Business Management Sections

Compelling Change

Clear Vision Alliance Helps Businesses Focus on Tomorrow

Ravi Kulkarni and Lynn Whitney Turner

Ravi Kulkarni and Lynn Whitney Turner say many business leaders make the mistake of focusing on their day-to-day operations instead of seeking answers about what it will take to grow in this economy.

Ravi Kulkarni and Lynn Whitney Turner say great vision is a journey, and business owners who create compelling visions focus as much on their personal growth as they do on business growth.
The owners of Clear Vision Alliance not only do consulting, but also speak across the nation, telling people that organizations stop growing when their leaders stop growing. They were once competitors, but joined forces in 2007 to help executives learn how to create new visions and strategies for growth.
Their advice is based on statistics gleaned from their clients’ histories, coupled with relevant case studies pertinent to each industry, and they told BusinessWest they have seen many business executives so focused on their day-to-day operations that they fail to seek — and grasp — opportunities for the future.
“We have asked CEOs in large organizations to tell us what their vision is, and none of them were able to articulate it,” said Kulkarni. “And leaders of nonprofits are all about immediate needs. They are not driven by passion and don’t know what is possible, so they aren’t able to come up with innovative programs.”
Turner agrees, and says many clients tell them that they ‘hope’ their business will do well. “But hope is not a strategy, and if you put all of your eggs in one basket and the plan falls through, the business can fail.”
They added that many businesses get stuck when their revenues reach between $2 million and $10 million, which often happens after the founder’s original goal is achieved. “The owner had a vision, took it to that point, and may not have looked beyond it,” Turner said.
Kulkarni concurs, and says many companies get into a comfortable niche once they know they can survive. “Some have been in business for 30 to 50 years and they justify their stagnation by saying they have reached market saturation, or, in the case of manufacturers, that there is an excess of things being outsourced.”
In addition, the many nonprofits in Western Mass. experience problems because their services often overlap, and competition to raise money through fund-raisers such as golf tournaments is fierce. “Although most of them do an excellent job in providing services, many are always in survival mode,” Kulkarni said.
Change is possible, but may never occur until a crisis looms, they said. This happened to a nonprofit in Kansas that called upon Clear Vision Alliance to help reformulate its business model when it was nearing bankruptcy.
“After they changed their marketing strategy, they were able to expand into Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Iowa, and Washington D.C., and grew from four employees to 23 employees,” Kulkarni said.
The basis of the nonprofit’s operation was an activity program used in schools, and it turned things around when it began marketing it by using up-to-date research findings showing there is a correlation between a child’s learning, behavioral problems, and the amount of activity they engage in (more about that later).
“People come to us when they run out of ideas; most of them have made strategic decisions based on emotion and opinions, but we are data-driven,” said Kulkarni, noting that applying principles of neuroscience, combined with the latest technology and a global market analysis, can make a world of difference.

Changing Paradigms
Many firms hold annual weekend retreats for their executives that never result in change. Although team members may seem to be in agreement during these meetings, Kulkarni and Turner say they are actually in “artificial harmony,” since power struggles, individual insecurities, egos, and biases play into what happens when they return to the office.
Teamwork needs to be inspired, she went on, by competent executives who hold healthy and honest debates, do research into best practices, and employ strict discipline.
But Kulkarni says problems arise because these leaders lack “strategic humility.” In the past, he explained, executives believed they had to have all of the answers and worked in isolation to find solutions to problems, with no one to challenge their assumptions.
Although that course of action is not effective in today’s marketplace, many don’t know what it will take to grow their business beyond the point it is at and don’t ask for help.
If they do, however, the first step is to make them understand it is critically important to invest in their own education, and Clear Vision Alliance accomplishes this goal through a series of questions.
“We ask clients how they will survive over the next 10 years, but many don’t have an answer,” said Kulkarni. “They cite past knowledge and experience, but that really isn’t relevant to the future. Technology has generated a gap between what they did and the way consumers will buy in the future, and their plans are not based on current data.”
He added that formulating a plan for continued growth should be an ongoing process, but when executives are queried about how their company is doing, 90% of them answer, ‘we are busy,’ and when they are asked, ‘are you making money?’ the typical answer is ‘we hope so.’
Turner says the word ‘hope’ is simply wishful thinking. and means the company is not using the right metrics to measure its growth.
Most of Clear Vision’s clients haven’t seen their revenues change much in the past 10 years, and although they think they are doing fine, when they are told to superimpose an annual rate of 2% to 20% in inflation over the next 10 years, they realize they will lose money if they don’t increase their earnings.
“It’s a wake-up call,” said Kulkarni, adding that one company he and Turner worked with had been in business for a century, but called upon the consultants because they felt they had reached market saturation. “We created an educational process for them,” Kulkarni said, explaining that they gave the executive team Harvard case studies and other reading materials applicable to their situation, then had them debate the cases.
“One CFO told us that, when he first did the reading, he became angry, then realized he had been doing something wrong,” he continued. “And this year, the owner told us, ‘you made me very uncomfortable, and it was a good thing,’ while the entire executive team had similar comments. When people say they are comfortable, it means they are complacent.”
Turner said many firms get into a mode of doing business as usual, and don’t snap out of it until a crisis occurs. “We try to circumvent that process,” she noted.
When a crisis does hit, many think it occurred without warning, but it usually happens because leaders have not looked ahead and kept up with changes in technology and the economy.
Kulkarni gave the example of a local precision manufacturer that invested $6 million in new equipment, hoping to get $10 million in business contracts from the defense industry during a time when the government was cutting back on military spending. “A catastrophe is often in the pipeline, but people don’t see it coming,” he told BusinessWest.
He gave another example of an area manufacturer who makes home insulation from newsprint. When its leaders called upon Clear Vision Alliance for help, home building was on the rise, but print newspapers were declining, so the owner was sending trucks to Pennsylvania to purchase outdated books, even though the quality of the paper in them was inferior to newsprint. “I asked him how long he thought it would be before his sources dried up,” Kulkarni said.
Another problem occurs when business owners want to retire and discover that no one in their family is interested in taking over, and there is a discrepancy between what they think their business is worth and what a buyer thinks is a fair price. As a result, they often keep working. “Some want to get out, but they can’t because they are attached to their employees,” Turner said.

Different Focus

Although it’s easy to get caught up in solving daily problems, many of Clear Vision’s clients make the mistake of directing their focus internally with the goal of improving their systems and productivity.
“They haven’t looked at the world outside and how it will impact them, which will not help them long-term,” Turner said.
Kulkarni said one client they worked with told them he learned that “bad strategy with great execution will get you in the wrong place that much faster.”
He said the Kansas nonprofit mentioned earlier was able to reach new heights by coming up with an innovative plan. But in order to create that, the top executives needed to see what was possible.
To facilitate that, Kulkarni and Turner took the company’s leaders to visit nonprofits in Connecticut and Tennessee, where research in neuroscience, technology, and behavioral science was being applied to improve programs.
“It opened new doors for them,” Turner said. “Once their minds were open, they began doing research, and a top university connected with them to work on a project.”
By keeping up with the times, she added, the nonprofit became eligible for federal and educational grants as well as other new sources of funding, because it had differentiated itself from other nonprofits.
“Private corporations want to invest in research projects which lead to project development and new partnerships,” Kulkarni said.
Although some executives think reading will keep them up with the times, Turner says it is not enough. “When they actually see and experience something, they are able to see what they can apply to their own business,” she said. “We make them do homework beyond their current direct competition.”
However, formulating a plan to move forward isn’t easy. It requires using objective data pertinent to a target market. In addition, bringing new ideas to the team members who will be responsible for implementing change and getting them to carry them out require honed leadership skills.
“It’s very common in large corporations for people to agree during a meeting, even though they will not pull in the same direction when they leave the room,” Turner said, as she continued to talk about how top executives need to become group facilitators, as opposed to the person with all the answers, which involves examining their style of communicating and whether they make people feel comfortable enough to speak honestly.

Bottom Line
Kulkarni said organizations grow stagnant due to a lack of focus and direction on the part of their leaders.
“They have no vision, have become comfortable looking inward, and don’t have knowledge of the skills and changes they need to have an impact,” he said.
“Great vision is a journey,” he reiterated, and the path executives choose can either inhibit growth or allow them to keep pace with today’s global economy.