Archive for the ‘Communication’ Category

The (Not Exact) Characteristics of a Successful Leader

Thursday, August 7th, 2008

Once upon a time, a CEO I worked with critiqued the difference between our leadership styles.  He told me, “You’re like a coconut.  You’re hard on the outside, but soft on the inside.  People think you’re tough until they get to know you.  Then they realize you care about them.”

He then said something shocking.  He said, “I’m just the opposite.  Everybody likes me instantly.”  “But I’m hard on the inside,” he continued, waving his arm at a group of people working for his company.  “I could care less if any of them walked outside and got hit by a car.”

What was shocking to me was not his statement, but that he admitted it.  He was not a very nice person, but he was so confident that he could admit it and not care what people thought about him.

This CEO started with a few people and built a publicly-traded company.  As could be expected, he’s not good at maintaining long-term relationships with most of his employees.  Once they figure him out, they move on.  He can’t be trusted; I’ve seen him break contracts that he signed, but later decided not to honor.  Plus, every few months, the company had a new strategy.

Nonetheless, he’s been successful if judged only in terms of building a company and creating wealth.  He has the smarts, he’s crafty and he has tremendous confidence.

That caused me to think about what the characteristics of a successful leader are.  There are thousands of books on the topic.  If you google “what makes a good leader,” in a fraction of a second, you get more than 1.5 million entries.

Having been an attorney who’s worked with hundreds of companies and in leadership roles myself, what I’ve learned is that there is no one type of leader.  No one combination of characteristics exists that leads to the corner office at the top of the skyscraper.

Vision is overrated.  It’s important, but once you have the vision, you need to be able to act on it.  This requires a certain amount of organization – the ability to get things done.  You need ambition, so that you actually do act on it.  And you have to make people believe in you; that’s where the confidence comes in.  Plus, there are a few other traits that the books mention, such as keeping cool under pressure and making tough decisions on time, among others.

Yet good leaders come in a myriad of combinations.  What works in one organization or situation may utterly fail in another.  So to say that there’s any one, two, five or ten characteristics that define a leader is wrong because the mix of traits or lack of any one trait depends on the company, the circumstances and the individuals involved in the endeavor.

A difference exists, though, between leaders and those that stand out as great leaders.  The great ones I’ve met have the ability to listen, and let people feel like they’ve been listened to.

And I do think integrity is critical.  The CEO I mention above was successful, but was constantly losing good people.  Had he kept them, his company would have been much larger and much more profitable.

General Colin Powell offers some good thoughts in this leadership primer.

The Death of Customer Service?

Friday, July 4th, 2008

One-hundred percent of businesses talk about how important customer service is, how their customers are number one, how much they value their customer relationships. My experience is that, for many businesses, customer service is something to talk about, not do. Only a small percentage of companies make it a primary focus. Here’s a case in point.

Since December, 2007, I have been trying to get a major metropolitan newspaper to deliver a Sunday paper to me. My goal, as I’ve stated to them, is that “I want to wake up when I want on Sunday morning. I would like to make a cup of coffee, open my apartment door, look down and see the newspaper.”

I’m between houses and am renting in an urban area, so what I’ve asked for shouldn’t be a problem, given that distribution is one of the primary functions of a newspaper. Yet, the company’s inability to consistently provide me with a newspaper one day a week has led even their publisher to agree that their performance is unsatisfactory . . . but nothing has changed.

I first subscribed to the paper when I moved to Massachusetts in 1999. On March 9, though, I wrote a letter to the publisher canceling my subscription and asking for an explanation why they couldn’t deliver my paper. Here’s what I wrote:

“I did not receive delivery of my newspaper on the following dates: December 9, December 16, December 30, January 6, January 13, February 10 and March 9. Formal complaints have been filed, promises have been made. Alas, all to no good.

Instead of receiving my Sunday paper, I have, however, received many, many excuses from those in your organization and from your distribution center in Chelmsford. I’ve learned that there continually is a new driver (that’s the main excuse), that the driver is having a problem, that they have ‘visualized the driver leaving the paper there.’

Today, I heard again that ‘we don’t have a key for the building,’ which was not true because I’ve heard it before and spoke with the management office about it. ‘Management won’t give us a key’ is another common excuse that’s also untrue. Even if that were true, I did discover my newspaper on one afternoon, thrown out in the snow in front of our building on one of the dates in February that I did receive it, so they could at least do that.

Again, today, I was told (once again) that I would receive a replacement paper within an hour and the driver would ring me. Of course, it never showed up and no one contacted me (once again).

I’ve also heard, over the past couple of months, that ‘I don’t know what else to tell you.'”

I cannot fathom why this organization has so much difficulty performing a function so basic to its business. With increased competition from other media, one would think that in an era of declining newspaper circulation, publishers would make an extra effort to ensure customers are satisfied. Particularly in urban areas – and in my case, in a large apartment building – the marginal revenue of a single additional subscription pretty much goes to the bottom line. I can’t believe I’m the only subscriber having these problems.

The publisher wrote back to me that “the management of our circulation department has been made aware of the delivery problems you have experienced” and he hoped I would give them a chance to win back my business. The editor, who I’d also copied on the letter to let him know why his news was being read by one less person, wrote me that he forwarded it to the Senior Vice President for Circulation and Marketing and to the Director of Call Center Services (who is also listed as a “Relationship Marketing Director”).

Consequently, I was disappointed that over the next four weeks, I received only two Sunday newspapers. Opening my door was like playing Russian roulette: I never knew if a paper would be there or not. I called once and was told the paper was delivered to the wrong address. But I never received a replacement.

So I contacted the paper’s management again. The relationship director emailed me that the “horrible service . . . makes no sense” and “It will be fixed.” The publisher wrote me that “50% service is unsatisfactory.” He assured me that my delivery problems “have not gone unnoticed.”

The following Tuesday, I received a daily paper, which I do not want. The relationship director wrote that “That should be fixed.” I received emails from him about all the people in the organization he’d spoken with. But I’m not interested in how they do it. I just want to open my door and see a newspaper on Sunday morning.

Over the next three weeks, I received two Sunday papers. I also received a call from someone at the newspaper asking again about how they could get a key to the building. Since I had answered the question over and over, I referred him to the relationship director. Once more, I wrote the director. I said, “I can’t spend any more time answering anyone else’s questions on how to get your operations done. I just want my paper.”

Last week, my intercom rang early on Sunday morning. The delivery person brought the paper up and handed it to me, along with a lecture when I asked him to please just bring the paper and leave it in front of my door.

Now, I understand what it’s like to deliver newspapers. I had a rural route for years growing up, trudging through snow, in the hot sun, seven days as week – and those Sunday papers, full of ads, were heavy. I got up early before school and even had an after-school route, until the afternoon paper shut down. I learned that customers were golden – they paid your bills – and you never, ever spoke harshly to a customer.

What’s clear, other than the disconnect between management and the folks on the ground, is that customer service is not valued in this organization. It’s not a priority of the paper’s leadership and that attitude flows right down to the delivery people. A newspaper needs to write news. It needs to sell ads. But if you can’t provide that information to your customers, what’s the point? Eventually, you’re going to go out of business.

This major metropolitan newspaper is going through all the motions of customer service, but the low priority they assign to it means it is highly ineffective. I’ve written the publisher and the relationship director that “I don’t think my expectations are too high, but you can’t get the job done. Please leave me alone.”

I’ve received a response. They say that the problem is deplorable and has now been fixed. The saga continues . . . .

How to Prepare and Deliver World-Class Presentations

Monday, April 21st, 2008

Tim Ferriss has an excellent post on planning and structuring presentations, as advised by Dan Pink, Al Gore’s former chief speechwriter.

Emailing Bad News…The Sandwich Approach

Wednesday, March 26th, 2008

I’ve previously written that communication in writing is the worst way to communicate. But what if you have to communicate that way and on top of that, you have bad news to deliver? Whether in a letter or an email, one technique can make the bad news a little less disheartening.

Write your message like a sandwich. Put the bad news in the middle. If you can find some good news to start with, and end with a positive tone, then it makes the bad news easier to consume.

This method isn’t the only way to deliver bad news in writing. Another way is as an open-faced sandwich, with the bad news in the beginning, but with positive reinforcement thereafter. Here’s an example of that approach, in a rejection letter to a candidate for a law clerkship:

“Although I am unable to offer you a position, I very much appreciate the interest you expressed in a clerkship with me. Your talent is evident, and I regret that demands on my time precluded an interview with you.

With best wishes for a rewarding career in the law….”

Crafting a Message That Sticks

Wednesday, March 12th, 2008

I like what Chip Heath, Professor of Organization Behavior at Stanford, has to say about communication in The McKinsey Quarterly.* In this interview, he discusses “sticky ideas,” ones that people remember and that change something about the way they think or act.

Professor Heath states that the best advice is to make messages more concrete. Keeping them simple and credible, emotional and unexpected-with surprises-are other basic traits of sticky ideas. Finally, telling a story makes a message more effective, as “[s]tories act as a kind of mental flight simulator, preparing us to respond more quickly and effectively.”** Good stuff.

* registration is free.

** As a junior lawyer, I had to draft a securities filing for a complicated transaction. I was working with a seasoned attorney in our firm and his advice was to “tell a story.” The point was to make it easier for those reading it (i.e., the regulators at the SEC) to understand. I don’t remember much else about the transaction, but this stuck with me.

Sam Walton’s 10 Rules for Success

Thursday, March 6th, 2008

In 1962, Sam Walton founded Wal-Mart. He built it into the largest retail company in the world. He had 10 rules for success….

Rule #1
Commit to your business. Believe in it more than anything else. If you love your work, you’ll be out there every day trying to do the best you can, and pretty soon everybody around will catch the passion from you – like a fever.

Rule #2
Share your profits with all your associates, and treat them as partners. In turn, they will treat you as a partner, and together you will all perform beyond your wildest expectations.

Rule #3
Motivate your partners. Money and ownership aren’t enough. Set high goals, encourage competition and then keep score. Make bets with outrageous payoffs.

Rule #4
Communicate everything you possibly can to your partners. The more they know, the more they’ll understand. The more they understand, the more they’ll care. Once they care, there’s no stopping them. Information is power, and the gain you get from empowering your associates more than offsets the risk of informing your competitors.

Rule #5
Appreciate everything your associates do for the business. Nothing else can quite substitute for a few well-chosen, well-timed, sincere words of praise. They’re absolutely free and worth a fortune.

Rule #6
Celebrate your success and find humour in your failures. Don’t take yourself so seriously. Loosen up and everyone around you will loosen up. Have fun and always show enthusiasm. When all else fails put on a costume and sing a silly song.

Rule #7
Listen to everyone in your company, and figure out ways to get them talking. The folks on the front line – the ones who actually talk to customers – are the only ones who really know what’s going on out there. You’d better find out what they know.

Rule #8
Exceed your customer’s expectations. If you do they’ll come back over and over. Give them what they want – and a little more. Let them know you appreciate them. Make good on all your mistakes, and don’t make excuses – apologize. Stand behind everything you do. ‘Satisfaction guaranteed’ will make all the difference.

Rule #9
Control your expenses better than your competition. This is where you can always find the competitive advantage. You can make a lot of mistakes and still recover if you run an efficient operation. Or you can be brilliant and still go out of business if you’re too inefficient.

Rule #10
Swim upstream. Go the other way. Ignore the conventional wisdom. If everybody is doing it one way, there’s a good chance you can find your niche by going exactly in the opposite direction.

Communication in Your Company

Tuesday, January 1st, 2008

Communication is critical to all of life’s relationships. Anytime two or more people are involved in a common endeavor or activity, a potential for miscommunication exists. And if the potential is there, it may well happen—that’s Murphy’s Law.

While it’s not typically a major focus when starting a company like sales, finance or the other functional areas, it is critical to success. As the organization grows, careful and clear communication among the company’s employees will make or break the company, especially if it is going through hard times or is operating during a time of market turmoil.

During my career, I’ve advised hundreds of clients ranging from tiny operations to global giants. What’s separated the great from the mediocre companies, regardless of size, has been the employees’ ability to communicate effectively.

For example, many companies develop a mission and key goals. Sometimes, they’re posted on a website, in an employee handbook or in the front lobby. Sometimes, they can be found only in the head of the company’s founder. Typically, company missions and critical drivers are not communicated or not communicated well to employees. As a result, employees can end up working towards different ends and at odds with each other.

Here are some practical tips for better company communication:

  • Focus on what is important to your company—mission and goals—regularly in company meetings. You have to repeat this information over and over and over; it can take a long time to sink in. You want everyone on the same train going down the same tracks.
  • You’ll gain trust by sharing knowledge than by hoarding information.
  • If you have bad news, it’s better to let your employees know than have rumor and uncertainty eat away at your company’s morale. Keeping Morale Up When Your Business is Down goes into more detail on this.
  • Communication in person is best.
  • Communication by video is second best.
  • Communication by telephone is third best.
  • Communication by written word is the least best way to relate to someone. Words, without visual or oral clues, are easily misinterpreted. Who among us has not ended up in a series of email or text exchanges that became angrier, misinterpreted or confused because of miscommunication?