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Getting the Leadership Basics Right

Getting the Leadership Basics Right

by songhai

I recently had the opportunity to interview two CEOs on a single day. While the interviews were conducted for two different projects and initially seemed dissimilar, my review of the notes revealed great commonalities in how the two run their businesses. Their insights make a great playbook for the leadership basics from which every executive can learn.

The first was with Sophi Tranchell, CEO of Divine Chocolate. Divine is a privately held social enterprise based in the U.K. that sources fair-trade cocoa beans from farmers in Ghana who are also part owners of the company. The second interview was with Bill Sandbrook, CEO of U.S. Concrete, a publicly held company based in the U.S. that produces ready-mixed concrete and aggregates. Tranchell is a former antiapartheid activist; Sandbrook’s early career was in the military.

In addition to the everyday challenges of being a CEO, each leader wrestles with making a product composed of multiple commodity ingredients subject to fluctuations in price and availability. Each faces tough competition that requires striking a balance between cost and quality. Each has intricate distribution channels where things can go awry. And both are succeeding by getting these five often-overlooked fundamentals of leadership right.

Hire people who can find meaning through your business. You may think that because everyone loves chocolate, everyone wants to work for a chocolate company. But it is Divine Chocolate’s social mission, not its product, that makes it distinct and draws talent. Tranchell said she seeks to work with people who are “passionate and curious” and want to change the world for the better. She looks for an entrepreneurial spirit and the desire to see “the mission impact along with the business impact.”

Conversely, you may think that it is tough to find top talent longing for a career in concrete. But in an increasingly digital world, working with a tangible, durable product has appeal, said Sandbrook. He tries to find people who “like to build things and spend time outside.” Sandbrook said that he wants people to grow to love the industry and the company. And that’s how you make concrete as sexy as chocolate.

Provide clear, compelling goals. Sandbrook explained that concrete is “a business of small, incremental improvements. You don’t run it with 100 metrics — focus on the key ones.…If you can get your team excited about achieving a goal, what the business is isn’t actually that important.” Tranchell noted that as the CEO of a relatively small business, it is incumbent upon her to ensure that everyone knows what they’re doing. “You have to get good at telling stories so that people know why we are doing what we’re doing. I learned that from my work as an activist,” she said. “Then, be open and transparent with information so everyone knows where we are and where we are going.” She sends employees to Ghana regularly to see how their work affects the farmers with whom they work.

Give people a path for growth and impact. Tranchell said that for many young people, “student debt makes it difficult for them to put their money where their mouths are” with regard to bringing their values to their work. Social enterprises can help fill that gap by paying a wage that allows young people to recognize their impact while still being able to make ends meet and pay off student loans. Furthermore, she hires people in all stages of their careers in each of the geographic areas from which the company distributes, and gives those employees freedom to build that local business.

The CEOs’ insights make a great playbook for the leadership basics from which every executive can learn.

Sandbrook said that U.S. Concrete lays out a clear map for maturing into management. “Expect to make decisions early and be rewarded for performance,” he said. He wants people at all levels to be strategic “chess players,” willing to make decisions and be innovative and creative in the “basic blocking-and-tackling” in the business. Strategic thinkers at a concrete company may have a different kind of impact than they would at a social enterprise, but it can be just as motivating to make a difference in how a company does business as it is to affect society at large.

Foster a positive, supportive culture. Sandbrook said that he encourages an environment of collaboration and respect where “egos are checked at the door” and expressed a high tolerance for low-consequence mistakes as learning experiences. “If you cut people off at the legs for making a mistake, they will work to be the one not to decide,” he said. “That hurts the business.” He also noted that the company’s performance focus means that no one has to watch a clock. “You can succeed here and still have a life.”

Lead with a higher purpose. Tranchell told me that she has trouble with the notion of leadership as an end in itself. “You don’t [run an organization] to ‘do’ leadership,” she said. “You do it because you see change that needs to happen and you can make a difference. I believe we need accountable and transparent companies that are willing to address social injustice.” Tranchell clearly draws heavily on her experience as an activist, a time she describes as one in which people wanted to change the world and, in the case of apartheid, actually did. She aims to pass on not simply the passion but also the belief that collective action can have impact. “Lots of people thought Divine Chocolate wouldn’t work,” she said. “We believed it would and it has.”Similarly, Tranchell spoke of a culture that is “fair and inclusive that emphasizes sharing,” one in which “we try to stay nimble and have fun.” As a small business, “we can still get everyone in the same room once a month to celebrate success and solve problems.”

Sandbrook came into the private sector after cultivating an ethos of service in the military. His higher purpose — “having that team accomplish things they might not have even known were possible” — reflects that heritage. He described his greatest satisfaction and self-actualization as team building. “It’s the intangible rewards, not the tangible,” he said. “I thrive when I can motivate them to a higher level.”

The hard (and sweet) truth: Amid the never-ending blizzard of leadership books and talks with the latest advice, it is good to remember that getting the basics right is the first, essential step to building a great organization.

Eric J. McNulty is the director of research at the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative and writes frequently about leadership and resilience.

Executives and Salespeople Are Misaligned — and the Effects Are Costly

by songhai

​​by Frank V. Cespedes


Companies spend their sales forces about three times more than they spend on all ad media. Sales is, by far, the most expensive part of strategy execution for most firms. Yet, on average, companies deliver only 50% to 60% of the financial performance that their strategies and sales forecasts have promised. And more than half of executives (56%) say that their biggest challenge is ensuring that their daily decisions about strategy and resource allocation are in alignment with their companies’ strategies. That’s a lot of wasted money and effort.

So what’s the problem?

According to an assessment of over 700 sales professionals and senior executives conducted by GrowthPlay — the problem stems from gaps between the perceptions, attitudes, and information flows between executives and sales reps.

The assessment asked respondents — executives, middle managers, and sale reps from companies of all sizes in a variety of industries such as consumer goods, telecommunications, manufacturing, wholesaling, and travel/hospitality — to answer a series of questions about how well their companies’ strategic directions inform six critical elements of their sales approaches: their target customers, the sales tasks generated by those customers’ buying journeys, the type of sales people best suited to perform those tasks, how the firm organizes its sales and other go-to-market efforts, and the cross-functional interactions required to sell and deliver value to customers.

The results show that executives feel that they have a high level of understanding of their companies’ strategic priorities, while sales reps — who aren’t typically in the planning meetings, on the conference calls, or roaming the halls with the people crafting strategy — said they did not.

There are other gaps, too. For example, leaders sees deficiencies in most categories related to core sales tasks and sales personnel. The only category in which executives rate more positively than salespeople is compensation, which isn’t surprising since executives determines pay policies!


 From these results, a broad story emerges: Senior leaders have a better relative understanding of the company’s direction than sale reps, but are concerned that they don’t have the right sales processes and people.

For their part, salespeople are confident in their abilities to execute, but admit they have little understanding of the strategic direction, and its implications for their behavior, at their respective companies.

To add to that, the groups are far apart on basic elements such as recruiting, hiring, training, and role alignment. You can see why a simple statement —“I’m from Corporate and I’m here to help you”— is one of the oldest jokes in many firms.

If and when leaders want to make changes, misalignment sets up a costly and frustrating cycle.

The sales force gets better and better at things that leaders and customers value less and less while remaining unclear about performance expectations.

Companies fail to get the most out of the $12 billion a year they spend on sales enablement tools and the billions more on CRM technology.

And hiring the right candidates also becomes a problem, especially as new buying processes, driven by online technologies, reshape selling tasks. If information isn’t flowing between senior execs and front-line customer-contact people, leaderswon’t be able to keep up with the new skills and sales tasks they should be hiring for.

If any or all of these steps are taken without improving the sales team’s understanding of the company’s business objectives, the result is a “competency trap”: the salesforce gets better at their routines, but these same routines keep the firm, and its top team, from gaining experience with procedures more relevant to changing market conditions.

In order to achieve alignment, companies need to break these routines and treat causes, not symptoms. This is often difficult because multiple stakeholders across functions must invest in a new approach while still meeting their own obligations to keep the current business running. But good planning and proper leadership support can help.

Consider a large home energy provider in a mature, commoditized market where deregulation is driving down revenue and profit. To spur growth, the company committed to a strategy of diversifying their product offering. This meant transforming a salesforce, which had been conditioned to sell on price, to sell value-added services.

Here is what the leadership team did:

They linked strategy to behaviors. Beginning with conversations with frontline salespeople and managers, they asked, “Are the salespeople having a conversation that helps customers see the value of these services?” In the cases where reps weren’t, the team identified the selling behaviors that needed to be abandoned and then established a new sales process and set of sales tasks that needed to be clarified and executed.

They changed their approach to training. They also committed to an intensive effort that spread the learning out over a series of weeks, allowing the incumbent salespeople to apply behaviors gradually rather than trying to learn the entire process at once.  The process was tweaked for the new hires and incorporated into their on-boarding. This is aligned with what research tells us about the importance of deliberate practice in training for results. Acquiring new behavioral skills (versus concepts) requires repetition; people must try a new behavior multiple times before it becomes practiced enough to be comfortable and effective.

Simultaneously, sales managers went through a series of development sessions to develop their coaching skills. The goal was to focus performance conversations on how sales people were serving their customers and the value-selling process inherent in the strategy.

They revamped their compensation and performance evaluations. Commissions were adjusted to reflect the importance of the value-added services, and additional incentives were added to reward those sales reps that exhibited the behaviors required to execute the strategy, not only the revenue outcomes. Further, adherence to the sales process was added to the salesperson’s evaluation scorecard and, perhaps most important, reviews were now taken seriously — by managers and individual reps — as a strategy execution and development tool, not only a compensation discussion.

They changed their hiring/recruiting efforts. The biggest personnel shift related to front-line sales managers.  The company began evaluating potential managers based on their ability to coach and reinforce the process, not simply on their performance as a salesperson.

Sales performance and competitive positioning have improved significantly for this company. Its leadersh articulated the firm’s strategy in a clear and consistent manner and analyzed the gap between the current sales tasks and those required to meet the new strategic objectives. And while their approach involved elements of training, compensation, performance reviews, and hiring practices, it was the sequence in which they addressed those areas that drove alignment.

Execution Is a People Problem, Not a Strategy Problem

Execution Is a People Problem, Not a Strategy Problem

by songhai

Paul,* the CEO of Maxreed, a global publishing company, was having trouble sleeping. Publishing is an industry that’s changing even faster than most other fast-changing industries, but Paul wasn’t awake worrying about his strategy. He had a solid plan that took advantage of new technologies, and the board and his leadership team were aligned around it. Paul and his team had already reorganized the structure — new divisions, revised roles, redesigned processes — to support their strategy.

So what was Paul worrying about? People.

Which is precisely what he should be worrying about. However hard it is to devise a smart strategy, it’s ten times harder to get people to execute on that strategy. And a poorly executed strategy, no matter how clever, is worthless.

In other words, your organization’s biggest strategic challenge isn’t strategic thinking — it’s strategic acting.

If I were to depict the challenge graphically, it would be going from this:


To this:


The conundrum is how to get from the first graphic to the second one. Most organizations rely on communication plans to make that shift. Unfortunately, strategy communication, even if you do it daily, is not the same as — and is not enough to drive — strategy execution.

Because while strategy development and communication are about knowing something, strategy execution is about doing something. And the gap between what you know and what you do is often huge. Add in the necessity of having everyone acting in alignment with each other, and it gets even huger.

The reason strategy execution is often glossed over by even the most astute strategy consultants is because primarily it’s not a strategy challenge. It’s a human behavior one.

To deliver stellar results, people need to be hyper-aligned and laser-focused on the highest-impact actions that will drive the organization’s most important outcomes.

But even in well-run, stable organizations, people are misaligned, too broadly focused, and working at cross-purposes.

This isn’t critical only for a changing company in a changing industry like Paul’s. It’s also true for fast-growing startups. And companies in turn-around situations. And those with new leadership. Any time it’s critical to focus on strategy — and when isn’t it? — the most important strategy question you need to answer is: How can we align everyone’s efforts and help them accomplish the organization’s most important work?

That’s the question Paul reached out to ask me. Below is the solution we implemented with him at Maxreed. We call it The Big Arrow Process, and it represents my best thinking after 25 years of experimenting with this very challenge.

Define the Big Arrow

We worked with Paul and a small group of his leaders to identify the most important outcome for Maxreed to achieve over the following 12 months. Their Big Arrow had to do with creating a strategy and product roadmap that was supported by the entire leadership team. The hardest part of this is getting to that one most important thing, the thing that would be a catalyst for driving the rest of the strategy forward.

Once we defined the Big Arrow, we tested it with a series of questions. If you answer “yes” to each of these questions, it’s likely that your Big Arrow is on target:

  • Will success in the Big Arrow drive the mission of the larger organization?
  • Is the Big Arrow supporting, and supported by, your primary business goals?
  • Will achieving it make a statement to the organization about what’s most important?
  • Will it lead to the execution of your strategy?
  • Is it the appropriate stretch?
  • Are you excited about it? Do you have an emotional connection to it?

Along with that outcome clarity, we also created behavioral clarity by identifying the most important behavior that would lead to achieving the outcome. For Maxreed, the behavior was about collaborating with trust and transparency. We determined this by asking a few questions: What current behavior do we see in the organization that will make driving the Big Arrow harder and make success less likely? We then articulated the opposite, which became our Big Arrow behavior. 

Identify the Highest-Impact People

Once the Big Arrow was clear, we worked with Paul and his HR partner to identify the people who were most essential to achieving the goal. Doing this is critical because you want to focus your efforts and resources on the people who will have the most impact on the Big Arrow. In the case of Maxreed, we identified 10 people whose roles were core to the project, who already had organizational authority, and who were highly networked. With other clients, we’ve identified many more people at all levels of the hierarchy. As you think about who might be the appropriate people, ask the questions: Who has the greatest capacity to affect the forward momentum of the arrow? Who is an influencer in the organization? Who has an outsize impact on our Big Arrow outcome or behavior? Those are the people you should choose.

Determine What They Should Focus On

Once we established the key people, we worked with each of them and their managers to determine their:

  • Key contribution to moving the Big Arrow forward
  • Pivotal strength that will allow them to make their key contribution
  • Game changer, the thing that, if the person improves, will most improve their ability to make their key contribution 

One of the things that makes this process successful is its simplicity. It’s why we settled on one pivotal strength and one most critical game changer. Strategy execution needs to be laser-focused, and one of the biggest impediments to forward momentum on our most important work is trying to get forward momentum on all our work. Simplicity requires that we make choices. What will have the biggest impact? Then we make that one thing happen.

Hold Laser-Focused Coaching Sessions

Once we made sure the right people had the right focus, we coached in laser-focused, 30-minute one-on-one coaching sessions. Coaching is often used in organizations to fix a leader’s flaws, but that is not the focus of this kind of coaching. Here, the leaders were coached to focus on making clear headway on their key contribution to the Big Arrow. These conversations only focus on larger behavioral patterns to the extent that they are getting in the way of the task at hand.

Collect and Share Data

Because we were coaching multiple people, we were able to maintain strict confidentiality with the individuals being coached while collecting data about trends and organizational obstacles they were facing, which we reported to Paul and his leadership team. This wasn’t just opinion survey data; it represented the real obstacles preventing Maxreed’s most valuable people from driving the company’s most important priorities forward.

One of the main challenges we uncovered was a lack of cross-functional collaboration. Armed with that insight, Paul was able to address this issue directly, getting the key people in a room together and speaking openly about the issue. Eventually, he initiated a new cross-functional Big Arrow process that included leaders from the groups that weren’t collaborating. Identifying what they needed to achieve together broke down the walls between the groups.

Amplify Performance

While Paul removed organizational obstacles, coaches continued to help Maxreed’s most critical people address the particular obstacles and challenges they faced as they delivered their key contribution. Coaches addressed the typical challenges people struggle with when executing strategy: how to communicate priorities, how to deal with someone who is resistant, how to influence someone who doesn’t report to you, how to say no to distractions, and so on. The coaching prioritized helping people build relationships on their own teams and across silos, which was supported by the data and the Big Arrow key behavior of collaborating with trust and transparency. Individuals aligned with the goals of the organization to drive continued growth and success.

While the Big Arrow process is ongoing, we sent out a survey to people being coached as well as others outside the program to assess progress being made by the key contributors. Compared to before the coaching, are they more effective or less effective at making their key contribution, achieving the outcomes of the Big Arrow, and addressing their game changer? There were 98 responses to the survey:

Key contribution: 90% said either more effective or much more effective.

Big Arrow: 88% said either more effective or much more effective.

Game Changer: 84% said either more effective or much more effective.

In other words, the key contributors were getting massive traction in moving the organization’s most important work — its key strategy — forward. This data was confirmed by Paul’s own observations of the progress they’ve made on their Big Arrow outcome, a strategy and product roadmap that is supported by the entire leadership team.

Maybe most important, the broader organization was noticing. Which, of course, is how you start a movement.

Paul is still working hard to continue the momentum of the strategic shift. That’s the point, really: Strategy execution is not a moment in time. It’s thousands of moments across time.

But now, at least, it’s happening.

*Names and some details have been changed to protect privacy.

Peter Bregman is CEO of Bregman Partners, a company that strengthens leadership in people and in organizations through programs (including the Bregman Leadership Intensive), coaching, and as a consultant to CEOs and their leadership teams. Best-selling author of 18 Minutes, his most recent book is Four Seconds (February 2015). To receive an email when he posts, click here.

The Songhai Group Hosts Ghana Go Global Workshop to Fuel Ghana’s Economic Growth

by songhai
 June 6, 2016

A country’s knowledge capital can be estimated looking at what it produces and sells to the rest of the world. Today a bulk of Ghana’s economic growth is coming from selling resources we dig from the ground and ship outside. That is not sustainable. The only way we can generate the next big level of economic growth is by harnessing our existing knowledge through innovation and entrepreneurship. We need to create more high value jobs, in the face of a tsunami of global competition. Read More

Fidelity Bank works with Songhai to build capacity of selected SMEs to attract investors

by songhai
August 26, 2015.

Fidelity bank in partnership with Entrepreneurship Ventures and Songhai has organized a two day workshop for selected businesses in Ghana under the theme “Taking Ideas to Market Globally”.
The workshop which was held at the Labadi Beach Hotel, aimed at enabling businesses to acquire insights on how to pitch their business to potential regional and international investors.

Mr Ken Morse who served on the National Advisory Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship, set up by President Obama in delivering the workshop, explained that customer oriented and a scientific sales driven culture is the most important differentiator between highly successful and average firms. Read More