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Back, then forth: An alternative strategy

Steve McKee October 5, 2016 Leadership Strategy

Each month, When Growth Stalls examines why businesses and brands struggle and how they can overcome their obstacles and resume growth. Steve McKee is the president of McKee Wallwork + Co., an advertising agency that specializes in working with stalled, stuck and stale brands. The company was recognized by Advertising Age as 2015 Southwest Small Agency of the Year. McKee is also the author of “When Growth Stalls” and “Power Branding.”

The other day a radio talk show host asked me how typical it was for companies to put off (or neglect entirely) dealing with challenging internal issues they may be facing like a lack of management alignment or a loss of focus. I told him it was, frankly, the norm.

Nobody wants to admit they have a problem. That’s just human nature. But as the old saying goes, the first thing to do if you find yourself in a hole is to quit digging.

I was reminded of this by two recent headlines that I found irresistible: "The Tennis Phenom Who Chose to Be Terrible" and "Why Tennessee Volunteered to Be Bad." Both articles detailed how stopping, reevaluating, and even being willing to suffer short-term setbacks were critical to the eventual success of one of the top-ranked tennis pros in the world, Dominic Thiem, and the resurgent Tennessee Volunteers football program.

In Thiem’s case, he was once the world’s No. 2-ranked junior tennis player who, together with his coach and parents, made the decision to go from a two-handed backhand to using only one hand. His coach, Gunter Bresnik, said, “The double-handed backhand would have led him nowhere. He would have become an average player.” That may be easy to say in retrospect, but the decision was anything but easy at the time.

“Everybody called me an idiot and his parents stupid,” Bresnik said.

Sure enough, Thiem’s play suffered and he dropped significantly in the rankings -- for a time. As of this writing, the 23-year-old Thiem has a 55-18 win-loss record on the pro circuit, has won four titles, and has taken home more than $2.3 million in prize money this year alone. His nickname? “Dominator.”

In Tennessee’s case, four years ago (a lifetime in college football) the school’s then-new coach, Butch Johnson, told the athletic director that overcoming the team’s dismal performance -- both on the field and in the classroom -- was not going to happen overnight. Building a team from scratch, with freshman recruits instead of junior college transfers, was the right way to do things, even if it means putting up with a few losing seasons.

That wouldn’t be easy for the university’s football-mad fan base, which over the decades had grown accustomed to winning (six national championships will do that to you). But as Jones put it, “The great thing about building from ground zero is you can build it in your vision.” After a terrific start to the 2016 season, the coach’s vision -- and the fans’ patience -- appears to be paying off.

It’s as true in business as it is in sports: Sometimes you have to take a step back before you can go forth. Many of the struggling companies we come across are in denial, thinking that by pressing on, plowing through, selling harder or ignoring the problem they’ll make it through. Perseverance, to be sure, is always necessary. But there’s no sense running in circles.

The key in most cases is to recognize -- as did Dominic Thiem and the Tennessee Volunteers -- that the biggest obstacle standing in your way may in fact be you. As in business, the competition in both professional tennis and college football is unrelenting, and players and coaches are continually innovating to try and gain an edge. Competitive marketplaces and changing dynamics are nothing new and will never abate; the edge comes in improving your own game.

I often invite struggling companies I come across to complete a simple, quick self-diagnosis, just to put a stick of self-analysis in the ground that enables them get a sense of the relative health of their internal dynamics. It’s not perfect, but it’s not unlike looking at game film, or a videotape of your tennis stroke. Sometimes all it takes is a bit of reflection to identify weaknesses that need to be addressed.

These days it’s understandably difficult to course-correct if it may require taking a step backward in sales, margin, market share, or even the makeup of your management team. But if you’re playing for the long-term, that may be the wisest thing you can do.

The least you should do is pause and reflect not only on the marketplace, but on your own internal dynamics. Your company will be a case study someday, and it’s much better to be a story of resurgence than one of ruin.

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