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Words Matter – For Retail Leaders Too!

We have been watching our government devolve into turmoil as politicians, reporters, and others analyze the meaning of words that are said (or tweeted) by those in charge.  Whichever side of the political debate you are on, it’s hard to argue that words have not been responsible for generating passionate feelings, either in support of or in defiance of, our government leaders.  While our words as retail leaders are unlikely to create international incidents of the same scale, they can indeed have similar impact on the smaller worlds over which we have influence.  Some things to think about…

We have responsibility to anticipate the impact of our words on the self esteem of those who work on our teams.  When our words make others feel empowered and motivated, the impact is good.  When our words make others feel defeated and hopeless, the impact is bad.  Giving constructive feedback is part of our job, and doing so in a way which maintains or enhances self-esteem gives us our best chance of leadership success.

We have responsibility to be honest and direct in our communication.  Anything less than direct leaves open the possibility of misinterpretation and confusion.  Anything less than honest leads to wrong conclusions and future problems.  It is very possible to be honest and respectful at the same time.  We should not be less than honest just to avoid hurting the feelings of others, but we should communicate our honest feedback/feelings/decisions with senstivity and respect.

We have responsibility to take care with the jokes we tell.  You have heard the old saying – “There is an element of truth in every joke.”  That’s especially true when the joke comes from the boss.  At least that’s the way members of the team will perceive things.  Sometimes it’s better to hold the tongue rather than be funny and risk sending an unintended message.

We have responsibility to manage the things we do NOT say as well as the things we do say.  Don’t say “hello” to a team member, and they will interpret something from it.  Don’t answer a question raised by a team member, and they will interpret something from it.  Don’t address an obvious situation which should be addressed, and others will interpret something from it.  Team members notice what we don’t say as much as what we do say.

We have responsibility to accept when we are wrong and apologize when appropriate.  As hard as I try to be right and do good things, I very often am wrong.  That includes my own humbling violations of the four responsibilities I just laid out above.  We show leadership strength, not weakness, when we accept and acknowledge the times we are wrong.  Similarly, we show strength when we listen openly and allow our minds to be changed.  Doubling down on wrong-mindedness undermines the respect others have in us as leaders.

So, while we observe the sad state of discourse amongst our political leaders, let’s use it as a way to challenge ourselves to a higher level of performance within the context of “words matter.”  After all, we can’t control how they behave, but we sure can control the way we communicate and the way we impact the parts of the world that we influence.

The Key to Hiring Retail Stars

As we all know, retail success is highly dependent on the quality of the players on the team.  Average players make an average team, and stars make a winning team.  Understandably, we want all of our hires to be stars.  That means that hiring choices are some of the most important decisions we make for our business. While it may be a bit unrealistic for every single hire to be a star, you can increase your batting average by making hiring decisions that are focused on key personality characteristics.

It’s easy to be tempted into hiring the candidate who has the most outgoing personality, a great resume of experience, and can say all of the “right” things about selling and customer service during the interview.  But the things which separate star players from average players are deeper.  Use the guide below to identify candidates who have the character to be true STARS.

Sensitivity – Candidates with “sensitivity” understand their impact on others and have a certain level of humbleness that allows their interactions with others to be well-received.  Questions to assess sensitivity include…

  • “Tell me about a recent time when you hurt somebody else’s feelings on the job. How did you learn of your impact, and why did it happen?”
  • “Tell me about a recent team that you were part of. What were the team’s results, and what was your specific role in delivering those results?

Tenacity – Candidates with “tenacity” work very hard to achieve their goals and have the ability to persevere through hardships.  They are more likely to have extended time with one or more companies.  These candidates tend to have greater ability to focus on the important issues and filter out the less significant information.  Questions to assess tenacity include…

  • “Tell me about an extremely difficult project you recently had. What was the goal, what was difficult about it, and what did you have to do in order to succeed?”
  • “Tell me about something that you recently failed at. Why did you fail, and what actions did you take after failing?”
  • “Tell me about a time when you were a leader during a very complex situation. What did you do to cut through the clutter of huge amounts of information and focus your team to achieve success?”

Authenticity – Candidates with “authenticity” come across as genuine and have tangible substance behind their statements.  Authenticity is a critical component because it is the foundation of trust.  People will not accept advice or direction (and therefore will not buy) from others in whom they have little trust.  Authenticity is best gauged by good follow up questions which cut through discrepancies and statements without substance, such as…

  • “You said, ‘xxx.’ Give me some specific examples that reinforce your point.”
  • “Earlier, you said ‘xxx,’ but just now you said, ‘yyy.’ Explain to me how those situations are different.”
  • “You said you believe, ‘xxx.’ What are some specific observations you have had which make you believe that?”

Responsibility – Candidates with “responsibility” have a proven track record of being dependable and conscientious, and they take true ownership over their jobs and their teams.  Responsible people are those you can count on to do the right thing and put in their best effort even when you are not watching.  Responsible people also own up to the mistakes they make and refrain from deflecting blame.  Questions to assess responsibility include…

  • “Give me your definition of doing a good job.”
  • “Tell me about a time when your supervisor put you in charge of an important project. What steps did you take, and what were the results?”
  • “Tell me about a significant recent mistake you made and what you learned from it.”

Service Desire – Candidates with strong “service desire” get enjoyment and satisfaction out of doing good things for others.  They go out of their way to be helpful to others, and they see other people as the primary purpose of their role.  Questions to assess service desire include…

  • “Tell me about a recent time when you had a lot of work to do and customers were keeping you from doing that work.”
  • “Tell me about a time when another team member was struggling on the job and how it affected you.”
  • “Tell me about a recent customer who had a major problem and how you tried to solve it.”

 

 

3 Tips for Retail Leaders to Fix Performance Problems

As retail leaders, we all get frustrated when a member of our team isn’t performing the way we expect them to perform. That frustration is even greater when we are certain that the expectation has been clearly communicated to the team member. Here are my three tips to fix these performance problems:

  1. Establish a new frame of mind for yourself. Yes, yourself, not the team member.  Your new frame of mind is to accept the truth that most people (and that includes our employees!) want to be successful at whatever they are doing. They may have different levels of drive that they will put into being successful, but it is the rare employee indeed who shows up to work with the intention of looking bad and sabotaging the company which employs them. Once you accept that the team member with the performance problem is most likely not failing intentionally, you should be able to move past the frustration. When you move past the frustration, you enter “solution” mode, and your purpose and communication style take on a positive tone which is more likely to bring positive results.
  2. Assess whether the “performance problem” is actually a training issue in disguise. Admittedly, they can look very similar. In both cases, a team member will be falling short of expectation in some way. A “training issue’ is when the team member has never before demonstrated the ability to perform at expectation, while a “performance problem” is when the team member has demonstrated successful ability to meet the expectation in the past and is now not meeting the same expectation. It’s common for the two situations to be confused, so it’s a good idea to stop and ask yourself whether you have seen the employee meet the expectation in the past. If the employee has not performed the task successfully in the past, it is a reflection of some flaw in the training (or an absence of training altogether!), and that means it isn’t really the employee’s fault. Therefore, it’s not fair to hold them accountable. Of course there are situations where training is fully sufficient and the employee is just not able to learn the skill. That’s a different story and must be handled as a performance issue. But, the majority of training issues, if viewed as training issues, can be fixed with additional training and/or modified training that is adapted to the unique needs of the individual team member in question. By identifying those “performance problems” that are really training issues, you will automatically take on greater responsibility for solving the problem and helping the team member to be more successful.
  3. If you determine that the situation truly is a performance problem and you accept that the employee most likely wants to succeed, your empathy and intellectual curiosity should guide you to the third tip – determine the root cause. There is no point in taking a punitive approach; the team member doesn’t need to be punished for falling short of an expectation. If you truly want to fix the problem, you need to be in “solution mode,” not “punishment” mode. The first potential root cause is that the employee is not be aware their performance has slipped. So, the first step in solving the problem is to make the employee aware. The second potential root cause is that conditions have changed. For example, a cashier may have demonstrated over their first five months on the job the ability to accurately handle transactions, provide good service, and keep their till balanced. But come Friday after Thanksgiving, things fall apart.  The cashier is no longer balancing their till accurately, and cash shortages and overages have become a new pattern. The root cause may be that the increased pace of business has changed conditions so much that the cashier can no longer perform at the same level. There is almost always some changed condition at the root of a performance problem. It could be difficult personal circumstances outside of work that are impacting focus, it could be change in the other team members around the employee, it could be additional tasks or priorities which take time away from the task in question, it could be loss of motivation due to something that happened at work, etc. Your job as leader is to ask enough questions to get to the heart of what the relevant change is. And you must ask the questions with a sincere desire to learn and understand. When you find the root cause, you will be in a great position to address it with the team member in a positive, productive way.

All of these tips are aimed at the same general thing – get yourself into “solution” mode. It is true that the solution in some performance problem situations may be to move the employee out of the business. But that step should come only after you have done your best to try and solve the performance problem. By resetting your own mental context from frustration to solution, you will be best-positioned to fix the performance problem.

3 Ways Leaders Can Cut Through Clutter

One important responsibility we all have as leaders is to help our teams cut through the clutter of too much data and too many choices.  The most successful teams are those which can analyze information accurately, collaborate effectively, and make good decisions efficiently.  It’s not unusual for teams to get bogged down in complex issues for which there is no obvious solution.  The more variables there are, the harder it is to see through the confusion.  While an effective leader doesn’t necessarily have all of the answers, she or he does have the ability to clear the path so the team can find the answers.

Three ways a good leader can bring order to the chaos of complex issues are as follows:

  1. Continuously steer towards the goal and/or the problem to be solved.  It’s very common for teams engaged in a collaborative process to stray from the main point.  One person makes a statement, the next person adds a new perspective, the third person takes the discussion a different direction, and soon the team is working on a completely different problem.  An effective leader will recognize when the team has gotten off track, clarify the objective, and bring the team’s conversation back to the main point.  In order to do this, the leader must have a clear vision of the goal and must listen carefully to the evolution of the discussion.  Once it becomes obvious that discussion has wandered too far, a simple reminder of the real objective is all that will be necessary to get things back on track.
  2. Break down different aspects of a problem into two dimensions.  For example, a team may face the dilemma of how to prioritize a list of potential strategic projects which cannot all be accomplished.  The team may go round and round discussing the relative merits of each project, but it will be hard for them to come to agreement without a clear and visual comparison.  The clutter-cutting leader will help the team identify the two most important aspects of the projects to consider.  In this case, the two dimensions might be amount of revenue that will be generated from each project and the amount of resources required to complete each project.  With these two dimensions identified, the team can visually chart the projects onto a grid that contains four quadrants (High resource cost & High revenue generation, Low resource cost & High revenue generation, High resource cost & Low revenue generation, and Low resource cost & Low revenue generation).  Projects which fall into the low cost, high revenue quadrant should be prioritized at the top, while projects which fall into the high cost, low revenue generation should be the ones which are first to fall off of the to-do list.  The visual representation into two dimensions brings clarity to the problem in way that every team member can grasp.
  3. Create a series of prioritized binary choices.  Complex issues are difficult because they have many angles and many different parts.  Teams can easily become paralyzed by layers of micro-decisions that all seem intertwined and interdependent.  A clutter-cutting leader will help a team sort through the ambiguity by breaking down multi-dimensional questions into a series of yes/no or otherwise close-ended decisions.  For example, a team that is working on the launch of a new product is faced with the difficult decision of setting the roll-out price.  But the price issue can be directly related to other aspects of the new product roll out such as competitive positioning, costs, marketing plans, etc.  The team might endlessly discuss the pros and cons of various price points without arriving at consensus.  An effective leader will lay out several questions in a way that will guide the team to consensus, such as…
  • What variable costs must our product’s price cover?
  • What is the competition’s price?
  • Do we want our product to be priced higher or lower than competition?
  • How do we want this product to be priced relative to our own existing product(s)?

By centering discussion on these tangible questions, the team will be led to make a series of micro-decisions.  Each of these micro-decisions will move the team a step closer to the big question of “What should our price be?”

By using these clutter-cutting techniques, leaders will be shining a spotlight on the path ahead, and teams can become more effective with the process of collaborative decision making.

Probabilistic Thinking to Aid Decision Making

As retail leaders, our world is full of choices for which there is not one clear answer.  Accountants operate under the straight forward rules of math.  Engineers operate under the clear logic of physics.  Even attorneys operate under the documented rules of law.  In contrast, as retailers, we make decisions every day that are based on the uncertain nature of human beings.  If we try too hard to find certainty, we end up paralyzed and unable to make decisions at all.  If we fail to analyze situations enough, we end up making decisions without proper consideration of all that we should consider.  So how can we find an effective “formula” for decision making that accepts the impossibility of certainty AND gives us robust objectivity?

One solution is to use probabilistic thinking.  This means envisioning the value of various possible outcomes, assigning probabilities to each possible outcome, and doing the math to determine an expected value for each potential choice.  Comparing the expected values of various options gives us a probabilistic perspective on which choice to make.

Consider the example of one of those tough decisions we often must make.  We have an open supervisory position on the team, and we must choose from three candidates.  One possible choice is to promote a long term salesperson who has paid his dues.  Another choice is to promote a young, up and coming salesperson who shows lots of promise but hasn’t yet acquired the level of experience of the long term employee.  And the third possible choice is to hire an external candidate who already has supervisory experience but would be more of an unknown gamble.  As you are reading this, your mind is probably filling with all of the pros and cons of each option.  You are probably also beginning to argue with yourself about which of the pros and cons are most important to focus on.  If you were really in the situation, your mind would also be filling with assessments of the three candidates and how their specific characteristics match up to the pros and cons.  That’s a lot for the conscious brain to sift through, and without more structure, you will probably go round and round, floundering in the uncertainty of it all.

A probabilistic approach will give more structure to the analysis of the options.  Let’s take four steps as follows:

  • List all of the criteria that we should consider about the candidates for this decision.  In real life, there are probably dozens of criteria to be considered for this type of decision.  To keep things simple for this example, we are going to use just three… ability to coach people, ability to sell, and ability to fit into the existing culture.
  • Weight the criteria in terms of importance and relevance.  In this case, we want to weight the criteria based on how important each will be to the chosen candidate’s success in the role.  You can use whatever weighting scale you wish; for this example, we will weight from 1 to 10, with 10 being the most important.  Ability to coach people will be a 9 (since that’s the primary objective of the role), ability to sell will be a 3 (since this is a supervisory position), and fit into the existing culture will be a 4 (since some culture change may actually be refreshing).
  • Determine the probability that each option will fulfill each criterion.  In this case, we will determine the probability that each candidate will be successful in coaching employees, selling, and fitting into the culture.  We can create a chart like the following: Probabilistic thinking (4)
  • Do the math to calculate the expected value of each possible choice.  In this case, for the long term employee, we multiply 50% x 9, 80% x 3, and 90% x 4, and then we add those three products together to get 10.5.  When we do the same thing for the up and coming employee, we get 10.7, and when we do the same for the external candidate, we get 7.2.

So, the expected value of promoting the up and coming employee is higher than the other two options, though promotion of the long term employee is a close second.  Does this mean that choice will definitely work out best?  No, not at all.  Remember that we can’t eliminate uncertainty.  All we can do is give ourselves an objective way to analyze the uncertainty we know exists.  The expected value difference in this example depends largely on our assessment that the up and coming employee has a better chance of being an effective coach than the long term employee.  But, we still have only assigned a 60% probability to that result.  This process does give us an objective way to analyze our assumptions.  With a sharper focus on the one major defining difference, we can dig a bit deeper on that issue with our candidates and test our assumption more fully.  Perhaps that will lead to a change in our assessments, or it may further solidify our beliefs.  Either way, we will have used probabilistic thinking to improve our decision making process, and we will have pulled ourselves out of the endless circle of debating within a world of ambiguity.

Self-branding to Improve Leadership Effectiveness

Have you ever given thought to the idea of self-branding as a way to improve your effectiveness as a leader?  Consider what Nike means to the world of athletic footwear, or Federal Express to the world of package delivery, or BMW in the automobile industry.  Chances are that once you read those names, you immediately had a vision in your mind of what each company stands for (“Just do it.”  “When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight.”  “The ultimate driving machine.”).  More importantly, you also had a picture in your mind of the experience you could expect from each company if you were to interact with them.  That’s the power of a good brand, and a good self-brand can do exactly the same thing for you as a leader.

But make no mistake, self-branding is NOT about self-promotion.  It IS about actually defining and delivering on an experience that you want to stand for.  And it’s about picking a brand image that fits with your leadership strengths and then staying true to that image.  A strong self-brand will improve your effectiveness in the following ways:

  • Others will know what to expect from you, and that will make it easier for them to commit to you and to follow you.
  • You will become more focused on your strengths and more confident in the value that you contribute to others who interact with you.
  • You will build a reputation for expertise on certain skills, and that reputation will feed a virtuous circle which leads to ever-increasing awareness by others of what you stand for.

Building a self-brand begins with an exercise in self-discovery.  Through a good understanding of the strengths you possess (from your personality, your experiences, and your skills and specialties), you can make confident commitments to certain experiences you will deliver to others.  Then your self-brand becomes a “north star” that will continuously guide you to delivering on those commitments.

To learn more and to start the process of establishing your self-brand, go to…

udemy.com/self-branding-for-retail-managers

When prompted to “Redeem a coupon,” enter LIFRIEND and you will receive 50% off, leaving the price to you at only $12 for this 1.5 hour video course that will give a whole new perspective to leadership effectiveness.

For Best Individual Development Plans, Focus On Strengths, Not Weaknesses!

The typical process that managers use to build an individual development plan for a member of their team looks something like this:

Step 1 – Identify what the person is good at.

Step 2 – Compliment that strength.

Step 3 – Identify what the person is weak at.

Step 4 – Build an action plan to improve the weakness.

This process is appropriate for a team member who is below minimum acceptable standard for a job-critical skill.  For example, a person in a customer service role must meet some basic standards for friendliness and politeness, and a cashier must meet some basic standards for cash handling accuracy.  But, I would argue that if such basic standards are not being met, the situation is not really about an individual development plan.  It’s about corrective action to preserve the person’s employment.  Such fundamental situations should be addressed and corrected through regular management feedback long before any thought is given to long term skill development.

Assuming a team member is performing at least at an acceptable level on all job-critical skills, the manager’s responsibility is to build a longer term development plan around the skills which have the most promise for improvement and impact.  Is it more likely that a person will dedicate quality time and focus to something they are naturally good at or something they are not inherently cut out for?  Can a person reach a higher level of performance with a skill which they have natural aptitude for or with a skill in which they have an innate deficit.  As an obvious example, a basketball coach will be more successful developing the rebounding skills of a taller player than he or she will with a shorter player.  The taller player starts with a built-in advantage in the skill of rebounding.

Some may argue that the basketball example above isn’t relevant because it involves physical attributes rather than personal skills which are learned on the job.  Perhaps that’s fair to some extent, but there is quite a lot of evidence that  personal traits and skills also have some basis in genes and DNA.  In his book Born Entrepreneurs, Born Leaders, author Scott Shane presents details from many scientific studies which support this point.  In fact, studies show that as much as 40-60% of many job-related traits are driven by genes rather than environment.  If true, it means that people have natural inclinations to perform better on certain skills and that they must work much harder to perform as well on other skills.  Shouldn’t we, as leaders, help our team members build the skills which give them the greatest potential to succeed?  And, won’t we be more successful ourselves if we are helping each of our team members achieve their maximum potential?

So as you are thinking about skill development for your team, consider a focus on building upon the things which they already do well.  You may find that coaching people to cultivate greatness from their natural strengths brings more satisfaction and success than turning their weaknesses into average skills.

 

Want to help yourself and your team get more done? Rediscover this lost art…

There is no tool which is more fundamental to getting things done than the basic to-do list.  Yet whenever I encounter a manager who is struggling to keep up with the pace of business and I ask to see his/her to-do list for the day, the reply is anything from “I don’t use a daily to-do list” to “I didn’t do one for today.”  Sometimes, I run across managers who have convinced themselves that their system of random Post-It notes, notebooks they can’t find, somebody else’s to-do list, or various emails in their in-box somehow serve as an effective organizational tool for the tasks they and their team must complete.  They don’t.

The volume of tasks to do and to follow up on has never been greater for managers.  Electronic communication has multiplied the workload.  Never-ending quests for improved corporate efficiency have reduced manpower relative to workload.  It will only get more difficult.  It is more important than ever for managers to have firm control over their time and the tasks they are responsible for.

The most effective to-do lists are not fancy or high-tech.  They are very straightforward.  Recommendations for effective manager to-do lists are as follows:

– Put it on one piece of paper so it is easily and constantly visible.

– Include a full list of the routine things which must be inspected or followed up on (i.e., team tasks).

– Prioritize the list so that “must-do” items are clearly identified, follow up items are properly planned into the day, and “important” items trump “fun” items.

– Ensure that actions which facilitate action by others, either by delegating or by removing roadblocks for them, are labeled as “high priority.”

– When new tasks are identified, add them directly to the to-do list, don’t write them somewhere else with the intention of adding them later.

– Rewrite the list as often as necessary.

Perhaps the best reason to get managers to use to-do lists is the incredible satisfaction which comes from checking things off as “complete.”  The sense of accomplishment brings feelings of success, and feelings of success breed greater engagement and more success.

So, let’s return to basics and bring back the lost art of the to-do list.  It will do wonders for our ability to consistently get things done!

To maximize employee engagement, increase the level of challenge!

It may seem counter-intuitive, but increasing the amount of challenge you instill in your team’s work life will increase their level of engagement.  Think back on the best bosses you’ve had.  Were they the easiest, or were they the ones who pushed you to succeed?

Let’s start with the assumption that most people want to do a good job and want to achieve good things at work.  I think you need to believe that in order to be a positive leader.  Besides, if we have people on our team who don’t care, then we have done something fundamentally wrong in the hiring process.  So, let’s accept that the people on our team want to achieve good things.

When people feel overly confident and under-challenged, they become satisfied and complacent.  They stop trying as hard because things have become too easy.  This situation can easily happen when good employees receive only positive recognition and rewards for their work without any additional push to keep growing and keep getting better.

Notice that I am not suggesting we take away the recognition and rewards!  I am suggesting we do both – provide lots of positive recognition and additional challenges.  Peak employee engagement and optimal performance will be achieved when employees feel a perfect balance between high levels of confidence and high levels of challenge on the job.  It’s a tricky leadership skill to master, because each employee’s balance point will be different.  Worse yet, the balance points for each employee are constantly changing.  It’s our job as leaders to ensure we are consistently finding and striking the right balance with each individual.

Use the attached image of “The Leadership Balance Model” as a guide, and strive to keep all employees in the top right quadrant as often as possible.  Then, feel the pride of knowing that you will be remembered as a leader who pushed people to grow and to achieve ever higher levels of success!

TheLeadershipModel

#1 Tip For The Best Sales Script? Don’t Use It!

Today’s consumers (and yesterday’s, for that matter) are too savvy to be taken in by sales scripts.  If you aren’t listening to the customer and adapting your process to what you hear, you will quickly lose the customer’s respect and trust.

Many years ago when my kids were 4 and 3 years old, we took them to a famous theme restaurant.  When we were greeted, the host asked us if we had ever dined there before.  We said no, so the host launched into her script.  She said she would be our “safari guide,” and she told us about all of the parts of the dining area, explained about the thunderstorm that would occur every 20 minutes, told us where the restrooms were, etc.  We continued going to this restaurant for the 10 years.  Before long, even the kids were tired of hearing the script, so it became a family joke to see if we could get the hosts off of script.  We started with, “Yes, we have been here many times.”  The hosts stuck to script.  We progressed to, “We have been here many times; you don’t need to tell us everything.”  The hosts stuck to script.  We tried harder with, “We have been here so many times that we can recite the tour in our sleep.”  The hosts stuck to script.  The last time we went, we said, “We know this place like the back of our hands.  We know you are our safari guide, we know a rainstorm happens every 20 minutes, we know the restrooms are over there, and we know the names of every animal here.”  The host stuck to script.

In this example, there’s not really any harm.  Obviously – we have kept going back for 10 years.  But it says something that even children see through the script and have turned it into a joke.  The best sales success comes when customers believe a salesperson is genuine; scripts are not genuine.

But “no script” does NOT mean “no process.”  A needs-based sales process which responds to the information which customers provide is the best way to be genuine and to gain customers’ trust.  Effective execution of a good needs-based sales process depends on smart salespeople who have great listening skills and can think well on their feet.  Listening and thinking are the keys, not scripting.  Consider that as you hire your next salesperson!