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Sunday, 21 May 2017

Looking For Talent In The Business? Try The Project Method!

In recent one-to-one discussions with some of the members of my Vistage CEO peer group, as usual there has been a topic that seemed to be everywhere.

In virtually every business and certainly in the larger ones the question of succession for the leadership becomes a vital thread through the whole management of the company.  Selection of members of the team who have leadership qualities is a complex and long term exercise and is one that should be a priority for the leader.


“The primary function of a leader is NOT to create followers but to create more leaders.”

It is almost a truism to suggest that unless new leaders are identified and developed then the future of the business is at stake.

The identification of talent in the business should be a primary objective of any leader.  My Vistage CEO peer group has just had the pleasure of an exceptioal presentation on Talent Management from Elizabeth Mills (www.talentcheck.co.uk) who demonstrated a very valuable and usable model for assessing the talent in the business.

Statistically there will always be someone in the organisation who has different and sometimes exceptional qualities that don’t necessarily show themselves in normal run of activity.

Some years ago in another life I attended a conference of senior executives in the business (a listed manufacturing corporate) and around 60 members of the team attended.  The programme was run by a group of academics from Manchester University and proved to be fascinating.

One of the exercises required us to go into breakout groups (wouldn’t you know) and work on an insoluble problem, in essence to find the least worst solution.  A psychologist was allocated to each group to monitor the results that were said to be an exercise in decision making.

We were told to elect a chairman for the exercise and as each group had a director of the company in every case oddly he was elected to be chairman.

When the psychologists reported to the meeting afterwards it transpired that the exercise had actually been set to identify potential leaders rather than how the decisions were made and the results were the same from each of the breakout groups.

In every instance the director was elected leader and each group promptly ignored them and another member of the group took the lead and ran the session.

Learning from this experience leads me to suggest that using small SWAT teams to work on specific projects would be a great way to uncover prospective leaders.

Every business has small projects that can materially assist operations but all too often they go by the board because there is no champion to ensure that they are set up.  At the same time, membership needs to be selected from as wide a range of levels as is relevant so that as much potential talent as possible is involved.

Make sure that the teams are given B-HAGs (big hairy audacious goals is the clean version) so that people are stretched.

Monitoring these SWAT teams’ results and modus operandi  will soon uncover those people who are potential leaders.

This is not a short term exercise.  It takes time to identify and foster talent and crucially to ensure that they are happy in the business and want to stay.

Elizabeth Mills’ talent model develops the theme and makes succession planning far more likely to be successful.

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Sunday, 14 May 2017

Selling Great Products? It’s The Problem You Need To Solve!

One of my colleagues in the Vistage chair community in the USA, Larry Cassidy, makes a great point when he says:
  • “Sell the problem you solve, not the product”

and that seems to me encapsulate the true purpose of sales, particularly B2B.

The trouble is that we also seem to mix up marketing and sales when in fact they are vastly different in purpose, delivery, design and scope.

In simple terms marketing is that essential exercise that uncovers the potential for the business through research and the generation of awareness and interest in the market.

It demands rigour in identifying potential customers or clients and then using appropriate techniques to make contact and generate interest and hence leads.

Conventional marketing used to use a metaphorical hopper into which just about any possible potential is loaded, passed down through filters eventually resulting in  a small number of genuinely potential customers.

Today, because research techniques have been greatly enhanced by technology, it is more attractive and certainly more effective to identify precisely the potential customers with whom you want to deal and then make contract with them.

Social media, both free or paid for via SEO (search engine optimisation) or PPC (pay per click) is becoming the medium of choice. Conventional advertising methods using broadcast and print still have a place as does PR and in the end good marketing will make the right decision as to the most appropriate media to use.

This by no means obviates the need for a very professional approach and indeed attitude to sales.  In fact it strengthens  it and demands that every sales meeting should be conducted with technique and purpose.

The days of enormous outside sales forces have, perhaps as a consequence, largely disappeared and sales visits can fall to almost anyone in an organisation capable of developing relationships.

In my early days in engineering sales I was a specialist product engineer assisting the northern half of our sales force of 120 to develop market penetration.

As Larry Cassidy says we need to solve the problem and therefore we need to identify the problem.  More’ s the point the customer needs to identify the problem, its significance and what needs to be done about it.

Not every customer can articulate what is needed and it is then the function of the sales person to assist through focused questioning.

My old sales mentor, Phil Copp, the sage of Wythenshawe, was a ferocious and forensic questioner and taught me how to do it. Most importantly he was an equally dedicated listener and that permitted him to wait until the problem had been exposed and he could show how it could be solved.

His use of “what….” and “how…” questions was masterly and he would drill down with “and what else?” until he felt that he had enough information to pounce.

So many sales people fall into the trap of becoming vocal catalogues and list everything that their company can supply in the hope that something might strike home. Too often it is a vain hope and another sales call fails.

Identify the companies with which you want to do business together with the appropriate purchasing influence, make contact, discover the problem they have through judicious questioning and listening then offer a solution to their problem.

It is that easy and using it will vastly improve sales force productivity and results.  What more could you ask?

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Sunday, 7 May 2017

Moving From CEO To Chairman? You Have To Stop Interfering!

One of the most difficult and often painful decisions any leader has to make is when to move aside and let the younger generation take over.

This is particularly significant if the leader is an owner manager of a business and even more so for the founder.

Over the years with Vistage I have seen many examples of the consequences of this quandary, some good and some very bad indeed.

On the face of it the solution is simple.  Just move up from being a full-time CEO and promote yourself to be Chairman preferably non-executive. At the same time the question of the shareholdings needs to be addressed.

Would that it were so simple. I remember a situation where this happened after the owner had given his two sons 50/50 control of the shares via a trust and he moved to be a very non-executive director.

An excellent solution one would think. He still popped into the business occasionally and pottered about dispensing the wisdom of many years to all and sundry and that made him happy.   

However on occasions he might just offer an opinion that went contrary to that of the sons and because he was who he was his opinion tended to be viewed as a directive and that caused friction.

Eventually he realised the difficulty and retired completely and that solved the issue.

The point to emphasise is that the roles of CEO and Chairman are vastly different and each one must be defined and strictly adhered to.

A good scheme is to appoint a short term trusted advisor to act as moderator and to see fair play is maintained.

The real problem is that there is usually a strong emotional bond that needs to be severed and that is where the pain comes in.  

I have seen examples of a Chairman honestly trying to pull back to allow the successors a free rein but succumbing  to the lure of  being needed and frankly, interfering.

Conversely there is the example of an owner who passed the business on to his son, kept out of the way and allowed him all the freedom that he wanted. Good on him, I hear you say, but he retained all the shares in the business and had “little chats” with the son from time to time. Result?  Irritation and frustration.

There are two major issues here. One is the question of planned succession and the other is how to cope with the psychological and emotional trauma of apparently no longer being needed. You can only play so much golf before the novelty wears off.

Planning the succession needs to be started at the earliest possible stage so that everyone is well aware of who will take over and when it is likely to happen.  The big decision must be, what is the new life going to look like?

It takes a strong will to refrain from interference. To avoid that potential pitfall planning the next phase of your life is essential. You need to know what you intend to do - in other words renew your dreams and design a new and exciting future.

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Monday, 1 May 2017

Just Made A Dodgy Decision? Beware Cognitive Dissonance!

Recently there seems to have been a spate of U-turns, changes of mind, “alternative facts” and even some downright falsehoods from a number of politicians all over the world.

Perhaps this isn’t unusual but it does bring to mid a problem of communication that can be very damaging in a business.

It is that situation where someone makes a decision or a statement, finds that it is incorrect or misleading but then defends it to the death.

Psychologists call it cognitive dissonance that is defined as the mental stress (discomfort) experienced by a person who simultaneously holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values; when performing an action that contradicts one of those beliefs, ideas, or values; or when confronted with new information that contradicts one of those beliefs, ideas or values.

That is the broad picture but it needs a little more examination.  It indicates a level of uncertainty in making a decision and this is compounded when subsequent to making a decision more evidence comes to light that changes the picture.

Normally one would expect to consider the evidence and then come to a conclusion; either change the original decision or maintain and justify it.

Changing the decision can be a very tough call.  It can bring on the fear of being regarded as indecisive, or vacillating, or worst of all if you happen to be a politician, of committing the ultimate sin of making a U-turn.

A leader needs to have and to exhibit humility, and demonstrating that one can adjust one’s thinking and change one’s mind demands a good measure of it.

To accept that one has made an incorrect judgement and to change it visibly needs strength of character and a lack of fear of the possible consequences.

It is all about how we care about what other people apparently may think about us.  If that is a dominant feature in your psyche then the likelihood is that you could descend into rigidly maintaining the status quo whatever the consequences.  In other words cognitive dissonance kicks in and the decision is defended to all and sundry irrespective of the potential outcome.

On the other hand a leader who feels secure,  is comfortable and isn’t concerned with what people may think about him/her, will be able to change a decision and justify it logically.

It seems to me that cognitive dissonance is a potential blight on leadership and consequently on the activity in the whole organisation.  It implies rigidity of thinking and attitude when flexibility and agility are far more desirable and appropriate.

Fear not what others think or say about you.  In the end it is your true self-confidence, your attitude, behaviour and values as a leader that matter above all.  

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Sunday, 23 April 2017

How Do You Measure Your Performance? Do You Know Your PB?

There are very many motivational injunctions plastered all over social media these days that it takes careful judgement to select one or two that are more than just platitudes.

Indeed one of the most relevant that I know I leaned many years ago probably while I was still at school and strangely I haven’t seen it on Twitter or Facebook.

“Good, Better, Best
I will never rest
Till my Good is Better
And my Better, Best”

It is axiomatic that what we are always seeking from our people and indeed ourselves is a commitment to self improvement.  

We can do something about ourselves but as far as our people are concerned the best that we can do is to create an environment in which anyone can strive to go down the Good, Better, Best route.

Should we try to achieve any improvement by some dramatic change?  It takes a step change in thinking to visualise a different path and it may be beyond the abilities of many of us, not least me.

US Vistage speaker and very wise sage, Lee Thayer, says that change needs to be dramatic to have any impact and that may well be the case.  It all depends on the individual’s desire to improve and the environment that encourages it.

However I also like the concept of kai-zen or incremental improvement as long as the sense of purpose is strong.  If the individual can measure the results and see the improvement then the eventual outcome can be dramatic.

I remember hearing Joe Simpson, the renowned mountaineer, tell the story of climbing in the Andes and breaking his leg on a crevasse.  His companion, as previously arranged and understood, cut him loose and he fell into a snow drift.

He decided that he was going to get back to base camp somehow and started to crawl.  However, rather than setting an objective that was almost unimaginable, he gave himself short steps such as getting to a large boulder in a determined time and then on to another small step (or crawl).

Amazingly he succeeded and arrived back at base camp just before they left.

Talk to any athlete and they know precisely what  their measured achievements have been and what they have in their mind as the next great outcome.

They all know their own PB, Personal Best, and that becomes the focus for improvement.

Many times you will hear them say that whatever the results of a race or field event, they feel really good because they now have a new PB.

The question then to ask is do you have a PB?  How do you measure it and what can you do to exceed it?

Most importantly when you have exceeded it, what is the next objective?

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Sunday, 16 April 2017

Communication Getting Difficult? Apply The KISS Principle!

Are you becoming overcome with the  complications of  life?  How we are given forms to complete for the most mundane reasons and they take ages to fill in ?

If we have a problem with technology, heaven forfend, how difficult it can be to put it right?

More to the point, how very complicated can our businesses become to the detriment of effectiveness?

The old saying that less is more is very easy to say but not always as easy to achieve.  I have noticed for example that this blog has grown in length from around 400 words a few years ago to generally around 650 words now and I wonder if I am just extending it because there is so much that I want to put into it.  I have to question whether it can just be padding.

A wise person said recently that we should question everything that we do in business.  Are we doing things right or just doing the right things?  A really important question is to ask if  we are overcomplicating whatever we do and can we by a little judicious pruning reduce the amount of effort needed while still achieving the same or even an enhanced outcome?

I recall a new member of my Vistage CEO peer group calling me before a meeting to ask if he could bring an  issue that was really bothering him.

He started to tell me and quite honestly I didn’t fully understand what was bothering him.  I suggested that he send me an email with a summary of the issue and I could study it.

It was about six feet long and almost incomprehensible. He started in the same vein at the meeting until someone said the the problem resolved itself into an employee who had been extremely effective and for some reason had gone off the boil.

The member looked a little miffed and said that was the case but it was a rather simplistic explanation.  Damn right it was and that exemplified the problem.

There are many instances when we want to explain a situation and bring every possible bit of evidence to substantiate our explanation.  This usually implies that decision making slows down because we feel that we need more and more evidence.

Worse than that is the expert trying to explain a complex subject to people who know little or nothing about it.  Try as they may the subject becomes less and less understandable and eyes begin to glaze over.

Finally there is matter of jargon.  Especially in business these days there is a dreadful preponderance of management-speak that again gets in the way of lucid thought.  People use jargon because it sounds good to them and makes them feel expert.

I recall an “expert” on the radio saying that “consumers found it difficult to engage with our bills”.  What on earth does that mean?

It all gets in the way of good communication and causes more problems than it solves.  The KISS principle of communication is more and more relevant.

KISS = Keep It Short and Simple.  

That way you are far more likely to be understood.

(I did try, 530 words this time!)

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Sunday, 9 April 2017

Is Your Business Consistent? Beware Of Becoming Dull!

I am currently in the process of reading (actually, listening to) a remarkable book that has been listed by the Sunday Times.  It is Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari and it is described as a Brief History of Humankind.

Among the many startling statements that he makes is one that really had me thinking.  He says that:

Consistency is the product of dull minds

Now there’s a thought.  I had always considered that any business that wanted to to be at the forefront of its sector needed to show a range of attributes such as honesty, transparency, enthusiasm, innovation, supreme service and consistency in everything that they do.

Perhaps we should examine the real meaning and hence the implications of the word itself to see why it should be so described.

The accepted usage of the word (Wikipedia) is as follows:

Consistent behaviour or treatment.
"the consistency of measurement techniques"
evenness, steadiness, stability, constancy, regularity, uniformity, equilibrium, unity, orderliness, dependability, reliability, lack of change, lack of deviation.
"the downward trend in consumption shows a remarkable degree of consistency"

We certainly want to give our customers the feeling that they are dealing with a business that is dependable, orderly, reliable but not to the extent of being boring and perhaps too predictable.

The really relevant words there are “lack of change, lack of deviation”.

Frankly we do want to be consistent in the way that we deal with our customers.  They need to feel that there will be no negative surprises in the product, quality or service that we offer so that they will have above all that very desirable outcome for any purchasing department, peace of mind.

This means that all those great qualities of which we are justly proud like service, product and above all quality should be taken as givens.

However, the definition that includes “lack of change” needs to be  considered more closely.  Customers generally want to think that they are at the cutting edge of innovative thought and as a consequence they need to deal with suppliers that exemplify that attribute.

In fact that old quote that “the only constant in the business is change” becomes really significant.  The more I look at the word “consistency” the more I wonder about just how important it is.

Whether a business goes in for dramatic change or whether it prefers the kai-zen approach of incremental change, both are necessary to prevent the business from stultifying.

Any business that prefers to send out a message of “no change” will very swiftly be overtaken by more agile companies that don’t go for the “we’ve always done it this way” approach.

Positive change is the lifeblood of any go ahead business.  Make sure that if you are to be consistent, then be a consistent and enthusiastic communicator and innovator.

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