Battle Plans

Sunday, November 1, 2009 - 09:12

Executives competing in today's markets will benefit from being as well prepared as possible. By Jacob J. Galea

A 6th century book on Chinese military strategies and tactics, The art of war teaches that "in chaos and confusion, there is opportunity". And certainly there are opportunities for alert, aware and prepared business executives amid the difficulties and confusion of the current financial situation.

The principles laid out by Sun Tzu 15 centuries ago remain relevant in today's corporate boardrooms. You must be fit and trained for the fight, gather all of the intelligence you can, know how to endure short-term pain and have the perseverance to win the dogfight.

Senior executives and their teams need to prepare for the challenges of the next few years with the same precision as those military commanders and martial arts experts who set the ground rules for the war lords of ancient China. For executive success in the battlefields of the global financial crisis and the toughest economic conditions Australia has faced in decades, you need this five-point plan:

1. Health and fitness
This is a crucial platform. Can you imagine going into a martial arts contest on the back of three hours' sleep and a diet of fast food? It would spell certain failure because your opponent would be mentally and physically fitter than you.

It's exactly the same in business. Too many senior executives spend all day, every day at work and have irregular meals and sleep patterns. At best, they're exhausted. At worst, they're heart-attack material.

The first step to business success is to make sure you and your team are fit and healthy. Instead of organising another meeting to fill that gap in the diary, senior executives should take an hour each day with no meetings or interruptions, whether they spend it at the gym, walking, reading a book or just relaxing.

For the rest of the staff, try doing something that encourages their fitness and wellbeing. Why not put a bowl of fruit at the front desk for everyone? Eating fruit is much healthier than going to the local coffee shop for a sugar-laden muffin a couple of times a day.

2. Concentrate your mind, intimidate your opponent
Military leaders and martial arts experts teach that before a training exercise or actual conflict, you need to focus on what you really want from the encounter. Set specific, realistic and achievable goals.

In the same way, business executives need to set individual and team goals; that way your staff knows exactly what's expected of them. Because you're well prepared, your opponents can be easily distracted.

Muhammad Ali, one of the great boxers of the past 50 years, is an outstanding example of concentrating the mind and undermining the opposition. He was completely focused on winning but also made sure he intimidated his opponents. By the time they both entered the ring, Ali knew exactly what he wanted and how he would achieve it. His opponents, agitated and distracted by his antics, dropped their guard.

3. Know your competition
Armies spend years gathering intelligence about their opponents before they launch an attack. They know how many soldiers, aircraft, artillery and tanks they're up against. Similarly, before a martial arts bout, you find out everything possible about your opponent. What are their favourite attacking moves, what are their weaknesses?

You couldn't imagine embarking on a military campaign or walking out on to the martial arts mat without any information about your opponent. You'd be beaten before you'd landed a blow. But how many senior executives can accurately identify their main competition and everything about them? Find out as much as you can about your opponents: their clients, their products, their sales force, their strategies and tactics. Then attack their weaknesses.

4. Pain control and perseverance
On the battlefield and in martial arts, there will be pain and setbacks. You have to learn to manage the pain. But you only achieve that by experiencing pain. You might get a fierce blow in the ribs but you learn to soldier on. It's the same in business. There will be setbacks but you can't be deterred. Senior executives have to be strong enough to weather the storm of the downturn, learn the crucial lessons and adjust the business to make it stronger.

In sales, few people enjoy cold-calling and, after a couple of knock-backs, most are quite happy to turn it in. No one likes that sense of personal rejection. So, what do you do, give up? No, you have to confront the situation and train yourself to persevere even though you have taken some pain. Your next blow may be the knockout punch. The next cold-call may bring in vital new business.

5. Training and coaching
Imagine an army or martial arts expert going into battle without any training or coaching. It would be madness. So why should businesses expect to be successful if they don't give senior executives and other staff adequate training or coaching?

Particularly in an economic downturn, training and coaching isn't an expense, rather it should be considered an investment in the future success of your business. Executives with finely honed skills and a thirst for the battle are far more likely to lead their business in a successful campaign.

Preparation, focus, discipline, determination and the will to win: they're all key factors in successful military campaigns and martial arts battles.

Training your executives and staff with the same precision and discipline of an army or a martial arts expert will help you create and take advantage of opportunities to build your business, even when economic times are tough.