More Joys of Travel

Even though every business on the planet continues to try and reduce costs, and those cost reduction efforts almost always include trying to reduce the amount spent on travel, we all seem to continue to have to travel. Personally I no longer see anything remotely alluring about travel. I have grown to regard all planes as not much more than glorified buses with wings. And when the lights are out and you are asleep it is amazing how one hotel room seems to resemble another. If it wasn’t for the opportunity to sample the local cuisines and the local beers, as I have said before, I don’t think there would be any way people could get me to travel anymore.
Oh yeah, there is that opportunity to meet with the customers thing. That is always a good reason to go.
It seems every time I turn on the television there is some commercial by some airline or another touting the fact that they are upgrading their fleet to the latest and greatest equipment available. I meet this with a decidedly mixed response. I like the fact that the old planes are being replaced by new ones and that there is now presumably a reduced opportunity for a mid flight malfunction that would cause the plane to suddenly become un-airworthy. I am much in favor of reducing the possibilities of this occurrence. 
On the other hand I know that the new planes will still have the same issue for me associated with the recycling of the cabin air in the plane that always uncomfortably dries out my skin, my eyes and my sinuses. This recycled cabin air makes it almost impossible for me to answer the customs agent’s questions regarding why I am visiting whatever place I am visiting. Blinking violently with blood shot eyes and choking in the middle of saying you are visiting for business, is not the most recommended way to try and enter a foreign country. It has a tendency to invite further questions and scrutiny, which always enjoyable.
One of the ways to deal with the dryness of the air in the cabin is to drink fluids. Water is always preferred, but if pressed as I have said before, I will replace the water with beer. No, wait a minute. I meant beer. Beer is always the preferred as the source of fluid replenishment while flying. If you are going to replenish fluids beer can help do that as well as provide other life sustaining nutrients. The only problem with replenishing much needed fluids while on an extended flight is that this occasionally results in the need to go to the bathroom.
For those of you who have not been on any of the new fleets of airplanes recently put in service, as advertised by the airlines, the new planes are designed to accommodate people with an efficiency that would make a modern automated sardine canning factory jealous. I believe that one of the ways they have accomplished this density of packing is by reducing the number of bathrooms on the plane. On most international flights these days you now have more than three hundred people sitting together for upwards of nine to ten hours and they all get to share the same two bathrooms. And these are not just ordinary bathrooms. These are single occupancy bathrooms that occupy no more than two square feet of precious and expensive space on these new airplanes that could otherwise be occupied by fare paying passengers. They are very cozy, if you know what I mean.
Despite this fact it seems that everyone who uses one of these bathrooms seems to believe that they are the only person that has to deal with a call of nature. They usually leave it in a condition that rivals that of a freshman’s dorm room immediately after a victorious homecoming football game celebration. Believe it or not I have actually seen someone bring their razors and hair driers into these bathrooms, apparently so they can look their best when they exit the plane after an overnight flight. In situations like this, one must plan for their bathroom needs well in advance or face the potential for a stressful wait.
The only thing more uncomfortable than standing in front of two hundred people waiting to use the micro-bathroom is sitting in a minimally padded chair for more than nine or ten hours. In another one of the airline’s efforts to be ever more cost efficient most airlines have adapted their jets to handle the largest number of passengers possible. They have done this by removing all the useless, unprofitable space possible.
Most of us commonly refer to this useless, unprofitable space as leg room.
They have also ingeniously compensated for this removal of leg room by modifying the seats so that they will no longer recline more than one and a half inches. By doing this they can continue to claim that you have the comfort of a reclining seat without actually having to provide you a seat that truly reclines. In the coach seats that are all that most businesses will pay for during business travel, you now get the opportunity to sit essentially erect with your knees firmly pressed against the seat in front of you for the entire flight. You are also afforded the opportunity to be continually reminded of this situation in that most usually the person in the seat behind you has their knees firmly against the back of your seat as well.
There are many seating options on a long flight. You have the choice of having people crawl over you on their way to waiting in line in front of everyone to use the bathroom, or conversely being the one that crawls over everyone on your way to standing line in front of everyone to go to the bathroom. For the unfamiliar, this means that you can either sit on the aisle or you can sit somewhere else. On the aisle everyone sitting inside of you gets to crawl over you when they want or need to get up. If you are not on the aisle, then you are one of the ones doing the crawling. I have come to the conclusion that I prefer to be crawled over instead of having to do the crawling.
There are those that prefer the window seat. I have done some empirical testing of my own by sitting in the window seat, and I guess I just don’t get it. The window seat provides a wonderful view of the airport when you are taking off or landing, unless you are doing one of those things at night, otherwise it affords you a wonderful view of the sky, the clouds, or most usually on an international flight, the night. Personally a great view of the various airports and the dark night sky does not hold great allure to me while travelling.
While flying does present several entertaining opportunities for comfort and enjoyment, it is at least flying. I recently had the opportunity to visit a major city that did not in fact have an airport with major airline service. I didn’t think those types of major metropolises existed anymore, but apparently they do. This necessitated travel via a means other than and in addition to air travel. I had to fly ten hours plus, and then take a train. Perhaps in the future I’ll relate the joys of train travel, but for now I’ll be content in having related more of the joys associated with international coach class air travel.

Over Qualified

We have all to some extent undergone upheaval in our markets, businesses and careers. I have also continued to hear the phrase “over qualified” when it comes to new roles or new career paths. I have commented many times in the past about the fact that the way I look at the world can be considered to be out of step with the accepted norms, or conversely just “different”. Perhaps it is now proper for business managers to understand that throughout change in order to successfully lead you probably need to be out of step with the accepted management norms and be different.

My first question is: How can anyone be considered overqualified? As a leader don’t you want everyone on the team to be as wildly successful at their responsibilities as is humanly possible? Doesn’t the very act of them being successful by its definition make you successful? Don’t the most qualified individuals have the greatest probability of being successful?

Who will knowingly take on a team member with less training, or less education, or less experience, or any other material qualification than another potential team member? You have to pardon me here, but I can never remember thinking that I was looking for someone with lower qualifications. I was, and continue to always look for the best possible team members.

So if this is the case for the majority of business leaders, why is there so much being written about people being over qualified for various opportunities? I understand that the markets have changed and there are many people with significant capabilities whose previous positions for one reason or another no longer exist. However, their knowledge and capabilities are still there and can be an incredible resource to any team.

I think it comes down to the difference between management and leadership. Leaders want the best on their teams. Strong and qualified team members drive the leader to be just that, a leader. Leaders need to have the confidence to embrace the challenge of leading a talented and possibly “over” qualified team. It seems that over qualified people may need unqualified leadership.

It also seems that managers may also only want the best on their teams but with the only stipulation being that the team member not be a challenge, to them. Leaders understand that they may not have the market cornered on hard work or good ideas. They look for team members that can challenge them and each other while working toward the business’ goals and objectives. Managers may have a tendency to view this sort of behavior as a challenge to their personal authority instead of an opportunity for everyone to do better.

This type of behavior is not a challenge to authority, but it is a challenge to manage and lead.

Highly qualified individuals in my experience are probably more prone to display this sort of challenging behavior. If they think they have a good idea, or see an issue with the current plan they are apt to voice it. I think this is a very good trait. Leaders should not be the only ones pushing things forward; or rather I guess I should say that leaders are the primary ones pushing things forward, I just prefer that there be multiple people pushing on the team.

Better qualifications usually come with time. More time in school usually equates to a better educational qualifications. More time in training equates to a more work ready resource. More experience means that someone already has a track record of performance in similar or equivalent roles. When a leader is looking for someone for their team, these are exactly the types of qualifications they should be looking for.

A manager on the other hand may be concerned that someone could potentially have qualifications, or worse the capabilities to actually perform that manager’s job. That insecurity seems to me to be at the root of the “over qualified” argument. After all, who would want to bring someone onto the team that might be a better or more capable performer than the manager of the team?

A leader would.

This approach does not mean that you should look for only the most educated, trained and experienced. Having those qualifications does not necessarily make them the best. There is also a little thing called “talent” that must be factored in, and it knows no age limitation. The talented can be young or old, it doesn’t matter. Talent is more qualitative in nature and I cannot think of any hard and fast rules for identifying it. But I think we all know it when we see it.

I have mentioned in the past that I am a would-be musician. I enjoy music. I understand its theory. I practice. When you are doing something that you enjoy, practice is not work. But I also understand that I do not have the innate talent for music that others may have. It just means that I have to work at it harder than some for whom it comes naturally. It is a challenge to me and for me to keep up with them. And boy is that fun. To take the analogy one step further, even in music I try to search out and play with those musicians that are more talented than I am, because in turn it makes me a better musician for having played with them. There is no being “over qualified” here either.

None of us should expect to inhabit the roles we are in forever. Each assignment is indeed a step in our careers. Just as the roles associated with the members of the team are presumably steps in their careers. A certain amount of change is good for both the team and the individual. It keeps the organization vibrant. Obviously too much of a good thing can be detrimental. I think we have all been in organizations where the turnover rate exceeded a healthy level started to cause issues.

The point here is that having the best qualified people in the organization provides a capability to deal with both leadership and team changes. Team members need to be capable of and prepared to step in and step up to new roles as they occur. Having well qualified team members provides added strength to the team and the organization as a whole.

As I pointed out, leaders should not only consider the most trained, most educated and most experienced people for their positions. On the contrary, a leader always looks for the best qualified and most talented candidate for each specific position. Being educated, trained and experienced may be an indication of talent but it should not be the only criteria. Having education, training, experience and talent in one discipline, say accounting, does not make that person the best qualified candidate for a role in marketing. However if the role in question was in accounting, I would be hard pressed to agree with any statement to the effect that the person described above was “over qualified”.

Bad Deals

I started off my business career in sales. I admit it. It’s not something I am particularly proud of…come to think of it, it is something that I am particularly proud of. I can honestly say that I spent time in one of the most difficult professional disciplines around, the professional discipline of trying to get someone to give you their money. I learned a lot in sales about dealing with customers. I also learned a lot about dealing with the internal mechanisms of the company that I worked for as well. I thought that any customer that I could make a deal with and get an order from was a good customer. As I have progressed through my career I have learned that not all deals and customers are good.

For the average salesperson an order is an order. The more of them you get, the more commissions you get. The more commissions you get the more money and personal esteem you acquire. Along with this comes better houses, cars, big screen TVs and along with the laws of natural selection an increased opportunity to pass your sales DNA along to future generations of sales people. In case you missed it, sales is a jungle.

The ideal sales deal is that you provide your customer with something they need, a product or a service, and they provide you with something you need, primarily money. As long as everyone keeps this sort of exchange arrangement in mind things normally go well, and for the most part they usually do.

Occasionally however there have been recorded instances where things didn’t go well. Many of these sorts of instances are attributable to honest mistakes or misunderstandings and the preponderance of them can be cleared up by honest and diligent work by both parties associated with the deal.

Then there are the outliers. Those deals that you have entered into that despite the fact that you’re doing everything right, either one or both of the parties to the deal are unhappy. Either the customer is not getting what they wanted, or you are not getting paid. Sometimes both. What do you do?

The first step is to find the nearest Home Depot store. Go there and go into their Bathroom / Plumbing section and find a really nice mirror. Buy that mirror, take it to your office, hang it on your wall and spend some time looking at and questioning the person in that mirror to make absolutely sure that you are in fact living up to your end of the deal. Try to look at the person in that mirror from the customer’s point of view. Have you told the customer everything the need to know? Have you done everything you need to do? Start with you.

If you have completed step one and are reasonably confident that you and your team are providing all the entitled goods and services to both the letter and the spirit of the contract then the issue may in fact lie on the other side of the deal, with the customer. This is usually a pretty rare, but not an unheard of event. You may have a customer that through either the normal or abnormal conduct of their business is difficult to deal with.

I have not had to deal with this sort of situation very often thank goodness, but when I have it has normally fallen into one of two categories: it is either a very small customer that for whatever reason has been forced into a position where they cannot adhere to the deal they made, or a very large customer who feels that they are either such a desirable customer or so dominant in their market that they do not feel that they have to adhere to the deal they have made.

Of the two scenarios, I prefer the first one. A company that can’t honor the deal for the most part will be willing to work with you. There may be a solution out there where the deliverables of the deal can be altered to where both parties can be addressed. A small customer company by its nature can be a fragile enterprise. There are risks associated with dealing with them. They will however usually try to work with you.

On the other side of the spectrum is the large company. These are companies that understand the role and position in the market and use it as leverage against all of their suppliers. If you want their business then they feel that you will have to play their game. Most customers want their partners to make a reasonable profit. This usually assures them of a continued available supply of the good or service that they want or need. Some however just want the deal now and will not care if you are around for the next one or not. They know there will be someone else there if you are not.

The usual response to this tactic is for the organization to agree to the terms because the organization decides that it wants the business bad enough, and the size of the business is large enough to warrant an agreement. There will usually be pressure from the sales team trying to convince everyone of the strategic nature of both the business and the customer in question, and how the profit will be made up on the next deal.

It never happens that way, and there is nothing strategic about unprofitable business. I have addressed this topic specifically in the past. You can talk yourself into just about any kind of business, but you cannot talk yourself into profitability.

Once you are into one of these types of deals where the customer is obviously leveraging you there are only a limited number of things you can do: You can look for a legal way out, or look for a way to minimize the damage and exposure while you meet your end of the agreement. After all, you signed it.

Exiting a deal because you don’t like the terms of a contract you signed is usually only an option of last resort. Unless you have been demonstrably misled by the customer, this really isn’t an option. But it is also a financial decision as well. If the fines and penalties for leaving the contract are less that than the losses expected from continuing, it needs to be reviewed.

That usually leaves buckling down, trying to reduce all costs associated with the deal in question, and then getting out at the earliest legal time. Issue the exit / cancelation notification and don’t take any argument from the sales team or customer. These are the teams that were responsible for the deal in the first place. Don’t allow them to prolong the inevitable.

Be polite. Be firm. Be gone.

Sometimes bad contracts are expensive opportunities to learn lessons. Other times they can just be plain expensive. They can be lessons about markets. They can be lessons about sales teams and their compensation incentives. They can be lessons about specific customers. The important point is that they need to be lessons that are learned.

If you have only a contract or two that fall into this category then they could be an anomaly. If you have multiple bad deals in a specific market or with a specific customer, you need to learn how to de-risk those types of deals, or avoid those specific markets or customers.

If you have multiple bad deals across multiple markets and customers, then you have a sales force issue, where their objectives and incentives are not aligned with the profitability objectives and requirements of the company. This is a key point. If you have a number of bad deals you have an issue with your sales team and their compensation plan. You probably need to make sure that the sales team has some sort of margin or profitability goal associated with their compensation in order to avoid this situation.

Regardless, the only person responsible for a bad deal is the one that agreed to it. Don’t sign a bad deal hoping you can make it better. Don’t specifically blame the customer, but if they are unwilling to create an agreement that is at least fair to both parties you need to remember and learn from it. Learn from it and put the processes in place to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Bad deals happen only because you agree to them.

Swiss Army Knives

I remember when I was a kid that one of the things that I really, really wanted was a Swiss Army Knife. I liked the idea of having a one size fits all kind of knife. If I wanted to whittle something I would have a small knife blade that I could fold out and whittle with. Likewise if I wanted to saw something I could fold out the saw blade and start sawing. The fact that it was a three inch blade with a non-locking mechanism wouldn’t stop me. If there was a two by four that needed some sawing on it I would be ready.

The same could be said for cork screw despite the fact that it would be more than a decade before I would be old enough to drink wine, however if my mom needed any help I would stand ready. There were also blade and Phillips head screw drivers for all the things I would build or repair while in the wilderness, awls for working the leather I would take with me camping, tweezers for removing all the splinters I would amass while roughing it and even a smaller back-up knife blade in case I broke the first one from too much use while in the woods whittling.

In short I guess it could be said that the Swiss Army Knife could do just about anything. This idea of being able to do just about anything had a significant coolness factor. The kid who had the knife that could do the most things that he would never use it for was obviously the coolest kid.

I have grown older (I don’t know of anyone who would be so foolish as to say that I have grown up) and I no longer have the same affinity for Swiss Army Knives that I did when I was younger. Like most guys I am now preoccupied with the number of functions that my favorite Multi-Tool can perform, that I will never use. The primary difference between then and now is that I can now afford a far more complex Multi-Tool than I could ever afford Swiss Army Knife then.

So what has all this got to do with business? Good question.

Reminiscing about my favorite old Swiss Army Knife got me to thinking about optimization for purpose and use. Those knives (and today’s Multi-Tools) are capable of doing just about everything. The problem is that they are not optimized, or really good at anything. The knife blade can be used to whittle, the screw drivers can drive screws, I wouldn’t know about the awl for working leather as I never had the opportunity to really try it, and the corkscrew will in fact remove a cork from a wine bottle. The problem is that it really doesn’t do any of those things very well. The functions are all there, but they are not optimized for their respective applications.

In business it is not about being able to do everything. It is about being the very best at what you do. You usually don’t ask your Finance and Accounting people to go out and sell your good or service. Marketers normally can’t count well enough to have them keep the business’ books. Sales people aren’t normally any good at anything else other than sales. You don’t ask people to do something that they may be able to do, but that they are not at their best at.

This is the same principle that governs the applicability of Swiss Army Knives in functional applications. Professional mechanics do not use them to work on engines. If they need a screw tightened they go and get the appropriate and specific screw driver that meets their specific need. Have you ever looked in the hardware store at the number of different types of screw drivers that there are? There is a reason for that. Each one is optimized for a specific screw tightening application.

My wife has never ever asked me for, nor asked me to buy her a Swiss Army Knife or Multi-Tool with a cork screw so she could open a bottle of wine. In fact I think she has at least two designer cork screws, one of which has an electric motor, whose sole purpose for existence is to only remove corks from wine bottles as quickly and stylishly as possible. The fact that a Swiss Army Knife or Multi-Tool could do so much more than just opening the wine seems to hold no allure to her.

This optimization for purpose and use should be applied throughout the business. Products should focus on being the best at what they are used for. Look at the screw driver example I used before. I’ll also illustrate this precept by using a hi-tech example from my past. I worked for a company that essentially made a chassis that would house a variety of application specific boards and blades (sounds like a Swiss Army Knife). Each blade was optimized for a specific application, and there were a lot of them to choose from.

Customers said that the number of different application blades could be confusing and suggested that the company undertake the development of a “universal” blade that would enable the customers to do several different applications instead of the usually capable and provisioned one. The universal blade came out … and it was a failure.

The resulting universal blade was much more complex, much more expensive and less functional on every application that it addressed even though it addressed far more applications than the single blade – single application counterparts. In short it could do just about everything, but it couldn’t do anything as well as each of the specific application blades could do it, and due to its complexity it was much more expensive to boot. Less optimized and more expensive is not a good business proposition for success.

The same would go for business processes. Processes are supposed to be a simplified, streamlined, consistent way of doing things that will optimize your efficiency. However when you try to create the “universal” process, much like the universal application blade, they end up not being optimized for anything and hence reduce efficiency in everything.

As an example, suppose you are addressing two markets, the North and South Poles. On the surface both are similar in that they are cold and have snow. But the North Pole is populated by Santa’s elves and they are primarily interested in candy and toys. The South Pole is populated by penguins who are primarily interested in fish and not being eaten by sea lions.

If you were to create a global process that addresses the needs of both the North Pole and South Pole markets it would have to take into account the specific and disparate needs associated with serving both elves and penguins. By the very nature of your markets at least half (and probably more) of your process would not be applicable to one or the other market. If you were to complicate things further by adding third market, say the Himalayas (again cold with snow) you would then have to add the processes associated with serving the populations of Sherpa and Yetis in the area. As we all know Sherpa are primarily interested in climbing and Yeti are primarily interested in leaving foot prints and not being seen.

Sherpa and Yeti, elves and penguins all live in similar markets (cold and snow) but I don’t think that a universal process can be put together to efficiently address each of these markets’ specific needs. It would seem to be much more efficient to create and optimize a process for use in each specific area.

Business is about addressing specific markets and even more specifically, specific customers and their specific needs. The better that you can do that, the better your chances of success both with that customer and in that market. Swiss Army knives and Multi-Tools are cool, but people, and customers, who have a specific need are not looking for all the other functionality that comes with the more complicated or diverse solution. When you start to hear the siren song of the universal product or the universal process it may be best to emulate Odysseus and find a way to maintain your direction and focus on the optimization for purpose and use that your customer really wants, and that has been the cornerstone of business success.