An Interview with Bob Lisser
Achieving sustained and profitable growth is a goal for commercial entities worldwide. It demands meticulous planning, strategic execution, and a team of dedicated individuals working towards a common objective. Bob Lisser, author and business strategist, unveils the secrets to unlocking this growth advantage in his book aptly titled The Growth Advantage.
The Growth Advantage serves as a comprehensive blueprint for companies seeking to thrive and gain a decisive edge in their respective industries. Lisser’s book is divided into three parts, each focusing on a crucial aspect of growth: the Planning Advantage, the Execution Advantage, and the Company Advantage. By combining these elements, businesses can align their operations with their long-term goals and set themselves up for enduring success.
Through his extensive research and practical experience, Lisser guides readers on a transformative journey that commences with effective planning and culminates in achieving sustainable growth. The book delves into key areas such as developing a growth-oriented company culture, crafting robust strategies, executing flawlessly, acquiring top talent, nurturing employee motivation, fostering accountability, and differentiating one’s brand in a crowded marketplace.
In this interview, we had the pleasure having Bob Lisser delve deeper into the concepts explored in The Growth Advantage.
What is the growth advantage?
Companies that follow proven growth planning and execution strategies typically outpace historic and industry growth averages by a wide margin. When a company consistently outgrows industry averages, they are creating a Growth Advantage. This Growth Advantage makes leaders Strategically Brave; thereby, giving them the security to make hard decisions. Strategically Brave companies are not afraid of growth, expansion, proactive staffing, saying yes to a new idea, saying no to a new idea, raising prices, turning away bad business, and so on. Building a Growth Advantage enhances profit which, in turn, allows these companies to invest more in their competitive and brand advantage. From my experience, the best way to build a Growth Advantage is to commit to growth, develop and execute a strategic growth plan, outgrow the competition, invest in your market advantage, and become Strategically Brave.
You start your book talking about goals. Why is it that most people don’t know their company’s main goals? What techniques help close this gap?
As I travel the country, I find one consistent theme: most executives, managers, and employees are “unaimed,” meaning they don’t know their company’s top goals or how they contribute to those goals. I’ve asked hundreds of executives, managers, and frontline employees and have yet to find one company where I get a consistent answer at the top, let alone from the executive team to the front line. Sure, most employees know their company wants to grow and make money, but they don’t know the specific goals, how they contribute to those goals, or the Predictive Behaviors they must perform on a daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annual basis to accomplish these outcomes.
When it comes to planning, there are three types of companies. The first company does not have the capability or thinks that they are too busy to spend time in planning and strategy sessions. Accordingly, they don’t have shared goals or focus. They keep working hard and can’t figure out why results have stalled or are declining. The second company does annual planning but only communicates the goals and strategy once each year at an annual meeting. Employees in this situation lose focus and commitment and are not sure how they contribute. Again, everyone is working hard but probably achieving mediocre results. The third company gets it right. They do annual planning to establish specific Vital Goals (top goals), make goals personal so everyone knows how they contribute and create Predictive Behaviors and metrics that are communicated habitually. They form Vital Goal Teams that meet regularly and communicate these goals and correlating outcomes company wide.
Let me tell you a little leadership secret regarding business success…it’s not about getting everyone to work harder; my experience has shown me that everyone is working pretty hard already. It is about getting yourself and your team to spend more time and put more focus on the most important initiatives as well as the behaviors that impact those initiatives. More people, doing the most important things, more often! This will only happen with effective planning and execution.
What are some ways organizations can develop a growth culture?
Culture is critical for sustained business success. Whatever you are trying to accomplish, to achieve it you must create a culture that supports the outcomes you desire. The choice is yours. You can either intentionally create the culture you want, or you can just let it evolve on its own, outside of your control. Either way, a culture will be formed. Companies with growth cultures that sustain desired growth over time make growth a Vital Goal, establish a Growth Team to keep the focus and commitment, utilize a proven planning & execution strategy and continually invest in their advantage.
All cultures have some positives. A great way to start making a culture shift is to look at what’s working and build from there. Observe the behaviors prevalent in your organization now, then imagine how people would act if your company were at its best. What are the behaviors and values already displayed by the culture fit employees which you would like all employees to emulate? Culture is behavior-driven and it’s critical to focus on a few behaviors that will have the desired impact for your company. These behaviors are “Culture Builders”, and must align with your company’s purpose, brand, strategy, and objectives, and are defined by an explicit set of core values.
Conversely, all cultures have negatives that hinder progress. These are behaviors that are killing your company’s culture and sabotaging its results. I call these “Culture Killers.” Often hiding in plain sight, Culture Killers include frequent complaining, unproductive busyness, excuse making, dysfunctional meetings, complacency with the status quo, accepting below baseline performance, and lack of accountability.
Creating a deliberate culture that produces the results you’re striving to achieve is a key element of creating the ultimate competitive edge. To do that, you need to identify and rank your company’s Culture Builders and Culture Killers, then go to work addressing them one at a time. Which Culture Builders need the most improvement? Which Culture Killers are the biggest obstacles?
Talk to us about the power in being specific and how top leaders use this in their planning.
Having specific goals with deadlines attached are critical elements toward achieving goals and maximizing growth, but too often I see companies failing in this area. Frequently, when I ask people what their company’s top goals are, I get vague answers like “enhance growth.” This sounds like a reasonable goal but, in truth, says very little and therefore has a negligible chance of being achieved. Now picture walking into a company where everyone gives the same, specific answer like growing 15% annually over the next five years (doubling revenue) and each person knows their specific contribution as well as the Predictive Behaviors required to achieve those outcomes.
It is imperative that companies use precise performance classifications when setting specific goals for the company as well as each individual contributor. These classifications give employees an achievable goal, a stretch goal, and most importantly communicate what is unacceptable. Strong leaders always establish specific goals and understand that you set the standard by what you tolerate. When setting goals for both results and behavior, I classify performance using the following categories:
- Brass Ring Goals & Performance – A stretch goal for companies and individuals. Brass Ring goals are achievable but require a superior level of performance. My management philosophy for Brass Ring producers is: “I work for you.”
- Baseline Goals & Performance – The minimum acceptable standard for the company, for a department, or for a contributing individual. Baseline goals should be reasonably achievable for everyone on the team. My management philosophy for Baseline performers is: “You work for me.”
- Below Baseline Performance – An unacceptable standard of performance. Coming in below baseline should have consequences. My management philosophy for Below Baseline performers is: “I’m moving in.” As their manager, you should have contact with these employees as frequently as possible until they get their productivity above baseline.
Being specific makes goals personal and helps shorten accountability timeframes so companies stay on course, and also increases their growth trajectory. Ask yourself and your team: Are your goals specific (dream/deadline)? Are they achievable? Are they measurable? Are you absolutely committed? What is the upside if the goal is achieved (pleasure)? What is the downside if the goal is not achieved (pain)?
What are some of the ways leaders can utilize personality profiles in order to improve execution?
There are a variety of tests and profiles you can give potential and existing employees to gauge natural gifts or identify particular skill sets, problem solving abilities, and/or personality traits. These can be incredibly helpful, and by not using them, employers are turning their backs on a useful and often cost-effective tool. Consider the cost of bad hires. Some examples of testing and profiling tools are DISC, The Predictive Index, Myers-Briggs, Minnesota Multiphasic, The Devine Group, Wonderlic, Objective Management Group, and many others. You can use tests and profiles for more than just hiring:
- Team Understanding – DISC is a behavior assessment tool, based on the DISC theory of psychologist William Moulton Marston, which centers on four different behavioral traits: D – Director (emphasis on ego & power, accomplishing results, the bottom line, confidence, and a fear of failure); I – Influencer (emphasis on social expression, influencing or persuading others, openness, relationships, and a fear of not being liked); S – Steady Relator (emphasis on peace & loyalty, cooperation, sincerity, dependability, and a fear of change); and C – Critical Thinker (emphasis on facts & figures, quality & accuracy, expertise, competency, and a fear of being wrong). There can be conflicts with differing profiles. DISC can help teams work through some of those conflicts. Through better team understanding, people get why differing profiles act differently.
- Qualifier/Disqualifier – The Wonderlic Test is a cognitive ability and problem-solving test used to assess the aptitude of prospective employees for learning and problem solving in a range of occupations. It consists of 50 multiple choice questions to be answered in 12 minutes. The score is calculated as the number of correct answers given in the allotted time with a score of 20 considered average. Some companies require a minimum Wonderlic score for select positions or use this test as a disqualifier for jobs that require a certain aptitude or problem-solving ability. Even the NFL uses the Wonderlic Test.
- Natural Gifts (you & team) – Profiles can help you understand strengths and weaknesses, so you not only get the right people, but get people in the “right seats on the bus.” This is a critical step for your employee’s success, and accordingly, your success. It is much easier to manage strengths than correct weaknesses.
- Adjust Management Style – We all tend to lead and manage in our core style, but sometimes we may be required to wear different hats to be an effective leader. If I have a low D – Director but I am in a management position, I may need to wear my D – Director hat occasionally during accountability sessions. Conversely, if you are high D – Director and low I – Influencer, you will still need to wear your I – Influencer hat occasionally to be more of a cheerleader. Surprisingly, one of the best leaders I know is a high S – Steady Relator, yet he knows how to wear all the hats and be an effective leader.
- Tone for Every Meeting – I like to go into meetings having already thought about what tone I want to set. I’m high D – Director and I’ve come to learn not all meetings can be D – Director meetings. Once again, I have learned to wear different hats for different meetings. If I am kicking off a new program, and want people to buy-in, I would want to wear my I – Influencer hat.
- Prospect Insight & Customer Relations – Although you won’t give your prospects profile tests, once you become well versed using one of the profile tests, you can use your knowledge for prospect insight and customer relations. We all like to sell or service in our profile, but we should adapt and wear the hat for the customer or prospect we are meeting with. If I am a high D – Director and want to move quickly to the result, that may not work well with a prospect that is a high C – Critical Thinker and wants all the detail.
You share the importance of accountability. How do leaders best increase their personal accountability?
Accountability is an essential component of business success because outcomes will never be maximized without efficacious accountability. If planning is “what,” strategy is “how,” and execution is “now” – then accountability is a key element of execution that ties everything together and produces Brass Ring results. Yes, having a strategy will have an impact on success. Yes, planning will impact success. Yes, hiring the right people, and giving them the right training, within the right culture, will all have a positive impact on your company’s success. However, you can multiply that positive impact exponentially if you and your team develop an Accountability Advantage.
Although important, accountability is not just about leaders holding team members accountable. When you have truly built an Accountability Culture, team members will hold other team members accountable. This is a tough skill to master, but when this leadership behavior is committed to, taught, and modeled, the outcomes will be magic.
There are specific steps companies can take to develop an Accountability Advantage: 1) Foster accountability culture principles, 2) Develop performance standards, 3) Have effective accountability meetings, 4) Work efficiently, 5) Gauge effectiveness and 6) Demand positive attitudes.
How do the best organizations gain the growth advantage and sustain it over time?
Sustaining profitable growth is the key to every business’s success. I recommend the following steps toward achieving sustained growth:
Step 1) Make Growth a Vital Goal
- Vital Goals are results necessary to the existence, continuance, and well-being of something indispensable – like your company’s profitable growth and survival – and worthy of your best efforts. A company should not have more than three Vital Goals.
Step 2) Form a Growth Team
- A Growth Team should be made up of a small group (six to twelve) of the executives, managers, and other impactors of the Vital Goal. Building teams around Vital Goals and major initiatives helps to create focus and maintain sustained results. I like these types of teams to meet monthly to review outcomes, recommit, and make needed adjustments.
Step 3) Commit to Your Vital Goals
- If you want to make sure your Vital Goals are achieved, you and all contributors on your team need to commit to them 100% and point all efforts and actions toward achievement. When you’re interested, you do something only when it’s convenient. When you commit, you accept no excuses, only results; and leave no room for debate, interpretation, and doubt. Once you commit to a Vital Goal, you are not just committing to the goal itself; you are also committing to the actions and Predictive Behaviors required to accomplish that goal.
Step 4) Utilize a Proven Strategic Planning & Execution Process
- Having a Planning Advantage involves making sure everyone knows your Vital Goals, how they contribute to those goals, what Predictive Behaviors they need to do on a daily and weekly basis, and how you’re going to keep score. There are four elements for creating an Execution Advantage: 1) Talent – Do you have enough quality talent to accomplish your objectives and are you staffed for planned growth? 2) Training – Does your team have the proper training and reinforcement to provide them with the needed knowledge and abilities? 3) Motivation – Is your team motivated to complete their Predictive Behaviors and model core values on a consistent basis? 4) Accountability – Does your company have an accountability culture that delivers results?
Step 5) Invest in Your Company Advantage
- When I ask owners and managers of companies what they think their advantage is in the marketplace they compete, if I get any answer at all (often I get a blank stare), I almost always get the same basic answers. Most people say things like, “We’ve got better prices,” or “We’ve got better service,” or even, “We’ve got better quality.” That’s great, and I hope all these statements are true, but these statements are so vague that, to the customer, they are meaningless. Everyone can and does say those things without actually having the advantage.
- Great companies never rest on their laurels. They understand competition is always after market share and realize they need to constantly innovate and invest in their Company Advantage. Accordingly, companies should clearly define their product and market focus, invest as much as possible into maximizing their competitive advantage in a way that is meaningful to the identified market/customer, and package and communicate their Company Advantage in a message that effectively attracts and retains target customers. Doing this has an astounding return on investment, and the alternative is business death.
For more information, see The Growth Advantage.
Image Credit: Jeremy Bishop