Seven Topics and Techniques of Contemporary Business Importance

  1. Values: Actions at two levels we seldom examine
    In an age of uncertainty between employer and employee, there is a natural tendency to accentuate “corporate values” as a “rudder” to maintain focus and to communicate corporate intent. However, these are too often mere superficial phrases and gestures, such as plaques on the wall announcing that “we respect our employees” or “we value our customers.” I was at a Ritz-Carlton recently in which all the employees dutifully chant “My pleasure!” after serving you, but the service itself was late or inaccurate.

    There are actually two keys to a values-driven organization:

    First, core values represent the raison d’être of the business, and should guide all strategic decisions and plans. Merck & Co., for example, brings outstanding scientific research to conquer human health problems. That’s a core value, and that’s why Merck will not buy an investment company or an airline tomorrow. However, operating values are those beliefs which govern daily behavior. If an employee believes that obtaining sales even by deception will result in promotion-because that’s how the boss did it-then that value will determine daily conduct.

    Second, then, is the fact that employees do not believe what they read or what they hear, but only what they see. The exemplar at all levels of management will determine how subordinates conduct themselves (those who don’t like the exemplar’s actions and choose not to emulate them will simply leave). I had been told of terrible examples of leadership at the Houston office of Arthur Andersen two years before the Enron debacle.

    Key Point: Core values guide strategy, but not tactics, meaning that the latter may not support the former unless there are correct exemplars setting the pace every day. Who are yours?

  2. Perception: We know it’s “reality” yet we still don’t manage it well
    “Perception is reality” has become a mantra yet organizations tend to allow external forces to create and manage it. How often have you received a communication from your elected officials just prior to an election, purporting to tell you how much they’ve done for you, although you haven’t heard a thing from them since the last election? Businesses often fall into the same trap.

    I’ve found that many seasonal businesses, for example, often do virtually nothing to communicate with customers and prospects during the “off-season” periods. The smart ones, however, such as some summer resorts, send me information to whet my appetite during the winter.

    In addition, many companies wait until they’re caught in the crosshairs of a reporter’s ambush team before trying to create a positive public image. There’s a consulting rule which I follow which requires that I regularly approach a current client with good news, so that the inevitable bad news will be received within a proper context of our progress. Are you approaching your customers, clients, or members with periodic good news and positive positioning? This isn’t “spin” so much as knowledge management. Continental Airlines, under Gordon Bethune, changed itself from the last choice of business travelers to the first choice through focused attention to key perceptions: on-time performance, baggage handling, and so on.

    Key Point: What are the several critical messages you want customers to comprehend, and what are you doing to both ensure that they are communicated and to test that they are understood?

  3. Sales and Marketing: “Trust” is the new litmus test
    In an age of global competition, instantaneous communication, and transient talent, consumer trust has grown as one of the key differentiators in choosing a supplier, vendor, professional service, and/or commodity. In the wake of falsified earning reports, insider trading scandals, and outrage over executive compensation, trust has taken on an even greater impact.

    The marketing strategy of your enterprise and the commensurate sales activities should be heavily influenced by the creation of buyer confidence. Logic makes people think, but emotion makes them act, and the emotional ties created in a trusting relationship far outweigh the intellectual arguments of a PowerPoint™ presentation or sophisticated brochure. Similarly, a web site should be providing customer benefits, not the seller’s self-aggrandizement.

    The best auto salespeople tell prospects that they “look good” (or even “cool”) sitting in the car, and toss the keys over for a test drive. They don’t stress the radial tires or the trunk space. The wise restaurant captain will always tell you that your wine selection is “an excellent choice,” even if it was bottled last week! I’m not advocating sycophancy, but I am stressing that trust will always get you the benefit of the doubt. Many years ago one person doubled shampoo sales overnight when he merely suggested that his company place three words on every label: “rinse and repeat.” Most people still do it.

    Key Point: What assurance and emotional attachment is the customer likely to acquire or obtain during the initial interactions with your organization’s marketing and sales approaches? Ironically, the longer you wait to develop a trusting relationship, the more the business is accelerated.

  4. Retention: Talent is transient, and we’re spending too much to keep it
    The psychological studies of decades ago demonstrating that money is not a prime motivator, but that it’s absence is a demotivator, have been borne out once again by recent events. In the absence of an intelligent human resources strategy, many executives have resorted to paying people more and more in an attempt to retain core talent in a world of decreasing corporate loyalties. But when you give an unhappy employee more money, you are merely creating a wealthier unhappy employee.

    The more progressive organizations have installed some or all of the following: health clubs and workout rooms; day-care assistance; flexible hours; partial telecommuting options; lunch time educational series (e.g., on retirement planning, art appreciation, safety in traveling, etc.); greater latitude in decision making; approval to spend money at the front line to solve customer complaints; corporate ombudsmen; access to Employee Assistance Programs.

    Employees are increasingly concerned about life balance, travel, safety, physical environment, advancement potential in a non-hierarchical (flat) organization, and personal contribution and gratification. “Empowerment” is not a buzzword if you accept my definition: Providing people with the ability to make the decisions which influence the outcome of their work.

    Key Point: Who is accountable for continually examining non-compensation options which will best attract, retain, and develop talent? What are you doing to recognize outstanding performance and critical contributions, both spontaneously and formally?

  5. Investment: We overspend on the remedial and underspend on excellence
    Organizations continue to spend close to $70 billion in the U.S. alone on training and development issues (this does not include consulting and accounting fees). While external travel and meetings have declined somewhat (though they are rebounding), internal meetings and training have proliferated. Yet organizations do virtually nothing to measure the impact of training in terms of business results or improved performance. “Distance learning,” using the Internet, has been of limited success within some firms but of almost universal failure when attempted by external vendors. It is more effective on technical matters, but woefully insufficient for supervisory and management issues.Any training, quality movement, developmental experience or other intervention which does not have a measurable impact on the customer, the product, or the service is suspect. In a tough and competitive economy, firms persist in tossing dollars into training schemes without any assurances that there will be a significant ROI. Worse, most training and development is focused on remedial needs and underperformers, rather than on innovation and stellar performers. We seem obsessed with trying to raise everyone to a mediocre common denominator, rather than allow our all-stars to reach new levels to which all others should aspire.

    In the preponderance of organizations I’ve studied while writing my books, there is a lack of a coordinated approach to training (e.g., one that is aligned with strategic objectives and commensurate performance goals) and a profound underemphasis on further development of current strong performers, as if they have reached a plateau which requires no further improvement (and the problem is often precisely that they are on an unrecognized plateau).

    Key Point: What investment are you making in your top performers? Is there a minimum standard of performance below which, after developmental efforts have failed, employees are systematically terminated? (There is something worse than an undeserved law suit, and that is a legion of underperforming employees.)

  6. Innovation: The fallacy of the “early adopter”
    The progression we are inculcated with in terms of launching a new product or service is this: innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, laggards. Many organizations vigorously pursue the early adopters who set the pace for those who follow. But the key is the early majority, which constitutes the great preponderance of business, largely because the later majority inevitably follows that lead. What isn’t appreciated is that the “leap” from innovators to early adopters is far less of a distance than that of early adopters to early majority (and the ensuing connection to late majority is just a short hop).

    Thus, the focus for a new product, service, geography, or “solution” should be on the linkage between the early adopters and the early majority. The critical juncture occurs when the early majority accepts the new offering and demonstrates signs of repeat usage.

    Key Point: How quickly can you ascend the curve to position #3, and how prepared are you to provide incentives for long-term usage and repeat business? Many businesses are successful in embracing early adapters but are not prepared for their own success and lose the early majority.

  7. Life Balance: The power of an eclectic and diverse life
    Perhaps nothing has impressed me as much over the past year as the relative equilibrium and superior judgment of those leading balanced lives. Not only is the “workaholic” lifestyle an unhealthy one, it has also turned out to be an ineffective one. Both managers and employees who have indulged in recreation, family, private interests, a physical regimen, and other diversions have tended to recover from disaster faster, employ better perspective, and provide others with vital aassistance and guidance during turbulent times.The literature has long reflected the fact that people who see themselves as their jobs (e.g., I am an accountant, or a senior vice president, or a loan officer, or division president) tend to lose their identify and self-esteem when that job is threatened or eliminated. However, those who evaluate themselves in terms of their contributions (e.g., I provide financial well-being, lead people in highly competitive environments, acquire new business, etc.) retain that sense of contributing and performance across jobs and through turmoil.

    More than ever, the secret to success is not in working hard, but rather in working smart. And the route to working smart is best followed by broad interests, personal growth, and time to enjoy loved ones and life.

    Key Point: What are you doing to broaden your life, improve learning, and spend quality time with loved ones? The first question I ask every executive whom I coach is this: “Are you having fun?” If the answer to that is “no,” then I know that performance is suffering and so are those within that sphere of influence.