Positioning for Explosive Growth: A CEO’s Guide To Enthusiastic Leadership – Part Four

This is the fourth and final part in a 4-part Guest Blog post series by Sarah Polk, Chief Marketing Officer at Chief Outsiders.

Embracing Your Competitive Advantage

Ask any sports athlete what gives them the fire to take their field of play, and they will likely cite the prospect of beating their rival. Indeed, without the subplot of competition, sports would be exceedingly boring – for both the players and the viewers.

As CEOs, competition, too, represents our drive, our passion, our reason for being. Though we might actually prefer owning the playing field and having it all to ourselves, we can be relatively assured that we will have company as we pursue excellence and strive for the only true tangible measure of success – revenue growth.

As you know, this blog series has been keenly focused on helping you achieve this drive for excellence. In previous blogs, we have looked inward – talking about how being more engaged with your team and how focusing on the way consumers are embracing (or eschewing) your product or service, are critical keys to growth-oriented success.

Now, it’s time to take a look beyond our walls – at the competitive forces that we must manage in order to ensure survival. Understanding how our rivals are nipping at our heels is the essential insight to positioning our product or service appropriately in the marketplace. To be a successful leader, you must be able to identify where your company advantages are really resonating — whether it is product quality, customer service, uniqueness, corporate structure, or some other characteristic — and use those attributes in your promotional efforts.

In my work with companies, I have noticed that a surprising number have not considered these competitive essentials. Even more companies have stuck with antiquated methods to promote their competitive advantage – only to watch that advantage evaporate due to technology.

In these situations, there are some fundamentals that I recommend CEOs follow immediately to get their competitive efforts on track:

Review Your Positioning: With the world changing so rapidly, this is something I recommend doing on an annual basis. What may have been a competitive advantage five years ago may not even raise the consumer’s eyebrow today. This may require some internal restructuring – particularly with marketing – to ensure that the company can keep pace with market dynamics.

Take the Pulse of the Market: Now is the time to invest in robust qualitative and quantitative research that gets to the heart of changing consumer tastes. I often see companies that come up with a great idea for a new product and accelerate its launch, while skipping critical steps. Gauging consumer demand, surprisingly, generally is the step that is overlooked.

Understand the Essence of Sales Pressures: It has been easy for any company to blame flagging demand on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic – which has been a smokescreen for some companies who were already experiencing the effects of competitive pressure. The ability to see the big picture through a regular, and in-depth, competitive analysis, is a critical part of sifting through the superficial and getting to the heart of matters.

Call in an Expert: Sometimes, putting the competitive landscape into perspective is a bigger job than your existing go-to-market team is able to manage. Even people who go to a doctor for regular checkups will, at times, need a specialist – or a surgeon! That’s why it can be wise to call upon a specialist in market analysis to make a true, objective, third-party examination of the forces that are impacting your standing in the marketplace. They can also help you assemble a library of resources so you can consistently be updating your competitive research and ensure that you don’t fall behind on this important strategy again.

As a CEO, it’s critical that you use the tools in your arsenal to earn – and keep – your competitive advantage. Rather than viewing competitive research as an expense item, consider it a priority to help you break through the clutter that has only been amplified due to the onslaught of digital tools.

In case you missed the previous articles in the series:

Sarah Polk

With deep senior level management and marketing expertise, Sarah leads businesses through international expansion initiatives, difficult transitions, mergers, acquisitions, and turnarounds. Adept at recognizing growth opportunities, strategic positioning, creative conceptualization, new product launches, and brand management, she builds and expands extensive marketing departments to maximize ROI and shareholder value. Also skilled at product marketing, she works with engineering teams to craft products that meet the market’s needs. With an ability to inspire and lead cross-functional global teams, Sarah builds productive, long-lasting business relationships.

Positioning for Explosive Growth: A CEO’s Guide To Enthusiastic Leadership – Part Three

This is the third in a 4-part Guest Blog post series by Sarah Polk, Chief Marketing Officer at Chief Outsiders.

Knowledge Is Power

What’s holding you aloft in 2020?

Whether or not you have cracked the code of 2020, most CEOs have spent the year snapping back to a changed reality. In our last blog, we looked at the importance of being engaged, insightful, and plugged in as the “table stakes” of leadership change in turbulent times.

But all the engagement in the world is pointless if you don’t know the direction from which your headwinds and tailwinds are coming.

More to the point: If your company were an airplane, then insights—the detailed information you need to understand competitors, targets, trends, and market news—can be considered the wind beneath your wings.

And if you don’t have a keen focus on how these megatrends are keeping your ship in blue skies, you may just find yourself hopelessly lost in a cloud bank. And falling asleep at the controls – well, that could just be deadly.

A recent example: I was working with a large hospital group in the mid-Atlantic region that was trying to understand why a satellite emergency care facility wasn’t generating the profits they expected. My first fact-finding mission—a demographic market survey—uncovered a critical misstep by the group: There was simply no need for the satellite facility to begin with, based upon the existence of other healthcare facilities in the region and the size of the market.

It became abundantly clear: A simple dive into the basic blocking-and-tackling of insights would have saved the company millions – and the awful mistake of building something for which there was no demand.

It’s a faux pas that I see repeated time and again: Leaders, without any research whatsoever, and based simply on a “good idea,” are convinced to plunge resources into products or services that fall flat in the market, and then wonder why they’re not making any sales.

In my view, this is but one example of why the ability to look at data and insights is a critical skill for CEOs who are looking to make more effective decisions – a basic tenet of being in charge these days.

So, what types of insights should a CEO be focused on in order to ensure the relevance of their offerings? Here are just a few fundamentals that I believe are useful:

Customer Focus: It’s important not to become too far removed from your buyers these days. In days of yore, it used to be that successful CEOs could get away with pushing off customer insights on other department heads. Now, with digital marketing, and the availability of instant knowledge about target audiences, the CEO has to be keenly aware of market factors which can move for – or against – them quickly.

The most successful CEOs I work with are the ones that have innate knowledge about their customers and their relationships with their companies. They even phone customers directly to hear what is driving their decision making. In this manner, they can see a necessary pivot coming if customer needs are changing, or if the market is exerting different forces on their business.

Insights Machine: Some companies have elevated insights to an art form and have even installed Chief Information Officers to help lasso, wrangle, and otherwise manage myriad data points into submission. This new CIO role ensures that a member of senior leadership has accountability for delivering proprietary knowledge and a library of information that helps keep the company’s competitive edge sharp.

Research, Analyze, Repeat (Often): Both CEO and CIO will benefit from a robust and dynamic industry analysis program that delivers insights on a very regular basis. No longer is it appropriate to conduct this type of research once a year – once a quarter may be the appropriate interval to gather data that spells out all the threats and opportunities that are hitting their specific industry. And in my experience, the most insightful companies don’t just insist, but mandate, that their entire senior leadership team, as well as their board members, consume this knowledge.

As an example, I worked with a company recently that was experiencing massive shipping delays as a result of the pandemic and couldn’t quite figure out why. After gathering insights, they learned that lighter packages were being delivered significantly faster than heavier ones. By unbundling some of the shipments into smaller chunks, they could significantly accelerate their supply chain.

Another company in the beverage industry was having trouble sourcing the bottles that their drinks were packaged in – and upon analysis, learned that this would remain a challenge during the pandemic. They pivoted their entire production line to can-based packaging to ensure their ability to keep up with the surging demand for their product.

In our next blog, we’ll roll up what we’ve learned about the importance of being an engaged and well-informed CEO and put these traits to work in honing your competitive advantages in the marketplace.

Sarah Polk

With deep senior level management and marketing expertise, Sarah leads businesses through international expansion initiatives, difficult transitions, mergers, acquisitions, and turnarounds. Adept at recognizing growth opportunities, strategic positioning, creative conceptualization, new product launches, and brand management, she builds and expands extensive marketing departments to maximize ROI and shareholder value. Also skilled at product marketing, she works with engineering teams to craft products that meet the market’s needs. With an ability to inspire and lead cross-functional global teams, Sarah builds productive, long-lasting business relationships.

Positioning for Explosive Growth: A CEO’s Guide To Enthusiastic Leadership: Part Two

This is the second in a 4-part Guest Blog post series by Sarah Polk, Chief Marketing Officer at Chief Outsiders.

The Four Inhibitors of Engaged Leadership

Little known fact about ducks: Though they exude grace as they glide atop the water, ducks hide a little secret just below the surface.

For all the poetry they project in our view, ducks are actually shuffling their feet quite quickly to achieve that silky-smooth movement.

As a CEO, you know this bifurcated existence all too well. Though you are expected — nee, required — to display a semblance of outward calm, beneath this facade are the fears, insecurities, and realities that come with the job.

So why must you glide and not shuffle — especially given all that the recent past has thrown at business leaders?

It’s a proven fact: If a business leader is passionate, energetic, and hardworking, it filters down to company employees. This is leadership by example at its best.

In addition, an effective leader can quickly gather the information needed to make decisions and act without hesitation. With such a leader, employees are loyal, self-actualized, and tend to go beyond traditional work requirements. Competitors have difficulty replicating this leadership style.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the costs of being a disengaged CEO can be immense. One study undertaken by The Engagement Institute found that employees left rudderless by ineffective leadership can cost companies between $450 and $550 billion — with a B — per year.

So, what are some of the pitfalls that can derail engagement and cause you to paddle in circles, rather than to glide ahead?

Lacking Authenticity: Having your actions match your words — coming off as being authentic and true — is as simple as doing what you say you’re going to do. To the contrary, if a CEO is saying something about how valuable employees are — and then turns around and cuts retirement benefits or buys himself a corporate jet in a time of austerity — he can inflict significant damage. Being authentic is the first key to displaying the guts and leadership skills to take quick action.

Indecisiveness: A lack of decisiveness can put a stranglehold on your resources, and by extension, your company. Any time not spent on executing the strategy and vision to move the company forward tends to be wasted. One coping mechanism I have observed over the years has been when a leader ends up spending too much time in tactical minutiae, as a distraction to making the big decisions that will move the company forward. A fearful leader — one unable to make decisions — can have a ripple effect throughout the company and create a culture of fear.

Lack of Emotional Intelligence: It’s critical to remain focused on the task at hand, and to see it through to completion. Too many times, I have observed CEOs lose the respect of their employees because it was clear that they were trying to be good at EVERYTHING, and instead weren’t any good at ANYTHING. This often is embodied in a patchwork of short-term fixes that made little sense for the long-term growth of the company (though they did look good on the CEO’s resume). This type of behavior became transparent to the members of the leadership team, and ultimately made it hard to keep people motivated to undertake, and execute, on the big-picture items.

No Support Structure: There are others in your shoes who are grasping for the same brass ring, but struggle with the same insecurities. Groups like Vistage and other executive networking programs provide the missing outlet for the need to have a truly honest and inwardly focused discussion.

I recently met with the CEO of an up-and-coming West Coast beverage company, led by a similarly rising star in enterprise. In his early 30s, this CEO already has expanded nationally and completed two rounds of capital raise. But all this time, he felt the crushing stress of having to undertake this major expansive cycle in isolation. Through the supportive atmosphere of Vistage, the CEO was able to find solace among others who had walked in his shoes.

In our next blog, we will explore the ways an engaged leader uses insights and intelligence to make more effective decisions. Meanwhile, check out my recent interview with OnFire B2B Podcast.

Sarah Polk

With deep senior level management and marketing expertise, Sarah leads businesses through international expansion initiatives, difficult transitions, mergers, acquisitions, and turnarounds. Adept at recognizing growth opportunities, strategic positioning, creative conceptualization, new product launches, and brand management, she builds and expands extensive marketing departments to maximize ROI and shareholder value. Also skilled at product marketing, she works with engineering teams to craft products that meet the market’s needs. With an ability to inspire and lead cross-functional global teams, Sarah builds productive, long-lasting business relationships.

Positioning for Explosive Growth: A CEO’s Guide To Enthusiastic Leadership

This is the first in a 4-part Guest Blog post series by Sarah Polk, Chief Marketing Officer at Chief Outsiders.

In 2020 and beyond, the notion of leadership has been indelibly changed. No longer is it adequate to rule from 30,000 feet, to remain at arms lengths from strategies, and unable to touch tactics with a 10-foot pole. 

Leadership from a distance, in a time when distance is not just a suggestion, but a mandate, can strike a critical blow to a company that is already likely still trying to divine its direction in a pandemically-impacted landscape.

Buying habits, like it or not, have been forever transformed. Going forward, people will consume differently, express their preferences in new and unforeseen ways, and likely exhibit a great deal of caution in how they part with their almighty dollars.

Thus, today’s CEO and C-suite must be more dialed in than ever – hands-on, consumer focused, and action-oriented – if their company is to find the proverbial pot of gold at the end of a rather discolored rainbow.

Indeed, an engaged CEO is one that is able to command his or her enterprise toward a horizon of explosive growth while not forgetting those who supported the journey. Leaders must be able to engage at the customer level, encourage team members, and rally investors and stakeholders in promoting the grand vision.

If done correctly, this new and enhanced level of engagement can also have a remarkable impact on both tangible and intangible measures. Gallup found that top-performing leaders reduce turnover by 59 percent, experience 41 percent less absenteeism, find 40 percent fewer quality issues, notch 20 percent greater sales productivity, and, yes, 21 percent more profitability.

So, how can you refocus your energies and intentions on the task of reaping the maximum rewards for your product or service?

In my experience working with CEOs and private equity firms, I’ve found that the barriers to C-suite success have been surprisingly simple. Rather than undertaking a lengthy journey toward reinvention, I’ve found that most CEOs can retool for growth by making some simple, yet purposeful, changes to their leadership style.

In future blogs in this series, I will shed more details on the seven steps to success that the most effective CEOs have embraced.

These steps include:

  • Passionate, Energetic, and Decisive Leadership: Exuding a level of confidence that can be infectious across the organization, creating loyalty and the ability to row in the same direction.
  • Knowledge is Power: Diving into the detailed information most companies are collecting about competitors, targets, trends, and market news, and using this information to make more effective decisions.
  • Embracing the Competitive Advantage: Identifying what it is that makes the company special and serving as a figurehead and voice of reason in playing up these advantages.
  • Hiring Talent and Setting Them Free: Serving as a key cultivator of human resources, the top performing CEOs obtain the best talent for the job – and then get out of their way.
  • Creating Like No Other: Cultivating messages, go-to-market strategies, and other product communications that break the mold, and break through.
  • Measure, Measure, Measure: Taking a keen interest in the analytics that are resulting from legacy activities and being unafraid to pivot on the fly to fine-tune and improve.
  • Celebrating Success: Making sure that the team understands how appreciated they are for the efforts they’ve invested to supporting positive outcomes.

Ready to forge a new, enthusiastic sojourn toward profitability and growth? Read the next post in this series.

I’d love to hear from you. How have you been changing your management focus in these uncertain times?

Sarah Polk

With deep senior level management and marketing expertise, Sarah leads businesses through international expansion initiatives, difficult transitions, mergers, acquisitions, and turnarounds. Adept at recognizing growth opportunities, strategic positioning, creative conceptualization, new product launches, and brand management, she builds and expands extensive marketing departments to maximize ROI and shareholder value. Also skilled at product marketing, she works with engineering teams to craft products that meet the market’s needs. With an ability to inspire and lead cross-functional global teams, Sarah builds productive, long-lasting business relationships.