine leadership, and, as an executive, you should require honesty from your team. Authentic business conversations are critical. Without open discussion and debate to establish the truth regarding the current state of sales and marketing, a solid go-to-market plan and company-wide commitment are not possible. Without the truth, it’s understandable why some executives procrastinate and don’t act.
Your job as an executive is to model openness in sharing business results and news with your staff. Of course, you will be more comfortable sharing positive developments and results. But remember, your staff members are professionals too, and they appreciate being treated that way. They deserve relevant facts as much as you do, and you need to recognize that when you explain news and updates honestly and talk about implications and recommendations. With complete information, you empower them to openly work together to address issues as a team.
One area which can be a challenge is discussing sales and profit numbers with your staff—especially in privately-held companies. You can still talk about trends, percentages, and rates of change without using specific numbers to show trust in your staff.
Failure to use factual information in decisions will cause constant delays, which, in turn, will result in lower revenue growth, aggravation, and low productivity in sales and marketing. The rationale for delay is rooted in bigger picture challenges, as well as personal behaviors. Together, this reasoning results in impediments to uncovering the truth, which is necessary to define and execute an effective go-to-market plan to accelerate revenue growth. It’s not out of turn to quote legendary newspaper publisher William T. Evjue on this topic when he penned, “Let the people have the truth, and the freedom to discuss it, and all will be well.”
What can be behind a bias for inaction?
- Time and Desire: First, it’s time to look into the mirror and ask, “Do I want to lead my sales and marketing teams, and do I have the time to dig into and manage all the details which reveal the facts?” Of course, business owners want to grow their businesses, but is it realistic to think you have the time to discover both the quantitative and qualitative truths to empower yourself to create and execute the sales and marketing plan? Frequently, a business owner is wearing too many hats and his/her bandwidth is already spread thin. Managing daily sales and marketing operations is usually not realistic, while also being the strategic leader or visionary for the business.
- Progress and Unicorns: With all your years of experience, dedication, and pattern recognition specific to your business, why are initiatives and recommended changes falling on deaf ears? Why all the talk and no walk? Has the search for the elusive Unicorn to lead your marketing or sales resulted in endless delays with highly speculative results once they are hired? It’s a frequent refrain from executives that “If I had found the right resource two or three years ago, I would not be in this hole.”
A Common Story of Poor Communications and Endless Delays—Two Brief Case Studies
Too Many Direct Reports, Too Little Information
I (Matt) was engaged as the interim VP of Sales with a private company. This company is an example of over-extension which is reflective of many clients across multiple industries that we encounter every week. The CEO had 11 direct reports spanning finance, U.S. and international operations, and HR—not to mention sales and marketing, too. After repeatedly missing revenue targets over several years and realizing that marketing was becoming a “black hole” with increasing expenses, but no measurable results, the CEO acknowledged he did not have the time, knowledge, or team to fix the problems.
Compounding the sales and marketing problems was a delayed engineering project for a new product line. After missing two previous commitments for a completion date, the VP of Development made a third commitment; and, leadership, again, accepted the estimate as a reliable one. As you might expect, the date was missed with a negative impact to new revenue and wasted marketing and sales expense on a product not ready to sell. Politics and personal agendas had triumphed over truth.
Admitting the previous VP of Sales was a “bad-hire” and marketing was directionless, the CEO knew it was time for radical, organizational transparency and an intense focus on sales and marketing. He now realized that he needed help to overcome the reasons for delays and create a realistic and aggressive go-to-market plan.
Too Much Trust, Too Little Inspection
I (Mark) was a new COO in a company and was just getting started meeting my staff. The CEO asked if I could check to see how 12 projects that were underway were progressing. I learned that I had a project manager on my staff and asked him if he could produce a project stoplight chart for us to review. He was enthusiastic because he said no one had ever asked him for one before.
The next morning, he had the stoplight chart prepared for discussion, and we started reviewing the background of the first project on the list. The project manager said, “I marked this project ‘green’ but it’s probably ‘red.’”
“Why is that?” I inquired. His response was, “Well, it was supposed to start six months ago, and it hasn’t started yet.” That was a prep conversation for the next 11 projects…none were on-time, on scope, or on budget.
I shared the news with the CEO, who didn’t seem surprised or shocked. I kept hearing Ronald Reagan’s Cold War words in my head, “Trust, but verify.”
The Immediate Path to Progress
Do you have a transparent change agent and role model available to your business—one who can immediately discover the truth-hindering sales growth and marketing effectiveness? Can she or he communicate in an authentic fashion and strategize with you on the go-to-market plan? Without the facts and an honest grasp on the real state of the sales and marketing organization, the history of slow or stagnant growth will continue. It takes someone with the experience and communication skills to ask all the necessary questions, regardless of where they lead.
Full-time resources to lead sales and marketing are preferred by some business owners due to the perceived control over such resources. But the challenges, time, and cost to recruit the Unicorn who may not work out perpetuates the cycle of ineffective action. Moreover, and based on our experience, new hires can quickly err on the side of personal agenda, which can lead to politics versus truth and productive, fast execution.
A business owner or CEO needs a Change Agent to dedicate the time and fact-finding experience to create the new plan—a change agent who can institute improved, sustained execution. Whether full-time or fractional, a focused resource, dedicated and committed to implementing change based on the facts, will result in the long-anticipated revenue growth results.
For those business owners and CEO’s who want to implement improvements now, a fractional resource can make an immediate impact by discovering the facts, helping build the go-forward plan, and assisting the company to support the new plan to accelerate revenue growth. The core nature of the fractional role avoids the inherent problems outlined in this article. As an external “un-biased” Change Agent, the fractional sales or marketing leader can discover the facts without the historical hindrances and personal relationships that often act as obstacles to open communication. Employees are often predisposed to share more information with such a fractional, external resource versus their direct manager.
When you are challenged by poor facts, poor communications, or knowledge gaps which prevent or inhibit your decision-making, fractional sales and marketing executives can make a big impact during a limited engagement, or as a continuing part-time resource. The benefits of even temporarily outsourcing your marketing and sales leadership function can include positioning your company for strategic, rapid, and sustainable growth as you utilize highly-skilled expertise without adding operational and administrative burdens. Ultimately, you will see the benefits of both improved information for decisions as well as more confidence in making decisions, which will stimulate growth and profit.
About the Authors:
Matt McKnight, President of McKnight Advisors
Mark Coronna, Area Managing Partner & CMO, Chief Outsiders
- Why a “Failure to Communicate” Is a First Step to Going Out of Business - September 26, 2019