Monday, December 24, 2012

The path you choose

The word entrepreneur is not of modern vintage.  It is about about three centuries or so old, and not of English origin.  According to Wikipedia:
"Entrepreneur is a loanword from French and was first defined by the Irish-French economist Richard Cantillon as the person who pays a certain price for a product to resell it at an uncertain price, thereby making decisions about obtaining and using the resources while consequently admitting the risk of enterprise. The term first appeared in the French Dictionary "Dictionnaire Universel de Commerce" of Jacques des Bruslons published in 1723."
In the original definition -- a reseller or middleman -- the word entrepreneur hardly conjures up the glamor and symbolism that are associated with it today: a world of Valleys, Alleys, start-ups, venture capital, IPOs and potential riches.

Despite the pop culture mythology attached to modern entrepreneurs, life for most business owners is more mundane than commonly portrayed. They are a practical lot, more concerned with making payroll than the size of their bankroll.

And even though Americans like to think we are the masters of commercial risk-taking, we aren't even the most entrepreneurial society.  Be that as it may, both the uncertainly and the "risk of the enterprise" surely remain the same as it ever was.

For many, the difference between success and failure comes down to how well they "make decisions about obtaining and using resources." In other words, the path they choose to get what's in their head (vision) into operation (execution) in their business in a way that allows them sufficient sustained profitability to endure.

Monday, December 17, 2012

An enemy of one?

About two thousand years ago, a Chinese general named Sun-Tzu wrote a 13-chapter tract about the martial arts and warfare, entitled "The Art of War."

While I am sure that he was, as many leaders tend to be, very self confident and at least a touch self-centered, I am equally sure he didn't envision his treatise becoming a best-seller for business leaders a couple of millennia hence.

The Art of War is widely quoted and cited on a range of business topics, from general management to sales to human resources, and has become synonymous with the melding of strategic and tactical thinking.  One of the most famous lines speaks directly to that: "Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat."

But Sun-Tzu also believed that engaging in war was a fool's choice, "Anyone who excels in defeating his enemies triumphs before his enemy's threat become real."   He also said: “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but know not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat.  If you know not the enemy or yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

In other words, get to know yourself and the battle is won.

Last week I listed five steps to achieve greater focus for yourself and your organization which I have learned from working with successful business owners and CEOs.   In more depth, they are:

Monday, December 10, 2012

Crossroads

In last week's post, I wrote:  "In the weeks ahead, I'll outline ...  an "Owner's Manual" for 21st century small business leaders."

That wasn't entirely accurate.  What's follows over the next few weeks is not a manual, in the truest sense of the word:

Manual [ˈmænjʊəl] adj 
[via Old French from Latin manuālis, from manus hand]
1. of or relating to a hand or hands
2. operated or done by hand manual controls
3. physical, as opposed to mental or mechanical manual labour
4. by human labor rather than automatic or computer-aided means
5. of, relating to, or resembling a manual
n
1. a book, esp of instructions or information a car manual
2. (Music, other) Music one of the keyboards played by hand on an organ
3. (Military) Military the prescribed drill with small arms

The problem with manuals is that they are so, well, hands-on, in a more or less literal sense, AND they are very basic (find key, put it in ignition, turn on car...) Manuals tell, rather than teach.

What I have found from working with business owners, CEOs and organizational leaders for over 30 years is that the best seek not a how-to, but a map, a compass, a guide to help them navigate.  They are constantly trolling for new experience and expertise and they want guidance on better managing themselves and their businesses.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Born to run?

One of the high points of my former life was making a presentation to the Board of Directors of an iconic US company (a revered household name that will remain nameless until you buy me a drink.)  The company and its CEO had gotten into hot water with investors, and we were briefing the Board on recommended strategies and a series of specific actions to rebuild trust.

The Board consisted of a proverbial pantheon of international business leaders.  Following our presentation, we had a lively discussion of our recommended strategies, as you would expect of this group, one of whom was the CEO of a giant global engineering company.  He lasered in on the tactics, specifically how my CEO client would oversee implementation.

During the back-and-forth on that topic -- my client stated that he would approve the final plan and leave implementation to his staff --  it became clear that the engineer operated his company differently,  through tight, personal command-and-control, down to such minutia as final approval of all press releases.  He confessed as much.

Astonished, a fellow Board member asked, "G----, how do you find the time to lead your company if you're doing all of this work?"  It was a extraordinary moment.  (This chief executive was later dismissed by his Board.)

Monday, November 26, 2012

The half of it

There are probably not many who don't know the old adage about the half-filled glass: that the optimist sees the glass as half-full, while the pessimist views it as half-empty.


That aphorism has been extended in many ways: An economist would say that, adjusted for inflation, the glass is 10% less full than two years ago; a banker would say that the glass has 50% of its net worth in liquid assets; politicians would say that it would be fuller if you vote for their programs, and a private equity investor would say that they could get rid of the excess glass, then fill it back with a bit of leverage.

And finally, some would over think it altogether.

In the days leading up to the Thanksgiving break, there was much to-and-fro about the state of the world:  the results of the election, the fiscal cliff, a world without Twinkies, Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, etc., etc., ad nauseum.

While those of us who prefer not to live in caves or with our heads in the sand have more than a passing interest in the news of the day, fixating on macro issues is mostly a distraction, and finding the truth is as elusive as ever.

Monday, November 19, 2012

School's in

Discussions at our monthly TAB Board meetings are usually both deep and wide-ranging, as you might expect from a gathering of business owners and CEOs who've come to "talk shop."

From initiatives to ideas to strategies for implementing same, the conversations can get intense.  Board members are focused on improving their operations and their ability to manage the constant change that comes from that striving.  As my colleague John Dini wrote this week, while failure may indeed be an option, in order to succeed, good enough never is.

Or as C.S. Lewis said:  "Experience is a brutal teacher.  But you learn.  My God, do you learn." 

Some lessons from the field, from the mouths of CEOs:
  • Follow the money: When analyzing sales results, "Follow the money."  Poor closing rates usually mean an inability to ask for the sale (the money) or to get to the decision maker (the money.) Find out which it is and coach to correct.  Or find someone who wants to follow the money.
  • Focus on focus: When assigning new initiatives or tasks, always ask two questions: "What do you need to perform this and what do I need to take away?"  This helps focus yourself and your staff on the resources and commitments needed to execute the task and also generates buy-in.  Both are critical to successful delegation.

Monday, November 12, 2012

By the numbers


"In the end, it should always come down to the maths."  That was the wisdom of my sixth grade teacher, Mr. Balsam, who spoke about mathematics the way the Brits do -- calling it maths instead of math.  (He taught there for a couple of years in the 60's, before coming back to the colonies.)

The point he was making is that a facility with numbers is essential to proper decision making, by providing an orderly and logical underpinning for sifting through the information that bombards us.

So, I am sure that Mr. B was pleased that math was one of big winners in last week's election, according to Smithsonian Magazine's Smart News blog:
"New Yorker reporter Ryan Lizza said this morning that after months of campaigning, the result of the 2012 election “was a huge victory yesterday for math.” Wired called 2012 “the nerdiest election in the history of the American Republic.”'
How many times does a comic referencing math go viral?  This one from the online comic site XKCD, did (it was mentioned in the above story):


Monday, November 5, 2012

Uncorked

It's November. Halloween has passed, we've turned the clocks back and daylight hours are fading fast.

In other words, it's that time when a business owner's thoughts turn to planning.  Our TAB members are working on securing this year's successes and focused on defining their priorities for 2013.  Happily, most of our businesses have seen gains this year, as is the case with many owners who are part of a knowledge-sharing group.

While each business plans in a way that is unique to it, I have found that the ones that are most successful in achieving their goals share some common approaches:  they focus on fewer, but very specific goals; they set hard targets and timelines; and they lead their organizations to the achievement of the goals without doing the work themselves.

When leading planning discussions, I like to start with three baseline questions:
  • What are your three priorities for 2013?
  • What resources do you need to achieve them?
  • What do you need to stop doing to make them happen?

Monday, October 29, 2012

Trying times


"I'll try."

Can you think of a more maddening phrase in business and in life?

While there are contenders -- such as "I think not;" "I could be wrong;" "just give me a while to think about it;" and "perhaps we should get the group together to discuss" -- to me "I'll try" is the biggest hedge in the human lexicon.  If you are on the receiving end of an "I'll try," does it inspire confidence in a positive outcome?   

While I don't usually put much stock in the quotes of imaginary movie characters, Jedi master Yoda nailed it in "The Empire Strikes Back":  "Do or Do not.  There is no try."

Business owners are an optimistic lot, generally.  They have to be to continue moving forward in their businesses in the face of continuing changes in customer preferences, competition, regulation, employee attitudes, etc.

The only constant in business, a CEO said at a recent TAB board meeting, is change, and "change drives growth."

Monday, October 22, 2012

Hear, say.

At a gathering of business folks recently, we discussed the book Power Questions.  Those gathered found it to be a good, thought-provoking read, and some had already put some of the concepts and questions into practice in their organizations.

The author, Andrew Sobel, has penned several books on selling and fostering lasting client relationships.  Good questions, in his words, "light fires under people, help them see problems in new ways, and inspire them to bare their souls. The result is deep personal engagement." Power Questions offers many great examples of great questions to ask and how to ask them, and provides the reader with more than 300 questions, grouped topically.  It's a great resource for any business leader.

Is questioning enough, though?  Most modern sales "systems" are now built around the concept of questioning, of "finding the pain" of the prospective buyer.   Asking pre-programmed questions that are designed to manipulate the emotions of someone you just met doesn't seem like the recipe for success to me.  As one of the members of our book group said, "if a salesperson asks me 'what keeps you up at night?', I know they are a hack and haven't done their homework."

Monday, October 15, 2012

Higher hire

With unemployment being what it is in this country -- high, improving only gradually and with many more job seekers than available jobs, you'd think that employers would have the pick of the litter.

It ain't necessarily so. Or so it seems.

Business owners with whom I meet or work who have jobs to fill are decrying the lack of qualified applicants for those positions.   The constant refrain that I hear is, "No one wants to work anymore," or some variation on that theme.  There is certainly some be truth to that, but as the saying goes: "If you say you can't, then you won't."

There is always talent out there.  Lots of talent. Gobs of it.  It may seem counter-intuitive, but in this employment economy, you have to compete for talent if you want to hire more than mediocrity. 

Monday, October 8, 2012

Out of the bowl*


Congratulations.

Your business is finally back on a growth track, after several years of struggle.  Sales are not only improving, they are accelerating.  Some hiccups month-to-month, but the trend line is steepening and extending.

Your increased profits have allowed you to finally move ahead and expand the range of products and services you offer.  Your customers are reacting happily, buying more often and spending more per transaction.  It's a virtuous circle.

Employees are happy.  They are getting profit sharing bonuses and those bonuses are increasing as the business performs.  You've installed the systems and processes to give them the autonomy to do their jobs without being micromanaged.  You trust their judgment -- you have to, because you're now so large that you couldn't do their jobs even if you wanted to.  In fact, there's several people you didn't hire yourself; your managers did.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Shooting for the moon...

Sim·ple [sim-puhl]  adjective, sim·pler, sim·plest, noun adjective

1. easy to understand, deal with, use, etc.: a simple matter; simple tools.
2. not elaborate or artificial; plain: a simple style.
3. not ornate or luxurious; unadorned: a simple gown.
4. unaffected; unassuming; modest: a simple manner.
5. not complicated: a simple design

What happened to simple?  Why has simple become so difficult?

By simple I mean "easy to understand and deal with," as noted above.  Do you feel that your life -- business or personal -- is getting simpler:  easier to understand or less complex?  Bully for you if you do; you are in the minority.

But you know what?  It's been ever so.  Search for "simplicity quotes" and you''ll see exhortations, lamentations and admonitions going back centuries, even to the days of Leonardo da Vinci:  "Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication."

Simplicity doesn't mean not difficult, not challenging.  Consider JFK's famous challenge to the nation:
 "I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth."
Simple goal, no?  Devilishly difficult to execute? Absolutely, even with the unlimited resources of the government backing it.


Monday, September 24, 2012

Your aim, please?

"In the long run, men only hit what they aim at."- Henry David Thoreau.


I bet you didn't think of old Hank Thoreau as a management guru.  Perhaps you know him better as  "author, poet, philosopher, abolitionist, naturalist, tax resister, development critic, surveyor, historian, and leading transcendentalist."

The sentiment above is a nice thought on focus. And that's how the quote is often used, including by yours truly.  We love focus.  Focus is important; you can't hit your targets without being able to sight them.

But focus is only half the story and quote (literally.)  Thoreau's coda is "...therefore, though they should fail immediately, they had better aim at something high."

A romantic sentiment, beautifully expressed.  But is Thoreau's quote espousing a good business principle?  Is it the big picture that matters? Is vision is more important than accomplishment?

We've looked at the both the "vision thing" and "failure is the best path to success" before, and found a fixation on either, to the exclusion of the other, somewhat problematic.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Reach out

Summer officially ends at 10:49 am EDT this Saturday, September 22, if you want to mark your calendar and get your eggs ready.

As the calendar turns from the lazy, hazy days into the rush of school, sweaters and falling leaves, so to does business psychology...to the coming fourth quarter, the end of the calendar year, the literal and figurative accounting of the year's progress (or lack thereof.)

Perhaps that's why so many of my discussions this month have focused on sales and selling...business owners are taking another look at their numbers, their goals for this year and next and asking themselves, their staffs and their advisors "what's next?"  This cogitation is a good thing; the time to plan is now.

At one recent TAB Board meeting, one business owner -- whose sales come predominantly through manufacturing reps and distributors -- reported increased sales to this group following face-to-face visits by company scientists (the company has no salespeople, per se.)  The results were so striking that they have begun a program of formal visits to their reps around the world.  The next step is hiring a professional to manage distributor relations.

Personal attention, interpersonal relations, human dialogue -- such a concept, as my bubby would say. In our increasingly digital virtual world, up close and personal is becoming the exception, and not just in business or selling. 


Monday, September 10, 2012

Thine own self


"This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Farewell, my blessing season this in thee!"

- Polonius, Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 3.

The meaning of the words above, written 400 years ago, have been studied, debated and written about almost from the time they were penned.  Here's one take that I find satisfying:
By "false" Polonius seems to mean "disadvantageous" or "detrimental to your image"; by "true" he means "loyal to your own best interests." Take care of yourself first, he counsels, and that way you'll be in a position to take care of others.
For business owners, to be honest in your dealings with others is fairly intrinsic:  you won't get far in deceiving your business' stakeholders.

Take care of yourself first, now there's the rub.  As we have written about before, many business owners choose to do without, to sacrifice for the greater good of their businesses, often at their own expense.  Right or wrong, I don't know too many business owners who are in it solely for the money. 

Is that wise?  From a financial standpoint, no it is not.  As my colleague John Dini eloquently and correctly argues, businesses owners have a right to (all of the) profits.  Profits are a result, not a goal, however.

When financial considerations alone drive decisions, poor choices and outcomes often follow.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Gone fishing

I'm taking the holiday off.  Really...it's on our bucket list.

If you're jonesing, here are some blasts from the past, provided as a therapeutic service.
Enjoy over your morning Joe and then go play!

See you on September 10.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Bucket list

Before I headed off to a business conference last week, my 10-year-old son handed me a piece of paper with a half-dozen or so items written on it, in bulleted form.  The title of his list was "Six Things I Want to Do With Dad Before School Starts."

My first reaction -- before reading the list -- was to be impressed by his ability to organize his thinking in this fashion at his age.  I gave him a squeeze, and tucked it in my bag to read on the plane.

I got to it on the return flight home.  His note read:

"Dad, when you come back from Denver, there will be 10 days until school starts.  We haven't done a lot of the stuff you said you wanted to do together.  Here's the list for you.  I know we can do it."

He'd organized it by day, grouping activities together in well-thought-out, logical sequences.  Of course, not being proficient in Microsoft Outlook, he hadn't factored in my appointments for the week.

One of the lessons I learned on my trip last week was that to take on something new, we have to give up something -- to make space -- to have the capacity to fulfill our mission.

So, I took take care of the calendar myself.  Ben's been added.  Other things are being re-prioritized, re-scheduled and re-allocated, starting here.

S'more good stuff to come.  See you in September...



Monday, August 20, 2012

Breaking away

It's the back half of August.  Have you taken your summer vacation?

According to Wikipedia, vacation is a fairly modern invention, and has evolved over the past 200 years.  This makes sense, as it coincides with the rise of a modern industrialized economy.
"In the Puritan culture of early America, taking a break from work for reasons other than weekly observance of the Sabbath, was frowned upon. However, the modern concept of vacation was led by a later religious movement encouraging spiritual retreat and recreation. The notion of breaking from work periodically took root among the middle and working class."
The origins of the word date back to late 14th century France, meaning "freedom from obligations, leisure, release," and is derived from the Latin vacationem "leisure, a being free from duty," and vacare "be empty, free, or at leisure."

The operative word in the history of vacation is being "free."  Did you feel free during your interregnum?  Or were you worried about palace coups or other more mundane business concerns?  I know business owners who rarely take more than a long weekend, and I know others who take weeks off regularly, in addition to other time away from the business, and run successful, growing businesses.


Monday, August 13, 2012

Go Team!

In last week's post, I noted that the phrase "An Army of One" is an oxymoron for small business owners. As it turns out, the Army also apparently felt that it was antithetical to the ethos of teamwork, and phased the phrase out.

Ah, teamwork...who doesn't want a "team player?"  Businesses spend millions, if not billions, of dollars in pursuit of talented teammates.
  • We advertise for them in our recruitment ads (who wants to hire a boat-rocker?)
  • We read books about building good teams (millions of them)
  • We listen to motivational speeches by successful sports team coaches.

We spend much time and energy thinking about teams.  But it also seems that a similar amount of time is spent moaning about our recruits' lack of individual initiative and how to motivate them.  How do we square this circle?



Monday, August 6, 2012

Dead-eye

This week we mark two milestones:  the two-year anniversary of our TAB business and blog post number 50.

We will be celebrating the former with friends of TAB at our Summer Social, to thank them for their support of our enterprise.  Without you our journey would not have gotten much past the start, would not been nearly as fulfilling and surely would not have been as much fun.  We will all refrain, though, from expressing our inner Kool and the Gang.

As to this blog, over the past year we have tried to reflect that journey through our weekly posts, channeling the information, advice, trials and triumphs of our members and the organizations and individuals that make up our community.  It has been given me the ability to pay forward the education that I am continually receiving from the Capital Region business owners, leaders and entrepreneurs who are successfully leading their organizations forward.


Monday, July 30, 2012

Heading north?

"True north" was a wildly popular term in the late 20th century. So popular that dozens of companies, organizations and products incorporated the term into their name.  Paradoxically, it became so widely embraced and adopted that its usage in recent years has gone south

True North is, literally, a physical place.  It refers to the earth's geographic North Pole.  It is unmovable, immutable, constant, consistent.  It is, not literally, the polar opposite of Magnetic North, which varies in time and place, and by your perspective.

So, navigationally, literally and figuratively, it is best to know True North, or you may be traveling off course.

Metaphorically, it is also necessary to find and understand your True North if you wish to end up where you want to go metaphysically.


Monday, July 23, 2012

What's next?

Back when I was just beginning my climb up the corporate ladder, I had a boss who infuriated me.  We had little in common, except our employer.

I was young, confident, dedicated, eager to please and hungry to earn my stripes yesterday.  I was the proverbial young man in a hurry.  After all, I had joined the corporate world with a passel of collegiate achievements, a brain full of book-learning and ideas out the wazoo for how to do things differently and better.  Full of piss and vinegar, as they say.

He was ancient forty-something.  A West Pointer who had served in 'Nam.  He was a hard-ass and I was just a plebe.

Whenever I finished some project or assignment or report, he'd give a quick, cursory thank-you and then ask, "What's next?"  Every. Single. Time. 

I wanted a pat on the back, an acknowledgement of my brilliance, an atta-boy.  I wanted some show of gratitude for the contribution I thought I was making.  I wanted recognition.  After all, that was what I expected after being a BMOC.  Who did he think he was?

He would have none of it.  Peering over his readers, he'd ask "What's next," as if I had an actual clue as to what he was talking about.

He stifled me. I hated him.  I called him "Big Brother."


Monday, July 16, 2012

We, the leaders

Is business ethics an oxymoron such as "open secret,"act naturally" or "exact estimate?" Sure seems that way as the list of misdeeds grows.

The Libor scandal continues to gestate like that deadly virus from The Andromeda Strain.

(Even if you can't differentiate Libor from a Labradoodle, you should be paying attention as it affects pretty much everything in the world of commerce.)

Other recent transgressions include faked CEO resumes, bribery, and outright theft, to name a few.

While businesspeople acting badly is certainly not the norm, the lack of business ethics is not a new subject. The portrayal of businessmen (and women) as murderers, conspirators and villains is one that apparently never grows old.  The list of business-related morality-tale movies is long and notorious illustrious.

None of the business owners I coach or consult with are sociopaths, fortunately, and I think it is safe to say that more business owners are focused on doing good, as opposed to doing well. They're more likely to be Rotarians than recidivists.


Monday, July 9, 2012

About time

"Everybody's talking at me.  I can't hear a word they're saying." - Harry Nilsson.

 

Do you practice management by tuning out?  

There's the tuning out that Harry Nilsson sang about:  unhappy with your current situation, you shut out the world because you just can't handle one more request from yet another needy person.  You long for more control, a better situation, a clearer path, but aren't sure where that place may be or how to get there.  You are stuck in neutral; you know that there's a road not taken for you, but you can't find your keys.

There's also the productive kind of tuning out, one that's sadly not immortalized in song.  It's where you actively limit your distractions, focus on your priorities and feel a tangible sense of accomplishment.  You are in control, in balance, working on your business rather than in your business.  You make some progress every day, and hit your goals over time.

We all live in the same age of distraction.  It affects us all, and especially for those of a certain age, time seems to be accelerating away from us.  There's too much to do and realistically, not enough time available to do it all.  We are constantly running to catch up to our to-do lists and not making progress.  I call it the one head, many hats syndrome.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Business Scene Investigation


The following is a true story. The names have been changed to protect the disappointed.

The facts:

It looked like the perfect evening:
  • A summertime shindig at a recently-opened lakeside bistro;
  • A world-class chef at the grill; 
  • A pre-holiday weekend;
  • A perfect weather forecast, and
  • A renowned local band providing entertainment.
With more than a month of preparation and provisioning invested in the event, expectations were high.  Instead of a perfect evening, it was a perfect set-up:  only 35 patrons showed. A crime for sure.

The loss the house took that night is still being counted, both financial and psychic.  Certainly, the crowd was far below estimates as indicated by the number of staff on hand. While the diners were oblivious, the pain was clearly evident on the proprietor's face and in his voice.  He had been taken. Big time.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Main Street, with a bullet

The phrase "with a bullet" derives from the music industry.  It comes from Billboard magazine, the recording industry's bible in the age before digital downloads, iPods, piracy and business model implosion.  The term means a rapid ascension on a list...in the case of music, "climbing the charts."

"Small business" is number two with a bullet -- up 42 points --  according to Gallup's new study on Americans' confidence in major institutions.  Small business trails only the military in the level of trust the US citizenry places in it, followed by the police and religion.  (Interesting cocktail chatter the members of those groups would share.)

Big business, HMOs and Congress top the he bottom of the list.  I'm sure you're shocked, shocked.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Cinderella men (and women)

A recent survey of small business owners by Citibank generated a flurry of news stories last week, similar to this one, whose headline blared that more than half of business owners have gone without pay; a quarter of them for a year or more.

This is probably news to only those who don't own a small business.  Owning a business -- especially in its formative years -- is not the path to Easy Street that those who don't own or run a business may assume.  Asked to name a movie that epitomizes the small business lifestyle, it surely would not be Putting on the Ritz.

Many owners I work with take far more pride in, and get much more satisfaction from, creating jobs than improving their bank balances.  When we discuss their personal needs and visions, getting rich seldom enters the conversation.


Monday, June 11, 2012

Letting go

"It is not the strongest species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change."  — Charles Darwin

A number of discussions over the past few weeks involved business owners in the midst of managing change.

Some notes from the field:
  • A professional services CEO has just promoted a staffer into the #2 position, over some longer-tenured employees.  The staffer, great at his former job, is struggling, to the consternation of his boss.  Why? There's no job description for the new position, nor any plan for coaching the employee to succeed in his new role.
  • A retailer whose recent multi-quarter run of increasing sales has suddenly stopped.  Her sales and marketing people can't tell  why...they don't have the data on what's changed. Why? They don't have access to the data, which includes the company financials.
  • A business owner is in the process of selling his business to an employee/relation. He's agreed to a generous discount from the valuation and to hold a note for part of the price, because "it's family."  But the buyer hasn't spent even one day managing the business ever...never managed a project, never met a customer, never sold a piece of business. Why? "My father just gave [the business] to me, so I figured I do the same."

Smoking "hopium" is not a sound business strategy.  Why? Several reasons come to mind:

Friday, June 1, 2012

So sell me.

Last in a series...

The world of commerce has changed dramatically in the past few years. Technological, demographic, social and economic changes are raining over small businesses like a never ending series of squalls.

The processes and techniques employed by many small businesses were developed in the mid-to late-20th century and built for a “broadcast” world that for the most part no longer exists: large audiences that you can reach and motivate through traditional, one-way “tell and sell” laden with cliches and jargon.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Who are you?

Third in a series...

In 1978, The Who asked the musical question, "Who are You?" While the song and album were an exploration of conflicting progressive and punk rock attitudes, nearly 35 years later their query could be the anthem for current sales and marketing angst.

Gathering meaningful information on customers is one of the most important tasks for small businesses.  It is also one of the most difficult, and therefore, among the most neglected by small business owners. 

At its most basic level, any operating business has two target audiences:  current customers and potential customers.  Most proprietors I meet and/or work with operate under a "build it and they will come" approach of one form or another.  And for most, it works well in getting a business through its formative stages:  establishing a customer base and following, and building a revenue stream.

But to scale an enterprise takes more focus.  After all, your target market is not everyone.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Back to the Future?

Second in a series...

In our last entry,  we asked "are buyers liars?"

Buyers know what they want, and the key to more productive selling is gaining an understanding of the how, why and when of the purchase decision.

But getting that information, now there's the rub.

In some very meaningful ways, the selling today is much more difficult than in years past: while technology has made it easier to identify and communicate with prospects, it has also erected new barriers to making meaningful connections.

For example, there are fewer live gatekeepers (who has a secretary anymore?), but it is arguably harder to break through the electronic ones -- voicemail, email, online social networks.  And manipulation sure doesn't work in either case.

So, while there are new barriers to reaching customers, even when surmounted, the "trust hurdle" is much higher.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Getting past the nose

"Buyers are liars."  How many times have you heard that phrase?

It's a pretty common aphorism in certain sales-oriented industries, such as autos, real estate and home remodeling.

I've heard it thousands of times, usually following a salesperson's failed pitch.  "They said they were interested in a two-story colonial on a cul de sac, and I showed them every one of my listings, but they ended up buying a cape on Main Street from someone else.  I could have sold them that, they just lied to me. They don't even know what they want."

Does that dialogue strike a chord?  Does it seem true to you?  Do you believe that your customers really do not know what they want, or that they lie to your face?

Among professions, only politicians are trusted less than salespeople.  Why is that?  Can it really be true that in a society where the vast majority of our Gross Domestic Product is consumer-driven, that trillions of dollars are generated on deceit or cluelessness?

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Punish the monkey

You may not have noticed, but this week our government became more accountable.  Is that a good thing?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines accountability thusly:
...the quality or state of being accountable, liable or answerable; especially : an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one's actions <public officials lacking accountability>...
Not bad objectives for public institutions, but if you are a human being, specifically an employee, these are not terribly positive, empowering or motivating definitions.  All of the responsibility devolves to them.

Perhaps that's why the "A" word has employees rolling their eyes, running for cover, or heading for the exit:  many view accountability as just another modern, Newspeak business term for blaming, finger-pointing and butt-covering.  Punishment, in other words.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Is it safe?

Growth is always a hot topic at the monthly TAB meetings I facilitate:  strategies, plans, tactics, obstacles, wins, losses, etc.

Most of our businesses are doing well, but some have seen their top lines flatten and a very few have experienced sales declines.

Bottom line-wise, our business owners have seen their operating costs escalate.  The cost of goods, taxes, health care, energy, professional services have all been rising. Most have been very good at maintaining their margins by controlling their variable expenses.

But nipping and tucking only gets you so far, as we are finding out in the debate over growth versus austerity at the national and international level.  You can't cut your way to growth over the long term.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Beneath the waterline

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As you may have heard if you weren't stranded on an ice floe, the supposedly unsinkable Titanic went down in the North Atlantic exactly 100 years ago this weekend.

It remains an epochal event; one of the greatest catastrophes of the 20th century.  At the time, it was “unthinkable,” "impossible."  A black swan. 

Until the details emerged.  With the benefit of hindsight, it all seemed inevitable:  corners cut, disbelief suspended, expert opinions ignored.  This is partly why Titanic has transcended the literal and become metaphor for commercial hubris, institutional blindness and human fallibility (and more, to some.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Empowering thoughts

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People start their own business for a number of reasons -- some to follow a passion, some always dreamed of being their own boss, while others were in search of flexibility that they didn’t find in larger organizations. Those who grow beyond solo entrepreneurship will quickly find out that getting the right people on the bus is even more important when you’re driving a small scale version. When on-boarding a new employee, consider this:
“If you hire people just because they can do a job, they’ll work for your money. But if you hire people who believe what you believe, they’ll work for you with blood and sweat and tears.” (Simon Sinek, author of Start with Why.)
Ensuring that you find people who believe what you believe requires that you have a clearly defined vision [see this earlier post]. You also need to choose those who are able to multi-task and not worry so much about staying in the confines of their role, and to “jump out of their seat” when needed. To see what a fully-engaged employee looks like, check out Jeff Haden's 8 Qualities of Remarkable Employees.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Haircuts, Lipstick and Yogi

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One day recently I dashed into a local haircut shop shortly after it opened, hoping to beat the rush and get a quick trim before a meeting.  It had been a while and I was looking and feeling shaggy.

The store is one of those national franchise chains that have grown, weed-like, to seemingly inhabit every local shopping center.  It has been hawking its franchises on CNBC, LinkedIn, and other media.

There was no one in the store when I entered…no customers and no employees up front.  After a couple of minutes, a young woman (I'll call her Abby) came up from the back and apologized for my wait, saying, “it takes us a little longer to open up because we are short-staffed these days.” 

My family and I patronize this store frequently.  The staff is attentive, friendly and professional.  The cost of its services are reasonable, the cuts competent and the customer loyalty program keeps us, well, loyal.  The store has been popular and can get crowded at peak times, hence my early morning visit.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Information duncity

Did you ever notice how some memes seemingly appear out of nowhere, then are suddenly ubiquitous -- like the car you never noticed until you bought one and now it seems everyone owns one?

I recently wrote about how failure can actually lead to success, and how "one's errors are a portals of discovery."  Turns out lots of people are talking and writing about mistakes lately.

One of the best pieces I've seen is one from TAB colleague John Dini, who recently wrote on the value of mistakes in business. His advice to start a "mistake budget" is one that I will steal gratefully, with generous attribution.

However, mistakes aren't always all they are cracked up to be.  In this unforgiving economy, we need to maximize "good" mistakes and minimize the "bad" ones.  We need to make better decisions.

And there's the rub.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Heat Burns

It's been an interesting week in damage control.
How well are you prepared to defend yourself in the court of public opinion?  Every organization -- whether a globe-straddling colossus or a start-up just launching itself -- will face an emergency at some point.  After all, accidents happen, things break, smart people do stupid things and sometimes good people do bad things -- occasionally on purpose. As the saying goes, "stuff" happens.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

You say you want an evolution

Change:  there are few words in the human lexicon that evoke more angst than this, both good and bad.

Strange, that.

Change is a constant in our lives.  As constant as the dawn or the sunset.  Every day is different and change is an ever-present aspect of living.

Change is feared because often we are not in control of it, especially in business. Key employees leave, new competitors emerge, customers disappear.  (These changes are in your control, but that's the subject of another post.)
It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change. Charles Darwin
Change forces us out of our habits.  And habits are a basic human mechanism for dealing with the  complexities of everyday life.
In a recent book, The Power of Habit, NY Times business writer Charles Duhigg explores the science behind why we do what we do (and how.)

Friday, March 2, 2012

Land of the free

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So, how did you spend your free day on Wednesday?  You, know, February 29, aka Leap Day.

Ladies, did you channel your inner Sadie Hawkins?

Dudes, did you take it head on, mano-a-mano.

Was it a day of routines, deadlines, accomplishments, chores, sports, striving.  Just another day; one of 365 366? 

Pity if you didn't leverage this quadrennial opportunity. 

It was FREE.  What do you mean that  you didn't take advantage of it?  What's wrong with you?  Don't you love free stuff?  Doesn't everybody?  Didn't you get the memo?

It seems that there's a offer of "free" everywhere you look:  Buy One/Get One Free; Free Estimates; Free Consultation; Free Delivery.  Consumers lap it up.  And why not, it's FREEEE!

No wonder the country is broke.  We're giving it all away.  Increasingly so.  Hard to make a buck that way, isn't it?