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Sunday, 19 February 2017

It’s Groundhog Day – Again? Again? Again?

Strange how things never change or as the French say “Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose”, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

I saw a nice quotation recently which said:

“Children nowadays are tyrants, they contradict their parents, gobble their food and tyrannise their teachers”.

The Education Secretary?  The Shadow Education Secretary?  No, it was Socrates in 425 BCE.

Plus ca change etc.   So how is all this relevant to today and to business as we know it?

It seems to me that it all comes down to learning from our experience and on the face of it, we are not too successful.   Had we been, then recessions and financial crashes would be a thing of the past, we would have learnt about the futility of war, and most importantly, our lives would be far more ordered.

A previous mother-in-law of mine used to start her homily with “If you’ll take my advice, in my experience.......” which of course irritated the hell out of both my wife and me because we wanted to gain our own experience.  Perhaps it would be by trial and error but it was ours and not someone else’s.

We always say that we don’t learn from our successes, only from our failures and perhaps we need to assess consciously how we can put that into practice.  

It is all down to a reluctance to accept change, to accept that the status quo is the easiest alternative to presumed chaos, that the peaceful life is our main objective.

Change means that we go through a process of denial and denigration, of organised chaos and finally rebirth and regeneration.   The danger is always that we eventually subside back into the comfort zone where change is seen as a problem not an opportunity.

Implementation of any changes in the business needs to be done with that inherent reluctance in mind so that the benefits of any change are emphasised. Great communication is the answer and that together with as much transparency as can be given will deal with the fear factor.  Remember that communication as well as being two-way is also a short-term exercise so there needs to be constant repetition.

American presidential candidates in years past used to travel the country in a train and would stop to appear on the back of the carriage and make a stump speech.  This would normally be exactly the same wherever he stopped.

Nowadays it is translated as an elevator speech when telling people what our job is or what our business does in a few well-chosen words.

Prepare an elevator speech of no more than fifteen words or seven seconds that will encourage and energise the people and keep on saying it. 

Incidentally do you know how many Jewish mothers are needed to change a light bulb?  “Just the one but don’t worry about me darling, I don’t mid sitting in the dark, I know you’re busy”.


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Sunday, 12 February 2017

Some Team Member Becoming Mutinous? It’s Time for Confrontation!

A couple of cases recently have brought to mind the occasional need for leaders to be more assertive in their relationships with some people in the business.

Leaders need to be more assertive?  Are you kidding, I hear you say?

Not at all.  It is very surprising how diffident leaders in business can be when it comes to dealing with even slightly difficult members of the team.

First things first.  If the leader has an inclusive and collaborative relationship with senior members of the team which is always desirable, rather than any “top down” direction then that freedom can from time to time be abused or at least tested.

If we give our people the freedom to express themselves then we must expect occasionally for strange concepts and ideas to be expressed and sometimes forcefully.

Leaders need to lay down ground rules of behaviour that should be an integral part of the statement of values that underpin the whole of the ethos and culture of the business.

There is a fine line to be drawn between disagreement and outright mutiny.  We should welcome some disagreement from time to time because that will engender debate whereas mutiny implies entrenched positions that are unacceptable.

The two cases in mind are different but the answer is much the same.  In one case the team member has started to express strong opinions about his role and responsibilities that run counter to the needs of the business and he is becoming a problem.  Focus on specific activities is what is needed, not a radical change in his functions.

In the other case a small department, that to some extent has legacy issues, mutely and deliberately refuses to do as the leader directs and visibly does what they think is required and what they obviously prefer to do.

There comes a time when the leader has to exert or at least assert authority for the greater good of the business. This can often run counter to the innate instincts of the leader and can lead to that often feared situation - confrontation.

It really is curious how many outwardly strong and confident leaders are reluctant to confront difficult situations and difficult people. Not surprising therefore that some situations can run on and on and get out of hand.

Most people in the business know full well when one of the team is becoming a problem and it can cause friction when there is no action.  One of our Vistage speakers from the USA says that after visibly taking action you can expect people to say: “What took you so long?”

At some stage a solution is essential and only the leader can make that decision.  However, confrontation can be achieved in different ways primarily by assertiveness or by aggression.

My great friend and renowned Vistage speaker, Lynn Leahy, taught me long ago that there is a huge difference between being assertive and being aggressive.

Assertiveness assumes that instructions are given with respect to the feelings of the team member whereas an aggressive approach rides roughshod over anyone’s feelings just to get the job done.

What is required in both these cases is assertiveness, a firmness of approach that permits no discussion but only a change in attitude and an acceptance on the part of the individual of the needs of the business.


It is called “biting the bullet” or “grasping the nettle” and is a necessary and hopefully seldom needed part of the armoury of leadership.  There comes a time, however, when it must be done.


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Sunday, 5 February 2017

Dealing With Your People Too Harshly? Try a Touch of Kindness!

I had a curious and memorable series of events occur to me last week.  Those of you who know me are aware that I no longer can drive due to failing eyesight and I now generally use taxis for local trips.

One of the members of my Vistage CEO peer group was visiting for his monthly one-to-one mentoring session and kindly offered to give me a lift to the local supermarket afterwards.

The shopping having been done I rocked up at the checkout and started to open the bag that I had for a change remembered to bring with me.  Somewhat to my surprise a gentleman took over and started to help to pack the groceries into the bag.  He said with a big cheerful grin: “Now that I have retired I have to find things to do”.  I thanked him for his kindness, paid the checkout and went on my way.

I was just telephoning for a taxi when a lady who lives very close to us came over asked if she could give me a lift home.

Three acts of kindness within the space of a couple of hours and they really made my day.  Is that because acts of kindness are rare or just because so many had happened to me?

It was brought to mind again recently by the excellent “In Business” programme on BBC Radio 4 when presented Peter Day interviewed several people who had experienced kindness being shown to them in their businesses for apparently altruistic reasons.

For example a well known author had written some advertising copy for a woman who was in a start-up business marketing unusual and rare teas, and there was a taxi driver who had shown kindness to several deserving people without thought of reward.

Classic examples of old fashioned leadership invariably include plenty of loud shouting and a hard man approach to personal relationships.  There is little doubt that more sensible and intelligent methods are taking the place of that authoritarianism.

Indeed the great families who built sustainable businesses like Cadbury and Lever Brothers realised the power of kindness to the people they employed and actually built villages for them with all the necessary amenities.

Yes, there was method there and they knew that a happy workforce is less likely to give trouble but nevertheless acts of individual kindness were evident and normal.

The fact is that modern thinking leaders accept that everyone deserves the respect and courtesy of being treated as human beings, that people are not just numbers or cannon fodder but rather that they all have something of value to offer.

To show kindness without the thought of reward may be rare in business but if we are to grow away from the authoritarian neo-bullying approach to a more inclusive and sensitive form of leadership then voluntary and indeed involuntary acts of kindness will and should become a major part of the canon.

Moreover the great Judeo-Christian religions say that acts of kindness evinced by giving charity should always be anonymous so that there is no other self-aggranising reason for giving.

J M Barrie wrote:

“Always be a little kinder than necessary” and that encapsulates it for me.


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Sunday, 29 January 2017

High Performing Individuals? Do They Fit Into The Team?

The Italian historian, thinker and writer, Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) said with great prescience:

“The first method for estimating the intelligence of a ruler is to look at the men he has around him”.

What was said in the 15th century has absolute resonance today in business.  The success of any business and, by default its leader, is not so much the quality of the leader as such but the calibre of the people around him/her.

Perhaps the most significant task of any leader is that of building a team which can operate both independently and collectively in the pursuit of success and at the same time ensuring that the prima donna syndrome is suborned to the greater good of the team and the business.

In my all time favourite book on management, The Puritan Gift by Kenneth and Will Hopper, the authors list some of the ethics that drew the original Puritan immigrants to the new world.

Among others such as a belief in the advantages of technology (remember that this was in the 17th century) they called for the suborning of the needs of the individual into the greater good of the community.

It can take time and effort to find people who can work individually and will equally add to the effectiveness of the team. 

I recall one of the members of my Vistage CEO peer group hiring three different Finance Directors in a single year until he found the right one.  It was very expensive, painful and frustrating but well worth the effort.  The final choice was exactly what had been needed and spurred the business on to bigger and greater things.

I have in the past mentioned my old friend, Lee Thayer, another, deep and brilliant thinker who used to say that everyone hired into the business needed to be a virtuoso and a free spirit.  Easy to say but very difficult to achieve.

Lee suggested that the first line in everyone’s role description should read:

“My primary task is to make this business the best in the industry by any measure

What a wonderful objective for anyone.

With a really competent team at the top of the business new leaders are created and that in itself is invaluable in the complex matter of succession.  The leader needs to concentrate on those matters that are important and not urgent so that the team will take responsibility for all of the day-to-day events that are deemed urgent and important.

The leader has to take time out to think about the business, often a solitary task, so the team not only has to keep the business operating but also has to make sure that there is two way communication with the leader.

It takes time to develop the understanding of the importance of this way of working. It demands a high level of trust in both directions between the leader and the team.  The results can be dramatic.

Another of my Vistage members changed his job and went to a company which, bravely, hired exceptionally high quality people and then found a slot for them in the organisation.

It worked very well with one proviso.  As each of the people hired was remarkable in some respect they tended to prefer to work individually and not in a team.  That is fine if you are looking for high performing individuals but not so good for team building.

It is interesting to read recently that the universities are beginning to look at group activities, unusually in an environment which has historically been devoted to development of the individual.  They have realised that the team ethic is more productive overall than can be achieved by a single person and are now spending time and effort in its development.

Remember: “No-one is a smart as all of us”.


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Sunday, 22 January 2017

Having Communication Problems? These Seven Tips Will 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 think 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 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:

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 and he changed the scheme to small groups where discussion was encouraged and that proved a great improvement.

Clarity
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.

Brevity
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 massage so keep it short (and clean).

Relevance
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.

Expectations
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?”  

Feedback
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 a two-way process.


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