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Photo by Tate Carlson

The Passion for Traction

By Brian Martucci

It is hard to believe that any business leader in Minnesota has not heard of EOS — the Entrepreneurial Operating System — because those who have tried it and like it, really, really like it. They say it has transformed their businesses, and then they become evangelists for the cause. Overall, some 28,000 businesses have given it a try, according to EOS Worldwide, including more than 2,000 in Minnesota. Our state is a hotbed for EOS, and that demand has inspired nearly 60 local business coaches to become certified EOS Implementers.

What Is EOS?

Developed at the turn of the 21st century by Gino Wickman, then a second-generation executive at his family’s southeast Michigan business, EOS is “a complete set of concepts and practical tools [that help] entrepreneurs get what they want from their business,” according to EOS Worldwide.

EOS works best for closely held, small businesses with between 10 and 250 employees. Smaller firms aren’t complex enough to warrant the methodology, though it’s not actively harmful for micro-enterprises; larger companies are too bureaucratic for efficient EOS rollout, though it can be done. Family businesses, so often hampered by mediocre or ill-suited leaders and infighting among principals related by blood or marriage, are ripe for EOS, which starts with “getting the right people in the right seats.”

EOS is sometimes shorthanded as “Traction,” a registered trademark describing a core EOS component. EOS isn’t rocket science, but its structure and nomenclature do require some attention from newbies. Refer to the sidebars for definitions and key concepts.

Open to All

EOS is available to all business, either through a certified implementer, a freelance implementer or to do-it-yourselfers. In Traction: Get a Grip on Your Business, his first book on the subject, Wickman gives away the basic building blocks of EOS. EOS Worldwide’s website slathers on some mortar. Determined, disciplined leaders can successfully self-implement EOS at their own companies. Many do.

But it’s not recommended. Every business owner I spoke with for this story advised against trying to save a few bucks by self-implementing.

Their unanimous advice: Find a seasoned business coach with strong references and extensive EOS implementation experience. EOS exclusivity is a plus, as is Certified EOS Implementer status. In the Twin Cities, there’s a thriving cottage industry of true-believer Certified EOS Implementers who do nothing else. Relentless work ethic is key, too. The best EOS Implementers have been known to work 12 to 16 hour days, both because they’re too busy to keep shorter hours and because they truly love what they do.

I interviewed four EOS Implementers, including Gino Wickman’s successor at Achieve Traction, to learn more about their craft. Then I talked to owners and top leadership at three Minnesota businesses to learn what EOS looks like on the ground and why it’s working so well for so many companies here.

6 key ideas of EOS

  • Vision: A clear, clearly communicated vision that keeps everyone rowing in the same direction, from the boardroom to the plant floor.
  • People: Great organizations have great people, so get the right people in the right seats.
  • Data: You can’t manage what you don’t measure. Says Wickman: “[EOS’] Data Component frees you from the quagmire of managing personalities, egos, subjective emotions and intangibles.”
  • Issues: Issues stand in the way of successful execution. These issues are often hidden, revealed only by organizational transparency and accountability.
  • Process: Business processes need to be built for simplicity, efficiency and scalability. They must be documented: “You will not get your company to the next level by keeping your processes in your head and winging it as you go,” says Wickman.
  • Traction: EOS implementation is successful only when the business achieves traction — effective, consistent execution built on focus, accountability and discipline.
     

Here’s what I learned.

Mike Paton, Achieve Traction: Implementer

Everyone calls him “Paton.” A Gino Wickman protégé who officially took the visionary seat at EOS Worldwide in January of 2015. Paton is better equipped than anyone but Wickman himself to speak about EOS. He was kind enough to speak with me for 30 minutes — an aeon for any EOS implementer, let alone the discipline’s primary steward.

Giving the building blocks of EOS away for free: “We take an open source, abundance-minded approach,” says Paton. EOS Worldwide’s website has reams of expert-generated content, free downloadable tools, an active blog and a growing video library. “All is free by design,” says Paton. The freemium model encourages educated decisions about EOS’s fit and gives owners everything they need to self-implement. If they decide later that they need more help, they can hire an implementer or become one themselves.

The difference between Base Camp and Boot Camp, and what makes an EOS Implementer: EOS Worldwide offers two training programs for budding implementers: Base Camp and Boot Camp. Base Camp is an online training suite, marketed at $395 per month, for self-implementers and small-time professional implementers — “people who don’t want to go all in on EOS,” says Paton. Boot Camp is an intense, in-person training event held over three days in the Detroit area. It includes access to a personal EOS coach, quarterly in-person follow-up events (QCEs), and weekly conference calls with dozens of other Boot Campers. It’s for EOS “ninjas,” says Paton: “We expect that when you invest the time and money to come to Boot Camp, you’ve gone all in on EOS.”

What’s next for EOS Worldwide: As his 50th birthday approaches, Wickman is stepping back from day-to-day leadership duties at EOS Worldwide. Paton is stepping into his shoes. Wickman retains a stake in the company and serves as its primary “navigator,” says Paton, but he’s devoting more time to doing what he loves best: working as an EOS Implementer. One of Paton’s near-term goals: launching a second Boot Camp and QCE series somewhere closer to EOS’s West Coast adherents.

Steve Wilcox, The Resultants for Business: Freelance Implementer

Wilcox runs one of the Upper Midwest’s best-known independent business consultancies. He was around long before EOS, which makes his full-throated endorsement all the more noteworthy.

The difference between consultants and business advisers: Professional EOS Implementers are not consultants, says Wilcox. They’re advisers. Consultants are subject-matter experts tasked with completing specific projects; advisers are facilitators trusted to “draw out answers already present in the room,” says Wilcox. Expect your EOS Implementer to coach, not teach.

The right people: Traction requires the right people in the right seats: those who “get it, want it, and have the capacity to do it,” per Wickman.

BIZ BRIEFING
Company Name: Resultants for Business
Headquarters: Hudson, Wisconsin
Inception: 1999
Leadership: Cofounders Steve & Terri Wilcox
Description: A business advisory firm serving entrepreneurs; services include EOS implementation
Web: theresultants.com

“We ask clients hard questions about personnel fit,” says Wilcox. It’s easy to identify the wrong people in the wrong seats, he adds; moving them out is harder, especially in closely held or family-owned businesses, but Traction stalls without action.

Finding your people’s passion: Wilcox frequently finds key people in ill-defined or overloaded roles. He asks: ‘Which of your seven roles do you actually love? Which are you good at?’ Those two questions usually eliminate half the roles. The person’s portfolio slims, other employees or new hires step up to fill those left, and the organization grows more productive.

Un-coachable owners: Some owners don’t get it, want it, or have the capacity to do it. Before taking a new client, Wilcox asks the owner: ‘Are you coachable?’ He avoids owners who think they’re better than or don’t need the system. “You need to humble yourself and admit you don’t have all the answers,” he says. “Recognize the opportunity to bring in fresh eyes.”

Chris Naylor, B.Better Business Coaching (b-betternow.com): Implementer

She’s one of those hard-charging implementers, all right. I spoke with Naylor shortly before a “16er” — an out-and-back drive from the Twin Cities to northern Minnesota for a full-day EOS session with a top client.

Why Minnesota manufacturers love EOS: “Manufacturing is one of the most popular niches for EOS,” says Naylor. “Manufacturers are fluent with the language of systems and processes, so they tend to intuitively grasp the discipline.”

Traction as a business development engine: “No other area in the world embraces EOS like Minnesota,” says Naylor. (Detroiters might quibble, but we’ll let it slide.) Minnesota’s embrace of Traction is a powerful positive feedback loop. “EOS users get EOS business — for instance working as vendors or suppliers for other EOS companies,” says Naylor. “When you work with an EOS user, their Rocks turn into your Rocks.” She says she is seeing more and more of her clients winning business because of the shared synergies between companies operating on EOS. One of Naylor’s clients, a local IT company, just landed a huge contract on the strength of its EOS program.

Traction’s learning curve: Achieving Traction takes time; the system is about continuous improvement, not immediate results. “Most clients are comfortable with the process after one or two quarters,” says Naylor. “After two years, many are EOS ninjas.” She’s never had an Integrator unable to run a Level 10 meeting. (Integrator’s are the client’s EOS point person, usually the CEO or COO.)

Practicing what she preaches: Earlier this year Naylor and her husband, former Lazydays RV CEO Tim Sheehan, purchased Bloomington-based OSHA Environmental Compliance Systems, a workplace safety training organization. They began implementing Traction this summer. Naylor is the Visionary (the “big picture person”) and Sheehan is the Integrator. Stay tuned.

KEY TRACTION DEFINITIONS
V/TO: The Vision/Traction Organizer is a two-page, eight-question tool for medium- to long-range strategic planning.
Level 10 Meeting: A 90-minute leadership meeting defined by 
hyper-efficiency. 
Meeting Pulse: A standing weekly leadership meeting to measure and coach weekly progress toward quarterly and annual goals.
Rocks: Departmental or organizational priorities — typically three to seven important quarterly goals.
Scorecard: A simplified accountability system where each individual is responsible for a metric. 
BHAG/10-Year Target: Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals (BHAGs) are “10-year targets” — ambitious statements about where you want to be a decade from now.

Gregory Cleary, Get Traction Minnesota (tractionmn.com): Implementer

One of Minnesota’s first certified implementers, Cleary had a front-row seat on the EOS rocket ship. He’s learned more about the discipline — the good, the bad, and the ugly — than just about any active Twin Cities implementer.

Traction’s simplicity: EOS’s “secret sauce” might just be its simplicity. Cleary: “There’s no fluff or smoke. It’s a simple system that empowers you to do in days what used to take weeks or months.”

Discovering Traction’s components in your business: Most businesses have the building blocks of Traction already in place. They’re just hiding in plain sight. Example: Cleary hears variations on, ‘We’ve been working off the same core values for 20 years. Why should we write them down?’ His response: ‘Why shouldn’t you?’ Likewise: “Every business has its own Rocks, Scorecards, meetings, 10-Year Targets,” he says. “The question is, how good are you at recognizing and executing them?”

When EOS doesn’t work: EOS’s track record isn’t perfect. “Some owners quit or get fired from the process [by their implementers],” says Cleary. Signs it’s not working out include: you think everything is working great, you’re not willing to make tough decisions (including firing longtime employees), you pick and choose EOS elements to deploy, and you’re not willing to invest time in making the system work.

Kellie Akins, Innovative Surfaces: Traction User

Innovative Surfaces, a Hastings-based family firm specializing in custom countertop fabrication and installation, has thrived since transitioning to second-generation ownership in early 2015. Co-owner Kellie Akins championed the adoption of EOS.

Finding the perfect-fit implementer: Akins heard Sara Stern, principal at Family Business Minnesota (profiled in our February 2017 issue), speak about EOS at a conference a few years back. “We felt like she was talking directly to us,” says Akins. “So much of what we’d been trying, with limited success, converged right there.” After some follow-up conversations to confirm this first impression, Innovative Surfaces brought Stern on as its EOS Implementer.

Joining the Traction “club”: Echoing Naylor, Akins revels in the EOS community. “Several of the companies we work with, including our insurance broker, use Traction,” she says. “Once you’re in, you start to see Traction everywhere.”

BIZ BRIEFING
Company Name:
Innovative Surfaces
Headquarters: Hastings
Inception: 1984
Leadership: Kellie Akins, co-owner
Employees: 130
Description: Manufactures and installs custom countertops for customers in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Web: innovativesurfaces.com

And EOS is an evergreen topic of discussion at executive meetups and business-owner peer groups.

What it’s like to actually get stuff done: “We saw the difference almost immediately,” says Akins. “Traction actually helps us get stuff done.” Mundane as it sounds, that wasn’t the norm previously: under first-generation ownership, profitability and expansion potential languished under the combined weight of missed deadlines, wayw ard or misplaced priorities, and bureaucratic inertia.

Learning to let go: When she first committed to EOS, Akins didn’t realize what a time commitment — meetings, check-ins, analysis — the process would be. She’s not totally out of the day-to-day loop, but EOS definitely rejiggered her priorities. She fought the loss of hands-on control at first, then realized it was a blessing in disguise. “I had an epiphany: The business is fine without me looming over everything,” she says. Now she can raise her gaze and focus on big-picture steering and goal-setting. Kim and Mark Miner + Brian Rome, Min-Mor Industries: Traction Users Kim and Mark Miner are Min-Mor’s co-owners and co-visionaries. Brian Rome, COO (pictured), is the nuts-and-bolts guy and, unsurprisingly, the integrator.

BIZ BRIEFING
Company Name: 
Min-Mor Industries
Headquarters: Brooklyn Center
Leadership: Kim and Mark Miner, owners; Brian Rome, CEO
Employees: 160
Description: A diversified holding company with divisions specializing in novelty gifts, printed materials, promotional items, prepackaged snacks, and more.
Web: minmor.com

Company Name: Kottke Trucking
Headquarters: Buffalo Lake
Inception: 1938
Leadership: Kyle Kottke
Description: Specializes in refrigerated and dry goods trucking across the Upper Midwest and Southeast.
Web: kottke-trucking.com

 

On the recommendation of Redpath and Company, a White Bear Lake-based CPA firm and major EOS proponent, Min-Mor began rolling out the methodology in January 2016. After a few fits and starts, the company fully committed to EOS earlier this year.

Why EOS made sense: The past few years have been a rocky ride for Min-Mor: operational challenges, a partner buyout, leadership transitions, ill-defined projects. “We’re a complicated business with a lot of moving parts,” says Mark Miner. “We needed to make the management process manageable.” Sharing EOS with subordinates: Min-Mor has two production facilities. Floor employees can’t sit in on senior leadership’s Level 10 meetings, but that doesn’t mean they’re not in the loop.

Rome shares the V/TO with everyone: “Here’s what you need to know about our vision and what we’re doing to accomplish it.” Each department filters Rocks down to lower-level employees as well, so that everyone’s working on the same issues in unison. Min-Mor’s BHAG: “We want to be the best place to work in the Twin Cities,” says Mark Miner. That’s ambitious, even by BHAG standards, but certainly in keeping with Min-Mor’s motto: “Making People Smile.”

Kyle Kottke, Kottke Trucking: Traction User

Kyle Kottke is one of three third-generation co-owners of Kottke Trucking, which has been operating out of central Minnesota for the better part of a century. He learned about EOS at a 2015 family business breakfast attended by Sara Stern, decided the methodology was right for Kottke, and almost immediately hired Stern as the company’s implementer. They got started in early 2016. Choosing the right EOS Implementer: “You need someone who’ll give it to you straight and tell you when you’re making things harder for yourself,” says Kottke. “Self-implementing wasn’t going to work for us — we had too many bad habits.” Kottke knew Stern was the right person for the job after their first conversation, “but not everyone has that level of comfort.”

His advice: Carefully vet prospects and learn to recognize good fit. Building on a solid foundation: “We already did about 60% of what the book preaches — we just hadn’t pulled it together,” says Kottke. “Traction helped us pull it all together.” EOS strengthened Kottke Trucking’s accountability and transparency, both weak spots. The freedom to do more: Traction opened doors that until recently seemed sealed and barred shut. “We’ve been able to act on major change items,” says Kottke, including acquiring a 70-employee competitor. “I’m not sure [the acquisition] would have gone as smoothly, or happened at all, without Traction.”