Category Archives: Communications

Your Black Labrador

oscarexposed

Oscar

Oscar, my black lab, looks a little different from most black labs. His legs are shorter, his fur is shorter, and his head is smaller – not to mention his entire body. But he’s a black lab because, where we have recently moved, everybody has a big dog, and many are black labs. So, he needs to be a black lab.

When we hike a trail with his new best friend, Delmar (who looks a lot closer to a black lab than Oscar), Oscar invests himself in the walk almost completely. He wants to keep up with Delmar. His short legs churn at blazing speed (OK, maybe not blazing, but faster than normal), constantly trying to catch up to Delmar. This attempt at speed is in dramatic contrast with a normal Oscar walk which is more of a saunter, a meandering, a sashaying, guided by his nose, and at a pace resembling that of the occasional slug he confronts on our garden path.

Oscar’s metamorphosis when walking with Delmar is not unlike some small businesses. When they get around larger businesses, they develop more of a spring in their step. Large customers, large suppliers, large potential investors, and large member companies in their peer advisory group can cause the business to step it up a notch.

As a result of hanging out with Delmar, Oscar is healthier and his self esteem is elevated. He’ll probably live longer because of his new friend. He dares to try new things (like actually getting close to the creek that runs along one of his favorite hiking trails).

If there’s a downside, it’s the potential for injury as he tries to keep up with the big dogs. He could experience a heart attack, or he could develop the confidence to leap into a fast moving stream that whisks him away prematurely to doggie heaven.

Business lessons? Acquiring large customers or large suppliers or large investors, or joining a business owner peer advisory group with some larger members can be helpful to your business growth, if you’re willing to run faster to make up for your shorter legs. While it’s OK to tell fellow business owners that you are running a $10 million business, even if the best year you’ve ever had was $7.8 million, do not let that bravado lead you into overburdening the business with debt, or seriously overcommitting to large customers.

One of your challenges as CEO is to balance your view of your business against reality. Dreaming of a bigger business can be the beginning of a true metamorphosis. Driving the business considerably faster than its current capabilities allow can lead to a bad ending. The best CEO is a balanced driver.

What Will You Tell the Kids?

“So why did you fire Tricia, Dad?” Trevor knew Tricia’s son, and the story was already circulating at school. Pete didn’t respond immediately. When he did, he immediately felt that his answer was inadequate.

“She just wasn’t up to the job,” he finally said.

“I don’t know what that means” said Trevor as he headed out of the room.

That’s where the conversation ended. But Pete’s rethinking his decision had only just begun.

When you have faced a really tough decision in your business, have you ever considered how you would explain that decision to your kids?

A few CEOs find crucial decision-making relatively easy. Almost nobody finds making good crucial decisions easy.

If you want to not only improve your decision-making, but also improve your mood following a crucial decision, you might try applying “the kids test”. Regardless of the current age of your children, test your tentative decision by thinking through how you would explain the decision to your kids, once they have attained the age of reason (for some that’s about 12, for others, more like 42). Apply it to virtually all your tough business decisions. The circumstances surrounding my opening example drag the son into the conversation in a way that does not normally occur with your business decisions. That’s not important. Try forcing yourself to boil down your explanation of any decision to language that an innocent who does not work in your business would understand.

The reality is that your kids are not likely to ever ask you anything about your business or your career. OK, occasionally one will ask, but only when they think you’re on your deathbed. But that’s not the point. The mental exercise I’m suggesting can be an effective tool for you.

Try it right now. Pick a tough decision you’re in the process of making and implementing. Find a place where nobody except you can hear you, and explain – out loud – why you have made the choice you have made. Critique your own explanation, and do it over until you’re satisfied that your defense of the decision is fundamentally sound.

Let me know how it goes.

Learn from the Presidential Debates

Tis the season for some folly – i.e., the presidential debates have only just begun. Those of us tuned in for some or all of the show are looking for information or entertainment or both. If you run a business, I would suggest that viewing can also offer an education in interpersonal communications.

Just like the general population, some political candidates are naturally outgoing, at ease as the life of any party. Some are naturally thoughtful, not particularly loud but, as with the EF Hutton of old, when they talk, people listen. Others are naturally contentious, reveling in a good fight more than a civil exchange of ideas.

The truth is that many of the voting public want a president who blends all these personality characteristics appropriately, depending on the circumstances. But that’s a discussion for a future blog.

When it comes to debating, each participant must consider how well their natural behavioral tendencies will serve them. They will become a chameleon during the debate if and when they believe something other than their natural approach is required.

So, how is this educational to you?

Watch a few debates. Note which participants seem to be naturally aggressive and which do not. Note who comes across as thoughtful and prepared, and who does not. Compare the candidate who thinks well on their feet and moves smoothly with the ebb and flow of the discussion, with the one who appears to be cautious and a bit awkward when the subject changes.

The contrasts I’m raising are in no way intended to imply that any one trait is preferable to another in a President of the United States. Again, that’s a topic for another day.

But, if you take the opportunity to relate your debate observations to your own behavior in your organization, it should be educational. You’ll recognize more clearly your own style. You’ll recognize that you are more credible and more relaxed and generally more effective when operating within your natural style. (Because you’ll notice that anyone assuming the role of chameleon in the debate – i.e., stretching to be somebody they are not – turns an unattractive shade of green or brown.) You’ll realize that when you feel forced to modify your style significantly, your stress goes up and you become less effective interpersonally. Or worse, you embarrass yourself.

Next time you watch a debate, notice how uncomfortable an aggressive candidate appears to be when they attempt to become thoughtful and low key. Notice how uncomfortable a contemplative candidate becomes when they attempt to respond to confrontation with confrontation. And make a note to self that you are much more authentic when you are able to stick close to your natural style in every business situation.

Long in the Tooth

Sometimes the primary job of the CEO is coachingI’m not all-in anymore. That was the latest expression from a business owner who is pondering his changing role in his business. Other lips have delivered the same message in different code: I’m not sure what my job is anymore or I seem to be focused more on my personal vision than on my business vision.

Business owners almost invariably reach a point where they are confounded about their own role in the business and not sure what to do about it. Occasionally this is an indication that it’s time to sell or give away the business. More often, however, the owner is not interested in retiring just yet – only in finding his or her appropriate role in a business that has evolved over time.

In the great American pastime of baseball, there is a parallel. As an example, Andres Blanco currently plays for the Philadelphia Phillies and is all of 31 years old. In baseball years, he’s getting a little long in the tooth. The Phillies are in a rebuilding year, and Andres is a utility infielder. The future of the team consists of younger infielders who are destined to eventually become starters at second base, shortstop or third base, if they aren’t already playing that role. Blanco plays all three positions well, but in this rebuilding season is playing an even more important role. He’s become a model for the younger players on how to conduct oneself as a major leaguer. He models and advises the younger players on everything from the hard work required for game preparation to handling post-game interviews.

That’s the parallel to the “I’m not all-in anymore” business owner. At some point, the greatest contribution you can make to your own business is to develop the younger talent. It’s to model appropriate behaviors, coach the younger employees who lack experience, and encourage those who are still learning and making mistakes. That often is a full time job for the long-in-the-tooth business owner. But even if it’s only half a job, that’s fine. Do it well, and spend the other 50% on the golf course or fly fishing or drag racing or traveling.

Andres Blanco, the mentor, will likely become a coach when he retires from playing. Coaching baseball, or coaching your younger employees…neither is a bad life.

Paint Your Story

Effective CEOs use verbal and other pictures to persuade

Everyone can “paint”

As CEO, have you ever failed miserably in an attempt to persuade somebody to do something, or to see something through your eyes? Haven’t we all?

I subscribe to Bloomberg Businessweek.  I don’t know how long ago this magazine started including an explanation of the “Cover Trail” in each issue, but I find this feature thought-provoking as well as entertaining.  In the space of a single column, they paint the story of the current issue’s cover design. It is generally funny. More importantly, it’s engaging!

Our business lives are stuffed with uninspired communications. The content may be important, but the delivery is anemic. Sadly, it’s not only true of what we receive, but also of what we deliver (unless you are an exceptional business leader).

Whether you’re convincing your banker to increase your line of credit, or persuading your employees to embrace a new CRM system, there are two approaches that will dramatically improve your chances of success:

  1. Whenever possible, incorporate something visual into your communications
  2. When the form of communication is exclusively verbal, “paint” the story verbally.

The first approach is straightforward.  In your graphics, use photos, illustrations, artwork, and visuals of any type, in preference to words. The same applies for your remarks in a meeting where a whiteboard or flipchart is available.

The second challenge – 100 percent verbal – is more daunting, but equally important.  If you find yourself describing your software development business in techno-speak to a new prospect, chances are they are not going to get it. Instead, force yourself to use phrases like “imagine that it’s payday and your payroll system just crashed”; or “one of my most memorable moments was when my toughest client actually initiated a ‘high five’ with me the day after we went live with his new software package.”

A picture, drawn or described, is often worth much more than a thousand words. It can make the difference between success and failure in persuasion.