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

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.

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.

Is process the enemy of creativity?

I have been told more times than I care to remember that process inhibits creativity and we should just ‘let things flow’ so that creative ideas are not short-lived – or even stillborn.

Well-planned processes take into account all the ripple effects. Making a change in a business is like throwing a rock into a series of interlinked ponds. You might be able to see where the ripples end in the first pond, but what about the splash that agitates the next pond and creates ripples there?

The phrase that comes to mind is –

The law of unintended consequences

Well-structured processes and procedures are designed to take to take care of all these side effects so that the organisation remains able to function efficiently.

Organisations with poor or non-existent processes end up re-inventing the wheel. They waste time and effort working out how to do things scratch when they have been done before.

But there may be an element of truth in the assertion that process inhibits creativity. I have come across systems and procedures which are so rigid and inflexible that nothing ever gets changed. It’s just too much like hard work to introduce a new idea!

For me, that’s a good reason to change the process. It’s not a good reason to bypass the process or take shortcuts, which is what my creative colleagues often seem to want to do!

Getting a new idea up and running in an organisation will always mean there are going to be hurdles or barriers to be overcome. For example, it might be that you are required to have a fully costed budget, or perhaps you need to be championed by someone higher up in the organisation.

Creativity is stifled when those hurdles are set too high, too soon. If too many approvals are required early on, it’s much easier to say ‘no’ and kill the project.

Why not take a leaf out of Metro Bank’s book? They have a rule that it takes two managers to say ‘no’ to a customer, but only one to say ‘yes’.

That’s a process, by the way, and I don’t see it inhibiting creativity!

Are you proactive or reactive?

Have you noticed how busy everyone is?

When you walk down the street or sit somewhere for a coffee, look around, and you’ll see most people engaged with their devices. Mobile phones and tablets are wonderful tools that keep us in touch with what’s happening in the world, and with our contacts nearer home.

We’re all busy. When you’re trying to get someone’s attention with an email or another piece of marketing material, the gurus will tell you that you have to try seven or more times before you should expect a result.

If you follow Twitter, or you’ve tried to do so, the sheer volume of comment can be overwhelming, and the same can be said of Facebook. Keeping up to date with the minutiae of your friends’ lives would leave you with no time to do anything else!

Even if you don’t use social media, it’s really easy to spend all day just reading and responding to emails.

The danger with this is that you are only ever reacting to inbound information – or noise – and not being proactive and moving towards your objective.
You do have an objective for today, don’t you?That sounds like such a big thing. The objective. It’s rather a grandiose term and perhaps a little intimidating, isn’t it?

Let me simplify it.

At the start of each day, ask yourself: “What am I going to achieve today?’

How you answer this will set your objective for the day. It’s not complicated, but it is important – important enough to write down and remember it.

When you’re taking a break – perhaps when you go to get a coffee, or perhaps at lunch, take a look at the objective and measure how much progress you’ve made towards it.

Repeat the exercise at the end of the day.

You’ll be amazed at how much more you get done when you stick to the task you’ve set yourself!

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.