1. The CEO’s Experience

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In his own words: “Change was the backdrop of this intervention. Just before ONEFocus got involved, we had been through a major upheaval. It started with a global programme set up to try to streamline our sales and make sure we were customer focused. The logic was sound – to sharpen us up and make us more efficient – but there was also an element of rationalisation. That process alone naturally took its toll on morale. People were wondering, ‘am I going to have a job at the end of this?’

Then, as frequently happens, things became more complicated. The imposition of a new corporate structure saw us lose large chunks of our autonomy. There were redundancies, and with them came more uncertainty. Morale took another hit. Perhaps the most poisonous element of the whole thing was the apparent loss of control. A kind of inertia began to creep into things. You could sense it. Personally, I no longer felt responsible and consequently found it difficult to motivate myself.

Every two years, we carry out a major strategy review. One of these was due at the beginning of last year. Typically we would do one of the tried and tested things: a SWOT or a PESTLE analysis, or perhaps we might look at Porter’s five forces. Using those traditional models, we would come to the conclusion that this was the objective of the business; these are the things it needs to do and so on. After all we had been through however, I realised that the traditional approach wasn’t going to be good enough; wheeling out the same old things would not work. I felt that we needed something different, something that people could connect to and that would raise morale.

In addition to all of that, there was also a cultural issue at work. Because of the nature of what we do, we have a tendency to think in straight lines. We are an exceptionally task-oriented company and team and though we would set longer time horizons during these strategic planning exercises, as soon as those exercises were done, we would usually snap back into our task-oriented, short-term mode. I wanted to address that in any process we engaged in. I wanted to try and reset the culture, to make it more amenable to genuine strategic planning.

I had met Padraig from ONEFocus through another venture and we had always kept in touch. By happenstance he called me up in September for a coffee. The talk quickly got onto strategy. I told him what we were going through and how I felt we were buckling under the weight of it.

He asked me a simple question: ‘What do you want to achieve?’

I told him that I really needed to invigorate the executive team, to get them feeling good about themselves. I said that they needed to get to a point where they wanted to get up in the morning, where they wanted to come in and do their jobs. ‘It’s true that there’s been some loss of responsibility,’ I told him, ‘but I need them to seize control of what they have.’

From a strategic point of view, they also needed to re-evaluate the business, to see it in the context of longer-term objectives, not a series of standalone tasks. They needed to look at the organisation in its restructured state and reframe what they believed about both it and their roles within it. And from a morale point of view, they really needed to start seeing themselves as leaders, as people who cast long shadows. They needed to start setting the example for their teams.

Padraig told me about the Hedgehog concept and straightaway, I saw it as a really, really smart way to underpin one-to-one coaching; to get people thinking deeply about themselves, where they add value and how they could develop themselves. I liked the idea that they would explore themselves not just in the context of who they are as an executive in the company, but also who they are in themselves. I believe that if we have the wrong person in the wrong seat, then there’s a problem. There’s nothing worse than somebody coming to you every month and saying, ‘There’s something not right here…’ And me having to tell them, ‘You’re not getting the business done…’ If this or indeed any review process meant that somebody said to me, ‘I don’t think I want to do this anymore,’ – yes, there would be an impact, but I’d sooner have that up front and deal with it.

As I said, the Hedgehog struck me straightaway as a great way of getting people to re-appraise and evaluate what they’re good at, what their core competencies are, what they are talented at, and then how they can take that and add value to this, or indeed another business. The progression from there to team was very straightforward. Once we had worked out our own personal Hedgehogs, once we knew how to focus our passion and our talent, then we could start looking at the team through the same lens. The approach was, ‘Get yourself right first, and then get the team right’. So we worked through a series of exercises to establish what we are good at as individuals, what our core competencies are and how we add value.

When each of us had worked that out, we then started brainstorming around where we wanted to be; our vision for the future, etc. That’s when we started looking at the ONEThing Plan. This was the second important element of the ONEFocus intervention and it blew some people’s minds. Not so much that they were wildly impressed, but rather, the approach was unlike anything they had met before. I could see some people gaping – ‘How on earth is this going to work? How could I have only one thing to worry about?’ Again, like the Hedgehog, it’s a simple concept. The ONEThing Plan centres on asking the question Gary Keller poses in his book, The OneThing: ‘What is the ONEThing I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?’

Once you have completed your Personal Hedgehog, once you know why you exist, once you know your values and how you interact with the world, you arrive at a vision of what you want: your mission or Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG) as Padraig called it.

Then of course you are faced with the question. How do I make that happen? Again, you ask the same question. What is the ONEThing I can do such that by doing it, everything else will be easier or unnecessary? In 36 months? In one year? In one quarter? One month? One week. You work back from the future under a number of strategic thrusts. The whole thing was very empowering. You get a real sense of control, of a plan, of things making sense, because you can see that you have lined up your dominos to knock down the BHAG, and so you just keep working on the domino that is in front of you right now!

This isn’t about setting out individual, time-lined tasks; it’s about a mind-set. It’s a way of thinking about the future that always keeps the end result in mind. Once you have done it at a personal level, you know how to apply the same model to your business. When we were approaching our ONEThing Planning for the business, Padraig came in and facilitated a workshop with our key people. He gave us four hours to get us going, then left, and we started into creating our ONEThing Plans.

We talked about the problems that our customers have, problems with the market, what challenges and opportunities there were. We talked about the organisation. Then we tried to bundle together our key challenges for the year and categorise them – operations, health and safety, employee engagement and so on. We went through each one and said, ‘Look, these are the opportunities, that’s the stuff that we’re going to fix, these are the things we’re going to exploit. And this is where we want to be in three years.’ Then we took it back from three years to one year, a quarter, this month, this week.

I did a detailed workshop with the group, coming up with the ONEThing Plan for our business, while the other executives did the same thing with their business unit teams. We got to a stage at the end of that where everybody had a ONEThing Plan for their business unit and we had one for the overall business. Today, we have monthly review meetings where people report on the business transactions that occurred in the last month; the highs and lows, sales opportunities won and lost… the usual stuff. But now at the end of that, they flash up the ONEThing Plan. We don’t go into a huge amount of detail. Each person comments on what he or she said they would do last month; what got done, what didn’t get done and what they’re going to do next month. Naturally enough, the three year time horizon items don’t really change that much. The one-year ones don’t change much either. The quarterlies change as the business goes forward. I usually expect people to comment on what they said they’d do last month and what they think they’re going to do next month, then whether or not the quarterly time horizons have now changed or the goal posts moved slightly… It takes about ten to fifteen minutes per business unit.

So that’s the journey we took. How well did it work?

In terms of thinking strategically, I think that element was more than adequately addressed. Everybody now has a good idea about where they want to be in three years’ time, but more importantly, they look at the ONEThing Plan and know I’m doing this, this month. I’m doing it to achieve that in three months, which will achieve this in one year and that in three years. There is a sense of context that is powerful.

We all know that a budget or a forecast becomes inaccurate about two seconds after it’s written. You put it down on paper, then life takes over and as we all know, no plan survives engagement with the enemy. How has the ONEThing Plan fared? My view is that the ONEThing Plan is a paradox in itself, because there isn’t ONEThing, is there? There are many things. However, the ONEThing is the only thing I’m going to do now. As soon as I’ve that done, there will be another ONEThing, but what’s different about it is that I don’t have this huge wall of innumerable, sequential tasks, leading to this distant, immovable goal. There is a sense of purpose, priority and productivity!

You work out your four or five strategic thrusts for, say, three years time, put them in order, and work backwards to generate the ONEThing you will do in each time horizon in each thrust. It’s a different way of thinking about strategy planning, and one that has been really helpful for my team. In the beginning, I thought our cultural disposition to think like engineers might hijack the project and that the entire planning process would slide back into an old fashioned, task-oriented monolith, but that hasn’t happened. The ONEThing Plan isn’t a sequence of tasks; it’s a way of thinking about the future. It’s innate and organic, and people are now doing it instinctively.

In terms of morale, it definitely gave the guys a boost. Yes, some of them might be asking themselves questions: ‘Is this what I should be doing?’ but I think at a time when we needed it most, the programme served the great purpose of getting people to think positively about themselves, instead of worrying, ‘Am I good enough?’ ‘Am I in the wrong job?’ ‘Is somebody going to fire me?’ Instead of that poisonous uncertainty, they’re getting real feedback: these are your core competencies, these are the positive behaviours and these are the positive attributes to your personality. From that point of view alone, Padraig’s intervention was a very positive thing and it served that purpose extremely well.

And in terms of dealing with the loss of responsibility issue, it helped people focus and say, ‘Look, there’s no point in worrying about things that are now outside my control, just focus on the things that are inside my control.’ There were maybe four objectives at the beginning. I think that we probably have achieved all of them to different degrees. Some of them we have achieved in total, some less so.

How stick-able has it been? It’s a good question. I would have to say that if I had any criticisms of the process, it’s that sometimes it felt a bit raw, as if Padraig was a couple of pages ahead of the class. I felt that perhaps he was discovering the process as we were, and that consequently, we got the beta version.

I would say that if I left the company today, went to a new company and ran the process again, it would be much more effective. I am now a lot clearer around how strategic thrusts are worked out, and about the discipline of revisiting them and so on.

We’ve just received a request from head office to complete our global strategic plan. It’s in typical company format; an Excel spread sheet with six tabs. You key in numbers: Euros, market size, and customers… It’s completely at odds with Padraig’s process and what we’ve been doing here.   Again, it’s the company approach – thinking in straight lines. To me, you can’t complete something like that unless you’ve first worked out the business Hedgehog and ONEThing Plan. If I had another responsibility in the morning and I went into that business and said to the guys, ‘Where are you strategically? How do you do your strategically planning? Do you know where you are going?’ If they said, ‘No’, I’d turn to Padraig’s suite of solutions.

It’s been a great engagement. In October, at the end of our financial year, everyone has to go into a company performance management tool and key in what was good and what was bad about the year. Most of the people that stuck with the programme commented really positively about it. The people in HR and Health and Safety in particular spoke really, really positively.

And me personally? Like everyone in a leadership role, I’ve had some tough days myself in the last eighteen months. The programme helped immensely in getting me to focus back on the important stuff… what I am good at and what I am not so good at; what I think I have a talent for; what I want to do; what I think I can monetise. I had a couple of heart to hearts with Padraig, and I decided I’m sticking with this and I’m going to make it work.”

Padraig says: “I have huge admiration for the CEO. A bright and capable leader, well read and in permanent personal and professional development mode – the kind of person you would like to have on your own team! He’s one of the few people I’ve met who truly understand what Level-5 leadership means and who is well along that path himself. He was a very challenging client – I’d discuss a model with him, and then come back a week later and he’d have read a book (or two) on it, and would know more about it than I did. He certainly kept me on my toes!  I learned a lot from him and look forward to working with him again. Though a driver, I think his great strength is his ability to deal with ambiguity and allow things to evolve with the team rather than forcing them.”