Don’t Get Comfortable

We are all aware that the business environment is changing. We should all know that it is constantly changing. What we may not be aware of is that the rate of change in the business environment is increasing. Things are changing at an increasingly faster rate. These facts have led me to the following rule:

If you are comfortable doing what you are doing, you are probably doing it wrong.

Change does not breed comfort.  As you spend more time in your new leadership role, you learn its requirements and you get more comfortable. It is this “comfort level” that we all strive for that we should also be prepared to avoid. As the leader we can either react to change or we can lead it, but either way change is bound to occur.

Change requires effort. Those businesses that lead change force other businesses to react to it. As I have said, change causes discomfort. You have to learn a whole new set of requirements. However, I have found that it is almost always more preferable (and less stressful) to go through the change and learning process on your own terms instead of reacting to someone else’s.

As the leader you can either act on your own changes (new plans, processes, programs, organizations, etc.) in order to improve your business, or you can react to someone else’s changes as they try to improve theirs. In many cases you will need to change for both purposes. This may seem like a pretty simple view of things, but it is probably a pretty accurate description of the current business environment.

The point is that if you are too comfortable in your job, there is a good chance that you are not changing as either an action or reaction to the environment, and that will be a cause of even greater stress and discomfort in the future.

It Should be “Buy and Try” Not “Try and Buy”

Customers associate value with items that they pay for. If they don’t have to pay for it, then they assume it has no value. I think that this is another of the immutable laws of sales.

We have all heard of and potentially even tried to use the old “try and buy” closing technique. This is when you provide the customer the product for free, and at the end of some period of time they should be so enthusiastic about the product that they can’t help but pay you for it. While this may work for smaller ticket items, I have found that its success rapidly diminishes as the cost and sophistication of the product increases.

The view here is that if the customer believes that the product is free, for whatever period of time, then it has no value at least for that specific period. If the customer has no commitment to the trial process (in the form of committed money for the cost of the product) then there is no commitment from them to actually using the product to fairly ascertain its value. The key point here is that if the seller puts no value on their own product, why should the customer put any value on it.

The solution is to get the customer to put “some skin in the game”. They have to commit something of value – money – to the “trial”. Their time is nice but it is not good enough. The approach should be for them to buy the product for a period of time and if it does not perform to certain specifications, then it can be returned with a minimal restocking fee. Again a restocking fee, or a de-installation fee, etc, is important. As much as we would all like it (customers included) nothing is for free and the customer must understand that there is at least a small risk if the trial is a failure.

By implementing a “buy and try” sales process you can reduce the customers perceived risk and exposure associated with the product purchase while making sure they are committed to its use. It is in effect providing them with a fully paid grace period. If the product is sound, the service good and the relationship strong, it should also provide an effective way to close the deal.

Read the Classics on Management

As we moved up the management chain I was always interested in what were the sources of information on how to better manage, and how to be a better manager, that people were reading. I wanted to understand them and to do well too. I suspect that I was not too unique in this respect. As a matter of course I read several of the management books that were popular during various periods. I won’t name them, but I came to refer to them as “Management Techniques De Jour”, much along the same lines as soup de jour at a restaurant.

I started looking for management texts that had endured a little longer than their time on the best seller list. After a while I finally found a few. You may have heard of some of them, and all of them are quite old. However, I have found all of them to deliver valuable insights into some of the various aspects of management and leadership. I’ll share some of them here:

1.       The Art of War, by Sun Tzu. A relatively short book written in 500 B.C. (yes, that is 2500 years ago) by a Chinese general, who was never defeated in close to 100 campaigns. It is an excellent source on the topics of leadership and strategy, two key aspects of successful business management.

2.       The Book of Five Rings, by Miyamoto Musashi. Another relatively short book written in the early 17th century (yes, that is 400 years ago) by a Japanese Samurai who is credited with creating an entirely new method and school of sword fighting (kendo). It provides great insight on the importance of knowing ones craft, skill, timing and spirit.

3.       The Prince, by Niccolo Machiavelli. Written in the 16th century (yes, that is 500 years ago) by an Italian nobleman and politician, it deals (sometimes very uncomfortably) with the aspects of leadership, power and politics.

4.       The Art of Worldly Wisdom, by Baltasar Gracian. Also written in the 17th century, but this time by a Spanish priest. This is a collection of 300 aphorisms on how to approach life and interpersonal relationships.

There are many more out there, but these are some of the best, and most famous. Don’t read them with an eye to how they are written. Read them with an eye toward how they may be applied today, in the business world we must operate in.

If you have any other books that you might like to add to this list, I would be interested to hear them.

The Value of “No”

Throughout our careers I am sure we have all had instances when we wished we had said something other than what we actually did say. For me these “I wish I had…” events normally revolved around saying something other than “No” to a request, when “No” was the right answer.

The value of saying “No” is a very underrated concept. There is a book, “The Art of Worldly Wisdom” by a seventeenth century Spanish monk by the name of Baltasar Gracion, that is a collection of three hundred aphorism’s that are designed to help one make their way in the world and achieve distinction. It is amazing how much of a document written close to four hundred years ago is still applicable.

In his book Gracion deals with the idea of saying “No”. He says: “Know how to say “no”. You can’t grant everything to everybody. Saying “no” is as important as granting things, especially among those in command. What matters is the way you do it. Some people’s “no” is prized more highly than the “yes” of others: a gilded “no” pleases more than a curt “Yes”…..”

As you can see being able to say “No” has been a recognized issue for at least 400 years, if not more. Gracion points out that no one can do it all, but how you say “No” is important. Too firm, or too often and people may not come back to ask you again. The rule of saying “no” can be applied with our business and customers and in other aspects of our lives as well.

Delivering satisfaction, be it to the Board of Directors, senior management, or to customers requires that we set expectations appropriately. By not saying “No” when appropriate, you can be construed as having provided a tacit “Yes”. This may result in an unattainable level of expectation, and a considerable level of dissatisfaction, which is a particularly bad situation to be in when it comes to your customers.

Require Answers

One of the ways most of us made our way up the corporate ladder was to be able to answer the tough questions, and find solutions to the difficult problems. It is interesting in that the result of the problem answering capabilities that enabled most people to become leaders and executives also resulted in their moving to management levels that were farther and farther away from where the problems were. Executives must evolve from “go to” problem solvers to leaders who groom the next generation of “go to” problem solvers.

As an established problem solver it is easy to stay in that mode as an executive. Members of your team will bring you the problem and you will establish the direction or answer it. This is not the way to go. As you have moved up the ladder you have moved away from the line issues and problems. You have experience on how to deal with issues of the type you will hear about, but you are not on the line for that specific issue.

The way I dealt with this situation was straight forward. I told the team that I was reasonably aware of most of the major issues in the business. What I needed from the team was workable answers to the issues. The rule was then put in place that anybody could come and talk to me about any issue they had in the business as long as they also brought at least one workable answer.

This move enabled me to learn all that was going on, while providing some guidance and experience on the implemented solutions. It seemed to work very well. It enabled those that were directly involved with and closest to the issue to suggest solutions (which is always a good idea) and it provided the opportunity to have a check and balance (prioritization) based higher level business needs.

It also trained and groomed the next generation of problem solvers (line of succession) for the business, which helped create a stronger business.

Tough Job = Good Opportunity

I remember the first time management came to me and said “We have an opportunity and a challenge for you…”. This is normally a phase to be dreaded and feared, or so I thought. I was being given a new assignment. It was a tough job in a division that had not been doing very well.

A friend and mentor of mine at the time took me aside and told me “Congratulations”. I asked him what he meant. We all knew that this division was a mess and that this was a very tough job. He then told me something that has stuck with me to this day. He said:

“Never be afraid to take a tough job. By stepping in with a plan and working hard, you can only improve the situation.”

He was right. Tough jobs are in fact career opportunities. Don’t shy away from them. Look for them. Creating a plan and then putting in the work is what turns tough jobs into great jobs.

It took some time but the first tough job assignment did get turned around. It led to more and larger opportunities. It provided the opportunity to explore facets of business that you would not normally get to by taking the “easy” jobs. It increased my value to the company. It taught me to enjoy a challenging position. I still do to this day.

Know the Numbers and Sales

Once I had attained executive level, I was frequently asked to conduct new hire orientation classes. I didn’t know if it was because no other executives wanted to do it or if it was because of the way I had come up through the ranks. Looking back I suspect it was because no one else would do it.

Regardless, I did take the responsibility seriously. At the end of the session, I would always ask for questions. The question I got most frequently was: “How did you become and executive so quickly, and what do we need to do to accomplish the same?” I came up with a two part answer. I think it still applies.

First I would tell people that they needed to spend some time in sales. It is hard to understand just how difficult it is to compete with other sales teams to get customers to give you money (orders) unless you have done it for a while. It will give you a perspective on the market from the inside out.

The second thing I would say is learn the numbers. As you progress up the corporate ladder, more and more of your communication and information revolves around the tabulated financial data. You have to understand how the metrics interrelate and how to affect them.

Doing this won’t guarantee your success in the corporate world, but it will help you to understand why it works and acts the way it does, and that is the first step to success.


When I was an undergraduate I studied Physics. Don’t ask me why. I am not sure I know.

This study of hard science taught me a couple of concepts that also seem to apply to business. The first of these concepts was that of Momentum.

A simple scientific definition of momentum is the tendency of a body at rest to remain at rest, and a body in motion to continue in motion. The way to change momentum is to apply a force.

In business in many cases it seems to be easier or less risky to continue to do what has been done before, or to continue moving in the direction that things have been moving before, instead of doing something new. This is momentum. In a business’ momentum is the reason that marketing programs continue beyond their designated times (and stop affecting customer or competitor behaviors), and why products linger for longer than they should (and attract more and more costs associated with continuing to sustain them verses the revenue they generate) and why you are still getting reports on the value of your yellow pages adds instead of information on the number of hits on your web site.

In looking at a business it is always good to look at what type of work that is being done. Why are certain things being done or continuing to be done, and others not. Invariably the answer tends to be “momentum”. Things are being done a certain way because that’s how they were being done before. There was no external action or force that was applied to change things, so they just continued on in the same way.

The market (and the world) continually changes. Businesses must continually take action to meet this change. The most obvious example of this is the development and introduction of new products and services to meet this change. However, momentum usually rears its head in the form of using older or “tried and true” processes and methods of doing the associated work.

Just like product life cycles dictate that older products need to eventually be discontinued in order to make room for new ones, the processes and work within a business must also be continually reviewed. In this way outdated processes and what is usually referred to as “busy work” can be discontinued to free up the resources to do new things and create new processes to meet the changing market. Without this type of work review, the momentum (the tendency to continue motion in the direction it had been going) of business will eventually have moved it to the point where work is being done that no longer serves the purpose and provides the value it once did.

A good leader must be the force that is applied to a business that changes its momentum. Stop doing work that no longer needs to be done, and start doing the new things that the changing environment requires.

Demand To See Customers

Customers like to see the boss. This is pretty much one of the immutable laws of sales.

The leader of the business should also be the lead salesman. Good leaders should want to see their customers as often as possible. Building that relationship and trust is a key to long term customer retention, growth, and profitability. Demand that the sales team take you out to see the customers.

These are some of the most important people in the world. These are the people that give you money. Understand what type of relationship they have with the sales team. Understand how they want to be dealt with by your business. Learn about them. Work directly with them.

Some times the sales team may seem to be a little reticent to take you to see “their” customers. That’s okay. You are an unknown (initially) when it comes to working with their customers. Demand to go anyway. The business will be better and stronger for it.

If you don’t go, your competition’s sales force will probably be bringing their leadership team out to see your customers, and soon they may not be your customers anymore.

Walk Around

I always learned more about what was happening in the business by walking around the office, than by any other method. Staff meetings were fine. Monthly, and in some cases weekly reports were okay. The best way for me was by walking around.

Walking around the office serves a couple of purposes. Teams invariably like their leaders to be visible. They also like to feel their leaders are approachable. If you are out in the aisles talking to anyone and everyone, not just your direct reports, you are all this and more. You are a visible member of the team.

Engaging the team in their space, not in your office or a conference room, put them more at ease. They seemed to open up more. It was a conversation, not a report. It was more of a peer to peer exchange. It was less of a superior to subordinate interrogation.

It worked.

If you need to know what is happening on a deeper level, don’t call people into your office to ask them. Get up and walk over to their area to see them. Sit down and start a conversation. You’ll be surprised how much you can learn just by walking over.