I in a recent meeting with about 15 local small business CEOs I was struck by a discussion about one firm’s growth struggles. While 2010 will be the first profitable year in the firm’s 7 year history, the CEO is convinced that her back office staff are holding the firm back from growing profitably. “We should be able to double our sales with the same amount of staff but instead we are slowing down our sales people because our back office can’t manage to keep up.” She provided some examples of their poor performance — “Cindy doesn’t even know that she’s supposed to contact a sales manager if a customer calls with a question about pricing and our new proposal specialist continues to put the bid packages together in a disjointed manner”.
The CEO’s colleagues peppered her with questions and two very distinct perspectives emerged. On the one hand several colleagues suggested that she should “just fire the poor performing staff and bring in some ‘A’ players”. They went on to suggest that what the CEO really needs is “self starters who can remove obstacles and just get the job done”. The other perspective that surfaced was a recommendation to “conduct a detailed process review to understand what’s getting in the way and to identify mechanisms for streamlining back office operations”.
After about 45 minutes of a professional but heated exchange, the CEO stood up, thanked the group for their questions and input and summarized her plans for moving forward. “While I am concerned about the capabilities of a few of our key staff, I really like the idea of a process review because together with their input we can identify ways to standardize the process, clarify roles and expectations, and measure how we are performing. We clearly have not taken the time to do this important work and if we are going to meet our sales and margin targets we simply have no choice. Not only will this process review facilitate our growth but also will serve as a mechanism for us to continually learn and refine how we execute. Sure, I want a team of people who ‘just get the job done’ but we need to work together to establish some rules of the game.”
While I had never met this CEO before I was extremely impressed by her ability to authentically seek multiple perspectives, address her firm’s deficiencies (as well as her own), and promptly develop a thoughtful course of action. In my opinion her ability to take responsibility for the firm’s inattention to process and to give her back office staff the opportunity to participate in solving an important strategic problem will pay big dividends.