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Sunday, 25 January 2015

Still Sweating the Small Stuff? Drop it and Do What is Really Important!

One of the many great speakers who come from the USA to run workshops with Vistage peer group of CEOs, Ole Carlson, said that when he was a Vistage chairman he would put up a banner at meetings reading:

 “We only do CEO stuff around here!”

The implication of that simple statement is immense.

It all devolves on the role of the leader and too often this is not an area of activity that is given much thought.

In the normal run of events most leaders attain the top position in the business through some sort of functional route, whether they are an entrepreneur or a hired gun to run the business.

Functional route are perhaps finance, operations, sales, marketing, technical and there are several others.

However the role of the leader is quite different.  It is no longer functional; indeed it is truly multi-functional.

It often takes some time to realise this fact when the leader is initially appointed.  In fact I have known leaders (newly appointed) say: “if that is all I have to do I will be doing nothing half the time”.

Quite true in the strict sense of the word because in the “doing nothing” part of the working day, it actually gives the leader some time to think.

Remember thinking?  It is that period of time in which we manage to put the inevitable small stuff to one side and actually get down to looking at the really important issues in the business.

A very good fiend of mine, Will Kintish, decided more than ten years ago to give up being bored as a Chartered Accountant and to start doing things that he would enjoy and would inspire him.

Accordingly he set up his own consultancy specialising in networking and very successful it has been.

When we were discussing how he intended to manage the business he said, categorically, that he wasn’t prepared to do the stuff and he intended to hire someone else to do it for him.  This would and did release him to do the things that he was good at rather than getting bogged down in someone else’s job.

One of the problems of every leader’s life is the very fact that they have come up through the business in a functional role.  The consequence is that when things start to go amiss, as they do from time to time, there is a likelihood that the leader will revert to the default position; that is, to sort out the problem personally.

It is what I have come to call the “leave it to me, I’ll sort it out” syndrome which has two effects.

It makes the leader think that he/she is still useful and indeed wanted, and secondly, stops making them feel idle.

The overall result is the dreaded “upward delegation” which is the bane of every leader’s life if and when they recognise it.

The fact is that the leader is almost certainly the only person in the business who actually thinks about it in the round and this is a great responsibility.

I recall one of my Vistage CEO members telling me the story of how he suddenly realised that he was doing everyone’s jobs for them.

He had set up his office open plan with his desk being in the centre of operations.

Accordingly he found that being so visible made it easy for people to take the monkey off their own backs and pass it on to his.  He was always happy and willing to help out, remember.

His great epiphany was hiring three top rated senior people to cover finance, sales and operations accepting, as he said, that they wouldn’t be able to do the job as well he could but it would take a load off his working day.

He admitted slightly shamefacedly, that in fact they did the jobs more effectively than he could simply because they were specialist and knew precisely what they were doing.

The answer for every leader is to devote time to thinking about the businesses because no-one else will do it nor are they in general capable of it.  The role of the leader is highly specialised and it takes time to consider what is the purpose of the business what are its objectives and what is the potential endgame.

As the great US golfer, Sam Snead said:

Take time out to smell the roses

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Sunday, 18 January 2015

Do You Have a Customer Service Department? Get Rid and Replace it with Everyone in the Business!

It is strange how similar subjects seem to crop up during a week’s activities – call it coincidence or synchronicity it still surprises me.

For example I saw this week on LinkedIn one of those strictures that said:

“Customer service is not a department, it’s an attitude”

and that for me encapsulates the whole concept of great service.

This was substantiated yesterday when we ha d a problem at home with the central heating boiler.  Wouldn’t you know, just when it is getting really cold.

I called the British Gas Homecare help line at 8.15am on Monday morning, told then of the problem and lo and behold, an engineer arrived at 10.10am.

A very good start and better was yet to come.  He stayed working on the boiler until 1.00pm and then said that he had gone through everything that he could with the exception of a PCB (printed circuit board) for which he didn’t carry a spare. 

He promised however to pass the call on to a colleague who turned up as promised yesterday, solved the problem and all is now ell (and warm).

While the engineer was completing the paperwork, he told me of his training with British Gas.  I wasn’t aware, for example, that all the engineers go through a four-year training programme in London, comprising regular six week in the training academy and then two week on the job experience with an experienced engineer.

There is a final examination to ensure that the training had sunk in followed by two years probation until the apprentices are finally approved.  This means that the formal training is six years and the approval last for only five years (with annual checks) at which point they have to be re-examined.

All of this was very interesting and opened a new window on what is going on the world of business.  I would never have assumed that British Gas would have such a comprehensive and detailed trains programme for its people.

The really interesting statistic was that, on average, engineers stay with British Gas for 16 years after qualification and there is always a long pipeline of people wanting to join the training programme.

It cannot be coincidence that in an organisation that emphasises training of its employees to such an extent offers exceptional service to its customers.

Care for your people and they will care for their customers

Yes, I am talking about British Gas, that formerly nationalised organisation that had a dreadful reputation for service and which since being denationalised is certainly doing something to improve that reputation.

The question is: where does customer service start and how it is delivered?

As another example, employees of the Ritz-Carlton chain of top quality hotels tell its people that:

“We are ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen”

and that is a model of leadership which starts with its own people and then encourages them to give great service without exception.

All employees of the hotels, for instance, are told that if any customer asks them to solve a problem, then that employee owns the problem and is empowered to solve it for the customer.

It is almost a truism to say that it is impossible to deliver great service with dissatisfied employees so the first and most important thing is to ensure that your people are happy, engaged and fulfilled in their everyday activities.

Moreover, if the businesses believes that the wellbeing of the employees transcends everything else and this is visibly demonstrated, then that will encourage the people to deliver that great service for which most businesses crave.

So, if you have a Customer Service Department which is really a synonym for the Complaints Department,  get rid of it and replace it with everyone in the business, fully empowered to give great service to their customers. 

Radical maybe, but it is an approach that will deliver a genuinely sustainable future for the business and its people.

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Sunday, 11 January 2015

Got a Feeling That You Need to Change The Company Structure? It’s Called the Seven-Year Itch!

One of the very early speakers to my Vistage CEO peer group was discussing problems arising out of any restructuring of the business and he made the point, very forcibly, that the only valid reason for restructuring a business is to improve the service to the customer.

I wouldn’t disagree with the importance of that but with the small caveat that it isn’t the only valid reason.

Restructuring is like the seven-year itch.  When a business is in start-up mode the only valid reason for doing anything is to make certain that the product or service gets into the market as effectively and as profitably as possible.

In these early stages the structure of the business tends to emerge according to the experience and expertise of those involved in the start-up.  Formal structure is usually not high on the agenda.

As the business develops and grows, it becomes increasingly noticeable that there can be overlaps of responsibility, gaps here and there where nobody wants to take responsibility and a glaringly obvious lack of processes and procedures.

However, events take over and it becomes blindingly obvious that unless there is some sort of formality then chaos and anarchy will reign.

Now comes the big problem. What sort of structure do we want? 

Very often the classic structure of the triangle, apex upwards, with the business owner at the top, seems to be the most obvious.  It leads inevitably to top-down management and lots of upwards delegation.

The big danger is that the layout is frequently determined by the currently available people in the business and this can lead to real problems in the future.

How often have I heard the wail of distress from a CEO whose friend, in the early stages of the business, “helped out” in some way. Now look – ten years on and he is still there probably now in a senior position and nobody knows what he there to do, least of all the incumbent himself.

NOTE: the worst solution is to design a structure around the existing people in the business.

The best way is to analyse the route forward for the business to decide where it intends to be in the short and longer term.

This should lead to a more considered shape for the business with proper lines of communication and reporting together with a listing of what sort of individual will be needed to deliver the objectives.

More often than not he classic shape of a business is determined on a functional basis; what functions will be needed to cover such as operations, marketing, sales, finance, technical and so on, and then design the structure on this basis.

For obvious reasons this can lead to a silo mentality with everyone defending their own patch and the people it.  It can work effectively, of course, but it demands a high level of understanding and trust at the top level.

In general the matrix/customer led structure is better.  This divides the business according to the market sectors in which it operates and then designs an appropriate layout with departments operating like miniature businesses.

Whichever method is decided upon, as long as the customer is at the heart of the decision making process then there will be an enhanced likelihood of success.

Remember the seven-year itch?  It usually is around the mysterious sever year mark that someone suggests that if we change the structure things will be even better.

Beware!  Remember that t’s not about the people currently in the business.  It is about recognising that we must understand that the customer and his/her needs are paramount and everything and everybody in the business knows and is dedicated to that purpose.

Product, service, marketing, sales, finance, technical all contribute to the customer led experience.  Everyone in the business has the responsibility of delivering it.

It’s called the Pursuit of Excellence with the customer at the heart of it all.

Without the customer there isn’t a business whatever the structure may be.

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Sunday, 4 January 2015

New Year Resolutions? My New Year Resolution is to Make Them Last Whatever They Are!

It’s that time of the year when the media offer ideas for your New Year resolutions, what the celebrities have decided to give up (or start) and how you can make sure that the resolutions lasts for more than a few days.

It is obviously a good idea to decide once and for all to reduce the drinking (if that is a problem) or to eat less (if that is a problem too) and to go to the gym on a regular basis or just to take the dog for a walk from time to time.

I once had my Vistage CE peer group disclose their resolutions and if everyone lost the amount of weight they said they would then I would have lost two members by volume.

However what we are discussing here is rather more than trying to be good and to change habits of which we are aware but do little about.

Please don’t imagine that I am a goody-goody in these matters.  I am as effective a backslider as anyone else when it comes, for example, to giving up chocolate and I frantically trawl through the media to find relevant articles that tell me that chocolate is good for me.

Remember the story of man who said that he was constantly reading about smoking being bad for us so he had given up reading?

The problem for all of us is changing ingrained habits and these can range right across the board of everyday living as well as merely stopping us eating what we like.

How irritating is it to hear the overuse and often pointless use of words in a language that has so many alternatives?

Just listen to pretty well any broadcast interview and count how many times people say “basically”, “actually”, “hopefully”, “at the end of the day” and so on.

We are all wonderful car drives and it is just a shame that there are so many idiots on the rod when they should be out of our way somewhere else.  Take an expert with you sometime and have them rate your driving to see precisely where you need to  improve.

Ingrained habits can be the scourge of good management in business.  We read the great books and vow never to be authoritarian or prescriptive or indecisive ever again.

The issue is; do we always know our bad habits and more to the point, do we know how to change them?  Even more importantly do we really want to change?

Again, if you have someone whom you really can trust, ask them to tell you frankly and honestly what habits you have that irritate others and could well be changed.

I am quite sure that is I take my own advice I would find that I have many ingrained habits that in others would irritate the hell out of me.

Psychologists tell us that if we can drop a habit for thirty days then we will change ourselves for good.  The problem is, we don’t always know which habits are of value and which are just there doing nothing but getting in the way.

Equally if we can do something different and valuable for the same thirty days then that is likely to become an ingrained habit but this time for good rather than the alternative.

If all this sounds like preaching, it is, but it is intended for me rather than for you.

A little soul searching at this time doesn’t do any harm provided we understand that habits make us who and what we are so we shouldn’t just change for the sake of it.

I saw a lovely cartoon on Facebook today with a man saying to his dog “You have chewed up my New Year Resolutions!  GOOD DOG!!”

May 2015 bring all that you want for yourselves, for your families and friends and for your businesses.  May it be a prosperous, peaceful and above all healthy year for all of us.

Download my book "Leading to Success" from Amazon Kindle
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