Just a Little Inspiration Goes a Long Way

When you think of premier brands, like Apple, Mercedes Benz, and others, there is something distinctive about their products, service, or social responsibility that inspires us. Apple has turned heads with astonishing product innovation that changed our lives. Long before computers and robots built cars, Mercedes was known for delivering products with every part engineered for perfect fit. There’s good chance you’ve been inspired by more than global and national brands. Perhaps you have an insurance agent who stays connected with you with a personal touch or a dry cleaner that makes an extra effort to fix a stain or loose button. The result is always the same. We return to businesses that inspire us to purchase their offerings again and again. And in turn, those businesses enjoy customer loyalty and stellar profit performance.

There are two ways you can influence other’s behavior: inspiration and manipulation.  Manipulation is the more popular mode of influence. In business, manipulation can be positive and have a shared benefit like discounts, incentives, and bonuses. Or, it can have negative and self-serving benefits like deceptions, threats, or unfair punishment. The problem with manipulation, even the positive kind, is that results are only achieved while customers feel a “real” reward is in place. If a business discontinues a discount or promotion, customers will look elsewhere. If the discount is held in place too long, the customer can come to expect it.  Businesses that use pricing as a competitive tool often struggle to sustain profitability.

Inspiration, on the other hand, happens when someone addresses a deep-seated, personal need that that goes beyond the benefits of a product. Examples of these needs are affirmation, justice, beauty, or prestige. The important distinction from manipulation is that inspiration is rooted in the values of people, and not products or prices. Inspiration often leads to an emotional connection that can be between customers and employees, customers and business owners, or employees and business owners. Inspiration is the root of all employee and customer loyalty.

One of the most satisfying aspects of my practice is helping people discover their ability to inspire.  Please comment if you have an example of how a business has inspired you. 

Making Resolutions: Passion or Procrastination?

As 2012 comes to a close, we brace ourselves for the media highlight reels and the perfunctory New Year’s Resolutions. So often when I talk to people about resolutions, I see rolling eyeballs and shaking heads.  At least one of the reasons that resolutions are abandoned so quickly is that people don’t know how to make them. The same can be said for business executives and how they set annual goals.

Have–Do–Be or Be–Do–Have? The first question to ask when setting a goal is, “Is this goal about having something or doing something?” The New Year’s crowd will often say they want weight loss or more money. Businesses will report they want more revenue, more customers, and better quality. The problem is that these goals do not identify any action. My experience is that the New Age axiom of “Be-Do-Have” is the progression that leads to personal and organizational transformation.  Statements like “I will be fit” or “I will be more visible in the market” or “I will be more competitive” provide clarity and open possibilities for innovative action.

Is it your passion? Passionless goals and resolutions dissolve quickly. Ask yourself what are the aspects about your vocation and your life that REALLY get you excited. On the personal side, it might be travel, quality time with the family, access to education, or creative expression. For a business it might be surprising a customer by exceeding their expectations, innovation breakthroughs, or growing a more participatory culture. Successful executives are mindful of both personal and organizational passions and are certain to feature them in vision statements.

Is it specific and obtainable? It’s fine to “think big” and challenge an organization. But if you leave it up to the organization to find the way forward, you won’t find the cooperation to get the job done. I suggest taking a lofty goal and break it up into identifiable milestones. Above all, be certain who are responsible, what will be done, and when will it be complete.

What’s in the way? I’ve observed that the “secret sauce” for goal success is how obstacles are handled. There is enormous value in clarifying obstacles as long as it is handled with the understanding it cannot impact the commitment to the goal. In toxic cultures, discussing obstacles can be interpreted as weakness, complaining, or even bring into question one’s competence. In a healthy organization, managers identify discussions about obstacles as an opportunity to coax the organization to try something it’s never tried before. As an aside, guiding the transformation of a culture to tackle this issue is one of my passions. 

Mandates, Going FORWARD, and other Games

The results are in, the votes have been tallied, and, after a long, ugly election year, not much has changed. The partisan split in our government suggests policies will continue to be crisis-driven and reactive to economic challenges. Business owners are complaining about the threat of new taxes and other imagined catastrophes brought by our political gridlock. Still, I believe the future remains bright for those who can keep a cool head and spot the opportunities.

While changing markets and economies are demanding that business plans and strategies to be updated, business leaders often overlook the personal changes they will need to undergo in order to lead a change. The four factors that cause leaders to avoid change are fear, ego, conflict avoidance, and complacency. As we develop plans for the next year, it is wise for leaders to review the beliefs and assumptions underpinning the plan and do a “gut check” on the emotions tied to those beliefs. Perhaps some risks can be identified that can be managed and worth taking.

I have been saddened by the news of General Petraeus’s resignation from the CIA. His fall from grace cannot negate the fact that he has been a great leader and public servant. It is ironic that the November 12th Time Magazine published Paula Broadwell’s “Patraeus’s Rules for Living.” I’d like to paraphrase and pass on some of the rules that are relevant for business leaders today:

  • Lead by example. Your performance level will greatly influence the performance of the organization.
  • Provide a vision. Combine clear and achievable “big ideas” with strategic concepts and communicate it widely.
  • Be humble. “Listen and Learn.”
  • Leaders should be thoughtful but decisive. Take input from subordinates, evaluate actions and contingencies, and accept 80% solutions. Be prepared to make the call “when all eyes turn to you.”

As always, I would appreciate your thoughts. 

How to Foster Innovation ?

In a sluggish economy with industries achieving uneven growth, many organizations are scrambling to discover strategies that will beat the competition. Although innovation can be elusive, managers can create an environment that is more conducive to innovation. As we prepare for the 2013 planning cycle, here are some suggestions.

It is a myth that innovative ideas come out of unconstrained, “out-of-the-box” brainstorming.  Most of these processes yield a myriad of ideas that are not relevant to the organization’s business model.  Steve Jobs said, “Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while.” The challenge for managers is to focus the possibility space to the business model and add a diversity of perspectives, or what Jobs called dots. Start with a factual analysis that describes the company and the problems that your market is worried about. Activities could include:

  • Interview key customers with open questions that draw out perceived possibilities and concerns. Get a picture of the role customers would like to see your company play.
  • If your company keeps a scorecard or performance metrics, collect current and historical data for review. Refrain from any interpretation of why the numbers are what they are.
  • Perform secondary research on industry performance and collect short and long-term perspectives from thought leaders in your industry.

The next step is to select the team that will brainstorm ideas to be investigated. The only qualification for a team member is that they are engaged in the success of the company. Give your team time to study the data above and set necessary boundaries for the exercise. Possibilities for the brainstorming include:

  • Construct brainstorming venues that include both large groups and small, diverse teams.
  • Encourage audacity. Stimulate thinking by asking how to achieve highly-aggressive growth goals where the only constraint is technical feasibility. Then ask the team to work within the boundaries.
  • Bring in outsiders. A trap for managers is a belief that a team member needs a decade of industry experience to make meaningful contributions. In Jobs’ words, industry experts have fewer “dots.”
  • Show sincere gratitude and detailed feedback on every idea offered! Participants need to feel listened to in order to remain engaged.

What Are the Blocks to Culture Change?

Many companies today are asking themselves how they can be more innovative with respect to new products and services or quality improvement. Winning companies have created environments where employees feel encouraged to offer new ideas or even experiment with different approaches to old problems.

Culture can be simply defined as the way organizations go about getting things done. These behaviors are shaped by our knowledge, skills, and attitudes and, with information networks today, obtaining new knowledge is limited only by our curiosity. Curiosity and other innovation qualities are rooted in the values and beliefs that shape the organization’s attitudes; and these attitudes can become toxic limiters to success. For example, can an organization really evolve to a “LEAN culture” if the production engineers don’t believe that assemblers and operators can make meaningful contributions to enhancing complex production processes? Or, can the communication between two departments really improve if they believe each other are jerks? After the obvious toxic attitudes have been removed, organizations can address skill development. Skills develop best when individuals are offered the coaching and repetition to develop the skill.

Culture change entails a big commitment from top management. Although I’m biased, I believe an outsider to the organization can contribute greatly to dispelling the myths and beliefs that impede organizations. Activities which can encourage change are:

  • Clarify and discussion strategy and goals with all your employees. Make certain everyone knows their role in the plan.
  • Be certain that all employees have goals and that they are measurable. Develop supervisors to discuss obstacles and shortfalls in the spirit of improvement.
  • Recognize all initiatives; not just the ones that succeed.


Strategies for Recruiting the Next Generation into Manufacturing

With the severe fiscal problems facing our federal and state governments, there is a growing interest in government to revitalize the manufacturing sector. This interest is grounded in the realization that the information and service industries cannot easily match the wealth and job creation of manufacturing.   Manufacturing’s extensive supply chain, ability to reduce and balance imports, and role in boosting national competitiveness has been largely overlooked until recently. A healthy manufacturing sector is fundamental to our long-term economic health.

In Connecticut, where I live, the focus on stimulating job growth has rested on the shortage of high-skilled labor to operate automated production equipment. Government is acting to fill the gap by expanding vocational technology learning programs to graduate more trained workers. While the size of these programs is small, the good news is that there are interested candidates to fill the educational opportunities. This tactic is designed to yield short-term results to the present crisis. I believe our leadership has to also address how manufacturing can attract our “best and brightest” long-term.

The Millennial Generation (born 1982 – 2002), has grown up with a very different view of the world than the Baby Boomers who dominate manufacturing today. Andrea Hershatter of Emory University’s Business School describes it this way, “Work for work’s sake is not going to cut it. They need to understand what the organization stands for and what their role in it is; they are much less likely to be focused on their next step in terms of career progression, and more likely to care about making a meaningful contribution in their workplace.” Much of the manufacturing news over the last two decades has focused on workforce reduction, shuttering factories, environmental and safety issues, and unethical labor practices. Manufacturing and its advocates need to upgrade the perceptions and images the emerging workforce has about their industries.

It might seem daunting to a single company to take on this branding campaign. I believe that there are some simple steps companies can take to reverse the tide:

  • Host local high school students for programs that explain their vision, career possibilities, and steps they can take to approach that career path
  • Create content for the Web and social media that targets a younger generation. The US military services create top-quality video “that pops” to support their recruiting efforts. Companies also need to suggest that they can make a difference in their organizations.
  • Sponsor non-profit fund raising events that support causes aligned with social responsibility

As suggested in earlier postings, sustainability makes good business sense. Feel free to take the Sustainability Assessment.

It All Starts with a Plan

In a difficult times, it is natural for organizations to focus more closely on achieving revenue requirements and critical objectives and to place business planning on the “back burner.” If these reactive periods continue over an extended period of time, inefficiencies and missed opportunities can ensue; not to mention exhaustion. Taking a few hours with your team to compare the business plan to current market conditions permits necessary correction to the plan and reinvigorates morale. The plan review can uncover insights, such as:

  • Changes in the competitive landscape
  • Opportunities to extend offerings by integrating complementary products and value-added services
  • Identify investments that can improve competitiveness, responsiveness to customers, or profitability

Taking your eye off the strategic issues can move an organization from challenging times to challenges that may be difficult to recover from.

The previous comments assume an organization has a business plan. Small business leaders often operate without a formal written plan. While many business leaders are skilled enough to steer the business without a formal plan, these leaders are forfeiting opportunities to engage their employees with a planning process. Diminished employee engagement will weaken management systems and hinder initiative.

The key elements of a strategic plan are:

  • A Five-Year (or longer) Vision for the Business
  • Market Trends and Competitive Analysis
  • Strengths and Weaknesses of the Business (as perceived by the customer)
  • Market Opportunities and Threats
  • Growth Strategies (including organization measures and objectives)
  • Specific, Measurable Action Plans

The Action Plan is the most critical piece of the plan. These plans align employee efforts, reflect progress, and move accountability to the lowest level possible in the organization.

As the year wraps up, take a minute to understand why you achieved your level of results and discuss with your organization the best plan forward.