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When wrong end round is right

Book Review: To jumpstart improvement, set concrete goals first

Start At The End: How Companies Can Grow Bigger and Faster by Reversing Their Business Plan. By Dave Lavinsky. Wiley. 241 pp. Start At The End: How Companies Can Grow Bigger and Faster by Reversing Their Business Plan. By Dave Lavinsky. Wiley. 241 pp.

Start at the End struck a chord with me because backward planning was standard practice during my military career, but I hadn’t seen the concept in business community writing since Michael Hammer and James Campy published Reengineering the Corporation in 1993.

This is one of the most practical business books I’ve every read—and possibly the most difficult book to review that I’ve come across. My problem was simply that there is so much useful information in 13 chapters. Start at the End literally is a road map to turbo-charging business outcomes, both on the individual and company-wide levels.

Practical guide to a real-world conclusion

Lavinsky’s concept is simple: Precisely define the business objectives you want to achieve and then work backward—reverse engineer—those financial outcomes in terms of the clients you will serve, the products or services you will provide, the assets you will need, and the processes you will use.

The author—founder and president of GrowThink, which helps entrepreneurs start companies—begins by showing how to define precise business outcome goals five years in the future, which is a good time horizon to work against. He then shows the reader how to work backward into the yearly, quarterly, and monthly goals needed to hit that target.

But, he goes far beyond goal setting. Start at the End is a simple, structured process that businesses and individual business people can follow to dramatically improve their business outcomes.

Start at the End comes with an accompanying workbook that can be completed as you read the main text. When you finish, you have a business plan or a strategic plan, depending on whether you are trying to find funding or grow an existing business.

Three key insights from Start

Each chapter is a goldmine of insights that will enable business owners—and business development and sales professionals—to outperform their competition and hit the goals and objectives, but here are my favorite three key insights.  

Insight 1: Know where you are going.

Lavinsky uses Yogi Berra’s famous quote, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you probably won’t get there” to make the point that businesses—and business professionals—need to have specific goals and objectives.

Coming up with goals and objectives sounds easy, but you must first have two visions: One from your customer’s perspective and the second from your business’s perspective. The customer vision forces you to be absolutely clear on which clients you are serving and precisely what you do for them. Your own business vision statement makes you focus on the core financial metrics you intend to reach and the business assets you must have to reach both goals.

Insight 2: Have the right business assets.

This concept of “business assets” is particularly important. When I commanded units in the U.S. Army we had certain assets at our disposal: the personnel assigned to our unit, our equipment, fuel and ammunition, and our experience and shared knowledge.

These were the basic assets we had available to fulfill our mission. If we needed something else—like artillery or air support—we needed to coordinate to have those assets available when we needed them.

The same concept holds true for community banks. Lavinsky’s top business assets—there are more listed in the book—include: the right customers, products, services, technology, intellectual property, distribution network, employees, reputation, brand, systems and processes, and strategic partnerships.

You can’t know what assets you really need until you’ve gone through the vision and strategy steps—“planned your mission,” in Army terms. Once you’ve defined your goals, the assets you need are crystal clear. Follow this book’s steps and you’ll have the information and processes to outperform 99% of your competition.

Insight 3: You’ve got to keep score—and make halftime corrections.

Lavinsky talks in depth about Key Performance Indicators (KPI) and how to identify and track the KPIs that will enable you to execute your strategic plan.

KPIs are the key metrics that tell you how your business is performing, give you a basis for judging if you will hit your targets, and enable you to make mid-course corrections, just like coaching staffs at halftime.

KPIs include obvious backward-looking metrics like sales/revenues, customer satisfaction, employee turnover, and new products introduced.

But you also should be tracking forward-looking metrics.

Among these may be the number of PR mentions; number of new subscribers to your newsletter; number of calls your business development team member are making; the number of proposals presented; the number of proposals accepted; and perhaps the number of referrals you receive from current and past clients.

Creating and measuring these KPIs allow you to manage performance on the critical underlying activities and processes that, together, determine your business success, both at the bank and the individual level.

These KPI performance metrics need to be captured and recorded in a scorecard that is accessible to everyone in the bank. If everyone can see what’s being measured, you’ll have everyone pulling in the same direction, with a much greater likelihood of knowing where you’re going and actually getting there.

Bank management teams can use the Business Pipeline Confidence Index™ methodology to make a good prediction of the percentage of deals in the pipeline that will never close.

How can you start “starting at the end”?

If I knew someone who was thinking about getting an MBA to start a business, I’d tell them to read Start at the End. The book is an almost perfect distillation of all of the key entrepreneurial learning from business school.

But many bankers have near and present challenges to handle—no time to go back to school. Lavinsky’s book can help you think about important things, things that you simply never made time to address before. I think it could help bank managers developing strategic plans, and also relationship managers structuring their own strategic plan.

In fact, I think a bank’s commercial customers, many of whom grapple with the biggest challenges in their business lives these days, could benefit from the book. My own firm is using the book right now to review our existing strategic plan and I’m doing the same thing at a non-for-profit charity.

No time to read, you say? Then put Start at the End on your nightstand. Read half a chapter every night. It will be far more valuable than the nightly news.

But, if you do so, be prepared for Start at the End to keep you awake.

If you'd like to review books for our online book column, or have recently read a book that you found helpful that we haven't already reviewed, please e-mail [email protected]

Robert Hess

Robert Hess, a frequent book reviewer, is the founder and president of TSG, Inc., a management information and performance improvement consulting firm that frequently works with community banks. You can connect with him on LinkedIn.

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