Category Archives: Strategy

Taking the “I” out of teams

A work colleague of mine had a nasty habit of starting conversations with comments like, “When I managed such and such..” or “I used to lead this..” or “When I was the CEO ….” or “When I saved the world ..”. Well not quite, but you can probably see my drift. He used the “I” word so much that I nicknamed him PP, which stood for the Perpendicular Pronoun (ie the letter “I”). This was perhaps a bit obtuse and he did not really get it, but it made a key point about his mindset. If you believed even half of what he said, you could be excused for feeling quite inferior.

The real problem however was that he was a menace in a team situation. Two problems in particular can emerge in such situations where a big ego is part of the team.

1. Big egos can drive people to distraction

A big ego in a team can be an annoyance and distraction to the task at hand. This occurs especially through unnecessary and repetitive stories about self-centred activities and experiences. People can quickly tire of such behaviour. Whilst teams should have a range of personalities, there is nevertheless a need for teams to work out and accommodate the different personalities represented. This does not mean that personalities need to be shut down, but it does mean that some protocols of the workings of a team need to be clearly understood. A big ego can provide a real challenge in this regard.

2. Team members can stop listening to a big ego

Even though a big ego can have some good ideas, people in the team can actually stop listening and ignore the suggestions or ideas presented. This can have unfortunate consequences as the team is not gaining the full value from one of its team members. In other words, the team cannot be high performing. Amongst other things, a team is about making the most of a diverse range of thinking and ideas, and a big ego can sub-optimize this aspect of teaming.

Naturally, people bring their egos to a team. That is human nature, and is part of how our confidence is conveyed. But the issue is how can the ego be positively managed in a team situation, and focused towards effective outcomes for the team.

A high performing team needs to deal with the big egos, and ensure that the outcomes of the team are not compromised. Assuming there is a need to keep the big ego on the team, three strategies can be employed:

Strategy #1 – Embrace and capitalize

As the saying goes, if you cannot beat them, then join them. This strategy is about using the big ego to energize and stimulate the team. In other words, it is about turning the ego into a positive. This would include language such “Tell us a bit more about your experience with such and such..” or “What can we learn from what you did at ..”. This strategy focuses on how to get the most from the positives, and integrating the big ego into the team in a positive and fulfilling way.

Strategy #2 – Tolerate but drive clear focus

This strategy is more about managing a collective tolerance of the big ego, but at the same time placing a strong focus on the outcomes and deliverables expected. This can be characterized by language such as “We want you to bring these specific inputs back to the team meeting, but leave other areas to different team members”. It is about using the big ego in specific areas of strength and making sure that a focused contribution occurs.

Strategy #3 – Quarantine and leverage

This is a risky strategy, but can work especially where more technical input is needed. In this case, the big ego operates somewhat outside of the team, but is tasked with providing specific deliverables to the team almost in a customer / supplier relationship. This has the effect of obtaining the material or contribution required, but at the same time avoiding some of the challenges in the normal team environment. The language here would be along the lines “We want you specific inputs in the following areas, and we will then decide how these will be discussed with the broader team”.

Teams are challenging at the best of times, and we all bring our egos to the table. But managing that big ego can provide team members with some real heartache and frustration, and can compromise the performance of the team. Film director Fred Durst gave this some perspective when he once said, “To walk around with an ego is a bad thing. To have confidence in yourself is a great thing.”

 

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How technology has re-shaped the village

Remember life as it was in smaller communities in earlier times? Think of the English village or the Australian country town. These smaller communities shared some unique characteristics. Everybody knew each other, and they looked after each other. The notion of privacy was minimal. But their citizens were well connected, and the sense of community was really strong and personal.

But as technology changed, so too did the village. Consider the impact of transport. Suddenly the village became accessible to others, and it also gave the villagers the opportunity to move to new places either for work or to explore. Other technology changes like the telephone broke down the boundaries even more.

Today in the western world, the traditional village has become a mere shadow of its former self as the world has become more urbanised. We still use the term village, but more in the context of the so-called global village. Bill Gates once said “The internet is becoming the town square for the global village of tomorrow”.

This concept of the global village has rapidly evolved. Take the idea of travellers being connected. Not so many years ago, travellers had to send postal letters home to friends and relatives, and chatting by phone was expensive and therefore a rare occurrence. But today, travellers can be connected instantly via phone or the internet, and can even have face-to-face contact using online video tools.

But this global village has come alive even more in the past five years or so via the various forms of social media that have exploded on the scene. Limited geographic dimensions no longer define how people connect or interact. Technology has changed the playing field, and indeed the language. People now “Google” something or “Skype” someone or “Tweet”. Such terms did not exist until the past ten years.

Of course, the global village is vastly different from the traditional village in many ways, especially in structure, appearance and behaviour. For instance, in the global village, we deal with strangers very differently. How many friends have we accepted on Facebook that we hardly know? How many followers do we have on Twitter whom we have never met, and indeed will not meet in a lifetime? How many times do we buy items from complete strangers across the other side of the planet? The traditional village was a far more intimate affair, and much more self-contained. A stranger was therefore viewed as an outsider, and may have been greeted with some caution.

But it is instructive to see the factors that are common, and to appreciate some of the lessons for our global village today, especially as they relate to social media. There are three of these.

Connection

The traditional village provided a strong and very personal connection for its members. The global village also provides connection, but across boundaries of nation states and any time day or night. Social media in particular has given huge impetus to this phenomenon. If we add up the users of Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn combined, it totals a staggering number in excess of 1.5 billion. Yes there will be some overlaps in the numbers, but the point is that these three social media sites alone provide connection for an extraordinary percentage of the global population.

Community

The traditional village was about a real sense of community. People were involved and visible in the activities of the village. The modern global village is also about community. It is about bringing people together around common interests. LinkedIn for instance has over 1.5 million discussion groups covering a vast array of topics and items of interest. This is a very different form and scale from the traditional concept of community, but the fundamental thread of linking people via common interests is the same.

Collaboration

The notion of pulling together to get the job done was a strong feature of the traditional village. This collaboration provided the real glue that enabled the village to thrive. Today the world of social media provides an extensive platform for collaborating around solutions to problems or gathering teams together for business activities such as product development.

Social media is a key element of the global village as we know it, and will continue to grow in influence in this space. Technology has changed the village in shape and scale forever, but some of the underlying fundamentals are as important today as they were when the local village was our way of life.

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7 lessons for business from the game of golf

Golf is a global game of great popularity, and is played by people of all ages and in many diverse locations. Various sports surveys suggest that some 50-60 million people across the world play golf regularly. It is a game of great challenge, but also enjoyment. Golfers joke about the satisfaction from those few great shots or those successful holes that provides the incentive to “come back again next week”.

But golf also provides some powerful lessons on how businesses can shape or possibly defy success. Seven lessons in particular stand out.

1. Have a game plan

Golfers know that a game plan is important. Each game is different depending on a whole range of factors including weather conditions, state of the fairways, and the nature of the competition. A good golfer will determine how to play the game in advance, and for instance plan whether a more aggressive club selection is needed for the game because of prevailing conditions.

In business, most organizations will have some form of strategy, and how this strategy or game plan is articulated will vary widely. The issue however is the way that organizations relate their strategy to their day-to-day activity. They will need to flex their strategy in the shorter term to deal with changes in the market place or shifts in customers or suppliers. Having the strategy itself is no guarantee of success, but how it relates to the immediate business activities is crucial. Strategy and execution must be tightly coupled.

2. The game is not over until it is over

How many times do we see golfers getting over-confident about their final score? They may have had a good first half of the game, but the score can turn badly on just one or two strokes or one bad hole. Top players have all too often seen the winner’s trophy in sight, only to find it eluding them in the final few holes of the game.

Sales teams are often under pressure to provide updates on the status of big deals or major proposals in the pipeline. One often hears that a sale is “looking good” and that it has a strong chance of success. But in reality that could be the danger moment as complacency may emerge and snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory. The sale or the deal is not done until it is finalized, and the winner’s trophy is actually in hand.

3. The little things are what count

The score in golf is very dependent on execution and getting the little things right. Sinking that short put or chipping properly onto the green all become critical for the final score. How many times do we hear a player lament “if only I had sunk that putt on the 5th..!”

Organizations can come unstuck on some of the little things that take on a momentum of their own. For instance, a customer service issue may go viral through social media, but not because of the seriousness of the issue per se, but because the customer felt aggrieved at the speed or nature of the response in the first place. The so-called little things in dealing with customers and other stakeholders are so important.

4. Tactical choices really matter

The tactics on each hole need to be carefully considered. The choice of club for a particular shot is most often cited as a key decision to be made. Likewise, the approach to the green is also one of those tactical choices. Should the player loft over a nasty bunker or perhaps play a safer shot shy of the bunker but a little further from the pin?

In business, executives are confronted daily with choices such as product pricing or variations, inventory issues or reactions to competition. Recruitment decisions can also be significant in this domain. Does the organization take a bold stance on pricing to a new customer or does it focus more on maintaining margin?

5. The mental game is crucial

We often hear golfers describe the mental ups and downs of the game, and the importance of the maintaining mental approach. In his book Golf is not a game of perfect, Bob Rotella points out that “Golfing potential depends primarily on a players attitude…”.

Some organizations focus their management development on simulating or practicing situations that resemble real life examples. Also, classroom style case studies have been the focus for many organizations. The blending of these two activities offers a solid approach to helping executives develop their mental capacity to react and respond. They not only can test the ability to react, but also understand how they feel and to appreciate some of the emotional journey involved in staying ahead in their business environment.

6. Don’t complain about the conditions – deal with them

Golf is played in all conditions – the wind, the rain, the heat. The conditions cannot be changed so golfers have to learn to deal with these variables, and change their game or their gear accordingly.

Conditions swirl around in a business context. Factors such the economy or changes in the industry all have a major impact on how organizations perform and indeed grow. Different competitors or behavior of the competition are also factors that have a significant impact. But organizations need to deal with these factors, and develop and execute the right mitigation strategies.

7. You are accountable for your game

Golf is one of those sports where you and you alone are responsible for the outcome. You are not reacting to a sizzling serve over the net as in tennis or a ball being hurled your way as in say baseball. The accountability starts and stops with the individual golfer.

Most organizations place a great emphasis on personal accountability. Yes teams and teamwork are essential, but in the end everyone has a significant responsibility to deliver, and to make sure their personal objectives are met. Organizations with a strong culture of personal accountability generally will be more agile and have greater ability to respond to changes in their marketplace.

In the end, golf and business are about knowing what to do and executing well. Even small improvements will make a difference. As former US President Gerald Ford once said, “I know I am getting better at golf because I am hitting fewer spectators.”

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Lifting the batting average

Modern business has a particular focus on nurturing and developing people. After all, we are confronted with the so-called war for talent, growing skills shortages in some domains, and the need to manage retention levels. These are all compelling reasons for a strong and vigilant focus on people development.

But how do many organizations deal with these questions, and where do they focus their development resources?

Mostly, there is a premium placed on managing the better talent in the organization, say the top 10%. Those so-called top performers are the ones that receive significant attention in terms of mentoring, training and development. At first glance, this seems perfectly logical, and is rightly seen as a vital part of the retention strategy for organizations.

But is there another side to this story? Lets think of a sporting team, say baseball or cricket. The top batters (say three or four) will receive plenty of training and coaching. But a game will not always be won just off the back of the top batters. It is true that when the top batters all fire at the same time there is a very strong chance of the team winning. But it is also true that performance from all the other batters is vital for a successful team effort over time. All batters need to be developed to perform at least to a certain level.

The question then becomes a choice about raising the performance of the top batters or about raising the batting average of the team overall? Like many of these situations, it will come down to some blend of the two, but many coaches will favour the latter strategy of raising the overall batting average.

Organizations need to manage a similar balancing act. Yes there is a need to focus on the better talent, but if there is undue emphasis on this group, it may compromise the overall performance of the team on three fronts:

  • Performance and capability may be skewed too much to the top performers, and not enough to the wider team thus comprising the overall delivery. Performance overall could be compromised.
  • Those performers in the middle will greatly outnumber the top performers, but their capability gaps may not be sufficiently recognized. Alienation of the great middle may occur triggering turnover or morale issues.
  • As more and more focus is placed on the top performers, it may increase the gap even further between the top performers and those in the middle. The theory is that the top performers will draw others towards their level by example and so on, but this is not automatically the case.

Lets be clear. It is crucial to reward and develop top performers. But the key issue is to ensure that all people have the right chance to play their part in lifting the batting average in their organization.

Three points of focus will help:

1. Ensure that all people have reasonable access to major development tools and initiatives.

That does not mean that everyone goes to Harvard for three months, but it does mean that people need a strong level of development across the board, and not restricted to just a narrow group. For example, mentoring for top performers only would seem to be missing potential improvement to a wider grouping in the organization.

2. Provide a clear pathway for people in the middle as to what they need to do to move up a rung or two in performance level.

This is too often neglected or under-emphasised. Performance is often seen in the context of the “rear view mirror”, rather than focusing on what can be built from the positives for future development.

3. Use the top performers more effectively to develop the middle level performers.

The top performers have a lot to offer, and their objectives should be heavily weighted to developing and mentoring middle level performers.

In this way, organizations will have stronger chance of raising the overall batting average. Remember the old adage that “all boats come up on the rising tide”.

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The painting and the slide deck – some common learnings

Each day, thousands of people visit art galleries to view paintings of many different forms and sizes. The painting has long represented an embodiment of expression and emotion that people enjoy. It provides a unique form of communication and how life situations can be depicted. The right blend of colour and perspective generates a special visual experience.

In a similar vein in business each day, thousands of executives are either delivering or listening to presentations that are shaped around a slide deck of some form. But in many cases, the slide deck and the presentation provide an under-whelming experience for the viewer.

But are there learnings we can take from the humble painting? What are some of its features we can consider in a business situation?

Indeed, there are many learnings we can take from the painting and how these can apply in the business presentation context. The painting represents a powerful medium of expression and communication, both of which are vital elements in a business. Three aspects of the painting stand out:

1. The painting provides a real point of focus

One of the enduring features of a good painting is the focus it provides on a person or situation. This is captured forever by the artist and is there for all to enjoy.

But the presentation deck often lacks focus. Yes there may be a general theme or topic that is highlighted, but that is often lost in the details or in the way the presentation is structured. Just as a visual focus is important for an artist, the focus in a presentation deck is fundamental for its success.

2. The painting provides impact

A good painting generates real impact and provides that “wow” moment for the viewer. It provides an impact that can be remembered.

The presentation deck is often a medium that is lacking in impact. It can provide an almost bland response to a question or an issue, and which can lead to a lack of impact on the listeners. An audience can exit a presentation puzzled as to what they really learned. Impact is not only the domain of the artist, and the same applies strongly to the presentation deck.

3. The painting provides an experience that goes beyond mere colours and content

People remember a good painting because it provides them with an experience and strong level of engagement. People feel they are part of a broader sphere, perhaps getting inside the mind of both the artist and the subject.

But the experience of the presentation deck can be seriously lacking. It may generate little or no experience as such. Indeed, the presentation deck can have the opposite effect and be almost alienate an audience.

These three points from the world of art can be applied strongly for presentation decks – focus, impact and experience. A combination of these factors can make the presentation experience more effective, and can also have a broader and positive impact on the business over time.

This provides a challenge to the authors of all those presentation deck that are shaped every day. They need to be different and move beyond the standard and the repetitious. As French artist Henri Matisse stated, “creativity takes courage”.

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What happens when a business is under pressure

The retail CEO finished reading the morning newspaper extracts covering the release of the organization’s half-yearly results. The news was not good, and the newspaper comments were fairly blunt and unforgiving. The organization reported half yearly growth that was a full 2% points below expectations coupled with a significant tightening of margins. This was the double whammy of growth and profitability challenges. The CEO put the finishing touches to the internal communications that were about to be released.

Many organizations have experienced such a situation. The bad year or the bad quarter happens all to frequently. But equally, the responses also have a familiar ring and show a common pattern across most industries. Those responses tend to be in three groups as follows:

1. Expenses are purged

Often a travel freeze is announced almost immediately, and restrictions on discretionary costs are put in place. Classes of travel may be changed and standards of hotel accommodation may be downgraded. Much of the day-to-day business activity is subject to somewhat excruciating restrictions or controls. Some of this can be quite illogical and dysfunctional, but these actions can be very effective in terms of pure savings in the short-term.

2. People costs are put under the spotlight

A recruitment freeze may be announced and various training programmes are suspended for a period, maybe for 3 months or till a point later in the year. Costs of people development are put under the microscope such as limiting off-site or residential activities. Existing office facilities suddenly become in demand for on-site training.

3. Profit is the urgent focus

If the organization cannot grow in the short-term, then at least be very profitable. The dreaded profit improvement programme is often dusted off, and re-shaped to ensure the organization maximizes its profitability as quickly as possible. Much organizational energy is focused on this activity with the formation of task forces and action teams.

Most organizations will respond to challenging results with activities similar to those above. The precise actions will of course depend on how bad the results are, and over what period. For example, a full year of poor performance is much more significant than a single month off the boil.

All of the above responses are valid and have their place in the management of any business. Clear and firm actions are needed to bring poor results back into the black. But are they sufficient?

From a financial perspective, all of the above initiatives will deliver results, and in most cases very quickly. They represent actions that can deliver real bottom line outcomes quickly and visibly. They also help to transmit a strong message across the organization that performance must be improved, and action is happening to deliver such improvement.

But short-term cost savings are only part of the answer. No organization has “cost-saved” its way to prosperity, especially with short-term initiatives. Yes, it may have dug itself out of a hole, but that is about all. What about the longer term?

In addition to short-term fixes that may be painful but necessary, organizations need to take a hard look at their strategic performance levers to get themselves in top shape to avoid circumstances such as those faced by the retail CEO above.  Those performance levers are in four groups:

1. The value proposition

How do products, services and price all combine into a value proposition in the eyes of the customer? The organization may feel it has the best service in the market, but if customers see it differently, there is a real disconnect. Worse still, if some of this is subjected to short-term cost savings, it may make the perceptions even more problematic. The value proposition in the eyes of customers is a fundamental performance lever.

2. The cost structure

How sustainable is the cost structure in the longer term? There may be more cost-effective ways of doing business, such as outsourcing or different ways of working. Some of these avenues may be controversial, especially in the home market. For example, some jobs may need to move offshore. Cost is not just about the accounting in the profit and loss statement. It is about how the business model can survive and thrive in the longer term.

3. People capabilities

Are the right capabilities in place or do competitors have a different approach to growing and sustaining their organization capabilities? Organizations need to take a close look at their capabilities for the future. For example, if a domestic organization is seeking to expand abroad, it needs to have a very clear view and a plan to acquire and develop those capabilities.

4. Capital structure

Is the capital structure appropriate for the business and how does this drive decisions at the senior level? High gearing levels can place undue pressure back on the operations of the organization. For instance, there may be under-investment in areas like technology due to funding constraints brought about by the wrong capital structure.

For the CEO above, short-term actions are necessary and probably urgent. But the real value ultimately comes from the strategic performance levers. As the old proverb says, “Getting money is like digging with a needle – spending it is like water soaking into sand.”

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How well are we developing our executives for the future?

Executive development takes a high-profile in most organizations, and is given significant attention at board level. Succession planning, mentoring, role rotation and training are all part of this mix.

One aspect that receives particular focus is external executive education. This is due to both the out-of-pocket costs and the issue of “time away from the business”. This area is typically about developing the strategic and softer skills rather than technical skills such as accounting for example. External executive education is a major industry in its own right with many hundreds of universities and other organizations competing for the corporate dollar in this area.

Take the Harvard Business School for example. In 2011, it provided open enrollment courses for some 6,700 participants. In addition, it provided 62 custom programmes for some 3,200 participants, and these custom programmes were delivered to 31 separate companies. Whilst the specific numbers will differ, there is a similar pattern across hundreds of business schools across the globe. This is lucrative business for the providers of these programmes. In graduate schools of business, it is generally acknowledged that the executive programmes provide significant profitability compared to the flagship MBA classes.

But how effective are external executive education programmes? The answer is often  “it depends.”  Indeed, the same can be said for internally developed and delivered education programmes.

On one level, we can look at overall corporate results. Assuming we accept the principle that executive education is ultimately about helping to achieve better corporate outcomes, we can use corporate results to some extent as a proxy of its effectiveness.

Well, maybe. There are many factors that impact corporate results, and we need to be careful to avoid jumping to conclusions on cause and effect. But having said that, CNN Money shows some interesting statistics regarding the performance of Fortune 500 organizations. In the period 2000 – 2010, 50 of the Fortune 500 showed total return to shareholders of between 17% and 46% annually. The top 50 in EPS (earnings per share) growth also demonstrated similar performance. These numbers are strong by any basis of comparison, and don’t forget this includes the period of the GFC in 2008/2009.

Whilst we can argue that executive education may have played a part in helping to deliver these results, that is probably as far as we can go. Drawing any stronger connection would be way too tenuous at such a macro level.

But individual corporations also face a similar challenge. How do they link and track the delivery of executive education with actual outcomes and results? This is partially overcome by participants agreeing some form of objectives upfront that can be measured both at the end of the programme and with some ongoing tracking. The key is to ensure the right issues are identified that will derive benefit from the executive education, and that the appropriate measures are agreed to drive the right outcomes. This is an important part of the value proposition for executive education. There needs to be a win-win for the organization and the individual participants.

This linkage is highlighted in an article for Bloomberg Business Week where Stephen Burnett the associate dean of executive education and professor of strategic management at the Kellogg School of Management said, “…….there should be a direct and measurable connection between executive education and business results”.

But what of the future, and how can executive education maximize real value? Four areas of emphasis are needed to deliver that value:

1. Focus executive education on the big strategic shifts

Some industries will face major strategic shifts that create the need for urgent change – for example, technology and the changes in the media industry. Other changes are at a broader level. For example, one of my previous blogs discussed business models and the future of work. These aspects are fundamental to the way organizations will function in the future. It is essential that the focus of executive education is shaped around these strategic shifts.

2. Rethink speed and flexibility in executive education

The speed of change is a much quoted challenge for executives – in their organizations, in their markets and in the global economy. Social media is a case in point, and this phenomenon is rapidly changing the consumer landscape and how buying decisions are made. Executive education needs to be very nimble to be on top of such issues with timely and relevant content.

3. Exploit the online component

The online environment provides a great opportunity to develop foundational skills in some areas so that face-to-face education can be used to build more significant capabilities. For example, online learning could be used to highlight the general fundamentals of say collaboration together with case examples to illustrate. But the specific application in the work environment and what needs to be done differently is far more suited to the face-to-face experience.

4. Lets get smarter about measures

It is very satisfying to hear someone say that the education course they just attended at some cost to the business was very useful or that it was excellent. It feels like a real value for money moment. But how will it impact the business and the individual? What will be different, why is that important and how will it be sustained? Measures need to be built into the performance management system for both the business and the individual participants, and must be assessed regularly to ensure outcomes are delivered.

Robert Louis Stevenson talked about travel being more about the journey rather than the destination. Executive education is also about a leadership journey, but it is one that needs to closely tied to clear milestones along that journey.

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