Tag Archives: CEO Development

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.

The Case of the Renegade Case

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I recently took a trip, several hikes, a brief leave of my senses and, finally, matters into my own hands. That’s a lot of “taking”, during which I learned a lesson about delegation. Lots of business leaders struggle with “the big D” and my sharing my personal experience might light a path or reduce some stress for you.

My wife (call her Karen, since that’s her real name) and I took several days to relax at a resort 130 miles from our home. The morning of our return trip, we packed the items we would be bringing home from the condo, hopped in the car, smiled at the blue sky, and had a series of really good conversations over the next two-and-a-half hours. Got home, unpacked, and then…are you familiar with that sudden realization that you’ve overlooked something really important? For my body, it manifests itself north of my neck. Kind of a numb feeling as my face flushes with reality setting in. Kind of warm too, but not in a good sense. I realized I had left my packed briefcase in the dining area on the floor next to the table and invisible from the front door.

I always travel with a briefcase. Always have. Can’t stand to be without useful files and magazines – not to mention my iPad – on any trip. Suffice it to say that this briefcase on this particular trip had not only interesting stuff inside, but also important and sensitive information…and did I mention my iPad?

Within minutes, I was on the phone, confirming that Housekeeping had recovered my briefcase. I quickly made up my mind to retrieve it the next day. Karen looked at me like I had just volunteered to cook dinner (i.e., in disbelief). Why would I travel 260 miles the next day, knowing I am still rebuilding my body from a back injury that can be exacerbated by sitting for long periods of time in the same position, only to personally pick up a briefcase that could easily be overnighted to me?

At first, I couldn’t explain (at least not clearly) why I had already decided to personally retrieve the briefcase. She ignored me, called the resort, talked with Guest Services, and got them to agree they could retrieve the case from Housekeeping and get somebody to take it to the Post Office. When Karen persuasively told me this, it made some sense. I really wanted some of the contents ASAP, and if the resort reacted quickly, I could have them in my possession within 24 hours. So I called Guest Services. Kelsey explained that she was trying to reach the lady who drives the van to pick up and deliver guests as well as the mail, and that she was hopeful that Cathy would return her call soon. This was about 3:30PM on a Friday and I was aware that most small town Post Offices did not stay open all night. Long story short, within 30 minutes I learned that the briefcase could be delivered to the Post Office the following morning and I was advised I could call the Post Office directly to discuss overnight delivery or other special handling for returning the runaway briefcase.

What had started to seem like a sensible approach less than an hour previously now gave way to my overwhelming feeling that I had to personally get this thing done.

Can you identify with that?

I have worked with several hundred small business owners over the past dozen years, and the tension between Control and Delegation is almost always a stress point. Very few find it easy to delegate important tasks, even though they are aware that a successful, growing enterprise requires lots of delegation.

What I realized in “the renegade briefcase” caper is that, whether it be a personal or a professional challenge, the decision to delegate rather than maintain personal control involves more than simple reason and trust. It also involves instinct…your gut. And, as any nutritionist worth her weight in tofu will tell you, your gut is very important. Going against your gut can cause extreme discomfort.

My instinct that Friday became overwhelming. The world would not end if I did not have that briefcase back in hand for three or four days. But it would have been VERY inconvenient, and my world would have been filled with stress until I got it back. I would be counting on at least three different people, more likely five or six, to get the communications straight and to protect the contents of that case.

This episode caused me to reflect on a number of discussions with CEOs regarding their resistance to delegate certain responsibilities that seemed to me at the time to be no-brainers. For example, I once had a client who ran a $50 million business who insisted on opening all the incoming mail, every day. I now have a better appreciation for his gut.

This story is not a plea for you to delegate less and work harder than ever to grow your business. Rather, it’s intended as a stress reduction aid. You don’t have to justify driving 130 miles one-way to your wife, to pick up your briefcase. You don’t have to justify opening all the mail every day to your business coach. If you gain significant peace of mind, in addition to the certainty that the job will be done in the best possible way, then it’s OK to maintain control and do it yourself. Heck, if you simply enjoy writing software code or installing systems or stocking shelves, allow yourself some time to do that fun work occasionally. It’s your business, and it’s not supposed to be 24/7 stress.

Once you pick your spots, once you select the task or tasks you will personally handle, allow any ancillary benefits to accrue to help justify your decision – and provide additional peace of mind. In my case, seeing an April sunrise in Central Oregon was a big plus, in addition to the fact that 90% of my drive time was either through piney forest or up and down high desert buttes. I’m not used to that type of scenery, and I hope I continue to hold it in awe.

If you are willing to share your own thoughts on Control versus Delegation, please do.

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.

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.

What if your car came without a dashboard?

Great CEOs have  identified their Key Performance Indicators and track them relentlessly.Are you a better driver because you can easily determine how fast you’re traveling, how much fuel remains, and what time it is? Are you more likely to safely reach your destination because you can readily see the compass direction of travel and because you’re immediately alerted to a loss of oil pressure or tire pressure?  Does the dashboard improve your overall ability to travel efficiently and effectively?  Would you be upset if the auto manufacturers decided to reduce the cost of their vehicles by eliminating all the instrumentation and alarm lights?

Now consider your business dashboard. Have you identified and do you regularly review your key business performance indicators (KPIs)?  Here’s why every CEO should:

  • Identifying your KPIs forces prioritization of data.  The total data available can be overwhelming and you have to keep your eyes on the road.
  • The correct KPIs provide a regular monitor of business historical performance, as well as the outlook for the short-term future. They enable you to stay on track.
  • The habit of routinely reviewing your dashboard (KPIs) creates a powerful sense of having your “arms around your business”, regardless of how well or how poorly the business is currently doing.
  • Your dashboard provides a jump start for when you need to:
    • Create a long range business plan
    • Create a marketing plan
    • Apply for a bank loan
    • Discuss the business with a potential investor
    • Interview a candidate for a key position
  • As a habit, your review of your KPIs is an excellent accountability tool for you personally as well as for your entire business.

You wouldn’t drive your car without a dashboard. Is it any less dangerous to drive your company without one?

A Costly Entrepreneur Mistake

CEOs participate in professional conferences, trade association meetings, and industry gatherings In late August I participated in the annual conference held for the benefit of TAB facilitators worldwide. Since 2002, I’ve missed this conference exactly the same number of times that I’ve forgotten my wedding anniversary.

As in years past, I came away with several pages of prioritized notes listing possible strategies and tactics for improving my business. I accumulated these during the assortment of presentations, breakout sessions, and casual networking that takes place at every conference.

As I reviewed my trove of takeaways on the flight home, it occurred to me that I seldom hear from my business owner friends and clients about their awesome experiences at their industry meetings, trade associations, or professional society meetings. I’m thinking that’s because they don’t attend.

There is a tendency for an entrepreneur to start or acquire a business and then proceed to become so buried in the work that they cannot get away to sharpen their saw at an industry conference. This is a symptom of the “too busy working IN my business to take time to work ON my business” disease.

If you don’t participate in industry-wide sharing of ideas and practices, you’re starving your business. This business starvation condition presents as the sound of anxious breathing or wheezing.  Unfortunately, in most cases, the source of that sound has proven to be the business owner.

Lesson? Stay connected to your broader industry or profession!

By the way, I’ve never forgotten my wedding anniversary.

Out of the Ashes…

Any business can be devastated. It's what happens after the fall that matters.

Remnant of 1990s war in Croatia

I recently returned from a journey to Eastern Europe.  I briefly visited towns in Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Romania.  The tour caused me to reflect more seriously than ever on the freedoms and opportunities we enjoy in the United States.

We took a photograph of a bombed out building in Vukovar, Croatia, located on the Danube River. Someone had placed beautiful blooming flowers in several openings of the building where windows used to be. The symbolism was intense.

My professional life for the past fifteen years has been devoted to working with leaders of privately owned businesses.  Most small to midsize businesses cycle – from relatively good times to relatively poor times. Occasionally a business is devastated. Even in “normal” times, my clients face difficult challenges. Some are fighting serious diseases while still running their businesses. Others are unable to pay themselves a salary for months at a time due to negative cash flow. Some are angry with and frustrated by lending institutions who offer little or no support.  Still others must struggle through broken family relationships that are exacerbated by the demands of the business.

So it’s not surprising that businesses are sometimes figuratively blown up.  Maybe more surprising are those occasions when, out of the ashes, something beautiful emerges. Individual perseverance and guts, and the unbending support of family or friends or customers or suppliers, produce bright color where only gray existed before.

Now, back to Eastern Europe.  Having met and heard the stories of a number of people who once lived behind the Iron Curtain, I am struck by the power of having the freedom of choice.  I’m more appreciative of having a system of checks and balances in a government that sometimes seems to be gridlocked.  I’m grateful to live in a country where any entrepreneur has the freedom to choose his own next step.  Doors may not be wide open at every decision point, but at least the doors exist.

Has your business ever seemed like a mere shell of the structure it once was? And you’re still standing? Then my photo from Vukovar is for you!

Is Your Dehumidifier Working?

CEOs must stay current with technology

New Technology

I bought the dehumidifier in 1979, and it lived in three different homes over the years. When I finally decided to retire it, the machine was still working! That is, when I plugged it in, the compressor began running. If the temperature of my basement was below about 75 degrees, the coils would freeze up. The simple on/off switch no longer worked. The control knob for adjusting the humidity setting did not work.  When running, it was very noisy and threw off a lot of heat.  But it still removed moisture from the air when the conditions were right.

The new unit I bought 35 years after the purchase of the old one works better.  It removes more moisture, more quietly, radiating very little heat, under almost all operating conditions. And I can run a hose to the basement sump for continuous draining. With the old unit I had to empty the bucket twice daily because the plastic hose connection was stripped long ago and leaked.

I know CEOs who, like me, stick with the old technology too long. The ancient computer operating system causes all kinds of interrupts and lost productivity. The phone system is cumbersome for customers as well as employees.  The printer/copier/scanner still prints, although the paper feed jams regularly and the scanner feature has never worked right.

Inertia and penny-pinching sometimes combine to make us stupid.  Running a great business requires relatively current technology.  What’s your dehumidifier?