We were sitting in the back of an oversized SUV, zipping to LaGuardia Airport on a warm evening in late May 2008 when Larry pulled out his Blackberry and said, “Stefan, that is a very interesting idea. I’ll set up a telephone meeting between my senior staff and your team to discuss how we can make this happen.”
Dr. Lawrence Burns had just finished speaking to a group of colleagues at Columbia University’s Earth Institute about “What Sustainability Means to General Motors”, and now I was seeing him off to his flight back to Detroit.
I had met Larry a few months earlier, after reading about him in the New York Times article Mr. Environment for General Motors. And while he was in charge of strategic planning and R&D for the company, what really had us bond was our commonality around hearing loss. He had lost all his hearing and I was not far behind him (my hearing has since improved substantially.) But at the time we enjoyed being with someone who understood what it was like to live without sound.
What excited Larry on the car ride to the airport was a vision I had developed and just finished presenting to him in the car on how to overhaul General Motors by taking them green.
In fact he had never heard such a concept like that before.
A few weeks later Larry and his senior executives were on the phone with my partner an me telling us to put together a detailed proposal on how we would take his two divisions at GM green first, and if successful, the whole company.
But it turned out GM was too far gone. And by the time we submitted our detailed proposal a couple of months later, they were preparing to publicly announce they were hitting the wall.
And while our team felt a weird sense of comfort when we learned a part of our plan managed to get into GM’s proposal to Congress for bailout funds a few months later, we were saddened we were not going to help them overhaul the company.
Yes, General Motors is an extreme example, yet any business can fall victim to neglecting the writing on the wall if left unheeded.
How about yours?
Five Steps to Overhauling Your Company
1. Identify Breakdowns-quickly figure out where the key issues are in your business. Is your product/service still relevant? Do customers see its value? How is it priced? What is your competition like? Has the market changed in your industry?
2. Determine Solutions- here is where many people get stuck. Often times, you are deep in the woods to see the forest and have an objective way of looking at this. Find out how to make sure you can get back ahead of the curve in your industry. How can you narrow down your product or service and/or marketing to a more specialized audience? Specialists create a uniqueness that is gold in marketing and brand positioning.
3. Test Assumptions-once you figure out how you are going to adjust your company, rigorously challenge your thoughts and opinions. Use surveys and speak to your customers, suppliers, even your neighbors. From the various opinions adjust your plan accordingly.
4. Implement Quickly-do not hesitate. Hesitation breeds indecision. Indecision breeds failure. Once you have your information, or “enough” to make your choice, go forward ASAP immediately.
5. Accelerate Through the Mistakes-along the way to overhauling your business, you will make mistakes. That is fine and it is part of the process of overhauling. The key is not to not make mistakes, rather to accelerate through them. Make them, realize them, and adjust as soon as possible until you figure it out.
Doing a major overhaul of your company is not an easy thing for many businesses. If it were, GM and Larry Burns would have done it a long time ago.
It requires shifting your thinking and being ready, willing and able to let go of things you felt were perfect that may no longer be.
And being ready to act immediately.
Action Steps for the Week:
How is your product or service? Is it still “current”? Is it unique and competitive? Or are a gazillion others trying to compete with you using similar products or services?
If the latter, you need to zoom in and narrow your market share. Be a big fish in a small pond.
You do this by specializing! One way to do this is by narrowing your primary customer base. For example, focus on single women over 40, or first time home owners only, or green business coaching, etc.
Research the market place. Know who is doing this already and how you are better or different or both.
Next, revamp your marketing strategies and plan. Recreate your marketing funnel to draw customers in on a regular basis.
Lastly, act ASAP. Waiting is the kiss of death.
Quickly test, apply and adjust our plan as you go.
Hi, my name is Stefan Doering. Since 1987, I’ve been pioneering new approaches to environmental business and sustainability. After having started one of the first green retail businesses in the country and growing it to one of the largest, I now have coached hundreds of green businesses as well as teach green entrepreneurialism for various NYC programs and at Columbia University’s Center for Environmental Research and Education. I focus on three major areas:
1) Innovating powerful green business models,
2) Crafting and implementing marketing and positioning strategies for bringing green to mainstream, and
3) Creating a consistently profitable and sustainable business.