My Interview with Robert Morris: Part 1

Robert Morris is the number one reviewer of business books for Amazon.com. A few weeks ago he posted a great review of Hunting in a Farmer’s World, and asked if he could interview me.

Bob MorrisBob’s questions were really fun, and the interview went rather long. To my surprise, he is publishing the entire thing in two parts. Here is the first half.

Morris: Before discussing Hunting in a Farmer’s World, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Dini: Clearly my Dad. He was in industrial packaging sales. Every night at the dinner table was a seminar in how to solve customer problems, and do it ethically in an environment where ethics were too easily forgotten. (Think Mad Men) He was a high performer, but his standards came before everything else. It’s how I learned that sales was all about helping people with their problems. If he didn’t have a solution, he would direct the customer to a competitor. In turn, the customer would look for future opportunities to do business with him.

Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Dini: This is better answered in the negative. I’ve never had a mentor. I often wonder how things could have turned out if I’d had the opportunity to work under someone who would have tutored me. Because of that, I try hard to focus on finding out what my employees want for their futures, and allowing them the flexibility to pursue their personal visions through or alongside their work.

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Dini: In my early 30s, I quit my sales job in New Jersey to start a company, with financing promised by a customer. He didn’t come through, teaching me a valuable lesson about making sure of things before I act on them. I was at loose ends when my former employer called. They had been acquired, and the new owners offered me an equity position if I could turn around their California operation. I’ve signed my own paycheck since.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Dini: I dropped out of college about halfway to a degree in English. When I returned to night school, I majored in accounting. My English courses all became electives, so I had four years of night classes in required accounting courses. I never wanted to be an accountant, but understanding how a business works always starts with the numbers. Having that type of long-term immersion ingrained a knowledge base that pays off every day.

Morris: What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you when to work full-time for the first time? Why?

Dini: I think the whole concept of a career path escaped me. I took jobs because I had to eat, and advanced because I had talent; but the idea of setting a long term goal, or of thinking about the next step never occurred to me. Once I became a business owner, I struggled with strategy and planning to reach objectives. I do more of it now, but it still isn’t instinctive. A mentor would hopefully have taught me how better to step back and consider the bigger picture.

Morris: Of all the films that you have seen, which – in your opinion – best dramatizes important business principles? Please explain.

Dini: I recently came across a presentation from the Army War College using the film Twelve O’Clock High (1954) with Gregory Peck as an illustration of how a leader has to change roles as his team develops. It was excellent, and I’m using it in a management course that I teach.

Morris: From which non-business book have you learned the most valuable lessons about business? Please explain.

Dini: I’ve read Any Rand’s Atlas Shrugged five times. I return to it periodically to remind myself that other people (outside my family) don’t have a right to appropriate my efforts. I still do far too much work for free, but I like to help people and that’s entirely my choice.

Morris: Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-tse’s Tao Te Chin:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

Dini: Absolutely. One of the nice things about being an entrepreneur is that I don’t have to grab credit for what the team accomplishes. As a business coach, it’s always a thrill when an owner tells me “I wasn’t available, and my people took care of it without me!” It’s tough getting employees to believe that you are just as happy, or happier, to see them succeed without you.

Morris: From Howard Aiken: “Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.”

Dini: There is truth in that, but I’ve practiced a habit of saying “I have an idea,” rather than “I have a great idea.” Once you’ve declared your own idea as terrific, you are immediately disposed to defend it. Most ideas could use a bit of improvement, and that comes easier when people don’t feel they are attacking something you’ve put a lot of emotional stock in.

Morris: From Richard Dawkins: “Yesterday’s dangerous idea is today’s orthodoxy and tomorrow’s cliché.”

Dini: Well, as Huey Lewis said, “Sometimes bad is bad.” Dangerous ideas can bring surprising results, but often we don’t like the surprise. Hindsight lets us view the dangerous ideas that worked as obvious, especially if they grow into orthodoxy and clichés, but we tend to forget the ones that were just bad ideas.

Morris: From Isaac Asimov: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but ‘That’s odd….’”

Dini: Many years ago, I had the opportunity to sit with about a dozen students and Dr. Azimov for a few hours. Similar to your quotation, one student asked him “What do you think of the quote “If a writer had predicted automobiles, another would have predicted traffic jams?” Dr. Asimov loudly yelled “WHO SAID THAT?” The stammering student admitted that he didn’t know, to which Asimov puffed up his chest and announced, “I said that!”. His mantra was to question everything. A critical part of every CEOs job is to be asking “What if…?” every day.

Morris: Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

Dini: That goes to asking “What if…?” again. Many CEOs think that Management by Walking Around (MBWA) is to make sure that people are doing what they were told to do. I’ve always thought it was to see if people are doing things they don’t need to be doing.

Morris: In one of Tom Davenport’s recent books, Judgment Calls, he and co-author Brooke Manville offer “an antidote for the Great Man theory of decision making and organizational performance”: organizational judgment. That is, “the collective capacity to make good calls and wise moves when the need for them exceeds the scope of any single leader’s direct control.” What do you think?

Dini: In the Alternative Board, I’ve facilitated over 800 peer group meetings of business owners over the last 18 years. One of the most valuable things that regularly occur in these meetings is when an owner announces an important decision for his company. His logic and analysis is sound, but someone will ask “What if the result is…” (It’s that “What if…?” question again.) A single comment will start a whole new avenue of thought, and the planned action or its implementation is frequently very different by the end of the conversation. Any great leader cultivates the ability to listen. When you have the authority to make a call, and a track record of making the right one, it becomes too easy to think that you have some special intellectual ability that others don’t possess. That’s seldom the case. All ideas benefit from being put under someone else’s magnifying glass.

Morris: Here’s a brief excerpt from Paul Schoemaker’s latest book, Brilliant Mistakes: “The key question companies need to address is not ‘Should we make mistakes?’ but rather Which mistakes should we make in order to test our deeply held assumptions?’” Your response?

Dini: The greatest ideas and advancements come from failures. If we try something and it succeeds, we usually leave it alone. It is only when things don’t turn out as planned that we improve.

Morris: In your opinion, why do so many C-level executives seem to have such a difficult time delegating work to others?

Dini: Reaching the top echelons of any organization requires high performance. Many of those who get there grow frustrated because the people around them can’t perform at their level. They can take the time to teach and coach, but it is quicker and (they think) more efficient to do it themselves. Who gets more accomplished, ten people who each do something 80% as well as you, or you? C-Level execs know that they shouldn’t be on the factory floor assembling widgets, but when it comes to knowledge work they frequently set the bar too low when deciding what is worth their time.

Morris: The greatest leaders throughout history (with rare exception) were great storytellers. What do you make of that?

Dini: Storytelling was the first form of mass communication. We are instinctively inclined to give stories weight, as they are how we learn from childhood on. I joke that my favorite bedtime stories started “Jack McCarthy was looking out the window of his corner office, wondering where the plan had gone wrong.” That’s stretching it a bit, but illustrating by putting a lesson in the context of a real person in a real place lets the reader (or listener) visualize the scenario. It sticks so much better than an abstract discussion. That’s why my books are filled with stories of real people, rather than “consulting wisdom.”

Morris: Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.”

Here’s my question: How best to avoid or overcome such resistance?

Dini: A Japanese CEO once told me about their ringi process of widespread input on decision-making. He said that American CEOs grew frustrated with the length of time it took to bring so many people into the decision circle, and boasted that they were the sole decision makers for their organizations. He had noticed, however, that once an agreement was reached, the Japanese company moved directly into implementation, while the American CEO spent the first few months trying to get everyone on board with “his” decision. Change initiatives are too often hatched in a bubble, and die from a lack of buy-in among the people who are being asked to make the change.

Morris: In recent years, there has been criticism, sometimes severe criticism of M.B.A. programs, even those offered by the most prestigious business schools. In your opinion, in which area is there the greatest need for immediate improvement? Any suggestions?

Dini: MBA programs, like all of higher education, have become trapped in bureaucracy. Textbooks tend to be written about large organizations, and the cycle of research, writing, publishing and acceptance into classrooms takes years. Some entrepreneurship programs are inviting young, successful CEOs to lecture, but they tend to be focused on tech millionaires. I’d like to see more focus on the mid-market companies that create most of the jobs. Perhaps include a practicum where students take a well-run company and try to generate measureable improvement without the capital and other resources that very large organizations can deploy. It isn’t easy.

Morris: Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any Advice?

Dini: The mismatch between education and the talent needs of business. Skilled tradespeople are ageing rapidly as a group, and we are producing far too few engineers and scientists. We feel the pinch already. In five years it will be worse, but in ten it will be critical. Demographics can’t be changed in that short of a time. Businesses, especially small businesses, have always been the trainers of last resort for early-career employees. I think that role will grow. The CEO’s challenge is going to be how to develop employees’ skills without just making them a more valuable commodity for a competitor.

Morris: Years ago at one of GE’s annual meetings, then chairman and CEO, Jack Welch, explained why he admired small companies:

“For one, they communicate better. Without the din and prattle of bureaucracy, people listen as well as talk; and since there are fewer of them they generally know and understand each other. Second, small companies move faster. They know the penalties for hesitation in the marketplace. Third, in small companies, with fewer layers and less camouflage, the leaders show up very clearly on the screen. Their performance and its impact are clear to everyone. And, finally, smaller companies waste less. They spend less time in endless reviews and approvals and politics and paper drills. They have fewer people; therefore they can only do the important things. Their people are free to direct their energy and attention toward the marketplace rather than fighting bureaucracy.”

Here’s my question: Which of his comments do you consider most important to leaders in Fortune 100 companies? Please explain.

Dini: All true but, as a lifelong small-company guy, I look at Fortune 100 companies and can’t see what they might do to be more nimble or less bureaucratic. A CEO’s primary job is to communicate the vision to everyone. As Simon Sinek says, “Why are we doing this?” When you have thousands of employees, standardization is a necessity, and I think the creep from following the vision to following the rules is inevitable. You could work in much smaller units, but surrendering economies of scale wouldn’t please the financial markets, and probably would lead pretty quickly to a new CEO.

In business, everyone is either a Hunter or a Farmer. Which one are you? Take the quiz. www.hiafw.com  book

 

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Google, SEO and the Yellow Pages Game

When the Yellow Pages were a primary source of advertising for small businesses, they had a nifty sales technique. If an advertiser was doubtful about the value of an ad, their sales rep would offer a special telephone number to track how much business was being generated by it. Typically, it proved to be most of the “new” contacts that the business received.

yellow pagesThe problem with this approach was that they were aggregating the results of other advertising, and claiming it as their own. If a prospective customer remembered your company name from your sign, or from seeing your truck on the road, or by word of mouth from another satisfied customer, where did they go to find your telephone number? That’s right — the Yellow Pages.

Google has replaced phone books as the primary source for look-up information. Many small businesses are convinced that failing to show up in a search means lost business, but how many people who “find you on the Internet” are just looking for your contact information?

If you search for “small business consultant” you won’t find me. Search “small business consultant in San Antonio” and I will appear in the second or third page of results behind national companies, many of whom are nowhere near the city. Try “John Dini” and I’ll pop up a few times on the first page. If you use “John F. Dini” my sites and publications will dominate the first two or three pages of results.

If I’ve gotten you to search for “John F. Dini” through other means, what did the search engine do but provide my web address? No matter, it will count as a hit, and if I am using pay-per-click, that will be a click I pay for.

I think Google is a great company, but they have billions to spend on convincing people that they are all-important in marketing, and ad sales are their primary source of income. I believe that they probably have good reasons to change their search algorithms regularly, but I can’t help note that each time they do, they sends legions of online marketers into a new frenzy of (revenue-generating) activity.

“We can get you on the first page of Google search” is the battle cry of web marketers. That’s great if you are reaching a high percentage of qualified prospects who wouldn’t know about you otherwise. “We can measure the effectiveness of your SEO by the hits it generates,” is also a favorite pitch. That is only true if they can measure potential customers who wouldn’t otherwise know about you. Otherwise, such metrics are simply the online version of the old Yellow Pages game.

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2 Responses to Google, SEO and the Yellow Pages Game

  1. Ray Walker says:

    Perceptive & so true

  2. Todd Marquardt says:

    Well done sir. Thank you for looking out for small business. Every dollar counts for us. We don’t have the luxury of throwing good money down the drain.

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Meetings Part V: “That’s a Wrap!”

You’ve just run a great meeting, or at least you thought it was great. You stuck to the agenda and got through all the items on it. You reached consensus on action items, and have assigned responsibility with acknowledgement for each one. You are confident that everyone is leaving with clear direction and new enthusiasm. What could be better?

Happy meetingA good meeting does all the things above. A great meeting makes them stick. There are a few more things that help make that happen.

Ending on Time: I’ve never been much of a fan of inviolable time limits on meetings. If you are being productive and discussing substantive issues, it should take as long as it takes. None the less, people have other things on their schedules. If a meeting goes over the time limit, make sure to discuss it with the group before adjourning. Did we go off topic?  Was this a one-time event or should we be scheduling a longer time slot in the future?

Assign Parking Lot items. Things that are put aside during a meeting should be worth discussing, just not at this gathering. What is going to happen with them? Subgroup or follow up gatherings should be scheduled before adjourning. “I’ll get with you later on that” too often turns up at the next meeting as “We still need to discuss that, but we haven’t had a chance.”

Set a deadline for distributing minutes or notes. Action items should be distributed by a specific time, and the sooner the better. A meeting is for the purpose of determining actions, assigned responsibility and creating accountability. Sharing the results, especially with non-attendees, is part of the process. It helps prevent communication or activity based on what someone thinks he or she heard.

Evaluate the meeting. Reader Malcolm Webster says that the best meetings he’s attended had a once-around-the-table at the end to comment on the effectiveness of the gathering. The comments were included in the minutes.

Watch the “Meetings after the meeting.” Does one subgroup rush off to continue the discussion? That may be because they want to get started right away (increasing the importance of distributing written notes), but it also could be a sign that they haven’t completely bought into the decisions that were made.

Business meetings aren’t just a necessary evil. We are social mammals, and some behaviorists estimate that up to 85% of our in-person communication comes from facial and body expressions. The free exchange of ideas, done in a structured and supportive environment, is far more powerful than trading emails or memos.

Try putting all the techniques in the last five columns to work in your next meeting. I’d love to hear what the results are.

In business, everyone is either a Hunter or a Farmer. Which one are you? Take the quiz. www.hiafw.com  book

 

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One Response to Meetings Part V: “That’s a Wrap!”

  1. Frank Benzoni P.E. Retired says:

    Great articles – all (5) – worth reading and keeping

    Appreciate the detail and direction of each – Great writing – Good Job – Well Done

    Frank B.

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Meetings Part IV: Action!

Meetings are for the sole purpose of making decisions. Sharing information is important, but there are many far more efficient and cost effective ways to do it.

As an aside, unnecessary meetings are frequently excused by “But if I send a memo, no one reads it.” That is a management problem that won’t be solved by meetings. Important information is better communicated in writing. If it isn’t worth reading, it shouldn’t be distributed. If it is, the recipients have to read it.

meeting sillouhetteThe disconnect comes either when people perceive the memo to be valueless, but don’t want to hurt the sender’s feelings by saying so; or when someone who needs to know the information has to be spoon fed because he or she doesn’t accept the responsibility for staying informed. The answer to both is the same. Address the behavior, not the means of communication.

Decisions made in meetings are too often lost, dropped, or poorly implemented. Again with the help of my readers (especially Ed Bierschenck and Jim Marshall), here are some tips on developing effective action plans.

Get verbal acknowledgement from the entire group. Make sure everyone is on the same page. We often gloss over this because we know one person still holds an opposing opinion. That is unacceptable. Once an action has been agree upon, everyone must support it whether they fully agree or not. (See my post “We’ll Just Agree to Disagree.”)

Define responsibility by asking the person assigned to execute or lead the task to repeat back what he or she understands the goal to be. Write it down for the meeting notes in the words of the person responsible, not those of the highest ranking person in the room.

Set a completion date. If the ultimate goal is further out than the next scheduled meeting, set a concrete interim objective for completion.

Document goal progress at every meeting. If it’s worth spending the money to bring people together for a decision, it is worth following up. If the task is on track you can skip any detailed explanation, but variances from budget or schedule should be explained.

Celebrate accomplishments. Something important enough to discuss, decide and track is important enough to warrant some acknowledgement when completed. A small “removing from the list” ceremony serves three purposes. It recognizes the accomplishment. It maintains focus on the entire list, especially items that have lingered too long, while it also helps identify routine tasks that are being “puffed up” into meeting goals. If one person is going from meeting to meeting with a pattern of goal/completion, goal/completion, goal/completion every time, they are just doing their normal job. (Example: My goal is to get the monthly newsletter out before next month’s meeting.”)

Next week: the last installment on post-meeting activities. Your comments and suggestions are always welcome.

In business, everyone is either a Hunter or a Farmer. Which one are you? Take the quiz. www.hiafw.com  book

 

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Meetings Part III: The Meat of the Meet

We will presume that you’ve started your meeting with the proper preparation, as discussed in last week’s column. Now it is time to get into the business of the meeting, the meat of the meet as it were. This week, we will discuss participation.

Who needs to be at the table? If decisions are to be made (and that is what meetings are for) then the authority of those attending should be roughly equal. If someone sends a subordinate to take notes and report back, the time of those who came prepared to make a decision is wasted. Consider a rule that says “If you can’t attend a previously agreed-upon meeting, the rest of the participants can make the decisions without you.” standing meeting

Why do you need a table at all? If the agenda calls for a meeting of 30 minutes or less, meet standing up. It keeps folks from getting too relaxed and wasting time.

No serial dialogue. That’s when the chair talks with the first person, then with the next, then with the next. That isn’t a meeting, it’s reporting. Every discussion should involve everyone present. If a topic isn’t relevant to one or more attendees, it should be handled in a different meeting.

Just because it impacts you… It has become standard practice in business to say “You are going to be discussing things that affect my job (or my project, or my department) so therefore I have to be in attendance.” No…you…don’t. Unless you are part of the decision making process, a copy of the meeting notes or minutes will serve nicely.

Presentations aren’t meetings. Sitting through a PowerPoint in a darkened room doesn’t put anyone in a creative or collaborative mood. Besides, having one person make their case to begin with sets an expectation of arguing for or against the presentation’s conclusions. Present relevant background information ahead of time; not everyone wants to absorb it at the same rate.

Put it in the parking lot. It’s a great device to cut off irrelevant conversation without being rude. Agree to keep a list of items that come up and which need to be discussed, but aren’t on the agenda for this meeting.

Hand signals? This one is from David Cunningham in Colorado. Agree on some hand signals that allow all participants to call a question or point out irrelevancies. David suggests a hand slash across the throat to cut discussion, for example. I’m not sure about that one. Where I grew up, it probably wouldn’t have been a great way to communicate, but obviously David isn’t Italian.

bookIn business, everyone is either a Hunter or a Farmer. Which one are you? Take the quiz. www.hiafw.com

 

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One Response to Meetings Part III: The Meat of the Meet

  1. David Basri says:

    One more item for the “meat of a meeting”. Punctuality. A company I was with in the ’80s charged $1/minute after 3 minutes. The money went in a jar (literally) and when there was enough we all went out for a round of drinks after work. This policy did not hurt anyone financially, but it had a huge positive impact on punctuality.

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