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Alignment and a bit of pixie dust for success and less stress by John Penn

Jon Penn

Why is it that some businesses and organisations fizz with energy, deliver spectacular results, delight their staff and customers and stakeholders alike? And no one appears “bent out of shape”?

Well obviously there is no single “magic wand” or silver bullet, but there is a bit of “pixie dust” in the form of one common denominator in all those organisations! It’s the alignment of interests or mission or purpose, call it what you will, but you know what it is when you see it. So who exactly needs to be aligned? And who with? I am writing this on the premise that you are the executive body running the business or organisation.

Well the shareholders to start with… if they are not one and the same as the executive body, whether because it’s a part of a bigger group, or they are not involved in day to day running of the business, or if there are some shareholding directors and some directors who are not, or if it is a charity or “not for profit” with trustees/governors, this will apply. I spent many years running a subsidiary of a quoted group; we all knew that they wanted to sell us, although it was never once admitted, and despite super performance it wasn’t easy due to overdependence on a single customer/product. So every time a capex was needed, or a senior recruitment, or relocation to bigger premises or opening of an overseas branch office… it was a nightmare because they were thinking “what If we sell”. It was a nightmare and we succeeded despite it… but how much better could we have done? So brutal honesty is needed in this. Get a really clear understanding of what the shareholders goals are, their limits, their timescales, their sensitivities, and make sure they understand your aspirations, constraints, needs.

The executive team who must be on a common wavelength. And by that I mean ALL of the executive team. One person can sap the energy of the whole team and make what should be creative and fun into a stressful battle of wills, every day. Have you really spent the time debating options, clarifying risk tolerance, identifying comfort zones, timescales, values, and desires for the company culture? And then dealing with the discord that probably arises. Where is the common ground, or common purpose? How do you keep communication lines open & fresh? And deal with peoples changing situations? I advocate investing time in discussions as a team, individually, getting members of the executive team to take it in turn to lead discussions in broader groups of staff in the business or with external stakeholders, and having a really clear written summary of what you are doing.

As a blinding flash of the obvious, alignment with your customers is necessary. If what you sell is highly valued by your customers and is also of high value to you, you have another bit of “pixie dust”. So out of the range of stuff that you do, work out which bits are really valued highly by your customers and why, and then of these, which customers are really valued by you. Every organisation has some products that don’t really cut it; equally every organisation has clients or market sectors where it’s heavy going/high maintenance. These people hugely raise the stress level in an organisation. If you can find the magic quadrant where your and your customers converge you have a big bit of the magic formula!

Aligning your staff is more challenging just because usually there are more of them! But in the same way as with the executive team, even a small number of vocally non aligned people can take a lot of the fizz out of the organisation. So time and energy and commitment over the long term are needed. Add two-way communication, particularly about how the plans of the business affect staff at a personal level, together with a willingness to change a few things, and you may be surprised at the amount of discretionary effort that starts to flow your way!

Finally, what about the financial institutions – wherever your working capital funding comes from… banks, individual shareholders, factoring companies, or parent group, etc. especially in today’s climate, every minute invested in keeping these relationships wholesome is time immensely well spent. By wholesome I mean open and honest, fact and evidence based, with few if any surprises. But beyond that what is the alignment? If your open and honest discussion reveals that actually you are too big/too small/too volatile/too exposed to currency/ or whatever, then you can start to review your options. Probably these days that may mean changing the things you do, rather than just going to look for a new source of finance. But either way, getting alignment here will pay huge dividends in reduced stress, hassle and another bit of pixie dust that may help you secure that next big step forward.

Jon Penn is a board level facilitator, coach and mentor, and also group chairman within The Academy for Chief Executives, running both a CEO Forum and Entrepreneurs Boards in Bristol and Bath/Swindon. An Engineer by education, Jon followed a career through export sales to general management, and has 20 years experience at MD & Group MD Level in a variety of SME businesses around the world.

Jon has witnessed first hand the power of the Academy Community as ACE Chairman and a business mentor. ACE is dedicated to inspiring the leaders of businesses to change their thinking, challenge their views and help them with their decision making abilities. Leaders no longer need to feel isolated at the top. For more information visit

© Jon Penn 2010

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