Don’t rest on your achievements

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA
Not so smart phone – but good for making calls

Over the weekend there has been a lot of press about Liam Fox’s comments that British business leaders are more interested in playing golf on a Friday afternoon than seeking international trade deals.

To my mind the comments from the Minister for International Trade demonstrates how out of touch politicians can be with the reality of running businesses both large and small. Long boozy lunches and taking Friday off to play golf with the chaps is a very old-fashioned view of the world of work.

However misguided I think he is, there may however be a small grain of truth in what he said about resting on our achievements of the past.

Last week Apple launched the iPhone 7 and it is hard to remember that prior to 2007 there were no smart phones or at least the smartest phone on the block was Blackberry. Hmm where are they now?

Apple have totally dominated, in financial terms, the smartphone market since its inception. But Apple wasn’t always very successful. In 2001 they lost US$25m and their net profit margin was 1.1% in both 2002 and 2003. Hardly results to boast about.Apple Profit vs iPhone SalesWell everything changes and nothing stays the same. Apple’s iPhone sales have probably peaked and look like falling back by about 15% this financial year. This isn’t a surprise. After all you can’t continue to sell 230m phones a year and expect that market to continue forever. Everyone who wants an iPhone pretty much already owns one. So the desperate search for new revenue sources is on, hence Apple’s move into music, TV, watches and perhaps even cars.

This process equally applies to all businesses both large and small.

Look at Marks & Spencer’s inability to compete in clothing now or Tesco’s problems with their out of town stores (and their alleged £326m accounting fraud to cover it up). I used to buy clothes in River Island many years ago and then their clothes, well became a bit rubbish (for me anyway). Recently I have gone back to buying clothes from them because the quality is right, the price point spot on and the style is perfect for me. Who has changed – River Island or me? It doesn’t really matter. Change is all around us and companies need to change and adapt as their customers change.

The world moves on, clients want different things, products and services become out of date.

If you don’t change then someone else will
seize your opportunity.

 

Small business owners – getting on with the job

BrexitFollowing the vote to leave the EU in June, you might have thought that Armageddon was just around the corner. We are doomed, the economy will crash, it will take years to negotiate an exit, EU countries will punish us with high tariffs….

But Britain’s small business owners, in my experience, have pretty much ignored the background noise. In fact they have been …

  • chasing up leads & identifying new potential customers
  • keeping an eye on costs
  • monitoring profit margins
  • training staff to develop their skills
  • increasing value to clients with new products and services
  • building relationships with other organisations
  • looking for new suppliers
  • providing excellent customer service
  • checking out competitors
  • looking at export markets now that sterling has fallen
  • adjusting prices to reflect input costs from overseas suppliers
  • doing their accounts
  • paying bills and salaries
  • dealing with issues
  • answering the phone

…and working hard to provide an income for them and their families.

In fact small business owners know the only person they can rely on is themselves and their staff. They don’t wait around for governments to make decisions or for EU negotiations to start…

They just get on with the job

P.S. My business is a small business and I have been getting on with the job too. I have done pretty much all of the above AND wrote this blog entry.

Self-driving Terminator cars will kill us all!

Google Self Drive CarHow we make decisions can depend on a wide variety of things – how we feel at the time, what else is going on in our lives and, the granddaddy of them all, looking for information to confirm what we already believe (sometimes called Confirmation Bias, but I prefer to call this the “Ah-hah I told you so” bias).

There is another common error we make when taking mental shortcuts. We don’t like to consider things too rationally (because it hurts too much). Our brains like to seize on “facts” which we can then use to make decisions quickly without having to do a lot of thinking. But often these facts are not actually facts at all. Marketing companies understand this very well.

Look at ads for beauty products, anti-aging creams in particular. Appear younger, reduce this, enhance that and you too can look like this fabulous model who has been in professional make-up for 3 hours. But look at the small print and these ads will say something like “72% of 97 agree” (this is from a current ad by a French cosmetics company). So they did a test of 97 people and 72% agree so 66.24 people think it works. Hardly scientifically robust statistics but it’s the headline “facts” they want us to remember.

So politicians and marketers love to use these factoids, but it can also lead to poor decisions or perceptions in the real world as well. Recently I saw the following headline on the BBC website:-

Google’s self-drive cars had to be stopped from crashing”

Wow those robot cars are going to kill us all, I’d never get in one! This might be a “factual” shortcut to believing that self-drive cars are four-wheeled terminators but is this a short-cut to a bad conclusion? Here are some facts about the number of times a human has had to intervene in California in 2015:-

Google             13
Nissan           106
Mercedes     1051
Delphi           405 (& no I have never heard of them before either)
Volkswagon  260
Bosch            625 (yes I thought these guys made tools and home appliances)

Does that make it any clearer? Well it seems to confirm that our first response was correct. I mean look at how many times they almost had accidents – 2,460 times. Actually it is how may times there was  a human intervention not a potential accident, a subtle but important difference.  Once you add in the number of miles traveled in each test then things become a little clearer :-

Google             13     424,000 miles
Nissan           106          1,485 miles
Mercedes     1051          1,739 miles
Delphi           405        16,662 miles
Volkswagon  260        14,945 miles
Bosch            625             935 miles (perhaps these guys should stick with tools & appliances)

So Googles cars have had to be stopped by human operators 13 times in 424,000 miles of driving. I wonder how often I had to slam on the brakes because I wasn’t paying attention or someone cut me up or pulled out without looking? Probably more that once every 32, 000 miles or so. I live on a small crowded island, so I am guessing I have to do this every 32 miles or even more. In fact, two of the incidents reported by Google were because of traffic cones and the other 11….well would there have been an accident? Who knows?

So perhaps Google’s self-driving cars aren’t so scary. In fact it is estimated that humans have 4.1 crashes per million miles in the US (estimated because minor accidents are not always reported to the authorities). Google are running at a lot more than that (30 per million miles) so they have a ways to go. But I am pretty sure humans are not going to be wiped out by terminator cars.

This decision short-cut is unhelpfully called the Availability Heuristic, not exactly a catchy or intuitive name. So I prefer to call it the Schwartzeneggar Shortcut.

Postscript: One of the case studies I use in training is Tesla Motors, the US all electric premium car company. I test drove their Tesla Model S recently during which I used their autopilot feature where the Terminator…sorry the car, did the driving. It is very unsettling to start with but after a while you get used to it. I suspect that in 20 years time I will enjoy a drive where I can sit back, relax and have a glass of wine while the car does the driving.

Speaking English can seriously impact your business

In the last 2 years, I trained over 400 international managers and executives from organisations as diverse as NGOs, engineering manufacturers and global entertainment businesses. What did these people have in common? English is not their first language.

The main challenge international managers face is confidence. Senior managers and executives usually have a confidence based on a total understanding of their local culture, a confidence in their business knowledge & skills and a confidence in being able to communicate perfectly. But when they start working in English that confidence can quickly disappear. They can become hesitant and uncertain. They start becoming concerned about understanding the situation correctly, concerned about whether they can say what they want and concerned about how they appear to their international business colleagues. And while they are worrying about all these communication challenges, they are getting distracted from actually doing business.

I would go further and say that their ability to do business is seriously undermined.

This is a strong statement but let me justify it with a little help from the field of neuroscience. In Nobel Prize winning author Daniel Kahneman’s book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” he talks about two styles of thinking – intuitive, fast and seemingly effortless thinking (system 1) and conscious reasoned thinking that requires effort (system 2). What does this mean in reality? Well look at the following image.

Angry woman - Thinking Fast and Slow

What emotion is this woman showing and is she going to say something nice or unpleasant? As soon as you looked at this picture you knew she was angry and when she speaks it is likely to be something nasty and unpleasant. How did you reach this conclusion? You probably just ‘felt’ it rather than consciously worked through the options and coming to a logical solution. Now look at the following problem:

17 x 24 = ?

What is the answer? Well unless you are an extraordinary person, you probably won’t be able to answer instantly. You could work it out with a pen and paper (or a calculator) but it will take some conscious effort.

The picture is an example of thinking fast and the maths problem is an example of thinking slow.

Do you speak ‘fast’ or ‘slow’ English?

What type of thinking do you use when speaking your native language? Your intuitive, unconscious fast thinking (system 1) of course. Speaking your native language seems effortless. What about speaking English? What type of thinking do you use? A lot of people have to use ‘slow’ thinking (system 2), carefully considering the vocabulary and sentences before speaking. The problem is not just that you think or talk slower. ‘Slow’ thinking requires more effort and this has an impact on your overall ability to think clearly as you become mentally tired. Tired people make poor decisions. So speaking ‘slow’ English impacts your ability to do business.

How can you improve this situation?

The best way to speak ‘fast’ intuitive natural English is to practice using your business English in a real life situation. This is the best way to develop the language skills needed to succeed in business. So instead of going to a language school where you will be drilled in vocabulary and sentence structures, take a business course instead.

The business courses I have developed are the perfect solution to this challenge. Whether you want to develop your leadership skills, improve your negotiation or take a business masterclass covering key strategic business tools, we have courses tailored specifically to help you. Get in touch today to find out more.

How can men promote gender equality in the workplace

International Women’s Day 2015 is probably a good time to sit back and reflect on what men should be doing to help promote workplace gender equality. We can’t simply leave this to women or see it as a women’s issue. It impacts us all.

So here are my five ideas on what men need to do more.

1. Listen to women

When women are speaking listen to what they are saying. Sounds simple, but some of us are guilty of not really listening and taking on board what is being said by women. I heard a female MP (UK Member of Parliament) recently talking about how her fellow male MP’s would ignore women’s suggestions only to propose exactly the same thing later to wide acceptance and congratulations with their brilliant idea.

Recently while facilitating a session on gender equality two men completely ignored a young woman who was speaking and started up their own (loud) conversation. And this was from the men who cared about equality. (And yes I did interrupt them, pointing out the biased behavior which they accepted with a little embarrassment and apologized with good grace.)

2. Accept that women are as capable as men in challenging roles after having children

Once women have children their loyalties are split and they are not as committed to the company and its objectives as they were before, right? Wrong. Nothing could be further from the truth.

There was a very interesting study on MBA graduates from Harvard Business School and far from scaling back or forgoing opportunities women valued their careers just as much after having children. Women want more meaningful work, more challenging assignments and more opportunities for growth. In the study one of the reasons women left their companies was because they were being passed over for these opportunities.

3. Make more money, have a gender balanced team

So you run your own business or are a manager of a team, office, department or division. You are constantly under pressure to improve the bottom line from everyone – shareholders, your company board, senior management or your peers. A simple management strategy to improve the bottom line is to have a gender balanced team.

MIT recently published a study analyzing the offices of a white collar company that has over 60 offices (both inside and outside the US). Their findings are very revealing – offices which were predominantly male or female performed roughly the same in terms of revenue generation (that’s gender equality for you). Offices where men and women were broadly equally balanced had significantly higher revenues. How much higher – 41% higher. That statistic is hard to ignore.

4. Gender equality in the workplace starts at home

As men we need to acknowledge and accept our share of family responsibilities if we want equality for our partners (and our daughters). This is not about housework or DIY rather it is about the family responsibilities that chip away at a woman’s career.

Consider these questions. Who in the relationship is called by the school when there is a problem? Who takes your child to the doctors or goes home (on time!) to spend time with your children? Who decides not to socialize or go on “optional” week-end events to spend more time with their family?

Each of these decisions, while important for the family, can have an impact on a career. Missing out on the optional opportunities to build stronger relationships with your colleagues or being considered committed to your company or a project you are working on, could have a long term effect on a woman’s career. (I wrote a blog entry on this topic which you can read here).

As men we need to accept our fair share of these responsibilities and yes at times put our family ahead of our careers.

5. Don’t be afraid to speak up

Sometimes it seems as if everything we say has to be passed through a filter of political correctness. This can make men feel that they cannot be part of the conversation or can’t be themselves for fear of saying something politically incorrect or accidentally offensive. Don’t be afraid to get involved and talk about your perspective. If you make a mistake and offend someone then just apologize and move on. Don’t beat yourself up. We all make mistakes and it is better to speak up than not to speak at all.