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If there was a poll on why businesses don’t excel, the “My employees don’t want to take ownership” option would definitely be in the top three reasons. In the hundreds of conversations I’ve had with business leaders over the last seven years, this issue has been raised almost every single time.
So what is it about employment that brings about such disinterest? Or, is it even about employment at all – maybe the leadership, peers or company culture needs to be examined? Honestly, there’s usually more than one issue at play. Here are four possible reasons why this disenchantment may occur, and some suggested ‘antidotes’:
1- An employee doesn’t want to raise his own bar beyond his comfort level:
When you hire, you bring someone on to do a particular set of tasks. Over the months and years of doing the same (or similar) work with the same people, a level of comfort and complacency tends to set in.
You’d like the employee to proactively improve the role, continually increase output, and increase overall efficiency…but taking the ownership of improving the task would take away from that comfort – and few people look for discomfort. In addition, once a person has shown that he can deliver, you’d reasonably expect him to live up to that standard. If someone would rather just live on cruise control, they won’t make the mistake of showing you what they’re truly capable of.
If this disappoints you, let me offer a real-world reminder: someone who is driven, proactive, smart, generates ideas and follows through on them (does this sound like you?) is much more likely to be running their own business than working for someone else. This isn’t to say that no employees will be good; rather, understand that some will need you to help them become the best version of themselves, if they want it badly enough.
The Antidote: In business, as in life, prevention is better than cure. Don’t let complacency set in – keep people engaged and motivated to act, and encourage continuous learning and training. Let them see their own potential, excite them with their career prospects, and nurture their talents. Does that mean that some will get poached by your competitors? Yes. Is that a good reason to underachieve as an organization? Well…you decide.
2- An employee is afraid of blame if her initiative fails:
A common obstacle for many initiatives is the fear of failure. This fear is normal – it’s ok to be uncomfortable with the idea that an idea may not work. This can be overcome, through support, learning and continuous effort. In some organizations, however, there is another fear associated with taking the initiative: the fear of blame. This fear is paralyzing, and stronger perhaps than any other fear. But can you imagine a world without failure? What a bleak, boring world it would be. It was failure after failure that gave us the light bulb, the telephone, and every other breakthrough invention we can’t live without today. How likely would it be for us to have these tools, if every failure was met with blame and accusation?
The Antidote: “Show me a man who has never failed, and I’ll see a man who has never attempted anything.” If you want the firm to reach new heights, it will happen at the cost of some slip-ups. The greater the fear of the blame for slip-ups, the less likely that any new steps will be taken. This doesn’t mean everyone gets free rein to waste resources, though. Identify your future stars, sit with them, listen to their ideas and discuss the requirements. The greatest weapon in their arsenal will be your belief in their abilities – help them to help you.
3- There’s no glory in the grind:
As Maslow identified in his Hierarchy of Needs, once the “basic needs” are met, a person has two psychological requirements: ‘Belonging’ and ‘Esteem’. ‘Belonging’ is to do with an individuals’ personal and social circle, and ‘Esteem’ has two parts: Prestige and Feeling of Accomplishment. In a work setting, these are achieved through awards, recognition and titles. The “What’s In It For Me?” should be addressed, not just in marketing products to prospects, but also when encouraging participation internally. There is – perhaps rightfully, in some cases – the perception that employees are not valued by organizations, and this attitude is a major issue that needs to be addressed.
The Antidote: If a team member is going out on a limb, and is willing to take the risk that it may not work, it would only be fair to give them the appropriate glory for the effort, too. There are two direct benefits to this. Firstly, if the idea works out, the appreciation should cause a huge boost in their self-esteem, their pride in their work, and their reputation in the firm. If it doesn’t work, the acknowledgement will still show that the effort is appreciated, and that the firm believes in the person – this can work wonders for long-term loyalty. Secondly, it gives a message to every other person: your performance is not going unnoticed. A ‘not-A-but-not-C-level’ team member will see that those who try being praised, and it may be all the encouragement they need to up their game. Conversely, if someone is not willing to push themselves, their lack of effort will be highlighted over time. Either way, it benefits the company in the long-run.
4- There is a culture of apathy:
On her first day on the job, the bright-eyed, energetic young lady was brimming with ideas on how to improve performance. Everywhere she looked, she saw potential gains, growth and results. She started writing a list of all her thoughts, afraid to lose them if they weren’t committed to paper. Twenty minutes and seventeen ideas later, her assigned mentor – a middle-aged, pleasant man who had been in the company forever – looked over at the excited recruit muttering to herself, and saw her list. Interrupting her train of thought, he asks: “Do you truly think nobody here has ever thought of these ideas before?” She pauses, unsure how to reply. He continues: “See Alex over there? He still has his ideas list from three years ago in his drawer somewhere. Martin, over in the corner – his ten-point plan that he made a year ago was just taken off his wall last month. And the initiatives I proposed when I first joined – let’s just say, we’re still waiting for them to be reviewed. Don’t waste your time on this. Frankly, my dear, they don’t give a damn.”
And, just like that, another one bites the dust. She glances down at the paper, tears the sheet off, and drops it – along with her enthusiasm and dreams, into the trash basket.
The Antidote: you’ll need to take a long, hard, honest look at the culture that exists in your office. Remove the rose-colored glasses, and critically examine how people behave and interact. To have a beautiful garden, you must be willing to kill the weeds – but identifying them is a whole different challenge. Have in-depth conversations with both senior and junior people, understand if a culture of apathy exists, get real answers on the why and how. Then the process of culture change – and instilling a culture of ownership – can begin. It is a long and challenging journey, but the results are multifold.
When I read, I dog-ear pages that I want to revisit later. These could be quotes, ideas or experiments, and make up the key ideas that I want to retain. I started Grit by Angela Duckworth about two weeks ago, and this is one of those books where you want to keep going through the book because it’s so good, but also want to go back to re-read and savor each section, because it’s so relatable.
So, as usual, I started dog-earing the pages I wanted to revisit later. Two weeks on, I can quite confidently say that I have never ended with as many marked pages in any other book I’ve ever read. ‘Grit’ is required reading for anyone, in any field, in any part of their life – from managers, to athletes, to parents, to students. Angela Duckworth has explored concepts in this book that are well-known, but little thought of. What grit means, how it applies, how to develop it within yourself and others…the takeaways are just fantastic.
Here are my top three takeaways:
Talent x Effort = Skill;
Skill x Effort = Achievement
Having a talent at something is great, but it’s not predictable nor acquirable. I can not now get the talent in something I wasn’t born with. But that’s okay – everyone is talented at something, so we’d even out. The difference comes in the effort applied, and effort counts twice. Turning a talent into a skill takes magnificent effort, particularly as the world gets smaller and more competitive. But we don’t live in a world where pure skill is applauded; rather, we reward outcomes. This is where effort counts again. It is the continuous, unrelenting, uncompromising application of skill that produces world-class outcomes.
Question: What are my talents, and how am I working to develop them further? With this skill set, what are my big goals that I am aiming towards?
Practicing something to get better at it is good; knowing the elements that supercharge skill through practice is great. There are three elements to ‘deliberate practice’:
– The science behind practice: This is made up of (a) having a clearly defined stretch goal, (b)full concentration and effort, (c) immediate and informative feedback, and (d) repetition with reflection and refinement.
– Making practice a habit: creating a schedule around practice that will make it automatic for your body and mind to get into the practice zone.
– Develop a “that was hard. It was great!” mindset about practice and the inevitable mistakes you will make. It’s ok to not be perfect at it at the start…else there would not be a need to practice. Stick at it, see it through, and relish the difficulty.
Question: What is my ‘stretch goal’ for the thing(s) I am practicing, and how am I making my practice ‘deliberate’?
“Compete” has nothing to do with a one-winner-one-loser outcome. The word is derived from Latin, and means to “strive together”. Competing is about excellence, about continually striving to improve, to be better today than I was yesterday. The whole purpose of ‘competition’ is to be in a field with someone who will push me to work harder, stretch myself and show me my weaknesses.
Question: how am I competing in the area of my practice, and how am I measuring my own improvement and growth?
Angela draws on years of research, dozens of studies, and hundreds of conversations and observations. The sheer amount of grit displayed by her in the creation of this work is remarkable. Get a copy (and read it!), you will be glad you did.
There’s no avoiding challenging times. When they come, and you feel terrible, self-help books are full of positive thoughts you can repeat to yourself to get through them. While beneficial, tough times still suck. To cheer you up, here are three lesser-mentioned (and great!) outcomes of downturns:
They help get rid of your bad competitors:
If you’re facing an issue at a macro level (not internal to your company), chances are your competitors are facing similar challenges. Every business has a different degree of preparedness for problems, and – sad but true – many are just hanging on by a thread.
Downturns, whether local, regional or global, take a lot of bad players off the field. (By ‘bad competition’, I refer to the cowboys and briefcase-traders that bring bad reputation to a respected market, from financial advisories to logistics companies)
Takeaway: be prepared for the dips, and don’t get wiped out when the waves come – not if, because they will come!
They make clear what doesn’t work:
There’s this famous line: “50% of my marketing works, I just don’t know which 50%”. This level of ignorance is an unforgivable mistake to make. And the punishment for this willful ignorance comes during tough times: businesses are scared to invest in marketing, because they don’t know where to put their money.
Unsurprisingly, this leads to further reductions in revenue, and compounds the problem. It’s easy to overlook inefficiencies during good times.
Takeaway: Create tiers of marketing strategies: those that give you consistent, reliable ROI, and those that are experimental, ‘let’s try it and see’ types. When your competitors stop marketing out of fear, you’ll know what to keep going and what to cut.
Bonus: use KPIs to track everything – from sales team performance, to marketing channel conversion. Use these numbers when making tough decisions.
They give you a reason to say: “Screw this, I’m going in!”
Complacency is a silent killer. Everything is fine, ticking along, steady… and suddenly there’s a business-threatening issue looming over you. Downturns force you out of your comfort zone, throw you head-first into the deep-end of an existing problem. There’s no time to assemble a committee, have 18.5 useless and 1.5 useful meetings, and come up with a 62-point list of ‘recommended actions’ (which – conveniently – no member of the committee is willing to stake his reputation on).
Challenging times make you roll up your sleeves, grab your gear and get into the trenches. Few battles are lost in the war room, most are lost at the front line. Conversely, the same applies for battles won. Getting out of the boardroom and onto the shop floor is perhaps one of the best solutions I can offer to businesses facing difficult circumstances.
Takeaway: when you have your back against the wall, you think faster, better and clearer. The more often you put yourself outside your comfort zone by choice, the easier it is to get into it when circumstance demands it.
Bonus: When your team see you on the floor, they buy into you better. That means they will get more passionate about your vision, be more willing to stick with you, and be more willing to take ownership of their roles – all because they don’t want to let you down.
Bonus bonus: get your management team used to being at the front line too. Disconnect between management and operations is one of the most common reasons for under-performance.
Remember: Tough times don’t last, but tough companies do. Make your business willingly sweat now, and it’ll be easier for your when everyone else is sweating.
As the end of the year approaches, many start to feel the impact of end of year fatigue. During the last few weeks of 2017, end on a positive note and start laying the foundation for a successful new year. Many businesses either find that either things start to quieten down, or the other extreme and find the last few weeks of the year chaotic – often packed with finishing off projects and attending many social events. Whichever scenario you find yourself in, here are five ways to end the year on a positive note in business.
The end of the year is a great opportunity to exercise your gratitude – especially as a business owner. Show your team that you are grateful for all their hard work during the year in whichever way you see fit. Thank your clients, networks and partners for their support. Write a gratitude list for yourself on all the things you are grateful for about yourself, your business and the year that has passed. Prioritise spreading gratitude always, but make a point of it especially in the last few weeks of the year.
Celebrate the wins
During the year everything tends to get very busy and often, overlapping the completion of one task, project, deadline, meeting or event is the next thing to work towards. There is not always dedicated time to celebrating the wins and as the weeks roll into months, before we know it we are starting a new year. It is important to reflect on and celebrate all the personal and business achievements along the way and the end of the year is the perfect time for it. Highlight the wins and as a business acknowledge them and create a way to celebrate them: could be with a team building function, an incentive event, an internal awards ceremony or even an end of year speech at the office.
Reflect on the challenges
Every business and individual faced challenges in 2017, some more than others. Reflect on these challenges, learn from mistakes and decide how you would do things differently going forward. Face your failures with a growth mindset and learn from them. Reflecting on challenges is an effective way to deal with them, then let them go and move forward into the new year on a positive note.
Create a plan
This is all about spending some time laying the foundations for a successful 2018; the most effective way to do this is by creating a powerful action-plan that will outline your and your team’s strategic and operational activities for the next quarter. Spend time strategising about how you want the start of the next year to look: what will you focus on; what will need to change; what are your longer term goals; how will you approach things differently.
As mentioned earlier, the end of the year can be an extremely busy time. It’s important to find balance where possible: the balance between taking time off and the final push for the year; the balance between spending your time between work and loved ones; the balance between celebrating the wins and learning from the challenges; the balance between finishing off tasks for 2017 and creating a new plan for 2018.
And on that note, thank you to all of our clients, partners, fellow business owners, friends and family for your continued support and a fantastic year.