Perception vs Reality

Many business owners are justifiably proud of their products or services and invest great amounts of effort and time in them, often with a program of enhancements and improvements.

Fewer of them consistently check that what they are providing is a good match to the customer’s requirement.

“Build it and they will come” is a mantra often quoted when people analyse early-stage businesses  where a product or service is created without thorough market testing and analysis and is often regarded as a red flag by potential investors.

Building a product or service without market research is not always a failure – famously Henry Ford created the Model-T in the belief that if he had asked what people wanted, the answer would have been a faster horse. In a similar vein you could look at the Iphone creating the market for smartphones.

For the rest of us it really does not matter what you think of the quality of your product or service. What matters is what the market thinks.

If you are not checking the market perception you could be the next Steve Jobs or Henry Ford but it is more likely you are misdirecting your efforts!

Managing a remote team

The pandemic and government restrictions on the number of people that can get together in one space have accelerated a shift in working patterns that is not likely to be reversed. 

As a manager or leader, you may want your team to come to the office full time – but some of them won’t want to and you will be managing them as they work from home (or another remote location)

If you try to enforce office attendance, as some high profile business leaders have suggested, you may lose some of your team and you will certainly reduce the number of candidates available for new positions. A quick glance at most job adverts will show that options for “on site, hybrid,remote” are used as filters by the candidates.

You are going to have to manage your team for remote working, but how – and what’s the difference?

I’m a believer in “Management by Wandering Around” (MBWA) as reported by Tom Peters (In search of Excellence” where you as a manager/leader take time to engage with your team at their workspaces – you have conversations around the daily tasks and these can spark creativity and keep you, as the leader, abreast of things.

From the team member’s perspective, you are showing interest in them and in their job – you are building a relationship with them that will increase their engagement with the business.

MBWA can’t work when your team isn’t in the office, but you can adapt and employ similar principles with a remote team.

Some 30 years ago, I was based in Hong Kong with teams across Asia Pacific from Seoul to Perth by way of Beijing, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and Sydney, Melbourne & Brisbane! 

I was a frequent visitor to the offices but I wasn’t able to follow the MBWA principles just on those visits. 

I showed an interest by scheduling one on one time with each team leader – no fixed agenda, just an opportunity to catch up and for them to share their latest triumphs, challenges and problems. Quite a few conversations included their family lives or what was going on with my family.

This works if it is really clear to the team member what the purpose of their job is – what the required outcome is, what success looks like and how it is going to affect the rest of the team.

These calls were in addition to calls involving the rest of the team – group meetings – that carry on as usual, with an agenda and on a more formal basis.

So the key to managing a remote team – for me – is to show that you are interested in the person and engage with them.  Perhaps “The Great Resignation” won’t affect you business as much if you follow this principle.

Why should you think about adding a non-exec director to your business

Many owner managed businesses have managed perfectly well for many years without a non-exec director or any other external advisor but that doesn’t mean they don’t need/want or could benefit from that influence.

If you’ve built your team over the years and they are working well together, is there an element of group-think creeping in?

The tendency is to say “this works, so we will keep doing it” but that doesn’t take into account any changes to the market or the wider economy. Far better to be predicting change and preparing for it rather than seeing change impact your business and having to react to it.

The first benefit of a non-exec is having an outsider look at your business and compare what you are doing to other businesses. They may not be in the same markets or even the same sectors but in many respects all businesses are similar. That external view may highlight strengths that you had not recognised or valued or even see opportunities you have overlooked. Of course, it is very likely that weaknesses and threats will be exposed as well.

The initial impact of a non exec will be to identify with the exec team some form of improvement in the business so the secondary impact will be in assisting the exec team to implement the necessary changes. If there are no improvements to be made yours will be an exceptional business!

After this initial impact, the non-exec role can be split into several elements:

Coach – helping team members be the best they can be

Mentor – bringing extensive knowledge and past experience to implement improvements

Business Friend – a sounding board for when it all get too much

Governance – advising and directing where necessary on corporate governance

Could your business benefit? Drop me an email or give me a call to discuss.

What does the future hold for us?

There is no “us”. Different economies will progress at different rates, different industries will face different challenges and have different outcomes. Some will suffer from long lasting effects of Covid and others will benefit.

Here is what I can see for now in the UK.

The losers

Hospitality – casual dining, pubs, bars, and similar businesses will see a slow recovery from a very low base. There will be an initial burst of activity as restrictions are eased but I wonder if the consumer who has adapted to having extra cash at the end of the month will return to spending it all on the weekend. Perhaps not.

Business Hotels will see significantly increased business as restrictions are eased but video conferencing and home working are here to stay – it is just a question of degree.

City Centres will recover some of their activity, but a lot will never return to the heights of yesteryear. Convenience retail – the coffee shops and sandwich bars – will be affected.

Large scale conferences and exhibitions may never return. Virtual conferencing is improving the customer experience day by day and all generations are becoming familiar with video conferencing facilities. Will 3D and immersive technologies finally break out of the gaming space? Probably. Exhibitions that allow the customer to “touch and feel” the products will continue but with greatly reduced footfall.

The middle ground

There will be many businesses for whom the current climate and in particular the Covid crisis has been an inconvenience. Manufacturing business, construction, infrastructure installation have all continued – albeit at reduced activity levels – so that this is a “blip” in their progress.

The winners

Most on-line businesses will be winners as will the industries that support virtual business.

The communications sector – especially video conferencing and network infrastructure – will thrive, especially as 5G is rolled out.

On-line retail with service levels that match or exceed Amazon

Business that support home based activities – food delivery, cooking ingredients, hobby equipment delivered to your home, virtual exercise/keep fit classes – will all do well.

Delivery services supporting on-line retail

Thinking about these trends may guide your strategy. Perhaps your marketing changes – are you ready for on-line only trade shows? I am sure they are coming!

Home working and part time attendance in the office is here to stay. How do you manage those remote workers – and how do you look after them? Most importantly, how do you integrate new employees to a virtual team, how do you train them?

What sector are you in and how do you see the future? Let me know in the comments below

You will catch more flies with honey than vinegar – but be careful!

You may have heard the truism, ‘You catch more flies with honey than vinegar’ and many of us will have experienced the delights(!) of working with or for someone who just doesn’t get it. They think the way to motivate people is to use a larger stick!

That style of management may have worked once upon a time, but for many in this day and age it is very unproductive. It may even lead to a run-in with the HR department.

That kind of conduct is becoming even more of an issue with younger members of staff, as many more appropriately skilled advisers than I could tell you.

At the other end of the scale, the ‘ask rather than tell’ style of management fits very well with the style expected by these younger people.

But there is a danger with this style. It can be misinterpreted either accidentally or deliberately as a sign of weakness.

There are some who will decide to ignore the ‘request’ you’ve made, knowing full well that it’s a command in disguise. They are testing to see if you are serious – do you really mean it? – or is it just a polite request.

Let me illustrate this. I’m running an engineering business these days and, as part of our quality requirements and our health & safety policy, all drinks in the workshop and assembly areas must be consumed in non-spill containers. We provide suitable containers to all members of staff, of course.

A couple of the older hands have decided that they prefer to drink tea from their own favourite mugs. However, these mugs are not spill-proof – and covering the steaming tea with a piece of paper or card (!) doesn’t comply with company requirements.

When challenged on this infringement, the response is something along the lines of, ‘I’ve been doing this for 40 years’.

The polite request hasn’t worked. I could go as far as instigating disciplinary action – this is a clear breach of company policy – but these guys have worked for the company for a very long time and are also very good at their skilled manual jobs.

My preferred route in this situation is to offer a little bit of sarcasm. There’s a cartoon going up in the canteen showing a mug of tea with a paper lid over it and a message beneath it saying, ‘This isn’t good enough’.

What’s the use of knowing how to find true north?

Over the years, as we live, we also learn. We hear about events from news announcements, from friends and acquaintances and even, occasionally, from someone’s marketing material. All these sources of information add to our store of knowledge. 

Much of that knowledge won’t be relevant to your situation and you will unconsciously file it away. Memory experts tell us that we don’t forget things – we are just not very good at recalling them. 

Sometimes you are reminded of information you first gathered years ago – but at that time you didn’t have a use for it. 

Many years ago, I worked with a client who was using a knowledge transfer partnership (KTP) project to enhance the sum of knowledge in his business. I hadn’t heard about knowledge transfer partnerships, so I took the time to find out about them. I didn’t have a use for that piece of knowledge for decades. 

More recently, research and development tax credits have become very popular. In my present role,  I receive two or three calls or emails per week from people offering to help with them. We’re already claiming – and have done so for years. I have also helped many other clients lodge successful claims. 

I was reminded of the KTP scheme by a notification on LinkedIn a few weeks ago. It wasn’t an explanation of the scheme, just a news item about one of my connections. That triggered something in my memory and I realised we could probably use the scheme to solve a problem. We’re already in the process of selecting a university partner and the reaction to our outline of the project has been very positive. 

So, what do you have locked away in your memory vault that could help you with a challenge you are facing today? 

What do your team know – but it’s locked away in their memories or they have not volunteered the information? 

What are the challenges you need to solve – and does everyone know what they are? 

Perhaps one day you’ll be lost in the wilderness – then you will want to know how to find true north. 

How do you solve a problem?

Whatever business you’re in, the chances are something will go wrong sooner or later – or not go quite as well as it could – so you need to fix it.

Many people implement a potential solution without giving it enough consideration or analysis, investing time and effort into a hastily devised solution.

Sometimes they will be right, but often they are wrong, and the time and effort are wasted.

Sometimes that inappropriate solution has just made the situation worse – the problem has become more complicated.

The first step is to identify the problem. That sounds obvious, but you would be amazed how much effort is wasted tracking down a problem that, in the end, is based on someone’s opinion but not borne out by the facts!

A classic example is: ‘The internet is slow today’.

The quick resolution of this is to: ‘Reboot the hub’.

Which has disturbed everyone in the business and caused some delays – maybe only for a few minutes, but still a disturbance.

What should and could be different?

Using this same example, run a speed test on the PC in question. Run a speed test on other PCs and if you notice a marked difference between the first PC and the rest, you have eliminated the hub as the cause.

That’s the key word in problem solving – ‘eliminate’.

When considering a problem, take the time to analyse all the possible causes and then proceed to eliminate them one by one.

Advance methodically by selecting those causes you think are most likely and eliminate them first. And if the first solution won’t solve the problem, you know what the original situation was and can come up with other possible causes to investigate.

Not everyone wants to be a leader

In any organisation there are more junior staff than senior. A sports team has one captain, a ship has just one captain – but they aren’t the only people on the field or on board.

There are many people in business who aren’t leaders. There are some who would like to be leaders and, of those, some have the ability to be leaders.

There are many other people – the majority – who don’t wish to be leaders and are quite happy doing day-to-day jobs.

Those who are happy doing day-to-day jobs want someone to lead them. A large part of their motivation is going to be provided by their leader, so the easiest way to lose these staff is to deliver weak or second-rate management.

Those who would like to be leaders should be given opportunities to lead, together with the help, support and guidance they’ll need to enable them to be successful. Asking someone to lead a team without supporting them is likely to lead to failure – and you risk losing the team leader as well as some of the team members!

The people who are the most difficult to manage, motivate and retain are those who would like to be leaders but who, for one reason or another, aren’t suited to being leaders. Sometimes (in truth quite often) it’s a question of individual maturity; sometimes it’s a question of priorities; and sometimes it’s simply a question of needs and wants.

It could well be that a particular individual thinks they want to be a leader but, actually, their passion and motivation lie elsewhere – perhaps in the deployment of their technical skills.

It could also be that the ‘power behind the throne’ at home believes a particular individual should be a leader. That’s not really what the individual wants, but to admit this would mean having a disagreement with their partner!

In order to motivate and retain such would-be leaders, the issue – not the individual – needs to be confronted during the review and appraisal process. People with leadership ambitions need help to understand what really matters to them. If necessary, you need to work with them, identifying areas for further development that will help them become leaders.

The worst you can do is to ignore such potential problems, in the vague hope that they will just go away.

Conflicts of interest

Everyone looks to the leader in the business and measures his or her performance.  They are watching and waiting for signs, whether good or bad. They aren’t just waiting for the leader to fail, but they do want their leader to show who they really are – and demonstrate success.

As the leader, everything you do is being closely observed.

What the team observes, and how they interpret what they see, will shape your reputation.

Perception is reality.

It doesn’t matter what you think – what matters is how your team perceives you.

One situation where this can really come back to bite you is when there’s a perceived conflict of interest.

This could relate to a preferred supplier – someone you get on with really well – where the team simply sees poor performance. Not only does that supplier get a bad reputation (they only got the job because of their friendship with you) but so do you – you’re giving work to your mates.

It could be that there’s someone you like in the business and you have a friendship with them. The word will spread – you can’t keep that secret – and the rest of the team may think you’re giving your friend special treatment.

In family-owned businesses, it could be that a family member has been taken on. Are they there because they’re good at their job, or just because they’re a family member?

  • You can’t help having friends in the business.
  • It may make sense to employ a family member.
  • You might form a friendship with that supplier.

So what can you do?  The solution is to be transparent.

You can’t help the perception people have of you, but the more transparent you are the better things will be.

If it’s an employee who is your friend, perhaps have them report to a different manager.

If you’re going to employ a family member, make it abundantly clear to the rest of the team that this employee is there because he or she is a family member! That way, expectations will be low, but the results may surprise everyone in the team.

Manager or doer?

All of us start our business lives as doers. We’re hired to complete a set of tasks which, when added together, form a job. When we’re advertising for a position, we usually write a job description and a job advert listing the tasks for which the person doing that job will be responsible. That’s the ‘doer’ end of the scale.

However, if a doer is promoted to take on the role of a team leader (for example), there are a number of things to be aware of –

  • The first is very common. You promote a doer to a managerial position because they are good at ‘doing’, but they aren’t successful in the new role. This scenario was set out in the classic management book, The Peter Principle. The effect on the business is that you lose a good doer and get a poor manager
  • When you’re making such a promotion, consider first the personality and characteristics of the doer. The right person for promotion may not be the best doer
  • The next point to consider is how you will support your newly promoted person. You don’t really expect them to know intuitively what to do – how to be a manager rather than a doer, do you? They’ll require clear objectives, guidance, coaching and possibly some management training
  • The last point is related to personality. When someone is promoted, they’re no longer ‘one of the boys and girls’, instead, now they’re the boss. Taking that step up can be difficult, not only for the newly promoted person, but also for those they supervise

The further you move up the ladder in business, the less time you’ll have for doing and the more time you must spend managing.

But what exactly is ‘managing’?

When I write a job description I start with the answer to the question, ‘What is the purpose of this role?’  A well-defined role will have clear objectives and criteria by which they can be measured.

A manager’s role is no different – it will have clear objectives and criteria by which they can be measured. The difference with the manager’s role lies in how those objectives are to be achieved.  The manager is responsible for the objectives but achieves them through the efforts of others.  Coordinating others and enabling them to carry out their roles successfully is a job – it’s called management.