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.

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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.

Rebuilding Year(s)

The business owner CEO does not have the option of resigning.I’m a Philadelphia Phillies fan, which means I’m following the team with the worst record in Major League baseball right now (July, 2015). It’s a “rebuilding year” for the Phillies, a pretty rough period.

In baseball, a rebuilding year generally causes more than a poor win-loss record. Management changes are inevitable. Fewer fans attend the games. High-priced players are traded for younger, cheaper, potential-laden minor leaguers. In the case of the Phillies, all of this is happening, and more. The manager they brought on to see the team through this difficult transition grew weary of losing, and resigned. (That’s right. He wasn’t fired, he resigned.)

For the past six years, I’ve been coaching a CEO (we’ll call him Tom) who decided to take on a “rebuilding year”. Sales were flat, profits were meager and cyclical, and the competition was intensifying. Tom’s tendency was to try to do everything himself, and he longed to discover effective marketing and sales processes, areas that he considered to be personal weaknesses. His relationship with his business was unhealthy – his description: “I feel like a slave”.

Tom’s rebuilding year actually took about four. It included the following:

  1. Developed a new product that addressed a shift in customer preferences – earlier than was recognized by his competition.
  2. Pushed his VP Marketing & Sales hard to identify and grow new opportunities. When he didn’t, he was replaced.
  3. Took a personal interest in an area of marketing that was integral to their future success, and brought others in to do the work after he understood what was required.
  4. Through some trial-and-error, figured out how to recruit, hire, and mostly keep talented people needed to stimulate and sustain ongoing corporate growth.

It was a bumpy ride. The new product development effort sucked up resources that the company did not initially have (both human and financial). The development of a larger organization included the usual complement of bad hires and redirection. Boot-strapping the financing of the growth, rather than borrowing a bunch of money, caused serious frustration in the early going. But Tom persevered, knowing that neither resignation nor termination were options.

While the “rebuilding year” (four) is now in the rearview mirror, it’s not over. The vision that Tom developed for his enterprise has the entire team working towards “the next big thing” for the business. His bank account is healthy, his workforce is high caliber, and the team has a sense of direction. The need for rebuilding has been replaced by a drive to stay on top.

The Phillies should be so lucky.

Creating positive change in an organization is one of the most difficult tasks facing a CEOYou don’t have to look far to find books or articles proclaiming how to accomplish effective organizational change.  Many of these are worthy of your attention.

But if you happen to be the proponent of an upcoming change for your business, you would best start preparing by engaging in some serious introspection. Let me explain my point using a very personal example.

My own personal vision and life circumstances have recently combined to cause a lot of introspection. My spouse and I are in the throes of planning our “next chapter”. It will involve substantial change. It has caused me to reflect on a handful of some of the most important changes I have experienced since birth. Here’s a recap, ultimately tied into a business lesson.

My personal journey down memory lane led me to conclude that some of the most memorable changes in my life occurred in my youth. Changes like being pushed from the nest into nursery school; or transitioning from elementary school to junior high, where we had to change classes multiple times each day; or graduating to high school where my sophomore class size was 1100 students; or saying goodbye to a large high school and hello to a small college; not to mention seven job changes and relocations within the first 17 years after college.

Now, after living in the same home for 29 years, change finally looms again. We have grown comfortable with our house, our neighborhood, our friends, our church, and our surroundings in general. But our children and grandchildren are on the other side of the continent. Emotion suggests that we stay where we are comfortable and buy lots of plane tickets to enjoy being with family multiple times a year. Yet logic relentlessly pushes for relocation closer to family.

At this moment, the concept of change is very real and very personal. I believe I’m in an appropriate frame of mind to understand how your employees might feel when you are bringing a major change to the business or to their role in the business. I believe the most important factors involved in the inherent resistance to change are:

  • The involuntary nature of most change, viewed from the perspective of an employee
  • The relative comfort of “the present”, again from the perspective of the employee

In my personal situation, our upcoming relocation is, in a sense, forced. It’s forced by our advancing age and the anticipation of the inevitable decline in health. This makes it difficult.

Since our present circumstances are comfortable, since it will be difficult to leave good friends and familiar surroundings, score another blow for difficult change.

However, the rest of the story is more important than these two realizations. The attraction of being a larger part of our children’s and grandchildren’s lives; of being more available to help out; of being present to celebrate birthdays and holidays; is strong. The attraction to get to know new territory, to get to make new friends, to prove that we remain vibrant and significant as we approach seven decades on the planet – this attraction to relocate a couple thousand miles and make a difference in new ways also imposes a seemingly magnetic pull. And the magnets enumerated are strong.

As a business owner who is leading change, you will be most successful if you can identify with those specific fears or perceived losses that make the change difficult for each individual employee.  Then, identify and clearly articulate the “magnets” associated with your proposed change. Feeling their pain and showing them the positive tradeoff of the change should be central to your change strategy.

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.

Surprise Attack

How do effective CEOs handle sudden, acute business problems?

One Form of Acute Pain

It seemed to come outta nowhere. And when it arrived, POW! It brought with it almost debilitating pain. A reasonable person would quickly conclude that a specialist was needed. And the challenge was that each specialist had a different opinion on how to address the pain.

I’m describing a recent back injury that I suffered, but I could just as easily be describing one of your acute business problems.  What do they have in common?

  • The problem is virtually unforeseen, appearing suddenly.
  • It hits you like a ton of bricks.
  • Your initial response is to be frozen in place.
  • Because it is unexpected and not previously experienced, you’re pretty sure you need the help of an expert, a specialist.
  • There are many and varied experts to consult,
  • each with their own approach to eliminating the pain.

What to do?
Whom to trust?

Consider the back injury first. If you have a medical doctor, a general practitioner, whom you trust implicitly, he/she would be a good one to consult. A small investment upfront with a trusted advisor who will guide you to the path that returns you to good health seems like a reasonable decision.

Now consider your acute business problem. Who is your “general practitioner”? Whom do you trust implicitly? Start with that person.

I chose to short circuit the process and went directly to a “specialist”. In so doing, I lengthened my recovery. Although I don’t heal as quickly as I did as a twenty something, I will heal – in spite of the false start. But can you say the same for your business? If the surprise attack is vicious enough, you may not have time for a do-over. Get the trusted advice from your generalist as a first step.

I did not conceive this message with the thought of a shameless plug as the wrap-up. But I really would be doing you a disservice not to offer more specific guidance on finding that trusted advisor. Two obvious choices are: a fellow CEO, and a qualified business generalist.

By the Numbers

I’m going to go out on a limb. I know what talent is lacking in more of your employees than any other. It’s an ability to understand and work with numbers. Expense budgeting, price analyses, sales forecasting, reviewing a profit and loss statement or a product line margin analysis, understanding cash flow or a balance sheet, comprehending both the value and the burden of debt.

Whatever your business, I’m sure you have some really good employees,who do their jobs really well, whether they are dealing with operations or marketing or whatever. You’re able to get away with financial incompetence in most positions in your company. But if your management team lack facility with the numbers, we probably have a problem, Houston. 

If your succession plan or exit strategy relies on managers who are not able to read a balance sheet; who do not understand the long term impact of pricing to achieve volume; who do not appreciate the value of debt as a tool, or the suffocating crush of too much debt – if the keys to your successful retirement are in the hands of such staff, then both you and your business are in a bit of trouble.

If you are guilty of tolerating financial ineptitude, you owe it to yourself, your business, and your employees to turn it around. You may not have the capacity to personally teach a key employee how to deal with the numbers, but it really is your job to find some thing or some body that can.