Archive: 2009

Leadership is About Giving People a Learning Curve

December 23rd, 2009

The world has lost it a little bit lately. Leaders are pushing for everyone to work harder, make more phone calls and produce more numbers. It is all direct effort to  a direct result. Few will trust the correlation of learning and knowledge to a better place or outcome. In leadership, you have to teach the right things and trust that people do the right things — it’s very simple. Because knowledge equals everything!
We all would rather run a 100 yard dash each day than train for the marathon! And today there is even less time. So we run like Forest Gump.  We just run and run without even knowing why.
We must trust if I invest in you as your leader that the business will get some inherent value from it.  But this is not the case as of late. The recession has depressed and altered the traditional career path, and with it, the importance of the learning curve. People want certain things in their career and we know it’s not only about money, it’s not only about benefits. With a learning curve we are challenged &mdash’ it means we are tested. It means we get to work at something. It means using your mind. We get choice projects. We get the difficult challenge. We get to do more than our job description says!  What happens when the learning curve stops? Everything stops. The person stops learning and soon the company stops too. As the saying goes, when we are not growing we are closer to death; this goes for the company and the employee! When the learning curve goes down, the company goes down. If the learning curve goes up, than the company results can go up too!
So one of the things that people really need is to continue to learn. Knowledge equals confidence and self-esteem. That’s what it means, and if people have that kind of confidence and self-esteem, they are more likely to do the things that produce results. If you have more knowledge you get more results. With confidence you make better decisions, take risks and you are more innovative, more creative, more tolerant, more disciplined. You trust that your results will be superior. You must trust that intangibles will turn into results!
This application also applies to more than business. It’s directly relevant to children doing better in school. The school system teaches kids to get a certain grade; it rarely teaches them to learn, retain and use the knowledge provided. Parents usually reward on just grades, not what is learned or applied. I have often thought about this with my son who is always “bored” with school and has the C’s and occasional D’s to prove it. As he leaned over my shoulder while I was writing this blog, he had a real light bulb go off. He might want to use what he learns some day!  And it might help him get the career he wants or to have hobbies that interest him.  And just maybe his grades will improve now!
If you are a small business owner or leader now is the time to differentiate and invest in the learning curve for your people and your organization!
Next post about how a leader can utilize the Holidays to their advantage!

What is Intrapreneurial Leadership?

December 14th, 2009

The worlds first management style was defined by the military institution.   Decisions were made at the top, information cascaded down throughout the ranks, and everyone is trained to know how to respond to those orders.  It was tough for information to flow back to the top however.  During times of crisis it is a good thing for all to know their role and to clearly know who will make the critical decisions for the organization right?  Well for business I am not so sure.  During difficult times we all appreciate a leader that will make the tough decisions.  That is when real leadership can be the most lonely right?  You are doing your job some days and your board, employees and other stake holders probably will not agree with some of the decision you must make. Everyone has their interest and their lens that gets applied to your decisions.
Business moves at a blistering pace. We know the story. The world is global and your customers and competition might not be across town anymore.  Technology has changed who has information and when and were they can access it. The decisions that must be made can be biased by an ever increasing flood of possible information. There is just so much today and it never stops. This knowledge-based economy requires different leadership. Why not Intrapreneurial leadership? How about giving staff the authority and the knowledge they need to help make the business better? Why not ask for help from those that are closer to the problem.
Intrapreneurial Leadership requires you to gave away authority. To push out decision making.  To give people access to the same information. Treat everyone as an equal and to have the fundamental belief that some employees want to feel like entrepreneurs. They may not want to risk their house like one; yet they understand and see how great it can be to work in an entrepreneurial environment.  Who would not want less red tape? More responsibility if they knew they could actually do something with it.  And great opportunities to make a difference? Over and over again in surveys to managers we think that staff wants money and benefits. Truth is even in this tough economy we all want a voice. We want to trust and know we make a difference. And that we will be listened to. And communicated with. We want to be treated as people. And we want the truth. Give someone more than they expect and they will do anything for the business. Give them less, well you end up without trust.
So this sounds hard? Not in small ways. Recently I was working with a customer on defining their organizational values. The management team was in on the project and they did their best to help the President complete the task. On a suggestion we asked a few front line staff to participate and we got a terrific result. The staff was honored to be apart of it. And ultimately their involvement contributed to completing the project!
We all know what is great about the small business experience. Employees are not a number. There is less bureaucracy. There are fewer rules and regulations. The business feels more pure. The goals of the company are very customer oriented. The business exists to serve the customer. There are less “artificial limits” created by the politics, internal agendas, and communication breakdowns to get in the way.
And as a leader it requires a special person to change. What got you here worked, right? Why change now?  Maybe your organization could be more productive?
Here are some suggestions on simple ways you can implement the basics of intra-preneurial leadership:

  1. Get your staff involved in a project that breaks down title barriers or department silos.
  2. Ask for help.
  3. As more questions than the answers you might provide.
  4. Get rid of titles and job descriptions for internal purposes.
  5. Meet with staff on a regular basis. Ask how you are doing and what can make their job better.
  6. Treat everyone equally.

It Is Time to Put the Focus on Service

December 1st, 2009

I think I know why they call it Black Friday. All of the surly clerks and frustrated shoppers. Even I spent a good part of Saturday out shopping for the Holidays with my wife. I have to admit, it was fun. There must be something to this gathering and hunting thing. But as I looked around questioning how we could actually be in a recession with all of this spending going on — it hit me. Service is a lost art. Many retail stores seem to try hard. Others don’t seem to care. Frankly, it is not a part of their business model. Cheap is good, yes. But a smile would be nice too.
This is a great time for me to dust off an important leadership notion and cultural value that I learned as a young leader, Take “service to the Nth degree!” What does it mean? Simple right. Put the focus on your customer, serve them with excellence. Raise the bar. But still it seems so absent in many businesses today.
Why? It is free. It is hard to copy by your competitors. It is intangible. It is a feeling. It is the gap between what you say and what you do. The most important reason to put the focus on service? It feels good. It is contagious. It is competitive. And customers will notice.
Here are a few simple ways to raise the bar on service to take it to the Nth degree:

  1. Call a meeting and focus on it. Ask people to think about how their job interacts with the customer.  Where can they bring something extra?
  2. Answer the phone. Turn off your voice mail. Insist the phone be answered in three rings. Or better yet two.
  3. Get back to me. Tell me by when and actually do it sooner.
  4. Change the way you answer the phone. CBI Group says ” I can help you.” This is our Purple Cow! Great book too!
  5. Reward customer service. As a leader catch me doing it!

Are you Ready for Open Book?

November 21st, 2009

Open book companies see value in sharing the results of the business with everyone. The “financials” are reviewed, KPI’s discussed. Generally speaking everything about the business and its performance is shared with everyone. The first time I tried this I think I expected an explosion of energy and enthusiasm. Frankly, I found that most were intimidated and had little exposure to finance. I even had my administrative assistant close my door and ask when she was being let go. She figured that I was telling everyone about the results of the business to setup some sort of management plan of action. So much for instant success with this plan.
I had worked in the family business Placers, and helped role out this concept across the business. I feel that it was one of the more important elements of our culture. It was wonderful to see people in control of their own destiny like that. Why had my organization not embraced it? I went looking for answers. First off I found that people needed knowledge. Knowledge in numbers yes. But they also needed the knowledge to trust the correlation between what they did each day and the numbers. Staff did not believe that they could impact the business. That there jobs did not have the influence on the bottom line. That there job had less of an impact than I wanted! This had to change.
Why bother with all of this? Culturally led business’s rock- they outperform other companies!  And for my business “intrapreneurship” was a key way to give my staff the knowledge, confidence and information to really serve and wow their customers and help their peers. Never heard of intrapreneurial? I have a simple goal really; I want employees to have an ownership mindset in the business without the financial risk.
I have had mixed success with the concept. Yet I always stick with it. It is something I will never stop believing in. And nothing makes me more disappointed in a leader who won’t share. The reasons? I think I have heard them all. The staff will be afraid. The staff can’t handle it. The team can’t do anything about the results. Their role has no influence! Hogwash. Only if you want it that way.
Here is what I know:

  1. Staff needs to know the truth. They deserve it. If you create this environment know that if you stop sharing it can reduce trust.
  2. Some will count paperclips rather than spend. This creates an ownership mentality. All will look to spend a dollr effectively.
  3. It is confusing at first. Do we focus on top line or bottom line? You need to lead through it.
  4. Consistency is key.
  5. This gives people some say. It gives them a voice. Remember to listen.
  6. Employees want you to make money. It is ok if your business is a success.
  7. Cash flow is the hardest to grasp.
  8. Accounts receivable is a great place to begin.
  9. Knowledge is empowering. The implications on customer pricing, on resolving customer disputes, on the business are powerful.
  10. Force to staff to collaborate. A Key customer say, “don’t drill below the water line.” In business this means a little knowledge is dangerous. We still need to know the impact of our decisions.  That we are accountable for the decisions we make. Ask for help!

Thinking of rolling out open book concepts? Have your own stories to share? I have heard from so many people by email or by phone. Please feel free to post or attach your ideas!
Until the next blog, Happy Thanksgiving to all! Count your blessings. And teach others to do the same.

The Recession was the Earthquake…

November 14th, 2009

The business marketplace is alive and interconnected like the ecosystem around us. When demand drops in business it has a ripple effect on all of us. Business is forced to become more efficient or do without. Same for the consumer. The recession is much more than a ripple, it is a large tremor. In fact, it is the earthquake deep below the sea. What comes next after a real earthquake in the ocean? A Tsunami is sure to follow.  As if the “earthquake” in business is not bad enough. I am certain there is little new to say beyond that it has had a profound impact on all of us. Living it means so much more than words. Not that it will be easy again.  Yet we have this belief that if we can just get through it- there will be less competition and more opportunity. And most of us would like to believe the the worst is behind us. Well perhaps. With every action there is a reaction! And with most underwater earthquakes there is a tsunami.
So what is the business Tsunami? Look around. Employees have changed. Those that took risks won’t anymore. Their spouse lost their job and its hard to speak up for fear that you might be next. Those that were loyal, can no longer afford to be. Business can’t be loyal to them right? Time for all to officially manager their own careers. Turnover is low for you right now? Not for long. Their are two years of employees that made the decision to stay because they felt lucky to still have a job! Yet they are starting to sense that they can look for greener grass. Not for money mind you. Rather to forget. It is easier to walk away from tough times when you can than it is stay and fight. Common sense and basic instincts of fight or flight. No ones fault. In fact, just understand it.
Employees stop wanting to make decisions? Looking to leadership to make the tough call? These are tough times, however, the front lines talk to your customer everyday and now they want to just do their jobs?  Now is the time to teach, to support, to remind all that is it is ok to risk. That not risking is a sure way to delay any hope of a turnaround.
The recession has changed the workforce in many indelible ways. Yes recessions end. Yes we will someday look back at this time as a distant memory. In the meantime we must live with the tidal wave of change that is just beginning. Are you feeling it? Do you see it? Do you disagree? I think I am looking for a fight on this topic. Be prepared. This is time to plan for the unexpected. And to expect surprises!

The Value of Being Authentic as a Leader!

November 12th, 2009

Authentic by definition is conforming to fact and therefore worthy of trust, reliance, or belief. For a leader to be authentic they must understand the power and responsibility that comes with it. Business can get tough. Difficult decisions get made. Choices. Survival or not. Along the way authenticity gets challenged. What do you do about it. Live with it. Feedback will happen. We cannot satisfy everyone. It is not healthy nor desirable. Be direct, be honest. Share everything. Be authentic in as many interactions as possible. Why not every time? Because we are human and imperfect. However be the better person and learn to apologize. As my Father, a pretty famous leader himself would say, “Bless and release. Life is too short to hold a grudge.”

Leaders are flawed when at their best anyway. No one likes it perfect. It is too plastic. We don’t trust it. It appears to be something we can’t believe is real. I am not suggesting that we plan to make mistakes or show our vulnerability. Most of us just need to be ourselves and use the situations we create!  Again, mistakes and challenges abound. Just pay attention to your day or week. Plenty of fodder to pick from.

An associate Heather referred me to a great article article that discussed a talk George Washington gave in March of 1783 to the Continental Army, after his speech. Dozens of officers representing every company in the army met in a log hut to vote on overthrowing the Continental Congress. After his speech, it was reported that many officers were left unconvinced. Then, George Washington pulled out a letter from a member of the congress, and as he read, he began to lose his confidence. He looked at his troops and asked softly and apologetically if they would bear with him, as his eyesight was failing from the war. He put on his “spectacles”, and continued.

It reported that the officers were “electrified”. This was their commander and leader, who had kept the army going while others continually told him it was a losing battle, and he was asking them to bear with him with his failing eyesight. They saw him for the first time as a human being, and they voted to continue support to the Congress.

“Maj. Samuel Shaw, who was present, wrote in his journal, “There was something so natural, so unaffected in this appeal as rendered it superior to the most studied oratory. It forced its way to the heart, and you might see sensibility moisten every eye.”

Most employees start a job because they need one. Salary, benefits, even interesting work matter. Many “wake up” to the incredible possibilities that are possible for themselves and their organization. And it is usually a leader that shows them and brings to life the purpose. The future. The notion that anything is possible. However, we stay and fight when times are tough. We dig in and make it happen. We believe in the cause when the leaders are flawed, human and willing to put it out there.

Tough for all of us to be George. Have you been authentic and wonderfully flawed today?

Don’t believe me? Check out my story here.

The “New” New Reality of the Workplace

October 29th, 2009

Today we face unprecedented marketplace challenges for our business and our careers. The economy takes one step forward and one backward almost daily. How to deal with the uncertainty of this as leaders? Well for one, being a student of change is critical to all of us today. We have a choice every day. Are you the victim? I lost my job and it is their fault! Or my sales are down and there is nothing I can do about it! Or will you learn to embrace change; maybe even relish in exploiting it. Yes taking full advantage of it. There is on old proverb,” Now that the barn is down I can see the moon.” In action there is always something to take advantage of. To use to your advantage.
There is something to be said to being a student of change and knowing the phases of it:

  1. Blame. It is not your fault at all.
  2. Acceptance. It has happened and there is nothing I can do about it.
  3. Embrace it. I know it is a way of life and I am willing get on board.
  4. Exploit it. I intend to make the change itself. I am going to take advantage of change around me and use it for good. To make improvements.

As a leader this has a real impact on how we handle the day to day. We are in the era now of relatively limited growth markets and where demand is quite limited. This has a tremendous impact on our approach to business and the environment we create. What should we be thinking about? I may have more questions than answers.

  1. How do we rethink careers paths in an environment of limited growth?
  2. How do we make the right investments in our business that actually get a return?
  3. How does your business model transition to this new era and make money?
  4. Are you actively involving employees in your business?  Gathering their ideas as they talk to customers?
  5. Are you willing to reinvent your leadership persona?

As a leader in an entrepreneurial business over the last 20 or so years I have seen leadership success and setback. The common denominator is a willingness to embrace change that is rooted in good instincts and hard work to gather information as you make strategic directional changes to the business. Nothing stays the same. Leaders must be willing to shed legacy thinking and be willing to cannibalize their own success and know that destruction is part of the process of business success!

The Leadership Puppet Master

October 11th, 2009

Leadership is so complicated because we make it so. We read how famous leaders did it. We model ourselves after our boss. We mimic the actions of our peer group and our leaders at work. Yet being one is different than imitating others. To stand alone as a leader is hard. And the way to do it even more challenging. My mentor explained to me years ago that the mark of great leadership is when we help our employees close the gap between how they are performing and what they are actually capable of. This is not necessarily by sending staff to training or by words alone. In many cases it is driven by a corporate culture that encourages experimentation. That likes some kind of risk taking when it benefits the customer. 
Most businesses today use the wrong motivator. We have all seen the surveys, leaders think that money and benefits rank highest for employees in terms of need/want. And perhaps today during the recession we are experiencing a narrow window of time where this is what people have their eye on. However, the rebound will come slowly. And all of us will forget eventually. And it may not be an era of free agency like the mid-90’s or of organized labor in the mid 1900’s. However, eventually all of us will want to be “actualized” at work again. We will want our salaries to rise, for a bonus to be possible, for career paths to be made clear again. And we will forget about how we have needed to make sacrifices and to be conservative at work, at home and in our communities to get by.
So what is the right motivator? It is not contests or short term things for long. They work for short bursts alone. These short term tricks of leadership are like the Puppet Master manipulating from above.  The employees are the puppet, they do what they are told, they follow along. Then one day it stops working. And on to the next contest right? Wrong. The best leaders lead without strings. They create an environment where others can move freely and trust. Where folks are encouraged to think about and explore what they are capable of. Think of it this way, in most companies trust is earned. You start on your first day with an empty bucket. And everyday through your actions, and performance a little trust goes in. Why not fill the bucket to the top on day one? The trust is there for the employee to cherish and to build immediately on. It is the this confidence and trust that help your employees close the gap.
To lead without strings you must create an environment of accountability. Where accountability comes from within. It comes from the team, not top down.

    To lead without strings you must allow for failure. Do you celebrate it and learn from it?
    To lead without strings you must be vulnerable as a leader.  Do you share enough with your team or is there a gap?
    To lead without strings you must be willing to admit that you are wrong.  Is your leadership persona capable of handling it?
    To lead without strings you must listen.
    To lead without strings you must give away your authority.
    To lead without strings you should help dream.  Dream about what they want and what they are capable of.  You must raise the bar and watch people achieve it.

This is a no strings zone!

Rolling up your sleeves as a leader!

October 8th, 2009

When was the last time you led by doing, by making something happen yourself? I know we are taught to delegate. To encourage others to grow and to develop new skills. Create more “leverage” by getting others to do more than you can do yourself. In many ways this is the basis for any business. But how many times have you worked for a leader who is all advice and no action? I know a few. They talk a good game. In fact they talk a great game; because that is all there is to their game. The talk is easy and full of big words and it sounds good. Until you try and take it back and implement it, what did they actually say? I bet if you think about it, you know this person where you work too.
Leading by doing means helping to keep a new business deal alive by staying close to it. By listening and watching people do their work. It is our job to eliminate barriers to their success. To look to areas where we can improve the business. It means looking for ways that customer service might be slipping, or where an employee might need a kind word or strong push.  
What do you see when you look? My father owns a few restaurants locally, Kid Shelleen’s and Klondike Kates. They are neighborhood landmarks. A college town meeting place for alumni and students. And the neighborhood pub. His leaders are taught in the business to start at the front door and look at the business with different eyes. What could be more Outside-In® (customer oriented)? Is there anything that could be done better to improve the customer experience? For the restaurant manager it means is the floor clean. Are menus wiped down and in the right spot. Are any customers trying to make frantic eye contact with a server. This list goes on and on. What is the equivalent for your business? Can you stand at your store front and see what needs improvement?
Truth be told I have been there myself. I have had employees work for me who would seek “translation services” from others in the company after leaving a long meeting with me. Nothing is  more embarrassing in the world as a leader than thinking you have had real impact and then finding out in fact you made things worse! We may only get 15 minutes to really energize and assist someone, and frankly that should be the goal. If I get 15 minutes a week to have a really incredible impact that carries an employee to the next week or next session, then that had better be the outcome. BUT, often times it is not. 
Not that the ability to talk is not important for a leader. Leaders must “encourage the heart” for staff. They can do this by defining  a business’s purpose. They create the future vision for the business.  They can bring to life the “Why” for the reason the business actually exists. This is where the ability to communicate can have the right impact on a company. Regular storytelling makes sense here.
How can roll up your sleeves and have real leadership impact?

  • Shut up and Listen. Make sure you know the real problem.
  • Get up from behind your desk and do it yourself. Lead by example.
  • Focus on the details. Don’t micromanage, rather get closer to the business.
  • Get closer to your business. Get off your pedestal and dig in to the work.
  • Ask questions and meet with staff with consistency  and also when they least expect it.
  • Teach others to plan their day and maximize what they achieve.

This list is certainly not all inclusive, and I would love your thoughts on how a leader can rollup their sleeves and make something happen in their business! What do you see when you stand at your store front and roll up your sleeves?

“No excuses” is tough to live with in a recession

September 30th, 2009

No excuses is an important part of my belief system as a leader. Employees don’t want to hear them, and deserve better. As leaders we don’t want them, right? We don’t want to hear them from vendors. It is the worst thing to hear when you are on the phone and someone else blames another. I have spent a life time living and learning that excuses sound like defending. And defending it just not useful in any situation.  It drives a wedge right down the middle of the situation.
How wonderful is to hear no excuses? The best thing in the world. When my son or daughter actually listens when we ask them to pick up their towel off the bathroom floor without hearing, “it is not mine”,  that is a good thing. In business,  no excuses is a rare commodity.  It requires each of us to be humble. We might need to accept responsibility for something that is not fully ours. We might want to simply say “I can help you”. We need to learn it is ok to be wrong and to admit it. Think of the last time that you saw a press conference on TV and someone made excuses! All we want to say is if they had simply made “no excuses” and took responsibility, the whole thing would go away very quickly and the media would have very little to talk about! 
So as a leader make no excuses, and try on the following today in your workplace:

    – Don’t campaign for the job you have. Everyone knows you have it. No one wants to hear about how hard things are.
    – Try to practice the advice your mother shared. ” If you have nothing nice to say than keep it to yourself”. Employees and customers have enough to think about without our problems.
    – Listen to the great words of Dale Carnegie. “Be thankful for the problems of your job. They provide about half your income. Because of it were not for the things that go wrong, the difficult people you have to deal with and the problems and unpleasantness of your working day, someone could be found to handle your job for half of what you are being paid…”

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