Country Club … or Prison?
by Joe Daquino

After attending an intensive three-day management development workshop, I was prompted to consider the environment in which my employees were working. The definition of any work environment can run the gamut from a country club to the other end of the spectrum, that of a prison. On one hand, the country club has few, if any, rules, regulations, policies or procedures, equating to minimal accountability. The prison is the direct opposite, with well-defined systems, boundaries and guidelines, which do not foster creativity, but is significant in terms of accountability.

As I analyzed the various options between these two extremes, I could do one of two things: let the organization seek its own level, thus locating anywhere on the spectrum, or to pinpoint the position and create the management system from there. I elected this second, more analytical approach and defined the point midway between the center and the prison.

Country Club

This decision clearly reflected my management style and philosophy: act as a catalyst for growth and change; provide the tools and environment for success; craft an appropriate structure; foster business and personal growth/career planning; make enthusiasm infectious; provide proactive leadership. Encompassed within these style characteristics was the foundational philosophy that if we did the same thing, with the same tools in the same environment, we would achieve the same results.

An additional aspect of my division's work environment was that 20% of the time employees operated as a team, 80% of the time on their own. This was a significant ratio. Being on their own so much of the time required everyone to have a set of rules, policies, procedures and a well-defined game plan to ensure that everyone would be going in the same direction, singing off the same page, yet retain a measure of autonomy.

What would be the vital elements of the management system, which fell right of center on my spectrum? A business plan. Measureable, quantifiable goals. Accountability. Feedback. Leadership.

I realized that the business plan was the heart of the system. Everything emanated from there. It would be the creative and controlling document. We would live or die by it. This meant everyone in the division, from myself as Vice President, to the directors, managers, supervisors and employees had to be involved in some way in its creation. They had to have a vested interest. We all had to be stakeholders in the resulting plan.

How could we craft the plan and not make a life out of it? How could it be efficient and yet remain effective in its creation? Should I write it? It would then be my plan. They would write it? Then it would be their plan. I decided on shared responsibility so it would be "our" plan.

I would be the facilitator, coach, guide, counselor and resource.

Initially, it all boiled down to training. Training the planning team whom I elected from the ranks of the management staff. Training would be an integral part of the planning process. The process would promote real time knowledge and hands-on experience.

The planning process schedule encompassed the following:

  • Identifying the planning team members
  • Conducting a plan-to-plan meeting
  • Data gathering
  • One-day offsite planning session
  • Fleshing out the plan
  • First rough draft review
  • Fine tuning
  • Final plan review
  • Final documentation
  • Communicating the plan
  • Implementation
  • Progress review/evaluation
  • Taking corrective action

Every aspect of the process was a learning experience. It wasn't theory or academia. It was business in its most exposed state.

The approach was met with some trepidation, uncertainty and fear. It meant hard work. Digging deep. Thinking. Possible personal exposure. Fear.

Going into the plan-to-plan meeting, I was prepared to champion my desire for a three dimensional plan: 12-month tactical, three-year mid-level and five-year long-range module. This was agreed to.

The 12-month section would be the basic short-range, nuts and bolts product. Very tactical. The three-year, mid-level was the most accurate, fostering a high degree of self-confidence among the team. Invaluable in decision-making. The five-year module provided a basic direction, a guideline for allocation of major resources.

A vital element of the plan-to-plan meeting was that of defining and negotiating the ingredients of the business plan; i.e. the Table of Contents.

  • Executive Summary/Division Overview
  • Mission Statement
  • Core Values
  • Business Philosophy
  • Product and Services Description
  • Current Situation Analysis
  • Vital Goals for the Year - Strategies; Tactics
  • Vital Issues of Concern
  • Market Analysis
  • Financial/Vital Factors Forecast
  • Organization Structure - Today; Three Years
  • Personnel Development
  • Marketing Strategy
  • Sales Strategy
  • Operations Strategy
  • Equipment Requirements
  • Facility Requirement
  • Capital Expenditures
  • Research and Development
  • Department Plans
  • Task Plans
  • Job Descriptions of Team Members
  • Appendix

Along with defining the key ingredients of the plan, we reviewed the criteria for a superior plan, timelines, ground rules, evaluating the process and effective implementation. Most vital was reviewing the basic operating goals for the division developed by senior management. This was our starting point. We found ourselves setting even more aggressive goals; i.e. increased revenue, lower expenses.

Tasks were assigned. Projects delegated. All were documented in each member's planning manual called the "Brain Book." Employee, sales representative and customer surveys were conducted. All were vital historical information and data gathering to use at the one-day planning retreat. Copies were made for each team member.

On the planning day/meeting, my role was that of the facilitator. I was to keep the team on track and on schedule, to document our collective input in accord with each item defined in the table of contents. I did so by using flipcharts and taping them, in sequence, to the conference room walls. We started at 8:00 a.m. and were completed by 4:45 p.m.

Sixty to seventy percent of the plan was completed in a bulletized format, which allowed ease of reading and reduced the necessity for non-essential writing. Within 48 hours, each member received their own personal copy of the resultant plan, which went into their Brain Book. Accompanying the first draft was a task list created at the retreat by a note taker.

Task/Action Item
Due Date
Who Responsible

Progress was to be reviewed at the first rough draft review meeting to be held in four weeks.

It is noted that each director and manager now had the responsibility of conducting an identical planning meeting with their individual teams to create their departmental plans. This ensured that everyone in the organization was involved in some meaningful way in the planning process. This would circumvent anyone saying, "It's not my plan." Striving for buy-in was a key goal of the management team. The trickle down effect worked well. You can see how this more disciplined method of approaching planning lends itself to being a team building experience.

The plan-to-plan meeting proved to be extremely effective in that every team member was very well prepared to participate. They had facts, figures and input to present. This was a key aspect in completing a major portion of the plan in one day.

Our philosophy was… "Know before you go."

The remaining segments of the process simply fell into place per our agreed-upon schedule. The four-hour final draft review meeting went smoothly with few yet-to-be completed tasks.

The final draft was typed and reviewed. The final document completed. From beginning to finalized product, all of this was completed in six weeks!

It is key to keep in mind not to drag out the process. Four to six weeks is ideal. It keeps the enthusiasm high and energy flowing. You start to lose steam and interest the longer you wait. Planning is vitally important, but don't make a life out of it.

The plan was submitted to executive management and approved in its entirety.

The next step was to communicate the plan to the entire team. An "All Hands" meeting was held with each team member (10 in all) making a presentation. I discussed the overview and those portions I was directly responsible for, such as the Executive Summary, Situation Analysis, Vital Factors and Office of the Vice President.

We established a quarterly review meeting schedule in which the entire organization would meet to appraise our collective progress in achieving goals established and agreed to in the plan. This placed all of us under the microscope. Another of my management philosophies is: "What is expected is inspected." We found this to be a powerful axiom to live by.

Now began the implementation process. All employees were given their own goals from the business plan. The directors and I had the complete plan. Managers had their department plans. Employees had their one-page plan, with a task list for the year that was closely aligned with their job descriptions.

I established a monthly VFT - Vital Factor Team - meeting schedule. The intent was to bring together the directors and managers to critically review progress in accordance with goals.

A 30-day goals and controls system of accountability was installed to follow our inspected/expected philosophy. This was in combination with vital factor spreadsheets (key business drivers), the forecasts coming from the financial module of the one-year tactical plan.

As you can imagine, a great deal about the division was exposed during the planning process. This specifically resulted in "process mapping" each and every function with the goal of dramatically improving productivity and efficiency. It also became abundantly clear that every employee fully understood the following four things:

1. Their job description and associated responsibilities.

2. What management expected from them.

3. How their performance was to be evaluated and when.

4. What the consequences and rewards were.

In summary, the planning process was initially painful. We had difficulty in determining the difference between a goal, strategy and tactic. Trial and error worked in our favor. We evaluated our efforts along the way and refined the process over the following three years.

Planning was added to everyone's job description. Planning was incorporated into our daily activities, and became an aid in problem solving.

Morale improved. Teamwork increased. Everyone understood his or her role in goal achievement.

I then tied goal achievement to employees' compensation, managers and staff alike. Bonuses were now awarded based on performance as opposed to be viewed just as a handout.

We all agreed that 80% would be our minimal goal achievement target and would be calculated via a newly created scorecard. Ninety-three percent was achieved by the directors within 24 months.

By utilizing our first computer-based plan as boilerplate, the following annual "rolling updates" were made considerably easier.

We also found that any new major efforts; i.e. project or acquisition for example, was much more efficiently dealt with by following our planning process at the onset and adding it to the existing divisional plan as an addendum.

Senior management was very pleased with the unsolicited creation of the divisional plan. They received a monthly "Flash Report" summarizing progress made and goals achieved.

Respect for the division improved. It was viewed now as a well-managed area where no surprises were anticipated. Senior management began to have a great deal of faith and confidence in the team as evidenced by the new responsibilities delegated to it.

There was some fall-out resulting from the plan, more specifically, from the newly implemented accountability methodology. Two key players were "operating under the radar" and did not care to be exposed as marginal performers who, in fact, clearly didn't know what they were doing. They elected to leave the company. That is why contingency plans and back-up strategies are essential.

The toughest aspect of the process was the discipline of it. Not getting lax. Not getting complacent. Keeping the plan manageable and doable, but with a built-in stretch.

Remember, things change. Nothing is cast in concrete. There had to be a measure of flexibility in every plan.

The plus side of the planning equation is impressive:

  • Provides a road map to success.
  • Gives everyone a sense of purpose and a destination.
  • Provides "how to" strategies.
  • Fosters peace of mind.
  • Improves teamwork, morale and individual satisfaction.
  • Employees saw the importance of having a similar type of plan for their own personal growth.
  • Confidence improves.
  • Everyone is singing out of the same hymnal.

Amen to that!

Joe Daquino is Vice President and Group Publisher for Affinity Group, Inc., a $380,000,000 media, retail and services company. During a successful 17-year career, he has taken on increasing responsibility, culminating in directing the efforts of four strategic divisions: Database Publishing, Books and Media, Internet, and Network Affiliates. His latest achievements include an intra-company merger of a major Chicago-based division, and the successful launch of an Atlas and CD-ROM product that have become best sellers in their categories.

Affinity Group, Inc.
2575 Vista Del Mar Drive, Ventura, CA 93001
Telephone (805) 667-4305 Fax (805) 667-4301
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Copyright 2001 by Joe Daquino. All rights reserved.

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