Fixing Problems in Business

Every business has issues. These issues occur all the time and often seem manageable until a business is going through a time of change. Businesses merging, separating, or acquiring other companies; value systems that clash, top Executives who don’t work well together, top teams who can’t achieve enough because they meet but don’t drive results in the business, meetings that are too frequent without sufficient results – these are issues or problems, and a high achieving, ambitious Managing Director doesn’t have the time, or sometimes the knowledge, to manage these.

But people need direction at times, guidance, advice, tools. In my experience changing people’s lives is a difficult thing to do even if you believe it will be for the better. Selling that to them and getting them motivated to come on board needs a tool – it’s finding the right tool that matters and when you do, it’s the use of that tool that gets them to better manage the change.

Individuals are the same; they can mostly manage until the volume of demands exceeds their ability to respond and they need support to problem solve their direction or way out of the problem. If an individual doesn’t step up to the challenge or resolves their difficulties, they get stressed and businesses are the same. It pays to act. It pays to support people and it pays to do it quickly

I help businesses when they’re going through a time of change. My background as an expert in Stress has taught me a series of tools that help a business manage their people or the situations they experience so that they can make progress. I am a private, confidential advisor.

Situations I have supported include:

  • Businesses that have merged
  • Two businesses owned by members of the same family but who wanted to separate to achieve their own individual potential
  • Top teams who weren’t transparent enough with each other so they took feedback as criticism
  • Teams that carried poor performers because it was too uncomfortable to sort the issue
  • I’ve helped people who were promoted and they’re not doing the job the way they hoped they’d do
  • I’ve supported people who aren’t reaching their full potential
  • Individuals going through divorce
  • Couples who want to stay together but can’t find a way forward
  • Other individuals who’ve lost their mojo, focus or direction and just can’t seem to work out what to do
  • People who are going through a lot of personal troubles; the company wants to help, but they can’t work out what would be best for them

We all know someone, or in some cases, a whole team, who needs more than we can give them or for whom we want the best but it just takes a lot of time and resources to achieve it. Senior people struggle, but don’t like to admit it.

In my work, I come across these difficulties both when businesses are going through changes and when individuals experience stress.

I find it helps a great deal to follow some rules: leading and managing change is often a difficult thing to do. People are complicated, but the starting point is Rule Number One: Get Your Top Team Working Well

Too often I begin a consultancy project only to find enthusiasm is not at fault but instead the process becomes de-railed by the struggles the top team are having in agreeing the direction of the change; the strategy for it, or the speed of implementation. These issues are not only discussed at the outset of the project which is entirely relevant, but continue to permeate the process and never quite become resolved. It means that instead of being able to push for goals with a realistic chance of achieving them, internal wrangling is still going on as to the merits of what they are trying to aim for and why. It is frustrating for them. Patrick Lencioni wrote an excellent book about this called ‘The Five Dysfunctions of a Team’. Not just for top teams but Lencioni has drawn attention to the five biggest errors a team can make.

First, he makes a reference to the absence of trust. This is vital, for if members of a top team do not trust each other then they will not say what they really mean. Keen instead to avoid putting their head above the parapet in case it gets shot off, they do not put forward their ideas or opinions because they don’t feel important or valued by the other members.

This absence of trust has a knock-on effect as people struggle to avoid conflict due to the belief that it is better to say things to please one another than challenge prevailing opinion. The trouble is, if they leave the room not having discussed their viewpoint then they are much less likely to commit to something and lack of commitment to goals is a problem because they will passively agree but quite possibly vehemently disagree, outside the boardroom.

The fourth dysfunction of a team is when they avoid accountability. This can come about in three ways; firstly, they may not have agreed to the direction or goals of the business so they feel within their rights to now disown the result of an attempt to achieve this direction. Unable or unwilling to accept their part within it, they find fault instead and do not take ownership of anything they may have said or done which didn’t support it.

The second way they may avoid accountability is by not disclosing or regularly discussing what they are doing within their role. Other members of the team can sometimes be in the dark about what an individual does, and this breeds a lack of trust and possibly resentment if the aim (which is to achieve the results of the business), are not contributed to well enough by a member whose absences or lack of productivity is not pulled up for further scrutiny. Carrying anyone in a business is potentially a mistake but never more so than at the top of the business.

Accountability can also go wrong when someone senior does not contribute to the greater good of the company by pursuing their own interests thereby building a little business of their own. This may come about by not doing what they are asked, or trying to push something through because they think it’s a good idea rather than policy says it should be done another way. Empire building like this can again cause resentment, encourages prima donna behaviour, and completely lacks humility in relation to being aware that the business succeeds on the back of everyone not just a few.

At the top of the pyramid is when a team can fall down, if they do not pay attention to the results of a business but stick instead to ‘what’s in it for them’. Concerned with their achievements, or blowing their own trumpet, this dysfunction rests on the back of the lack of accountability because if you are pursuing the latter, then you are often ignoring the former.

In conclusion, managing change rests on getting your top team bought in to the reason for change, they then decide the strategy to achieve it, but then they should hand it over to the next level of management who debate how this is done and the best way to get everyone to do it.


Rule Number 2: Simplify A to C

The second rule seems deceptively simple; I call it getting from ‘A’ to ‘C’. Knowing what you want to achieve is ‘C’. Many people think of a vision when they think about where they want to go; the Vision for the business which is the golden image they have of their brand, market positioning and profitability. A Vision for the business can be quite a long time in the future, and removed from the day to day lives of employees. This tends to mean the Vision of the business is a lot less relevant to people than to the top team.

For example, I gave a Keynote presentation to a large Corporate a few weeks back whose Senior Managers had just been told that Ofgem wanted them to competitively tender for every piece of work they did paring their expenses back by 25% over the next 8 years. When I asked this group what ‘C’ looked like to them they started describing expressions like ‘increased profitability’, ‘maintaining market share’, and ‘establishing new policies and procedures’.

My simple response to this was “that’s not what other people will be able to relate to, what else will they want to know?” One bright guy got what I was getting at and answered “if we do this change process then we will still be around in 5 years’ time thereby protecting our jobs”. This statement wasn’t ugly, just the bare-knuckle reality of what a change programme is all about.

It’s also important to try and envisage what the problems would be if you decide to stay at ‘A’. If it is a simple strategy for change then analysing the pain of staying at A might be ‘all the reasons why the current system isn’t working’ or’ the drawbacks and pain of doing things the same way as we’ve always done’.

A Case Study: One member of a meeting I recently presented to had an accounting system he didn’t like; it didn’t calculate well at the end of the week in such a way that the figures could be forwarded to head office and used strategically to support the business. They had to be manually telephoned in instead so he decided to change it and brought in a team to train the staff on the new accounts system. He decided on the package and he decided a date when it would be implemented. There was only one flaw; the Manager of the accounts department was his wife and unhappy with his methods and aims she stood her ground, and the process was de-railed.

After I was called in this person decided to change tactic; he asked her what was wrong with the current system instead. She duly obliged and told him everything her staff didn’t like about it. Then he asked her what she wanted to do about it, to which she politely suggested that a new system would be best! He pointed out the merits of the system he had already researched, but then left it to her to do her own research on this and any other package before deciding.

In the end, the same team from the external consultancy came back but this time they piloted the system with a few people his wife chose whose attitude would be responsive to quickly picking up the merits of the new system, and then they reported back to everyone what had gone well and what had not gone well. This peer to peer recommendation is a much stronger process and ensures buy-in when the roll out begins. This time the system was adopted and everyone felt consulted and involved.

The rest of the managing change process is probably intuitive and more obvious; it involves planning a strategy, knowing your people and what they need, learning from your mistakes, and taking as many people with you as you can.

If you have a situation like this, or you have people you know who aren’t working well together or as individuals, give me a call – I can help.