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Sunday, 28 July 2019

Researching Data, Information and Intelligence? Now You Need to Take Action!

Of the many great speakers we have had to my Vistage CEO and Key Executive peer groups, probably more than 300 since the groups were formed, several stand out as truly memorable.

One of these was Herbert (Herb) Meyer who had been a journalist, an author and, later, special counsel to Bill Casey who was Director of the CIA during the Reagan administration. 

For perhaps obvious reasons, Herb was a genuine specialist in the assessment of information and he ran a superb session on the Information Overload. 

Herb made the point that the availability of information is growing exponentially but our ability to absorb all this growth is extremely limited to say the least. Search engines, led of course by Google, have made it very simple to find what we are looking for and this allows us to be selective in our searching and consequent absorption of the information. 

The question is, however, when we have the information, what are we going to do with it? Google is so all-encompassing that even a simple search will bring up literally millions of web pages and then what? 

Research shows that our attention span is so short that unless what we are looking for appears on the first page of the Google search and even more, in the top three, then we ignore the rest. 

What is needed, then, is the ability to transform the raw information into knowledge that possibly requires more “drilling down” research. 

And then what? 

Herb made the point that information and knowledge is no more than interesting and the real value lies in our ability to transform the knowledge into intelligence. 

In other words, what is the added value that we can derive from the research? 
 What outcome are we seeking from the research? 
Hence, what action can we take as a result of the research? 

In the intelligence community this is the most important factor.   It is a comparatively simple
exercise to gather a vast amount of data from published sources and then filter it to give us the broad basis of the information or knowledge that we are seeking.

As a matter of peripheral interest at least 80% of all information gathered by the security services is published in formation in the public domain with the balance being gathered from private sources.

I would guess that as the use of social media has grown to an extraordinary extent that 80% is probably an underestimate now.

The transformation from information and knowledge to intelligence is of paramount importance then and that takes a good deal of thought and imagination to determine just how what we have discovered can be used to its maximum value.

It is the area that causes more indecision and soul searching than any other but it is crucial if the value of the research is to be optimised.

In the days when I was involved in pan-European market research studies I found it very sad that companies would pay large amounts for the research studies and then metaphorically file them without doing anything more.

However, without action, the research has been interesting and possibly even valuable in the long term but all in all it has been just that, interesting and that is all.

If you don’t take action, then time, effort and money has been wasted.

The really important factor then is to understand what we have discovered, refine it into intelligence and then take the appropriate action. Then it has been worthwhile.

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Sunday, 21 July 2019

Can You Define Your Company’s Culture? Try These For a Start!

Compassion, courtesy, respect, good manners, non-judgemental, tolerance, generosity, kindness, all the facets of culture demonstrated by a great leader.

I have recently been having a browse through the blog archive as well as other blogs, articles and so on to get an overall view of current opinion. 

Rather to my surprise there appears to be an emphasis on the negative aspects of leadership with lots of thoughts as to how to correct adverse situations. 

There are, of course, plenty of cogent reasons to go down this route. The negative aspects of attitude and behaviour are generally very obvious to everyone and can and do cause pain and irritation in a team.  Ideally the team needs to be encouraged to start from a positive base and that will change the whole ethos of the business. 

This may seem obvious but evidence tends to disprove it.  Why is it that it appears easier to seek out inadequate attitude and behaviour and apply corrections than it is to start from a positive basis?

The answer lies in the simple fact that almost always we default to corrective mode because inadequate behaviour can be defined, described and visibly corrected. 

So what can be done to make life easier for the leader?  It has long been my contention that the most significant feature of great leadership is the ability to recognise what a positive culture looks like, to set the criteria, to communicate the values espoused and then, visibly and constantly, to drive them into the business. 
In other words, responsibility for shaping the style of the business lies entirely with the leader and it is a massive responsibility. 

There are so many essential facets of leadership that need to be considered and none is more appropriate than another.  The important thing to remember is that if we can define unacceptable behaviour and then decide on how to correct it, why do we not take the same view of those positive behavioural traits that contribute positively to the business ethos?

Consequently it is worth examining some of those criteria that contribute to a “best place to work” atmosphere starting with the basic premise of collaborative management as distinct from the lone genius approach. Certainly leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Steve Jobs and Sir Richard Branson are the exceptions who prove the rule, these are leaders are few and far between and are usually a combination of nurture AND nature as to be unique in their own way.  

What, then, really matters in the persona of an emerging leader?  There are several criteria that come to mind and indeed many more hovering in the background. 

Perhaps the one that percolates the whole being of the leader is consistency.  There is nothing worse for members of a dedicated team, happy to work collaboratively to find that the leader is a mind changer often without obvious rationale. 

If there has to be a change of mind, then a quick group discussion can solve the problem of inconsistency. 

Closely following the need for  consistency is respect for all the inputs of the members of the team and this can be linked to a non-judgmental attitude to relationships. 

Remember that other than the probably tenuous existence of the doppelgänger everyone of the 7bn inhabitants of this planet is different with differing desires and perceptions of the ideal outcome. This implies the need for a very understanding approach to leadership.  

Finally (and do I really mean finally?) there are three criteria that lie at the heart of great collaborative leadership.  They are:


A great leader has to have a desire for success however that is defined, in an objective measure of certainty and with the generosity of spirit that allows everyone in the team to participate happily and cheerfully in the success of the venture. 

Post-script:  the leader of an outstanding family retail business, Housing Units Limited, has ensured that a neat little mantra is exhibited all  over the store as follows:

If someone doesn’t give you a smile, give them one of yours. 

That absolutely describes the ethos of a happy and successful business for which we are  constantly striving.

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Sunday, 14 July 2019

Running a Dysfunctional Board? It May Need Surgery!

It is always rewarding when kind readers take time out to comment on Ivan’s Blog especially when the feedback is positive.  The reward is enhanced when the feedback is posted by an old friend and colleague from Vistage. 

Last week’s post brought forth quite a list of interested comments largely about various issues resulting from some unconsidered consequences of thoughtless decisions.    In particular two of them related to the leadership of charities and from the appointment of a “hired gun” in place of perhaps a family member. 

Let’s examine the position of a charity CEO.  On the face of it the CEO is running a relatively conventional and indeed commercial organisation. Some obvious differences would be the weight of regulation, the need for very high quality marketing and lead generation together with an organisational structure designed for the sector (highest possible integrity, for example). 

It is this structure that tends to cause the most issues. Typically in the UK, Housing Associations are structured as charities and that implies that leadership can seem to be a split responsibility.  An average HA would have a CEO, Finance Director and probably a Director of Fund-Raising and occasionally other specialists. These are the executive team and they normally report to a non-Executive Board of Trustees led by an equally non-executive Chair. 

So far, so good.  The problem arises in the definition of the roles and responsibilities of each sector of the leadership. I had a typical CEO as a consultancy client and his life was continually frustrated by the Chair who had a high opinion of his own leadership qualities especially operational. 

I suggested that the CEO start at the root cause and that was the relaxation of rules that allowed almost at-will growth in the number of Trustees and that had reached sixteen.  In addition the Trustees were flexing their muscles and were setting up small operational committees to which the executives were expected to report. 

It needed root and branch reorganisation because it had got out of hand but turkeys don’t normally vote for Christmas.   In the fullness of time the situation was corrected with appropriate surgery but it took time and patience to achieve it.  It answered the Florence Nightingale question: “Who is in charge here?” 

In the other leadership issue the problem arises through a dysfunctional situation at Board level.  The rationale for the appointment of a professional leader is, in many cases, obvious. For example a family business has run out of what even the family consider to be suitable talent for the role and even worse, while there are young and talented people in the business, they are considered to be as yet unready for promotion. 

An obvious solution is to scour the market and find someone with the experience and skills to take on the task. It would be more obvious and far more sensible to find someone with an attitude and behaviour dedicated to an understanding of the possible ramifications of the appointment. 

The real issue here is emotion. If a business has been run in the family perhaps for a couple of generations then the pain of bringing in someone without  that bond on to the Board and expect them to achieve change without trauma is foolish, not to say reckless. 

Again I have had several instances of highly qualified people being appointed to the leadership of a family owned business in an effort to maintain control.  The normal route is to offer a small block of equity to the incoming executive with the promise (!) of more as the business develops. 

Call me a cynic but in all the years that I have been with Vistage I can’t recall a single successful instance of an incoming CEO being given or even sold a majority stake in the business. 

Emotions run high, factions emerge and office politics reign supreme. Perhaps the best solution is to prepare the business for sale and when it happens, walk away without a backward glance  (and that I have seen, several times). 

Above all, never lure people into the business with vague promises.  If an applicant is rated as suitable after a comprehensive assessment of their abilities, then keep your word (it’s integrity again)

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Sunday, 7 July 2019

Considering Joint Managing Directors? Avoid it Like the Plague!

I feel that I can approach this topic without fear or favour simply because I have been through the situation personally and, quite frankly, it wasn’t a particularly happy experience. 

This was helped by using the experience I gained in several consultancy jobs where I found that the same problem is really widespread. 

It can be and frequently is a function of a family business and often occurs because an earlier generation is reluctant to cause disturbance in the family and hence the business by promoting one member over another. 

So what is this all about?  Simply put it is the cop-out decision to continue the family domination through joint-leadership, Managing Directors/CEOs and even Chair of the board and it can be a recipe for family discord at the very least. 

It is an easy solution on the face of it in the hope that each of the participants will modify their behaviour and compromise whenever there is potential discord.  The trouble is that because running a business is a job for a decisive mind, there can be a marked reluctance to listen to another opinion and compromise. 

Ideally the best way to manage a business is collaborative with  a significant proportion of decision making being effected at several levels through the organisation. 

For example Dan Pink in his excellent book, Drive, postulates the  concept of autonomy, mastery and purpose at all levels; autonomy to give freedom to the team to make decisions, which in turn encourages mastery through enhanced knowledge and all effected with a sense of purpose. 

David Marquette (Turn the Ship Around) takes much the same view as does Stephen Covey in his Seven Habits. 

It all comes together by the wise words from as long ago as the Crimean War and the strong opinions of Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) who, when presented with  a difficult decision in a failing hospital would ask: “Who is in charge here?”  

None of these gurus (and there are many more of them) are suggesting that the best form of leadership is top-down with the only autonomy being in the hands of the ultimate leader.   In fact the opposite is usually the case. 

If we consider the purpose and culture of the business and query its provenance then we must realise that it has to start somewhere and somehow.  It doesn’t just happen. 

I am strongly of the opinion that at almost any stage in the life of a business it is the primary function of the leader to determine the purpose, the culture, the mission and the values to be espoused by all involved and then to drive those criteria relentlessly into the organisation. 

In many ways it is the only top-down function of the leader especially if one of those criteria is the autonomy of decision making. If we allow and encourage decision making at all levels then the consequences of occasionally indifferent performance must be addressed and accepted. 

So, back to the topic in mind. Even in well adjusted families opinions on just about everything can be ventilated and argued over when there is discord at the top. If the culture and values of the organisation are compromised then there will be discord and uncertainty in the ranks and that can lead to splitting of decisions. In other words if I don’t like  the decision from one joint leader then I can always try another with a more compatible (for me) solution. 

There is, of course, the option of the vote at board level, heaven forfend.  The very necessity to need a vote implies that there is a split in the ranks and taking the vote strengthens it. 

I had a member of my Vistage CEO peer group who had 24 professional partners and when I naively suggested that decision making must need to be by consensus, he looked at me in astonishment. “Consensus?” he said “They demand unanimity”. I asked how they make decisions in the business as a consequence and he said, shortly “We don’t”. 

Be warned - splitting the ultimate decision maker, whatever the rationale,  can be a recipe for indecision throughout the business and that is a very undesirable outcome. 

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