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Sunday, 16 June 2019

Having Communication Problems? Try These Seven Tips to Help!

Possibly the most contentious issue in running a business is that of communication, good or bad.  It is significant that many employee satisfaction surveys rate communication as “could do better”.

This can be mystifying to many leaders who genuinely rate the subject as being of prime importance and make every effort to keep everyone informed.

One of the members of my Vistage CEO peer group says that leadership is just about people and communications and you can’t fault that as an ethos.

So why is it, when so many leaders honestly believe that they are doing everything possible to communicate effectively, many of the recipients disagree?

More often than not it is in the methods we use.  

The real problem lies in the fact that people might hear but they don’t necessarily listen

The problem is even more apparent with the written word that people don’t even read .

There are several critical factors that can improve the way that information is transmitted and, more importantly, received.

Whether we are communicating face to face, in print, digitally, by audio or video, the requirements are the same. We need to ensure that the methods we choose are the most effective and are justified by the results.

There are seven basic requirements then for effective communication as follows:

The Audience
Make sure that you are giving the right message to the right people.  I recall an occasion where the leader decided that everyone should be given information about the company’s finances and he set up company-wide meetings to tell them.

It wasn’t very successful to say the least so he changed the scheme to small groups where discussion was encouraged and that proved a great improvement.

One of the problems of top-down communication is that we know all about the subject and consequently tend to forget that other people don’t necessarily know.  The effect of this mismatch is either insufficient information being transmitted or, worse, too much and that can clog up the message.

Test the message by trying it out on someone who is not involved and ask for feedback on both the message and the style.

There is the tale of the Best Man at a wedding who started his speech by saying: “I have been told to keep it short and clean so I have been holding it under a cold tap for the last ten minutes!’  

Rambling on merely gets in the way, is distracting and disguises the intended message so keep it short (and clean).

Again make sure that you are giving the right message to the right people.  It may seem obvious but like those who insist on sending a .cc to everyone in an email, we only irritate people if we include those who are peripheral in that instance.

Accuracy and Truth
It always surprises me that when some people explain  a situation they don’t always come clean on the facts.  Maybe this is a defence mechanism but it doesn’t help when the subterfuge is uncovered.

It is not only a lack of accuracy, it can be a matter of untruthfulness.  You will be found out eventually and trust will fly out of the window.

Why are you communicating something?  Is it merely to pass on information or are you asking someone to respond or take action?

Whatever it is you should state your expectations clearly, succinctly and, if needs be, assertively.  There is nothing worse than going out of a meeting with everyone saying “What was all that about?”  

Unless you have unfettered feedback you will never know whether your message has been received and understood. Getting that real feedback is not a matter of saying “Do you understand (or similar)?” because  all you are likely to get are nods of agreement that mean nothing.

Feedback is the crux of great communication so ensure that you ask the questions that will uncover  what has been heard. Ask questions that paraphrase the message and then what action is proposed as a consequence.

There are hundreds of books published on the whole subject of communication so why do we find it so difficult? These tips should help at least to improve your performance.

A very important point.  Communication is not top down or bottom up.  It is only effective when it is a two-way mutual process.

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Sunday, 9 June 2019

Preparing to Diversify? You Need to Exploit Your Strengths!

I walked into his office and immediately it seemed that the atmosphere was odd.  After the normal greetings I said to him: “What’s the matter?
Oh,” he said, “it’s nothing really but I just feel bored

Here was someone leading a very successful and profitable business and he was bored, or at least thought that he was.   It wasn’t a matter of nothing new, day after day, but rather he was not feeling that spark of excitement that used to be the norm.  

We have to accept that businesses, like those leading them, go through a range of changes and moods from sheer terror at the risk involved through a period of growth and consolidation and sometimes into a maturity where the leader can feel almost redundant.  

This is not by any means unusual and while the example above demonstrates the discomfort that some leaders feel, it is, in the end, the result of a mood swing.

My member, in fact, solved the problem by taking responsibility for a major and very expensive rebranding exercise that was not only successful but made a major impact on the market.  Incidentally it also cured his boredom problem.

My bored member instinctively recognised  that his personal issue could be ameliorated by designing a  change and then implementing it. His solution happened to be rebranding but in essence he was imposing diversification.

Many years ago I came across one of those quadrants so beloved of consultants which showed how variations in products and markets can have a salutary effect on outcomes if they are not handled properly.

This quadrant known as the Ansoff Matrix covers four basic marketing situations and offers a rationale for use in each case. Firstly define your current product range (aka existing products) and the market/s in which the business operates (aka existing markets)

If we now allocate an effort required index, then the matrix breaks down as follows:

Existing Products into Existing Markets

It is self evident that doing more business in terms of expansion in sales of the current product range allied to expanded marketing to the people we know (and who know us) must be the most cost effective route to growth. It is simple and to it we can allocate a basic effort index of 10.

New Products into Existing Markets

The advantages of this approach is that the business is starting to exploit its inherent strength, in this case its position in the market/s. We know them, they know us and we can exploit our reputation.   Even so, there is a price to be paid with an effort index of 20. Somebody in the business has to lead the charge and that takes effort.

Existing Products into New Markets

This is more difficult as we are now trying to break into a market that doesn’t know us, that we don't necessarily know in any depth and where our reputation is not relevant. The price to pay is an effort index of at least 40.

New Products into New Markets

This alternative implies starting a new business where we have no reputation and the effort index is anything up to 80. This is the soul of diversification.

Please note, all the foregoing does not imply that we should not diversify. What it does say is that we need to make a decision as to which of the four sectors you are positioning the business and analyse what information is available to encourage us to take action, basic research data, who is to lead the change, how much of his/her time will be needed and so on.

We need to make sure that the rationale for diversification is valid and should improve the existing business.

Above all be certain that there is logic in the planning and we are not merely indulging ourselves in change for the sake of change.

There is a lot of excitement in change even though there is risk and sometimes adverse reactions but if the process is properly handled then the outcome is more likely to be positive.

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Sunday, 2 June 2019

Experiencing Some Mental Health Issues? Never Be Dismissive!

In the early and subsequent days of my Vistage chair tenure I have used many great open coaching questions during one-to-one sessions with my members.

In those early days we looked upon it as “peeling the onion”, drilling deeper to establish a cause rather than merely a symptom of a personal problem. (Curiously and coincidentally I have a member of my current Vistage CEO Peer group whose business actually manufactures mechanised onion peelers! AI for coaches?)

On several occasions the peeling process went into areas that were significantly more complex than either of us could explain at which  point I make it clear that as I am not a professional counsellor, therapist, psychologist or psychiatrist, I would suggest that the member take some professional advice.

The fact is that mental health issues don’t always appear obvious on the surface. There can be a danger of being dismissive; of treating them with a “deal with it” approach.  This in turn can have just the opposite effect needed.

The problem lies in the frequent invisibility of mental health symptoms.  There is often still a measure of perceived shame in admitting that we have an issue until the condition escalates.

A couple of weeks ago we had National Mental Health Awareness week and the BBC marked the occasion by giving time to well known people to discuss their condition.

For example Alastair Campbell, lately Labour Party Press Secretary who talked about his depression and the wonderful Nadiya Hussein, TV Bake-Off winner, a bright, talented and articulate woman who also talks movingly about her problems with anxiety.  It is well worth taking time to Google her name and take a look at the video clips where she emphasises the need to talk about the condition and not keep it under wraps.

I have been listening recently to the audio version of Winston Churchill by Roy Jenkins, a remarkable and scholarly biography of the great war time leader.  Churchill exhibited some strange symptoms and constant mood swings.
He also went through periods of worry and depression that he called his “black dog” and often took himself out of the mood swing by physical exercise.

I mentioned earlier the need for professional advice. I found it very useful to have a small “go-to” coterie of specialists such as counsellors and psychologists who we could call on when the onion peeling was becoming fraught.  The member could then decide which one to use if appropriate.

Some of my peer group members offer a professional and totally confidential advice service to all their employees suffering from mental health issues.  Anyone can call the advice line for help and the company only knows the number of calls being made and nothing else. This I consider to be a forward thinking and compassionate service, greatly to be admired.

All the overt symptoms of mental health issues like addiction, alcohol and/or drugs, mood swings, variations in performance, temper flare-ups and so on can indicate a problem that needs to be addressed.

To summarise the situation, mental health issues are far more prevalent than we imagine and unless we are professionals we as leaders should not venture into solution mode simply because we are not qualified to do so.

So what can we, as leaders, do to assist a member of staff with problems?   First of all we need to accept that mental health issues are with us and can affect anyone.

Secondly we also need to accept that while there will always be a small proportion of people who adversely take advantage of the situation, the majority must be treated by us with discretion, understanding and compassion.  How would we treat a member of the team who had a broken arm? So use that approach as a basis for such action that we can validly take.

Please forgive my flailing about in this post.  It was possibly the most significant and difficult issue that I have tried to address.

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Monday, 27 May 2019

Do Your People Speak But Not Talk? It Needs a Planned Culture Change!

Some years ago in my consultancy days I went to see, by request, a potential client, a significant Chief Executive.

The business was a large, £300M turnover, manufacturing organisation , a subsidiary of a US parent company, which was going through what they called a minor reorganisation. Specifically the UK Operations Director had been appointed Chief Executive to replace a retiring leader and plans had been in place for some time.  
The new CEO, my contact,  had been with the top team for some years and was a long tenure employee, coining up through the business.

On the face of it, this was  a sensible appointment. The new CEO appeared to be  well regarded at all levels, highly experienced and had a good reputation as a forward thinking leader.  As it happens, this was universally seen to be a necessary and progressive move.

So what was his problem?  Although he had made it clear to colleagues that “his door was always open” in fact he felt that he was being ostracised for some reason. His board colleagues would speak to him but were manifestly reluctant to talk to him.

It was a classic “symptom or cause” dilemma and he was at a loss to understand why it was happening.   The symptoms were all too obvious and he felt that they were having a malign effect on the atmosphere in the business.

The cause was rather more difficult to identify positively. It could stem from resentment at his promotion, a general antipathy to authority, a false personal reading of people’s opinion of his abilities, even a “gang up” or possibly an equally false view of the relationship that the previous incumbent had with colleagues.

If the latter was the cause then it seemed to be a matter of  ingrained culture that was so prevalent as to be almost normal. Indeed whatever the identified cause, it certainly meant that if the situation were to be corrected then a seed change in the culture was essential.

Easy to say but that statement alone has its effects. I am strongly of the opinion that even in a constructive and collaborative environment, one of the very few “top down” functions of leadership is the responsibility for designing and ensuring compliance with the culture of the business; the need for everyone in the organisation to understand how we do things around here and to work together with a universal sense of purpose.

Great leaders know well the difference between objectives which are measurable and purpose that is the inherent driver of what we are, who we are and where we are going.

It is not just a matter of semantics. It is the leader who articulates that purpose, explains it in simple, transparent and straightforward terms and then constantly ensures compliance.  That alone can be the raison d’etre of the leader. Virtually everything else can be delegated to the operational management with the possible exception of ensuring that the business employs only the best possible people.

It’s as easy as that!

Postscript:  Sadly I don't know the outcome of my incipient foray into the cultural problems of my prospective client.  Some months later the parent company in the US decided to close it and to move production to the Far East.

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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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