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Want What You Have

Attitude is everything in business.Having spent over four decades in the world of business, I find it particularly interesting to observe general philosophical truths playing out in that world of commerce.

I recently bought a copy of a book based simply on its title: I Love Capitalism!  I was not familiar with the story of Ken Langone, the author, and I was ripe for a stout defense of capitalism, in an era where I seldom here much praise for our democratic capitalistic system.

While I enjoyed the stories Ken laid down during the first half of the book, I was concerned this might simply be another “let me tell you how smart and wealthy I am” autobiography. But I kept reading and, although Ken is neither shy nor particularly humble, his stories eventually drove home some valuable life lessons. 

One such lesson concerned a large U.S. company where Ken was a board member, and a horse race at that company among three top executives seeking to become the next CEO. Ken decided to recruit one of the “losers” in that horse race to take the reins of a company whose startup financing Ken had arranged years earlier and where he still sat on the board. Ken’s company, by the way, was producing revenues of $90 billion at the time, so this was a big job for whomever he recruited as CEO. He eventually brought one of the “losers” on as CEO and Ken’s company performed well financially for the next several years. 

The “loser” was very well compensated in the form of both stock options and annual salary. At a time when the Enron and Worldcom scandals were making headlines and the media was shining bright lights on all boardrooms with regard to excessive executive compensation, Ken and the board started looking at creative ways to improve the appearance to the outside world of that generous compensation package. When they attempted to discuss some of those variations with the “loser”, he would have none of it. Ken eventually tumbled to the fact that the “loser” had never gotten over losing. In spite of his hard work and accomplishments at Ken’s company, he could not get past having lost the CEO race at his prior company. In the words of Ken, “He lived in a permanent state of feeling ripped off. Just like a guy who can’t get over being dumped by a girl…” Probably no pay package would have been generous enough for him to put that past behind him. 

I can think of a couple times in my career when I didn’t really want what I had. How about you? Consider the following possibilities.

Maybe, in spite of having great operating people, you decide it’s time to recruit a high powered Chief Operations Officer, and you find the perfect candidate, and you think you have sold that candidate on joining your organization only to be turned down at the eleventh hour. Then you lick your wounds, bemoaning the fact that you’ll never find another perfect candidate, and you totally ignore the long-term, high-performing, loyal operations staff who have helped you build the company.

Or maybe you invest hours and hours pitching a huge potential customer, only to lose to a competitor, and now you’re burning hours in recriminations of what you could have done differently – all this while your present loyal customers are suffering from lack of your attention.

Or maybe you sell your company for enough money that you no longer have to work and you can spend your time and money doing almost anything you want, but, looking in the rearview mirror, you find yourself pining away because you think you should have held out for a higher price.

Can we agree that none of these scenarios is healthy…or even rational?

Strive to want what you have. Attitude is everything.

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Gooch

AutoHoodUp

In the old days you could actually do something under your own hood.

He was 58 and I was 24. He was a senior application engineer in the Dallas office of GE’s Industrial Sales Division, and I was a neophyte sales engineer. We became fast friends.

With short cropped gray hair, straight and thin frame, squinty eyes above the ever-present cigarette, and the ability to focus like a laser on an electrical system challenge, Bob Gooch represented his employer well. He used his name as his calling card. “People just call me Gooch,” he would say. And they did. It was comfortable, and the name, the manner, and the intelligence drew our customers to him.

Gooch and I both had company cars. All expenses related to maintaining and driving the cars were paid by the company. Most employees with company cars took them to the dealer regularly for oil changes, lube jobs, and tuneups. Not Gooch. He preferred to do his own work.

Shortly after I met him, Gooch suggested I might want to join him on a Saturday morning and service my car while he was servicing his. I had done these tasks on my own car before and really had not planned to continue the practice with my company car. But I liked talking with Gooch and the offer sounded interesting, so I agreed. It went well, lots of good conversation while doing our own service work, and we saved ourselves the inconvenience of dropping our cars off for service someplace else. 

We continued our DIY car servicing on a regular schedule and one Saturday morning we ran into a problem. The details have faded from memory, but the essence was that we were attempting to remove a component under the hood of my car, and the bolted connections were so rusted we could not budge them. I was prepared to take it to the dealer and let them wrestle with this snake. Gooch commented something like, “You know, we can do this if we’re willing to spend the time.” He went on to explain that a little oil and a lot of time would probably work. So, we proceeded to squirt oil on the rusted threads approximately every 15 minutes. After waiting fifteen minutes we would apply the wrench, attempt to loosen the nuts and, failing that, apply more oil and wait another 15 minutes. We must have gone through that cycle for about two hours before the nuts finally broke free. In between nut-loosening attempts, we took our time fiddling with other minor maintenance issues, and talking about all things under the sun. At the end of the day I had learned a lesson of time and patience.

As CEO, you face a variety of difficult tasks continuously. Some are intellectually demanding, some emotionally demanding, some even physically demanding. But today I’m writing about those that are time and patience demanding…tasks like carefully reviewing that government contract, and the numerous detailed changes your attorney has recommended; challenges like researching and understanding the variety of benefit packages that you might offer your employees as you grow your organization; time drainers like preparing a few slides for that next strategic planning staff meeting – visuals that can make the meeting so much more productive than merely winging it, but that require the discipline to block off the time to ponder and prepare.

There’s the key – discipline. We’re not talking about lacking the ability to do something important. We’re talking about the willingness to invest the time and emotional energy into an important task that will take a chunk of your limited time.

I’ll bet you have an important challenge right now, one that you’ve set aside. You have other more interesting and less time-consuming projects you’re working on. That important one you filed in your “future” file may remain there indefinitely. 

Let this be your springboard to jump on it.

Competition

Competition within business organizations

Milo Competes at Lacrosse

Competition. Where does it fit in your company culture?

It might be helpful to step back a couple paces and consider where competition exists within organizations in a healthy, thriving American culture? How about on a sports team? Within the military? In school? Within a family? In a government organization?  A hospital? A medical research team?

Most reasonable people seem to conclude that competition is a good thing under certain circumstances and a bad thing under others. But the general concept is contentious, more so than in the past. And I have witnessed the swing of the pendulum over my lifetime, with an increasing number of people finding an increasing number of circumstances under which they believe competition is not good.

I began my business career with GE, and I was reminded of the competitiveness of that environment recently when I listened to a Freakonomics podcast in which Michael Dubner interviewed Jack Welch, retired CEO of GE. The following is a verbatim, unedited, transcript of one of the points that Welch made during that interview.

Look, differentiation is part of my whole belief in management. And treating everybody the same is ludicrous. And I don’t buy it. I don’t buy what people write about it. It’s not cruel and Darwinian and things like that, that people like to call it. A baseball team publishes every day the batting averages. And you don’t see the .180 hitter getting all the money, or all the raises. Now that’s the purest form. Athletics is the purest form of differentiation, because it’s public. Everybody understands it, the fans understand it, the people understand it. Big business is more subtle and it’s more qualitative. So the precision isn’t there to differentiate. So judgment’s important. But you don’t win with a gang of mediocre players in business or in baseball.

Welch believed and clearly still believes in “radical candor” when it comes to evaluating individual performance, and in rewarding the best performers while helping the worst performers find a different career.

Where do you stand on competition within a business organization? Is your position significantly different when it comes to non-business organizations or communities? Why not bring this up for discussion the next time you socialize with some of your business peers? Better yet, share your thoughts below.

Learn from Giants

 

JacksonR1-180210

Future Thoughtful Entrepreneur

Right out of college I went to work for GE and spent the next seventeen years there, learning what life in the world of business/industrial marketing/strategic business planning was all about. It was an exciting time for me, and a somewhat different business world than exists today. I grew a lot during those GE years, and learned a great deal about the world of big business and a little bit about myself. When I opted to leave GE for an opportunity to become a part-owner of a small manufacturing company, I doubted whether I would ever again be surrounded by so many capable people. Twelve years later we sold that company, and I became a full-time coach for owners of small businesses, a profession in which I remain involved.

As a small business coach, I preach the value of peer advice, having learned that a small business owner values the advice of another business owner above all other sources of business information or advice.

Back to GE. Those of us paying attention have witnessed this business icon stumble. As a result, the company’s stock has been the worst-performing in the Dow Jones Industrial average for more than a year. Many are asking, “What in the world went wrong at GE?” I won’t take your time here to repeat the details of this saga since they can easily be found in various business media. Rather, I believe there are powerful lessons here for any CEO of any size company, and I want to share them.

First, you need to be brutally honest with yourself regarding your numbers. The financial performance of any company, as portrayed by periodic numbers reporting, contains both positive and negative messages. As the owner, you know what’s really going on behind your numbers, and you need to face the negatives, the warnings, the hidden truths, as well as the confidence-building interpretation designed to cause majestic music to swell in your mind, or your employees’ minds, or your lenders’ minds.

Second, while continuously on the lookout for new opportunities, maintain an objective decision framework to guide you – and stick with it! Avoid becoming emotionally involved when deciding whether to commit company assets in pursuit of a new adventure.

Finally, discipline yourself to do contingency thinking, if not full-scale contingency planning, to prepare your mind for abrupt changes in the business, changes such as the loss of a major account, the resignation of a key manager, or the unexpected interruption of your operations due to a natural disaster.

There are significant differences between leading a giant organization and leading a small business. However, the successes and failures experienced by huge companies sometimes offer universal reminders of key basics of private enterprise.

Watch the Super Bowl and think about the other S-Word

CoachChalkboardYou’re a competitor, so there’s a good chance you’ll be watching the Super Bowl on Sunday. Can I get you to think “Strategy” while you’re watching? It will actually enhance your enjoyment of the game, and you can watch guilt-free because your CEO gray matter will be working on your business at the same time.

The yet-to-be-determined winner of the game has built a season based on effective strategies. I can guarantee you that they both had the same BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) in mind at the start of the season – to win the Super Bowl. Each team had a set of values and an effective team culture that they stuck with throughout the season. They studied and understood their opponents, and they had short-term goals (weekly) of defeating that week’s opponent. They established game plans for each game that included appropriate contingency plans. If we fall behind early, here’s what we’ll do. If we aren’t able to establish our running game in the first quarter, here’s what we’ll do in the second quarter. If our quarterback gets hurt, etc. In short, they built strategies for each aspect of the competitive environment, with detailed action plans that were subject to change as conditions warranted. And they’ve repeated that strategic planning process in preparation for this week’s big game.

So, as you watch the game Sunday, draw parallels with your business and its environment and the competition you face each week. Challenge yourself. Is your BHAG clear? Are your short term goals understood by your “players”? Have you taken the time to outline, in writing, the goals and action plans and individual responsibilities for the next quarter or for the entire year?

Enjoy the game. Allow it to provide motivation to define and communicate your business strategy.

Unwinding and Reloading

CEO Relaxation

Unwinding

Another Christmas, a New Year looming, much year-end wrap-up to be done. And it’s the best time to take stock.

But first, make sure you have allowed yourself to unwind. Everybody unwinds differently, and many CEOs don’t unwind the way normal people do. You know you, so allow yourself to unwind in your most effective way sometime before hitting full throttle again in January.

Now, about taking stock…

Separately from the unwinding, allow yourself a couple hours to review your business year. Although you may want to outline or create a detailed plan for the first quarter or even the entire year, delay that until you have answered the following questions to your own satisfaction:

What were our most significant accomplishments this year?
Did we make money? If yes, was it a fair return on our investment?
Are we generally headed in the right direction, toward my vision for the business?
Am I becoming more skillful? In what ways?
Am I having any fun?

Unwind, reload, launch into 2018.

Have a joyous holiday. May you be well and prosperous in the New Year.

Fresh Eyes

FreshEyesRichard Nixon was early in his first term, the Detroit Tigers had won the World Series for their first time since 1945, and Fred Borch was CEO of the General Electric Company, when I came out of college and began a 17-year career with GE, a historically strong company, often emulated by other enterprises around the world. The company continued to build on that reputation well into the twenty-first century.

Few manmade constructs last forever. GE’s CEO for the past 16 years has just retired, and the new CEO is wasting no time making changes. Investors have been disappointed with GE earnings and strategies and performance for some time. They now have fresh eyes at the top and new directions and predictions of performance are being established.

My emotional ties to GE (even though I left prior to the turn of the century (how depressing does that sound?) have drawn my attention to their current circumstances. Having spent the final 15 years of my working life as a business coach, and having worked with a number of outstanding entrepreneurs, and having witnessed the making of numerous business decisions of consequence, GE’s current situation reminds me of the power of Fresh Eyes.

If you have operated your own business for a few years, you may or may not realize the upside potential of Fresh Eyes. Ingrained leadership can be very bright, very competent, very hardworking, but locked into a particular view of the business, its employees, its customers, and all its other stakeholders. Fresh Eyes can provide a path to improved performance, particularly when nothing the current leadership is doing appears to be working.

My suggestion is not that you look for a CEO to take your place (unless you are ready to exit your business), not that you get an eye exam and new prescription glasses, but that you seek the advice of trusted outsiders. One of the most effective approaches – in my experience – is to become part of a peer advisory board, a group of non-competing business owners, a collection of openminded leaders, an assemblage of generous entrepreneurs. Once you’ve become a board member, use the board effectively: do your homework; keep your board members advised of your business progress; seek their counsel prior to making key decisions.

You’re still the decider. But your decisions can benefit from the clarity of vision and variety of alternatives identified by Fresh Eyes.

As always, your thoughts are welcome and you may share them below.