1. Uncle Joe’s still chairman of the board.The really good midmarket companies leverage their resources, including their boards of directors and boards of advisors. They use these business-savvy individuals as sources of wisdom and as sources of new business. John McBeth, a serial entrepreneur and CEO of Next Century, has a passion for what he calls a “worthy purpose.” He keeps himself accountable by leaning on a top-notch board of advisors who aren’t afraid to set him straight. In contrast to this, too many small and midmarket companies tend toward boards of directors that consist of friends and family. Perhaps Uncle Joe loaned the company $100,000 ten years ago, so he still wants to run the show. But friends and family who may have been able to pony up necessary start-up funds back in the day are not capable of providing the outside accountability that experienced business leaders offer.
Many midmarket companies struggle with governance. Entrepreneurs and C-level executives need someone to challenge them and offer the guidance and direction necessary for growth. Uncle Joe may have great ﬁshing stories to share at the board meetings, but he cannot mentor the leadership team when tough, challenging business decisions must be made.
There are other ways to fail to take maximum advantage of your board of directors. For example, a company’s board members might have personal agendas that lack transparency. Or a board member might try to buy the company outside the stated strategy of the executive team and the other members of the board. Leaders might isolate and disregard board members whose points of view differ from their own. That’s why board diversity is extremely useful. Boards not only provide insight, advice, and support to the CEO, their members should have strong industry and ﬁnancial backgrounds to add real value to CEO decisions. Board members not aligned with the direction of the company are harmful; those with axes to grind or agendas to meet must be culled. Outside directors give business leaders the opportunity to close the books every quarter, position their companies for the future, talk about plans and leadership development, and generally guide the company with the help of other experienced leaders.
2. You are focusing on revenue instead of value. Midmarket CEOs often get asked “How big is your company?” In American business, size matters. Beyond the preoccupation with numbers and size is a much more important question that is rarely asked: “What impact does your company have in the marketplace?” Is the company a bit player, a role player, or the “leading man” in its market? Typically, business leaders describe their companies in terms of revenue, head count, or plants and equipment. Revenue is an easy answer because that’s a scorecard everyone can understand. But when they use this measure, companies shy away from the “value discussion” because value is a much more esoteric concept.
If the average midmarket CEO were asked “What are the ﬁve things that make your company valuable?” she wouldn’t know the answer. She knows her company has to make money, make payroll, and win more business, but she doesn’t know what really makes her company valuable in her marketplace. This results in the tendency to make seat-of-the-pants decisions that are not ﬁscally prudent. A company might decide to sell a particular product in a market niche, even though no other company is willing to partner with it. Or leaders might decide to keep a line of business going, though it might be smarter to shut the line down and use the resources elsewhere. Know what makes your company valuable to the marketplace and what is core for you.
3. When executives ﬁnally do talk about value, they drive everyone crazy. When C-level executives suddenly start talking about value, they often inadvertently strike fear into the hearts of their executives and employees. If value was never a consideration in the past and suddenly it’s a big deal, employees may assume that the management is going to sell the company and they’ll need new jobs. They may even respond by quitting. When you do bring up the idea of focusing on the enterprise value of your company, use the language carefully. You don’t want people jumping off the pier just as their ship is coming in. Make “value creation” a normal part of your leadership vocabulary.
4. You have no conﬂict resolution skills. Many midmarket companies are run by individuals with distinct competencies in a given area⎯for example sales, ﬁnance, or technical matters. Often these individuals are not experienced executives who have gone up through the ranks, so they don’t always understand how to balance the competing⎯and they really are competing⎯needs and desires of the different arms of an enterprise. Some of these CEOs simply cannot handle the conﬂicts. Instead, they let them brew until their companies destroy themselves. If no clear direction is given, “ambiguity gaps” are opened. Failure to resolve disputes quickly and effectively is practically a guarantee that companies will self-destruct.
5. The bosses can’t take a vacation. At too many companies, the founders can’t take vacations because they haven’t ﬁgured out how to build effective teams, replicate themselves, or take other important steps in the value-building process. Sometimes it’s not that they can’t ﬁgure out how to build those teams⎯they just don’t want to do so.
It’s important for leaders to learn how to let things go. Their resistance to this may stem from different root causes. They may have a deep fear that the company will go to pieces if they don’t handle everything themselves. The identity of many executives is so tied up in their role in their companies that they have no idea how to back off, take a lesser role, or even leave. One company made an ofﬁce in the building for the founder, who would come in and do nothing. It’s extremely emotional for a business owner to watch someone else essentially rear his child. Letting go requires the ability to bring in new leadership and, when the time is right, to leave. But that’s a tall order for most executives.