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.

Why don’t you do more business overseas?

Strange as it may seem, people make most decisions based upon emotion rather than facts.

Sales training courses emphasize the need to engage with the customer emotionally, using the Know, Like and Trust principle.  Anyone who has bought a house will recognize it’s an emotional purchase. When you’re deciding whether to buy a property, there may and should be some filtering of the options based on facts – for example, distance to the station, school catchment areas etc. – but, at the end of the day, the decision will be emotional.

The same is true for other purchases. Cars are bought based on emotional decisions and car manufacturers spend fortunes promoting their brands rather than the mechanical features. 

Do you remember the Janis Joplin song ‘Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes-Benz’? That wasn’t an advertisement, but it shows the power of the brand.

In your business, however, emotional decisions can lead you astray. I’ve seen talented individuals leave businesses as a result of disagreements with their managers, when in fact these talented individuals were suggesting business improvements. These improvements were taken as criticism of the managers, who reacted emotionally instead of rationally.

It’s emotional reaction that can hold a business back. You don’t take the opportunity to engage that new supplier or explore that uncharted overseas market because you don’t know what might be involved.  When we don’t know what something might involve, the usual reaction is fear – fear of the unknown.

If you add into the mix a whole range of preconceptions and apocryphal stories that abound, especially when it comes to overseas markets, you have a recipe for poor decision-making! You’ll hear any number of horror stories likely to affect your perception of overseas trading opportunities – but you won’t hear very much about the millions of ventures successfully achieved in other markets.

There’s no rational reason to avoid these market opportunities, but you do have to do your research and plan for them. You should focus on gathering as much factual information as possible and proceed slowly, step by step. The success you enjoy in these new areas will be well worthwhile!

The mission comes first

You have a set of tasks to complete, a to-do list that just seems to get longer and longer. And there’s a horde of people waiting to speak to you.

The phone never stops ringing.

The email keeps pinging, demanding your attention.

There’s yet another meeting, just around the corner.

If you’re not careful, you’ll get sucked into day-to-day activities.

Add a few big projects to the list – getting ready for that exhibition, developing that new product line, working on a new marketing campaign – and, before you know it, you’ll be wondering where the years have gone!

It’s easy to lose sight of the overall objective of the business.

It’s easy to spend time looking at all the mundane things that cross your desk. It’s even easier to get caught up with projects that are exciting and demanding.

If this is what’s happening to you, what’s happening to the people who work for you and with you? Their situation will be even worse.

I’ve often used the simple question ‘Why?’ when considering different activities in a business. Why are we having this meeting? Why are you doing that? Why are we going to this exhibition?

Controversially, I’ve also been known to ask, ‘Why does this job exist?’

Mostly, the answers can be summarised as, ‘We’ve always done it that way’.

If you can make time to ask the questions and dig through the initial, rather facile answers, you then need to make time to absorb the real answer.

You may find that individuals have forgotten the real answer. They’ve forgotten the real mission of the company.

It’s worth taking a step back to remind everyone why the business exists: What’s our purpose? What’s our mission?  Then make sure every activity is directed towards the fulfilment of that mission.

You’re only as strong as the weakest link

There’s a TV game show called The Weakest Link, in which the contestants have to answer questions in teams. Each successive correct answer adds to the prize money. An incorrect answer wipes out all the prize money that hasn’t been ‘banked’, and the person answering incorrectly becomes ‘the Weakest Link’.

The concept that you are only as strong as the weakest link is highly applicable to businesses of all shapes and sizes. Look at these examples –

  • A business that’s brilliant at marketing, but no good at selling, will be held back by that weakness
  • A business that’s brilliant at selling, but no good at marketing, will have fewer opportunities to sell
  • A business that’s deficient when it comes to execution or operations might be excellent at selling – but will be held back by its deficiency

The temptation is to focus on the things you’re good at. Doing that generates a sense of satisfaction, a comforting glow, because a job was well done or a process completed efficiently.

The problem with this approach is that you’re not addressing the weakness. Indeed, you may even make it more obvious. Just imagine – you are poor at delivery and your sales team generate another raft of orders. You’ve just created another opportunity to disappoint your customers and prospects.

Your focus should, of course, be on the weakness. But that’s more difficult to do.  You may be aware that the weak area isn’t working well, but you may not know how to fix it. Sometimes you might not even know where to start fixing it.

If that’s the case, it may be time to get external assistance. You could get help from business friends or perhaps from a peer group.  You might even consider getting advice from an external advisor, but they’d need a clear brief.

Take time to recognise the weakness in your business. Invest time and energy to bring this area up to the same standard as other areas of your business, already performing to high standards. You’ll be amazed at the difference that will make.

Deadlines are not optional

A word that’s often misused by businesses is ‘deadline’.

The dictionary definitions of a deadline are:

1) A line drawn within or around a prison that a prisoner passes at the risk of being shot

2 a) A date or time before which something must be done

2 b) The time after which copy is not accepted for a particular issue of a publication

Definition 2 (a) ‘A date or time before which something must be done’ is the one that’s applicable to business (unless you are a publisher, in which case 2 (b) would also apply).

I have often observed that people’s attitude towards deadlines is such that they overlook the word ‘must’, as detailed in the dictionary definition. The ‘deadline’ is treated as a target date, with few or no consequences being imposed for missing that target.

Incidentally, I would not remotely suggest that the consequence for missing a deadline, or overstepping one, should be shooting someone – although I must confess, I have been tempted!

If there are no consequences for missing a deadline, it’s very likely that people will develop an attitude indicating that deadlines don’t matter or are unimportant at best. So shipment dates are missed and projects are delayed. One of the oldest adages says, ‘Time is Money’. And time wasted is money wasted.

Deadlines attaching to projects are particularly important. Projects are often multi-stage, with phases that rely upon the results or output from the previous stage. If you miss the deadline for one stage, everything after that stage will also be delayed.

Changing people’s attitude towards deadlines is vitally important. This will take time but involves only two steps.

The first step is to identify who owns the project or process: who has ultimate responsibility for the deadline?

However, there are many situations where accountability isn’t clear – it may be shared, with no single manager owning the process. This is messy and can lead to a blame culture in which ‘It’s someone else’s fault’ is the underlying theme. Someone has to take ownership. They are then empowered to hold the other contributors to account.

The second step is to hold the owner to account. That doesn’t mean a public roasting is required.  Just maintain the emphasis on the deadline.