Wise CEOs and senior managers are turning their attention to the future operations and opportunities of their companies. They understand that out of this crisis period comes the opportunity, and in some cases the necessity, to reposition their businesses. These CEOs — assuming they aren't mired in yesterday's problem — can get a jump on their competition. This is crucial, because the economic environment is sure to become more competitive and boom times are unlikely to return for a good while.
Here are seven suggestions on how to make such a head start matter most.
Strategically reduce costs. Most companies have already cut back significantly, but you should take another look at all remaining costs in the company. One CEO said recently that his organization had accepted drastic change "without a peep." But much of this change was not done as strategically or thoroughly as is desirable. Cutting in crisis mode often leaves some fat and can take too much muscle. From what we have seen, some companies are lean and many have to get leaner and meaner to win over the next few years.
Kill sacred cows and pet projects. In normal times, a good manager may feel the need to allow marginal ventures to flourish in order to promote entrepreneurialism and independence. This is the opportunity to rein them in. The CEO of a Midwest financial services company had been living for four years with his COO's pet project, an expansion into the middle market. The venture was still considered a "start-up" and had yet to make a profit. Today's economy is providing him with the opportunity to dismantle the venture without damaging his relationship with his COO. Another example of change waiting to happen: outdated compensation systems that reward nonperformance. Coming out of the crisis, a company will need compensation systems that reward people over time for real, sustainable value increases — not those the market can take away at a whim.
Admit past mistakes and build protections for the future. Few firms can say that they anticipated the severity of this downturn and were as well protected as they should have been. But most can learn invaluable lessons for the future, including how they manage risk. Review errors and put in place governance and risk processes that instill confidence — internally and with the markets — that the firm will be in materially better shape to weather future financial storms.
Think about building capacity. When the market picks up, so will demand for choice employees. This could lead to wage inflation and a shortage of the resources needed for growth. Plan for this now. One transportation company is paying virtually 100% of its current profits in retainers to employees. While this may seem at odds with promoting a lean environment, it really isn't. The company is lean and has stopped all unnecessary activity. This is a conscious investment for the future.
Collect revenues in full. In good times, a sales force will typically have some discretion over discounts, waivers and extended credit terms. Fix any discretionary revenue "leakage." One midsize auto insurer was until recently waiving 90% of late fees. Now it is collecting 90% of those same fees, without any adverse customer reaction. A forward-thinking CEO will also use the current environment to completely review pricing. And he will be very clear about which features of a product or a service his customers truly value. Often a premium can be charged for time-sensitive services. Collect that premium; in this environment even the most loyal customers will respect a company's decision to collect for the true value it provides.
Hire great people. There are multiple opportunities to turn traditional weaknesses into strengths through smart hiring. In difficult times, employees shift focus from maximum compensation to maximum security. Companies should guard their own top performers, while also looking at their competitors. That "star" who could not be bought three months ago may now be lured away with a smaller compensation package that guarantees tenure. In fact, he may already be looking.
Take back your personal time. The typical CEO not only runs a company, but leads on a broader stage. The average Fortune 500 CEO sits on two company boards as well as his own, is prominent in a trade association and sits on another three not-for-profit boards, often in his local community. Review your external commitments and rationalize them. Engage in what is most meaningful for you and the company, and that of course means fulfilling your civic duty. But where a corporate or other board is of marginal value to you or the community, you have to husband your time without causing offense.
The past several months have been the most challenging in living memory for most companies. Now most are through the survival phase and have a little time for forward planning. It would be a shame not to come out of all this without a leg up on the competition.