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Sunday, 17 June 2018

Need to TaKe Action When Times Are Tough? Be Prepared and do it Now!

One of the alumni of my Vistage CEO peer group used to say that your average CEO/MD is confident, outgoing, decisive, energetic, far-sighted among many other desirable personal attributes and underneath they are a bubbling mass of insecurity.

Rather over the top perhaps but it does illustrate the exigencies of the responsibility for a business and its people.

Above all is the feeling of impending problems perhaps when the economy shows a reluctance to improve and a marked tendency to decline with all the consequent implications for the business.

For example, the effects of the weakness in sterling, the uncertainties of the Brexit process, increased costs due to business rates and pay legislation, have all contributed to a slowdown in retail activity  and in the consequent loss of many high street outlets and jobs.

There is a good deal of hand wringing going on with businesses, unions and, of course, the media about how dreadful is the situation but few cogent ideas as to a solution. The cry goes up:  “The government needs to do something about it”.

Not so. We need to understand and accept that, at best, government can do little to achieve anything more than some tinkering around the edges of the economy.  Global influences are far more relevant these days in their effect on the domestic economy.

I was struck last week during a one-to-one with one of my members when he asked  a very thoughtful question.
Why is it” he said, “if it is the right decision to make in response to a downturn, that we do’t do it now?”  

I did mention the wise advice of Mark Twain who said: “I am old and have known many troubles but most of them never happened”.

Of course part of the answer is that we go into defensive mode when these external influences result in problems not of our making and when we are then forced into remedial action.

The problems arise from that group of external influences under the acronym PESTLE (political, economic, sociological, technological, legal and environmental) over none of which we have any significant influence.

Indeed, the only action we can take is reactive as the event hits home and by then it is often too late.  Or is it?

Back to my member’s question. Agreed if we wait for  events to arise we can only react to mitigate any harmful effects but how often do try to anticipate events?

It has been said wisely that nothing happens suddenly. There is always a progression of smaller events leading up to the major one, even happenings like road accidents, weather and Heaven forfend, wars.

If that is truly the case (and check it out for yourself) then we ought to be able to do something about it now rather than wait for the cataclysm.

UK Vistage speaker, the wonderful Jo Haigh, says that Health and Safety needs to be a constantly recurring item on the agenda of any company board meeting.   Why not extend that philosophy to items under the PESTLE headings that maybe significant to the business?

Indeed, it seems to make sense for every member of the management team to take responsibility for investigating the potential impact of a particular and potential PESTLE event that could have a bearing on the business.

You won’t be right all the time but it may just save you from a last minute reaction to save a situation. Time spent in preparation is seldom wasted.


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Sunday, 10 June 2018

In Decision Making Mode? Try This Ancient Technique!

It has become a cliche to say that there is nothing new under the sun.  Kabbalah, the ancient Jewish religious mysticism holds ten emanations as central to the ethos. A group of three of them are totally relevant today and have great resonance for me.

The acronym for this group in transliterated Hebrew is Chabad signifying Chochma (wisdom), Binah (understanding) and Dat (knowledge)

This group covers three of the most significant tenets of modern leadership and deserve some further discussion.

Some years ago my Vistage CEO peer group had the pleasure of hearing US speaker Herb Meyer, who had been the senior counsellor at the CIA, give a paper on the difference between data and intelligence.

In the extraordinary growth of data availability that we now enjoy, to a large extent there is far too much data quickly available out there than we know how to handle.

We can ask any question that we like on Google and within a nano-second be given access to a range of sites with all the information that we need.

I heard a great story recently. A hermit who had been holed up in a cave for fifty years decided to rejoin the world. In conversation with the first person he met he suggested that things will have changed somewhat.

They certainly have” said his new friend, “For example, I have in my pocket a device that gives me access to all the knowledge in the world!”

Gracious me” said the hermit, “What do you use it for?

Mainly for looking at pictures of dogs, cats and other people’s dinner and having arguments with total strangers” was the reply.

It is almost embarrassing to confess that we all understand that one.

Another problem lies in the fact that we are now data-rich and time-poor so the question is, how can we be more usefully selective in the vast opportunities now open to us?

Kabbalah demonstrates the route from knowledge, through understanding to the ultimate objective of wisdom. It encourages us to seek genuine knowledge, to work with others to develop understanding and thus to reach the ultimate goal of wisdom.

This was thought in those early days to be so powerful an insight that only men over the age of forty were considered to have sufficient experience to be allowed to study Kabbalah.

Herb Meyer put it into modern context defining the route as data leading to information resulting in intelligence.

With almost limitless access to data the need for filtering and contextual research is evident in order to make it manageable, usable and relevant.

The next move is to analyse this information to develop intelligence that will allow us to strengthen our understanding and most importantly  to make relevant decisions.

It is all very logical.  Good desk research can be of enormous importance in moving a business forward.

At one stage in my career I produced multi-client market research projects for a US company, using both field and desk research methods.

To my surprise, even then, I realised that there was a vast amount of published data out there that often was of more value than that resulting from interviews in the field.

It is remarkable that an ancient religious and mystical philosophy not only has relevance today but can also give us an insight into the effectiveness of our  current decision making processes.


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Sunday, 3 June 2018

You Want it Yesterday? Beware the Tyranny of the Urgent!

A very long time ago when I was very young some kind soul gave me a little book explaining simply some common scientific facts and I found it fascinating

I remember two items particularly, one explaining why blood has both red and white corpuscles and another that said that “the world is getting smaller”’ a concept I found both mysterious and exciting.

How, I asked myself, could the planet actually be shrinking?  It took some more reading to understand what it meant, of course, and that was eighty years ago.

I was born a mere 27 years after the first flight in 1903 in a heavier-than-air machine and only 11 years after the first non-stop crossing of the Atlantic by air.

Metaphorically the world is getting smaller by the day and it all derives from the incredible advances in transport and communication technology.

For example, news of the 1853 Indian Army uprising (the Indian Mutiny) took a month to reach London and events had moved on apace in the meantime. How on earth could sensible long range decisions be made given a two month time gap?

Last week a young immigrant saved the life of a child in Paris and within twelve hours 1.5 million people has viewed the video of his remarkable feat.

Sure, the astonishing technological advances in communications and transport have made the world much smaller but at what cost?

We marvel that we can buy something online and have it delivered in under 2 hours, often more quickly that actually going to the store to buy it. The problem is, as a consequence, that we have come to expect that this urgency should apply to just about everything in our daily lives.  

I call it the tyranny of the urgent and urgent is NOT synonymous with important.

Just think about it.  How often is the urgency imposed on us by someone else?  Almost always I hear you say.

If we construct one of those four- box quadrants so beloved of consultants, the vertical axis denoted Important and the horizontal, Urgent, we can start to get a sensible view of how a leader should deal with supposed urgency issues.

If a matter is in the “not important, not urgent” box I leave it to my readers to decide where it should be filed. Much the same applies to the “urgent, not important” box.  That is a matter for delegation rather than actuation by the leader.

The “important and urgent” box needs some thought although delegation with some monitoring is probably the answer. It would need to be an exceptional occurrence for the leader to have to dive in to rescue the ship.

That leaves the box that is absolutely the province of the leader, the “Important, not Urgent”.  Who is the one individual who actually thinks about the business holistically without being trammelled by the exigencies of day-to-day urgent operations?

Vistage speaker Walt Sutton encourages every leader to take a metaphorical and better still, an actual, walk on the beach twice a year to think about the business, no notebooks, no smart phones, just thinking.

Two years, five years ahead has to be the focus, not some specious urgent matter to satisfy the whims of someone else.

Setting those long term objectives, knowing where you are going, and designing the route to take is not urgent  but it is highly important and is the central tenet of leadership.

The great golfer, Sam Snead, said “Take time out to smell the roses”. He could have added “to think and plan for the future".


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Sunday, 27 May 2018

Annual Appraisals Time? Ditch Them for Great One-to-Ones!

I have been banging on for years in Ivan’s Blog about the use and indeed the value of the annual appraisal.  An excellent presentation this week to my Vistage Key Executive peer group by speaker, David Smith (www.davidsmith.uk.com)  brought this to mind again.

Although the ostensible topic was Performance Management, David made the point that on the face of it, this does sound rather negative and he prefers to refer to it as managing performance which is far more anodyne and less threatening.  

To generalise, most people want to know two things:

  • How am I doing? and 
  • Where are we going?


To analyse, both of these questions imply that people need some reassurance in an uncertain environment.  One is essentially personal and the second is there to reassure members of the team that there are plans in the future for the business which will include them.

Most importantly, when and how should these questions be addressed?  In the past the annual appraisal has been the preferred vehicle but things are really changing, thank goodness.

I have always compared the annual appraisal to the year-end accounts of the business. In any well run organisation management accounts are produced monthly, ideally within a week of month end, to give the leadership a regular snapshot of the financial position if the business.

I recall the dreadful example of a CEO who never enjoyed the arrival of the accountants to do the annual audit and always arranged his skiing holiday to cover his getaway.

On his return from one of these breaks, the accountant suggested that he come into the office and sit down quietly as they have some news for him. The news was of course that the business was insolvent and he didn’t know simply because he thought that he didn’t need monthly management accounts.  

If we formally monitor the performance of our biggest and most unpredictable resource, the people, only annually then what does it say about how we manage them?  At the most basic level it ignores any possibility and consequent effects of significant changes in performance during a year. Sickness, family issues, poor line management and much else can contribute to a sometimes unnoticed decline.

The fact is that the very thought of having to go through the annual appraisal for both parties is frequently viewed as an unpleasant chore to be completed as quickly and painlessly as possible.  You will note that I didn’t say accurately.

Even worse the management can cop-out by imposing online appraisals using what is laughingly called artificial intelligence. Where is the human interaction there to make a realistic assessment of a real individual's performance and  potential?

Even worse using a rating system with only three alternatives reduces the whole practice to,a nonsense.

The much vaunted 360 appraisal system where the line manager, peers and subordinates all contribute opinions has its flaws. The top down is binary and can suffer from prejudice, peers can do mutual deals of support so in the main the most valuable input is the upwards one.

All of this however assumes an annual event that is very undesirable. We need to be in regular and formal interaction so that even minor changes are noticed and, if needs be, fixed.

By far the best solution is a regular and diarised one-to-one meeting. Yes, I know that we talk to people every day but this is different.

It is sacrosanct to the leader who should not on any account except dire emergency cancel or change. The team member can miss the occasional date but only the occasional one.  Regular cancellations can result in the leader making negative decisions.

A great one-to-one is a great experience for both participants. It needs to be open, honest, well thought out and above all, non-confrontational.

Actions?  Ditch the annual appraisal, replace with one-to-ones and take a look at www.davidsmith.uk.com.


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Sunday, 20 May 2018

Living in the Present? But What If ‘Now’ Doesn’t Exist?

  • Learn from the past
  • Live in the present
  • Plan for the future
Pretty well every leadership and motivational speaker knows this mantra and uses it ad nauseam and rightly so because it makes a great deal of sense.


At least it does on a superficial level and indeed it stands some interesting examination and analysis.


The concept of time is very complex simply because it is an intangible measured in an arbitrary manner.


If we examine the implication of time then the past is self-evident.  It started 13.5 billion years ago and...when did it stop?


On face of it the past ends in the present and that is where the future starts.  The question is, precisely when does the past end and the future start? In other words, when is the present?


Newtonian physics postulates that time is like a river, flowing from the past, through the present and on into the future and that implies that the present is definable.


But is it?  Whenever we make a decision it immediately moves into the past and whenever we take action in the future it also instantaneously reverts to the past.  


This implies that “now” is a very interesting concept because we can define everything that we do in terms of the past and the future but not the “now”.


Indeed mathematically “now” is an infinitely small space of time between the past and the future and that means that in practical terms it does not exist.


We talk about the present, live in the present, think in the present, don’t concern ourselves with the past and the future but it is the present that matters.


What then if it doesn’t exist to any significant extent?


We measure time in an arbitrary way loosely linked to the phases of the sun and the moon and amazingly in a manner that has been universally adopted throughout the world.


Almost the last vestige of being different was North Korea who awkwardly decided to have a time that differed from the South by half an hour.


Last month the decision was taken to regularise so what does that mean about time?


Time becomes a philosophical experience rather than a tangible actuality and that means that we need to give it some sort of form so that we can understand it and use it more effectively.


Time matters when we go for a train or more so when we miss a train but those events are controlled by our measurement of time in seconds, minutes, days, years, millenia and so on.


We use phrases like “I don’t have the time” or “how long will it take?”when we all have exactly the same amount of time as everyone else.


The Book of Ecclesiastes puts it cogently::


There is a time for everything
and a season for everything under the sun
A time to be born and a time to die,
A time to plant and a time to reap,
A time to kill and a time to heal,
A time to tear down and a time to build,
A time to weep and a time to laugh etc. etc.


We can’t “make time” to do anything but we can allocate the time we have in the most effective ways.


Time wasted in something that we enjoy or even doing nothing is not time wasted.  We tend to need to fill every waking hour with activity when what perhaps is needed is to spend more time thinking  and meditating positively.


Above all the greatest waste of time is concentrating on what might have been, to live in the past and live a life of “what if?


I learnt a lesson years ago from a great friend of mine who, when I told him my sad tale, advised me to go home, draw a line in the sand and get on with living my life.  

It was the best and wisest advice I have ever had.


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Sunday, 13 May 2018

Looking For Quality Assurance? We Need to Pursue Excellence!

In my very early days as an aeronautical engineer apprentice we were placed in virtually every department of the factory for short term (6 weeks to 6 months) familiarisation.

One of the coveted placements was Inspection because we had to wear a brown dust coat instead of blue overalls. Ah, the lure of prestige!

In addition we were placed at a surface table on the shop floor where mysterious metrological (thee science of measurement) equipment was used to check that components complied with the specification on the blueprint.

Some due to large quantities were sampled and some were inspected 100% but we were the final arbiter of whether a component or a batch could be built into an aircraft.

Looking back it was a very responsible job and I learnt a great deal about the depth of detail that was needed in order to produce a satisfactory outcome.

The process later became far more sophisticated using statistical methods such as 3-Sigma but in those early days we merely checked against specification.

All this derived from the very early days of, wouldn’t you believe, armament manufacture in the USA. At that time each gun was made individually and if a component failed then the whole thing failed.

In the 1860s some bright spark realised that this was a very inefficient method of manufacture and suggested that it would be better if components were all made the same and then if one failed it could be replaced.

This revolutionised large scale production systems because components were now interchangeable and the final product could be maintained and repaired, a significant cost saving.

In the process Inspection grew up and became Quality Control still in the hands of the customer to make sure that products were received as required.

Change became inevitable and eventually people realised that there would be more cost savings if suppliers guaranteed to supply compliant components rather than have to check them. This was the birth or evolution of Quality Assurance.

There is a story, possibly apocryphal, of the UK manufacturer who ordered a large batch of components from a Japanese manufacturer and specified the level of specification compliance at 99.8%.  When the shipment arrived there was a bag with a small quantity of components that seemed to be extra.

When the customer queried the supplier they were told that “we only supply to specification but as you appeared to want some that didn’t comply we had to make them specially for you”.

Modern machining centres nowadays can be programmed to ensure that they produce only compliant components and that, for obvious reasons, makes the life of a high quality supplier much easier if rather more capital expensive.

However, quality is not merely a matter of the product.  It covers everything about the business and I mean everything from the way that the telephone is answered, how many rings, the speed of action, the way that queries are handled and so on.  Everything about the business.

Indeed there is a case for dropping the very word “quality” altogether and building a culture dedicated to the pursuit of excellence in all aspects of the business.

I have posted recently about the brilliant way that Sainsbury’s home delivery drivers interact with the people to whom they deliver.

The quality of the product should be self evident and the customer always has the option of rejection if appropriate.  The way that the drivers behave is a choice on the part of the company and the drivers and it is excellent.

A speaker at my Vistage CEO peer group once said:

Aim to give service that builds a wall around the customer making it very difficult for them to move away from you”.

That encompasses the concept of total excellence.

It is a big picture that needs to be the top line of the business values and culture definition.  Then the spectre of price competition fades into the background.


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