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The Continuing Saga of the Plum Tree

by Gail Schaper-Gordon, Ph.D.

Last month I wrote about the plum tree in my backyard and my mission to ensure a bountiful harvest by protecting the fruit from neighborhood squirrels. I can happily report overwhelming success … actually too much success. I’ve already given away about a hundred plums, I have four hundred more in my kitchen, and there are another hundred still on the tree!

My time now is filled with planning ways to distribute the fruit to friends and just about anyone else I meet. Members of my Vistage CEO group couldn’t leave without taking home a bag of plums last week. Two more group meetings this week and two the next will help reduce the “inventory” before it spoils.

Last night I made an “emergency phone call” to my neighbor and asked her to help me come up with ways to use the fruit (e.g. plum sauce, plum cake, dried plums). I’m not sure that this is what I had in mind when I set out to protect the tree, and I increased the time and attention I lavished on it by some 400 percent. I just knew that I didn’t want to have a repeat of last year, when there was only a handful of plums to harvest.

Then I started looking at this as yet another business metaphor. What if the plums were to represent prospective clients, business opportunities, purchase orders, or RFPs? I focused all my attention on producing plums but didn’t really prepare for maximizing my personal benefits from the harvest. While I admit I enjoy sharing the produce, we probably use only 5% for ourselves. And soon there will be no more plums to harvest, with a long wait to start this ritual all over again next year.

What if the plum tree were to represent your prospect “pipeline”? What if you had only one chance a year to attract prospective clients, and you experienced this same result — a 5% conversion of prospects into clients or sales? Not a very good return on your investment of time and energy. Successful commercial plum growers work their orchards year-round, to ensure they produce a good crop. However, isn’t it really how the harvest is managed that determines how profitable the entire year’s efforts actually become?

The past few weeks, I’ve been informally polling people I talk to, from a wide range of industries. I’ve asked them how “fruitful” their efforts have been. The majority of these business leaders have said that they have never worked so hard for such a limited return on their efforts. One of my Vistage members regularly sends me a spreadsheet comparing the dollar amounts of the proposals he’s submitted with the number of the contracts actually won and lost, because he’s stunned by the historically low conversion rate. And yesterday, a consulting client summed it up: “This just can’t be the ‘New Normal.’ It’s too stressful and exhausting.”

All of us were shocked and stunned by the effects of the recession that hit us three years ago. After downsizing and managing losses, businesses leaders have intensified their focus on keeping and getting clients. Just look at the explosion of social media usage and social networking by businesses and business professionals over the last two years. Yet, I’m hearing that so many are experiencing a discouragingly low rate of return on their investment of time and energy.

Is there a parallel to what I experienced this year from my being hyper-vigilant over the plum tree, after the poor harvest of the previous year, even though more than 90% of my produce I’ll never be able to use? Well, the “meta-lesson” is that it’s in our nature to develop a very narrow focus in times of crisis: We concentrate almost exclusively on the perceived threat (in my case the squirrels) in order to just survive.

It may be time now to step back and evaluate how we can take a more long-term approach, one that allows us to achieve greater returns on our investments of time and energy and to lead more balanced, less stressful lives. Reflection, assessment, alignment, planning, and implementation are key strategies to recovery and to creation of our “New Normal.”

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