Getting ‘Unstuck’

Early Arthurian legend said that “the land and the king are one.” In most of the versions, starting in the 11th century and moving forward to John Boorman’s classic “Excalibur,” the land prospered or festered based on the health and vigor of the monarch. Though our gender limitations and definitions of success have changed, it is often the same with teams and organizations.

Acme Paper (a name used to protect the anonymity of the real company, a story shared with its permission) was in a jam. The company, as well as Al, the CEO, was stuck. Although the market was rich with opportunity, sales were flat and the organization seemed unable to deliver. Projects to improve sales and delivery were stymied, and after months of struggle, the CEO was so frustrated he was at his wit’s end and seriously considering a “low-ball” offer from a competitor. Al was as stuck as the company was, unsure what to do next and feeling both angry and guilty that he could not figure it out. It was not a surprise to discover that both the company and Al were stuck for similar reasons.

As a coach, I had no quick fix antidote and could only offer the cold comfort of helping Al lay out a plan for recovery that included a lot of hard work. But Acme’s return to health and profitability, as well as Al’s reinvigorated interest in the business, makes a great case study for how leaders and companies get stuck and how they get unstuck.

After our first meeting, Al decided to engage a consultant to look at critical systems. Two months later, he was face to face with the first reason companies and leaders often hit a ceiling. For years he had been underinvesting in infrastructure and development. Many of his systems and key managers had not grown with the company and simply were ill-equipped to perform at a level that the market now demanded. Systems for accounting, manufacturing controls, recruitment and logistics were all dated. Since they were not broken, they had not gotten immediate attention. They worked, but those who depended on them had become so used to the workarounds and complexity that their ability to manage had ground to all but a halt.

But that was the easy part. Al had similarly gone without any purposeful development for a decade. He had purchased a $7 million local business from his father after working in the business for a few years and was now running a $45 million regional organization. So along with investments in systems, infrastructure and training for the business, Al took classes at the state university college of business and, at my suggestion, joined a Vistage CEO peer advisory group in his hometown, also helping to address the second major reason that leaders get stuck: their inability to see past their personal view of the business.

Anyone who runs a business is familiar with how easy it is to spend every day heads down in the business. But the same efficiency a leader gains with day-to-day operation also leads to tunnel vision. A leader can easily become isolated as well as stale. Creativity, initiative and growth are sacrificed on the altar of efficiency and urgency. The tyranny of the urgent becomes a way of life if a leader is not purposeful in pursuing a bigger picture than today’s profit. Al’s peer advisory group members were instrumental in challenging his assumptions about his business and his own leadership. After all, his view of leading the business was formed by watching his father. The fact that his dad died early, in part owing to the stress of running the business in his hands-on high-control style, had never occurred to Al as a trap that he could get caught in too.

Today, Acme is nearing $100 million in sales and looking at expanding to trade internationally. While the recovery has not been without challenges, Al has kept his focus on practices that insulate him, his leadership team and the organization at large from hitting the next ceiling:

  • On a regular basis they evaluate all managers and key systems for fit and capacity, investing in replacement, upgrades or development as appropriate.
  • All key managers participate in some form of outside benchmarking, industry association, board or peer advisory, ensuring that their ideas and processes do not become stale or dated.

The more senior your position in an organization, the more your time and energy should be focused on the horizon and how the company will compete in the future. If most of your focus is on this quarter (and has been for more than a quarter) you may be in danger of hitting the ceiling.

Originally published in Arkansas Business, Barry Goldberg On Leadership, October 5, 2015.