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Sunday, 29 July 2012

Is The Business Growing Away From Some of Your People? Time to Take Action!

I constantly find it strange that certain subjects seem to crop up in numbers during one-to-ones with my Vistage group members, rather in the manner of buses.

This past couple of weeks it has been the hoary old issue of the business growing away from the abilities of certain members of the management team and we discussed them at length in the monthly group meeting.

It is a subject fraught with indecision and emotion, always difficult to resolve unless the leader is the ruthless, decisive type with a low compassion level.

In many years of being involved with Managing Directors and Chief  Executives I have to say that I have yet to meet one with those characteristics (fortunately). 

In the main your average leader (if there is such an animal) is outwardly confident, articulate, assertive, self-reliant and all the other good things.  Underneath, however, they can often be a quivering mass of doubt and insecurity.

This is not to be critical of them; rather it demonstrates their inherent humanity without which there would be no chance of building a team of like minded people.

So what to do when the light dawns that a loyal, long standing member of the team is showing that they can no longer keep up with new ideas, new methods and change in general?

It’s the classic case of someone who joins in a start up right at the beginning, puts in long hours and demonstrates total dedication to assist the leader to build the business,

Often, promotion follows and they can finish up on the Board, running departments and generally still at the heart of the business.

And then what happens?  The company is now flush with new, perhaps younger, members of the new team, all with the enthusiasm of a bonded team driving the business forward. 

And then, in the background, the old stager sits, head shaking and loud tutting going on, with all the old clich├ęs of “it wouldn’t work – we’ve done it before – you wouldn’t understand – you don’t know enough about the customers or the industry” and so on and so on.

It sucks all the energy out of a meeting and can reduce it to a discussion of minor trivialities which contributes nothing.

The great leaders manage to combine kindness and compassion with good judgement and the ability to be decisive when it is needed.

Situations like this invariably demand judgement and decisiveness first, later to be tempered with kindness and compassion.  Long term loyalty and acceptable performance has contributed to the success of the business and that must never be forgotten.

It is always possible, of course, to help the team member with re-training or counselling. However, it must never be an excuse for inaction and these are many ways to smooth the path for exit which must be well  planned in advance.

In the short run, however, it’s JFDI time again.


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Sunday, 22 July 2012

Building a Team? Take the Lead from Team Sky and Bradley Wiggins!

In their great book, The Puritan Gift, Kenneth and Will Hopper list the four basic criteria by which the early settlers in America organised their lives and their future.

They were (and I paraphrase) to establish the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, to use, exploit and value technology, to organise and harness resources in all senses to maximise effectiveness and to suborn the needs of the individual to those of the group.

These highly moral maxims were taken up by the leaders of what have been called the Great Engines of Growth, those companies in America during the 19th and early 20th century which led the way on the management of great businesses.  Perhaps we can substitute The American Dream for the first of those statements.

It all came to mid over the past three weeks during which I have been glued to the TV and iPad watching the highlights of the Tour de France and wondering at the astonishing athleticism shown by the bike riders.

Somme four years ago, the guru of British cycling, David Brailsford with others decided that it was time for a British rider to win the Tour, a feat never accomplished in the 99 years of its existence.

Accordingly he obtained sponsorship from Sky TV and sated categorically that it was the intention to win the Tour in five years time.  The doubters, gloom mongers and naysyers had a field day,

Undeterred, he assembled a team (note the word, team) of highly accomplished riders including three from the UK. Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome and the road race World Champion, Mark Cavendish.

They put together a technological back-up group covering every possible aspect of the needs of the team from nutrition to aerodynamics and started pout on the quest.  Nothing was left to chance.

The team make up was predicated on supporting Bradley Wiggins to win and everything they did was directed to that end.  The objective and the dream had been established, the best possible players brought into the team, the supporting technology was there and all resources were marshalled to drive the maximum benefit.

In 20101 Bradley Wiggins came fourth in the Tour and that encouraged the team to the realisation that the great dream was a reality.  In 2011 he crashed out in the early stages with a broken collar bone.
Undeterred, Team Sky went for it this year and at the time of writing, it is likely that Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome will come first and second this afternoon in the Champs Elysee and it is equally feasible that Mark Cavendish will win the stage.
This amazing result is unquestionably due to the total dedication of the whole team, riders and back-up alike, to the four criteria of the Puritans, again with the possible substitution of the dream and objective of success in the most gruelling race on the planet.
To see how the team members rallied round Wiggins at crucial times, helping and encouraging him, even though they were suborning their own glory and abilities to the greater good, has been an object lesson.
In the press conferences, Wiggins, modestly,  has always emphasised the team rather than his own strengths and has paid fulsome tribute to their dedication and commitment.
It is, of course, a great metaphor for business. To have the vision and the dream, to assemble a team of great performers, to exploit the use of technology and to marshal resources for maximum effectiveness, is the function of all leaders.
Get the right people on the bus?  Perhaps t should be on their bikes.

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Sunday, 15 July 2012

Trust Your People – They’re Not All Coin Operated!

Some time ago I was lecturing at a Business School to a class of owner managers of SMEs when it became obvious that one of  the students was distracted.

At the break I asked him what was the problem and he told me a sad, on the face of it, story.

He was the son and the succession in a successful contracting business started and run by his father.  He had always made it quite clear to his fellow students and me that he had a very low opinion of his workforce and considered that “they only come to work to earn their money which is too much anyway and they don’t give a toss about the company”

A few days previously his father had marched into his office, thrown down a bunch of keys and said, in essence:

“I’ve had enough, you can take over from now and I’m off to Spain with your secretary”

”But Dad” he said, “We’re supposed to be going to the bank tomorrow to renew the facility and you have always done that negotiation.  I really need you to be there”

Rather reluctantly Dad agreed and they went off together the next day to see the bank manager (remember when we had bank managers?  I told you it was some time ago)

The manager emerged from the depths, greeted them, told them he was about to retire and introduced them to his successor, a beady eyed, unsmiling youth.

“Come on” he said to Dad: “We’ll leave the young folk together to get acquainted and we’ll go and have a long l lunch”

The new manager listened to the son of the business and in the end said:

“I don’t think that we will be interested in renewing the facility.  You had better see if you can refinance in some way”

We decided that the class should discuss the problem of what he should do and the consensus was that he should speak to his workforce, much as he disliked them, and tell them the position, which surprisingly he agreed to do.

The next week he came back and reported.  He had assembled the workforce and told them that the business was running out of cash and the situation was grave.  They asked him to go out of the room so that they could discuss the position and after a while he was asked back in.

“This is what we are prepared to do” they told him: ”We suggest that you don’t pay us for the next two week and then pay us  three weeks in four.  You can put it right when the business is back on its feet”. 

The came the killer statement:

“You have always been good employers and we want to see this business succeed.  Will that help?”

Will it help?  He went off to tell the story to the new bank manager who said:

“If you have a workforce that will do that for you, I am prepared to extend the facility without any problem” (I did say that it was some time ago)

And the moral of this story?  Most people are not coin operated and they do have thoughts, feelings and emotions.

For the cynics amongst us, yes, someone, sometime, will take advantage, but it is likely to be such a small proportion is isn’t worth the consideration.

If you trust your people and, more to the point, demonstrate that trust visibly, then the likelihood is that it will be repaid over and over again.

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Sunday, 8 July 2012

Don't Just Do Something - Stand There! Is That You?

At the quarterly National Vistage Chair meeting last week, as usual, I came across several nice maxims that I have stored away to take a look at sometime in the future.

One of them, from my friend and colleague, John Thorpe, had some considerable resonance for me as it applies to life, never mind just business.

This neat piece of neo-Platonic philosophy says:

·       We always get more of what we tolerate

What it says to me is that the longer that we tolerate business situations like bad behaviour, bad attitude, poor performance and so on, then the position gets worse, not better.  The same applies to those often mundane tasks which we know need to be done but somehow we just don’t get round to doing them.


The key word is, of course, tolerate. Another way of looking at it is “sweep it under the carpet” or “ignore it and it might go away” and does it?  Very seldom, if ever.

It is really about procrastination which can be defined as the act of voluntarily putting off a task despite consciously knowing that one will be worse off for having done so

When I re-read that it gave me a cold shiver as I know that I am guilty of the dreaded act on occasions, often in not writing that letter or making that telephone call which I know is important.

Why are we like that?  Why do we not automatically bite the metaphorical bullet and do the necessary?  What advantage do we think that we will gain b ignoring the situation?

The reason is usually a like or dislike situation.  We naturally prefer tasks that we like to do or are good at, to those which we dislike and which may cause us another problem, so we put them off.

The solution is a matter of determination and most leaders have that is spades.  Still, they can be as guilty as the next person of putting off those unappealing tasks which never seem to go away.

However, if it is determination which can help, then perhaps a little system could be brought into play.

I am not a great lover of lists but a to-do list with no more than five genuine priority items can be really helpful.   The key is to include on the list all those items which are being put off for some reason, assess the value of settling them, and be determined to take action.

Tick each one off as you do it and give yourself a pat on the back, or even a cream bun as a reward.

Don’t, please, be like a past Vistage member who, when I asked to see his to-do list, rather shamefacedly printed it off and it had 75 items on it.  It was more a “I really need to get round to doing something about this lot someday” list.

People and situations don’t get better for being ignored and tolerated.  The nice thing about doing something that we have been putting off for ages is that it engenders a sense of satisfaction and achievement.

We always get more of what we tolerate.  Leadership is about taking action both quickly and visibly.  It’s that JFDI all over again!

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Sunday, 1 July 2012

Do You Still Talk to Your People? Did You Ever Talk to Your People?

Some time ago I was asked by a client to undertake what he said was a rather sensitive assignment.  When I asked about the brief it really lived up to its description: “Morale is terrible and we need to know why”.

“Is that it?”  I asked

“That’s it” I was told: “Go and talk to everyone and find out what is going on”.

Notwithstanding that the directors should, I thought, be doing just that themselves, I started out to see if I could get to the bottom of the problem.

My first interview was with the longest serving employee, the Chief Buyer.  I should point out that the company was a very successful mail order business and good purchasing was at the heart of all they had accomplished. 

She told me that when the business has started up about six years previously, it was run by four directors and the aforesaid buyer, all working in one room and generating lots of energy and excitement.

She went on to say that things weren’t “like a family any more” and she was pretty unhappy.  She said that now, if her office door happens to be open and if the Managing Director happens to be passing and he happens to look in and see her, he may just give her a perfunctory wave before rushing on, and that is on a good day.

Of course, businesses grow and change but not always for the better.  The initial stages of a start up are genuinely exciting and everyone feels that they are a vital part of the growth and success.

Growth brings with it changes of roles and it is obvious that moving to conventional offices will generate a different atmosphere from the original five people in one room.  Cosiness and togetherness gives way to efficiency (sometimes).

I remembered the example of one of my Vistage members who religiously, every day, took at least an hour to go into the business, on to the shop floor, and just talk to the people.   The positive effect on morale was electric and measurable.

The fact is that no-one likes to feel rejected and the Chief Buyer was going through the trauma of feeling just that.  The fact was that she was still performing at a high level simply because she was dedicated and loyal, but without a lot of enthusiasm.

Of course, the answer lies not in the appointment of a clever consultant to dive in and sort out the problem.  It lies in the ability, indeed the willingness, of the management, from the top down, to relate to the people in the business and to talk to them like the human beings that they are.

Too often our people come in to work, take off their coats and hang them up, take off their brains and hang them up too until it’s time to go home when they put on their brains and their coats and leave.

Treat them like real human beings with feelings and interests outside the business and that dreadful feeling of rejection and disinterest on the part of the management will dissipate to the advantage of everyone.

Go talk to your people – you might just learn something.

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