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Sunday, 16 September 2018

Problems Challenging the Team? Try Being Carefrontational!

In my long experience in Vistage UK I have collected several great techniques and methods that have stood me in good stead in chairing my group.

For fairly obvious reasons a major part of the process is to challenge the members to make sure that they drill down into an issue to establish the root cause and then to help the group to offer their opinions as to the solution that is the bit they enjoy the most.

It has been wisely said that there is nothing so satisfying as telling other people how to run their business.

This can, however, be a painful process for the presenter of the issue because while they know, deep down, the solution they do not like the answer and would prefer not to hear it or take the suggested action.

We realise that the whole rationale for joining a peer group like Vistage is to learn from each other and to have someone to listen to them in a safe environment.  However, when the chips are down it can be difficult to absorb and to accept.

A wonderful word borrowed from Vistage colleagues in the USA is:


and that neatly encompasses all that is good in a business relationship.

How then does it work?  In essence it emphasises that challenge is essential; not, you will accept, on the basis of reprimand but rather in the mode of questioning and constantly searching, as Thomas Edison said, for a better way to do things.

However, the human psyche being what it is, there is always a possibility and sometimes a probability for defence mechanisms to be unleashed whenever an idea or a method is challenged.

There is nothing worse than the defensive rebuttal to challenge.  It slows everything down, promotes argument that is usually unproductive, and generally drains energy from the situation.

The question to ask, then, is why do people become defensive when they are challenged?  In some cases it can be a matter of pride, even a matter principle, in some a fear of seeming inadequate and under certain conditions, even a feeling if rejection, none of which add to the effectiveness of the individual.

The whole carefrontational approach means that although the team member is challenged (and why not in a go-ahead business?), it is done in a way which maintains respect and that, to my mind, is an essential in all working relationships.

My friend, mentor and top Vistage speaker, Lynn Leahy taught me long ago that there is a major difference between being assertive and being aggressive although it can be a short step from one to the other. 

Lynn says that being aggressive implies top-down authoritarian management whereas being assertive means that while a point can be made in a forthright way, it will always be made with respect to the opinions and feelings of the other person.

In other words, people can be challenged in a forthright way while still being shown that combination of care, understanding and respect that is the right of everyone to expect.  

The result is far less likely to be defensive and will more likely be positive and productive, an outcome always to be desired.

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Sunday, 9 September 2018

Family Businesses, a Curse or a Blessing?

There is an interesting quotation that I found recently as follows:

Children today love luxury.   They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.”

It could have been added that they think more of social media to the exclusion of pretty well everything else but it would have been an unlikely comment at the time of writing.  It was postulated by the Greek philosopher, Socrates (470-399 BCE).

There are, of course, numberless quotations on the whole subject of change/no change such as:  

What goes round, comes around.

Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose” (the more things change the more they stay the same)”

and so on and son o.

It struck me as significant recently when I realised with some surprise that there is a preponderance of family businesses in my Vistage CEO peer group and normally one would expect that the issues they exhibit should be much the same.

Not so, of course.  In one sense they are the same because they are generally rooted in emotional issues rather than rational thinking but in the end they cover a vast array of  issues not normally seen in a non-family business.

My group has three members who are sons of former members of Vistage groups and that says a great deal for the value and power of the peer group system.

In fact there are only four members of the group who are not involved in family businesses and even then one of them is a salaried Director of a family controlled company.

To repeat then, the issues around family businesses are almost always emotionally based and seem to be exclusive to the sector.

For example, there is the vexed issue of shareholdings especially where the father is the founder of the company and is very reluctant to give up control.

The upshot of this is the feeling by the next generation that however well they are recompensed they are still only employees.

The group has experienced a variety of issues around this problem sometimes solved quite simply and sometimes made worse by  the shareholder deciding to distribute the shares “fairly” to siblings when only one of them is actually involved in the business.

There have been some strange issues as well.  For example the major shareholder when it was suggested that a third generation of the family should join the company said that “we have enough family members in the company”.  

In another case the group member wanted to use his father as a sounding board, quite rightly, and was constantly told “You decide, you are doing a good job!”  Encouraging but not what is wanted.

These are all issues that are emotionally based with the founder often wanting to “do the right thing” and failing to understand the implications.

There are a couple of examples of iconic brands that have been almost decimated by family arguments, among them the Aldi/Lidl fracas when two brothers decided to split, successfully in the end and worse, the Gucci family that managed to send the son of the founder aged 80 to prison on tax charges.

Fear not, the vast majority of family businesses are happy and successful so where does the matter of no change/change impact?  Largely it is the need to realise that family matters should be left at the office door. If they do intrude then it must be only for the good of the business and the stakeholders, especially the workforce.

When this happens the family business can and should plan succession so that the older generation can feel needed and the next generation can feel secure.

Above all there is a constant need to try to keep emotion out of the discussions so that the family Christmas lunch will be a happy event with everyone there.

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Sunday, 2 September 2018

You’re Entitled to What? Take Personal Responsibility!

In his inaugural address in January 1961, President John F Kennedy said:

Ask not what your country can do for you.  Rather ask what you can do for your country

and that resonates especially this week.

The unpleasant rhetoric and constant whinging and moaning of people having their 15 minutes of fame on the radio or TV recently led me to recall the experiences of my grandfather who, in the 1870s, was sent by his parents to England from Poland, at the age of 15, to escape the prevailing persecution.
Unescorted and unable to speak English, he travelled by cart, train and eventually a ship, with a label attached to his coat bearing an address in Manchester where some relations lived, having come to England a few years before.
Miraculously, he arrived safely, survived and made a new life in this country.  When I knew him, he was a voracious reader, had taught himself English as well as Hebrew, Latin and Greek, and was making a somewhat tenuous living as a tailor.
In all his 80-odd years he paid his taxes, never asked the state for anything and, indeed, never expected anything.  

He was an intensely fulfilled individual who had survived through his own efforts and had made a happy life in this country, having married and raised a family of five children.
A recent broadcast by a “community” leader complained that the state was not helping them and that they needed more assistance.  My grandfather would have been totally bemused by this; what can the state do to help people if they don’t make an effort to help themselves first?

Agreed there is a proportion of people for whom the state can and must give succour and aid and that is both self-evident and necessary.  That is why we pay our taxes.
If we consider the situation in business, much the same criteria apply.  While it is right and proper to employ a proportion of disadvantaged people, it can be very depressing to employ people who spend their time constantly complaining and in  “something needs to done about it” mode, is toxic and corrosive for other members of staff.
We need to give people the freedom to express themselves, to encourage initiative and decision making and to ensure that if anything goes awry, then it is looked upon as a learning experience rather than a case for reprimand.
In the end we must get away from the “it’s my right” syndrome and encourage the “it’s my responsibility” approach.
If you would like to know how this can be accomplished just read “Turn The Ship Around” by David Marquet.  He radically changed the way in which his US Navy submarine was managed from Leader/Follower to Leader/Leader and cut through all the morass of line responsibility that hampered the way that the ship was run.

The simple mantra was to eliminate the “What do you want me to do….?” and replace it with “I intend to…..”.  In other words people took responsibility rather than waiting to be told what to do.  The result? Most effective ship in the Navy.

Read the book.  It could radically change your leadership life.

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Sunday, 26 August 2018

Is Your Mission Statement Cut and Paste? Rewrite it to Mean Something!

How often have you been in the reception area of a company and seen the Mission Statement, beautifully designed and printed and tastefully framed, on the wall for all to see? 

Have you ever thought in a mischievous moment that you could take it off the wall and replace it with one from the next door company and no-one would notice the difference?

More to the point, have you looked at your Mission Statement lately?  Could you recite it to anyone who asked?

Mission Statements tend to be a given, something that every company should have and a necessary message to customers and suppliers.  So they should be, but generally they do seem to have been written by someone who has drawn deeply from the Goldberg Compendium of Clich├ęs and Platitude.

In other words, they usually don’t mean a damn thing.

All the words like “honesty”, “integrity”, “commitment”, “our people” and so on, are interchangeable with the one from next door and are consequently meaningless.  All those characteristics ought to be given and are only of value when they have all be demonstrated and are visible.

So what is a Mission Statement and what should it look like?  It should say what the business is constantly striving to achieve for the benefit of its workforce, its customers, its suppliers and its community.

The Vistage Mission Statement says, for example, that “We are dedicated to increasing the effectiveness and enhancing the lives of Chief Executives” and that is one of the best that I have seen.   

It encapsulates exactly what the purpose is and what Vistage intends to achieve for its members.  It doesn’t harp on about honesty and integrity because those are demonstrated at all times by the behaviour and attitude of its people.

The point is that it needs to start with the values of the business and again, this is the province of the leader.  Obviously honesty, integrity and all the other warm words can be listed but with some meaningful explanation so that they are not just warm words.  Values are essentially an internal matter and are the bedrock of the Vision and Mission Statement.

To whom does all this matter?  Obviously customers and suppliers who experience them on hopefully a regular basis but even more importantly they need to be embedded into the psyche of everyone in the business.

It has been said wisely that we can’t satisfy customers (and suppliers) with dissatisfied employees so that needs to be the most important factor in the culture of the business.

Just for a little enlightenment take a look at another company that had the motto:

·      "Respect, Integrity, Communication and Excellence."

Its "Vision and Values" mission statement declared,

·      "We treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves....We do not tolerate abusive or disrespectful treatment. Ruthlessness, callousness and arrogance don't belong here."

Very impressive and inspiring, I think you would agree; that is until you discover that the words in question were the Enron Mission Statement. Remember Enron and how it behaved to its customers, suppliers and above all, its employees?

Need I say more?  Just take a look at your Mission Statement, tear it up (unless it is genuinely meaningful) and start again.  Don’t try to have the team do it; it must come from the heart of the leader and encapsulate the culture that the leader espouses. 

Above all, it must be lived by everyone in the business, not just written down.

Then you can put it on the wall in reception with some pride, because it is unique to you and your business and it really does mean something to everyone who reads it.

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Sunday, 19 August 2018

How Well Do You Know Your Competitors? Make Sure You Are Up To Date!

One of the constant messages that I receive from the members of my Vistage CEO peer group and indeed with most other senior business people, is what can we do about the competition?

A neat approach is to say don’t look over your shoulders at your competitors, run your business to make them worry about you.

That is all very well and good but the competition will always be with us and the clever thing is to understand how genuinely important they are to our business and precisely what to do about it, if anything.

In my consulting days I did a great deal of market research, mainly of the desk variety and spent many happy and not always productive hours in the Manchester Central Reference Library.

We were not permitted to use the copier and consequently we had to make copious notes (which were permitted) of any information that seemed appropriate.

Then back to the office to type it all up and try to use it in the research project.  As this usually included vast amounts of statistics the whole exercise was very laborious and very prone to input error.

I don’t have to labour the point that things are vastly different now. Desk market research for whatever reason is a relatively straightforward exercise.

It may be so, but the question is, if it is so simple how often to we do it and use it on a formal basis?

The ancient Chinese military strategist and philosopher, Sun Tzu, in his great book, The Art of War, coined the phrase, Know Your Enemy.  I once had a member of my CEO peer group who derided the use of this book saying, and rightly so, that we are not at war, we should not compare business to military strategy and generally speaking, no-one gets killed.

Point taken but the basic concepts are very similar and are well worth some consideration.

First of all, how well do you know your competitors and to what level of detail?  I think it very valuable to build dossiers on known and significant businesses that compete with us and this should be an ongoing exercise.

Sources of information are many and varied starting at Companies House (in the UK) to see how their financial position has changed.  Please note, the trend in their financial performance is far more relevant than the latest results so take a five year look to see which way they are going.

Market size and penetration is also useful knowledge.  Again it helps to plot market penetration for your major competitors compared to your business to see how important they and you are to the market.  Anything under 10% penetration is not so significant but as soon as the level exceeds 25% then note that action must be taken. That is a generalisation with some markets being dominated by a major player and with some completely fragmented.  Question is, do you know?

Product information can easily be garnered from the website with price comparisons and in some cases customer reviews.  Where are the differences between their products and yours?

These are simple exercises and any good marketing department should be able to take them on board but if you do, please be certain that the information is up to date and relevant.  If the dossiers are kept online or in hard copy the exhortation is the same, do it, keep it up to date and use it to your advantage.

This enables you to assess and ensure what measure of differentiation exists between you and the competition and how to exploit it to your advantage.

I well recall a speaker once who suggested that we should guarantee something about the business or the product that we supply anyway.  Using that as a marketing ploy ensures that no competitor can use it themselves.

Competitors are not the enemy but they are out there trying to do better than we do.  The more that we know about them the better we can develop differentiation and that leads to better results.

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