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The Choice Not Made

I do not know of any person that doesn’t make mistakes, with the possible exception of my mother. And my wife. And my kids. And maybe my dad, but not according to my mother. Maybe I ought to start over.

I know I make mistakes. I try not to make many of them, but according to both my mother and my wife, I am a guy and therefore I will not be able to help myself when it comes to making mistakes. I have witnessed many others throughout my career in business who have also made mistakes. Not all of them were guys. Go figure. Some to a lesser and some to a greater degree, but errors have been made. But that is okay. Usually, in order for an error to be made, someone first had to make a decision. And business is all about making decisions.

When a decision gets made there are pretty much just two choices that can then occur. You can have been right and made the right choice, take a bow and move on, or you can have been wrong and made the wrong choice, in which case you can either blame the decision on someone else, and / or take actions to rectify the situation.

It is only in politics where you can rename a wrong choice as the “alternative correct” correct decision, based on the then alternative facts, and keep moving along. In business you have to eventually fix things and clean up the messes that wrong choices create. There are always Finance people around keeping score.

In business two characteristics seem to be prized above all others. The first, and somewhat lesser of the prized traits, is the ability to make the right choices. The ability to make correct decisions. Management likes this capability, but they only seem to like this ability to only a certain extent. That extent is usually equal to their own ability to make the right choices and decisions. Being right has a tendency to cause others who may have been wrong, some discomfort. Nobody likes to worry that they made the wrong choice and having someone around who makes the consistently right choice can occasionally be problematic.

Being right sometimes can cause you to take an opposing view to what may be desired for the business, even by management. Being right means that by comparison, someone else was wrong. And as I said, very few people enjoy being wrong.

The second and absolutely most prized characteristic in business, is the ability to be able to quickly clean up and correct the situation after someone else has made the wrong choice. I have written about these types of people before. They are called “firefighters”. And like their real-life equivalent hero counterparts, they are viewed as corporate heroes. Having someone around who can come in and quickly right a wrong choice is a highly valued resource to have.

I have actually been in meetings and training sessions where designated corporate firefighters have come in and spoken about how to go about triaging, correcting and cleaning up a situation.

While I recognize and absolutely salute those heroes that put themselves in harm’s way when it comes to firefighting, I am also a big fan of Smokey The Bear, who uttered the immortal words:

“Only you can prevent forest fires”

Fire prevention, as it relates to business has always been my goal. It is far less glamorous than flying in and putting out the fire, but it is far better for the business to avoid the fire instead of having to put it out. Looking forward and anticipating needs and issues are the best way to avoid the flare up of a firefighting situation. This topic is worthy of much more analysis and discussion, but it is not the one I want to cover here.

To this point I have talked about making right decisions and choices, and the potential pitfalls associated with them, And I have talked about making wrong decisions and choices, and the teams and activities that can be inaugurated as a response in trying to correct them. Just about any wrong decision or choice can be rectified once it is identified. Once they are identified just about any wrong decision can be corrected.

It is the interval between the decision and the start of its corrective actions that usually determines the magnitude of the issue and the magnitude of the resources that will be required to fix it. The sooner the identification the cheaper the cost to fix. This by the way, is the essence of all this increased interest in Agile and DevOps project methodologies. I’ll probably write about this sometime in the future as well. Remember, just about any wrong decision can be fixed.

Just about.

The one decision that cannot be fixed is the choice not made.

As process and the fear associated with making the wrong choice has grown, the willingness to make those sometimes difficult choices seems to have atrophied as well. One need only look at our current political situation to see this phenomenon play out on a much grander scale. In politics making a decision or making a choice makes you somewhat vulnerable. Those that don’t agree with your choice can now take an opposing position. Since the results of a political decision, much like a business decision are not visible for some time, support for the choice can weaken and changes can be made.

As a result, it is becoming easier and more acceptable to defer these needed decisions and choices to a later time. They are then the choices that don’t get made. Instead of making the right choice and moving forward or making the wrong choice and then taking steps to correct it and then again moving forward, no choice is made and no movement, forward or backward occurs.

The result is then, that nothing gets done.

I included process in the list as one of the causes of choices not being made because process by its very design does not lend itself to making decisions. Process tells you what the decision should be. Process supposedly makes the choice for you. The safe path is to now always follow the process. If the situation may call for a change in process or a different decision, it will always be easier to not make that choice.

The risk of making a wrong decision that is outside of the defined process will almost always outweigh the benefit of making the right decision. Decisions are responsible for change. Change is what drives progress.

If you are not going to make the choice, you can’t fix the problem. The right choice fixes the issue. The wrong choice lets you know what the right choice should have been, and again allows you to fix the issue. The choice not made doesn’t fix anything.

Herein lies the conundrum. Almost every organization and business without exception will categorically state that want their people to make choices and take risks. They will then systematically implement processes that reduce the opportunity to make decisions and choices, and then provide a series of rewards and punishments that result in a deterrent to taking the risks, making the decisions and choices that organization says they want them to take.

Sun Tzu was a Chinese general, military strategist, writer and philosopher who lived in the Eastern Zhou period of ancient China. Sun Tzu is traditionally credited as the author of The Art of War, an influential work of military strategy that has affected Western and East Asian philosophy and military thinking. (

I have talked about Sun Tzu in the past. His book “The Art of War” was written close to 2,500 years ago and is still taught in military academies around the world today. He is renowned for amongst other things, never losing a military engagement. If he felt he was not assured of a victory, he would not commit to the engagement. He would stall and feint and execute other tactics. If these actions did not result in a more favorable position for him he would either accept a stalemate / draw, or he would withdraw.

Much of what he discussed has also been applied to business in the past as well. The difference between Sun Tzu’s approach to not engaging, and a process-based approach to not engaging, is that Sun Tzu made an active decision. He made the choice not to engage. He chose to protect his men and resources and pick a different time and place to engage when the contributing factors were more to his favor and liking.

In business (as in politics) today the incentive appears to be to not engage, even if the correct choice is available. Because if someone is correct, invariably someone else is wrong. Even if success is probable, there will always be at least a small risk present for failure. The only way to assure that you are not wrong is to not make choices. And while the choice not made may appear to be the safest one for the individual, it is probably the worst one for the organization.

There are some really great quotes on choices out there. The one I think I will leave you with is from Jim Rohn, an entrepreneur and author. He said:

“It doesn’t matter which side of the fence you get off on sometimes. What matters most is getting off. You cannot make progress without making decisions.”

A Great Service Story

I got a call from Travis the other day. I didn’t know him, but he works for Godaddy, the domain registrar and web hosting company that I use for this Blog. Up to now I don’t think I have had much call or reason to interact with them. I have my site on automatic renew and electronic pay from the bank. About the only thing I see from them is an email notification when then automatically renew my site and get paid for doing that. As long as the site has stayed up, which it has, I have been content.

I thought we would both happier with this kind of arm’s length, long distance relationship.

Still, Travis called me. The calling line ID didn’t say “Travis”. It just displayed a number that I recognized as an Arizona, USA area code. I have later found out that Godaddy is headquartered in Scottsdale (just outside of Phoenix, for those of you who may not be familiar). I didn’t know it was Godaddy headquarters calling when I answered the phone. If it had instead said something like “Travis”, I probably wouldn’t have answered it.

It seems I get so many spam phone calls these days that I always expect that long silence when I answer the phone from an unknown number, while the robo-caller detects my voice and switches me over to a real person. But not Travis. He was right there and immediately introduced himself and who he worked for right away.

I was pleasantly surprised.

He said he knew I was a busy man, so he would get right to the point. He said that Godaddy was seeing a significant amount of activity at my web site and wondered if there was anything going on that they should be aware of, or that they could help with.

Now normally I don’t do much more with the site other than type out one of these articles (using MS Word), edit it to my liking, copy it and paste it in as a new post and hit “Publish”. The web site is just a vehicle for getting it out to the world.

Travis seemed like a good guy, so I responded to his question regarding increased activity by wondering out loud if I had actually won the Nobel Prize for blogging, or potentially the Presidential Medal of freedom I heard rumors that I was up for. Travis didn’t hesitate.

He said that Godaddy normally associates the amount of activity that they were seeing with events of such or similar magnitude, but that he had already Googled me and saw that I was not nominated for either award. It had to be something else.

I thought to myself: Travis Game Level = Mage

After a little more discussion, it seemed to be determined that we could not determine what was causing the increase in activity to my web site. I guess people were just coming from all over to read the stuff I was writing. This is where the Travis upped his game level when it came to service. He started looking over my site.

The first thing he saw was that I was that I had a significant amount of content on my site. I mentally blew on my fingernails and polished them on my chest. I told him that I had been doing this blogging thing for over ten years. He noted the amount of content again and then asked me if I had ever backed up the site and the amount of data that I had on it. That way if there was a catastrophic failure I wouldn’t lose anything.

Uh, no. Can’t say that I have.

He then said the magic words: here let me do that for you. And in the background, I heard the quantity of tapping of keys that reminded me of the speed and quantity of gun shots expended in the latest John Wick movie, only faster. He then said that having finished that, he had now also programed the system to automatically back itself up once a month.

I thought to myself: I didn’t ask him to call me. I didn’t ask for his help, and he has solved a problem that I didn’t know I had before it became a problem. I very much appreciate fire prevention in lieu of future firefighting.

 Travis’ Game Level now = War Mage

But he wasn’t done. He then noted that I was on a pretty old release level as far as the web site itself went. In all the time I have had it, I don’t think I have ever upgraded it. It worked great as it was. It never broke. It was fine. He noted that he believed the only other Godaddy customer on this web site release level were a couple by the name of Fred and Wilma Flintstone.

Well played Travis. Well played.

I said fine. Go for it. Knock yourself out. Again, the veritable buzz saw of key strikes and I then found myself on the latest web site release. He said there should be no problems and that this was a much more robust release.

This was going much better than any of the other spam phone calls I usually got. I was waiting for the other shoe to drop.

He then reviewed and saw that I was on a version of Word Press that was even older that the site release version. I said we’re in this deep. Let’s go big or go home. Update and upgrade that bugger too, if you don’t mind. He didn’t mind, so I them found myself on the latest release of Word Press as well.

I was now thinking Travis’ Game Level = Warlock

I did not know I was having excessive activity at my web site. I didn’t know that my content and web site were not backed up. I didn’t know that my web site and my publishing software releases were so far out of date before the call. Now I felt as if everything had been reviewed and updated. It sounded as though a very knowledgeable individual had gone through everything and reviewed for any potential issues.

I had not asked for all of this service. And, even better, I was not asked to pay for all of this service.

This is my idea of what great service is about. Reaching out proactively to a customer and going through their systems, programs and applications. Updating where necessary, and then thanking them for being a customer.

It is quite possible that Godaddy had put together a program where their service group would comb through their existing customer base looking for customers just like me who were so helplessly out of date that it was of benefit to both Godaddy and the customer to have Godaddy perform the requisite updates and upgrades. It would probably save them money, reduce customer issues and increase customer satisfaction. If I were them, I would probably do the same thing.

I didn’t care. They had reached out and performed a service for me without my asking. They had upgraded and updated my capability to continue to write and publish articles, such as this one.

They also increased my customer satisfaction and loyalty.

In the great scheme of things, I am just someone who has created a small, personal web site, and posts a blog using Godaddy. I am sure that they have many other, and many larger customers than me that they serve. The fact that I got individual attention. That I didn’t have to reach out and call them. That I didn’t have to fight my way through some sort of automated attendant answering system. That I talked to a knowledgeable individual who provided me with what I considered to be valuable service, was not lost on me.

I am not writing a homage to any specific company here. It may sound like it, but that was not the intent. I am merely using the company as an example and illustration.

What I am writing about here is how great service ultimately comes down to an individual, and a one to one interface. It is best done preemptively before there is an issue to resolve. How when each step in the service process is explained, customer buy in and satisfaction are gained. How attitude is important when dealing with customers. How being well trained and knowledgeable really counts.

Great service is doing a great job before you are even asked to do it.

Travis promised he would keep an eye on my blog, just in case the Nobel committee actually did start snooping around, because, you never know. Well done Travis.

The Sound of Silence

I have talked about speaking up in business several times. Conversely I have also cited the American humorist Will Rogers on several occasions for his immortal line “Never miss a good chance to shut up.” Unfortunately while I may cite Will Rogers, I rarely follow his advice as I have created issues far more often by speaking up than I have by remaining quiet. You would think I would learn. I think those of you who know me are not surprised that I haven’t.

I’ll paraphrase another American comedian Ron Wood, and say that while I may have the right to remain silent, I rarely seem to have the ability to remain silent. But I’ll continue to work on it.

In business for the greater part we are all knowledge workers. That means that we provide and deliver our value to the organization in the form of our abilities to recognize and process information in the pursuit of the organization’s goals. Equally important is what is done with the information once it has been processed. Having information and not communicating it in an organization is almost as useless as not having the information at all. What good is having a solution if you don’t communicate it? So, our value is not just the knowledge we have but also our desire and ability to communicate to and with others.

Not everyone thinks, or processes information the same way. This is actually a very good thing for all involved.

Unless you are my wife. It seems to significantly frustrate her that I think so differently from her. She doesn’t understand how I can be so wrong so often when it comes to communicating with her. I guess I will continue to work on that too.

A healthy organization should have a healthy diversity of input from the team members. There should be an ongoing dialog on almost all topics as new issues are worked and old ones revisited for potential improvements. As the speed of business continues to increase and the time and distance associated with business decrease, it is probably safe to say that the conditions that were in place when a decision was made have changed.

The point here is that an ongoing dialog on a wide range of topics is important to the health and success of any team. Argument and examination by their very nature end up generating stronger solutions through addressing potential weaknesses to proposed solutions. But how far can or should a leader allow this dialog to go? When does continued discussion actually start to become dissension in the ranks?

Depending on the commitment of the team members and the trust of the team leader, I think the simple answer here is that ongoing discussion, even regarding previously “closed” topics should never be viewed as dissension. The reason is simple.

If you silence a differing opinion on one topic, you may have unknowingly also silenced that opinion on any of several other topics. No one likes to be told to shut up. Will Rogers was talking about our own self control, not the imposed control of others. If one is told to be quiet often enough on certain topics, they may of their own volition start to extend their reticence to other unintentional topics. And since no one is right all the time, there may in fact come a time when there will be a need for the knowledge that the differing opinion represents to generate the issue solution, and it may not be forthcoming.

A healthy organization has a strong amount of dialog going on between the members themselves and between the members and the leader. As ideas are generated and alternatives considered the discourse should increase. This again points out the difficult transition that would be leaders must make: that of moving from the position of generating and defending ideas to one of encouraging and acting on the ideas of others.

Most managers attain their position because they were able to generate and defend good solutions to multiple issues. This engenders a type behavior. However once they are in a leadership role it is no longer the sole behavior that they must demonstrate. Their new role must evolve into a utilization and growth of others to generate and defend good solutions. Hence the needs for the ongoing give and take between the leader and the team members.

But what happens if the manager doesn’t change? What becomes of the team dynamic if the person who was rewarded for generating good ideas continues to insist on generating all the good ideas?

The first indication that this managerial centralization of solution ideas is occurring is when the team communication starts to become reduced. Instead of a continuous stream of new proposals and iterations on older issues, there is less and less that is put forth. If the manager is going to generate the solution anyway, why not remain silent and wait for it.

As I noted earlier, no one likes to be told to be quiet. Whether it is directly in the form of publicly shooting down the proposals, or tacitly in the form of quietly just disregarding their input, no one likes to see or feel that their intellectual work is being disregarded, or continuously superseded by someone else intellectual work. If it happens often enough, team members will have a tendency to just shut down. They may work out the issues, but they just won’t bring forth the proposals and solutions if they don’t feel they will at least be honestly analyzed for function and purpose.

They in effect go silent and just wait to be told what to do. Either that or they have a tendency to leave for other organizations.

I’ve discussed the difference between compliance and commitment in the past. Commitment comes from team members feeling that their input and ideas are valued. That doesn’t mean that their ideas must always be selected. It means that they should be discussed. Rarely is an individual’s entire proposal invalidated. There are always pieces of it that can and should be incorporated into the final solution.

As leaders, the discussion and selection process associated with functional strategies and solution implementation is delicate. Selecting and supporting the stronger aspects of the team’s work while acknowledging and remanding back the less applicable aspects for further work can be a tightrope like balance. Be too harsh a critic and risk alienating the team. Not be demanding enough and risk allowing less than optimal ideas and work into the process.

When faced with this type of conundrum it is easy to see why the default response may be to drive harder. It is also easier now to see why so many organizations seem to be getting quieter. If the manager believes that the best person to rely on is themselves, then why does there need to be a dialog.

Issue identification, goal and strategy setting, and problem resolution should not be quiet activities. They are the basis of all business progress. The noted past conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra Erich Leinsdorf once said when discussing the music that he believed in friction and that without it there could be no progress.

Here was a leader (orchestra conductor) who had to lead as many as one hundred and twenty different team members (musicians), each with an instrument with a discrete voice, in the playing of some of the most complex symphonies in history. Each musician needed to play and contribute, but within the structure set by the conductor in the creation of the end product. In his time that organization was credited with some of its finest performances.

It is often thought that the conductor simply tells the musicians what to play and how to play it. Leinsdorf is credited with changing the process so that when he wanted something, he didn’t just demand it. He asked for it, and explained why he wanted it. The results and the performance reviews spoke to the success of his approach.

As business moves more and more to virtual types of office arrangements, and meetings become more like phone calls, the office continues to become a quieter and quieter environment. Managers can mistakenly interpret this phenomenon as the tacit agreement with their plans and policies. I think in most instances it is not.

I think the new office arrangements and business dynamics have only served to exacerbate some of these management tendencies. Regardless, there seems to be a large number of organizations that like in the old western movies, it can be said that things are quiet, almost too quiet. And the sound that silence makes should speak volumes as to where the ideas and solutions (as well as the future leaders) are, or in most cases are not coming from.

Complexity and Incompetence

Thank goodness for Spell Checker. I wasn’t paying full attention to what I was doing here when I started writing and initially misspelled “incompetence”. Talk about the potential for poetic justice on an article title like that.

 I have to give attribution for this topic to one of my friends in Austria. He was talking the other day and one of the things he said really resonated with me. So many times it seems that we like to think of our work as complex. Part of this business complexity definition desire may be based in how we may want to equate our self worth with the accomplishing of the difficult or complex, and part of it may be related to the positioning of an explanation if the goal is not attained. Either way, in reality we need to accept and address the fact that business is really not that complex.

 So much of business is built on the basics. Set a goal and then follow through. Create something of value for your customers. Say what you will do and then do what you have said. Treat the business’s money as if it were your own. Tell the truth. Ask questions. Read. Learn from your mistakes. The list can go on, but the components of the list are all equally simple and axiomatic.

 Those last few on the above list were proudly stolen from a wall chart that I saw regarding the basic rules for conduct in a kindergarten classroom – really. There were many others on the list that I thought were equally good an applicable (don’t hit, don’t hit back, etc.), but I didn’t want to go overboard here.

 I think you get my point. Many of the precepts that we have learned regarding basic human interaction (dating all the way back to kindergarten) form the foundation for conducting business. I have noted in the past that at its most basic business is about the interactions between people. Business is not done organization to organization. It is done person to person. It’s really not that hard. This brings me back to what my friend said. He said (and although I am quoting, I am also paraphrasing):

 “Claiming “complexity” as a reason for a business issue or performance is either the defining of a basic level of incompetence or the providing of an excuse for non-performance”

 I think he put it very well.

 The only piece that I might add would be to address our innate desire to make what we do seem important. On a base level it is difficult to equate doing something that is simple with doing something that is complex. We all want to succeed at the difficult or complex because we feel it has more value than succeeding at the simple. However in business, as with almost everything else, it is not the case.

 More specifically it is the ability to do something simple, and not to just do it (as the famous footwear commercial says) but the ability to do it very well, that makes it important. It seems all too often we juxtapose the goal of just getting something done with the goal of getting something done well, and then claim that the complexity was the cause for the performance difference.

 Complexity can neither be a reason nor an excuse for business performance. At the levels which business leaders must operate, there really can’t be that much room for complexity. Financially speaking, business leaders are not being asked to understand differential equations or Fourier analysis techniques. It is the simple concepts of Profit and Loss that we need to know. Are customers satisfied or not, and why? Are commitments met? It is the simple that needs to be our focus.

 It is interesting (at least to me) that I have had cause to cite Albert Einstein on several occasions in the past. Einstein is primarily associated with the development in physics of the theory of relativity, and other higher contributions to scientific thought. I seem to find myself applying him regularly to business as well. Maybe that is the definition of a truly smart person (Einstein, not me); they can be applied equally well to multiple fields.

 Einstein said (and this is a direct quote):

 “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

 Remember, Einstein reduced the entire theory of relativity to a single, simple equation:   E = Mc²

 The inference here is that if the theory of relativity can be expressed so simply, there should not be much in business that should either be considered or expressed to be complex.

 Perhaps that is where the complexity issue lies in business. Business currently seems to embrace and value complexity. It seems that some people in business either can’t or won’t expend the effort required to understand issues well enough to make them simple. Linking this back to my friend it would appear that those who can’t get a good enough understanding of the topic are incompetent, and those that won’t get a good enough understanding of the topic are looking to use it as an excuse for their non-performance.

 I think the issue is becoming more and more pervasive in business as we have created entirely new sets of business vernacular to assist in complex explanations of simple topics and issues. For example, now instead of having a “strength”, we now have a “core competency”. The definition of competency (according to Websters) is adequacy. Instead of being strong we are now merely adequate? If it is not core, it must be peripheral. Is there even such a thing in business as “peripheral competencies”, and if so, why would you even have them?

 I have digressed, but only in such a manner as to illustrate that we need to understand and accept that the only complexity that leaders have in business is the complexity that they themselves create, accept and impute to the business.

 This sounds somewhat trite even to my own ear as I think it over. And I am sure that there will be many who will think that this is an over simplification of many of the issues facing businesses today. I am also sure that there can be several seemingly complex examples of issues that they will proudly point to and describe as too complex for simple descriptions and solutions.

 But I think I am going to leave the challenge out there anyway.

 I’ll would look to Einstein (since he seems to be generally recognized as a pretty smart role model) and respond by saying that if they can’t describe the problem in more simple terms then they probably don’t understand it well enough yet. I think my friend was on to something in that if people say that they can’t understand it well enough to make the complex problem simpler then it may be time to question their competency to do the work. If they won’t understand it well enough to make it simple, then it actually does sound like they are making excuses for their non-performance of the desired tasks, which would also entail a leadership intervention and action.

 Complexity is something we choose to have in business. We seem to have built up almost a myth around it when it comes to business. We have created new words and methods to make the simple sound, look and even be more complex, and I think business is suffering for it. If we started to look at complexity as a lack of understanding of the issue, an excuse, or even incompetence, I think that we would see things become much simpler, very quickly.

From Anything to Something Specific

I really tried to take a break from putting out anything this week. The problem was that the closer I got to the end of the week the guiltier I began to feel at not writing anything. I tried to convince myself that my public would be disappointed at missing their weekly fix of my views on business and sales, and indeed I actually did get a question from a reader as to where was my post. However, the truth be told, it seems I am a creature of habit, and I am in the habit of providing my views on things, regardless of whether they are appreciated, or even requested, or not.

Oh well.

It was interesting that I wrote about golf last week, and then Tiger Woods announced his return from injury to play in this week’s tournament. This is a little bit interesting on several levels. First it is always interesting to have Tiger Woods in the field at a golf tournament. Love him or hate him he does draw interest. For me it’s a little bit more than that. Tiger Woods has always had a game plan whenever and wherever he plays. His preparation is the stuff of legend. In essence he plans his work and then works his plan. And he seems to do it better than just about anyone else. He has set the standard, whether it is on his recoveries or in standard execution.

Except this time. He acknowledged that he was not in optimal playing condition and has not prepared and practiced as he has before on previous recoveries, and that he was going to “play himself into shape”.

Many attribute this decision to the proximity of the next major golf tournament and Tiger’s pursuit of the record for the most major wins in a career. If this is truly the case then his latest move in returning to golf in a relatively unprepared state has a certain air of desperation around it and desperation in any endeavor, be it golf or business, is a cause for some amount of speculation and concern.

The same type of speculation and concern applies for businesses that are attempting a comeback from issues of their own. Businesses very seldom find themselves in any sort of difficulty as the result of a single event. Tiger hurt his back and had surgery. I am hard pressed to mention a similar type of singular event where as the result of it a business finds its ability to perform to be fully in question. Businesses don’t hurt their backs and have surgery which then require them to execute an immediate comeback plan.

The more usual reason that businesses find themselves in trouble is due to an inattention to the fundamentals of the business or the trends in the market. These types of issues tend to compound themselves over time and culminate with a “sudden” realization that there is a problem. With the realization that there is an issue comes the first reaction to desperately seek a quick solution.

I think it is fair to say that since most business issues did not result from an abrupt sort of event, quick solutions to the problem are not going to be easily implemented or particularly successful in resolving the issue. But that doesn’t seem to stop many businesses from at least trying them.

The two quickest solutions to business issues normally boil down to two simple approaches: Sell more, and Cut costs. Sometimes both solutions are attempted at the same time. Surprisingly enough, I think that these are probably the correct approaches, but that trying to apply them too quickly may only make the problems worse.

Just as many people are concerned that Tiger Woods’ trying to make a comeback from surgery so quickly might cause further injury to his back, making things worse.

There is an old saying in business: “You cannot cut your way to prosperity”. I think this is true. You may have to cut your way to survival, but you can’t cut your way to growth. With that in mind I am going to focus more on the “Sell more” aspect of businesses’ desperate responses to issues.

Too many times a business that finds itself in a recovery mode institutes a “Sell more” sales drive in order to drive incremental revenue, and hopefully incremental margin from it. Unfortunately under these types of circumstances “sell more” many times gets translated into “sell anything”. This usually results in the acquisition of many sales opportunities that do not adequately fit the proper deal profile for the business.

A proper deal profile for a business includes consistent, attainable deliverables; repeatable business products and functions that do not drain or strain business resources, pricing that enables contributory margins and profitability, and contract conditions that do not present onerous hurdles to the success of the engagement. These are the specifics associated with a healthy approach to sales.

Too often a business can get too anxious to rapidly try and recover from an issue that occurred over time. This can result in the “sell anything” approach to business in an attempt to generate revenue to help turn things around. All too often this approach results in lower margin deals and one-off opportunities that in the end not only do not add to efficiencies, but actually detract from them in the longer run. The sell anything approach is a scatter-shot pursuit of a specific solution, and as with most scatter-shot applications it results in far more “misses” than hits.

When a business is in any sort of difficulty, or is experiencing issues, incrementing in a number (large or small) of sales misses to the solution mix does not help. It only detracts from the situation, both in the resources spent ineffectively and the resulting number of sales deals that do not generate the desired or expected returns.

If it is deemed that the issue is sales or market related, and that a new sales direction or approach is required as part of the overall business recover solution, then a specific strategy and approach to new sales is called for. This will help minimize the number of extraneous or non-contributory deals that will be added to the business mix. When there are business issues, everything must be aligned and additive to the business solution. This includes the types and values of the sales opportunities that are pursued.

A business cannot allow the “Sell More” solution to become the “Sell Anything” solution. It will only  prolong the business’s recovery, or potentially even make things worse.

Will Rogers is quoted as saying “When in a hole, stop digging.” We also have the much older and unattributed quote “Don’t just stand there. Do something.” In business it would seem that the equivalent of the first quote might be “When in a hole, start selling”, with the equivalent rejoinder to the second being “Don’t just sell. Sell something specific.”

The idea of focus and discipline never goes out of style in business, even when times are tough, or recoveries are being attempted. Maintaining a focus on selling something specific and resisting the temptation of selling anything available will result in a better solution and stronger business over the longer run, and that is the focus that business needs to maintain.

Tiger Woods is a unique talent. We shall see if the departure from his proven successful preparation process pays off in his recovery attempt. It might pay off for him, but he did miss the cut in his first tournament back, and that is news in and of itself, since he so rarely fails to make the cut. Most of the time it does not pay off for a business to try for a quick recovery that departs from their specific processes either.

Doing the Job

My approach to business has always been that you take the business responsibilities that you are given and that you do the best by them and for them that you can. I can say this unabashedly and with some amount of pride. Sometimes you are given big jobs, and sometimes they can seem relatively small. There have been times when I may have questioned the relative value of some of the aspects of the assignment. This feeling usually stems from the apparent increasing focus and effort associated with the process and format of the reporting of the job verses the effort and focus on what is actually getting done. Regardless of what you are asked to do (within the boundaries of legality and conscience of course) and what you may think the relative value is, in business it has been my understanding that you have the responsibility to complete the assignment you are given.

My question now is: When did this change, and why didn’t somebody tell me?

I try not to be a complainer even though I seem to be sounding (at least to myself) more and more Andy Rooney-esque on some of my topics and in some of my approaches to business. I hope Andy Rooney will forgive me for the comparison. I don’t purport to have either the quality or talent that I feel he had. What I hope I do see, and hope perhaps others may see as well is some sort of fleeting similarity of the common sense approach to the issues and topics that I choose to write about.

What I am discussing here is the idea of why it sometimes seems that can’t we get people to do their jobs, regardless of what their jobs are, in business. Having a job, any job, is not a right or an entitlement. It is a privilege. With the possible exception of our elected officials and representatives (who don’t appear to be answerable for their performance to anyone other than themselves – great gig if you can get it), we must all work at our jobs, and if we hope to continue to work and even advance we must meet certain levels of expected performance. This is a fact of life. We all report to people who have the responsibility to sit in judgment of our performance. Individual contributors report to managers. Presidents report to chief executives. Chief executives report to boards of directors. And ultimately boards of directors are accountable to the stock holders. There is a responsibility chain.

I am not going to delve into any esoteric examination of generational work ethics (Baby Boomers verses Generation X verses Generation Y). I am not going to address cultural differences associated with the relatively capitalistic verses the relatively socialistic environments and economies that businesses must deal with. These may be contributing factors, but I think the underlying issue is that we have allowed our business compass to drift from leadership to management, to the point where we now accept management as a substitute for leadership. We seem to be more willing to manage problems instead of doing what may be necessary, or even called for to deal with them and to solve them.

I have been on conference calls (I have probably been on too many conference calls) in the past where if the topic of the call is boiled down to the basics, the net purpose of the call is to figure out how to get certain people or teams to do their assigned tasks or jobs. These types of conference calls seem to have been occurring with greater and greater frequency over time. Perhaps there is a relationship between the seeming increase in conference calls and the apparent decrease in task completion responsibility. I’ll have to think more about that one, but I digress. My point here is that we actually had multiple people on a call trying to figure out how to get specific groups to perform the tasks that they had been assigned.

Now those of you that know me understand that I am a relatively quiet and un-opinionated person. The rest of you must now understand that if any of the people that really knew me actually read that last statement while drinking anything they would now be cleaning up the results of the coughing fit that the statement induced.

Getting back to the previously mentioned conference call, I couldn’t help myself when it came to the discussion on how to get people to do their assignments. I piped up:

“Did you ask the specific individuals to perform the task?” I asked the group.

“Yes” they said. Okay, this is good.

“Did you tell them what they needed to do, and when it needed to be done?”

“Yes” they said. This is also good.

“Okay, they know what they needed to do, and when it needed to be done and they didn’t do it. How do you feel about that?”

“We are angry and frustrated.” They said.

“So what are you going to do about it?”
“We are going to escalate and have the Sr. Vice President send them an email telling them they need to do their job.”

Now wait a minute. People are acknowledging not doing their job so the solution is to escalate and see if someone else can get them to do their job? When did this shift in management responsibility happen? Leaders don’t escalate or ask others to handle their problems. Leaders take care of their own problems. I was in this deep in the conference call, so I carried on:

“Did anybody tell these people that if they did not perform the requirements of their job that they would be terminated?” I asked. There was a prolonged silence on the call.
“Well, we don’t want to threaten them. We would prefer to take this approach first.”

Wow. In a business world where the speed of change approaches that which would have been considered the stuff of science fiction in the past and the ferocity of competition rivals the descriptions of the battles contained in those science fiction novels, we are at a point where managers must ask their senior managers to take this sort of time and effort to get their people to do what they are supposed to do.

There will always be those people who would prefer to do less instead of more. Fortunately there are also those who would lead and actually do more than is expected of them. The issue here lies in what sort of message is sent to the future leaders when they see that there is no disadvantage to those who prefer to do less. I have discussed incentives in the past and have mentioned that there must always be a metaphorical “carrot and stick” associated with upside and downside performance.

I am a big proponent of carrot or positive incentives to influence people’s actions and activities. On the other hand leaders cannot shirk their responsibilities when it comes to unacceptable performance. Assignments given are meant to be fulfilled. The time to question the assignment is when it is assigned. Once that period has passed it becomes a question of execution. Failure to perform must be reviewed and understood. Once it is understood, it must be dealt with. These are the “stick” incentives. As much as I may dislike them, I understand that without them you risk the building of a business culture of entitlement and management, instead of a culture of leadership.

Sales Experience

It has been said experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want. That may or may not actually also apply to sales experience. If you go into sales and find you like it or are good at it, you probably won’t want to leave sales. In this instance you can get both what you want and experience. It has the potential to be lucrative with its commissions and compensation structures. Sales is the most quantitative of the business disciplines, meaning you know and everyone else knows when you have done well. Even if you decide that sales is not your preferred discipline, spending some time in sales and getting that experience can take your career in a number of different directions, and I think all of them are good.

Good sales people are a rare and valuable commodity. It is the sales team that starts the business process by getting an order for a good or service. A sales vice-president in one of my earlier business assignments had a plaque outside his office door. At the time I thought it was interesting. It wasn’t until later that I realized it was truly accurate. It read:

         “Nothing happens until something gets sold.”

Some of the other business disciplines may have some issues with the sales team. There will be those functions that will be at odds with sales. The finance team will be forever contending with sales over prices and margins associated with the sale. The legal and contracts teams will never be satisfied with the conditions of the sale. Operations will have to deal with delivery and implementation schedules that will be difficult to meet. It is a rare event when sales consummates a deal where everyone is happy with the margins, terms and schedules of the deal.

There will also be those functions that will state that it was their contributions to the sales process that were the true reason for the success. The support functions will say that without their groundwork and efforts sales would not have been able to get the order. Marketing will posit that it is in no small part attributable to their research, positioning and programs that there was any sales success. The development and engineering organizations will always state that it is due to the quality and elegance of the product design and function that sales is successful since the product is so good it almost sells itself. It is not a rare event, in fact it is a very common occurrence for any number of different non-sales groups to step forward and congratulate each other for their roles in a successful sale.

The first question to ask is why do you want to get into sales? There are those who consider sales the home of the peddlers and politicians of the business world.  Those peddlers and politicians are the types of people who do not rapidly garner the respect of many of the other business disciplines. There are also those that consider sales the engine of the organization and recognize its role in driving the organization forward. It has been my experience that there are usually more detractors of sales than there are proponents of sales. You need to get used to that idea.

Spending time in sales will provide you with the perspective of what it actually takes to deal head up with the competition in an effort to get a customer to give you money. Too many times there have been senior management who matriculate to the top of the organization from a financial or engineering or product oriented experience set. You can usually tell these types of senior managers because they will usually do one of two things when it comes to sales: They will fully turn sales loose to manage their own business because they don’t understand the sales process, or they will try to fully or overly control sales because they feel they do fully understand sales (without having had sales experience) and hence want to dictate the sales process for the organization. Neither of these approaches usually works very well.

Getting into sales may not be an easy objective to accomplish. I am not aware of any undergraduate or graduate business degrees that are available in “Sales”. There is marketing, finance, etcetera, even human resources, but not sales. I think that fact in itself, that you cannot get a business degree in sales speaks volumes about the relative view of sales in the pantheon of business disciplines. So knowing this, how do you get into sales?

I don’t think there is any specific or defined method to getting into sales, other than setting sales as your goal and looking at how others have gotten into sales. Depending on the type of business, there will usually be a location or discipline within the organization that sales goes to recruit new sales team members. It may have been the support group, the operations team or even the training organization, but there will usually be a team that is considered the sales training ground. While you may not be able to get directly into sales from wherever you are, you should be able to make the step into the interim group that then enables the next step into sales.

Once into sales, how long do you stay there? If you are good at it you may want to focus your career on sales. The money can be great and the responsibilities will be well defined. While it may be possible to be a leader in the sales organization, there are relatively few business leaders who have come from the sales discipline. While good customer skills are a requisite for both sales and senior management positions, the incremental financial, product and business functional knowledge required to lead a business are not usually associated with sales team members.

So if you are not going to remain in sales, and you also know that it is difficult to become a business leader from the sales discipline, why am I recommending getting some sales experience? Sales is the recognized front end of the business process. It is crucial to generating the top line revenue for the business. The best way to generate a good bottom line is to generate a healthy top line. Experiencing sales from the sales side of the equation will help the business leader understand what sales must contend with from forces both internal and external to the organization. It will also help the leader to understand that sales people are not just peddlers and politicians, selling products that are already so good that they almost sell themselves.


Welcome to my blog. I have often thought of writing about some of my experiences in the business world. I have decided that it is time to do it. Please let me know what you think. Please check back soon for new entries.