Four Key Stages Business Leaders Must Overcome to Change Results

The following blog post is reprinted with permission from CONNSTEP, VMEC’s Connecticut sister MEP Center. 

Many small to mid-sized manufacturers, as well as other businesses, simply plod along from year to year. Revenues hover around the same level while wrestling with recurring operational challenges and not managing to “crack the code” for what it takes to get the business to the next level.

The real roadblock that is often preventing progress is typically a matter of not understanding four basic stages that they, the business owner, need to embrace and ultimately navigate.

Meeting with owners over the course of the last several years and reviewing the business challenges and executive’s priorities that our team of Regional Managers address with owners, a common thread emerged that was shared by all. This thread involved four (4) distinct stages the owner would have to move through in order to create a sustainable improvement in their results AND that it was really more about their mindset than specific tools or methodologies.

Before spelling out these four basic stages, here’s a little context. Typically, we meet with owners of small- to mid-sized manufacturing companies. Generally, the issue they tend to be concerned with stems from lacking something – experiencing a lack of growth, or lower profits than desired, or an inability to satisfy a customer requirement, as examples.

It is the symptom that they are living with that has them looking for help and which gets them moving towards these four stages:

1. What to Do

This is that initial stage when an owner reaches the point where they’ve decided that the symptom they have been living with, justifies talking to someone else about it. They recognize the situation is not going to fix itself and they should explore possible ways in which they can remedy the problem.

They go from a place of not knowing what to do to learning more about what is likely the cause of the problem(s) and diagnosing the actual cause of the condition. They get a sense of what it will take to correct the situation or overcome the obstacle that is holding them back. This is often a meeting where we explain the connection between what they are experiencing and the underlying issue that is creating the condition in the first place. Typically, it is a meeting where the owner is learning about what the “real” issue is and what to do about it.

2. Willing to Do

This tends to be the most difficult stage for the owner or president, especially if they’ve built the company with many of the people that are still there today. This is the stage where an owner needs to balance their emotions with what change may mean for the key people who contributed to growing the business over the years. An owner will often struggle with how people will feel about what is happening, how the family-like culture will be impacted and how people may not be as happy coming to work anymore.

This is where the owner will likely start to experience the “chatter” in their head – Will everyone still have a seat on the bus? Do I have the right people to take the business to the next level? What about me, what will it require of me, and is it worth it? What makes this stage unique, is that owners will tend to circle back to it and revisit the internal conversations when things get a little choppy or difficult as they move through the rest of the stages.

3. How to Do

This stage is typically the easiest of the four. It’s about understanding the steps it will take to move from Point A to Point B. What makes this the easiest stage? Owners have multiple options available to them plus they can decide to outsource the work. This can take the form of:

  • training a team on new methodologies
  • reworking an inefficient process
  • bringing in an expert to do analyses
  • spending time mentoring and growing new leaders in production

Better still, it’s common to find a resource that can help you by using a “teach-do” method where your team learns new concepts and then puts them into action to address a specific project under their own roof. The point is you can rely on an assortment of professional resources that will take your people through this phase. You don’t have to go it alone or do it yourself.

4. Continue Doing

At this stage, it’s about sustaining the gains made. Typically, this involves considerations around making things daily work, using metrics to understand how things are performing while also looking for opportunities to continue to improve outcomes. It often requires a shift in the mindset of team members, as well as leaders, striving to create thinkers willing to look for ways to make improvements and empowering them to do this as a part of what they do on an ongoing basis. Leaders need to reinforce the thinking by being inquisitive and being curious about what else team members think they could improve.

The real threat to sustaining gains comes in the form of treating things perceived as being “completed” and now they can move on to something else. Or worse, they go back to doing what they were doing before. The common habit of settling back into what was is most often the challenge. We’ve all heard some version of the saying about what happens to a process in the absence of managing it and how it will revert to what it was. We often see companies slide backward over time. When we meet with them to discuss this, we often hear about changes to people or priorities, all of which are a part of business. But the real tell in these cases is the lack of “ing”, meaning things are past tense and aren’t still being done presently. In order for the improvements to “stick”, you need to keep the associated activities going if you want to continue getting those better results.

If you are a business leader who has been feeling stuck or has been wrestling with the same recurring challenges over the last few years, you don’t have to go it alone. VMEC has a team of Business Advisors who understand the challenges as well as the emotions that come with moving through these stages. Our team is here to help you achieve better business performance you’ve been after.