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Monday, 27 May 2019

Do Your People Speak But Not Talk? It Needs a Planned Culture Change!

Some years ago in my consultancy days I went to see, by request, a potential client, a significant Chief Executive.

The business was a large, £300M turnover, manufacturing organisation , a subsidiary of a US parent company, which was going through what they called a minor reorganisation. Specifically the UK Operations Director had been appointed Chief Executive to replace a retiring leader and plans had been in place for some time.  
The new CEO, my contact,  had been with the top team for some years and was a long tenure employee, coining up through the business.

On the face of it, this was  a sensible appointment. The new CEO appeared to be  well regarded at all levels, highly experienced and had a good reputation as a forward thinking leader.  As it happens, this was universally seen to be a necessary and progressive move.

So what was his problem?  Although he had made it clear to colleagues that “his door was always open” in fact he felt that he was being ostracised for some reason. His board colleagues would speak to him but were manifestly reluctant to talk to him.

It was a classic “symptom or cause” dilemma and he was at a loss to understand why it was happening.   The symptoms were all too obvious and he felt that they were having a malign effect on the atmosphere in the business.

The cause was rather more difficult to identify positively. It could stem from resentment at his promotion, a general antipathy to authority, a false personal reading of people’s opinion of his abilities, even a “gang up” or possibly an equally false view of the relationship that the previous incumbent had with colleagues.

If the latter was the cause then it seemed to be a matter of  ingrained culture that was so prevalent as to be almost normal. Indeed whatever the identified cause, it certainly meant that if the situation were to be corrected then a seed change in the culture was essential.

Easy to say but that statement alone has its effects. I am strongly of the opinion that even in a constructive and collaborative environment, one of the very few “top down” functions of leadership is the responsibility for designing and ensuring compliance with the culture of the business; the need for everyone in the organisation to understand how we do things around here and to work together with a universal sense of purpose.

Great leaders know well the difference between objectives which are measurable and purpose that is the inherent driver of what we are, who we are and where we are going.

It is not just a matter of semantics. It is the leader who articulates that purpose, explains it in simple, transparent and straightforward terms and then constantly ensures compliance.  That alone can be the raison d’etre of the leader. Virtually everything else can be delegated to the operational management with the possible exception of ensuring that the business employs only the best possible people.

It’s as easy as that!

Postscript:  Sadly I don't know the outcome of my incipient foray into the cultural problems of my prospective client.  Some months later the parent company in the US decided to close it and to move production to the Far East.


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Sunday, 19 May 2019

Are You Stuck in a Commoditised Industry? You Need to be Visibly Different!

Product life cycles generally go from an extremely innovative starting point through a development phase and very frequently, finish up as a commodity with a multitude of manufacturers and suppliers.

All well and good and we all have experience of products which have passed through this process.  Typical would be the ball-point pen, post-it notes and paper staplers.

All of these have been launched on to the market, gone through all the phases and are now a commodity with many companies supplying the same or at east similar products.

However just occasionally a product is launched that is so innovative that no-one seems to be able to copy it and it remains the leader in its field.

If products have this sort of life cycle, what about companies and indeed commercial or industrial sectors themselves?

Look at your business and ask yourself, are we a truly innovative organisation or (and be honest about it) are we much the same as many other businesses in this field?

There is little point in kidding ourselves.  The market and the customers will soon find out where you are placed on the Innovation/Commodity continuum.

The sorry fat is that there are many commercial and industrial sectors of the economy that could be classed as being commoditised and many professional practices fall into this category as well.

This is not to say that many organisations that are, on the face of it, commoditised are necessarily unsuccessful.  It is perfectly possible to minimise and even eliminate risk and run the business satisfactorily but without much excitement.

It is, of course, unlikely that the business will stand out from the crowd or indeed rate particularly highly on a search engine.

It all depends on the business culture, what seems the right thing to do, how experimental are the leaders and owners and what level of risk is acceptable to them.

Take a look at what used to be the way to find a tradesman to do some work in your home, that is, by those massive catalogues listing just about every suppler of every service that you want or need.

How did we decide on which one to call?  Was it by locality, by the size of the advertisement, or the first one in the listing?

None of these bear any relationship to the ability of the person or business offering the service or the standard of service that we could expect until we start the telephoning process and try to find out.

What usually happens is that we ask friends or colleagues if they can recommend someone and so the “word of mouth” method was born.

It is all very inefficient even when the massive printed book is now replaced by a quick search on Google simply because some clever geek has used search engine optimisation to position the business at the top of  page one of the search.

It doesn’t mean that they are any different from anyone else; it is just that they have found a better SEO specialist.

What then is the answer?  How can we drag ourselves out of the mass of “me too” businesses in our sector and make it clear to the market and prospective customers that we offer something different.

By the way, difference doesn’t always imply services or products.  It can be the way that we deliver the product, the way that we answer the telephone, the speed at which we pay bills and the level of service which we give to every customer or prospect at all ties and without exception.


It is easy to say that we need to be different.  Some time devoted to ways of being different and bringing everyone in the business into the process will pay massive dividends in the long run.  Driving that culture into the business should be the major function of the leader and probably the only “top down” contribution that is critical to the growth, success and general health of the organisation.


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Sunday, 12 May 2019

People Reluctant To Learn? The Key Is Self-Motivation!

In the early days of my learning about leadership I ran a small subsidiary of a large corporate in which we specialised in supplying sports surfaces and equipment.

As my sporting activities were severely limited to to very average hockey and slightly more average table tennis, the fact that we were manufacturing athletics artificial track, artificial ski slopes and marketing ski equipment there was something of a knowledge gap.

Accordingly we retained consultants who did know what they were about and I had the pleasure of getting to know people like Ron Pickering, a renowned athletics coach and broadcaster and John Shedden, possibly the best British ski instructor and later the Director of Coaching for the National Ski Federation of Great Britain.

John is a brilliant coach with many very happy clients both in Europe and the U.K.   He worked with individuals as well as families and groups and it was probably their enthusiasm that encouraged him to take up teaching as a career.

He went to University, graduated and got his first job in a tough school in Liverpool where he met, possibly for the first time, young people with a marked reluctance to conform to the wishes of authority. I forgot to mention that he also had a black belt martial arts and that helped to say the least.

None of this implied that his methods were wrong, it is just that unless people actively want to learn then we might as well try to push boulders uphill.

The fact was that while his clients were delighted with him, his students (and I use the word reluctantly) considered that they had better things to do. Very few people are auto didactic and those that are will generally be voracious learners.

There are a few educational geniuses who are able through force of personality perhaps to turn reluctant youth into enthusiastic learners and they are to be applauded.  One of these is Vistage UK speaker Marcus Child, a veritable caped crusader.

However, all speakers, presenters, trainers and the like know that feeling when we see someone sitting in the audience, arms folded, and looking resentful because they had been SENT to today’s event.

Motivational speakers of which there are legion can offer great advice as to how to motivate people but under analysis it is a very difficult outcome to achieve.

It is almost arrogant to suggest that we can motivate people. The best that we can offer is to give them a culture and environment in which they can motivate themselves to study and learn, should they so desire.

This is not a negative approach.  In fact it is extremely positive and many leaders can attest to great success.  In the end, however, motivation is a strictly personal attribute and self-motivation is the key.  Nobody motivated me to start this blog nearly ten years ago and now I realise that it wouldn’t appear unless I am constantly  self-motivated to continue.

How then do we develop that enthusiasm in our teams that enable us to develop and grow the business?

Simple really.  First of all make sure that you have  very best people in key positions, give them autonomy to make decisions, learn from mistakes and failures, use reprimand as infrequently as possible, give praise and reward (other than financially) as often as possible and have sufficient humility to accept that some people actually know more than we do.

It is a matter of culture and it can readily be measured by the rate of attrition in the team.  A high retention rate can indicate a desire to succeed in the business and that is a great metric.


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Monday, 6 May 2019

Problem With a “Terrorist”? Try Some Scenario Analysis!

I am always reluctant even to use the word ‘terrorist’ in a business context simply because of the evil connotations it has in the wider world.  I hope that my readers will accept that I use it to describe those members of staff who manage to combine great performance with an unacceptable attitude.

That is the simplified version and lately I have begun to realise that it is a “one size fits all” description that doesn’t even begin to cover all its various manifestations.

Discussing the issues with members of my Vistage CEO Peer group at our one-to-one meetings has ventilated a wide range of problems that, if not unique, are certainly uncommon albeit with overlapping  traits.

As an example one of my members has an issue with the leader of a small but very relevant subsidiary office.   He had been promoted rapidly from no.2 in the office because of the somewhat untoward and rapid departure of his leader.

A further complication is that the whole matter was a legacy issue.  No.2 is a pleasant, amiable operative with excellent relationships with some major cli§ens all of whom seem to rate him.

However, he has been promoted to leader and he is manifestly failing in the function. He agrees what needs to be done and then doesn’t do them. He is a doer rather than a leader and it is causing real problems in the office.

Without wanting to point the finger of blame, a god proportion can be levelled at whomsoever promoted him in the first place but he accepted and that is that.

The question is now what to do about it?  In these circumstances there is seldom outright mutiny, just that he prefers to do what he considers to be appropriate rather than what the business needs him to do.

One of our US Vistage speakers asks the question,  “Why does it take us 18 months to do something about someone we interviewed for an hour and a half?”   Decide whether it’s prevarication, procrastination or, worst of all, vacillation due to the fear of repercussions.    The effect is to claim the “status quo”, do nothing and hope that the whole matter will mysteriously disappear.  Don’t kid yourself because it won’t. In truth it will probably go worse, escalate and become a real problem.

There is a case for what I am beginning describe as Scenario Analysis. Because every terrorist situation is different to a lesser or greater extent it is useful to do some analysis of the situation.

There is little value in saying to someone “You are always….” or “You never…..” without evidence, described, dated and timed.

It may sound over the top but starting a dossier is a good initiative. So many people have said to me somewhat despairingly,

I don’t have anything specific, it’s just the behaviour and attitude that are the problem”.

Not true. If we even gently reprimand someone then we need to make a contemporaneous note and add it to a dossier. If this is not done then the miscreant can always and will go into denial mode.

Decide with him/her the role definition and what is expected of them, making notes of any slippages.  All of this might seem petty, even small minded but just do some calculations of the total costs of the status quo and prepare to be shocked.

In the end, the analysis of actual performance against expected should enable action to be taken, whatever that action might be.

Nothing will change for the better without some action and the Scenario Analysis dossier will be essential if the situation deteriorates.

It’s all very sad but the last thing we want to hear from other members of the team is:

“WHAT TOOK YOU SO LONG?”

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