Category Archives: Leadership & Management

Avoid the fake news trap

It’s not just in American politics that we suffer from fake news. It happens all the time in the business world over here as well.

Sometimes, it’s internal. Credit is taken or blame shifted from one individual to another through careful commentary and positioning.

Often, it’s external. For instance, when dealing with customers or suppliers where promises or half-promises are made in the full knowledge that they won’t be kept.

If you are getting ‘fake news’ internally, you have a cultural problem. Your team are not being honest and open, which shows there is a lack of trust. That leads to team members retaining rather than sharing their knowledge and working as individuals, rather than as part of the greater whole.

It can take some time to change the culture.  The trap here for the manager is that they act on the fake news – so reinforcing the behaviour of the guilty party. I claim credit for a job that really belongs to someone else, get rewarded, so I’ll do it again!

You can avoid this by double-checking your facts. Good journalists confirm their stories from multiple sources. If you reward the right people, the fake news will fade away – it becomes pointless because you have seen through it.

Now let’s look at the effects of fake news externally.  If you are making promises to customers that you know you can’t keep, you are just setting yourself up for failure. If I promise to deliver by next Tuesday, delivering on Tuesday or before makes me look good. Delivering on Wednesday makes me look bad – so why would I promise delivery on Tuesday?  I’m afraid of disappointing the customer, but if I don’t tell the truth I am just deferring the disappointment.

Your suppliers may be following the same route. You push for a faster delivery, they say ‘yes, we can do it’ (because that’s easier than saying no), and then they disappoint you with a later than expected delivery.

Fake news may be affecting either or both your customers and suppliers, but you can always check and challenge what’s been promised. You’ll find you won’t have to do that too often before the fake news goes away!

All your secrets are revealed

In any business and in any department managers will be concerned to reduce doubts and remove fears and uncertainties from them their team. That’s great when the news is positive, but what do you do when it is not so good?

I have learned that in many businesses there are no secrets and trying to keep secrets just creates more problems than it is worth.

The fastest method of communication has always been the rumour mill. I think it breaks Einstein’s laws and is actually faster than the speed of light!

The messages sent and received by the rumour mill are like those on an old radio. They are subject to heavy distortion, some of which may be intentional and some accidental. There are individuals who seek to benefit, if only emotionally, by spreading their distorted view of events. 

Who are you thinking of, right now?

If you want to make sure that all right message goes out to your team you need to control the message and the only way to do and that is to get ahead of the game.

There will be times when you don’t want the team to know everything but if you say nothing they’ll make up their own minds.  The trick is to give them enough to keep them feeling they are “in the know” without revealing the sensitive information.

This is never more relevant than when you are selling your business.

It is self-evident that you don’t want to tell the whole team you are considering selling. If you do, the next question will be some way towards “What does that mean for me?” which you, as the vendor, cannot answer. What the new owner does with the business and the team is down to them!

The acquirer is quite likely to want to see the business, so you need to tell the team something and the closer to the truth the better.

How about “We are exploring how our businesses might work together?”

It’s a lot more credible than the old “prospective customer” especially when you don’t usually have customer visits.

Make Meetings Fun

Sometimes we think that having fun and being serious are opposite ends of a scale, but if you consider it carefully the opposite of fun is gloom, and the opposite of serious is frivolous.

The words that go with gloom (in a business sense) are boredom and oppression. Do you really want your meetings to be boring and oppressive?

You don’t want the meetings to be frivolous, where the definition is “not having any serious purpose or value” but far too many meetings are just that. Meetings must have a purpose!
Giving a meeting a purpose is straightforward in principle if a little more difficult in practice!

Create an agenda, and ensure that each meeting spends more time focused on the future rather than the past. The summary of the meeting should be the points agreed and the actions resulting from the meeting. The chairman’s job is to move the meeting on, not just from item to item but also from focus on the past to the future.

Making meetings fun and enjoyable also requires some effort. Break the ice – even with an established team – by a few light-hearted remarks at the start of the meeting. There’s always something – and you can use events in the attendees’ personal lives such as birthdays, upcoming holidays or even a liking for a biscuit!

Celebrate successes from the past. We feel good when we are recognised and lauded, so find something to praise.
Offer support for problems. There’s very little benefit to be had by “tearing a strip off” in a meeting. Public criticism of a team member should be the last resort, but that doesn’t mean you don’t hold them to account. Explore the situation in some detail and ask the question “What can we do to help?” or “What help do you need?” so that no one is in any doubt who holds the responsibility.

Next meeting, you will be celebrating the successful resolution of the problem. You’ll find the team working together to eliminate the problems before the meeting – so they really do become fun!

Subtle approaches

There are times when you see a colleague struggling, or perhaps just not making the grade. You may not be directly responsible for them, so in many ways, it is not your problem and they probably won’t ask for help.

There are also individuals who are closed, and not receptive to advice or guidance. They react very negatively if you try to tell them how to do something or suggest a better way.A phrase that you can use in both these circumstances is “If I were you I would…” It works by inserting a qualifier – you are making your suggestion conditional upon being the other party – which means it is not a direct instruction. It’s a suggestion for consideration.
In a similar vein, when I am approaching business owners on behalf of a potential acquirer, I find the direct approach can lead to high levels of rejection.The instinctive answer to “Would you like to sell your business?” appears to be “No”

If I ask a slightly different question “My client would like to explore a closer working relationship with you – is that something you would consider?” the answer is nearly always yes.That allows me to enter into a conversation, find out more about the company and make better decisions based on that additional information.
I’m reminded of the saying “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar”

I am instinctively polite and would feel uncomfortable asking anyone to do anything without adding a “please” 
If you have the opportunity to use slightly more subtle language, try to do so.
It’s very rare that your meaning doesn’t come across loud and clear!

Is there a conversation you have been avoiding? 

Is there a conversation you have been avoiding?

If there is, the chances are that is the one you need to have.

Most of us don’t like confrontation and are very hesitant to say something that might start an argument or just cause offence, so often we put off having the conversation. It’s when you hear yourself saying “now is not the right time” repeatedly that you can begin to suspect you are avoiding the conversation you need to have.

That doesn’t mean you must dive in and have the conversation at a difficult time, just because you have finally made up your mind to get on with it! Choosing the right moment, when both you and the other party are relaxed and receptive is very important for the success of your conversation.

If you keep putting it off, the danger is that the problem you are planning to address will grow and fester, becoming a larger and larger issue. That can mean the resolution is both harder to achieve and more damaging to both the participants and the business.

So if you can’t keep putting it off, what’s the best approach?

If this is a performance issue with a member of the team, try this.

Set out in writing what you want to be different because of the conversation. Often that will help you identify the source of your concern, refining it to the core issue. 

Set out in writing the impact the undesirable behaviour is having on the rest of the team.
Those two notes will help you stay on message and in control of the meeting.

You will present them factually, unemotionally and with conviction. The recipient is more likely to respond in a similar manner, accepting the facts. You will often find that the behaviour is not a conscious choice, and they did not realise the impact they were having on the team.

What’s logic go to do with anything?

Do you expect your customers or your team to react logically?

You will often be disappointed if you do!

Fans of the Star Trek series will remember Leonard Nimoy playing the character Spock, who was half human and half Vulcan. The emotional human half was suppressed by the unemotional Vulcan half and Spock often found himself struggling to understand his human colleagues’ emotional reactions.

Your customers are not Vulcans or robots. How you make them feel is at least as important as how well you do your job / provide your service.

How you make them feel is going to be determined by their interaction with your team – so your team (who are also human, not Vulcan or robot) must appreciate that how they make the customer feel is crucial.

If your team are not happy and enthusiastic about your business they will struggle to make the customer feel loved and valued.

Have you ever been served in the local supermarket by the Saturday girl who quite clearly did not want to be at work – she’d rather be hanging out with her friends or still in bed?

Every time your customer or prospect connects to your business they form an impression of the business.

It’s not just when you are on your best behaviour, giving a fantastic sales presentation, or when they’ve come to see you at a trade show. It’s all the little contacts in between, from the receptionist through the customer support team to the sales team and the directors.

You can deliver the best product, the best possible service and get everything right, but if your customer doesn’t feel good about doing business with you it won’t matter.

Remembering the sayings “A man who never made a mistake never made anything” and “to err is human” aiming for a satisfied customer really won’t get you to the point where you can slip up, make a mistake, provide poor service, and be forgiven.

Turning your customers into raving fans not only creates easy sales wins – they will refer business – it also cushions you against any shortfall in service.

Are you in an adaptive state?

The world is changing all the time and we don’t work in isolation – we work with suppliers and customers, partners and competitors, laws and regulations making up our business environment.

Changes that affect the environment will affect us – and will have an effect on us.

We have to be alert to the changes as in every business there’s a need to adapt and adjust to the new circumstances.

Ignoring those changes, as many business leaders seem to try to do, is just storing up problems for the future. That’s pretty obvious if you think of laws and regulation where failure to adapt to the changes is likely to lead to a fine or even imprisonment for those who fail to comply.

We have all heard that ignorance of the law is no defence so we keep watch on those changes, but do you watch for other changes in the environment?

If there’s a change in your supply chain, are you ready to respond? Do you have multiple sources of supply for key items?

Whatever business you are in, technology is affecting it. Recently I was helping a membership organisation where they had failed to adjust their membership processes.  A few years ago, we would expect to submit an application to join a society through snail mail and then wait a week or so for the membership pack to arrive, but now we expect to apply online and receive immediate membership. The membership organisation had not adapted their methods and membership applications were described as “laborious”

If your competitor is introducing a new product, are you ready to react and provide even better service to your customer? Are you watching the market, or better yet leading the market!

There’s a book by Marshall Goldsmith – What got you here won’t get you there – and applying just the title to your business thinking will help you move to an adaptive state.

Don’t worry, be happy!

I see a lot of business owners and leader who find work very stressful.

I’m reminded of this quote from Reinhold Niebuhr:

“Lord, grant me the strength to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Business owners feel responsible for everything and everyone in the business, but they often worry about things they cannot change.

Worrying about the wrong things – those things you cannot change – does you no good, does your blood pressure no good and most importantly does the business no good!

If you’ve done all you can for the customer, you can’t change the decision they are going to make next week or next month.

If you’ve done the research and created the marketing campaign that you all think will work, you must try it to see if it will work. Worrying about it won’t change the outcome.

So what will your worrying do?

If you are worried, it’s like an infectious disease that you will pass on to the team. They will worry as well. If you are worried, you may not (will not) be focused on the things that you can change – where you will make a difference. If you infect the team with your worries, they won’t be focused, will second guess themselves, take longer and probably make more mistakes.

Taking longer and making more mistakes leads to an increase in workload. Extra workload can mean more stress and more worrying – it’s a vicious spiral.

The business leader who appears not to be worried takes away a lot of stress. The team look to the leader and if he’s not worried then we don’t have to be.

Think of the captain of a sports team, or a leader on the battlefield. They are confident and positive, not worried and negative. Sometimes that is just an act – they really are not confident, but they won’t let it show because that damages the team.

So ask yourself “Can I change this thing I am worrying about?” and if the answer is no, move on!

Perfection can be the enemy of progress

There are times when perfection must be achieved but also times when it is the enemy of progress.

If you have a product or service in development that is not yet perfect and you continue the development until you reach what you regard as perfection, you may just find the market has been taken from you by an inferior product. They call it “first mover” advantage or first to market advantage.

There is also a strong probability that the product (or service) is not quite what the customer’s want or need. You’ve used your knowledge and experience to build this, but if you don’t have customer feedback it is easy to go down the wrong road.

That’s an obvious example, but the same principles can easily be applied to your internal projects. I was responsible for the roll-out of a new IT hardware system. We were a relatively small company, and were not using IT professionals – it was mostly down to me. I had a plan for the roll-out but as with any plan, things did not work quite as expected! In this case, a printer that had worked perfectly in one environment decided not to work with the new system.

In the perfect world, I would have setup the printer and everything else in a test environment before deployment. I’d have found and resolved the problem. That would have taken an impractical amount of time (I had a day job, this was a set of additional responsibilities) and money.

In the real world, we deployed the new system and the printer failed. We could have reverted to the old system (that was my ultimate backup plan) but managed to find a workaround that let us operate. We had the new system running within the day, the operations and the customers were not hampered and the business could benefit from the new faster hardware.

If you’ve got a backup plan, and failure won’t affect the customer, roll out the project and fix it when you know what’s wrong.  If you’ve got a new product, get it to market in beta or prototype form. Don’t wait for perfection!

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.