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Sunday, 26 March 2017

Wondering Which Way To Go? You Need To Know Your True North!

Stephen Covey in his benchmark book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, says that we should always put first things first.  On the face of it that is almost a truism but the question is, how often do we actually achieve that desirable outcome?

I well recall visiting a new member of my Vistage CEO peer group for his first one-to-one session and in the course of the conversation I asked him how he organised his day.  For example, did he have a to-do list?

He did, he said, and went to his trusty laptop to show me.  There was a total of 72 items on the list ranging from “Contact the bank to discuss the overdraft as requested” to “Clean the car”.

I pressed him to tell me how many of these items he thought that he would actually complete. He said that there were so many that he never seemed to achieve any of them.  In any case, he went on, day to day things get in the way and the list just got longer.

What a waste of time and effort.  It has been wisely said that rather than have a to-do list we should have a NOT to-do list and in his case the first item on that should be stop doing a to-do list.

The caveat is of course that unless the to-do list is valuable, achievable and realistic then it is worthless.

It can all be resolved by some discipline in two respects; (1) To restrict the to-do list to no more than three items and (2) To set the priorities on the list and not to divert except in exceptional circumstances.

The reason for a list of three items is a function of immediacy of memory. Three items can be recalled very easily and adding further items can start to clog the memory.  Additionally it is far easier to set priorities.

All the items on the list need to be focused to the benefit of the business and lead to a defined and specified outcome.

If these simple rules are not followed then the likelihood is that items of little or no value can intrude and get in the way of what is really significant.

Monty Roberts, the legendary horse whisperer, says that when he was following wild horses and was lost in the forest he needed to find his true north. That was his absolute priority.

The really important feature is to set your priorities.  Look at what you are planning to do, define each item in whatever terms you decide are relevant to the success of the business and then decide the  priorities on each item.   Don’t change unless something exceptional merits the change.

Moreover, keep to the priorities that you have set.  We can be so easily distracted by the day-to-day happenings in the business that very often the really significant things take a back seat not by design but by happenstance.

There is no doubt that it demands self-discipline. If these priorities are so important to the future of the business then nothing should get in the way of fulfilling them.

The natural concomitant of this discipline is the essential need to have a team to whom you can and do delegate in the safe knowledge that they can be trusted implicitly to perform.

Ask yourself these three questions:

What should I do more of?
What should I do less of?
What should I STOP doing?

Remember that if you don't know where you are going then any road will take you there.  Knowing your priorities and living them will ensure  that you will find your true north.

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Sunday, 19 March 2017

Why Change And Take A Risk? We’ve Always Done It That Way!

Can you remember how athletes used to perform the high jump?  The only method used to be the Scissors where the athlete lifted the lead leg up and over the bar followed, if fortunate, by the rest of the body.  The best height that this method achieved was just over 6ft and that seems even miraculous.
There were several techniques such as the Western Roll that followed until an athlete called Dick Fosbury revolutionised the sport with what became known as the Fosbury Flop, a technique that had the athlete going over the bar almost backwards and certainly leading with the head and shoulders with the legs hopefully following later.
The current world record using this method and which was set in 1999 is just over 8ft.
The question is: who ever uses the scissors or the western roll today?  Indeed, it would be fascinating even to see these old methods and compare them with today’s.
The point is that Dick Fosbury dared to be different and by being so he revolutionised the whole sport both in method and performance.
In swimming, the butterfly stroke was originally conceived as an improvement on the conventional breaststroke and was so successful that the ruling bodies decided that it deserved a place of its own.
I remember an old leg break bowler in our cricket club whose bowling action was akin to that of a demented octopus and who terrified opposing batsmen who were constantly unable to decide where the next weird delivery was coming from and more importantly what it was going to do.
All of these geniuses dared to be different and didn’t care what others thought of them; they had their methods and that was sufficient.
The old adage of “if it ain’t broke, leave it alone” has some value but I recently heard someone say “if it ain’t broke, break it and then fix it!”
Whatever we do in business can and frequently does become routine and we occasionally wonder why it is that performance is poor or at best flat lining.  Just look at the productivity statistics for the UK and this becomes very apparent.
Perhaps then we should start to question everything that we do.  We should ask why we do something that way and crucially why are we doing it anyway.  Indeed one of my Vistage colleagues in the USA recently wrote that we need to ask ourselves how could this fail?
Just take a look at some of the really innovative businesses that have emerged recently and are being justly described as being disruptive; Tesla which is a business based on battery technology but which has built the first really effective electric automobile, Uber a software company that has revolutionised the taxi business worldwide and doesn’t own one taxi and Amazon itself, the first port of call to buy almost anything these days that originally dared to sell books online.
Breaking the rules should not just be the province of the maverick in business (and, by the way, I firmly believe that every business should have one) but it should be an automatic reaction that allows new and innovative ideas to find space to flourish.
If you break the rules of the game you can change the game itself and that might be just what is needed in a business especially one that is, to be kind, approaching maturity.
We need to pull ourselves out of that comfort and complacency zone into which we can very easily fall and impart considered and exciting change perhaps even to shock people into a realisation that the status quo isn’t necessarily nirvana.

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Sunday, 12 March 2017

Overworked, Harassed, Pressured? It’s The Tyranny Of The Urgent!

We had a great speaker, Brad Waldron, to both my Vistage peer groups last week and he presented with great enthusiasm Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

One of the habits that he emphasised is the necessity of putting first things first, a habit that in the rough and tumble of everyday business life can easily slip away.

That is, if it ever has become a habit.   Too often business leaders go into the business each day with every good intention, with a to-do list in mind and the knowledge that a productive day lies ahead.

And what happens?  The phone rings, emails ping constantly, people come in and demand attention and, lo and behold, all the good intentions have dissipated for yet another day.

The result is irritation, frustration and a feeling that although we have been busy all day, quite frankly we can’t really remember what we have done and it certainly wasn’t what we intended in the first place.

It has been called bad time management but I think that there is more to it than that.  We all have the same amount of allotted time and every hour lasts exactly as long as the previous and next one.

Why then is it that some people seem to be able to get their heads down and manage to produce exactly what was asked of them by the leader while the leader is being distracted at every touch and turn?

In simple terms the leader is expected to be the fount of all knowledge whereas the team member just has to perform and be accountable.  That scenario describes a habit that should never have been permitted to emerge and it is one that is extremely difficult to eradicate.

It is, of course, a matter of the culture of the business and that should be defined and driven in by the leader.  It is self evident then that the leader needs to understand how powerful is his/her influence and how dictats from on high are viewed by the general populace.

Another of the great speakers we have heard in Vistage is Walt Sutton and he strongly recommends that every leader should take time out at least twice a year, metaphorically or actually to take a walk on the beach.

It must be without paper, pen or mobile phone so that there will be no distractions other than the weather.

It is called thinking time and we can all do with a lot more of it.

The problem usually manifests itself in the business as I have already mentioned with the leader being harried at all times and eventually succumbing to the demands of something that is urgent, or is at least said to be urgent.

Have you ever noticed that urgency is almost invariably given to us by someone else?

The question is, why is it urgent and why necessarily does the leader need to be involved?  More to the point, why do we as leaders allow ourselves to be involved other than by judicious delegation and subsequent monitoring?

If we measure what is urgent and what is important then things begin to come into focus.

The leader’s function is to think about the business because the leader is probably the only person who actively does just that and that demands strength of will to use a little word that works wonders at times.

That word is “NO”.

I had a member of my Vistage CEO peer group who had a notice on his office door to say, in effect, don’t come to me to solve your problems, bring me solutions and I will discuss them with you.

It isn’t a matter of time management.  It is a matter of activity management and that decision is a personal one for every leader.  What activity will bring success to the business and how can we engender that success?  

Now that is really important but it is seldom urgent.

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Sunday, 5 March 2017

Do You Know Where Your Business is Going? Do Your People Know?

Some years ago I attended a presentation in London by the legendary Theodore (Ted) Levitt, Professor of Marketing at Harvard Business School and one of his sayings has stayed with me ever since.

He said:

“If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there”. 

There was some resonance of Alice in Wonderland there.
Now I discover that the Roman philosopher, Seneca (4BC-65AD) said:

“If a man knows not what harbour he seeks, any wind is the right wind”.

So there is nothing new under the sun and both (or all) of them, of course, were right.  Again for years I have used another little saying which I like very much and which is so relevant:

“People want to know two things; how am I doing and where are WE going”.

It is all a matter of good communication and it is the function of the leader to ensure that the team are kept well aware of both criteria.  By far the best way is to have regular one-to-ones with everyone on the team.  Timings and dates should be diaried and the time allocated must be sacrosanct.

It is a matter of respect for each team member and nothing should get in the way.  The agenda, by the way, belongs to the team member not the leader.  Length of time for each one-to-one?  Anything from one to two hours is best and they should happen at least monthly.

The leader needs to ask questions and above all to listen.  Regular one-to-ones like this almost obviate the need for annual appraisals because feedback monthly will ventilate the issue of “how am I doing?”

A useful starter leader question is: “What help do you want from me to enable you to improve your performance?” and I also like: “What don’t you want to discuss today?  It’s a bit in your face but with the right relationship it can really open up the conversation.

The “where are we going?” question is another matter.  Setting the values, the vision and the goals for the future of the business should be largely a matter for the leader because they define the culture that the leader sees as appropriate for the business.

From then on setting the objectives and defining the strategy and the action short term and longer term is a matter of discussion with the team on a regular basis.  It is, however, vital that when the objectives and the strategy have been set, some form of accountability needs to be established so that action can be monitored.

Too many strategic plans are beautifully presented and then languish in a filing cabinet until someone remembers and gets it out to see if it had worked.
Good planning with action and accountability answers both Ted Levitt and Seneca who might have said:

“When you DO know where you are going, your people will go with you, as long as they are consistently involved”. 

Remember, no-one ever feels committed to achieving other peoples’ objectives.

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