I have a pretty good memory. At least I used to think I did. They say that the second thing that you lose as you age is your memory. I forget what they said was first. Regardless of how good your memory is, I don’t think anyone can remember everything that they need to in today’s business environment. I remember learning this early on in my career, back when my memory was even better than it is now. It was taught to me by one of my first managers. He told me that one of the first things I needed to do if I was going to be successful in business was to get a notebook and take notes on everything.
Imagine coming out of graduate school as a newly minted scion of business and the first thing you are told is that you will have to do is resume a process that you had just spent the last several years learning to loathe. I am going to have to take notes at work? I took notes in school. I shouldn’t have to take notes anymore. I am done with school, right?
I was done with school, but I was not done learning. Learning means that you have to remember what you have done so that you can repeat the successes and avoid the same mistakes in the future. Since you are doing so many new and different things and no one can remember everything, and like in school you need a place to store this information. You need a notebook.
Unlike the notebooks in school where you spent most of your time trying to capture the gist of the professor’s lecture for late night reviews just before the exam, or to doodle in when you are really bored in the lecture and can no longer focus well enough to take lecture notes, a business notebook needs to be more. In school each class usually had its own notebook and since you normally had multiple classes, you kept multiple notebooks. In business you normally have only one job at a time so you probably need only one notebook at a time.
I found for my purposes that a bound (not loose leaf or spiral notebook) was the best notebook platform. The idea is to retain all noted information. Loose leaf and spiral notebooks have a tendency to wear and pages can and do fall out. You want the notebook to be your “permanent” historical record that you can go back to and consult as needed.
I also found that a business notebook is also a sort of activity log. I date every page. I try to note all calls and conversations with who called (or who I called), what the topic of discussion was and what the major points of the discussion were. I cannot tell you how many times I have gone back into my notebook and reviewed calls and discussions with those parties involved to help “remind” them of the topics and outcomes. It seems that there are many times when other people’s memories may not be as sharp as they may have thought or possibly wanted either. It’s always good to have your notes to refer to.
A business notebook is also more than just a place to note the topics of discussions or log phone calls and activities. It is also the place where you capture your ideas. I have learned that ideas are fleeting things. If you don’t learn (there’s that word again) to capture ideas immediately upon having them that they will quickly fade from memory (there’s that word again) and be lost.
I wish I could remember every idea that I have had. I know (or at least have to hope) that some of them were probably pretty good but if I had not noted them I would never be sure. On the other hand I do know that I have had a few ideas that qualify as real stinkers and that I would like to forget them, but don’t seem to be able to. It’s funny how the memory works.
The point is that since a notebook is a private repository for the things that you think are important and that you may want to revisit in the future, you need to use it to not only document the activities and topics of the day, but also the ideas and concepts that came to mind during the course of dealing with everything else during the day. This function has been particularly reinforced with me, all these years later as I have started writing.
I have not learned what internal mechanism causes topics to register within me as a good idea (there’s that word again) for a good business topic to write about, but I have learned that if I do not immediately grab the topic and write it down I will eventually lose it. I will then be forced to later try and sort through all of the topics and inputs of the day to see which one might have been the impetus for the next great article that I know I am sure to write, hopefully.
I don’t seem to remember having this problem in the past, but if my memory is indeed having issues, or perhaps it is finally reaching its manufacturers capacity, it could explain why I can no longer remember the things I used to be able to easily put in and access in my memory. I hope you followed that.
At the end of the day I use my notebook to not only look at the events of the day, I look at my ideas of the day. Those ideas that can be utilized in some way in the future I further note and start to develop. Over time a significant number of these ideas have found their ways into various sales, business and strategic plans. Having a notebook full of ideas won’t necessarily cause you to have better plans, but it will cause you to use those ideas and to think about those upcoming plans in different ways, and that is the first step toward improvement.
I significant amount of time has passed since my first manager told me about this business notebook idea. If memory serves me right I have actually forgotten just how much time has passed. Thank goodness. However I still utilize a notebook daily to annotate my day and to capture my ideas and thoughts for use in the future. It may be old school, possibly because I cannot type fast enough with two fingers to take notes on my computer and keep up with my conversations, or my ideas (if and when they occur), but it still serves me very well. I also think it is an under rated activity that continues to contribute to the success of the business.
I can now also cross notebooks off my topic list for articles that I keep in my notebook.
Voicemail is an interesting technology. I remember its inception and introduction. It was hailed as a space, time, energy, cost, etc, etc, saving technology. A panacea. A cure all. Initially, and possibly in some instances today it continues to provide business efficiencies and cost reductions. It has become so ubiquitous that we almost never even think about it. Almost never, with the possible exception of when we actually want to talk to someone about a problem or issue that may have some urgency associated with it. It is in these instances that voicemail no longer provides its Dr. Jekyll based higher minded benefits and services, and reveals its darker, far less beneficial Mr. Hyde side.
I have mentioned several times that I am old school in many of my approaches to business. That doesn’t mean that I reject new technologies and capabilities. On the contrary, I would like to think of myself as something of an early adopter in an effort to always try to improve what business does and how it gets done. However I hope to never lose site of the fact that business is conducted by and between people. While asynchronous or non-real time communication such as voicemail can provide increased productivity in certain instances and applications, such as when individuals are in significantly different time zones around the world, it seems to me that in many instances it is becoming a detriment and an inhibitor to getting business done now.
It appears that asynchronous communications such as voicemail (and email for that matter) may have removed in some people’s minds the necessity to actually have to conduct business by and between people. Instead of talking to people, we now have slow motion conversations over some other type of media instead of a real time discussion over the phone. We have evolved our use of voice mail to the point that instead of answering a call and potentially having to deal real time with an unexpected issue or request, that we will now let the call roll over to voicemail instead. This enables the called party to review the potential issue or request at their leisure and then decide on a potential course of action with which to respond, if they so choose to become involved at all.
When you combine voice mail with other technology advancements such as calling line identification, we have now created a recipe for people to actively avoid answering calls from specific displayed numbers where they know or suspect the caller may be requesting time or support that the called person may not be able or want to provide. We are now enabling and in some instances inciting a behavior where the avoidance of work may now be perceived as being previously engaged, or even over worked. People are in effect hiding behind the voicemail curtain. Regardless, the result is that things get slowed down.
Business is about solving issues, and solving them as quickly and efficiently as possible. That is how value is generated. If you cannot solve customer issues, it is very difficult to generate customer value. I think this is a pretty widely accepted premise for doing business. In a great many instances the way a customer issue is solved is by internalizing it within the vendor organization. Another way to say this is that many businesses bring value to their customers by taking customer issues away from the customer, solving them within their own confines and presenting the customer with a solution.
The result of this process is that the customer is so thrilled with no longer having a problem to deal with, that they give you money.
Up until recently I would have said that this model worked admirably well. Not everyone likes issues but in solving them we provide the needed or desired value. What I have noticed was that in the drive to solve internalized customer problems I was starting to have more and more discussions with the voicemail system mailboxes where I would explain my issue in the hope that the intended party would hear my plea, be provided with enough information to act, and would get back to me with what I needed, than I was having with the actual people I needed to get solutions from.
What has been happening as time has passed and voicemail usage has matured has been that the called party usually returns the initial voicemail with another voicemail (I didn’t know until recently that you can actually do that. You don’t even have to call and forward to the voicemail system. You can now remain in the system and respond to a voicemail with another voicemail) where they either ask for more data (to be left on another voicemail) or explain that I need to contact another different party with the issue (where I will probably have to start the whole extended voicemail message process over again). If they had just answered my call in the first place I would have been able to learn this then and there instead of the several hours or days that it took for them to get back to me.
Voicemail in itself as a technology is not inherently bad. It is the misapplication of the technology by the user that is the cause of the issue. Voicemail was created to help us receive those phone calls that we would otherwise miss. It automated an otherwise labor intensive administrative function. Best of all it got rid of those ever present pink phone message notes that covered your desk every time you came back from lunch.
It seems that because we know that our automated greeting avatar will now answer the phone every time we cannot or decide not to answer the phone, we have increasingly decided to continue on with whatever we were doing, even if it was nothing in particular, and let our voicemail answer the phone. The result is that the business that could have been conducted by and between people real time has now been slowed down.
The speed at which business must be done continues to accelerate. The workloads of those involved continue to grow. People are busy. I understand and accept this. I just don’t believe that everyone is so busy that they cannot answer their phone anymore. It doesn’t take that much time or effort. It gets things done.
To prove my point I’ll close with a scenario and a question. How many times have you been out to lunch with business friends and associates, the food is served and you are eating. You are discussing the business or even social topics of the day, and someone’s cell phone rings? They have voicemail on the cell phone, but what do they do? They interrupt the conversation flow; stop eating and or talking and answer their phone is what they do.
We have all seen it happen and may have possibly even have done it.
My question is: Would they have behaved the same way if they had been sitting at their desk?
We need to start treating our business phone like our cell phone and answer it when it rings, and not expect to conduct our business via voicemail.
I have a fourteen year old son. I am very proud of him and I love him dearly. But that does not change the fact that he is a teenager and as such is prone to many of the activities and attitudes that come with that age. Like most teenagers he has almost unlimited wants and desires and has almost no money with which to pursue them. On the other hand I have a significant number of activities that need to be done around our house that I am willing to pay him to do. These majority of these activities are called yard work. You would think that with my cash and a need for labor, and his labor and a need for cash we would be able to work out an equitable solution. You would think. The following are a few business lessons I relearned from my son in this situation.
1. Set a deadline for all work to be complete. Make sure there is clarity of when your staff’s deliverables are due.
It’s always nice to start the new week with a clean yard, mowed lawn and trimmed bushes. I don’t know why that is the case. Perhaps it is what I learned as a kid. Needless to say though, as I am the nominal boss around my house (with the possible exception of my wife who I refer to as “The Most Powerful Woman in The Universe”) I set the objective for my staff (in this case my son). I thought I was pretty clear on this.
I learned the lesson of setting a hard deadline the hard way. I initially I just told my son that I would pay him at the end of the week to mow the yard once a week. I didn’t think I would need to specify when the week ended and when it began. He came in on Sunday to ask for his wages, and informed me that he would then mow the yard in “the next couple of days”. I informed him that Saturday and Sunday did in fact constitute the “Weekend” and that he would have to have the job complete by then before he was to get paid. He seemed surprised by this stipulation and development.
2. If it needs to get done, do it early. The job will just get more unpleasant the longer you wait to do it.
We live in Texas. In case you have not heard, it does in fact get hot here in Texas in the summer. It gets very hot. When my son agreed to mow the yard in return for money I suggested to him that he might want to mow early in the morning when it was only warm, instead of later in the day when it would be hot, or later in the afternoon when it would be approaching blast furnace status.
Mowing the yard early in the morning on a weekend would mean that he would have to get up early in the morning on a weekend. For those of you who do not have teenage children, you would not understand the absurdity of that last statement. Teenagers do not get up early in the morning of their own volition, ever. Weekends especially. This left the hotter part of the day and the blast furnace of the afternoon. To make a long story short, he procrastinated till the later afternoon, when the day was at its hottest (close to or above triple digit temperatures) and was miserable as a result.
3. Make sure your staff knows how to use the tools needed to get the job done. Just because you know how to do it doesn’t mean they know how to do it.
I showed my son where the tools were that he would need to do the yard. I was also pretty sure he already knew where the yard was. What more would he need? His objective was to take the tools, apply them to the yard, and then to let me know when his objective was complete. I would then applaud his ingenuity.
By my third trip out to the garage to show him how to start and operate the trimmer, the edger and the lawn mower, I suspected that I might not have set him up for success in his initial attempt at the yard. I had assumed that he had seen me performing the task often enough before that he would know how to do it. Perhaps if he had not been so engrossed in his video games he would have been better prepared, but I digress. It was my responsibility to make sure he knew how use all the tools. I also should have shown him when it was cooler in the garage.
4. We are paid for the job. It doesn’t matter how long it takes to do it. It is the completion of the job that counts.
Mowing the yard is not a difficult task. I have done it for years myself before I hit upon the idea of paying my son to do it. It doesn’t take an overly long time to do it. We live in an area where the lots are standard size for a suburban subdivision. It doesn’t take a lot of physical effort. Over time I have acquired all the automated and motorized tools (including a self propelled lawn mower) needed to accomplish the task. In short, I had a reasonable idea of how long it would take and how much effort would be required to get the yard done.
I had not however expected an underly-enthusiastic approach by a fourteen year old teenager (my staff in this instance) who would have much preferred to be inside out of the heat doing something else and just be given the money. By the time all the struggles and complaints were accounted for he took roughly twice as long to do the yard as either of us anticipated. As such he immediately asked for a raise. I reminded him that I was paying him to mow the yard, not paying him by the hour to mow the yard. If he worked at applying himself a little better to where it did not take so much time to mow the yard he would be much happier and realize a better return on his time investment.
5. Set the expectation of the quality of work to be delivered. Standards of performance differ and what may be acceptable to one may not be acceptable to another.
When I mow the yard I try to do the best job mowing the yard that I can. I try to take that approach with just about every job I take on, either at the office or in the yard. I like to know that I have not shortchanged myself or anyone else with my effort. Again I thought that since he had seen how the yard looked after I had done the work; my son would understand how I expected the yard to look when he was done.
He finished, came in, asked for his pay and then went upstairs to cool off and play more video games. All was good, or so I thought. Later my wife came in and asked me if there was anything wrong with me. I said no and wondered why she would ask. She said that the yard did not look the way it normally did after I mowed it and wondered if there was something wrong with me when I had been mowing it. It seemed it was time to actually go out and look at my son’s work product.
6. Hold a brief review at the completion of the project. When the project is done understand what went wrong and what went right. There may be differences of opinion.
Whenever a project is presented to you as complete, review it, then review it with the person that presented it to you. I had just assumed he would do the yard the way I did the yard. I had not gone outside to look at the yard because it was hot. If I had wanted to get hot I would have mowed the yard myself. When I did go outside I could see that my son’s objective was not to do the yard the way I would do it or to my standards, but rather to get it done to a level where he could in fact claim that it was indeed (mostly) mowed and that he should be paid.
I had neither properly set the expectations for the job, nor immediately reviewed the final project upon completion. I assumed that since he lived in the same house as me he would have the same pride of ownership and in his work product that I had. Needless to say we did go back outside (in the heat) and note the areas that needed to be edged and trimmed, and in some instances actually mowed since the objective was to mow the entire yard, not just the parts that are only visible from the street.
My son will get the opportunity to mow the yard again next week since I expect the grass to continue to grow. I hope he has learned what is expected of him and is aware of the ef
fort that the expectation will entail if he hopes to delight his management. I have relearned that just because I have done it and know what it takes to deliver a high quality work product, that not everyone else will know how to do it just because they have seen me do it. Management always needs to be clear about their expectation, guidelines, training and reviews.
Now if only these ideas would work with my daughter and her driving habits.
We would all like to think that business is run as a meritocracy. That would mean that those who have actually earned favored or leadership positions would be the ones that occupy favored or leadership positions. Either unfortunately or fortunately depending on how you choose to look at it, that is not entirely the case. Personalities, friendships, alliances and past histories all come into play when leaders and their teams are selected. In multinational companies it also seems whether we want to believe it or not that location and cultural heritage can come into play when leadership positions are discussed. The politics of business, the perceptions of who we are and how we act can be potentially more important than our business accomplishments and capabilities when it comes to opportunities for leadership roles.
I would be surprised if that last statement did not elicit a collective “Duh” from everyone.
Leaders want a diversity of thought on their teams. By having differing points of view pitfalls such as “group think” and “blind spots” are avoided and stronger team solutions are arrived at. Leaders also usually want a uniformity of support on their teams as well. This means that they like to know that they have people on their team that they can count on regardless of the situation.
On the surface this may sound like an irresolvable dichotomy; a desire for a diversity of thought and opinion and a unanimity of support from the same people on a single team. The balance is struck by the astute leader that can select members of the team that are all driven to achieve the best results, no matter whose solution is selected or implemented. The dynamic is maintained by team members who understand that there are other members on the team who may have equally passionate opinions and points of view on issues, and who focus on the solution, not the individual who has proposed it.
For the leader politics is about having trust in the team. For the team it is earning and maintaining the trust of the leader and working as an individual within the team. For the individuals of the team it is about the meshing of personalities and styles with the leader. A good example of this phenomenon can be seen when a new leader or CEO is brought into an organization. The new leader will usually review and interview the existing team, and then replace either part or possibly all of the team with new team members that are known entities have experience with and are trusted by the leader. The replaced team members probably have done nothing wrong. They were just unknown entities that had not had the opportunity to fully gain the leader’s trust and were replaced by people who had already proven their abilities and trust to the new leader. Were the replaced team members less capable? Probably not since they were already performing in those roles for the previous leader, but that’s now a moot point as they were not given the opportunity to fully prove their capabilities to the new leader.
That is an example of the politics of business at some of its highest levels. It usually plays out to a similar extent at just about every level within an organization. Leaders at all levels of an organization have a tendency to “like” to have certain people, and certain types of people on their teams. These are the people who have engendered a political trust by the leader. They are to some extent know entities. They have known capabilities and approaches to solving issues. They have demonstrated allegiance to the leader, and performance in the past and are expected to do so in the future.
Politics even more so comes into play in trying to make the transition from an unknown entity as part of a team, to a known, “liked” and trusted team member. There are no hard and fast rules that can be put in place here other than one: as both a business person and a team member you must be true to your nature. Do not try to be all things to all people. It is even worse if you try to be different things to different people.
There are a limited number of positions on any team. Not everyone can be on the team. There will be some leaders that will not be compatible with who you are and how you go about your responsibilities. The same will probably go for their teams. For example, in a matrix and consensus structured organization, individuals with an authority-responsibility disposition may not be as fully comfortable or successful as they would be in a general management or profit and loss structured organization. The same would go in reverse where matrix comfortable individuals would probably have issue in the P&L structured organization.
Unlike governmental politics where it seems the process is to find the best way to tell people what they want to hear, business politics seems to be more about finding the best way to tell people what they need to hear. Public arguments and friction caused by differing opinions and aggressive message delivery styles will probably not be considered the most politically astute way of communicating what the leader needs to hear in the business environment.
Some people might argue that I have the political savvy of a petulant fourth grader. To some extent this might be true although I would hope that I would have learned a little since then. Early in my career I learned that I seem to migrate toward leaders that were more results and less process oriented. This did not mean that it was only results that counted. There was obviously more to it than that, but it at least put me in an environment that matched my business performance tendencies. I understood this and did not try to become a process or qualitative team member. I carried this objective, results and quantitative approach with me as I matriculated in management.
Now the politics of business for me are more associated with assessing the management structure that I am in to understand if they are quantitative-results oriented, or qualitative-process oriented. I understand where I am a better fit and where I am not. For me to be a member of a qualitative team would be a stress on them as well as myself. Likewise it might be a stress for a process focused individual to be a member of my team, since my tendencies are not in that direction.
Just as you should work to understand your business styles and tendencies, so do leaders need to look to understand your business styles and tendencies. Leaders look for both diversity and compatibility in their teams. As leaders take on new roles and need to create new teams, or as they look to fill roles in their existing teams in will be business style and team compatibility that will become more the deciding factors as most potential candidates will be fully technically competent or they would not have been considered in the first place.
What may be viewed as politics can also be viewed as leaders looking for a comfort level with the individual members of a team, and the team as a whole. Those that the leader has worked with in the past, either directly as a team member or as part of another type of issue, may have a “political” advantage or disadvantage, depending on how that leader has viewed the style of their business conduct. Beneficial experiences and compatible business approaches can in some instances potentially favorably sway decisions that might have been made on merit alone. Just as dissonant experiences and compatibility can potentially unfavorably sway decisions in the other direction.
Business opportunities, promotions, assignments, etc. will not always seem to go to the most deserving or the one who may have best earned it, from each individual’s perspective. There will always be a personal experience, compatibility and trust factors associated with each leader’s decisions. We would all like to look at this as “politics” when it comes to how someone may or may not have ingratiated themselves with a particular leader. Leaders always evaluate p
eople, both those on their teams and those that are not. Understanding this, and combining it with finding the appropriate business performance style to provide leaders with the information that they need to know may be the best solution to dealing with business politics. It provides the opportunity to demonstrate business capabilities without generating conflict or dissonance. Leaders can look for capability and compatibility for their teams and individuals can look for resonance in leaders for their business approaches and styles.
I wish I had learned this one a little better earlier in my career. I was under the mistaken impression that being right or delivering on objectives was the only thing that mattered. It matters a great deal, but when everyone believes they are right in their own approach and are delivering on their objectives to one extent or another, it may be the other criteria, or politics that make the difference.
I am pretty passionate about what I do and the responsibilities I have. It makes me opinionated about what needs to be done for the benefit of the business. It drives me forward and I think it has probably been a key element of my successes in business. If I am going to sign my name to it, or be responsible for the results generated, I want to believe in it and have input to it. I understand that I have my point of view. I understand that there may be points of view other than mine. When I encounter these other points of view I usually try to convince these misguided souls of the errors of their ways by demonstrating to them the superior logic and position of my point of view. These interchanges are usually called arguments. I have learned over time that before I engage those with opinions that are different than mine in an argument (or high energy discussion if you prefer), that I need to wait.
Discussions are about participants exchanging ideas. They are usually about a search for something, be it more information or a better solution. Arguments are about the participants trying to convince each other that the other participant is wrong. When you get into an argument basically one of two things can happen. You can be right and win the argument, but at what cost? Or you can be wrong and lose the argument, and again at what costs?
Discussions have a collaborative element to them. There is benefit to be gained by both parties. Arguments are a zero sum gain situation. Someone will win and someone will lose. Like a boxing match in arguments there can be knock outs, technical knock outs, unanimous decisions, and split decisions. Occasionally there can be draws or no decisions, but those are relatively rare outcomes of any argument. Arguments are meant to be won, otherwise why engage in them?
I once worked at a company where culturally the “right” and “wrong” of an argument did not matter as much as the passion and rigor that was employed in the argument. This meant that an acknowledged “wrong” outcome could be the result of an argument if the arguer was vehement and passionate enough about their position. It was a culture of arguing, not discussing. As you might suspect that was quite a learning experience.
Being passionate and opinionated about business are key elements that drive leaders to both achieve and succeed. Left unbridled or uncontrolled these elements can create an argumentative environment. If a leader formulates an opinion and then is unwilling to look for more information or a potentially better solution, there will be no room for discussions. There will only be arguments. Eventually there will be fewer and fewer of those as they are generally viewed as unproductive. With no discussions and fewer arguments, a leader had better hope they are correct in the formulations of all their opinions.
When I was a kid my dad used to tell me that he was not always right, but he was never wrong. I guess I didn’t get to win many arguments with him, despite however I might try. He also told me that he might not always be right, but he was always the boss.
Winning an argument usually means that you have to prove the other person wrong. Depending on how this is done it can be either a constructive experience or a destructive one. I think we have all been in the position where someone is so far out on a limb in their argument and in our opinion so far out of touch with the realities of the situation that it is difficult not to publicly saw it off out from under them. While this act can provide momentary pleasure it causes issue with the person on the limb and it will cause issue for those doing the sawing.
Publically putting someone down in business, regardless of how badly they deserve it, or possibly need it will only lead to a reputation as being someone that puts people down. It will not enhance your image. It will not make you a better leader. It will just make people a little more careful about what they say around you. If this is your object, then go for it; however be prepared to be shown no mercy in the unlikely event that at some time in the future you may actually be wrong.
The key point here is that there is a significant difference between being passionate and opinionated about what needs to be done, and being argumentative about what needs to be done. Very few people will venture into an argument believing that they are wrong. They like you will believe that they are right and will want to do what is best for the business.
We all have a pride of ownership associated with our ideas and plans. This is what makes us want to defend them so vigorously when faced with questions or alternative proposals. The idea here is to wait before engaging in an argument. That is correct, wait.
There will always be time to argue. Once the argument is started it usually can’t be stopped. It took me a while to learn this one. In school as in just about anywhere else, it was encouraged to argue your position. That was because you only had an hour or so in each class and like your favorite detective show on TV a solution had to be arrived at within that hour.
In business you have more time than that. Business does move quickly, but not so quickly that you cannot afford to sleep on any issue that may be the genesis of an argument. If you still feel the same way about the situation in the morning then you can argue. However it has been my experience that you won’t.
You will have had time to cool down and avoid the immediate emotional response. You will have had time to evaluate, even if it is subconsciously, the other person’s opinion and position to see what if any merit it may actually hold. You may be better able to participate in a discussion instead of precipitating an argument.
In short, by learning to wait you may be able to make sure that everyone is a winner instead of having to have someone lose in an argument.