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How to Tell if Your Company Sucks

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You'll know that your company sucks when you wake up one morning and realize that the thrill has gone out of the business for you, for your employees and for your customers, said Mark Stevens, head of the marketing firm MSCO. The antidote is to declare war on yourself.

He should know. It happened to him.

"I learned it a very painful way," said Stevens, who has authored 26 books on business, including the classic "Your Marketing Sucks" (Crown Business, 2005).  "I thought we were really great."

Up close and personal

His company wasn't failing, but it was foundering and at risk of becoming less than the sum of its parts, one of Steven's metrics for business success. He resolved that he would never let his company suck again and took the steps necessary to bring his company back to peak performance.

"Any business that comes up to less than the sum of its parts will fail," Stevens told BusinessNewsDaily. "Great companies are greater than the sum of their parts."

He's distilled the lessons he learned from his own company's low point to write his new book, appropriately titled "Your Company Sucks" (BenBella Books, 2011).

How did he know his company was at risk? His clients let him know, subtly and not-so-subtly. So did his employees. He had an enterprise that was out of control and some of the inmates were taking over the asylum. Stevens recalls one in particular.

"If there was a 50-page report due for a client, she'd always do 49," he said.

Stevens was getting burned out.

"You never get burned out unless the company is managing you," he said. "It's the same with your employees."

Fatal flaws

There are only four things that can set up a company for failure, Stevens said. Rudderless leadership tops the list. This happens when management loses control of the business and the company becomes a group of balkanized people who are working under the same roof but are rarely rowing the same boat.

"You take the rudder off a boat and it goes around in circles," Stevens said.

The "lust to lax syndrome" is another of the four fatal flaws, he said. The lust that a company has to land a new client frequently gives way to laxity once the client is landed, which paves the way to mediocre service.

Slavish adherence to conventional wisdom is one more marker for failure, Stevens said. He singles out the belief in management by consensus for particular damnation.

"Steve Jobs didn't hope to build a consensus when he created theiPhone ," he said.

Another fatal flaw in Stevens' hierarchy of business missteps is complacency, which may well be the precondition for all the other agents of failure.  Companies must continue to innovate and raise the bar for every product/service/skill.

"People need to spend time dreaming and staring at a blank piece of paper or a blank computer screen to think about how they can make things better," he said. "No company should ever be mature."

The genesis of a company that sucks never has a clear-cut single cause; it's usually an amalgam of the four flaws, said Stevens. And so it was for his company.

There are a number of signals that should let a company's chief know that the enterprise is in trouble, Stevens said.

Warning signs

Going to sleep at night with the gnawing sensation that something is wrong with your company but not being able to identify it is one of the most common ways that corporate rot announces itself, he said. Closely allied with this is going to sleep and waking up knowing what needs to be fixed but being too paralyzed by fear to take action.Internal warfare" href="https://www.businessnewsdaily.com/1285-avoid-workplace-drama.html">

Internal warfare , either taking the form of constant complaints about other employees or all-out take-no-prisoners email battles, is yet another sign that a business is broken. A communications disconnect because the company has become balkanized can be an equally ominous sign.

"There cannot be walls," said Stevens. "A department reminds of a Politburo. There needs to be a continuum. The ability to cross-pollinate is what makes a great company."

Stevens took stock of his company and its ills, bowed out of the blame game and turned inward to engineer a successful turnaround. He got MSCO back into the thrill business.

The thrill business

He has no use for companies that set out to meet customer expectations. That's a prescription for mediocrity in his book. He has instilled near-religious zeal in his company for providing a thrilling experience for the customer.

"Thrill should be in the business lexicon," he said. "The leap from like to love is critical."

"Declaring war on yourself is not a fun thing," he said. "You have to have the guts and courage to take responsibility and tackle the hard issues. My goal is to have a successful enterprise . I can't worry about nuance."

That means not making a fetish of being liked at the expense of doing the right thing.

"Steve Jobs is not a likeable person," Stevens said. "Bill Gates was a crazy, antisocial animal. People who drive other people and who keep the flame alive, even if that entails hard work and sacrifice, become liked and respected in the end."

Reach BusinessNewsDaily senior writer Ned Smith at nsmith@techmedianetwork.com. Follow him on Twitter @nedbsmith.

Ned Smith

Ned was senior writer at Sweeney Vesty, an international consulting firm, and was Vice President of communications for iQuest Analytics. Before that, he has been a web editor and managed the Internet and intranet sites for Citizens Communications. He began his journalism career as a police reporter with the Roanoke (Va.) Times, and was managing editor of American Way magazine and senior editor of Us. He was a Captain in the U.S. Air Force and held a masters in journalism from the University of Arizona.