Once you become the leader of a company, you are no longer in charge of delivering and producing. You are in charge of creating a vision, a strategy that will help everyone in your company do the right things. Learn how to enable the people around you as a leader and create that singular vision. Join your host Penny Zenker and her guest Alex Brueckmann on how to find your business vision and foundation. Alex is a strategy entrepreneur, author, and executive coach. He built and scaled companies in Europe and Canada. He helped brands and firms transform their businesses to great success. Join in the conversation so that you can start writing down your strategy. Also, learn how to communicate and empower your employees for the future of your business.
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The Pros Of Having A Written Down Business Vision With Alex Brueckmann
We’re going to be talking about strategies for your business. Doing the Right Things. Strategies of thinking in the way to approach your business in a way that’s going to help you as we do in this show. Help you work smarter and do the right things and then do the next right things.
I’m excited to have Alex Brueckmann here with me and he’s a specialist in this area. Let me tell you a little bit about him and then we’ll introduce him.
He’s a strategy entrepreneur. He’s an Author and Executive Coach and he’s personally built and scaled companies in Europe and Canada. He’s led client projects across the world, helping brands and firms to transform their businesses with the strategies that we’re going to talk about. He also is very passionate about helping businesses that are profitable businesses but are rooted in purpose. Doing well while doing good. I’m a big fan of that too. It makes me feel better to know that I’m working with companies that have a greater purpose. I can imagine how much that brings to you. Alex, welcome to the show.
Thank you very much, Penny, for having me. I’m super excited. I’ve read some of your episodes and I’m thrilled to be a guest on your show.
Let’s start out with a couple of questions. I do them every interview a little bit differently. I should start out by understanding from your perspective, what’s your definition of productivity and why?
Productivity is a dangerous word nowadays because what I often see is when I work with my clients especially around strategy and leadership projects and topics, productivity is often doing more in a given time, which is dangerous. The doing more, we’re not working smarter. I’m always saying, “Let’s try and work smarter, not harder.”
It’s often mistaken for that. People think that it’s doing more. It makes people more stressed out because they feel like they’re not being productive. They’re not doing more. I totally agree with you and hear about that. If you were to define it or give it a new name, how would you do that?
Rather than focusing on being productive, I would always try and help people understand being more efficient and effective. Doing the right things and doing those things right. Once you’ve done those things that are important and urgent, those strategic things that help you grow over the long-term, at the same time, having your operations in check so that you are productive in the best sense of the work. You’re producing your services, producing a product.
When you’ve done those two things and you feel you still have room to do something more, be my guest and be more productive. First, it’s about knowing where to go, what to focus on. When you’ve done your homework and you feel you have more space then add on top of that and increase what we typically understand in the term and the term productivity.
You’ve been dedicated to this for many years in helping companies to grow and, in essence, be more profitable, which one could argue is productive. What’s your driver behind that? Why do you do what you do?Focus on the right things and do those things right. Click To Tweet
The simple answer is because I’ve seen so much crap in businesses. First, as an employee, I’ve seen how people burned out or were burned out because of stress. Being put on them to be more productive, to do more at the same time without ever asking whether those are the right things to do. That was especially true when I became a strategy consultant. I often had to challenge assumptions first in organizations that I worked with because they would do things the way they’ve always done them.
They didn’t ask themselves, “Are these still the right things to do?” They definitely were the right things at some point in time but now they might not be the right things anymore. Rather, people would try and do those things in a more efficient way and be more productive in those things before even asking themselves, “Are those still the right things or should we slightly shift?”
I saw what it does to the people, if they are not strategic, if they just focus on how they’ve done things for a long time and don’t pause, stop, look and listen and rethink from time to time how they work, what they do, and how they approach work in general. I’m not in the strategy game because of profitability. I’m not in a strategy game because of competitive strategy. I help people define strategies that are people-centered that help them grow people and their business at the same time.
We have a similar philosophy. I always say that I use the word productivity but I’m about helping people to think and act more strategically. It’s about constantly stepping back and orienting yourself around whether you’re focused on the right things. With your methods, how do you help people to get into the practice of identifying what is right for them at this stage? How do you work with people to help them to figure that out?
Most of the time, they know what’s best for them. They just don’t dare to speak up or they struggle to formulate their ideas into proper words. This is shocking to many especially to small entrepreneurs who always think those big corporations know what they’re doing. Most of the time, they don’t. It’s horrible to say it that bluntly but most of the companies that I’ve seen either as an employee first and later as a strategy consultant, they do not have a written down strategy or a clearly formulated plan to reaching a certain vision. They have something very high value, corporate-y sounding, full of corporate BS words. When it comes to putting the strategy into action or what they call their strategy, it’s often not there.
That’s the first thing that I see. They don’t have a formulated plan. They have a high-level plan but when it comes to executing it, they blank very often. When you ask the people on the shop floor or middle management, people on the front lines working with clients, they often have a good idea about what needs to be done because they listen to their clients. They are not ivory tower strategists. They are front-line people that listen.
What I basically do is I help them formulate what they hear into a cohesive structure, a cohesive framework that can be implemented because it leads to somewhere. It has a clear 2 to 3-year vision and you design a plan on how to reach that vision, how to get there. Often, those ideas that they have, they are fragments of something larger and I help them put that puzzle together and identify what they already have in their mind, what’s already great. What will help them get there? I help them identify those pieces that are still missing and formulate them and connect them to what’s already there.
Give us something pragmatic. You’ve got a lot of entrepreneurs reading and they’re like, “Give me a tip now, something that I can do now,” that certainly can bring you in. They can work more on it but if they were doing it themselves. What’s one thing that they could do that’s the next best step for them?
I’m not saying always but typically, most entrepreneurs don’t have an academic background in business or in strategy or in anything related to that. They often come through a different route and something that fires them up, something that is important to them is the foundation for the business and that’s why they became entrepreneurs.
To answer your question, Penny, the first thing that they should do is take that step back and learn about first, terminology. We use the term strategy, the term vision, the term purpose. We use them all over the place. Often, they are used in the wrong context and they are used because they sound fancy and there may be the word of the hour. Take that step back and educate yourself about how those things are connected.
What is a vision? How is it connected to strategy? Where does purpose come into play? Even more importantly, how does it come into play? There are tools out there that help you with that. If you want to take something hands-on and do something, you can immediately go to my website and download a free strategy toolkit. There it’s explained what is a vision, what is the strategy, how to use certain success factors or key performance indicators, for the lack of a better word, to make what I do measurable?
In that toolkit, I help you formulate a vision and not a fancy marketing plan. It’s hands-on, down to earth for your business, a vision of how it should look like in two years. I then help you break it down in this document. How can I measure that I’m moving towards this vision? As a third step and this is the most important one, what do I have to do to move the needle? Those things are simple but very often, we don’t have the background. We don’t know these tools exist or how to use them.
Could we do a vision? Work with me so that those entrepreneurs who are reading can go to your website. What is the website that they can go to?
Let’s give them a taste of it.
Give me a business. Let’s make up something.
I think there’s a lot of service businesses. Let’s say a business coach. They don’t do what you do but they do other aspects. Let’s understand that.
Let’s take a business coach. If I’m a business coach, most likely I’m a solo entrepreneur. Most business coaches are solo entrepreneurs. There are not many large, purely coaching businesses out there. Let’s say you’re a solo entrepreneur coach. You started out some years ago and you’re in it. You make your money with it. It’s more than a side hustle. You’re serious about it. You want to be somewhere in the next 2 to 3 years.Most of the time, people know what is best for them. They just don't know how to speak up. Click To Tweet
Let’s change that because I want to have somebody who manages other people. Let’s pick a consultant that has a team. Let’s shift it because I think that there are quite a few people reading who may be managing a team and may need to see that connection. How do they communicate that vision and see that that vision makes it to the front line.?
Let’s say a vision in the next 2 to 3 years and you formulate it in a way as you were already there. In 2024, we are active in all of North America, Europe and Australia.
You want to define geography.
Define everything in your vision. You define your footprint. That’s your geographical footprint. We deliver and then you define the services that you deliver to and then you define the client types you work for. You can even write your biggest target clients in this vision. There’s one thing that we need to understand here. The vision is your personal thing. There is no, “This is how a vision needs to look like.” You define what you put in there. The only thing that I ask you to put in there is very specific things.
Even if you put some blah in there, for example, your next sentence could be, “We are recognized as the market leader.” What does that even mean? In the next step in this toolkit, you will break down what it means. You will even know how you measure if you get there. For example, it’s a company with more than one person in it. You can even define in your vision, “Our team consists of at least twenty highly trained and dedicated consultants and coaches.” You need to define what highly dedicated means. You need to define what trained and professional means. “As a team, we constantly overachieve the expectations of our clients.” What does that for example mean?
What I’m hearing also are some values. Is that like you’re defining behaviors?
Not necessarily but you are one point here because your values and your purpose, they need to shine through this vision. They need to be in there. You have them first especially your purpose because your purpose is the one thing that’s out there in the world, the one issue that you are perfectly positioned to address and to solve and this informs your vision. This tells you what you want to build.
In a nutshell, what you need to do is when you write down a vision is, you need to define how your company looks and feels in the next time frame you decide, like 2, 3, 5 years and you need to be specific. It’s not a marketing claim. It’s not something you put on your website and not something grand and inspiring.
There are articles on my website, for example, where I describe what makes a great vision and those things you should have in mind. It’s not that this is the only way to do it. What’s more important is that you are specific that your purpose shines through. For example, if you say, “I also want my values to shine through,” this is also something that you can do. Take one step at a time and refine it over time. I have never met any client that sat down and wrote down a vision in one goal. It was what they wanted. It’s a refinement process.
One of the things that I like to do is to have people recognized and I call them characteristics of your business. Especially if you’re working with a group, a leadership team or you want your team to be involved in creating this. It’s to come up with a series of words that describe who you are and who you want to be. Are you innovative? Are you transformative? To come up with a list and to vote on those lists of words and have those words shine through into your vision. I think you like that idea.
You can write those terms into a vision. The important thing is you need to define afterward what they mean. By having a word like innovative or transformative in your vision statement, it sounds great. It might even be attractive for most of your employees because that’s what they signed up for in the first place. They want to be on the leading edge.
The next step is to make it measurable. Define what it means to be transformative. How does it shine through in your business? What do your clients say about you being transformative? When would they actually agree? This is probably the most important element in every vision. It’s the value for the client that you describe. What is the value that you bring to those who pay the bills in the end?
By asking those questions, you do get specific. It’s a matter of how you can communicate it. It’s not creating this vision. It’s about how you communicate it to each other outside the business and how you live it.
This is where we’re working smarter comes into play. The moment you have to find your vision, you need to define what is it that we will now focus on? What are the priorities that we focus on? We need to understand that this is all about putting strategy into action. Here is the link between a vision, which is a grand goal in the next years and how you make it happen. How you make it happen is all about transforming your operations in a way that you, as a company, become able to deliver on this promise of that vision. Here, leadership is all about leadership and communication sound. If you go into any company, I promise you, if you ask anyone what’s the single biggest issue, the first top three things, communication will be a problem.
In this context and our context of strategy and change, communication is not top-down. I stand on a stage in a town hall and tell my people my grand vision and how we are going to get there. That’s not it. It’s about creating an open two-way dialogue grounded in respect and the willingness to listen. If I define as a leadership team the new strategy, I don’t do that behind closed doors. At some point, I involve expert people that I trust in my company.
When it comes to communicating the strategy and rolling it out, I would always recommend communicating an 80% vision and an 80% strategy. First, it’s not going to be 100%. There was no such thing as perfect. It takes way too long. That’s the first reason. The second reason is you want to listen to your people. They have ideas that you did not have in the process.
If you communicate to them where you see, for example, your product development and your sales team to develop into and how they can help bring this strategy to life and reach the vision, they will have ideas on their own. You need to open those doors and have this two-way dialogue. The great ideas that they have once they heard your 80% vision, that you’re open to listening, follow them up and incorporate them into the strategy.
It’s a living and breathing dynamic process that helps you align every force in the organization so that they are not dispersed but are aligned. They pull in the same direction because they understand what their role is in implementing the strategy. If you enable that, that’s the winner. It’s the single biggest lever you can pull as a leader in an organization to help every single person understand how they contribute to reaching the vision.A vision is your personal thing. You define what you put in there. Click To Tweet
I think a lot of entrepreneurs say, “That sounds like a lot of work to ensure that each individual knows what they contribute. It sounds like a lot of work. I don’t have time for that.”
If you don’t make time for that, you will probably not have the success that you want because that’s your job as an entrepreneur and a leader. Your job is not to produce. If you run a company, your job is first and foremost to define strategy and to implement the strategy that is all about communication and leadership. You are not the one who delivers the service, who produces the products.
As a leader, your job is different than it used to be when you were a solopreneur. A solopreneur is all about producing but as a corporate leader, you’re not about producing anymore. You are not a manager anymore. You are a leader and that is your job. As long as you don’t embrace it, you will not find the time that you need in order to do those things properly.
There are a lot of people who are stuck in that limbo position that is trying to shift over to that leader but are still one of the top producers. In your opinion and from your experience, how do they find the time to do that?
I’ve been there. I know exactly how that limbo feels. The only way you get out of that is to enable people around you. You need to train the people around you and enable them and then empower them. The last company that I led when we scaled and grew bigger, at some point in time, as the leaders of the company we needed to let go and we needed to trust the people around us, that they do things the right way. It’s not about doing how I did it or how the company owners before me did that. It’s about how they want to do it.
This is where the connection is to strategy. If they understand the strategy and what their contribution to success looks like, then you enable and train them so that they have the skills and capabilities in order to perform properly on the job. It is your job to get out of the way as a leader. If you make space and empower them to make decisions on their own, to do the things how they want them to do, how to achieve them, this is the only way. You need to empower, enable your people then trust them and step out of the way. I know how it feels. You need to let go to a certain degree. You need to let go of control. This is not easy for an entrepreneur.
It’s not easy for any of us. Let’s face it. We’re all control freaks. I’ve been talking about that because that’s our problem also with the stress of all the uncertainty that’s going on in the world around us whether it’s in finance or environment or whatnot. We exhaust ourselves trying to control things that we can’t. The key is to let go. I could say, “I know I should delegate and I should do that but I can’t. I don’t feel like I can find the right people. I have some people but not the right people who can do it.” You’ve said what they need to do. Emotionally, how do I do it? I know it’s a big question.
We need to understand where trust comes from. This is highly personal. What do I, as a company owner, as a leader in an organization, need to trust? There are two ways of approaching it. There is the traditional way. I will trust you once you’ve proven that you’re trustworthy. The default is mistrust and the other way is to say, “I will trust you until you prove me wrong, that I shouldn’t trust you anymore.” The default is trust.
First of all, take stock and understand which person you are. Are you, by default, a trusting person? Does someone have to earn your trust first? You can define tactics, ways and strategies in order to build more trust within your team, within the team you lead and within the organization as such that you lead.
This is highly specific and different in every company. I can’t give you a generic answer because it’s not valuable. What do you need to do as a leader is first to understand am I trusting? Am I not trusting? Based on that, you need to understand what you need in order to trust. That can be very different from person to person once you find it.
What you’re saying is really important and to understand where your coming from and we could give people categories to think about as to what do I need in this segment because some things come to my mind but I’m here to pick your brain. If you were to break those out into segments, what would you say?
Coming back to what you said earlier, Penny, am I not finding the right people? Is that the issue? Is talent the issue? I need to find better talent or use the talent that I haven’t trained. My distrust or my fear of letting go comes from, “There’s no one around me that can do the work.” I then need to find the people that can do the work or train the people to do the work. If my fear of letting go is, “This is all I’ve ever done in my life. If I let go now, what am I supposed to do then with my time? I love being on the producing side of things. I’m not a leader. I don’t know how to lead.”
If that’s the issue then educate yourself around leadership and maybe a third category could be, “I love what I do. I’ve done it for so long. It should be exactly done how I do it because I have proven that my way is the best way of doing things.” It’s about challenging your own assumptions and your own belief systems because there is never one way of doing things.
It’s about either educating yourself, educating others or at some point in time, you need to be honest with yourself as a company leader, is it still the right business for you? Have you outgrown your business? Is there something else that you’re more passionate about now than you were five years ago when you founded and built the company?
I think if that were true then they would have no problem to delegate and they would be that hands-off leader. If they didn’t want to be there anymore, they would be more comfortable to get if they’re not connected in some way.
However, there is this emotional connection to building a company. It’s always your baby.
The identity aspect. Who would I be without this company? I do get that. I think that is a great way to look at it for people to examine what’s going on here so that they can see where’s the true bottleneck. That’s what the discovery process is. Let’s say it’s the skillset. Some things that I was thinking about are what kept me. I built up an IT business and I was a terrible micromanager in the beginning. I couldn’t let go of that control. I was the one that had the client relationships. I felt like I did it best. If I let them go to the other people, we’d lose those clients because they wouldn’t get the same level of service and so forth.
It’s the skillset that you said but I’m going to add a couple of categories to that piece of the skillset. Once you have somebody and you’ve gotten rid of the other emotional issues that keep you from letting go of it, what about the process? If you have a certain way of doing it that you think is a good way, define that process. Someone could take over the process and maybe even improve it based on their skillset.Communication is about having an open two-way dialogue grounded in respect and the willingness to listen. Click To Tweet
You can put some more structure around it. Defining the communication would make you feel better. As to what kind of check-in points will you have with that person, maybe review some of their thinking practices and to have some brainstorming sessions with them too so that they get where you’re coming from and you get more where they’re coming from. Any other ideas in those categories?
What you said about how to avoid that you micromanage is similar to what we discussed earlier when we talked about companies not having a written down strategy. First of all, writing crystallizes your thinking. Often, we see that the moment you start writing things down, be the strategy, be the process, be the how-to, the moment you write things down, you need to penetrate them.
The moment you have your thoughts front to end in front of you written down and they make sense, this is when you can hand it over to someone and say, “This is how we do it. Try it. If you find a better way, tell me because I want to learn.” This is true for all fears of a leader to let go and to trust how to do things.
I’m still running the biggest client account for my previous company that I built. We are exactly in that process of handing it over. I live in Vancouver, the client mainly sits in Europe. There’s a nine-hour time zone difference so there must be a better way of doing things. It’s not that I will do this for the rest of my life. I need to empower and enable the people in this company so that I can hand it over so that they can make it better.
The process that I’m in is, on the one hand, an emotional process. I flipped that client account for nine years. It’s hard for me to let go but I know it’s the right thing to let go. That’s the reason why I write things down. Why do you write down how the client developed who the key network is? When we talk about client relationships and the fear of losing a client, that fear will go away when you break it into categories.
Where is the fear based in? Is that a fussy fear? Is it very concrete? Where does it come from? Fear protects you from making stupid decisions. The moment you break down that fear into categories, is this a real fear or is that some theoretical threat? The moment you know whether it’s real fear, you can do something about it. If it’s in your circle of influence, you can directly influence that this does not materialize. You build out your knowledge, you write it down and then you let people play with it and add their thoughts. All of a sudden you are not alone anymore.
All of a sudden, those people left and right in my team have a vested interest in this. They want to make this successful. It’s not that if I drop the pen, everything will go down the drain because they want to make it work. It’s their thing now too. Sharing success with others and having them have a say and contribute ideas. We’re shifting slightly into the topic of workplace culture here.
What is the type of culture that I should build out as a company owner to avoid all those fears of letting go and those trust issues? From the outset, you can ask yourself, “At some point in time, I might want to exit and I might want to grow. What will I need? What needs to be in place in those 3, 5, 10 years and how can I build it?” We avoid falling into this trap that we described from the outset?.
It occurred to me. I had a thought. As a business owner, you’ve got your vision and where you want to take the business but you don’t necessarily have your own development plan. You develop plans for your team but you don’t develop your own. I wonder if we went through the process as business owners to develop our own personal and professional development plan if it wouldn’t make it a lot easier to let go. In order for me to get to this next level of my development plan, getting it clearly written down. That’s something that we very rarely clearly write down.
This is the reason why it’s the last step in my strategy toolkit. You need to define the capabilities. It’s not about only the capabilities of the people in my company. It’s also my capabilities as a company leader. What do I need to educate myself in, in order to get this company to the next level? Those can be skills that are completely foreign to me. You might have reached a growth stage where capital needs to flow into the company. You need to educate yourself about stage 1, stage 2, stage 3 seed financing, for example. If you want to take your company public at some point in time, how on earth do capital markets work?
You don’t need to ask yourself this question when you are a solopreneur but once you’ve reached a certain stage, a certain maturity level and what you want to sell the company, how does M&A work? You need to start to educate yourself around the topics that will help you as a corporate leader to lift the organization to the next level. That needs to be in sync with your business strategy because you can educate yourself around crocheting but does it help grow your business? Ask yourself where you want to be and how to get there. The third question is what do you need to learn in order to move the needle?
Thank you so much. I have enjoyed the conversation. There has been a lot of great tips that you’ve brought out for those entrepreneurs who are reading. Is there anything that I forgot to ask you that you think is important that you share regarding what our conversation has been so far?
This conversation is grounded in the question of what do we need in order to work smarter, not harder. It might sound over-simplistic and I don’t want it to sound simplistic. It’s the way I would say it. If you want to work in a more productive way, stop producing and start thinking. This is counter-intuitive but you need to understand that you can turn the wheel only to a certain speed and then you need to rebuild the engine. Strategy is really about rebuilding the engine in order to go faster, higher and more successful.
I typically do this with my clients once or twice a year. At some point in time, you press the pause button and you ask yourself which parts of the engine have reached their end of the life cycle. You don’t need to rebuild the entire engine. If something in your car breaks down, you don’t necessarily need to exchange the entire engine. It’s a little piece and a part but once you’ve replaced that part and built in something more high-performance, you probably can go faster and further than before. Have those strategic check-ins once or twice a year where you step back is the absolute key to be successful over the longer term.
Thank you for sharing that. That’s one of my big things, is stepping back and I have a whole talk about doing that and how important that is. Thank you for taking everything we’ve talked about and talking about how we start that process is by stepping back. Alex, thank you so much for being here and encouraging everybody also to take that free toolkit that you have available on your website. What’s that website again?
The easiest way is to go to AlexTheStrategist.com. You can also go directly to Brueckmann.ca, but AlexTheStrategist.com is the easiest way and it’s the first thing you see on the landing page. Give me the free intentional strategy toolkit. You click it and you get it into your inbox.
Thank you so much for being here.
Thanks very much, Penny.
Thank you for being here. I want you to take away whether you’re an entrepreneur or you work for a big organization, that whole point of understanding around stepping back and making it a practice. Not just something that you do once in a while that you might forget doing but sitting a regular rhythm to step back whether that’s looking at just the way that you do things.
It might not be the engine for the entire organization. It might be your engine and specific things that you’re working on and how you can reinvent the way that you do things. Just look at what’s working and what’s not working anymore. I’m sure that no matter where you are in your career and you’re reading, this is a strategy and a talk that really supported you in getting to the next level of your level of productivity. Thank you. We’ll see you in the next episode.
About Alex Brueckmann
Alex is an strategy entrepreneur, author, executive coach. He built and scaled companies in Europe and Canada, and led client projects across the world, helping brands and firms transform their businesses. His areas of expertise are strategy development, leadership development, and entrepreneurship.
His passion lies in helping clients built profitable businesses rooted in purpose, i.e., doing well while doing good. Based in Vancouver, Canada, he speaks on the topics of intentional strategy and entrepreneurship.
In his upcoming book he presents a new framework called “The Nine Elements of Organizational Identity”, together with a step-by-step process to bring it to life. He’s a storyteller with an academic background is in General Management, with degrees from EBS University (Germany) and Universidad ORT (Uruguay), as well as certificates from INSEAD (France) and Harvard Business School (USA).
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