GREAT IDEAS FOR ENTREPRENEURS FROM THE THOUGHT LEADERS AT CASEY NEILON
Strategic planning is an annually repeatable exercise that allows a leadership team to focus on their most important goals.
What Strategic Planning Is And Is Not
Strategic planning is a topic that gets a lot of hype. I want to quickly describe, in simple terms, how I think of strategic planning and the process we use at Casey Neilon. I also want to clarify what I think strategic planning is not because this creates a lot of confusion for people who feel like they’ve already engaged in strategic planning but didn’t get positive results. Then I’ll share a case study to illustrate how we used strategic planning to overcome a major challenge for us.
To me, strategic planning is an annually repeatable exercise that allows a leadership team to focus on their most important goals. Strategic planning empowers you to crack the really tough nuts – the ones that hold you back, limit your growth and frustrate you. Here is how I see this exercise:
- A leadership team meets once a year to identify the most important goals that they want to work on for the coming year.
- I think this process works best when it’s paired with a SWOT analysis: strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. Depending on where you are in the life-cycle of your business, you may need to focus on threats more than opportunities or vice versa.
- The leadership team limits the number of goals to just those that they know they have the capacity to work on diligently over the course of the coming year. Most of this will be determined by how many people you have on your leadership team and how their capabilities and available time match up to the goals. In smaller organizations, this may mean that you’ll need to bring in consultants to help accomplish a goal.
- Individual leaders take responsibility to own specific goals. If a goal doesn’t have a champion, it doesn’t make the cut for the strategic plan because it will fail and use precious resources in the process.
- Individual leaders craft their plan to work on the goal and the specific steps they’ll take.
- The leadership team defines what a successful outcome looks like for each goal, how progress will be measured and when to do check-ins during the coming year.
- They execute the plan over a one-year (or sometimes multi-year) period and document progress during regular check-in meetings. They also make course corrections as necessary.
Now I’d like to describe a few situations that sound like strategic planning but actually are not. My sense is that these scenarios describe many of the reasons that entrepreneurs say they tried strategic planning and it didn’t work. Strategic planning is not:
- Getting together to discuss goals. That’s important but it’s not enough.
- Having no means to measure progress and outcomes. How will you know it’s working?
- One person telling other people which goals they have to own. That won’t work.
- Identifying more goals than your leadership team can reasonably work on in a year.
- Having no check-ins because this means you’ll likely lose focus over time.
A Case Study From Casey Neilon
Here is how we’ve used this approach to strategic planning at Casey Neilon to solve one of our biggest challenges. First, I’ll describe the challenge, then the approach we used and finally our results.
In the accounting world, we face periods of very intense work production and client contact during tax season. At other times, we prepare to serve clients more effectively. To give our clients a great experience, we need our people to have the best combination of technical-skills and soft-skills. We typically hire for the technical-skills and train and mentor to develop soft-skills.
Technical-skills have to do with the technical accounting and consulting side of the business: understanding tax laws, accounting best-practices, earning degrees, credentials and certificates. Technical-skills are about being technically competent to serve clients, give advice and get the work done according to our standards of excellence.
Soft-skills are about client touch: listening, interacting with clients, trying to put ourselves in our clients’ shoes to understand where they’re coming from and what they’re trying to achieve. Sometimes, especially when we have to deliver bad financial news, the way we say something determines whether or not a client feels well-served.
It takes both technical-skills and soft-skills to serve clients effectively. This means we have to attract people who possess the education to learn the technical-skills and who have an aptitude and desire to be trained in soft-skills. These people are valuable and in-demand, which means that retaining them over the long-term is also a challenge.
Here was the problem we were running into year after year. How do we:
- Attract people with enough of the right technical-skills?
- Find the time and the right approach to training them in the soft-skills?
- Give them a career-path that will cause them to want to stay with us for many years?
Our ability to grow as a company was directly linked to our ability to solve this problem.
To address this problem, I led a strategic planning initiative at Casey Neilon that involved our senior leadership team.
- We identified this issue in the form of a SWOT analysis in a strategic planning session.
- We decided that this issue was a top priority and that it had to be addressed holistically, by several team members who could make an impact.
- We divided the goal into four areas: attract, coach, train and retain.
- Each leader took on responsibility for one of the four areas and made a plan for how they would achieve success.
- We identified check-in points for the year ahead to keep each of us accountable to work on our part of the plan.
- We executed the plan over a multi-year period.
After around 20 months of executing our plan, here are our results:
- We have grown our full-time work-force by nearly 40%.
- We have regular coaching sessions with all employees to ensure our firm offers them an attractive career-path. This has helped us retain people who we believe will be a great fit for the Casey Neilon team.
- Staff are being groomed for future leadership positions.
- Our staff are involved in more advanced training programs (credentials, degrees, etc.) than ever in our history.
- Morale and company spirit are at an all-time high. While this may not be as measurable as other factors, we can feel it as company leaders and it’s exciting.
- Our capacity to serve more clients at a higher level of complexity, while improving the overall client experience, has increased by 40%.
Six Benefits Plateaued Entrepreneurs Can Realize From Strategic Planning
I want to say for the record that our journey was not an unbroken line of upward success, nor is it over. We made some mistakes and things did not always turn out like we’d hoped. But because we had a formal process, we were able to identify mistakes and address them a lot faster.
After thinking about our approach to strategic planning and comparing that to what I’ve seen entrepreneurs struggle with, I’ve identified six benefits I believe strategic planning delivers:
- It helps you focus.
- It allows you to establish (and stick to) priorities.
- It allows you to divide and conquer.
- It helps you create building blocks for the future.
- It allows you to measure what matters.
- It fosters accountability.
It Helps You Focus
The busier you are, the harder it is to focus. I like strategic planning because it makes it really easy to remember, in the busyness of my average day, what I should be focused on. When individual leaders walk away from the strategic planning session, they have a set of tasks that they’ve committed to work on in the coming year. These tasks can be prioritized by blocking off a set number of hours on a person’s schedule to work on those tasks. This ensures that you don’t just talk about what needs to get done, you actually do it.
It Allows You To Establish Priorities
Not everything can be a priority. Part of our commitment at Casey Neilon, during the strategic planning process, is that we wouldn’t add something as a goal unless we took something else off the list. This makes us carefully choose what is, and is not, a top priority.
I believe a lot of entrepreneurs struggle with this and it holds them back from achieving break-throughs. When you say to yourself and your leadership team – “this is what we’re going to focus on next year and not this other stuff” – it increases the likelihood that you’ll really make progress.
It Allows You Divide And Conquer
When multiple people are pulling in the same direction, it produces a lot of torque. In my experience, the really troublesome problems that hold entrepreneurs back from growth probably have multiple root causes. This means you may need to try multiple things to see what will work. This is where a teamwork approach simply can’t be beaten.
You might decide, like we did at Casey Neilon, that you have only one or two big goals you want to achieve and you need to attack them from numerous angles. If everyone tried the same thing, you’d likely get in each other’s way or have duplication of effort. Strategic planning allows you to prevent people from getting enmeshed in other’s efforts so you get more power from the pulling.
It Helps You Create Building Blocks For The Future
Nearly every business enjoys certain benefits today from investments they made in prior years. I think of these as building blocks. Sometimes, trying to build a great company is like trying to build a great house. You have to do it bottom-up. You wouldn’t try to put up walls without a solid foundation under them.
Strategic planning allows you to take a long-term perspective and ask yourself – what building blocks do we need to put in place now so we can be more successful in the future? For Casey Neilon, it was necessary for us to create a sound process and strategy for attracting, coaching, training and retaining great people. What building blocks do you need to put in place?
It Allows You To Measure What Matters
In business, we can drown in a sea of data and metrics. I have access to more data now than ever before in my career. But not every data point tells us whether or not we’re making progress toward our biggest goals. One of the major benefits of strategic planning is that it helps you identify what you want to achieve and how you’ll measure progress. The metrics help you see whether or not you are on course to achieve the goals. This also allows you to make course corrections efficiently and in time to prevent wasted effort and money,
It Fosters Accountability
There are three major reasons that strategic planning doesn’t work. Frist, there is a brainstorming session that does not translate into a practical plan. Second, if there is a plan, it doesn’t get worked on consistently over time. Third, if work doesn’t get done, no one is held accountable.
True strategic planning fixes all of these issues. For the record, I don’t believe that anyone should be forced to shoulder the additional burden (beyond their day job) of an initiative identified in the brainstorming session. People should be allowed to choose which goal they’ll work on based on what resonates with them. But once they’ve chosen, they have to commit. That’s the rule.
True strategic planning holds people accountable to make significant progress on solving a given problem or to raise their hand and ask for help if things are not going well. Accountability is one major reason that strategic planning works. No one wants to walk into a strategic planning check-in session and report that they simply didn’t have time to work on their goal.
How Can I Help?
Just because you have a strategic plan, this doesn’t mean you won’t make mistakes. You’ll just identify and correct those mistakes a lot faster. I believe strategic planning delivers at least these six key benefits, and possibly many more. If I can help you think about how to realize these benefits for your business, please reach out to me for a conversation.
Darsi Casey – CPA, MST, MANAGING SHAREHOLDER
They call me the Managing Shareholder at Casey Neilon. I see myself as the chief problem solver. I get the privilege of working with fascinating people with a wide variety of backgrounds and problems… this is what fires me up! I have been managing our firm and serving clients in this capacity since founding the firm in 2006 and have been practicing in public accounting since 1989. As an experienced entrepreneur myself, i have learned that the best way to predict the future is to create it (I borrowed that quote from Abe Lincoln).