May 272012
 

It goes without saying that leaders are driven to succeed—to do the best they can for both themselves and their organizations.

It also goes without saying that they expect their people to succeed—to do well in the jobs they’re paid for, meet and exceed targets, handle projects effectively, produce new ideas, create constructive relationships with colleagues and business partners, develop the people around them, reach their own potential, and so on.

Yet all too often, leaders set themselves and others up to fail. They “throw sand in the gears” of their organizations, by creating conditions in which under-performance is guaranteed.

That’s a hell of an indictment, so let me explain it.

For more than a decade, I’ve encouraged my clients to reduce all their strategies to a few goals and a series of 30-day action plans with specific people responsible for each result. This has four critical benefits:

  1. It forces people to break work down into “do-able” chunks, and to focus on the few things that really matter rather than the many which otherwise crowd their agendas.
  2. It puts immense pressure into an organization, as 30 days isn’t long and there’s no time for wheelspin. When it’s clear exactly what needs to happen, by when, and whose name will be called, people have to put their heads down and get moving.
  3. It enables you to see, very quickly, whether your strategy is on track or needs fine-tuning, and how the people responsible for various actions are doing. Fast feedback and accelerated learning let you deal with problems and opportunities in as close to “real-time” as possible.
  4. It enables you to quickly praise or reward people for a job well done, or guide, sanction, or replace those who don’t deliver. So the very process of driving your strategy becomes a powerful performance management process. And because success does lead to more success, celebrating some quick wins provides important motivation.

Making plans and assigning work is the easy bit. The hard part comes when you start reviewing progress. For that’s when things either get a boost or fall apart.

Every time you bring your team together, you have an opportunity to either turn them on or turn them off. The way you craft and conduct your conversations will either bring out the best in them or the worst.

Review meetings need to be both respectful and robust. So on the one hand, people must be treated decently. They must be listened to and given the sense that they are valued and their ideas count. But on the other hand, they need to know that your purpose is not to create a “social club” or win a popularity contest.

This is about work and results and progress. Everyone must know that they’re expected to deal in facts and well thought-through opinions, and that there’s zero tolerance for blaming, bluster, bullshit, or excuses.

I’ve sat through any number of these review sessions, in companies of many types. Some leaders get things right: people come well prepared, the conversation is informative and constructive, and they leave feeling positive and knowing exactly what they need to do next. But often, things break down quite quickly.

Typically, everyone pitches for the first meeting. The first few people to report back do it well. Mike, Sue, and Dumesani seem to have a grip on things and achieved what they had agreed to. And they’ve thought about what they need to do in the next 30 days. They get a “thank you” and a pat on the back. Smiles all around.

But then there’s a hiccup. Damien couldn’t do what he should have because he was still waiting for budget approval. Or a supplier had let him down. Or he’d had to deal with some emergency or other. Or he hadn’t been able to recruit a key person because the headhunters hadn’t come back to him. Or the IT guys hadn’t delivered. Or Jeff or Derek or Sam or whoever had been away for much of the month and hadn’t been available to discuss certain issues. Or…

What the leader should do when this happens is come down hard on the individual, question each of his “reasons” and make him explain why he couldn’t do something about them, demand that he take his plan for the next 30 days 100% seriously, and make it clear to everyone that such behavior is not acceptable. In other words, the “rules of the game” must be firmly established right from the get go.

What the leader actually does when she gets the ducking and diving is say, “Oh, OK. Thanks, Damien. Well, do try to sort those things out and get things moving before the next session. Now, let’s move on. Who’s next?”

In that moment, the leader has done two extremely dumb things: first, she has taught Damien that not meeting commitments is acceptable, that non-performance doesn’t matter. (And she has thanked him for letting the team down!) But even worse, she has taught the whole team the same thing. So her very first review session has set the tone for trouble.

When the next meeting comes around, one or two people don’t show up and more of them report that they haven’t done what they promised. Even fewer pitch for the third meeting and there’s a longer list of excuses. Meeting four gets called off because too many call in to say they can’t make it. Meeting five gets rescheduled a few times, but then doesn’t happen at all.

Game over!

Strategy reviews are, in effect, training sessions. You can make them work for you or against you. Clients who use my 30-day planning process say it’s the best thing they’ve ever done. The pity is that things so often start with a bang but end with a whimper. And that clever executives keep wondering why executing strategy is so hard, when it’s they who enthusiastically agree to a sensible way of working then show they didn’t really mean it.

Effective leadership requires tough love. Leaders need to show empathy, foster teamwork, and be unfailingly polite to their people. But they also need to instill discipline, enforce compliance with agreed procedures, and show courage in handling those who play fast and loose with their organization’s future.

Notions like “servant leadership, “principled leadership,” and “values-driven leadership” are all popular. However, if they’re not leavened with firmness, they cannot possibly drive performance and results. Being nice is no substitute for managing. Empowering people does not mean simply letting them loose and leaving them free to do or not do whatever they choose.

The buck stops on the leader’s desk. He owes it to himself to use the power of his position to make things happen. If he doesn’t, he’ll undermine himself because his people will know in a flash and lose respect for him.

If bad habits are allowed to creep into a business, it’s hard to get them out. Only the leader can stop them in their tracks. And strategy review sessions offer the ideal forum for doing it, because they usually involve senior people who, in turn, teach the rest.

Of course, virtually any other get-together—even those chance encounters in the passage where people share ideas or update each other  about projects—provides a similar opportunity. But the discipline, structure, and status of a 30-day review makes it special. Not to be wasted.

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Apr 082012
 

The market shares of South Africa’s four big banks—Standard Bank, Absa, First National Bank, and Nedbank—go up and down, but with few big swings. Despite government pressure to do more for the bottom end of the market, and some stabs at doing so, all have continued to focus on their traditional middle- to upper-end customers. That, they’ve held, is where the money is.

And it’s true, that’s where the money was. But growth in that sector has slowed. Profits are under pressure. So the giants been forced to look downmarket, where there are an estimated 8 million “unbanked” and “unsecured” customers, and plenty of growth to come.

The fight will be brutal. They’re all charging into the same arena at the same time, so they’re tripping over each other. The big banks have clout, and are deadly serious about this new venture. But they’re stepping onto the home turf of two smaller banks—African Bank and Capitec—which know how to fight there.

These two operate in different niches. They’ve been growing fast, and extending their presence into new areas with appealing offerings. They’re also solidly established, and far from rolling over under the current onslaught, they now have no choice but to become even smarter and more aggressive.

The bigger of them, African Bank, hardly advertises at all, but has many years of hard-earned experience at the lower end of the market, a sophisticated approach to credit management, almost 16,000 highly motivated people, and a large pool of customers who are real fans and not just locked-in by some gimmick.

Capitec is a younger business, but its promise of simpler, cheaper, and more convenient banking has strong appeal. After initially aiming at poorer black customers, it’s now opening branches in wealthy areas and attracting whites, professionals, and suburban housewives.

There’s a classic disruption strategy at work here, as described by Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen:

  1. Incumbent firms keep improving what they’ve been doing, assuming they’ll keep customers happy by doing more of the same better.  But they do lots of stuff customers don’t care about. As they add more and more bells and whistles, their costs rise and they create a “price umbrella” for upstarts.
  2. One or more newcomers sneak in under that umbrella. They focus on customers the dominant firms have overlooked or underserved, with products tailored precisely for “the job they want done.” Unencumbered by entrenched mindsets and legacy policies, practices, and infrastructure, they’re able to keep costs and prices low. They go unnoticed while they fine-tune their processes and build awareness, capabilities, experience, and muscle.
  3. Stuck with a price disadvantage and lots of baggage, the big players struggle to move downmarket. At the same time, the disruptors start moving upwards, to pick off their customers.

The current process has a way to go. The latest phase in the banking war illustrates just how hard it is to stand out in the marketplace today—and why “sustainable advantage” is for more and more companies an impossible dream. It highlights the importance of delivering a “difference” that really is different, but also that matters to customers so they’ll pay for it.

THE DELIBERATE DESTRUCTION OF DIFFERENCE

Virtually in unison, the big guys have announced a flurry of new products and services (or re-promoted existing ones), and started to move downmarket. They’re hoping for the best of several worlds: to keep customers they’ve got, while also stealing some from each other—and to snatch business from African Bank and Capitec, while also luring unbanked customers in that territory.

Since March, print media have been stuffed with one page of ads after another extolling the promises of three of the Big Four: Absa, Standard Bank, and First National Bank.

Absa promises “Better banking”:

IMMEDIATE PAYMENTS…STAMPED BANK STATEMENTS…APPLY ONLINE…SCAN AND PAY…SEND CASH AROUND THE WORLD…FREE eSTATEMENTS…CELLPHONE BANKING…CASH ACCEPTING ATMs…UNIT TRUSTS ONLINE…OPEN ACCOUNTS ONLINE…OVER 8 000 ATMs AND 900 BRANCHES…RECHARGE WITHOUT CHARGE…LOW-COST BANKING…REAL BUYING POWER…REAL CASH REWARDS…

Turn the page, and there’s Standard Bank “Moving forward:

THE CONVENIENCE OF 18 450 PLACES YOU CAN DO YOUR BANKING…HELPING CUSTOMERS SAVE UP TO 50%…ELITE BANKING COSTS R99.00 A MONTH…YOUTH…STUDENT ACHIEVER…GRADUATE AND PROFESSIONAL BANKING…ACHIEVER ELECTRONIC…PRESTIGE BANKING…PRIVATE BANKING…

And without a gap, you get First National Bank, answering its “How can we help you?” slogan with its own laundry list of promises, and its claim to be the industry innovator:

INNOVATION…VALUE…PAY2CELL…KRUGERRANDS…ONLINE FOREX…FNB LIFE COVER…SLOW LOUNGE…eBUCKS…SELF-SERVICE BANKING…INCONTACT…INSTANT ACCOUNTING…FNB BANKING APP…SHARE INVESTING…FUEL REWARDS…MULTICURRENCY ACCOUNTS…eWALLET…TABLET & SMARTPHONE OFFER…

Now, as a customer, what do you make all of this? What’s the difference—or is there really any difference? What does it mean to you? Are you impressed by this growing range of offerings? Or overwhelmed? Or perhaps you just don’t care.

The South African banking industry ranks among the healthiest in the world—thanks to tough regulation. But banks have long been accused of over-charging, lousy service, and bullying tactics. Nobody I know is excited about dealing with their bank. Nobody has ever recommended their bank to me.

As a customer myself, I have absolutely no idea what sets banks apart. I deal with them because I need to, not because I want to. They make a lot of noise, but I can’t hear what they say.

Bank strategists would do well to pay close attention to Beating The Commodity Trap by strategy professor Richard D’Aveni of the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth. Because that’s exactly the trap they’re creating for themselves—at huge cost, and despite their desperate efforts.

Describing why firms get into a commodity trap, D’Aveni writes:

“…the reasons most companies find themselves in the trap in the first place is because they failed to innovate early enough to avoid it or they later differentiated and cut prices so much that they have exacerbated the trap.”

They’d also to well to heed to these words of Harvard Business School professor Youngme Moon in her excellent book Different:

“Competition and conformity will always be fraternally linked, for the simple reason that a race can only be run if everyone is facing the same direction.”

“…the way to think about differentiation is not as the offspring of competition, but as an escape from competition altogether.”

“There is a kind of difference that says nothing, and there is a kind of difference that speaks volumes.”

Making a “difference that speaks volumes” has always been a challenge to companies and their ad agencies. It’s getting harder as competitors crowd into a field, and as they watch and learn from each other, benchmark themselves against each other, recruit people from each other, attend the same industry events, read the same publications, buy from the same suppliers, and so on. They strive to be different, but do everything possible to look alike.

First National Bank has seized an advantage by not just re-segmenting the market, but by using product innovation as its differentiator and a character called “Steve” to grab attention in broadcast media. But how long will it be before others do the same? Technology constraints might slow some of its competitors down, but they’re sure to fix that. So the rapid reinvention of business models will continue. Future ad campaigns will surely become both more factual and more emotional.

If experience from other industries is anything to go by, the banks have started what could be a costly “race to the bottom” (and not just the bottom of the market). Together, they’re transforming their world. The best they can hope for is that none of them does anything really silly, and that the market stays reasonably stable. They also need to hope that their efforts don’t create a credit bubble and provoke their regulator to clamp down on them.

Whichever way things go, we’re about to see:

  • What difference strategy can make, vs. the importance of being able to think on your feet, change direction in a blink, and run faster than your enemies.
  • How important real product innovation is vs. vaguer corporate branding.
  • Whether conventional forces can take on guerrilla fighters and win, and what it takes.
  • How guerrillas can withstand an onslaught from multiple well-armed attackers.

There will be important lessons here for all managers, so  this is a battle worth watching closely. (More on this in a coming post.)

 Capitec and African Bank have given the South African banking industry a long-overdue wake-up. Now, watch the shake-up.

 

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