When is OK No Longer OK?

31 08 2011

I recently had the opportunity to speak to a group of young professionals about leadership. During the discussion, the group brought up complacency. Their observation was that many people were just fine where they were at. One person recognized that people take into account what they hear in the news. “If we hear the economy is bad,” he concluded, “then I should be happy where I am at.” I can relate that to comments I hear from some business leaders who are happy to be doing as good as the market is. While they are not seeing growth, they are happy to at least be holding their own.

However, this satisfaction is not reflected in the news we hear. Confidence is at an all-time low. We point our finger at whichever political party or country we believe to be at fault. In the end we accept things for the way they are and move on. So when did OK become the norm?

In order to improve our outcomes, we must never settle. We must always strive to be better, both personally and professionally. When times are good, it is easy to hit cruise control. “Just keep the pace,” we say. When business drops off we wonder why. Fortunately there are leaders that say OK is not good enough. They continually strive to be better. That is what I saw in this group today. They were active, engaged and motivated. Their willingness to share ideas and be part of something bigger is exciting. In fact, their energy could help motivate others. For them, good enough isn’t good enough.

What about your organization? Are you utilizing the best talent to grow? Or are you willing to settle? You have the power to change the situation you are in. Accept the challenges around you and do something about them. More importantly, if you are unhappy or complacent about your current situation, only you can change it. Becoming settled is unsettling because if you are not willing to change your outcomes, someone else will do it for you.

What is Your Risk Factor?

31 08 2011

Business innovation, growth, profitability, and long-term success. These are traits virtually every business aspires towards. Yet how many companies do all these things? Do they all matter? What about stability, safety and being cautious in order to protect the business?

Many companies are risk averse but does that really equate to stability? If you were to speak to many leaders today they might say no. A bad economy will quickly expose what can be a company’s greatest weakness. Their unwillingness to change.

As much as we would like things to be the same, they never are and as much as we would like to avoid risk, we never can. In a recent New York Times article (http://nyti.ms/jobs_risk) Steve Lohr highlights the benefits of risk taking using the example of Apple and Steve Jobs. Because of Mr. Jobs willingness to take risks, Apple, Pixar and Next all benefited from his leadership. Apple has been the big winner. Under Job’s tenure, Apple has experienced an innovation premium with stock price. This premium is an investor’s bet that the future of the company will be even better than today because of innovation.

When done correctly, risk is actually the least risky venture of all. In order for innovation to take place, diversity in experiences, creativity and a willingness to experiment with new ways of doing things is necessary. However the greatest skills for growth are often the least developed. What are you willing to do to develop these skills in your company?

Growth is Out There. Are You Bringing Your Best Game to Get It?

29 08 2011

This past weekend I had the opportunity to visit some friends at Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri. They are in the process of starting a museum in the area and I offered my assistance to help them on a big weekend. For those of you unfamiliar with the lake, it is a popular tourist spot south of Jefferson City. Its biggest activity: boating. For most of us here in the Midwest, we are familiar with a bass boat or small cruiser. At the Ozarks, you often see ocean going performance racers or large cabin cruisers because of the lake’s size. It is also in a beautiful part of the country that offers over 2000 miles of shorefront with all the little coves and inlets.

The reason I am bringing this up is to say that people are still spending money. This past weekend was Shootout, an annual event where everything from pontoons to fifty foot race boats compete for top speed on a stretch of open water as thousands of spectators watch. To say that the amount of money floating in the water is obscene would be an understatement. When many of these water-going projectiles can cost in the millions; and it is common to see several of these types of boats docked at any of the bars and restaurants lining the shore you can see that people are still spending money. Now they are just spending it differently.

While there I was able to talk with several executives in the industry as well as people who were there to enjoy the weekend. The business leaders were optimistic about their industry and were seeing a resurgence of buyers. They also admitted that the clients were the ones who were passionate about boating since lending practices have changed how people are able to afford these luxury items. People are still willing to spend, they are just more careful how they wish to spend their money. For their investment, they want more. If it is eating at a restaurant, the service has to be top notch. If they are buying products, they have to be high quality. Often the value of the item aligns with the values of the individual. That awareness is heightened in an environment where we are talking about a lifestyle.

As business leaders we are about creating experiences. Because people make their buying decisions based on emotion, we are continually pressed to make the experience the best one possible. Because our customers’ values are different we have to align the experience with their values. This is what makes business so challenging. We are always working to hit a moving target. The companies that are the best at this are growing and the businesses who fail to learn this are struggling.

This is why it is so important to know who your customers are. Learn which ones are the best. Understand what is important to them and why they would choose to do business with you. Also know which ones aren’t a good fit. You will never make everyone happy so spend your time making your best customers exstatic to do business with you.

What Businesses Could Learn From The Best Places To Live

24 08 2011

Recently Money Magazine’s “Best Places to Live” article was published.  Coming in at number eight was Middleton, WI which is very close to where I live.  Middleton, and Madison for that matter, are no strangers to being on the list of top places to live.  Both cities have continually received high marks for their quality of life.  But why here?  In case you haven’t noticed, we spend the better part of the year in cold and snow followed by a few months that are comfortable.  In the summer, it’s not the heat, but the humidity that gets you.  At least that is what I am told.  Regardless of the weather, we are still a top pick and I think there are a few things about great places to live that relate to business as well.

  • Great experiences – We are all about seeking pleasure and comfort.  Great communities find ways to provide that.  Each community on the list has plenty of events and attractions that provide these experiences.  Like in business, communities have the responsibility of keeping a wide variety of people happy.  How are the experiences you create keeping your employees and customers happy?
  • Security – Safety is important to many.  Great communities are safe communities.  People want to know they can do things without feeling threatened.  Can your people perform their job functions without feeling this way?  If you said yes, do the behaviors of your people exhibit that?
  • Education – Communities thrive on the availability of offering a great education.  Parents actively seek good schools that will provide their children with a future.  Is your company a great source of education?  Does your staff feel like they have a future with you?  Can they grow and develop to reach the desired level of success?
  • Opportunity – In difficult economic times, people will search out areas that provide opportunities.  Communities with a foundation of strong companies with secure jobs are a huge bonus.  Those jobs also have to provide opportunities for advancement and personal growth.  What steps are you taking to stimulate opportunities for your people?
  • Energy – By energy, I mean an engaging environment that stimulates the body and mind.  Both Middleton and Madison have plenty to do here.  There are a number of institutions for higher learning as well as access to bike trails, parks, music and live entertainment.  How is your business building the energy of its people?

These may be difficult questions for you to answer.  Given the economic state some businesses are in, these questions may be difficult to hear.  To some, the answers necessary may seem impossible.  After all, it is hard to invest when there are limited resources to make that investment.  What is important is as a business leader you need to find a way to address each of these challenges.  Failure to stimulate the mind and soul will leave your talent feeling empty and looking elsewhere to be fulfilled.

The Forest of Success is Hard to See With All These Darn’d Trees in the Way

23 08 2011

I came across this article about how tactics used to find jobs during the depression would be just as effective today. (http://on.wsj.com/wsj_jobs)  The article points out that while most jobs are found through personal relationships, people choose to use technology to seek employment. Instead of networking they post resumes on the internet and spend their days surfing the employment sites for the next opportunity.  During the depression if you didn’t leave your house to find work you didn’t get it.

It is human nature to seek out the path of least resistance.  “After all,” says the job-seeker, “I can send out 100 resumes instead of meeting three to four people.”  We all want the magic pill.  The thing that will produce the greatest result with the least amount of work.  Unfortunately we have to be aware of the unintended consequences.  For the job-seeker, it is greater isolation and actually MORE difficult to find a job.  For the business owner its relying on the next new marketing thing to generate increased sales.  Yet everything requires effort.  So is your effort well placed?  Whether you are looking for a job, or just seeking to grow your business, you need to follow these steps.

  • Know what value you bring – It doesn’t matter whether you are looking across town or on the other side of the world.  Understand your value to your customer.  What is unique about how you solve problems vs your competition.  Know why people hire you.  What unique traits do you possess that will attract clients to you.
  • Know your customer – Not everyone is your customer and yet we often use a very broad brush when describing who our customers are.  The broader the audience the more general the information you use to reach them.  If the information you use doesn’t resonate, you potentially lose a new client.  Define who your best clients are.  Only seek out those who best align with your business.
  • Know your experience – I am not talking about experience in terms of technical skills.  Experience is related to the outcomes you create.  Outstanding customer experiences are something worth talking about.  So are negative experiences.  Anything in the middle is a wash.  What type of experiences are you creating?  Don’t know?  Work with your best clients to figure it out.
  • Seek organic growth in addition to marketing growth – Imagine acquiring a new customer cost about $100 using traditional marketing.  How much is the cost of a referral?  Often is is significantly less.  Keep your current customers happy so they will want to stay with you.  Help your happy customers refer you new people.  The chance a referral becomes a customer is much higher than when you spend money on traditional advertising.  Use that marketing to strengthen your exposure and create awareness.
  • Everything involves effort – Success requires effort.  Nothing worthwhile is free.  Do what you need to do to be successful  Invest your time wisely and always look for ways to work “smart”.  If someone promises you an easy route that seems too good to be true, it probably is.


It’s True: If You Don’t Know Where You’re Going, Then Any Road Will Get You There

22 08 2011

The HP Touchpad has been out about a month and it is already done.  In fact, I just saw an ad for it this morning which makes it ironic that HP would be discontinuing it so soon.  In fact, it looks like HP is giving up hardware entirely to focus on software and cloud technology which makes one wonder what they were thinking when purchasing Palm.

HP appears to be one of those companies that has been struggling to find its way in recent years.  Once a top innovator, they now appear to be a shell of their former self.  I have to ask what is their vision?  The ship seems to be sailing without a rudder and who knows what this latest twist will bring.  I remember reading about what HP did to inspire new ideas and get people to pioneer new technologies.  Recent years of mismanagement and false starts plus a strong focus on price has commoditized their offering.  We will see what HP becomes in the next few months.  I hope they are able to recreate the fire that made them great.

At times it is necessary to change direction from an established course.  However if that direction is not clear to your customer or your people you are in for a difficult ride.  As leaders we need to take the time to look beyond tomorrow.  All too often we get stuck in today.  So keep your head up.  Watch for opportunities.  Manage today yet plan for tomorrow.

Is It Time to Get Your Motor Running?

15 08 2011

I read once that the modern internal combustion engine used to power most of our cars is incredibly inefficient.  Surprise huh?  The report stated that less than 20% of the energy produced actually went to power the car.  Even less makes it to the wheels to actually propel the car forward.  A vast majority of the energy is lost in the form of heat and friction created by the burning of the gasoline.  The rest of the energy is lost by the transference of that power through the different moving parts that make the car go.

Today we are experimenting with new ways to make our transportation more efficient.  From hybrids to electric vehicles we are doing more to get the most mileage out of our vehicles.  This desire spurred primarily by volatile gas prices.  We are in the early stages of development and while we have made progress, we have a long way to go to achieve our goals.

Running a business doesn’t seem to be much different when you look at it.  There is data to show that businesses are often inefficient.  Some of that is also created from heat and friction.  Whether it is through communication issues, lack of focus, or productivity challenges a company may find that a lot of energy seems to go up in smoke.  I have read articles and seen presentations that state most employees are only productive for about three hours of an eight hour day.  While we may have to wait for the better car engine, we have a great deal of control over creating the better business engine.

The key driver of business is people.  Their efforts are the engine that makes your company go.  Sales and profitability suffer when this resource isn’t maintained or continually improved upon.  In an article put out by the consulting firm Deloitte, a 1992 study found that “over a ten year period companies that intentionally managed their corporate culture outperformed similar companies that did not.  Additionally, companies listed on Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For further demonstrate that those with well managed cultures significantly outperform the S&P 500.”  So what can you do to get your motor running?  For starters, follow these five steps:

  • Improve your horsepower – Culture starts at the top.  Leaders have the power to influence everyone below them to either do great things or plan their time plotting their escape.  Invest in your leaders to make them better.  Coach and mentor them so they can do the same with their staff.  Excellence in leadership will lead to excellence in business.
  • Change the fuel – The fuel is what provides the potential energy that makes the engine go.  Listen to the information that you are sharing with your people.  Is it all gloom and doom?  Are your people overly negative?  Instead of possibility thinking, do they spend more time worrying about the competition and how they are going to survive?  Much of this is created by the fuel that is put into the system.  While important to be realistic, it is just as important to be positive.  For every problem their is a solution.  Only focusing on the problems creates more fear.  Fear is what robs the engine of all its power.
  • Give it a tune up – Provide the spark that ignites the fuel.  If you find your business wallowing in fear and pessimism you need to introduce something that will create a spark.  In the height of the cold war and our race to dominate space, President Kennedy offered his vision of sending a man to the moon in less than a decade.  His vision became the spark that launched the US into a new era of space exploration.  What do you need to do to create your spark?
  • Redesign the engine – Energy is lost when there are a lot of working parts.  These parts are the processes used in your business to get things done.  Systems and procedures should always be reviewed for efficiency.  How many of your people are doing things “because that’s the way we have always done them?”  During the last downturn, many companies reduced staff yet did nothing to redo the workflow.  The result was the same amount of work done by fewer people.  Many saw their efforts as making their business more efficient.  Many employees saw an increased workload with no benefit to them.  Right sizing to meet business demand can be a necessity.  It can also hurt morale.  Invest some time to review your procedures and streamline whenever possible.
  • Place the power in the wheels – There are leaders and their are managers.  Most companies have too much of one and not enough of the other.  Managers manage operational issues in an effort to control outcomes.  Many times these managers assume a great deal of control over the systems and the people beneath them.  This equates to inefficient leadership and staff.  Leaders also handle operational issues and they empower their staff to make things perform better.  Leaders focus on the bigger picture and work hard to avoid getting stuck in the day to day fires that inevitably happen.  Instead they strengthen and develop their people to handle these issues.  They place the power of success into the hands of those who have the greatest ability to influence it.  Doing this creates an engaged, well-developed staff that is capable of addressing challenges as they arise.

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