Why arrogance has no place in business

I have been reflecting recently about the danger of arrogance in our business lives. I think it can come to some people through complacency. They feel that they know what they are doing, they have been doing it a fair time, and they know best. An attitude like that may lead to bullying too.

An arrogant person may indeed know his or her subject very well, and be very good at teasing out the finer points in their analysis of problems they seek to solve, but an arrogant person is also someone who does not communicate properly with the people who most need their help. An arrogant person ultimately is someone facing the risk of failure, because without being able to talk to or persuade people, any solution proposed will not be heeded.

Some of you may be familiar with the TV series “House” starring Hugh Laurie as a brilliant doctor and diagnostician. The premise of this very good programme originating from Fox in the US is that Dr House hardly ever sees patients because he in not interested in them, only in the diagnosis of their illness. He is very self-centred and very rude to almost everyone, but he is protected by his team of doctors who deal with and talk to the patients as well as carrying out any necessary tests. Dr House is also a bully, though he always thinks that his bullying is for the victim’s own good. Of course this is entertainment, and one needs to see a few episodes to enjoy the in-jokes and characters, and like many beers the series is an acquired taste.

In fact the premise of the progamme is not so absurd. I understand many doctors do become very arrogant, though perhaps not usually quite to the degree of the Dr. House character.

I am sure most of us have known arrogant but clever people in our working lives, including some who were bullies too. Imagine if we small business owners and employees adopted this attitude with our clients and customers. We cannot rely on our team to protect us. Imagine we believed we knew everything there is to know, and our clients were wrong and did not know what was good for them. Suppose we did not listen to them. We might understand their problem and make a diagnosis, and we may know how to fix it and provide a solution, but if we just told them – barked it out – they would feel intimidated and shy away. We would lose business that we should have gained and our clients would not get their solution unless they found someone more amenable who was as capable as we of delivering it.

Arrogance can be the price of experience and of knowledge but a little humility can go a long way in engaging our clients both in the formal way and in helping to solve their problems.

© Jon Stow 2009

“House”

Responsibility in leading

In my last piece I talked about getting the best out of our employees and co-workers, and including giving them some responsibility for their work. Delegation is great, and as long as people do not feel out of their depth they should feel more energized. We will have more time to run and further the interests of the business and think where we are going, knowing that work is getting done on our behalf.

However, just because we have given our workers responsibility does not mean that we have given up our responsibility. It can be difficult working on one’s own as an employee in a larger organization especially, because bosses and senior managers will want something done in a certain way. It is important to check that those responsible to us are happy in what they are doing, and understand what is required of them. In particular, if they come to us and ask, we must listen and help them. It is no good waiting until they have finished the task as they see it, and then telling them we did not want it done that way, or they had misunderstood what was needed. If they have got it wrong, it is our fault, not theirs, and our responsibility for cutting them adrift.

I was reminded of this recently when I was asked to undertake a local project for a client with a particular brand, and I ended up on the wrong end of a poor relationship. Yes, I could and have completed the task in hand, and it will run quite effectively as it is. The frustrating part is, I can see ways of making it better, providing a better service to customers and giving them added satisfaction through feeling wanted, so increasing loyalty and reducing churn. The only cost will be in terms of my time, and I can get my reward directly through increasing my share of the revenue. The trouble is getting the brand owner’s permission to tweak as it will make the service slightly different but better than in the other areas in which the business operates. Of course if my idea were to be rolled out more widely, it would in my opinion make the whole brand better. However, unfortunately despite my best efforts I get no feedback, which is very frustrating.

So, do not leave your employees, workers or contractors high and dry after giving them that initial responsibility for their task. Listen to them and seek their feedback if you are not getting it. Otherwise you may be disappointed, and worse, may not allow them to improve on your original idea.

© Jon Stow 2009

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How to get the best out of our employees and co-workers

In the late seventies, when of course I was very young, Britain organised a recession all for itself. It was punctuated and marked by industrial disputes and strikes, notably by the seamen, the public service workers, and of course the rail workers. I need to say that this is not going to be a union-bashing piece or even a Government-bashing piece, though we have a scene now in a new recession which is quite reminiscent of those bad old days. People now forget the strikes of the seventies were the raison d’être for the confrontation with the miners during the Thatcher years. There was an understandable feeling of “never again”. With hindsight, the approach might not have been quite right, but the thing about hindsight is that you do not have it until after the event.

At the time of writing we have threats of a national strike by the postal workers (threats of staff cuts and modernisation of working practices), and a strike by Corus steel workers (closure of its final salary pension scheme to new entrants, i.e. mainly people who have not joined the company yet). One by National Express Rail workers (pay offer above inflation deemed insufficient) has been settled. One supposes that all these disputes are over genuinely perceived issues without a political agenda.

These strikes make me feel quite uncomfortable in that they can make the recession worse, affecting productivity through travel difficulties and raw material supply, as well as cash-flow, so important to many businesses including especially, small businesses. It really shouldn’t be funny, but there is a comic absurdity in all this, at a time when even the TUC is forecasting that there will be 4 million unemployed within the next year or so.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3a9OAvqyjn0&hl=en&fs=1&]

The confrontation and posturing we see on both sides of these disputes between major employers and unions is certainly not the sort of behaviour we would want to see in small business, and indeed we do not see it very often. However, unfortunately management and workers can still take very entrenched positions, particularly over productivity and in respect of staff absence. It can happen in respect of pay too.

Fortunately the small business owner is in a much better position to do something about these problems and to put matters right. It involves taking a friendly approach which might be alien to the big employers and their workforce representatives. Being nice to someone is certainly never harmful. So, if there is a productivity problem we, our small business owner or SME director should say to the workers individually or together (it depends on circumstances) “I know that you are doing your best, but we really are not getting the results we expect. Do you have a suggestion as to how we could get through more work? Is there a problem you can identify and something we can change?” That way the staff will feel happy that they have been asked and feel more valued. We will be giving them some responsibility for their work and there may well be something the business could change to make the system better and get more work done. At the same time, the staff will feel more able to volunteer issues that concern them and give useful feedback without being asked.

In the case of staff absence, it is always best at the earliest stage to talk to the individual because there may be an area in which we can help. Again, the person will feel valued, and perhaps one could allow some flexibility on working hours if there is something which keeps the person away from work. Of course, common sense must prevail, but again we encourage collective responsibility. Even pay issues are best resolved by talking first, and individual incentives related to personal productivity can also encourage valuable feedback.

None of this is novel, but both small business employers and their staff can get into entrenched attitudes if they do not talk enough or at all. We have nothing to lose by being friendly and kind to those who work for us. I have always found that if our team members like us, they will respect us and try harder to please, which of course benefits them hugely, as well as our business.

© Jon Stow 2009

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The excitement of independence

In my previous article I referred to Penny Power and her recent blog, and she and subsequent contributors including her husband and co-founder of Ecademy referred to the different attitudes we need as small business owners to those we are required to have as employees, particularly in a larger corporate environment. I started my first job in a bank, and whilst it was no ordinary bank, it was a large institution. When I finally left it was because I felt I was an under-rewarded number as opposed to a real person with aspirations and needs.

My next job, in which I lasted a good few years, was a smallish firm with one office. Whilst life was not always happy there, with occasionally difficult bosses with alcohol and mental problems, we had some great times too and the firm felt like a large family. Many of the problems are those which one might have in an extended family, but at the same time we had fun as well as doing some good work. Also, in those inflationary times, the partners did their best to pay us properly and to keep up with market rates. That, combined with the fact that the work was challenging, technically difficult and challenging in a geekish sort of way kept me pretty happy work-wise until my boss’s declining mental health (as I realised only later) forced me to move on.

One of the attractions of the next firm I joined was that it was small and I was in charge of a whole department, such as it was. I had had a brief encounter at my previous job with modern technology in the form of computerization of the department of which I was an assistant manager, and my brief in the new firm was to run it more efficiently and preside over the introduction of information technology. As it happened I also thought that it would be good to acquire wider computer skills with both hardware and software so that I was more adaptable in case I lost my job in the recession of the nineties. What actually happened was that I was not only running my department but also IT troubleshooter for the whole firm, from dealing with dodgy cables to “undeleting” what the secretaries had accidentally deleted. Such faux pas were all too easy then and I earned the gratitude of ladies who had inadvertently deleted entire reports which their bosses had spent hours dictating. It was easy stuff, we had a family atmosphere in the firm and I could more or less do what I liked within my domain without interference as long as nothing went wrong, and it didn’t, I am pleased to say.

Came the time when the firm’s useful client base was bought out by an international firm, along with the staff, and I found myself in a huge corporate environment in which one could hardly wipe one’s nose without logging it, where there were rules, a compulsory conference, and “bonding” days spoiled by people being so competitive. What was worse was that as a guy with a small firm background I was never given any decent technical work; the partners were prejudiced against all of us “hicks” whom they felt had been dumped on them and worse, these partners had no idea about commercial realities and economics.

That is why I thank the heavens every day that through whatever circumstance, I am an independent business owner in charge of my own destiny. I make all the decisions (well, I consult my wife often) but the buck stops with me, and that is fine. Also, I can do whatever I like as long as it is legal and ethical in order to make some money.

I have been trying to explain this to a small start-up business client that he needs to get out of a mindset that he only does one thing. Of course he did only one thing when he worked for someone else. Now he needs to be more flexible for his family’s sake.

I explained a while back that my wife and I needed to be open to running any sort of business for which there might be a demand. That is why we have several businesses. I love my independence, and am looking forward to starting the fifth business venture my wife and I have between us, which has come to me through networking. Those two words in that last sentence, independence and networking, illustrate why having one or more of one’s own businesses is so much fun and is so rewarding.

© Jon Stow 2009

Respect – being what our clients look for.

I don’t know what other people do, but I do try to match my manner and behaviour according to the client I am seeing, especially when visiting them in their own environment. My clients come from a lot of different backgrounds and vary in age from their early twenties to late eighties.

So how I deal with them depends on their expectations, and I try to keep them comfortable with me. Of course, if I am seeing a prospect for the first time I have to make a judgement based on experience, but if I know a client I already know what suits him or her.

What am I going on about? Well, I do not wish anyone to feel uncomfortable with me, so I think about my general demeanour, the manner in which I speak and the way I dress. I expect others do the same, whether consciously or otherwise.

Twenty-five years ago (it scarcely seems possible) I worked with a guy who provided bookkeeping services to a rock group and often worked in the office run by the band. My friend always wore his suit and tie when in our accountants’ office, but when he was at the band’s establishment he dressed down to very casual attire, because the staff were very laid back and living in the rock life environment. They would have been uncomfortable with a stuffed shirt and my colleague would have felt uncomfortable too.

It is all about managing expectations. My rule is (and you may laugh if you wish) that if I visit a business office I wear a suit and a tie, and of course a shirt as well. If I see a client who is younger who does not work in an office, so anyone from a drama teacher to a brickie, then maybe a jacket but definitely no tie. You get the picture. Then again these are the people with whom I am on first name terms; I have known them for a while.

There is then the older group, the over-seventies. They expect a tax practitioner not only to where a suit, shirt and tie, but to stay away from familiarity because that is the way they were taught to deal with their elders; they feel entitled to the same treatment and etiquette and that is what they get. I stick to “Mr. Smith” and “Mrs. Brown” etc. unless given permission to use their first names, though I do not get out of my own comfort zone by addressing anyone as Sir or Madam. I am a professional, not a servant!

I have cringed when visiting older people in hospital or seeing on television the elderly spoken to by medical staff using first names. People are stripped of a great deal of dignity by being in hospital or in having difficulty looking after themselves. They deserve to be treated with proper respect as it is better for their morale.

I guess the way I deal with each client is to make me feel more comfortable too; there is a selfish element. I learned from my rock band colleague how to make clients feel at ease with dress code and manner, but he also left a lesson not to get too much into character. I heard he died a sad rock star death at an early age and never had the fame to go with it. That was a hard lesson.

© Jon Stow 2009

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Taking responsibility

I wrote back in January about owning our mistakes and there seems to be considerable avoidance of blame in our culture. We know where the buck stops if we are running a business, and it is on our desks and no one else’s. Also, if we have customers or clients and employees, we have responsibility to both groups, the first to provide a good quality of product or service, and to the second to pay properly, treat with respect and not risk their futures, though of course accidents happen.

I find The Apprentice difficult to watch, because the participants are constantly blaming each other for team failures. I would respect those who say “I am sorry, Sir Alan, it is my fault” (a rarity) but blaming others is no way to go about life. Some people do not have the need to be liked and will tread roughshod over all others in their path, and Sir Alan Sugar probably pays hardball most of the time, but he knows the value of his workforce and of his brand name, so he has to take into account what other people think to command any respect.

Amongst business people we often hear the lament that modern politicians have no experience in business, many having started straight from university into political research work for some other politician. There are few who have graduated through business now, and also few who have come through the ranks of trade unions, so most have no idea what it is to be responsible for others or to others. It is all about ego and climbing the ladder.

This brings me to the political situation in Britain, though I am not playing politics in this piece. The head of the service provider, the Prime Minister, is treating his customers with total disregard. HM Revenue & Customs refers to taxpayers as customers and we are all users of Government services so we must all be customers. In many ways we are shareholders. He does not seem to care that he does not have the support of the electorate and that they (we) have no confidence in sorting out the mess the economy is in. What is worse in some respects is that he is sacrificing his immediate staff such as Jacqui Smith and Hazel Blears. I am no supporter of Ms Blears, but she has been a most loyal supporter of Gordon Brown and he hung her out to dry by describing her behavior in the MPs expenses row as unacceptable. She had done nothing illegal or fraudulent as some other MPs may have done, even if she pushed her luck a bit with her capital gains tax property-flipping.

Mr. Brown’s ego prevents him from seeing that his customers or shareholders have no confidence in him and he is not the right man for the job. He has failed, and even if he had not, if he had been in business and lost the confidence of all surrounding him, he would still have to go, even if his name was Sugar or Branson. It is purely ego that prevents Mr. Brown from going to see the Queen to hand in his resignation, and whilst he staggers on we are all suffering. We all know this, because we understand how business should be, and Government is big business.