By Cheryl Conner, Contributor at Forbes
Find it at http://www.forbes.com/sites/cherylsnappconner/2013/03/04/the-8-great-challenges-every-business-faces-and-how-to-master-them-all/
This week I interviewed a personal mentor of mine – his name is Neal Jenson, Managing Director of consulting firm Qazztek, in Salt Lake City. He has one of the most diverse business backgrounds I’ve known, ranging from stints with Fortune 500 firms including Citigroup and Bank of America to start up firms looking to bootstrap or seeking their start through Angel funding or SBA loans.
He’s also one of the only people I know closely who actually has two masters degrees – an MBA from Brigham Young University (my own alma mater) and a masters of science in Information Service from the University of Utah. In addition to acting as a mentor, Neal is also a friend—his son is the husband of our daughter, which makes us co-grandparents to two extremely adorable little boys, Riley and Peyton (our next generation of business leadership is in very good hands).
From his client base of all sizes, I asked Neal to narrow down for me the greatest challenges he sees for the businesses he counsels, as well as his thoughts on the ways to navigate each. Here are his responses.
First off, Neal notes that navigating a business is extra tricky these days. The speed of economic and technological changes means that the right path yesterday may not work today and could be a disaster by tomorrow. Solving these dynamic problems is what separates those who excel from the companies who are closing the doors.
While Neal’s experience base ranges from Fortune 500 CEOs to small business entrepreneurs, he notes in our first interview a set of challenges that are common to both:
1. Integrity. Business has never faced the type of moral challenges that it faces in today’s global economy. Everyone is struggling to be more successful, to make the next quarterly earnings estimate, to keep their job, to earn a big bonus, or to compete effectively. The temptation to cut corners, omit information, and do whatever it takes to get ahead occur every day. Many business employees and executives succumb. Sadly, the theme becomes highly infectious and soon people actually start to feel like lying a little, or stealing a little, or deceiving others, is just “a part of business”. These practices erode the trust that needs to exist between employers and employees, between business partners, between executives and shareholders. Without trust, the business will not be able to compete effectively and it will eventually fail.
2. Cash, Borrowing, and Resource Management. Cash is King! We’ve all heard this maxim and it is more true today than ever before. A healthy profit may look nice on your financial statements, but if capital expenditures or receivable collections are draining your cash, you won’t be able to stay in business for long. Too often executives and small business owners fail to focus enough on cash flow generation. In order to head off this problem, businesses must either be adequately capitalized and must shore up cash reserves to meet all obligations as they are needed and to handle downturns and emergencies that may arise. Cash management becomes even more important during recessionary times when cash is flowing more slowly into the business and creditors are less lenient in extending time to pay. For small businesses, handling business accounting and taxes may be within the capabilities of the business owners, but professional help is usually a good idea. The complexity of a business’ books go up with each client and employee, so getting assistance with managing cash and the bookkeeping can allow you to excel when others are calling it quits. Cash flow challenges are exacerbated by the lending climate, particularly for small businesses. Bankers are unlikely to be more liberal in their lending policies any time soon.
3. Increased selection and competition. It’s never been easier to start a business. Gone are the days when it took weeks, months, and a myriad of forms to get your business started. Now if you can buy a domain name and register your business online, you’re in business. However, staying in business is a much more complicated matter. While business expertise was once an expensive and time consuming endeavor, you can now find experts online for many questions that you might encounter. There is help to starting an online store, for example, for getting business cards and marketing materials – all at a very reasonable cost. The ease of starting a business creates a much broader level of competition. You might find different business competing for each product you sell and new business that focus on a single item and spend all their time and focus on being the very best at just one thing. This increase in overall selection and more focused completion will make it more difficult for businesses of all sizes to retain customers who can change their suppliers with the click of a mouse. It’s a battle of perception, focus, and marketing. Business owners who master these elements and provide a great customer experience will win the sale.
4. Marketing and Customer Loyalty. Along the same lines as increased selection and competition is the challenge to market to potential customers effectively and retain your existing customers. Smartphones, social media, texting, email, twitter and other communication channels are making it easy for businesses and individuals to get their messages out. Figuring out the right marketing channels is key for businesses to be successful in the future. Where are your customers and how do you best reach them and what is the right messaging? Once you get a new customer, how do you keep these customers when they are constantly barraged by competitors of all types, sizes, and locations, trying to convince them that they can do it better or provide it cheaper? Identifying what your customers want and doing a better job of giving it to them will make all the difference in your company’s future. The conservative spending climate is also causing a shrinking customer base. Consumers are still quite conservative with their pocketbooks, and as a result, organic growth from current and new customers is not growing as quickly as businesses would like. Business owners and executives are spending more time figuring out how to go above and beyond to keep existing customers, while at the same time figuring out how to cost-effectively reach new customers — without competing solely on price, which always ends up to be a race to the bottom.
5. Uncertainty. All of us, and especially business leaders find great discomfort in uncertainty. Because of global debt and economic struggles, uncertainty is more pronounced today than in the past. The sad news is that uncertainty leads to a short-term focus. Due to uncertainty, companies tend to shy away from long-term planning in favor of shorter-term goals. While this might feel right, a failure to strategically plan five to ten years into the future can end up destroying value. Businesses must learn to balance the need for a more reactive, short-term focus with the need for informed, long-term strategies. Uncertainty tends to put many into a general malaise – unable to get anything done. The ever-running news cycle leaves everyone feeling a bit on edge. This causes business owners and executives to hunker down and customers to stop spending. You need to shut out the world ending news and get back to work.”
6. Regulation. A changing regulatory environment is always of concern in certain industries, but uncertain energy, environmental and financial policy is wreaking havoc for nearly all companies today. Whether a demand from customers or shareholders to become more “green,” or the threat of increased costs due to new carbon taxes, environmental considerations are among the biggest challenges businesses face today. And we don’t need to give too much press to the current issue of financial reform and regulation, although we do have some opinions about how to prepare for that if you’re a bank or a brokerage house. The problems to be solved are to understand the meaning of regulation in your industry, its implications for your business, and to develop the skills necessary to deal with it. Two key areas of regulatory challenges are taxes and health care. Lawmakers are still haggling over what’s called the fiscal cliff, the combination of billions of dollars in tax increases and budget cuts. Even if Congress reaches an agreement, businesses won’t have the certainty they need to make intelligent decisions. When Congress does reach an agreement, it most likely won’t be comprehensive enough that it won’t need to be revisited again next year. Health care has been another challenge for businesses. The new Affordable Health Care Act (Obamacare) is so complex that state and local governments won’t know what to do and businesses will have to devote significant time and resources to understanding the law — or for a small business, hiring some professional to help them do it. They’ll have to get their arms around the law, look at their options, learn more about the exchanges and determine how to make it all work. Many businesses don’t yet know whether their states will be creating exchanges, or whether they’ll have to go into the national system — and they don’t know what that will mean for their costs. For some businesses, that information will help them decide whether they will buy insurance, or whether they’ll decide it’s cheaper to not provide coverage and just pay the government a $2,000-per-employee fine. For those who have close to 50 workers, they may decide to not hire more workers in order to remain outside the law’s jurisdiction.
7. Problem Solving and Risk Management. A major challenge for all companies is identifying, assessing, and mitigating risks, including human and financial capital, in addition to the macro economy. The lack of a sophisticated problem-solving competency among today’s business leaders is limiting their ability to adequately deal with risks facing their businesses. This is why corporate managers tend to jump from one fire to another, depending on which one their executives are trying to put out, and in many cases the fast-changing business environment is what ignites these fires. So what is the problem to be solved? We believe, to do well into the future, companies must resolve that problem solving is the key to business, then develop a robust problem-solving capability at all levels. As companies proceed to identify risks, they will then have the problem solving skills to know how to best mitigate them.
8. Finding the right staff. Without exception, every business executive I speak to says that one of their biggest challenges is staff – finding the right staff, retaining them, and ensuring they buy into the vision of the business. I’ll freely admit that I have no magic answers here. In fact, if someone could develop a formula for recruiting and engaging the right team members, they would make millions. A small business is almost like a family, and, like many families, they can work well, or they can be dysfunctional. In big companies, the human resource challenge is politics and fit in the workplace, but when it comes to small business, its personalities and skill. When you work in a small environment, each team member’s personality can have a huge impact on the harmony and productivity of the business. The key is to learn how to deal with different personalities, figure out what drives each individual team member and tailor your management accordingly. Despite high unemployment, many companies struggle to find the right talent with the right skills for their business. Many new manufacturing jobs require high-tech skills. They include positions at factories where computers are used to create products like airplane parts and machinery. And some require several years of training. Because of changing technology, businesses are struggling to find qualified workers with IT skills, problem solving abilities, and deductive reasoning skills.
As I consider my own business and its challenges, I agree with Neal’s conclusions that these are the critical 8. How about your company? Have we named the right issues? Would you like to include others?