Business leaders need to break current habits to drive true change

By Neil Bradbrook, above, Director, Ahead Business Consulting (ABC)

Most businesses aspire for growth. But how we achieve growth continually changes as a business scales up. In the early days, growth can simply mean there’s more work on the books now than there was in the previous quarter or year. When you start to transition from a small business to a medium enterprise, other aspects of the business such as staff, skills, productivity and efficiency become much more critical to delivering success.

If you’re securing a steady stream of business but doing nothing else differently, that business boom can quickly turn into a business blunder. Too often it is the case that founders, CEOs and senior management underestimate the value of strategic planning, spending too much time on the legwork. Without making any other changes, that steady stream of work simply absorbs more and more resources.

To continue to grow, it is simply necessary to add more people – along with more cost (and almost certainly greater variation in quality). Equally, to unlock further growth profitably, you have to find ways to deliver more for less.

Is that steady stream of business the right type of work? Are you too dependent on one customer or supplier? Often, businesses take work because they are afraid to say no. But often there are better opportunities. This is the point of strategy – it brings focus that clarifies both what we should do and shouldn’t do.

Don’t get sucked into the daily grind

The sign of a brilliant business leader is not how hard they work individually, but how productive the business is as a whole.

A good leader sets the direction and focus, so everyone is clear on what it is they need to do to contribute to the business’s success. The leader’s role is to remove the blockers that inevitably occur: resolving problems, making decisions and navigating the course as the business needs to adapt to changing market conditions. Finally, the leader creates motivation, making the team want to pull in the same direction and share the same success.

It is easy to get sucked into the doing of the daily grind and putting out the small fires that absorb time and hinder business (without ever effectively addressing the actual root cause). But as a leader doing the thinking is your role.

Strategy is all about setting direction and outlining how to achieve success. It’s a different type of work, and it often feels like it is not real work at all. Imagine as a leader you walk around the business asking the team what they have done today; some have been busy making widgets, some delivering services, others resolving customer complaints – and then they ask you what you have done, and you say, “I’ve spent the day thinking”. You might feel like a fraud, not pulling your weight nor setting the right example.

Without thought taking place nothing can change for better, and you will face the same fires tomorrow as you do today. We often talk about working “on” the business rather than “in” it, and most leaders trot out this mantra, but far fewer actually do it, so those key elements of ‘the bigger picture’ continue to be missed.

To make time for strategy, you must be prepared to delegate and move away from the nitty-gritty details.

Utilise the talent you already have on tap

You already have good people in the business doing stuff. Ask them to do more. Many of our clients have teams of 30, 50 or more, yet invariably only 4 or 5 actually drive the business forward. The rest just do stuff.

This is wasting precious resource. You have all those untapped brains you are not using. People who know your business and work in it every day, who are not being asked how to make it better (and then deliver the improvement).

Delegate authority to your people, and empower them to get on with the day-to-day. You need to create a next layer down of genuinely empowered managers to lead and deliver on your behalf. This creates a culture of empowerment, trust and a desire to be better.

This will increase the productivity of your business as a whole, and make people feel more valued and valuable – giving them a higher sense of worth and meaning they are more likely to stay.

Furthermore, it will give you the headspace to think about the big ticket items that you should be devoting your time to.

And, if this strategic thinking is daunting on your own – maybe strategy feels ethereal, maybe you’re not sure where to start, or maybe you are just too close to your business to see the wood for the trees – then call on some of your team to help.

Different perspectives and opinions add huge value to strategy development. Who in your team could you bring along to add a different point of view? And if you are still stuck then don’t be afraid to tap into external expertise to help you kick-start your transformation journey by bringing new perspectives and challenging you to think differently.

How do you ditch ineffective business habits?

Habits, by definition, are hard to break. So that means it takes effort and practice.

We are more successful when we set out a clear plan – the new landscape of what we want to do instead – and involve others. Write it down, tell people what you will do and what you want them to do, and then create a contract where you hold each other to account.

Again, this is back to you and your people. You already have the resources at your disposal to do this better, all you need to do it set it in action and encourage and support each other to succeed.

When you do all this, you will see the benefits at both the bottom and the top lines of the business; more accountability within departments that leads to smoother operations, improved quality and greater efficiency; and a clear strategy and route to sustainable growth.

One thing is for certain: transformation that allows businesses to flourish always starts at the top. Moving forward, business leaders need to shift their attention away from focusing on the details of today, to instead make the right changes for the big picture of tomorrow.