Protect your international traveling employees.

international_travelAs your company grows, you will probably have to make conclusions about traveling employees, and travel for yourself.  There are vast opportunities internationally that require careful planning to execute well.  One of the most critical decisions is how to enter a new country or region.  Most companies early in to the process do not have the resources to place people on the ground in foreign countries, so they make new relationships with distributors or dealers to represent them in the new areas.

As you begin your travels into new territories away from home, it is always wise to have a host to greet you from arrival through departure in each country that is new to you.  If you do not yet have any firm relationships in a country, develop some connection using your outreach channels before the first flight.  Even if you are going to start a series of interviews, you can have one candidate meet you at the airport and another later return you to the airport.  You should find this connection occurs automatically later as the relationships mature and you have either dealers or your own personnel within each territory.

[Email readers, continue here…]  The customs, laws and even the knowledge of safety dos and don’ts are critical elements in assuring your safety and that of your traveling employees.  It is also good business to learn local customs from locals.  Having a local contact to provide information to your home and your work is a relief to all, including yourself.

Then there is the question of creation of a regional office to cover multiple countries in a geographic area.  It is the next logical step toward creating corporate entities abroad.  And the regional manager hired to oversee multiple countries can act as country manager for his or her home country, often volunteering to travel with you to the various countries in the region.  That’s the best and safest choice for a next step toward becoming a true, international entity with offices in numerous countries as you grow.

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The coffee and wine school of innovation.

coffeewineHere’s one for debate around a cup of coffee or a glass of wine.  Most innovation occurs when creative people are relaxed and thinking about other things.

We all can picture the corporate R&D lab with tens of scientists working at white boards, or over computer models, or with prototypes.  And we picture programmers working at their workstations or on their portable notebooks creating great new code.

But all of those people are following the flash of inspiration that started their activity, and it is that flash we seek to reproduce again and again in a successful enterprise.

[Email readers, continue here…]  This leads us back to coffee and wine, and showers, and quiet time.  Given that we are looking for that flash of inspiration that starts us down the path of innovation through the hard work of R&D, maybe we should reengineer our thinking about allocation of time for our most creative resources, including ourselves.

There are times when creativity comes under pressure.  Necessity, after all, is the mother of invention.  But whole leaps into new groundbreaking areas of innovation most often come from times of reflection, when the mind is clear to dream ahead, to think without interruption.

So there are those who subscribe to the coffee and wine school, and encourage creative thinkers to find extra time in the early mornings or evenings to free the mind to innovate, to find the spark that could propel a company forward.

Posted in Surrounding yourself with talent | 6 Comments

Reward success and failure. Punish only inaction.

Reward failure?  That may be a difficult concept for an executive. And there are limits of course. We wouldn’t reward a failure to follow laws, or protect lives, or deliberate endangerment of the company or its people.

But should we reward a research team that fails for the fourth time to find the solution to a nagging problem – on the way to a new product?  What if those failures are success-failurecommonplace?   Where do we draw the line?  Edison tried a thousand types of material before finding tungsten for the core of the light bulb.  If he had been a research employee reporting to you, at what point would you have pulled the plug on the project, or become disillusioned with the person?

The culture of the company you grow is very much influenced by your actions in rewarding or punishing employees or whole departments. And the best companies seem to be those that are motivated from the top to push limits within reason in order to find better ways to do things, to create products, to expand the market.  The CEO must realize that most such efforts lead to a dead end or will fail outright.

[Email readers, continue here…] I was once in the record business.  Speak about insanity. Only two percent of all records released broke even.  Of course, the major hits paid for thousands of misses.  In venture capital, the conventional wisdom is that one in ten investments will more than pay for the complete loss of half of those ten investments.  Yet investors reward the VC’s with a track record of one in ten, and record companies still churn out a reduced number of recordings, knowing that a great majority will fail to break even.

So, where does the learned, best of breed CEO step in to administer punishment?  As the headline infers, a visionary, proactive leader should not be able to stand by and condone inaction.  That is not only a waste of corporate assets, but the fixed overhead eaten by the inactive period keeps draining the cash and time resources of the corporation with nothing to show for it.  Wouldn’t you rather dissect a failure and move forward, than have nothing to show for time and money spent in wasted fixed overhead?

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Power is sometimes assumed when not granted.

How many times have you heard someone say “Let’s do it now and ask permission later?”  It’s a common practice in companies where there is a barrier between levels in the chain of command, or lack of communication between contemporaries.  The statement represents a failing at some point in the delegation or communication chain by a higher level of angry_employeemanagement, and should be taken as a warning that there is a problem greater than the issue handled at the moment.

I’ve worked with organizations that are so large that extensive paperwork is required to obtain approvals to accept customer orders, make any purchases of any size, or any commitment of resources.  In every case, people try to stretch those restrictions in as many ways as possible to get around the time taken to complete forms and lost in waiting for approvals.  It’s the “order prevention department” syndrome.

Incomplete delegation of responsibilities, or controls that are too tight, both lead to a rationale for subordinates to circumvent the system.  The worst thing about this is that the people most likely to do this are those most entrepreneurial and creative in doing their jobs.  Conversely, those most likely to fall back and seek guidance, clarification and direction are those most subservient and least creative.

Middle managers sometimes identify those who assume power as non-conformists or even troublemakers. It is rare to ever see a dialog come out of such an event that leads to better defined delegation of responsibilities, removal of roadblocks, or relaxation of overly restrictive rules.  More often such actions lead to reprimands without analysis of the underlying general cause.  And occasionally, the very creative, driven individuals you would otherwise celebrate are made candidates for elimination instead of catalysts for change.

 

Posted in Depending upon others, Surrounding yourself with talent | 1 Comment

A tale of two CEOs and the management of pain

This is the tale of two CEOs, one of them unfortunately….me.  It’s a story of how people handle unusual situations when selling to the top – an executive of a prospective customer.  And the stories couldn’t be more different.

Recently a CEO friend told me her story of a dinner with her director of business development and an executive of a major company, a candidate for a large sale.  As the dinner progressed, he started, and then continued to excuse himself from the table,

looking paler each time.  After several of these, upon his return, she asked him if everything was OK.  He responded, like most of us would, that all was OK, and that he was
having a bit of trouble breathing, would probably have to leave the dinner early, and drive home.

She took one more look, and went into decision mode.  “No, you aren’t fine,” she stated. “Give me your car keys; we’re going to the hospital.”  He reluctantly acquiesced, and she tended to him as her director drove all three to the hospital.  She had him call his wife on managementofpainthe way to meet them at the hospital.  As they waited in the emergency room, after more episodes, his breathing finally became easier, and by the time the doctor saw them, he could find nothing of worry, ruling out stroke or heart attack.  Our CEO then returned to the restaurant and met with the chef to have him list all the ingredients from the meal the executive was eating.  The problem was, as you guessed, an undiscovered food allergy, with a possible ambulance ride averted and a happy ending.   The executive even tells the story now that the CEO may have saved his life, because he was unwilling to own up to the fact that his breathing was so very difficult.

Now, I would not have been so fast to take charge. Maybe it’s a guy thing.  I would have been thinking about the sales relationship and the sale, and would probably have let the guy drive home, acknowledging his discomfort, and ending the dinner early.

This leads me to my story.  Years ago, I was in the process of selling a $125,000 system to a well-known baseball hero who owned his namesake hotel in St. Louis.  Flying on the red eye to make a morning appointment, his hotel bus driver dropped me off in the dark a few feet beyond the lighted portico. I stepped off the van into… a recently dug pit about two feet deep, and broke my foot in the fall.  What pain!  I tried to sleep in the room they gave me, and managed to make it to the 10:00 AM meeting with the very well-known sports figure and sales candidate.  He saw me drag my leg into the conference room, made no comment, but asked if I would like a tour of the hotel.  “Of course,” I said, ignoring the pain and dragging my foot the entire way through the tour.

Well, I didn’t make the sale.  And I didn’t sue the hotel.  I was in selling mode and nothing was going to detract from my focus or reputation.  I sure was not admitting to the problem or seeking recourse for the obvious flagrant error by the hotel in not marking the excavation.

Who was right?  Well, I should have led the meeting with my story of woe in order to protect others.  The other CEO took charge, and made a friend of both the potential customer and his spouse, who she called as they drove to the hospital.

Is it a guy thing?  Is it conditioning us to put things in perspective regardless of the personal outcome, including a lost sale?  I think about these two examples now, and have concluded that there are some traits of a great CEO that cannot be learned easily.  Putting others above self, and sacrificing a short term goal is not easy for a type ‘A’ driven entrepreneur when the stakes are high. But it is the right thing to do.

Posted in Growth!, Protecting the business | 3 Comments

Protect your outlier innovators.

Here’s one for executives of technology companies, or any company with next generation products in mind.  As your business grows more complex and there are more employees to manage and more customers to care for, slowly you will notice that more and more time of your chief innovation officer or system architect or R&D department is spent focused upon enhancements in response to needs of the user base.

The company’s most valuable technical visionary, the person tasked with staying out in outlierinnovatorsfront of new technologies, developing the next generation of new products, and thinking “a mile above the box” is drawn into working on projects that are incremental to the product and to the existing business.  Often he or she will approach you and state that the work has become more boring, and that there is no time left for creative thinking or next generation experimentation and development.

[Email readers, continue here…]  That’s one scenario. In many companies, there are people who are quiet geniuses, wanting to work on projects outside of the daily focus of the department or company.  Managers sometimes view this behavior as non-strategic or wasteful, and even sometimes will isolate or reject these outside thinkers outright.

Or finally, you may want to start a project using the next generation of tools to produce an entirely new product – but your development resources are all tied up with projects to enhance existing products.  Whichever of the three scenarios may apply to you, it is a red flag for your future if you condone the status quo, and allow the company to devote all of its resources to existing products and simple enhancements.  Your best creative thinkers will leave you, looking for more challenges than you can offer.  Your competitors may already be working on the next generation of product, as you remain stuck in the mud, even if focused upon serving the customer base with outstanding service and rapid feature rollout.

It is up to you to decide if research and development for advanced or next generation products is a strategic priority for you and your company.  If so, you have a duty to protect these future-focused developers or architects, removing or reducing the pressure of reactionary development work, and isolating them in a space that prevents constant interruption by others focused upon day-to-day work.

Technology companies are prime targets for this problem.  Every six to ten years, there is an entirely new platform to focus upon for the next generation of products.  Just think of the computer and software fields.  First there were mainframes, followed by minicomputers, then client-server systems, then peer-to-peer networks, then the Internet, mobile devices, cloud computing, and now mesh networks.  Each generation required new tools, rewrites of software, creation of new user interfaces.

And in each generation, there are dominant players from the past generation that fade as new companies not inhibited by the demands of their user base leap beyond the last generation’s leaders with new systems for the new age.  Leaders of significant size are sometimes made irrelevant over time, or pivot into service organizations, or absorbed into growing next generation companies.

What happened to Wang, Sperry-Univac, Burroughs-Unisys, DEC, RCA, and hundreds of early generation leaders?  Their CEOs did not provide enough of a safe environment and enough resources to their creative geniuses to make the leap into that next generation.

It is a cost of doing business that you cannot ignore.  Not only providing resources for next generation development, but protecting the people performing those development tasks should be one of your strategic priorities.

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Fire yourself. Rehire a new you.

When a new CEO or manager is hired into a company, for a while lots of energy flows from the top and new ideas seem to be generated daily.  It is one reason not to fear the unknown when upper level management long in place turns over, often leaving most everyone worried about the future of the company and for their own prospects.

Even the best of us fall into a routine in our jobs.  It is human nature to do so, but it is not a sign of our best efforts.  We recall the enthusiasm we had for the job earlier, how we couldn’t wait to get to work, or initiate a new plan, or share a new idea.  We can be that Job dismissal noticeperson again.  It just takes a bit of effort to change our mindset.

We may run out of fresh ideas after a time; most of us do.  But there are sources of great ideas right next to us in our own company, or available to us from fellow CEOs, or from industry consultants with a broader view of the landscape, uninhibited by our need to meet daily obligations.

One of my most respected CEOs arrived at his monthly CEO roundtable meeting years ago and announced that he had just fired himself.  He had reconfigured the company, delegating many of his previous responsibilities, and rehired himself in a new position more strategic to the company, retaining the CEO title.  It was an attitude adjustment, self-initiated. He credits that effort as the start of his company’s real growth, resulting in a great public company, dominant in his field.

Another CEO described how he drove to work each Monday morning forcing himself to think of what he would do if he were a newly hired CEO, fresh on the job that day.  He surprised himself with his many fresh ideas, just with that change of perspective.

However you do it, refresh yourself.  Be that new CEO – but with all the knowledge and skills you already have as a head start.

Posted in Growth!, Surrounding yourself with talent | 3 Comments

Are you too emotionally involved in the decision?

Negotiating an agreement, especially one that involves personal gain, is tough for the person personally involved.  There is too much to lose to be objective, to be willing to walk when terms go upside down.

It is my experience that you should have an expert negotiator with you or even in your place, whether from your board or an employee or outside professional such as an attorney – when the issue is personal.

Think of buying a car, for example. If you are looking for your spouse or offspring, it is Fear_decision1probable that they’ve picked out the perfect car and are ready to take it off the dealer’s hands.  Assuming that you are the elected as or self-assigned to be the negotiator, the last thing you want is to have them in the room while you haggle over price.  Advantage other side.

Negotiating on behalf of business associates too personally involved in a transaction: it’s a role I’ve played tens of times over the years. There are the several that were disengagements between partners threatening to sue each other for perceived wrongs.  There’s the sale of a company, where as a board member, I asked the CEO to name his asking price and then go home and wait the result.   There’s the disengagement with an angry employee threating to sue the company.

All of these are personal issues to a CEO or founder or entrepreneur.  And all of them draw that person emotionally into making decisions that cannot easily be objective, or into finding solutions that are mutually acceptable without the torture of constant re-explanation of opposing positions.

A smart lawyer, they say, should never represent himself.  And yet, lawyers are trained in the art of negotiation.  You should be careful not to miss the point of that admonition.

My oldest son learned to accompany me, but keep a deadpan look on his face as I negotiated for his ideal car, completing the purchase in minutes.  The CEO described above endorsed his company selling for twice his asking price, after his absence helped the negotiation to be completed within an hour.  The partnership described above dissolved without suit after a personal visit by the negotiator without the first partner present resulted in settlement within an hour.  The employee just described  accepted a severance check in trade for a release, without the emotion of arguing out old issues between employee and employer.

Are you too emotionally involved in a decision?  Consider the advice lawyers give each other, and find a surrogate to argue your case.

Posted in Protecting the business, Surrounding yourself with talent | 1 Comment

Help your employees to grow through their position.

When we accept the work commitment from a person we hire, we make a pact with the new employee that often stops at agreeing to pay for service rendered and to provide a safe working environment.

There should be more than that.  With some people you hire, you know you are just renting their services as they pass through your organization, aimed at a higher calling.  Others want to know that they are signing on to a career, not a job, and expect to move up within the ranks or on to a larger company that can accommodate their goals.

A recent statistic I saw surprised me. But as I thought of examples of people I know, it Idea concept with row of light bulbs and glowing bulbseemed more accurate than I would have imagined. The average new college graduate today will work thirteen jobs in his or her career, in an average of five different fields.  Ouch!  What happened to a job for life?  How can employers expect complete loyalty if there is no clear upward path to the top for the best new hire?

[Email readers, continue here…]  The answer coming from the best of breed in corporate personnel management is to form a trusted bond with that openly-identified employee, helping that person to manage his or her career within and preparing to follow the company experience.  If a superstar agrees to work for you for a period while learning the ropes to move to a better job elsewhere, assuming that there is candor in the communication by the employee and a level of trust in and by the employer, it is perfectly proper to offer to help that employee succeed. The pact between employee and employer is that the employee gives the best possible service to the company, in return for the company helping the employee to grow in, and perhaps beyond the position.

Especially with young entrepreneurial CEOs, this feels to them like a stick up.  “Give me your money, and I will work only until I find a better job.”  And that attitude might be warranted if the employee just performs to the minimum required level, marking time to the next opportunity.  But if the person has skills and knowledge that the company needs, there is the basis for a fair trade of talent and time for a later organized, positive move to the next level outside of the company.

With that openly positive corporate attitude, you can celebrate the growth of the employee with a party as the person graduates, instead of either feeling anger when an employee resigns with short notice, or being suspicious that the employee will leave with trade secrets in tow.  Certainly other employees will see the supportive behavior, understand the company’s contribution to the career of this upwardly mobile employee, and celebrate not only the graduation event but the great culture of the company itself.

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Don’t manage with “what” without “why!”

Empowering your direct reports with the reasons for your orders gives them incentive to act, motivation to accept authority, and purpose behind action.  I try to teach this with the simple phrase that is the headline of this insight.

Think of the last time someone above you in your business or personal life gave you an order to do something that seemed either illogical or of low priority – to you.  If you accepted the authority of the person giving you the order, you just performed the task, probably either wondering if that person was nuts or whether you just didn’t understand the reason for the task.

What if that person had told you why it was important to be done, in clear terms that question-markrelated to that person’s priorities?  Wouldn’t you be more prepared to perform the task knowing the context?

[Email readers, continue here…]  I just spoke with an old friend who is in sales.  He lamented the fact that his boss recently layered several more sales reports on him to complete each week, reducing his selling efficiency.  How many times have we heard this complaint, especially from sales people?  I suggested that he go back to his boss and explain that it would be more than just helpful to know why these new reports are needed, that even though the salesman has no need to know, it would certainly make doing the work less of a chore.  And by the way, I offered, if the boss could not explain why, there might be an opening to advance the argument that the trade in time between completing the new report and reduced sales call time might be worth a revisit of the order.

How many tasks, reports, and rules hang around the necks of people throughout a more mature organization, which remain as “what” without anyone remembering “why?”   It is probably as effective a tool for the manager as for the recipient of the order, to explain why when telling what to do.

Your employees will appreciate the small extra effort, better understand the reason behind the request, and perform the act with more enthusiasm.  What’s not to like about that?

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