Before you plunge ahead, perhaps you should look back

baseball-1487981_960_720Those are the words I said to one of my clients, an older and accomplished professional who was experiencing some difficulty in deciding what to do next in his career. My question to him?

Where have you enjoyed success in your career?

When he had time to reflect and respond, I explained. I use the word : “enjoyed” in two senses.  First in the sense that you…well… enjoyed it. The moments and circumstances brought a sense of satisfaction and pleasure. The second sense is that of realization, that the experience was not a failure but an overwhelming success.

Most people probably have fewer of those than the other kind, but without doubt it is the enjoyed successes that make things worthwhile. So, why did I ask my client what successes he had enjoyed and more importantly, why should you answer the same question?

First, because if you enjoy success it almost unpredictably indicates a perfect match between your skills, your personality, and the challenge. Most of us can do lots of things but we like to do only a few. Usually we like to do them because we are good at them and we are good at them because we like doing them.

Second, knowing what we like to do and coincidentally what we are good at is critical to more than finding success. It is necessary for continuing success. Therefore if we know what worked for us yesterday we can quite confidently what will work well tomorrow.

Third, decisions become simpler if not easier. It makes no sense to pursue avenues which lead us into places we are poorly-equipped to handle. True enough, we learn daily, but in this consideration we need not try to be all things to all people in all circumstances.

Finally, as leaders we can find others who can do what we cannot or what we would rather not. My client is very smart, brilliant in fact. He could doubtless learn to do more things but why should he? All successful and superlative leaders focus on what they and only they can do in their setting and find others to do everything else.

So, where have you enjoyed success? Why were those times successful? What did you learn about yourself in them? Having learned that, what does it tell you about your future?

EDITOR’S NOTE: Some of you have written to ask why I have not been posting for a while.  I cannot share details but on October 1st, 2015 a major medical event completely disrupted our household and my attention, time, and efforts have been consumed elsewhere. I am pleased to report that things are on the mend.

6 things you should NOT do when a customer complains

roach letterIn my last article I recounted the story of Mike (you can read the entire story here). Assuming you are the general manager of the store in which Mike’s story unfolded, we need to discuss what you would and should do.

But first, let’s look at what you should NOT do.

  1. You should NOT attribute Mike’s complaint to the odd and unusual circumstance. It is all too easy to simply disregard his complaint as being the result of something out of the ordinary. If it hasn’t happened before it will almost certainly happen again. Instead, take Mike seriously and respond accordingly.
  2. You should NOT blame the complainer. We’ve been in business long enough to know that not every complaint is valid and not every customer can be satisfied. But reality begins with the perceptions of others hot you. In fact, the most ineffective leaders always demonstrate a debilitating flaw, the belief that everything would be just fine if they saw things as they see them. It simply is imperative that effective leaders never blame the complainer for his or her perceptions because it is those perceptions that have defined and framed the conversation.
  3. You should NOT ignore it. Every person involved – the sales staff in the department Mike visited, the assistant manager he spoke with, and you, all need to know a complaint has been registered and that you do not indent to simply ignore it. Something happened somewhere and it needs to be fixed. It will not get better by itself.
  4. You should NOT follow up with a roach letter. For those outside the US, a “roach letter” might seem a puzzling term, but it stems from a complaint letter that an airline passenger sent to the headquarters of the airline following a flight he made on one of their planes. It seems that a passenger awakened from a nap to find a cockroach crawling down his cheek. Incensed, the passenger wrote a letter of complaint and received a prompt response. Unfortunately, inside the envelope the passenger found a note from someone in the airline’s customer service department that read, “Send this jerk the roach letter.” Roach letters fix nothing, reveal a terrible attitude, and will always ring insincere.
  5. You should not assume your employees will respond badly. Most sales people really do not like to miss out on sales and the incidence with Mike might have been a simple oversight or the result of being too task-oriented rather than people-(customer) oriented. One manager in a big box store ordered one of her top salesmen to stop processing contracts and start putting away stock. This is not unusual when there are lots of things to do but it is a pathetic waste of talent and expertise to divert the completion of sales (profit) toward housekeeping (overhead). Use your talent where they produce the most profit. Indeed, experience shows us that sales people resent being taken away from duties on the floor like meeting customers, selling products, closing on sales to do mundane tasks. If you workplace is structured by paying commissions it gets more imperative to allow the power of incentive to work. Let your sales people sell.

In the next post, we’ll discuss what you should do.

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You are NOT pre-enrolling and you are NOT paying for anything right now. This is just our way of saying thanks for being a reader of The Practical Leader.


Mike has filed a complaint. What would you do?

question marksHere’s the situation:

You are the general manager of a store that has three departments. Your store is one of more than a dozen similar sites the company owns and operates. You receive a call from the customer service department at the main corporate office.

A customer has called to complain about something that happened at your store. The customer, we’ll call him Mike, had visited there expecting to purchase a product. Entering the department where the product was located, he waited to place an order.

And waited.

And waited.

And waited.

According to the customer service rep, the would-be buyer said he waited 19 minutes in all. During that time, one sales rep that had been busy with another customer finished what he was doing with them and then simply left. The other sales rep walked in to the department and immediately began chatting with another company employee. Then the rep went behind the desk and began clicking on a computer. Both the first rep and the second had made eye contact with Mike but neither acknowledged his presence or walked the half-dozen steps over to where he shopped to assist.

Mike gave up. On his way out of the store, he encountered a department manager and recounted what had just happened to him. When Mike finished, the department manager said only one thing, “Okay.”

Mike made his purchase somewhere else.

Now, let’s say that you’re the general manager of that store and you just received the call from corporate customer service, what do you do?

Send your answer to or leave it as a comment below.

We’ll discuss the solution next week.


Attitudes of an effective delegator – Never sanction imcompetence

One-rotten-apple-spoils-the-Whole-BunchWhenever I hire a new employee, as part of their orientation I am always careful to emphasize that it would be a wrong to mistake my forbearance for indifference, that while I am long-suffering and will give them time to learn the ropes, there are standards to be reached and maintained.

One of the most ineffective positions leaders take is to sanction incompetence. Now by that I am not suggesting that there is no room for error or that no one is ever allowed to make mistakes. When we sanction incompetence we support or approve of a pattern of incompetence where incompetence is ‘manifesting the inability to carry out a task or responsibility.’ And we often sanction it.

How We Sanction Incompetence

  1. When one person is allowed substandard performance to continue unchecked. People will make mistakes; sometimes they make lots of them. We sanction incompetence when we do nothing about it.
  2. Allowing associates and employees to mistake forbearance for indifference. Again this calls for a response on our part. To do nothing is to manifest indifference.
  3. Failure to confront or reluctance to confront soon enough. Confrontation is never pleasant but it is part of the job. Everything we do messages something. Failure to address incompetence soon enough telegraphs to everyone that standards are negotiable. They aren’t or at least they shouldn’t be.
  4. Blindness to suckups and kissups. This seems to be a particular failing of leaders. And some associates are really good at it. But others can see it even if you can’t and the result is confusion, resentment, and loss of respect for us as leaders.
  5. Allowing personal relationships and feeling to cloud the nature of business. We are sometimes reluctant to deal with incompetence because the incompetent person is so nice. But we have objectives to reach and standards to maintain.
  6. Robbing strength to pay for weakness. This is particularly deadly. Effective delegators simply do not ever compensate for the failures of one by taking from another.

This is about being able to find others who will extend our reach, multiply our effectiveness, and divide our work. Incompetence compromises all three. Here is a list of 6 tests to determine if we are sanctioning incompetence:

Question #1 – Have you settled in your thinking and behavior that the demands and criteria you must establish are strictly business? You should possess with some reasonable clarity what will be the successful outcome of an employee’s engagement with your company. It might be easily measured by profit margins. It might be counted by widgets made in a measured amount of time. It might be in the capacity to determine what needs to be done and make sure it is done. A friend once recommended that I hire a friend of his because the man was having a hard time adjusting to adult life and needed a father figure to help him along. My response? My business is not a therapy center and I am not a therapist. Therapy is costly, too costly for me (or you) to absorb just to “help people along.” You are in business, your organization exists to pursue and eventually realize the stated objectives, not provide work therapy for troubled individuals.

Question #2 – How well do you and your associates attack the problems brought to you by your customers? All businesses and non-profits are problem solving entities. We exist to resolve an issue or issues. We fix problems brought to us by our clients and customers. This is easy to see in repair or service companies. It is less obvious in other companies but true nonetheless. In my millwork business, I educated all my employees that we are problem-solving people. A client needs something made or installed to satisfy functional or aesthetic problems, usually both, and it is up to us to do it. Further, in creating that resolution, your employees will encounter numerous problems to overcome – understanding the intent, engineering a workable design, devising a logical and safe sequence to produce the resolution, finding and sourcing the materials and components necessary to make it happen. You do not need, and cannot tolerate, excuses. You need results and that is what you pay for.

Queston #3 – Do your employees solve more problems than they create? If an employee or an associate is creating more issues than they solve, the indications that they are in the wrong position grow more pointed.

Question #4 – Do you underwrite and support work that falls short of the standard? You can excuse incompetence but you must never sanction it. Never, and I mean never rob from strength to pay for weakness. One of my more successful failures was a brief venture in a partnership. It was a door and window manufacturing company. My part of the deal was to be the front man. I did the marketing, met with clients, and sold products. Our very first job was for several windows and doors, all of hardwood. I turned the order over to my business partner whose job it was to oversee the manufacture of the products. In due time the components were delivered to the client who then called me the next day. He was not happy. I visited the jobsite and discovered why. Honestly, any high school woodshop class could have turned out a better product. I brought back one of the defective windows, set it up on the bench, and gathered the crew.

“This is what we are turning out,” I showed them the window.

They looked it over and incredibly said, “What’s wrong with it?”

I then showed them item by item the flaws and there were many.

My business partner then countered, “Well, we can’t do any better.”

“Then,” I argued, “we can’t be in this business.”

Soon thereafter I sold my shares and moved on because it became very clear that the manufacturing side indeed could not do any better. In a short time the company was out of business. Be frank, be honest, be frankly honest in your assessments of performance. Some people are excruciatingly nice but they may not be up to the job. The decisions to be made are business ones. We are surrounded by incompetence because we sanction it. Margins of error can become very broad highways for incompetence if we let them. If you are required to go back over an associate’s work, to continually monitor their performance, to run them down and demand accountability, there is a problem and if won’t go away by itself. You might be able to fix it by more training. But if you try that and fail, it’s time to make the hard business decision.

Question #5 – Do your employees or associates mistake forbearance for indifference? You may be patient, tolerant of error, slow to react, willing to invest time and effort to bring someone along. However, make sure all your associates know that your forbearance should not be taken to signal indifference. If you continually ignore poor performance, missed goals, and failed attempts, if you set a standard but do not enforce it your associates and employees will lose respect for you and exploit what they assess to be weakness. I fired a manager because I am serious about the standards required by this business and I intend to make certain they are in place.

Question #6 – Do you play fair? Demand the same principled level of performance of everyone. Never let one get away with neglecting in one what is required of another. This fosters the concept that a good ole boy system is in place and truthfully, if you do favor one over another, a good ole boy system is indeed in place.