customer experience

How entrepreneurs can be better leaders 

Entrepreneurs aren’t always known for their people skills. And frankly, neither are engineers. So I felt somewhat challenged recently when I was invited to speak to students at the W Booth School of Engineering at McMaster University, which focuses on creating not just builders, but leaders.

Product-obsessed engineers and always-racing-somewhere entrepreneurs aren’t generally known for having the open, engaging and empowering management style that seems so critical in business today. Still, entrepreneurs thrive on change, so understanding people – and helping them grow  is just one more skill set we have to adopt. 

So I thanked Professor David Potter for his courage in handing me the microphone in front of his classroom of emerging minds, and tried to persuade them that leadership is much more than just getting things done. 

In recent years, I have spent more time  in my own company and with other organizations  helping people adapt their leadership approach to a world of constant, unpredictable change. And as I explained to these engineering students, addressing change succeeds or fails by understanding a concept you rarely learn in the classroom: context.

According to Oxford, “context is a frame of reference – a device you use to extract meaning from random or imperfect information. For me, “context” is the most important word in businessLeaders always need to understand the needs, concerns and demandsthat shape their actions and attitudes – as well as those factors affecting the people you do business with. Knowing all of these different motivations and frames of reference puts you in a position to find common ground and move ahead together.

Context is especially important in managing people. How can you help someone change their behaviour if you don’t take the time to understand why theyve been acting that way” in the first place?

Contextually speaking, see two stages thaentrepreneurs generally go through – andthe quantum leap they need to take to evolve their leadership style. I offer the following framework not just for entrepreneurs, but for those who work with them. 

  1.  The Island Leader: Many entrepreneurs isolate themselves when making decisions within their own businesses – for two fundamental reasons. The first is that entrepreneurs of my generation began their business journeys in a top-down age. Our bosses told us: Keep your head down, put one foot in front of the other, shut your mouth. And in 30 years, they’ll give you a gold watch.” It was an era when business success was created by followingnot standing out. Naturally, this early learning affects the waymany entrepreneurs they deal with people today – especially after fighting so hard to establish their own firms.

    Secondly, who exactly are entrepreneurs leading when we launch our companies? Usually just a few true believers – and often, no one at all. So how can entrepreneurs become great leaders when we so often begin as islands unto ourselves?

  2. The Treehouse Leader: As our companies growentrepreneurs hire other people to work “for” us. Having scant leadership experience, we tend to build our own treehouse on our business island and lob directions from above: “Do this, do that. No, that was yesterday – do this instead.” When you establish your own business, founded on your own personality and worldview, it’s not easy to open up and work more collaboratively.Entrepreneurs’ thick skin hides a lot of bruises. We have heard all the objections that come with trying to do things differently: “That’s a stupid idea. This will never work.” 

But a business model honed in the 20th century doesn’t fit any more. The island and the treehouse have to go. Entrepreneurs must open up and recognize that more heads are better than one.

Twenty years ago, the business world spun more slowly. With longer product lifecycles,you could build a viable business by coming up with one better idea every few yearsBut today’s customers demand constant innovation, customization, rapid prototyping. No leader can do all that alone.

Fortunately, entrepreneurs trying to up their game have natural allies: millennials. I can hear your startled protests, but I don’t see the new generation as entitled, cynical or smug. I associate millennials with communication and collaboration

They have grown up as Gen C, the connected generation. Through technology, they participate in any conversation, on any topic, anywhere in the world. They don’t accept Shut up and keep your head down.” We leaders must adapt. We must learn to converse instead of command.

Respectful conversation is hard – which is probably why our bosses avoided it. Conversing requires mutual respect. If you ask for an opinion, you must treat it with care, and explain why you agree or disagree. Offering a shrug – or no reaction at all – guarantees that conversation will continue without you. 

Did the students get my message? I think they were delighted to be told that their preferred method of communication – frank, fearless and always on – will eventually win in the workplace. I just hope their bosses are fast learners.

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Is it time to put your brand promise to work?

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Is technical and functional proficiency enough to sustain and build your brand? Admittedly, it’s vastly important that your elevator maintenance crews not make mistakes. But, ultimately, customers don’t keep choosing you only because you don’t make mistakes. They engage with you because you also offer a positively memorable experience. This experience is what we call the brand promise and it is what separates adequate companies from the true market leaders.

Especially in consumer-facing businesses or B2B enterprises with a heavy service component, your team always has the option of wrapping what you’re selling (and adding value) with your brand promise. But they can only do it if they know what your brand promise is and how important it is to continually promote it.

 A brand promise is the foundation of your bond with customers. 

Essentially, it is who you are, in addition to what you do.  Like any other promise, your brand promise establishes an expectation. Traditionally, training courses prepare your people to deliver on the functional… “We said we’d deliver six dozen by Thursday, and here they are.” Educating your people to become brand ambassadors takes a more strategic and sustained training approach that links your people with your corporate strategic plan and focuses on relationships rather than transactions.

Instilling brand promise across your company takes more than formal training events. It also depends on informal learning through follow-up conversations, team building moments, employee communications and recognition for ambassadorial behaviour with customers.

Developing brand ambassadors should begin during the hiring and on-boarding process. Your recruitment team must build an understanding of the greater strategic goals of your organization from day one. It’s great to have people with diverse skill-sets, backgrounds and personalities on a team, but it’s also important to have values that align with one another and with those of your company. Hiring for ‘fit’ (in addition to credentials) isn’t simple, but it’s the single most important ingredient in keeping your brand promise. When you hire kindred people, the on-boarding and brand indoctrination processes follow much more naturally.

After all, believing in the promise makes it that much easier to keep the promise.

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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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