Sunday, December 23, 2007

Entering the twilight zone

If you are like me, during the last two months Christmas was just an inconvenient, somewhere in the distant future event. And this year it seemed to creep up on me like it does most years; firstly I spend my time worrying about how I will fit all my work into a shortened timeframe and then all at once I come home to find that Christmas cards from friends and relatives are out numbering invoices and flyers in our letter box. It is then I realize how wonderful it is going to be, to have a few days where, apart from the essential services, everything will stop, forcing me to stop too.

Thus Christmas is my time for re-filling my emotional, physical and even spiritual batteries. So this year, like always, I too will be getting up later, staying in to watch films on TV, calling on friends and family and generally doing nothing of any importance. And yet because everyone else is doing the same, I can do all this without any feeling of guilt. I can relinquish my business responsibilities for personal ones. What joy!

So I suggest we take Kurt’s advice (from his comment on last week’s article ‘Just how important do you think you are’?) and hand over our internet connection keys to our partners and spend a few days doing what it is we should be doing a lot more of during the rest of the year.

So all I need to do now is to wish all my blog readers and commentators “a very happy, peaceful and joyous Christmas”.
I won’t bother wishing anyone any good wishes for 2008 yet, because for now we are in that twilight zone between the two years, in the void where commercial matters are vulgar and totally irrelevant. Wonderful!

Happy Christmas!

PS There will be no blog next week, so the next one will not be until the 6th. – see you in 2008, I am stepping into the twilight zone for a while…

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Just how important do you think you really are?

I once heard it said that the ultimate measure of an ‘important’ person is that when they die their death affects the financial stock market. The person telling me this was referring to the circumstance where the variance of the value of the shares of a particular company is so high that it in-turn changes the stock market value world wide (such as the Dow Jones or FTSE). If you are really ‘important’, your death might even influence the exchange rate of a national currency. Of course there are not many of us that are that important (read influential), so the following story / insight might better apply to those of us with a more humble status:

‘The graveyard is full of irreplaceable people’

It was not that many years ago, while I was working on (what was for me and my client) a very important project that mid way through I began to run out of steam. I was tired and suffering from a heavy cold that just would not go away. I was simply ignoring all of Mother Nature’s warnings in the profound belief that keeping the project going at full speed was the only thing that mattered. It was nearly Christmas and my family and children were looking forward to seeing me. I hadn’t seen them for a long time. Once I arrived back in England for the three days I had allocated for family duties, the cold took over and became flu. As a consequence I was forced to spend most of the three days sick in bed recovering. It was then that a wise friend reminded me that ‘The graveyard is full of irreplaceable people’. It is true, so very true.

This year I have seen too many faces I know with the same tired expression that I had, even at times my own, blankly gazing back at me in the mirror. This simply has to stop. There are two fundamental factors that get us to this point:

1. Our ego’s simply ignore the commonsense logic of responsible delegation.
2. Taking on too much in the first place, not being able to say ‘no’

Re: 1. Too often I hear, ‘it’s not that simple, I simply do not have anyone I can delegate to, and if I did it would take longer to explain it to them than simply doing it myself’. Nonsense! Just take a look at really successful people and you will find a common tendency in their ability to delegate. It comes naturally to them.
Re: 2. ‘If you want something done, ask a busy person’. This wise saying is true because ‘busy’ people have an uncanny knack of filling their free time with important and useful activities. But what on earth can be more important than spending a little quality time with our loved ones? After all our families and friends are our sponsors, they are often the people who give us the space to do what we do.

So when you find yourself in a frame of mind where you think you momentarily irreplacable, don’t kid yourself. During my career I have seen many irreplaceable people drop dead, only to notice that within days and weeks of their untimely departure their business world is back to normal again. Someone always steps into the vacant position. Often the business realizes that the person’s workload was too much, so they allocate their tasks to a number of profiles. And if you are deliberately trying to make yourself irreplaceable – stop! It’s a dangerous path that will only lead to disappointment and bitterness and no one will love or thank you for it.

Facing our own lack of importance need not be depressing, it simply reminds us that we are not alone on this planet, and that by and large we choose to spend our time the way we do. We simply need to decide if we have the balance right and if spending more time for our inner selves and with others, is not better for us and for them in the long run? After all none of us can be sure how long that is.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

It's just the way it is

From the fiery talk of last week’s blog where the Belgian employer and employee levels of taxation came under attack, this week I want to focus on a more passive subject. Matthijs van der Want’s reflective comment on the article, reminded us of a very important point. No matter how unfortunate the situation might be, people tend to accept their lot and learn how to survive and thrive within it. As Matthijs reminds us, a sales person is still motivated by their bonus even when the government has taken more than half of it away in taxes. They simply accept that taxation is an inevitable fact of life. In my book ‘Making a Difference’ I have a chapter dedicated to coping with the conditions in which we are forced to do business.

From Seoul in South Korea to, Ulm in Germany and on to Brussels and Boston, one needs to adjust to the business environment that surrounds us. The youthful passion for trying to force change, gives way to middle aged acceptance (luckily, otherwise we would have teenagers with little or no experience ripping apart our well proven and solid structures).

However, I digress – the point I want to make is that to be a really top class interim manager you need to be able to quickly adapt to the culture of the environment you find yourself in. If you are working for a Government institution one day and a very dynamic American pyramid sales organization the next, you simply can not expect that you can re-mould the corporate culture to suit your own personal style, beliefs and methodology. After all, isn’t it this that makes interim management so attractive for us freelancers?

On Thursday night I stood in the rain (partly sheltered by the stadium’s canopy) watching Anderlecht play Tottenham Hotspurs in a UEFA championship match. The pitch looked great but in fact it was soaking wet, making ground play risky, slow and unpredictable. For the players there was an increased risk of injury and shots at goal often were sent flying off course by poor contact between foot and ball. I prefer to watch football being played on a dry pitch in cool weather, where the players can perform most efficiently. I also like stadiums that are full with an equal number of supporters from both sides (the jeering interaction can be extremely inventive and stimulating), but this situation occurs very rarely. My host at the match told me that he preferred to play football in the wind and rain, where you are battling against both the elements and the opposing side.

No matter what type of interim management contract we might be engaged on, in order to improve a situation, or ‘fix’ a certain problem, we do have to first of all to accept and then adapt to the general culture we find ourselves in and then move on from there. I call it the ‘Departure Point’. The point when you step into a situation, have your first briefing and are busy making your analysis. The culture is part of your assessment strategy and provides an important part of your future strategy and implementation techniques.

So I will ‘accept’ Belgium’s taxation levels (if only to try and keep my blood pressure at a reasonable level). However, if and when I get a chance to influence the situation, I will step up and express my views, in the vain hope that they might just ‘make a difference’.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Poor Sales Results, Fried Chicken and Taxes!

You might find this title a little fragmented, but I assure you it is justified, please read on…

This week, I was moaning to a colleague about how difficult it is to find talented sales people who really love prospecting for new business. In my time I have interviewed literally hundreds of sales personnel, and when asked if they like cold calling, very few say ‘yes’. At best they might answer that ‘it is an important part of their work’. But I am lucky enough to know someone who actually enjoys cold calling and prospecting (as long as he likes the product or service he is selling). So I am even luckier to be able to have him come and work for one of my companies.

However, my colleague said that he had never met such a person and that in his experience sales people were simply greedy and lazy, only bothering to follow up the sales leads that had been fed to them for products where they could make substantial commission with the absolute minimum of effort. Of course, this is logical from the sales person’s perspective. But if you are a pioneering company, trying to break into new markets, then these kind of sales people should have no place in your organization.

But I can hear you thinking, where does the fried chicken come into the story? Well my colleague worked for a company here in Belgium where the sales team was known to be particularly lazy and the Sales Managers seemed to let them get away with it. He said that all the sales team did was to go up onto the roof of their office and catch the fried chickens flying past them. And if there were no fried chickens flying past, then sorry enough, there was no sales, nothing more could be done and no more effort was needed! When I heard this story I thought, has my normally reliable colleague completely lost his head? Has he been smoking substances that make you see life from a very different angle? The answer was in fact quite mundane: in fact in Belgium there is an expression ‘gebraden kippen in de mond vliegen’ or, in English ‘fried chickens fly directly into your mouth!’, I guess what this means is that if you want to win something, you have to go out and work for it and not to expect a fried chicken to fly directly into your mouth?

Now to the Taxes link: I have been recruiting a marketing assistant this week, and I have been working with my accountants and legal advisors to see if I can find a salary construction that is both good for her (working via incentives) and for my company. Here in Belgium if you pay someone 100Euro, you actually have to pay the state 162Euro and the poor employee gets approximately 50-55. But they also need to be paid 13.92 times per year (they get extra money in the summer and an extra months pay at the end of the year)!

The problem is, if you pay any kind of bonus, it is so heavily taxed, that it is almost not worth receiving. So back to our sales people: If they have to do something they hate (cold calling) and then have to go out and sell a product that needs lots of explaining and convincing, then there is very little financial motivation, if at the end of the sales cycle the government taxes them so much that they only receive about 20% of what their employer actually paid out!

It really is a wonder that so many Belgian’s are employed at all, because once they receive the pittance left over (which they call their Netto salary), when they actually try and spend it, the government takes another 21% from them in VAT!

Today, Belgium still has no government, and I have to say I think these last months without one seem to have gone quite well (it makes me wonder, if one is needed at all?). However, when we finally do get a new Government it would be great if it concentrated on trying to get employee and employer taxation to a level of acceptability, instead of constantly arguing among themselves about which language should be dominant and where!

I was not a fan of Margaret Thatcher, but she did at least free up the British economy by taking away the appalling level of taxation that her previous governments had been piling on employers and employees alike.

Entrepreneurship needs to be matched by creative tax incentive schemes, if our staff have done well, please let us pay them the bonus that they deserve and then let them actually receive it, without bleeding company profitability to death.

So there you have it: Poor Sales Results, Fried Chicken and Taxes!