Finding The Fabulous

Like everyone else, I feel like sometimes I do a brilliant job, mostly I’m pretty good, and occasionally I’m plain lousy. But it never ceases to amaze me how, when I’m in control/in the zone/in the moment, how easily I can improve my own performance. And how I can get the best out of other people. Here’s an example.

I run the member services and learning event division of Henley Business School. We are always looking for new speakers to lead our events. And this week I met a really interesting one but, if I’d judged him on the first few minutes of our conversation, we wouldn’t be working together. First impressions were OK, but I was struggling to see how he would fit with what I do. It took quite a while before we made a connection and found an event angle he’s gone away to turn into a programme. And it’s going to be #distinctive and different, and I’m excited already!

Here were my learnings from this example. They are all about “finding the fabulous”.

  1. Accept that it’s your job to get the best from people. You’ve failed if you don’t, and life is so much more rewarding when you do.
  2. Ignore your first impressions, at least sometimes. Test whether you are right, by giving people the time to show their #value.
  3. Suspend disbelief (meaning putting aside your doubt or skepticism) for long enough to hear out someone’s story. Because eventually you’ll find a connection. And connected people create great ideas.

Maybe I’m smugly saying I did a great job with this guy. Or maybe he worked on me, until we found that great idea. I don’t know. And I don’t care. Either way we’re on to something. And it’s so motivating when you end up finding the fabulous. You wake up smiling at 05.00, and have to blog about it. And, for me, that’s a wonderful start to the day.


It’s All Relative

Here’s my #thoughtfortheday. Waking very early (insomnia, or an active brain, I’m never quite sure) I dimmed the ipad light and started looking for new books about #value and #success. You won’t be surprised to hear that there are definitely hundreds, and probably thousands. Even when I search for only those rated 4.5 stars and above (on Kindle), there are loads. Given that you’re not in a position to read as many business books as me ((big assumption, but it’s kind-of my job), let me tell you what I found.

Whilst the majority of authors are advocating some lifestyle changes, clever ways to generate ideas, and learning techniques for standing out, much of their work seems pretty complicated. Probably more importantly, each of the “best-rated” books seems to have at least one “golden nugget”; an idea that made me concentrate and really take notice.  But there isn’t one place that curates all this brilliant knowledge, and maybe that’s a book for me to write.

But here’s what really stuck in my mind. Many of the books are of the “buy at the airport”, self-help variety. They focus on making you the best in the world. Maybe that’s what sells books, but I’m not much interested. Meritology’s approach is more earthy and gritty – we’re interested in how people #standout in their context, alongside their peers and against their competitors. And it’s all relative. Everything in life is relative, because we all look at things from different perspectives. Perspectives depend on background, experience, intentions and objectives.

In the world of being #standout, your #value and #success is measured against what’s around you. For example, if you’re a star in a team of average players then you’ll #standout.  If you’re brilliant in an industry sector that doesn’t attract the best talent, your clients will love you (some personal experience coming out there). And if you’re the best on a given day, and at a significant time, then you’ll get the gig or the deal.

So don’t obsess about being the best. Focus on being the best you can be.  If life is an athletics race, remember you only have to be a vest-breadth ahead of the other runners. It’s not always about breaking a world record.


What Happens in Vegas

OK, so a very simple point for today.  I was just reflecting on a strange situation, where a colleague did something really daft. Stupid actually. After I’d recovered the situation, and apologised to the aggrieved party (she was wonderfully understanding), I pondered what to do next.

I decided to keep the matter private and within my team. To my mind, problems are best dealt with quietly. Discipline is best applied in-house. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. It’s the way Alex Ferguson handled player-issues when manager of Manchester United.  And there’s no doubt it worked wonderfully for him.

But I’ve seen lots of examples where people copy their boss into emails, tell the story to their peers, or tittle-tattle at the coffee machine. It’s motivated by naming, blaming and shaming the culprit. Or just having a laugh at somebody else’s expense. And it’s juvenile. The grown-up, adult way to respond is simply and without fuss. Tidy up the mess and move on. Remember that the way you handle tough situations defines whether you #standout for the right or wrong reasons. Be a low-grade gossip if you like. Or be a high-grade leader instead. You decide.


Pruning The Tree

Most of the companies I work with have obvious #value, and a firm strategy for delivering that to their customers. But when you probe, explore and investigate more, you realise that not everything they do adds #value. It’s often worse than that – for some companies, much of what they do is actually distracting customers from seeing or feeling their #value.

By way of explanation, here’s an example of a Christmas present. Last Christmas (there’s a song in there!), I bought my son a #gaming chair – one of those that looks like a racing driver’s seat. Imagine a teenager relaxing and playing on the Sony PS4, scoring footie goals and crashing sports cars, and you get the idea.

I’d read plenty of reviews – which is why I ordered this particular make and model. From the point of ordering, what would add #value to this item is great packaging, careful delivery and clear instructions (for setting up the wireless connectivity, to prevent tripping over cables between different gadgets we’ve hooked up in the den). And yet there were none of those things. The seat was poorly packaged (the lightweight wrapper had to be repaired by the courier); it was dumped outside our front door by the delivery driver; and it was completely devoid of decent set-up instructions. And that’s where the problems started.

We just couldn’t fathom how to get the seat to work, and couldn’t find out how to fix the issue. So we tried to call the manufacturer, to find they were closed right through Christmas and until the New Year. Now here’s the key point. I naturally visited their website, to find it had set-up instructions for pretty much every known device. But I couldn’t search for my device; I had to scroll through pages of irrelevant data to get to what I needed. And when I viewed the company’s YouTube channel, what I found was vanity – lots of showing off about how wonderful the sound and movement experience would be on this device. Both website and channel were bloated by extra content, hiding the most important aspect – getting the darned thing to work (that’s a milder version of the word I actually used on Christmas morning). It was like a fat belly hiding a washboard stomach or (in more polite terms) a tree that needs pruning.

NEW

And that explains this image – it shows all the things that hide #core value. I’m making the point that most companies need to do some pruning – cutting off some of the branches of (a tree or bush) so that it will grow better or look better (or be free of decay or disease). In terms of #value, it’s about reducing yet improving something, by removing parts that are neither necessary nor wanted.

So what should you prune back? First, you need to think about your core #value. Next, you have to decide what is preventing the customer from seeing and feeling that #value. In my experience, #value gets lost somehow; smothered over time by what the market dictates (or you think it wants), and what your people decide the customer needs. It’s the world of extras, add-ons and embellishments. Some add #value, but many just don’t. It’s natural and critical to adapt and improve. But here’s the problem – without starting with a clear definition of your #value, and only adding and doing things that grow that #value, you can end up with something rampant. And then it’s time to prune the tree.

Maybe a hard prune is needed – only you can decide. It’s probably a choice between clipping away with the secateurs, or hacking away with a saw. But whatever you do, don’t panic or regret how sparse and bare the tree will look. See what it’s become in the Spring…


The Rise of Soft Power

I have a strange routine on my daily commute to work. It’s a proper yin and yang – listening to The Today Programme @BBCr4today in the morning, and choosing from my pretty big collection of pop music CDs for the winding and country drive home in the evening (yes, I still listen to CDs. It’s not because I’m low-tech. They sound better than MP3s!)

So I spend some time singing pop songs at the top of my voice, and then the rest reflecting on really powerful journalism and thoughtful business stories. And something on Radio 4 made me think, and then apply the principles to my day job.  It’s about the rise of “soft power”.

Joseph S. Nye (diplomat, political scientist and Professor at Harvard) coined the phrase ‘soft power’ in 1990. Broadly it means promoting positive perceptions of a country’s interests and identity overseas. It’s used to describe the way a country like China is changing the way it influences the world in general. For example, helping the world see a nation’s point of view makes the media king. China is allowing more radio and TV channels (e.g. China Radio International and including those transmitting in foreign-languages) to broadcast regionally and nationally.

If some of the most dominant nations in the world are seeing that a different approach is needed, then we all need to take note. This is about a recognition that:

  • the past allowed CONTROL over people and companies, but
  • the future requires the INFLUENCE of society and business.

And that takes me nicely to the point about leadership and leaders. The #value of a leader used to be derived from their ability to control. In today’s much more complex world, leaders can’t even hope to control everything. So the future #value of a leader will come from something very different – their ability to influence the behaviour of others.

If anyone else is feeling a bit skeptical, thinking that this kind of influence is just an “iron fist in a velvet glove” (meaning it is still control, but disguised as influence) then you’d have a point. But I do think it’s more subtle than that. I’m not going to do justice, in one blog, to the theme of influencing others. But what I do know is that influence requires conscious or unconscious understanding of neuroscience, communication, gravitas, empathy, engagement, coaching and change – and the list goes on.

So if you want to be that #standout leader, take any opportunity you can to practice and perfect your skills in this area. Or just make everything you do become focused on influencing the behaviours of others. The rise of soft power is inevitable, and you’d better start developing yours 🙂


Do More of What You Love

Morning! Put simply, doing what you love creates the most #value. For you. For the people around you. And for where you work.

Here’s my example. Last Friday morning I opened my electronic contact book, which was still on the same page as last week. Eeek. That meant I hadn’t called anyone new, or contacted someone about something new, all week. Even though that is absolutely what I love to do, and it’s where I add most #value.

Why? It’s simple really. For once, everything else I’ve been doing has seemed more important. And some of it is (sometimes!). The people stuff is naturally where I spend my time. The process is necessary if I’m to deliver results. And the politics is what drives many organisations, so practising “political savvy” is how to “get things done”. Where I work has no more politics than anywhere else, but it still takes effort.

But looking at that contact book was still a surprise. It made me realise how easy it is to get diverted from what you love. So this is what I did. I put everything else to one side, and spent just one hour calling people. I had three excellent conversations, and arranged two meetings. That made me smile, and gave me the energy for everything else that day.

For the introverts among you (morning Fi!) picking up the phone, and speaking to people you don’t necessarily know, probably seems like torture. But that’s just my example. What’s yours? What parts of your job give you pleasure? What do you really love to do at work? Will you schedule an hour of your time to do exactly that? Because then you’ll start doing more of what you love. And being happy and adding #value is maybe that simple.


Many Hands Make Heavy Work

Having visited the CIPD conference in London a few months ago, and many events and conferences since, something has been bothering me. At the CIPD, I was impressed by the variety of companies exhibiting (including my own Henley Business School). And it confirmed something interesting about the creation of a value proposition – a value proposition that makes a particular company #standout.

It was pretty obvious that the bigger the company, the less #distinctive the proposition. The smaller the company, the more #distinctive they appeared. And by #distinctive, I’m talking about the visuals, the artwork, the brochures, the words and even the people. So why would this be so? Why would bigger companies fail to differentiate themselves? OK, I admit there are lots of reasons, and I am going to focus on just one.

In many situations, big companies have the edge.  It’s clear that when:

  • service is about handling volume, or
  • complex relationships require many interactions between people, or
  • when there is a multi-site environment

many hands indeed make light work. You need many people involved, to deliver the process or service to your chosen markets. Effectively. Efficiently. Economically.

But when it comes to articulating value, many hands make heavy work. Smaller companies have fewer of their own people to convince, and usually someone senior that “birthed the baby” and has a strong view on how their business should be positioned. Bigger companies have structures, systems, stakeholders and sensibilities. These need to be respected. And that takes time, and means lots of people to involve in developing your value proposition.

Getting lots of people involved in defining the value your company offers (and creating your value proposition) makes it tough to produce something distinctive. Different people have different perceptions as to what makes your company valuable to its customers (and they want their view heard). Others lack the bravery to use the emotive language that describes your true points of difference, afraid that shareholders or the general public will react badly to that (think of the recent UK elections, if you want evidence of how fear can mute the debate and make the main parties seem spookily similar, at national and local level). And that’s before you wonder whether enough decision-makers have the superior language capability needed, to articulate company value in a #distinctive way that everyone understands.  That’s a tough ask…

So if you involve lots of people in defining your value, it’ll be heavy and hard work. And the result is that you’ll probably take the safe route. Customers will be eating vanilla ice-cream. Now there are some wonderful varieties of vanilla ice-cream. The challenge is how you get people to taste yours, when all vanilla sounds and looks the same.

But you have to involve your people, right? You need to be seen to do that – to ask for opinions, and generate ideas. And you should be doing that – you want the people involved that see value like a child they nurture. I’m in complete agreement, but its all about when. When should you ask your people for their input? My recommendation is simple. Involve as many people you like in focus groups or meetings to debate your value. Do that early in the process. And listen for the language your people use. Make sure you note and record their precise words and expressions, as they explain how they deliver value to customers (or tell you what they want to do differently). Feel their emotion. Make sure you use lots of that language in your value proposition (but don’t make it wordy). And re-tell their stories. Share their anecdotes.

But never ask a committee to develop the value proposition itself. Otherwise you’ll end up with something pretty neutral. A compromise. A consensus. And collateral (like the exhibition stand) that looks “me too” and “samey”. Instead choose a deliberately diverse group of people and bring them together. People that “get” what you’re trying to do. And lock yourselves in a room. Hire a facilitator and illustrator. And don’t come out until you’re finished. You’ll be amazed by the great results.

That becomes your value proposition. The ice-cream flavour will be at least neapolitan. Or you may have created a whole new flavour. And check out the Dorset Ice Cream @dorseticecream shop in Weymouth. 17 flavours of ice cream, and 7 sorbets. But they #standout because the flavours are #distinctive. That’s what draws in the customer. And my favourite’s the Pimm’s flavour sorbet. You really have to try it…