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Sunday, 19 November 2017

Planning Your Succession? Don’t Leave It Too Late!

During this last week I came across an example of leadership that was both unusual and reassuring.

So many times I have experienced situations where the leader, mostly an owner manager, is ploughing on, running the business, getting older and not considering what needs to be done or even what might happen.

In one instance I asked the owner of a medium sized engineering company employing around 50 souls what his plans were for exiting the business.

He was over 65 years old, currently fit and in full command of his faculties.  He looked at me as if I had just asked when he thought that he might die.

“I haven’t the slightest idea,” he said.  “I have no intention of giving up.  If I did, I would have nothing to do and I couldn’t live like that/”

I sympathised with his attitude.  I certainly don’t intend to retire until my faculties really do pack in and for the same reason.

However, I don’t own a business that employs people and as long as I am able and my mind holds out then I can reasonably keep going.

My old colleague in the US, Pat Hyndman, used to say before he died still in harness at the age of 95 that he intended to keep going until they had to carry him out on the flip chart and I feel much the same.

Not so the business owner.  As we age the potential for sudden inability to continue gets closer and unless there is some plan, in the mind at least if not exactly specified, then it can cause real problems.

I was asked during my consultancy days, to help out with a business in which the owner/manager had died suddenly leaving his wife, who knew nothing about the business, the new sole owner.  It was too late; the accountants had got their hands on it and were planning to  extract the assets while the business was still viable.  A sad experience.

On the other hand, I had a member of my Vistage CEO peer group whose husband had succumbed to a dread wasting disease and was unable to continue to run the business.  Very bravely she, with no experience of this technically complex operation, dived in and by dint of great determination, saved the company and ran it successfully until such time as she eventually sold it.

There are no hard and fast rules other than sensible planning at a stage when the owner begins to realise that he/she is not immortal.

Back to the beginning.  This week’s leadership lesson involves two partners in a successful business, both aged in the late 50s and desirous a beginning to take it rather more easy.  Very sensibly they discussed the matter and though they had been in sole charge of the business they decided to build a management team that could take the business forward without their constant input.

This included assessing the existing talent in the  company, determining what functions needed to be strengthened, promoting good people into the top team and then, crucially, giving them training to help develop them as leaders.

That, to my mind, is a forward looking, eminently pragmatic approach to what can be an intractable problem if left to fester.  All too often I have known people who ostensibly hand over the reins of a business to the next generation only to keep on as a looming presence without power except that of being a parent.  It is called interference and it doesn’t help and it doesn’t work.

Succession planning for a sensibly organised exit from a business is the right thing to do.  It can be very painful but if the business is to continue to thrive then it is essential.  The clever thing is to start before you realise that it is necessary.

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Sunday, 12 November 2017

Can You Identify The Real Issue? Cut Through The Stuff And Focus!

One of the most important features of any meeting of a Vistage CEO peer group is the executive session where members’ issues are discussed, analysed and receive opinions as to a possible solution.

The real crux of the presentation of an issue to the group is that of focus; the ability to explain the significance of the issue in as few well chosen words as possible without resorting to an overabundance of evidence.

I recall that a very good friend of mine decamped from his accountancy career, pleading justifiable sanity, and set up a business offering advice and consultancy in the dark art of networking at which he was (and is) very proficient.

Nowadays if you haven’t been “Kintished” (www.kintish.co.uk) then you are missing a trick.

When he decided to break out on his own we discussed the matter and he made it clear that he would not be doing his own financial accounting, he would not be doing any administration, he would be hiring very competent people to do all that for him.

He referred to those tasks as “stuff”, all of which he recognised were essential but at which he was not proficient.  Better that he should exploit what he considered his expertise and that was training people to network effectively.

That was more than ten years ago and he has been very successful without having to resort to doing “stuff.”

I had a new member of my Key Executive group who called me a couple of days before the meeting to ask if he could bring up an issue.  I, of course, agreed and asked for a resume of his problem. However, rather than discuss it on the telephone he sent me an email.

It was pages long, full of explanations and evidence and it took real effort to decide on the precise issue.

At the meeting he continued in this vein until I stopped him in full flow and asked if the issue was that the attitude and behaviour of a good member of his staff had suddenly and seriously deteriorated.

He thought for a minute and then said:

“Well yes, but that is very simplistic.”

Too right it was simplistic but isn’t that what we need to achieve if we are to focus on what is the real issue?

So many decisions in business are made while being cluttered with vast amounts of evidence that may well be relevant but are not significant when making the decision.

We can know too much about everything in the business and often seem to need the reassurance of every bit of information before making a considered decision.  Indeed a past member of my Vistage CEO group told me that while his Operations Director was highly competent he was unable to make a decision because he could never have enough information.

Business these days is a mass of complexities and the great leaders have the, perhaps inborn, ability to cut through all the “stuff’ and get to the crux of the matter.  It is called focus and those who have mastered it are really ahead of the game.

My business hero, the late Jim Slater, who incidentally was an accountant, would never allow more than twenty minutes for discussion of the accounts at a board meeting.   What was likely to happen and affect the business going forward was more important.

The accounts were an expression of the past and the more important attention must be given to what objectives we intended to achieve.

That is a great example of focus and a great lesson that we can all learn.

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Sunday, 5 November 2017

Change Is Inevitable! Are You An Early Adopter?

Two very interesting statistics came to my notice this week:

·   Cities and towns cover 2.7% of the surface of the planet, over 50% of the world population live there, they use 75% of all the energy produced and in turn, they produce 80% of all emissions.

·   Of a total world population of 7billion, 5billion have mobile (cell) phones and there are more than 7 billion in use.  Moreover the estimate is that smart phone usage itself will exceed 5.1 billion by 2019.

Both of these stats emphasise the dramatic changes that have taken place on this planet over the past fifty or so years.  Dramatic isn’t really a strong enough word; extraordinary is probably nearer the truth.

The fact is that the rate of change in the last fifty years has been exponential and this has taken with it the rate of change in the availability of data that is readily available to us via Google and other search engines.

As usual, the gloom mongers and naysayers tell us that the web is a repository of incorrect, dangerous and misleading information and we should therefore treat it with great care and suspicion.  For goodness sake, we have been saying that about newspapers for years so what is so different?

One of the most compelling effects of these changes has been the compression of time; not actually but apparently.  We now expect a response to our communication, probably through text or email, in hours and preferably minutes, whereas even twenty years ago, we had to wait for a snail mail response which could take days if not weeks.

Urgency has shortened, we are constantly distracted by that ping which tells us that another text message or email has arrived and we must read it and reply instantly.

We can see the demise of email, possibly in the next ten years as the use of messaging on social networking sites takes over.  And how long will those social networking platforms last before something else arrives out of left field to improve our lives?

None of this is right or wrong, good or bad.  It is simply the reality of the way in which our lives have been changed and it is up to us as to whether is for the better.

Sure, we can contract out if we wish; it is always a matter of choice.  For example, we can change the cities and the environment by moving out and living a simpler, less compressed existence in the country.

The fact is that aspirations and expectations among those currently living outside the cities will inevitably draw them there to live a more fulfilled existence in an urban environment, as they see it (mostly on TV).  The movement of population from the countryside to the cities especially in China has been and continues to be, a growing trend.

Change is inevitable and while we can always decide not to join that club, change will still happen around us and by definition affect the way we live.  Saying that we are not interested in modern technology is a very King Canute-like approach and just as effective.

By far the best way is to embrace these exciting changes and use them for our benefit.

A hermit who had been in a cave for the last fifty years emerged to find these dramatic changes.  He mentioned it to the first person he met who said: 

“I have in my pocket a device that can access all the knowledge in the world”

“That is amazing” said the hermit: “What do you use it for?”

“Mainly for looking at pictures of dogs and cats and having bitter arguments with total strangers”

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Sunday, 29 October 2017

Don’t Hold It All In - Talk To Someone About It!

The more I talk to leaders the more I have come to realise that under that strong, confident, assertive, committed exterior there lies a bubbling mass of insecurity and uncertainty.  Not in every case, it must said, but definitely in many.
It is also remarkable how few leaders understand and accept the situation and then do something to resolve the situation.  Possibly one of the reasons for inaction is an inherent reluctance to ask for help or even that they don’t really know what to do about it.
The answer is usually to swallow foolish pride and ask someone else for their thoughts on the matter, what can be done and how best to do it.
The underlying problem is almost invariably one that has been seen before and even if it is absolutely new, which is unlikely, then a sensible discussion with someone can be enormously helpful.  Again, it is curious how often the very act of talking about a problem to a trusted and trustworthy colleague who just listens can help to solve a problem.
Innately we almost always have the solution to a problem within us; we just don’t want to accept the solution that in many cases can be difficult to accept and achieve.
My years of experience chairing Vistage CEO peer groups have shown me how powerful the peer group approach can be.  Members with what they consider to be an intractable problem, bring it to the group who are supportive and interested, and what is more, have probably experienced much the same thenselves.
Add to that the ability to talk to a trusted mentor on a regular one-t-one basis and the leader has a very effective support system to get over those seemingly difficult issues which plague us all from time to time.
The worst thing that the leader can do is to hold it all in and hope that it will go away.  Sometimes it does but mostly it doesn’t and usually goes worse.
Professor Steve Peters in his brilliant book, The Chimp Paradox, says that during the night the Chimp brain is in the ascendant while the Human brain is asleep so when problems wake us from sleep we react emotionally.  It needs some effort to box the chimp, to reassure it that everything is being sorted out and it can relax.
Even so that emotional side of our personality is very strong, said to be five times as powerful as the human or rational side and it takes some considerable effort to explain to the chimp that everything will turn out to be alright.
Certainly a very effective answer is to grasp the nettle (or bite the bullet) and talk about it to a dedicated listener or listeners.  They will not be emotional about your issue and will usually give sensible and pragmatic advice often based on their experience.
Reacting emotionally to a problem can be useless and draining.  Do you remember at the Tour de France in 2016 when Chris Froome crashed into a motorcycle and his bike was damaged?  He started to RUN up the course until his support car arrived when he took a new bike and finished the stage.
A journalist was astonished that evening at how calm Froome was after such a traumatic event until he (Froome) pointed out that the event was over and done with.  Nothing could be achieved by worrying about it so his only reaction was to think of what to do next in a positive light.
He went on to win the Tour.

If we are mentally strong enough to achieve that ourselves, congratulations.  Talking it over with someone without emotion is by far the best alternative for most of us.

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Sunday, 22 October 2017

Entrepreneurship, Nature or Nurture? It Certainly Needs a Dream!

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.

Success comes about through a combination of innate curiosity, a strong belief in one’s own abilities and a desire to create something new for a market that may be
well. There is a magic blend of positive personal characteristics and an eminently marketable idea.

Unsurprisingly then I always 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 act of creation, whether overt or hidden, is exciting, is enjoyable and delivers a strong sense of 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 failure, 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 course for unemployed executives called "Start and Manage Your Own Business" and it really opened my eyes.

Many of the participants had been in the public sector or had been in middle management in the private sector.  It rapidly became evident that for many the lure of Government grants and loans were far lore a driver than the prospect of having to build a business with all the attendant problems.

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. Moreover the lack of a vision of what success looks like is even more significant.

In fact all of the operational 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 allot 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 here the business is going; that they know what success looks like.

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. 

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Sunday, 15 October 2017

Personal Assistant or Executive Assistant? First Define The Role For Both of You!

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am a keen listener to the BBC World Service and recently they ran a programme on Global Business discussing the appointment of personal assistants (PAs).

Past title was traditionally secretary and now it is common to call the secretary a PA and the PA the Executive Assistant (EA).

The stereotypical PA is female and the programme made the point that only 1% are male.  Just why this is was not discussed.

Recently one of the members of my Vistage CEO peer group told me that his part-time PA would be away for possibly six months on maternity leave and he was considering appointing a full-time replacement while making sure that his existing PA would have another opportunity in the business.

I suggested that he talk to other members of the group who have PAs who are fully involved in the business and this he did.

On reflection I also realise that not everyone in the group has a PA or even secretarial assistance while there are several who have truly excellent assistants in place.

I recall some years ago that one of my members suggested that he was considering appointing a PA although he was dubious as to whether he had enough work to justify the appointment.

He interviewed and eventually offered the job to a very suitable and experienced candidate.  She discussed with him the role and after some discussion he came to the realisation that he would be able to delegate a remarkable (to him) number of activities and tasks.

It didn’t take him long to realise that he had done exactly the right thing by taking on a PA and he could still indulge himself in writing letters and emails himself without needing to dictate them.

On the other hand I worked in the past with the leader of a very large conglomerate and he had a (male) personal assistant and a female secretary, before the onset of modern nomenclature and technology, let it be said.

The whole rationale for having a PA or EA starts with the purpose.  Why is there a need and what aspects of the CEO role can and should be delegated to an assistant?

The role definition is easier after that although it will always develop as the relationship develops and the level of mutual trust increases.

A great PA or EA can become the eyes and ears of the leader.  The position of the PA is anomalous to an extent as it encompasses the highly confidential aspects of the business while still not normally being an appointed executive of the company.

I believe that the PA plays a vital role in the management of any business and can be a valuable link to the next layers of management.

I find more and more that I contact PAs so as not to bother a member in the certain knowledge that my query or request will be actioned quickly and effectively.

Then there is the gatekeeper role where the PA makes absolutely certain that no-one gets past to the leader without being thoroughly examined and either passed or rejected.  Trying to speak to some leaders can be an exhausting experience as a consequence.

Some years ago I wrote (pre-blog) a newsletter and as I had some problems on getting through to some people, I offered a small prize to anyone who could suggest an approach that would smooth the path.

Among the more repeatable suggestions the winner was the one that ran thus:

“Does he know you and will he know what it is about?”

“Would you please tell him that we have the rubber suit that he ordered in his size in stock but not with the chains”?

“I’ll put you through”

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