S+B: What It Takes to Stay Ahead of the Competition

Are you maintaining a high level of performance? Are you aware of new and innovative products on the market? Below is a blog from the STRATEGY+BUSINESS Blog by Matt Palmquist.

What It Takes to Stay Ahead of the Competition

Bottom Line: For companies, sustaining a consistently high level of performance requires unique capabilities that may differ sharply from the strategies they used to succeed in the first place.

Leading firms set themselves apart by achieving a high level of performance and meeting or exceeding consumers’ expectations relative to the competition. It’s usually an arduous, years-long process. But sustaining that level of performance is a completely different challenge — one that few companies can overcome in the modern business landscape.

There’s plenty of substantive advice available on how to attain high-quality performance in the first place. Researchers have variously touted the ability of firms to create barriers to entry for competitors, for example, or to draw (pdf) on unique capabilities to differentiate themselves. But rivals learn quickly, once-novel strategies can eventually be duplicated, mistakes can be made, and complacency can set in. What it takes to sustain top-quality performance, therefore, is also deserving of study — but it has received comparatively little attention from researchers. Indeed, most analysts have implicitly assumed that the capabilities required to attain high-quality performance are the same as those needed to sustain it.

A new study aims to shed light on the issue by analyzing which capabilities enable companies to sustain a consistent and high level of performance. It should be noted that for the study, the quality level and consistency of performance are two distinct concepts. Whereas a firm with a high quality level outshines its competitors in the short term, consistency involves maintaining that high level with minimal variance for a five-year period.

The authors analyzed data on 147 business units within large companies in the manufacturing sector that were based in either the U.S. or Taiwan. The reason to zero in on U.S. firms is obvious: They tend to set the tone for the global economy. The researchers chose to study Taiwanese firms as well in order to consider the differences between Eastern and Western cultures in their management approaches and assess any impact on performance. (In the final analysis, no significant differences between them appeared.) Taiwan also has a well-established reputation for advanced manufacturing.

To assemble a sample, the authors reached out to executives whose companies had won awards or earned acknowledgment from associations dedicated to recognizing high-performing businesses. The authors conducted surveys with quality or operations managers at the firms, who could speak to the specific strategies employed, and with general managers, who could field questions about the firm’s overall performance and the nuances of its business environment. For a subset of companies, the authors also obtained financial-performance data from the business unit’s accountant as well as internal audits that gauged the quality of its products and services.

After controlling for firm size, competitive intensity (pdf) of a given industry, and level of uncertainty faced — in the form of rapid technological developments or changing market conditions — the authors found that four particular capabilities emerged as integral to sustaining high-quality performance:

Improvement. This capability was defined as a firm’s ability to make incremental product or service upgrades, or to reduce production costs.

Innovation. Defined as how strong a company was at developing new products and entering new markets.

Sensing of weak signals. Defined as how well a company can focus on potential banana peels in order to improve overall performance, including analyzing mistakes, actively searching out production anomalies, and being aware of potential problems in the surrounding business environment.

Responsiveness. Defined as a business’s ability to solve problems that crop up unexpectedly and to use specialized expertise to counter those complications.

But these capabilities influenced different aspects of sustaining high performance, the authors found. For example, innovation capabilities primarily help firms maintain a certain level of quality, whereas the capacity for improvement affects mostly the consistency component. That’s probably because innovations are typically unique events that meet customers’ immediate needs and establish a certain level of quality, whereas incremental improvements are geared toward ensuring the long-term reliability of products and services, which translates into consistency.

Meanwhile, a firm’s capability for responsiveness had no significant effect on consistency, but had a decided positive impact on its level of quality — presumably because responding to quality-related problems quickly and efficiently is also a way of exceeding customers’ expectations in a one-off way.

Sensing of weak signals had a strong positive effect on consistency, but a moderately negative impact on the level of quality. This suggests a potential trade-off, the authors note, because maintaining both a high quality level and consistency is essential to sustaining performance. The authors speculate that a focus on sensing weak signals mandates that firms spend a lot of time collecting data and analyzing the occasional blip, which could cause them to get mired in minutiae and distract them from the more important tasks associated with sustaining a high level of performance. Although the benefits may pay off over time, a concentration on preventing failures rather than seeking out successes could also lead firms to take a short-term view and be overly conservative, too concerned with simply surviving, and to thus shy away from taking chances.

Intriguingly, the capabilities that increase consistency (improvement and sensing of weaknesses) are unaffected by the level of competitive intensity or uncertainty surrounding a firm, whereas those that affect the level of performance (innovation and responsiveness) depend heavily on the external context, the authors found. Presumably, the value of innovation and responsiveness is higher in the face of unanticipated external shocks, whereas improvement and sensitivity to failure are capabilities that are more internally oriented. As a result, firms may need to invest in certain capabilities more than others, depending on their business environment.

Source:An Empirical Investigation in Sustaining High-Quality Performance,” by Hung-Chung Su (University of Michigan–Dearborn) and Kevin Linderman (University of Minnesota), Decision Sciences, Oct. 2016, vol. 47, no. 5

 

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Inbox to Zero

Inbox to Zero

An email is a form of communication meant to pass information efficiently. However, it often becomes a productivity killer, if not properly managed. Below are ways to manage and reduce your inbox:

Turn Off Notifications / Work Offline

Email notices are often a major big focus drain. Turn off desktop pop-ups or chimes on your phone and computer.  Try Scheduling three fifteen or one thirty minute slot per day to check email.

When processing your email, you have three decisions to make: do it, delegate, or defer it.

Do it: If you can do the action in less than two minutes then do it. For example, reading an information only email, emails that can just be deleted, or those that require only a quick response.

Delegate: If appropriate delegate the task to an employee and move the email to a folder called @waiting_for. This folder can be used to store emails with a task that requires a follow-up.

Defer it: If this action or email requires more than two minutes then move this email to a folder called @action. The task required should be noted separately in order to avoid using this folder as a task list.

 

Unsubscribing to newsletters

If you are not reading an email newsletter, it’s best to unsubscribe since deleting these emails take valuable time. Almost all newsletters have an unsubscribe link. The links are at the bottom of most newsletters. Industry related newsletters that are important for you to read can be put into a folder labeled “Newsletter” or reading. These can be read while waiting for Dr.’s appointment, etc.

CC’s

If you’re the person in the CC’s part of the email, there shouldn’t be an action or response required on your part. The CC’s means for your information only.

To help with ““CC’ing, setup a rule in your email application to color code or move all the email that you’re CC’d on. This way you can reduce or manage your inbox.

Thanks

Unless the recipient requests you acknowledge the receipt, you don’t have to say “thanks” every time. Make that clear to your recipients, so there are proper expectations and no hurt feelings.

 

Email if used efficiently, is probably one of the greatest productivity contributors of the past twenty years. However, it’s important to recognize when emails shouldn’t substitute for a live conversation. Digital communication has accelerated the speed at which people form and broaden relationships, but is also decreasing the rate at which people are willing to resolve issues either professionally or directly in-person. The next time you receive an email from someone trying to resolve an issue ask yourself; is this something that would be better served by conversation? Then have the courage pick up the phone or have a face to face meeting.

 

 

How to Start and Run a Mentoring Program

Below is a great article on how to start a mentorship in your company. I think mentoring is very important for succession and developing future leaders.

How to start and run a mentoring program.

 The right people, processes, and reporting structure are key to meeting goals.

By Jeff Drew

March 2014

Paul Martin had a lot more questions than answers when he started as a staff accountant at Apple Growth Partners. At the top of the list: Where did he want to go with his career in public accounting?

“I didn’t know what path to take,” he said.

Martin found direction in the mentoring program at Apple Growth, a 90-employee firm based in Akron, Ohio. Following the firm’s guidelines, he worked with his mentor to create an individual development plan that would help him chart and progress down a career path.

“My mentor really helped me stick to a plan of action goals,” Martin said. “It really helped me start on the path I want to go, which is ultimately to partner level.”

Four years after starting at Apple Growth, Martin is making progress on his career aspirations. He just finished taking the last part of the CPA exam and hopes to have his license soon. He has been promoted to senior staff accountant and even has begun mentoring three staff accountants at the firm.

Mentoring programs have long been desired by young, and sometimes not-so-young, CPAs. Firms are increasingly finding real value in these programs because they help prepare the future leaders of accounting firms and, therefore, play a pivotal role in succession plans. The AICPA Private Companies Practice Section (PCPS)/Texas Society of CPAs 2012 Management of an Accounting Practice (MAP) survey found a significant jump in the percentage of firms that include mentoring and training as part of their partner compensation formula, from 3% in 2010 to 15% in 2012.

There is room for improvement, however. The AICPA’s PCPS 2011 Top Talent Survey found that while 80% of the brightest young CPA talent participated in some form of mentoring, fewer than half had access to a formal program. Of those who did, 84% reported that they benefited from the mentoring program (see “The Lowdown on High Potentials,” JofA, Dec. 2011, page 36).

For the better part of 20 years, Gatto, Pope & Walwick LLP (GPW) was one of those firms that provided mentoring but did not have a formal program. The San Diego-based practice enjoyed success with its mentoring efforts, but it decided about a year ago to formalize and document the program. The goal was to solidify the parts of the mentoring system that worked well and to shore up its reporting and accountability mechanisms.

GPW’s system is similar to the mentoring program used at Apple Growth and follows many of the guidelines laid out by consultant Rita Keller, an expert in mentoring programs. This article draws from all of those mentoring plans to outline a framework for designing and deploying a formal mentoring program.

PLANNING FOR SUCCESS

Firms considering a mentoring program should form a committee to study the issue, Keller said. The committee should include stakeholders from different levels within the firm, which should select one of the committee members to spearhead, or own, the project. The committee should research mentoring programs through CPA firm associations, state societies, and the AICPA, among other sources. The firm should then draft a mentoring document that fits the firm’s goals and culture.

At many firms, not all partners will be on board with a mentoring program. Some will question the advisability of devoting nonbillable hours to the project. Supporters can counter such resistance by listing the benefits of a mentoring program (see Exhibit 1). In addition, an analysis of time worked likely will show that there are hours available to devote to a mentoring program without affecting the number of billable hours (see Exhibit 2).

Mentoring Exhibit 1

Mentoring Exhibit 2

Keller cautions firms not to confuse training programs with mentoring. “Firms need good, strong training programs to set the stage for the mentoring,” she said. “Mentoring should not be how to fill out a tax form.”

Instead, a mentoring program is established to develop future firm leaders and to foster healthy work relationships, said Katie Lee, Apple Growth’s human resources manager. Apple Growth set up its mentoring program almost a decade ago because it needed to have a better understanding of its staff’s succession potential. “We had no answers where our employees were going in the future,” she said. “It was a shot in the dark who wanted to be a manager or a partner.”

The mentoring program helped Apple Growth learn about its personnel’s career desires. Mentoring arrangements also establish connections that can help guide CPAs down their career path.

“It’s finding someone who really cares about you and your career,” Keller said. It’s the type of relationship that has facilitated young CPA learning for decades, she added. But while informal arrangements work, having a written mentoring program helps to establish accountability and reporting standards while making sure everyone gets a chance to participate, said Thomas J. McFadden, CPA, a GPW partner who heads the firm’s mentoring program. A formal program also helps to make sure the mentoring process and expectations are the same across the firm, Lee said.

That’s a lot to work into one program, but Keller warns firms not to overcomplicate it. “You want to come up with something that’s not too difficult,” she said. “You want something that’s natural, that’s easy. Having a little bit of a framework is important.”

Once that framework is written and the firm is ready to unveil it to the staff, leadership should hold an event or do something else that lets everyone in the firm know that the program is a big deal, Keller said.

GETTING STARTED

Firms should emphasize the importance of the mentoring program to new hires from day one and should actively engage them in mentoring relationships soon after their start date. GPW requires new hires to be paired with a mentor after their first 30 days. Apple Growth connects mentors and mentees around the 90-day mark.

Opinion is divided on whether new employees should select their own mentor or whether the firm should do the matchmaking. Apple Growth’s human resources department assigns mentors to new hires. “It’s hard to choose when you don’t know people really well,” Lee said.

GPW lets new hires choose their own mentors. Most new hires at the 30-day mark have reached a comfort level with a potential mentor, who is a partner or manager but not their direct supervisor, McFadden said. If a new hire is not comfortable selecting a mentor, McFadden or another partner goes through the choices with the employee and assists with the selection.

Keller prefers seeing new hires pick their own mentors, but she places greater emphasis on firms making sure they pick the right people to serve as mentors—a view McFadden and Lee share. Not everybody is suited to be a mentor. Accounting firms usually make promotions based on a CPA’s technical prowess, but many CPAs at the manager level or above lack the soft skills—the ability to motivate, coach, listen, etc.—required in an effective mentor.

“What we’ve found is that not everybody is a mentor,” Lee said. “It’s just not built into them. Some are strictly practitioners, and that’s OK.”

At Apple Growth, 25 of the firm’s 90 employees are mentors, from the senior associate staff level up to partner. All of the firm’s employees are mentees, including the chairman, who is mentored by a member of the board of directors.

“We have found that everyone in the firm needs a mentor,” Lee said. “Mentoring is not necessarily to advance one in their career, but to have an advocate or someone who believes in you. We encourage our team members to always set goals and continue developing new skills. … A mentor is an important figure in your career and is important at every level.”

At GPW, partners and managers serve as mentors. The firm implemented a training program for mentors and guarantees them at least two hours of training per year. Apple Growth introduced a rating system that allows mentees to rate their mentors.

THE MEETINGS

Mentoring programs usually consist of two types of meetings: formal and informal. Formal meetings take place two to four times a year and usually consist of the mentor helping the mentee set goals and make progress in achieving those goals.

“We set up goals once a year,” said John Valle, CPA, a tax manager and mentor at Apple Growth. “Once we establish goals, we document them at the initial meeting and check in on the progress toward achieving these goals in follow-up meetings.”

Lee said that Apple Growth emphasizes setting S.M.A.R.T. goals—i.e., goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and apply for a defined period of time. GPW’s individual development plans track the following for each goal or objective:

  • Action steps required.
  • Resources needed.
  • Milestones/target dates.
  • Rewards.

Formal meetings generally last an hour to an hour and a half and often are held over lunch. Formal meetings usually involve the mentor checking the mentee’s progress on goals and determining what steps the mentee needs to take and what assistance the firm can provide. Goals and action steps often are written down during the meeting, and business items can be documented in a report filed with program or firm leadership (see Exhibit 3).

Mentoring Exhibit 3

Conversations between mentors and mentees sometimes broach sensitive topics. To protect privacy, GPW requires mentors and mentees to sign a confidentiality agreement. The firm wants mentees to feel safe discussing sensitive in-office and even personal issues with their mentors. No personal information is shared outside of those meetings without the mentee’s permission.

“You feel a little more comfortable sharing confidential information because you know it was going to be kept quiet,” said Brent Gastineau, CPA, a tax manager at GPW who has been both a mentee and a mentor with the firm. “You could talk about someone you were not getting along with.” While open, honest dialogue is desired, mentors must be careful not to allow the meetings to devolve into complaint sessions.

Formal meetings can operate outside of, or as part of, the firm’s official employee evaluation and performance review. At Apple Growth, the official performance review takes place during the meeting held just after the close of busy season, Valle said. Other firms believe that performance reviews should always be kept separate from the mentoring process.

INFORMAL BUT IMPORTANT

Informal meetings between mentors and mentees can be just as valuable as formal meetings, said Martin, the Apple Growth senior staff accountant.

“I would ask my mentor, ‘Hey, can we go out to lunch?’ ” said Martin, who would ask for further explanation of technical issues or general advice. “We would go over it for a half-hour or an hour, and then I’d really understand the issue.”

Informal meetings can take place at any time. Sometimes, mentees walk into their mentor’s office to ask questions or discuss concerns. Other times, mentors will take mentees to networking events or to client meetings. Those expeditions provide opportunities for mentees to learn to connect with potential clients and work with current clients.

“We try to get them involved with networking,” Valle said. “I’ll let them shadow me in a client meeting, but we won’t charge the client for their time.”

REPORTS AND CONFLICT MANAGEMENT

Reporting mechanisms are key to the mentoring process. As head of the mentoring program at GPW, McFadden is responsible for making sure all mentees have a mentor and for keeping a list of those relationships. He also oversees the orientation and training of mentors and handles the termination or alteration of any problematic mentor-mentee relationships.

In addition, McFadden makes sure meeting reporting forms are turned in. Through those, he monitors the progress of each mentee, ensuring that meetings are occurring, advice is being followed, and goals are being set, pursued, and achieved. Finally, he makes twice yearly reports to the partners on the progress of the mentoring program and its participants.

Mentors occasionally step into roles beyond those of meeting with mentees and submitting reports. One of the most difficult situations is resolving a conflict between a mentee and the mentee’s manager. The discord can result from a personality conflict or a disconnect between a mentee’s goals and the supervisor’s goals for the mentee. When goals don’t match, the mentor can be called upon to work with both parties to align the goals. When there is conflict between the mentee and the supervisor, the mentor may choose several courses of action: speaking with the supervisor without the mentee; speaking with the supervisor with the mentee; having the mentee discuss the issue with the supervisor; or convincing the mentee that he or she is in the wrong.

“This is probably the toughest situation a mentor in our firm will face,” McFadden said. “Luckily, it doesn’t come up that often.”

GROUP EFFORT

One-on-one pairings are not the only way to facilitate a mentoring program. Firms can employ a group mentoring approach.

Keller encourages group mentoring because it allows mentors to serve more people. For example, an “engaged” mentor might have three mentees. If the mentor spends 90 minutes in formal meetings with each mentee on a quarterly basis, then the mentor has devoted four and a half hours to mentoring meetings in the quarter. The same mentor could accommodate six mentees, meeting with them in two groups of three each quarter. Even if those meetings are two hours, the mentor has committed less time (four hours vs. four and a half hours) and served twice as many employees.

In a group system, mentees can still request informal one-on-one time with a mentor as needed. And mentors can still take mentees to networking events and client meetings.

THE VALUE PROPOSITION

In the end, mentors and mentees agree that mentoring programs are beneficial. Mentees receive valuable career guidance and develop lasting business and personal relationships. Gastineau, the GPW tax manager, said that the biggest thing he has gained from his mentoring relationships is confidence and support.

“I’ve had somebody on my side who can tell me from their perspective where I’m at in my career and what I need to do to reach my goal,” Gastineau said. “My goal is to be a partner, and I’m going to get there. I’m right on the cusp.”

Mentors often gain from their mentoring activities as well. Martin, who has served as a mentor for a year, credits the process with helping him learn more about the profession.

“When you teach something, it helps you have a better understanding of what you are trying to teach,” he said.

Firms also benefit. McFadden said GPW’s mentoring program is the main reason for the firm’s low turnover—which has contributed to the firm’s top-heavy structure, with 15 managers and partners out of a total of 35 employees. Staff stability also bodes well for Apple Growth, said one of the firm’s tax managers.

“People aren’t leaving,” Valle said. “It says something about our organization that we are developing a strong group of young leaders for the succession of our firm.”


EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Mentoring programs help to develop the future leaders of firms and, in the process, solidify succession.

Firms considering a mentoring program should form a committee to study the issue. A member of the committee should step up to “own” the project, and the committee should spearhead the drafting of a document outlining how the mentoring program will work.

Formalized and documented mentoring programs often have reporting and accountability mechanisms that help make sure everyone gets a chance to take part and the expectations are consistent across the organization.

Firms should engage new hires in mentoring relationships in the first few months after the on-boarding process. New hires can select a mentor with whom they feel comfortable, or the firm can pair mentors and mentees. It is important that mentees feel comfortable talking with their mentors and that they are offered confidentiality for personal and sensitive issues.

Mentors must be able to motivate, coach, and listen to mentees. Not all CPAs are cut out to be mentors. Group mentoring is an option when a firm doesn’t have enough mentors for one-on-one pairings.

There are two types of mentoring meetings: formal and informal. Formal meetings take place two to four times a year, for 60 to 90 minutes each, and usually consist of the mentor helping the mentee set and meet career development goals. The meetings usually result in a report with objectives and action items.

Informal meetings can be just as valuable as formal meetings. The types of informal meetings include impromptu discussions between mentor and mentee as well as mentors taking mentees to networking events or on client visits.

Jeff Drew is a JofA senior editor. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact him at jdrew@aicpa.org or 919-402-4056.

Every Business Is (Or Should Be) a Social Business

Below is a blog post from the Harvard Business Review by Deborah Mills-Scofield. She makes a powerful statement “All businesses are social. All companies have people as customers, employees, and suppliers. At some point, in deciding which supplier to use, in engaging your workforce, and in getting your product into users’ hands, relationships with people matter. Improving these their experiences always improves the outcome for your company.”  Are you engaging in your workforce, your supplier and/or your customers?

Every Business Is (Or Should Be) a Social BusinessSocial Business

I believe the distinction between social and non-social business is a false dichotomy. And yet, it’s one we continually want to make. We talk about “social businesses” — those that are mission-led and focused on creating positive social change — and “non-social businesses” — those that focus on revenue and profit. Social entrepreneurs launching ventures may ask themselves if their business models need to be different. Does pursuing a social purpose require something unique to describe and structure your business?

As someone who works with a variety of organizations in my roles as strategy and innovation consultant, venture capitalist, professor, and mentor, this question intrigues to me. To answer it, I evaluated a few years worth of business models created and implemented by clients (usually established, mature businesses), invested companies (early stage), entrepreneurs I’ve mentored, and college students starting new ventures. The results? I found that both social and non-social businesses focused on making sure revenues were greater than costs, either through selling something, raising money or getting grants. The differences were more along traditional business characteristics: virtual vs. physical product or service, B2B vs. B2C, etc.

That said, this initial evidence showed that social businesses focus more on achieving a positive impact in each of the nine business model elements — value proposition, customer segment, channels, relationships, key partners, key activities, key resources, costs and revenues — as well as the whole model. Many of the non-social businesses in my sample also focused on the impact of each element and interestingly, they are very successful businesses (might there be a correlation?).

All businesses are social. All companies have people as customers, employees, and suppliers. At some point, in deciding which supplier to use, in engaging your workforce, and in getting your product into users’ hands, relationships with people matter. Improving these their experiences always improves the outcome for your company.

If a business isn’t providing valuable, meaningful solutions to real customers’ problems or delivering outcomes that both make a positive difference in the customers’ lives and support the company’s mission, the business won’t have to worry about profits or outputs for long. The market has a way of taking care of that.

The historical division between social and non-social business and “purpose” vs. “profits” is artificial and antiquated. Almost exactly two years ago, Michael Porter and Mark Kramer called for a new definition of capitalism — “shared value” — to unify this false choice. I think this is how Adam Smith envisioned capitalism; we just redefined it to serve our purposes. In fact, our financial crisis in part stems from non-social businesses divorcing impact from profit and the outcome will haunt us for a long time.

To further test what I had learned, I turned to business model guru and friend, Alex Osterwalder (I’ve used his Business Model Canvas since 2009 because I believe it’s one of the best methodologies out there). He has vast experience creating business models all over the globe, in almost every industry sector, and he came to the same conclusion: There is no significant difference in the business models themselves. In fact, we agreed that for-profit social businesses are a powerful way to increase impact. For instance, Sun Edison’s business model demonstrates that increasing impact doesn’t decrease profitability. One of Alex’s favorite businesses, PeePoople, is implementing a similar model to provide basic personal sanitation to the 2.6 billion people who don’t have it today. As Alex says, “The most amazing business models are those where profit and impact live in harmony. Business models can be designed where impact doesn’t diminish revenues or profit and vice versa.”

Does this answer the question about needing something different for a social business? I think so and the answer is clearly no. It’s time we stop talking about “social” vs. “non-social” and encourage all entrepreneurs to focus on impact in every element of the business model as well as the whole. We read about companies, like PatagoniaVirginCemex, who profitably and purposefully balance doing well and doing good. If they do it, why can’t you?

There are also some quiet, under the radar companies, like 6th generation family-held Menasha Corp in Wisconsin’s Fox Valley. The 164-year-old corrugated packaging firm has over $1B in revenue. Despite being in a commodity-driven market, it has experienced seven consecutive years of remarkable growth, even during the recession. Menasha’s plants use heat from the corrugators to warm the buildings; they’ve reduced water usage while increasing production; their culture is collaborative; and their people are active in their communities, serving on school boards, supporting art and music, and having plain old fun in the Muscatine Great River Days boat races. The result is synergistic growth of a company and its communities.

By focusing on each individual business model element and the model’s overall impact to create outputs that support sustainable outcomes, perhaps our social entrepreneurs can help society break down this tired, man-made wall between social and non-social businesses.

Sales Lessons My Mom Taught Me

Here is a great article from Geoffrey James who writes the “Sales Source” column on Inc.com .

Sales Lessons My Mom Taught MeMother's Day

My mother taught me everything I really needed to know about selling. Here’s her advice.

My mother was a crack sales rep for Bristol Myers, but to me she was mostly just my mom. As such, it didn’t occur to me until a few years ago that her “mom advice” was also a sure-fire recipe for sales success.

Here’s what I remember:

1. ‘No gift until after you write the thank-you note.’

My mom was BIG on thank-you notes. In her mind, it was the height of rudeness to fail to recognize when somebody had sent you a gift.  So every Christmas, before we got to actually play with the toys our relatives sent us, we had to sit down and write our thank-you notes.

Years later, I learned that she always applied the same principles in her sales job.  Whenever a store manager cut a special order, or allowed her to rearrange the shelf layout, or did anything that made her job easier, she wrote a personal note and mailed it, on exact the same day.

As the result of this simple discipline, store managers always remembered her name, and always took her calls and positively anticipated her visits.

2. ‘Always wear clean underwear.’

And, yes, she did add “in case you get in an accident,” but only when she gave the advice to my sister. In my case, her advice was, I think, a reflection of her view that the only way to dress well is to dress from the inside out.

My mother observed that, rightly or wrongly, people judge you on your appearance. She also frequently pointed out that, of all the elements that make up your appearance, the one that’s most under your control is what you’re wearing.

She believed–and I agree with her–that a big part of how your clothes look on you is how you feel about the clothes themselves.  It’s hard, maybe impossible, to look sharp if you know that you’re wearing something tatty, even if other people probably aren’t going to see it.

3. ‘Profanity shows a lack of imagination.’

This was my mom’s unique way of saying “watch your mouth!”–and it’s good advice for anyone in business, especially if you work in sales.

Some people in business use profanity (or even obscenity) in an attempt to add swagger to their personas. However, because it’s both common and commonplace, “colorful” language usually falls flat and frequently offends.

Unfortunately, swearing is, like most habits, easy to acquire and difficult to break. So expunge the filth from your vocabulary now, before you accidentally make customers wonder whether they want to do business with somebody who’s got a potty mouth.

4. ‘If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.’

My mother didn’t tolerate malicious gossip and avoided people who did. As a result, the people she worked with (including customers) shared all sorts of things that they otherwise might not have revealed.

Sales is all about trust, and people stop trusting you the minute they minute you trash-talk the competition, your management (worse), or other customers (worst of all).

When you allow venom to creep into your words, it spreads poison over everything.  So if you want strong relationships, both personal and professional, hold your tongue when you’re tempted to say something unprofessional or petty.

5. ‘I don’t care if everyone else is doing it.’

I remember being furious at my mom when she said this. She was unfair! She was ruining my social life! She was making me uncool! (The horror, the horror…)

Of course, now that I’ve got two kids of my own, I know exactly where she was coming from.  More importantly, I’ve come to realize that, just as it’s immature to let peer pressure lead you into doing something stupid, it’s a losing business strategy to imitate the behavior of other firms in your industry.

That’s why I’m skeptical of anyone who claims to be teaching “best practices.” Every company is unique and thus must have a unique formula for success.  Going with the crowd is the fast track to mediocrity.

6. ‘It’s no use crying over spilt milk.’

My mom faced a lot of challenges in her life: a stillborn baby in her 20s, a scandal-ridden divorce in her 30s, breast cancer in her 40s.  She came through all of it with a (mostly) positive attitude, because she lived in the present and not the past.

I can’t ever remember hearing her complain, even once, about what had happened to her.  Instead, she made the effort, and largely succeeded, in finding things to enjoy in her life at the time.

That’s an incredibly valuable belief to have if your livelihood depends upon sales. No matter how talented you are, no matter how wonderful your product, some deals are going to go south. Focusing on the past is worse than useless. Learn what you can and move on.

Note: My mom died two years ago from complications resulting from reconstructive surgery. I respectfully dedicate this column to her memory.

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Geoffrey James writes the “Sales Source” column on Inc.com , the world’s most-visited sales-oriented blog. His newly published book is Business to Business Selling: Power Words and Strategies From the World’s Top Sales Experts @Sales_Source

Do Your People Trust You?

Trust
Trust (Photo credit: thorinside)

Below is a blog post from the Harvard Business Review by Linda Hill & Kent Lineback. Are you open as a boss?

Do Your People Trust You?

When we talk to managers, we often ask, “Do your people trust you?” Most are taken aback. It’s not something they’re often asked or a question they’ve even asked themselves.

After some thought, most eventually say something like, “Well, I think so. I hope so. No one’s said he doesn’t.” In fact, as they ultimately admit, they don’t really know for sure.
It’s a question worth asking. Do your people trust you?

Chances are, you don’t know for sure, either. If so, that’s potentially a problem because your ability to elicit people’s best efforts depends on their trust in you — their confidence that they can count on you to do the right thing. Your basic job as a boss is to influence others, to make a difference in what they do and in the thoughts and feelings that drive their actions. Yet, even as the person in charge, the one with authority, you can ultimately influence people only to the extent they are willing to be influenced by you. And that willingness will depend on whether they trust you. Without trust, why should people do what you ask, especially if you’re asking something difficult? Why should they accept your judgment? Above all, why would they devote the care and extra effort that quality work requires? As the boss, you can demand compliance but you must earn commitment, and the coin of that realm is trust.

As we explore this topic with managers, we find it’s a subject both familiar and unfamiliar.
Most people don’t know how to think about it constructively. Why?

First, they often don’t realize how context-sensitive trust is. Your people certainly wouldn’t trust you, say, to do brain surgery on one of their children, and you would find that lack of trust completely understandable. You’re not to be trusted in that context. So, when we ask, “Do your people trust you?” we’re not asking about people’s confidence in you as a person in general — whether, for example, they think you will repay them promptly if you borrow $10. Instead, we’re really asking, “Do your people trust you as a boss?” For them to accept you as a boss, they must trust you in that context. When we delve later into the components of trust, you’ll see why context is so important.

The second reason most managers feel a little lost when they think about trust is that most of us resist the idea that trust is something you can actively and consciously encourage. To say it can and should be fostered feels manipulative and self-serving. We instinctively distrust the person who exclaims, “Trust me!” We usually don’t consider trust an outcome we can or should try to control directly. Sure, if we outright lie, cheat, steal, and fail to keep our word, others will consider us untrustworthy. But most of us don’t consistently or purposely behave that way. We try to tell the truth, abide by the rules, honor others’ rights and belongings, and if we cannot keep a promise, we explain why. For most of us, that’s how we were brought up. It’s who we are and so we think of trust as the outcome of simply being who we are. It’s only when we occasionally — usually inadvertently — break someone’s trust that we worry about it. Otherwise, trust just happens and we think that’s how it should be.

But believing as a boss that trust will somehow take care of itself may not work out the way you want. You do need to think about it. And you may need to take conscious steps that make clear to others that you deserve their trust. None of those steps involves dishonesty or manipulation — on the contrary — but they do involve your being explicit about yourself, about what you know, and about the reasons behind your decisions and actions. In other words, it may require that you be more open as a boss than you might personally be inclined to be.

Indeed, the need for such openness may cut against the grain of many managers, especially new managers, who believe that as the boss they’re able to take action without having to explain it to everyone involved.

What this means and how you do it will become more clear in the next two blogs, in which we will explore each of the two components of trust — competence and character. For people to trust you as a boss, they must believe you know what to do as a boss. At one time or another, we’ve all had bosses of whom people said, “He doesn’t know the business” or “She doesn’t understand what we do.” No one would trust you to do brain surgery because you’re incompetent in that context.

Character is equally important. It refers to your intentions — what you’re trying to do, your goals and values as a boss. If, for example, people think you’re only out for yourself, driven by blind ambition, and don’t care about them, the group, or the work, they will distrust your character, no matter how much you know. You need competence and character both to earn your people’s trust.

In the next blog, we’ll explore competence, what it means to “know” as a boss and what you can legitimately do to demonstrate competence. (No, it doesn’t mean you’re supposed to be the expert.) And in the blog after that, we’ll delve into character, a much more elusive concept that obviously can vary greatly with the context. But we’ll try to say some constructive things about it, and how you can foster it, that apply broadly.

Don’t take trust for granted, or believe it just happens, because virtually all you do as a boss begins with people’s trust in you.