Monthly Archive: August 2011

How molehill mountaineering experts let themselves down and damage their own credibility

The Freakonomics blog carried an article yesterday which fired off a bunch of angry neurons in my brain and up and down my spine, giving me a sort of painful twitchy feeling from my ear down to my shoulder. That’s how irritated I was by the Matthew Philips post: New York City Media’s Hurricane Overkill.

I live in London, so I missed the way on which Hurricane Irene, which smashed the hell out of parts of the East Coast of the United States, was reported by the New York media. As an on-the-ground viewer however, Philips tells the story of massive overkill.

We know now that the anticipated major hurricane turned out to be only a fairly substantial windstorm when it finally hit the city. Not a big deal. Not what people were expecting. Certainly not what the news channels were hoping for.

That didn’t stop them trying to prove how on-the-pulse they were however.

Philips says: “… the media kept reporting as if the damage was catastrophic. All three New York City network affiliates preempted their scheduled programming to bring all-day coverage of the storm’s aftermath. By mid-afternoon, reporters had resorted to pointing out sticks and trash in storm drains as evidence of debris.”

The reason it pisses me off so much is because I am reminded of a situation in my business past in which our resident mountain-out-of-molehill specialist managed to consistently prevent work from happening by magnifying the importance of any detail for which he had responsibility or in which he had an interest.

It was the ‘sticks in storm drains’ bit that did it. I recall having five meetings to discuss what could have been covered in one during a website planning discussion, because Mr Over-focus on Irrelevant Details kept blocking progress. In one instance, an entire hour was lost trying to convince him that an overview discussion of the website’s functionality was not the time or place for a discussion over whether the frame lines on the page should be 1pt or hairline; black or charcoal.

I suspect such people could choose to add value if they want to. Even if all they do is say “I don’t have anything to add here; I’m going to go and see where else I can be useful.” It seems unlikely to me that they lack the ability to tell an important detail from a triviality.

But mixing the two up, even if it is a deliberate part of a brilliant agenda, really just makes you look like an idiot.

How focusing on profit first can kill your business

It might not be common for people to call John Kay sexy these days, but he gets a couple of red hot stars from me for his astonishing theory of Obliquity laid down in his book of the same name.

It was published in 2010, so I’m not exactly scoring points for speed here and if it wasn’t for the fact that I was eavesdropping at the right time and in the right place on twitter today, I may never have discovered it at all. Thanks goes to @jonnocohen.

Obliquity is described as ‘the achievement of goals indirectly’, which Kay suggests through some awesome examples in this rather long, but worthwhile live presentation, as the best way of all to achieve them.

To illustrate that concept, he shares the example of chemical manufacturer ICI which between 1926 and 1994, was one of Britain’s most successful companies. During that time, it described itself like this:

“ICI aims to be the world’s leading chemical company, serving customers internationally through the innovative and responsible application of chemistry and related science.”

“Through achievement of our aim, we will enhance the wealth and well-being of our shareholders, our employees, our customers and the communities which we serve and in which we operate.”

Now think about it for a second; goal #1 is to serve customers. Enhancing wealth, critical for any business if it is to grow, was considered to be simply a result of the successful achievement of goal #1.

For most of the 20th century, the order of those goals kept ICI at the front as Britain’s leading industrial company.

But then in 1994, under threat of takeover and in a bid to please shareholders, it changed its focus. From 1994 onwards, ICI described it’s mission thus:

“Our objective is to maximise value for our shareholders by focusing on businesses where we have market leadership, a technological edge and a world competitive cost base.”

No mention of customers, innovation or responsibility in that revised statement of intent. The obliquity – the achievement of goals (to make profits) through indirect means (by serving customers) changed into a direct goal of achieving profits.

What happened? The share price reached an all time high in the summer of 1997, and then began a steady decline until 2007 after which the company ceased to exist.

You can say holy shit now. It’s appropriate.

It’s a startling example of how chasing value trumps chasing the buck for businesses that wish for longevity.

Always treat your employees exactly as you want them to treat your best customers

There is just basic logic in this comment which must be attributed to the great mind of Stephen R. Covey. As a business owner you probably spend a lot of time obsessing about how to get your customers to love you more and want to do more, and more regular, business with you.

But in my experience there is often a very different agenda inside the castle walls where employee wants and needs are considered to be almost secondary. You may put them there on purpose. But just as almost every company will claim its people are its greatest asset, it is rare to find one that acts on that.

You want to have people who represent you brilliantly in front of customers, who love those same customers and who work their asses off to help you achieve your mission? Treat them with the same dignity, respect and excitement you treat your customers.

Focus especially (though without sacrificing the other two) on the excitement. When was the last time your people felt that you get jump-up-and-down happy with them the way you do with your customers?

By making them feel the same way and by telling them directly how cool you think they are and how much you love their work, regularly, you’ll find the task of servicing your customers to the highest standard is just ridiculously much easier.

Confusing authority with ability: the meddling micromanager’s curse


Business owners and bosses, here’s an important lesson to learn if you’re keen to waste all of your time and energy, raise your own stress to dangerous levels and destroy the goodwill you generated when you created jobs for each of your employees: micromanage them.

Watch what they do every second of the day and call them on it constantly. Make sure they know that you’re keeping a Big Brother eye on them and don’t for a second allow them to think their opinions, ideas, work methods or productivity goals have any validity or indeed, value.

Do these things and it’s a guarantee they’ll be calling you a chop and making jokes behind your back the moment it’s turned, before this week is out.

Unfortunately, that’s the way it tends to work out.

It’s a nightmare for you if you mean well but don’t know the damage you’re doing. And it’s worse than you know because far from being a tough-love motivational tactic or even a hard-assed power-play, micromanagement is nothing more and nothing less than a failure of leadership.

Among the leadership failures of which micromanagers are guilty are the following:

1) Not hiring properly. If you’re not hiring people you can trust to do the job, why hire them at all?

2) Not enabling. If you are hiring people who can do the job, why don’t you let them get on with it and trust them to get it right? Checking in regularly; even daily; is not the same as micromanaging.

3) Not motivating properly. Using fear, intimidation and suffocation isn’t going to do it. And actually, neither are many of the traditional methods of motivation if you’re keen to learn more. There’s science behind this which Daniel Pink revealed in his exceptional, must-read Drive, The surprising truth about what motivates us. If you can’t set a vision for them to get behind, what exactly is your role as leader?

4) Believing authority is the same as ability. This works two ways: just because you’re the boss doesn’t mean you’re the brains. Just because they’re employees doesn’t mean they’re less smart than you. I remember a fascinating scene in which Mohamed Al-Fayed, then-owner of Harrods, instructed one of his highly-trained gourmet chefs that he would improve one of the dishes he had expertly crafted by “putting more sauce”. Nothing can kill excellence like misplaced arrogance.

It is the micromanager’s constant retreat to blame his or her people for the lack of success the company or department is having. But the truth is, the fault is actually yours. And you’re suffering for it as much as they are.

They’re not there to work. They’re there to be led on an exciting adventure

It’s the entrepreneur’s midnight cry. It happens all the time. “How am I going to get my life back now that this all-consuming monster is demanding every waking moment?”

A version of that anyway.

People who start businesses are usually pretty good ideas people, but not necessarily good people people. At the root of all their problems … your problems possibly … lies the inability to assemble a team that will let you grow the business.

But make no mistake … it’s your fault. Sorry …

Here’s why:

1. You think your way is the best way. Maybe the only way … and therefore you can’t delegate. Getting over this is the toughest thing of all but it will save your life, truly. Delegate and you get your time back which is ultimately what you’re most lacking.

The biggest problem non-delegators have is usually that they can’t trust that other peoples’ work process will deliver the end result they need. If you can focus on the end result only; that  you get the product you want at the quality you need, on the day and at the time agreed, then what difference does it make how that individual went about getting there? Let go of the process … honestly.

2. You think your people should work harder. You’re always wondering how you can get more work out of them for the same pay. But you’re missing something fundamental. They’re not there to work for pay. They’re hoping to be led on a great adventure to achieve something awesome.

Consider Ernest Shackleton’s recruitment ad which ran verbatim as printed below in a daily newspaper in the UK in 1909, looking for volunteers to help him be the first man to reach the South Pole.

“Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success.”

Crappy job, right? He got 5 000 applications. Three of them were women, in an age when women didn’t go off adventuring much.

Why? Adventure. Something new. Excitement for something that really matters. Hard work and low wages simply are not a deterrent when the adventure is compelling enough. At least, they’re not the deterrent common logic suggests they are.

Given the option of sitting behind a desk and donning a symbolic pith helmet to go looking for adventure, most people, including yours, would rather be doing the latter.

Perhaps your adventure could be that of such breathtaking customer service you actually inspire your customers to change they way they do service themselves. Perhaps it could be to create and live the most exciting and challenging brand in your industry … or maybe even the world. Perhaps it could be to be the cleanest, greenest company in your town. Maybe you want to fundamentally change the way people think about sandwiches.

The important thing about your adventure is that it has to matter. Trekking through Africa looking for the source of the Nile was important to our understanding of the continent’s natural geography. Trekking through Africa looking for slaves was just self-serving and unpleasant.

I’d love to help you with that. Why not contact  me and let’s talk about great business adventures your business could be taking today.

The most liberating life mission … ever

When Marianne Williamson penned her famous Our Deepest Fear in her book A Return to Love (incorrectly attributed to Nelson Mandela who never actually spoke the words), she implied one of the most amazing missions you might ever set for yourself: proving your cheerleaders right.

The greatest leaders throughout history, including Mr Mandela, have routinely focused on doing just this, and in so doing have provided a simple and enjoyable – though by no means easy – playbook for the rest of us.

Many of us focus on proving our critics wrong as if achieving this will give us the ultimate satisfaction.

But if you think it through, that doesn’t seem to be a path that will bring you a great deal of joy. Each step is another in which your victories are measured by overcoming someone else. Doesn’t that just sound exhausting, upon reflection?

Proving your cheerleaders right however … well that’s another matter. Setting the goal of showing those who believe in you that they are right to do so, is one that is set along the way with compounding victories which your cheerleaders will openly celebrate with you.

It counts for business, for sports, for love and for life. It applies to everything.

I seem to have been caste without a schadenfreude gene which makes it easier for me to not need there to be a loser in order for me to feel like a winner. But still I have to remind myself daily, because of lingering Catholic self-doubt or a recent failure perhaps, that there are people who believe in me more than I might believe in myself.

Those people deserve to be vindicated. And all any of us have to do to make good on the belief others have in us is to put in our most intense effort to succeed. It isn’t easy. It takes work. But honestly, could any challenge be more liberating?

The badness (and the awesomeness) of double standards


We all hold them. We all apply them. Even those of us (including me!) who really try not to … I know I’m guilty of double standards from time-to-time.

I’ll point a finger at someone doing a bad job when I’m not exactly hitting the ball out of the park myself. I’ll point out bad service as if it’s an affront when I can’t honestly tell you my business always provides brilliant service. I’ll laugh at other people’s stupid behaviour when you wouldn’t believe what I am capable of pulling out of the bag myself!

But the real danger of double standards is not that you practice them now and then, but that you’re unaware of it. I have a decent internal dickhead-o-meter which tells me when I’m being one and I certainly have a cohort that loves to point out the folly in what I am doing, saying, thinking or feeling as the situation warrants it.

Those systems save me from myself more often than I can tell you.

But if you can’t get beyond them, you’re really pretty doomed. And I mean doomed. I’m not trying to over-dramatise just how doomed you are. Doomed! 

The UK rioters and looters are a recent case-in-point. They feel like victims of a system that doesn’t love them so they take it out on people just like them. They feel their livelihoods are under threat so they take away someone else’s livelihood. They criticise the government for the job it’s doing while they themselves do not work.

Pointing the finger inwards is a biblical concept and almost-certainly a pre-biblical one too. But it takes a very high degree of self-confidence and an ability to see yourself as a part of the great system – both as a lubricant and an inhibitor – to be able to do it regularly.

I’ll be honest, I’m crap at it. But I really do try.

But there’s a flip side to this coin also.

Should not the sort of ego that chooses to run for higher power be held to a higher standard than someone who does not?

Should we not demand more of our politicians and senior managers simply because they have elected to enjoy the benefits of leadership?

If we held everyone to standards that we set for ourselves, would we not too often allow people in power off the hook?


There’s a real universal benefit in demanding that we all curb the activities of our biggest internal dickheads. And it isn’t irrational to assume that power-egos have far more offensive internal dickheads than those of us just trying to make a little dent in the world.

In demanding that however, we’re demanding a imbalanced behavioural sacrifice between ourselves and those who lead us. That’s a double standard. But it’s probably a good one.

A lesson from delivering manure timeously …


I’ll tell you a story about manure. Well, not real manure, but artificial fertilizer and how it took over the world. And no, I don’t mean that as a metaphor.

I worked with a guy in South Africa some 20 years ago now, named JC, who decided that the daily grind of employment wasn’t going to cut it for him and that he’d do something on his own. This was before the Internet, and so he came to his business idea from a small ad in the paper for a chemical fertilizer kit and instructions.

Now of course, when he mentioned what he was going to do, he endured plenty of ‘shitty job’ jibes, but he didn’t listen to any of them. He sent off for the kit and the formula and the instructions. He rented a factory. He bought the ingredients. Ammonia and some other stuff I don’t recall.

He designed a logo and had plastic bags printed. He leased a couple of pick ups or bakkies as they’re known in South Africa, and he started calling garden centres around Johannesburg. And then he called some further out. And then he called some much further out. Centres that had capacity and floor space for 5 000 bags ordered 100 from him. They had suppliers and didn’t care for a new one. Other centres just didn’t want to know.

And he struggled to change that. I remember it clearly. It was hard work for the guy.

But then one day something happened, as I believe it always does if you stay in the game and keep knocking on doors. He got a big (for him) order from a garden centre in a town named Tzaneen which is 420 km or 260 miles from Johannesburg and he promised he’d deliver it the next morning.

When the owner turned up at 05h00 to start setting up for the day, he was shocked to find JC in the parking lot with a truck full of product. As they got to talking, JC realised the customer had never had an order delivered on the day promised before from either of the two major suppliers in the market.

Oh, I didn’t mention that part. There were two giants which owned the market and had it sealed up nice and tightly.

Until then.

That one piece of information changed everything for him. His product was no better and no worse than either competitor’s. Neither was his packaging. But his competitors were complacent, assuming that customers would just tolerate the low service standards in that industry. And without an alternative, they did just that.

Skip to the end of the story. Before JC passed on (RIP, 14 years now dude), those two competitors had changed dramatically. One of them was considerably smaller because he’d taken a large part of its market. The other one no longer existed because he’d bought it.

It had taken him four years to own the market.

And all he did, was to do what he said he would do and take his customers’ needs seriously. Can it really be that easy?