For Saskatoon, Saskatchewan-based WBM Office Systems, business growth was a challenge, according to the firm’s president, JoeAnne Hardy.
“We had hit a ‘glass ceiling’ in our revenue growth, and were having a really hard time breaking through,” she says. “We had tried a number of different things, everyone was getting busier and we had a lot of work, but we were stuck and needed to find a way to increase our revenues.”
Today the firm has moved well beyond that glass ceiling, tripling its revenues and growing its number of employees significantly. In retrospect, Hardy says she doesn’t have what she calls the “secret recipe” for success, but points to several factors that helped WBM break through.
One of the first things WBM did was to identify key factors that define what Hardy refers to as a “WBMer.” There was a group of 10 or so employees, she says, “who most embodied our core values, so we brought in a third-party firm to interview these employees, and explore their personal values within the context of their role at WBM.”
From that exercise, WBM created a “values tree” that the company still uses as a basis for all client relationships, as well as a common language for employees to leverage in all aspects of the business, from sales and marketing to technical and engineering. WBM also uses the values tree in the hiring process to ensure that new employees share similar values and offer the skill sets WBM needs to move WBM forward.
Next, WBM created a “career map” for its employees and teams that outlined technical certifications, skills and other factors needed to advance within WBM. One of the career map’s most unique aspects, and one that Hardy feels is an important key to success, is that it provides employees with opportunities to take time off from their day-to-day responsibilities to try other positions within the company. Hardy finds this helps to re-energize employees, keeps them interested in what they are doing, and gives them the ability to step outside their comfort zones and gain a different perspective. She also says it helps retain employees in situations where they may leave the company for an opportunity to try something new, or become less productive due to burnout.
Beyond the values tree and career map, Hardy cites processes as an important part of WBM’s success. WBM was growing and needed to keep control, but at the same they didn’t want so much control that they missed opportunities to grow their business. She went on to explain that there are times when there are a thousand little reasons why a deal couldn’t or shouldn’t work, and that you can’t always let those “little no’s” kill big opportunities for growth. Instead, go for the “big yes” and figure it out later. WBM did this, and as a result, reaped the rewards of several transformational deals.
Throughout this Think Tank session, it became clear that Hardy and WBM are not alone in facing challenges associated with managing growth. During an open discussion, members of the group cited setting client expectations, building a team and managing staff, corporate culture, and the M&A path toward new territories and core competencies as key concerns. Some of the top advice to emerge from the session included:
- Don’t try to be everything to everyone. Find your niche and focus on your core competencies
- Weed out bad ideas by taking time to discuss them with the team. Ask pointed questions and ensure that the idea is fully vetted prior to execution. If the team can’t answer simple questions, then the idea is likely not a good one.
- Talk to your customers before launching new products or services. Ask them what they would like to see from your company, and if you could offer them additional products or services, what would be of most interest to them?
- Never let the finance or accounting department get in the way of a good idea.
- While structure is important for growth, too much structure can create frustration and prevent creativity. Remember to be flexible and know when to bend the rules.
- You can’t please everyone all the time, and in mergers and acquisitions, a disparity in vision, company culture and benefits is inevitable. Ask questions to determine the impact on your business. With growth, the rules of engagement change as more employees come on board, which in turn means more responsibility in terms of benefits (e.g. paid leave and taxes). If possible, create new processes and procedures that combine the best of both worlds, and are built around tangible business value.
- Unify on-site and off-site teams by engaging them in the business. Create a commission structure for non-sales personnel, involve your employees in writing proposals and tech briefs, and find opportunities for them to grow with you and add value to your company. Pulse checks are a great way to ensure that you are succeeding in this endeavour.
- The best reasons to merge are to acquire new skill sets (executive management, sales operations), to expand geographically, or to gain new customers with a substantial recurring revenue base.
In closing the session, Hardy cited the book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard by Chip and Dan Heath, and talked about how the book’s anecdote about the elephant, the rider and the pack applies across all businesses. Like the elephant, she said, we must find a connection to our work and an emotional motivation for doing what we do; next, the rider must have really clear instructions about where they are going and what they need to accomplish; and finally, there must always be a “pack” in place for checks and balances.
Change is difficult for any organization, regardless of size, vertical focus or geography, but in the end it’s how you manage that change that makes all the difference in terms of the opportunity, and the reward you will reap.