Sun Tzu Was Right

In his book “The Art of War”, Sun Tzu (a 5th century B.C. Chinese general) stated “If you know yourself, and you know your competition, you will never lose a battle” – I hope you don’t mind if I have paraphrased a little.


Sun Tzu speaks about the importance of knowing your own capabilities, whether they are personal, corporate, technological, whatever. You must assess if you have the skill and resources to achieve the desired goal. He also speaks about the importance of knowing your competitors (opponents) capabilities, along the same lines.


He also talks about taking into account the terrain, climate and intangibles when preparing for war / competition. These ideas can be roughly analogous to the market, the economy and the morale/status of your team.


What he does not say is that if you take these things into account that you will win. What he does say is that you will not lose. What this means to me is that after these reviews, you need to pick your battles and your objectives. Analyze the risk and the return. If after review you find yourself at a significant competitive or market disadvantage, it may be best not to engage in that competitive environment.


Use the analysis of yourself, your competitors, and the various markets to choose those opportunities where your probabilities of success are highest. It sounds simple enough. It should be simple enough. To use a modern day analogy, it’s like blocking and tackling in football. But as we have seen in football, the basics are not always that simple based on the high level of talent and competition out there, and even then it takes a significant amount of practice to get  the basics right.

Disagreements Are Good

I have heard it said “If everybody says it’s so, then the chances are very good that it is really not so”. I think this is another way of saying that if everybody agrees, then you have a problem. Healthy disagreement within a team is a desirable condition as long as it is handled properly.


When putting together your team it is easy to get lulled into the comfort of bringing on “Known Quantities” and friends. A problem that this situation can generate is complacency and a lack of diverse thinking.


Issues and problems need to be looked at from many vantage points before the best solution can be generated. Different people with different perspectives will provide this. Just as “sales” people will invariably generate a sales solution, “finance” people will also generate a finance solution. The “best” solution may indeed incorporate aspects of both sales and finance.


With this diversity of thought and perspective will come disagreement. This will be healthy, as long as everyone plays by the rules that:
1. The disagreement is not personal, and
2. The objective is to generate the “best” solution, not “my” solution.


The end result of this team management by disagreement is both a stronger team and a stronger business. “Group Think” and “blind spots” are avoided and the best aspects of all perspectives can be incorporated into running the business. That makes for a stronger business.

Take the Initiative

“If I can just make it through this busy time, I will be able to take a break…” At one time or another we have all either thought it or said it. It is what helped us get through a particular period of increased activity. It was the light at the end of the tunnel…so to speak.

I think what most of us missed in this scenario was that our work load was not increasing above its normal level. It was returning to its proper level.

There are always lulls in the business process. We tend to miss them as they don’t occur all at once. Gradually we find that we have more time to get things done, or drink our coffee, or any number of other diversions. With a little honest self examination you will know if you are working fully up to your potential.

It is at these times when you should take the initiative.

There are always important and significant customers that could use another “touch”. There are always budgets that could use another review, presentations that need to be updated and strategies that need to be revised. There are always things that we wanted to do to improve the business, or at least our portion of it.

In short, don’t relax. Don’t get busy. Get to work.

It’s hard to believe but it will invigorate both you and the team. It helps you maintain the “Act, don’t React” approach to business. Don’t wait for something to happen to drive your activity. Look to drive your activity in order to make something happen. It is not some trite platitude. It will actually work. It might sound a little odd, but taking the initiative to do more during a slower time will help keep the team more focused, and the business will run better.

Play to Your Strength

Management hires people to fill specific roles. If you need a sales person, you look for the best sales person you can find who will be compatible with the other personalities on the team and the overall company culture. You are usually not looking for a combination Marketing, Operations, Service, and Software Developing Sales person. Finding a sales person with these additional traits may be nice, but that does not make them the best Sales person. You are normally looking for depth of capability, not breadth of capability.

Each role will require a leader with a specific strength, be it Sales, Marketing, Finance, etc. Understand what your strength is and play to it. That does not mean to ignore the other disciplines. To the contrary, they are important and you should try to increase your capabilities in those areas. You should build your capabilities in your non-core disciplines by trying to surround yourself with people whose strengths lie in disciplines outside of your core strengths.

We all like to think that we have few if any weaknesses. This may be true. The point is that not everything we have is a strength. A little honest self analysis can help each of us pinpoint our strengths. We all tend to gravitate toward people who have similar personalities and interests. This can cause trouble for an organization. Once we are aware of our own capabilities, we should consciously try to look for people with different capabilities and strengths in an effort to “fill in the gaps” in the organization.

President Ronald Reagan was a leader who recognized as a great “communicator”.  He filled out his cabinet with people who were also recognized as some of the most talented individuals in their specific disciplines (Defense, Treasury, Economy, etc) around. President Reagan was a leader who played to his strength – communicating, but hired to his weakness – the mechanics and specifics of running the most diverse and complex country and economy on the planet. Looking back, it worked pretty well. We enjoyed some of the most prosperous times in recent memory. We would do well to learn from that example.

Write the Objectives AND the Reviews

 We have all been in the position where we have either brought new people into the organization, or have been put into a new role where it was time to write the annual objectives or the annual reviews. If it is the start of the year we are so busy with budgets and getting started that our first inclination is to tell the team members what the objectives are and then ask them to write and submit their own objectives for your review. If it is the end of the year we are so busy with the annual close that we ask them for draft self reviews for the same reasons. Admit it. We have all done it.

When these events happened to me I usually didn’t feel that my management was too busy to do my objectives or reviews. I felt I wasn’t enough of a priority in the organization for them to take the time to do it. I was busy too, but I guessed that someone had to do it and if I wanted a merit increase or a reasonable review that someone would be me.

One of the best ways to help build team commitment is to take the time to write their objectives and show them how their individual objectives and performance apply to the overall team’s objectives. Instead of treating the objective setting and review processes as necessary evils, you can turn them into a real team building opportunity by using them as a true method of communication with each individual team member. It takes more time than any of us would like, but it is the right thing to do.


Everyone wants to know where they stand in the business and how their work is helping and applies to the organization’s  progress. By sharing your objectives, and by taking the time and showing your commitment to the team by writing and reviewing their objectives you can assure both their alignment and commitment as well. When you as the leader demonstrate the importance of both the objective setting and review processes by devoting the time to personally complete them instead of delegating them back to the team, you show the team the value you place on them and the role that each member plays in the teams combined success. It means a lot. I know it did for me when my leaders did it.

Maintain a Healthy Level of Insanity

Many times we have all felt the urge to just sit back and laugh at the apparent insanity or absurdity of a business situation. My advice is to go ahead and do it. You need to find the humor in your job to really enjoy it.

I really enjoyed getting the corporate announcement announcing that there would be no more corporate announcements. (True story). Everyone else thought that was a good one too.

The job is important, and the goals need to be obtained, but it is not life and death. Depending on whom you talk to in the organization it and can be much more important than that. A good sense of humor and the good sense to share it are critical aspects of any job. It will make the tougher times easier to bear, and the better times even more fun. It can also provide a balance to those times and events that are serious.

As the leader it is your responsibility to convey the wishes and directions of the business to your team. It will be your sense of humor that will enable you to remain a part of the team while as the leader you must also remain apart from the team. It will enable the team to see that you also view issues and items from your own perspective, not just the one put forward by the business.

So the next time you get a notice telling you that the corporate training in how to run an effective meeting scheduled to start in 20 minutes will be delayed 30 minutes due to a scheduling conflict regarding the availability of the meeting room (another true story), be sure to share it. You could probably use the laugh, and so could the team.

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.