Last week I talked about the opportunity that the job market has created to build a team of invisible heroes to help drive the business on through these difficult times.

But of course, as anyone who has run any kind of team will know, getting everyone pulling in the same direction (or even in roughly the same direction) is easier said than done. Our article “Are you an Elton or a Ronald?” explores the extremes of relationships between the business and the owner but of course there are actually very “Ronalds” with fully systemised businesses especially in the owner-managed business world.

In fact, over-systemisation can make your business unable to react quickly to changes in your market which is the single most significant advantage you have over much bigger competitors.

So how do you stop your team of diverse and hopefully enthusiastic personalities from actively working against each other even without realising it?

Often this starts with management. I reminisced recently with a client who I’ve known for 20 years about some of the partners in the previous business he was involved in when I originally met him.

Back in the early noughties we did a strategic planning day for the five partners involved.

It soon became clear that one of the partners who we’ll call John (because that was his name) was the main barrier to making the necessary changes. By the end of the day though, we had him surrounded and he reluctantly agreed to make the necessary alterations to his department which was losing money, sucking in resources and undermining other parts of the business.

That day was one of the most successful strategic planning days I ever did. Not because of what happened on the day but because the outcome they were looking for was to sell the business in three years. In the end, by doing the things that we identified on the day (even if John wasn’t initially happy about some of them) they did it in 18 months.

But it required a huge effort from those around John to make sure the necessary changes were made.

My client told me how John spent every Monday morning every week sorting out muddled paperwork in order to get the invoicing done. There were often errors in the invoicing which then caused problems with customers. He told John over and over again that John needed to get a better filing system in place so that things were in the right places immediately the job was done.

But John always told him that he didn’t have time to put a system in place.

He was too busy dealing with unhappy customers and trying to find the correct paperwork!

If that sounds familiar, then you have a problem that needs addressing.

The return to the company on John’s time of getting a better system in place was enormous. Hundreds of hours of work saved for the sake of maybe a day putting a better system in place. It’s easier to paddle a boat on calm waters.

At A4G, we often talk about marginal gains and looking for all those 1% improvements. And it is important to do that.

But if there’s a 20% improvement to be made somewhere (or maybe a 100% improvement) then the 1% improvements will have to wait. Many of my team with long to do lists have heard me talk about prioritising based on ROI (Return on Investment).

But often your subconscious steers you towards justifying your decision to prioritise the things you prefer doing and ignore the areas where the biggest improvements could be made.

In many ways we are all like those decathletes and heptathletes preparing for the Olympics. Unlike most other athletes they are not specialists but generalists. They must be really good at lots of events not awesome at just one.

But what if you are really poor at one event and excellent at one of the others?

You could try and ignore the thing you are poor at and just make up the difference on other events. That is what unwittingly most people do.

TeamGB has had some amazing heptathletes over the years. Denise Lewis, Jessica Ennis and now Kathryn Johnson-Thompson. Each of that legendary trio had events that they were world class at. Perhaps good enough to compete for a medal but maybe not quite good enough to be World or Olympic champion.

It would be easy to be drawn in their training towards the events that they were better at. After all, we all enjoy things we are good at more than things we are not so good at.

But they focus most of their efforts on the things they are bad at. That’s what winners do.

In the heptathlon there could be an extra 200 points they could achieve by a relatively small improvement in your worst event whereas in your best you might be close to getting maximum points. What’s the point in trying to get even better at that?

But human nature sucks you and your team into a cycle of subconsciously justifying what you shouldn’t do the thing that you don’t want to do.

The emergence from the pandemic is a chance to reset old habits. It’s a chance for your team to recognise their potential. To understand that knowledge is a great equaliser. If your team can acquire new knowledge and skills especially in areas where you are weak, you are suddenly competing on level terms with people who may have far more experience than you.

I know that breaking old habits isn’t easy. And breaking bad habits of your team is even harder.

But if there was ever a time when this could be done it is now. And if there has ever been a time when it was imperative to get everyone pulling in the same direction for the benefit of the team it is now. Your business may be vulnerable to another downturn or lockdown. Your team probably know that. People are much more prepared to make necessary changes when everything is at stake.

It may be that they are stuck in old habits because you don’t know where to look for new ones. But the answers are there if they can just start looking.

It may be that they are stuck in old habits because you are allowing them to be.

When I started doing strategic planning and business development work I was worried that I didn’t have all the answers. And then someone told me that I didn’t have to have all the right answers, just the right questions.

That revelation was amazing. My clients had the answers to almost all their problems. They just needed someone to ask them the right questions.

That technique is the basis of all our strategic planning sessions which are a big part of the Breakthrough Recovery Programme.

It’s why I can sit down with one of you about a particular issue and after 9 or 10 questions we usually have the answers to the problem. Actually, to be more accurate, you have the answers. It’s your boat and you know where the holes are and usually what’s needed to plug them.

And it’s the same for your team. If you can ask them the right questions, then they probably have the right answers.

But you can’t do that for everyone in your organisation. By the time you’ve worked your way round the firm, there’ll be problems to fix back at the start. So, you need to target your time on the areas where the biggest improvements are capable of being made. That means assessing not just the biggest issues for the company but identifying the people with the most potential to achieve that improvement. You’ve got to find the 20% improvements and not just work on the 1% improvements because that allows you work in the areas you prefer.

And then your invisible heroes (see last week’s email) will (hopefully) do the rest.

You might be surprised how quickly things change. Choppy waters will become calmer, the boat will pick up speed and soon you’ll be back to a new growth phase and will find yourself worrying about your tax bill instead of worrying about going bust.

Have a weekend and look out for our “Impact of Brexit” feature on Monday.

Contact me today!

Malcolm Palmer


Managing Partner

01474 853856

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