9/26/2017 | Jon Umstead

Everyone wants to know the key to success. We look for magic pills, shortcuts, and lotteries to get us there quickly. If it worked that way, I wouldn’t be writing this and you wouldn’t be reading it.

The unfortunate truth is…

There is no single key to business success.

Certainly one key to success is to put in the work required. Note, that doesn’t say, “work hard.” Working hard is a matter of personal perspective. What is “hard work” to one may be the equivalent of a day at the beach for another. It also doesn’t imply outcome.

Putting in the “work required” implies “working effectively.” Working effectively implies focusing on the things you really need to do in order to efficiently produce the desired outcome. 
How do you know what to focus on? For a middle market company, sustained growth may be near or at the top of the list, so let’s start there.

Sustained Growth in the Middle Market
Three key factors that impact sustained growth include:

1. Talent – acquisition, retention, training
2. Flexibility - responding to changes in the middle market
3. Strategy – across multiple areas

A March 2017 post at the American Marketing Association, quoting a report from the National Center for the Middle Market, states (and is entitled) The Most Successful Middle Market Firms Have a Talent Plan.  

This report offers talent-planning solutions for middle market companies using the ABLE Framework (see The ABLE Framework: An Approach for Upping Your talent Planning Game). According the report, the more a company followed the framework, the better talent they attracted, and the more successful they were over all. 

In another March 2017 article, this one at Forbes entitled How Middle Market Brands Sustain Growth, the author describes five key shifts that can work in the middle-market’s favor, including:

1. New product launches are not creating sustained growth.
2. For many larger companies, innovation is driven more by risk management than category expansion. 
3. Retailers are selling more goods on promotion, and those efforts are getting less efficient. 
4. As America is becoming more diverse, mass-market appeals are becoming less relevant and less effective.
5. Brands are able to sell direct-to-consumers via digital platforms.

This would imply that sticking to what used to be a successful strategy is no longer working, especially for large companies. Middle market companies need to be flexible and willing to change in order to take advantage of these shifts. 

That’s not really new news to anyone. Regardless, it can be very easy to fall into the trap of “don’t fix what isn’t broken” – until it breaks, which can be too late.

Being flexible and staying ahead of change means having a strategy that is nimble, actionable, and covers a lot of different categories.

The Center’s post entitled a Blueprint for Growth: Middle Market Growth Champions Reveal a Framework for Success states, “Key strategies are based on a group of distinguishing characteristics, including strong management culture, exceptional talent management, sharp customer focus, broad geographic vision, and innovation.”

How do you successfully cover so many areas at once?

It starts with defining what “success” means to your business
Perhaps the most important key to success is to actually define and articulate what “success” means to your business.
That is, minimally, formally defining:
Vision – how you see things, ideally, in the future
Mission – what you do
Purpose – why you do it
Goals - big, lofty things that are more of a destination and not measurable beyond “are we there yet?” – they can be categorized as Profit, Customer, Employee and Social Responsibility
Objectives – an indication of how you are progressing toward a goal (s) – they should be SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, time-bound)

You are probably familiar with the term “Key Performance Indicators” or “KPI”. The KPI is a measurable component of an objective. Examples of KPIs include things like “Net Profit” and “New Clients/Logos”.

Major categories of KPIs include:
•Financial
•Customer
•Sales & Marketing
•Operational
•Employee
•Social Responsibility

All of these things build upon and relate to one another. Collectively, they define what “success” means to your business – success in your terms.

Defining success in your terms is an important key, but not enough
Another major key to business success is planning and strategically managing. Many businesses mistakenly put plans together only when they need access to capital, or at the beginning of the fiscal year in order to define targets and set incentives. Then the plan set aside, never to be touched again, which defeats a lot of the purpose.

Plans are guiding documents to help you strategically manage the business rather than lead by the seat of your pants. With so much stimulus flying around us at all times, it can be hard to focus on what’s important. Plans make it clear when deciding where to dedicate resources, time, and energy.

Strategically managing means tracking how you are performing against the plan, which in turn helps you make better informed decisions and revisions to the plan.

If you are like most business leaders, you have probably written or seen huge, largely unusable plans. These unwieldy type traditional plans are a waste of time.

Simplify your plans
Some high level rules of thumb in defining and managing plans include:
•Don’t write a book when a few pages will do
•Don’t write a few pages when a few paragraphs will do
•Don’t write a few paragraph when a few bullets will do
•Don’t define more than 3 of anything in any particular category

For example, define no more than three goals in any particular category and limit them to one or two sentences at most. Take on no more than three strategic initiatives at once. Define no more than three major objectives in any given category.

When you define too many things to track, you will spend all of your time tracking what you no longer have time to accomplish.

So what are the keys to business success?
In summary, a key to business success is to work effectively, which means:
•Define success in your terms
•Strategically plan AND manage
•Keep your plans as simple as you can

There are many more keys to business success. Middle market companies particularly have to focus on:
•Talent
•Flexibility
•Strategy  

Above all, remember that it is not so important HOW you define success, but it is critical that you do.