Tag Archives: Leadership

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.

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.

The Long and Winding Road

business planning

Indian Creek Trail – Hood River, OR

How does that Beatles song title grab you as a description of your business journey?

Earlier this year, my wife and I moved to a new state and a new home. The house itself is situated adjacent to the Indian Creek Trailhead. The first time we hiked this segment of the trail, I knew generally where it ended, but of course I had never actually made the journey. As we began our short expedition, certain attributes of the trail became evident. The path itself was dirt in some places, gravel in others, with various amounts of pine needles and leaves covering it (as well as an occasional bit of dog poop). It was a winding trail since it was following a creek, and our trek was compounded by many ups and downs. Seldom could we see more than a hundred feet of trail ahead.

I have had countless discussions with business owners regarding the relative merits of business planning. The winding road metaphor is a good one for arguing how much business planning is optimal. Any business journey is filled with twists and turns, hills and valleys, good footing and poor footing. The important thing is to determine the general direction you want to head. The planning process is paramount in establishing this destination or waypoint. It’s key to deciding major strategies for how you will move in the direction of your goals. But the unpredictable nature of the path itself renders detailed planning useless.

We’re just over  halfway through the calendar year. Summer is always a good time to review how you’ve handled the surprises of your snaking trail thus far, and to recalibrate your compass.

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

IMG_0939.JPG

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.

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.

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.

I Love You, but…

CEOs cannot lose focus on customer service

Love is a many splendored thing

I love you.  Strange title for a business blog, isn’t it?  But it’s true, assuming that you’re a business owner.  Here’s what motivated me to make that declaration.

A couple days ago I went to hell and back.  You’ve been there.  I called the help line at a major corporation because of a small glitch in the operation of my new mobile phone.  This particular visit to hell took almost two hours of my not unlimited time.  I will spare you the details because you’ve been there.  I’d rather talk about love anyway.

I love business owners and that’s why I’ve devoted the past thirteen years to working with them.  Privately owned businesses tend to serve customers well and to get things accomplished quickly.  Many entrepreneurs started their own business precisely because they could not find the quality of service that they craved.

A customer service process that works is a thing of beauty.  A dysfunctional process will suck any beauty out of both customer and company.

So my love for you is conditional.  You might get big faster than you can control.  Or you might get complacent.  Or you might turn catatonic under the stress of sustaining your own business.

Next time you visit the hell that I have described here, I want you to pledge anew that you will not let your company slide into customer service dysfunction.  Promise?

It Takes All Kinds

There is no "right" behavioral style for a CEO

Checking the Day’s Skiing Performance Stats

Does your management team share common behaviors and talents? Should they?

I recently had the good fortune to spend three days and four nights with five other adult males skiing in Colorado.  Lots of guy talk and guy smells and guy consumption of unhealthy foods along with a small amount of alcoholic beverages.

I took the photograph shown here during an afternoon après-ski gathering.  My friend of some forty years is in the process of studying his day’s skiing statistics (number of runs, vertical feet skied, top speed) through slightly bloodshot eyes.  Every day, he and one other from our group (who has the same ski app on his cellphone) compared data, mainly to determine who skied the fastest. Some really lively dialog ensued regarding who posted the top rate of descent. (Clarifying note: Only two of the six in our group kept the stats and competed for the land speed record among six old farts.)

As I listened to the third day of competitive comparisons, I snapped this photo as a reminder that it’s OK when personal behavioral differences exist among cooperating groups of humans.  The freaks who compete on skiing speeds are no righter or wronger than the freaks who are slightly anal making sure we show up on time for a dinner reservation. Our group comes together annually for a few days of skiing and camaraderie, and we certainly have some common values and interests; but we’re far from clones when it comes to behavioral styles or attitudes.  Is there ever friction?  Sure.  Is it a more effective “team” because of some differences?  I think so.

As CEO, have you intentionally put together a leadership team with very similar styles?  How about similar perspectives?  Common behaviors and values normally lead to increased harmony.  But ask yourself whether your business has a greater need right now for harmony or for great strategy and execution.

Assembling and working with a “team of differents” can be taxing. Every time Kevin becomes confrontational, Laurie shuts down. Mike is so laid back and slow to react that it drives Julie nuts. Emmet looks at everything from a return-on-investment perspective, while Jules is committed to providing jobs and support for the local community at almost any cost. Blending this type of team together for weekly staff meetings or quarterly strategic reviews is exhausting. But is it likely to produce a stronger business than a “team of similars”?

I’m sure you have some thoughts on this. Let me know where you stand on the traits of a strong management team.

(By the way, the top speed recorded this ski trip was just over 50 mph.)

Are You Asking the Right Questions?

2015 again holds a high degree of uncertainty for CEOs

Deja vu?

You’re racing to the end of another calendar year and, guess what?  For a CEO, this one ends just like the last!  Not the details, of course, but you’ve been here before when it comes to the overall uncertainty about the business environment.

The U.S. economy has experienced its fastest 6-months growth in the past ten years, and yet the rest of the world economy looks much less sanguine, and many are concerned about how this may affect the U.S. economy.

On the national political scene we will have both a Republican House and  a Republican Senate come the New Year, and yet the most credible voices are predicting that gridlock in Washington will continue.

Technology continues its relentless advance, providing new tools for operational efficiencies; and yet it simultaneously confounds and frustrates most of us when it comes to marketing and the “promise” of social media.

With regard to finance, the business bankers are speaking more sweetly, but their banks are still behaving like the man who offers you an umbrella when the sun is shining but can’t seem to find one for you when it’s raining.

This uncertainty is nothing new to you!  A CEO deals with it, planning for it and managing through it.  But the real rub for most CEOs is on the personal side.  With the holidays upon us, and with the end of another year at hand, I encourage you to ponder:

  • Are you having any fun?
  • Are you making money?
  • Are you becoming more skillful at something?
  • Are you generally headed toward your destination, toward your vision?

Underlying these questions is the really big one: “How ARE you??”  That is, how are you doing intellectually, physically, and spiritually?

Do yourself a favor. Find a few minutes, no later than January 1st, to answer this question, in writing:  Indeed, how the heck are you?

 

Specifically, address your intellectual state, physical state, and spiritual state.  Then commit to taking actions that will result in progress in one, two, or all three areas in 2015.  After you’ve done this, go back to those four questions regarding fun, money, skills, and vision, and take a crack at them. It’s a great way to clean out the cobwebs and launch your next twelve-month journey.

I wish you the very best in the New Year!