Business in Vancouver: Boardroom Strategy

Business in Vancouver: Boardroom Strategy

Ten tips for leading businesses in turbulent times

There’s no denying these are turbulent times. But there are things that you can do to lead your team and your company to success against the odds.

Here are the top 10 things that you can start doing today to adapt past approaches and lead through to success.

Simplify the strategic message. The easier your strategy is to understand and communicate, the greater the likelihood that it will be executed successfully. The idea is to have people understand what the top three to five goals are for the year. Stephen Covey took this idea one step further in his book The Eighth Habit, in which he describes the concept of a “Wildly Important Goal” – the most important goal for the company this year, which everyone in the company must be able to understand, feel compelled by and repeat. Simplify to make the message easy to spread.

Use a reverse one-, three-, five-year approach. Short-term thinking can drive organizations to make decisions that are not in the best interest of stakeholders long term. This situation is exacerbated in turbulent times. View decisions from three unique perspectives: one, three, five years in the future. Ask your (future) self what decisions you wish you would have made. What do you regret? What advice do you have for yourself?
Drive revenue, reduce costs and monitor cash flow tightly. Drive revenue by getting in front of the market while your competitors are inwardly focused. Reduce costs by looking at each major expenditure in its own light, not based on a sweeping percentage. Educate your top people on how to monitor cash flow. Cash is like oxygen to a business; without it, it’s game over. It astounds me how many executives are able to rise through to the senior ranks without understanding cash flow.

Stand out while everyone else is standing down. One thing that you can count on in turbulent times is a decline in ad sales.

Not only does this mean less clutter and a higher probability of reaching your audience, but when ad sales go down marketing mediums get hungry and drop prices. Lock in long-term contracts now at the lower rates.

“Confront the brutal facts but move forward with healthy optimism anyway.” In Good to Great, Jim Collins writes about being realistic about where you’re at, while at the same time putting together a positive plan to move forward.

Think of it as realistic optimism with three steps:

•be clear about what the situation is today – pretending things are better than they are is ludicrous;

•explain what the changing conditions mean for the organization or for your division; and

•share what the strategy is to move the company forward in the right direction and what each person can do to contribute to the plan’s success.

Operate based on a one-page strategic plan. Distil your strategic plan into one page that encompasses values, goals, relevant financial data, key performance indicators and actions for three to five years, one year and the next quarter.

This is far easier for people to digest than a 50-page diatribe. (For a sample format visit my blog at

Keep your strategic plan dynamic. The most successful companies we work with review, evaluate and revise their strategic plans each quarter.

Adapting your strategic plan to meet changes in the market, industry or company creates a document from which decisions can be made rather than another dusty binder for your shelf.

Be candid and speak authentically. Whether things are good or bad, the rumour mill has a way of spinning them into whatever is easy to pass on. By focusing on the candid facts and how people are being affected by what’s happening, a sense of community and camaraderie can be built around finding a solution.

Cut fast and cut early: Multistage layoffs are far more damaging to corporate culture than one large downsizing. The death of a thousand cuts leaves people constantly realigning priorities each time there’s a layoff and wondering if they’re next. Lead people back to engagement and productivity by listening to what they’re experiencing and helping them regain focus.

Start doing, stop doing, keep doing. When fear sets into an organization it can lead people to the point of inaction or what we call “analysis paralysis.” Have people ask and answer three simple questions: What should I start doing? Stop doing? Keep doing?

Mike Desjardins is the Driver (CEO) at ViRTUS, an organizational development consulting firm with expertise in strategic planning and implementation, leadership development, change management and succession planning for medium to large organizations.

This article from Business in Vancouver August 4-10, 2009; issue 1032

Mike Desjardins

Mike is a a graduate of UBC’s Sauder School of Business with a Bachelors of Commerce, Mike has spent the past 21 years transforming businesses.

  • Rob Banks
    Posted at 13:45h, 20 August Reply

    Hi Mike,

    Hope you are doing well, excellent article, very timely. I’d say I have already done or are actively doing about 7 of them.

    If you want my input and it can somehow be valuable in the future I’m happy to share my observations. The article is killer, but here are a couple of points that would be in my top 10:

    I am a massive fan of the one page strategic plan (we live ours and re-visit every quarter) and on the plan you have quarterly, annual, 3 yr, 5y and BHAG goals. I would condense your Jim Collins point with the be candid point. They are valid but similar… it’s all about being honest with yourself and not being afraid to share internally that things are bad and it’s important to be optimistic about the future, but don’t understate the severity of the situation.

    I like the term ‘Lean’ and the management style around that. It isn’t about cutting costs, it is about getting the most value out of your spend and eliminating waste and re-work. We have a heavy focus on FTQ (first time quality). It is a productivity killer and potentially a moral killer. Do your job right the first time and eliminate wait time and re-work and everyone is happy and your company gets super-charged.

    I borrow from the Who methodology (fabulous book on hiring ) that focuses on hiring the right person … but in difficult times (or good times) when you may not be hiring, we use it for setting detailed outcomes for every employee … if ask, ‘if we were to re-hire this position today would we hire this person? What we would expect from this position?’ In very hard times, especially after a round of layoffs, employees have fear and uncertainty… if you lay out detailed outcomes you expect of them they #1) can feel that if they accomplish these things they will help the company through these times… so you get engagement and #2) those that are not contributing to helping you though these difficult times (C players of B players that aren’t getting better) then you can easily remove them and replace with the right talent.

    You missed one on core values … we all can say we will be a company that acts with integrity in the good times… but can you in the bad? In the worst?? Review your core values quarterly with your staff… ask yourself and them if this is still what you believe in. Did you say your core value is to be innovative… are you still? Etc, etc.

    Over communication in hard times internally can help employees sleep better at night and can keep everyone rowing in the right direction.

    Great article Mike, well done.


  • Dave Galloway
    Posted at 16:24h, 08 September Reply

    Hi Mike,

    I have managed to carve out some time to get at my email back log and was able to read your article.

    My first reaction was that this was another “quick fix, sound bite” approach that is so common in todays media. Lot’s of great snippets, but is it really this simple? ( Okay, yes, but not easy! ) I know that might sound a bit harsh, but I have often wondered how to get from your ten points to real actions in the business that are consistently followed up on until one has results. You know, the executive push of the month fad.

    I would offer that less is more – ONE of these ideas, with practical steps of how to actually accomplish the step would be useful. I think linking to the web for tracking and measuring would be very useful. We could brain storm ideas on how that might work. You could model it on “Motley Fool” where fools group together to support each other with ideas and advice. Or take your O&A online….

    My other comment is that I think your 10 ideas could be built into a top down plan – you have strategic ideas, tactical ideas and cultural ideas that I think could be grouped together vs. 10 separate points. There is a 2 day workshop ( at least ) in these ten points.

    How about “10 months to a recession make over” – you use the mag and the web to take your readers – interactively – through these 10 ideas with much more depth. I would always push for “what does success look like” and ” When will I know I have accomplished this goal” to drive clarity.

    Maybe folks that want more coaching or don’t want to wait 10 months, will get you to work with them on a paid basis.

    It is a solid article. If someone does what you say – they will succeed. Of course what I “know” and what I “do” are separated by a gap. A very interesting one in fact. ( Mind the Gap…. 🙂 )

    stay in touch,


  • Rick Cassels
    Posted at 11:30h, 14 September Reply


    I really liked your article and what I liked is that you walked the talk and made the article simple and to the point. I am going too pass it on to our senior management team. I feel they are following some of your advise but need to change in a few ways that you have outlined. Well done.


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