Posts Tagged ‘change’

Big lessons from small business

In Business Class, uhm, Uncategorized on May 14, 2010 at 7:57 am

More than once or twice in recent days, I’ve found myself at lunch tables and on bar stools talking with fellow small business folks about the ups and downs of the economy. And again and again, I find myself recommending the same book: Bo Burlingham’s 2005 work, “Small Giants.”

In that book, Burlingham presents a group of companies that, as he put it, “choose to be great instead of big.” From a Michigan recording studio to a Silicon Valley HR firm, and from a New York restaurant group to a San Francisco brewery, the companies Burlingham examined had made conscious decisions not to grow.

Well, actually, they chose not to grow by the traditional definitions of growth — by expanding beyond basic operations, for example, or by going public, merging or being acquired. All of them, however, would no doubt say they grew in other ways. And, by their measures, all seem to count themselves as successful. And, in pursuing their own definitions of success, they offer lessons for any business — of any size.

Consider this overview of the factors Burlingham says contribute to small firms’ mojo and decide for yourself.

 Choice. Recognizing that you have options beyond the usual paths to success, and, as a result, going a different way.

 Resistance. Choosing to resist the “obvious” paths to growth.

 Roots. Having an intimate relationship with geographic location — your city, town, county or region.

 Community. Maintaining intimate relationships with customers and suppliers.

 Family. Building intimate workplaces, where employees are like family.

 Variety. Organizing your business in an imaginative way, without feeling bound by typical structures.

 Passion. Having a leader with passion for the organization and what it does.

In various formula and measures, these factors combine to create a bigger, perhaps-less-tangible piece that Burlingham describes as a firm’s “mojo.” In the Jim Collins vernacular, this is most easily compared to a firm’s “hedgehog” … others might describe it as an organization’s  “DNA.” Regardless of what you call it, though, it’s that special thing, that unique quality, that defining aspect of an organzition that makes it stand out.

The thing to understand is that your firm’s “mojo” might not be the product you make so well, or the service you provide better than anyone else — it might be the process by which you make that product, or the way you provide that service. The trick is to identify that mojo and build on it … often discovering you can expand that mojo in ways you never imagined, to grow in ways you never thought possible.

And why is this notion so important these days? Because in times of marketplace upheaval, pursuing growth for growth’s sake seldom works. Instead, focus on your mojo in order to develop your organization’s true strength. Then you’ll not only survive tough times, but, when times are better, you’ll grow … in the ways that you choose to define growth.


Change required: Social media demands a new way of thinking

In Business Class, Connecting to Communicate, social media on March 4, 2010 at 7:45 pm

Leaders can be funny people. They talk about driving change, about wanting to lead dynamic organizations and about “pushing the envelope.” They say they need their people to “think outside the box” and urge their organizations in new directions. “If we’re not leading the way,” they say, “we’re following the herd.”

But when their people come to them and say, “OK, in order to go in this new direction, we’re going to need to change the way we do things,” too many leaders slam on the brakes. It’s as though they’re saying, “I’m all for change, so long as everything can stay the same.”

The latest issue to spark this change/stay-the-same tug-of-war?  Social media. Most leaders know they’ve got to tap its potential, but, again, they hesitate when they realize the changes required to make it work.

What changes? Consider the following:

Out. Of. Control. The more you use social media to communicate, the less control you have over your message. It’s OK: Let go. Trust your customers to carry your message forward.

Keys, not key. You know your key message. You’ve drilled it into your people’s heads. Great. Now, let it fragment into a dozen messages, a hundred messages, and more. Don’t worry: Deep down, it’ll still be the same. It’ll just sound a little different to each audience that hears it. And that’s why they will, indeed, hear it.

It’s not about you. Really, it never should have been, but social media consumers must feel that your products, your mission and your communications are about them … or they’ll move on.

Friend of a friend. Make a new friend in social media, and you suddenly have access to hundreds more. Win a new customer, and you’ve suddenly got access to hundreds more of those, too. Cool, huh?

Stand and engage. Once upon a time, you crafted your message for one-way communication. Now you develop the foundation of a conversation. Stop delivering messages and start engaging in discussions.

It’s not what you make; it’s what it does. Products can be cool. Products can be innovative. But what consumers really want is an experience, a solution and a “feel.” Your products are simply a vehicle for delivering that experience, solution and feel.

There’s no place like home … page. That website the organization worked so hard to perfect? It’s not necessarily your home page any more. Instead, your “home page” becomes a virtual concept, a role filled by a Facebook page, a blog or some other web-based outlet.

Give it up. You don’t own your brand any more. Your consumers do. The good news? If it’s a good brand and you stay true to it, they’ll do more to spread the word than you ever could.

Off the clock. Your brand is being discussed while you sleep. That doesn’t mean you can’t sleep. It simply means you have to be prepared for a marketplace in constant motion.

Now, if all of that change makes your leader curl up into a fetal position, let him or her know the good news: Even in the face of all this change, a few things remain the same. In fact, they’re more important than ever:

Strategy. Social media isn’t a magic wand that solves all problems. Like any other tool, it only works if it’s employed as part of a focused strategy.

Relationships. Business always has been about relationships, and always will be. The good news? Social media makes it easier to forge relationships.

Focused message. Remember what we said about being prepared to fragment your message? It’s true, but it only works if you have a strong, focused message to begin with.

Quality. Social media doesn’t make silk purses out of sow’s ears. However, if you make a really good silk purse, it’ll help you spread the word.

Risk. Some things never change. If you want to get the greatest reward from social media, you’ll have to take a big risk. There are no guarantees. Just a lot of potential and opportunity. Are you up for it?

Trusting enough to say and hear the truth

In Business Class, Connecting to Communicate on January 26, 2010 at 12:41 pm

While it might simply seem like a fitting name for a blog (after all, blogs often are little more than shouts into the void), the title of my blog comes from a leadership idea I had a few years ago.

 The idea came to me after a chat with a co-worker. Outraged by some specific corporate action or inaction, my friend said, “Man, when I leave this place, they’re going to get an earful.” And it occurred to me what a waste it would be for him to wait until he’s headed out the door to share his thoughts.

 Obviously, there’s often good reason for such reticence. Usually, when an employee gets to that level of frustration, communication with his or her higher-ups has broken down. My friend wasn’t willing to unload because he had tried before and found that his thoughts weren’t welcomed or valued. Maybe he had ranted too often, or maybe he consistently offered up bad ideas. Or maybe his higher-ups were too focused on their own ideas to hear his, too insecure to listen to criticism, or too crazed to take a moment to think beyond the fires under their chairs.

 Regardless, the point is that any time an employee says, “I can’t wait to quit and tell these people what I think,” you’ve got a problem – with the employee, leadership, the organization, or all of the above. And that problem is trust. The employee doesn’t trust his supervisors or leaders to hear him without penalty, and the higher-ups don’t trust the employee to say something meaningful without an agenda.

 To counteract this, I’ve often thought leaders should encourage they people to write annual “That’s it, I’m outta here” or “Nobody asked me, but …” letters. In these letters, they would say all those things they swear they’d say if they were leaving, and they would say them without fear of retribution. They would trust the organization to receive suggestions and criticisms openly, and the organization would trust the employees to focus on constructive ideas and steer clear of petty rants or vindictive attacks.

 Of course, without such an environment of trust, this practice could be disastrous, and that environment isn’t something you can just one day conjure up. Trust like that requires individual and organizational maturity. And, let’s face it, that kind of maturity is too often in short supply.

 That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to find. Quite the contrary: It means that, if you do find it, you’ll create that rare organization in which everyone has a voice and everyone uses that voice to the organization’s benefit. Make that kind of candor a goal, and you’ll not only have open and candid discussions, but you’ll also know you’ve got the kind of trust that undergirds great organizations.

 Would you have the guts to ask for an “I’m outta here” letter from your employees? Would they have the guts to write those letters? To sign them? If not, you’ve got some work to do.

Why does it matter? Because of one last point: When people talk about writing such letters, it’s because they care about the organization … they’re still passionate about what happens there. They’re engaged. But if they spend too long suppressing their thoughts, they slowly disengage. And then, when they do leave the organization – or as they languish for years after they should have left the organization – they’re no longer passionate enough to say what’s on their minds, even if they are asked.

 As a result, a lot of great ideas, insider insights and those thoughtful suggestions … they’re all lost. Forever. And so is any trust that might have come with them.

Create a crisis, forge a team

In Business Class, Connecting to Communicate on January 19, 2010 at 3:10 pm

Have you noticed how a crisis can pull a team together?

Picture this: Your team has fallen apart. People are carping at each other, letting each other down and pointing fingers. They can’t get the simplest project completed on time. Then a crisis develops – maybe it’s a client meltdown, a serious illness on the team, or something as mundane as an empty soda machine – and suddenly everybody’s pulling together. They unite against a common foe and act honorably, selflessly and passionately.

I was reminded of this dynamic last weekend when I led a board retreat for an area nonprofit. Fortunately, this board hasn’t devolved into fighting and finger-pointing, but it does seem to have lost its way. The organization has stagnated, and nobody seems to know how to breathe new life into it. I was just about to address this topic when one of the board members said, “What we need is some sort of rallying cry.”

He had played right into my hands: The next topic on my agenda was an organizational strategy that uses a “crisis mentality” to rejuvenate a floundering team.

How? By establishing what author Patrick Lencioni (the guy behind business bestsellers such as “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” and “Death by Meeting”) calls a “thematic goal.” He defines this as “a single, overriding theme that remains the top priority of the entire leadership team for a given period of time.” Translation: An organizational rallying cry.

At a leadership conference a few years ago, Lencioni offered examples: For a tire manufacturer that had been through a tire recall, the thematic goal might be to “survive by re-establishing credibility.” A biotech firm might want to “avoid complacency.” He even offered one for his family: “Prepare for Baby No. 4.”

But simply creating the theme doesn’t get the job done. The thematic goal must adhere to certain guidelines and become a central part of operations.

Here’s how it can work:

Step 1: Establish the thematic goal. This must be a single goal, qualitative in nature but attached to metrics. In addition, it should have a time limit (six months, a year, two years) and it should be shared across departments.

Step 2: Establish defining objectives. These are secondary objectives that apply directly to the thematic goal. For the tire company, these could include fixing tire problems, settling lawsuits and improving distributor relations.

Step 3: Establish standard operating objectives. These are the key business components that need to be addressed regardless of the thematic objective – things like revenue and expenses, productivity, customer satisfaction and market share.

Step 4: Build leadership meetings around the goal and objectives.  Blow up your meetings and structure them around the defining and operating objectives. Ignore departmental agendas and invite everyone to participate in all discussions … a lot of new ideas come from people thinking outside their areas of expertise.

By rallying around the thematic goal, an organization can conjure up the positives of a crisis situation without the accompanying crisis. The result can be a group that is focused, collaborative and, most importantly, successful.

What thematic goal would get your organization to pull together?

 NOTE: For more on this topic, pick up Lencioni’s 2006 book Silos, Politics and Turf Wars: A Leadership Fable About Destroying the Barriers That Turn Colleagues Into Competitors

An Epiphany epiphany for us all

In Amateur Theology, Business Class, Oh! The humanities! on January 8, 2010 at 11:17 am

This week, Christian churches celebrate Epiphany, a tribute to the visit of the Magi to the Christ child. Or, at least, a lot of churches do. Many of them simply lump this observation into Christmas. As a result, many Christians have little or no idea what Epiphany’s all about.

In a way, that’s just as well, since there’s so much wrong with what most Christians think they know about the Magi. On the other hand, it’s unfortunate because there’s a lot we all – Christians, businesspeople, organizations – can learn from the experience of the Magi.

So … what’s wrong with what we know? We can sum up much of that in the standard, condensed version of the Magi story: Three kings from the East followed a star to arrive at the stable just in time for the birth of Jesus.

To start our examination of that story, let’s consider what we know is right in that version. First, Jesus was born. Second … well, uhm … there is no ‘second’.

“Wait a minute,” you say. “That’s got to be right. It’s all right there in the Nativity scene on top of the entertainment center! Three guys with crowns, kneeling alongside shepherds, cows and sheep, clearly brought to the scene by the Christmas tree light affixed to the back of the ‘stable’.”

Let’s talk about what’s wrong with that version.

  • “Three” – We have no idea how many Magi visited Christ; could have been three, could have been 300. This number seems to have come from the three gifts mentioned in the Bible. (“Wait! We know the Wise Guys’ names!” you say. “Balthasar, Melchior and Gaspar!” No. Those names emerged from popular versions of the story many, many years after the Gospels were written.)
  • “Kings” – Nope. They were “magi,” aka teachers, astronomers, astrologers, “wise men” or even priests (but definitely not Hebrew priests, because much of the importance of Epiphany is that it represents the introduction of Christ to Gentiles).
  • “from the East” – OK, they did come from the East, but not the Far East, as is sometimes suggested (nor were they Benetton-like multi-cultural, as many politically correct Nativity scenes might suggest). They seem to have come from nearby Persia, or modern-day Iran.
  • “Followed a Star” – Again, this seems basically correct, although we don’t know that it was literally a star or some other God-rendered celestial light that led the Magi on their journey.
  • “to arrive at the stable” – There is nothing in the Gospels that puts the Magi at the stable. In fact, the Bible reports that they first traveled to Jerusalem to visit King Herod, and also describes their meeting with Jesus as occurring in a house.
  • “just in time for the birth of Jesus.” – Wrong again. The Magi seem to have made their way to Jesus months after he was born (scholars seem to typically say the visit occurred somewhere between six and 18 months after the birth) … which, if nothing else, explains why, after his visit with the Magi, Herod ordered the murder of all children under the age of 2.

Now, I offer all of that not because I want to play “I’m smarter than you.” (In fact, I bet plenty of people can find problems with my version.) That’s not the point at all. Frankly, I don’t believe those details are all that important to either the typical believer or non-believer.

My point is to force us all to see the story in a new light – to think about what these Magi did: They left comfortable homes to travel a long distance, chasing an intangible vision in the belief that it would lead to something life-changing. While that’s a gross simplification, it offers us a model for our own lives: Seek a world-changing vision, pursue it through all hardship, and hold firmly to your faith in its importance.

As much as I find that idea inspiring, I also find guidance in a post-mortem to this story, one that we don’t find in the Bible, but one that seems perfectly plausible and wonderfully informative.

T.S. Eliot describes it in his poem “The Journey of the Magi.” After a brief overview of the Magi’s journey and discovery, Eliot talks about the aftermath: “We returned to our places, these Kingdoms/But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,/ with an alien people clutching their gods.”

To put that interpretation into a historical context, these Magi traveled from cities where the people (and probably they) worshipped a number of gods in a mish-mash polytheism common at the time. In the course of their journey, they discovered a new faith, a monotheism that one day would be known across the globe as Christianity. And so, when they returned to their homes, their status as “Christians” isolated them from the people they, not so long ago, counted as their own.

Have you ever felt that way? Like you’ve discovered a new way, a different perspective, a changed world, and yet you must live everyday in a place that remains locked in the status quo? Like you’ve been through a profound experience but have no one around you who can appreciate that experience or grasp its meaning? (Personally, I think Christians encounter this almost daily as they attempt to live out Christ-like lives in the world beyond their church walls. Try casually using the phrase, “Well, I always try to make our world a little more like the Kingdom of God” in a workplace conversation and watch the room slowly empty.)

In Eliot’s poem, the Magi recognize that what they discovered is The Truth, but they embrace that truth with regret. They are isolated. They had to let go of foundational beliefs and accept something foreign. They had to shed the ease of an old life to live in the discomfort of a changed one.

I hope that, with time, the Magi found joy and peace in their new world – that The Truth was more than ample reward for their pain and discomfort. I think we all would hope that, because we want to believe we also will be rewarded when we pledge ourselves to an absurd vision, when we chase after something no one else sees, and when we choose to live in a changed world.

Because, let’s face it: Without that kind of hope, we’ll likely ignore any “stars” that promise to guide us to The Truth.