‘Make a decision or you’re fired’

Originally published on August 7, 2015 as a Guest Column in The Globe and Mail: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/small-business/sb-growth/make-a-decision-or-youre-fired/article25795156/

On my first day of work early in my career, the owner of the company that had just hired me sat me down and told me he had two simple rules. First, if a situation called for a decision and I didn’t make it, he would fire me. Second, too many bad decisions would also get me fired.

No, he wasn’t Donald Trump. But he was a successful, hard-driving entrepreneur. And while his motivational speech may seem brusque, I found it clear and sage advice that has remained with me throughout my career. After all, it takes both action and intelligence to produce results.

What reminded me of this encounter 25 years later? As my own organization grows, we’ve been considering our internal structure. And I’ve come to realize that consistently effective decision-making is still the key to success.

I took some time on a recent vacation to read a slew of articles and books about different approaches to organizational structure, new and old. I read about hierarchy, matrix and meritocracy, all the way to holacracy (where management throws up its hands and lets self-organizing teams make up their own rules). I tunneled my way through a mountain of models, a throng of theories and a plethora of prescriptions, all pointing the way – in different directions, of course – to leadership nirvana.

At the end, however, I felt that every article I read, every organizational chart I examined, seemed to have missed the point. All these experts focused on how their structure is better than all the others at facilitating communication and team dynamics. But is that really the goal? All talk and no action doesn’t work in the movies, and I don’t believe it’s a recipe for success in business either.

For me, management structure should be the tool that best enables corporate decision-making. Nothing more. And certainly nothing less.

Success in business comes from the ability to make a series of incremental, informed and inclusive decisions. The organizational structure that we choose, the style of communication we encourage and the corporate culture that we craft must all generate critical decision-making capability.

To do that, any structure must begin with a discussion of leadership – not lines, squares, circles or matrices. High-quality, self-aware leadership is a critical component of a healthy organization and its culture, regardless of industry or sector. We all face the same challenges, especially in a tight labour market. Good people rarely leave good jobs – they leave bad bosses.

Quality leadership is the answer, whether you are trying to disturb the status quo by building an innovative culture, creating a compelling employee proposition that appeals to all generations, promoting workforce retention, developing in-house talent rather than going out and buying it, or simply creating a continuously engaged customer base.

Management expert Jim Collins blew up the notion that the top knows best in his 2001 book Good to Great. He discovered that the best-performing American companies of the past 20 years had one thing in common: truly humble leaders who inspire performance by setting standards, not issuing orders. Leaders who think they have all the answers may get results in the short term, but they don’t build resilient organizations that continue to thrive after they leave.

True success comes from collaboration. In her new book Profit in Plain Sight, Anne Graham encourages creating a company-wide culture of alignment and engagement, saying: “Infuse your employees with possibilities.” According to Graham, this means “embedding the desire to be part of something more, to be the best, to behave every day in ways that add value to your customers, and to earn profit with integrity that will help the entire company grow and succeed in the future.”

Your people do not want a leader to be an inflexible “boss” or “driver.” They are more successful when their leader is confident but not commanding. They are waiting to be energized by leaders who can put meaning back into their work.

The best leaders today are partners, always willing to talk about personal development, mutual interests and solving problems together. In this context, work is no longer a burden imposed from above, but a shared goal, best achieved through a common commitment to innovation and improvement. Employees want to perform and to grow, but they’ll only do so when they know they have the ability and freedom to make decisions that will drive the business forward.

The best motivation is not the fear of being fired – it’s the fear of not living up to a leader’s expectations. So long as you make the following traits part of your leadership brand:

  • Inclusiveness. You can’t expect people to make informed decisions if you don’t keep them up date on the company’s goals and objectives.
  • Clarity. Provide clear objectives for your organization, department or product line so your employees know the directions you wish to go in and what results you hope to achieve. Otherwise, your team members won’t know how to make the right decisions. Or worse, they won’t make any decisions at all.
  • Focus. If you meander and waffle in your own decision-making, you can expect the same nothing less from the people you are leading.

So many companies now are reviewing their structures to ensure they have the right recipes for success in today’s fragmenting markets. Before you build (or destroy) your own structure, remember that self-aware leadership is the true driver of decisiveness. Structure is simply the tool for its execution.

Of course, we can still get fired. Once the leader/CEO makes a decision, everyone gets a say in the outcome. Team members can vote by disengaging (or disembarking). Customers can vote – by buying elsewhere. And your boss, whether an individual or a board, will cast the deciding vote. Those who encourage the broadest approach to decision-making don’t just have the best chance of getting it right – they have the best chance of getting another shot at it, too.

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Why technology is not a synonym for innovation

Originally published on July 3, 2015 as a Guest Column in The Globe and Mail: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/small-business/sb-managing/four-great-innovation-opportunities-that-arent-technology/article25207445/

Not long ago, I was sitting in on an innovation roundtable. There were about 20 of us, all equally excited about the role of innovation in moving business forward. But after a short while, it became obvious that most of the talk was about technology. Now, let’s be clear. I am a huge proponent of technology – developing, investing in and adopting technology to improve the processes in our companies (and lives).

What annoyed me was that the group seemed to consider “technology” a synonym for innovation. But you don’t need technology to innovate. True innovation is about doing something new: developing better processes or bringing improved products and services to market. Innovation can be the newest technology, or just a new idea – such as when supermarkets learned to multiply their profit on a piece of fruit by pre-slicing it for today’s on-the-run consumer.

Conversely, much of technology today is far from innovative – from Amazon’s stone-cold Fire phone to the dorky Google Glass, that unnerved everyone around the (few) people who dared to wear that device.

Regardless, the point of my article is not to hammer technology or its role in business and society, but to promote every possible form of innovation, as a homegrown, low-risk way to create value for organizations and their customers.

The conversation at our roundtable continued, with one participant suggesting that we should find ways to support innovative technology companies. Fair enough, but this was followed by an observation that “We certainly aren’t looking to fund hair salons.” To which I asked, “Why not?” Why not fund hair salons if their business model is unique and brings new value to customers, such as Blo Blow Dry Bar, the fast-growing retail chain from Vancouver? Their groundbreaking motto: “No cuts, no color: just wash, blo, go.” Or how about getting behind the “athleisure” trend? The activewear trend was largely driven by Canadian superstar Lululemon, and now includes new competitors such as Montreal-based Lole.

I think what’s missing from most discussions about innovation is the fact that every aspect of human endeavour, not just business, requires continuous tweaking. Consider the National Hockey League, which is always tinkering with the rules, equipment standards and playoff formats to make the game faster, safer and more exciting – and just last month decided to make overtime a three–on-three competition for more freewheeling fun. In a world where everything is always changing, businesses especially must scrutinize all aspects of their operations to see where innovation can make them faster, stronger, more profitable, or more exciting.

Given this imperative, let’s look at a few non-technology trends that I believe will drive innovative business opportunities in the coming years.

1) What’s Old is New. Unfortunately, what’s old is us. The Boomers are aging and with this comes a shift in priorities. The underlying desire is to live active, healthy lives with self-respect and dignity for as long as possible. This leads to increasing demands for home health care products and in-home services: anything and everything that can provide us comfort, safety and day-to-day support, and delay the moment when the boomers must sell their drumkits and move into institutions. Yes, technology has a big role to play in this trend, from new drugs and anti-aging creams to wearable fitness monitors and alert buttons. But other opportunities abound, from custom in-home services to specialty foods, clothing and travel and entertainment services geared to active seniors.

2) Waste Not, Want Not. Mom and Dad told you to save your money and take better care of your things. Now, with increasing population density and shrinking discretionary incomes, making better use of what we have is more important than ever. As our living spaces get smaller, we’ve seen the rise of new stores, products and designers focused on maximizing storage space. And then there’s the “sharing” economy, in which upstart companies such as Airbnb, Uber and RentfrockRepeat help us to get more use out of the homes, cars and clothes that already exist. (Some people think these are technology companies, but I don’t see it. They’re not developing technology, they simply adopt it to create the powerful communications systems that allow owners and users of goods and services to find and trust each other.)

3) Treat Yourself. Consumers are harried. We are tired, and we face more financial pressures than ever. Sorry for that glamorous analysis of modern life but it’s true: it’s the reason for the rise of the eight-year car loan and why Ottawa had to ban 40-year mortgages. But the flipside of fiscal stress is rising demand for small indulgences. There are edible temptations such as the cakepop, the cronut, or one of Canada’s favourites, the Purdy’s hedgehog. There are relaxing indulgences courtesy of the day-spa movement. And you can even indulge yourself at the movies, with cinemas that let you pre-reserve larger seats and enjoy real meals while you watch.

4) Self-innovation. I don’t know many people who are completely content with themselves. Most of us have one or two things we’d like to improve, enlarge, reduce or re-invent. Either directly or through online course providers, we can now take thousands of university courses from esteemed institutions. Or we can find websites that teach us how to change the oil in our car, enhance our yoga skills or learn a new language. Being innovative with our own lives is an excellent complement to being innovative in our businesses.

Bottom Line: there are a lot of great companies with new, innovative ideas that go beyond the development of technology. Yes, they incorporate technology in their business model, but so should we all. Most importantly, these companies understand and anticipate market trends, and find new and engaging ways to solve challenging consumer problems.

So, for those of us who will never be technology developers, let’s take solace in all the other ways to grow our businesses as we enjoy a cakepop in our rented formal outfit and zip around town with our two-hour car allowance while learning how to ask for fine wines in Spanish.

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When did entrepreneurs become so incurious?

Originally published on May 8, 2015 as a Guest Column in The Globe and Mail: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/small-business/sb-growth/day-to-day/when-did-entrepreneurs-become-so-incurious/article24310344/

Entrepreneurs are supposed to be the mavericks of the business world. They’re the idea generators. The marchers to different drummers. The innovators who drive the economy forward, by starting businesses and launching new products and services. They redefine technology and change the world around us.

At least, that’s how I’ve always thought of them.

Lately, I’m starting to wonder if some entrepreneurs are losing their sense of curiosity, along with that distinctive maverick swagger that makes them such crucial builders in the business ecosystem.

My clues? At the seminars, workshops and business events that I’ve been attending recently, more of the attendees seem to come from big companies – and fewer and fewer come from small and medium-sized businesses. It’s disappointing really.

Personally, I’m happy to learn from companies large or small. And I’m sure that event organizers don’t really care who buys their tickets. But from the perspective of learning and sharing of ideas, I believe that everybody loses. Large companies appreciate the candid, fresh voices of true entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs can always learn something new from one another, as well from the attendees of the national and international organizations that we all hope to grow up to be.

In my column last month, I noted the stunning reality that 80 per cent of new businesses fail. While there are a host of reasons for all these fatalities, I believe that one of the very real answers is that, at the slightest taste of success, many entrepreneurs become complacent and incurious.

We allow ourselves to get lost in our little business bubbles, relying on today’s products and services to drive future success. Let’s be honest, we can get so focused and myopic that we often neglect to do the things that earned us our success in the first place – getting out of the office, meeting people and asking as many big-picture questions of ‘the crowd’ as we can.

It is a lovely notion to think that we can hole ourselves up in our new business and bide our time till the big ‘cash-out’ at the end of the road. But this tactic isn’t practical in an economy that demands continuous improvement, refinement and even replacement of our products and services as a matter of course.

Consider the digital picture frame. Ten years ago, these electronic photo albums were all the rage. Today they’ve been replaced by smart phones and tablets. And how about those Bluetooth headsets? Just a few years ago when the laws began to restrict drivers’ cellphone use, we couldn’t buy these items fast enough. Today, it’s hard to find a new car that doesn’t have hands-free built into it, complete with voice-assist and even access to intelligent personal assistants such as Apple’s Siri – rendering the headset embarrassingly passé.

Bottom-line: today, everything moves from ‘the rage’ to ‘remember when’ before you can say “Trivial Pursuit!”

You need to top up your product and service offerings just like you change the oil in your car. When we neglect to change the oil, our engines stutter, seize and ultimately die.

It’s no different in business. No business succeeds without revenue and, ultimately, profit to reinvest in the future. Revenue is generated by satisfied and engaged customers. If you neglect to constantly re-engage your customers with the new and different, they will quickly find a competitor who does.

If you want to think about it as a continuum, then understand that innovation drives marketing, which drives sales. If you take innovation out of the equation, your funnel loses the raw material that drives growth.

Sorry if this sounds doomsday-ish, but, unfortunately, innovation is no longer a nice to have. It’s a very real need. As our markets evolve faster and faster we have to ramp up our innovations and improvement, not cut back. Innovation isn’t an occasional remedy, like a cough drop, but an everyday necessity, like water.

All this means that innovation – sparked by curiosity and fuelled by constant communication with customer – has become a core competency of today’s successful businesses.

If you’re not ready to give your customers what they want, keep in mind that innovation is also an engagement tool for your team. Today’s employees want to be involved in exciting and meaningful improvement projects.

When I went into business I was taught that to succeed, I had to join a company, put one foot in front of the other, keep my head down and shut my mouth. Today we know that management has no monopoly on creativity. Everyone in the organization deserves and expects to have a voice, to engage in ideation and add value beyond the day-to-day.

If your company culture has moved from thinking, questioning and dreaming to just doing, watch out. Your best team members will gradually disengage, and likely revert to one of the first skills they ever learned: walking.

Revenue, profits, engaged customers and motivated teams are all crucial to your business. Keeping them strong takes constant feeding and renewal. That’s why it’s so important to hold your head up, sniff the air for new ideas, and keep questioning. Only the curious can change the world.

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