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When you have trouble making a business decision

Young businessman sitting in front of a chalkboard and trying to choose the right doorOriginally published on September 15, 2016 as a Guest Column in The Globe and Mail: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/small-business/sb-managing/what-to-do-when-you-have-trouble-making-a-business-decision/article31750482/

All too often, I watch business owners freeze in the process of decision making. They might be considering a big, strategic change, or shifting a few team members into new slots. Often, however, they delay making the call. It’s as if they are waiting for the perfect answer. They’re hoping for an epiphany or, better yet, a genie in a bottle to make all their business problems go away.

Well, 25 years into my entrepreneurial journey, there’ve been no epiphanies for me, and certainly no genies.

Sooner or later, we are all faced with gut-wrenching decisions that can affect the future of our business and, as business owners, the well-being of our families. But no matter how challenging or unnerving they may be, we still need to make decisions and act on them, or our businesses could come to a grinding halt.

How can you break out of decision-making paralysis? I distill the decision down to its simplest possible form, using a highly scientific process I call: “Is it yummy or is it yucky?”

Let me explain.

As a young entrepreneur, I once found myself stalled when I had to make a key decision on the direction of my business. At dinner one night I asked for the advice of a successful businessman. I was expecting a deep, analytical response – but what he said instead has stuck with me for decades. He picked up the sugar bowl in one hand and the salt shaker in the other. “I want you to make a gut decision,” he said. “Is the opportunity yummy, or yucky?”

A simple, but profound question.

Why? This experienced, self-made business leader knew that I’d done a lot of legwork leading up to this point of (in)decision. He knew that I had thought about which customers my new direction would most likely engage, and how many clients it might alienate. He knew I had studied what the competition was doing, and that I knew where my market was headed. He knew I had run the numbers backward and forward to see where a “wrong” decision might leave the company, and my family.

In short, he knew that I was fully capable of making an informed choice – or, as I now think of it, an “informed gut decision.” For me, this is when you meld your thoughtful analysis with the broad gut understanding of your business that you have developed systematically over time.

One of my clients, Greg van den Hoogen, CEO of Pharmasave Drugs (Atlantic) Ltd., likes to call this the “art and science of decision making that comes from truly knowing your business – the facts and figures, as well as the bumps and bruises that come from having worked in it for a long time.”

Ironically, decision making should be quite simple. I mean, there are only two real decisions that you can make: Yes or No. This isn’t just cheery Mary Poppins optimism. As Jack Welch, the legendary former CEO of General Electric, once said, “Simplicity is an indispensable element of a leader’s most important function.”

Yes, you have to do your homework and know your business. But that doesn’t mean you need to overcomplicate your decisions. Once you have the information you need to solve a problem, take a breath. Often, a problem appears daunting just because we’re too close to it; all we can see is the complexity. Step back and trust yourself to make a right decision, grounded in evidence, experience and thoughtfulness.

Of course, there are no guarantees. You learn to choose the sugar over the salt based on the indispensable, acquired knowledge inherent in your management style and experience.

When I learned to trust my informed instincts, the “yummy” decision quickly became obvious. No one expects you to get it right every time. But as you learn to trust your gut, you’ll find it gets easier and easier to make the best decisions for your business.

Please pass the sugar.

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How to avoid becoming your company’s biggest liability

Originally published on March 3, 2014 as a Guest Column in The Globe and Mail

notaliability

I was on LinkedIn recently when a news update popped up. In the story, a CFO asks the CEO: “What happens if we invest in developing our people and then they leave the company?” The CEO answers, “What happens if we don’t, and they stay?”

This vignette resonated with me: When I was a 20-something entrepreneur, I was that CFO. It’s not that I didn’t value my employees, but I was always cynical about investing in people who were likely to leave the company before our investment in their training and development had paid off. Now, as a 40-something entrepreneur and CEO, I’m happy to say that I have turned the corner.

Over the past few years, I have worked on culture, values and team-building than on any other part of our business, and it’s had incredible impact. Yes, the environment has changed. But I know the level of our employees’ participation, engagement and satisfaction have all changed, too – and our clients are the ultimate beneficiaries.

This is one of those ‘hindsight is 20/20’ or ‘if I knew then what I know now’ situations. As entrepreneurs, we come by our (lack of) strategic people skills honestly. When we start out, there’s only ‘me’ or ‘you.’ We founders do everything on our own, with no one to rely on but ourselves, which is the reason why it’s natural to put the ‘me’ ahead of the ‘team.’

But as the business grows, it’s important to recognize that it will take more than just you to get things done. It’s a big step to acknowledge that you’re not going to be good at everything. It’s an even bigger step to realize that if you don’t broaden your perspective, and understand the areas where you need support, you could become your company’s biggest liability.

Recently, I took it upon myself to ensure that this wouldn’t happen to me. I completed a straightforward behavioural assessment that involved 10 minutes of reacting to words that best (or least) described me. Going in, I was reluctant and dubious, wondering how such a brief test could summarize a lifetime. To my surprise (and perhaps chagrin), the assessment hit the nail on the head. The results declared me to be assertive, competitive, direct, driving and forceful. Not bad for a leader and entrepreneur. But not necessarily good for someone who should be participating in HR leadership and detail management.

What an entrepreneurial wake-up call. There were actually some things that others could do better than me. Imagine my shock! The bottom-line is that this tool – this awakening – has set in play a process that will help me focus on the strengths I bring to the business, and help me attract and build a team that complements not only my skills, but those of each other’s.

Want to make improvements in your own company? Here are the three key areas that will make or break your business: attract, retain and perform.

To attract the best people, successful organizations must have a brand that speaks to talented prospects who align with the company’s goals and values. To compete for talent today, companies must satisfy workers’ desire for a complete experience, not just a job.

With select employees now in place, winning companies turn their attention to ensuring these people stay. To retain great people you have to deliver on the brand promise you made at the hiring stage. Organizations must get to know their employees as individuals. Know what each worker needs to succeed, and give them the tools and the environment to be the best they can be.

The final and perhaps most significant opportunity is perform. Are your employees the best in the business? Are they constantly coming up with new ideas on how to do their jobs better and move the organization forward? Your leadership, shared goal-setting, and ability to promote the right behaviour are the biggest single influence on your organization’s ability to perform.

Through a culture of continuous innovation, leadership development, team effectiveness and employee engagement, organizations can measurably boost alignment and performance. But it all starts with you.

So nudge your ego aside, and make room for some company at the top of your company.

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The right vision can inspire innovation, passion and pride

Originally published on May 23, 2012 as a Special to Globe and Mail Update

the globe and mail canada

As Canadians, many of us understand the enormous power of a vision. Just imagine holding the Stanley Cup over your head. Millions of fans share a passion for the quest for hockey’s greatest trophy and we continue to believe that the right people, with the right plan, will someday make it happen for our team.

In the corporate world, your goals may not be summed up as neatly as they are in a single gleaming trophy. Nonetheless, your vision for your organization must fuel your people’s hopes and dreams. Your vision should be more than a bottom line or a number on a sales chart. It should be a tangible big-picture goal that galvanizes your people and exemplifies the pride – and the values – of your entire organization.

Professional hockey players will leap off their sick beds or skate on broken legs to play in a Stanley Cup final, driven by that vision of drinking from the Cup or flashing their Stanley Cup rings. To get similar commitments from your team members, your organization must invest time and energy to create lofty, future-oriented visions that everyone can share.

Crafting your vision statement is more than a goal-setting exercise. The process of envisioning and articulating the future offers a singular opportunity to gather the whole team together to build a consensus around not just the organization’s objectives, but also its purpose. With an aspirational vision that goes beyond the company and the immediate needs of its customers, you can create a powerful new springboard for growth and innovation.

To me, the responsibility of articulating an organizational vision belongs to the CEO. As the boss, you are your company’s chief innovation officer. Through the creation of a specific and compelling vision, you can also become chief inspiration officer. Consider Jack Welch, who reignited people’s passion for the behemoth known as General Electric by announcing that GE would exit any industry in which it could not be the clear No. 1 or No. 2 in the market. He focused the company on eliminating waste, trimming bureaucracy and upgrading its products and processes in order to serve customers better – a much more tangible goal than his predecessors’ objective of increasing shareholder value.

With the right mission and vision, you too can tap the true creativity and passion of your people; those deep reserves that most people don’t bring to work unless they’re fired up and striving for meaningful goals.

As an entrepreneur, you have an advantage as an inspirational leader. It was likely your vision of creating something new – a product or service that was much better than anything that came before – that spawned your organization in the first place. Keep that vision alive. Update it and share it. Your singular vision will bolster the energy and clarity of your whole team. It will act as a beacon to guide future decisions and rally others – customers, suppliers, and other potential partners – around your mission.

My advice: Keep your vision lofty. Of course it must be doable – but maybe it shouldn’t be too easy. To drink from the Stanley Cup, your team must win four hard-fought best-of-seven playoff series against equally fired-up opposition. That’s what makes a vision so powerful; who knows when you will have a chance like this again? Make sure your vision appeals to the highest and best values of your team – and keep the pressure on.

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