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Sunday, 29 January 2017

High Performing Individuals? Do They Fit Into The Team?

The Italian historian, thinker and writer, Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) said with great prescience:

“The first method for estimating the intelligence of a ruler is to look at the men he has around him”.

What was said in the 15th century has absolute resonance today in business.  The success of any business and, by default its leader, is not so much the quality of the leader as such but the calibre of the people around him/her.

Perhaps the most significant task of any leader is that of building a team which can operate both independently and collectively in the pursuit of success and at the same time ensuring that the prima donna syndrome is suborned to the greater good of the team and the business.

In my all time favourite book on management, The Puritan Gift by Kenneth and Will Hopper, the authors list some of the ethics that drew the original Puritan immigrants to the new world.

Among others such as a belief in the advantages of technology (remember that this was in the 17th century) they called for the suborning of the needs of the individual into the greater good of the community.

It can take time and effort to find people who can work individually and will equally add to the effectiveness of the team. 

I recall one of the members of my Vistage CEO peer group hiring three different Finance Directors in a single year until he found the right one.  It was very expensive, painful and frustrating but well worth the effort.  The final choice was exactly what had been needed and spurred the business on to bigger and greater things.

I have in the past mentioned my old friend, Lee Thayer, another, deep and brilliant thinker who used to say that everyone hired into the business needed to be a virtuoso and a free spirit.  Easy to say but very difficult to achieve.

Lee suggested that the first line in everyone’s role description should read:

“My primary task is to make this business the best in the industry by any measure

What a wonderful objective for anyone.

With a really competent team at the top of the business new leaders are created and that in itself is invaluable in the complex matter of succession.  The leader needs to concentrate on those matters that are important and not urgent so that the team will take responsibility for all of the day-to-day events that are deemed urgent and important.

The leader has to take time out to think about the business, often a solitary task, so the team not only has to keep the business operating but also has to make sure that there is two way communication with the leader.

It takes time to develop the understanding of the importance of this way of working. It demands a high level of trust in both directions between the leader and the team.  The results can be dramatic.

Another of my Vistage members changed his job and went to a company which, bravely, hired exceptionally high quality people and then found a slot for them in the organisation.

It worked very well with one proviso.  As each of the people hired was remarkable in some respect they tended to prefer to work individually and not in a team.  That is fine if you are looking for high performing individuals but not so good for team building.

It is interesting to read recently that the universities are beginning to look at group activities, unusually in an environment which has historically been devoted to development of the individual.  They have realised that the team ethic is more productive overall than can be achieved by a single person and are now spending time and effort in its development.

Remember: “No-one is a smart as all of us”.

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Sunday, 22 January 2017

Having Communication Problems? These Seven Tips Will Help!

Possibly the most contentious issue in running a business is that of communication, good or bad.  It is significant that many employee satisfaction surveys rate communication as “could do better”.

This can be mystifying to many leaders who genuinely rate the subject as being of prime importance and make every effort to keep everyone informed.

One of the members of my Vistage CEO peer group says that leadership is just about people and communications and you can’t fault that as an ethos.

So why is it, when so many leaders honestly think that they are doing everything possible to communicate effectively, many of the recipients disagree?

More often than not it is in the methods we use.  The real problem lies in the fact that people might hear but they don’t necessarily listen. The problem is is even more apparent with the written word that people don’t even read .

There are several critical factors that can improve the way that information is transmitted and, more importantly, received.

Whether we are communicating face to face, in print, digitally, by audio or video, the requirements are the same. We need to ensure that the methods we choose are the most effective and are justified by the results.

There are seven basic requirements then for effective communication:

The Audience
Make sure that you are giving the right message to the right people.  I recall an occasion where the leader decided that everyone should be given information about the company’s finances and he set up company-wide meetings to tell them.

It wasn’t very successful to say the least and he changed the scheme to small groups where discussion was encouraged and that proved a great improvement.

One of the problems of top-down communication is that we know all about the subject and consequently tend to forget that other people don’t necessarily know.  The effect of this mismatch is either insufficient information being transmitted or, worse, too much and that can clog up the message.

Test the message by trying it out on someone who is not involved and ask for feedback on both the message and the style.

There is the tale of the Best Man at a wedding who started his speech by saying: “I have been told to keep it short and clean so I have been holding it under a cold tap for the last ten minutes!’  

Rambling on merely gets in the way, is distracting and disguises the intended massage so keep it short (and clean).

Again make sure that you are giving the right message to the right people.  It may seem obvious but like those who insist on sending  a .cc to everyone in an email, we only irritate people if we include those who are peripheral in that instance.

Accuracy and Truth
It always surprises me that when some people explain  a situation they don’t always come clean on the facts.  Maybe this is a defence mechanism but it doesn’t help when the subterfuge is uncovered.

It is not only a lack of accuracy, it can be a matter of untruthfulness.  You will be found out eventually and trust will fly out of the window.

Why are you communicating something?  Is it merely to pass on information or are you asking someone to respond or take action?

Whatever it is you should state your expectations clearly, succinctly and, if needs be, assertively.  There is nothing worse than going out of a meeting with everyone saying “What was all that about?”  

Unless you have unfettered feedback you will never know whether your message has been received and understood. Getting that real feedback is not a matter of saying “Do you understand (or similar)?” because  all you are likely to get are nods of agreement that mean nothing.

Feedback is the crux of great communication so ensure that you ask the questions that will uncover  what has been heard. Ask questions that paraphrase the message and then what action is proposed as a consequence.

There are hundreds of books published on the whole subject of communication so why
do we find it so difficult? These tips should help at least to improve your performance.

A very important point.  Communication is not top down or bottom up.  It is a two-way process.

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Sunday, 15 January 2017

How Urgent is Urgent? It Needs To Be Important And Not Urgent!

How urgent is urgent?  The matrix that considers urgency against importance can help.

If we plot urgency against importance of any situation in a quadrant, the bottom left box is for situations that are neither urgent or important and can be relegated to the back burner or better the waste paper basket.

Then we have the urgent but not important. This is usually the one that engenders “upward delegation” to the leader at whatever level.   The best way to get the monkey off one’s back is to pass it on to someone else.

However when it is upward there are two very significant pieces of evidence in terms of the competence of the leader.

Firstly it implies that whoever is delegating a situation upwards is reluctant to make a decision on even matter of little importance and even worse the leader accepts the situation.  

Implicit in that is a tendency to a controlled environment with decision making exclusively top down and that means, as Steve Jobs would have said, there will be a preponderance of B-players in the business.

Great leaders recognise that it is far preferable to ensure that only the best people are either promoted or recruited and then trusted to make decisions and get on with it without being controlled.

That takes a leap of faith on the part of the leader simply because he/she can feel isolated. The best way to get over that feeling is to set up regular one-to-one meetings with the top team to assess performance of the business and to discuss what options are available.

In the end the buck stops with the leader but the day-to-day responsibilities lie with the team and they must be given the freedom to do their jobs.

The top right box is for the urgent and important situation and that is one that should, in general, be delegated to the team. Sure there will be situations where the leader has to be involved but just assess the level of importance and then decide.

There has been some remarkable work done on the theory of decision making especially in using psychological methods in making decisions in economics and Dr Daniel Kahneman was awarded a Nobel prize in 2002 for his work in this field.

His colleague Dr Amos Tversky who died in 1996 was famously indifferent to apparent urgency (of anything, let it be said) and he coined a great opinion:

“The great thing about urgency is that if you wait long enough the urgency goes away”.

In general urgency is thrust upon us by someone else. Think about it. It is usually THEIR urgency and needs to be considered in that light.

So where does the leader come into this scenario?

There is one box left in the quadrant and that is Important but Not Urgent and that is the province of the leader. It implies time for considered thought, testing of any decision against the evidence and preferably from a sufficiently large sample, and then to make any decision.

All of this defines great leadership, the ability to promote or recruit great people and trust them, to delegate as far as possible and to devise a no-blame culture where people can feel safe to take considered risks.

Most importantly, leaders needs to take time out to think about what is important for the future of the business and then make considered and evidence-based decisions.

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Sunday, 8 January 2017

Setting Your Pricing Structure? Try Good, Fast or Cheap!

One (only one?) of the issues in the life of the person in sales is trying to disabuse the customers that they are always right whatever the old saying says.

In the main we should and often do try our utmost to provide the service and quality standard that will truly satisfy the customer.  

Then again, should our ultimate aim merely be to generate satisfaction?  We are constantly exhorted to delight the customer whatever that might mean.  

Frankly I can’t recall being delighted by some purchase recently.  Pleased, yes, at some unusual level of service like something arriving on Sunday after having placed an online order the night before but delighted?

The problem for everyone in sales is the setting of precedents.  Give exceptional service on one occasion and it can then be considered to be the norm which is not to say don’t attempt it.

Setting expectations is a tricky business and customers like you and me can be very fickle.   Unless you have a brand that is unique or at least rare then your competitors can have a field day at your expense.

Please note this is not a plea for lower prices.  It is easy to claim that if we lower our prices we will generate more business.

Just consider the following scenario.

We have a product that we buy or make for £10 and which sells for £15 thus showing a margin of £5.  The salesman then suggests to the sales manager that if we discount the price by 10% we will sell lots more.

Instead of making £5 per item we now male £3.50 so in order to make the same overall profit we will need to sell 41% more products.   Please note that will only take us back to where we were anyway and is it likely?

Price is an emotive subject and especially it seems so to radio interviewers who persist in defining “competitive” as defining the lowest price.

We buy things in a far more sophisticated way than that.  We consider will it be fit for purpose, what it looks like, will we be able to operate it, will it fit in the decor and a thousand and one other considerations.

Eventually we ask “how much” and that is provided everything else is right.

Of course the price does matter but other considerations can reduce its significance. I have more than one member of my Vistage CEO peer group who is proud to say that their products/services are at the higher end of the price range simply because their level of overall excellence is high.

There is a great little test that has become popular and encapsulates these thoughts.

It is the Good, Fast, Cheap test that says that the customer can choose but can only have two of them.

For example, if you want it Good and Fast then it won't be Cheap
If you want it to be Good and Cheap then it won’t be Fast, and
if you want it Fast and Cheap then it won't be Good.

Most businesses offer only two anyway having settled on a style and culture that suits them but a start-up could be seduced by the thought that discounts or generally low prices mean lots of lovely business.

Maybe it will but the idea is to generate profitable business and a low price culture has to be handled with great care if it is to be successful.

The trick is to settle the style and stay with it. Change is always feasible but the Good, Fast and not Cheap is the best option every time.  It implies great quality products and excellent service for which the customer should accept higher prices.

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