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Sunday, 24 February 2019

Tolerating Bad Behaviour? Watch Out, It Can Be Catching!

"The culture of a business is defined by the worst behaviour that the leader is prepared to tolerate"

The implication is, of course, that the leader of any business defines the culture of the business and is the champion and driver of that culture.

Unfortunately not every leader realises this and the culture can develop of itself, either benign and positive or malign and negative.

The point is that every business has a culture that effectively says "this is how we do things around here" and then leaders seem surprised if it is better or worse than they expect or want.

I have seen businesses that reflect the attitude of the leader to a remarkable extent and once again this can be anywhere on the positive to negative continuum.

In one case the leader openly took liberties with expenses and then was astonished that fiddling was rife in the business.

On a positive note, in another case, the leader was dramatically and visibly innovative and that attitude became endemic throughout the business.

The point that leaders need to realise (if they don't already) is that their attitude and behaviour is almost inevitably mirrored throughout the organisation. In fact, one of the most important functions of the successful leader is the development of a defined culture that includes a statement of purpose and then to drive it into the business so that if asked, any employee should be able to recite it.  The culture is not just a statement; it has to be a living organism.

That is a tough call because it demands consistency of the visible attitude and behaviour from the leader and that says that the leader isn't allowed any variance in their public face.

That is, of course, nonsense because the implication there is that leaders have to be some sort of automaton with an outward personality without variation.

People will always accept variations in the leader's behaviour unless it becomes the norm against which people rebel either openly or covertly.

The natural consequence is a probable deterioration in morale and a reduction in performance often to the surprise of the top team.

Leaders don't always realise or understand the power that they weird; the power of benign influences that lead to a positive ethos or the power to depress and upset the team.

Does this mean that the leader has to be an actor exhibiting only positive behaviour without any thought of personal feelings?

Not at all. What the people want and indeed need from the leader is honesty, openness and above all, fairness.

Back to the opening statement.  Tolerance of unacceptable behaviour by the leader can and does lead to unacceptable attitudes and behaviours that if not caught at an early strange can spread with surprising speed.

Leaders cannot and must not tolerate negative and malign behaviour and must take immediate and visible action.

The leader is the champion and driver of the culture and it is entirely in the province of the leader to make it positive or negative.

Think carefully about which one you are consistently exhibiting to the team.  Be the thought leader in the business and make it positive.

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Sunday, 17 February 2019

Too Much Darkness, Not Enough Light? Design Your New Lifestyle!

I recently came across a quote, unattributed, which struck chord with me.

"It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness"

The distinction between light and darkness permeates all religions and a great deal of literature where light is always seen to overcome the negativity of darkness.

2,000 years ago the sages of Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, referred to light overcoming darkness at the creation of the universe. The sage Isaac Luria in the 16th century said that there was a spark of light in the nothingness (darkness) that contained all of space and time. Please note, Albert Einstein in his General Theory of Relativity defined the concept of the space/time continuum in the 20th century.

When the spark expanded the universe was created and darkness retreated. Again please note, Rabbi Luria wrote this 500 years ago.  

It is a remarkable description of the Big Bang theory of creation and long before clever scientists espoused it.    In essence it describes light as being both a physical and a spiritual phenomenon.

Now we talk glibly of distances measured in “light years” but do we ever stop to consider the enormity of the statement.  Light travels at 186,000 miles per second so for each light year it travels:

60 (seconds) X 60 (minutes) X 24 (hours) X 365 (days) X 186,000 and that doesn’t take leap years into account .  

When we consider that the farthest end of the universe according to eminent scientists is probably in excess of 1,000 light years away and is constantly expanding anyway, some of the light that we are seeing started out at or just after the Big Bang so what are we really looking at?

We are certainly not looking at what is happening on any planet, star or galaxy right now and we never will.

The remarkable facility of light to overcome darkness is exemplified by lighting a candle in an empty football stadium at midnight and even though there is total darkness all around, the candle light can be seen from any angle.

It is a wonderful metaphor for positive and negative thinking.  

There are even "light" and "dark" words in our vocabulary that can create an atmosphere in a conversation even without realising it.  For example:

Light Dark
Yes No
Happy Sad
Bright Dull
Grow Diminish
Like Dislike
Love Hate

and there are many many more. The most intrusive is that all-pervasive word "BUT".  Someone once told me that word eliminated everything said before it and everything said subsequently was negative.  Quite a thought.

In fact we had a speaker to my Vistage CEO peer group some time ago who banned the use of BUT for the whole morning and it was quite extraordinary how the level of discussion turned to the positive.

We live in a world where the vast majority of media news is sad, bad or generally dark and it takes an effort of will to overcome it.

I do recall someone saying that he was constantly reading about the dangers inherent in alcohol so he had given up - reading.

Do a test this year.  Just listen out for DARK words insidiously intruding into your conversation and either eliminate them or try to replace them with LIGHT words. The whole tenor of the conversation can change and for the better. It is certainly worth a try.

We need light in our lives more than ever and anything that we can do to achieve that end is to be applauded.  

It is never too late for a notional New Year Resolution so try this one:

"You gotta accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, latch on to the affirmative and don’t mess with Mr In-between",

in the words of the old song.

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Sunday, 10 February 2019

Vulnerable to a Major Customer? What About Your Suppliers!

Over the years several companies with which I have been working have quietly and dangerously become vulnerable to a major customer.

It is axiomatic that the sensible approach is to keep the customer base as broad as possible with none accounting for more than around 15% of turnover.  This should, as far as possible, be accomplished not by reducing the direct influence of a major customer but rather by directing the marketing effort towards other sectors of the market.

However customer creep can and does happen and before you know it, one of them starts to account for a really major part of turnover.  I recall a business in domestic lighting dealing with a major outlet in the UK for their range of products.

Over a long period of time the customer placed more and more orders and at the same time, the demands started to increase.  In end, they accounted for more than 80% of turnover and whatever they said they wanted, the supplier had to comply.

It wasn’t a matter of “jump”, it was “how high do you want me to jump?

When I warned the Managing Director (and owner) that the company was massively vulnerable, he said firstly that he couldn’t refuse a good order from a good customer and in any case he had a great relationship with the buyer.  In fact he used that unpleasant comment of: “I have the buyer in my pocket”.

Guess what happened?  The buyer moved on, a new buyer was appointed and brought existing relationships with non-branded manufacturers.  Within six months my client had lost the account and was effectively out of business.

A salutary tale but what about your suppliers as well?  I had a client who manufactured a high tech product and one day called me to put off a meeting as he had an important matter to deal with.  Later in the day I happened to be in Manchester and, lo and behold, there was my client walking towards me.

He said: “ I have just been to see our lawyers.  One of our major suppliers who manufactures a special component exclusively for us, has gone into administration.  We have had to make an offer to buy the supplier’s business from the administrator just so that we can maintain supplies and keep our business going.

Another salutary tale.  We keep our eyes firmly fixed on our customers, and rightly so, but it should never be at the expense of watching the supply chain where events can be and often are detrimental to the company’s success.

The problem is, of course, that we can become complacent.  Orders are coming in, the customer may be starting to flex muscles but we can live with that and at the other end suppliers are happy to deal with us and seem to give us good service.

The question is, how often do you put these assumptions to the test?  The order book is usually very visible throughout the business but is the supply chain visible as well?

At the current stage of the global economic cycle some industries are booming and as a consequence demands on the supply side are becoming overwhelming.  Suppliers can be so busy that smaller customers by definition are expected to take a back seat.

The result is that the service to their customers suffers, relationships with the suppliers become fraught and everything becomes a problem rather than an opportunity. Those are perfect conditions for fire fighting rather than working to a sensible plan.

The really key imperatives in any business are the relationships with customers and the markets in general, relationship with significant players in the supply chain and, above all, the health and well being of the critical members of the team.

That last is possibly the most important and needs to be at the top of the agenda when critical factors in the business are being considered.  Make sure that they are all high on the agenda for regular top team consideration.

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Sunday, 3 February 2019

A Toxic Team Member? Do Something and Quickly!

When I started to publish the blog, more than nine years ago now, I resolved it would be written to maintain certain values and resolved that it never becomes self-indulgent. Foremost among these values was that it would not be overtly or covertly political.  

For example I have   something of a reputation now among my Vistage CEO peer group of revealing  some aversion to the BBC Today programme primarily because of the standards of interviewing. Of course we just cannot hide (would that we could) from the insidious and all-pervading influence that they wield in these pre-Brexit days. We can always switch off, of course.

I cannot hide, however, when one of the members of my group bemoaned to me the discovery that one of his prized team members was indulging in office politics and something had to be done about it.

When Dr Henry Kissinger left front line politics to become a full time academic he commented that his experience of the ferocity of  university politics made him long for the peace and tranquillity if the Middle East and I can fully understand his concerns.

The fact is that whenever and wherever we have a group of intelligent people nominally at one to deliver successful business outcomes, the situation can often be blighted by  an individual who is more concerned to construct a position that is more individually advantageous than one that contributes to the overall success of the organisation.

Another value I laid down was to encourage as far as possible topics that engender a positive outlook rather than look for situations that cry out for correction. An admirable objective but one that needs to be examined from time to time.

Wise sages say that it is far better to put emphasis on things that are positive and doing well rather than spending time, effort and emotion on correcting  unsatisfactory positions in the business and I agree with that wholeheartedly.

However there comes a time when things get out of kilter and the influence of the business terrorist becomes evident. In its worst manifestation this is a member of the team whose output and performance levels are high but whose attitude, behaviour and lack of team ethos overcome the positive.

It is the gloom-monger, the naysayer and the rumour provider who constantly gets in the way of being a successful team player.

One of our Vistage US speakers says that we hire on skills and fire on attitude and that is a maxim well worth examining.  When we recruit from outside the business we naturally look for a replacement for the dearly departed and occasionally even a direct replacement.   This means that experience and technical abilities become essential whereas we actually need someone who can merge effectively into the team and contribute as such.

On that basis the last thing that we need is someone who has a personal axe to grind and whose whole attitude militates against good team ethics.

The problem is that this is often a creeping disease and it can take time to for a leader to realise that there is a problem.

In any case it is usually a problem that must be resolved if the team is to operate effectively.  Make no mistake, everyone on the team knows the problem and waits for some action to be taken from on high.

The question is always what to do about it?  On the one hand the individual’s performance is acceptable but the attitude and behaviour is not.  Can this be changed? Probably not so what is the remedy?

Remember that we usually can’t change people’s attitude and behaviour.  The best that we can accomplish is to build an environment which enables the individual to change - if they so desire.  If they don’t then surgery may be the best option based on the realisation that no individual however productive can be allowed to destroy a team and that can easily happen if we don’t take action.  

A disruptive team member is always a toxic influence and it is not good to wait for the eventual response of “What took you so long?

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