Richard Pierce Thomas

Managing The Gap

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“You were wrong,” Phil stated confidently. “How so?” I asked, though I could tell where the conversation was going. I had worked with Phil and his team several years ago. With a couple dozen employees and ten million in sales, we implemented a strategic alignment of the business; a process of creating the foundational vision, mission and values along with the strategic processes to achieve the business objectives.

“Our growth," he continued. "We are achieving what we set out to do, but it hasn’t happened like you said it would.”

I don’t ever recall telling him how it would happen, but I wasn’t going to argue the point.

“When we put our plan together for how we would get there, we calculated it would take a double digit growth rate, year over year. We were on track the first couple of years, then the economy dumped and our sales went flat. Then we had a down year. We all took a pay cut to avoid laying off anyone.”

“Good for you Phil. Sounds like to you did the right thing.”

“Yeah, but my point is the goals and metrics became so unbelievable that I finally stopped sharing them. They became meaningless.”

Screen shot 2013-04-12 at 10.44.08 AMIt was at this point that it took everything in my power to keep from telling Phil this is where he missed the opportunity—in managing the gap between the goal and the current performance.

“So, what did you do?”

“I told them to just focus on their job and I’ll worry about where the business is going.”

Phil’s reaction is an all too familiar refrain I hear from many businesses owners. When things are going as planned managing the business is easy. The truth is however, we are learning much less when business is going as planned than when it isn’t.  It’s not easy to do, especially when everyone is looking to you for answers. Rather than bailing on the process as Phil did however, there are some simple steps you can take to stay the course, as follows:

  1. Have a defined goal – As simple as it sounds, many leaders fail to clarify what the target is yet they expect the organization to perform as if they should know, or worse, as if it doesn’t matter. Don’t kid yourself…it matters!
  2. You don’t have to know all the answers – The sooner you stop acting like a problem solver, the better. Become a solution promoter, viewing problems as an opportunity to involve employees in the problem solving process.
  3. Seek small, successive wins – One of the biggest temptations when things aren’t going as planned is to look for big win. While understandable, it is not a recipe for success. Stay the course and seek small but measureable successes. A popular refrain of a friend and sales mentor, Jerry Vieira of QMP Associates is, “succeeding in business comes from doing a thousand small things right.”
  4. Be patient and persistent – Edison once said, “most people don’t realize how close they were to success when they gave up.” You are likely closer to success than you think.
  5. Don’t miss the larger moment – Whether you recognize it or not, you are modeling how to lead through challenging times. How you choose to act today will likely become the standard for the team tomorrow.

Yes, Phil is experiencing success. The larger problem he hasn’t recognized however is it is largely on his back. It is arguable whether the team has learned anything other than to keep their heads down and not ask questions. While it may have worked for Phil this time, he’s done little to prepare for tomorrows challenge. Either Phil can start working with his team to become part of the solution, or he’d better make sure he has his A-game on. It’s not a matter of if the next challenge comes, but when.

Take the time to start working with your team to manage the gap and you will create a foundation for performance that will pay off when it really matters.

The Fear You Name

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Flying to San Antonio for a conference recently, I had an unlikely conversation that got me thinking about personal change, a subject I love to talk about. Settled in my seat on row 31, a guy heading down the aisle caught my attention. Sporting a weeks worth of stubble and greased back hair, he was a shoe in for Mickey Rourke (a younger Barfly Mickey that is…). The smell of alcohol enveloped me as he stumbled into the middle seat. The euphemism rode hard; put away wet immediately came to mind. “There’s something you should know about me,” he rasped in a Pall Mall voice. “I’m bleeping scared of flying.”

“Oh, I’m sure you’ll be fine,” I reassured. He didn’t look convinced. He grunted and quickly went to sleep, snoring for a couple of hours until we hit some turbulence. Jostled awake, he turned to me with wide eyes as he death gripped my forearm.

“What are you afraid of?” I asked.

“What do you mean?” he slurred. “Isn’t it obvious?”

“The fear you name is the fear you conquer,” I heard myself quip before I’d hardly thought it.

Staring nonplussed for a long moment, he released my arm and punched the attendant call button. “Coupla’ beers for me and the Doc,” he shouted at the flight attendant, gesturing to me with his thumb.

“I’m no doctor,” I said laughing. The beers came and we filled our cups. He drained his in one gulp, finishing with a belch.

“Ok Doc,” he said smacking his lips, “Explain, ‘cause I’m not gettin’ it!”

Having resigned not getting anymore work done, I launched into the story. It was the winter of 2008. My partnership with another consultant had just bit the dust and the timing couldn’t have been worse. Business being slow to begin with, my ex-partner had just left with my most of the business. I was burning through cash reserves fast and contemplating pulling the plug on this rodeo when I got some advice from the most unlikely of sources – my tax accountant. Who knew?

“Predict the date of your demise,” he explained, responding to my bout of self pity.

“What?” I asked, not sure if I’d heard him correctly.

“Write it down. The date you expect to go out of business.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “How the heck is that supposed to help?”

“Trust me on this Rick,” he said. “By writing it down it forces you to name your fear and it becomes less scary than it feels right now. You’ll also start solving the problem rather than avoiding it. But you have to write it down!”

Though I promised I’d do as he said, I did nothing for a month. By March however, my situation was much worse, being one month closer to bankruptcy. In a fit of desperation, I did what he said. I drew a line in the calendar – June 24, 2008. That was my D-Day. My day of demise. While nothing happened at first, I soon noticed that the stress I’d been carrying was gone. I couldn’t believe it was that easy! Sure enough though, it was real. I wasn’t obsessing about the lack of business anymore. Just the opposite, I began to focus on the possibilities. Sure, I thought about the coming date and would ponder it endlessly at times, but I didn’t fear it anymore. And then amazing things began to happen – good things like referrals and unsolicited phone calls from prospects…and business!

“Not only did we make it past that date, but in every year since then our business has grown.” Mickey stared at me with bloodshot eyes.

“That’s-a-nice-story,” he patronized slowly, “But what the heck has that got to do with my fear of flying?”

Realizing it was pointless to explain further, I laughed it off and ordered another round. It may have not meant anything to Mickey, but it meant everything to me, and I’m certain it can mean something to you as well. I challenge you to write down your biggest fear going into 2013, and then see the fear for what it is – misplaced energy. And prepare yourself to be surprised by the outcome.