(Recently published in the Fort Worth Business Press)
BY JAMES E. THOMPSON
If you’re reading this expecting some encouraging words about the U.S. economy and business climate now that the recession is technically over, you will be disappointed. Economists are telling us that robust growth won’t return to the U.S. economy for some time to come. The world in which we are living and doing business has changed and businesses must change with it or suffer the consequences. However, the economic crisis does present opportunities to make necessary changes in order to survive and even prosper in this altered environment.
Perhaps the biggest challenge executives will confront is to get their workforce to accept that these changes aren’t a quick fix. The speed and magnitude of how business must change is unprecedented. Executives must get their employees to not only accept but also embrace what’s been called “the new normal.”
So, what can be done?
First, redefine success. We’ve all heard how the rising tide lifts all boats. Now there isn’t enough economic tide for all boats to float; growth will come from wresting market share from competitors or from startling innovation that creates new demand, as Apple executives hope for with its new iPad. Executives need to reset goals and communicate them accordingly to their employees. While it may be easy to shrug and blame poor results on the economy, businesses can’t accept that and expect to remain operating for long. The new normal demands operational efficiencies that are innovative and executable in order to feed the bottom line.
Conversely, employee attitudes must shift, as those without the heart for a marathon effort will soon find themselves out of work or under-employed. In the new normal, successful performers will display shrewdness, courage and stamina because the business climate will remain challenging for the foreseeable future.
The key to success with the new normal is execution. Successful strategies will be those that can be executed flawlessly, which means that senior management can’t only set strategies, it must oversee the execution of those strategies day in, day out.
Lawrence Bossidy, retired CEO of Honeywell and before that AlliedSignal, is a well-known advocate: “Many people regard execution as detail work that’s beneath the dignity of a business leader. That’s wrong. To the contrary, it’s a leader’s most important job.” He even co-wrote a business best-seller on the topic, Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done.
Bossidy writes about a key component – discipline. It requires discipline to make sure that a business strategy is executed for results daily. When he moved into the corner office at AlliedSignal, he found that the company had four basic processes: for people, strategy, budgeting and operations. Yet, he writes that they were “empty rituals, almost abstractions.” He set out to develop a culture of execution that sought results and continuous improvement across the entire operation.
Michael Dell has lived both sides of the execution equation. As a college student, he devised an innovative business model – sell personal computers direct to the consumer – and oversaw execution of that model, resulting in Dell Computer’s phenomenal early success. Yet the company got sidetracked when too many processes were outsourced. As execution suffered, competitors grabbed market share and toppled Dell from its throne as king of the PC market.
Michael Dell has returned to the company and is leading with cost-cutting and “disciplined execution.” Results have improved, although the company hasn’t regained leadership of the PC market, although it has expanded its services offering by acquiring Perot Systems. Time will tell whether Dell can execute its way back to the top.
In this age of the new normal, success will be in the details. Some may call it micro-management, however let’s call it the new management. Larry Bossidy and Michael Dell are good role models – execution is king and discipline is its servant.
Executives who take to heart the lesson of “never let a crisis go to waste” and move immediately to make major changes to their operations and corporate cultures will have a chance. But only if they have the heart to relentlessly monitor execution daily and continue to adapt in order to survive. Any business that ignores the new normal will perish.
James Thompson is president of The InSource Group, IT staffing and recruiting firm serving Dallas, Fort Worth and Houston. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org