Entrepreneurship is a long, complicated road, often littered with unforeseen landmines and fires that need to be put out. It’s not a lifestyle for the timid, and its fast-paced nature rarely presents opportunities for contemplative reflection. As 2023 unfolds, however, it’s important to take a step back and look at areas where your business may need more attention in order to achieve your goals.
We interviewed prominent leaders at three companies and asked them why they thinking taking a step back to review company processes is a necessary task. Where should they begin?
“Entrepreneurs start their companies to pursue their dreams,” says Greg Alexander, CEO at Collective 54, the first mastermind community for boutique professional services firms. “Yet, in pursuit of these dreams, life gets in the way. Between emails, Zoom calls, and client meetings, it’s important to step back from time to time to sift through the noise and remember why you’re in business to begin with.”
Harshith Ramesh, co-CEO of Episource, a leading provider of risk adjustment services, software, and solutions for health plans and medical groups, said he tries to look at tasks in terms of the “Eisenhower Matrix,” a 2×2 table grouping tasks by how important and urgent they are.
“When you’re building a business — and especially in the early stages when you’re in high-growth mode — you end up spending all your time in the ‘important and urgent’ bucket,” he says. “In the early days, it’s okay; you’re doing everything you can to get and keep customers. You’re trying to survive and just get it done. However, you have to keep in mind that you start racking up organizational debt while doing so.”
What if ‘what if’ happens?
Larry Clarke, CEO at NanoGuard Technologies, which leverages the power of technology to prevent food and feed waste and aid food recovery efforts, understands the pressures of a startup lifestyle all-too-well. When asked how he’s doing, he answers matter-of-factly that he’s spinning like a top.
“While it is true, it is also seen as a badge of honor. In reality, my answer should be ‘I am quietly reflecting on the long-term business strategy and direction.’ Doesn’t have the same pizzazz, does it?”
While a startup requires that everyone be willing to step up and do a little bit of everything, a CEO needs to be able to look back and evaluate what’s working in order to sow the seeds of future success.
“That means allotting specific time to step back and review the greater marketplace, the long-term goals of the business, and how to articulate these to myself and stakeholders,” Clarke says. “Someone must always be thinking about the ‘what if.’ What if the technology doesn’t work? What if the markets change? What if someone else bring along a better, more disruptive mousetrap? Someone needs to be considering Plan B and C. And even D.”
Startups, by their very nature, run the risk of needing to pivot on a dime. But when they focus to the point of obsession, they can’t accomplish that easily and may miss out on prime opportunities.
“Taking time to let your mind wander is a good thing,” says Clarke.
Going from doer to thinker
The leaders of small companies are scrappy and prefer to get things done, so going from a “doer” to a “thinker” is not an easy transition. To force the issue, Clarke believes that blocking off a set period in the day for “big-picture” thinking is key.
“Making the time is time well-spent because it is the effort, that over time, creates value. I take time out at some point in each day to just think,” said Clarke. That structure—and the right tools—are helpful to get into that contemplative mindset.
“I like a whiteboard,” says Clarke. “Also, thinking out loud helps me. Having someone to listen and question your thoughts in a broad way, not trying to direct you, but creating an open dialogue to help the process along.”
Ramesh said he makes it a point to block off some time on his calendar on a weekly basis to address these “Important & Not Urgent” issues.
“Historically, our company ran pretty lean,” he said. “However, over the last few years, we’ve over-invested in our organization, hiring executives and managers in key positions in which one of their primary responsibilities is to focus on where the business most needs attention. We ask that our executives and managers dedicate around 20-30% of their time to these issues and how they can optimize the business. Thus, it’s important that entrepreneurs and business leaders take some time to step back and address what’s in the bucket of ‘Important & Not Urgent.’”
Asking the right questions
As you think about your business processes and procedures, here are a few guiding questions that you can consider:
● Are we properly investing in all areas of the business (finance, legal, compliance, IT, sales, etc.)?
● Do we have a strong people program and culture? Are we developing leaders? Do we have a strong hiring and training process? Do we have competitive compensation and performance management?
● What does our three-year plan look like?
● What are the biggest risks to the business? Do we have plans in place to mitigate those risks?
● Could we improve our consultants, advisors, and/or board of directors?
In Ramesh’s experience, a business can’t — and shouldn’t — be overly dogmatic about sustainability and scalability.
“In the early stages of growing a business, it’s especially critical to understand your clients, build solutions to solve their needs, and generate revenue,” says Ramesh. “If you consciously make the decision to move fast in the business’s infancy, know that down the line you’ll need to refocus your energies and strike a new balance to create a scalable, long-term business.”
While you’re looking forward, take the time to look backward, too. Twice per year, Alexander reviews the original business plan he wrote before launching his firm in 2019.
“A lot has changed since then. Many of my assumptions were wrong, and some were correct. But, what has not changed is the mission, vision, values, and goals I set forth pre-launch,” Alexander says. “I remind myself of these and screen the current reality against them. If we are not living the mission, vision, values, and goals, we recalibrate. These are the North Star, and they never change. But the business tactics change all the time.
“It takes 15 years to become an overnight success. As much as things change, the truly important items change very little.”