Not every question needs an immediate answer

There’s a temptation to give an immediate answer to any question that comes your way. If you can answer quickly and completely, that’s great. The person asking can get on with whatever it was that they were dealing with and you can go back to dealing with what is on your desk.

Or is it great?

You’ve been distracted and it takes some time to regain your focus and get back to where you were. That’s especially true if you are dealing with a complex issue.

The person asking the question has also been distracted – possibly for even longer that you were, as they’ve given the problem some thought and tried to resolve it themselves before looking for assistance – or have they?

Some questions are just laziness.
Some questions are just seeking reassurance.
Some questions are just social interaction.
Some questions are serious questions around difficult problems.

If you are interrupted with a question, which category is it? If you can answer it immediately, it is probably one of the first three.

Laziness is when the information is available, the person has previously asked and had the answer. They can’t remember or have not referred to the previous example.

Reassurance is something we all need from time to time, but if this is a long established well-trained person, it may be time for you to “look in the mirror”. They don’t feel empowered to make that decision and need your stamp of approval.

We’re all social animals and there will always be a level of interaction, but it should not be a cause of distraction. If that becomes a pattern, make a point of giving the questioner some additional time in the coffee break or over lunch.

If it is the last category – a serious question around a difficult problem – you probably should not be answering it immediately.

If you can answer the question immediately, did it really need to be asked?

Was it a productive use of your and the questioner’s time?

Giving Feedback

There are few things more important in running a successful business than the review and feedback you give the team around you, yet many business owners are guilty of doing the minimum possible.

I think it’s a fear of confrontation, or perhaps of causing offence

If you don’t give your team their reviews you are not just following bad practice, you are damaging the business.

If you are not happy with someone’s performance and you don’t tell them, it is never going to get any better. On the other side of the coin, if you are really pleased with what they are doing and don’t tell them, don’t be surprised when they leave for another job where they feel more valued!

You can and should use the review process to set objectives and measure progress towards those objectives. I like to set objectives that are measured on a weekly or monthly basis – if you like the objectives for the day job – and set some that are more strategic, probably cannot be achieved overnight but will benefit the business longer term.

The review should not be confrontational and you should not be giving or causing offence but we are so used to concentrating on the negative and the things that need improvement that we dive straight into them. That’s where it is easy to be in a review meeting where the reviewee is defensive and the reviewer frustrated. When we become defensive we close up, physically, and mentally. We stop listening!

You can adapt a model we use in the speaking world.

Use a feedback sandwich. Very simply, say something nice to start with. It will relax the reviewee and they will be open, attentive and listening. You can then move on to the things that need improvement, and if you treat it as “needs improvement” rather than “you did that wrong” you’ll have a better chance of keeping their attention.

Finally, close with some more positive messages. Don’t worry, the reviewee will remember the negative far longer than they do the positive – so you don’t need to rub it in.

It’s not about Fred

Is there a bit of your business that you hate, yet it seems to come around more and more often? Is it the same problem in a different guise?

I often see businesses that have become reliant upon an individual’s knowledge, yet that knowledge is being applied to the relatively mundane. It’s being used to resolve problems and issues that quite frankly should not need that level of attention. They keep reappearing and take valuable time and resource.

People are like water and tend to take the path of least resistance. You know that Fred has the knowledge to solve the problem, so the easiest thing is to go and ask Fred. He obliges, you solve the problem and the world goes on.

Then comes the day when Fred is not available. Perhaps he is on holiday – or perhaps he has retired. All that knowledge and know-how has left the business.

If you had taken the slightly harder path and worked with Fred to create a process to deal with the problem, you can still deal with the problem when Fred isn’t there. Yes, it takes a bit longer the first time but the benefit can be significant. You are spreading the knowledge, probably training others, and giving them a more interesting job all at the same time.

Fred finds he has time to apply his knowledge to something other than problem-solving. He will feel less pressured and more valued – and he will be contributing at a different level.

Making things part of a process or procedure is not about compliance or about forcing individuals to follow rules; it’s about best practice and continually improving your business.

You might even find that Fred’s way isn’t the only way. Once the process is set out, others can see the path, and perhaps they will improve on it as well.

Know your customers

In banking and financial services there’s a set of regulations called Know Your Customer or KYC for short. If you’ve opened an account in another country in the past few years you will have experienced the process which can be administratively complex!

One of my clients was opening an account in Hong Kong and the standard procedure of “Please call into the branch with your passport” was not very helpful. The ultimate owner is the person whose identity must be verified – and in this case that was a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who had no plans to visit Asia soon!

Knowing your customers and knowing your market is vitally important for any business. It’s not a compliance issue (as it is in banking) but a tool to help you win more customers and do more business.

I was reminded of this when I heard Lord Karan Bilimoria describing the early days of Cobra beer. He and his partner marketed the beer to independent Asian restaurants and their efforts laid the foundations for the success of Cobra.

He knew his market; he knew his customers and he had created a product to fit with their offerings and their customers.

Had he tried the same approach with many (most) of the restaurants on the high street it would have failed, as they are not usually independent and the manager on the site has little authority to purchase anything!
Had he tried the same approach in another country it might not have worked. In the US, where there are plenty of independent restaurants, the majority (in my experience) do not serve alcohol at all.
If you don’t have a really good connection to your market and a thorough understanding of why your customers choose you, the chances are that your marketing efforts will misfire.

Don’t assume that you know why they buy – assumptions are dangerous and they may be buying for a reason you don’t consider important.

Ask your customers why they buy; ask the ones who have left why they are leaving. You might be surprised by what you learn.

Are you living up to your promises?

Dig out your mission & vision statements and re-read them, would you?

They are promises you made to yourself and the team.

Are you following the dream, or doing just enough to get by?

It’s all too easy to get dragged into the trenches of dealing with the day to day hassle and that can easily take you way from the path you set out to follow. That happens to all of us!

Getting back on track starts with the recognition that you were off track to begin with. Review your plan / budget against the mission and vision – are your actions in the short term taking you towards the long-term goal, just holding your ground or at worst taking you away from your goal?

I’m a great fan of a rolling four quarterly plan and budget.

It’s a methodology that requires you to review the plan at least once a quarter and update it – so you can’t create the annual plan and just leave it in the drawer until the year is done!

It prevents you from saying “Oh well, that was our estimate 9 months ago so it doesn’t matter” as you have reviewed an updated that forecast at least 3 times.

It avoids the cliff, where something is happening just after year end. The annual plan finishes at year end; this event is a moth or so later but it’s not in the plan – and won’t be recognised until the new planning cycle kicks off.  One business I worked with had a royalty payment due in the January; the plans and forecasts finished in Dec and it was not until we started the plan for the new year that it became apparent our cashflow was insufficient!

It avoids a massive planning session that everyone hates. You are planning once a quarter – updating the next 9 months and adding on another 3 – so that it becomes routine.

In the quarterly review sessions, have the mission & vision to hand. That will help keep them in mind and make sure you are staying on track.

Here is your personal time machine

How often do you hear the phrase “I don’t have time to do XYZ?”

I hear it all the time.

I often hear someone being praised for working hard, and usually, that’s connected to the number of hours they put in.

What is much more interesting is how productive someone is – how much do they get done.

How productive are you?

To become more productive, focus on the things that are distracting you and minimise them.

Do you need to be in every meeting?
If you are not driving the meeting, trust your team to discuss issues without you and move things forward. The team will appreciate the opportunity to expand their knowledge, the trust that you are showing them and will probably come to the same conclusions even if you are not there.

How often do you need to check your emails?
Email is one of the big distractions in today’s world. It’s so easy when the email alert pings for you stop writing that proposal (or newsletter, or report) and go read the latest email.
How often do you get an email that requires an instant reply? Never! If you checked your email only once a day would the world fall apart? Why not try that – set a time each day and don’t read emails in between.

Could you turn off the phone for a couple of hours?
When you are in that important meeting that you are driving, you will have your phone turned off or at the very least on silent. What happens if someone calls during the meeting? If it’s important, they will leave a message – and it will probably be “Can you call me when you are free?”

Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter can be valuable business tools but they don’t require your attention every minute or every hour of every day – unless they are your business!

Consider the intentions

Treat others as you would wish to be treated is a mantra that you often hear. It’s something that is worth applying in many aspects of life and I suggest worth applying in the office.

I recently had to intervene in a discussion that was becoming rather heated.

The background was that one member of the sales team had (in good faith) offered additional technical information to a customer.  His belief was that this information was readily available, when in fact it was unproven (but very probably accurate) assumption.

Recovering the situation required the technical department to undertake additional work to prove the theory and provide further details to the customer.

Understandably, the technical team leader was somewhat upset!

The heated discussion was along the lines of “You shouldn’t have said that!” responded with “you should have had the info available”

There’s no way to take back what has been said.

Had the sales team realised this was an unproven theory they would not have made the offer.

Express your frustration, but then let’s move on to a solution.

You can’t change history so stop trying. Learn from the mistake, so that you can avoid it in future, but then focus on what you can change.

Part of the problem in this situation (and in many others) was the failure of either party to consider the intentions of the other.

The very last thing the sales team wanted was to mislead the customer or set an expectation that can’t be met.

The very last thing the technical department wanted was to share an unproven theory as if it were fact.

Pausing for a moment to consider the intentions will often take the heat out of the situation and allow you to accept what has happened. You can’t change it, but at least if you understand why it happened you can accept it and move on.

How would you want to be treated if you’d made the mistake?

Are you adding value?

I was in a management meeting not very long ago where everyone had something to say on almost every subject. The meeting went on, and on, and on….!

I was reminded of the quotation

“If I Had More Time, I Would Have Written a Shorter Letter”

The source of which is most probably Blaise Pascal – but of course the original was in French so it is not a direct translation.

I was also reminded of a talk given by my colleague in the Speakers’ Association, Peter Milligan, where he referred to some guidance he was given early in his career. I could summarise that as don’t speak unless you have something to add.

I’ve had the delights of doing business all over the world, often with companies and individuals where their first language is not English. Sometimes communication from these clients and prospects requires a level of interpretation – it is difficult to determine exactly what they mean – and it can be made far worse when they try to be polite and use elaborate language.

Even in the same office, unnecessary communication is an ever increasing time waster. I remember years ago taking a call from a colleague who was repeating some information he had previously send me in an email! One or the other, please not both!

How many emails do you get that you don’t need to respond to? How many that are copied to you for information only?

I heard some time ago of a manager who instructed his team not to send him emails unless they wanted him to take action. I am not sure I would go that far.

If you can make each business communication direct and to the point (still polite, of course) and each interjection in a meeting something that adds real value and moves the meeting forward, you will be much more productive and efficient.

Perception vs Reality

Many years ago I worked for a very high growth technology business and we were always in need of funding because we were growing so fast.

One of my English colleagues, Jonathan, took over from me as Finance Director for the Americas region whilst I went out to Hong Kong to set up Asia Pacific.

He decided to fulfil his dream by getting a Porsche, but the only car available was pink. He bought it anyway and was the subject of much hilarity in the office as a result.

The time came when we needed extra working capital so Jonathan and Mike, our treasury director, went to the bank in Silicon Valley to try and arrange this.

The bank manager looked out of the window, saw the car, and told them he would not be lending money to any business where the Finance Director drove a pink Porsche!

I am sure that was a tongue in cheek comment, but there’s a valid point here. Perception counts and what your customers, suppliers and your team perceive is all that matters.

So when you look at your business try to see it as a stranger would see it. What message does the tired reception area send, what message do the weeds in the carpark give?

If you review your website, and the last update was 9 months ago, what message are you sending?

If your team see you having a bad day and grumbling about something, what message do they get – and what message do they pass on to the customer?

Imagine for a moment that you wanted to perpetrate a fraud. How far would you go to project the best possible image so that your target would part with their money? You would not leave anything to chance.

In business, we overlook the perception because we think the reality will counter it – we think that reality counts, but that’s not true. Perception counts.

Put the right team together

Jim Collins, in his classic business book Good to Great, identifies getting the right people on the bus in the right seats as a fundamental step to business success.

That is a principle you can apply when you are looking at your internal teams and working parties, not just the top team than runs the whole business.

Teams and working parties can be a very powerful way of resolving problems, dealing with projects and enhancing business processes but only if the right people are in the team.

If the team doesn’t have the right composition it won’t be as successful.

A useful analogy may be that of rowing. Mark de Rond studied the rowers at Cambridge preparing for the university boat race and in particular the selection process.

It’s not just a case of choosing the 8 fastest oarsmen, but one of selecting the best combination of rowers even if some of those left out are faster as individuals.

In business, it may well be prudent to select potentially less able or less knowledgeable candidates for their ability to work together rather than creating a team all of whom are high achievers but who will not get on with each other.

For teams to be really effective there are several other factors to consider but right at the top of the list is communication. Everyone on the team has to be fully aware of the objectives of the team, but also to understand and accept their role within the team. The team will review progress and everyone affected will know what is happening and what the milestones are – so this is all about communication.

Teams can be a fantastic environment for individuals to develop new skills and experience but that requires the right ethos from the team and its leader. A no-blame learning environment, where mistakes are just an opportunity to get it right next time, is a great place to develop.