Judy Dobles, General Management Consulting

YOUR TOUGHEST BUSINESS CHALLENGES SOLVED.

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  • Talking is easy; actually doing something is the hard part.  I am sure that everyone has experienced a meeting where a lot of good dialogue happened, good ideas were exchanged and healthy debate ensued.  At the end of the meeting, everyone concurred it had been a good meeting.  However, after a time, it started to feel like the same topics were discussed again and again, but little progress was made.

    The answer is very simple: an action register.   Everyone has good intentions, but an action register raises the level of accountability and keeps the team focused.  It ensures forward progress.

    The action register that has worked well for the teams I have been a part of contains 5 pieces of information:

    [1] The Action Item:  A brief description of what needs to be done.

    [2]Person responsible:  The person taking the responsibility for the item, even when it may require the work of others to fully complete.

    [3]Due Date:  The desired completion date.

    [4]Status:  This facilitates the discussion at the subsequent meetings. Our team agreed on the following categories – not started, on plan, need to catch-up, needs intervention and completed/closed.

    [5]Comments:  Additional information that the team feels important to note.

    We made it a point to review the action register at every team meeting and captured updates.  New action items were recorded during the meeting.  For us the action register was kept in a team folder on the company network and accessible to everyone.  An alternative would be to send it to everyone at the end of the meeting.

    The action register helped our team stay organized.  Action items only made it to the register when we all agreed it was important work to be done.  The person responsible volunteered for the task and set a reasonable due date.  We were all accountable to each other for ensuring the action items were completed.  It also aided in setting priorities.  It is a fact of life that many times there are just too many things on the “to do list”.  It is impossible to do absolutely everything.  The action register helps the team stay focused on what really needs to get done.  And in the end, you have the sense of making forward progress instead of just talking.

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  • During our respective careers, each of us has developed methods for approaching our work that allow us to be effective.  Most likely we adopted these methods because they worked really well for us in the past. One day however, you feel like you are in a rut.  All your methods and beliefs about how to manage/lead an organization are not working.

    I personally came to this same realization when I moved to Europe and took on the role of CFO of the European region for a large multinational company.   At the same time, I happened to be reading, “Management of the Absurd”, by Richard Farson.  His words made all the difference in helping me grow and adapt my leadership skills. I had to throw out some deeply held beliefs based on what had worked for me in the past and develop a new approach.  By doing so, my leadership skills grew significantly.

    Here are my 3 favorite concepts from the book.

    [1] “The Better Things Are, the Worse They Feel” [Farson 92]

    This concept addresses the theory of rising expectations.  When conditions improve and individuals have increased their knowledge, they now observe bigger issues that need to be solved.  Therefore, as a leader seeking feedback about how things are going, you will initially be surprised that people seem more discontent.  In the world of continuous improvement, the more you improve, the more you find that needs to be improved.  The lesson for leaders is to acknowledge what has improved and embrace the fact that staff are now more in-tune with the business processes and feel empowered to bring issues to you.  This is success.

    [2]” Listening Is More Difficult Than Talking” [Farson 61]

    As a leader, it is important to realize that you will never have the answer or solution to a problem.  The problems or situations that land on your desk are highly complex.  Earlier in your career, no doubt you were a technical expert and did have the answer.  Now, your skill in facilitating the solution comes from knowing who should be invited to the table to create and implement the solution.  It also means listening to people and really understanding their perspective and the issue. True listening means that you may have to give up a long held belief.

    [3] “The Opposite of a Profound Truth is Also True” [Farson 21]

    In your very first job, things did appear black or white.  As a financial analyst, the accounts balanced or they did not.  The customers paid on time or were late.   You met the cut-off for posting journal entries or you were late.  Now fast forward to the present and you are the leader of a significant organization.   As you work on your strategy, for example, there is no right answer, just a series of outcomes based on a variety of assumptions.  Some assumptions may be unknowable from a quantitative perspective.  At the senior level, you are now in the world of ambiguity, contradictions and opposites.  As a leader, do not search for the black and white answer.  Rather, accept the ambiguities, contradictions and opposites and cultivate the knowledge and experience of your team to determine the best course of action.

    In summary, what worked for you in the past may not work in the future.  Address each situation with a “clean piece of paper” and determine the proper path forward with the team.

    Works cited:

    Farson, R., Management of the Absurd. New York, New York: Simon & Schuster., 1996. Print.

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  • A lot of emphasis is placed on creating a customer 1st focus when dealing with external customers.  It is not always clear, however, what it means when you are part of an internal support organization such as finance or human resources.

    As a member of an internal support organization, most likely you are a technical expert in your field.  When you interact with others outside of your department they will not have the same knowledge and expertise that you do in your field.  However, no one works in a vacuum.  All functions are inter-linked with the overall end-to-end enterprise process.

    Here are six steps that will carry you a long way in terms of delivering exceptional internal customer service.

    [1] Understand what the information you are providing will be used for. It is very easy in the rush of day-to-day work to not ask clarifying questions.  Be sure to ask enough questions so you provide the right information the first time.  By doing do you prevent re-work.

    [2] Share your knowledge with the department so they grow and learn.  For example – in finance it is easy to rely on policies and procedures and tell other groups what they need to do.  However, explaining “the whys” helps others understand.  Additionally, you may discover a policy or procedure that needs to be revised or an exception that should be granted due to business circumstances.

    [3] Agree up-front on timing and deliverables. Then ensure you deliver on-time.  One key advantage of setting expectations up-front is the ability to iron-out differences immediately.

    [4] Ask for feedback on how to improve both the deliverable and the interaction with the individual or department.  Asking for feedback does not mean you have to comply with every request but it opens up a dialogue. You can then commit to an agreed upon improvement.

    [5] Visit “the shop floor” and get to know the business you support.  The more you know the business, the better you will be able to anticipate their needs.

    [6] Eliminate surprises to the best of your ability.  Business by its very nature can be unpredictable.  However, in that rare case where you cannot meet a commitment, do not wait until the precise time it is due to tell your customer.  Let them know the moment you do.

    What actions have allowed you to deliver exceptional customer service?

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  • “The growth and development of people is the highest calling of leadership.”

    - Harvey S. Firestone

    In the day-to-day rush of meetings, e-mails and unexpected requests, it is easy to postpone coaching.  You promise yourself you will get to it tomorrow but it never happens.   I overcame the same problem by following the “keep it simple” principle.

    As leaders we are given multitudes of opportunities during the day to interact and observe staff.  It could be in group meetings, one-on-ones or through e-mail.  Each of us has thoughts during those times about something an individual could have improved upon.

    By following a simple approach to identifying and utilizing teachable moments, you greatly increase your ability to find the time to provide frequent coaching.

    STEP ONE:  Crystallize your thought into a positive one or two sentence observation.  Think about it in terms of what one thing could have made the work even better than it was.  Do not forget that this can also include how individuals interact with each other.

    STEP TWO:  Find a quick way to engage with the individual within twenty-four hours.  It can be a phone call, a brief discussion walking out of a meeting or an e-mail.

    Lastly, commit to providing one piece of simple feedback every day to one person.  By doing so, you will develop the habit.  Remember the words of Aristotle, “We are what we repeatedly do.  Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”   With practice you will get better.  Staff will appreciate the fact that you are giving them actionable feedback.  In the end, the best part is that your team will be absolutely fantastic.

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  • My last post outlined 6 steps for developing a strategy. To have meaningful discussion and develop a robust direction, data is required.  Data helps you get the full picture. If developing a strategy is a relatively new undertaking for you and the team; start with what you know. A word of caution at this point, do not fall into the trap of trying to get every single last piece of relevant data.  You will find it a never-ending quest which distracts you from the real purpose and value of a strategy.

    Advance preparation essential.  Assign data categories to various individuals and have them bring the data to the meeting, or better yet, provide it in advance.  Identify an individual to take ownership for planning and leading the strategy work.

    Listed below are the 7 data inputs to strategy that have worked well for the organizations I led and supported. [Note: sample questions are provided but by no means consider it a holistic list.]

    [1] External Realities: What is going on in the economy?  What are the trends for our specific industry?  How do governmental regulations impact our business?

    [2] The Competitive Landscape: Who are our competitors?  How is the market segmented?  What are our strengths and weaknesses and those of our competitors? What are our core competencies?

    [3] Our Customers:  What are their wants and expectations?  How well are we meeting them?  What is the customer experience when interacting with us, for example, customer service, sales, website, and other forms of communication?  Are we “user friendly”?

    [4] Our Products and Services:  What is the range of products/services we offer?  What is the geographic scope of our offering?

    [5] Human Capital and Organization Structure: Does our culture support our vision? Do we have the right people in the right jobs? Are there impending retirements of key resources? Do we have an excellent employee development process? Are we relentless in the pursuit of putting the customer 1st and driving operational excellence?

    [6] Internal Operational Excellence:  How are our internal functions performing?  Are they supporting our end-to-end business process effectively? Who are our suppliers?  Do we have too many or too few?  Are there any risks associated with them?  Are we successfully eliminating defects and reducing cycle time in our operations?

    [7] Success Factors and Business Results: How do we measure success?  What are the financial outcomes of our business?  What is our market share?  What are our customer satisfaction scores? Are we measuring the right things?

    In summary, to launch a strategy planning effort, collect the data you already have, and follow the 6 steps listed in my prior post.  You and your team will find the strategy picture crystalizing in a way that allows you to create a clear path forward.  Along the way, you will discover additional data you want and will need to make minor course corrections during the year.  Your strategy should be a living process that provides overarching guidance to real time decisions.

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  • Have you found yourself wanting to work on the strategy for your department, organization or company but not knowing where to start?  It is a common dilemma and easy to procrastinate when you do not know where to begin.  Here is an approach that I have used to help myself and the team set off on the strategy journey when we were initially unsure of how to do it.

    Before starting there is one critical paradigm you must buy in to.  Strategy work is not linear. That means that periodically you may have to circle back and revise an assumption or two.  You and your team know your business better than anyone else.  Be confident to make changes and adjustments through-out the process.  Aim to be roughly right; not at perfection. Striving for perfection only slows down the process.

    6 Simple steps for developing a strategy:

    [1] Define the challenges facing your organization. You and your team are in the best position to know what these are.

    [2] Clarify the current state.  The prime rule here is you must be intellectually and brutally honest with yourselves.  If not, you will not uncover  the elements that can lead you on the path to excellence. [Note: It is important to have data regarding the business.  My next post will discuss the data that is relevant.]

    [3] Envision the future.  Articulate and picture the future state. Develop the metrics to understand your progress going forward.

    [4] Face the obstacles getting in the way of your vision.  Describe the obstacles but be ready to course correct, if proven otherwise.  Listen to the data.

    [5] Determine the path forward. Create an action plan and set future meetings to ensure you are on track.  This is where many plans falter.  The devil is in the detail and the follow-up.

    [6] Monitor your progress. Dedicate the time to periodically review your progress and make course corrections as needed.

    There are many excellent books on strategy. You may want to consider reading one or two books prior to starting.  This allows you and the team to have a basis for commonality, instead of starting totally from scratch.

    By following these 6 steps you will off to a great start on the creation of a strategy for your business.

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  • A very dear colleague, David Pollock, gave me a wooden sign for my desk that said, “No Whining”. It became a great conversation starter for individuals that walked into my office. The purpose of the sign was to encourage folks to think about what and how they described issues they were facing before they began the discussion.

    It is very easy and sometimes cathartic to whine or whinge about problems or people. However, it is never productive. As a supervisor hearing people whine, it sends the message that you do not know how to solve a problem on your own. In essence you are dumping the problem into the lap of your supervisor.

    The key coaching points of my “no whining” philosophy are:
    [1] Be able to succinctly describe the situation or problem in one or two sentences.
    [2] Briefly describe the impact if not remedied. This helps prioritize the agreed upon next steps.
    [3] Talk about alternative approaches. At this stage you are not presenting a formal path forward or asking for a decision to be made, so keep it simple and at a high-level.
    [4] Describe what actions you personally need to take.
    [5] Describe what actions you want your supervisor or another individual to take.
    [6] Discuss other groups or individuals that should be informed about the situation.
    [7] Anticipate questions that your supervisor may have. Either have the answer or acknowledge that additional information may be required.
    [8] Jointly agree on a path forward.

    Overall the message is, “Be prepared and keep it simple”. I told people that roughly every 10th time a problem was brought to me, they were allowed to whine. However, the rule was, they needed to tell me before the discussion started. I would listen but we would not spend time on figuring out to do. This allows an individual to vent in a safe environment, since we all need that once in a while.

    As an individual, you have to understand that your supervisor has a bias for action. As a result, listening to whining can be dangerous, because your supervisor may take action relative to a problem that was not well thought out. No one wants to find themselves tilting at windmills, like Cervantes’ Don Quixote. It destroys your credibility and that of your supervisor.

    Supervisors want and need to hear about potential problems in the workplace.  Before bringing one forward, take a few minutes to gather your thoughts relative to points one through seven above.  Your supervisor will appreciate your organizational discipline and the problem will be addressed effectively.

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  • Through-out my career I have been a mentor, coach and supervisor to many people. The most common piece of advice people seek goes like this: “I am on the senior leadership team of my company, and I have really, really good ideas, but no one listens to me. Why are the other people on the team not smart enough to see the value of my ideas? It is my biggest frustration.”

    When you are young and in school, the main focus is on you the individual and how you specifically did on the project or test. In the working world the emphasis moves to the team. There are several fundamental points which can help individuals facing this dilemma. Here are the 5 main concepts discussed in my mentoring and coaching sessions:

    [1] See the issue from the other person’s point of view. The world of business is gray, not black and white. It is critical to ask others for their perspective. When following this guidance myself, I have always uncovered something I did not know, which allowed me to improve on the idea.
    [2] Understand the team will always outperform an individual when facing complex and interdependent issues. To develop a lasting solution, the knowledge of everyone on the team is essential. You must never believe you are smarter that everyone else. That will only set you up to be unhappy time and time again.
    [3] Be conscious and purposeful in choosing the actual words used to convey an idea. You must believe in your heart that everyone on the team adds value. When you share your idea, you cannot brag about yourself. The idea must be described in a way that shows how it addresses a problem facing the company or team.
    [4] Be able to clearly articulate the priorities for the team. Ask yourself how your idea fits in. Your idea may be great but if it is addressing priority 10 rather than 2 or 3, people are not going to pursue it. It is never possible to do everything on the priority list at the same time. The team has to pick and choose carefully.
    [5] Be humble and sincere. To be effective and get things done, people must want to work with you. People will pick up on the fact that you feel you are “smarter” than they are. In the end that destroys trust. Bring your idea to the team and ask them how it can be improved or if there are obstacles in the way of implementation. Only with that information will you be able to move forward.

    In summary, although you may have a really good idea, you need to involve others in helping you to create solutions. The focus must be on the critical issues facing the team, rather than who had the best idea. Remember the line in the poem, Desiderata, by Max Ehrmann, “If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.” Each of us brings a unique talent to the table. Take time to discover everyone’s gift.

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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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