Advice. So easily dispensed, so unlikely to be acted on. We all know we should exercise more, eat lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, cut down the booze, pack up the fags and get plenty of sleep.
The government has been dishing out good health advice for years – through many well-meaning campaigns – and yet here we are, a nation growing fatter by the minute puffing and panting our way from the fridge to the sofa all set for another five hour shift in front of the telly. This is the problem with advice. We know we should follow it but we can’t easily change our habits.
The same is true in business. There are libraries full of management books, and the internet is awash with smart, sensible business advice. But most of it is simply doomed to fail because the manager in need of it isn’t in a position to act on it.
Even when turnaround consultants like me are hired for their advice, for the most part many a managing director is still not capable of acting on it. It’s not hard to work out why.
An MD of a company in trouble is often besieged by problems. They are fraught, not able to think clearly or analytically. They are trapped in the daily firefight to keep staff, customers and lenders happy, beating off one crisis after another. The MD simply doesn’t have the right frame of mind to take advice let alone put into practice a structured turnaround programme.
I’ve learnt over the years that it is counterproductive or downright unhelpful if I ask a client in this position to do some difficult thinking. I wouldn’t dream of asking them to write, say, a new marketing plan, or a proper cash flow statement or an accurate sales forecast, while their head is full of troubles.
While these things might ultimately be necessary to turning their business around, they are poor starting points and demand too much from a fraught client.
Instead, I’ve developed a raft of techniques to help troubled bosses introduce essential changes to their business. I work on the philosophy that giving advice without concrete support and help is simply a waste of my client’s time, especially if they are in ‘crisis’ and panic has set in.
My solution is to demand as little as possible in the early days of my consultancy. I won’t have them running around putting together detailed reports, rather I spend time in their office, asking questions, asking for open access to their staff, accounts and documents, while I quietly and quickly get up to speed on their business.
By working alongside them, I see them at work actually getting on with their job, rather than having a private meeting in a board room where they can hide some of their own behaviours that can in some cases be the source of their own troubles. As an aside, it’s normally the case that most MDs are acutely aware of their own flaws and faults, but they simply don’t know how to remediate them.
Once I have built up a proper understanding of their business and the people involved, only then do I start to ask for a client’s focused input.
Again, I favour little requests that can be done by the client relatively painlessly. If you set the client too large a task it will not be done, and they’ll invent a dozen plausible excuses why they won’t be able to get down to it. Far better instead to ask for last month’s sales figures, than a five year business plan. And it’s easier to speak directly to their marketing manager rather than ask to read their annual marketing plan.
On the basis of little and often makes things happen, I also favour short deadlines. If you give a client a month to supply you with key information, you’ll be less likely to see any results than if you give them a few days.
Most businesses fail for perfectly avoidable reasons, and most can be fixed by taking a lot of small steps to put things right. But getting started isn’t about giving advice. It’s about giving practical help. Knowing what help to offer is about experience and trust, and these are far more valuable.
See also: Company turnaround tricks