Many years ago, when I was appointed to run a series of US business operations in Europe, I faced the problem of becoming a good leader. And after a few false starts, I gradually learned the best way of doing it. The hard way. Through practical experience.
And now I’d like to show you how you can do it too.
I don’t go in much for intellectual debates on whether strategy is more important than culture. That sort of thing gets you nowhere.
But I will show you how to harness both of these great attributes to help you and your business to become much more capable and competitive.
If that’s also what you want then let’s get started.
There are six steps in this journey.
Step 1 - Remember you're leading people, not departments. So let's look at the people first.
When you're newly appointed to run a business operation, you need to set out your strategy going forward.
And the only way you're going to realise that strategy is by leading your people. By convincing and inspiring them that your vision is achievable.
Your people are usually the most difficult element of your strategy to get right. Hence the need for good leadership skills.
I learned very early on in my career that I should always strive to have the highest calibre people in my group.
When hiring at any level I could hire the best, with the right personal and technical skills. (See my other blog, 'The Road to Business Success 5')
But what about the people already in the group? Those that you inherit in your new role?
I also learned early on that most of these people were grossly undervalued. They often had lots of skills and capabilities that were never even recognised, far less used to the benefit of the group or the company.
This fact gives you a great opportunity to become an inspirational leader. Let me tell you how.
Step 2 - Become an inspirational leader
Inspirational leaders consistently generate trust and raise the self-esteem of their staff.
Good leaders spend at least an hour a day on the shop floor or office areas talking positively with people. They also know the names of their people without having to refer to name tags.
Typically the good leader will subtly probe to uncover the USPs of his or her staff. I use the term USP (unique selling point) in this context to refer to unique aspects of the individual's off-work experience that the leader can develop and utilise productively for the benefit of both the individual and the business.
As a result people then develop a sense of pride in working for the company.
And that is the ultimate aim of this highly personal leadership approach.
Here are some examples from my personal experience.
- A young man in the warehouse who emerged as the Captain of his local football team.
- A young girl in the planning department, quiet and conscientious, who we discovered had been the Captain of her University College Rowing Club.
- A young machine operator doing a good job, who turned out to have previously been a check-out operator at a large retail store. In that job he was trusted to close down the tills each evening and transfer the cash to the office.
- Another machine operator who overcame a personal fear of heights by doing a solo sky-dive for a charity that was important to her family.
In all of these cases, and many more, we uncovered their unique personal assets – their USPs – which we then used to unlock the constraints to their personal growth and develop them for their benefit as well as for the business as a whole.
To have people proud to work for the group is the greatest endorsement a leader can have. He can’t tell people to be proud of their job. They only feel proud if everything else is right. It’s the ultimate endorsement.
So follow these points to develop a dynamic enthusiastic culture and have your people proud to work for you as an inspirational leader.
Step 3 - So where are you going to lead them? Why not to world-class?
It’s a tough, highly competitive world out there, both for individuals and businesses.
To be really successful you’ve got to improve ahead of your competition, and stay there.
But improve what?
I wrestled with this problem when I started.
And then I discovered that what really determined my success against my competitors was the extent to which I consistently added value in everything I did.
(See my other blog, Road to Business Success 1)
I found that typically between 50% and 80% of their total time at work was spent not adding value. But that was the way everyone worked. That was normal.
If I could eliminate all this non-value-adding activity then I could become much more productive than everyone else and leap ahead. Once I realised this, I began to really develop the right leadership objectives and solutions.
Let me explain how I did it.
Everything you do in business should be part of a defined process for a customer.
In a manufacturing process, value adding only occurs in those steps that change the raw material you receive closer to what your customer is paying for.
In a non-manufacturing process, such as an administrative or service process, value adding only occurs in those steps that change the raw information you receive closer to what your customer, whether internal or external, really wants.
Nothing else you do adds value.
So I’d now figured out that adding value was the key. And I wanted to get my operations up to world class. How could I combine these to give me what I wanted?
I gradually developed a grid of world-class performance levels covering three key operational parameters using value-adding as the basis.
These were Responsiveness, Productivity and Right First Time.
I called the grid the Path to Excellence and I reproduce part of it here.
‘Responsiveness’ is the ratio of overall lead time for any process to the actual value adding time involved in that process
'Productivity’ is the proportion of the total time that your assets (whether people or equipment) are used productively to add value.
'Right First Time’ is the proportion of the total items or transactions that start a process which finish it right first time with no defects or rework required.
I ensured that ‘Excellence’ represented world-class standards of performance for almost any operational process. I could then assess my performance against these standards.
I discovered to my horror that the performance of my processes sat somewhere left of centre on this grid (see red line).
But what it also highlighted was what I had to do to reach the level of ‘Excellence’.
And that was the breakthrough for me in planning and developing my leadership strategy.
Once I achieved the ‘Excellence’ level on all three of these parameters (see green line) my businesses transformed from being OK to becoming the best in their sector.
And to me, that’s what the right leadership strategy and tactics should achieve.
Since then, as a consultant, I’ve applied this approach to all my clients in many different sectors with huge success. And you can do that too in your world.
Step 4 – So how do you reach these world-class standards?
Really by focusing on these three parameters – Responsiveness, Productivity and Right First Time.
Firstly Responsiveness. Analyse each of your key processes, whether they’re manufacturing, administrative or service processes, and eliminate the many steps that don’t add value
As a result you complete the processes much more quickly, and give a more responsive and superior service to customers that can potentially generate more revenues.
Secondly Productivity. Ensure that the step that sets the pace for your process operates at its most effective.
You then get the maximum volume through that step – and therefore through the whole process – which gives you maximum productivity, lower costs and improves profits.
Thirdly Right First Time. Ensure that all your processes operate right first time. Apply root cause analyses to ensure minimum rework, which then helps you achieve the two other main objectives.
It takes time and effort to get there. But I can assure you that once you’re operating your processes at the ‘Excellence’ level, the operational, financial and business benefits are amazing. It will transform your life and your company’s competitive position.
That’s the basis of great leadership qualities. That’s how to achieve world-class levels of performance. That’s what you really need to aim for in this highly competitive world.
Step 5 - Mitigate the risks - and avoid the "What about Malta?" syndrome
Over the years, I’ve worked in both the US and Europe. And when it comes to risk mitigation, I much prefer the US approach. Let me explain why.
Imagine that you’ve worked out your strategy for improvement and the tactics for achieving it. To ensure success you now need to check that the main risks are covered.
In the US the approach is to look at the number one risk and assess what needs done to mitigate that risk. Then look at the number two risk and do the same with that. Then perhaps look at the number three risk as well.
Usually these first three risks take care of around 80% or more of the total risk.
Our approach in the US was to then say that we’ve got good people on the project and we trust them to deal with other minor risks within our framework guidelines. So let’s get started now.
On the other hand, in Europe, particularly central Europe, the approach is a bit different. They go through the first three risks just as in the above US scenario. But they then go on to look at the fourth biggest risk, and the fifth and the sixth, and so on. They analyse things to the ultimate to make sure they haven’t missed anything.
I’ve dubbed that European approach the “What about Malta?” syndrome.
This arose when we were re-engineering a European product portfolio. More than 80% of European business was covered by the big five – Germany, UK, France, Spain and Italy. By assessing the risks in these countries, we had covered the vast majority of project risks.
However, that wasn’t enough for the central Europeans on the panel. They wanted to go on and work out the risks in the smaller European countries as well. Until we got the call “What about Malta?”
The total business on the relevant products in Malta was 0.3% but the person involved stated that even though it was small in global terms, the products were A class products in Malta. We should really know how we were going to deal with them there.
It was frankly ridiculous, and was the trigger to stop the discussion.
We agreed that our people on the project were excellent and could be relied upon to take the right decisions within the framework guidelines. Any exceptions would be covered by weekly or monthly steering group meetings. So, let’s get on with it now.
That difference between the two approaches for me is very significant. In my view it contributes to the greater success of the US in driving forward and achieving new ideas more quickly.
So, as you approach the problem of mitigating risks in your projects, make sure you adopt the US approach rather than the European approach. And absolutely make sure that you avoid the “What about Malta?” syndrome.
Step 6 - Make sure you finish the job - and achieve the objectives
With your weekly or monthly steering group meetings and progress updates, make sure that you openly support your people and that they actually deliver the objectives of the project in the agreed timescales. Remember that delegation does not mean abdication.
You have to stay on top of the project team and make sure that you resolve any difficulties to progress that may arise.
I hope you find that all of the above practical advice helps you to develop the qualities of a good leader that will really make a huge difference to you and to your people and to your business. Enjoy your success.
You can become the best in your business.
Let me know what you think.
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