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Inside, Outside, Upside Down-Keeping an External Focus

Tim B. Sparks 

(For individual use only, not to be reproduced or used in any way without permission)

As part of the process of acquiring a driver's license, many of us attend a defensive driving course. Learning safe driving techniques made us better drivers. Some of the lessons I learned from my instructor, Dee Glover, were "look out for the other guy", "look beyond your front bumper", and "always leave yourself an out". Not a day goes by that I am not reminded of these important lessons. Ironically, many of the reminders come, not from my daily driving experiences, but from business news headlines.

Let's take "Look beyond your front bumper". It seems like good advice. Keep an eye on the road in front, behind and around your vehicle. Focus on outside conditions. Anticipate and adjust for traffic, weather conditions, curves, construction, and obstacles in the road. What would happen if as the driver, you began spending most of your time concentrating on what was going on inside the car?

In some ways driving a car safely is similar to leading a business profitably. As a driver, you've got to focus on the road ahead; process what you observe then make the necessary adjustments to safely get where you are going. Similarly in business you must define your vision, monitor changes in the market, and make adjustments to key business strategies while continually scanning the horizon for new opportunities. Far too often companies become internally focused spending far too much of their time and resources on activities inside the firm.

The catalyst for a company's culture shifting from an external to an internal focus may be a recent merger or acquisition, a reorganization, unexpected layoffs, declining profits, etc. Many times events such as these create high levels of uncertainty and ambiguity for employees. Employees' respond by withdrawing and shifting to a defensive mode where more time is invested in "self preservation" than anticipating and serving customer needs. Employees take their eye off the road ahead. They begin to focus more and more on activities not valued by the customer. Eventually progress stalls. Profitability wanes. Risk taking can disappear. Political behavior (CYA) becomes more prevalent. Turnover increases. The company begins a downward spiral. Gridlock has become the norm.

Businesses exist because they provide goods and services valued by their customers. If your company is experiencing any of these symptoms above it might be time to pull off to the side of the road, quit driving while looking only through a rear view mirror, and refocus on what is most important: that which is outside, in front and on the horizon. It's not too late to keep your business from ending upside down.

Below are 7 simple steps to help steer your business towards profitable results:

  1. Develop a clear point of view of your industry with both a present and future look.
  2. Understand what your customers? value most and how you can better serve their needs in the future.
  3. Develop a compelling vision for your business, which is then shared with the entire organization.
  4. Ensure employees know what they are responsible for and what is expected of them in terms of results.
  5. Ensure employees know how what they do connects to the business vision.
  6. Reward employees based on their contribution to profitably satisfying customers needs.
  7. Develop an entrepreneurial culture based on trust.


Contact Matt Starcevich at matt@coachingandmentoring.com
Copyright 1999 Center for Coaching & Mentoring, Inc., update: November 26, 2012