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Sunday, 28 April 2019

Going Into Questioning Mode? Use The Kipling Method!

I wrote last week about the use of words, the centrepiece of communication. Yes, I know about the academic theory saying that spoken words constitute no more than 7% of communication, far behind tone (38%) and body language (55%) but in these days of social media and telephone I would suggest we need to take another look at these figures.

I keep six honest serving men
(The taught me all I knew)
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who”

These are the wise words of Rudyard Kipling (1855-1936) in the children’ classic, The Just So Stories, and whether or not the concept was an original, they have been and are being used today to great effect.

They are the cornerstone of conversation and indeed of great communication. Every individual who considers themselves a coach knows and uses them instinctively.

The problem lies in their misuse or rather the use of inappropriate alternatives.
Kipling's Six Honest Working Men are Open questions, in that they all demand a considered response, presumably the desired outcome of the discussion.

On the other hand there are also the Closed questions generally beginning with a verb such as Do…, Are…, Will… and similar all of which allow only for a Yes/No response.

Listening recently to an early breakfast show on the radio this struck me forcibly.  The presenter was talking to a very sensible 8 year old child and persisted in using closed questions.  “Did you enjoy..?”, “Are you going…?” and so on, The sensible child answered Yes or No as appropriate. That was it - Yes or No and you could feel the palpable discomfiture of the presenter who presumably considered the child to be stupid.

Eventually the presenter, almost by luck, used an open question and the child, quite correctly, launched into an articulate and well structured response.

Expecting a considered response to a closed question is a matter of luck, not design.

The worst of all questions are those beginning with “Do you think….?” and then continuing with an exposition of the questioner’s opinion.  That might work well in court as a leading question but it is a poor alternative to a well thought out open question.

So let’s examine open questions  more closely. They fall into three groups each of which has a specific role to play.  
The first group are the basic information gatherers, for example, “WHO is involved…?”, “WHERE is the action taking place...?” WHEN will it happen...?”   

In each case judicious placing of the open question word can make the process seem less prescriptive and hence less of an inquisition.

The next group is the key to good communication and to relationship building.  “WHAT is the topic that want to discuss today?”  It doesn’t need to be sharp and incisive; it is often better again to cloak the question with other words always remembering that the sense of the key open question word must be observed.

For example, “Give me a run down on the situation” isn’t a question but again it is less prescriptive and should get the same answer.

The other two in this group, HOW and WHAT build knowledge of the issue itself and are the start of some ideas of what might constitute an outcome.

Now we come to the WHY question. My friend and great Vistage speaker Carole Gaskell is strongly of the opinion that the use of WHY should, if at all possible, be avoided.   Carole considers that WHY is or at least can be an aggressive start to a question.

I am not too sure. Using WHY judiciously, perhaps in the context of the previous question, really ought to be the one way through to complete understanding always given that no finger pointing is definitely not involved.

Above all we need to remember that this is a discussion and not  an inquisition; that we are looking to achieve a mutually satisfactory outcome and that is less likely when we are in aggressive, confrontational mode.

Thank you Rudyard Kipling for the use of your six honest working men, a trifle old fashioned in description but nonetheless valuable for all time.

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Monday, 22 April 2019

Using Too Many Wasted Words? Think Basic English!

Most of the brilliant speakers we are privileged to hear at the meetings of my Vistage CEO peer group leave behind take-away insights and processes that continue to resonate.

One of these was mentioned by one of our top speakers, Marcus Child who had been to a training session with his son at his football club. The point he made was that while the coach offered a lot of cogent and apparently positive advice, he tended to emphasise what the team needed to stop doing and indeed to stop their  opponents from doing.

All very valuable advice but almost exclusively negative. It may not seem so at first sight but it is so.

If the words we articulate are manifestations of our thoughts (which they are) then we are, in this instance, training ourselves to stop doing something and eventually this will become automatic.

Marcus also made the point that little throw-away remarks used at every touch and turn  also have this hidden negativity. Consider how we respond when someone says “thank you” to us. “No problem” we say brightly or, worse, we indulge in that antipodean “no worries” whatever that may mean.

The fact is that both of these  responses, among others, use two negative words and they are are by no means exceptional.  

Listen to yourself occasionally and see if you can use a cheerfully positive response, such as, “happy to help”, “you’re welcome” or “it’s a pleasure”.

Some years ago I was in a New York supermarket and the checkout woman went through the full gamut of the training programme, (program?) ending with the inevitable “have a nice day”.

Being a nicely brought up Englishman I said “Thank you”. She looked at me for the first time and then said, as they can only say in NYC, “Thank you for what?”  Presumably politeness wasn’t much in evidence in the training course.

Making changes in habitual nodes of speech takes a lot of care, attention and effort. How about starting by eliminating one or more of the following:

Y’know what I mean?
As they say
Sort of
At the end of the day
for starters. I am working on two of them right now.

All of them are quite redundant and just get in the way of what we are intending to say.

We all fall into the trap from time to time and it just needs a modicum of thought before we speak; to adjust what we were going to say and replace it with an inherently  positive response.

Remember that making that change over 30 days is likely to make it into a habit and that can only be a good thing.

Many of the brilliant speakers we have at the meetings of our Vistage CEO peer groups emphasise the need to use positive indicators and responses in our normal conversation.

John Cremer, as an example, demonstrates how this works by designing two forms of a role play conversation, one using the conjunction “and” then replacing it with “but”.

The results were astonishing.
The “and” pair exhibited energy, interest and collaborative insights whereas the “buts” were lethargic, disinterested and lacking energy. Their shoulders actually dropped and please remember this was role play!

But” can be a wholly destructive word in any conversation.  It has been said that when we use BUT we destroy everything that has been said before it.

During the last war and to improve communications the Government instituted a programme of Basic English using no more than 800 words.   This was considered sufficient,in terms of the number of words and using the basic rules of grammar, to become relatively proficient in English as a second language.

Would that it were more evident today in these times of super-communication.

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Sunday, 14 April 2019

Modern Thoughts About Leadership? Most of Them Are Nearly 2,500 Years Old!

Many of the social media pundits on leadership seem to think that their ideas are brand new, radical, revolutionary and innovative.

As it happens, the Greek philosopher, Aristotle (384BC-322BC) suggested that there are three forms of rule: the rule of one, the rule of the few and the rule of the many.  A student of Plato, he opined that the 'rule of one' was necessary to prevent anarchy and mob rule.  Now that is radical.

In those years and subsequently during the rise of Rome, the 'rule of one' came into prominence with emperors like Augustus, Claudius and the unlamented Caligula ruling.  So what happened to the rule of the few and the rule of the many?

It seems that even if there were a valid example of the 'rule of the many', in very short order a leader emerges to impose the 'rule of one'.   Post 1917 Russia is a classic example where the revolution of the masses spawned Stalin's 'rule of one'.

I recall a workshop weekend with a previous company where we had some six breakout groups of about ten in each, and we were asked to work on solving an insoluble problem.  Each group was allocated a minder who sat there and took notes and then reported back to the meeting after an hour's deliberation.

It turned out that we weren't actually working on problem solving, but were there to give the minders (all psychologists) a view of how groups work and how they choose their leaders.

Astonishingly, all the minders reported the same results.  In every case each group elected a notional leader/chairman, usually a Director of the company who happened to be in their group, and then proceeded to ignore him.

The more forceful and articulate seemed in each case to emerge into a leadership role with the majority of the other members of the groups deferring to them.  Seniority had no effect.

So what does this mean in terms of a modern approach to leadership?  Many businesses, especially those which are essentially entrepreneurial, are work on the 'rule of one' basis and the 'rule of the many' applies only in unusual cases like the John Lewis Partnership.   Many SMEs are run on the 'rule of the few' basis and preferably 'the virtuous few'.

However, it must be said that in the business world, Aristotle was percipient to the extent that in well run companies, all his rules apply.  Starting with an entrepreneurial leader, as the business grows and expands, an effective management team has to be built into a 'virtuous few'.

So where does the 'rule of the many' come into the calculation?   Until a business understands that 'the many' have much more to offer than merely their labour, then it will effectively be run on a 'top down' basis with minimal upwards contribution.

Perhaps this implies that one of the most important facets of great leaders is that of humility; the acceptance that they don't know everything about everything, and that everyone in the business has a place in the scheme of things.

David Marquet, lately of the US Navy and author of the best-selling book, Turn the Ship Around, says that he changed the governance of his failing command from Leader/Follower to Leader/Leader. This gave responsibility at every level of leadership rather than solely top down with all its consequent blockages.

If you would like to hear David in person he is the keynote speaker at the next Vistage Open Day on May 17th at the Hilton Hotel, Manchester.  DM me to be registered as my guest, FOC for the first three applications from executives at CEO or MD level. It could change your whole approach to leadership.

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Sunday, 7 April 2019

Are All Your Salespeople Closers? Train Them to AFTO!

I have long had an aversion to the use of synonyms for sales as if the very word ‘sales’ were objectionable. High on the list is “business development”, a tortuous way of describing possibly the most important department in any commercial enterprise.

For some unfathomable reason here in the United Kingdom, Sales have been regarded as a slightly sleazy description of an honourable and professional activity. Typical is the description “used car salesman” and that says it all.

Just as bad, I submit, is the lumping together of sales and marketing, two vastly differing activities.  Marketing, per se, is essentially an analytical activity without which sales operations are missing a trick.  Market research, media research, promotional activity and publicity all come under the generic heading of marketing.

Indeed some would argue that sales is also a marketing function.   I don’t agree simply because marketing is largely a desk activity and needs people comfortable in that environment, whereas sales demands driven, determined, self-starting loners.

It has been wisely said that the worst albeit very tempting appointment that ca be made is to promote your best sales person to be sales manager. Great sales operators by definition are loners, self starters while sales managers must have the ability to encourage, develop and coordinate a motley group of loners.

Joke: A sprtsman used to go shooting regularly and always asked for a dog called Salesman because it was quick, intelligent, obeyed commands and generally was exceptional. One day he went to book the dog for a shoot and the owner said sadly:
Sorry, but he’s been ruined.  Some idiot called him Sales Manager and now he just sits on his ass and barks”.

Since the times when I spent many happy days motoring around the UK going to see engineers and helping them make technical decisions, the methods we use to get to the market have changed significantly primarily through the astonishing growth in social media .

One of the members of my Vistage CEO peer group has exploited the medium very successfully.  Apart from the replacement of print advertising by the same methods on social media there has been a growth in using the medium as a news source.

Relatively new as it is, advertising on social media is beginning to lose its impact and one hears some irritation at its perceived intrusion”.   Far more effective is the use of social media, especially those more sector dedicated, to careful dissemination of “news” stories that are more interesting and are not seen as being intrusive.

As an example, one of the members of my Vistage CEO peer group started an initiative just a year ago that has resulted in around 8% sales growth from new customers. He uses very good photography and appends an interesting story.  Crucially he posts 3 or 4 times a day and that demands dedicated resource.

Of course that initiative started as a marketing exercise that has generated direct sales and which has opened the door to face to face contact meetings classed as warm leads

There are many mantras about sales such as “Build a relationship”, “Selling isn’t telling”, “Ask questions and shut up” and so on that emphasise techniques for that crucial eyeball to eyeball meeting.  

I was under training many years ago with one of those (useless) conventional salesmen, (trilby hat, battered briefcase etc.) who merely recited extracts from the company catalogue and waited for the prospect to bite. The interview usually ended with the buyer glazing over and the salesman threatening to “see you again next month”.

A completely valueless exercise that results in the “he’s in a meeting”  response at reception. In short, he wasn’t a “closer”.

My old sales mentor, Phil Copp, the Sage of Wythenshawe, used the “ask relevant questions then listen, listen, listen” and he was massively successful. People like to talk about their businesses and listening to them encourages a positive relationship.

Methods may have changed but in general people haven’t and a great face-to-face meeting is still the best marketing tool.

Finally, be positive, helpful and collaborative and don’t forget to AFTO! (Ask For The Order)!

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