Nothing new under the sun – business books and deforestation

Around 11,000 new business books are published every year.  Many of them promise to turn you into a leader, manager or entrepreneur and make you rich.  I have a number of deep suspicions about these books and am fascinated to know how you feel.  Here we go:

1. They say nothing new – simply because there are no new things to say

2. Many of them remain half read on your bookshelves.  You got the idea in the first couple of chapters and didn’t need to read the rest to discover what they were about
3.  They had little effect on your working practices
4. They had little effect on your productivity
5. They haven’t made you rich
6. They seemed to repeat things that you had read before
7. The better ones were simply rehashed common sense
8. You read some of them and thought “well, that’s obvious”
9. You read some of them and thought “I already know that”
10. You read some of them and thought “I could have written that
11. You still buy more…
One of the bestselling business books of all time was Stephen Covey’s 1989 publication, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. It sold over 15 million copies and was published in 38 languages; it remained on the New York Times bestseller lists for 250 weeks. I have carried out a straw poll among friends, colleagues and clients.  Almost all had heard of it, most had at some point acquired a copy of it, and almost none of them had read it from cover to cover.   Like all the other business books, it sat on their shelves, partially read and made little real difference to their lives.  I am reminded of the people who put on track suits because it makes them feel fitter.  Equally, having a good array of business books on your shelves or on your Kindle probably makes you feel you are ahead of the game.
Just as self-help books don’t help unless you choose to do something, business books won’t change your life unless you apply what they suggest, and given that most of them are repeating what others suggest anyway, why not pick one you believe you will enjoy, read it from cover to cover and then start to practise what it suggests.  Then write to me in a year’s time and tell me if it made a difference.
Meanwhile, I have a crime novel to finish.

To request a business needs analysis, discuss any aspect of leadership and management development or business consultancy, call me on +44(0)161 929 4145 or email David Cotton.

I look forward to hearing from you.

David Cotton

David Cotton is an independent trainer, management consultant, facilitator and speaker with vast international experience.
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They made me come…learners, tourists and prisoners

To my mind, training course delegates fall into three broad categories: learners, tourists and prisoners.

Learners attend training because they have a real desire to learn something new.

Tourists come with the idea that there may be something of interested to be gleaned from the day, so they may as well stay and see what happens.

Prisoners arrive with the attitude “They made me come.”

Learners are a delight – they will join in activities and discussions, volunteer to present back, gee up the others (as long as the prisoners are not “mood Hoovers”, sucking all the positive energy out of the group.  Tourists can be fun, and it takes little to convert them to learners if you can engage them sufficiently early in the day in something they see as relevant.  Prisoners are harder work because, even if they find themselves enjoying the course and getting something from it, they remain reluctant to admit that they are benefiting from the day.

The trick, then, is ‘inoculation’ at the outset.  Instead of expending energy trying to win over the prisoners, which is often to the detriment of the learning experience for the genuine learners, tell the delegates about the three categories at the outset and ask them to name the category which best describes them.  The fact that you have acknowledged the possibility that some are prisoners amuses them and takes the wind out of their sails.  In a strange sort of way, because you have declared that it’s possible to be a prisoner on a course lets you into their world, and they find it difficult to display the huffing, puffing, “I don’t want to be here” behaviours that you might otherwise encounter.

So, if you have any suspicion that you have prisoners on the course, let them know and you (and they) will have a better, easier day.

Call me on +44(0)161 929 4145 or email David Cotton.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Meanwhile, happy new year!

David Cotton is an independent trainer,management consultant, facilitator and speaker with vast international experience.

Stop doing training needs analyses!

When I first started working in training and development, it was the fashion to conduct a training needs analysis every time anyone identified an issue within a business. After all, there’s no point in hiring training professionals if they are not doing training work, is there?

The problem is that each time you do a training needs analysis, you presuppose that training is the solution. And sometimes you’ll be right. And sometimes you won’t.

Businesses suffer business problems. To be effective as an in-house trainer, you must have a real grasp of the business. Without that, you’re likely to produce isolated interventions which have little lasting value.

More useful – as well as developing an understanding of what the business is all about – is to do a business needs analysis, spending time analysing business requirements with no presupposition that training will be the solution.

In 1986, Nithin Nohria, William Joyce and Bruce Roberson began the Evergreen Project1, one of the biggest management studies ever undertaken. It set out to determine which management techniques are real indicators of long term success, measured in terms of “total return to shareholders”. Its conclusions were that the major tools and techniques, such as total quality management, Kaizen etc had no effect on the bottom line at all. They discovered startling consistency amongst the successful businesses. Each one of them excelled in four “Primary practices” and any two of four “secondary practices” (and it didn’t seem to matter which two).

Successful companies were great in Strategy, Execution, Culture and Structure.

They were also great in any two of Talent, Innovation, Mergers & Acquisitions, and Leadership (!)

The book neatly summarises the findings in each of the eight “practices”. Turn the summary into a series of questions, tweak it for your business and you have a wonderful framework for a business needs analysis. Use the questions to really discover what’s going on in your business, in a department or team and you’ll find:

  • you gain a greater understanding of the business
  • you can make more pertinent recommendations for business improvement
  • you increase your credibility as a business partner

So next time you’re tempted to do a training needs analysis, stop and think – how do I know that the outcome should be training? If there’s any doubt in your mind, consider instead a small scale business analysis. It won’t cost any more than a TNA and it will reveal vastly more.

To request a business needs analysis, discuss any aspect of leadership and management development or business consultancy, call me on +44(0)161 929 4145 or email David Cotton.

I look forward to hearing from you.

David Cotton

David Cotton is an independent trainer, management consultant, facilitator and speaker with vast international experience.
1 Nohria, Joyce and Roberson: What really works: The 4+2 formula for sustained business success. Collins, 2003, ISBN-13: 9780060512871, ISBN 0060512784

Isolation ward: socialisation for the self-employed

After years of corporate life, when often the only reason they went into the office was to socialise, many self-employed people feel a tremendous sense of isolation when they strike out on their own.  They yearn for the contact with others, the shared jokes by the coffee machine, the hot gossip, the flirtations, the chance meetings in corridors.

Self-employment doesn’t have to be a lonely business: it’s just that the methods of communicating change.

First, realise that your telephone bill is going to be high.  It’s worth having a separate business line installed so that you can separate your work and home bills.

Second, learn to type.  It doesn’t matter whether or not you use the ‘correct’ fingers, but it does matter that you develop reasonable speed.  Your computer can be your social lifeline, and if you are still pecking out one  word a minute, you’ll find your new social life develops rather slowly.

Then it’s time to hook up with others.  Your contact list is your best friend here.  Get it as up to date as you can, then  make a point of calling two people every day for no good reason at all.  It keeps you within their sights and may sow the seeds for future work.  It’s useful to have something to say to them when you call, but what you choose to say need not necessarily focus on work.  You’d be surprised at how often someone will say, within a week or two of your call “I was just thinking about you – are you interested in talking about a piece of work?”

Equally, e-mail two people for no good reason and you’ll see the same kind of results.

Seek out people with whom you have lost contact through LinkedIn, Plaxo, Friends Reunited or other social networking media.  Don’t do the hard sell with them – be conversational and mention in passing what you are now doing.  Again, you’re sowing the seeds for future work whilst increasing the number of people with whom you can start to have contact.

LinkedIn provides a great space for meeting like-minded (and annoying) people – just like real life –  and the discussion forums can be educational, fun, aggravating and always interesting.  Contacts there can provide sources of  work. Ecademy provides a similar meeting space.

If you are feeling really brave, try Tweeting through Twitter.  It’s a quirky tool and takes a little getting used to, and with practice can start to open up new contacts and, potentially, new business.  The straight hard sell on Twitter puts people off.  Instead, mix social chat with tweets about what you are up to professionally.

If you are working from home, get out of the house at least once every day and take a walk.  Ideally, go to a shop or somewhere where you can have face to face contact with others, albeit just for a few minutes.

Occasionally, attend a networking event – whether a training course, a formal business networking forum or a conference – it does’t really matter.  The main thing is to get in front of other people.  In an earlier blog (“Klingons and wallflowers”), I talked about the joys of networking events, and you may pick up some useful tips there.  If you are well prepared, have your elevator pitch ready and don’t have too much spinach between your teeth, you’ll find that people want to talk to you, and you stand a reasonable chance of increasing your contacts.

Ultimately, self-employment can be more rewarding than corporate life, and if you work at forging contacts, it need never feel lonely and isolated.

To discuss any aspect of leadership and management development, soft skills training or business consultancy, call me on +44(0)161 929 4145 or email David Cotton.  Take a look, too, at www.davidcotton.co.uk.

I look forward to hearing from you.

David Cotton is an independent trainer, management consultant, facilitator and speaker with vast international experience.


All about choice

I love the word ‘choice.’  It’s one of my favourite words in the English language.  I see choice like a dog – it needs to be taken out and exercised.  Sadly, it often lies in a corner, unwatered, unfed and neglected.

One day, some years ago, I was driving along a motorway in the UK and the traffic came to a standstill.  I tuned in to the local radio station which told me that, because of an accident further down the road, there was now a 35 mile traffic jam which would take at least an hour to clear.  I had some time in hand, called the client I was going to see to check that it would be ok for me to arrive late and decided to have a sleep.  I turned on some gentle music, tipped back the seat and thought that when it was time to move the driver behind me would sound his horn. I wouldn’t treat it as a rebuke, but as a signal that the traffic was moving again.

I was beginning to doze off and heard a caterwauling outside.  A man was standing on the wheel arch of his 4-wheel drive car shouting and swearing at the traffic to get out of his way, because he was in a hurry.

The man was in his mid-thirties.  I suspect that the stress of living may prevent him reaching forty.  This was a man who had seriously misfiled the traffic jam in his mental filing cabinet.

In any situation, there are three choices – what can we control or be in control of, what can we influence and what simply belongs in the it’s so drawer?  In the case of the traffic jam, the screaming man had filed it firmly in the control drawer.  It belonged in the it’s so drawer.

The one thing we can control in any situation is how we react, as long as we have developed the self-discipline to make a choice, rather than simply reacting. That’s not to suggest that we completely suppress our natural emotions; we are not automatons, and we have every right to feel stressed, upset, angry in certain situations.  What we need to do is choose the most appropriate display of behaviour according to the situation.

In any new or stressful situation, think about the outcome you may achieve by choosing different behaviours.  Will you or others feel better if you take one course of action, worse if you take another?

There are two types of choice – free choice and bounded choice.  We can’t have completely free choice because, inevitably, there are social, moral, ethical and other constraints on our behaviour.  On the other hand, the boundaries which we believe restrain us are much looser than we may imagine.  We often constrain ourselves with our self-limiting beliefs then blame the world for restricting our freedom of choice.

So, feed your choice, water it, take it for a walk and feel that hugely liberating sense as you exercise it.

To discuss any aspect of leadership and management development, soft skills training or business consultancy, call me on +44(0)161 929 4145 or email David Cotton.  Take a look, too, at www.davidcotton.co.uk.

I look forward to hearing from you.

David Cotton is an independent trainer, management consultant, facilitator and speaker with vast international experience.


The humble leader – humility as a strength in leadership

In an earlier blog, I spoke about quiet leadership and I’d like to continue that one with a few ideas around humility in leadership.   Far from being a weakness, humility can be a great strength in leadership.

A leader who displays humility is approachable.  Approachable people are trusted – and if people trust you, they tell you things. It’s difficult to lead an organisation when your staff are frightened to tell you what’s really happening and soft soap you to save their own skins or withhold some parts of the truth to protect themselves from you.  I’ll guarantee you that if you play the tough leader, you won’t know the half of what’s happening in your organisation.  People will take action and make decisions without your knowledge or blessing, crossing their fingers that they have done the right thing, because it seems safer than approaching you to discuss their ideas.  They would rather take the risk of getting something wrong than having to face you to effectively ask permission when you have erected walls around yourself.  If you don’t know your own organisation, it’s difficult to imagine how you can lead it effectively.

A leader who displays humility engenders loyalty.  If those around you know they can talk to you and have an adult conversation with you, they will demonstrate a great deal more loyalty to you.  If your failure to display humility is perceived as arrogance, they will talk about you behind your back, plot against you and, at worst, work against you.  Disloyalty and demotivation go hand in hand and demotivated people throw lots of energy into being unhappily emotional at the expense of being cheerfully productive.

A leader who displays humility stretches others.  Tell someone who reports to you that you have an idea which you would like to bounce around with them.  They’ll be flattered, motivated and eager to help.  Now you may already know the answer to the problem you’re presenting but this doesn’t matter – the very act of involving the other person shows you trust them, it involves them in the kind of decision making which is part of your working life and it motivates them to want to help.  Above all it stretches their thinking in ways in which their day job may not.

If you involve others in your decision making, then you are effectively starting your succession plan.  It pays for any ambitious leader to have others snapping at their heels, hungry for their job just as you, if you are genuinely ambitious, are snapping at someone else’s.  Now if you are only it for yourself, you won’t care about developing others to take your position when you move up a rung because your focus is solely on you, rather than the organisation.  If you have a real interest in the organisation, then succession planning is part of your responsibility – to ensure that as you move up the ranks, so there is someone behind already trained to slot into the role which you vacate.

You can’t be humble all the time.  Sometimes you have to make tough decisions, be directive and simply get on with things.  But a selective display of humility now and then will do wonders for your credibility and motivate those around you to do even better.

To discuss any aspect of leadership and management development or business consultancy, call me on +44(0)161 929 4145 or email David Cotton.

I look forward to hearing from you.

David Cotton is an independent trainer, management consultant, facilitator and speaker with vast international experience.

Quiet leadership

I was heartened in a recent LinkedIn discussion to see that I was not alone in thinking that charisma is not a necessary quality in leadership.  Leadership books have romanticised the notion of leadership to the point at which corporate leaders have become a breed apart, looking down on their organisations from a lofty perch with a clear view in every direction.  Their very presence turns heads.  They walk into a room and see only themselves reflected in the eyes of their admirers.  They are, in short, latter day narcissists.

In my experience of working with a vast number of private and public sector organisations, real leadership isn’t at all like that. The best leaders quietly get on with leading.  They are not in it for personal glory, instead having a real desire to see their organisations succeed. They realise that the organisation is simply a group of people temporarily working under the same banner and that if they develop good relationships with their people, they’ll probably do well.

The big noises in leadership are self-promoters, great at their own PR and often using their current organisation as a stepping stone to the next.  They have little interest in leaving anything behind, and abundant interest in what they can take out of an organisation.

And the sad thing is that for many years we’ve believed their hype. We’ve bought their autobiographies and “how I did it good” books and believed that this is what leadership is all about.  Worse still, we’ve tried out their ideas without first thinking about their relevance to our own organisations.

Behind the scenes, this has caused some damage.  Many leaders today hold up the celebrity leaders as role models and berate themselves when they find it difficult to emulate them.  At times they appear to imitate their heroes, rather than looking inside and asking “who am I and what do I have to offer?”

So, throw away your ‘I’m-a-leader-please-worship-me’ books and spend a little time reflecting on what’s good about you, what you can do and what, given some support and encouragement, you may be able to do in the future, and you’ll start to see nice things happen.  You may not get a round of applause as you walk into a room; you may not be the most charismatic person on the block;  but you will be you.

And once you stop emulating others and discover what you’re all about, life just gets better.

To discuss any aspect of leadership and management development or business consultancy, call me on +44(0)161 929 4145 or email David Cotton.

I look forward to hearing from you.

David Cotton is an independent trainer, management consultant, facilitator and speaker with vast international experience.

Specialists? No thanks, we just want generalists.

Now, here’s a thing.  Once upon a time, we used to hunt out specialists, often put them through fairly rigorous tests and then really value their specialisms within our companies.  Now we hunt out specialists and, within minutes of their arrival in our companies, hand them a competency framework and tell them that they will be appraised on all ten areas.  

And here’s a second thing.  Most organisations, according to the CIPD, either have a competency framework or are planning to introduce one, and either create it in-house or in-house with the help of external consultants.  What they produce is more than 80% generic.  So they have probably wasted enormous amounts of money developing something which they could have found on the internet in seconds and adapted in an hour to appear to relate to their own organisations.

So now we have specialists who aren’t allowed to specialise, working to competency frameworks which are so generalised that most companies are using almost the same one.  Is it me or is there something deeply flawed in the logic here?

Take a look around your organisation, pick anyone at random and try to remember what made you want to hire them at the outset.  If it was anything more than their decorative appearance, then probably they had something of real value to offer.  To what extent have you capitalised on their strengths, encouraged them to develop those strengths, shown recognition of their ability?  Or did you simply hand them a competency framework and tell them to report back at the next appraisal.

To discuss behavioural skills training, any other aspect of leadership and management development or business consultancy, call me on +44(0)161 929 4145 or email David Cotton.

I look forward to hearing from you.

David Cotton is an independent trainer, management consultant, facilitator and speaker with vast international experience.

What’s new, pussycat?

The music industry was for some time in denial of the simple idea that fewer people are now interested in buying CDs if they can download tracks from the internet instead. They were late entrants into a field which could have netted them huge profits sooner, had they been prepared to accept that their business model was no longer working.  Instead, they made themselves unpopular by decrying piracy as people illicitly downloaded tracks from rogue file sharing websites, whilst lacking the foresight to set up something similar themselves.  Some years ago, Microsoft were late entrants into web-based society, not initially seeing the potential uses of the internet in their business.  Now we see cloud computing (itself simply a newly rehashed version of the old idea of workstations and file servers) threatening to replace desktop copies of application software and desktop data storage.

A great question for every business, regardless of size, is “Is my business model sustainable?”  If you continue to do what you have been doing to date, will your business survive?  Is there any danger that you have buried your head in the sand, ostrich-like, hoping that some new fad or fashion which might affect you will go away?  Is there something new on the horizon which could actually present you with a real opportunity.

The old PEST analysis model may seem hackneyed but it still has relevance.  In its latest incarnation, as a STEEPLE model, it can be even more useful if only as a checklist of the areas to which you need to pay attention to ensure that you are, as far as possible, predicting what may hit your business from the outside so you are prepared to manage it from the inside.

STEEPLE stands for:

  • Social
  • Technological
  • Economic
  • Environmental
  • Political
  • Legal
  • Ethical

The last word, “ethical,” is the new kid on the block and is not going to go away.  Whether you like it or not, corporate social responsibility isn’t just a flavour of the month and needs some attention now. It’s worth spending some time with your colleagues brainstorming everything you can think of which falls under each of these headings and  assessing the likely impact on your organisation.  Don’t worry unduly about sorting out your brainstormed ideas into neat categories; there’s lots of overlap between the STEEPLE categories and it’s purely there to kickstart your thinking.

When you’ve listed everything which may affect you, give it a weighting according to the level of risk it poses, assess when it may hit your business and consider the level of urgency you may need to apply in managing it.  Be searingly honest in your assessment of risk.

Now you have your weighted, risk-assessed list, revisit your strategy and judge whether you need to refine it to accommodate the findings of your STEEPLE analysis.  Remember that strategy is dynamic and at least viscose if not entirely fluid.

Now you can sleep a little easier, knowing that you have made the first steps towards embracing what’s new and what you can’t or shouldn’t avoid.  The next steps can be exciting, because they give you an opportunity to look at your business afresh and gauge with a little more certainty what you have to do to make it work and keep it working.

To discuss behavioural skills training, any other aspect of leadership and management development or business consultancy, call me on +44(0)161 929 4145 or email David Cotton.

I look forward to hearing from you.

David Cotton is an independent trainer, management consultant, facilitator and speaker with vast international experience.

Every time it snows, let’s blame someone…

Around this time last year, Britain’s press was seized by a hysterical urge to print the word “snow”. It appeared in every newspaper headline and was the main story in every TV and radio news report. Why? Not because it was snowing, but because it was someone’s fault.

Now it wasn’t  the first time it had ever snowed in the UK, nor would it be  the last. But we were running out of salt and grit and we had to blame someone. We could blame the local councils for not planning ahead. We could blame the Meteorological Office for not predicting the extent of the snow. We could blame the national government because…they exist.

At the heart of all this is a real social problem. No longer can we accept that accidents happen, that there are sometimes exceptional circumstances, that someone made a mistake, that something just went wrong. Instead we have to point accusing fingers and seek out culprits.

The same trend is becoming prevalent in business. Accidents are now incidents. Mistakes are “critical.” People need to be punished.

Somewhere deep down I think we may be losing touch with our humanity, forgetting that humans are – well – human, and that sometimes things just do go wrong. For every second we point the accusing finger at others we are neglecting to offer support, sympathy, help and constructive advice.

There’s a lovely psychological term to describe our behaviour: “false attribution error.” When we make a mistake we know all the circumstances which led to it and, although others don’t have that level of circumstantial detail, we want them to make allowances for what we have done. When others make a mistake, we don’t allow for all those circumstances and simply blame them for the results of their mistakes.

So, ladies and gentlemen, when it’s snowing, it’s, erm, snowing. The main roads are clear and with a little caution we can navigate the side roads which are not. And do you know what? The snow looks beautiful.

We work all over the world providing management and leadership development. We’d love to hear from you.

To discuss behavioural skills training, any other aspect of leadership and management development or business consultancy, call me on +44(0)161 929 4145 or email David Cotton.

I look forward to hearing from you.

David Cotton is an independent trainer, management consultant, facilitator and speaker with vast international experience.