What is this thing called 9Stucks?
9Stucks is a dynamic business diagnostic tool. It identifies nine distinct yet interrelated business challenges that cause a company to underperform.

How Scrooge and Marley Became Unstuck

Scrooge and Marley PLC was stuck.

I don’t identify my clients by name, but given the widespread publicity and overall notoriety of this particular company, I felt it would be beneficial to reveal the real ‘story behind the story’. This is a case study about how Scrooge and Marley PLC became unstuck.

Background

Scrooge and Marley was a mature, privately-held ‘counting house’. The company was founded by Jacob Marley and Ebenezer Scrooge, two aggressive, entrepreneurial clerks. There were no outside investors and no cash awards from any business accelerator programs. (Hard to imagine who might have wanted to hear their elevator pitch!)

What is a ‘counting house’? Marley called their business a ‘money-changing hole’. It was a closely held, secretive financial institution that charged high interest rates on all transactions. They were loan sharks…predatory lenders operating out of a dingy warehouse. It’s a good thing their home office was in London, otherwise they probably would have been targeted by Dodd-Frank or The Consumer Finance Protection Bureau.

Jacob Marley died while he was still employed at the company. There was no key man life insurance; they were too cheap to buy a policy. After Marley’s death, Scrooge became the sole shareholder and he decided to run Scrooge and Marley as he saw fit.

Little did Scrooge know that Jacob decided to maintain a Board observer role.

Jacob also set up his own Board of Advisors, picking three industry heavyweights (Past, Present and Yet To Come…all of whom wielded significant influence on Ebenezer). As the company’s performance continued to decline, Jacob finally acknowledged the business was stuck and he took quick action to fix the unsatisfactory conditions. Jacob hired me to be the objective, ‘fresh pair of eyes’ to complete a comprehensive diagnosis of the company and to work with the Board of Advisors, Ebenezer, management and him to implement change.

The company had four of the 9Stucks:

  1. Ditch: Leadership and Alignment
  2. Slow Lane: People and Culture
  3. Fog: Business Model
  4. Rough: Systems, Processes, Fixed Assets

Stuck in a Ditch

Being Stuck in a Ditch means there is a significant, persistent problem within the organization’s leadership ranks. Scrooge and Marley’s biggest Ditch issues emanated from a) conflict between the CEO and the shareholders/Board and b) Scrooge’s strange behavior towards both the external world and company employees.

Coaching Ebenezer: I’ve coached a number of CEOs over the years, but E. Scrooge takes the prize for being the most ornery. He was a feisty, combative, argumentative and terribly insecure egomaniac. Insecurity combined with a huge ego is a tough combination and a hard mix to change. Just when I thought we were making progress with him and his team, out comes ‘Bah, Humbug!’ again. Talk about  listening to a broken record. Not very creative either…

Stuck in the Slow Lane

Stuck in the Slow Lane means the team is weak, the organizational structure is cumbersome, and the overall culture is negative. That about sums up Scrooge and Marley…What team? It was Bob Cratchit, Head Clerk (really the COO) and a weak collection of number crunchers.

Here is how one of the employees described Scrooge: “Scrooge! A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.”**

I’ve done a lot of employee interviews over the years, but this was the first time I heard a CEO described as being”…solitary as an oyster.” Not a rah-rah type of leader. Incentive compensation? The employees got an occasional lump of coal for the fire. How many of you like to get lumps of coal at year end?

Stuck in the Fog

Stuck in the Fog means the business model is too complicated and muddled. Scrooge and Marley described themselves as ‘men of business’. To me, this was a generic description for an unclear business model that was fraying at the edges. There were four core revenue streams:

  1. the company lent money for all sorts financial needs but the bulk of transactions were for real estate loans
  2. when the loans went south, Scrooge repossessed the homes
  3. an import/export business operating out of a dingy warehouse
  4. all other: Ebenezer scraped and clawed for cash using a variety of creative techniques…let’s just call them derivatives and mortgage-backed securities

It was time to sharpen the company’s focus!

Stuck in the Rough

Rough means the business practices, methods, work processes and outdated systems have a negative impact on daily operations. In addition, inferior equipment and facilities exacerbate the weak operational processes. Scrooge still ran the place using quill pens and hand-written ledger books. How about giving your people laptops and Excel?! Washing the windows occasionally might improve morale.

Stuck in a Maze

A company is Stuck in a Maze if management reaches a point where they don’t really know where they stand financially, don’t know how they got there, and don’t know how to get out of the situation. This was NOT the case with Scrooge and Marley. Ebenezer accounted for every penny. The big question relating to cash was…which company had more liquid assets…Apple, Google, Microsoft or Scrooge and Marley?

Fixing the Stucks

Given the comprehensive collection of issues confronting the business, we decided the best way to operate with Scrooge was to divide and conquer. Marley and the Board of Advisors worked with Scrooge on the ‘people issues’. I worked the ‘business issues’.

  1. Marley told Scrooge in no uncertain terms to clean up his act. Direct confrontation worked well with Scrooge.
  2. The three key Advisors (Past, Present and Yet To Come) were relentless. They convinced Scrooge their vision was both vivid and accurate. After their descriptive analysis sunk in (who needs You Tube?), Scrooge was like putty.
  3. I convinced Scrooge to jettison the import/export business. The trading of goods with overseas suppliers and customers added huge complexity to the business.
  4. Scrooge narrowed his focus to a collection of more ‘user friendly’ financial instruments. And he became more patient with the troubled mortgages.
  5. The team also got attention. Bob Cratchit was promoted and he received a much deserved raise.
  6. The office equipment and physical space were upgraded and morale improved immediately.
  7. The atmosphere became festive.

Stepping back from our fictional scenario for a moment, Dickens has much to teach us from his extreme caricature of a business leader and office environment. In cases where the dull routine has become tied to the emotional security of management, it can take an equally extreme approach to kick the business out of the murk and gloom and back into the modern world. He also hones in on one of the truly key steps of enacting change: approaching the new day with an open heart and an open mind. Finally, the end of A Christmas Carol is a shining example of what happens when a CEO is a joy to work for: suddenly, the business is transformed.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

** From A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens