Judy Dobles, General Management Consulting

YOUR TOUGHEST BUSINESS CHALLENGES SOLVED.

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  • As leaders we are a model of inspiration for our staff. How do we find constant renewal to keep us fresh when it is so very easy to fall into the rut of comfortableness? How do we push ourselves to remain on the steep part of the learning-curve.

    For me it has always been about reading books. While I do have all-time favorite leaders, bloggers and courses, books can be savored at my pace. They also allow me time for personal reflection. As I read concepts, I ask myself how I measure up. By being brutally honest with myself, I discover opportunities to improve. Books are the best way for me to keep my knowledge fresh.

    While I think most of the books I read are good, every once in a while you discover an absolute gem. In those cases, I have purchased copies for my leadership team and we have discussed the chapters together during staff meetings. The biggest lesson we learn is that we are in charge; we need use our knowledge and judgment to determine the best path forward. We hold the answers within ourselves and do not need to turn to the “experts” or “teachers”.

    Another huge benefit is engaging with the team and individuals. Sharing the key points and concepts with others brings them into the decision making loop and demonstrates that you value their opinions. It also role models the critical behavior and responsibility of “keeping yourself current” and up-to-date. A leader’s role is not to tell people what to do, but rather help them discover the right path on their own. Or as Galileo said, “You cannot teach a man or woman anything; you can only help them to find it within themselves.”

    In the end, my dilemma is not finding a book to read, but choosing a book; there are so many great ones to choose from. Here are some of my recent favorites:
    Coach Wooden’s Leadership Game Plan for Success: 12 Lessons for Extraordinary Performance and Personal Excellence, by John Wooden, Steve Jamison
    Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation is Changing Your World, by Don Tapscott
    Being Strategic: Plan for Success; Out-think Your Competitors; Stay Ahead of Change, by Erika Andersen
    Unleashing Excellence: The Complete Guide to Ultimate Customer Service, by Dennis Snow, Teri Yanovitch
    Exceptional Service, Exceptional Profit: The Secrets of Building a Five-Star Customer Service Organization, by Leonardo Inghilleri, Micah Solomon, Horst Schulze

    Share one of your favorites.

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  • I love to read books and always have two or three in progress. The last one, “Coach Wooden’s Leadership Game Plan for Success”, was filled to the brim with leadership lessons. It reminded me why coaching is the vital element of success for leaders. You cannot do the work alone. You need the hearts and minds of everyone on your team. Coaching becomes the method for providing continuous learning and growth for all staff.

    My favorite quote from the book is, “Never be satisfied. Work constantly to improve. Perfection is a goal that can never be reached, but it must be the objective. The uphill climb is slow, but the downhill road is fast” (Jamison, Wooden 53). It illustrates wonderfully the work of a coach.

    As leaders, we have the power to provide the best learning experiences for our staff each and every day. They are not classes and seminars, but rather the time that a supervisor or colleague takes to show you how to improve a task you have been working on. It is also the opportunity you take personally to ask for feedback. Constant learning, woven into the fabric of your daily work, makes it exciting. You are personally growing and can take on increasingly complex challenges.

    Doing an excellent job and being satisfied are two different things. My staff was highly capable and delivered exceptional work. We all know, however, that the business environment and competitive landscape are constantly changing. In order to adapt, every day must be seen as an opportunity to learn something new about our processes, outputs and our client expectations. This is the work of continual improvement. It means having confidence in the quality of your work but never being satisfied. It means knowing improvements can be made and constantly searching for them. The staff took advantage of all conversations to ask what would have made the output even better, the process easier or made it possible to further reduce defects.

    Improvement is a daily habit. It is the sum of paying attention to the details and little things discovered every day that point to improvement opportunities. The end result was a team that was enthusiastic and delivered outstanding performance. They enjoyed learning and expanding their horizons every day. They knew they would make a significant difference.

    If you are looking for an inspiring leadership book, pick this one up. I’d love to have you share your favorite leadership book.

    Works cited:
    Jamison, S., Wooden, J., Coach Wooden’s Leadership Game Plan for Success. San Francisco, California: McGraw-Hill., 2009. Print.

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  • Many times when teams work on solving challenges, ideas are put forward that can be polar opposites in many ways. As a result the team divides and cannot create a workable solution. As a leader, the way forward lies in finding a middle path between opposites.

    As a member of over 15 leadership teams during my career I have experienced times when teams were divided over certain issues and required actions. The differences can be summarized as follows: more control, less control; in-source, out-source; centralize, de-centralize; include more people, include fewer people; skill required, skill not required and more policies, less policies. Although there was validity to each side of the issue, you can see they were polar opposites. As a result the teams found themselves unable to move forward due to lack of agreement.

    At this point, let’s recall the story of Goldilocks. Goldilocks finds the all the items of Baby Bear – much too small, she finds all the items of the Papa Bear – much too big. Then looking at Mama Bear’s items – she finds they are just right. Use your imagination and consider the analogy to business. Goldilocks found a workable solution in the middle; one that was just right. In business, a leader can assist a team to find the right answer by blending and balancing two opposing points of view.

    Let me share an example. At one point, Travel and Expense Accounting reported to me. In my company there were 8,000 travelers, which resulted in many expense reports every year. The process was audited annually. During a visual inspection of perhaps 1,000 expense reports, one report with an inappropriate expense of $100 was found. As a result the audit department stated that it was mandatory that all expense reports be reviewed by the Travel and Expense Accounting group, of roughly 2 people. Our company had automated the entire expense report processing and required the supervisor’s signature prior to payment. Our supervisors did a pretty good job in “policing” the expenses. Expenses from the air carriers and AMEX pre-populated the expense report. Exception reporting software was also used. Although we knew errors would never be 100% eliminated, we knew they were minimal.

    The recommendation of the auditors would have required that we hire additional people. However, we knew that the cost of the salaries would exceed the savings of “inappropriate expenses”.

    Theoretically, the audit recommendation was correct. However, practically it made no sense. In the end, the middle ground agreed to was that bi-annually we would send out a gentle reminder note to all supervisors regarding their responsibilities relative to checking and approving expense reports. This made a lot of sense since you have new people joining the company and individual’s becoming supervisors during the year, who may not get the training needed.

    In summary, my role was to work with the internal auditors, Travel and Expense Accounting and Controllers to come up with a workable solution that everyone could agree to. When you recognize the validity of everyone’s point of view, you can help the team find a solution that is “just right”.

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  • As a leader, I believe it is imperative that you ask people to bring the data. I am sure that you have experienced a situation where something has “gone wrong” and everyone has an opinion. Everyone knows who or what to blame. And certainly, everyone thinks their opinion is correct.

    In situations such as these, I ask people to state crisply and clearly what they believe the situation is. They also know that I expect to have data that supports the issue or the cause for concern. Without that, there will be no discussion. I will gently turn them out of my office until they get the data.

    Why do I feel so strongly about being data-based? From my quality training, one statement is etched in my brain: “A point does not a trend make”. It is human nature to take one event, and draw conclusions. Those conclusions invariably are wrong. The result is time and effort wasted. Let me illustrate with an example.

    I was helping an organization with their call center operations. Initially, I received a few phone calls from corporate stating “no one is answering the phones”. This conjures up an image of 15 – 20 people sitting around with their feet on their desks doing nothing, while all around you hear the cacophony of phones but no one answering. Sitting on the floor with the team, I can assure you that never happened. I asked how they knew no one was answering calls. Did they have data? Oh, no data, a customer just called and told me.

    The beauty of the situation was the company had great telephony that captured the incoming calls, call times, wait times and dropped calls. They also had a daily staffing chart. The call center manager and I defined the situation as follows: in some cases a customer calls and cannot get through to customer service. Definitely, it is an issue that must be solved. However, it cannot be solved by just “telling people” – be sure to answer the phone. We needed to understand what was happening; we needed to see the data.

    A group of us huddled together, and determined to create the following:
    • Histogram of calls, in 15 minute increments for the last 4 weeks.
    • Chart of people working in 15 minute increments for an entire week. [This did not change by week.]
    • Chart of the number of dropped calls in 15 minute increments.
    • Histogram of the length of calls, and the average length of a call.
    • List of all one-off actions during this time, such as the launch of a new product or the mailing of a brochure.

    Once the data was assembled, we reviewed the data. The graphs made the issues easy to see visually. We found both daily and weekly patterns in the timing of the incoming calls. Not surprisingly, call volume was not a straight-line. There were peaks and valleys. However, in general, staffing was a straight-line. It was also apparent that when a significant communication touched the customers, call volume also increased.

    So, with the help of the staff, we created a weekly staffing document that more closely matched the call volume. We continued to monitor dropped calls, and found that they significantly decreased. The team agreed to chart the data on an on-going basis to ensure the customers were getting the service they deserved.

    The benefit of listening to the data to it is twofold:
    [1] It builds trust between teams and individuals. It takes the emotion out of conversations when something goes wrong. No longer are two teams pointing fingers at each other. Rather, they are working together to figure out what is going on and fix it.
    [2] It allows the team to see what is happening in the process. It pin-points the real issue and allows them to develop a workable solution.

    Without the data, the team would never have figured out what was going on. They could never have developed a solution. The lesson of the story is: find the data, it will always help you discover the root cause and develop a lasting solution.

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  • “The only thing constant in life is change.” François de la Rochefoucauld (1613 – 1680)

    In reading the multitude of media sources, which bombard us daily, we know the rate of change is ever increasing. Even with this knowledge many people still are surprised and angered when they need to start over and re-invent themselves. It hits the over 40 crowd and the under 40 crowd, no one is immune. Any time you start to feel comfortable you are at risk. To me, being comfortable means you are on the flat part of the learning curve and no longer growing.

    When you are faced with the need to re-start your career or start-over what should you do?

    To embrace change you have to let go of the old comfortable patterns. To do that you must grieve before you can move on. Change involves loss at some level. During my college years I had to read the book “On Death and Dying”, by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. Initially this was focused on the medical community and the death of a loved one. She later expanded this concept to apply to any form of catastrophic personal loss or tragic news. The loss of a job is tragic news for the person impacted. As an individual you need to “grieve” for your job and the circumstances you find yourself in. Although it is important to recognize the emotions you are experiencing you cannot wallow in self-pity. The process may not be linear, but you need to go through all the steps.

    To adapt to change you need to understand the 5 phases of grief, acknowledge your own personal emotions and then move on. I clearly remember the time when I realized that my dream job was not going to last forever. The Fortune 500 company I worked for would stop growing and employment levels would decline. Since 1980, the decline has been drastic; 120,000 to 17,000, an 85% reduction. However, I knew that if I did not take charge of my emotions and career, no one else would. It was important to see change as an opportunity not a set-back. I personally allowed myself 24 hours to grieve. That is a bit short, but again, you cannot dwell on the negative. It does not move you forward.

    Listed below are the 5 stages of grief, developed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross.

    1. Denial: “This can’t be happening, not to me.”
    2. Anger: “Why me? It’s not fair!”; “How can this happen to me?”; ‘”Who is to blame?”
    3. Bargaining: “I’ll do anything, can’t you stretch it out a year?”
    4. Depression: “I’m so sad, why bother with anything?”
    5. Acceptance: “It’s going to be okay.”; “I can’t fight it, I may as well prepare for it.”

    Additional background can be found on this site, as well as many other websites.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/K%C3%BCbler-Ross_model

    How can you use this information to help with the initial question?
    As an individual, recognize that change is part of life. Take charge of managing your career. Pay attention to what is going on in the economy overall. Learn how to grieve, let go and move on.
    If you are a supervisor understand that employees need to take time to internalize change. Acknowledge and accept that they will experience a variety of emotions. Help them with their journey.
    The future will come, whether we plan for it or not.

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  • Perusing the internet recently, there appears to be a lot of energy around improving meetings. Atomic Object is holding stand-up meetings to help speed them along – which I heartily endorse. While participating in conversations, the topic of meetings frequently comes up and not in a favorable light. So what can be done about it? Here are 7 easy steps that can be used immediately.

    [1] The leader of the meeting must have a clear and specific stated purpose for the meeting which should be shared ahead of time with all attendees. If that does not exist, there is no sense in holding the meeting.

    [2] There should be an agenda which is published ahead of time. Each agenda item should note who will lead the discussion, what the end result of the discussion will be and approximately how long the agenda item will take. The length of the meeting should be determined by the length of each agenda item. If you need 40 minutes, plan for that. Not 30 minutes or 60 minutes, which seem to be standard default duration for meetings.

    [3] Pre-work may be required on the part of the attendees. Ensure they are aware of it and have the proper time to prepare.

    [4] Use an action register. Meetings should not be just information sharing. There are many other ways to do that. The entire point of holding a meeting should be for people to work together and accomplish something. However, all work cannot be done at once. There will be action items and the action register allows proper follow-up. An action register contains: the action item, the person responsible for the action, the date assigned and the due date.

    [5] Create meeting ground-rules everyone can agree on. This brings order to meetings and opens the door for useful participant feedback during the meeting. Having the team create their own set of ground-rules builds camaraderie and trust. Some of my favorite ground-rules are:
    • I will only make statements that add value and stick to the purpose at hand.
    • I will behave openly with others.
    • I will focus on a one-conversation concept.
    • I will look for “how we can” rather than “why we can’t.”
    • I will honor my commitments.
    • I will offer alternative proposals to those things with which I disagree. But when I leave the room I will support the majority.

    [6] The chairperson must be a leader during the meeting. They are ultimately responsible for keeping the session on track. They need to know when to speed things along and when to give more time to a topic than was originally allocated. They need to ensure participants are full participants, not texting, playing Angry Birds or otherwise multi-tasking.

    [7] Appoint a note-taker and publish the notes right after the meeting. Meeting notes should be a summary of decisions and actions decided upon in the meeting. It is extremely helpful in the case of weekly team meetings. It allows people that could not attend to quickly get up to speed. The note-taker can be a rotating responsibility.

    In summary, meetings are a necessary part of the business world. However, they must be crisp, concise and to the point. If you do not like how meetings are being run, use this list to make some suggestions. I think it will be appreciated by all attendees.

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  • Recently, I have read with interest several posts about e-mail and how much of it is a waste of time.  The posts “griped” a lot about e-mail but failed to address the fundamental issue.  Supervisors must help their teams solve e-mail overload.  The role of supervisors is to understand the day-to-day operational issues facing their teams and, once understood, take the action necessary to solve them.

    To illustrate this point, I would like to share a real example from my time as the Regional Finance Director of Europe for a Fortune 500 company.  There were 500 people in the organization and I had 20 direct reports, representing every western European country.

    At one staff meeting, the topic of what an enormous waste of time email was came up.  The team agreed they wanted to tackle it.  I could have passed it off to the CIO or another senior executive but they have bigger fish to fry.  It was an issue for the finance organization and me.

    So, one person and I got together for 1 hour to develop a path-forward which would be approved by the regional finance leadership team [my 20 direct reports].  Although the e-mail issue was quite irksome, it did not warrant a separate workshop with a lot of people in attendance.  We created a list of e-mail issues, personal actions to take and permissions to be granted which was shared at the next team meeting.  With a few minor tweaks, we were committed to implementing our new guidelines.

    Here is a sampling of what we implemented and communicated through-out our organization.  My guess is with a few additions of your own, you would quickly have something that could make an impact on your organization tomorrow.

    Name and description of e-mail issue Individual commitment to action Permission granted by me, as regional finance director – meaning I take the heat if anyone got upset
    PING-PONG: The need to forward notes back and   forth between people resulting in very long notes that are hard to decipher If you are starting to reply for the second or third time, pick up the phone instead. Ok to reply back that you need to talk in person and will not reply via e-mail.
    RAMBLING PROSE:   A note that is written   in the stream of consciousness format, electronic babbling, no clear structure or purpose Start immediately composing notes clearly.  State the   purpose and action requested. Be brief.    Outline  facts crisply and clearly. List alternatives. Make it easy for reader understand it. Ok not to read the note.  You should not have to spend oodles of time figuring out something that the sender did not have time to organize.  Pick up the phone and call the sender or politely ask the sender to resend in a clear fashion.
    TELL   EVERYONE: the need to copy in many people, most of which do not need it and waste time reading it or worse, reacting to it Use .cc sparingly,  if the issue is critical it is probably better to have a quick 10 or 15 minute teleconference If you are on a .cc list, it is OK to toss the note right into the trash.  Either you need to take action or you  don’t.  If not, the day is too short to   read things that might be interesting but not germane to the work at hand.  I personally told my staff that I would throw away any and all notes where I was on the .cc list.  Ask yourself this, do you read each and   every piece of mail that you get at home?
    IT’S A BAD DAY   SYNDROME: using   words in a note that you would never say to someone in person.  These notes upset the receiver and cause them to lose focus on the issue at hand. If you have a negative   message that needs to be delivered, do it in person or over the phone.  Keep your notes fact based. If you are “upset” by a note do not respond immediately. In this case, as the leader of the organization I stated that notes such as these will not be tolerated.  They are like bullying and undermine the sense of teamwork we are working so hard to build.  All communication, whether it be electronic or in person, must follow the values of the company.
    IT IS WRITTEN   THEREFORE IT MUST BE TRUE: the tendency to read a note and assume everything in it is true Do not jump to conclusions.  Work to get the whole picture.  Get all the facts before taking action.  If you are the sender,   be sure to compose a clear and concise note about the issue you are raising.  Do not make it sound like it is the absolute truth when it may be part of a larger picture. No one knowingly writes notes to share things that are “untrue”.  However, some topics are very broad and complicated. This item causes a lot of energy to spent on “issues” that really aren’t issues when all the facts come to light.  Truth can be elusive and many times when you hear two differing views the truth lies in the middle.
    UNCLEAR SUBJECT   LINE: using   a very non-descriptive subject line Be creative in the use of the subject line.  It can help people prioritize and find the note at a later date.
    CRYING WOLF:  the   tendency to always mark notes as urgent Treat others as you would like to be treated.  Give people  realistic timelines for when you need something.  If you need it on Friday, do not say you   need it on Wednesday. I gave my staff permission to tell the individual when they would be able to respond.  Only if they could not work out a compromise on their own would I get involved.

    As leaders for the broader finance organization, we had a real day to day issue that was faced by all the individuals.  We owned it and solved it.  Shortly thereafter I shared it with our CIO, and it became part of an overall communication effort to improve e-mail.  We started small – and focused on our organization.  We developed a remedy that could be applied broadly and was.  If we had waited for someone else to solve our problem, people would still be complaining.

    Hopefully this discussion sparked some ways you and your teams can make e-mail more manageable.

     

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