Your business – a family or a battlefield?

Charles Duhigg, Pulitzer prize winning writer at the New York Times and author of The Power of Habit, said that companies resemble civil war battlefields more than they do “big happy families”. He describes workplaces as “fiefdoms where executives compete for power and credit – making their own performances seem superior and their rivals seem worse. Divisions compete for resources and sabotage each other to steal glory”.The cynic in me wants to say that many seemingly happy families exhibit the traits he describes and sibling rivalry is certainly a force to be reckoned with. However, most of us can recognise and relate to the situations that arise within businesses and organisations and contribute to, in the worst case failure, and at best under-performance and waste of resources.

It is precisely these sorts of issues that I face when coaching and training business owners and their teams. I had similar issues myself when I employed more people and I have also encountered them in every other organisation I have been involved with, either as an employee or director. Public sector and not-for-profit organisations are not immune – but perhaps they don’t have the same pressure to resolve the issues as they are not answerable to shareholders. I worked in the civil service for a number of years and it was a hotbed of factions, gossip and bullying. Is this just the darker side of human behaviour and must organisations accept it or is there a way to overcome it?

Fortunately Mr. Duhigg offers a solution. And it is a solution that, sub-consciously, we already know and use to some extent as we work to overcome issues in both private and work life. It is the use of habit to alter, or manage, behaviour. The author explains this very clearly and convincingly in his book and in the free link that I’ve given you below so I won’t attempt to do that. Suffice to say, I now know why I used the power of habit instinctively in my very early days of running Alpha and why it worked as well as it did. If I share that with you, simplistic as it may sound, it may help you to deal with some of the issues you face either in running a team or being the member of one.

Any activity that we undertake has to be driven by a defined result. If we don’t know what we are working towards, whether on a get fit regime or a sales drive, how will we know when we’ve reached our target? “Being thinner” or “making more sales” isn’t quantified so a very small improvement could be classed as success. When people are given, or give themselves, vague targets they are not motivated. I started my business in 1989 with several objectives, one of which was to avoid getting into debt. That was an easily defined goal back in those days. I started with £5300 and was determined to create a sustainable business using that sum without borrowing. Naive of course and, as the need to invest in equipment came along with computerisation I allowed myself to borrow but always in a structured way with repayments that were within my means. At the beginning I had no way of knowing how much work I needed to do in order to achieve my business plan, which was to generate £60,000 of sales with a gross profit of about 50% in year one. I developed a routine of doing the part of the work that I most disliked first thing in the morning – cold calls to prospective clients. I made myself speak to 10 decision-makers and then I moved on to other work which I found easier and more enjoyable. By the end of 12 months I had turned over £57,000 with a gross profit of £31,000. I had employed an excellent designer (salary in those days for an experienced designer was £12,000) and a book-keeper, invested in marketing and paid myself……nothing at all…….which was OK because that was part of the plan.

I looked back through my diary and found that, out of my 10 contacts a day I had generated 1 appointment a day which resulted in one third of a sale. In other words, my close rate of appointments to sales was 1 in 3. This magic formula was, I later found, a standard across many industries. However poor someone is on the telephone, they will generate results to a greater or lesser degree and once they know their own ratio, they know exactly how much work they need to do to reach a defined level of success.

All this is fine when you are a small business with only your own efforts to rely upon, and only yourself to be critical if you fail. But as my business grew, and I I became involved with other businesses, I realised that this simple method works time and again at any scale of operation. Look after sales and the rest will take care of itself. We have more tools at our disposal than just the telephone these days of course but there is no substitute for human contact and my clients still like an occasional call or visit.

Back to the battlefield scenario of a large business – there are layers of management, people delegate the bits they don’t like very much to their subordinates, nobody checks the numbers, or whether marketing is actually working….. a recipe for disaster. When I’m working with businesses in this situation I understand that they are usually victims of their own success. They have grown quickly and found themselves with a hierarchy that nobody intended. One client said to me once, “Never employ too many people – it’s the worst thing you can do”. He was the MD of a highly successful £multi million turnover company and sold out shortly afterwards to a French competitor. Despite this advice I did increase my staff and tried to empower people to head up sections of the business. It was not long before I had the battlefield on my hands as described by Mr Duhigg, modest in size though my business still was. I abandoned my long held good sales habits to deal with personnel issues. My 10 a day became 1 or 2 now and again when I remembered. This is the typical growth pattern of many businesses and the reason so many call consultants in to remind them how they became successful in the first place.

Where am I now? Well I realised that I’ll never be an HR specialist and I’m not a particularly good man-manager either. My business is about helping others to grow. I’m good at managing myself and I like to support other business owners in defining and reaching their goals. The onlooker sees more of the game and I can be objective when maybe the business owner just sees chaos.

Use habits in your business. Little and often is all that is needed. If you’d like help to get back to basics and remove some of the obstacles to your continued growth, give me a call. Funding is available for coaching and training eligible businesses. Between us we can get you back on track. 01743 239283
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