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Episode 18

On how to make OKRs work for SMBs


Russell Cummings

Managing Director of Shifft Consulting

Episode Notes

Russell Cummings is an experienced Management Consultant and Business Coach with Shifft Consulting (spelled with 2 f’s). Russ has spent the last 35 years working with dynamic family businesses that want to grow. He is Australian-based but currently services clients across Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United Kingdom. In this episode we cover a lot of ground like the 2 ways OKRs can help small businesses, a walk through of how to cascade OKRs, how to approach tracking metrics when you’re first starting out and the dangers of being efficient in the wrong places at the wrong times.

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The Full Transcript:

Russell Cummings (00:00:01): Well to be fair, lots of people have a plan, right? But the plan is in their head. Yeah, and therefore it changes; it changes all the time. It’s not the same plan, it evolves over time and it changes. So, for me, the act of actually writing it down allows you to critically analyze it to start with, but it also makes it concrete. It takes it from being abstract to being something quite concrete and real.

Jenny Herald (00:00:25): Hi, and welcome to Dreams with Deadlines, a podcast where you’ll hear real stories of trials and victories in business. I’m Jenny Herald, Chief Product Officer of Gtmhub. Gtmhub is the world’s most powerful platform for Objectives and Key Results, or OKRs. In concept, OKRs are easy to understand but challenging to execute, until now. Check us out at to learn more.

Jenny Herald (00:00:54): Russell Cummings is an experienced management consultant and business coach with Shifft Consulting, spelled with two Fs. Russell has spent the last 35 years working with dynamic family businesses that want to grow. He is Australian based, but currently services clients across Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United Kingdom. In this episode, we cover a lot of ground, like the two ways OKRs can help small businesses. A walkthrough of how he cascades OKRs, how to approach tracking metrics when you’re first starting out, and the dangers of being efficient in the wrong places at the wrong times. We’ll also get to hear some interesting stories, like the time he worked with a client who came to him because they hadn’t taken a proper holiday in 10 years. These were some of the key measures they tracked: games of golf played per week and the number of holidays taken. On the business side of things, they substantially increased profitability. Let’s jump in.

Jenny Herald (00:01:59): I’m so happy today because I get to talk to you Russell Cummings, thank you for being on the show.

Russell Cummings (00:02:04): My pleasure, nice to be here, thanks for having me, I appreciate it.

Jenny Herald (00:02:06): This is really cool because technology has allowed someone from Berlin and someone from Australia, like where are you actually sitting in Australia right now?

Russell Cummings (00:02:15): I’m in a place called Bully Heads on the Gold Coast in Queensland. So, I’m on the beaches of Australia, yes.

Jenny Herald (00:02:20): This is so unfair. Well thank you again, for being on the show, this is really awesome. So, a lot of people are probably asking like, who is Russell Cummings?

Russell Cummings (00:02:30): I get that a lot, yeah.

Jenny Herald (00:02:32): Yeah, right/ Let’s do that. And can you talk us through your journey a bit? Like, how did you get to where you are today?

Russell Cummings (00:02:38): So, it’s Russell Cummings, and my company is called Shifft with two Fs. And so what I do is, I’ve been a business coach and a management consultant for the last 35 years, which is really scary when I say a large number like that, but that’s what it’s been. And it’s been a great journey. So I started out as an agricultural consultant. I went to university and I studied a degree in wool and pastoral sciences, which is an applied Bachelor of Science degree. And I originally got a job doing research for the university, but I didn’t want to do that, and one of the guys I worked with suggested I might make a good farm consultant, and I liked the idea that, so I eventually got a job as a farm consultant, and I used to sit down with farming families and help them plan their businesses. And I worked out I wasn’t very good at the technical stuff of what you drench the sheep with and sprayed the crops with, and all that sort of stuff, but I had a head for the strategy and planning side of things.

Russell Cummings (00:03:37): And the company I work for, we actually started training our farmers in what you call mainstream business planning and business skills, and this was 30 odd years ago, and it was fantastic and I enjoyed it. And I felt I had a knack for it. I started doing more and more of that with my farmers, and then what we started to do was I started getting referrals outside of farming into agribusiness into food processes and you know, those sorts of allied businesses. And then I left the company went out by myself and started working with a whole range of food businesses. So, that was pretty exciting and pretty much fun working by myself.

Russell Cummings (00:04:14): And then I guess, as part of that, I started working with larger businesses and corporations, and I have done a lot of work in defense, I was a partner in a boutique change management firm called Change Drivers, we did a lot of work in defense, some large corporate stuff, a bit of government. I still had quite a strong family business following and client base, and so I kept that and, I don’t know, too many years ago now, but about 17 years ago, I decided to leave the partnership and I moved my family 2000 kilometers or 1600 miles north. And we lived on the beach and took life a bit easier and I decided I was going to get back into doing what I love best which was working with family businesses, and now I work with family businesses or privately owned businesses that want to grow and take themselves to that next level, so dynamic businesses.

Jenny Herald (00:05:02): That’s quite a journey. So you started out in farm consulting, and then with corporate defense, government agencies, and now you’re kind of doing what you love to do, working with these kinds of high growth family businesses. I imagine that some of the challenges are very different, obviously, just by virtue of the scale and the type of work that these organizations are doing. But maybe there are things that are similar or some challenges that you see just as a common red thread through all of these different organizations and agencies. Can you kind of share a little bit of what you’ve seen out there that they’re really struggling with, and that seems to be very common?

Russell Cummings (00:05:45): The similarities of large businesses and small businesses, it’s all about money and profitability and therefore, we need to be generating enough profit in order to sustain our future growth and development, lots of stuff. Not the same, I guess with government business, because the money’s given; they need to make sure they’re using it as effectively as possible to execute the goals and things that they have. And then something I would argue that government’s not quite as efficient as it needs to be, but that’s probably a discussion for another day. And then not for profit, but they still have to… What I found was…I haven’t done lots of work with not for profits, but the few that I have, one of the things I’ve really noticed is that even though they’re not for profit, we still need to run them like a normal business, and probably even better in some ways, because every dollar profit you make, you can reinvest back into delivering whatever great purpose that that charity or non-profit has.

Russell Cummings (00:06:38): So lots of similarity in terms of the things that we need to do in terms, we need to have a clear plan, a clear structure, we need to be focusing on marketing and revenue growth and those sorts of things. And I guess operational efficiencies, critical and all those, and then the last piece is getting people on board, so engaging our teams, because businesses are nothing without their people. So, those commonalities across all of it. And I guess, I see tools like OKRs and stuff fitting into that strategy part, but also into the communication piece, as well in terms of communicating where we’re going and helping people measure where they’ve gone. So lots of commonalities, but they are really different.

Jenny Herald (00:07:18): So really, it kind of boils down to; you’ve got capital, how do you deploy it? You have goals, how do you reach them? And how do you get people to go along for the ride?

Russell Cummings (00:07:25): Yes, exactly, you nailed it, you want a job doing this, and you’re good.

Jenny Herald (00:07:31): So since you’re working with family businesses now, I hear this a lot, some folks are really skeptical about what size of an organization does it make sense to use OKRs? Like, especially if you’re a small to medium-sized business you know, they’re asking themselves, can OKRs be useful for my small or medium-sized business? What would your response be to that question?

Russell Cummings (00:07:53): I think they are useful, and I do use them with smaller businesses, but I think you use them in a different way. So I tend to say there are two ways to use OKR, there’s probably more, but I’m saying two. The first one is the way I use it, which is to create some systems of measurements, which we can cascade through the business in order to get some clear, clean measures for how we’re going to show progress towards targets, all that sort of stuff.

Russell Cummings (00:08:18): That’s the way to do it; that’s the way I use it. But you can also use it to help drive your strategy. So, what actions will we take that will help drive our strategy? So, there are two ways to do that, and sometimes in small businesses, the strategy piece is not that complex, and the execution piece is not that complex, but we need to have a highly structured and layered process, if you like, for executing that. But I think we do need to have some decent measures. And sometimes those measures may only cascade down one layer within a small business or even, you know, I have got small businesses where we’ve just set some measurement at the top so it really got some objectives and key results, some measures and some targets that will help us achieve that. And we haven’t bothered to cascade much further down, because it’s overkill. So I think to answer your question is they are useful, how you deploy them depends on the level of detail you need to get through to get the outcomes that you want. And I think sometimes people push the level of detail way too high.

Jenny Herald (00:09:17): So, really, it’s just to be pragmatic about it when you need to get what you want out of this like you had mentioned.

Russell Cummings (00:09:24): Yeah, I think too many people get carried away with the notion of, it’s a system and a process, I have to follow it to the nth degree, unless I implement it like Google does, then it’s not right, you know what I mean? And sometimes I think you got to be a little bit smarter and so on, our business is not Google, and we might have aspirations to grow to be Google one day, but it’s not. So, what’s important for us to measure? What’s important for us is to plan in our business and how do we then do that? What’s the smartest way to do that?

Jenny Herald (00:09:54): To that extent, you know, we talked about just because you can measure it, you know, so what right? And similarly speaking, you know, they’re not Google, right? These are small or medium-sized businesses, unlikely that they have like this massive data warehouse, where you can just pull data out of this. Obviously, if data is being pumped into it, the difficulty or challenge there is trying to extract what meaningful data they can… they likely don’t have any of that.

Russell Cummings (00:10:21): Yeah.

Jenny Herald (00:10:22): So can you kind of share, how do they establish that part of the infrastructure to gather the data to begin with? And then how do you talk them through just because you’re able to measure it, doesn’t mean you should? I’m sure they’re like, “But look, we have measurements now,” and you’re like, “So what? Why?”

Russell Cummings (00:10:38): So sometimes, what we do… so I’m working through this exercise with an accounting firm at the moment, and what we’ve done is a cascade, we’ve set up our high-level OKRs, we’ve been cascaded them down a layer or two in some cases, and we’ve got series of… and we’ve applied different measurements at different points. So what I like to do is, I think what you said, we’ve got an objective, a key result, and then what are some of the measures that might help us measure that key result? You know what I mean? So sometimes it’s hard to build and measure into key results so I just set separate measures, and then for each of those measures we’ll have a target.

Russell Cummings (00:11:16): So, we might have multiple measures for one key result, and then we’ll cascade those. Well, sometimes the target above is not applicable down below, or the measure we use above is not applicable down below, so we might have a slightly different measure at the next layer down. Or alternately, what I often find is the measure at the high level doesn’t tell us enough, there’s not enough detail in there.

Russell Cummings (00:11:45): So, for argument’s sake, measuring something across the whole firm, when we’ve got different products and different services, and so having an overarching measure, let’s say an accounting firm, we might be measuring average charge rate or something else, right? And see something else, if someone that’s fairly useless at a high level, it just gives us a very broad brush, look at what’s happening, the real measure might be the next layer down, where that measure really comes to place, where we look at it on a team basis.

Russell Cummings (00:12:15): So that team there, what should their target and what should their measure be? And it might be average hourly rate is really important in that team. But it may not be important, in say, another team which… so I’ve got some of these businesses, where they might charge by an hourly rate, and others might charge by a fixed rate. Measuring the number of hours you put into a fixed rate account doesn’t necessarily give you an effective measure sometimes of what you’re trying to achieve you know what I mean? And it’s largely irrelevant. So we need to have a different measure at that point for the same objective or the same key result, if that makes a lot of sense. And sometimes at a high level just doesn’t make any sense to have it there. And so sometimes we leave that part blank, the measurement part blank at the high level until we drop it down to another level where we can get a measure that makes sense.

Russell Cummings (00:13:03): So a really good one in the small businesses is staff turnover, right? So often when we measure staff turnover, but if you get a team of 10 people or 20 people, one or two of them are leaving, that’s a big spike you know, and then all of a sudden, you’ve got 20% of your staff have left, it’s a true measure, but it isn’t really that important to measure, and it’s a blip, you go and replace those people and it’s back again. So, in a big organization, those are the things that give you... look at trends, and you see, well, there is a trend as staff turnover starting to ramp up. In a small organization, some staff turnover, A, could be desirable and B… and so what if you’ve just turned over 20% in one month, it doesn’t really matter. It could have been some COVID related stuff, or just, you know, people having to move away at the same time, or health issues or family issues or whatever. It’s not relevant as an effective measure of the culture of the organization or something else.

Jenny Herald (00:14:07): At the end of the day, like you said, how do you find a measurement that, let’s say, a team, or the people who are operationally trying to affect change and aggregate, what are they looking at so that they can actually achieve the organizational goals that are set before them? You need to be able to make those linkages, and just because you can measure something doesn’t mean that that would be the appropriate measurement of what it is that you’re trying to affect change on.

Russell Cummings (00:14:30): Yes, so, we often measure stuff that’s easy to collect, right? So it’s often and sometimes in a small business, it’s just too hard to go and collect the right information, we just don’t have the data systems in place or the capability to do that. And then a lot of time, I start off with these things or we start running them on spreadsheets, you know, so we’ve got a spreadsheet-based system for a while until we work out… as I said, we go through a bit of a trial and error thing. So, what we’ll do is we’ll set up some OKRs and measurement systems, that’s all good, and we’ll set up some simple manual systems to collect that data and just plug it into a spreadsheet. And it’s very labor-intensive sometimes until we work out with the measures worthwhile keeping or not.

Russell Cummings (00:15:13): So I might run it for three or four months and see if we’re getting any trends in whatever we’re looking for, and it might be weekly measures we’re looking at, and then we’ll go, okay, well, that’s not told us anything, it’s just a flat line, or it’s not told us anything, so why would we hardwire in the connection systems in for that? Or it’s not teaching us anything, it seemed like a good idea at the time, but we’re not learning anything from the trend or the number itself, and therefore, we will cut that one out, and then we will start again.

Russell Cummings (00:15:47): So, we’ll cut our group of measurements down to something that makes sense and is tangible, and try and look at them in different ways, and then we can then go and engage some people to maybe hardwire those into our data system, so we can go and collect it far more cost-effectively, and have some submitting dashboards and things. And some clients just stick with spreadsheets the whole way, because it’s actually quite simple to have somebody go and run around and pull 10 reports and 25 numbers and plug them in, and then we are done. You know, that spreadsheet does the calculation for us. So, simplicity I think, is the key.

Jenny Herald (00:16:17): So the thing that I think OKRs provide, is this habit of being able to like, I think, describing here monitoring the business in some way, like, are we making progress on whatever, right? Because the key results are supposed to be the proxy to define success against that objective. What are you finding is really good, I guess, practices with these small businesses, because a lot of the work that they’re trying to do is very operational in nature, you know, like reflection is not common, necessarily, I would imagine in small businesses, or medium-sized businesses, as let’s say tech, where this is part of the Agile methodology, is having time for retrospectives and reflecting on how did we do and what are we going to do next? And did we have any impediments? And can we talk through the blockers ahead of time?

Jenny Herald (00:17:05): What are you seeing as some of the maybe agile practices or maybe not that but other practices that are benefiting small and medium-sized businesses as they’re approaching OKRs and really creating like you’re saying processes and systems that help them really focus on achievement?

Russell Cummings (00:17:19): Well, I think the first point is you’re really correct in saying that most small businesses and even some larger businesses, I’ve got to be honest, don’t really take the time to stop and prop and reflect on what’s been going on. And so often, my role in the business is to actually in some ways forced them to do that. So sometimes their sessions with me, are times, when we stop and reflect and, you know, ask some of the dumb questions about why did that happen and what’s going to change for us to fix that problem? And what’s going to get in the way, what’s going to stop us from moving ahead? And sometimes people need somebody to asked them those questions because they don’t have teams and stuff to do that sort of stuff with them.

Russell Cummings (00:18:00): So that’s probably the first thing is that I find that we do need to take some of that time to stop and do that, and then we need to have a meaningful discussion around it. And I think that often we don’t have meaningful measures and meaningful processes for discussing some of these things. And so, you know for me, I guess, the thing is some of these businesses is really, let’s just take the time to stop and prop and look at the things that we need to look at, and have some of those hard conversations about what’s going on well, and what’s not, and pull their heads out of the operational level and be a bit more strategic, because often, when we’re too busy just doing stuff, and we just pick up and do the next thing in business, you know, so we’re racing from one thing to another without really stopping and going, hang on a second, where are we hitting here? Does that make sense? And should we be doing that? You know, because otherwise, you know, it’s too easy to get caught up in there.

Russell Cummings (00:18:59): And even, you know, I run a small business and I’ve been part of bigger businesses, and it’s really easy to get caught up in there just doing, doing, doing, without actually stopping and going, “hang on a second” you know? That whole thing, you know, we are chopping out of the right tree, are we actually in the right forest? And so some of those analogies, I think are fairly true, but I don’t think businesses are particularly complex— and I’m not saying it’s not hard, but I don’t think business should be complex.

Russell Cummings (00:19:30): And the tough part of all this, I think, is how do we engage our people, and getting our people engaged. And I think measuring the people side of things is the hardest part in any business, because so much of this is subjective, you know, how we measure culture and how we measure some of these things, and how do we measure our values? Are we actually achieving our values? What are the behaviors that drive their values? How do we measure some of those that are really hard to measure? And certainly, you spend a lot of time sort of getting lost in that space as well, trying to measure stuff that is really great if we get a measure of it, but that’s just too hard. And so for me lots of people, we need to just be going back to that whole thing of, let’s simplify things, let’s get focused on what we need to do, and let’s not get lost in the detail because we spend all our time at the data.

Jenny Herald (00:20:18): So true, and I think that resonates with a lot of people probably across the globe who have work.

Russell Cummings (00:20:25): Yes, big business or small business, we tend to do that, we tend to, you know, the first thing people race to is the detail, you know? I saw some guys this morning, and they lost in the detail straightaway, I say, “No, no, let’s just stop, let’s pull it up, we raced straight to the bottom, you know what I mean, let’s just—I say, stop and prop—let’s just stop and prop for a minute to reflect on things, and let’s just go with that.

Jenny Herald (00:20:48): I think it’s alluring because if there is detail to be talked about, that means whatever the problem statement or whatever the issue might be, or the thing that you’re trying to approach is clear. And when you’re stopping and propping, what you’re saying is, “Okay, what am I not seeing, what do I not know?’ And that space is very ambiguous, and it’s kind of scary because it’s ambiguous right? Who wants to talk through that, it’s uncomfortable, you don’t know what you’re supposed to do? Or you don’t necessarily have answers there, which is why you’re stopping and propping the thing through it, absolutely.

Russell Cummings (00:21:20): I think there’s a great problem-solving tool out of the lean industry called a Force Field Analysis, which is a really simple, powerful tool. And the keyword is you asked, you know, we’ve got this defining problem, and then define the positive things we need to do in order to address this issue, and that’s going to say that’s not how you do it, but this is the way I do it. And then there are the barriers, what’s going to stop us from achieving this, and that’s what we don’t often ask ourselves, that’s why I think it’s so powerful. If I sit down with you and say, what are the first three or four things we got to do to get this project up in a way you’ll be able to rattle them off, and everybody thinks of all the things we can do to get it done, but very rarely do we think of what are the barriers that are going to stop us from achieving it, what’s kind of getting in the way, and it’s attitudes and stuff. And there are some great models out there that take that into consideration around change management and that sort of stuff. But too often we just overlook this.

Jenny Herald (00:22:12): All right, I couldn’t agree more. There’s a project that… painfully this is so speaking to me, because I’m having to retrospect on something that I’m working on right now, and I’m like, had I only done this Force Field Analysis I would not be where I’m right now. I mean it’s fine there’s recovery work that’s happening, but I think it would have gone so much smoother if I had thought, wait, what could have stopped us from making progress? Oh, these things, that make sense. But now you’ve learned so it’s fine.

Russell Cummings (00:22:44): But I think that’s also part of human nature, basically we’re positive people, so we’re optimists. And particularly entrepreneurs are very optimistic people. So it’s always going to go this, you know, my business is going to be the next Google, don’t get in my way, but we don’t think about what’s going to stop us from getting there, and have those hard conversations with, okay, so, you know, you may not be the next Elon Musk, because think about the businesses is this big, do you really want to be that big, and what’s going to stop you from getting there? And access to capital, all of those things that’s going to stop you.

Jenny Herald (00:23:20): So you mentioned the people bit is like, kind of that’s a difficult thing to measure, and that it’s important to have your people come along with you that they’re engaged, those where the words you used. Are there any like methods, tactics, tools that you have employed, and are working with your leaders to kind of have a pulse check on the health of the organization on the engagement of that organization? Is there anything that you’re willing to share out of your secret toolbox? Because I’m sure if I put my arm in it like I would lose my whole body because you have so many tools available so I’m curious.

Russell Cummings (00:23:57): I really think that what people want most at work into being engaged is to get clear feedback on how they’re performing and how they’re going, and to give the other guys that feedback even to help out some of their team members are going. So, while I’m not a huge fan of 360-degree reviews, because I finally got to have quite a mature organization that is ready for some uncomfortable truths for that to work well on, I’ve seen it go on really well and also sent really badly so I tend to shy away from it a bit.

Russell Cummings (00:24:29): For me, they’re too far apart and quite often those performance reviews, we’re picking up the 5% of things that people do wrong and spending an hour talking about it instead of the 95% things they do right. So I find them very adversarial and I’ve not enjoyed them as a manager or as an employee ever. And so what I found was if we have far more regular conversations about performance and how people are going, and I call them circuit breaking meetings. And they’re just a simple, you know, every month to two months, we just catch up and have a 10, 15 minutes chat around what’s going well, what’s not going well, what can we do better? Where are the gaps for you in terms of skills, knowledge behavior? And we get a chance to talk about it as instead of this sort of convoluted process of, you score yourself against 27 different elements, that sort of stuff. Now, I’m not saying performance reviews aren’t a useful tool, and often they do, but I don’t think they can be the end-all.

Jenny Herald (00:25:27): What we’re talking about is the health of an organization or the health of the engagement of an individual to that organization. Frequency matters, that’s what we’re saying here is, the more we can frequently look at our measurement, hopefully, the measurements that do matter, those metrics, we can see, are we making any progress? And then similarly, at the individual level, if we want to talk through engagement, it really is about that frequency of check in to say, hey, are we doing okay like you said, across different things in terms of expectation, so that you can right things earlier, rather than wait from for what feels like and actually is, I think, an arbitrary time horizon, where it’s like, oh, every three months, six months, one year, that’s when we do it, just because everyone does it that way. It’s too long before you can actually suss out whatever it is that might be wrong. And then, like you said, you’re filling in a block on a piece of paper, or some sheet, you know, and then sending it in, because that’s what’s mandated. It doesn’t need to be that way.

Russell Cummings (00:26:26): It does seem to be likely waiting six months for you to tell me I’m not doing things the way you want them done, and why wouldn’t you have that conversation with me sooner? Yes, but I think that’s really important, I think those notions of frequency and stuff are important in business and looking at, you know, personal individuals targets and measures, and also things are really important. So what are the key measures of performance for you? But sometimes they’re not things we can measure day to day, sometimes they’re outcomes that we’re measuring in terms of project completion, or milestone dates, and those sorts of things, which aren’t necessarily easy to measure in a measurement system where you can aggregate them.

Russell Cummings (00:27:05): You can look at it at an individual level, and say, “Russell, how you going in this and you had this project to do, where are you up to?” those sort of things, that’s relatively easy to do at an individual level, much, much harder to aggregate that up in a corporate level and look at the dashboard on high and going 52% of our projects are correct milestones, you know. and so on. Because one project, you know, some of those projects would be tiny, little projects and two of them could be massive projects that charter, the future of the business, and we just average them all together.

Jenny Herald (00:27:32): The one thing I kind of want to circle back on is, so you’ve been working with these wonderful family businesses that have quite a bit of turnover, we’ve talked about it probably in the 2 to 20 million turnover mark, they’ve hit this plateau, and they’re looking at you and they’re like, “Russell, now, what? Now, what am I supposed to go do?” Can you talk us through like, the journey that you have with your clients when they approach you, and, you know, as far as they’re concerned, they’re really successful? I mean, if I were sitting on top of a 2 million or 20 million turnover business as an individual entrepreneur, you know, even if I had a small partnership, I think that I’d be excited. But then you want more, obviously, you want to do more?

Jenny Herald (00:29:16): And so, you know, can you talk us through like, what are they thinking through? What are some of their sticking points or their challenges, I know, we’ve kind of covered a lot of that during the course of the episode. But if you can kind of talk through some narrative or stories of things that you’re seeing and seeing the success, also like of what you’re doing with them, because I think that’s what’s exciting. And like you said, we’re optimists, we want to hear stories of these things, so that we can say, and click on the I believe button again, you know.

Russell Cummings (00:28:41): For me, it’s a little bit of that attitude is a really important part. But the reason why I like that sort of, you know, 2 to 20 million space is that they are big enough to have some leverage on some stuff, so that we can actually make some changes and implement things. They also normally got some resources to work with and that’s a bit useful at times. And then I guess the other thing is that they’ve been successful to some point, and so often I get involved because they’ve reached a point where their business has plateau so they’ve either run out of management capability or something else or just lost interest or lost their way or whatever. And it’s a whole heap of reasons for why the businesses often plateau, but they’ve reached this point, and sometimes they just need somebody like me to come in and work with them, to help them reassess where they want to go and where they want to do. And for me, the process is really around setting a clear plan to where you want to be.

Russell Cummings (00:29:41): So I find too many businesses— and I’ve been in some really big businesses that don’t have a very clear plan. We have a rough idea in our head of where we’re going, and often these people are extremely entrepreneurial and very, very capable, and do these amazing businesses, but without a clear plan, they struggle, when to communicate where they’re heading and where they’re going with their people and that’s where we start to run out of traction often.

Russell Cummings (00:30:04): So, normally, we’ll start with that front end point of, let’s set a clear plan, and sometimes the level of planning that I do with some small business versus a larger business will vary, so I have a process that I’ve worked through, a simple process called Simple Strategy Process, where in four hours, we get some traction and really tight little plan for moving ahead. And then that just highlights the areas we need to work on. But I always go back and make sure we think about things like vision, mission, values, those sorts of things, and OKRs fit into that part for me—settings some clear objectives for the business, that’s a critical part of what I call the strategic foundations, something like that.

Russell Cummings (00:30:44): So I like to make sure we’ve got the strategic foundations that are really nice. And then on top of that, we then focus on things, you know, sort of the key things in business, you know, marketing and sales are absolutely critical, we’ve got to draw those otherwise, we just don’t get generating revenue. And my argument is cash papers over a lot of cracks. So, you’re better off to ramp up sales, even if you’re not super efficient, I’m not saying not profitable, but if you’re not super efficient, you know, just ramping up sales will often just give you a lot more cash flow, which means then you can then get some money to go and invest in things that might improve your efficiency.

Russell Cummings (00:31:22): And so starting with the marketing and sales and ramping that, is pretty important. Getting a team on board with how we’re going to execute that is really important. And then you can start to put some of the lean stuff into as well as the manufacturing service business or even an agricultural business into starting to look at our processes and systems and how we can be more efficient and more effective.

Jenny Herald (00:31:45): When you’re working with these small businesses, they’re coming to you and they have hit that plateau, you know, how are you seeing them from the initial issues that they’re having—and you kind of talk through that too— the transition of applying a lot of the tools and these frameworks that you have to seeing that implemented and then the success. Kind of talk through, some of the success stories—and you started with, well, you’ve kind of have to start with me from a successful point, to begin with, like, if you’re about to close your business down, we are not going to go to you obviously.

Jenny Herald (32:20): And so you’re starting with them, where they probably have a lot of health, if you look at their metrics, or whatever they might be monitoring, but they’re healthy, right? But they’re stuck, and they need to get to that next level, they’re not sure what to do, they approach you, and Shifft is part of their journey, and you take them from A to wherever. And that’s kind of what I wanted to hear, I guess is okay, some of those happy stories, if you will, because there are entrepreneurs out there that want to hear, like, you know, you can get past that your point that you are today, it’s possible. And here are some examples of what you’ve seen.

Russell Cummings (00:33:00): Okay, so I mean, there’s some great examples, and I need to be a bit careful so that we don’t talk about anything people might regard as confidential. But a client of mine in the food sector, we grew that business quite exponentially, we grew up from three times, just by focusing on going back to our major clients and understanding what they really wanted and delivering a product that they really wanted. And other people were saying to them, no, we can’t do it, and we just had that can-do attitude and said, “Okay, we’ll do that.”

Russell Cummings (00:33:30): And so we did that picked up a whole heap of market share from doing that, we’re only small still, but we picked up… they gave us all the work that we could handle. So we took that business… The interesting part about that business was we also worked out that our production model, our operational model, and the way we’d structured our contracts with that large client wasn’t in our best interest. And the bigger we got, the more painful it got for us in many ways. And so we went back made midstream and renegotiated and a completely different business model.

Russell Cummings (00:34:05): So we sat down and said, this business model is not working, there’s so much variability in it for us, and therefore we had to take that variability out for us. And some of that variability was driven by the client. So, we were saying, well, let’s take that out, that’s your problem if you want to do that, that shouldn’t be our problem, we shouldn’t be wearing the cost of that. And so we changed our business model around. So not only then do we ramp income through but we drove profitability, we really lifted profitability to the point where, you know, by the time we finished sort of three years later, the profit we were making was more than our income was when we started, so it was a great turnaround.

Russell Cummings (00:34:42): But the best part of that was that my client originally came to me because he hadn’t had a holiday in 10 years. He and his wife hadn’t had a holiday, had the odd week or something here and there. In Australia, we get like four weeks holidays a year, it’s normal, you know? But they haven’t had a decent holiday of any extended period for a very long time. And so, that was one of his key metrics, one of the key measures we set up in the business was how many games of golf he played a week, and how many holidays he and his wife had.

Russell Cummings (00:35:09): And so that we got to the point where they could take three months off and travel overseas and do some of the things that they wanted to do, and, you know, it was amazing tasks. And so that’s a good story of just sitting back and thinking through the business and saying, ‘Okay, well, what are we going to do to grow this?” And the first thing we had to do was talk to our clients and understand their needs. And often we think we know what our clients want, but we don’t really ask them ever, and so we sat down and asked the client, “So what do you really want?” I said, “Well, you can do this, we’d really want that.” “Okay, we can do it.” And if we couldn’t do it profitably, then we had to go back and renegotiate that, but that was okay. We built a trust with the client that we could deliver and we were genuine and authentic, and they took us up on that, so that was useful.

Jenny Herald (00:35:55): And now this person is golfing and has had a proper vacation to boot, well, that’s a win-win.

Russell Cummings (00:36:03): Yes, that’s a great story. I guess, other business owners… I do lots of work with service businesses, and so I’ve worked with some consulting businesses where we’ve grown them extremely rapidly. And just again, I think in service-based businesses, one of the key downfalls in those industries is often we’re really good technicians at what we do when we’re really lousy at selling it. And so we really worked on sales processes, and we had the senior people in that business really focused on sales, if you like, because they were the ones that have the connections and the experience and everything else, and so a large proportion of their business was based around improving sales. And once we got the sales up, then we can bring, in people behind that.

Russell Cummings (00:36:49): And we changed the business model from the way we employ people, so we moved from employee models to contract models, which were far more profitable, and took the risk out of it for us of having employees sitting there and not having worked for them, but allow us to scale rapidly. So we scaled really rapidly. And a lot of those employees got paid a lot more money than they did as employees. So a lot of those contractors got paid a lot more money as employees because we were able to effectively utilize them and plug them in. But they also took the risk, if there was no work, and they didn’t get paid. But quite often, we were able to pay them quite handsomely because everything they did for us or for that client was chargeable.

Russell Cummings (00:37:30): So looking at business models and those sorts of things are really important as well. So how do we actually do business? And what are the constraints around that? Too often, we just follow this is what everybody else does. You know, and I think business is a great opportunity to be different and just copying what everybody else does. I think that recipe for disaster - well not for disaster- for mediocrity. Yes, if you want to be exceptional, you got to do something different not just for difference’s sake, but you really got to have a good hard look at what you do, and why you do it, and how do we then come up with something that’s a bit smarter and a bit different way of doing things?

Jenny Herald (00:38:06): Right. And that people would actually want it. You had mentioned a few times now that people would want to actually buy that they would want to adopt or use your service or what have you. Because at the end of the day, that’s the proof that someone would actually put down money, or time or whatever the measurement is of investment because that’s what’s happening in that exchange. And then, you know, kind of tying back to an earlier point that you made, which I thought was really lovely. I think it’s an important, gem to kind of highlight is, it’s one thing to talk about efficiencies, but it’s much better to do that after you’ve proven that whatever it is that you’re trying to offer is actually meaningful in the market.

Russell Cummings (00:38:46): Yes, definitely.

Jenny Herald (00:38:47): Because the market is merciless, and if you’re optimizing for efficiencies, in maybe business processes, but your offering isn’t compelling, then you’re optimizing for something that no one’s going to care about and unfortunately, your business is likely going to either plateau and die, or maybe some miracle happens, but that’s unlikely. So, better get some money in the bank, see that you know, people are actually doing what you think that they’re going to go do with whatever it is that you’re going to sell or offer, and then work on optimization and efficiencies later. Because you know that you have something that’s winning.

Russell Cummings (00:39:23): Yeah, you know, well I think a really good example is an accounting firm I did some work with and I don’t currently work with, the gentleman actually sold the practice and moved on, but a really sharp accounting group. And I was trying to measure how long they were taking in sales meetings with clients and trying to get that time down. And it’s so interesting concepts. Oh, you know, close that one in 27 minutes, sort of stuff. And I’m sort of saying to them, hang on a second, but we offer a whole range of services, you just sold that one thing, you just sold tax, there’s a whole heap of other stuff that we could sell, that the client might have a want for or a need for and you didn’t bother to explore that in the sales process.

Russell Cummings (00:40:08): And so we expanded the sales process and took, you know, twice as long, an hour, maybe sometimes a little bit more with clients. But we fully understood what their needs were, and then we’re able to offer them a solution to those needs, often at two or three times the fees that we would’ve gotten from just selling tax. And the argument is well we’ll get them in the door, and we’ll sell them on the first thing, and then over time, we’ll build a relationship with them, and then we’ll be on the sell on the other things. But I think that’s a flawed strategy, and lots of times that sort of, let’s get them in the door, and, you know, tire him down as quick as we can, I think you’re often better off to actually understand the client’s needs and offer them a full package of services rather than a one-off and hope to sell them both later, and that’s a strategy...

Jenny Herald (00:40:53): Because they don’t even know, right? Because they’ve now seen that this is what you do, and in their calculus, they’re like, but that’s what you do. So to try to transfer that and say, "oh, but that’s not all we do wait, there’s more". And it’s like six months, eight months, nine months later, you’re like, "No, you do tax, right? "

Russell Cummings (00:41:10): Yes, exactly, so it happens.

Jenny Herald (00:41:13): Right? And then they’re like but why aren’t we growing the business? Because they all they know you to do is tax.

Russell Cummings (00:41:18): Exactly.

Jenny Herald (00:41:19): So tell them, tell them what you do, and see what happened.

Russell Cummings (00:41:23): You just sold yourself as an accountant you’ve not sold yourself as a business advisor, holistic business advisor. So I think lots of businesses fall over in trying to be too efficient, and sometimes they’re too efficient in their own time. So my argument is the face-to-face time you have with clients is where you need to be the least efficient, that’s the relationship building, and I’m not saying be wasteful with your time, but it shouldn’t be about get them in the door and out as quick as you can, unless that’s your business model. But it should be about let’s take the time to build solid, better relationships and deeper relationships with our clients.

Russell Cummings (00:41:56): And then when we’re not— a rugby analogy— when we’re not on the ball when we’re playing off the ball, that’s when we get efficient. So when we’re in the back end and as soon as we walk out the door, the efficiency can come in how we process that information, how we do it, and how we get it and get it back to the client quickly. And you’re using a lot of technology, or what do we need to do to do that. That’s where that comes in. But the face-to-face stuff for the client, I think it’s not always the case, but in lots of cases, it should be the relationship-building time, it’s the time when you spend more time with people because that’s when you get a bigger payoff.

Jenny Herald (00:42:36): I couldn’t agree more, I think that ties in so lovely, you know, in a lovely way, similar with like a manager and their direct report, right? In the one sense sure, you can collect a survey, and that’s optimizing for efficiencies there, right? Because in aggregate, now, I know that 60% of the organization is happy. Okay, but the real magic happens when you can get people engaged and doing what you think is the right thing, or they think it’s the right thing to do, and they’re doing it well, you know, and they are unblocked and are able to actually execute against whatever. But that takes work, it takes investment, you know, every month, two months, and you’re saying, “Hey, how’s it going?” Like, rather than, “Here, we’re really efficient, we only took X amount of minutes of everyone’s time, every six months in this survey, and we got this result like.”

Russell Cummings (00:43:22): Yes exactly.

Jenny Herald (00:43:23): To me, the trade-off is very similar, like, you end up sacrificing what could be upside potential because you’re optimizing or making efficient things that really shouldn’t be made optimized or efficient.

Russell Cummings (00:43:33): I think that that flows into something… I see that too many businesses, we often cut much middle management because the middle management are often the people who are spending the time with the workforce, and if they’re coaching and building and mentoring people and growing them and developing them, which is what we want in our culture, that takes time. But what happens is you know, we start looking at "efficiency", we start to focus on efficiency, we start to… well, those guys aren’t that productive, let’s get rid of them. But then what are we putting in place to ensure that our people are still looked after and engaged and all those sorts of things?

Russell Cummings (00:44:15): So, what are the processes and the systems that are put in place to replace their labor, if you’re not putting it in place, and sometimes it’s hard, and with people like people. And so, you know, we like engaging with people and most people enjoy that. So it depends on the person, of course, but yes, and so, I often think we cut too hard in those areas, not thinking about how do we get the best out of our team, the best of our team comes from having some leadership and some structures in place.

Russell Cummings (00:44:44): Jenny: We’re going to wrap up here with some quickfire questions I have a few that I’d love to ask you and hear your opinion. First, what do you appreciate most about your team?

Russell Cummings (00:44:55): I’ve got a small team, a virtual team, actually, and what I really preach about them is their commitment to me and my business, they are amazing people, and nothing is too much trouble for them. I got to say, both of them are excellent, and as a result, it just makes life a lot a lot better. And, you know, we’re a small business, so therefore, we need to be flexible, and there are times when we’re trying to get things done in a hurry, and if they’re going to stick to nine to five or whatever, then that doesn’t happen. But it’s a bit of give and take. So I think that’s one thing I like about them is that commitment and that authenticity that comes with that saying, “Okay, we can do this.” And for me, that’s been about give and take, yes, because it can’t be all take, take, I’ve got to be able to give as well.

Jenny Herald (00:45:43): The second question, what is your greatest dream and if there is one, when is the associated deadline?

Russell Cummings (00:45:51): I have reached a point in my life and I like riding my motorbike more than anything else at the moment. So my dream involves allegedly riding motorbikes around Australia.

Jenny Herald (00:46:02): Awesome.

Russell Cummings (00:46:03): Yes, but from a business point of view, I guess my dream, if you want to call it that my vision is to actually work with a lot more small businesses in Australia and add a lot more data. So for me, it’s about how can I leverage my time and my energy into as many people as possible to get the best results. And for me that’s not all about online, it’s a combination of things, but for me, that’s about that. The deadline for that, you know, probably I would say, I haven’t set some clear deadlines for that sort of milestone, but that’s my dream. I’ve to give myself another, you know, another five years of intensive work, and then I want to be able to back off a bit. So that’s me.

Jenny Herald (00:46:45): Very cool. The third question, so you’ve had quite an extensive range of clients to date, maybe you can describe one where maybe they were successful, you kind of got into it, and you’re like, “Wait a second, what’s happening?’ But then you saw, like, an amazing transformation or growth or like, great achievement, and it was your proudest moment. Can you describe like, one of your proudest moments in working with a client?

Russell Cummings (00:47:14): Oh, it’s a bit difficult without giving it away who that person is, I’m afraid. I can speak about it in generality. So, for me, it’s about somebody who has grown and developed to didn’t think they were capable, and I think have been the leader that they’ve become. I think that’s the easiest way to put that. And they’ve achieved what most people would regard as outstanding success in their life. And that all came from them believing, or not initially believe in themselves, but they didn’t think that we’re capable at the time, but helping them to realize that they could actually be that person, and then watching them grow into that role, it’s been quite, quite exceptional.

Jenny Herald (00:47:55): Very cool, I’m sure very gratifying too.

Russell Cummings (00:47:58): Yes, I love my job. I mean, I work with so many amazing people, so many businesses that are just growing and developing and changing the lives of them and their families and their generations, is fantastic, that’s what gets me out of bed in the morning that’s for sure.

Jenny Herald (00:48:10): It sounds like something definitely worth getting up for, for sure. So then last question, we’ve been talking off and on about OKRs, there are a few, and probably hopefully, a lot of people who are listening in that are interested in this topic. For those who are just starting out, or those who maybe have tried to use OKRs before and maybe were unsuccessful, what is that one piece of advice you would give them, that one nugget of wisdom?

Russell Cummings (00:48:36): Only one nugget? Okay, I guess for me is, all good things start with a plan, all right. So, I find too many businesses—I think I mentioned this before—but too many businesses don’t have that great plan to start with. And for me, it’s taking the time to sit down and let’s build a clear plan for where we want to be, you know, look at where we are now, where we want to be in and how we’re going to get there. And for me, that’s probably the critical thing, we need to have a clear plan that explains where we’re going and what we’re doing, and that needs to include some measures when you need to have some measures in there, you need to have some clear actions and strategies that drop out of that. And I think OKRs can help in both those places. But for me, I don’t do anything with my clients, when we don’t have a plan for where we are going.

Jenny Herald (00:49:23): I think that’s wise because otherwise, what direction are you heading? And where is everyone else going with you, if you don’t have some sort of idea? I think it would end up really confusing. Good advice.

Russell Cummings (00:49:33): To be fair, lots of people have a plan, right? But the plan is in their head.

Jenny Herald (00:49:38): Right, it’s not articulated.

Russell Cummings (00:49:39): Yeah, and therefore it changes, it changes all the time. It’s not the same plan, it evolves over time and changes. So, for me, the act of actually writing it down, allows you to critically analyze it to start with, but it also makes it concrete. It takes it from being abstract to being something quite concrete and real.

Jenny Herald (00:49:56): So, the concrete, real, and then making that commitment, and then the execution behind that and getting it moving.

Russell Cummings (00:50:00): Yeah, well, the implementation is the hard part, the planning is the easy part. And the implementation is the really hard part, and that’s why I have a job. You know, I work with businesses who want to implement their plans. Well, somehow we’re going to get that plan clear, but they need that support in order to implement.

Jenny Herald (00:50:18): Absolutely.

Russell Cummings (00:50:19): Yes.

Jenny Herald (00:50:20): Thank you so much for being on the show…

Russell Cummings (00:50:22): Thanks for having me.

Jenny Herald (00:50:23): It has been a complete joy. Thank you so much.

Russell Cummings (00:50:24): I’ve enjoyed it, Jenny, thank you very much for having me as well, great to talk with you.

Jenny Herald (00:50:29): Well, that’s it for this episode of Dreams with Deadlines. Thanks for listening. If you liked today’s episode, please subscribe and share. Show notes can be found on If you want to learn more about our product and services, head out to If you have questions that you’d like answered on the show, shoot us an email at [email protected] Tune in next time.

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