The Kiss of Death

I get a lot of phone calls asking me for references and referrals — some from the Principals and some from interested 3rd parties.  Most of them ramble around all kinds of background, education, work experience, problem solving and leadership style topics.  Usually the inquirer is minimally informed and only casually interested – going through the motions as a safety check to make sure they cover their bases.  As a result, in most cases, if I don’t have anything nice to say I don’t take the call.

Recently I was asked what trait I disliked most in leaders.  Good question!  Here’s my answer.

“Very Political.  Not a Team Player.  Unreliable Internal Ally”.

I don’t care what the task or what the team — being labeled an “unreliable internal ally” is the equivalent of a leadership Kiss of Death.

Cheers.  DC

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I’m Back…

I’m a little late for Festivus and the annual airing of grievances but after a rough 2014 I’m finally back in the saddle.

Before I start posting on pent-up business topics I want to thank everyone who helped me recover from my knee/leg injury (ruptured left quad and detached tendon).  Big time injury.  Surgery, 2 months in casts, 2 more months in braces, 36 physical therapy sessions, lots of time in my own gym and 9 months later I’m back at 85%+ mostly pain free.  That’s right — 9 months.

None of that would be possible without the help of some great medical attention — starting with North Fulton Hospital (www.nfultonhospital.com), surgeon Dr. Jeffrey Albert and the folks at Resurgens Orthopaedics (www.resurgens.com), PT Caroline Rice and the super nice folks at the Roswell location of Physiotherapy Associates (www.physiocorp.com) — and of course my family who put up with a guy who doesn’t idle well for the better part of 2014.

I grew a deep appreciation for those that dedicate their lives to helping others get better. Despite all our collective griping about the US healthcare system — my health insurance worked (everyone should have health insurance), I had access to extraordinarily dedicated care givers, in well outfitted facilities and  I’m grateful that I can walk again.

Happy New Year 2015 — It’s great being back in the saddle.

Cheers.  DC

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Ungoverned Spaces

The world at the moment seems a mess.  Lot’s of despair and difficulty — and the news is laden with diplomatic and military discussions of Ungoverned Spaces — and the dissatisfaction and dissent that flourishes in them.

That got me thinking about Ungoverned Spaces in business — both on a personal level where interactions take place without established rules and rulers — and in the businesses we work with each week in our investment or our consulting firm.

What are the things that people do that really bug me —  and — have I ever spoken out to establish a different set of rules or behaviors — or have instead left this ungoverned?

What of the problems we’re seeing are the result of a workforce or work process that’s ungoverned — no man’s lands, or processes that we never looked at as chained together that way?

Is there a way to re-organize work, duties or reporting relationships to strengthen governance and brighten up the grey spaces of leadership?

Ungoverned is different from poorly governed.  One implies a void whereas the other implies a weak hand or effort.

If dissent and dissatisfaction really do fester and flourish in ungoverned spaces — what are the ungoverned spaces in your business and what can you do to minimize their geography?

Cheers.  DC

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Managing Daily Madness

A friend wrote this week exasperated from feeling so tired all the time — with clients constantly pushing deadlines and boundaries — and owning a never ending roster of emergencies.

Its easy to feel this way — we all have way too much input, allow way too many folks intimate and/or immediate contact, and can quickly find ourselves trapped in overflow — and overwhelm — all day long.

Like most everything — fixing this will be a process not an instant thing but there’s lots you can do turn this madness around — starting next week.  Here’s some practical advice:

o  Start with a firm list of things to just say “NO” to.  Its OK to turn stuff, work, people down.  This is critical because in a world of unlimited incoming, opportunity and communication — saying “NO” to stuff is the only way to ever really have any time for the stuff you want to say “YES” to

o  Check your general incoming emails and phone calls only 3-4 times a day.  Sure, lookout for incoming answers you’ve been waiting for — but “the world” only gets incoming on a schedule — at say 9:30 am, 1:00 pm and 4:00 pm each day.

o  Develop a habit of responding to “incoming” on a schedule too — say sometime before 10:00 am and sometime after 3:00 pm.  I keep a running list of who to call but do not respond “on-demand” to non-urgent (my definition not theirs) stuff off schedule.  Its OK to let your VM get it — and to let email age in your inbox until you can find an hour to devote to all of them and power through the backlog.

o  Block off, in advance, 1/2 day early in the week, a 1/2 day in the middle of the week and a 1/2 day late in the week to “schedule out” or “schedule focus time” — blocks of the week where you “Act” not be “Acted Upon”.

o  Make written ToDo List(s) and use them every day.  I suggest at least 3 broad categories:

–  Urgent & Important (I label this ToDo),

–  Important But Not Urgent (I label this one Next), and

–  Other Stuff (I label this one “Waiting For Columbus” — I’ll deal with this stuff when    Christopher Columbus finds this folder).

o  Get the ToDo list done — hardest items first — each day/week.  Forget the stuff in the other lists for the day/week.  Two further tips here — recreate these lists everyday (so you start each day with something to accomplish rather than a list of what you’ve already done) — and — stuff on the lists NEVER become urgent just because they’ve been on your list a while.   In fact, aging but never requiring you to deal with it is often a sign that you’re starting to master using this system.

o  Keep a tally each month of every (more than say 5 or 10 minute) phone call and in-person interaction — and how many times you spoke with each person during the month.  Use this list to slow down the frequency of contact with exceptionally needy people.  My list is the classic name with chalkboard tally strikes.

o  Develop a “I’m talking and I can’t shutup list” and slowly move these folks to email and less frequent calling.  All of us know someone who “always wants to talk but never has anything to say”.

I use a pocket size moleskine (www.shop.moleskine.com) for all of the above.  It works fine.

PS:  I assume everyone I regularly interact with uses this exact system.  You should too — it will help you feel better about using it and speed your path to getting control of your schedule again.

Cheers and Happy Scheduling.  DC

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Ask A Better “Data” Question

As a day job I still spend a lot of time each week — thinking about and consulting with others on “data”.

A typical discussion focuses on:

  • what data the company has…
  • who they provide or sell it to (or through)…
  • to which market…
  • for what purpose (or to address what problem)?

These questions can (and do) drive fascinating discussions.

Often though, the better “data” discussions are around other, somewhat broader, questions:

  • what data does the customer share when they ask you for your data (inquiry data)…
  • what data files do you “own” where key data element fill rates are less than 95% and why does/doesn’t that matter…
  • in the space your data inhabits (NOT the space you inhabit) – what characteristics/similarities does the data you don’t have share (the missing pieces)…
  • what would could you/should you learn about the missing pieces…
  • what data would make your file “better” even though you can’t (yet) identify a customer that would immediately buy it?

Data is expensive to compile and time consuming to digest. And, data gathered from one type of source — used to solve one type of market problem — is inherently difficult to repurpose because of striking differences by market in the value of granularity. Nuance matters when it comes to data.

We’ve long used a saying “Ask a better question – get a better answer”. When talking about data let’s agree to ask each other better questions.

Cheers. DC

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Building An Advisory Board

I was asked by a friend to help his team think through how to create an Advisory Board.  Here goes:

–  Don’t ask friends, customers or vendors (bankers, CPA’s, suppliers) to serve as Board members — you already have access to their opinions  but it may not be easy for them, or in their best interest to be brutally open and honest with you.

–  Clearly define what you want out of an Advisory Board member in terms of time commitment and interaction (i.e., face-to-face meetings vs phone calls, monthly or quarterly, etc).

– Clearly define how formal or informal you expect the interaction with the Board to be (i.e., highly structured meetings vs informal team dialog/rap sessions).

– Identify what functional or experiential areas your team is light on now, or may be light on relative to future growth areas, and use to Board candidate identification process to help address this.

–  Make sure you have internal consensus on whom the Board is supposed to advise (helping the CEO is very different from helping the entire leadership team).

–  Think through carefully how much “insider” business facts you’re really willing to share with the Board (high level generalities will appeal to certain potential Board members while being a complete turnoff to others — ditto for the other extreme sharing of deep strategic, financial and operational details).

–  Reflect on what type of folks, behaviors and temperament your leadership team respects and listens to — and those that they don’t.  Target potential Board members that fit this influence profile.

–  Be honest with yourselves about what you want back from Board members in the way of feedback and dialogue (e.g., general sounding board vs hard challenges to critical thinking).

– Unless you’re running a non-profit, you should expect to compensate your Advisory Board members.  Obviously what you expect of them drives what “compensation” means.  Usually stock not cash – something like $15,000 – $50,000/year.  Of course you’ll also be expected to cover all out-of-pocket expenses.  Wait — why won’t Advisory Board members want to work for “free”?  The deal is people and businesses don’t value what they get for free — and great candidates already know that and will be wary to sign on to a “no skin in the game” experiment.

– Decide at the outset an initial term for the Advisory Board members — a good starting point might be 2 years.

The reality is that it’s really hard to get a high quality Advisory Board built and working — partly because your Company isn’t used to caring a whole lot about what outsiders want and think — partly because great potential Advisory Board members are already successful, and busy, and not looking for any new hobbies — and partly because making a Board work effectively takes lots of scheduling, preparation, document sharing, time and dialog.  That said — great Advisory Boards do get created every day and can be very effective in helping companies and their leaders navigate growth.

Cheers.  DC

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Managing Growth

This post comes from a question I responded to yesterday as a panelist at a CEO conference in NYC.  The audience, all CEO’s of PE funded growth companies, asked “what tips do you have for managing acceleration of growth”.  I preface my comments below with that introduction as they didn’t need me to tell them how to find “growth” — they were focused on the “acceleration” part of the question.

I offered three suggestions:

1) Know what you suck at and do less of this.  Working on things you suck at takes more time and more energy — as a person and as an organization — energy that could, and should, be spent on growth initiatives.   All growth companies (and their executives) have a pretty good handle on what they’re great at — what they spend a lot less time on is understanding what they’re not just not great at — but what they really suck at!  Things that we need to do, or get hauntingly drawn into doing by our own perverted sense of necessity or duty, but that at the end of the day we’re just plain lousy at.

Study yourself and your company and identify these things (long meetings, committing things to writing, managing deeply valued but seriously flawed employees, designing product packaging, documenting sales calls, nurturing R&D ideas — they vary widely but they all slow us down and drain valuable time and attention that we can and should be spending elsewhere.  For example — if your company doesn’t have the patience (or temperament or interest) to nurture small tangential but potentially very important R&D projects — either outsource these, or find other companies that have already done similar work and are ahead of you.  Partner/acquire them instead of trying to grind it out yourself when you already know its something you “suck” at.

Once you figure these out, you personally and everyone else organizationally, must be “eyes up” and just stop doing them — behave differently, organize differently, outsource, find partners, whatever.  Sucking at stuff slows you down.  And PS:  We all suck at some things — even you!

2) Focus on eliminating dysfunction.  Rapid growth creates chaos — and there’s good chaos and bad chaos.  Inventive, spontaneous customer service is good chaos (at least for a while) whereas having 14 ways to get an expense report reimbursed is always bad chaos.  As the leader, learn to spot the difference and celebrate the good chaos while relentlessly eliminating the bad.

One of your big contributions as the leader of a rapid growth company is making the wheels go round and round faster.   Taking friction out of the system and reducing unnecessary non-value adding behaviors and activities helps clear the decks for more success and focus on growth initiatives.  It also signals other important things to your team — like challenging the status quo when you outgrow what you “used to do”.

3) Develop (and communicate) metrics for measuring “winning and losing” not just “wins and losses.”  Think about it — when you’re building a high growth DNA the natural tendency is to focus on “outcomes” like wins and losses.  Revenue growth, new customers, cash collected — all good stuff but all the result of an effort, not the measurement of the effort build itself.

As you’re building growth you need momentum metrics more than outcome metrics — stuff that tells you you’re making progress building the things that help make you great.  For example, don’t just measure revenue dollars on a new product — measure (and report) things like days to build, errors found and fixed during beta, # of prospects currently testing — milestones you have to pass before you can actually achieve a “win”.  Learn to measure and celebrate the journey if you want to speed things up.

These will change by department/functional area and over time — but these scorecards are measuring the performance intervals that are vital to high growth outcomes.

Here’s to growth — Cheers!  DC

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