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Sunday, 30 June 2019

Short of Talent? Take The Risk and Build a Promotion Culture!

Some years ago in my consultancy days I had a contract to work with a university in setting up a corporate structure to exploit technological advances being developed. 

In essence there were five subsidiary companies each headed by a Managing Director who was the proponent of the specific technological advance. 

My function was to ensure that any developments, joint ventures, agreements and arrangements with outside organisations were conducted with due regard to good commercial practice. 

All very straightforward and I worked very closely and, I think, successfully with the MDs who, let it be said, tended to find the commercial constraints occasionally irksome. To give them their due their attitude and behaviour changed as they began to realise the importance of the commercial aspects as distinct from the academic. 

The contract ran out after about six months and I felt that we had put together a structure with the right people in place that would certainly serve the university well in the future. 

A month or two later I was rather surprised to see a recruitment advertisement for a part-time Chief Executive to undertake the overall leadership and describing the job that I had been doing. 

Fairly obviously I fired off an application in the firm conviction that as I had already done the job and indeed had created the whole commercial function I would have at least a chance. That is, of course, on the assumption that I hadn’t actually made a mess of the contract and ddin’t know it.

Two days later I received a letter from a recruitment consultant to tell me that I was not considered suitable for the position.  

Under normal circumstances I would have binned the reply, accepted the decision and got on with my business but this seemed, to say the least, perverse so I called the consultant to ask if he had actually read my letter. This explained in some detail how I had set up the structure, recruited people, and endeavoured to impart a commercial culture in the businesses. 

Ah yes”, he said, “but you didn’t go to University and you don’t have a degree so you wouldn’t understand how the business operates.''

I gave up and got on with my life.  They eventually appointed a high-end academic, PhD of course, and I heard later that he had lasted less than 12 months. 

The recruitment consultant had done his job properly.  He had filtered the applications with the basic criteria for a start but had done it without sensible judgement. 

I recall a speaker at my Vistage CEO peer group making the point that if we hire someone based on skills and experience, we are just as likely to fire because of inappropriate attitude and behaviour. 

I am not by any means a recruitment specialist and I defer absolutely to those who are. However, I do believe that given a great attitude as a primary requirement the importance  of skills and experience becomes less onerous. 

It is glib to say that skills are often specific to any business and need to be learned on the job.  Will and Kenneth Hopper in their ground-breaking book, The Puritan Gift call it domain knowledge and emphasise its importance by strongly recommending internal promotion rather than external recruitment wherever feasible. 

In these days of exceptionally low unemployment we need to do all we can both to retain high quality people and to use promotion rather than salary as a career enhancing tool.  

I do not need to emphasise that all our best people are being lured by offers of massive salary increases simply because that is an easy way to solve the problem.  Easy maybe but the ramifications can be serious internally. 

Finally leaders need to get over the “not quite ready for promotion” syndrome.  Predatory competitors will take no notice and will try to seduce all your best people. 

Go for it and prove to your people that you are prepared to take a risk with your great young people. It is one of the most compelling tenets of a go-ahead retention culture. 

As the great medieval Rabbi Hillel said with exceptional prescience:

If not now, when?

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Sunday, 23 June 2019

As CEO How Do You Run The Business? You Need to be Hands Off!

One of the members of my Vistage CEO group has been looking at how his business is structured and as a consequence, has been looking at the various roles and responsibilities involved.

After a fair amount of thought his decision initially was to promote his deputy to the role of Managing Director and take on the new role of Chief Executive Officer himself.

This caused me to think about the definition of roles, certainly at a senior level in a business, and how these definitions can and should be communicated to everyone to ensure the minimum of overlap.

The role of the CEO starts, I would suggest, with the statement that the CEO does not run the company although he/she has the responsibility for ensuring that the business runs effectively.

Moreover, that responsibility covers not only the successful performance of the business but also the vision, the strategic direction of the business, the need for the maintenance of the values espoused, the personnel and HR policies, and the overall financial health of the company.

These are not day-to-day operational matters but are crucial in the effective running of any business.

Perhaps it makes sense to point out that the role of the CEO is much closer to that of the Chairman rather than merely a promoted Managing Director, with all that that implies.

There are certain areas of activity which are part of the CEO role which include a constant monitoring of capital investment, the recruitment policy, the health and safety policy, maintaining the virtuoso aspects of all new recruits and constantly looking for talent both outside and even more importantly, inside the business.

On the other hand, the role of the Managing Director under these circumstances is a far more hands on role with full responsibility for the successful operation of all the facets of the business and without the temptation to micro-manage.

In short the difference is that of a “hands on” role as distinct from a “hands-IN” or even worse, “fingers-in” role.

For some people, the change from a hand-on role to a very much hands off role can be difficult to cope with and I have heard it said on occasion that:

·      “I feel almost embarrassed at apparently having nothing to do when the people are working hard for the business and I seem to be doing nothing”

Please note: the word at issue is DOING.

One of the our US speakers, Ole Carlson, during the time that he was a Group Chairman in Vistage, used to put up a banner at meetings which said, in effect:

·      “We only do CEO stuff around here”

and that neatly encompasses the difference between a strategic and an essentially tactical role in the business.

In the Vistage peer group system there is often a tendency for members to bring to the table issues which are essentially operational and which, frankly, should be considered on an operational basis.  The people running the business know far more about how to run it than a group of people without having any domain knowledge.

On the other hand, the leadership role theoretically can be transposed from one company to another simply because the role has broad similarities, company to company.

That is a massive generalisation, of course, and some domain knowledge is very valuable in the management of the business but it does say that many functions of leadership are transferable.

Overcoming the pain of not being involved day-to-day takes a considerable amount of persistence and dedication, and mainly, a determination by the CEO that his/her hands don’t need to be dirty.  There are other and better ways of demonstrating the value on the CEO role to the business and that starts with “hands off”.

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Sunday, 16 June 2019

Having Communication Problems? Try These Seven Tips to Help!

Possibly the most contentious issue in running a business is that of communication, good or bad.  It is significant that many employee satisfaction surveys rate communication as “could do better”.

This can be mystifying to many leaders who genuinely rate the subject as being of prime importance and make every effort to keep everyone informed.

One of the members of my Vistage CEO peer group says that leadership is just about people and communications and you can’t fault that as an ethos.

So why is it, when so many leaders honestly believe that they are doing everything possible to communicate effectively, many of the recipients disagree?

More often than not it is in the methods we use.  

The real problem lies in the fact that people might hear but they don’t necessarily listen

The problem is even more apparent with the written word that people don’t even read .

There are several critical factors that can improve the way that information is transmitted and, more importantly, received.

Whether we are communicating face to face, in print, digitally, by audio or video, the requirements are the same. We need to ensure that the methods we choose are the most effective and are justified by the results.

There are seven basic requirements then for effective communication as follows:

The Audience
Make sure that you are giving the right message to the right people.  I recall an occasion where the leader decided that everyone should be given information about the company’s finances and he set up company-wide meetings to tell them.

It wasn’t very successful to say the least so he changed the scheme to small groups where discussion was encouraged and that proved a great improvement.

One of the problems of top-down communication is that we know all about the subject and consequently tend to forget that other people don’t necessarily know.  The effect of this mismatch is either insufficient information being transmitted or, worse, too much and that can clog up the message.

Test the message by trying it out on someone who is not involved and ask for feedback on both the message and the style.

There is the tale of the Best Man at a wedding who started his speech by saying: “I have been told to keep it short and clean so I have been holding it under a cold tap for the last ten minutes!’  

Rambling on merely gets in the way, is distracting and disguises the intended message so keep it short (and clean).

Again make sure that you are giving the right message to the right people.  It may seem obvious but like those who insist on sending a .cc to everyone in an email, we only irritate people if we include those who are peripheral in that instance.

Accuracy and Truth
It always surprises me that when some people explain  a situation they don’t always come clean on the facts.  Maybe this is a defence mechanism but it doesn’t help when the subterfuge is uncovered.

It is not only a lack of accuracy, it can be a matter of untruthfulness.  You will be found out eventually and trust will fly out of the window.

Why are you communicating something?  Is it merely to pass on information or are you asking someone to respond or take action?

Whatever it is you should state your expectations clearly, succinctly and, if needs be, assertively.  There is nothing worse than going out of a meeting with everyone saying “What was all that about?”  

Unless you have unfettered feedback you will never know whether your message has been received and understood. Getting that real feedback is not a matter of saying “Do you understand (or similar)?” because  all you are likely to get are nods of agreement that mean nothing.

Feedback is the crux of great communication so ensure that you ask the questions that will uncover  what has been heard. Ask questions that paraphrase the message and then what action is proposed as a consequence.

There are hundreds of books published on the whole subject of communication so why do we find it so difficult? These tips should help at least to improve your performance.

A very important point.  Communication is not top down or bottom up.  It is only effective when it is a two-way mutual process.

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Sunday, 9 June 2019

Preparing to Diversify? You Need to Exploit Your Strengths!

I walked into his office and immediately it seemed that the atmosphere was odd.  After the normal greetings I said to him: “What’s the matter?
Oh,” he said, “it’s nothing really but I just feel bored

Here was someone leading a very successful and profitable business and he was bored, or at least thought that he was.   It wasn’t a matter of nothing new, day after day, but rather he was not feeling that spark of excitement that used to be the norm.  

We have to accept that businesses, like those leading them, go through a range of changes and moods from sheer terror at the risk involved through a period of growth and consolidation and sometimes into a maturity where the leader can feel almost redundant.  

This is not by any means unusual and while the example above demonstrates the discomfort that some leaders feel, it is, in the end, the result of a mood swing.

My member, in fact, solved the problem by taking responsibility for a major and very expensive rebranding exercise that was not only successful but made a major impact on the market.  Incidentally it also cured his boredom problem.

My bored member instinctively recognised  that his personal issue could be ameliorated by designing a  change and then implementing it. His solution happened to be rebranding but in essence he was imposing diversification.

Many years ago I came across one of those quadrants so beloved of consultants which showed how variations in products and markets can have a salutary effect on outcomes if they are not handled properly.

This quadrant known as the Ansoff Matrix covers four basic marketing situations and offers a rationale for use in each case. Firstly define your current product range (aka existing products) and the market/s in which the business operates (aka existing markets)

If we now allocate an effort required index, then the matrix breaks down as follows:

Existing Products into Existing Markets

It is self evident that doing more business in terms of expansion in sales of the current product range allied to expanded marketing to the people we know (and who know us) must be the most cost effective route to growth. It is simple and to it we can allocate a basic effort index of 10.

New Products into Existing Markets

The advantages of this approach is that the business is starting to exploit its inherent strength, in this case its position in the market/s. We know them, they know us and we can exploit our reputation.   Even so, there is a price to be paid with an effort index of 20. Somebody in the business has to lead the charge and that takes effort.

Existing Products into New Markets

This is more difficult as we are now trying to break into a market that doesn’t know us, that we don't necessarily know in any depth and where our reputation is not relevant. The price to pay is an effort index of at least 40.

New Products into New Markets

This alternative implies starting a new business where we have no reputation and the effort index is anything up to 80. This is the soul of diversification.

Please note, all the foregoing does not imply that we should not diversify. What it does say is that we need to make a decision as to which of the four sectors you are positioning the business and analyse what information is available to encourage us to take action, basic research data, who is to lead the change, how much of his/her time will be needed and so on.

We need to make sure that the rationale for diversification is valid and should improve the existing business.

Above all be certain that there is logic in the planning and we are not merely indulging ourselves in change for the sake of change.

There is a lot of excitement in change even though there is risk and sometimes adverse reactions but if the process is properly handled then the outcome is more likely to be positive.

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Sunday, 2 June 2019

Experiencing Some Mental Health Issues? Never Be Dismissive!

In the early and subsequent days of my Vistage chair tenure I have used many great open coaching questions during one-to-one sessions with my members.

In those early days we looked upon it as “peeling the onion”, drilling deeper to establish a cause rather than merely a symptom of a personal problem. (Curiously and coincidentally I have a member of my current Vistage CEO Peer group whose business actually manufactures mechanised onion peelers! AI for coaches?)

On several occasions the peeling process went into areas that were significantly more complex than either of us could explain at which  point I make it clear that as I am not a professional counsellor, therapist, psychologist or psychiatrist, I would suggest that the member take some professional advice.

The fact is that mental health issues don’t always appear obvious on the surface. There can be a danger of being dismissive; of treating them with a “deal with it” approach.  This in turn can have just the opposite effect needed.

The problem lies in the frequent invisibility of mental health symptoms.  There is often still a measure of perceived shame in admitting that we have an issue until the condition escalates.

A couple of weeks ago we had National Mental Health Awareness week and the BBC marked the occasion by giving time to well known people to discuss their condition.

For example Alastair Campbell, lately Labour Party Press Secretary who talked about his depression and the wonderful Nadiya Hussein, TV Bake-Off winner, a bright, talented and articulate woman who also talks movingly about her problems with anxiety.  It is well worth taking time to Google her name and take a look at the video clips where she emphasises the need to talk about the condition and not keep it under wraps.

I have been listening recently to the audio version of Winston Churchill by Roy Jenkins, a remarkable and scholarly biography of the great war time leader.  Churchill exhibited some strange symptoms and constant mood swings.
He also went through periods of worry and depression that he called his “black dog” and often took himself out of the mood swing by physical exercise.

I mentioned earlier the need for professional advice. I found it very useful to have a small “go-to” coterie of specialists such as counsellors and psychologists who we could call on when the onion peeling was becoming fraught.  The member could then decide which one to use if appropriate.

Some of my peer group members offer a professional and totally confidential advice service to all their employees suffering from mental health issues.  Anyone can call the advice line for help and the company only knows the number of calls being made and nothing else. This I consider to be a forward thinking and compassionate service, greatly to be admired.

All the overt symptoms of mental health issues like addiction, alcohol and/or drugs, mood swings, variations in performance, temper flare-ups and so on can indicate a problem that needs to be addressed.

To summarise the situation, mental health issues are far more prevalent than we imagine and unless we are professionals we as leaders should not venture into solution mode simply because we are not qualified to do so.

So what can we, as leaders, do to assist a member of staff with problems?   First of all we need to accept that mental health issues are with us and can affect anyone.

Secondly we also need to accept that while there will always be a small proportion of people who adversely take advantage of the situation, the majority must be treated by us with discretion, understanding and compassion.  How would we treat a member of the team who had a broken arm? So use that approach as a basis for such action that we can validly take.

Please forgive my flailing about in this post.  It was possibly the most significant and difficult issue that I have tried to address.

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