Every business has put together multi-year strategies, and from there worked backward to establish short-term goals. With the unexpected impact of COVID-19, many of these big picture plans lost steam. This is particularly true for small businesses. While a number of larger companies may have the resources to continue to scale in spite of the current situation, a good amount of those operations with no more than a few dozen employees are fighting just to survive. How can companies of any size adapt their vision and execution to the unique challenges affecting 2020 and beyond?
Today’s guest answers that question. We have interviewed Kathy Bowman Atkins, Founder, and CEO of The Lattitude Group. She helps other CEOs and business leaders set the course for their business. She has perfected the process for change and does something that most consultants don’t: follow-up and follow-through.
1) What led you to where you are now professionally?
Like many other consultants, I started my career in corporate America and ended up as an executive doing mergers and acquisitions for a Fortune 100 company. I was traveling 80% of the time all over the world and had parents with very severe illnesses, so I decided to take a break for about 10 months along with a colleague who was experiencing much of the same. We put our heads together and planned for our future. We realized that our strengths in corporate America were setting a vision and inspiring people to it, and recognizing the potential in people who couldn't see it in themselves and helping them realize it. That’s what led us to start The Lattitude Group.
2) How should small business owners proceed in the wake of COVID-19?
We’re a very long-term, strategic company. We traditionally look at the five-year plan then break it down into smaller timeframes, but because of COVID-19, we have to do a reversal of that due to all the uncertainty. Don’t worry about your five-year vision, because we don’t know enough to predict what’s going to happen. Instead, let’s talk about the next six months.
We put together a three-part process for this that depends on where your business is. We’re looking at the projections and asking what’s the worst-case scenario, financially. What opportunities have been missed and what can be capitalized on within the next six months? We help them define those and then execute them, all the while helping them with accountability and change management.
Weekly, we’re going to set one or two metrics that you’re going to absolutely manage. If those metrics go off-kilter, we make changes. That’s the way it is. Once we get through those six months, we then talk about what the future holds. Then it’s another six-month plan. By the end of 2021, we can start looking at big, strategic things. Otherwise, we plant stakes in the ground and start planning around that.
3) What would you advise those established companies that are actually ready and eager to scale even during COVID-19?
We have colleagues in the large format printing business. That market has become somewhat soft right now, but as it turns out, their equipment can make plexiglass. Their business is now booming thanks to their making the shift to creating plexiglass for a variety of companies.
There are a couple of questions that you, as a business owner, need to ask upfront: Is this our new business (and it most likely is not) and does this sustain us such that we can actually think about what to do when our traditional business comes back so that we’re better prepared coming out of COVID-19 than we were going into it.
We have to talk to the owners and ask them why they’re doing business and what they’re trying to accomplish for themselves. They should also define what they’re willing to do and not do to get there—in other words, their values. The owners get the first take of where the business goes because they put in real equity and sweat equity.
We then interview their employees and ask them what their experience is like working at the company, what they think the company’s strengths and weaknesses are, where they think the company is going, and what they would change if they had the authority to do so.
We require the company to commit to working with us for a year, which will include monthly check-ins. We also remind them that they, as the leaders of their business, have to lead the charge and keep their people accountable. If you have lukewarm engagement, you’re going to get lukewarm execution.
We then determine who will be on the strategic planning team. These are the people across the business who are thought, leaders, and change agents. It’s a smaller team but we still want to have a good cross-section.
Finally, we then give them prep work, which is a two-day process. They will evaluate existing and potential products and services in terms of profitability. Same thing with regards to markets, systems, and processes. We also do an internal SWOT analysis. Basically, we’re using templates to collect data, which we then bring to the team, who will discuss that data, turning these observations into goals, and translating these goals into actions in the form of modules that contribute to the five-year plan, which will be adjusted as needed.
4) What would be your advice to small businesses with limited resources?
There are a couple of things. If they can’t afford third-party resources, I suggest they look to free resources in the form of small business centers at local universities and mentorship via SCORE. Secondly, as a small company, if you do a really good internal SWOT analysis, you would probably surface the two or three biggest things you need to be working on because your business is not that complex with a ton of moving parts (even if it feels that way). You don’t have to have a fancy project management software, either. I don’t care if you put it on an Excel spreadsheet. Just write it down and have routine meetings where you’re looking at these things and seeing how you’re doing. Anybody can do that if they’re willing to exercise the discipline to do it.
5) What are some of the accountability steps that smaller companies need to take when putting their plans into action?
The owners and leaders of the business have to regularly reinforce these focus areas with their people. They should go to each individual department or even team member and follow-up on progress and offer help to those who may need it. In a small business, it’s what a leader does and expects that happens.
6) What KPIs should companies be measuring?
As a former CFO, I only considered the bottom line. But for most companies, we need to come up with a very small set of company-wide KPIs that everyone can relate to. Not everyone can relate to IBIDA or net income or some other audacious goal. If you can break it down into a few key areas that everyone can relate to, such as subsets of that net income, your team members can point to these things and confidently say that they understand what these factors are and what they’re doing to contribute to making them happen. Everything that’s worth doing can be measured, whether directly or indirectly.
Utilize the Law of Gracious Plenty, which does not concern itself with exactness for exactness’ sake (i.e. we need to spend 10.75 hours on this goal). This will kill a lot of your team’s capacity for flexibility and adaptation as you proceed through your six-month plans.
7) Who is your ideal client at The Lattitude Group?
We have a clearly defined ideal client profile. On the strategy side, we are looking for healthy $25 million to $250 million in companies that are privately held with owners who have an articulated purpose for their business. Those businesses have very little red tape and we have a lot of potentials to make really great relationships to the point these types of clients stay with us for up to four-and-a-half years. On the people development side, we do executive coaching. That’s the one area where we target larger corporations.
8) Why would people want to check out your free download on go.lattitudegroup.com?
I think that this download can help a lot of business owners of different sizes. This guide contains ten questions that business owners need to be asking themselves in terms of preparing for their future and solidifying their goals. They will also be able to schedule a free one-hour consultation with us to discuss the most important things that they need to focus on.
9) What was your worst experience as an entrepreneur and what lessons came out of it?
Anyone who’s been in business for as long as I have has had a bad patch. When the Great Recession hit in 2008, we were impacted by that. We didn’t lose clients since we formed great relationships, but they certainly contracted. The volume of the business was reduced significantly. So we did what a lot of businesses did, which was to look at how long this would last and what our run-rate would be. We didn’t lay any people off, but we made some big changes. We also sat down with our clients and let them know that we had their best interests at heart, which was a big reason they stayed.
For me, I was always a big thinker and risk-taker. That experience definitely impacted my thinking. While I haven’t gone completely the opposite way, I do strive ahead with some reserves behind me now.
Realize that every company’s five-year plan at the start of 2020 is now outdated. If you’re a small business owner, focus on your six-month plan. If you’re a larger company that wishes to scale, create a new five-year plan, then break it down into six-month increments.
Before attempting to define and measure KPIs, get every team member from bottom to top on the same page with regards to your company’s vision, then form a strategic planning team and perform prep work to begin setting goals. When it comes to what kinds of KPIs to focus on, just remember that in all strategic decisions, there must be something that you can measure as a result. Part of that will involve income, but leaders should look at other factors beyond dollars that relate to the rest of the team.
Homework: Now that you know how to break five-year plans down to six-month segments and how to define, track, and measure important metrics, which three to five company-wide KPIs do your strategic planning team agree to relate to your whole team and are worth focusing on?
Learn more about Kathy Bowman Atkins here: