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Sunday, 31 March 2019

I Used to be Indecisive, Now I’m In JFDI Mode!

Scratch your head, have a large gin and tonic, bet on a horse, cross the room, all of these are the result of making a decision and some of us are good and some bad at the exercise.

We have just had an exceptional keynote speaker presentation at my Vistage CEO Peer group delivered by "the SUMO guy", Paul McGee.   Paul made the interesting point that more than 80% of the decisions we make are made on autopilot.

Think about driving on the motorway, arriving at the destination and suddenly realising that we can’t recall anything about the journey.  We have all experienced this strange phenomenon from time to time which tends to support the 80% estimate.

What makes it more significant is an estimate by psychologists that we make on average the astonishing number of 35,000 decisions a day and more than 80% are made without our realising it.

In the last few months I have been experiencing (age related) lack of mobility and as a consequence I am consciously making decisions so as to reduce unnecessary walking about.  This, I suppose, reduced the auto-pilot proportion by a significant amount.

However, the brain is a wondrous instrument and after a few days of thinking about it, I now find that many of the decisions I need to make have gone into auto-pilot node

In past consultancy days I used a useful model, The Decision Tree, with clients especially where they were grappling with  a seemingly intractable problem.

The technique, using a very large sheet of paper or a white board, was to start with a box and a statement of the problem.

Beneath that box we drew a series of boxes each containing a potential solution and from each of these  we drew an action flow chart that eventually arrived at a series of answers with costings, time issues, people issues and any other relevant details.

From there it was possible draw comparisons to enable the making of a very considered decision as to the most appropriate solution.

All well and good but as the model needs to be very detailed it takes a lot of time and effort so its use should be restricted to major issues.

On the other hand I had a member if my Vistage `CEO Peer group who had a Technical Director, very competent and technically accomplished, but who drove him to distraction.

The problem was that the Director, being a methodical engineer, refused to make a decision until he he considered that he had all the relevant information and as this took forever, or so it seemed, his decision making process was extended to say the least.

It often takes a brave soul to accept that enough background information is available in order to make a decision, especially when importance and urgency raise demanding heads.

The ability to cut through all the “stuff” that gets in the way of good and quick decision making is the hallmark of a capable leader.  In addition there has to be an acceptance that we don’t always get it right and a decision can go awry.

However, in many cases it is better to bite the bullet and decide rather than constantly look for a better solution. Remember that even matters that seem important at the time, probably because someone else says that they are, won’t always be as significant in six month’s time.  

Perhaps a good dose of JFDI would be the best answer.

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Tuesday, 26 March 2019

Do You Take CSR seriously? If Not, Why Not!

There was an interesting debate on the BBC World Service recently about the difference between a charity and a Not for Profit company and the morality or otherwise of large businesses supporting them. 

Corporate Social Responsibility should mean just that.  While businesses employ people and so give them a living it is also good to feel a responsibility for the local community in some tangible way. 

Several of the members of my Vistage CEO peer group are actively involved in their local communities and that is admirable. 

For example, the Casey Group of Companies, a major construction company in Rochdale, helped on a BBC TV  programme which was renovating a whole street for disabled service personnel by allocating construction specialists to work on the project. 

In another instance alumnus The School Bus in  Macclesfield have instituted a charity, The School Bus Foundation devoted to assisting disadvantaged children and they raise funds through events and donations. 

The Casey Group example is typical of businesses offering resources to assist in a community project while The School Bus  have gone directly to the charity sector and both are equally laudable. 

In both cases, by the way, these are symptomatic and represent a wide range of activities by both companies. Other Vistage members like the 144 years established
Alfred Bagnall and Sons have a wide range of activities designed to benefit local communities. 

My interest was sparked by the radio programme which discussed the relationship between a Not for Profit company, Marathon Kids in Austin, Texas and sports goods manufacturer Nike. 

Marathon Kids was set up to encourage young children to take up running for good health, for a level of sport in their lives and above all for fun. 

There was some dis quiet in the programme at the thought of Nike "moving in" to what seemed to be a perfect opportunity for some heavy marketing which was looked on as being of dubious morality. However nothing could be further from the truth. 

The only mention of Nike on the Marathon Kids website is that Nike rewards are given to competitors who achieve distance milestones. 

In fact Nike do not give money to Marathon Kids and they do not give shoes at will.  

What they do is offer resources that Marathon Kids manifestly do not have such as branding and marketing advice especially when a club is being started in a new location. 

The question is at what point does a large company involvement in "good works" become self seeking, if at all?

There are after all many wealthy individuals who are extremely philanthropic and they do it because they consider it the right thing to do rather than looking for any gain. 

When a company does it and perhaps makes a fuss about it there can be a suspicion that there may just be an ulterior motive. 

I am both Jewish and a Freemason and I realise that both have charity at the heart of what they are. 

For example a core prayer at the Jewish New Year mentions Penitence, Prayer and Charity as being central to the whole ethos of the religion. 

The very basis of Freemasonry lists Brotherly Love, Relief and Truth where Relief is a synonym for charity. It should be mentioned, by the way, that Freemasonry is the second largest contributor to charity in the UK after the National Lottery. 

Nobody mentions gain after giving charity in either case so there is no question of morality whereas large companies donating noisily may be accused of doing it for gain. 

True or false, giving charity either in cash or kind is essential to keep many social organisations in business and if it does good then that is wonderful. For example, the Air Ambulance Service could not exist without donations from many individuals and organisations. 

Jewish mysticism, Kabbalah, says that the only way to give charity is anonymously so that nobody knows what you have done and the only gain is a feeling of satisfaction by doing the right thing. 

Quite a thought.  

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Sunday, 17 March 2019

What Do You Mean, Too Old? Everyone Can And Should Contribute!

I am slightly reluctant to return to the subject of ageism as it may be thought that I have a hidden agenda (which I have).

Sadly old age and infirmity are reducing my physical mobility but happily I still have my marbles, or at least some of them.

I had a wonderful colleague in the USA, Pat Hyndman, who died a couple of years ago at the age of 95 , and was still chairing two Vistage CEO groups.

Pat's approach to retirement was that he intended to go on until "they had to carry him out on the flip chart" and if only metaphorically that is what he achieved.

However in conversation with several of my Vistage CEO members of late I have been looking at the subject on a less personal and emotive basis.

There is no doubt that here in the UK we are in a period of fuller employment.  During the past period of recession, austerity measures led to a reduction in skills training and we are reaping the consequences now.

My friends in the recruitment industry tell me that certain sectors have become candidate led simply because of the shortage of good, trained people looking to move.

Indeed in one case the member told me that they had offered positions to three potential candidates all of whom had gone elsewhere.

The eye watering salaries  being offered are way above the current market range even though the member's company has an enviable reputation as an exceptional  employer.

The whole market is going through  a cyclical change right now and I suspect that it will get even  harder rather than easier to find, recruit and retain great people.

What, then, can be done about this problem?

There is a whole range of variables that impact on the situation that I would suggest is one of the most serious facing business leaders at this moment whatever happens in the Brexit negotiations.

For example, the change in legislation stopping companies imposing mandatory retirement to employees has led to the occasional blockage in available career paths.

Medical advances are also leading to longer life (about which I am not complaining) that implies a bank of knowledge and skills is growing and still in employment.

The current shortage of candidates means that there is a further issue stemming from the dramatic changes in business technology.

The younger people take these changes for granted and embrace them automatically while those at the more elderly end of the workforce find absorption of these changes more difficult.

There is no doubt that many people who are passing or have already passed the notional retirement age can expect two or three decades more and I have always said that much of that skill bank is neither realised or exploited.

There is a natural reluctance on the part of employers to bring older people into the workforce but here and there it may be at least a part solution to the problem.

While I am a great believer in the more mature citizens keeping working and contributing (should they so desire) I would accept that there will be many whose skills can easily be supplied by someone younger or by advances in technology.

Manual workers for example will find continued work becomes inhibited by the natural ageing process with the consequent reduction in strength and mobility.

However with the growth in the apprenticeship schemes why not employ these older people to pass on their skills to the young generation?  For example, some of my Vistage CEO group members have exploited the situation by forming training academies to develop their own people rather than recruiting.

For the more mature who have come through a professional career path, there is no reason why they should not keep themselves available to help out on a part-time or interim basis.

Alternatively a portfolio of activities can bring intellectual rigour with a measure of freedom of the diary.

Finally remember that as we age, it's the knees that go first closely followed by parallel parking.

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Sunday, 10 March 2019

Is The Business Becoming Boring? Then Dare to be Different!

At a Vistage Open Day a couple of years ago, US speaker Jaynie Smith examined the way that businesses promote themselves to prospects and existing customers and she came to the conclusion that most of it was just blah, blah, blah. 

A depressing thought but when we look carefully at what we inaccurately consider to be our USP (Unique Selling Proposition) we rapidly come to the conclusion that not only does it not sell but it certainly isn't unique. 

Unique means precisely that; there are no shades of uniqueness, things cannot be fairly or very unique. 

Consequently very few businesses can offer something that is truly unique; at best it may be unusual or rare. 

Jaynie calls it the Competitive Advantage; what is it that you offer that genuinely is different and makes you stand out from the competition?
Think of those businesses that are (or were before the copyists arrived) truly different like Google through brilliant software design, Apple through constant product innovation and Amazon which has revolutionised retailing. 

Ask yourself the question; what do we offer in terms of our product, our quality, our service, our people that makes us stand out from the crowd and encourages us to seek a premium from the markets we serve?

In my youth, my (pre-girls) passion was cricket and particularly Lancashire League cricket. As a very ordinary off spin bowler, my role model was an extraordinary leg spinner called Tom.

Tom managed to deliver sumptuous leg breaks and gigantic googlies while bowling like a demented octopus, arms and legs flailing in all directions. To say that the batsmen had difficulty in picking his googly is an understatement. In fact they seemed to have just as much difficulty in deciding which of his wildly gyrating extremities would be delivering the ball.

The consequence was, of course, that he gained a reputation of invincibility in the League and he eventually went on to bigger and better things in his career. Sadly it was cut short by physical problems but the memory remains.

So what is the point of this tale? The point is that even though he had talent, enthusiasm, drive and commitment in abundance, his greatest attribute was that he was different.

I don't mean different just for the sake of it or to make an impression. I mean rather be different so as to impact on people's thinking, to help them to change in a positive sense and to stand out from that crowd which seems to be growing ever bigger.

Our education system in the UK from GCSE through A-levels, to University and then on to Post Graduate studies can lead to a standardisation of the eventual outcomes with an emphasis on conventionality.

Will and Kenneth Hopper in their wonderful book, The Puritan Gift, quote the late Professor Russell L Ackhoff, formerly of the Wharton Business School in the USA, as saying that there are three principal achievements of a business school education which are:

"to equip students with a vocabulary that enables them to talk about subjects that they don't understand, to give students principles that would demonstrate their ability to withstand any amount of disconfirming evidence, and finally, the give students a ticket of admission to a job where they could learn something about management".

It is not a surprise to me that seemingly a significant proportion of Managing Directors and CEO members of Vistage International groups, at least in the UK, did not go to University but found their success through a burning desire to succeed, through humility, a voracious appetite for learning and above all, through being different.

It is the difference that ensures that competitive advantage in the market place, that encourages the market to deal and to stave off the attacks of the insidious competition.

Never be in the position of worrying about competitors; make sure that your success makes them worry about you. 

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Sunday, 3 March 2019

Entrepreneurship - By Nature or By Nurture?

Entrepreneurship?  Is it by Nature or by Nurture?

There is no question in my mind that entrepreneurs who create and sustain successful businesses combine great ideas with their own blend of passion, commitment, personal values and strengths. 

Indeed they often exhibit a huge level of emotional attachment to the business that is almost like having surrogate children.  In fact if that commitment and dedication is not there then I can't see how it would work. 

I had a member of my Vistage CEO peer group who had started his working life in his parents' baby wear shop. A customer asked him if he could supply a one-piece rain cover for the pushchair as the current three piece version was difficult to use. 

He could have said "There isn't one on the market" but instead he went off, designed one, manufactured it and told the customer. She was delighted and told all her friends. 

The result was that a new business was born and was rightly successful. 

Success came about through a combination of innate curiosity, a strong belief in his/her own abilities and a desire to create something new for a market that is well known. There was a magic blend of positive personal characteristics and an eminently marketable idea. 

Unsurprisingly then I tend to look for this combination of talents in people whom I am mentoring. It is never just about making money.  Most of them look upon material rewards as the effect or symptom of the cause and it is that which delivers the greater satisfaction.

Indeed the acquisition of material possessions can often be viewed, perhaps subconsciously, as a reward for effort that can only be given personally.  

They feel that the very act of creation, whether overt or hidden, is exciting, is enjoyable and delivers a strong sense of purpose and achievement. 

They also exhibit a dogged persistence, a sort of bloody minded intention to succeed whatever obstacles are in the way together with a strong conviction that what they are doing is right. 

It is said that Thomas Edison tried 1,000 experiments before the final successful incandescent light bulb emerged.  When asked how he could live with all that perceived constant failure he said that they weren't failures, they were 1,000 lessons that had to be learnt. 

The question to ask then is whether entrepreneurs are born or made? Is it a matter of nature or nurture?

In my somewhat chequered past I ran a Government sponsored training programme for unemployed executives called "Start and Manage Your Own Business" and it really opened my eyes. 

It has been suggested that 80% of start-up businesses fail in the first year through underfunding, a lack of marketing expertise, lack of financial expertise and overall lack of good commercial common sense. 

In fact all of those skills can be taught and developed which removes a multiplicity of excuses for failure.  The factors for success are much more in the way of feelings and emotion. 

Of course that depends eventually on both the skills and the emotional attachment being present in any entrepreneurial business. If the leader doesn't have a lot, indeed any, of the skills then the clever thing to do is to bring them in and make sure that the team is well aware of where the business is going; that they know what success looks like and how they are expected to contribute. 

An entrepreneur who can build a team of all the talents with the requisite skills and overlay a layer of commitment, dedication and above all, passion will have constructed a sustainable enterprise. 

The key is to accept that nobody knows everything so the ball must be passed to the right person in the right job and that takes humility on the part of the leader.   Not easy to achieve but dramatic in subsequent results. 

The collaborative role is better than the single genius approach. 

Remember that no-one is as smart as all of us. 

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