JEFF WAHLSTROM

‘In our business we plan to succeed’: Anticipate the challenges ahead

Posted Dec. 26, 2013, at 10:53 a.m.

Why do some businesses thrive during challenging economic times while others fail?

“In our business we plan to succeed.” That’s how Denis St. Peter, president of CES, an engineering firm headquartered in Brewer, describes his firm’s approach to strategic planning.

It is that commitment to planning that positioned CES to acquire a competitor and expand its business to southern Maine despite economic conditions that have caused other engineering firms to lay off employees and contract in size.

“The 2008 recession was a real blow to any company associated with the construction industry, and we could easily have decided to keep our heads down and hope for the best,” says St. Peter. “Instead, we launched a comprehensive strategic planning process that sought input from our clients and employees. It resulted in renewed mission, vision, and values statements focused on our clients and employees and in the development of strategies for managing the changing environment, strengthening internal communications, and further enhancing both quality and service.”

Two years later, with the success and momentum of the previous strategic planning efforts, CES management and employees committed themselves to a growth strategy that ultimately resulted in the successful acquisition of Summit Environmental Consultants Inc. earlier this year.

Taking time to plan, especially when times are tough, can be a real obstacle.

“We often hear employers say, ‘We can’t afford to take the time to plan,’” says Kathy Hunt, principal at Starboard Leadership Consulting in Bangor. “Our response is, ‘you can’t afford not to plan.’”

Without a plan that looks into the future and articulates strategies for getting there, “you are always reacting rather than taking control of your destiny,” says Hunt.

Strategic planning used to require a lengthy planning process, resulting in detailed multi-year plans that too often were out of date by the time they were completed. Today the pace of change requires that the planning process be done efficiently and with a considerable degree of flexibility. Multiple scenarios can be built into the planning process to anticipate almost any eventuality.

A plan that is truly strategic in nature will engage key stakeholders — customers, employees, board members — in developing a shared vision for success and the strategies to get there.

A strategic planning consultant can help with interviews, discussion groups, and survey development — a process that builds shared ownership for the plan.

“In Brewer, we weren’t sure if the community was ready to invest in upgrading the high school,” says former Superintendent Dan Lee. “Our strategic planning consultant conducted multiple discussion groups and helped us administer a community-wide, online survey that told us what the community cared about and paved the way for funding approval.”

The lesson learned was that engaging stakeholders not only resulted in a better plan but also in a solid group of people who cared about its outcome.

While some organizations say, “we do strategic planning every year,” more often than not they are engaged in “action planning” that responds to the current business environment but fails to forecast and plan for shifts and changes further down the road.

“At Maine Maritime Academy, the current picture certainly looks very positive,” says Paul Mercer, assistant to the president for sustainability. “Our enrollment has never been stronger, and job placement for our graduates is exceptional.”

Despite this, leadership at Maine Maritime sees their planning process as an opportunity to prepare for demographic shifts and anticipate where the maritime industry, and future employment, is heading.

“The temptation in good times is to keep doing what you are doing, but we know we can’t afford to sit back and wait to see what the future brings,” says Mercer. “Our future success depends upon our ability to anticipate the challenges and opportunities ahead and put solid plans in place.”

Instead of looking at strategic planning as a chore, businesses and organizations that succeed and grow see the planning process as an opportunity — an opportunity to forecast the future, to ask the “what if?” questions, and to engage their employees and clients in shaping future success.

Looking into 2014, will you wait to see what the future brings and hope for the best? Or will you plan for success?

Jeff Wahlstrom is president of Starboard Leadership Consulting, a management consulting firm in Bangor specializing in strategic planning. Contact him at www.starboardleadership.com.

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