This month we kick off a series of ‘Innovators’ features with a look at how Mal McGowan is putting his company’s motto into practice.
There are almost as many theories about how to run a company as there are companies. These theories go in and out of fashion so often because management is actually incredibly situation specific. A stroke of genius in one context can be a strategic blunder in another. That’s why many business leaders don’t read tomes on management theory, they devour biographies (often of Napoleon), newspapers (Warren Buffett still reads the Wall Street Journal from cover to cover everyday) and ask questions.
Seven out of ten Brits, according to one of those endless surveys someone somewhere is always churning out, spend more than a minute on hold when calling a business. While they are being held against their will, they are often subjected to a blast of hideously inappropriate music: Tina Turner’s Simply The Best is an enduring favourite. Some firms – notably Virgin Media – let you choose the kind of music you have to listen to. That sounds helpful but it does raise the question: how long does this company expect to hang on?
Greenhouse Graphics ( http://www.greenhousegraphics.co.uk/ ) has gone on better, replacing the strains of over-familiar music with targeted, relevant messages that let listeners know about current promotions, product offerings and why the company – one of a few communications agencies to gain EMAS accreditation – is so darn green. The company is working with PH Media which provides what it calls audio-branding services to 11,000 clients.
Meditate in my direction. That was the intriguing invitation Olivia Newton John’s Sandy made to John Travolta’s Danny in the movie Grease back in 1978. Despite the Aussie popstrel’s allure, meditation has never really been sexy – especially in the workplace. Yet Matthew May, founder of the LA ideas agency Edit Innovation, has suggested that one of the keys to innovation is: “A quiet mind, severed for a time from the problem at hand.”
Before you dismiss this as yet another example of faddish, New Age, nonsense, consider that the leaders of such lacklustre businesses as 3M, Bloomberg, Ford, General Electric, Monsanto, Oracle and Shell all meditate. Medtronic, the $15bn business that is now the world’s largest medical technology group, even sets aside a company conference room for staff to take mental breaks. Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs were keen meditators too.
Any printing company that encourages staff to meditate during office hours will, in the current economic climate and with the managerial conservatism that typifies the industry, face a certain amount of ridicule. Yet 2,000 Shell employees have learned to meditate under a program launched by an entrepreneur called Mandar Apte. One of his maxims is: “Silence is the mother of all creativity.”
Let’s be honest: the average British print firm is about as good at marketing as the British banks were at risk assessment in 2007. If any managing director needed a simple reminder of what they’re probably doing wrong – and could so easily do right – they could do worse than read Jacky Hobson’s blog on FESPA ( http://www.fespa.com/news/blogs/jacky-hobson-biography-blog-profile-up-marketing-print-industry-publications/taking-notice-personal-sales-marketing-demonstrate-engage-future-business-opportunities.html ). The central flaw, Hobson suggests, is that printers are still far too likely to spend most of their time talking about themselves – and the technical specifications of their equipment – rather than the client and how they can help them. And, given what they do for a living, there really is no excuse for companies that market themselves with printed products that are anything less than beautiful.
You may be able to spell strategy but do you know what it means? Most business leaders believe they have a strategy but ask them to define it – or to quantify its success – and you are often greeted with the same old blah blah about being the best in class, investing in quality, having the lowest costs, or – worst of all – living deep within our markets.
If you’re keen to clarify your strategy, you could do worse than read Cynthia Montgomery’s The Strategist: Be The Leader Your Business Needs (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Strategist-Leader-Your-Business-Needs/dp/0007426674 ). She is the Timken Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School and has watched and influenced the debate on corporate strategy that has raged for decades in America. For Montgomery, a true strategic leader is “someone who engages in a conversation about the purpose of that company”. The company’s performance is driven by the quality of that conversation and the way it shapes business decisions.
Montgomery has taught many managers at varying stages of their career and from companies of all sizes. Her students are asked to devise strategies that are critiqued by the class. She remembers one particular business leader from Venezuela who attended many of the sessions and always ask: “What are you doing that’s really distinctive?” Montgomery often asked the same question in a slightly different way: “Help me understand why your business really matters.”
Either way, the answer to that question could improve a company’s strategy – especially if, Montgomery suggests, they are answered not by a CEO working on gut instinct, or coming up with the same old “blah, blah, blah” after a nanosecond’s consideration but after a series of in-depth conversations with senior managers in which the ideas are tested against a variety of situations.
This might all sound too much hassle but it could transform your business. A very experienced non-executive director said whenever he was invited to join the board of a new company, he would visit their head office. What swayed his decision wasn’t the presentations, the profit and loss or the boss’s charisma, it was how the senior executives answered the same question: “What is your strategy?” The more inconsistent the answers, the less likely he was to rate the business.
In 1995, Columbia University professor Sheena Lyengar, one of the world’s leading experts on the art of choosing, conducted a famous study. She presented consumers with two supermarket tables: one with 24 types of jam and the other with just six. Her experiment showed that 60% of customers stopped by the table with 24 choices but only 3% made a purchase. Only 40% of shoppers stopped when presented with the smaller selection of jam but 30% of them made bought something. In an age when we’re constantly trying to give our customers an increasing array of options, sometimes less is more. As US company Cornerstone Print and Marketing has suggested in its blog (http://www.cornerstoneprintmarketing.com/about/news.html/article/2013/04/01/aim-to-own-a-single-idea-in-your-customer-s-mind), sometimes the most successful companies effectively own a phrase in their customers’ minds. When you think search engine, you almost subliminally think Google. The pertinent question this blog asks is: “What word or idea do you want to own in your customers’ minds?”
Wide-format print continues to attract entrepreneurs who want to launch their own businesses. Many of these new companies succeed. Many fail – and not always for the obvious reasons (eg cashflow, a tough market). Hilary Briggs, a profitable growth expert who has worked with many SMEs, has identified seven mistakes many entrepreneurs make (http://hilarybriggs.co.uk/resources/7-mistakes-people-kill-business/ ): doing too much themselves, not knowing what they don’t know, growing too fast before their model is proven to be successful, not having anyone to bounce ideas off or get disinterested feedback from, hiring the wrong people, lacking self-awareness and sticking in their comfort zone because they’re afraid to look ignorant, stupid or weak.
Anyone who has founded or run a business in this industry will, if they analyse that list honestly, admit they have committed at least one of those blunders. Briggs suggests it is especially common for founders of businesses to ignore the fact that not every employee is as passionate about the business as they are.