Surviving Your Company’s Midlife Crisis
People have them — and businesses do, too. How can you get your company out of its midlife rut and move to the next level?
What do you do when your company has reached the point of a “midlife crisis”? Sales are flat. Profitability is dipping. Growth is limited. Employees seem to just punch in and punch out. Arguments persist within the leadership team. And you’re paralyzed by risk avoidance. This is exactly what happened to Ann Arbor, Michigan-based Zingerman’s Delicatessen in the early 1990s.
“At some point in the life cycle of a business,” said Zingerman’s co-founder Paul Saginaw, “you come to the realization that fundamental change is needed. The first order of business is coming up with a vision of where you’re going to go.”
Zingerman’s vision for 2009 — created back in 1994 — was to expand beyond a deli and open multiple new businesses that would be branded under the Zingerman’s Community of Businesses name. Each would be operated by a managing partner and stay true to Zingerman’s core basics of good finance, good service and good food. In short, the company wanted to go back to acting like a startup. Fifteen years after crafting that vision, by all measures, Zingerman’s met its projected metrics and doubled initial sales goals.
Building a vision
“The vision is not a plan,” said Ari Weinzweig, co-founder of Zingerman’s and author of "A Lapsed Anarchist’s Approach to Building a Great Business." “We don’t plan 10 years out. We only plan two to three years out. The vision says where we’re going to end up.”
A vision describes what success looks like for your company at a particular point and time in the future. It has enough detail that you’ll know whether or not you got there. However, it’s not inundated with so much detail that a business is constricted and can’t change course if reality shifts. At the core of a vision is passion.
How to get started
To start mapping your vision, you need a mission statement that answers the following four questions:
- What do you do?
- Why do you do it?
- Who is doing it?
- For whom are you doing it?
“The mission statement is kind of like the North Star,” Weinzweig said. “You can always find it and you can always go towards it, but it really doesn’t tell you what you’re going to do every day.”
From here, you can start constructing your vision. How? Just start writing.
“The first order of business is always imagining a future that you want to be part of,” said Saginaw. “Writing that down and then working towards getting there.”
Saginaw and Weinzweig recommend sitting down and writing from the heart for 30 minutes straight without thinking too much. It doesn’t matter if it’s by hand, on a computer, at a typewriter or on your phone. Just write. They believe that 90 percent of what you write the first time is what you want for your company.
“When you overthink it, you start to think about what everyone else thinks you should do,” Weinzweig said. “This is all about [being] affirmative of what you want, not reactive to what everyone else is doing.”
The key is patience. It took Saginaw and Weinzweig, along with their 16 partners, nine months of collaboration to write the first draft of Zingerman’s vision for 2020. From there, they rolled it out to the whole organization to receive direct feedback. Once a consensus was reached, they began plotting the strategy to realize their vision.
“We don’t change what inspires us,” said Weinzweig. “We don’t change our values just because the economy got better or worse. We don’t change because some new study came out. This is what we believe in.”