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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Ten commandments for business (and construction marketing) failure

Former Coca-Cola President Donald R. Keough has written a fascinating and simple book: Ten Commandments For Business Failure. Keough of course is friends with Warren Buffett, who can be described as anything but a failure in business. His advice is relevant for all businesses; here are some interpretations within this blog's theme.

Commandment One ---Top of the List -- "Quit Taking Risks"
Success can be dangerous, indeed. You start thinking you know it all; you build systems and processes and insulate yourself from danger, and then, out of left field, something surprises you. Note the posting about Isomorphism and Seth Godin's Purple Cow concept. You always need to keep a significant element of newness, freshness, and daring in your business if you want to achieve great things (and even survive long-term).

Commandment Two -- Be Inflexible
Yes, you have the right way, the only way, you have rules and policies and procedures, but don't see things from your clients' eyes. So, what do you do when you are a supplier to a sub-trade who can't pay you because the general has stiffed his business on a major job? (Hopefully your business is not structured to depend for its survival on any single account.) Do you press that supplier to pay up, regardless, or do you bend your payment policies to accommodate and show respect for his crisis/frustration? Who gets more lasting business in the long term?

Commandment Three -- Isolate Yourself
Ah, yes, yours truly has been guilty of this one -- and it cost dearly! If you think you can delegate your client relations and responsibilities to your sales team or front-line employees while you focus on administering your business (while taking long personal breaks, perhaps), you will ultimately lose contact with your marketplace, and things will go very wrong.

Commandment Four -- Assume Infallibility
Sure, you are on the top of the world; for now, but who says you won't be like the many titans of business success falling like dominoes because they thought they could make money by selling/backing mortgages to uncreditworthy people who couldn't really afford their homes.

Commandment Five -- Play the Game Close to the Foul Line
I like this one, though of course there are exceptions that prove every rule. Sure, Conrad Black is receiving food and shelter courtesy of the U.S. Government for five and a half years even though he declares his innocence; and someone who admitted embezzling a major bank (and served time for it) is now prospering with a media/marketing business, and the judge who nailed a former Ottawa general contractor in a messy bankruptcy hearing is now facing discipline -- but something can be said for (while admitting imperfection) living by solid values, doing the right thing, and respecting others. For those with some conscious and ethical core values, business can still be fun and truly rewarding.

Commandment Six -- Don't take time to think
Yes, you need time to reflect, to consider options, and to see the big picture -- the basics remain the same, but there are constant changes all around us.

Commandment Seven -- Put All Your Faith in Experts and Outside Consultants
You certainly need your own road map; passion, and values. Certainly, you should listen to outsiders -- gather several opinions if necessary -- but listen to the mood of your own clients, employees, and suppliers, and then make your own decisions based on your insights and knowledge.

Commandment Eight -- Love Your Bureaucracy
This one is a tough one -- businesses need systems, rules, processes and hierarchy to operate, and going too far to eliminate these can result in anarchy, chaos, and dissension (guess who learned this lesson the hard way . . . ). But equally, you can get far too rule bound. For example, you find a process mistake results in an error which causes client dissatisfaction; should you simply work to make the customer happy and move on, or restructure your processes with an additional 'check' on procedures to ensure the mistake is not repeated? Probably the former is the best approach, unless you are finding the error is repeating and there is no simple tweak you can make to resolve the situation.

Commandment Nine -- Send Mixed Messages
Ah yes, you know the contractor who cites LEED in marketing material, then drives a Hummer to work; or the organization which advocates "Great Customer Service" and doesn't return phone calls. You've got to be consistent or you lose.

Commandment 10 -- Be Afraid of the Future
Undeniably, if you live in the present and past but don't adapt and change you will begin to fail, no matter how well you are established, and how much you think your existing relationships will sustain you in the future.

Keough adds at vitally important Commandment 11 -- Lose Your Passion for Work -- For Life. He writes:
You have to be passionate about doing the job at hand to get the best results possible. The easiest way to develop an inner passion in a business setting is to focus all your mind and heart on four aspects of your world: Your customers, our brands, your people, and finally, your dreams.
Keough's advice transcends all businesses, but his first-person experience at the helm of one of he world's largest multinationals certainly lends credibility to his observations. You can learn from him.

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