HEDGEHOGS AND PREPARING FOR A REBOUND IN THE ECONOMY
I have just finished an annual two-day strategic planning meeting with a company executive team; the third such meeting I have facilitated for them in the past three years. They are a several hundred million dollar, privately-held company that sells its products through various small to very large retailers around the U.S.
For the last two years they have pretty much continued down a path of filling in a very broad product offering (“an inch deep and a mile wide”) so they could be known for a rather complete brand in a specific segment of their market. As one would expect, some categories and products had relatively minor volume and impact, contributed little and were a distraction from the several core products that they are known for and best at. So as usual, it was a case of thinking that they had to dominate by breadth. The resulting workload, however, caused too many priorities, “widow-maker” executive roles and unacceptable quality at times.
In their strategic planning meeting, they really got into the strategic direction issues and alternatives to “an inch deep and a mile wide”. The team did a great job probing their direction from a number of different perspectives – with the full support of the CEO, who encouraged the vigorous debate and potential changes in direction. He had developed a product roadmap that showed for the first time the wide proliferation of products, and how that complexity could become a barrier to their profitable growth.
To their great credit, the team acknowledged that they could not be everything they were trying to be and generate the profitable growth and quality they were all committed to. They set a new path to segment their categories into two parts. Firstly, a few core ones that will be an “inch wide and a mile deep” and will get intense focus, investment and management. Secondly, those that will be maintained but not invested in, and may help fund the core group. This decision will have significant implications on the organization chart of the future, the manufacturing and systems capabilities and capacities required, and how the executive team will lead the company. But what a breath of fresh air and excitement, stepping up to the plate and realizing they had to say no to certain things in order to be really good at the most important ones. It was great watching a group of very talented leaders deal with the toughest issues and decide they wanted to be more like hedgehogs than foxes. I will enjoy watching them become a great company in future years.
The real takeaway for me was wondering how many CEOs are truly preparing their companies for the economic rebound that will certainly come. Asking those tough questions that no one else does is the key; even while things are still challenging, volumes are down and margins are under pressure, great CEOs are already preparing for the turn. They challenge strategy, upgrade bench strength, and rationalize locations and non-performing products – all with an eye on how to best position the company to take unfair advantage of the upturn. To not just ride the economic wave upward, but gain market share at the expense of weaker competitors and gain business without having to buy any other companies.
Great CEOs constantly mine the talent pool, courting and subtly wooing the best executive and managerial talent long before there are any openings at their company. As David Packard and Bill Hewlett often said when they started HP, when you find an “A” player executive, hire him or her! You can never have enough “A” player executives, and fortunately these caliber people can often lead many different functions in a company.
So how much time are you spending planning for today vs the future, and how have you positioned your company to take advantage of a strengthening economy? Measure your own “today vs future thinking ratio” as a check on whether your focus is in the right place.