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Sunday, 29 September 2013

You Don’t Have Anyone to Talk To? Try the Power of the Peer Group!

In the last couple of months I have had the pleasure of building a new group in the North West of the UK or Vistage, this time a Key Executive Group which, as it happens, also includes a couple of small business owners. 

Most of the members have been sponsored by members of my Chief Executive group and some of them have had experience of Vistage group meetings as visitors. 

On the face of it, one would imagine that it would take some time for a group to bond sufficiently to be able to download their issues in an open and transparent way. 

Many of the issues which we have discussed have been complex and because they have invariably involved people in the business, there is a measure of emotional involvement as well. 

There has been no problem at all.  I have been delighted at the way that the group has bonded and there seems almost an air of relief that at last they have someone to talk to. 

Not only has there been that sense of relief but there has also been a great feeling of camaraderie. Members have coming to a meeting saying that they are looking forward to an update from one member or another who had brought up a difficult issue at the previous meeting. 

So what can we learn from this experience?  There is no doubt that senior people in business have two major issues; one is that the higher one progresses up an organisation there are fewer people to tell them that they are doing a good job and that demands emotional stamina. 

We all need reassurance from time to time and the opportunities diminish with promotion. 

In addition, most people who are ambitious and upwardly mobile actually want and often need to be challenged, always assuming that the challenge is positive and helpful.
Both of these demands are difficult to find in a regular organisation unless there is a forward thinking, inclusive leader on hand to help the team to build their self esteem and self confidence. 

The peer group is the ideal forum to fulfil this need.  Members, especially in a Vistage group, are carefully selected so that there are no competing businesses and with no encouragement to use the group as a network to obtain business. 

These criteria ensure that the group operates in an open and transparent environment and that, together with the mandatory confidentiality, makes for safety and the freedom to express opinions which, believe me, they certainly do. 

A further advantage of the Key Executive group is that the members begin to understand the inevitable changes which the CEO has been bringing into the business and that can help with the administration of change overall. 

This has been an exciting time for me personally and, I hope, for the great new members who are experiencing probably for the first time the huge advantage of having someone they trust to talk to.
As individuals we are all unique in one way or another and at the same time we are instinctively pack animals.  We gather together perhaps with people we don’t really know but with whom we have one or two specific points of contact and mutual interest.    

A peer group environment supplies just that need.
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Sunday, 22 September 2013

Going Through a Tough Time? Pick Yourself Up, Dust Yourself Off and Start All Over Again!

As some of you may realise I am an avid collector of quotes on the basic premise that there are a lot of clever people out there and what they say very often resonates. 

Even better, several of my friends know of my addiction and kindly send the occasional quote to me with the suggestion that it might make a good blog topic. 

I am always grateful for any new insights and this week especially so to Jacqui Chatwood, Managing Director of Advance Performance (www.advance.tv). 

Jacqui sent me a quote which says: 

·       “Smooth seas do not proficient sailors make” 

and how true is that one. 

The old maxim that we learn more from our mistakes than from our successes is another way of looking at it but when analysed it has even more depth. 

The fact is that very few people go through life without experiencing drama at some time and the key is how they cope and overcome it. 

In many cases it is only too easy to collapse metaphorically and to persuade one's self that the whole world, for some unaccountable reason, has it in for us. 

In the vast majority of cases it isn’t true of course but the path of self reproach and, heaven forfend, self pity can be a compelling one. 

In the end the solution is obvious.  Look at the situation, ask yourself can I change what has happened (you can’t of course) so how should I handle the situation to get the best outcome. 

I know, it’s just that old equation of E+R=O raising its helpful head again but how appropriate it is when the situation is genuinely dire and often has led to real loss of some sort; financial, physical, mental or personal. 

Fortunately strength of character almost always sees us through and without doubt we are the better for it. 

Certainly life can be tough and throw us into doubts and depression but coming out of it sometimes with the help of others can only strengthen and make us into more proficient sailors. 

To digress slightly I recall a Vistage speaker, a clinical psychologist, who said that he routinely asked his patients: 

“Are you clinically depressed or just clinically p****d off?” 

He didn’t say how many patients he had lost as a consequence but it is a great question. 

I heard a song recently, written in 1936, on a radio broadcast (the radio was better when it was on the wireless) which said: 

“Nothing’s impossible I have found
For when my chin is on the ground
I pick myself up,
Dust myself off, and
Start all over again”
(Lyrics by Dorothy Fields, music by Jerome Kern) 

Another quote, this time from Private Lives by Noel Coward which says: 

“Strange how potent cheap music can be” 

In this case, very potent and indeed percipient it is.
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Sunday, 15 September 2013

No Time to Smell the Roses? Be Sure You Make Time to Do It!

Another recurring theme which all Vistage chairs hear is the complaint from CEOs that “I don’t have enough time”.  Strange, as there is plenty of it around. 

Time has been defined scientifically, religiously, mathematically, philosophically, mystically and so on.  Whatever it is, we have managed to develop a method of measuring it when we don’t really know what it is. 

A simpler definition is that “time is what prevents everything happening at once” and I like that one. 

At any rate if we forget the need to define time and concentrate on its use and value then we begin to realise that most of our lives are encompassed by what can become the tyranny of time. 

The relentless march of progress (I use the word reluctantly) in technology has resulted in time compression so that whereas in the past we were content to accept days and sometimes weeks to elapse between contacts, now if someone doesn’t reply to an email at least the same day, we are irritated and annoyed. 

Civilisation has evolved a method of measuring this intangible entity so that we have the ludicrous seven day week (why seven?), the 365+¼ day year corrected every four years and so on. Blame the Gregorian calendar for that.

I worked some years ago at a large engineering company which was excessively procedure oriented and they decided that the normal monthly calendar was inadequate for their purposes. 

Accordingly they evolved a 13 period year with four weeks per period and an occasional hitch at that irritating time of a leap year. Everyone in the business was supplied with a non-scientific periodic table which showed the calendar months and the equivalent company months. 

I recall someone asking a colleague when he was taking his holidays and was told “8.3 and 8.4” to receive the reply “I wanted to know when you are taking your holidays, I didn’t want a delivery promise”. 

The link between the demands of work and the time available in which to achieve a result has become more and more compressed.  No wonder the complaint is that there isn’t enough time. 

Perhaps we need to consider whether the work itself should be redesigned to fit the time available.  The tyranny of time is that there 24 hours in the day and many leaders can fall into the trap of assuming that they are all available for business purposes. 

The trick is to decide on what is important and what is merely urgent.  I despair on occasion when I see a member of my Vistage group dive for their smart phones at any break in the proceedings on the assumption, it seems, that the business can't progress without their input. 

If by breaking the speed limit we save ten minutes on a journey, ask yourself what will you do productively with those ten minutes? 

One of my Vistage members uses “Woodward Time”.  When Sir Clive Woodward was appointed coach of England rugby he told his players that “on time is ten minutes early and early is 20 minutes before the meeting.” 

We become overwhelmed with messages, telephone calls, emails, reports and general information overload when the clever thing to do it to use that very valuable word “NO”. 

Enough is enough already.  Reduce the incessant demands on your time by deciding on your real priorities, what is important and not necessarily urgent, what will successfully contribute to the business going forward and what can be rightly delegated to others in the business. 

That should give you more time and the question then is what to do with it.  One important thing that you can do is to take time out to think about the business and in general it is only the leader who has that privilege. 

Finally, Mark Twain wrote: 

·       “I would have written you a shorter letter but I didn’t have the time.”   

and golfer Sam Snead said: 

·       “Take time out to smell the roses” 

Not a bad philosophy of life.
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Sunday, 8 September 2013

Is a Family Business a Curse or a Blessing? It’s Up to the Family to Decide!

One of the recurring issues which all Vistage chairs encounter is that of the family business which can be either a blessing or a curse. 

Over the years I have experienced many examples of the family business and usually with the traumas which seem to be a daily part of life for those involved.  The word “dysfunctional” often comes to mind. 

It can be a father bringing sons and/or daughters into the business, brothers in business together, sons who have been told to employ siblings, a parent who just will not let go and pas responsibility to the next generation, even worse the patent to passes on the gauntlet and then continues to interfere; the list goes on and on as do the problems. 

Under normal circumstances if someone isn’t performing or worse, is disruptive, it is relatively simple to take the necessary action even if the process is drawn out through the exigencies of employment legislation. 

It is not so simple of the miscreant is family.  Although theoretically the same legislation applies to everyone, in the case of a family member emotion and loyalty, even though misplaced, tends to get in the way. 

This is not to say that every family business has severe problems but I have heard it said that “as soon as we get through the door at the company, the business takes over and the family takes second place”.  Would that it were so simple.   

I have had a member of my Vistage group who was fifth generation in the business and looked upon himself, rightly, as the custodian for the next generation.  However, his father was reluctant to give up the position of CEO until, as he said, “the boy was ready to take over”.  He actually meant "when I am ready to let go".

In another case, the father was effectively the 100% shareholder and brought his two sons into the business in senior positions.  He had decided, sensibly, that both of them should have a couple of years working outside the business before joining and that gave them both a taste of how other companies can be run. 

The problem was that he constantly referred to them as “the kids” which as they were both directors of the business was not exactly complimentary.  

On the other hand, I have known cases where the owner has brought in siblings, found that they were unable or unwilling to comply with the needs of the business and the requirements of the leader, so the bullet was bitten and they went.  I can’t imagine what the atmosphere at the next family Christmas dinner was like. 

Another of my CEO members with two sons made it clear from the outset that he was not having them in the business at any price.  He would be happy to give them any assistance that they might need and indeed was prepared to help them go into business on their own but come into his business?  No way! 

All of this might seem somewhat negative and there are many situations where the family business works very effectively.  I would suggest that it takes a great deal of care and generosity to make it work. 

As long as everyone involved as a family member in a business accepts and understands that the needs of the business and the people in it are paramount then all can be well and peace will reign. 

There are plenty of examples of very successful family businesses and it is a wonderful thing to behold when they work well.  It does take care and understanding on the part of everyone concerned but it is well worth the effort.
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Sunday, 1 September 2013

Think You Know How Good You Are? It’s the Customer’s Opinion That Matters More!

From time to time I attend a clinic (NHS) for a minor test and it occurred to me recently that they are a demonstrable example of truly excellent customer focus. 

Odd and encouraging that the NHS which takes quite a lot of flak these days should be the ones who demonstrate how easily an organisation can achieve genuinely high standards of customer focus and care should they so desire. 

Let me explain.  I went to the clinic last week courtesy of my wife who dropped me off there.  We left the house at 7.55am so that I could sign in early for the 8.00am start. 

I was treated with efficiency, courtesy, friendliness and above all professionalism and having had the test and walked to the taxi rank, I was back in the house at precisely 8.30am. 

This suited me fine as I had a 9.00am appointment for a one-to-one and it gave me time to get organised for the day ahead. 

The whole point is that, in the end, whatever we are doing which depends on an interaction with others, it is their perception of good service which matters and no ours. 

Just to put the NHS into perspective, yet another report this week discusses patient satisfaction levels with hospital catering and nearly 50% of those surveyed said that the food was not up to an acceptable standard. 

The relevant hospital authorities, on the other hand, had surveyed catering standards internally and had awarded marks of four or five (out of five) in almost every case. 

Who is right?  It certainly isn’t the NHS in this case as what they considered very good or even excellent had not been confirmed in any way by the people being asked to eat the stuff. 

The problem in industry and business in general is that we are too inward looking, too exercised with what we see as acceptable or outstanding and not in any way too concerned about the ultimate arbiter, the customer. 

I am not an enthusiast for surveys directly asking the customer if they were satisfied with the product or the service as usually there is a tendency not to be over truthful.   

There are, however, some good and real methods to test customer perceptions and a great leader will want to know exactly what they are thinking and consequently how likely are they to continue as a customer or client. 

One technique that I like is the follow-up request for information on “how did we do?” after a sale.  Never more than five and preferably three questions will suffice and provided there is a large enough sample of respondents, the statistical result should be well within acceptable level of error. 

That works well with consumers and there are other methods which would apply well in B2B situations. 

For example, always ask the question of the individual who actually uses or has specified the product or service as they will be the ones whose job will be on the line (they think) if it all goes badly. 

On an overall basis, the leader should be the one who checks personally and constantly on “how are we doing?” with the customers.  They very act of asking the question by the top person will help to elicit the right answer and will also show the customer that you mean business. 

By the way, the leader should always be the one who sees all complaints so that an overall sense of what needs to be changed to improve the situation can be developed. 

Customer focus is the most important aspect of any business or professional practice.  Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you know the answer; always assume that the customer’s opinion is both different and far more important. 

Remember, the second order is more important than the first.

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