Geoff Smith’s EllisDon blog: Be ready for some (wonderful) surprises

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Geoff Smith blog EllisDon
Geoff Smith
Geoff Smith

EllisDon CEO Geoff Smith, leading one of Canada’s largest general contractors (reportedly the company completed more than $3.3 billion in volume in 2010), writes a blog that avoids most of the corporate-speak, PR pap you usually expect from carefully massaged “social messaging” efforts by “media relations experts”.

In other words, he writes what he thinks — and the writing is refreshing, indeed.

Consider this posting, where he takes pot shots at the stereotypical mantra advocating that business leaders should have solid strategic plans:

Here’s my first problem: I have no idea what’s going to happen next month, let alone three years from now. Neither do you. Neither does anyone. Have you ever seen a set of predictions for the future even come close? Are we seriously going to set the company on an irrevocable course based on a set of reasonably well educated guesses about an unknowable future? A couple examples:

  • About ten years ago, the broadly considered wisdom was that without a very large capital base, there was no way we could compete in the coming world of mega projects and design/build/finance. The smart move was to sell ourself to a pension fund.  Or at least find a big financial partner (ie, heavily dilute).  Or die. Though, as it turned out, not so much.
  • About five years ago, the international construction firms began their invasion of Canada, and it was broadly accepted that they would take over. (One cocky European CEO advised me that we’d survive longer working with him than against him.) A bunch of Canadian firms sold, likely for their own very good reasons. Has the market changed? Absolutely. Did the lethal threat materialize? No. Keeping our head down and not over-analyzing was the best (non) strategy.
Which is not to say we were (or are) certain about anything. I spend my life terrified. And in our own past decisions based on predictions for the future, we’re likely batting a solid fifty-fifty. Maybe I will take a coin to our next Board meeting.
Arguably, business success is not a marathon, but a lifetime of 100 yard dashes. Things change too fast, opportunities arise where you least expect, then are suddenly gone. It’s  not whack-a-mole but, much as the intellectuals doth protest, neither is it exactly 3D chess.
Execute, execute, execute. Think strategically, always, but keep your runners on, your overhead low, your mind wide open. Work with people with great values. Make as many friends as you can. Try to never say no – if you can’t do it, JV with someone who can.  Keep your options open as long as you can.
Smith’s stuff is refreshing to read.  Sometimes I’ve been tempted to think: “Is our business not doing so well because we lack a truly powerful mission statement and solid strategic plan?” Part of me has always thought, “BS, this sort of stuff doesn’t really matter” — though I sense I was too much to the other extreme, without a solid systematic framework (ugh, I fear I’m writing in cliches now, again) to manage staff freedom and innovation.)
But Smith isn’t advocating a systems-free business; he is advocating solid execution and business management. Let’s get the basics right.
You’ll always learn something useful in his postings.
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