When you bite off more than you can chew

kobayashi-hotdogs[1]Nathan’s Coney Island Hot Dog Eating Contest is an annual attraction on the 4th of July that attracts both competitors and audiences from around the world.  Mountains of hot dogs are stacked in front of the competitors as the anxious crowds wait to cheer their favorite competitor.

Takeru Kobayashi, a small framed native of Japan, holds six Guinness Records for eating hot dogs, meatballs and other junk food items. In 2001, he set his first record eating 50 hot dogs in 12 minutes at the Nathan’s Coney Island Hot Dog Eating Contest. The secret to Takeru’s success is his unique strategy to tackle monumental eating challenges by taking one bite at a time. Where many cringe and crack under the pressure, Takeru continues to set world records with ease.

Takeru realized early in his competitive eating career that the biggest challenge is not the number of hot dogs but the tendency for people to have mental barriers. He simply sets a goal and works toward it in a methodical manner.

When he was asked about his ability to think without limits, Takeru said, “I think the thing about human beings is that they make a limit in their mind of what their potential is”. Unlike Takeru, you may find that members of your team have preconceived limits that hold them back.

So as a manager, how do you help your team manage through times when they feel they have bitten off more than they can chew?

There’s an old saying that the best way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time. Helping your team recognize that every project has bite-size pieces can be a good first step. Managing these smaller sized portions is an easy way to be able to avoid being overwhelmed.

As stress mounts, we tend to focus on the enormity of the problem rather than the more manageable solutions. Team members who appear to be overwhelmed need you to coach them on how to find the most practical strategy to complete their work. The real barrier may be all in their perception and an objective viewpoint could be the perfect diagnosis to this common problem.

Leaders should use Takeru as an inspiration for their teams and teach them that often the biggest barrier to success is a mental one that can be overcome with the right perspective. Helping your team learn how to accomplish their goals without cracking under pressure will not only enhance organizational productivity but also show your team that you committed to making them successful.

When to ask Why

In school, I would have pulled a stunt like this.  Actually, one time in college, I had to write four or five papers in one class.  I liked the professor, but I was certain he did not read any of the papers required.  Ok, maybe he read the first two and last two pages, but no more than that.  I had traditionally done very well on papers in his class, making an A every time, maybe a couple of points off for a poor reference or such.  For my last paper, I thought I would be a little daring and attempt to prove my point.  So, about halfway through the paper, mid paragraph, I inserted the following line: “And I know you’re not reading any of this,” before continuing the paragraph as normal.  I just knew I had done it.

The point to my story is, sometimes in a job, a project, or a proposal, I still find myself thinking, “Why am I doing this? They’re not even going to read it.”  Or sometimes, the statement might be said by a leader: “I know this is stupid, but we have to ask that you _____.”  This has always baffled me.  In essence, you acknowledge the stupidity of what your requesting someone to do, but still demand it?  Why?

Companies who enjoy the tediousness of their processes often do not enjoy great margins.  One company I consulted not too long ago explained their process of approval for a specific area.  They drew flow charts and showed me all of the pretty forms they had made that went into this massive binder with a pretty little cover sheet.  So after sitting through that meeting which lasted about 35 minutes (35 minutes of my life I’ll never get back), they asked me what I thought.  My reply?  “What are we talking about again?”

No, seriously, I went up to their great little flow chart and began simply asking “Why?”  For instance, why do three people have to sign this form authorizing an expense?  Answer: “To be sure it’s really needed.” Question: “Are these managers who have to sign it?” Answer: “Yes, three managers up the chain have to sign it.  Do you think we could make it easier?”  Answer from me: “Yes, fire the one who’s stupid or inept.”

Ok, I know that was pretty harsh but think about it for a minute: You have three people signing off on something that at least two people should be able to do.  Why the 3rd?  Granted, there are some instances where, depending on an expense amount or credit amount that there needs to be some extra checks and balances, but in this case, it was for something fairly nominal.  This sneak peek into the business model showed me a larger problem.  Why was I there?  To help accelerate the sales process.  What was the problem?  This company loved to make X very hard to find!

One question you as a manager can ask to drill down to the essentials of just about any function within your company is “why?” In fact, as a leader, you should ask more questions than give answers.  If you are consistently providing answers, you are doing two awful things to your company.

#1. You’re wasting your future time.  The old adage regarding a horse and water has a lot of truth to it.  If you are consistently giving answers out, you are, in essence, training your team not to think for themselves.  They know if they run into a question, rather than seeking the answer, they can just come to the great think tank who will spit out an answer or better yet, fix the problem all together.  This wastes your future time because you are not eliminating future questions.  If your team is anything like those I’ve managed in the past, you get asked the same questions time and time again.  Asking the question why can be as simple to start as, why am I answering this question?  Direct your associate to the answer, but let them figure it out on their own.  This will free up future time when they have another question.

#2. If you don’t ask why, you will never make great leaps in your company.  If you have a process in place, ask yourself and your team why you do it that way.  Is there a better, more cost effective or more efficient way of doing it?  Can you make it easier for your clients?  Also, in turn, you create a culture of excellence on your team because as time progresses, your team will begin to ask why and think outside the box.

Now, it should be said you will not get a lot of friends going this route, but, who needs friends when there’s progress to be made right?  Always seeking excellence sometimes means you will have to ask the occasional question, “Why?”

Oh, and about the paper I mentioned earlier in the article… I got it back and made my first B.  I got some points knocked off for trivial things.  I got 12 points taken off with a note from my professor, “I took 12 points off for assuming I don’t read these.”  He was a great teacher!

Trent Cotton has spent a number of years in management and business consulting. After spending some time in the field, he joined the HR department, beginning in recruiting and eventually serving as the Department Head of HR for one of the major lines of business. With such a varied background, he works to bring all of these together to help organizations incorporate best practices into their business to help them succeed. In his free time, he also writes a lot on his other blog, Christian Men, Christian Warrior.

What Leaders Can Learn from The Costa Concordia Tragedy

The Costa Concordia was Europe’s largest-ever cruise ship when it launched in 2006, however, not a lot is being said about that now with the ship being on the rocks.  Considering the age with high tech GPS and mapping systems,it is pretty hard to believe something like this could happen.  Furthermore, it is more than tragic the lives that have been lost in something attributed to human error.  So what could leaders learn from this awful tragedy?

Before we get into that, let’s address one of the major leadership issues of this particular tragedy.  The captain.  What does this captain’s actions after the crash say about the state of leadership today?  It seems with not only this tragedy, but the more recent business “crashes” that gone are the days when leaders/captains stayed with the ship to ensure everyone is taken care of before worrying about themselves.  I would have been ok if he darted from the ship to go for help, but from most estimates, he didn’t even send a mayday call.  What is going on here?  What has happened to the leadership today that whether it be large cruiseships or large companies, no one sends mayday messages or helps their passengers/associates get to safety before bailing themselves?  Now that the soap box is done, let’s talk about some of the lessons.

Lesson 1: Stay the course.  From the reports, we have have learned the captain went off of the normal course and right into a patch of rocks which took the ship to its doom.  So often, leaders get brazen and neglect to follow the standard instruments used to keep the business in the “right lane”.  Of course, there are times when following your gut could lead to tremendous success, but you have to weigh out the costs of those decisions on those on the ship with you.  Unfortunately, there are also times where staying the course, as boring as it may seem, is what needs to be done for the safety of your passengers.

Lesson 2: Be sure to use the mayday signal.  I am not sure whether it is pride or stupidity that prevents a lot of leaders of companies to admit they need help.  A true leader leans on the experience and knowledge of their team and is willing to be open to asking for help when it is needed.  There are a number of resources available to leaders who need help with a particular problem in their company.  Everyone experiences bumps or potholes in the path, the smart thing to do would be to lean on help from those who may have already tracked down a similar path.  Wisdom is often as easy to obtain as learning from the mistakes of others.

Lesson 3: Make sure everyone knows the directions for the lifeboats. If you’ve heard any of the accounts of when the ship went down, you heard the mass chaos which ensued once everyone on the ship was aware of the scale of the tragedy.  As a leader, you must make sure everyone on your ship knows the necessary directions for when trouble arises.  Mass hysteria can add unneeded noise to a tense situation.  If everyone on your team is aware of the “disaster recovery plan,” things will go a lot smoother.  Additionally, if you take the course most commanders do in the army, be sure you have a statement of “commander’s intent.”  As a leader, you cannot possibly be there to help your team think through every single dilemma they experience, but through the use of the CI statement, you can at least arm them with what they need to know.

An example would be Southwest Airline’s “low fare” strategy.  This is  a strategy set forth by executive management, but is known to all employees.  So when a flight planning team is looking at making a major decision, they first weigh in whether this decision would fall in line with Southwest being the “lowest fare” airline.  If the decision does not align properly, they seek another course of action.

Clearly, on the Costa Concordia, there was no CI, mostly because the was no “C” (commander) on the ship so who could know the I (intent)?  Barring from a leader making this tragically stupid mistake, there should have been some type of CI for those workers on the ship to ensure the safety of their passengers.  Clearly, we can make some deductions from the situation based on how the crew acted.  Obviously, one could say the captain was most likely a top down type of leader, one who provides more commands than direction.  How do we know this?  Look how his team responds to a crisis when he is not on the ship. This is an awful tragedy on many levels.  I continue to hope more survivors are found in the short term.

Lesson 4: Even big ships fall victim.  Think about 2008 and the business giants who fell.  Similar to the Costa Concordia, these mega giants veered off of the normal course of business and ran aground, taking many innocent lives with them.  Whether it was investing in mortgage backed securities, or being too aggressive, almost stupid in their assumptions the bubble would not burst.  Generations ago, businesses would not have made such mistakes, rather, they would have used their instruments to navigate safely through the waters.  It seems many of the captains of these monster ships thought their vessel was too big to fail.  Unfortunately, many leaders of large organizations seem to believe the same lie and fall victim to a similar fate.  Last time I checked, doing the same thing over and over is the definition of insanity.  I guess they no longer teach common sense in business schools anymore.

We can all learn from this tragedy and take a moment to reflect on the ship we are the captain of at the moment.  Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Are you staying the course?
  • Does your team know the CI for the company?
  • What steps do you need to take today to right the course of your ship to avoid the rocks ahead?

Continue to pray for the lives of those yet recovered and the families of all who are involved.  One tragic misstep a lot of us make is forgetting their are lives involved in the mess.  As a leader, that is one take away I hope you remember.

Trent Cotton has spent a number of years in management and business consulting. After spending some time in the field, he joined the HR department, beginning in recruiting and eventually serving as the Department Head of HR for one of the major lines of business. With such a varied background, he works to bring all of these together to help organizations incorporate best practices into their business to help them succeed. In his free time, he also writes a lot on his other blog, Christian Men, Christian Warrior.

Why Super Committees ALWAYS Fail…

“With insects most of us know that bees are called swarms, and ants are called colonies. Among ocean life, I was aware that whales are pods, and fish are schools. Cattle are herd, birds are flocks, and if you watch Lion King, you know a tribe of lions is a pride. If you grew up in the country, you might know that crows are murders. Maybe the most unnerving one is an ambush of tigers.” Brace yourself…….

“I was surprised to learn that a group of buzzards waiting around together to feast on leftover carnage is called a committee. Just this one insight is worth the price of the whole book. This explains so much of what’s going on in churches – a lot of committees waiting around to live off human carnage.”  Erwin Raphael McManus

I would daresay that this doesn’t just apply to church committees but now, in the ever so evident present, it applies to government and stretches into the private sector.  Undoubtedly, you’ve been part of one.  In case you’re wondering, take a look at these questions to help you decide:

  • Have you ever sat in a room with colleagues who you may or may not agree with to discuss a topic, only to arrive at no solution?
  • Have you ever been assigned to work on a particular issue with a group of people and found yourself beating your head against a wall to at least make some type of an impact?
  • After a three hour meeting, have you ever walked out and found yourself having had an out of body experience where you temporarily went to your happy place to deal with the lack of progress?

If you answered “yes” to any of these, you’ve been a part of committee.  So why do they not work?  There are too many reasons to discuss.  It can be wrapped up in two words: pride and ego.

If you’d like to learn some ways to avoid the carnage associated with a committee, check out these posts:

The New KISS: Keep in Simple Strategy

Calling in a Threat During a Meeting

Getting the Pit Crew Involved

Why Most Corporate Meetings are Like NASCAR-Part II

Most Corporate Meetings are Like Nascar

Trent Cotton has spent a number of years in management and business consulting. After spending some time in the field, he joined the HR department, beginning in recruiting and eventually serving as the Department Head of HR for one of the major lines of business. With such a varied background, he works to bring all of these together to help organizations incorporate best practices into their business to help them succeed. In his free time, he also writes a lot on his other blog, Christian Men, Christian Warrior.

The New KISS: Keep in Simple Strategy

Yes, I was one of those kids.  Actually, I don’t think I’ve graduated from the sarcastic approach to live in the least.  I was one of those that would do something similar to the picture on the left.  Why do they make things so complicated?  I remember getting in trouble in my pre-algebra class for asking what I thought was a pretty obvious question at the time, “And when did we start using the alphabet instead of numbers?”  I went on to Calculus III and did fine, but still never got over why in the world everything had to be so complicated. Have you ever found yourself sitting in a meeting or a “strategic planning session” asking yourself the same question?

One of the primary reasons Apple dominates the IT world is for its simplicity.  Recently, my wife needed to upgrade her phone and after having a Droid, she wanted to go back to the Iphone.  Why?  For its simplicity.  Far too many businesses try to make things all so difficult when in reality, the common consumer (and employee for that matter) wants things simple.  No complex thinking, no 50 point flow chart, no two hour meeting that only accomplishes raising the blood pressure in the room.  Enter, KISS.

So, simplistic strategy… what does it mean you might ask.  Well, of course you would ask that because, already, you are trying to make it more complicated than it is.  In this equation, X stands for the destination.  What are you trying to accomplish and create a line to that point, remembering that a line is defined as the shortest distance between two points.  Here are some thoughts:

  • Keep Meeting Attendance Limited:  I know transparency is important, but unfortunately, when you add more people to a meeting, you add more opinions.  More opinions usually find themselves tied to more egos which in turn, adds the number of minutes you find yourself in a strategic-less strategy session.  Think of who absolutely needs to be in the room and on the call.  Who will bring the most “bang” or ideas to the strategic planning?  Invite those people, keep the others out.
  • Time your meeting: Have a designated time limit and stick to it.  Sometimes the best ideas come out of deadlines, use this to your advantage.  Additionally, a time limit helps keep people on task.
  • Have strategic session OUTSIDE the office: Have you ever needed a break and walked around the building or run an errand?  How did you feel when you got back?  Exactly!  Do the same for your team.  Do it away from the office, even if you have it at a Starbucks in a very informal format.  Having the freedom to relax and plan provides ideas and approaches to problematic situations exponentially quicker.
  • Send an agenda out ahead of time:  One caveat to this one, don’t make it a four page agenda.  Have on one page the items needing to be discussed.  Sending out the agenda ahead of time allows everyone to have the evening or the day to think about ideas, even allow them to begin collaborating with their colleagues on solutions or ideas.  Furthermore, it will help you keep to the time limit suggestion above.
  • Don’t be afraid to call it off and reschedule: The worst thing you can do sometimes is keep on strategically planning when there is not a strategy to be had.  If you find yourself hitting a wall or the group cannot agree or come up with a solution, break the meeting, reschedule it.  Sitting there arguing for forty more minutes to say that you had a meeting is an utter waste of time and energy.

I am not sure why strategic sessions have become so planned and lacking productivity.  Actually, I think that the business world has determined “having meetings” is a form of productivity, but that is not always the case.  Break the mold.  Keep inline with a simple strategy.  Who knows, you might actually enjoy it!

Trent Cotton has spent a number of years in management and business consulting. After spending some time in the field, he joined the HR department, beginning in recruiting and eventually serving as the Department Head of HR for one of the major lines of business. With such a varied background, he works to bring all of these together to help organizations incorporate best practices into their business to help them succeed. In his free time, he also writes a lot on his other blog, Christian Men, Christian Warrior.

Stop Fishing in the Wrong Lake- Creating a Recruiting Strategy

In the previous draft Top Talent Acquisition: Stop Fishing in the Wrong Lake, we spoke about the importance of broadening your recruiting strategy.  Today, we are going to talk about developing a recruiting strategy, or as I would prefer to title it, “How Not to Kill Your Recruiter and the Recruiting Strategy”.  (Decided that one wouldn’t be as marketable of a title.)  So, here are some basic steps:

1. Job Description:  There is nothing I detest more than having an ambiguous job I am expected to fill.  If you are looking for a java developer with a certain certification, have that in the job description, don’t add it later as a filter through which you will grade all candidates provided to you.  Job descriptions should have the following:

  • Something about the company.  So many times companies forget this portion.  Sell your company in a couple of lines.  Create an interest not only in the job itself, but the organization it supports.  Many people would look at an HR Generalist role and see something pretty bland, but what if it was for Google?  That would change things wouldn’t it?
  • Paint a picture of the job. Don’t only talk about what you are looking for in terms of qualifications, but talk about the scope of the position as well.  Help a candidate be able to see themselves in the position.  Remember, a job description is a form of marketing, use it to its max capacity.
  • Requirements.  This is the sticky portion.  According to several regulations, you will want to make sure this section is sealed tight but not too tight.  Have your requirements listed, but include a range.  For instance, if you are looking for someone who is bilingual, but it isn’t a deal killer, you can state something along the lines of: “Fluent in English, fluency in Chinese is highly favored.”  This allows the candidate (or at least the ones who read the job description) know that if they do not speak Chinese they can still apply and for those who do speak it, well, they just got a gold star!

2.  Follow UP!  One thing that can kill a recruiter’s drive is when they identify a candidate for you, after some painstaking conversations, and you go dark on them.  Understanding things happen and take priority over talking with your recruiter, however, if you start to show a lack of interest in the position, the recruiter will most likely do the same.  Most good recruiters are sales people at heart and aim to please the client, but also aim to “make a kill.”

On the flip side of that, be sure to honor appointments with candidates.  It amazes me how managers will blow off phone interviews or miss appointments with candidates who are interested in the position.  There are no words for what type of impression that leaves with a candidate.  And when you have met with them, provide feedback to both the candidate and the recruiter about next steps.

3. Pull the trigger. So, you’ve interviewed several candidates, narrowed it down to the one you want… so what are you waiting for?  Many times, I will have had to endure constant requests for updates and hounding about a particular position only to have the offer negotiation process drag out for weeks.  If you know what you want, then you should know what you want to pay for it, therefore, you should be able to pull the trigger.  This is the last place you want to appear indecisive.

With all of the turbulence in the market and in every industry, excellence in recruiting can sometimes take a back seat.  I would urge every leader to be wary of this common mistake.  Remember, once you get them on, sometimes, it’s hard to get them out.  Be sure you have a strategy so you don’t find yourself fishing for a trout, only to find you’ve hired a murderous shark!   Happy fishing!

Trent Cotton has spent a number of years in management and business consulting. After spending some time in the field, he joined the HR department, beginning in recruiting and eventually serving as the Department Head of HR for one of the major lines of business. With such a varied background, he works to bring all of these together to help organizations incorporate best practices into their business to help them succeed. In his free time, he also writes a lot on his other blog, Christian Men, Christian Warrior.

Don’t Abbreviate Follow Up (F/U)- Part III

Ah, the last of the trilogy.  In movie series, this is where I want the author to so desperately put everything together for me.  Well, I won’t make any promises here, but let’s get to it anyway. My final H in the list of follow up fowl ups that chap my hide is quite simply, the “I’ll promise, but I won’t do it.”

Let me just get it out of the way, I hated dating.  Did you?  I mean the games, the nights wondering, “she said this but did she mean something else?”  As if that was not brutal enough, there was the, “I’ll call you.”  I can’t tell you the number of times I would do my best to treat my date right by bringing flowers, planning a great evening, taking time to talk with them to get to know them and all of that, only to be put on the “Do Not Call Back List.”  Then, there’s the awkward moment where you see the person three weeks later in a public place and have to ask yourself, “Do I run and dodge them or just act flakey?”

In my business, follow up is king.  If I promise someone I will do something and do not follow up, it is a major strike against my company.  As a talent consultant, the first four dates with a candidate are all about setting the stage for a great movie and convincing the candidate they are the next leading star.  If I forget to call them back, or don’t email them when I tell them I will, it spells death for any actions I did leading up to that point.  Especially with the market today, people are a lot more skeptical than before.  If you say that you will do something, be sure to follow through because you might surprise your candidate, prospect, client, or end-user by doing something other companies promised they would do.

At the risk of sounding contradictory, doing either number I or number II would be better than doing nothing at all.  Here are some final tips for ways to avoid abbreviating Follow Up and taking the route of F/U:

  • Be intentional: If you are going to follow up, write it down and follow through.
  • Be specific: Don’t promise something if you can’t follow through.  For both party’s sakes, be specific with the time of the follow up. “I will follow up with a call on Friday.”  Specific, Friday.  Not so Specific, What time?  No need for a time, you’ve given yourself a day.
  • Be present: Make sure you are “there” when you’re talking to them and not simply going through the motions.  The worst you could do would be making someone take the time to listen to you when you’re just going through the motions.  If you do this, you’ve killed your brand.

If you’re reading this and thinking, “This is common sense,” I would agree with you.  Unfortunately, if you are exposed to any business outside of your own, chances are, you will fall prey to the culture seeming to be rampant.  This is the culture of…. Well, abbreviate Follow Up.

Trent Cotton has spent a number of years in management and business consulting. After spending some time in the field, he joined the HR department, beginning in recruiting and eventually serving as the Department Head of HR for one of the major lines of business. With such a varied background, he works to bring all of these together to help organizations incorporate best practices into their business to help them succeed. In his free time, he also writes a lot on his other blog, Christian Men, Christian Warrior.