Competence

August 15, 2009

Never underestimate the power and value of competence. You could substitute “professionalism” here probably, but I like competence better.

I have to vent a little, as I’ve has a string of personal frustrations lately that their heart are issues of people either not caring or not taking the time to get things right.

Case 1: I return from my lovely vacation at the beach and take my puke-stained mini-van (my 6 yr old couldn’t handle 24 hrs in the car!) to the high end car detailing shop. I wanted the car strip cleaned…I mean really nuke it. I paid >$50 for the interior detail package.

I’m in a hurry, as we had just gotten back and I had to get dinner and run other errands before getting home. I wait 45 minutes, which doesn’t bother me as it’s a big job. I get the keys returned to me and drive home. It turns out the back wasn’t vacuumed (sand everywhere) and a few other visible defects were obvious.

Should I have checked while there? Sure. Should I have to? No.

Competence…

Case 2: We just sold our old house. After a drawn out sales process given the economy, we finally had a buyer. While we were on vacation the check from the deal didn’t clear with me 1500 miles away and relatively helpless to move other money around. I have NEVER in my personal or professional life been so angry. I went crazy with my real estate agent and our closing agent. I ended up unavailable later in the day when people returned my calls, so my wife had to spend 3 hours on the phone with 3-5 different parties to get it squared away.

It turns out the title company mis-printed every check that day. The real issue to me isn’t the mistake. We ALL make mistakes. It’s that we had to literally yell to get any response and that no one in the process would own the case.

Competence…

I hear so much talk about the need to be a “star” and a “leader”, all sorts of aspirational descriptors of wonderfulness. Well, in large parts of my career I’d have settled for people just doing what they were supposed to do.

I want to be clear, that in my world “competent” does not mean average. It means “good” or “professional”. It describes the colleagues who understand their role, do their best most of the time, are practical and focused on the end goal, don’t get too caught up in the silly stuff and (most importantly) are NEVER going to bail before the job is done.

In my program at the Carlson School, I have 5-7 student consultant teams every semester. Teams all do well and we have happy clients, but there’s always “turbulence” on a few teams. I would say the #1 gripey feedback people have about others when things go poorly is lack of commitment and/or follow through. It’s rarely that someone couldn’t do their work, rather that they DIDN’T. And in the worst cases, without any advance notice. Often, all it would take to at least buffer the problem is a little warning and then doing some make-good helping at some later point.

Some people just never get this. They also fail to anticipate the future reputational consequences. You want to be the person everyone wants on their team, not the person no one wants.

I sometimes wonder in what universe it’s OK to just not do what you said you would.

At some point in the murky past my uncle, a successful small town businessman, offered the following (paraphrased) advice. “Stay in one place and be competent and you’ll never have to look for business.” His point was that most people move around too much and/or aren’t as reliable as we might want them to be. (How bad is it that my wife is in love with our deck builder because he returns calls and shows up when he says he will?) If you put both together, you’ll do OK.

It comes down to acting the way we all know we should and yet a lot of people can’t seem to muster:

  1. Do what you say you will.
  2. Follow through. Most of the time, it’s as simple as returning a call.
  3. Be good at what you do.
  4. Care about the result.
  5. Care about the impact of your work & commitments on others.
  6. Be respectful to others.

I could go on, but will stop. I’d encourage you to think about how important it is to be “competent” if you strive to be a star or a leader…or even if you just want respect.


Performing When the Lights Come On

May 3, 2009

This week we began our cycle of final client presentations and I was reminded of the importance of performing well in the meeting. This is another “obvious point from Phil”, but let me elaborate.

You can have the most dynamic, data driven and compelling story in the world. But if you don’t sell it and respond credibly to questioning in the meeting then you’re dead. Don’t forget that your audience is not just buying into your content. They are deciding whether they buy you.

So what can we do to improve our likelihood of success? Let’s break it down into components:

The Presentation

I won’t spend too much time here as I think this is an entire multi-post series. However, a few important points are worth making.

1)     Make sure it looks professional – If you couldn’t take the time to make it appear decent, why should I take time to listen? 

2)     Be sure to have run it by stakeholders for vetting and input (as appropriate) – You don’t want to be surfacing “new” or controversial information in most cases. You want people to be saying “I agree” and “that will work” etc. Particularly if you are looking for a decision in the meeting you need all “Ts” crossed and “I’s” dotted. Any doubts will send you to “take another look at that and we’ll re-consider this…” hell.

3)     Have organized it logically to tell the story you want to convey based on your audience – Make sure the story flows and builds sensibly. Your audience won’t all be at the same place, so be careful to ensure you’ve given enough context or background. If you are building to one conclusion you organize differently than if you have a series of decisions etc. Never jam up your material with lots of junk slides. Feel free to use your appendix liberally. A general rule of thumb on slides is that if you don’t have 2-3 minutes of discussion per slide (on average) then you should push it to the back.  I’ll write more on this in the future.

4)     Don’t fall in love with your research/data. There is a phenomenon called “the curse of knowledge”. It essentially states when you know something too well you have a hard time summarizing it simply for novices. Never forget you have spent hours, weeks or months thinking about some of your material. Your audience has 30-60 minutes. Bring it up to an understandable level of summary. Also exclude unnecessary charts or data that are “cool” but not relevant to your central story. The appendix can be huge and is great for this content. You certainly want people to understand how much work has been done, but don’t want to distract.

The Delivery

As I mention above, if you deliver your content poorly it will die. You may not get eaten up, more likely you will just be ignored. Your ability to “stand and deliver” will have a big influence on your effectiveness.

1)     Be confident. Lack of confidence is a killer. It makes everyone in the room less sure of what you are telling them and raises unnecessary doubts. If you are not in fact confident, figure out how to seem so. As they say, “fake it ‘til you make it”.  The more you do it, the more comfortable you are.

2)     Understand your goals and be disciplined in what you do/don’t say. You can’t be trying to make 26 points. Pick your 2-3 major storyline elements and hammer them. You should not get to the end and have people say “that was great” and not know what they need to do.

3)     Pace your content appropriately for the level of thought and discussion required. If you have 63 slides and need several contentious decisions made then 60 minutes isn’t enough. Sometimes you are asked to recommend, sometimes to facilitate discussion. These are very different goals and require different structure of content and delivery of material. Plan accordingly.

4)     Be prepared for challenges. It’s important to have thought through who will be in the room (stakeholders) and what each person’s likely interests and objections are. Ideally you’re on top of this enough to have adjusted your slides to address this, but either way you need to be able to respond in real time.

5)     Plan potential responses. For the top likely challenges you can build well formulated responses, even including specific appendix slides. It’s very compelling when you can specifically address these types of challenges. First, you demonstrate that you thought of the issue. Second, you carried the thought through to analysis and built content around it. Third, it potentially allows you to show respect to opposing points of view. The act of building content can convey open-mindedness.

My experience is that if you are well prepared for key lines of questioning then you will receive fewer challenges as the presentation progresses. Basically, they’ve bought that you know your stuff and allow you to proceed. If you can’t address the first several challenges…ouch. It’s going to be a long day.

6)     Understand the room & setting you are in. You need to be prepared for all the little details of staging. Are we around a table, are there 5 or 50 people etc.? There isn’t a universal rule for “what’s best” . But you do need to understand the environment you’ll be in to effectively plan your delivery.

7)     Be respectful in responding. If you lose your temper or are casually dismissive of any audience member you severely limit your effectiveness.

8)     Practice. If the first time you’re going through your material is in the moment then you won’t have anticipated many of the pitfalls inherent in your content. Several dry runs turn up both flaws in logic, as well as slide/content mistakes.

9)     Manage your nerves/Have fun! I personally enjoy the “joust” of presenting and persuading, but I still get nervous. Practice helps this. In addition, I’d encourage you to take the attitude that this is your opportunity to show all your work.

There are many other subtle tips to offer, but if you actually work at the advice above you’ll have less pain and more success. A disproportionate amount of career success comes from how well you deliver in these key situations. You want to be building a positive reputation.

Let me know if you have questions or would like me to dig into any of these areas more.


Is the juice worth the squeeze?

April 6, 2009

I’ve always been coached and offered the advice to people to be careful when they take certain actions. Make sure it’s worth it. I recently got a great summary of it when reconnecting with a former boss. He said where he grew up this is called “is the juice worth the squeeze?”

 

In difficult situations, there’s always a temptation to respond impulsively or do what feels good. Whether it’s an email, a “witty” response in a meeting or a significant political position…think it through and make sure the juice is worth the squeeze.

 

A common misperception I see people make all too often is that there are no, or limited, consequences to just saying what we think. This is soooo wrong. There’s a great scene in the godfather where Sonny blurts out a disrespectful and revealing comment to Sollozzo. Don Corleone’s dismissal of Sonny is “Santino, never let anyone outside the family know what you are thinking.” In this case it ends for Sonny at a toll booth in a hail of bullets. I’ll summarize in saying the juice was definitely not worth the squeeze.

 

Obviously, most of our lives are not as dramatic. Nevertheless there are many opportunities to make a poor choice along the way. I’d encourage you to think through in certain situations WHY you would be responding or acting the way you do. My point here is to separate ethics from ego. A few that come to mind are:

 

1)    Making yourself feel better. This is entirely ego and almost always a bad idea. You’ll feel better for seconds…until you feel worse. The downside is generally worse than the few seconds of cleverness you get to enjoy. Not much upside here. The classic example here is emailing angry. Bad choice.

 

2)    Speaking truth to power regarding a likely poor decision. This is more complicated. Ego and ethics can get co-mingled and both sides can believe they are doing the right thing. My counsel is to think carefully. You are probably more able to be somewhat assertive as you are (hopefully) data driven in your concerns, have a fact base to argue from and are smart enough to frame disagreement impersonally. Just think carefully before speaking.

 

3)    Speaking truth to power regarding an ethical concern. This is where things get stickier. You need to think hard before responding and consider whether you completely understand the situation and the implications of acting. Making a major ethical stand can be heroic…or foolish.

 

First, assess the situation. MAKE SURE you have your facts straight and that you are on firm ground ethically. Lots of things can be gray. Being black and white in a gray world can be problematic. Second, be sure you are willing to leave or be marginalized if things go badly. When you fall on your sword, you are impaled. You may not survive so be sure you understand this.  Third, make sure you have assessed the bigger picture. Could you have a bigger impact by swallowing hard, staying and keeping other things on track?

 

4)    Acting in your own vs. others’ self interest. In the end everyone will know if you take care of yourself over others. Your reputation will suffer. Consider the implications before acting.

 

So think through how to respond in difficult spots. I’ll write my next post on how to handle some of these situations wisely to create scenarios where you can do what you think is right without blowing yourself up.

 

There isn’t a right or wrong answer in these areas. It’s up to you to do what’s right for you. Just think it through and make sure the juice is worth the squeeze.


Driving to Yes or No; How to Reach More Rationale Business Investment Decisions

February 23, 2009

Business investment decisions and strategy choices get so complicated. At least we like to make them that way. It justifies the large salaries and tremendous amount of time that goes into PowerPoint slides and Excel models. I’m not really that cynical, but when you’ve sat through as many PowerPoint death marches that end with a recommendation to invest and you’re not sure what you’re investing in, you get a little jaded.

 

In my prior life working on corporate and business unit level strategy at 3M several of us got turned on to the work of Rita Gunther McGrath as well as some excellent work from the Corporate Strategy Board in this area, primarily a 2003-4 report entitled “Strategic Assumptions Prioritization” that focused on Air Products corporation. McGrath is well known for her work on entrepreneurialism and growth. Her 1995 Harvard Business Review article “Discovery Driven Planning” proposed a useful (to those of us who bought in) and compelling model for how to think about prioritizing and shepherding a portfolio of growth opportunities to kill/launch decisions.

 

Often, internal capital allocation decisions and “bake-offs” between ideas can lead to PowerPoint template hell. Lots of disconnected slide or excel workbook templates that only apply to certain opportunities, not to others and the resulting desultory compliance in generating useless “analysis”. We asked ourselves: “how do I make the process genuinely useful and also more ‘fair’ as we looked at unlike opportunities (i.e.: a product vs. a service)?”

 

Based on our research and own internal needs, we devised a process based on several key steps. The first was defining a “reverse P&L/income statement”, the second was documenting the most important assumptions that drove economic success in the reverse income statement and third was conducting research to better understand the accuracy of the key assumptions and refining them as you better understood them. McGrath’s article in HBR nicely describes this and I’ll summarize in a minute.

 

The major shift for the business I was in was institutionalizing this at a business unit level and better preparing executives to challenge teams’ assumptions and also be more equipped to evaluate unlike opportunities fairly in a common process.

 

I’ll summarize the challenges, basic principles and then offer a quick summary of my experience with this at both a business unit strategy level as well as

 

Challenges and rationale

1.      Most business evaluations are set to get you to an ROI or NPV type assessment early on. For truly innovative programs, this is almost impossible. You don’t know what you don’t know. The result is that better understood opportunities (i.e.: “easier” ones) always float to the top.  Air Products (the subject of the CSB report) developed a new method for evaluating these more challenging opportunities.

2.      Many losing propositions get launched and fail for what I think of as “knowable unknowns”. You could have found out cheaply if you had really tried.

3.      Knowing what to focus on can be hard. Everything seems important at first.

 

Principles

1.      Define success as specifically as you can up front. This can mean revenue, profit margin, market share etc. Make it tangible.

2.      Write down all the significant assumptions and then rank their importance and “known-ness” (i.e.: certainty vs. uncertainty) to achieve a loose prioritization.

3.      Build a plan and timeline around the most important assumptions.

4.      Focus research and efforts on cheaply and effectively validating and invalidating these assumptions.

5.      Be creative in finding “proxies” for your assumptions.

6.      Pilot/test ideas quickly to learn about assumptions that can’t simply be “researched”, but do it efficiently.

7.      Never, never, never forget that a good plan with a bad team won’t succeed. Planning is no substitute for talent.

 

Benefits

1.      It much more clearly surfaces the key assumptions for everyone involved. Some programs get killed almost immediately once you agree on a key assumption and it doesn’t pass the “laugh test”. Other “far out” ideas become reasonable when you see the assumptions and say “we could do that!”

2.      This process is good at allowing flexibility across opportunities. Assumptions can be very different and get you to “apples to apples” comparisons.

3.      It forces you to more clearly articulate a “thesis” for the opportunity.

4.      It clearly aligns with gate-based decision processes. If you think generically in three phases (idea, pilot and launch) this gets you through them. An initial list of assumptions w/ a reverse P&L for $100 million may need a brief discussion to get $50K in seed funding to increase confidence that yields $1 million in pilot funding and the pilot will give you clarity on the potential $15 million investment required to scale. The process should be systematically reducing doubt as you move through the process.

 

My next post will be on my experience both at the BU strategy level and as an internal entrepreneur going through the process with a growth venture.


Resourcefulness

November 23, 2008

“Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”

 

Theodore Roosevelt

 

One of the biggest assets you can bring to your career is resourcefulness. It’s easy to say you couldn’t get something done because you didn’t have what you needed. How much better an impression do you leave when you just get it done?

 

I am continually amazed at how effective some people are at just getting it done (and well). I see several key elements in most resourceful people.

 

First, they are all “grinders”. They have the energy to keep going even when it seems like they can’t succeed. These folks aren’t generally satisfied with a “no” or “it can’t be done”.  They just take this as a challenge.

 

Second, they are creative in their own way. Too many people think of creativity as some abstract ability that professional artist, writers and musicians have. To me, any time you solve a problem in a way other wouldn’t have thought of you are being “creative”. You can be a creative administrator if you know how to maneuver through the system to get things done.

 

Third, they generally aren’t whiners. In keeping with the kindergarten motto “you get what you get, so don’t pitch a fit”, they tend to understand context and constraints and don’t complain about things that can’t be helped. (Note, I draw a distinction between “venting” and whining. We all need to vent sometimes, whiners do it all the time.)

 

So let me give you an example.  You are a senior manager at a consulting firm and you have two new consultants.

 

The first one is nice and an OK performer. They come from a top school and had great grades. However, everything they do seems to need a little more correction than seems appropriate. They don’t come to you on a regular basis for feedback and when they do, it’s for questions you think they’ve already answered. They also are very concerned with getting more strategic work and feel they aren’t compensated quite fairly.

 

The second person is a persistently hard worker and asks lot’s of questions. But rarely asks the same one twice. They sometimes make mistakes, but never on things like spell checking or making sure the math in their spreadsheet model is correct. Their mistakes are more creative. They also seem to figure out how to get stuff done. Rather than say “our professional development model” isn’t right, they bring you an idea and say “can I help with this”. They also tend to push your own expectations of your self. You find yourself saying “I wouldn’t have thought of that” when noting how they got something done.

 

Who would you rather have working for you? Or for that matter being working for?

 

Don’t always act like you need more or that someone else needs to help you.  Do the best you can with what you have. “Promotable” people understand context and know that there isn’t usually more budget or time.

 

I am NOT saying never ask for help or more resources. Rather, just understand that they may not be forthcoming and resourceful people get it done regardless of circumstances.