leadership development

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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It’s never okay to be ‘just okay’ at your job

 

Screen Shot 2016-05-13 at 1.59.29 PM

Originally published on May 2, 2016 as a Guest Column in The Globe and Mail: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/small-business/sb-managing/its-never-okay-to-be-just-okay-at-your-job/article29807629/

If you are one of those people who gets out of bed every morning to make a difference, your commitment to entrepreneurship is alive and well. And if your energy is rooted in audacity, you’re ahead of the game. Some may consider audacity to be a negative concept associated with attitude or edge, but it’s your willingness to challenge assumptions and conventions that will catalyze innovation and business success. As entrepreneurs, if we don’t have the audacity to believe in ourselves and our ideas, who will do it for us?

Two of the biggest barriers that we face in bringing new ideas to the world are the naysayers who assert: “That’ll never work, because…,” and the faint-hearted friends who say: “You have a family to feed, your dreams will have to wait.”

But recently I heard a new declaration and it will stay with me for a long time.

First, you might remember that in a previous column, I encouraged entrepreneurs to attack their sluggish markets by attending more industry events, dinners and trade shows – to get out of the office to find new ideas and fresh prospects. I even set a personal goal of attending 50-per-cent more events this year.

Well, sitting at a recent event, I heard the story of a former entrepreneur who quit to become a manager at a large company.

Why did he make such a drastic change? His answer, “Why bother being an entrepreneur when you can work in ‘the middle’ of a big company where it’s okay to be JUST OKAY?”

Wow! I finally understood the meaning of the “frozen middle.” It’s a term often used to describe the thickest part of an organization, the forbidding wasteland where ideas go to die. Great new notions may trickle down from the top of the organization, or begin at the bottom and percolate up, but in urban business mythology, they all die in the frozen middle.

Never having worked for a multinational, I assumed the frozen middle was no more real than the Land of Oz. I mean, who would ever want a huge part of their organization to be “just OKAY”? Back when I owned a manufacturing firm, we received a large order from a major retailer. A few friends warned me, “They are going to be very demanding, and your company is going to have to be exceptional to work with them.” I shrugged my shoulders and replied, “I don’t want to own a company that is anything less than exceptional. So I see this as an opportunity to ensure that we are nothing less.”

To be clear, the frozen middle is not the fault of the middle managers, it is systemic. To quote a 2005 article from the Harvard Business Review, “the problem is the inability of the company’s middle-management team to carry it out.” Ironically, the article is entitled “Middle Management Excellence.” In it, author and consultant Jonathan Byrnes argues that the most important thing a CEO can do to maximize company performance is to build the capabilities of the middle-management team.

Great middle managers are on their way to leadership positions. They take the longer view by embracing proactivity and innovation, because they know that both the future of their company and their own future prospects depend on it. But they are hindered by archaic processes and institutional roadblocks.

For large companies that know in their hearts that their vast middle needs a defrost, it’s time for an industrial-grade heater. To create and maintain market leadership today requires a red-hot culture shift: openness to new ideas, incentives to perform and a culture of innovation that drives ideas to market. Make innovation a part of your performance reviews. Let everyone know that new ideas are the heart of your corporate culture. If middle managers see how important innovation is to the company’s leadership, they will begin to understand that the status quo is no longer worth defending. If you want intrapreneurs heating up your bottom line, you have to recognize and reward audacious behaviour.

There’s great news in this for fellow entrepreneurs. Bigger firms’ inability to pivot and develop new products and opportunities provide us the open door to break through and disturb the status quo.

Bottom line: You never know which innovation will prove to be a winner – but the act of innovation is always right. Entrepreneur or corporate behemoth, it’s never okay to be “just okay.”

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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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