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Sunday, 31 August 2014

Not Giving Clarity to Your People? Then Kick Out All Those Clich├ęs!

Ivan's Blog is reaching a landmark because on October 12th this year it will have been sent out every Sunday since October 2009, a total of 260 posts.

During that time it has achieved in excess of 50,000 page views.  I accept that it is not the sort of posting that is likely to go viral but I know that it has several dedicated readers and for that I am very grateful.

It has been interesting looking back at some of the early postings.  There was a time when I indulged myself in having a rant and I feel one coming on right now.

I am saddened by the apparent deterioration in English usage and particularly in the use of many words and phrases which are either irrelevant or are there just to fill in a space.

To illustrate, have you noticed how many times the word “basically” is used in conversation and very frequently by people answering questions in the media?

I hadn’t noticed this before and now it seems that everyone is using it and I am feeling overwhelmed.

Even more irritating is the ‘filler’ of “you know” or more normally “y’know.  In a broadcast I heard last night a lady of some presence and position used it so frequently that I genuinely couldn’t concentrate on what she was supposed to be saying.

Then we hear the overuse of ‘kind of'’, ‘sort of’, and if you are young enough, ‘like’ which has to be sprinkled widely throughout. Add to that there is a seeming need for reassurance by adding ‘right?’ to almost any statement.

In my days as an apprentice in the aircraft industry we had a famous (to us) labourer who had reduced the filler ‘you know what I mean’ to an incomprehensible but shorter ‘y’mean’.

It is all very well having a rant and it does make one feel better to get it off the proverbial chest but does it have any meaning in the business world?

Leadership is one of those intangibles that we seem to recognise but find difficulty in defining in a few words.

Certainly a major part of that definition would include clarity of communication and unless leaders give a good deal of though to not only what they are saying but also how they are saying it, then there will be no clarity.

One of my Vistage members says that leadership comprises appointing great people and effective communication.  A good definition?  I think so and it encapsulates the need for the leader to be able to explain ideas so that everyone understands them without further explanation.

It is a good (but sometimes depressing) technique to record oneself giving a talk or even a speech and note all of those words that mean nothing and get in the way of that much desired clarity.

In my infant class in my very early days, the redoubtable Miss Middleton taught us, on the pain of a good beating, never and I mean never to use the words ‘get’ or ‘got’.

Looking back over my blog posts I have defied Miss Middleton (Miggy to her friends) and I have used them on a few occasions, not without a certain fear of retribution.

So, basically, y’kmow, at the end of the day, would you 'actually' be able to eliminate all that rubbish and speak in real English, which is a beautiful, elegant and sophisticated language when properly used.  If so, like, cheers, right?

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Monday, 25 August 2014

Having Problems Finding Great People? You Shouldn’t Have Cut Your Training Costs!

With the improvement in the economy at least in the United Kingdom and the remarkable reduction in the level of unemployment come other issues for business that are not quite as palatable.

One of the real problems which surface time after time with the members of my Vistage groups is the problem of retention of good people and the difficulty in recruiting even better people.

During the years of the recession from around 2008 business logically cut every possible non-important expense and in some cases, even some very important (if long term) costs.

Normally the number crunchers in the business will recommend a reduction in marketing costs and a moratorium on training.

However many businesses are beginning to harvest the results of that disastrous strategy right now.

I remember in my corporate days we would work on a budget for the forthcoming year, which, in our view, was both attainable and stretching at least to some extent.

We could almost guarantee that the response from HQ was to say that turnover was inadequate as was the net profitability.  Accordingly we were “advised” to increase the turnover and the net profit by the simple expedient of reducing marketing costs and have a moratorium in training costs.

Of course we did as we were “advised” and the budget was passed.  It wasn’t achieved of course but we had a few months to prepare a defence.

The point is that training is NOT an expense; it is an essential investment in the future of the business.

With the growth in the economy and the subsequent demand for good people, comes the inevitable search in just about every sector for people who will help to move the business forward.

The problem is that recruiting at the higher levels in the business inevitably means that you will have to pay a premium on the market rate especially in the more affluent parts of the United Kingdom.

Added to this is another potential problem, that of the incomer bring with him/her the baggage from their previous employment and that is an issue, which may not have been explored at the interview stage.

Ken and Will Hopper in their great book, The Puritan Gift make the point that the great engines of growth, the vast businesses’ that dominated the economy in the United States between the wars relied heavily on growing their own talent.

Recruitment was seen as a secondary expedient and then only in essential circumstances.

The main reason was the lack of domain knowledge in the incoming personnel and the resultant hidden cost of bring them up to speed, which could take some time.

Far better they decided, to train the people in the “way that we do things around here” and as far as possible, from the earliest stage possible.

The question of domain knowledge is very significant and is one that can only be achieved by total immersion in the ethos of a business.

A normal spin-off from this strategy is a noticeable development in employee engagement, a consummation devoutly to be desired.

Recession can blunt the mind and seriously affect the thought processes to the extent that decisions are taken almost without any consideration of the longer-term effects.

There is no doubt that the businesses that kept their training programmes in place at all costs will now be seeing the benefit of the strategy.

Marketing needs to be done when you are busy; training needs to be done all the time.

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Marketing needs to be done when you are busy; training needs to be done all the time.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Important or Urgent? The Leader Delegates Except the Important, Non-Urgent Issues!

In my life as a Vistage Chairman, it has become apparent to me that a great deal of business time is devoted to trivia, irrelevancies and inconsequentialities.   On the other hand, far too little effort is put into assessing the real priorities in the business and devoting time and effort to them.

Too much time is spent on the urgent rather than the important.   If major effort is put into solely that which is urgent, then the consequences are, almost inevitably, fire fighting.  

A side issue is that emphasis on the urgent invariably begets “upward delegation” where the people don’t take responsibility for action.   In other words, no decisions are taken at any level other than the top.

This will inevitably lead to a “top down” culture with the leader doing everyone’s work for them.  It can develop into a “leave it to me, I’ll sort it out” approach by the leader which invariably means people back out of the decision making process.

If we consider a four-box matrix so beloved of consultants and denote the vertical axis Important with the horizontal axis as Urgent we can start to decide where the priorities lie.

It is perhaps self evident that if a task or occasion falls into the low importance, low urgency box then it doesn’t take much thought as to what action to take.

The high urgency, low importance box should be delegated and indeed should never even reach the desk of the leader.

The high importance, high urgency box demands action but not generally by the leader unless there is really business life threatening potential.  Mostly this should again be delegated but keeping the leader informed as to the action taken and the results of that action.

The really significant box and the one that is the sole province of the leader is the high importance, low urgency quadrant.

The import of the high importance, low urgency situation is almost always a function of forward thinking in the business and while this is not normally the sole prerogative of the leader, in the main it is the leader who will be more able to take hold of the issue and devote some serious thinking time to it.

Leaders and managers of businesses need to take time out to decide on what is truly important and then to ensure that all other matters are delegated.   However, if that freedom is to be given to managers then the quid pro quo is that they become accountable for their performance.  

The leadership can then assess performance and work out ways in which it can be improved, perhaps incrementally, and how they (the leadership) can assist.

A further quid pro quo is that there must be a “no blame” culture in the business.   Your people must be prepared to bring the bad news as well as the good without feeling that the messenger will be shot.   We learn far more from our mistakes than from our successes.

The leader should constantly be asking the questions: What should we do more of?  What should we do less of? and crucially, What should we STOP doing?

All of this takes a great leap of faith but the results can be startling.   The basis is that of simplicity, elimination of complexity and emphasis on the important.

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Sunday, 10 August 2014

Are You Stuck in a Commoditised Industry? Get Out of it by Being Visibly Different!

Product lifecycles generally go from an extremely innovative starting point through an development phase and very frequently, finish up as a commodity with a multitude of manufacturers and suppliers.

All well and good and we all have experience of products which have passed through this process.  Typical would be the ball point pen, stick-it notes and paper staplers.

All of these have been launched on to the market, gone through all the phases and are now a commodity with many companies supplying the same or at east similar products.

However just occasionally a product is launched which is so innovative that no0one seems to be able to copy it and it remains the leader in its field.

If products have this sort of lifecycle, what about companies and indeed commercial or industrial sectors themselves?

Look at your business and ask yourself, are we a truly innovative organisation or (and be honest about it) are we much the same as many other businesses in this field?

There is little point in kidding ourselves.  The market and the customers will soon find out where you are placed on the Innovation/Commodity continuum.

The sorry fat is that there are many commercial and industrial sectors of the economy that could be classed as being commoditised and many professional practices fall into this category as well.

This is not to say that many organisations that are, On the face of it, commoditised are necessarily unsuccessful.  It is perfectly possible to minimise and even eliminate risk and run the business satisfactorily but without much excitement.

It is, of course, unlikely that the business will stand out from the crowd or indeed rate particularly highly on a search engine.

It all depends on the business culture, what seems the right thing to do, how experimental are the leaders and managers and what level of risk is acceptable to them.

Take a look at what used to be the way to find a tradesman to do some work in your home, that is, by those massive catalogues listing just about every suppler of every service that you want or need.

How did we decide on which one to call?  Was it by locality, by the size of the advertisement, or the first one in the listing?

None of these bear any relationship to the ability of the person or business offering the service or the standard of service that we could expect until we start the telephoning process and try to find out.

What usually happens is that we ask friends or colleagues if they can recommend someone and so the “word of mouth” method was born.

It is all very inefficient even when the massive printed book is now replaced by a quick search on Google simply because some clever geek has used search engine optinisation to position the business on page one of the search.

It doesn’t mean that they are any different from anyone else; it is just that they have found a better SEO specialist.

What then is the answer?  How can we drag ourselves out of the mass of “me too” businesses in our sector and make it clear to the market and prospective customers that we offer something different.

By the way, difference doesn’t always imply services or products.  It can be the way that we deliver the product, the way that we answer the telephone, the speed at which we pay bills and the level of service which we give to every customer at all ties and without exception.

It is easy to say that we need to be different.  Some time devoted to ways of being different and bringing everyone in the business into the process will pay massive dividends in the long run.

Download my book "Leading to Success" from Amazon Kindle
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