Archive for March, 2015

Small and Family Business 101

Tuesday, March 31st, 2015

There is a reason I largely choose not to immerse myself in helping investors, founders and top management in small and family businesses profitably grow – emotional overload. Here is three attributes (“The Three P’s”) that anyone who wants to build a career “selling” to these firms must excel at:

  1. Patience – a willingness to live with large levels of procrastination that has more to do with the Founder’s beliefs and their subordinates views on how best to conform to those beliefs. “We demand and believe in loyalty” – excessive numbers of mid and senior employees and clients who are retained by the business despite an increasing strategic “mismatch” with the future direction of the firm.
  2. Power – an ability to line up the powerful forces in support of your ideas, insights and growth strategy and use that power to mitigate or eliminate the forces pointing their guns at you. In Boardrooms of small businesses, the power is largely drawn from the emotional objectives of the Business Owner, key investors or close counselors (reputation, standing in the community or within the firm, personal friendships etc.)
  3. Perception – an ability to tap into the key influencers’ perception of how they want the firm and its’ people to be viewed by the outside world  (clients, business partners, suppliers, competitors, friends etc). Many a reason to invest in a profitable growth alternative has as much if not more to do with perception than reality (the owner of an insurance broker who builds a HNW private client business largely because he wants to be seen as a peer of other successful entrepreneurs and executives in his personal community).

© James Berkeley 2015. All Rights Reserved.


Why Consultants Destroy High Growth Businesses

Thursday, March 26th, 2015

There are more external “experts” than CEO’s running businesses. Distinguishing between those, who can and cannot genuinely help you address organisational issues, in support of your strategic direction is becoming increasingly blurred. This is accentuated by several factors:

1. External: lower barriers to entry and little or no requirement for qualifications amongst most experts.

2. Internal: Executive and senior management abdicating their responsibility to take tough decisions. A belief a large consulting firm’s brand will confer greater credibility and efficacy to the preferred alternative. A sense that if it doesn’t work it is easier to caste blame and point the finger at the consultant (“risk free” recommendation).

In high growth businesses, where the stakes are higher and inherently there is a need to make faster and wiser decisions. The consequences of hiring the wrong expert can and often is a greater business risk than choosing an internal candidate (assuming a qualified resource exists). This might sound counter-intuitive from someone who “sells” external expertise. However my experience is that many organisations, large and small, reach for the consultant’s speed dial number, way too early in the thought process. This is not to say that external experts cannot be very valuable but the conditions within the business must to be right if you are going to extract significant value.

So what are the right questions to ask when the executive team or line managers decide to first approach an external expert

  1. “Why?” – why do we we need an external expert? (skills or expertise we urgently require and lack to profitably grow the businesss), why now (is there a short term opportunity or set of circumstances that makes this a priority), why on the proposed engagement basis (special circumstances that dictate a collaboration of this nature)
  2. “Credibility” – does the individual(s) come with testimonials, references and case studies tightly customised to our perceived “need”? Can we quickly check out their ethics and professional approach? Can we see hard evidence of the client improvements derived from their past engagements (results, expertise, speed)? (You never want to be someone’s “guinea pig”)
  3. “Rapport” – do they display impressive social skills, breadth of intellectual knowledge and levels of trust? (Be wary of those in a rush to form a relationship without an obvious reason. Equally a generalist may very well be preferable to a niche specialist, who knows a lot about a little but may not be appropriate for a high growth business with a broad array pf challenges)
  4. “What Is the Cost of Not Hiring External Expertise?” (Opportunity Cost) – how is the businesses profitable growth, the speed of moving towards your goals or the contribution of key people worse off? (You need to frame the value from an appropriate base line to enable the investment to be put into the appropriate context.)
  5. “Engagement Basis” – can the external expert(s) tightly customise their intervention to your explicit needs (services offered, speed, access in appropriate working hours, minimum disruption, fees linked to your “value” not their time deployed and so on)? (You don’t need to be paying for expensive offices, teams of highly paid implementers, expensive cars, flashy IT systems and glossy brochures. You want to pay for results and value).

One final point, there is a start and a natural ending to most assignments with external experts. Both stages need to be planned. The “end” may very well evolve into repeat assignments or a retainer relationship (sounding board). However  a relationship with an external expert must never be a co-dependency, where the future of your organisation is beholden to the whims of the external expert. You are the manager. You are paid to produce results and where appropriate, take the tough decisions. You are ultimately accountable and it is right that you are appropriately rewarded for the results that arise.

© James Berkeley. All Rights Reserved.


Are You Thinking What I Was Thinking V

Tuesday, March 24th, 2015
  • No one really knows when markets valuations are at a “peak”, most commentators and investors (Prem Watsa, Sir Michael Moritz and others) are merely applying “gut instinct” like the rest of us
  • After 7 years of “easy money” is it a surprise that we have record market prices (stocks, art and so on)
  • More people have lost money calling a market collapse than a market rise, be careful who you listen to
  • Well run businesses with strong “real” earnings and high quality management and employees will always outperform in the long-term those firms that lack those attributes
  • When retail and institutional investors have greater access to information and knowledge in real-time at less cost, why should tomorrow’s investment cycle follow yesterday’s cycle? We live in a different age.
  • With “real” unemployment and the growth of start ups in many G20 countries at near record levels, wouldn’t policymakers, politicians and media be better off talking more about our “future” prosperity than our “past” grievances
  • When I read polls suggesting  that electorates are more “disengaged” with politicians and their political parties than ever before doesn’t that tell us more about our own fears (education, self-improvement, reinvention)?
  • When you study empirical evidence, we are probably living in the most prosperous and safest decade in the past 100 years, why doesn’t it feel like that when I turn on the television news or pick up a newspaper
  • We are right to be concerned about the legacy we are leaving our children (underfunded entitlements, increasing complexity, wealth gaps) but we rarely reflect on how much wiser they will be than us (technology, health, education and other improvements)
  • We look too much at the rise of China, India and other high growth markets as a threat, when we should consider it as an opportunity
  • If you are well positioned (investor, business or employee) in healthcare, education, technology, travel and dare I say it in financial services, you are in sectors with 10 years of very strong growth
  • How many cases can you point to where great regulation has saved us from a downturn? Wouldn’t we better placed putting the onus on executives to show good judgement rather than leave it to our politicians and mandarins to tie them in knots?
  • We confuse largely “symbolic” action (an executive foregoing a bonus) all too often with “meaningful” improvements (smarter strategic decision-making, hiring better quality management and employees)
  • We “deify” celebrity leaders (Jack Welch, Sir Alex Ferguson, Sir Richard Branson) and often overstate the transfer value of their “unique” approaches. In other words their ideas were perfectly suited to the prevailing conditions in their environment but those same conditions rarely exist or in the same order in our own environment
  • Wouldn’t we better served by harnessing the power of “Big People” (an ability to apply knowledge more wisely) than “Big Data” (carving out granules of worthwhile data that must be formatted into meaningful information)?
  • In the hype around Uber, Lyft, Xiaomi and so on why are commentators, investors and analysts not asking more vociferously why so many multinationals failed to exploit these sources of innovation when they were in a far stronger position to do so? Is the boom in corporate venturing a recognition that management in many large multinationals have given up on finding hidden gems within their own business?
  • Twitter and other social media ads, why would they take precedence for a B2B business over boosting the number of peer referrals obtained from existing clients? Don’t get lost in the consumer hype.
  • When did your firm last buy from a cold caller? Wouldn’t those sending spam SMS, email and print flyers be better served attempting to forge a trusting relationship with real buyers? Perhaps they are not very bright.


© James Berkeley 2014. All Rights Reserved.

Identifying Profitable Growth Opportunities

Wednesday, March 18th, 2015

Here is a six areas that any business large or small can quickly apply in search of profitable growth opportunities. I am talking about raising performance levels to new heights not merely solving problems and returning to levels the business used to be at.

  1. Client growth. Can you anticipate a need your client has for forward-looking help and develop the competency to quickly address that need with modest investment? For example, “invisible” cyber attacks will grow exponentially and organisations will need both preventative (more robust risk management) and contingent (insurance) to protect their clients’ data and their brand’s reputation.  If you provide only the latter, you would be well advised to consider how you also provide the former.
  2. Market growth extension. Is there an existing market need for your firm’s products and services where you can build on the momentum of yours or your competitors success beyond original market expectations? For example, can you find new buyers within an existing client with highly similar needs residing in another region or function? Can you easily get a testimonial or glowing reference that would accelerate the speed of closing the sale with new buyers.
  3. Capitalising on others failure. Is there a market need you can create for your products and services, which is based on the unplanned failure of a competitor? For example, private sector insurance of coastal property in places like Florida became so hazardrous in the 1990s that many homeowners were forced to seek coverage from the State when the private markets dried up. With more robust data, pools of capital and technology today, private sector insurers are now willing and able to offer insurance coverage at competitive terms.
  4. Reconfigure technology. For example, most business telephone banking systems create huge work loss for the customer (speed and quality of resolving an issue). How long before a multi-function aid is created that enhances the quality of the communication and the relationship between your firm’s banker and you?
  5. Personalisation. Can you create a product, service or relationship that is more tightly customised to your clients needs and in so doing allows them to make more informed lifestyle and business choices? For example, Microsoft will launch a band later this month that will allow the user to record the quality of their sleep, their heart rate and routine calories burned. In turn allowing people most at risk of illness or injury to adapt their behaviour (no waits for GP pulse rates, real time access to lifestyle information, more intelligent expenditure on nutrition, fitness and well-being etc).
  6. Social & Demographic Changes. Can you anticipate the impact on your clients intellectual property from changes in education, income, age, health, residence and wealth? Can you anticipate the frequency of and ways in which your customers want to interact with you that previously were hard to organise (technology)?  For example, the essence of life insurance and pension underwriting is the ability to accurately predict how long we will live and when we will die, and to create products (annuities) that spread income over that period. When public perception moves towards greater personal responsibility for our future rather than reliance on the State, is it any wonder when for example governments as they have in the UK abandon the requirement for employers to provide an annuity as part of an employer-sponsored retirement plan.

© James Berkeley 2014. All Rights Reserved.

Rainmakers Seat In The C-Suite

Wednesday, March 11th, 2015

One of the things that fascinates me about advisory firms in their search for profitable growth is the “beliefs” top management have that govern their attitudes and behaviours about being seen to the outside world as a “specialist” or a “generalist” firm. This is never more evident than when the amount of uncertainty within the business and the competitive threat levels are dramatically ratcheted up. Should our value proposition address all areas of client improvement or a very narrow set of improvements? What is more important to our clients and prospects our content knowledge or our process knowledge? Where is the “safest” position for our people and the firm’s health and well-being? Where can we make money?

My observation in many professional service, insurance and financial service advisory firms today, is that they have a hell of a lot of people (“specialists”) who know a lot about a little. They have very few people who know a lot about a little. Where they have people with the latter attributes, very often they have modest levels of power and influence on the strategic decision-making process. I am talking about the rainmakers with the “real world knowledge”, not the Chief Strategy Officer, Client Strategy Director and so on, whose insights and ideas although valuable are largely conceptual. The people with the skills, volition and trusting relationships to profitably grow and expand the firm’s value provided to clients and prospects. These are the individuals who are “vested” with the responsibility and have the capability to make it happen. The Formula 1 drivers in the organisation.

Yet so often I find advisory firms do their level best to neuter their ability to apply their knowledge to the organisational issues that are critical for accomplishing the firm’s strategic vision. There is no accountability beyond short-term performance goals (sales target or budgets). There is little involvement in setting and implementing strategic goals. Obstacles are put in their path (vested interests, management information systems, accounting system, internal feedback and communication). The Firm’s rewards system is largely designed to motivate a rainmaker’s short-term performance and behaviours. There is little or no conscious development of the rainmaker’s skills to address clients’ future needs, beyond adherence to compliance standards.

These firms are characterised by leaders, who have a high propensity to manage with a microscope (focus on next quarter’s sales target), not a telescope (focus on strategic vision and constraints).

Consequently, they find it very difficult to adapt to significant changes in demand or competitive threats. Indeed, whole advisory sectors such as private banking, wealth management, reinsurance and the law, have an abundance of advisory firms undergoing merger and acquisition activity as a defensive tactic to fend off adverse winds and tides.

Shouldn’t firms first ask their rainmakers to apply their knowledge to:

  1. How broad or narrow the value proposition needs to be to attract new prospects and retain existing clients? (Hard evidence, anecdotal insights)
  2. What skills and technology should we upgrade, adapt or abandon? (Lend a “client experience” perspective)
  3. Triage client relationships: those in a “profitable growth” mode, those with some nurturing that could be in a “profitable growth” mode and those flatly that cease to be supportive of the firm’s growth plans (Inclusive approach to “change” in key client relationships and the constraints on profitable growth)
  4. How best to create and promote new, relevant expertise to buyers: new value propositions, new offerings, changes to relationships and so on in advance. (Intelligent preventative and contingent actions)
  5. Future competitive threats and uncertainties that may impact the firm’s ability to improve the client’s condition (More powerful internal feedback and communication)
  6. Rewards that would align key constituents’ demands for short- and long-term profitable growth (Stronger alignment of the rainmaker’s contribution with value creation, not just revenue or profit targets)

Today there are far too many leaders and middle managers “guessing” at where to head for profitable growth when many of the answers lies in the heads of the firm’s rainmakers. The imperative today is to distill the rainmakers’ knowledge into a set of wise decisions consistent with the firm’s goals. If you need external help, hire qualified expertise. Move with speed. Put the rainmakers at the centre, not the outskirts of the strategic decision-making process.

© James Berkeley 2014. All Rights Reserved.


Big People Before Big Data

Monday, March 9th, 2015

When you look at your business and your clients’ performance do the line managers know and ask the right questions more consistently and constantly than 12 months ago? Do you hold your management and employees to account, reward them irrespective of the result (right behaviours), promote them, and where appropriate, support them with additional training and development opportunities? Are your leaders exemplars? Does this have a similar or greater level of fanfare (internal and external promotion) than the results that arise from applying valuable data or technology to your client’s needs (new client successes, new products, new relationships etc.)?

In the hype about “Big Data” and the power of analytics to transform society, economies and businesses you won’t get useful information if you ask the wrong questions. First that requires that you have talented people able to apply knowledge wisely to organisational issues in conformance with the strategic direction of the business. Greg Case, CEO of the global insurance brokerage powerhouse, Aon, recently made the point that “work loss” (data) is what changes their clients’ behaviour. Changes to that behaviour must impact performance (operational performance, balance sheet strength, reduction of volatility). Yet one of his lieutenants admitted to me recently if the quality of their client’s management and people (skills and volition) is “low”, and/or the Client’s organisation is more uncertain than not about its’ future and environment, the finest data driven insights are likely to have close to zero impact on key business metrics. How long before the next hot trend is “Big People and Analytics”? Leaders appraised for their skills and passion to willingly lead implementation initiatives. Line managers hired in (or developed) with the right strategic implementation skills  and the wherewithal to balance both the short- and long-term health and well-being of their customers, employees, shareholders, business partners and so on in their daily interactions.

© James Berkeley 2014. All Rights Reserved.


Six Myths of PR In China

Thursday, March 5th, 2015

When foreign firms think about promoting their products and services in China for many the default position is to draw unfavourable parallels with their home market and local competitors (lack of independent and balanced perspective in Chinese media, reluctance to apply critical rigour, abundance of positive spin).  Yet listen to Zhihua (Stephanie) Yan at Z.H. STUDIO, one of the members of my professional community and her recent experiences with mainland Chinese organisations and you soon grasp that many of these myths are just that “myths” with little or no substance.

  1. Majority of mainland Chinese firms today readily embrace independent third party commentaries (expert opinions).
  2. Greater number of Chinese organisations share the belief that balanced perspectives enrich a story.
  3. Greater propensity of mainland Chinese organisations to happily approve constructive criticism and editors and audiences willing to embrace diverse opinions.
  4. Are there exceptions, of course, there are mainland clients who still want to see media releases, interviews and published articles present a “more positive tone” (is that so different from US or Western European organisations?)
  5. PR investments must have clear business outcomes for mainland Chinese firms to approve expenditure. The “value” derived may be more intangible (improved image or stronger brand) than tangible (increased sales, faster talent recuitment, larger capital raising) but it must have a discernible impact on their key constituents’ behaviour.
  6. The credibility gap between “earned media” (published articles, interviews, op-ed pieces) and “paid media” in China has never been wider. Although the demand for the former still lags substantially behind the latter amongst local organisations.

Put it simply, there are three “stumbling blocks”  that currently inhibit wider adoption of typical PR approaches and the demand for external expertise amongst many mainland Chinese organisations:

  1. Mindset
  2. Capabilities
  3. Incentive

Here is two examples,

Case Study #1: A global media-savvy Business School professor requested that Stephanie proof-read, double-check and triple check quotes given to a reporter for a US news wire service in advance of providing his permission for publication.

Case Study #2: A senior executive in a Chinese organisation decided to pass on an exclusive interview with a correspondent  from a world-class, top-tier newspaper after 4-6 months of Stephanie “cultivating the opportunity” because an environment he was working in has “close to zero” risk tolerance and he saw no visible upside in speaking to the reporter. In such circumstances, retainer fees are a “must” for external PR experts wanting to survive in China today.

“Local” Growth Challenges for Marketing & Media Agencies

  1. Cultural: You have to “give to get”. The basic dynamics of PR providing newsworthy and relevant insight that is in the best interests of the writer, not the firm are still not widely understood by many local organisations.  (Increasing need for external expertise to align corporate leaders’ beliefs, attitudes and behaviour with the differing needs of local and international media when promoting their products and services)
  2. Labour Intensive: Many local organisations are unaware of the time invested in attracting major media outlets. (Increasing need for improved education, more relevant examples, more effective metaphors at the outset)
  3. Engaging External Expertise: Low awareness of the “value” derived from an external marketing agency facilitating media interviews. (Increasing need for more effective communication skills and persuasive language with clients pre-, during and at the disengagement stage)
  4. Self vs. External Promotion: Propensity amongst some local CEOs (large egos) to confuse a PR firm’s success generating demand for interviews from top media outlets with their own and their firm’s actual “object of interest” to global media. In other words why pay a marketing agency a fee if they are such a “star”? (Need to use more powerful metrics or formula to show perceived and actual level of interest, the improvement in the client’s condition and the client’s good deal)

These mis-alignment factors simply hinder the prospect of very healthy collaboration with local organisations and require greater time investment to fulfil some really credible, trust-worthy “earned media” results. For China-based media and marketing agencies it’s not something they “don’t want to do”, or even “don’t have the resources to achieve” rather there is an immediate requirement to figure out a better “alignment” with local clients’ market needs and their mutual self-interest.

When you think the grass is greener for local organisations and local agencies in China, as a “foreigner” you might be surprised about the significant advantages you start with.

© James Berkeley 2014. All Rights Reserved.

Uncommon Leadership Traits in Profitable Growth Firms

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2015

Arguably the most common failing of organisations in search of profitable growth is leadership. I am referring to leaders, who are disengaged in the implementation of the firm’s strategy. Leaders with values that are incongruent with the firm’s new growth strategy. Leaders, who by their actions are seen to demean the importance of or pay lip service to the new growth strategy. I find this is most common in the operational layer of businesses (mid-level managers) although it is not uncommon amongst peers at the executive level. Here is three recent examples I have seen:

Example 1: The COO of an insurance company, who loves to make grand announcements (ego) about the transformation of the brand’s positioning. He steadfastly absents himself from from the implementation process, where his or her credibility and example, is essential to gain the support of and change the behaviour of his peers and subordinates, in support of the new strategic direction. Unavailable for subordinate meetings, delegates all responsibility and becomes angry when results don’t happen as planned.

Example 2: The mid-level manager who says “I know Head Office want us to be seen as the “trusted adviser” of the client but frankly I see our future best served by selling more of what we know (existing products).” Surprise, surprise the client relationships never change. The top line revenue growth stalls. The organisation is merely known for its’ transactional capabilities and any “window of opportunity” to transform the business is lost.

Example 3: The sales executive, who is placed in the Regional CEO role (ego reasons) in a professional service firm. “I am sorry my diary is full with clients and prospects visits that I need to attend if we are to make this quarter’s sales figures. Let me get back to you when I have a slot to discuss this (strategic decision). I don’t feel comfortable without having everyone around the table and discussing the merits of each alternative and the attendant risks.” Strategic decisions are put on “hold”, frustration builds amongst subordinates and corporate gridlock ensues.

You might very well be laughing at this stage, recognising how close to home these examples are in your own organisation. One of thrills of helping clients profitably grow and expand, is you get to see first hand the victories and defeats in technicolour. It would be funny if it wasn’t that people’s livelihoods and careers are ultimately on the line, indeed, in certain cases the future of the entire organisation.

Any leadership role for a large or small firm has three attributes:

  • Physical capabilities (international travel, lifestyle changes, health and so on)
  • Skills (expertise, knowledge)
  • Behaviours

Leaders largely succeed or fail because of their behavioural traits, yet most firms give greatest thought to and weighting to the other attributes. Their role is to be the crossing that helps connect the current business with its’ future state. While this not an exhaustive list and you would be wise to customise to each situation, these are the behavioural traits you should be emphasising in a profitable growth business in today’s economy:

  1. Impressive Exemplar (high resistance to short-term pressure and self-interests)
  2. Champion of change
  3. High Assertiveness (focus on speed and momentum towards growth goals)
  4. High Persuasiveness (strong appeal to subordinates self-interest)
  5. High Enthusiasm
  6. Superb Communication
  7. Readily Accessible
  8. Logic over emotional reasoning
  9. Excellent listener
  10. Big picture thinker, not micro manager
  11. Adaptive to prevailing conditions
  12. Prudent risk taker
  13. Innovation / creativity
  14. Voluntarily shares credit for success
  15. Willingly admits and takes ownership of failure
  16. Ethics / Integrity

I am always saying to my clients profitable growth is a mirage unless you have leaders and people throughout the organisation, who are talented AND passionate about implementing the growth strategy. I cannot, nor can my clients, motivate a leader or a subordinate but you can sure raise the odds of success by first hiring someone into a leadership position with the requisite behavioural traits.

© James Berkeley 2014. All Rights Reserved.

Free Consulting for British Telecom

Monday, March 2nd, 2015

Why does the proliferation of customer or client communication channels rarely result in happier clients? In British Telecom’s case, if the objective is to profitably grow the business, in a world where Pay TV, broadband, fixed line and mobile,  are converging fast (“Four-Play”), shouldn’t you start by looking at the quality of your management and employees. You are rarely successful planting new vegetables where the the soil’s composition largely rejects the seeds.

  1. Cultural constraints: When the customer calls for help with a broadband or mobile connection difficulty at BT, the operating beliefs needs to be congruent with your strategy. If as I witness, “you are advised to contact us by email or online chat and in person, as a last resort” what you are really saying is “you must conform to our business model and needs i.e the lowest cost form of communication”. You have a misalignment. If you are the only game in town, the customer may have no option but when your fiercest competitors are snapping at your heels, you are endangering your business.
  2. Speed of Response: When your customer communications via telephone, online chat and email demand I invest 1 hour “waiting for an agent”, at my expense, you are further destroying our relationship.
  3. Public Profile: When I seek to contact you via social media and your response is so inadequate, you demand that I submit my difficulties online to a webpage that is inaccessible, you are hastening my exit.
  4. Quality of Response: When I finally speak to an agent in an offshore call centre and his default position is to assume that I am ignorant, necessitating 30 minutes testing a connection that has had a visible recurring fault, you are pushing my patience to an extreme.
  5. Accountability: when the “agent” needs authority from “Level 2”, presumably his supervisor, to set up an appointment at my home, you are further wasting my time.
  6. Aligning Customer Needs and Your Competencies: when your engineers will only visit a customer’s home between 8am – 5pm Monday to Friday, you are asking 90% of the working population in London will readily take “time off” work, at their expense. You are putting your cost base and business model, ahead of your customers’ lifestyle needs.  
  7. Risk and Reward: when the “agent” tells me (the customer) that in the event the engineer finds the fault is due to an electrical or structural issue in the premises, I will be charged £140 for the visit, you are telling me this is not a relationship of “equals”. I bare all the “risk” and you none.

BT has a CEO, Gavin Patterson, who has made highly assertive moves into Pay TV and mobile. What he is experiencing, is that the “strategic intent” at Board level in BT (profitable growth and expansion of existing customer relationships)  is being refracted in the operational layer of the business. Mid-level managers are putting their own mutual interests ahead of BT’s existing customers and demanding their subordinates do the same, irrespective of common sense. Why? The managers beliefs are to protect the firm’s business model at all costs, the rewards and feedback systems are reinforcing this “penny wise and pound foolish” message. You cannot profitably grow if you don’t first align the operating beliefs with the new strategy.  That may sound simple but in large organisations it is so rarely done well.

© James Berkeley 2014. All Rights Reserved.