Does this sound familiar? You decide to take a family vacation one morning so you pack up the car full of things you may need on that vacation, gather up the kids and the dog, jump in the car and then figure out where you want to go.
It seems ridiculous to the average person to plan and execute a vacation on the same day without an idea of where you are going. How do you decide what to bring? How long will you be gone for? Do you need sunscreen? Just plain ridiculous. Right?
So why do so many companies operate in this exact situation?
Having a semblance of a plan is one of the most important responsibilities a leadership team owns. How else does anyone know what is expected of them and what success looks like? Providing clarity on the vision makes everyone’s job measurable and focused. Lack of clarity (read: lack of leadership) has everyone confused about expectations, frustrated with their role and the company spinning its wheels.
Lack of clarity = Lack of Leadership.
In 2006 I was asked to take the CEO role of a company that had seemingly lost it’s way. The software company had a great track record in the emerging mobile market but had seemed, in the eyes of the board, to be stalling.
When I stepped into the role I had no idea why the company was stuck. It was stacked with the smartest people I’ve worked with from the engineering core on down. It was a vibrant place full of motion, full of love for the products and full of creativity. This would be a hard puzzle to unravel.
My first 3 months inside were just going with the flow. Trying to rationalize the way the company was viewed by the board and what the reality actually was. It was not clear to me why these two views were different. We had a great cadence of product releases and updates that I couldn’t see what the real culprit was and then three things hit me.
- We had too many products
We operated with a small team and this meant that we were all swamped all the time. Especially the software engineers. Yet somehow we had 8 products in market. This company did not stand still. This company knew how to get product out the door. This company executed at a delivery level that was far greater than the number of people should allow for. The problem was that we had a deliver and forget mindset. We couldn’t circle back to every product fast enough for bug fixes and updates. It was just impossible to do shiny new product development at the same time as maintain existing products on a platform that was ever-changing.
- We weren’t focusing on the money maker
We had 8 products in market — including 2 that launched early in my tenure as CEO. We were a machine. The problem was that most of those products were utilities of mid-to-low value when it came to earn. Launching new products pulled the focus away from our main enterprise software that was earning the bulk of our revenue and was being ignored.
- We were too many things to too many people
It became increasingly clear to me that we had a positioning problem at the company. Sales and marketing were all over the place because we sold 8 products to 8 different types of customers. It was impossible for them to do their jobs properly as a result. I couldn’t tell you what we did in an elevator pitch, I couldn’t define our ideal customer, I couldn’t direct the team to do anything other than what they were doing.
Something had to change. We needed a clear path and that required drastic change.
The best decisions are often the hardest to come to
There is a time where a leader must lead by making difficult choices that may be one-sided in favor of the company and this was that time for me. We needed to pair down our offerings and focus on the product that would allow us to earn and grow. The product that would allow us to have a clear understanding of who our customer was. The product that would give definition to the roles and responsibilities of the team. In other words, clarity.
We ended up pulling back to a company selling a single product. Of the seven other products that we offered, we sold one, offered two of them free (as a feeder for our main product), rolled 2 more into our main product as paid features and killed the rest. We were now a single product company.
This was not a democratic process. We weren’t able to all get to the same conclusion on this so it came down to the role of the leader to do so. Sometimes you need to hear everyone’s insight, sometimes you need to seek outside advice and sometimes you need to be a benevolent dictator.
The changes were immediate but not without pain. I feel that in making these important decisions I lost the faith of some of my most important team members. We were abandoning loved products that many had invested significant time and effort into. In particular I believe it cost me two crucial partnerships in the company: My CTO and my Director of Marketing. Two of the smartest and most passionate people I’ve ever worked with. They both soon left the company. No hard decisions happen without consequence.
The resulting impact of this decision was absolute clarity on our mission. The entire team got behind the one product and we all pushed together. We showered attention on that product and our customers. We all understood the new guardrails that the company operated within. We could build a real product roadmap, marketing roadmap and sales channel. There was no more confusion about our business.
Companies can not operate very long without it. There is nothing worse for the people who are giving everything of themselves for the success of the company only to have no purpose or direction. Lead with clarity. Create that vision and then make sure it is the creed by which the company operates. Doing so will stop the questioning, stop the bouncing from shiny object to shiny object. Your role as a leader is to carve the path and then lead the way. If you aren’t doing that, it’s time to get out of the way.