Culture

Is Online Shopping on the Wane?

Computer graphic illustration about internet shopping in virtual world.

Originally published on November 11, 2016 as a Guest Column in The Globe and Mail: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/small-business/sb-managing/is-online-shopping-dead/article32658017/

A few years ago, I was sitting with friends and talking about a job offer that one of them had just received. It was with a new online retailer of “everything gardening.”

I laughed. Then choked (elegantly) on my drink as we learned that our friend had already accepted the new position. For greater context, this Ivy League-educated professional had been wooed away from a Tier One international consulting firm to join a startup aiming to sell spades and seeds online.

It’s not that I don’t believe in the transformative potential of the Internet. I was and continue to be an avid online shopper for what I call non-tactile purchases: commodities such as books and music, where, once you’ve made your decision to buy, price and speed of access are the key, rather than place of purchase. I can even be pushed as far as buying shoes online from brands that I know and trust, feeling confident that they will arrive on time and fit as comfortably as the ones I just wore out.

But this was gardening! And gardening may be the most tactile of all pastimes. Avid gardeners spend hours of their scarce free time lovingly planning, shopping for, implementing and showing off their creativity and passion for the beauty of nature.

It just seemed counterintuitive to me that a hobby driven by touch and feel could be fed by a computer screen and two-day shipping. Of course, we all wished our friend luck and praised him for getting in on the ground floor. But it turned out we weren’t the only ones with reservations. Less than a year later, that “sure thing” startup laid off staff by the bushel, and it was back to Tier One consulting for my friend.

What made me think of this so many years later? On a stroll along Toronto’s Queen Street West, I passed one of the new Warby Parker “brick and mortar” stores. Warby Parker, for the non-hipsters among you, is an American company that formed in 2010 to sell affordable, good quality prescription eyeglasses and sunglasses. Despite its online roots, Warby Parker now has 40 retail locations, with many more planned, including both standalone outlets and mini-showrooms lodged inside existing boutiques.

Naturally I went online to read more about Warby Parker and this crazy new trend of shopping in stores. In an Inc. magazine article entitled Amazon Could Open up to 2,000 Grocery Stores, author Eugene Kim noted “Physical stores are becoming increasingly central to Amazon’s business ambitions as the company expands beyond its online-retailing stronghold and looks for new ways to reach customers.” New ways to reach customers? Incredible. Physical stores are now being heralded as innovative solutions to tech companies’ growth challenges. What Tier One consulting firm helped Amazon achieve this stunning breakthrough?

I get riled up about all this because I staunchly, consistently counsel companies not to chase all the shiny new toys. I know that online retail is not just a fad. But I will never believe that human beings will come to a point where they no longer need personal contact with each other.

A world in which we shop and do business cocooned in our homes or offices, void of smiles, advice and all human contact seems a dreary place to me. And it seems to miss the point that shopping is a personal experience, all about learning, growing and sharing with each other.

If you are a retailer, build the multichannel approach to reaching customers both online and off. If you are in business-to-business, the personal element is even more important. Get off your e-mail, tear yourself away from the Internet and do something novel: Pick up the phone or get in the car and go visit your customers. In real life, they don’t just want commodity service and the lowest price. They want more advice, more reasons to trust, and stronger personal relationships. These competitive advantages can’t be developed with the click of a mouse.

Remember, it’s called customer engagement for a reason.

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Putting people into a room together doesn’t make them a team

Originally published on February 1, 2016 as a Guest Column in The Globe and Mail: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/small-business/sb-managing/putting-people-into-a-room-together-doesnt-make-them-a-team/article28439210/

Sometimes the simplest insights are the most telling. And the most important.

Some time back, while I was working with an engineering client, our conversation circled back to his firm’s past attempts to encourage collaboration and innovation. In one sentence, he crystallized the challenge many of my clients have encountered in their attempts to change their corporate culture: “Just because you put us into a room together doesn’t make us a team.”

In a previous innovation exercise, his firm had taken steps towards creating its first cross-functional team, a popular tool for accelerated innovation. This “task force” model draws people from different areas of the organization – sales, marketing, HR, admin, research and development, and so on – to generate insights from all points of view, from customer needs to new product ideas, production and distribution. Theoretically, these teams can move forward fast, because they don’t have to wait for feedback or permissions from other departments. But this firm’s initial results with a cross-functional team were less than stellar.

Why? Because without a leader and a conductor who can provide the big picture and co-ordinate all of the players, you’re asking your people to work outside of what they know and do every day. Understanding how everything fits together isn’t a part of their job descriptions.

In addition to technical know-how, teams need strong leadership, direction, objectives and accountability (at minimum) if they want to be successful. As my client noted, these skills aren’t often taught in schools. His staff needed additional training to ensure that they could translate their business skills or technical brilliance into a team dynamic where the whole could truly be greater than the sum of its parts.

At my firm, we call this process transitioning the cross-functional team into a Dynamic Working Group (DWG). The purpose of the DWG is to create an environment in which high-functioning individuals are taught collaborative skills to help them work together to deliver productive, measurable outcomes.

Based on my facilitation of working groups within client teams, I can share some of the insights I’ve gleaned about successful collaboration and how to get everyone pulling together.

1. Leadership for performance: People don’t respond well to an inflexible “boss.” They are more successful when their leader attracts commitment and energizes people by creating meaning in their work. When the leader’s focus is truly on partnering with their team members to drive performance, leveraging frequency and quality of conversation, employees are more likely to commit to the goals at hand.

2. Discovering everyone’s strengths: There are benefits in building diverse teams of individuals drawn from different backgrounds with a range of skills, experiences and perspectives. Collectively, they represent your company’s DNA. The leader’s challenge is to take the time to understand and tap into the individual strengths of each team member.

3. Objectives and accountability: Successful businesses set objectives that are company-wide. Without objectives, a company lacks purpose. But simply setting business objectives is not enough. They need to be achievable, inspiring, easy to visualize and people must be held accountable for achieving them. If objectives are not aligned to a common strategic direction, then everyone in the organization will be working at cross purposes – leading to conflict, project slowdowns and reduced commitment to achieving results.

4. Meaningful meetings: In many organizations, meetings are taking up an ever-increasing amount of time. When meetings are held without preparation, agendas and action items, or used as a stalling tactic for decision-making, they diminish productivity and morale. Given the high number of people who normally attend cross-functional team meetings, strong leadership and a sense of purpose are essential.

To drive innovation and meaningful change in your organization, you need confident, vigorous cross-functional teams. Sustained innovation success depends on having team leaders who understand the big picture, relate well to individuals from different backgrounds, and have the communication skills to galvanize and inspire.

First you bring people together in the same room, and then you bring them together on the same page.

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Leadership

Says easy does hard…really?

Why is it we struggle with the tough business decisions that impact people? Time and time again I see leaders struggle with emotions that add complexity to the business decision making process. What makes us human can also get in the way of us making good business decisions. Feelings, either in the form of too much empathy or a lack there of, can make an already difficult situation even more challenging.

So how do you strike the right balance? Here are some tips from over twenty-five years of leading people. For me personally, as well as from participants attending my leadership learning events, the techniques below are the ones found to be most valuable…

One: Influence vs. Control

The business world is full of challenges. As a leader, one of the many skills you need to exercise is the ability to prioritize and pick your battles. Being able to take on the ones where you will realize the largest return and leave others behind is a talent. To help with this filtering process, consider focusing on those issues where you have direct control. Clearly there will be situations that you can influence but those that you truly control will be fewer. Know the limitations of your sphere of influence and the boundaries of your sphere of control.

Two: Understand vs. Like

Leading people is hard. People are complex entities that can at times act and behave in a totally irrational manner. When having to deliver difficult messages concentrate on the recipient’s understanding of the situation rather than them having to like what you are conveying to them. Sometimes the nature of the situation makes it an unreasonable expectation that the person on the receiving end will like the outcome. Your goal is to have them understand. It is up to them whether they like it or not.

Three: Life’s All About Choices

You are a leader. You’ve chosen a leadership position for a reason. Having made that choice you’ve been bestowed the privilege and responsibility of effecting people’s lives. You need to honour the position and act accordingly. You need to make choices. Not taking action in a responsible way is unacceptable. You will be measured by your choices. Over time the series of choices you make forms your reputation as a leader. Choose wisely.

Four: Keeping it In Perspective

Some of us work to live while others live to work. For me, I’m of the mind that work is extremely important. That being said, it is a distant third to my health and my family. Without them, there is nothing else. Everyone picks their life priorities and to each their own. But for all of us, to help keep perspective in those crazy and difficult times regardless of where your work is positioned on your life priorities list, know that as significant as work is there are things in life that are even more important.

Whether you are a newly anointed Manager or a seasoned veteran, these four guiding principals will help you not only lead better but be a better leader.

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