"Frank's skill in asking the right questions is un-mistakable, and is at the core of his leadership philosophy.

The power of these questions cannot be underestimated, especially if you want to lead and not manage."
—John Cave
Westhaven Worldwide Logistics

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Telling How It Is

Bringing in outsiders is an interesting step for a Chief Executive or Managing Director to take.

Before I continue I have to declare an interest, of course. I am an ‘outsider’ for those companies who employ my consultancy. I will return to that point at the end of this blog entry.

Bringing in outsiders is an interesting step to take because it’s often expensive financially… and in terms of morale.

The first bit’s self-evident… but I should explain the morale bit. There resides in your workforce a collective knowledge about your business that you cannot replicate. No amount of briefing will ever bring outsiders up to the same point of knowledge of your business and marketplace that your employees have.

Why then ask someone outside your business to consider an issue when you’ve probably already got the answer on your doorstep?

I think the answer lies in the ‘t’ word… ‘trust’. Many business leaders have a psychological mistrust about what their employees might tell them about their business and a massive willingness to believe an outsider. Employees therefore see a consultant brought in and morale dips because they feel their own standing in their business undermined. This usually happens when the business is in the cost-cutting part of the ‘investment/cost-cutting cycle’… so the expenditure on outsiders sits uneasily alongside internal budget cuts, further undermining morale.

And the morale of this story (sorry… puns are a weakness!). Look inside your business before you look outside.

Oh… and why am I different?

Because I work with you as the leader… and am prepared to tell you how it is, as I’ve done in this article. That’s something you really might not get from your employees.

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Planning.

I planned writing this article. There was a time when I was going to do it and a place. I knew the resources I would bring into play (my training and experience) and how it would be published. I knew why I was writing it and my expected return on investment (more traffic to my website and more prospective clients who I hope will sense the value I can add to their businesses).

So, ladies and gentlemen, I give you planning… a rational deployment of simple logic and common-sense that sets out how one or more objectives will be reached.

Right?

Well no, actually. Wrong.

Apparently, corporate planning has to be a lot more challenging than that. It’s got to be a tortuous, tough, man-hours consuming nightmare with output measured in double-figure iterations of elaborate documents that no-one ever refers to because they’re over-written, full of jargon and exhausting long sentences just like the one you’ve just read.

In other words, it’s got to be a waste of time.


Let me suggest some strategic planning guidelines for you
  • don’t feel it has to be a democratic process that involves everyone. It doesn’t.
  • do feel that it should be driven by the marketing department (and not the finance department, please) – because marketing and strategic planning should be one and the same
  • don’t feel comfortable with a 100 page document that’s destined for dust gathering on a nice appointed shelf in your office
  • do feel comfortable with a simple plan that analyses your marketplace and the development of your offering within it
  • don’t keep it to yourself
  • do share it with everyone (yes, that’s what that conference is for).


I could go on… but I don’t need to. And neither do you at the next planning round.

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Should You Lead Alone?

I have alluded in past blog entries to the dangers of an overly democratic approach to leadership. In other words, take the opinions of the many on board in your decision making, and the resulting business direction could be a very watered down facsimile of what it should be.

It’s about time, then, that I flipped the argument over then to consider the dangers of an overly autocratic approach.

Leaders who go it alone run a massive risk. The risk is that any gaps in their expertise or experience or any flaws in the personality intrude unhelpfully on the decision making process. Brilliant and compelling leaders can falter as they rally the troops marvelously to less than robust strategic plans.

Even the most expert of leaders therefore need what I will call a ‘leadership team’. This should comprise senior people who can fill in any gaps in the leader’s style and abilities.

Some strong-minded and strong-willed leaders might throw their hands up in horror at this, so I feel obliged to provide a very serious history lesson.

Who was Britain’s Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS) during the Second World War? Winston Churchill? No… the CIGS was Alan Brooke (later, 1st Viscount Alanbrooke), foremost military advisor to Winston Churchill who was, of course, the Prime Minister and Minister of Defense.

Brooke was a counterweight to Churchill, whom he described as a ‘genius mixed with an astonishing lack of vision… quite the most difficult man to work with I have ever struck.’ He was one of the few to stand up to the formidable Prime Minister, one without whom the outcome of the war would have been quite different. Churchill acknowledged Brooke’s ability to resist him, once saying ‘When I thump the table and push my face towards him what does he do? Thumps the table harder and glares back at me.’

There are lots of strong leaders out there. I say to you that your strength could also be your company’s weakness. Make sure that your self-knowledge includes recognition of your fallibilities and there’s a good counterweight team around you—including those prepared to thump the table back!

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Deadly Sin: Favoritism In Business

Someone asked me recently for my views on favoritism in business.

I said that any leader guilty of it could expect the same result as holding a hand-grenade with the pin out, i.e.:

Something very nasty about to blow up in your face.

I have more than once in this blog looked to sport to provide an analogy. With favoritism as my subject, I didn’t have to look very far.

One of the greatest motorsport categories in the world is Formula One. Different teams tend to prosper from one year to the next, of course. This year it’s the Red Bull team.

One of the biggest events of the year is the Grand Prix held at Silverstone in the UK. At this year’s event, the Red Bull team driver Sebastian Vettel’s new-design front wing failed in qualifying. There was only one other new wing available—on his team mate Mark Webber’s car.

Now—Vettel was marginally in front in the driver’s championship. For this reason the team principal (boss) decided to take Webber’s wing and give it to Vettel for the race.

The outcomes of this crass decision (crash decision!?) were many and damaging:
  • one disaffected Red Bull driver wonders openly at a press conference why he’s signed for another year at the team
  • the press reception is very hostile
  • the disaffected driver wins the race with the old front wing… and with the comment ‘Not bad for the number two driver’
  • open hostility between the two engineering teams within Red Bull
  • difficult media questions
  • damaged brand?

I put a question mark after the last bullet point because that outcome is not yet known. But it is possible that the sponsors will not like an association between their brand and unfairness.

So… my question to you is…

Are you guilty of unfairly preferring one of your direct reports or key personnel to another?

If so, what problems are you storing up for the future?


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Goal!

Goal!

You’ll hear that word quite a lot this year with the soccer world cup taking place in South Africa.

You certainly hear that word quite a lot in business… and not always in the happiest of circumstances.

Let me explain.

There are lots of games played in corporations. For example, the annual budget round where departmental heads make their pitch for funds (always overstated) and the CEO is determined to keep costs low (invariably unrealistically so).

Another example is the annual cycle of targets and the way these translate into the goals set for individual members of staff.

This should be the chance for a realistic forecast of what the member of staff can achieve given their expertise and experience and the potential for achievement given company culture and the market.

So why’s this activity so dreaded by members of staff and management alike?

Let’s take the manager first. She’s usually under pressure from the senior management team to set over-stretching and unrealistic targets. This is because senior management have exaggerated the company’s potential to shareholders and to the markets. The manager knows the targets she is about to share are unrealistic, or will cause serious stress, but is obliged to set these goals and ’sell’ them to her staff.

And the member of staff? Well, he’s just spent a year chasing last year’s unrealistic target and has ‘fallen short’, compromising his bonus. He wants smarter, more achievable targets set… which will test him—but not to the point of destruction, or at least disaffection.

Or leaving.

Yes… notwithstanding the global economic recession and difficult labor market, people will leave. They’ll either take their valuable knowledge or contacts lists to a competitor, or set up on their own. A new game at the very least, and one where they can be more self-determining and set their own rules.

How smart is your company when it comes to setting corporate targets and translating them into people goals?


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“I did it my way.”

So sang the world’s most famous crooner. And so often we hear those words and their equally famous melody at funerals.

But would you really want this as your business epitaph?

All too often, in my view, business leaders and senior managers cling to an unalterable belief that imposition of their way of doing things on their staff is the right way forward. They think that that’s what they’re paid to do.

When it’s not.

They’re paid to find the right way forward for the business for which they are responsible. And the right way forward will emerge from tapping into the reservoir of intelligence about their business and the market in which it operates which resides in among its staff.

Let me give you an example. A newly appointed manager of a small financial services company operating in the agricultural industry could not believe the low interest rates being charged on mortgages. He went round the country telling the land agents through whom much of the company’s business was derived that rates needed to rise.

This switched the land agents off… and a key source of business.

Had that manager bided his time and properly consulted with his management team he would have been more wary. He would have realized that his company was able to offer highly competitive rates because of its low cost infrastructure and that this was a crucial point of differentiation from competitors. And he would have realized the key importance of the land agent sales channel. But he didn’t. Because he knew best.

So, think carefully about your approach. Wouldn’t a better business epitaph be…

“I did it our way”?


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The Truth, The Whole Truth and Nothing But…

Factual accuracy is a concept drummed into us from an early age. Who among us has not at some time or another said to a child, “Now, you must tell the truth.”

It’s a concept that some children will readily adopt. Others, of course, will develop a lifelong attachment to mendacity.

And others will be somewhere in between.

And forgive the pun, but the truth is probably that we all push the definition of truth occasionally. It’s a human trait that’s no doubt prevented a lot of strife in arenas as diverse as international affairs and any family setting.

So why am I banging on about the truth this week?

Well… I heard recently about a Managing Director who insisted that every meeting began with ‘Good news’. So, at the monthly senior management meeting, he would go around his table of Directors demanding an example of good news from them.

“Great”, I hear you say. “Begin the meeting on a positive.”

There’s something in that, of course, but what if I tell you that the company concerned was a division of a Bank.

What if I make the reasonable observation that this obsession with good news was symptomatic of a culture in which executives were afraid to speak out about difficult issues, where the word ‘problem’ was non-pc (you had to say ‘challenge’) and where straight-talking middle and senior managers were passed over for promotion, managed into career cul-de-sacs or worse still, managed out of the business.

It’s the sort of culture where a lot of key influencers could be burying their heads in the sand about issues like sub-prime mortgage arrears and worryingly high bad debt levels. Hiding from the truth.

All of which was a problem, sorry… a challenge.

And none of which was good news for any of us.


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Do Leaders Need Training?

Pass the soap-box because I am about to talk about one of my biggest bête-noires.

At any given time, across the globe, thousands of management hours are being expended on training courses.

Managers are being taught everything from the latest employment law to time management and from strategic planning to corporate and social responsibility.

But how many managers struggle from one day to the next with that most testing of their responsibilities, managing… and in particular, managing people?

The simple answer—plenty. In fact, probably most of them.

I know some managers in a late stage in their careers who reflect, sometimes with surprise as if it’s never occurred to them before, on the fact that they have never attended so much as one training course on the art of people management. It’s as if managing people is something they’re expected to have acquired by osmosis or divine intervention… or simple instinct.

So, back from their time management training, they continue to be worried by Fred, whose negative attitude and undermining asides at departmental meetings consume so much energy (and time).

And fully versed in putting together their strategic plans, they remain distracted by Fiona’s refusal to fulfil the requirements of her job description and reluctance to co-operate with her immediate colleagues and those in other departments.

Which is a shame. Because the collective wisdom of how to deal with these and other perennial management challenges is out there, no doubt already decanted into the right kind of training courses and ready to be shared with all the struggling managers in the world.

Leadership point?

As a top priority, put your struggling managers together with the right training courses.

ASAP.


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