Using Guerilla Warfare To Win

A friend of mine once said to me: “Ziad … if we lived in ancient Rome, I would imagine you as being the perfect and a gladiator… Amazing how much of a warrior you are. The gladiator of finance today.”

I never thought about it this way but it cannot be further from the truth. I am indeed a warrior. In fact, I realize more than ever today that we are most successful when we fight for our survival, much as a start-up has to fight for its place in the market. We stub our toes when we become too comfortable or confident.

Analogies between warfare and business are always imperfect, of course, but I do believe that the principles of guerrilla warfare in particular are useful to managers who find themselves in a constantly changing environment. Just think about the effectiveness of guerrilla tactics. Guerrilla fighters, though outnumbered and poorly equipped, can inflict serious casualties on enemy troops. In situations in which political loyalties are uncertain or changing quickly, highly motivated guerrillas can force political compromises or even win battles. In my view, executives who view the marketplace as a quick-changing battlefield can use similar tactics, what I call guerrilla management, to achieve remarkable success.

The challenge is to implement guerrilla management consistently and on an ongoing basis, since it goes against so much of what we’re taught. As a company becomes successful and well established, for example, there’s a natural tendency to institute controls, establish hierarchy, and accumulate assets. But I think this is dangerous and runs directly counter to the individual initiative that is the backbone of guerrilla management. Long-term planning also conflict with guerrilla management. If you plan ahead more than two years, you lose your flexibility and run the risk of locking yourself into approaches that will lag behind new developments. So I dream far ahead, but I don’t plan far ahead.

The first step in making guerrilla management work is to establish the right conditions in your company. The second step is to use those conditions to strategic advantage.

So what are those right conditions to make your company operate at peak capacity?

1. Stay Lean and Mean. Just as heavy equipment can impede an army in its battle with guerrillas, fixed assets can be a drag on companies in fast-changing industries. Fixed assets not only lock companies into technology that is soon out of date, but they can also be a drain on your most important resource, management energy. Acquiring fixed assets is always a temptation, though, because on paper at least, it seems to cost less than contracting work out. Indeed, perhaps the biggest hidden cost is the management energy that goes into setting up such operations. Management is our scarcest resource, and I want it directed only toward those things that are most essential to cash flow generating. Period.

2. Keep the lines of communication open. In the heat of battle, a guerrilla commander needs accurate information and the ability to communicate quickly with troops. The same is required of guerrilla managers, so we’ve set up a number of systems to improve communications. Except for me, being Blackhawk Partners CEO, we’ve eliminated all secretarial positions, which means we all answer our own phones. You’d be surprised at how much more you learn when you talk directly to our clients in the field. So that things don’t come to a standstill when we’re away from our desks, we each have an answering machine to record our messages. Once you have your troops mobile and able to communicate efficiently, you can use guerrilla management tactics to maximum advantage. They include the following:

· Look for bold, opportunistic battles. Guerrilla fighters make up for their smaller numbers but superior equipment by being opportunistic. They catch enemy forces off guard, inflict heavy casualties, and, if necessary, withdraw quickly. When you’re dealing with large and fast-changing markets, you have to do the same.

· Show your troops the way. Successful guerrilla forces are led by commanders who also are in the thick of the battle. Guerrilla managers have to be willing to get in the trenches, and this is especially important when the total war effort is going poorly. Back in 2010, we lost a major client due to competition and I had to do what I could to motivate my people to keep fighting. I decided to be candid about our problems, and I acknowledged in our weekly company meeting that we were being attacked by some substantial enemies. I reassured employees that we had a plan to fight the attackers and fleshed out in detail my “Machiavellian” strategy. Most important, instead of simply exhorting employees to work harder, I went with them in the field showing them the way. In less than 3 weeks after the debacle, we regained the client and totally turned the situation around. My people were stunned how effective can “guerilla warfare” be.

· Give your troops responsibility. Multilayered chains of command bog down established armies. The same happens to growing companies. In trying to imitate large corporations, smaller businesses look to hierarchy to relieve the prevailing chaos. Instead, it often creates inefficiency and inhibition. Recently, we discovered the perils of centralization. We had given one of our regional partners responsibility for getting a major transaction executed through our affiliated partners worldwide, none of whom she knew. Because she didn’t know their habits, they ended up in an extensive game of telephone tag. By the time she’d made connections with everyone, we had lost three valuable weeks. Had we simply let each of our affiliated partners execute directly, I’m certain the process would have been much speedier. Mistake learned the hard way and never to be repeated again.

· Fight on your terms. If your opponent’s crack troops are based in the valleys and its worst troops are in the mountains, you’ll do best as a guerrilla to fight in the mountains. It seems obvious, but guerrilla managers sometimes lose sight of the basics. It’s easy, unfortunately, to get a little lazy once you’re successful. At Blackhawk Partners, we let back in 2010 our general and administrative and marketing costs creep up, and it took us quite some time to readjust. And when we readjusted it was never to fall in that same trap again. It is a fact that the smartest guerrilla managers can’t afford to be out of shape for long, since they know there’s never a final victory to be won. At best there’s only a reprieve until the next battle must be fought.

Now that you know the basics of guerilla warfare….go use those tips to make a killing and never turn back.

There is no such thing as thinking outside the box…. Consider there is no box. Be dangerous

Written by

Ziad K Abdelnour is a Wall Street Financier, Author, Philanthropist, Activist, Lobbyist, Oil & Gas Trader & President & CEO of Blackhawk Partners, Inc.,