Date: 11/23/2015 2:00 PM UTC

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” – Peter Drucker

As someone who gets paid to help organizations develop & implement strategy (among other things), I get lots of questions about the best way to go about developing strategic initiatives, how to make sure they get done, etc. Usually people expect to hear terms like “SWOT analysis” or “management retreat” or something like that.

The reality is that while there are any number of great ways to create & drive strategy, there is one guaranteed way to kill it. If the culture of the organization is such that nothing can ever change or improve, then no amount of strategic planning sessions will matter. Lots of leaders don’t like to hear that, partly because too many of them are trained in everything but matters of culture. They want to have some kind of formula or matrix that can fix a culture or make the organization’s culture what they want it to be, but it doesn’t work that way.

The culture of your organization is going to be driven by management behavior, and it’s going to be driven by your core values. Not the core values typed up on letterhead and posted in the break room, but the ones you actually live by. Most organizations don’t really know what their core values are. They have some generic terms they throw out (“respect”, “professionalism”, etc), but they really don’t know what that means.

Ask yourself this: What is important to you about your business? Maybe it’s something like “integrity”. Great. Now ask yourself this: What has to happen for you to know there is “integrity” in your organization? I’d suggest you sit down with your management team and brainstorm what “integrity” means to each of them. Maybe it’s “being honest”, maybe it’s “what I say = what I do”, maybe it’s a hundred other things. Whatever the case, make sure you as a group agree on the definition.

That doesn’t sound too difficult, right? Hopefully it’s not, although too few businesses actually spend time doing it. Here’s the hard part: go live it. If you see anyone not living out your agreed upon definition of “integrity”, you have to call them on it. If you don’t, you’re telling everyone it’s really not that important. That’s especially true for members of the management team. You’ll never get better behavior from your employees than they see in management. So there can be no excuses – just accountability.

The point of the example is this: if you don’t intentionally create a culture built on accountability, a culture that sticks to your core values, a culture that knows what’s important, then you’ll probably get a culture where none of those things exists. At that point, it won’t matter what brilliant strategy you come up with. You’re done before you get started.

corporate culture

Posted by Matt Heemstra | Post a Comment

Date: 11/16/2015 2:00 PM UTC

“The very essence of leadership is that you have to have vision. You can’t blow an uncertain trumpet.” – Theodore M. Hesburgh

I’ve had four nearly identical conversations in the past two weeks with people at four different businesses. All four conversations went something like this. An organization had recently undergone some significant change. The business was ready for change – they'd communicated why the change needed to happen, how the change would be implemented, how it would impact the people, etc. After the change was completed, the majority of the organization was doing pretty well.

The problem was that there were a handful (less than 10%) of the employees who were angry and complaining and disengaged and had bad attitudes about the change specifically and the organization in general. They’d complain, and then the leaders of the organization would agonize over what they could possibly do to get these people on the same page as everyone else so they’d be happy and productive employees.

The problem is that sometimes you can’t get everybody to be a happy and productive employee. And here’s why you need to be careful about trying:

  • It won’t work. No matter what you do, you can’t please everybody all the time. You can give people everything they demand and more, and some of them will just always be unhappy/disengaged/unmotivated/whiny. It’s just a fact of human existence.
  • If you try too hard you’ll mess up the happy people. If 90% of the employees have bought in to your vision, and they’re all rowing together, then they see you compromise part of that vision in the name of the angry 10%, the 90% will wonder why they’re rowing so hard. If you’re not willing to stand firm for what you want the company to be, why should they?
  • You’ll end up unhappy, too. You have a vision for your business. If you make concessions on that vision just to keep a few people happy, pretty soon you’ll be making more concessions to keep everybody happy. The result is a business that isn’t what you want – and that won’t keep you happy.
In the end, the goal when you’re dealing with employees who haven’t bought in isn’t to get them to buy in. The goal is to not be spending your time trying to get them to buy in. I told one of the leaders I spoke with, “Success doesn’t mean they get happy and stay with the company; success means that 6 months from now we’re not talking about this.” If you clearly lay out the vision and the why, and they can’t embrace it, then it’s probably in everybody’s best interest that they leave.

Stop being paranoid that an employee who’s draining your will to live might leave. Make your case and then let them decide. Don’t let them hijack your business.

unhappy employees

Posted by Matt Heemstra | Post a Comment

Date: 11/9/2015 2:00 PM UTC

“It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him.” – J.R.R. Tolkien

We spend a lot of time as organizations (hopefully) talking about the future. And, to most people’s credit, it’s usually a positive conversation. Most leaders are excited about the future for their business. Most of them are passionate about what they do and feel like there are opportunities out there just waiting to be taken advantage of.

I’ve been to a lot of strategy development sessions/events/retreats, and the vast majority of them are focused on what we want the future to be, what we think the opportunities are, what we think our strengths are, etc. And that’s what they should be about. And we usually come out of those things with some goals (We’re going to grow revenues by 15%! We’re going to open 3 new locations! We’re going to introduce 2 new revolutionary products!). Good job.

The problem is that too many of those sessions stop there. They leave out a big step. Question: Weren’t you trying to grow 15% the past 5 years too? Haven’t you only had 1 location for 50 years? Wasn’t your last major product innovation 8 years ago? The answers are usually affirmative to all of those. So if you’ve been trying to do this for years, and haven’t been successful, what’s stopping you?

I’m not suggesting you should just think about all the barriers you face and give up. What I am suggesting is that no strategy or plan is complete without having some idea of how you’re going to address the key barriers that are in your way. You know they’re there, or you’d already have done all those things you say you’re going to do now. You might even already know what they are. But do you have specific actions you’re going to take to make sure they don’t stop you this time?

Too many businesses are having “groundhog years” – same thing, year after year, no real change or improvement. Maybe it’s time to try something different. Maybe you need to actually take on those things that are consistently holding you back. It could be people. It could be competitors. It could be processes. It could be products. It could be leadership. It could be any number of a thousand things. Whatever it is, stop ignoring it or hoping it will go away. Figure out how to beat it – and then beat it.


Posted by Matt Heemstra | 2 Comments

Date: 11/2/2015 2:00 PM UTC

“Wisdom is the reward you get for a lifetime of listening when you’d have preferred to talk.” – Doug Larson

I Googled “leadership” this morning and got 451 million hits. If you read any business publications or blogs or watch any TED talks you know people everywhere are talking about leadership. We spend endless hours studying successful leaders hoping to find some life-altering nugget of information. We go to conferences, buy books, spend who knows how much money – all in the name of improving our leadership skills.

And in the world we’re currently living in, leadership is crucial. The world is volatile and unpredictable. Massive generational shifts are underway. Technology is entering every part of our lives faster than ever before. How we handle all of these things as leaders is critical to the success of our organizations.

So what skills do we need? We glorify any number things we see in our leaders. We like our leaders to have vision. We like our leaders to be great communicators. We like our leaders to have lots of energy. We praise leaders who are great problem solvers. And all those things are valuable.

But one of the most important skills for any great leader is the ability to listen. To some people that sounds counterintuitive. Our leaders are supposed to be confident and virtually all-knowing. Yet in the world we’re in today, listening is more important than ever.

There are too many things coming at us too fast to know how to handle them all ourselves. We have to have help from great people around us. And if we want to use great people, we have to listen to what they have to say. How can you possibly leverage the abilities or your people if they never have any input?

“But our people need to have confidence in my leadership,” I hear people say. “They expect me to have answers.” Actually, they already know you don’t have all the answers. If you don’t believe that, put a hidden tape recorder in your break room and listen to what they’re saying about you. J People want to follow someone who’s genuine. If you’re too full of yourself (or too lacking in self-confidence) to listen to those around you, it’s an instant turnoff. Your people will see through that in a second.

Listening is too seldom mentioned as critical to success. But it’s as important as any other skill a leader can have. Without listening you never improve. And with all the change we’re faced with every day, we have to be constantly improving. If we aren’t, we’ll be obsolete leaders in no time.

listen more talk less

Posted by Matt Heemstra | Post a Comment

Date: 10/26/2015 1:00 PM UTC

“There comes a moment when you have to stop revving up the car and shove it into gear.” – David Mahoney

I had a really engaging day recently with the management team of a small but rapidly-growing business. This business has added a number of people, and the chaos of all the newness is starting to wear off. They’re ready to get down to business. Except they can’t really decide what that means.

Don’t misinterpret that statement – these are all exceptionally talented people, they all have spent time trying to think strategically about what’s their “next step”, they’re creative, etc. The problem is there is an awful lot of talk and then nobody committing to any action. They’re great at envisioning scenarios and possibilities – and then can’t really decide what to do about them.

How many of us are like that? Whether it’s in our personal lives or in our businesses, we quite often have lots of ideas about ways we could improve, or things we could do that would make us happy. We think and talk and think and talk – but don’t ever really act on anything.

Often people feel overwhelmed and aren’t sure how to prioritize (which is a topic for another day). But sometimes it’s just that we’re afraid to act until we’re certain everything is aligned perfectly. News flash: nothing is ever aligned perfectly. If we never do anything until the perfect time comes along, we’ll never do anything.

So stop waiting for the perfect time. Decide what you want to do and start. You’ll run into barriers, you’ll have to adjust, you’ll have to try new things. But as long as you keep moving forward, you’re not failing. The only failure is standing still.


Posted by Matt Heemstra | Post a Comment

Date: 10/19/2015 1:00 PM UTC

“There are two kinds of companies – those that change and those that disappear.” – Anonymous

Most of the businesses and leaders I have the opportunity to work with agree on the importance of change. When I talk about chaos and volatility and the rapidly changing environment in which we live and work they all nod their heads. And I think they’re in earnest when they do that.

The problem is that when it comes to actually changing, too often very little happens. There are a lot of excuses (‘I/we don’t have time’ is everybody’s favorite). Whatever the stated reason, the reality is that the world is full of people and organizations who know they need to change, who admit publicly that they need to change, and yet aren’t changing.

I think one of the main reasons (aside from fear of or dislike for change) is the feeling of “Where do I start?” There are so many things that we could change that we don’t know where to begin. When we’re totally honest with ourselves, we realize that virtually every area of our lives or businesses could use some level of change. So we think about the literally hundreds of changes we could make and are paralyzed with indecision – so we do nothing.

There’s no magic formula for where to start. But here’s an idea: start with the end. If you don’t have a clear vision for WHERE you want to be then you’ll have no clue HOW to start getting there. We are approached by countless organizations every year who want help with ‘strategic planning’. We ask them, “What exactly are you planning for?” Standard answer: “Huh?” You can’t plan without some kind of vision.  You can’t develop strategy without knowing what you’re trying to accomplish.

How often do you take time to work on your vision? I’m not talking about saying things like, “We want to grow”, or any other kind of non-quantifiable thing. I’m talking about something you can see, something tangible. How much do you want to grow – and why? What will your customers look like? What will your role be? A huge percentage of the time and energy and money spent on planning in the world is done without really talking about the vision for the organization.

Think about the key members of your team. Who is future-oriented? Who is most creative? Who is best able to clarify a murky picture? Get together with those people on a regular basis and make time to clearly develop your vision. I know of an organization that has a small group of people whose sole responsibility is to think about the future and come to the leadership group with ideas for change. While a smaller business may not have the resources for that, at the very least you can use that as a model and try something similar.

However you go about it, make sure you have a clear, well-communicated vision. Without that crucial step, all the change efforts in the world will come to nothing. And your business will simply disappear.

change hello my name is

Posted by Matt Heemstra | Post a Comment

Date: 10/13/2015 11:05 PM UTC

Stay tuned for another great blog post!

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Date: 10/12/2015 1:00 PM UTC

“If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.” – Gen. Eric Shinseki

If you can get past the disaster that his career became over the past few years, Shinseki’s quote is one of my all-time favorites. So many of us don’t like change – and that in itself isn’t some kind of moral wrong. The problem is we have to do it whether we like it or not.

But are our organizations even ready for change? In a lot of cases the answer is no. There are a number of things that have to be in place, but two in particular that I’ve seen lacking lately. In no particular order:

Understanding the need for change. There are a lot of management teams out there who feel like their organizations need to change. They feel like that need to change is pretty obvious. The problem is it isn’t necessarily obvious to everyone in the organization. Those individuals who are going to be involved in making change have to see that there is a gap between where you are NOW and WHERE you want to be – and they have to recognize that the gap needs to be crossed.

Understanding What’s In It For Them. As much as we’d like to think people do what’s best for the organization out of the goodness of their hearts, the reality is that to most people ‘change’ sounds a lot like ‘extra work’. If you want people to do extra work (and do it well) then you have to convince them that they will be better off because of it. Depending on how big the change is, maybe they need to be way better off.

Think about each of those things. When you’re trying to lead change in your organization, do you really make a case to your people about the need for change? Or do you just assume that because you’re the leaders people are excited to do whatever you say?

Do you really explain what’s in it for them? Let’s be honest – if we give a speech saying this change is important because it will help the company be more successful, what the employees hear is ‘we’re doing this so the higher-ups make more money.’ Somehow you have to convince them that there is something in it for them too – and that it’s worth the extra effort.

As you approach change in your organization – and you’re probably already dealing with it on a daily basis – don’t forget that it isn’t as simple as giving orders. Make sure your organization, and it’s people, are truly ready.

change paper

Posted by Matt Heemstra | 2 Comments

Date: 10/5/2015 1:00 PM UTC

“Creativity comes from looking for the unexpected and stepping outside your own experience.” – Masaru Ibuka

I was fortunate enough last week to attend a conference where one of the speakers was Erik Wahl. Three things struck me as I listened to Erik speak. First, he’s a phenomenal speaker/artist. Second, I was reminded how critical creativity is to everything we do, every success we have in business. Third, very few businesses (or individuals) take creativity seriously enough or attempt to cultivate it.

We cannot hope to achieve the things we want in our organizations without being creative. I used to be a fan of the saying, ‘If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten’. I know think that saying is hopelessly false. The truth is that if you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get less than you’ve always gotten, and it’s only going to get worse. The world has changed and is changing faster than it ever has. To think you can do anything now the same way you’ve always done it is ridiculous. Only new & creative ideas are going to keep your business moving forward.

Unfortunately, most of us (individually and as organizations) have bad attitudes about creativity. We think it’s an innate talent that only other people have, and that there’s no way we could ever be creative. That’s just not true. Creativity is something we’re all born with, but we learn (are taught) to ignore it as we get older.

Even if we think it’s something we could learn to do, we just don’t make time often enough to actually be creative. There are so many things going on in our organizations on a daily basis that we get sucked into routine, mindless tasks because they’re urgent. And, realistically, there are a lot of those kinds of things that have to be done. But if we’re going to lead our organizations, we’ve got to make time for creativity. How often do you sit quietly and just think? How often do you just sit and brainstorm ideas? How often do you do nothing other than try and think about new ways to solve problems or take advantage of opportunities? For most people the answer is ‘not very often’.

So do it. Put it on your calendar. Go to a specific place. Listen to music, go outside, whatever it takes. The point is, if you’re not practicing creativity then you’re not going to be much of a leader. And another thing – make sure your people are doing the same thing. Their ideas are going to be at least as important as yours in the future. So make sure they have time to create them. Communicate constantly about the importance of creativity, of stretching boundaries, of pushing back against accepted ways to do things. Make sure they know how much you value their creativity.

Don’t get stuck doing tomorrow what you did yesterday. Success in the future will require new ideas & ways of looking at the world. Make sure you make time to be creative. Like any other valuable skill, it takes practice. So practice it. And start now.


Posted by Matt Heemstra | 2 Comments

Date: 9/28/2015 1:00 PM UTC

“People won’t have time for you if you are always angry or complaining.” – Stephen Hawking

It feels like lately in this space there’s been a lot of talk about belief and positive self-talk and that kind of touchier, feelier stuff. I have people tell me that they’re not big fans of that kind of thing. Post something about strategy, or planning, or something like that, they say. We’ve done that before and I’m sure will do it again.

But the longer I’m around people and organizations the more I realize that if you don’t get that “touchy feely stuff” right, the rest of the stuff is excruciatingly difficult. For one thing, think about how you feel on a daily basis. The days you’re focused on positive things, or things you’re passionate about, or things you’re good at – you feel energized. Energized people have a chance to get things done. Think about the days that are the opposite. Low energy, low engagement, just counting down minutes until you get to go home. Which version of you is more effective?

You have to have a positive focus to maintain your energy. You also have to have a positive focus to maintain the energy of those around you. We cannot accomplish all the things we want to in life by ourselves. It’s not possible, nor is it the way the world is supposed to work. We need help from those around us, whether it’s at home, at work, in our communities, whatever. If by our constant negativity or complaining we’re draining the energy of those around us, we’re damaging ourselves and our own prospects for success as well. Eventually, those people won’t want anything to do with us.

Lastly (I’ve mentioned this before), our reality is largely determined by what we think our reality really is. If we think we have lots of opportunity and have a chance to be successful and achieve the things we want, we’ll spend our whole lives proving ourselves right. If we think everything is lined up against us and we don’t have anything going for us and we really don’t have a chance, we’ll spend our whole lives proving ourselves right.

So be conscious of what you’re thinking and what you’re saying. Is it positive? Are you focused on what’s right in your business or your life? Are you thinking about what great things could be? Or are you angry, complaining, always focused on everything that upsets you, that you think isn’t fair, the shortcomings of others, etc? You tell me which it is and I’ll tell you how successful (and happy) you really are.


Posted by Matt Heemstra | Post a Comment

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