John McDonald is, by his own admission, a strategy nut.
It’s fitting, then, that when the nation’s economy started to nosedive last year, he looked to strategic planning as his main weapon in defending his company, Service Brands International LLC.
McDonald began his tenure at Service Brands last year, coming on board just as the economic news started to take a turn downward. If he wasn’t thrust into crisis management mode immediately, he was certainly thrust into a maintenance role, having to reaffirm the goals and objectives of every business under the Service Brands umbrella. At the same time, he needed to buoy the confidence of an organization that comprises 5,200 people, including in-house employees and franchisees.
McDonald, president and chief operating officer of the franchisor of cleaning and maintenance brands such as Molly Maid and Mr. Handyman, says a business crisis or challenge is almost always met and overcome due to the planning accomplished beforehand.
“If you have a solid strategy and you’re flexible enough to understand what is coming, you can make adjustments to the strategy,” McDonald says. “If you go through an economic downturn or another type of challenge, you need to know that your strategy will still support your business, make your business stronger, and allow you to develop people and keep them motivated — which are all keys to staying successful.”
McDonald and the rest of the Service Brands leadership focused their efforts on enabling the employees at the brand level to chart their own course based on their needs, while still keeping a hand firmly on the rudder through communication with franchisees and brand managers.
The ultimate goal has been to create viable brand-level strategies that can roll up to the corporate level, giving the entire Service Brands umbrella a blanket strategy for enduring the economic downturn.
Develop a plan
McDonald and the Service Brands leadership team began the strategic planning process at the brand level for a couple of reasons. First, the company’s brands are its public face, its customer interface and essentially the lifeblood of the whole process. If each brand didn’t get what it needed out of a strategic plan, Service Brands’ long-term health could not be assured.
The second reason is more general and applicable across all types of businesses: Employees want to feel engaged in defining their company’s future.
Once all parties under the corporate umbrella developed their specific strategies, McDonald then assisted in ramping those strategies to a larger corporate strategic vision that would provide longer-term direction for everyone in the organization.
“We were very methodical in how we did it,” McDonald says. “We took a lot of time, had a lot of people involved, and then at the end of the year, we presented our overall strategy to the board for final approval. Then we rolled it out to all our employees.”
Even though the strategy started at the brand level, the initial plan for strategy creation needed to start at the top. McDonald and the company’s leadership team met and began to draw a basic road map for proceeding through the treacherous economic climate. In the early fall of last year, the company leaders decided to drive the strategy formation process down to the individual brands.
“One of the brands would get together with their people, I would attend, and some members of the executive team would attend,” McDonald says. “For several days, we followed this very tight methodology process to make it happen. We identified that if we are going to be successful for the next one, two and three years, what do we need to do and how can we maximize our investment on both a human and financial basis?”
During the process, McDonald and the other corporate executives in attendance worked as equal participants with the brand presidents, who ran the meetings. By taking that approach, the company’s corporate leaders took an early step in creating ownership of the strategy among the company’s brand-level management and franchisees.
Once the president of each brand under the Service Brands umbrella had conducted their strategic planning workshop, McDonald and his leadership team took the strategic needs and requests from each brand and developed a master list, which they then took to Service Brands’ corporate-level support staff.
“We developed a list of what we needed from technology, what we needed from marketing, what we needed from legal and finance, and so on,” he says. “Then we went to each of our support functions and told them exactly that: ‘This is what we need from you in order for our brands to be successful.’ The support function leaders then met with their teams and came up with their own business plans, which were essentially their strategies for dealing with this.”
Once the support staff teams reported back to upper management with their plans — including costs, projected returns, resources needed and measurement methods — McDonald’s team then pieced all the brand-level and support-level work together to form Service Brands’ overarching strategy.
“It was really nothing more than a rollup of all the brand strategies,” McDonald says. “There is no point in trying to have alignment if the corporate strategy is something completely different from what the brands are trying to accomplish. You need to have alignment and unification if you have strategies at different levels of the organization. At the end of all of the planning, what we have now is that every person in the organization is aware of not only what we want to do from an overall organizational standpoint but also from the perspective of each of our brands and support functions. Everyone understands that our goal is to make our franchisees as successful as possible.”
McDonald says any good strategic planning process is rooted in good communication. If there is an overall lesson to be learned from his experience, he says it is to communicate constantly during the planning process.
“It’s the frequency, it’s the detail, all of those things,” he says. “People need to realize where you’re trying to go as an organization, and they need to know when you’ve arrived. That is an ongoing process, both during and after the strategic planning process. You can communicate the direction of the company in many ways and solicit feedback in many ways, but just like anything else in business, it should be a part of a planned strategy.”
Set aggressive goals
Once you achieve alignment with your executive team, you can turn your focus to employees further down the ladder by helping them set goals that are aggressive, yet attainable.
McDonald says it is a delicate balance. On one hand, you want to challenge your employees to work harder and achieve more. On the other hand, if you set goals that are unrealistic or altogether unattainable, you’ll discourage your employees and they might actually achieve less.
You can find that line without crossing it by asking some common-sense questions of yourself and your leadership team.
“A big part of being successful is you have to put goals through a kind of filter, first off, to see if you accomplish a given goal, what is the return going to be,” he says. “What is the cost in terms of effort, financial commitment and human resources? Are there other things you can measure up against that would be more beneficial and would be a better use of resources?
“It’s good to be aggressive and pick goals
that are going to be hard to achieve. It’s not good to pick goals that are so aggressive that your chances of attaining them are low. If you do that, you’re going to demotivate your team, and you’re virtually wasting the resources you’ve marked for the goal. We’ve gone through that, and we’ve had several great ideas that, when you put it through this analysis, just didn’t work for us in this time and place.”
Deciding what resources to commit to a given goal can be a difficult part of any strategic plan, especially if the economy has limited your resources to begin with. Though your company’s balance sheet might say that money should be a major factor in deciding how goals are set, it shouldn’t be the only factor.
In fact, McDonald says you should go out of your way to take the focus of your employees away from money. You should instead keep the realization of goals front of mind. In a down economy, financial talk can make employees tentative and uneasy. Goal-oriented thinking keeps employees motivated.
“Staying aggressive in an economy like this helps keep a team unified,” McDonald says. “People like to be a part of a winning team, and if you try to rally your team around aggressive but realistic goals, it’s amazing what you can accomplish, even in a bad economy.
“If all we did was focus on the numbers, it would be pretty depressing, even though our numbers aren’t that bad. But if that was all we did, we could very easily develop a ‘woe is us’ complex, and we’d probably start paying even more attention to the negative economic news we hear each day. Numbers are an important measurement in business, certainly for us and our franchisees. But it’s only one of the measurements.”
Financials are one obvious factor in goal setting for most businesses, but your employees, and the skills and desire for achievement they bring with them, represent another factor in goal setting. Getting a feel for what people can accomplish goes back to the basics of good communication. McDonald works with other managers in the company to create a dialogue with employees, gaining insight as to their competencies and their personal development goals.
When it comes to goal setting, finding out what employees are driven to accomplish can be as critical as learning about what skills they can bring to the table.
“It’s making sure that we listen to them, make sure that we understand what their competencies are, where they want to develop and help them get there,” McDonald says. “You want to challenge our people, but challenge them in a way that is going to be helpful to both to the organization and to their personal development. Again, if you continue to challenge people in the right way, even in a bad economy, you’re going to go a long way toward keeping them satisfied in the workplace. And that might be the biggest thing, to keep everyone satisfied and focused in a time of uncertainty.”
How to reach: Service Brands International LLC, (888) 700-6177 or www.servicebrands.com