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Sunday, 17 March 2019

What Do You Mean, Too Old? Everyone Can And Should Contribute!

I am slightly reluctant to return to the subject of ageism as it may be thought that I have a hidden agenda (which I have).

Sadly old age and infirmity are reducing my physical mobility but happily I still have my marbles, or at least some of them.

I had a wonderful colleague in the USA, Pat Hyndman, who died a couple of years ago at the age of 95 , and was still chairing two Vistage CEO groups.

Pat's approach to retirement was that he intended to go on until "they had to carry him out on the flip chart" and if only metaphorically that is what he achieved.

However in conversation with several of my Vistage CEO members of late I have been looking at the subject on a less personal and emotive basis.

There is no doubt that here in the UK we are in a period of fuller employment.  During the past period of recession, austerity measures led to a reduction in skills training and we are reaping the consequences now.

My friends in the recruitment industry tell me that certain sectors have become candidate led simply because of the shortage of good, trained people looking to move.

Indeed in one case the member told me that they had offered positions to three potential candidates all of whom had gone elsewhere.

The eye watering salaries  being offered are way above the current market range even though the member's company has an enviable reputation as an exceptional  employer.

The whole market is going through  a cyclical change right now and I suspect that it will get even  harder rather than easier to find, recruit and retain great people.

What, then, can be done about this problem?

There is a whole range of variables that impact on the situation that I would suggest is one of the most serious facing business leaders at this moment whatever happens in the Brexit negotiations.

For example, the change in legislation stopping companies imposing mandatory retirement to employees has led to the occasional blockage in available career paths.

Medical advances are also leading to longer life (about which I am not complaining) that implies a bank of knowledge and skills is growing and still in employment.

The current shortage of candidates means that there is a further issue stemming from the dramatic changes in business technology.

The younger people take these changes for granted and embrace them automatically while those at the more elderly end of the workforce find absorption of these changes more difficult.

There is no doubt that many people who are passing or have already passed the notional retirement age can expect two or three decades more and I have always said that much of that skill bank is neither realised or exploited.

There is a natural reluctance on the part of employers to bring older people into the workforce but here and there it may be at least a part solution to the problem.

While I am a great believer in the more mature citizens keeping working and contributing (should they so desire) I would accept that there will be many whose skills can easily be supplied by someone younger or by advances in technology.

Manual workers for example will find continued work becomes inhibited by the natural ageing process with the consequent reduction in strength and mobility.

However with the growth in the apprenticeship schemes why not employ these older people to pass on their skills to the young generation?  For example, some of my Vistage CEO group members have exploited the situation by forming training academies to develop their own people rather than recruiting.

For the more mature who have come through a professional career path, there is no reason why they should not keep themselves available to help out on a part-time or interim basis.

Alternatively a portfolio of activities can bring intellectual rigour with a measure of freedom of the diary.

Finally remember that as we age, it's the knees that go first closely followed by parallel parking.

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Sunday, 10 March 2019

Is The Business Becoming Boring? Then Dare to be Different!

At a Vistage Open Day a couple of years ago, US speaker Jaynie Smith examined the way that businesses promote themselves to prospects and existing customers and she came to the conclusion that most of it was just blah, blah, blah. 

A depressing thought but when we look carefully at what we inaccurately consider to be our USP (Unique Selling Proposition) we rapidly come to the conclusion that not only does it not sell but it certainly isn't unique. 

Unique means precisely that; there are no shades of uniqueness, things cannot be fairly or very unique. 

Consequently very few businesses can offer something that is truly unique; at best it may be unusual or rare. 

Jaynie calls it the Competitive Advantage; what is it that you offer that genuinely is different and makes you stand out from the competition?
Think of those businesses that are (or were before the copyists arrived) truly different like Google through brilliant software design, Apple through constant product innovation and Amazon which has revolutionised retailing. 

Ask yourself the question; what do we offer in terms of our product, our quality, our service, our people that makes us stand out from the crowd and encourages us to seek a premium from the markets we serve?

In my youth, my (pre-girls) passion was cricket and particularly Lancashire League cricket. As a very ordinary off spin bowler, my role model was an extraordinary leg spinner called Tom.

Tom managed to deliver sumptuous leg breaks and gigantic googlies while bowling like a demented octopus, arms and legs flailing in all directions. To say that the batsmen had difficulty in picking his googly is an understatement. In fact they seemed to have just as much difficulty in deciding which of his wildly gyrating extremities would be delivering the ball.

The consequence was, of course, that he gained a reputation of invincibility in the League and he eventually went on to bigger and better things in his career. Sadly it was cut short by physical problems but the memory remains.

So what is the point of this tale? The point is that even though he had talent, enthusiasm, drive and commitment in abundance, his greatest attribute was that he was different.

I don't mean different just for the sake of it or to make an impression. I mean rather be different so as to impact on people's thinking, to help them to change in a positive sense and to stand out from that crowd which seems to be growing ever bigger.

Our education system in the UK from GCSE through A-levels, to University and then on to Post Graduate studies can lead to a standardisation of the eventual outcomes with an emphasis on conventionality.

Will and Kenneth Hopper in their wonderful book, The Puritan Gift, quote the late Professor Russell L Ackhoff, formerly of the Wharton Business School in the USA, as saying that there are three principal achievements of a business school education which are:

"to equip students with a vocabulary that enables them to talk about subjects that they don't understand, to give students principles that would demonstrate their ability to withstand any amount of disconfirming evidence, and finally, the give students a ticket of admission to a job where they could learn something about management".

It is not a surprise to me that seemingly a significant proportion of Managing Directors and CEO members of Vistage International groups, at least in the UK, did not go to University but found their success through a burning desire to succeed, through humility, a voracious appetite for learning and above all, through being different.

It is the difference that ensures that competitive advantage in the market place, that encourages the market to deal and to stave off the attacks of the insidious competition.

Never be in the position of worrying about competitors; make sure that your success makes them worry about you. 

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Sunday, 3 March 2019

Entrepreneurship - By Nature or By Nurture?

Entrepreneurship?  Is it by Nature or by Nurture?

There is no question in my mind that entrepreneurs who create and sustain successful businesses combine great ideas with their own blend of passion, commitment, personal values and strengths. 

Indeed they often exhibit a huge level of emotional attachment to the business that is almost like having surrogate children.  In fact if that commitment and dedication is not there then I can't see how it would work. 

I had a member of my Vistage CEO peer group who had started his working life in his parents' baby wear shop. A customer asked him if he could supply a one-piece rain cover for the pushchair as the current three piece version was difficult to use. 

He could have said "There isn't one on the market" but instead he went off, designed one, manufactured it and told the customer. She was delighted and told all her friends. 

The result was that a new business was born and was rightly successful. 

Success came about through a combination of innate curiosity, a strong belief in his/her own abilities and a desire to create something new for a market that is well known. There was a magic blend of positive personal characteristics and an eminently marketable idea. 

Unsurprisingly then I tend to look for this combination of talents in people whom I am mentoring. It is never just about making money.  Most of them look upon material rewards as the effect or symptom of the cause and it is that which delivers the greater satisfaction.

Indeed the acquisition of material possessions can often be viewed, perhaps subconsciously, as a reward for effort that can only be given personally.  

They feel that the very act of creation, whether overt or hidden, is exciting, is enjoyable and delivers a strong sense of purpose and achievement. 

They also exhibit a dogged persistence, a sort of bloody minded intention to succeed whatever obstacles are in the way together with a strong conviction that what they are doing is right. 

It is said that Thomas Edison tried 1,000 experiments before the final successful incandescent light bulb emerged.  When asked how he could live with all that perceived constant failure he said that they weren't failures, they were 1,000 lessons that had to be learnt. 

The question to ask then is whether entrepreneurs are born or made? Is it a matter of nature or nurture?

In my somewhat chequered past I ran a Government sponsored training programme for unemployed executives called "Start and Manage Your Own Business" and it really opened my eyes. 

It has been suggested that 80% of start-up businesses fail in the first year through underfunding, a lack of marketing expertise, lack of financial expertise and overall lack of good commercial common sense. 

In fact all of those skills can be taught and developed which removes a multiplicity of excuses for failure.  The factors for success are much more in the way of feelings and emotion. 

Of course that depends eventually on both the skills and the emotional attachment being present in any entrepreneurial business. If the leader doesn't have a lot, indeed any, of the skills then the clever thing to do is to bring them in and make sure that the team is well aware of where the business is going; that they know what success looks like and how they are expected to contribute. 

An entrepreneur who can build a team of all the talents with the requisite skills and overlay a layer of commitment, dedication and above all, passion will have constructed a sustainable enterprise. 

The key is to accept that nobody knows everything so the ball must be passed to the right person in the right job and that takes humility on the part of the leader.   Not easy to achieve but dramatic in subsequent results. 

The collaborative role is better than the single genius approach. 

Remember that no-one is as smart as all of us. 

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Sunday, 24 February 2019

Tolerating Bad Behaviour? Watch Out, It Can Be Catching!

"The culture of a business is defined by the worst behaviour that the leader is prepared to tolerate"

The implication is, of course, that the leader of any business defines the culture of the business and is the champion and driver of that culture.

Unfortunately not every leader realises this and the culture can develop of itself, either benign and positive or malign and negative.

The point is that every business has a culture that effectively says "this is how we do things around here" and then leaders seem surprised if it is better or worse than they expect or want.

I have seen businesses that reflect the attitude of the leader to a remarkable extent and once again this can be anywhere on the positive to negative continuum.

In one case the leader openly took liberties with expenses and then was astonished that fiddling was rife in the business.

On a positive note, in another case, the leader was dramatically and visibly innovative and that attitude became endemic throughout the business.

The point that leaders need to realise (if they don't already) is that their attitude and behaviour is almost inevitably mirrored throughout the organisation. In fact, one of the most important functions of the successful leader is the development of a defined culture that includes a statement of purpose and then to drive it into the business so that if asked, any employee should be able to recite it.  The culture is not just a statement; it has to be a living organism.

That is a tough call because it demands consistency of the visible attitude and behaviour from the leader and that says that the leader isn't allowed any variance in their public face.

That is, of course, nonsense because the implication there is that leaders have to be some sort of automaton with an outward personality without variation.

People will always accept variations in the leader's behaviour unless it becomes the norm against which people rebel either openly or covertly.

The natural consequence is a probable deterioration in morale and a reduction in performance often to the surprise of the top team.

Leaders don't always realise or understand the power that they weird; the power of benign influences that lead to a positive ethos or the power to depress and upset the team.

Does this mean that the leader has to be an actor exhibiting only positive behaviour without any thought of personal feelings?

Not at all. What the people want and indeed need from the leader is honesty, openness and above all, fairness.

Back to the opening statement.  Tolerance of unacceptable behaviour by the leader can and does lead to unacceptable attitudes and behaviours that if not caught at an early strange can spread with surprising speed.

Leaders cannot and must not tolerate negative and malign behaviour and must take immediate and visible action.

The leader is the champion and driver of the culture and it is entirely in the province of the leader to make it positive or negative.

Think carefully about which one you are consistently exhibiting to the team.  Be the thought leader in the business and make it positive.

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Sunday, 17 February 2019

Too Much Darkness, Not Enough Light? Design Your New Lifestyle!

I recently came across a quote, unattributed, which struck chord with me.

"It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness"

The distinction between light and darkness permeates all religions and a great deal of literature where light is always seen to overcome the negativity of darkness.

2,000 years ago the sages of Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, referred to light overcoming darkness at the creation of the universe. The sage Isaac Luria in the 16th century said that there was a spark of light in the nothingness (darkness) that contained all of space and time. Please note, Albert Einstein in his General Theory of Relativity defined the concept of the space/time continuum in the 20th century.

When the spark expanded the universe was created and darkness retreated. Again please note, Rabbi Luria wrote this 500 years ago.  

It is a remarkable description of the Big Bang theory of creation and long before clever scientists espoused it.    In essence it describes light as being both a physical and a spiritual phenomenon.

Now we talk glibly of distances measured in “light years” but do we ever stop to consider the enormity of the statement.  Light travels at 186,000 miles per second so for each light year it travels:

60 (seconds) X 60 (minutes) X 24 (hours) X 365 (days) X 186,000 and that doesn’t take leap years into account .  

When we consider that the farthest end of the universe according to eminent scientists is probably in excess of 1,000 light years away and is constantly expanding anyway, some of the light that we are seeing started out at or just after the Big Bang so what are we really looking at?

We are certainly not looking at what is happening on any planet, star or galaxy right now and we never will.

The remarkable facility of light to overcome darkness is exemplified by lighting a candle in an empty football stadium at midnight and even though there is total darkness all around, the candle light can be seen from any angle.

It is a wonderful metaphor for positive and negative thinking.  

There are even "light" and "dark" words in our vocabulary that can create an atmosphere in a conversation even without realising it.  For example:

Light Dark
Yes No
Happy Sad
Bright Dull
Grow Diminish
Like Dislike
Love Hate

and there are many many more. The most intrusive is that all-pervasive word "BUT".  Someone once told me that word eliminated everything said before it and everything said subsequently was negative.  Quite a thought.

In fact we had a speaker to my Vistage CEO peer group some time ago who banned the use of BUT for the whole morning and it was quite extraordinary how the level of discussion turned to the positive.

We live in a world where the vast majority of media news is sad, bad or generally dark and it takes an effort of will to overcome it.

I do recall someone saying that he was constantly reading about the dangers inherent in alcohol so he had given up - reading.

Do a test this year.  Just listen out for DARK words insidiously intruding into your conversation and either eliminate them or try to replace them with LIGHT words. The whole tenor of the conversation can change and for the better. It is certainly worth a try.

We need light in our lives more than ever and anything that we can do to achieve that end is to be applauded.  

It is never too late for a notional New Year Resolution so try this one:

"You gotta accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, latch on to the affirmative and don’t mess with Mr In-between",

in the words of the old song.

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Sunday, 10 February 2019

Vulnerable to a Major Customer? What About Your Suppliers!

Over the years several companies with which I have been working have quietly and dangerously become vulnerable to a major customer.

It is axiomatic that the sensible approach is to keep the customer base as broad as possible with none accounting for more than around 15% of turnover.  This should, as far as possible, be accomplished not by reducing the direct influence of a major customer but rather by directing the marketing effort towards other sectors of the market.

However customer creep can and does happen and before you know it, one of them starts to account for a really major part of turnover.  I recall a business in domestic lighting dealing with a major outlet in the UK for their range of products.

Over a long period of time the customer placed more and more orders and at the same time, the demands started to increase.  In end, they accounted for more than 80% of turnover and whatever they said they wanted, the supplier had to comply.

It wasn’t a matter of “jump”, it was “how high do you want me to jump?

When I warned the Managing Director (and owner) that the company was massively vulnerable, he said firstly that he couldn’t refuse a good order from a good customer and in any case he had a great relationship with the buyer.  In fact he used that unpleasant comment of: “I have the buyer in my pocket”.

Guess what happened?  The buyer moved on, a new buyer was appointed and brought existing relationships with non-branded manufacturers.  Within six months my client had lost the account and was effectively out of business.

A salutary tale but what about your suppliers as well?  I had a client who manufactured a high tech product and one day called me to put off a meeting as he had an important matter to deal with.  Later in the day I happened to be in Manchester and, lo and behold, there was my client walking towards me.

He said: “ I have just been to see our lawyers.  One of our major suppliers who manufactures a special component exclusively for us, has gone into administration.  We have had to make an offer to buy the supplier’s business from the administrator just so that we can maintain supplies and keep our business going.

Another salutary tale.  We keep our eyes firmly fixed on our customers, and rightly so, but it should never be at the expense of watching the supply chain where events can be and often are detrimental to the company’s success.

The problem is, of course, that we can become complacent.  Orders are coming in, the customer may be starting to flex muscles but we can live with that and at the other end suppliers are happy to deal with us and seem to give us good service.

The question is, how often do you put these assumptions to the test?  The order book is usually very visible throughout the business but is the supply chain visible as well?

At the current stage of the global economic cycle some industries are booming and as a consequence demands on the supply side are becoming overwhelming.  Suppliers can be so busy that smaller customers by definition are expected to take a back seat.

The result is that the service to their customers suffers, relationships with the suppliers become fraught and everything becomes a problem rather than an opportunity. Those are perfect conditions for fire fighting rather than working to a sensible plan.

The really key imperatives in any business are the relationships with customers and the markets in general, relationship with significant players in the supply chain and, above all, the health and well being of the critical members of the team.

That last is possibly the most important and needs to be at the top of the agenda when critical factors in the business are being considered.  Make sure that they are all high on the agenda for regular top team consideration.

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