I am having trouble thinking about - and therefore, writing about - anything other than the recent shootings in Newtown, Connecticut.  As a resident of New England, I am finding so many of us have connections to this town or friends and family in the surrounding area and it has hit incredibly close to home.  So instead of a business-related post this week, I take a few moments to put to attempt to put into words what so many of us are feeling.

Thank you to the amazing teachers who did everything in their power to protect the children in their care, and to the administrators who ran into danger without hesitation to save students and staff.  You have reminded us what it means to be a hero.

Thank you to the first responders who charged into an unimaginable scene and kept their focus under the worst of circumstances.

Thank you to those starting to have honest and balanced discussions about where we go from here, regardless of your political or religious ideals - we must work together to move forward.

Thank you to those people around the country and around the world for the outpouring of support for this beautiful New England town, for your small but powerful acts of kindness, and for restoring our faith in humanity when we need it most.

Thank you to the people of Newtown for demonstrating such grace, strength and dignity through such a horrible time, and for being a role model for the nation on how to support each other as a community.

Thank you to the families of those who were lost for sharing your stories, for telling us about your amazing children, parents, cousins, siblings...and for letting us grieve with you. There are no words we can offer to ease your pain, but know you are in our thoughts every day.

Wishing you all hope and peace this holiday season.

It's time to finalize plans for your business next year. It can be overwhelming, but if you can keep yourself focused on a few major areas it can help you acheive your goals.  

In order to reach goals, you first need to HAVE goals. Start by dreaming big, then prioritize your efforts in some key areas in this straightforward exercise.  There are a lot of other factors that need to go into planning - detailed budgets, staffing plans, cash flow, etc. - take a step back from the details for a moment and look at your overall strategy.

Step 1 - What are the top 3 things you want to accomplish in 2013 for each of these areas?

Don't limit yourself here - think big, but once you brainstorm ideas pick your top three for each category. Are there other categories you need to add for your particular company? Go ahead and add them, just limit them to major categories to make the exercise reasonable.

     * Strategic goals
     * Client prospects you want to work with
     * Marketing methods/venues
     * Existing client support and growth
     * Internal operational improvements

Step 2 - What are the top 3 tactical steps you can do for each?

Take the items you listed above and break it down to three tactical steps for each. If one of your goals is to expand your marketing by speaking at events, list three people or groups you can connect with to make that happen. If your goal is to reach $10 million in revenue, list three things you can do to grow your revenue with your existing product/service mix or by introducing a new revenue stream. If you need to grow your operational staff to support your planned growth this year, list three key positions you need to make your team balanced and able to scale with your growth.

Step 3 - Prioritize your tasks and build your plan.

You now have a pretty long list of actionable items you can take - which ones are the most important to your overall business? Launching a new product? Improving an internal process? 

This is where you start to build in a bit of reality and prioritize your efforts. Be sure you have a mix of client-focused and internally-focused tasks in your plan.  You can't have a company without clients, and you can't support your clients without strong internal operations - be sure you pay attention to both.

You can group your actions by calendar quarter to further refine your priorities, and to make sure you aren't trying to do too many things at once. Your plan may shift throughout the year, but getting yourself focused and putting things on paper now will help you stay in control in 2013.

Debbie Millin is President of UpperLevel Solutions - a Boston-based firm offering part-time and interim Chief Operating Officer services, operational assessments and executive project leadership.

Venture capital, private equity and business service firms (accountants, lawyers, etc) have a vested interest in their client companies succeeding.  When your client's business is running well, audits go more smoothly, they are paying your invoices on time - and most importantly for investors, when your portfolio company is running well and on a growth track, you are far more likely to get a return on your investment. 

A friend of mine, a business lawyer, recently asked me what kinds of things she should look for as 'clues' that her clients may need some operational help - here are a few examples:

* Missing deadlines for deliverables and projects
* Spending is consistently over budget
* Not meeting strategic objectives
* Trouble hiring new staff
* Not meeting revenue targets
* Increase in internal costs with no associated revenue growth
* Not getting repeat business
* Unhappy employees
* Issues with project execution
* Sudden/unexpected changes in senior leadership

These could be signs of existing underlying operational problems or signs that operational problems are on the horizon.  Depending on the depth of the issue and the company, they may need a full-time operational leader or someone to come in for some one-time adjustments.  

What other issues have you seen as indications of operational issues? Leave a comment and share your experience.

Debbie Millin is President/CEO of UpperLevel Solutions - a Boston-based firm offering part-time and interim COO services, operational assessments and executive project leadership.