Blitzkrieg – lessons for managers?

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 “You can’t outrun the future if you don’t see it coming. Individuals who get startled by the future weren’t paying attention”.

Gary Hamel – London Business School Professor

What is blitzkrieg?

Blitzkrieg roughly translated from German means “lightening war” and was a method of warfare used by Nazi Germany in successfully invading northern Europe in World War II (1). At the beginning of World War II, France had the largest army in Europe, and the most tanks and aircraft but was defeated comprehensibly by the Nazi war machine in a matter of weeks in 1940. To be successful, Nazi German did not fight France on their terms or in more traditional ways, instead they used ‘blitzkrieg’.

So how did the Germans successfully invade France in World War II?

Following World War I, the French built a series of defensive forts on their eastern frontier with Germany called the Maginot Line, to protect them against invasion.  Although outnumbered, the Germans used a combination of tanks, motorised infantry and aircraft in a combined offensive mobile approach using excellent radio communications. They bypassed the Maginot line and attacked France through the Ardennes which the French considered ‘tank proof’.

By comparison, the French relied on static forts and viewed tanks as a defensive weapon to support their infantry. Also, few of the heavy tanks had radios and furthermore they were unreliable.

What are the lessons from blitzkrieg that can be used in business?

In summary it was ‘old war’ v ‘new war’ and broke the ‘old thinking’.

The German approach meant challenging the traditional ways by doing things differently which required planning to get around a superior enemy, without fighting on the enemy’s terms, and by using:

  • speed and efficiency – mobile infantry and tanks supported by aircraft
  • new technology – extensive use of radios

There are many examples of companies who failed to change which resulted in their demise. For example, although Kodak invented the digital camera it failed to commercialise it. Nokia the leading mobile phone business at the time invented the smart phone, however its delay in commercialising it meant the company was overtaken by Apple and Samsung. I had a client whose business relied for the majority of its revenue on providing engineering services to a major vehicle manufacturer in Australia. The owner proudly told me that he could always rely on this company as he had dealt with them for over 30 years. Within 2 years of this statement, vehicle manufacturing ceased and his business folded.

As business owners and managers, we must always be thinking of new ways of doing things, embracing new technologies and seeking outside assistance where appropriate ……….

Here are three questions you can ask yourself:

  1. how can I get customers from my competitors but not compete on the same terms?
  2. where is my business vulnerable to new technologies?
  3. are any of my new or existing competitors competing differently in the market?

This is your challenge!

After all, ignoring emerging trends or becoming overly absorbed in the present is naïve or even reckless.

  1. Note: the use of Blitzkrieg as an example of a management technique and is not to be misinterpreted as support for the evil actions of Nazi Germany which resulted in over 30 million deaths in World War II.

 

Are you a smart manager?

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“If you are the smartest person in the room then you’re in the wrong room”

Anonymous

Michael Dell founder of Dell Computers has a similar quote “Try never to be the smartest person in the room. And if you are, I suggest you invite smarter people……..or find a different room”

As managers, what does this mean?

Logically the smartest person in the room should be the manager. After all, who will provide the direction and manage the organisation?

Quite clearly this is wrong. Why?

The people who think they are the smartest person in the room tend to have the last say and rarely listen to or acknowledge different ideas or opinions. Many show their distain or disinterest by interrupting others in mid-sentence or displaying negative non-verbal traits such as rolling their eyes, looking away or checking their phone. I can remember organising a leadership training program for our Rotary Club for local businesses and organisations. A local council put up several candidates and one refused to attend stating “I have an MBA so I don’t need leadership training”

It would have been a waste of time and money for them to attend, not because of their MBA but because of their attitude.

However, learning should continue throughout your life, both at work and outside work. Learning does not stop with finishing school or a degree. People only learn and grow when being challenged. Being the smartest person in the room often means that you will not be challenged. Great managers surround themselves with people who challenge them as they realise that to continue to be relevant and innovative, you must be open to new ideas and concepts. By valuing other’s opinions and accepting that you are not always the smartest person in the room, healthy, constructive and sometimes heated debates will help your organisation and help you.

A business owner I know, who would be very smart and is well qualified academically, has failed to grow his business as profitably and quickly as planned. While he is a pleasant, polite and intelligent, he is rarely challenged and appears to not listen to others.  He claims he has little time or interest to read books. It would seem that these circumstances had adversely affected his staff turnover and business. Staff initiatives and ideas appear to be stifled. Being in charge does not mean you have all the answers. I have found that some of the smartest people can be found anywhere in an organisation, you just need to find and develop them. Many years ago, while working for a transport business I found a driver who had the attributes and energy to become a qualified driver trainer. Despite initially being hostile to management. he turned his experience into a new position, where he greatly added to the business by training drivers, thereby reducing accidents, injuries and fuel consumption. Furthermore and probably more importantly this improved his motivation and morale, and his own self image.

As managers we probably all have the tendency to act as the smartest person in the room.

The challenge is to resist this temptation without of course, abdicating your responsibility as a manager.

Here are 3 suggested approaches:

  1. Ask more questions and listen for the answers. Questions are powerful leadership tools (Questions and Answers) Resist telling people what to do and respond to ideas with questions to help you and others better develop their ideas. Seek first to understand before offering your own perspective.
  2. Have the courage to remain silent and help others decide. This does not mean that you cannot veto an idea or approach. Through using open questioning techniques ideas can be modified or adapted in a constructive way to get the best outcome.
  3. View ideas as a ‘glass half full’ not ‘half empty’ as it is a positive approach. People respond to the positive rather than the negative. Negative discussions should only centre around risks.

As a manager can you resist the temptation and follow these approaches?

These approaches often challenge us as managers, although they highly likely to engage and motivate our subordinates, make them feel part of a team and allow new ideas and approaches to surface. You will be challenged.

Why don’t you ‘give it a go’?.………………….

The Art of Leadership?

 

 

“Leadership is an action, not a position.”

Donald McGannon – USA television broadcasting pioneer

Last month there was a horrific fire that killed over 80 people in a high-rise building in London. The British Prime Minister Theresa May took 3 days for her to visit the survivors. Her handling of the situation drew a storm of criticism.

Why?

She could not have influenced the management of the crisis.

Surely visiting the site of the fire was an empty gesture as she could not influence the outcome. Perhaps she should be spending her valuable time running the country?

However, her actions or lack of action, depending on your view, raises the important question of leadership.
Should Mrs May have visited the site and met with the survivors earlier?

The answer is ‘YES” because that’s what prime ministers do. Gestures are important and her responsibility as a leader is to convey to the country her appreciation of the gravity of the event, how the nation feels and how everyone respects the sorrow the survivors and those who have lost loved ones.

Leaders are not bureaucrats. Mrs May is not the head bureaucrat. She is a political leader and is expected to display leadership in both the good times and times of adversity. Policy is easy, but leadership is hard. It requires judgement.

By comparison one of her predecessors, Sir Winston Churchill was a leader. During World War II, against what seemed insurmountable odds, he gave strength and purpose to the stand against the evils of Nazi Germany. He painted a picture. This evil had to be destroyed and despite the odds, Britain survived. Furthermore, this was reinforced by his actions in visiting bombed sites in London, speaking to survivors, and visiting troops as far away as North Africa.

Remember the BP Horizon Deepwater oil spill in 2010 where 11 workers were killed in a horrific explosion?

The spill was the worst oil spill in USA history, disrupting commerce, peoples’ livelihoods as well as causing massive environmental damage. The CEO of BP, Tony Haywood stated during the disaster “we’re sorry for the massive disruption it’s caused to their lives. There’s no one who wants this thing over more than I do, I’d like my life back.” He even participated in a boat race in a boat he co-owned whilst the oil spill continued. Haywood was replaced as CEO within 6 months of the tragedy. This would seem to be punishment for his appalling judgement and leadership.

The former Victorian Chief Police Commissioner, Christine Nixon who in Black Saturday Bushfires where 173 people died, left the operations centre and went to dinner with friends after she was told of the likelihood of bushfire deaths.

She stated “Whether or not me being there or not would have made any difference to the fires is a whole other issue.”

This statement, like Tony Hayward’s misses the essence of being a good leader.

A leader understands what is necessary. Churchill was seen to be leading. May, Hayward and Nixon’s leadership showed through their actions they did not understand “what is necessary”. Leadership is an art and although many gestures politicians make may be insincere, gestures such as being seen at disasters are what is expected. This is no different to leaders at work or in community organisations.

Gestures are as important as the leadership characteristics of leading by example (https://5-dimensionz.com.au/2013/05/28/leadership-v-management/), communicating your vision to others and having a sense of direction. The wrong gestures can destroy the standing of a leader in the eyes of their team or the public.

As a leader, do you understand that gestures and to be seen doing the right thing is a vital trait of being a successful leader?Meerkat Manager

Constant renewal – lessons from the farm

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I grew up on a farm in north western New South Wales, Australia. In my opinion it was one of the best groundings in life you can have. Many things observed and experienced as a child growing up on the farm can be related to business.

One experience that comes to mind is the problem of weeds.  This can be related to continuing to improve both your management performance and your business.

On our farm, weeds, specifically burrs and thistles were a major problem. In particular there was a burr called a Bathurst burr. Bathurst burr is amongst the most common and economically serious weeds in Australian agriculture. It readily adheres to the wool of sheep. Wool contaminated by Bathurst burrs is a substantial cost to the wool grower as additional processing is required to separate the burrs from the wool. The burr was first introduced to the city of Bathurst, Australia’s first settled inland city in about 1850. It was trapped in the tails of horses imported from Valparaiso in Chile. Perhaps it should have been called Chile burr!

As my father was a woolgrower, Bathurst burr was a major issue.  As children we were often sent out with a hoe to chip Bathurst Burr along the outside of the cultivation paddocks and roadside. Call it character building. However, compared to other properties in the district our farm had relatively small amounts of this burr.

Why was this so?

It was not from our childhood efforts chipping weeds along the roadside!

It was due to my Dad, who was constantly on the lookout for burrs. When horse riding whenever he saw a Bathurst burr, he would dismount from his horse and pull it out. As children we were fascinated by this obsession of eradicating Bathurst burrs and would often point them out to him if he missed one (this was very rare as being an Aussie bushman he had excellent eye sight).

By comparison, my school friend Graham who also lived on a farm had a different experience. I can remember his father’s place having far more burrs than ours. Like my father, his father would often send him out chipping burrs. However, his father became ill, involving hospitalisation and was unable to walk around his farm and keep burrs under control.

What was the difference?

It was because of the constant attention to keeping the burrs under control – often on a daily basis.

And this is the lesson for managers and business owners. Managing is not about platitudes, big schemes and projects. It is about constant attention to detail, continuing seeking ways to improve……… everyday.

As a manager are you keeping the burrs in your organisation under control?

Lessons for managers from Nelson Mandela

“It always seems impossible until it’s done”

Nelson Mandela

What can Nelson Mandela teach us about being a good manager?

During December, I was planning to write a blog about what businesses should do over the Festive Season in preparation for the new calendar year. However, with the death of former South African president Nelson Mandela provided an opportunity to reflect on what Mandela could teach us in our roles as business owners, managers and supervisors. Mandela was an international hero and was universally revered around the world as a vital force in the fight for human rights and racial equality against great odds.

Despite over 25 years in gaol, Mandela came out of prison not seeking revenge. Instead he oversaw the relatively peaceful transfer of power in South Africa.

As Archbishop Tutu, stated:

“Could you imagine if he had come out of gaol a different man, very angry and baying for the blood of his former oppressors? We would not have made it to first base.”

Whilst I am tempted to list dozens of things Mandela could teach us as managers about leadership, it is always best to keep it simple – so here are my three top picks:

1. Integrity

Despite often being called a ‘living saint’ Mandela steadfastly refused to be recognised as such. In his books and speeches, Mandela went out of his way to point out the dangers of deifying him. He admitted to having many flaws, to having made many mistakes and to having had his integrity tested many times.

In 1985, Mandela was offered a conditional release from by President Botha if he renounced violence and obeyed the law (just racial laws). Mandela did not fall for this very transparent gesture. Whilst he desired freedom after decades in prison, he did not betray his principles, and his long struggle for democracy. Mandela replied as follows:

“What freedom am I being offered while the organisation of the people remains banned?  What freedom am I being offered if I must ask permission to live in an urban area?  Only free men can negotiate. Prisoners cannot enter into contracts.”

It was almost 5 more years before he was unconditionally released from prison. In the end, history showed that Mandela’s integrity overcame all obstacles when he  became the first democratically elected leader in South Africa. Integrity was combined with another important leadership trait……………

2. Perseverance

Despite the seemingly impossible task of obtaining democratic rule in South Africa, Mandela managed to achieve what seemed impossible

 “Perseverance always overcomes resistance”.

How many times in our business life has this occurred? I can remember feeling that a business in which I was a significant shareholder would never sell after 2 failed attempts over 2 years. There were times I was told to ‘give up’, however, when least expected, an overseas buyer which exceeded expectations.

Opportunities often come when least expected, however this takes time, energy, and focus and perseverance.

3. Vision

Mandela had an over-riding vision of a multi-racial South Africa with a strong focus on the future, not the past. He never lost sight of this vision and did not compromise his goals. Whilst suffering in prison he was offered numerous inducements to compromise his position and be released early. He declined.

His actions and words left no doubt as to his vision. Leaders with vision have passionate and dedicated followers.

I can remember asking a managing director what his vision was for the company and the reply was ‘for me to be here next year’. Can you imagine being inspired by such a person?

Integrity, perseverance and vision are all are leadership traits that Mandela can teach us as successful managers. The outpouring of emotions at his funeral from ordinary people (not the dignitaries) is testament to these qualities.

Are these traits important in your job too?

Technology

“Men have become the tools of their tools”
Henry David Thoreau

Today in business we are confronted with a mass of technological innovation that has become increasingly more sophisticated, expensive and difficult to keep up with; iPhones, iPads, tablets, GPS and so on. We often we become so intoxicated with new technology – its speed, power, gadgetry and the potential to solve our business problems that we neglect to solve problems in a simple and cost effective way.

Have you heard of the story about NASA in the 1960s when the space astronauts found pens would not work in space? NASA spent tens of thousands of dollars to develop a space pen while the Russian cosmonauts used a pencil! This is actually an ‘urban myth’, however it illustrates the need to try and solve problems in a simple, practical and cost effective way. In the first Gulf War, the fleeing Iraqi army set fire to hundreds of oil wells creating an environmental disaster. Red Adair the famous Texan oil fire expert was called in by the Kuwaiti government to ‘solve’ the problem. The solution was a complex technique of explosives to remove the oxygen from the flames thereby putting out the flames. It was complex, costly and dangerous and would take many years to complete the task. Instead, a team of Bulgarians were contracted. Their solution was simple, practical and cost effective. Using large bulldozers being driven by men in fire resistant suits they covered the burning oil well heads with sand in a fraction of the time and cost compared to the solution as advocated by Red Adair.

So next time you are confronted with a problem or the latest technology – stop and think. Can the problem be solved simply and cost effectively without technology that can often be unnecessarily complicated and expensive?

Problems

“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. Albert Einstein

Many of us in business are confronted with problems;  whether it is the business failing, parts of the business not performing or relationships at work deteriorating. I suspect that you have agonised about the reasons for the problem.  These reasons are likely to be complex and there are probably no simple solutions.

However, the first step is to admit there is problem.  I have seen many leaders in business refusing to admit that there they have a problem, even though it is obvious to everybody around them (and often to themselves although they refuse to confront it). This problem can be due to ego, ignorance, incompetence or an unwillingness to face reality. It is highly unlikely to go away and is probably only going to get worse and become more complicated as staff and customers begin questioning your judgement and leadership.

Admitting that you have a problem either to yourself, your family or your staff is essential. The second step is critical.  This is where you either become a success or continue to fail to resolve the problem. The failing business person tries to justify the failure – it’s the market, it’s the internet and so on.

As a manager or business owner it is only a problem or a failure if it continues. Like the Albert Einstein quote above which implies we must change something to get the desired result, the status quo is not an option. Do not identify an external reason for the problem as this is a ‘cop out’. You are disowning the problem – ‘it’s the economy’, ‘it’s the high exchange rate’, ‘it’s poor staff’.

The key to success is to take a few steps that will not allow you to justify the problem. The first step is to take action, even if it is just one small step. Using personal fitness as an example, the hardest step in improving your fitness is putting on your gym gear. By taking the first step you are on the way to solving the problem. Momentum has now commenced and this will help solve other problems, both now and in the future.

There is no shame in recognising a problem or failure, providing you do something about it. Learning from mistakes is only common sense. That’s what good leaders do !