More than ever, modern leaders of small businesses, large corporations and nonprofits must manage multiple departments and sustain working relationships within organizations more efficiently. Leading an engaging, technological and profitable business model requires constant challenge and improvement at all levels.
Most successful large and middle-market company CEOs prefer to be challenged. They actually seek out and pay well for harsh analytical truths. They know “yes people” are unhelpful and that success requires accelerated feedback, data measurement and execution. They also know that word of mouth customers today are actually speaking to thousands by the click.
Some owners and CEOs are unwilling to be challenged or to implement improvements “under the hood.” Some are fearful or insecure, in a complex conundrum or just plain stubborn. However, if your company plans to face today’s economy and the future, being open to challenge as a leader and as a business may be the difference between your organization prospering or fading away.
For some, going to the doctor or dentist can be uncomfortable. Yet we put our fear aside and trust the good doctor will question and challenge our symptoms, examine us in detail and ideally achieve a healthy outcome for us. Less painful and more exciting might be taking a vintage car in for redesign or restoration. The best Porsche technicians, for example, will question, examine and challenge each part carefully to achieve the most beautiful and true mechanical outcomes possible.
A forensic-accounting or turnaround-management firm will do the same: Examine your company piece-by-piece for potential leaks, operating flaws and critical areas of improvement as quickly as possible. Their job is to examine and challenge the everyday workings of your business — which at times can be as comfortable as dental work.
Unchallenged organizations show multiple signs of fiscal and cultural decay. Employee and customer attitudes typically follow suit. Here are actual case examples as illustrations, masking names and industries slightly to protect confidentiality:
- The manufacturing facility unwilling to challenge its unproductive workspace orientation and supply chain — morale and productivity dip consistently
- The medical or legal practice unwilling to improve its brand or marketing efforts in the marketplace — incoming patients or clients taper off continually
- The historical family restaurant unwilling to challenge its tired surroundings, menu, exterior and nonexistent marketing — revenues steadily decline
- The fine-clothing maker unwilling to improve its part-time job description and compensation model — employee turnover remains high
- The design-firm owner unwilling to get working agreements in writing because they feel lawyers and contracts scare good clients away — one cash-flow disaster after another
Each case example had the same Venn diagram in common: 1) Laziness. 2) Endless excuses. 3) Earnings stagnation. Each stubborn business was also being overshadowed slowly by a fresh, improving competitor either nearby or upstream. Deep down, each business owner or executive feared the smarter, harder homework required for positive disruption and prosperity.
The question is, is your company willing to be challenged? Are you willing to be challenged?
In my experience, leaders who are willing to be challenged typically have companies that perform well. They accelerate the process of getting things right the first time (or once and for all). They hire the best and brightest employees — amazing people who are willing to be challenged. Subsequently, their customers are thrilled. They run an exciting ship again. Competitors are more downstream. Retained earnings commence. Life is good.
Being open to challenge does not mean divulging proprietary information or exposing mistakes publicly. Challenge is not a witch hunt, a firing spree or a political takedown. Challenge is simply better strategy, better implementation and better execution company-wide. To challenge a company properly, all leaders and key executives and outside counsel must be willing to have sensitive data and reports examined as a team. Pending analysis, recommendations and next-steps can be communicated confidentially as a roundtable going forward.
So, where might your business need challenge and restoration the most?
Baron Christopher Hanson is the principal and lead strategist at RedBaron Advisors in Charleston, S.C., and Palm Beach, Fla. A former rugby player, Harvard graduate, and expert on workplace and small-business turnarounds, Hanson has written for Harvard Business Review and SmartBrief considerably. He can be reached for consulting roles and speaking gigs via e-mail or over Twitter @RBC_ThinkTank.