Make Strategic Changes From Position of Strength, Not Weakness

Last month, I discussed strategic change decision-making at Cisco and Best Buy and the lessons for business leaders.

A recent news story about the financial and operational resurrection of the University of California Berkeley baseball program provides another opportunity to explore this topic, this time from a different direction.

My question today:  Why do leaders and companies seemingly wait until crisis time before making the tough go-to-market and organizational structure decisions needed to ensure healthy sales and profit generation?

I break no new ground by reminding you that best time to make changes is when your company is doing well and can process the change rationale and ramifications in a positive environment.  It just doesn’t seem to work this way, though.  Perhaps no action is seen as being easier or safer, even though in many cases the reality is that it’s the calm before the storm.  A famous advertising tag line for Fram oil filters sums it up best: “You can pay me now or pay me later.”

Cal Baseball ExampleIn September 2010, UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau announced  that the number of varsity sports would be reduced from 29 to 24 at the end of the 2010-2011 academic year:  baseball, men’s and women’s gymnastics, and women’s lacrosse were identified for discontinuation.  The reason was cost-cutting as the university said the “steps will generate an estimated $4 million in direct and indirect cost reductions for Cal Athletics beginning in the next fiscal year, while limiting future growth in expenses.”  Added Director of Athletics Sandy Barbour:  “Clearly, this is a painful outcome after months of deliberation, analysis and the examination of every viable alternative.” Sound familiar, corporate warriors?  This story has a happy ending, though, along with an important lesson, because the baseball program has new life.

Chadd Krist (27) congratulates Tony Renda (14) during a March 8, 2011 Cal Bears baseball game. Photo UC Berkeley and

University officials announced on April 8th that $9 million of the $10 million required to support the team for the next 7 to 10 years had been raised, with the expectation that the remaining funds would be attained.  The school said that the “team’s supporters have not only raised significant one-time funding, but are also working closely with the university to develop a strategic plan to raise significant additional annual resources, beginning with the 2011-12 season.  This strategic plan will focus on improved game-day revenues, as well as additional annual gift and special event revenue. The plan being developed also calls for a substantial increase in the sport’s permanent endowment, seeded by some of the gifts already raised.”

Learn to Reimagine Before the Crisis StrikesThe marketing and fundraising campaign included a Save Cal Baseball Web site and Facebook page.  Those tactics were to be expected, but the core idea was much deeper and strategic:  a campaign to reimagine and re-engineer the operating model and revenue-generating capabilities of the school’s baseball team.

Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Hannah Karp detailed some of the changes, including the installation of lights at the baseball field to help increase game attendance and revenues.  She explained that other new ideas such as “voluntarily limiting scholarships, selling naming rights to the diamond, offering electronic game-day programs for smartphones and even squaring off against major-league teams” were under consideration.  And the role of the baseball coach was expanded to include fundraising and marketing duties.

Think about the lessons for your company.  The underlying go-to-market strategy for Cal baseball, university funding of the operating budget, was no longer viable.  Director of Athletics Sandy Barbour talked about how everyone learned “important lessons that will serve us well in the future” and “the degree to which we need to rely on private philanthropy.”

The painful truth is that Cal should have gone down the re-engineering path before and instead of announcing the baseball shutdown.  However, in this case, it’s possible that the crisis was in fact the reason for the salvation.  Maybe raising $10 million couldn’t have been done any other way.  Regardless, at your company, don’t expect to be as fortunate, so don’t let a deteriorating situation get that far.  Take action first.

By the way, as of May 16th, the Cal baseball team was rated number 25 in the country.  And, special fundraising has saved the other sports as well.


Embrace Reality

Former Kodak CMO Jeffrey Hayzlett has written an engaging book on business health, which I recommend.  In encouraging fashion, he  declares:  “If you are willing to look at what’s working and what isn’t – and take the necessary steps to fix things no matter how drastic, difficult, or different – you can succeed.”  Hayzlett adds: “Remarkable opportunities exist for any company willing to change the way it works – or change back to the way it once worked.”

Headline For leaders

Don’t wait for the crisis to make the strategic changes your company needs to ensure growth and prosperity.  The best time to do this is when the company is doing well and can process the change rationale and ramifications from a position of strength.  Remember that Fram advertising tagline and make your payment now.  Paying later usually costs a lot more and is very painful for all involved.

Harvey Chimoff is a hands-on marketing leader and business-wide collaborator who builds marketing capabilities in B2B/B2C organizations that drive customer success.

One thought on “Make Strategic Changes From Position of Strength, Not Weakness

  1. Pay now, or pay MORE later is more like it! Perhaps human nature is simply to avoid change, so we need reminders like these case studies, to develop a sharper instinct for staying ahead of the curve.

    Thanks for another great post, Harvey!


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