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Sunday, 29 April 2018

Hoping to Change Someone? We Need to Change Ourself First!

Rabbi Hillel the Elder was an exceptionally wise teacher and religious philosopher from the beginning of the Common Era (d.1BCE in Jerusalem) who left many widely used quotations and aphorisms still highly valued today.

Perhaps his most notable saying was;

"If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?" (Ethics of the Fathers, 1:14)

Rabbi Hillel draws the distinction in the definition of ourselves between “I”, the inner identity and “Me”, our identity of us by the outside world.  This is a complex and subtle concept and indeed Hillel takes it to several even deeper stages.

In our case it seems that his message is to assess what we consider to be our identity then to check it with the opinions of the outside world and that can be a can of worms. It demands a measure of humility.

How true to ourselves is our opinion of ourself?  How accurately can we assess our behaviour and attitude?  To what extent are we hiding our true identity because it is too difficult or even painful to accept?

There is nothing problematic in this because the outside world will always make a decision on how we behave in the way that it impacts on them.

The crux of the matter is how far that opinion differs from our own assessment and if there is a distinct variance then perhaps it is time for a reassessment of how we behave, our general attitude and our ability to build valid and lasting relationships.

This implies that we are able to make a true and genuine assessment of how we behave and the reaction that it engenders in others.  For example are we cheerful, positive and likable or do we tend to look on the dark side of everything, transmit negativity and are judgemental?

More importantly do we really know the impression that we leave with other people and crucially, do we care?

Hillel’s strictures on identity do not imply constant self-examination and self-absorption but they do suggest that if there seems to be a variance between the two then note should be taken of it and above all, action needs to be implemented.

That is, of course, on the assumption that we are interested in other people’s opinions or even care about them.

Certainly we need to plough our own furrow in the world which we inhabit and should not be constantly expecting others to change in accordance with our wishes.

If we have an identity and personality then we have to accept that everyone has as well and it behoves us to accept that fact and understand that everyone is different.  The key is to expect little and work to accept differences.

In the end it is a matter of “If not now, when?” and that is the greatest call to action known.

Unless we do take action to change on the assumption that change is necessary then there will be no difference in the way that we interact with others.

If, on the other hand, we examine ourselves, determine that we need to change then the time to do it is now.

Above all, remember we cannot change other people and it is arrogant to assume that we can.  

We can only change ourselves and that only should we deem it to be desirable.

It may be a case for a trusted counsellor or mentor to open our eyes to ourselves and it should be someone who is close enough to be true and honest.  It can of course be painful and we need to be true and honest to ourselves to accept that we may need to change if that is the conclusion.

It is in our own hands and the time is now.

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Sunday, 22 April 2018

Dissatisfied With Forecasting? Analyse The Trends Not The Actuals!

I have in recent post mentioned the work that my old friend and Vistage speaker, the late Brian Warners, espoused in the management of a business.

In essence he considered that the conventional budgeting process was invidious and he, as a consequence, invented what he called dynamic budgeting.

This consisted essentially of analysing the regular break even activity compared to invoiced sales in a business, in fact, on a weekly or even daily basis.  It is a prime leadership tool and can be checked in real time.

He considered that a leader should not be concerned with the minutiae of the management accounts but rather should look for the information that can be derived from them in a simplified but relevant format.

I recall a past member of my Vistage CEO peer group who was leading a publicly listed company that he managed essentially on six or so graphs produced for him every month.

In other words, it was the trends that mattered and not the monthly actual numbers.

I am constantly surprised by leaders who react to, say, one month’s activity by comparing it with the same period in the previous year.

This only compares direct performance and it does not take into account any other  factors that may have an effect on how the business performs, typically the weather, general economic activity or even the current morale in the business.

We have to accept that looking backwards at a business is not the best way to predict what is going to happen; certainly not by comparing it with a similar period the year before.

It is interesting but not more than that.

Predicting the future is a dodgy exercise to say the least and our great friend of Vistage, Roger Martin-Fagg, says very sagely that you will be either wrong or lucky.

However there is some value in realising that businesses have momentum and unless something dramatic happens, are likely to continue in much the same way for a while.

Just ask any leader who is absent for a period and then when he/she returns, discovers with chagrin, that the business has gone on in his/her absence much as normal.

It is when some change is experienced that the process breaks down.

How best then to derive meaningful information from current and past performance to enable us to make a forecast that has some meaning?

I am convinced that the momentum theory has value so why not use it to advantage?

Given that any prediction will only have value for, say, three months, there are one or two techniques that may help.

Firstly there is the matter of seasonality. Agriculture based businesses are obviously well aware of this factor but how many leaders in other businesses check to see whether there is a pattern of behaviour in their markets that can affect them?

A simple way is to plot monthly actual sales performance over the past five or so years and overlay the graphs to establish any patterns.

Another very important understanding is to get away from looking at comparable weeks or months and start looking at performance on an annual basis using rolling annual averages for sales, cost of sales, gross margin, fixed costs and net profit together with any other relevant KPIs.

It is the trends in the business performance that matter most.

This will give a more realistic view of the way that the business is performing and smooths out any short term anomalies.

In summary therefore try not to use solely the conventional budget and add the following:

  • Break-even analysis comparing the level of break-even sales with actual plotted regularly and then overlay the average trend using linear regression  (generally available on most spreadsheet software).

  • Seasonality assessment over a period of at least the past five years if possible.

  • Assess the performance of the business using rolling annual averages and linear regression to show real trends.

These relatively simple procedures can add real value to the often sterile forecasting process and hence to the way that the leader manages the business.

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Sunday, 15 April 2018

How Do You Handle Complaints? You Need to Recover in Style!

I posted a blog recently mentioning a problem that I had encountered with a large corporate that I had hired to provide a service to my business. Things have not gone well and I decided to part company while still waiting for completion of a statutory submission.

Having escalated the problem I was called by a Senior Manager who could not have been more helpful and reassuring.

She was rightly concerned at the delays I had experienced and after a long listing of the problems she thanked me for the feedback and assured me that she would take up all the issues and make sure that they don’t happen again.

I am no cynic but how often do we hear on radio and TV that “lessons have been learnt and it won’t happen again”. It has become something of a platitude and it arouses in me a deep sigh and “Oh yes?”  

While these statements are made, I am sure, in all good faith there is a tendency to look at a complaint as an internal problem rather than one that directly affects the customer.

The fact is that while it is nice to hear that our complaint is being taken seriously we really don’t want to know about the investigation, what went wrong, how it can be prevented in the future and,worst of all, who is to blame.

Dropping into blame culture mode is, together with,”it’s company policy”  the worst possible excuses for a problem.

What the customer wants to hear is  how am I personally going to be satisfied in this particular instance.

I really don’t want to know about your problems with people off sick or a computer glitch. I just want to know when MY issue will be solved satisfactorily.

I have known businesses who take complaints so seriously that they are all referred to the CEO. On the other hand there are companies who are never wrong and treat complaints with indifference and disdain.

The bald fact is that complaints are feedback about your performance and need to be taken seriously.

One way, of course, is to have a Customer Service Department, often these days sadly situated in some far off land and staffed by people who are far away from the action and the culture of the business.

It is that detachment that can preclude a personalised answer to a query but rather one dictated by the rules and company policy. There are exceptions I am glad to say with the wonderful Apple in the forefront of all that is good.

The Ritz-Carlton hotel group used to have and probably still has a strap line for all the staff that says: “We are ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen”.

Moreover there is a rule (admirable this time) that anyone in the business approached by a guest with a complaint or query is expected to handle the issue and put it right without the need to refer it upwards.

Complaints are not an internal issue even if they have to be corrected by internal means.  They are an expression of the level of customer satisfaction achieved by the business and hence they are an invaluable denominator of reputation.

It is said that when we have a complaint we tell eighteen people about it whereas when we experience great service we tell only one or two.

A speaker at my Vistage CEO peer group talking about complaints suggested that “we should recover in style”. Doing just that can delight the customer and enhance the reputation. In fact handling a complaint in a way that really sorts out the customer’s problem can build an enhanced level of confidence in our product and service.

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Sunday, 8 April 2018

Do You Delegate or Do You Interfere? Check These Four Questions!

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

I was involved this week in an animated discussion on leadership during  a one-to-one with a member of my Vistage CEO peer group when I was trying to rate the significance of a range of leadership functions.

It is task that many sages, far wiser than I, would balk at or offer some thoughts with perhaps slant towards the controversial.

Personally I like “The people want me to be their leader.  I must follow them”.

The fact is that great leadership demands an inordinately long list of attributes that taken as a group describe a paragon of all the virtues.  Sadly I haven’t met such an individual as yet even if I have been privileged to know some remarkable candidates.

In the end leaders need followers and the key to great leadership is the ability to manage expectations, to assist people to become engaged and generally to develop a communication style that is consistent, transparent and clear.

Above all the human need to be involved must be severely curtailed.  There is nothing more demeaning to a team member than being constantly told what to do and then checked to see if it has been done.  That is micro-managing.

Micro-managing the people is not leadership. It is two people doing the job of one and is expensive as a consequence.  Indeed I recall that in the early days of Vistage in the UK, we used to give out card bookmarks with some wise leadership questions, one of which was:

“Whose job am I doing right now?”.

It is enormously tempting for a leader to ask for a task to be done, then to describe how to accomplish the task, who to talk to, where to find information and how long it should take.  All of this the leader knows (as probably does the team member) and assumes that it will be helpful information.

Wise people have said on many occasions that the best way to develop people is to appoint the very best then say what is needed and let them get on with it.  It should not be necessary, in general, to monitor constantly their performance in detail.

If we appoint great people then it should be a matter of trust and hopefully mutual trust, to expect that they will accomplish the task in a way that they decide is the most appropriate.  As long as it is honest, legal, effective and understandable then that should be sufficient. The only questions then to ask are when will it be completed and what will be the expected outcome?

All of this implies that the answer is delegation and that further implies that the leader must know precisely what outcome is desired and who in the team is most likely to achieve the desired outcome.

It is a good idea from both points of view to understand that monitoring progress is desirable and constant nagging questioning is decidedly not.

A regular meeting, say weekly, with a progress report detailed as necessary, will help the leader to understand the current position and possibly even eliminate the need for further questioning.

Delegation is not abdication of responsibility; it is the ability of the leader to trust the ability of the team member (whom he/she has probably appointed in the first place) to undertake a task resulting in a mutually satisfactory outcome.

We need to resist the “leave it to me, I’ll do it” syndrome.  Tempting though it may be we might just find that other people can undertake a task more effectively, more quickly and more satisfactorily than we can so give then their head and get out of their way.  
  • What should I do More of?
  • What should I do Less of?
  • What should I Start doing?
  • What should I STOP doing?
Ask yourself these questions and answer then honestly, then take action.

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Monday, 2 April 2018

Giving Good Service? Better to Make it Exceptional!

Why is it that so many people in business and almost everyone in the media persist in equating being competitive solely with price?

The word goes out that high street retailers are (still) being terminally hit by  unscrupulous competition online at vastly lower prices.

As usual the examples of these generalisations are carefully crafted to justify the premise and without any counterbalancing evidence to the contrary.

In fact many high street retailers do not look upon online offerings as competition but rather as another opportunity to market their wares in a format that is additional to the traditional.

The fact is that competition shows itself in many guises other than price. Firstly, is this product what I want?  Then how quickly is it available, is there a well-known brand, will the quality be what I want, how reliable is the seller and finally, how much?

Several of these questions can be unsaid and we spend nanoseconds in running them past but occur they do, unless we happen to be relentless impulse shoppers.

I have long advocated, whether B2B or B2C, leaving price considerations to the end of a marketing decision process and looking at other ways to encourage and satisfy the purchaser.

Great service is one that makes a vast difference to the buying experience and while it can be a process, in the end it should be one of the values that we espouse and should be effectively a major strand of the culture of the business.

Indeed I cannot see why instead of great service we cannot offer exceptional service.

This thought, I confess, has been sparked by a service level that I have personally experienced from two major suppliers,  one national and one global, that I have used lately.

The national supplier is supermarket giant Sainsbury’s and as I don’t drive anymore I decided to try out their home delivery service rather than getting a taxi to the store.

The web based ordering process is somewhat clunky and took a little effort to understand and use but now I have some experience it is easy. So where does exceptional service come in?

It comes from the drivers who deliver my orders. After some weeks and meeting several of these gentlemen (and I do mean, gentlemen) I am in awe of a recruitment process that can find, appoint and employ such brilliant ambassadors for the company.

Always pleasant and cheerful, ready to assist in any way possible, they and by definition Sainsbury’s, give exceptional customer service.

The global company is Apple. I recently acquired a large version iPad which I love and was distressed one day to discover a hairline crack across the top right corner of the screen.

The iPad was still within warranty but a bout if flu took me perilously close the the deadline so I called Applecare to discuss. A charming lady based in Greece took my call, took over the iPad remotely and sorted out all the necessary background stuff and the made an appointment for me at the Apple Genius Bar in the nearest Apple store.

The young genius who served me was equally charming, smiling and helpful. When I told him my problem and emphasised that I hat I had not dropped my iPad, he said calmly “We don’t repair faults on the screen so we will replace the iPad for you

This he did, transferred everything over to the new device, sorted out a software problem that I had and finally said to me:

Thank you, that was a great first customer and a great start to my working day!”  

He thanked me!

Consider this. Neither Apple or Sainsbury’s are low price suppliers but not only would I not even consider trying out their competitors but I am delighted to tell the (or at least, the world of Ivan’s Blog) how exceptional they both are.

Vistage speaker Malcolm Smith says it’s not about the price.  I believe it’s the power of giving exceptional service.

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