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Ken Keller: Advice on getting from here to there

Brain Food for Business Owners

Posted: August 4, 2010 4:55 a.m.
Updated: August 4, 2010 4:55 a.m.

A great deal of my material for this weekly column comes from my own personal experiences or from observation.

Over the weekend, I had an epiphany of sorts as to why some businesses grow and others remain stagnant.

Traditional strategic planning and the consultants of the world suggest such things as a mission statement and a vision statement for organizations, lest they end up like the federal government. People in business see the feds as well-meaning but unfocused, lacking clear objectives and costly.

Getting from here (where the business is today) to there (where the owner wants it to go) is an extremely difficult proposition.

Many owners don't know exactly where or what "here" is, let alone how they got there. Yes, they know the numbers (sales, clients, etc.) but there is usually only a quick backward glance to the past. "The past is history," an owner would say. "Why relive it, especially if it was filled with tough times, difficult decisions and sacrifices that I don't want to be made again?"

But the past holds clues to the future of the business. One of the best questions an owner can ask themselves is, "How did I get here?"

The second-best question an owner can ask is "Where am I today?" Academics often use a SWOT (strengths, weakness, opportunities, threats) analysis to get a reading on the company. I might suggest a much more thorough assessment: "What's Working, What's Not, Why Not and What's Next" (WW/WN/WN/WN).

My experience is that when doing a SWOT analysis, organizations tend to be much more externally oriented, and so the list of opportunities is usually long. This is because most owners don't want to focus on weaknesses or threats. What gets them out of bed in the morning is to take a crack at the neverending list of opportunities.

The advantage of the WW/WN/WN/WN assessment is that it forces the owner to review every aspect of the business.

There are no sacred cows. Every client, every process, every department and every individual is considered, and a decision made as to which column they belong in.

Department managers can use this tool for their own assessments and compare their results to that of the owner. That might make for an interesting discussion or two.

Once the assessment is complete, the owner can make decisions that will improve not only the operation of the business on a day-to-day basis, but it will enhance the foundation of the organization. If the tool is used regularly, it will speed up decision making and provide a benchmark for ongoing improvement.

One of the major responsibilities of the owner or leader is to provide a clear goal for the organization and the people in it to move towards. This is called a vision, and in many companies, it simply does not exist. If it does exist, it is often not shared.

The "where" question is one that only the owner can answer, and often the answer changes frequently or is never answered at all. I encourage owners to define a five-year vision for their company. This provides a defined point in the future for the owner and more importantly, for key employees who wonder what their personal future looks like.

Paul Miller was president of Hills Bros. Coffee and had been a lifelong employee. He was tired of the company not being profitable, despite revenue of nearly half a billion dollars. Miller was bound to turn things around, and he got people excited about the goal he had set for the company.

I still remember the magic and enthusiasm that Miller instilled in his employees as he ended conversations with "$6 million, that's the goal this year!" It was a tough year; the company got behind early and stayed behind until the final month but when the books were closed, the goal had been achieved.

I never thought for a moment that year what it would mean for me. I didn't think that I deserved a piece of that $6 million; I didn't bank on a raise. What I did think was that this was an exciting place to be, a company moving forward and making money; I was proud to be part of something that had a future.

We often forget that working hard today is supposed to take us someplace better tomorrow. That is why people start and grow companies; that is why employees join leaders. Are you doing everything you can to make certain that tomorrow is going to look better than today? It starts with reviewing yesterday, thinking about today and defining tomorrow.

Ken Keller is president of Renaissance Executive Forums, helping top executives make better decisions through informed peer perspective, resulting in better top and bottom-line results. He can be reached at His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.


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