3 Tests for Business Books. Or why I don’t own a Button shop.

questioning business books

Ask a few tough questions before dogmatically following any business advice.

My friend Kimberly has a very wry sense of humor, I often threaten to collect her retorts and package them into a book called “The Wisdom of Kimberly.”  Years ago, we both enjoyed and subscribed to a magazine called Victoria. Beautifully designed, with gorgeous photography and articles on gracious living it also often featured 1-3 page articles on (mostly) women entrepreneurs who ran shops or small artisan businesses. The articles were beautifully photographed, filled with close ups of the stunning details of the products, or representations of the services provided.  The businesses ranged from small letterpress printers, to event planners, jewelry designers, potters who designed garden planters, even a woman who ran an antique button store in Manhattan. Ina Garten (Food network) was featured. The magazine developed a devoted, but small, following. It published several books as off shoots, including one on women owned businesses and another devoted solely to business cards. It published from the mid 80’s until about the mid 90’s, and then folded.

About 6 years ago, Victoria revived itself. Taking note of the very loyal following, the new publishers managed to assemble much of the original staff, writers and photographers, then sent out subscriber cards to former subscribers. Kimberly and I dutifully re-subscribed. The first few issues arrived, beautiful to look at, with many of the same type stories: houses, gardens, fashion and women entrepreneurs. And I looked at all the beautiful detail and went “meh”. (Okay international readers, picture someone shrugging and just not being impressed. That’s “meh”.) I reached out, called the intrepid Kimberly and asked her why the magazine left me unimpressed. After all, I still lived in a 100 year old home, liked many of the products and fashion designers that were featured, work in my garden and try to entertain occasionally.

Kimberly summed it up in a single line. “Because we now know that the only way anyone runs an antique button store successfully is if they are married to an investment banker.” Bless you Kimberly. Right again.

Which brings me to business books. If you write a business book with your favorite theory you’ve got to find shining examples that support your theory. And you may, or may not, ignore anything else about those businesses that contradicts your theory or might indicate they might not be around for the long run. (Good old confirmation bias at work again!).  If you look hard enough you can probably find business books that celebrated the leadership of Enron, Bear Stearns and any number of now defunct businesses.

So before you decide to fully embrace a business theory or business plan, consider these three things:

1. Is it Replicable with the resources available to a person or company in your current position?

You can learn great lessons from the experiences of many different business leaders, but it is important to dig below the surface to make sure you’re seeing the whole story. Were the connections or resources available to them vastly different than yours? Don’t let it discourage you, but do factor it into estimates of your ramp up time and need for resources. Realize these sorts of details are often glossed over or even rewritten for better storytelling.

2. Were other factors more critical to the final success than the theory being promoted by the author?

“Great Customer Service” as a leading strategy for business success is the subject of several thousand business books on amazon.com. No doubt it is critical to many businesses and can be a key component in success. But were there other factors that may have propelled the featured business to prominence? Was it time to market? Position on adaption curve? Uniqueness of position for a period of time? It’s rare that a business will cop to “lousy customer service” when telling their story, but what else made that business successful in combination with “great customer service?”

3. Just how deeply did the author probe for statistically measurable indicators and answers, or is most of the information cited on the companies profiled derived from self-created press releases, motivational anecdotes or puff piece stories?

Just yesterday someone brought my attention to an article profiling  a business known for “Great Customer Service”. The author, however, had apparently never even Googled the head of the company who had led a similar previous company to a particularly public and notorious flame out. Ironically, this was published in a local paper, where a mere check of their own archives would have detailed out this info. Now perhaps this could have been a great story on lessons learned and new beginnings, but the past was not even given a nod. Anyone with a reasonable knowledge of that company and in that industry would have called “BS” in ten seconds (most especially some of its creditors). But what if you were reading it and didn’t know that history?

Business books, entrepreneur profiles, even blogs like these, can often leave out key pieces of information. Read broadly, take great ideas and learn from others’ mistakes but don’t discount your own experience. Play devils advocate; have others succeeded by doing the exact opposite of what is being touted as the “key to success?” Critical thinking is key. What will YOUR path look like?

P.S. I have no idea if the owner of Tender Buttons in Manhattan is/was actually married to an investment banker, but I do salute anyone who can make an antique button store run for over 50 years. Happy Birthday Tender Buttons! and may there be many more.

 

book by Jeanne Goldie

Speed Read an Organization with our Easy Guide

Sizing up a business to buy or a corporation to join? The culture can be as important as the bottom line. Get your free copy of Reading the Terrain here!

 

Following some Mighty Bad Footsteps; How to avoid the Landmines!

Choose your actions carefully when you are the replacement for a weak leader

Choose your actions carefully when you are the replacement for a weak leader

Bob Whipple gives some great suggestions for leaders who take on an organization or department after a previously bad leader…great info!

Here’s the link.

Thinking about making a move? Size up your Corporate Landscape or any other company you may be thinking of moving to by using our free guide, Reading the Terrain. Get your copy today by putting your email address in the subscription box. And no, we won’t spam you, you’ll just get our weekly update of articles.

What Dieters can Teach us about Creating Organizational Change:

hit with the boomerang

Is your organization “boomeranging” right back to where it started?

Any dieter will gladly tell you about the body’s “set points.” For those of you who have been spared the joys of lifelong dieting, a quick synopsis is that our bodies have a “set point” a body weight or status that it will try to return to, despite behavioral changes. It is basically a “comfort zone” that uses the body’s tendency towards homeostasis to drive itself towards a certain functioning model. Think of it as a rubber band that has been stretched, snapping back into its original shape.

The question is; do businesses have a set point? Is there a “comfort zone” business model that most businesses, despite the outward flurry of change activities or new mission statements, will attempt to return to time and again?

Years ago I worked with a non-profit who had built itself around a key volunteer activity. Long after that activity ceased to return results as it had in the past, it was kept, a “sacred cow” due to the history of the organization. Which is fine if it is a conscious choice, but rather than acknowledge that the time had passed and keep the activity as a “nice to have” rather than a key income driver, endless attempts were made over and over again to revitalize that activity to bring it back to the center of the revenue plan.

Another example is an individual employee.  When they first start their employment they may learn a particular task they had not known how to do before. Or they are given the responsibility for a section of the P&L, a marketing activity, or a key account.  Ten years later, they will still have a particular bias towards that activity or account. This can be a great thing, where the depth of knowledge around the topic can be beneficial, or a blind spot, when they give undue weight to that item at the expense of the big picture.

For every “we tried that back in 2005” that a change agent gets (complete with the implied “and it didn’t work you imbecile”), it is worth considering that the audience is trying hard to return to a model or activity that is in their set point.  No one could possibly sell 200 widgets a day until someone does.  The problem is, once someone sells 200 widgets, it puts everyone who can’t sell 200 widgets on notice and possibly, makes them obsolete.  This is when you’ll see the accusations of “cheating” or “undue advantage”. Sometimes they’re right.   Sometimes they’re 100% right.   And other times, they’re just headed back for the comfort zone.

Have you noticed a “return to set point” in your attempts at organizational change?

book by Jeanne Goldie

Speed Read an Organization with our Easy Guide

Thinking about making a move? Size up your Corporate Landscape or any other company you may be thinking of moving to by using our free guide, Reading the Terrain. Get your copy today by putting your email address in the subscription box. And no, we won’t spam you, you’ll just get our weekly update of articles.

Rule #5: Find your Allies

It takes a village, pick the right villagers to gather their pitchforks and join you!

It takes a village, pick the right villagers to gather their pitchforks and join you!

Every great caper takes a team (see The Sting, Ocean’s Eleven, Trading Places).  There may be someone leading the charge but it takes a village to pull off a victory. Smart change agents make sure they have the right villagers charging by their side. Here’s some to start looking for right now:

  1. EF Hutton: No, not the real E.F. Hutton (he’s deceased, be very, very worried if he shows up). You need the “opinion leader,” a team member with enough gravitas, experience and respect from the other team members that they pay attention when this person speaks.  In his book, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, John Maxwell describes in “The Law of E.F. Hutton” that the person who is the “real” leader of the team is most likely not the official leader. When they speak, everyone listens.  Get this person on your side and you’ve won half the war.
  2. The Human Calculator: You know this person. They can calculate it all in their head, run data up, down and sideways and spit it out in record time. They look at data and see patterns others miss, usually saving you a few serious mistakes.  And it’s effortless for them, like breathing.
  3. The Historian: The Historian knows everything that has been tried before and may even know where the bodies were buried. Sometimes this person can be a bit of an Eeyore (“Well Sonny, we tried that in aught eight but it just didn’t fly”). The historian you’re looking for is the one who remembers bits and pieces of systems and research that were built for other projects that just might be useful and knows who worked on those projects.  You slice a great deal of learning curve by talking to people who have tried similar things.
  4. The Top Producer/Chief Rainmaker/Revenue Generating Machine: Often this person will be a contender for the EF Hutton slot but if not, they are a valuable source of feedback on what works and what doesn’t.
  5. The Fixer:  The backbone of many teams. This person can take a statement like “IT says it will take 200 hours to build the interface so they can’t get to it until next year,” roll the situation through their head and come out with “Okay, the platform they’re using in sprocket accounting is nearly the exact thing that we want and they have lots of bandwidth because we really only care about counting widgets here. They also have a student intern this summer, let’s hijack the intern and see if we can copy over the system and have the intern recode the smaller piece that needs to be changed.”  This is also the person that knows that Mary in Customer Service is dying to change her job and move into project management so she’ll volunteer her time for any task or project that might get her closer to that goal. They have lots of people’s cell numbers and can get them to answer day, night or holidays. They usually talk 800 miles per hour and you can see the wheels turning when they do.  They have lots of favors on deposit in the favor bank.  Very handy to have in your corner.
  6. The Front Person: This is your smooth talker. Speaking in perfect “corporate-speak” they are the official face of your change. They need to be well liked, reasonably respected and easily able to talk their way to those at the top of the house.
  7. The Executive Sponsor:  In an ideal world you’ll have an upper level sponsor who stands behind what you’re trying to do. You’ve convinced them of the importance of the plan and they have the will and ability to pull resources from other departments to help jumpstart your plan. They also are the first to back your Front Guy when they’re presenting to the top of the house. If you don’t have an executive sponsor, you will absolutely need to have #4 in your corner.

Draft each one of these players on your team well before you make any public announcements about your planned changes.  It’s usually going to take drinks, lunch or coffee for you to get them on board.  Be prepared to change your plan based on the feedback they give you. Let them punch holes in it and knock it around a bit. You’ll end up with a better plan.

What other team members have you found invaluable when you’re creating a change? Share your suggestions in the comments section.

P.S. If you’ve ever wanted a great explanation of exactly how Billy Ray Valentine and Louis Winthorpe III beat the Duke brothers on the commodities floor in Trading Places listen here.

Want to see all 10 Rules for Beginning a Turnaround? Start here.

book by Jeanne Goldie

Speed Read an Organization with our Easy Guide

Get our free guide to understanding the corporate landscape by subscribing in the box at the right. 

Rule # 1: Are you an Aspirin or a Vitamin?

Know your role.What's your Role in Creating Change?

Be an aspirin or a vitamin, as Coach Jodie Charlop likes to remind me. Either your role in change is to take away pain (an aspirin) or inject new life into the group (a vitamin).  In change management you have to be aware that your team (aka “the body”) may not be delighted to see you initially. In some cases the response may well be similar to that of a near-fatal allergic reaction.

If you’re an aspirin, you need to dig to the source of pain and relieve the suffering, hopefully heading off worse damage. You may affect systems beyond your initial target as you work to attack the serious underlying issues that are stressing the system.

Side Effects:

  • May cause dizziness if deployed rapidly.
  • Initial fixes may only mask deeper problems.
  • Excessive thinning of staff or resources may occur.

A vitamin can initially be a shock to the system, creating surges of energy in areas not previously disturbed, or highlighting areas that hadn’t performed at their peak. A vitamin may drive a new level of performance or set new revenue goals.

Side Effects:

  • Stomach upset may result when you rock the status quo.
  • May cause fatigue.
  • Healthy new regimens take time to become habit.

In any change management situation, you will likely have the majority of your actions fall into one camp or the other but will need to know the expected side effects of both.

What are the most common situations you’ve run into when you’ve been an aspirin or a vitamin? Share in the comments section.

Want to see all 10 Rules for Beginning a Turnaround? Start here.

book by Jeanne Goldie

Speed Read an Organization with our Easy Guide

Get our free guide to understanding the corporate landscape by subscribing in the box at the right. 

© Jeanne Goldie 2015