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Sunday, 19 May 2019

Are You Stuck in a Commoditised Industry? You Need to be Visibly Different!

Product life cycles generally go from an extremely innovative starting point through a development phase and very frequently, finish up as a commodity with a multitude of manufacturers and suppliers.

All well and good and we all have experience of products which have passed through this process.  Typical would be the ball-point pen, post-it notes and paper staplers.

All of these have been launched on to the market, gone through all the phases and are now a commodity with many companies supplying the same or at east similar products.

However just occasionally a product is launched that is so innovative that no-one seems to be able to copy it and it remains the leader in its field.

If products have this sort of life cycle, what about companies and indeed commercial or industrial sectors themselves?

Look at your business and ask yourself, are we a truly innovative organisation or (and be honest about it) are we much the same as many other businesses in this field?

There is little point in kidding ourselves.  The market and the customers will soon find out where you are placed on the Innovation/Commodity continuum.

The sorry fat is that there are many commercial and industrial sectors of the economy that could be classed as being commoditised and many professional practices fall into this category as well.

This is not to say that many organisations that are, on the face of it, commoditised are necessarily unsuccessful.  It is perfectly possible to minimise and even eliminate risk and run the business satisfactorily but without much excitement.

It is, of course, unlikely that the business will stand out from the crowd or indeed rate particularly highly on a search engine.

It all depends on the business culture, what seems the right thing to do, how experimental are the leaders and owners and what level of risk is acceptable to them.

Take a look at what used to be the way to find a tradesman to do some work in your home, that is, by those massive catalogues listing just about every suppler of every service that you want or need.

How did we decide on which one to call?  Was it by locality, by the size of the advertisement, or the first one in the listing?

None of these bear any relationship to the ability of the person or business offering the service or the standard of service that we could expect until we start the telephoning process and try to find out.

What usually happens is that we ask friends or colleagues if they can recommend someone and so the “word of mouth” method was born.

It is all very inefficient even when the massive printed book is now replaced by a quick search on Google simply because some clever geek has used search engine optimisation to position the business at the top of  page one of the search.

It doesn’t mean that they are any different from anyone else; it is just that they have found a better SEO specialist.

What then is the answer?  How can we drag ourselves out of the mass of “me too” businesses in our sector and make it clear to the market and prospective customers that we offer something different.

By the way, difference doesn’t always imply services or products.  It can be the way that we deliver the product, the way that we answer the telephone, the speed at which we pay bills and the level of service which we give to every customer or prospect at all ties and without exception.


It is easy to say that we need to be different.  Some time devoted to ways of being different and bringing everyone in the business into the process will pay massive dividends in the long run.  Driving that culture into the business should be the major function of the leader and probably the only “top down” contribution that is critical to the growth, success and general health of the organisation.


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Sunday, 12 May 2019

People Reluctant To Learn? The Key Is Self-Motivation!

In the early days of my learning about leadership I ran a small subsidiary of a large corporate in which we specialised in supplying sports surfaces and equipment.

As my sporting activities were severely limited to to very average hockey and slightly more average table tennis, the fact that we were manufacturing athletics artificial track, artificial ski slopes and marketing ski equipment there was something of a knowledge gap.

Accordingly we retained consultants who did know what they were about and I had the pleasure of getting to know people like Ron Pickering, a renowned athletics coach and broadcaster and John Shedden, possibly the best British ski instructor and later the Director of Coaching for the National Ski Federation of Great Britain.

John is a brilliant coach with many very happy clients both in Europe and the U.K.   He worked with individuals as well as families and groups and it was probably their enthusiasm that encouraged him to take up teaching as a career.

He went to University, graduated and got his first job in a tough school in Liverpool where he met, possibly for the first time, young people with a marked reluctance to conform to the wishes of authority. I forgot to mention that he also had a black belt martial arts and that helped to say the least.

None of this implied that his methods were wrong, it is just that unless people actively want to learn then we might as well try to push boulders uphill.

The fact was that while his clients were delighted with him, his students (and I use the word reluctantly) considered that they had better things to do. Very few people are auto didactic and those that are will generally be voracious learners.

There are a few educational geniuses who are able through force of personality perhaps to turn reluctant youth into enthusiastic learners and they are to be applauded.  One of these is Vistage UK speaker Marcus Child, a veritable caped crusader.

However, all speakers, presenters, trainers and the like know that feeling when we see someone sitting in the audience, arms folded, and looking resentful because they had been SENT to today’s event.

Motivational speakers of which there are legion can offer great advice as to how to motivate people but under analysis it is a very difficult outcome to achieve.

It is almost arrogant to suggest that we can motivate people. The best that we can offer is to give them a culture and environment in which they can motivate themselves to study and learn, should they so desire.

This is not a negative approach.  In fact it is extremely positive and many leaders can attest to great success.  In the end, however, motivation is a strictly personal attribute and self-motivation is the key.  Nobody motivated me to start this blog nearly ten years ago and now I realise that it wouldn’t appear unless I am constantly  self-motivated to continue.

How then do we develop that enthusiasm in our teams that enable us to develop and grow the business?

Simple really.  First of all make sure that you have  very best people in key positions, give them autonomy to make decisions, learn from mistakes and failures, use reprimand as infrequently as possible, give praise and reward (other than financially) as often as possible and have sufficient humility to accept that some people actually know more than we do.

It is a matter of culture and it can readily be measured by the rate of attrition in the team.  A high retention rate can indicate a desire to succeed in the business and that is a great metric.


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Monday, 6 May 2019

Problem With a “Terrorist”? Try Some Scenario Analysis!

I am always reluctant even to use the word ‘terrorist’ in a business context simply because of the evil connotations it has in the wider world.  I hope that my readers will accept that I use it to describe those members of staff who manage to combine great performance with an unacceptable attitude.

That is the simplified version and lately I have begun to realise that it is a “one size fits all” description that doesn’t even begin to cover all its various manifestations.

Discussing the issues with members of my Vistage CEO Peer group at our one-to-one meetings has ventilated a wide range of problems that, if not unique, are certainly uncommon albeit with overlapping  traits.

As an example one of my members has an issue with the leader of a small but very relevant subsidiary office.   He had been promoted rapidly from no.2 in the office because of the somewhat untoward and rapid departure of his leader.

A further complication is that the whole matter was a legacy issue.  No.2 is a pleasant, amiable operative with excellent relationships with some major cli§ens all of whom seem to rate him.

However, he has been promoted to leader and he is manifestly failing in the function. He agrees what needs to be done and then doesn’t do them. He is a doer rather than a leader and it is causing real problems in the office.

Without wanting to point the finger of blame, a god proportion can be levelled at whomsoever promoted him in the first place but he accepted and that is that.

The question is now what to do about it?  In these circumstances there is seldom outright mutiny, just that he prefers to do what he considers to be appropriate rather than what the business needs him to do.

One of our US Vistage speakers asks the question,  “Why does it take us 18 months to do something about someone we interviewed for an hour and a half?”   Decide whether it’s prevarication, procrastination or, worst of all, vacillation due to the fear of repercussions.    The effect is to claim the “status quo”, do nothing and hope that the whole matter will mysteriously disappear.  Don’t kid yourself because it won’t. In truth it will probably go worse, escalate and become a real problem.

There is a case for what I am beginning describe as Scenario Analysis. Because every terrorist situation is different to a lesser or greater extent it is useful to do some analysis of the situation.

There is little value in saying to someone “You are always….” or “You never…..” without evidence, described, dated and timed.

It may sound over the top but starting a dossier is a good initiative. So many people have said to me somewhat despairingly,

I don’t have anything specific, it’s just the behaviour and attitude that are the problem”.

Not true. If we even gently reprimand someone then we need to make a contemporaneous note and add it to a dossier. If this is not done then the miscreant can always and will go into denial mode.

Decide with him/her the role definition and what is expected of them, making notes of any slippages.  All of this might seem petty, even small minded but just do some calculations of the total costs of the status quo and prepare to be shocked.

In the end, the analysis of actual performance against expected should enable action to be taken, whatever that action might be.

Nothing will change for the better without some action and the Scenario Analysis dossier will be essential if the situation deteriorates.

It’s all very sad but the last thing we want to hear from other members of the team is:

“WHAT TOOK YOU SO LONG?”

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Sunday, 28 April 2019

Going Into Questioning Mode? Use The Kipling Method!

I wrote last week about the use of words, the centrepiece of communication. Yes, I know about the academic theory saying that spoken words constitute no more than 7% of communication, far behind tone (38%) and body language (55%) but in these days of social media and telephone I would suggest we need to take another look at these figures.

I keep six honest serving men
(The taught me all I knew)
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who”

These are the wise words of Rudyard Kipling (1855-1936) in the children’ classic, The Just So Stories, and whether or not the concept was an original, they have been and are being used today to great effect.

They are the cornerstone of conversation and indeed of great communication. Every individual who considers themselves a coach knows and uses them instinctively.

The problem lies in their misuse or rather the use of inappropriate alternatives.
Kipling's Six Honest Working Men are Open questions, in that they all demand a considered response, presumably the desired outcome of the discussion.

On the other hand there are also the Closed questions generally beginning with a verb such as Do…, Are…, Will… and similar all of which allow only for a Yes/No response.

Listening recently to an early breakfast show on the radio this struck me forcibly.  The presenter was talking to a very sensible 8 year old child and persisted in using closed questions.  “Did you enjoy..?”, “Are you going…?” and so on, The sensible child answered Yes or No as appropriate. That was it - Yes or No and you could feel the palpable discomfiture of the presenter who presumably considered the child to be stupid.

Eventually the presenter, almost by luck, used an open question and the child, quite correctly, launched into an articulate and well structured response.

Expecting a considered response to a closed question is a matter of luck, not design.

The worst of all questions are those beginning with “Do you think….?” and then continuing with an exposition of the questioner’s opinion.  That might work well in court as a leading question but it is a poor alternative to a well thought out open question.

So let’s examine open questions  more closely. They fall into three groups each of which has a specific role to play.  
The first group are the basic information gatherers, for example, “WHO is involved…?”, “WHERE is the action taking place...?” WHEN will it happen...?”   

In each case judicious placing of the open question word can make the process seem less prescriptive and hence less of an inquisition.

The next group is the key to good communication and to relationship building.  “WHAT is the topic that want to discuss today?”  It doesn’t need to be sharp and incisive; it is often better again to cloak the question with other words always remembering that the sense of the key open question word must be observed.

For example, “Give me a run down on the situation” isn’t a question but again it is less prescriptive and should get the same answer.

The other two in this group, HOW and WHAT build knowledge of the issue itself and are the start of some ideas of what might constitute an outcome.

Now we come to the WHY question. My friend and great Vistage speaker Carole Gaskell is strongly of the opinion that the use of WHY should, if at all possible, be avoided.   Carole considers that WHY is or at least can be an aggressive start to a question.

I am not too sure. Using WHY judiciously, perhaps in the context of the previous question, really ought to be the one way through to complete understanding always given that no finger pointing is definitely not involved.

Above all we need to remember that this is a discussion and not  an inquisition; that we are looking to achieve a mutually satisfactory outcome and that is less likely when we are in aggressive, confrontational mode.

Thank you Rudyard Kipling for the use of your six honest working men, a trifle old fashioned in description but nonetheless valuable for all time.


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Monday, 22 April 2019

Using Too Many Wasted Words? Think Basic English!

Most of the brilliant speakers we are privileged to hear at the meetings of my Vistage CEO peer group leave behind take-away insights and processes that continue to resonate.

One of these was mentioned by one of our top speakers, Marcus Child who had been to a training session with his son at his football club. The point he made was that while the coach offered a lot of cogent and apparently positive advice, he tended to emphasise what the team needed to stop doing and indeed to stop their  opponents from doing.

All very valuable advice but almost exclusively negative. It may not seem so at first sight but it is so.

If the words we articulate are manifestations of our thoughts (which they are) then we are, in this instance, training ourselves to stop doing something and eventually this will become automatic.

Marcus also made the point that little throw-away remarks used at every touch and turn  also have this hidden negativity. Consider how we respond when someone says “thank you” to us. “No problem” we say brightly or, worse, we indulge in that antipodean “no worries” whatever that may mean.

The fact is that both of these  responses, among others, use two negative words and they are are by no means exceptional.  

Listen to yourself occasionally and see if you can use a cheerfully positive response, such as, “happy to help”, “you’re welcome” or “it’s a pleasure”.

Some years ago I was in a New York supermarket and the checkout woman went through the full gamut of the training programme, (program?) ending with the inevitable “have a nice day”.

Being a nicely brought up Englishman I said “Thank you”. She looked at me for the first time and then said, as they can only say in NYC, “Thank you for what?”  Presumably politeness wasn’t much in evidence in the training course.

Making changes in habitual nodes of speech takes a lot of care, attention and effort. How about starting by eliminating one or more of the following:

Y’know
Y’know what I mean?
Basically
Right?
As they say
Sort of
At the end of the day
for starters. I am working on two of them right now.

All of them are quite redundant and just get in the way of what we are intending to say.

We all fall into the trap from time to time and it just needs a modicum of thought before we speak; to adjust what we were going to say and replace it with an inherently  positive response.

Remember that making that change over 30 days is likely to make it into a habit and that can only be a good thing.

Many of the brilliant speakers we have at the meetings of our Vistage CEO peer groups emphasise the need to use positive indicators and responses in our normal conversation.

John Cremer, as an example, demonstrates how this works by designing two forms of a role play conversation, one using the conjunction “and” then replacing it with “but”.

The results were astonishing.
The “and” pair exhibited energy, interest and collaborative insights whereas the “buts” were lethargic, disinterested and lacking energy. Their shoulders actually dropped and please remember this was role play!

But” can be a wholly destructive word in any conversation.  It has been said that when we use BUT we destroy everything that has been said before it.

During the last war and to improve communications the Government instituted a programme of Basic English using no more than 800 words.   This was considered sufficient,in terms of the number of words and using the basic rules of grammar, to become relatively proficient in English as a second language.

Would that it were more evident today in these times of super-communication.


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