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Entries in management (25)

Monday
Oct272014

Why I Missed the Real Value of Business Coaches

The term “coach” evokes someone with experience in a specific sport or activity. A coach has done or studied intensively—and over an extended period of time—a specific field and shares this particular expertise with others.

I have a boxing coach. I have had a running coach. I can understand why people hire coaches for childbirth. Also for weight loss and nutrition.

But a “business coach?”

Business has too many nuances and implications. A person doesn’t claim to have history expertise—she professes specific knowledge in an era or geographic region (and probably both). You can’t have a “sports coach.” That just doesn’t make any sense.

Although all areas of business have overlap, the general field has too much breadth and depth for any one person to coach in all its facets. Wooing from business coaches with backgrounds in supply-chain management for manufacturing or franchise management—two real-life examples—puzzled me.

I figured that, someday, when it made sense or the need grew acute, I’d hire a business coach with highly specialized expertise in a field or area in which I could use improvement. (I have plenty of those.) Once I got up to speed, we’d wrap. Down the line, perhaps I’d need a different type of business coach for strengthening another facet.

Maybe I still will.

And when I do, I’ll call her “coach.” Yet recent experience has taught me that the term misrepresents the real value of many professionals classed in the category.

We need to find a new term. Adviser? Confidant? Guide?

I’ll go with adviser. Because I’ve hired one, and now I see what I’ve missed. (And it isn’t coaching.)

Sounding Board

Executives don’t have natural in-office sounding boards.

When you hire a business coach, you hire someone under strict confidentiality who stands outside your organization. She has no taste for your company's particular flavor of politics. Having “inside information” doesn’t give her currency with her coworkers.

Further, she doesn’t need to see you resolute at all times. You can have wobbly moments—you won’t shake your team's mission-critical confidence in the company or its leadership or direction by debating a decision with her or expressing to her your frustration and uncertainty.

Perspective

A business adviser has worked with a number of other executives. Many good ones have done so for years.

She may not have exact knowledge of your specific type of business, products, or areas of improvement—as would someone I’d agree to call a “coach”—but she has walked through a number of challenges with a number of people similar to you. She can suggest resources she’s seen others use. She can suggest avenues of thought that she’s seen work elsewhere.

She can comfort you that others have gone through the same challenges and survived (yes, sometimes we CEOs wonder)—and even thrived. And she can congratulate you when you achieve a “win” that your employees would simply take for granted, because she’s watched you and potentially others struggle over the same mountain.

Me, Me, Me

Friends who work with psychologists say that one of the pleasures of therapy is having a set time period in which you guiltlessly talk about yourself with someone who focuses on nothing but you.

A business adviser provides the same outlet.

I have fantastic accountability partners, though our sessions rarely focus solely on me. Instead, we support each other in achieving our goals. I gain from helping them as much as I get from their support. I value them highly and that won’t change.

Yet I’ll confess: Talking through something without any expectation of reciprocity feels really, really nice. In fact, simply knowing I have an adviser if needed gives a sense of relief.

Have you hired a business coach? What did you experience?

Thursday
Oct232014

What We Expect from the Workplace

In an article I included for my last Friday Links post, Danial Adkison wrote about his high-school employment at a Pizza Hut in Colorado.

Since I read it, I’ve chewed on it.

Adkison’s manager, Jeff, created a second-family environment for his staff, replete with water fights in the parking lot, dinner and movies, rafting and camping, and softball. When Adkison applied to universities, Jeff paid for flights, hotel, car, and food when he took Adkison to visit Boston College.

Oh, and lest I forget: Jeff even paid for Adkison’s application fee (and its express-mail delivery).

Back when I worked as an employee, not an employer, I never sought a familiar relationship with my coworkers. Collegiality? Friendship? Sure. A coterie with which to spend a consuming around of time beyond work duties? No.

And I never looked to my bosses as parental or avuncular figures.

Yet I always had a strong family, even after my parents divorced. Further, I fall on the introverted end of the spectrum. I never gravitate to large-group activities. I prefer small-group and one-on-one interaction.

So when I first read Adkison’s article, I felt really out of touch.

Does everyone seek this sort of office environment? Does my mind state rest so far outside the norm that I’ve never realized it?

Would my team want this sort of workplace? We have plenty of group activities, but nothing like what Adkison describes, with all-day outside-working-hours hang-outs that include kickball.

And then I wondered: Perhaps Adkison’s environment felt so perfect because it came at a time when he needed cohesiveness due to a difficult home situation. The teenage years unmoor us all—and a challenging family environment only exacerbates them.

As with other life facets, could we seek different qualities from a workplace as our lives and mindsets evolve?

Perhaps defining your office culture requires looking at your employee mix and intuiting what it wants at this point in the average teammate’s life? Yet what if you have a lot of diversity in your staff—as you should?

I can’t imagine that with a strong group of friends and a set of engaging extracurricular activities—or with a wife and children at home—Adkison would have sought the same level of emotional fulfillment and camaraderie from his Pizza Hut team. Instead, perhaps he’d have sought to gain knowledge and enrichment and chances for leadership experience. In his off-work time, he’d have other priorities.

After all, even Adkison points out that Jeff, the manager, may have sought this type of team due to a recent divorce and the desire to create a family that he no longer had.

But maybe I’m wrong.

Perhaps these thoughts simply console me for not providing the level of personal involvement and extraoffice activities and engagement that Adkison describes as so fulfilling. Maybe I simply make excuses for not wanting to create a family feeling for my staff.

I care about them—don’t mistake me. And I love spending time with them. I count myself immeasurably lucky to get to work with every single one of them every single day.

Yet I assume that, like me, they have relationships and interests outside the office that they’d like to pursue after they’ve gotten the work done—especially over playing kickball with their coworkers on a Sunday evening.

Yet often I completely miss what people want from me—and that comes to employees especially. If they don’t articulate it, I completely miff it.

What do you think?

What do you seek from your workplace? What do you feel most people seek?

Wednesday
Oct152014

Firing from the Firer's Perspective

People don’t have much sympathy for people who fire other people. Certainly, as someone who has had to fire others, I don’t expect any sympathy. Not from the person in question, not from anyone they know, and not even from the general public.

I don’t need to explain why.

First, even if the decision came via general consensus, everyone shoots the messenger. When something hurts, you lash out at the closest possible outlet to deflect the hurt. Further, fewer people have firing authority than the general population, so anyone who fires has the wrath of the masses against him. After all, if you haven’t had to fire someone, you don’t have the full picture. (And you may feel quite glad that you don't. I wouldn't wish the experience on anyone.)

I’ve had new managers preparing for their first firings come to me to discuss the big events. I’ve had people ask me about the firing experience out of curiosity.

Clearly, the world out there wonders: What happens? What’s it like?

Firing Someone Feels Awful, No Matter the Reason

Dismissing someone from his job feels like murder even if he’s done something so egregious that the firing is “for cause”—which means, basically, that he’s broken a very clear ethical or legal rule.

And even when you’ve talked to the person numerous times about performance issues—making the dismissal not for cause but due to poor job fit—firing someone feels like a drive-by shooting.

The Dismissal Lead-up

Often, when you’ve finally admitted that you need to fire someone, you’ve avoided the decision for a long time—too long.

The decision feels so awful and you feel so badly about it that you’ve either tried to help the person even when he shows no sign of performance improvement or you’ve given up on coaching and simply continued to put off the final decision, thinking that more pressing matters take priority. (And perhaps they do. But personnel issues should never take too far a back seat to other workplace agendas.)

Once you’ve made the decision, you’ll lose sleep.

You won’t have anyone within the company who has the full picture to talk to about the decision or the coming action, as you shouldn’t gossip about such serious matters. You’ll fret it over in your mind nearly constantly, wondering what to say, how to say it, and how the person in question will respond.

You’ll have trouble functioning normally. You should move as quickly as possible in carrying through the firing, because the person still directly reporting to you will sense trouble.

Besides, you can’t give him anything to do.

Making the Cut

Ever made plans to meet a significant other to end the relationship?

In the hours before the dismissal, just as you felt before the breakup, you’ll feel pervasive anxiety. During the firing, you’ll feel the same clenched, nauseated gut. Later that day, still shaken, you will drive the wrong way down a one-way street that you’ve navigated successfully daily for over a decade, as I did the last time I had to fire someone.

Firing Someone Never Gets Easier

Likely, you’ve worked alongside this person for a long time. You know him, his life, and the consequences of his dismissal to his existence beyond the office. You wish he hadn’t done whatever he's done—or that he'd do whatever you need him to do in terms of performance—to remove the need for his dismissal.

You wish you didn't have to fire him.

If you can fire someone easily, without a qualm or even a moment of fleeting emotion, you’ve become too desensitized. You’ve become the police officer who has seen too much wrong in the world, making everything look suspect. You’ve turned into the physician who has seen too much death, making patients not people, but charts and numbers.

I try to minimize the need for firing. I’d rather never, ever do it. But into every manager’s life, a firing will fall. And it will hurt.

And perhaps knowing that it hurts us, the firers, will make the people who’ve gotten dismissed feel just a slight bit better.

Have you ever fired someone? Share your experience.

Thursday
Jul312014

The Dangerous Cult of Personality

An entrepreneur reached out to me last week for guidance on a fundraising pitch deck. Prior to presenting to additional groups of potential investors, he wanted a casual opinion from someone who’d seen a lot of pitch presentations.

How could he make it more compelling? How could he better explain what he does and its opportunity in the market?

He has a profitable business in operation for a few years. Based on a quick conversation and high-level presentation, he has a solid vision for his venture’s future. Although investors have reason for wariness about his industry, based on slow user adoption to date, he has compelling data to show that the space has reached an inflection point: Consumer sentiment has evolved, creating the critical mass of interest needed. And his company stands as buyers’ only option.

All he needs: Cash.

Sounds great, right? What stuck in my craw?

Charisma. Or the lack of it.

Selling consumes a considerable portion of a CEO’s career. Some must sell their products and services to end users and potential investors. Many must raise money—whether in exchange for goods and services or for equity—which requires high-energy sales skills. Further, chief executives need to sell their ideas to employees, potential employees, business partners, and shareholders.

And in sales, the cult of personality trumps all.

The charisma requirement provides further proof that the good struggles to rise above the mediocre when the latter has high-powered boosters behind it, whether through personality, marketing, branding, or all of the above. Low-key, quiet types who just want to do good work—not promote, persuade, and energize—have a serious disadvantage.

People want wowing. Wooing.

People buy from people they like and who impress them. They don’t buy the idea or even the person—not his intrinsic skills or value—but how he comes across through interaction.

People back the rider, not the horse.

Too easily can presentation skills trick us into looking in one direction when we should look at something else. How many politicians would serve the public incredibly well—if only they could truly campaign? How many people will back a company in the red with poor prospects in an industry saturated with competitors and a dazzling CEO over my more low-key contact, who has a far better horse?

When one skill set doesn’t necessary complement or even feed into another, weighting the ability to sell more heavily than job skills leads to unfortunate choices.

Could the entrepreneur hire a branding and marketing firm? Yep—with the funds, which he needs to raise. Could he hire a coach? Sure, but coaches can only get you so far. Could he hire an executive—for equity—who has the needed personality? Certainly. After all, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak partnered to create Apple for the same reason. Yet hiring someone for a forward-facing role and giving him ownership requires a big and treacherous step for a business owner.

Some people would argue that leaders need big personalities for success, which means that betting on the best salesperson makes the most sense. Others have indicated that strong, silent types have led the most successful ventures. 

What say you?

How do you feel about the cult of personality?

Wednesday
May142014

Making Change Not Change

For a number of reasons, Facebook changes the look of its pages and the functionality of its site and features frequently. One of the reasons: To accustom users to constant change.

The more Facebook makes updates, the more people expect updates. Other technology companies, seeing the intelligence in this model, have started to follow it. For example, Twitter introduced a “mute” button shortly after overhauling the way users’ feeds look and function.

Facebook users may groan and whine about regular, incremental changes, but these ripples rarely instigate major upheaval. People accustomed to change learn to deal with change. Infrequent, major overhauls would likely cause more destructive waves.

After all, people generally don’t like change. But if change becomes the norm, changing no longer means change. In fact, a lack of change becomes a change.

Say what?

Consider your friends and family. We all have one person in our lives from whom we expect erratic or wacky behavior.

The cousin who disappears for two months and then turns up a little worse for wear, announcing that he quit his job in an epiphany about life and had decided to hike the Appalachian Trail with no preparation and nothing but the clothes on his back. (The stories about his adventure mention frequent encounters with hikers who fed him.) And this little episode came only a few months after he had decided to take a basket-weaving class and forego accounting entirely.

Or, for tamer examples, consider the friend who unexpectedly turns up at your home for dinner or the one who always says she’ll come but shows up only sometimes at best. And yet you invite her again anyway, because she just “does that.”

After a while, these wild hairs on some relations’ parts become normal. We'd worry if they suddenly turned bland. Yet if our friends with relatively routine, clockwork lives suddenly took left turns into erratic behavior, we’d corral them and escort them to physicians.

Taking a page from Facebook, Twitter, and wacky friends and family (and recognizing some overlap in these categories), other businesses should implement change-acclimation measures. Remember how my interviewing without open job postings concerned my staff at first? Employees, clients, venders, partners, and others with whom we work need to understand that change doesn’t mean emergency.

Regular change can mean positive things: Companies evolve. Products evolve. Processes evolve. Staff members evolve.

These are desirable changes.

When I restructured FrogDog, I took a very direct role in the business operations. As the company stabilized and began to grow in the right direction, I needed to evolve my role. Part of the change in my activities involved more time outside the office and a more unpredictable schedule for business development. Further, as the company continues to gel and achieve its potential—and all companies must constantly evolve in positive ways—people need to grow accustomed to changes.

If you’ve always spent the full day in the office and suddenly you don’t, people will worry. If you never tinker with your product and suddenly you make a change, people will panic. If you never change staff roles and responsibilities and then suddenly you do, people will seize with stress.

As I look across my personal and professional life, I see benefits in further increasing people’s comfort with change. I’ve got some work to do.

Where else should we increase comfort levels with unpredictability?