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Tuesday, January 16, 2018

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Know what can go wrong to do things right
Harvey Mackay

November, 2009

When Jack Welch was chairman of General Electric, he would regularly ask the top managers in the company's 14 major businesses a series of questions about the global competition. These questions apply to nearly every business, and I think they are worth sharing.

  • What are your global market dynamics today, and where will they be over the next several years?
  • What actions have your competitors taken in the last three years to upset those global dynamics?
  • What have you done in the last three years to affect those dynamics?
  • What are the most dangerous things your competitor could do in the next three years to upset those dynamics?
  • What are the most effective things you could do to bring your desired impact on those dynamics?

I like this strategy; it acknowledges the power of other forces and people to upset our apple carts. We like to think we control our own destinies, but that is true only to a certain point.

In the words of the Prussian Field Marshall Von Moltke, who originated the modern method of directing armies in the field, "A plan is valid only until your opponent makes the first move."

Just how do you make your company bullet-proof? I presume you are already watching trends – or leading them – and I imagine that you have a staff of superstars who know what your customers want and need. I am guessing that you have first-rate legal and accounting advice, and insurance to cover worst-case scenarios. Those are fundamental to any business success.

But have you asked for, and gotten, input from your employees who are in the field or in the factory? Chances are, these folks are the first line of defense. Here's a network of informants who have a vested interest in the success of your company. Sales and production need to work hand in hand. As easy as it could be for them to blame each other when things go wrong, that result is never acceptable. It's a recipe for disaster. Why help the competition with in-fighting?

Have you lost a good customer recently to a competitor? The salesperson probably knows what went sour. Price is a possibility: can it be negotiated? Superior products from XYZ Company shouldn't be an issue, because your quality must speak for itself. Delivery time, product lines, sales/buyer relationship, and a whole host of other variables should be so programmed and predictable that they aren't issues.

Then the sales rep tells you the account went to the brother-in-law of the vice president. So do you give up? Definitely not. The in-law may not be able to deliver, may not stay in the family, may get fired by his company. Or the vice president may move on. Stay in contact. This account is not necessarily lost forever.

By the way, you should pay attention to the brother-in-law. Perhaps he is very good at what he does. Perhaps he would like to consider working for your company some day. Perhaps you can get this account back, plus a few others he sells to. And that is a fine alternative to consider.

Keep your eyes open for pitfalls within your walls. Production delays caused by mechanical breakdowns, labor disputes, supplier issues, storms, even a flu epidemic can derail orders. A company can only rely on customer loyalty so many times when problems arise.

I speak from decades of experience. When I founded our envelope company, I wasn't prepared for changes in the way we all communicate, but that company was "returned to sender, address unknown." At MackayMitchell, we have survived the fax machine, voice mail, e-mail, text messaging, anthrax, online bill pay and Facebook, all competitors to the traditional envelope.

There's a simple explanation for our survival over these many decades. I ask one question at every meeting we hold: What can go wrong?

I'm not a pessimist by nature, but I am a realist. I have no control over our competitors whether they actually manufacture envelopes or develop new technology. I can control our response and our adaptability. I guarantee our products and service will be signed, sealed and delivered – and we'll go first class all the way.

Mackay's Moral: You may not be calling all the shots, but you don't have to get shot down.

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