5 Things You Can Learn From a 9x Turnaround CEO

5 Things You Can Learn From a 9x Turnaround CEO

5 Things You Can Learn From a 9x Turnaround CEO

Several years ago I met 9x turnaround CEO and author Dick Cross not long after he published his first book, Just Run It!. At the time, I really liked the way he talked about business fundamentals, energizing employees, and thinking strategically about the things that will help build a strong company—regardless of how large or how small a business might be. I found him to be one of the most genuine and candid business leaders I’ve ever met and came away with several things you can learn from this very smart guy who has made a career out of turning around struggling companies.

In light of our current economic situation, I think his advice is more relevant today than it was when I first heard it several years ago and thought sharing these 5 things you can learn from a 9x turnaround CEO would benefit a lot of small businesses currently struggling through the economic challenges associated with the coronavirus.

Fear is the Enemy

“Most people are controlled by fear,” he would say. “Far to many CEOs let fear make their decisions for them.”

I’d never put it into words like this before, but I’ve personally witnessed this over the course of my nearly 40 years working in small business as well as the time I spent leading a small business or two myself. Today it’s often called “Imposter Syndrome,” but Dick simply described it as being afraid of being discovered as a fraud because you don’t know everything everyone thinks you should know.

I think that’s why so many business leaders, or small business owners, feel like they need to be the smartest person in the room and don’t want an underling, or someone who works for them, to appear to know something they don’t know. There are too many leaders in the situation where they make too many defensive decisions that keep their companies from achieving greatness.

Dick would say, “Admit that you don’t know everything. Surround yourself with smart people and learn from them.”

The Wrong Metrics Can Do More Harm than Good

It’s human nature to impact the metrics you pay the most attention to and tracking (and impacting) the wrong things can actually hurt a business. I wouldn’t describe Dick as “anti-metrics”, but he would argue that you should focus on the things that are really important and avoid tracking metrics of marginal importance just because you can. One of the things you can learn from a 9x turnaround CEO is that you need to focus on the right metrics.

He called it, “Your business on the back of an envelope,” because he divided the most important metrics a business owner or a CEO should pay attention to into four categories and used the folds of an envelope to divide them:

  1. Customers: He wasn’t talking about demographics here, but rather trying to figure out how they think? What motivates them? What’s important to them? What do they care about the most?
  2. Needs: Of the things your customers care about the most, what can you help them with? What fear can you alleviate? How can you help your customers feel better about what they’re doing? “That line of thought leads me way beyond the customary boundaries of the business and what it did,” he says. “Into things that were only tangential to what it actually sold. And even into others that were entirely unrelated. Except for the opportunity that might exist, by virtue of the touch of the transaction, to do something special for them.” He described making business personal and customers more than transactional.
  3. Positioning: What do your customers see when they see you? How do your competitors and the broader marketplace see you? What does your company need to do to make your product or service their first choice?
  4. Competencies: Does your company have the skills and competencies that will enable you to deliver on the ideas that come to light when you think about Customers, Needs, and Positioning, this way? If there are holes in your competencies, how are you going to fill them?

Many of the metrics most businesses focus on don’t really tell this story. I can hear many of the business owners I know describing this as an oversimplification of what goes on in a business, but don’t let the simplicity of this approach fool you. Shouldn’t the success metrics that really matter be those that demonstrate the value our products or services deliver to our customers? Isn’t that the way to take the customer relationship beyond a simple transaction and help build a business that fosters the kind of customer loyalty that thrives in good times and bad?

Dick would argue, and he has with me, that if you can get these four metrics right, the others fall into place.

Treat People Like Volunteers, Not Employees

As a business owner, I expected my people to give me their best every day—and most of the time I think they did. My job, at least how I saw it, was to give them reasons to come back and do it again tomorrow. Dick would say that employees have a choice. They can work for you or go someplace else. 

I’ve observed over the years that is true even in a challenging economy.

I’ve spent the last nearly 40 years working in small businesses and have had my share of bosses who felt like I should just feel lucky to have a job. I’ve also worked for people (although these leaders were rare) who inspired me to give my best every day. They didn’t treat me like a disposable employee, but tried to give me reasons to show up and give my best again tomorrow. The small business owners who can do that will build companies that are truly successful regardless of what the economy is doing.

We need to spend time creating places where our employees want to be, doing important work that provides value to our customers, and as leaders we need to become the kind of people we want to work with—it’s not about what you say, but what you do.

Character Matters

I don’t know if Dick is a religious man or not, but it doesn’t matter. He describes the character traits of a successful business leader in terms that would be at home in a Sunday School class. He would argue (and so do I), that you shouldn’t mistakenly think these traits don’t belong in the workplace and shouldn’t inform how we interact with each other—because they should.

  1. Patience
  2. Kindness
  3. Generosity of Spirit
  4. Courtesy
  5. Humility
  6. Unselfishness
  7. Good Humor
  8. Guilelessness
  9. Sincerity

Since becoming acquainted with Dick, I try to evaluate the relationships I have with my colleagues against these metrics—and believe everyone who runs a business (large and small) should do the same. I’m not the CEO of Nav, but I still try to do this introspection on a regular basis and believe it empowers me to be better at what I do than I otherwise would.

Take Time to Think About What You’re Doing

This is probably one of the hardest things a business owner can do, but Dick argues it’s one of the most important things you can do every week. Set aside 60 minutes of uninterrupted time three times a week to do nothing but think about your business. He argues that this is the real job of the person at the top. The insight and inspiration you’ll gain will benefit your business more than you can imagine.

It’s far too easy to get distracted by the minutiae of the day. Step away from email, don’t answer phone calls, shut your door and just think about what’s going on in your business. You’ll probably feel like you should be doing something more productive with your time, but Dick would argue that this is the most productive time of the week.

I haven’t been a small business owner for a very long time now, but I’m convinced I’m better at what I do because of my association with Dick—and there are only a handful of people I can really say that about.

Post COVID-19 your business will likely need an edge to claw its way out of the slump caused by a few brutal months in shutdown mode. I can’t think of better advice to give than that of my friend Dick Cross. Take advantage of these 5 things you can learn from a 9x turnaround CEO.

This article was originally written on May 26, 2020.

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