Category: Other

Managing a crisis at work

A client of mine had a crisis last week. They found that a large order which they had been working on for weeks and which was scheduled to be shipped the next day to a new and very important customer was faulty. The project, and the relationship with the new customer and all potential business with them, was in serious jeopardy. Oh woe!!!!

What was needed was one key person to have a cool head.  Here is what that person did. He gathered key people together, those who were essential to running the project and who could help find solutions. He kept his cool while they were complaining, wailing and pulling hair, and he got them sufficiently calm so they could  rationally discuss:

  • Priorities: triage, what had to be done to keep the project alive. Costs at this stage of the relationship were less important than keeping the new customer.
  • Communications: what had to be communicated, to whom, by whom, and in what format.
  • Mindset: key people had to focus on the present and the future, not on analysing the past; they had to be solutions oriented, if necessary to find new ways to solving problems; they had to believe and communicate the belief that solutions could and would be found; they had to be humble and ask for help from wherever possible, even from the customer.

Later, once the crisis has been worked through, they agreed to find a quiet time to reflect and learn. They plan to:

  • Identify root causes of the crisis and analyse the roles of people involved. Responsibilities would be identified, less to blame people (although there might be negative consequences like loss of pay), and more to identify any development needs.
  • Identify permanent solutions and other changes to prevent such a crisis or a similar crisis in the future.
  • Reflect on the gut reaction to the crisis at the time to understand more about the culture of the company in times of crisis, and the level of its collective emotional battery.

This is not a bad model for handling a crisis. Print it out and keep it nearby – you may find it handy for your next crisis!

 

 

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Learning to be competent in an incompetent company

This is not a topic they usually teach you in B-school, but it should be! I well remember from years of working in corporate environments (university and industry) how frustrating life could be when dealing with the bureaucracy and committees, the company barons and gatekeepers, and the lack of inter-departmental co-operation that was so detrimental to the customer. And, of course, as work by Bakan, Hare and others confirm, corporations attract all those psychopaths who make your life hell!

Working more with small businesses these days, I see similar problems. After all, problems at work all have the same root causes, people.  But for the small business manager the topic could be better titled as ‘learning to be competent in an incompetent industry.’ For example, what competencies do you need to deal with the supplier who doesn’t have the basic management skills to organize their own production schedules and deliver on the date promised? Or with the buyer from a business customer who doesn’t remember to communicate a change their boss wants in the specification until the day of delivery? Or with the industry ‘standards’ (dysfunctional norms? unwritten rules? abuse of power?) that say that 30-day payment terms for small suppliers actually mean ’90-days or maybe more, depending on whether my section has met its quarterly targets and I have my bonus, and don’t you dare whinge about it or I will never buy from you again‘? Or that an extra ‘fee’ is required to remain as a listed supplier? Or……?

Every industry has its own incompetencies; what are yours?

In addition to whatever job competencies are needed (or bought in) by the small business manager (job technical knowledge, marketing, selling, partnering, operations management, contracting, buying, costing and pricing, financial controls, etc.), the extra personal competencies that are required to deal with industry-wide incompetencies are, in plain English:

  • Resilience and stress-resistance – staying unfazed by problems,  approaching a problem as something to try and solve rather than as a heart attack causing crisis, keeping cool and maintaining perspective and knowing when to accept that you can’t win them all (‘hey, stuff happens’), learning how to switch off and really relax in those few times off that are available to you, etc.
  • Speedy and positive reaction – getting yourself (and other people) energized and positive, and focused on action and solutions rather than on reflection and blame (reflecting should be done but it should be done later), re-prioritising tasks and, if necessary to avoid delays and causing problems elsewhere, putting in the extra hours, etc.
  • Problem anticipation – thinking ahead about what might go wrong (and asking questions of the other people involved to get them to think ahead as they or the systems that regulate them may not be as competent as they should be), working on the basis that the bread can fall butter-side down and building in slack (if possible) and contingencies, learning from problems and recognizing their potential in situations in the future, etc.

underpinned by agile company systems that provide the flexibility to make rapid changes (crisis management teams, key employees on call, computer-based production scheduling system which allows you to switch things around, friendly suppliers and partner companies who can back you up when asked, etc.), by having a customer base that is strong (where the trust is high and you solve problems together) or diverse enough to withstand losing the occasional customer (on those occasions when no amount of personal competence would have solved the problem), and by having financial robustness – yes, those very well known small business bogeys of sound cash-flow, and access to finance, whether you own reserves or to an external funder who will come through quickly when needed.

All these competencies, and the undelying systems, can be developed with good coaching! Find out more at bquest.

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Learning to get the best advice, to buy in expertise

A client of bquest recently said “I’m a production expert; I’ve got a great new product but I am not an expert in marketing and selling. Help!” Nothing new here then. There are obviously zillions of people good at one thing who need help from people good at other things. (Production people – I also know a number of great marketing people looking for good new products to promote and sell.)

The problem for our client though was how to find the right marketing and sales people to connect with. As a small business, he has limited funds so, in my opinion, he should consider the social media route as this seems to give small businesses a good chance to compete in the market with the big players with big budgets.

But….. we are inundated with people promising all sorts of wonders if we buy their social media services. But the promises are often about the activities they will do (the inputs, the processes), and about intermediate results (such as, be on the first page of Google, or get your name in 10 forums, build a 1000 back links,etc.), but NOT promises about end results, such as great sales and riches!

So, how to choose?

This is the topic of our client’s ‘learning contract’. (Sample learning contract in Word.) His goal is to learn not to be an expert in social media, but to learn how to choose the right expert.

Our client’s learning will include:

  • Speaking with other people about their experiences and to avoid making the same mistakes. (Why should we all individually have to learn from making the same mistakes as people who have gone before us? Surely we can learn to avoid the obvious ones by talking with others, by doing a little research.)
  • Looking for a suitable checklist of good practice. From “The 10 things to remember…” and “The 6 steps to…”  and the many other guides on the web, you can gradually build a commonsensical checklist of do’s and don’ts.
  • Developing a simple set of criteria – for assessing social media suppliers, one that you could perhaps use when dealing with any people from outside your own company (echoes of another blog posting):
    • What results do I want? Are these people offering activities and some intermediate results? Or are they offering me the end results I want?
    • Are these people credible? Do they have a track record or, if not (and don’t discount them if they don’t; everyone has to start somewhere and in newer sectors like social media it may be the new kid on the block who is the most successful), do their ideas make sense? Common sense? Real sense? Feet-on-the-ground sense?
    • Can I get on with these people?
    • Are these people flexible? Do they listen, will they adapt if necessary, do they have alternative options for me, can they solve problems?
    • Are these people prepared to share some of the risks if things don’t go to plan (and perhaps benefits if they do)? You are new to social media, they are new to you, so there will be some uncertainties. And where there are uncertainties, there will be some risk. They will show they are prepared to share these risks if, for example, they accept some or all payments based on end results and not just their activities or intermediate results.
  • Inviting several social media companies in to present their ideas. Let them do all the work! Get them to ask you all the questions. To offer ideas. To propose a strategy for you. To ‘educate’ you. They are supposed to be the experts. (It should be as if you employed them as your in-house marketing team.) And as they talk, act like the CEO and ask questions based on your set of criteria above. It’s not a bad idea to have some colleagues involved; they don’t have to be experts either, just critical listeners who can help you by asking pertinent, thoughtful, challenging and probing questions.
  • Making a systematic selection. Scoring each supplier as objectively as you can against the criteria. Just as you should do when selecting a new employee.

And all the time, bquest will be there to coach and support.

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Personal development integrated with company development

I recently returned from a trip abroad where I spent face-to-face time with a client company. Yes, we successfully use Skype for much of our coaching and development sessions with individuals, but going into the client company allows for groupwork.  And it also allows for enjoyable (and valuable) social things like going out for a meal and a drink afterwards!

The client company has 12 people (‘key employees’) participating in the bquest system. They have done a year of Personal Development Plans, implemented either through structured formal Learning Contracts or through a loose rolling program of coaching sessions. The original ‘theme’ for their development was ‘reducing costs’ – in effect we said at the start ‘While you can develop whatever is needed for you to raise personal performance, we want you to think carefully about how your development can help reduce company costs.’ This theme provided sufficient alignment of personal and company interests without acting as a straitjacket. Also, allowing participants to go for more structure or loose coaching or a mix of the two allowed them to find their own preferences when it comes to development.

At the end of the first year, each participant has been able to show how they have individually developed and what improvements they have achieved. The financial payback has been significant. From our observation, in addition to the expected benefits of any good development system such as raised confidence and motivation, we saw a growing energy and momentum for company innovation and change; we saw the beginnings of a new culture.

There were three new themes that emerged:

  1. lean manufacturing
  2. linking the company through an ERP IT system
  3. rebranding and improving marketing/sales

Production improvements can raise productivity between 30-50%. To achieve this, the production planning system needs better information about demand and supplies. The marketing team need to increase dramatically the quality of their forecasting and to improve their decisions about what will make for an optimum product portfolio. And they and their sales colleagues need to find customers for the increased production.

In the second year of the bquest system, participants will continue their personal development, but they will now be working more together, cross-functionally, on joint actions in those three themes to improve the company. Very exciting times!

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Untapped talent – the serendipity of employee development

When you help one person develop it is usual for other people and the company as a whole to benefit. Help a supervisor change the way she manages her team, and the individuals in the team and the team as a whole also change. Help a manager set up a system of effective Key Performance Indicators for his section and company performance improves and the business grows. OK, this is obvious. (Well, obvious to me but not always obvious to impoverished senior managers who see ‘training’ as a cost or a luxury rather than as an investment or an essential!)

I get a real kick however with the unexpected benefits of helping a person develop. This is serendipity.

Last week, when reviewing the results of an employee’s Learning Contract which involved training operators to be more self-managed, the employee described how he learned to use more interactive training  methods, asking more open questions and getting the operators to think for themselves.

He had achieved his learning and development goals with the operators. He went on to say that one operator answered a question by suggesting a better way of doing something, a simple thing of having a piece of cleaning kit close at hand which would save time. The employee and the operator then began a dialogue about this, with other operators chipping in with their ideas.

The employee was delighted with what came out of the dialogue, several simple but good and free ideas to improve production! Whereas he had previously thought that the operators were ‘simple people’, incapable of much more than following orders, he now found they had good ideas for improvement. Unknowingly, the employee, by changing the way he interacted with the operators, was creating the conditions for something akin to a quality circle or work improvement team. Operators now began to offer their ideas, their ‘human capital’ which had been locked inside their heads until this moment of liberation. They were energised and motivated by doing this.

The employee has now decided to get the operators together on a regular
basis for a short while, a) to re-inforce the training, which was part of his original Learning Contract, and b) to discuss ideas for production  improvement.

There are two points I want to make from this simple story:
1) There is untapped talent in your organisation, at all levels. You just need to find a way to liberate it. Even people you might call ‘simple’ people have human capital and can have offer good ideas.
2) Helping people develop on bquest is a pleasure. Sometimes this pleasure is doubled when something serendipitous like this happens!

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Employee development is a matter of trust

I am not sure where this originated but I heard someone talk about three stages of developing networking relationships; maybe it was a BNI model. The model suggests you first get to KNOW someone, then you UNDERSTAND them and what they do, and then you can TRUST them.

There are probably other ways of skinning this particular cat but the model – yes, it’s a mental model - struck a chord with me not only as a useful way of developing a strong network but also as a model for the relationship between bquest and our clients.

Here’s my take on it. (Let’s not get into semantics about words like ‘know’ and ‘understand’):

KNOW – in this model, this is when you meet someone, shake hands and exchange a few words. You ‘know’ their name, what they do, maybe some other basic facts about them. But that’s about it. In your network, you can say to someone “I don’t know much about him, but I do know a lawyer who specializes in xyz. Here’s his number.”

UNDERSTAND – in this model, the person you meet may go into more detail, explaining what they do, how they do, why they do it, what’s important to them, what their problems are….. And so on. You  ‘understand’ them because they communicate to you in some way what they think and feel as well as what they do; you can get ‘inside their head’ and see the world as they do. Then in your network, you can say to someone “I haven’t personal experience of him, but I know a lawyer who specializes in xyz.  He comes across as a clever and sincere person and I think you should give him a call.” This is a recommendation of sorts  - it’s qualified – rather than simply passing on the contact details.

TRUST – this is the tricky stage. Most people would say that the word ‘trust’ implies you believe in someone, that you know they have ability to do something, that you can rely on them and that you think  they are honest. (OK, it is possible to argue that trust isn’t necessarily about doing ‘good’. You can argue that you can trust a person to do something, but that you can also trust a person not to do something or do something bad. In other words, you can argue that trust isn’t about doing good, it’s more that you understand a person so well you can predict their behaviour, good or bad. But let’s stick with the trust/good connection here.)

A good criteria for your level of trust in someone is whether you would recommend them and whether you are prepared to put your own reputation on the line when doing so. In your network, can you say
“I know a lawyer who specializes in xyz. I know him well, I have seen how he works and, in your situation, I would trust him to do a great job. Give him a call and tell him I thought he would be the ideal person for you.” ?

As a people developer, a question I ask is “How can you move beyond the stage of just understanding someone to trusting them?” The answer is by working with them, by having a shared positive experience with them. When you can say “My lawyer did a fantastic job for me when I had a problem with xyz; I cannot recommend him highly enough” you are communicating a high level of trust.

What’s the connection between this model and employee development? In bquest, our goal is to help clients achieve ‘deep’ learning, not just learning ‘surface level’ techniques and methods. Only when you deeply understand something can you make full use of it and adapt it to deal with new situations and make significant changes and improvements. But deep learning at times means challenging deeply held beliefs and long-held mental models, which some people with years of learning under their belt
feel uncomfortable with. So, to go there requires a lot of trust between bquest coach and client.

For bquest therefore, our relationship with a client is a trusting partnership. We make sure the relationship is a positive shared learning and development experience for both of us.

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