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Tuesday, April 08, 2008

The planning meeting

Staff and contractors at our bi-annual planning meeting include: Ken Lancastle (editor), Daniel Smith (Ottawa publisher), Chase (GTA and Ontario), Amanda Arthurs (Administration), Leslie Greenwood (Northern Ontario), Sherri Herriot (accounting), Raymond Levielle (design and production) and Bob Kruhm (North Carolina). Bill Caswell and Upkar Bikhu of Caswell Corporate Coaching Company facilitated the meeting.

We gathered for three hours in the morning, and the sales team reconvened for another couple of hours in the afternoon, to review business progress and learn where we are heading. The bi-annual planning and review meetings are now essential elements in our business agenda; they are costly (both in time and cash, to bring in out-of-town employees) but are worth every cent.

When we first started these meetings, my business was in acute crisis and decline. The first meeting brought some ideas forward that led to a temporary reprieve, but the underlying issues and problems were simply too great -- we would have to go through further, painful, retrenchment, reaching the 'bottom' (as I've reported here earlier) just as I started writing this blog. You can see the story of how things started turning by tracking back to the first entries in the archives here.

Today, without a crisis -- the business is profitable and revenues and costs are in line with projections and our plans -- the major challenge is the need to take a break from expansion, to consolidate our resources, and most importantly, improve the state of the company's balance sheet -- hit hard of course by the years of losses and problems. I gave a briefing about the business circumstances; as I expected, most employees don't totally appreciate the underlying principals of business and financial numbers -- concepts like cash flow, retained earnings, "goodwill", asset valuation, return on equity, depreciation, and operating versus capital expenses, and shareholding and capital gains are probably not top of their minds.

Jack Stack's The Great Game of Business advocates employee ownership -- or at least, employee involvement in the numbers -- and this requires both openness about the numbers (not individual salaries) and the employees' ability to understand and appreciate underlying business concepts. We aren't going to have a full-scale business school in a three hour planning session, but I started the process.

Why? It may be symbolic, but it may represent reality, that only three people (outside the consultants) of the 11 in the room yesterday worked with the business during its decline -- and all three have self-employment status. They of course 'get it' -- the various issues that a business owner must face and resolve, and they accepted conditions which no employee would tolerate -- delayed payments, instability, chaos, and disorder. I of course never want the business to hit this bottom again; but know that if we are to avoid that fate, we need to empower the employees to work to fix the problems before they get so bad -- and, in thinking about growth, to appreciate the longer-range implications of short-term decisions.

We made progress, but have a long ways to go. Fortunately, we are also heading in the right direction.

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