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Sunday, 29 October 2017

Don’t Hold It All In - Talk To Someone About It!

The more I talk to leaders the more I have come to realise that under that strong, confident, assertive, committed exterior there lies a bubbling mass of insecurity and uncertainty.  Not in every case, it must said, but definitely in many.
It is also remarkable how few leaders understand and accept the situation and then do something to resolve the situation.  Possibly one of the reasons for inaction is an inherent reluctance to ask for help or even that they don’t really know what to do about it.
The answer is usually to swallow foolish pride and ask someone else for their thoughts on the matter, what can be done and how best to do it.
The underlying problem is almost invariably one that has been seen before and even if it is absolutely new, which is unlikely, then a sensible discussion with someone can be enormously helpful.  Again, it is curious how often the very act of talking about a problem to a trusted and trustworthy colleague who just listens can help to solve a problem.
Innately we almost always have the solution to a problem within us; we just don’t want to accept the solution that in many cases can be difficult to accept and achieve.
My years of experience chairing Vistage CEO peer groups have shown me how powerful the peer group approach can be.  Members with what they consider to be an intractable problem, bring it to the group who are supportive and interested, and what is more, have probably experienced much the same thenselves.
Add to that the ability to talk to a trusted mentor on a regular one-t-one basis and the leader has a very effective support system to get over those seemingly difficult issues which plague us all from time to time.
The worst thing that the leader can do is to hold it all in and hope that it will go away.  Sometimes it does but mostly it doesn’t and usually goes worse.
Professor Steve Peters in his brilliant book, The Chimp Paradox, says that during the night the Chimp brain is in the ascendant while the Human brain is asleep so when problems wake us from sleep we react emotionally.  It needs some effort to box the chimp, to reassure it that everything is being sorted out and it can relax.
Even so that emotional side of our personality is very strong, said to be five times as powerful as the human or rational side and it takes some considerable effort to explain to the chimp that everything will turn out to be alright.
Certainly a very effective answer is to grasp the nettle (or bite the bullet) and talk about it to a dedicated listener or listeners.  They will not be emotional about your issue and will usually give sensible and pragmatic advice often based on their experience.
Reacting emotionally to a problem can be useless and draining.  Do you remember at the Tour de France in 2016 when Chris Froome crashed into a motorcycle and his bike was damaged?  He started to RUN up the course until his support car arrived when he took a new bike and finished the stage.
A journalist was astonished that evening at how calm Froome was after such a traumatic event until he (Froome) pointed out that the event was over and done with.  Nothing could be achieved by worrying about it so his only reaction was to think of what to do next in a positive light.
He went on to win the Tour.

If we are mentally strong enough to achieve that ourselves, congratulations.  Talking it over with someone without emotion is by far the best alternative for most of us.

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Sunday, 22 October 2017

Entrepreneurship, Nature or Nurture? It Certainly Needs a Dream!

There is no question in my mind that entrepreneurs who create and sustain successful businesses combine great ideas with their own blend of passion, commitment, personal values and strengths.

Indeed they often exhibit a huge level of emotional attachment to the business that is almost like having surrogate children.  In fact if that commitment and dedication is not there then I can't see how it would work.

Success comes about through a combination of innate curiosity, a strong belief in one’s own abilities and a desire to create something new for a market that may be
well. There is a magic blend of positive personal characteristics and an eminently marketable idea.

Unsurprisingly then I always tend to look for this combination of talents in people whom I am mentoring. It is never just about making money.  Most of them look upon material rewards as the effect or symptom of the cause and it is that which delivers the greater satisfaction.

Indeed the acquisition of material possessions can often be viewed, perhaps subconsciously, as a reward for effort that can only be given personally.  

They feel that the act of creation, whether overt or hidden, is exciting, is enjoyable and delivers a strong sense of achievement.

They also exhibit a dogged persistence, a sort of bloody minded intention to succeed whatever obstacles are in the way together with a strong conviction that what they are doing is right.

It is said that Thomas Edison tried 1,000 experiments before the final successful incandescent light bulb emerged.  When asked how he could live with all that perceived constant failure he said that they weren't failure, they were 1,000 lessons that had to be learnt.

The question to ask then is whether entrepreneurs are born or made? Is it a matter of nature or nurture?

In my somewhat chequered past I ran a Government sponsored training course for unemployed executives called "Start and Manage Your Own Business" and it really opened my eyes.

Many of the participants had been in the public sector or had been in middle management in the private sector.  It rapidly became evident that for many the lure of Government grants and loans were far lore a driver than the prospect of having to build a business with all the attendant problems.

It has been suggested that 80% of start-up businesses fail in the first year through underfunding, a lack of marketing expertise, lack of financial expertise and overall lack of good commercial common sense. Moreover the lack of a vision of what success looks like is even more significant.

In fact all of the operational skills can be taught and developed which removes a multiplicity of excuses for failure.  The factors for success are much more in the way of feelings and emotion.

Of course that depends eventually on both the skills and the emotional attachment being present in any entrepreneurial business. If the leader doesn't have allot indeed any of the skills then the clever thing to do is to bring them in and make sure that the team is well aware of here the business is going; that they know what success looks like.

An entrepreneur who can build a team of all the talents with the requisite skills and overlay a layer of commitment, dedication and above all, passion will have constructed a sustainable enterprise.

The key is to accept that nobody knows everything so the ball must be passed to the right person in the right job and that takes humility on the part of the leader.   Not easy to achieve but dramatic in subsequent results. 

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Sunday, 15 October 2017

Personal Assistant or Executive Assistant? First Define The Role For Both of You!

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am a keen listener to the BBC World Service and recently they ran a programme on Global Business discussing the appointment of personal assistants (PAs).

Past title was traditionally secretary and now it is common to call the secretary a PA and the PA the Executive Assistant (EA).

The stereotypical PA is female and the programme made the point that only 1% are male.  Just why this is was not discussed.

Recently one of the members of my Vistage CEO peer group told me that his part-time PA would be away for possibly six months on maternity leave and he was considering appointing a full-time replacement while making sure that his existing PA would have another opportunity in the business.

I suggested that he talk to other members of the group who have PAs who are fully involved in the business and this he did.

On reflection I also realise that not everyone in the group has a PA or even secretarial assistance while there are several who have truly excellent assistants in place.

I recall some years ago that one of my members suggested that he was considering appointing a PA although he was dubious as to whether he had enough work to justify the appointment.

He interviewed and eventually offered the job to a very suitable and experienced candidate.  She discussed with him the role and after some discussion he came to the realisation that he would be able to delegate a remarkable (to him) number of activities and tasks.

It didn’t take him long to realise that he had done exactly the right thing by taking on a PA and he could still indulge himself in writing letters and emails himself without needing to dictate them.

On the other hand I worked in the past with the leader of a very large conglomerate and he had a (male) personal assistant and a female secretary, before the onset of modern nomenclature and technology, let it be said.

The whole rationale for having a PA or EA starts with the purpose.  Why is there a need and what aspects of the CEO role can and should be delegated to an assistant?

The role definition is easier after that although it will always develop as the relationship develops and the level of mutual trust increases.

A great PA or EA can become the eyes and ears of the leader.  The position of the PA is anomalous to an extent as it encompasses the highly confidential aspects of the business while still not normally being an appointed executive of the company.

I believe that the PA plays a vital role in the management of any business and can be a valuable link to the next layers of management.

I find more and more that I contact PAs so as not to bother a member in the certain knowledge that my query or request will be actioned quickly and effectively.

Then there is the gatekeeper role where the PA makes absolutely certain that no-one gets past to the leader without being thoroughly examined and either passed or rejected.  Trying to speak to some leaders can be an exhausting experience as a consequence.

Some years ago I wrote (pre-blog) a newsletter and as I had some problems on getting through to some people, I offered a small prize to anyone who could suggest an approach that would smooth the path.

Among the more repeatable suggestions the winner was the one that ran thus:

“Does he know you and will he know what it is about?”

“Would you please tell him that we have the rubber suit that he ordered in his size in stock but not with the chains”?

“I’ll put you through”

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Sunday, 8 October 2017

Worried About Price Competition? Beat It With Exceptional Service!

It is curious, when talking to business leaders, how infrequently the customer is mentioned.   Many are the other issues – finance, production, operations, suppliers, people (ah yes, people!) but not often the most important influence in the business, the customer.   

A wonderful friend of mine was the marketing consultant and renowned Vistage speaker, the late Ray Wiltshire and his favourite target audience was Mrs Wiltshire.  If he got it right for Mrs Wiltshire then it was right.
In the end the only real and sustainable advantage that the business can derive is the way in which we service the market.  
For example, the only valid reason for restructuring the business is to improve the service to the customer.  

So often restructuring is justified on internal and frequently specious grounds which have little or no relevance to the customer or the market.  People are shuffled around in the often vain hope that by making all these changes success will miraculously occur.

What is often forgotten are the unintended consequences of such a move; the fear that organisational change engenders, the loss of authority for some and an increase in responsibility for others and the general upheaval that takes time to bed in.  At the same time all these changes can impact negatively on the way that the market is serviced.

Remember: we can’t expect dissatisfied people to generate satisfied customers.
We need to ensure that in every decision the level of service given to the customers is at the forefront of the decision making process and on the basis of continuous improvement as well.   

It needs to be checked out by deciding on the level of service which is currently given, defining the level of service that would be preferable and attainable and then for the team to determine what is needed to be done to achieve it - what resources are needed, what changes in people and/or systems are needed, and, most importantly, what changes in attitudes are needed.
Don’t make a judgement based on your opinion.  More often than not we assume that one or two instances that stand out for some reason are indicative of a general opinion.

The media is particularly prone to this failing.  We hear two opinions in any matter, always two opinions because that apparently shows balance irrespective of the possible numbers of pro- or anti- opinions there may be.

The only way to check whether the customers are satisfied is to ask them, by formal survey, by email, by telephone or by personal contact, whichever is the most appropriate.

Use the team to decide on how best to ensure that the level of service to the customer is the best that you and the business can possibly imagine and achieve.   It starts with the way the telephone is answered (never more than three rings) and it never ends.

Then again, we need to decide on whether customer satisfaction is really the final objective.  Would it not be better to build a business that is known for fantastic service that binds the customer absolutely to the business?

A satisfied customer is desirable but that is the objective a every business.  Service needs to be exceptional these days to make any business stand out from the crowd.

Would you prefer delivery of an online order in two hours or two days?  Two days is the expected norm and is “satisfactory” but two hours; that is exceptional.

A small caveat.  Never forget that whatever service level is achieved it will always be copied, bettered and will become the norm.  Change is inevitable and we must always be looking for that bright shining star that takes us to the next level, even for only a short time.

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Sunday, 1 October 2017

Should’a, Could’a, Would’a? Those Are Words That Drain Energy!

A piece of research and the findings thereof have become almost legendary in the business of training and consultancy.  It resulted from research conducted by Professor Albert Mehrabian, Emeritus Professor of Psychology at UCLA.

According to Mehrabian there are three primary modes of communication, words, tone of voice and body language.  He further postulated the theory that the relative importance of each was as follows:

  • Words  7%
  • Tone of voice:  38%
  • Body language:  55%

There are some apparent anomalies in this theory that bear some examination outside the scope of this blog but in essence many psychologists frankly consider the theory to be a myth.  For example it would assume that we could understand 55% of someone on TV speaking with the sound off, or if the respondent were speaking in a foreign language that we didn’t understand.

I love words and one of my habits in my youth (I must have been a strange child) was to look through the dictionary to find unusual words and to understand those that I had heard.

Communication needs words that are relevant to both the speaker and the listener.  We all have heard of the three saddest words in the lexicon, Would, Could and Should and their use in decision making or not decision making as the case may be.

For example : “I should have done something about it….” or “I would have done something if…” or “I could have done something and now…

Have you noticed that not only are those words used to explain or excuse failure or a mistake but they all also have a negative connotation?

What is more they all refer to events in  the past in an atmosphere of regret, vacillation and indecision, none of which do much for self-confidence.

If we now convert these words to the present tense, Should to Shall, Would to Will and Could to Can, miraculously it seems, that they all change from being negative to being positive and almost always leading to action.

Moral: use Can, Shall and Will, rather than could, should and would wherever possible.

There are two more words, just three lettered,  that can change our lives if we use them properly and with thought.  They are both conjunctions, that is, words that come between two other words or phrases and they are as follows:

  “AND” and “BUT

Think about it.  How often do we use each of those words in daily conversation and  how often do we examine the possible consequences?

BUT is used to introduce a phrase or clause contrasting with what has already been mentioned, or alternatively, is used to indicate the impossibility of anything other than what is being stated.

Both of those definitions imply disagreement and it has been wisely said that when we use BUT, it destroys everything that has been said before.

Vistage UK speaker, John Cremer, uses a simple exercise to illustrate the difference between BUT and AND.  He positions two people opposite each other and one starts with a suggestion for action.  The other responds by saying, “Yes, AND….” to take the suggestion further and the conversation continues in this strain.

Then the method changes so instead of using AND the respondent says, “Yes, BUT….”.  Following Mehrabian’s theory the body language changes absolutely with shoulders tending to droop and a negative atmosphere being generated.

We had another Vistage speaker who specifically banned the use of BUT all morning and rang a bell when when anyone spoke the dreaded word.  The morning was extremely positive as a consequence.

We need to think about our use of some words, particularly those that are negative and that drain the energy out of a conversation.  In communication especially if our words really do only constitute 7% of effective communication, always look for opportunities to use Can, Shall and Will rather than Could, Should and Would and particularly work to eliminate the use of BUT.  That will input energy rather than drain it out of the conversation.

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