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Breaking Through Is Hard

James Warren December 14, 2014
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A couple of years ago, my boss gave his management team some assigned reading, “What the CEO Wants You to Know: How Your Company Really Works,” by Ram Charan. Beautiful in its simplicity, “What the CEO Wants You to Know” takes business concepts like cash flow, profit, positioning, advertising, inventory, sales and cost management, and makes them really simple for every employee to understand by relating them to the process of running a fruit stand. Surely most of us can relate to the everyday experiences of a lone proprietor, who has to buy produce, sell it at a profit, and reserve some of that profit to buy more produce for tomorrow, all while clearing enough profit to feed his family and pay his bills. If we don’t always grasp or apply the concepts taught in college or B-school, we can definitely relate to this individual trying to make enough money to take care of his family.

I found this book to be a godsend then, as I sought to lead the transformation of my sales team into an even stronger, more accountable and more entrepreneurial organization. I find it to be quite relevant and handy now, as my team and I take on the challenge of building a new business, platform, product and brand – from scratch.

Indeed, starting a company is like taking all of those business concepts you learned in school and boiling them down to their essence. The fancy strategy and management techniques become far less abstract and intellectual when it’s your business. Ultimately, it’s pretty simple: find a customer problem or need, and solve it in such a way that the customer is willing to exchange something of value for the solution. Sound great, right?

Well, working through that formula helped me realize just how much we take certain things for granted in the world of business.

For example, consider the challenge of creating new brand and product awareness. As a brand manager and sales director for one of the largest CPG brands in the world, I took for granted the attention my brand commanded. Sure, I knew the history of what had been built by those who came before me. I knew the resources we committed to maintaining brand equity and increasing market share. And I realized that we had our work cut out for us when we grappled with all of the challenges of a new product launch.

Even with those experiences and some degree of appreciation of the brand’s legacy, truth be told, I didn’t really understand what it took for the founders of the company, one hundred years ago, to create something new. Even when I led new product launches for the company and its brands, we had all of the resources of the enterprise behind us; people assumed our success, and this paved the way for execution and launch. So when friend after friend started their own businesses, I had an idea of what they were doing, but I can’t say I truly grasped the challenges they willingly took on when they set about pursuing dreams and building companies out of their garages (or at least, their home offices).

What I didn’t know then, and what I do know now, is what Gates, Winfrey, Jobs, Tesla, Ford, Strauss, and every other visionary and entrepreneur learned when they launched their companies.

Breaking through is hard.

What is the breakthrough I seek? Well, there are actually several barriers we’re trying to break through as we build:

  1. The slightest lack of total clarity of customer need, which impedes a compelling value proposition
  2. The natural clutter in the mind and in the market, which prevents focused execution
  3. The overwhelming amount of information that people sift through every day, which hinders awareness

Through a myriad of life experiences, I’ve also learned that these three challenges apply in a number of situations, beyond the process of building a new business.

You’re an artist and a creator? I’ll bet you’ve experienced the challenges of getting your work noticed. You’ve tried tweeting, blogging, advertising, word of mouth, even giving it away, and the awareness just hasn’t come yet.

You’re looking to switch careers? With all that experience, you’ve probably struggled to define exactly what your personal brand is and what you have to offer another employer. “But I know how to do all of these things, James!” Yep, you sure do. And how does that help the prospective employer with their one, specific problem?

You’re training a new employee? They’re trying to absorb everything you’re saying, but they’re also worried about what you think of them and how they’ll compare to their peers on the latest initiative. These distractions prevent them from learning effectively and efficiently.

In all of these situations, the breakthrough is hard to come by, because it means disruption. You have to disrupt habits, assumptions and knowledge – both yours and your target’s – in order to be successful. You have to change the way things are, to a new state, in order to achieve success. When a plant takes root and breaks through the surface, it has successfully changed the way things were and created the opportunity for itself to grow. More accurately, it has overcome the obstacle and penetrated the restriction in such a way that it could find the light of day and thrive.

So what are your obstacles and restrictions, personally, professionally or organizationally? How will you overcome them and ultimately break through?

My advice? First, focus, focus, focus! Get clear on what you’re trying to accomplish. Be relentless in your execution. Your effort will feel useless at first, because it will appear that you’re pushing against an immovable force. Keep at it until you feel the first budge. And finally stay flexible. You will almost certainly have to adapt your approach, even after experiencing some initial success. Focused, flexible and persistent execution will increase the chances of success for you and your team.

So, that’s all I’ve got for now. To stay connected, follow me on LinkedIn, Twitter or Tumblr. Please check out what we’re up to with our start-up, share your perspectives on how you’re achieving your breakthroughs, and let me know if I can help you work through your own growth challenges, on the path towards breaking through.

Photo credit: Mark Dixon

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