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Sunday, 26 February 2012

Want to Make a Difference? Then Be Different and Work Hard at It!

Can you recall anyone in your past life who was different in some way such as someone who taught you at school or college?

Can you recall the impact that they had on you and your life?

Can you work out why they were different and how they differed from other people in your life at that time?

There is no doubt that those who are different stand out in our memories far more that the conformers, the normal, the usual, the grey mass of humanity that is like all the rest of it.

I recall one of my teachers who was different, very different.  He taught biology but he had a hobby of making puppets and putting on puppet shows.  His enthusiasm was such that we all started to follow him and make puppets.

That biology class learned more about human anatomy and mobility, not from books but from trying to make puppets that moved as nearly naturally as humans.

And what about sport?  There are individuals who are journeymen, solid performers, never set the Thames on fire, but make a living without making much of an impact.

And then there are those who are different and don’t we just remember them.  Names like footballer Paul Gascoigne, cricketers Ian Botham and Keith Miller, athlete Daley Thompson and golfers, Gary Player and the great Seve Ballesteros.

Geniuses?  Perhaps.  Talented?  Most certainly but most of them would say that they were ferocious practisers and that they made it to the top through a great deal of application and hard work.

It can all be regarded as a metaphor for business.  Too many people expect to make it to the top via a degree and a certain amount of experience.

In that wonderful book, The Puritan Gift by Kenneth and Will Hopper, they make the point that the great engines of growth in the USA during the 19th and 20th centuries were driven by people with “domain knowledge”, who had come up through the company learning more and more at every stage and turning their experience into expertise.

The great leaders of that age, Henry Ford, the Duponts, the Rothschilds, were different and stood out in every way.  They changed the way that business was organised and showed that success could come from dedication, commitment and hard, sustained effort.  

Nothing has changed in that sense.  However difficult are the times in which we live, sustained effort, a lot of research and being different can overcome all the predictions of the gloom mongers and naysayers.

If you want to make a difference, be different and work at it

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Sunday, 19 February 2012

What To Do About Really Poor Performers? It’s JFDI Time!

There is a constant discussion among business leaders about what to do with the member of staff who is a high performer but has a bad attitude.

This subject has been ventilated in earlier posts simply because it is a perennial problem and comes up in conversation perhaps above all others.  The rationale for keeping people like that on the team is always something like:

“We can’t afford to lose their results so we will have to live with their tantrums, unpleasantness, aggression or whatever”.

The answer is, of course, that individuals who exhibit those traits may well contribute to results but always have a corrosive influence in the business.  It no longer surprises me that when action is taken by a leader to exorcise the devil, the inevitable reaction among the peer group is

   “What took you so long?”

If we consider the four quadrant matrix, using Performance as the vertical and Attitude as the horizontal, then people like this always finish up in the top left box and have been termed “terrorists”.

We glibly assume that anyone in the bottom left box (low performance, bad attitude) is automatically excluded from the business but don’t ever be lured into thinking that this is also inevitable.

It is surprising to find that in many businesses there is frequently a small percentage of people who come into this category and the question must be asked, why are they still there?

Furthermore, why were they there in the first place?  Some are , of course, legacy figures and could have been in the business for years.  The rationale for exiting them can be as simple and as invalid as the cost of redundancy for a long serving employee.

A more likely reason for their still being in the business is the possibility that they “interview well”.  Some people seem to be able to exhibit all the desirable traits at interview and then put them away forever after they have been employed.

I recall one of my Vistage members employing a management accountant whom he said had all the great technical abilities they were seeking.  After he had been employed he spent most of his time surfing the web and apparently playing games.  He was a great interviewee and a rotten employee.

The answer is, of course, to be far more careful at the interviewing stage.  One of the traps into which we fall is talking too much at an interview and not encouraging the interviewee to talk. For example, we need to ask them about how they had handled an issue and what had been the result.  Chapter and verse is more important than their opinion in these cases.

That great US Vistage speaker, Ed Ryan used to ask:

"Why does it take us eighteen months to get rid of someone we interviewed badly for an hour and a half?"

Equally a certain playwright from Stratford upon Avon said perceptively:

“If t’were done, t’were better done quickly!”

It's a tough and unpleasant call but it's JFDI time again, folks. Remember, it still must be done in both a legal and a compassionate, sensitive way.

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Sunday, 12 February 2012

Struggling With a Tough Problem? A Peer Group is the Best Solution!

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned a long established Vistage mantra:

“No-one is as smart as all of us”

One of my Vistage CEO members liked it and put it on to several social networking sites.  Somewhat to my surprise, it resulted in quite a few interesting comments.

The idea of the mantra is that a peer group of like-minded people can offer a range of possible solutions for any issue which may well not even have been considered if one is acting in isolation.

There is no doubt that a typical Vistage group will offer a range of solutions to any issue brought before it, some of which can be very much off the wall.  On the other hand, an individual working in isolation could often look for an immediate and obvious solution rather than necessarily taking the time out to consider options.

Many of the people who commented on Twitter et al took the quote to imply that it is better to work in a team than alone which isn’t quite what was intended.

The big advantage of the Vistage type peer group is that ideas and concepts can be put forward and discussed in a safe and confidential environment and among participants who have no hidden agenda or an axe to grind.

There is a subtle difference between that and any typical internal team in a business where there can be hidden agendas and, worse, the occasional power play.  That can mitigate against effective discussions and hence effective results.

In general the team approach is usually more effective than the individual one, but it is most important to ensure that participants are encouraged to offer opinions which may be at odds with that of the management and the business.  If there is any fear of potential reprisals for speaking out, then the result is corridor conferences and cliques developing around the coffee machine.

This is not to say that there is anything amiss with team building but in the end, there must be a no-blame culture, a freedom of opinion and an understanding that whatever ideas are put forward, however unusual or even bizarre, will be considered without fear or favour.

But to discover how effective a real peer group can be in offering solutions to burning issues, then watch a Vistage group in action. 

Please note, you’ll have to join to find out why it works so well.

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Sunday, 5 February 2012

Writing a Report, Sending Out a Message? Keep It Short and Simple!

There is a story about a woman whose husband was just about to make a speech at an important dinner, when she passed a note to him that just read:


A friend who saw the note commented that it was a very sweet and supportive thing to do whereupon the woman said:

“Don’t kid yourself – it means Keep It Short, Stupid!”

There is a case for an amended version in business which is still KISS but this time it can be construed as:

“Keep It Short and Simple”
There is far too much complexity in our lives in just about every sense and we do tend to take that complexity into the workplace.
For example and for many long years I have been propounding the concept of the Five Line P&L which looks like this:
         -Cost of Sales
         = Gross Profit
         -Fixed Costs
         =Net Profit
Simple, and tells you pretty well all that you need to know about the profitability of the business.  Drill down a little and see that Sales comprise a combination of volume and price, while Cost of Sales is generally a mix of direct labour and materials.  All of that information can enable the leader to take action without micro-managing the situation
I recall a Finance Director who became rather tired of sending out enormous and completely comprehensive monthly management accounts to around six regional Managing Directors, so he sent a marker pen with one set of accounts and asked the MDs to mark the places in the accounts that they found of value.
The upshot was that he subsequently sent out management accounts on two pages with the offer to drill down if anyone wanted it.
Take a look at some of your emails, letters, memos (do they still exist?), reports and so on, and ask yourself: What is of true value in this to the reader and what is, frankly, extraneous padding?
When I was producing 250 page market research studies, I used to start off with an Executive Summary of no more than two pages with bullet points which listed the salient findings of the study, all the relevant backup detail being included in the body of the study.
We waste an inordinate amount of time and effort in producing epics of such stunning complexity which only have the effect of engendering glazed eyes in the reader.  Our attention span is no more than a few seconds before boredom sets in – not a good thing but it is realism.
It isn’t patronising to keep your communication short and simple.  It is realistic and just means that the reader is more likely to take action and not expire from boredom and the resultant inactivity.  Even worse, complexity can lead to interminable discussion and argument neither of which are conducive to useful action. 
Perhaps I should have read through this epic and used KISS rather more.
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