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Questions

Recently I observed a conversation between two business men where one individual was trying to sell the other.  It was obviously a first meeting.  Out-of-the-gate, the seller took an aggressive posture hell-bent on closing the deal.  He was dead in the water and didn’t know it because he violated some fundamental lessons that I learned many years ago when I worked for Dun & Bradstreet.  It turned out to be a short meeting.  What were the lessons?

Lesson 1.  Do your homework before the meeting.  Know everything you can about the company, its owner(s), markets, industry, etc.  This gives you a foundation to understand comments made about the business.

Lesson 2.  Get to know the person you are talking to.  Ask them about their company, what they do, what they make, who they sell to, their competition, etc.  Also, ask personal questions.  Tell me a little about you.  Why did you start your business?  What keeps you up at night?  Questions that promote insight and discovery.

Lesson 3.  Be very clear about your purpose for the meeting.  For example, ‘my purpose for meeting today is to take a little time in understanding your business and the issues you are facing to determine if my services/products can help you.’  Establish a constructive foundation for the dialogue.  You want to help the buyer see their issues from a different perspective.

Lesson 4.  Get the owner’s permission to ask certain questions.  For example, can I ask you about your biggest challenge today?  Would it be okay to talk a little about ……?  Establish a safe environment for dialogue.

Lesson 5.  Determine as quickly as possible whether your products/services can help the buyer.  Identify how you can help; be clear in your explanation.  Provide tactful suggestions.

Lesson 6.  Determine if the person you are talking to is the decision-maker for buying your products/services.  This includes having the authority to spend the funds.

Lesson 7.  Listen, listen, listen, listen from the perspective of Lessons 1 and 2.  Stay connected; don’t drift off into your own world.  Listening establishes the foundation for advanced discussion.

I can’t say for certain whether these lessons would have gotten him the sale.  But I am certain they would have gotten him the conversation.

 

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1493292585486_HD

Last year, the Future of Jobs Report developed by the World Economic Forum identified the Top 10 Skills in 2020.  The top six were:

  • Complex Problem Solving
  • Critical Thinking
  • Creativity
  • People Management
  • Coordinating with Others
  • Emotional Intelligence

Finding this very interesting, I did some research to see if I could identify critical skills identified in 2007 to see what has changed in just ten years.  Here are a few:

  • Communication Skills
  • Honesty and Integrity
  • Strong Work Ethic
  • Computer Skills
  • Teamwork
  • Analytic Skills

While there is some connection between these two sets of skills, the change is telling.  Let’s look at a few:

Complex Problem Solving.  According to the World Economic Forum report, complex problem solving is defined “as the capacity needed to solve new, poorly defined problems in complex situations.”  It is the ability to solve real-time problems that are not clearly defined in a dynamic and complex world that cannot be addressed by routine actions.  Whoa!

Critical Thinking.  According to the Foundation for Critical Thinking, critical thinking is defined as “… that mode of thinking — about any subject, content, or problem — in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skillfully analyzing, assessing, and reconstructing it….”  The focus is on objectively analyzing a problem by assessing evidence (data), patterns, relationships, etc. in order to arrive at an informed decision.

While the skill definitions seem overwhelming, in the simplest of terms, both are ‘mind sets.’  It is how we think about the problems/opportunities we are facing.  In other words, recognizing that many of the problems/opportunities facing business are not only below the observed surface, they are also complex, dynamic, and often obscured by fuzzy signals.

Compare these two to the 2007 skills, which are important, and think about how we have been educating and training our workforce for the last ten years.  Interestingly, the number one challenge I hear from business owners is that they cannot find qualified workers.  So, how does someone acquire these skills?  How does a company even begin to interview for this talent?  Where does it begin?

It begins with the leadership of the company “challenging the conventional thinking” within the organization.  It is a new mind set; it is a culture.  The first step is recognizing you will often have to dig below the surface of the observed problem/opportunity in order to grasp the substance/complexity of what you are dealing with, ‘before’ applying resources (time, people, and money) to act on it.  The descriptions say it all, we live in a more challenging environment than we did just ten years ago that requires a different skill set to survive and prosper.  Your move.

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Watching

I was recently talking to a young executive in a large corporation who was frustrated with his boss.  His frustration centered around his perception of his boss’s indecisiveness, guidance, and commitment to a very important project.  He said, “I can’t believe the executive team doesn’t see what is going on.”  If you have been in business long enough, you no doubt have experienced this frustration.  Maybe not with your boss, but certainly with a coworker or fellow manager.

It has been my experience that in most situations the level above the young executive, and all those impacted by the project, know what he is dealing with.  So, they are all watching.  Not only the progress of the project, but also how he is managing himself in a difficult situation.  Early in my career I was made an assistant manager of a department where the department manager had his issues.  I had to learn how to effectively manage the department in spite of the challenges.  It was only much later that I learned the Vice President of the division knew the situation and was watching/hoping I could get the department back on track.  I did, but it was frustrating because I didn’t think people knew how bad it was.  I never forgot this.

However, I don’t believe that above example is the norm; it happens but not often.  More often the frustrated young executive “believes” that their boss is disconnected when in fact, they are challenging the young executive to figure it out without a lot of hand-holding.  I have distributed responsibility and provided direction to many managers over the years.  I was crystal clear in what I needed but I wanted them to develop their own ideas and processes to carry out my direction.  Sometimes I knew that they had to deal with difficult people in order to be successful, but they had to figure it out. – Not only was I watching, in many cases, so was my boss.

One of my favorite sayings I tell young managers is that “You have to be able to sit at a table with Mother Teresa on your left and Attila the Hun on your right, and still carry out your direction/responsibilities.” – Remember, they are watching.

 

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Board Mtg

A common misconception of business owners is that outside advisory boards are for larger companies – multi-million dollar international firms you read about in the news.  Smaller mom and pop shops, individual proprietors, or firms with less than $5 million in revenue would never have an outside advisory board. – Not true.

An outside advisory board consists of three or four individuals (outside of your business) that have the competencies and capabilities to help you be more successful.  It is that simple.

Most businesses are started by an individual, or several individuals, who invest their personal capital (time and money) in an idea.  In the beginning, they do everything, primarily because they simply don’t have the funds to hire employees.  If successful, they gradually develop into a more structured organization with numerous employees, customers, business relationships, and a defined capital base.  Along this journey, it becomes increasing difficult for the owners to break away from business operations to spend time thinking about the strategic perspective of the business.  They can’t work on the future because they stuck in the day-to-day.

This is where an outside advisory board can help a lot of companies.  Its primary purpose is to help/guide owners to spend time working on the future of their business.  In other words, planning for the future.  Of course, outside advisory boards also help owners work on the day-to-day stuff; but their greatest value is strategic.

There is a long list of reasons why companies say they have not considered outside advisory boards.  In many cases, the reasons are based on a lack of understanding of the role and responsibilities of outside advisors.  In other cases, the owner simply does not want outside advisors.  For companies that set up advisory boards, the board is one of the most valuable assets an owner can draw upon; regardless of the size of the business, its products or services, or its industry.  Clay Mathile, founder of Aileron and former owner of The Iams Company, has said that “if I had a popcorn stand on the corner of Third and Main in Dayton, I would have an outside board; it is the best investment you will ever make in your life.”  I know quite a few companies that have set up a Board of Advisors, and not a single one has regretted that decision.  Most wish they had done it sooner.

There are organizations that can help you develop a better understanding about the value of an outside advisory board.  Check local business listings, organizations, chambers, etc. to find out more.

On the other hand, I realize that outside advisory boards aren’t for many business owners.  If this is the case, find an strategic business expert that can help you develop and implement a “strategic perspective” of your business.  Like advisory boards, a strategic business expert is also a valuable asset business owners can draw upon to help them to be more successful.

Regardless, of setting up an outside advisory board or using an expert, you must take charge of your future; don’t leave it to chance.

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old-man

In the new normal, data has become the Holy Grail for making business decisions.  Everywhere you look the importance of data comes to the surface.  Marketing programs, websites, hiring practices, social media, finance, sourcing, and manufacturing, to name just a few, all rely heavily on data as a feedstock for decision-making.  Throw this data in to a computer and ‘presto,’ you have your answer.

As the world moves to the age of data scientists, data engineers, data analysts and data architects, I reflect on something I experienced many years ago that I believe remains true today.

I took a course at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in computer simulation of business strategies.  Part of the course was a three-day forecasting competition using the data of a real business.  We set up four groups.  Each group developed their own business strategies and entered the data into the computer system each night.  The next day we reviewed the results and decided on new input for the next run.  It was a financial simulation model that involved using random number generators and distribution functions that mirrored historic company data and performance.  At that time, this type of simulation modeling was very sophisticated.  It was like the data analytics of today.

One group who corralled at the back end of the class room, included an older gentleman (old man).  He didn’t say much but when he did, his questions and comments were measured and well thought-out.  On the final day, when we were comparing our results, he spoke up.  Out of the back of the room came, “It won’t work.”  What?  “Your models won’t work.  I just cut off your raw material supply.”  Silence.  Game over.  Using his 40 plus years of business experience, intuition, and knowledge of the industry, he made a human decision that trumped our models.  It didn’t matter what the data was saying.  I never forgot this experience.

I have built many financial simulation models in my business career and realize that in every fancy algorithm, there is an old man.  I believe he also exists in today’s data analytics.  –  Beware of the old man.

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The Porch

It is funny how we can look back on life and remember things that had a significant influence on where we are today. When you ask people about things that ‘shaped’ them during their developmental years you almost always get the name of a family member, teacher, coach, or perhaps a professor. Rightfully so, no one could argue that role models, or people we admire and respect, can have a significant influence on our development.

Interestingly when I go down this memory lane I eventually come back to what happened to me when I was around 12 or 13 years old. What makes this interesting is that it is out of the ordinary and could have easily passed by me without me ever noticing. My event? The porch!

During the spring and summer months as a young boy, I would walk the surrounding neighborhoods looking for houses that needed their grass cut; with my push mower! I would carefully watch yards to see when it would be an opportune time to ask the owner if they would like their yard cut. Actually, it was a lot of walking with little grass cutting; but I did earn some money and became very comfortable in approaching adults.

About a block from my house lived a friend whose father was having a difficult time finding work. Day after day I would see Mr. W sitting in his rocker on his porch. I would wave as I walked by and he would occasionally say something like, “Find any yards lately?” I would also see Mr. W in church on Sundays with his large family thinking how he must have been praying for some luck in his life.

Spring turned to summer, summer to fall and fall to winter; when I switched from cutting grass to shoveling walks. Seasons changed but the porch remained. One day as I walked by Mr. W’s house on a cold snowy day, I saw the empty rocker sitting on the porch; obviously too cold for Mr. W to be sitting outside. And then it hit me like a ton of bricks.

The Discovery

I really don’t know why this hit me; all I know is that it had a significant impact on me.  During all of the months that I had observed this unfortunate situation, I didn’t connect the significance of what I was observing. I don’t really know if my perception of Mr. W’s situation was accurate, but my perception was reality to me. The revelation was simple: you have to get off of the porch. What a simple concept! No one is going to come into my yard, walk up on my porch and offer me grass cutting and snow removal jobs. I have to take responsibility for accomplishing what is important to me, and it will not happen by just sitting on the porch.

Opportunities/solutions do not come to you sitting in a rocker on a porch; you have to wander the streets in search of your desired outcome. Over the past thirty plus years I have been amazed at the number of business owners that I have met that have been sitting on the porch expressing concern about some ‘big’ issue that they weren’t actively addressing – for many different reasons. These were significant issues that could have an impact on the future success of their business. Think about the businesses in the recent recession that took on a ‘bunker mentality’ and were trying to hold out until things got better; waiting on the porch. I wonder if their competition was sitting on their porch.

Porch sitting is about making the choice not to do something when action is required, usually supported by an ill-conceived rationalization of a situation. Consider the following:

  • A sixty year-old family business owner saying, “I really don’t need to do succession planning now, I have plenty of time.”
  • “I know we really should have a strategic plan in place for the future of our business, but I just don’t have the time to do it, plus I don’t know where to begin.”
  • “Eighty percent of our business comes from one large company. One of these days, I’m going to have to find other customers so all of my eggs aren’t in one basket.”
  • “I could really use some help in developing better management skills to run my company, but I’m embarrassed to seek the help. I don’t want people to see me as weak.”

Unfortunately, porch sitters do not understand, or simply dismiss, the sense of urgency required for ‘Find any yards lately?’

Opportunities, or solutions, do not conjure up out of doing nothing; they appear as a result of ‘knocking’ on doors. It doesn’t matter if you are trying to grow your business, develop a strategic plan, establish a succession plan or put an outside board in place; you have to start taking some type of action to make these happen. Remember, in almost all situations where action is required but not taken, TIME will eventually make the decision for you. Unfortunately, it won’t be the caliber of action you would have taken earlier, or it wouldn’t even be your desired result. Oh, by the way, the sixty year-old business owner mentioned above just had a major heart attack without a succession plan in place. Where does that leave the family business?

Think about the strategic issues that need action in your business. What are you sitting on the porch waiting for?

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Question

Years ago, I found myself in a unique position that, for me, redefined the ‘approach-avoidance’ phenomenon. I had a tremendous drive to move forward on something that I knew was critically important and at the same time, caution lights were going off all around me. This was a new area for me.

My boss, a Vice President, was struggling with an objective he was trying to implement to the point that it was becoming challenging for him to focus on other matters. From my perspective I saw things that I would be doing. Granted, I realized that I did not have the same information he did. But to me, the way forward was clear. So I decided to have a meeting with my boss so I could set the stage for asking him ‘the question.’ – How can I help you?

All of us at some point in our career find ourselves in this same position. Based on my experience and observation most of us choose yielding to the caution lights. But why? What is the distinction between those that forge ahead and those that choose not to?

How do you get to the point where you are willing to take the chance?

  • Frist, prove yourself in your current responsibilities, show that you are on top of your game. This gives you the confidence to test your perimeter.
  • Observe, observe, observe. Try to understand the challenges your superiors are facing and how they are connected to your skill-set and experience.
  • Formulate ways you might help them. This is not just an idea or an opinion, but a well thought-out perspective using your competencies and capabilities. Work up an outline, make notes, etc. Develop a strategy on how you would move forward. All of this becomes critically important when discussing the challenges with your boss. – Listen carefully, interject slowly.
  • Be prepared for rejection. However, you can’t lose if you do this right; you will learn a lot.
  • Be prepared for taking on additional, higher risk, responsibilities.

By the way, I became actively engaged in the project, working with other senior people in the organization. Over a period of about eighteen months my recognition and contribution grew. The project was successfully implemented and I never looked back.

Ask the question!  –  How can I help you?

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