Any sensible business manager knows they don’t have all the answers. In fact, most know they only have a few of the answers. Therefore, having a source of more answers is surely a good move.
It’s not as if there’s a world shortage of business or management gurus. Every two years Harvard Business Review publishes a list of the top 50 business thinkers. Forbes Magazine does something similar, but it’s the HBR version that seems to carry the most clout.
The chosen ones are mostly American. They are substantially academics, but have real life business experience. They are invariably published, so you can have their ideas sitting on your desk.
Before we enter the rarefied realms of Ivy League academia, allow me to mention the method of marginal gains - essentially a management technique used by the British cycling team. I’ve written about this before and it works because it’s simple and comprehensible.
In the same vein, have a look at The Score Takes Care of Itself by Bill Walsh. He it was who turned a failing San Francisco 49ers squad into three-time Super Bowl winners. The philosophy he expounds has been taken up by the England rugby coach Stuart Lancaster.
Much of the success is about individual and collective behaviour. No players or coaches were allowed to assume superiority, there was to be no caste system. I have experienced the destructive force of this in a business environment - the senior salesmen whose long success has given them a perceived right to the best leads.
Aim to have everyone on the same wavelength, doing much the same thing for the same reason. Have a plan that everyone buys into and implement it consistently. Have a sharing culture.
Consistency and careful planning are also virtues. However, I would say beware the inflexible plan and the ‘we always do it this way’ culture. This is a tough call because sticking to your plan, to your processes that have produced results, makes sense. Unfortunately, the market and your specific customers haven’t read your plan and don’t care about your processes.
So who are the Harvard Business Review’s stars? Top of the pile in 2011 and 2013 was Clayton Christensen, a professor at Harvard Business School. His latest book is called How Will You Measure Your Life?
Christensen doesn’t believe in telling people what to do. Instead he gives them models and a series of examples of how other businesses have achieved results. He claims to be teaching people how to think about business management.
This is not the dry as dust academic you may recall from your own studies. He’s readable, as are the others referred to elsewhere.
An element of How Will You Measure Your Life? asks you to address three key questions: how will you make sure you are happy in your career? How can you ensure relationships with family and spouse are a source of enduring happiness? And how can you be sure you’ll stay out of jail? That last one is not flip - Christensen has studied with three people who didn’t, including Jeffrey Skilling of Enron fame.
I suggest all those personal issues are important, but often get left out of the equation when people start dilating on the routes to commercial success. Being the richest man in the cemetery - or indeed jail - doesn’t constitute success. If nothing else, I’d say that human element makes Christiansen a worthy guru.
Are you interested in being a high growth business? A daft question, you might say. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne discovered there was a key difference in strategic approach between high growth and low growth businesses. The latter took a conventional approach; their thinking was dominated by staying ahead of the competition.
The former, by contrast, paid little attention to matching or beating their rivals. They aimed instead for value innovation that would make their competitors’ efforts irrelevant. Kim and Mauborgne discovered that high growth came from small and large companies, from high tech and low tech and from businesses run by young radical thinkers and older heads.
Value innovation as a commercial strategy also translated into how high growth businesses approached product and service innovation. If you like a couple of killer statistics, here they are. Those businesses that focused on line extensions - a significant majority - found they contributed 62 per cent of turnover but only 39 per cent of total profit. Meanwhile the minority - the value innovators - saw those launches produce 38 per cent of revenue but 61 per cent of total profit.
Robert Kaplan and David Norton are experts in strategic management. But I wasn’t convinced by what I read and saw, except for one key nugget - what you measure is what you get. Ask any teacher or indeed parent of school aged children looking for a school and it becomes rapidly apparent that, very often, both teachers and parents are focused on test and exam results at the various levels.
As in the education world, so in business. The more you crunch the numbers, the further you go away from quality. As a young salesman, I was sold the principle that if you had enough appointments per week or month you’d succeed. Quality didn’t come into the equation and that is always going to be a mistake.
Linda Hill tells us that business managers have a strong tendency to stop developing themselves. It’s commonplace for a well run company to have a staff development programme in place. It can be a key factor in recruiting good people. But what about the bosses?
According to Hill, the result is a lot of mediocre and awful managers, along with some great ones. The reality is that business managers reach a plateau of competence and skills. They fail to move themselves on in the way they ask of staff.
If you want your team to improve their skills, what chance have you got of selling that principle if you are not doing the same thing yourself? What’s more, if you fail to improve your contribution to the business, you could lose it. Those staff you’ve trained while you haven’t improved your own skills could walk and take the customers with them.