Monday, March 25, 2013

Is There a Process to Choose a Good Consultant?


Have you wondered about the value of bringing in a consultant to help with organizational challenges? Have you thought that these outsiders might not understand the challenges to your organization as well as you do and that the learning curve for the consultant would cost more than any benefit you would gain?
As business life would have it, there will be times you will be faced with difficult challenges for which you will need the benefit of advice from someone with experience dealing with similar challenges.
Clearly, when the time arises to choose a consultant it will be important to choose wisely. There will be many consultants to choose from. They will come from large and small consulting firms and they will all have unique sets of bias and experience.
To help choose a consultant we have developed the following checklist:
1)    Define the challenge. Can you articulate the challenge well enough to begin the search for outside guidance? Clearly if the goal is to get the right consultant and get advice that can be internalized by your staff, it will be critical to identify the cause of the challenge if possible. Identifying symptoms and not the cause can result in providing the wrong direction to consultants and disappointing results for the consulting arrangement.
2)    Relevant experience. Which consultants have the most extensive knowledge regarding your challenge? Here it is important to do some research. It is not always the largest or best-known consulting firm that can provide a solution. To find a good consultant, it may be better researching the challenge and discovering solutions that fit your organization and then seeking out the architects of those solutions. In 1998 I was looking for ways to understand how introduce new programs for our customers when I ran across Clayton Christensen’s new book “The Innovator’s Dilemma”. I really liked what he had to say in the book and the next time I was at Harvard I stopped by to visit him. I asked him to come to Houston to visit with my managers and some of my key customers. I consider his input a turning point in our ability to develop new products and improve our business processes.
3)    Ability to transfer knowledge. Can this consultant provide assistance that can be internalized by your staff? If the guidance offered can be internalized by a company’s management team there is a good chance that there will be productive outcomes. If the guidance is too complicated to be incorporated by the management team it will result in a longer engagement for the consultant or short term benefits which will be lost when the consultant leaves.
4)    Ability to define the scope of the project. Is the consultant willing to provide specific steps and time lines associated with the guidance that will be offered? Entering into a loosely defined agreement with a consultant will result in an engagement that will last longer than needed and may not address the challenge adequately.
Over the years I have engaged a number of consultants and I have found that when I used this checklist the consulting engagements were more successful. As a consultant myself I have found that it is better to advise the client to use a similar checklist even if it means they will opt for another consultant. I find that it is better for the long term when a client feels like they are getting the best advice.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Thoughts on America’s Ability to Innovate and Compete




" The only limit to our realization of tomorrow will be our doubts of today. Let us move forward with strong and active faith."
                                               Franklin Delano Roosevelt


I have heard a lot of discussion lately about the U.S. losing its competitive edge and falling behind on its ability to stimulate the development of game changing innovations.
I think some look at rapid growth in new technological developments from China, India and South Korea and are concerned that economic power will shift to those countries at the expense of U.S. economic growth.
Some may look at the ranking of education systems and feel that without improvements the U.S. will fall woefully behind other industrialized nations in the ability to produce a workforce for the new technological age.
Still others believe that management focus on short-term profit prevents companies from investing in innovations for the long term.
Clearly, there is truth in all of the above points of view and there is reason to be concerned. But I was once told that half the solution to a problem is recognizing that it exists. That after identifying and defining a problem developing a solution is just a matter of focus by people bent on solving the problem. So I believe we will face and overcome challenges as we identify them.
As far as the U.S. ability to innovate and compete, I happen to be an American Optimist. I believe that the U.S. has a special set of catalysts that spurs innovation and competiveness. These catalysts include:
1)    The opportunity for individuals to create wealth that they can keep. This is under pressure at times as national spending requires heavier taxation but at present there is still a strong incentive for entrepreneurs to create new businesses.
2)    The U.S. system of governance. U.S. citizens love their freedom and they have an enormous amount of national pride. They understand that the rule of law should work for all citizens. This protection of individual freedoms is a powerful draw to people from all over the world who wait for a visa or green card or are willing to risk their lives to come here. After arriving they search for ways to stay and become U.S. citizens.
3)    Diversity. Because our citizens have been successful in creating personal wealth and living in a nation that is ruled by law, the U.S. has attracted immigrants from all over the world to power our engines of ingenuity. These immigrants bring an understanding of how to do business in the countries of their origin.
I personally have friends that are first or second generation Americans who have created personal fortunes.
One came from China and started as a short order cook in San Francisco. After earning his masters degree he and his wife started a Chinese newspaper that has grown to a publishing group serving the Chinese communities in most major U.S. cities. He sponsors a lot of community activities and each time he speaks to a crowd he is passionate about his love for this country. Interestingly, he has strong connections in both Taiwan and the PRC and has helped American and Chinese businesses develop.
Another friend is second generation Japanese. His family was doing well before WWII but lost everything when they were interred. After the war this family of immigrants fought hard to recreate their wealth. They did and today have a very healthy multi establishment restaurant business. They are very proud to be Americans. They also work closely with American and Japanese companies in developing new business programs.
Another Chinese friend started a plastic resin company after receiving his PhD in nuclear physics. He has operations all over the globe and is a very strong believer in the American Democracy.
I am a partner in a medical consulting group that includes a physician that hails from Columbia. He is laying the groundwork to open South American countries to our cancer care consulting practice.
Finally, I am involved in a project that will involve major medical institutions and universities in developing new medical technologies. Key players in the formation of this organization are first generation Americans.
Over the past two and a quarter centuries we have had significant economic crises that threatened the strength of our nation. We have had major challenges to our global leadership role from nations that had the advantage of newer manufacturing infrastructure and lower labor costs. In every instance the U.S. found a way to compete and maintain a leadership in innovation and international competiveness. I would have to say my own personal experiences have strengthened my faith in the U.S. ability to continually innovate and compete.
I think we, as a nation, have challenges but I firmly believe that we have a system that is resilient and thrives on a continual renewal driven by the ability to create personal wealth, a rule of law and a population that is diverse and continually renewing its vitality.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Six Steps for Promoting an Idea or Business


Build a Cohesive Promotion Campaign

If you have a new product or business, what is a good way of getting the word out? Advertising is always a good idea but without having a supporting promotion program advertising dollars can be wasted.
If money is in short supply it is even more important to develop a promotion infrastructure that can build your business. Here are some steps that can put your business in the forefront of your customers’ minds:
  1.       Create a “Bumper Sticker” statement or “Elevator Speech”. This is a simple phrase that explains what you do in a manner that sets you apart from the competition. This phrase is not only to make it easier to tell your customers what your business or product does, it provides a mantra for your employees, suppliers and business associates to use. If done properly it unifies the business and marketing strategies. IKEA for example, in 1982 stated as its purpose, “To promote and support innovation in the field of architectural and interior design”. Coca Cola’s mission is to “refresh the world”.
  2.       Find ways to get publicity by tying to news articles and getting coverage. Be on the look out for opportunities to comment publicly or through press releases on topics that are germane to your business. For example, Whole Foods recent announcement that by 2018, all products in the U.S. and Canada must be labeled if they contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs). This was announced through a Whole Foods press release but was picked up by most mainstream media outlets. Here Whole Food got in front of the pack by making the announcement but giving plenty of time for implementation.
  3.       Find ways of getting publicity by tying your business or idea to good works. If there are charitable causes or organizations that fit well with your business model, a strong tie in can provide a boost. AT&T for example has established an office for a Chief Medical Information Officer that will focus on the use of telecommunications in providing healthcare. Additionally, AT&T has made numerous charitable contributions to organizations developing telemedicine technologies and procedures. While this is good work by AT&T for the community it also positions them as a key player in the minds of telemedicine innovators.
  4.       Start a blog that talks about the stuff that is relevant to your business. A blog that is serious and provides useful information can build credibility for your business. American Express’ blog on travel, http://www.travelandleisure.com/ provides very useful travel information that is tied to using the American Express card. Home Depot has a blog that provides information on home and garden projects.
  5.       Use social networks to link to your blog and update your networks on recent projects. Facebook, LinkedIn and other social networks provide a ready made avenue to build an audience for your blog and to announce recent developments that may be of interest. Business Expert Press encourages authors to join social networks and to regularly participate in discussions. Since it is a step in the brand building process this approach should be taken seriously. Comments on the networks should be in line with the image that you want to project to the general public.
  6.       Form networks with professionals that augment or support your business. Meeting with a group of similarly minded professionals can be intellectually stimulating as well as providing connections that can result in business. MFR Consulting recently created a group of ‘Senior Advisors” that have their own business consulting practices. These senior advisors meet monthly to discuss projects and ways in which they can grow the consulting practice. I regularly have a get together of friends to smoke cigars and drink some fine wine. From this group I have been asked to participate as a consultant in two significant business ventures.
  • While a number of the examples above involve large organizations the principles and approaches hold for businesses of any size. These six steps are fairly straightforward but they will require a commitment of time and focus to be successful. 

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Six Steps for Promoting an Idea or Business



If you have a new product or business, what is a good way of getting the word out? 



Advertising is always a good idea but without having a supporting promotion program advertising dollars can be wasted.
If money is in short supply it is even more important to develop a promotion infrastructure that can build your business. Here are six steps that can put your business in the forefront of your customers’ minds:
  1.     Create a “Bumper Sticker” statement or “Elevator Speech”.
  2. This is a simple phrase that explains what you do in a manner that sets you apart from the competition. This phrase is not only to make it easier to tell your customers what your business or product does, it provides a mantra for your employees, suppliers and business associates to use. If done properly it unifies the business and marketing strategies. IKEA for example, in 1982 stated as its purpose, “To promote and support innovation in the field of architectural and interior design”. Coca Cola’s mission is to “refresh the world”.
  3.       Find ways to get publicity by tying to news articles and getting coverage. Be on the look out for opportunities to comment publicly or through press releases on topics that are germane to your business. For example, Whole Foods recent announcement that by 2018, all products in the U.S. and Canada must be labeled if they contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs). This was announced through a Whole Foods press release but was picked up by most mainstream media outlets. Here Whole Food got in front of the pack by making the announcement but giving plenty of time for implementation.
  4.       Find ways of getting publicity by tying your business or idea to good works. If there are charitable causes or organizations that fit well with your business model, a strong tie in can provide a boost. AT&T for example has established an office for a Chief Medical Information Officer that will focus on the use of telecommunications in providing healthcare. Additionally, AT&T has made numerous charitable contributions to organizations developing telemedicine technologies and procedures. While this is good work by AT&T for the community it also positions them as a key player in the minds of telemedicine innovators.
  5.       Start a blog that talks about the stuff that is relevant to your business. A blog that is serious and provides useful information can build credibility for your business. American Express’ blog on travel, http://www.travelandleisure.com/ provides very useful travel information that is tied to using the American Express card. Home Depot has a blog that provides information on home and garden projects.
  6.       Use social network to link to your blog and update your networks on recent projects. Facebook, LinkedIn and other social networks provide a ready made avenue to build an audience for your blog and to announce recent developments that may be of interest. Business Expert Press encourages authors to join social networks and to regularly participate in discussions. Since it is a step in the brand building process this approach should be taken seriously. Comments on the networks should be in line with the image that you want to project to the general public.
  7.       Form networks with professionals that augment or support your business. Meeting with a group of similarly minded professionals can be intellectually stimulating as well as providing connections that can result in business. MFR Consulting recently created a group of ‘Senior Advisors” that have their own business consulting practices. These senior advisors meet monthly to discuss projects and ways in which they can grow the consulting practice. I regularly have a get together of friends to smoke cigars and drink some fine wine. From this group I have been asked to participate as a consultant in two significant business ventures.

While a number of the examples above involve large organizations the principles and approaches hold for businesses of any size. These six steps are fairly straightforward but they will require a commitment of time and focus to be successful. 

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

What Is A Responsible Leader?


Responsible Leadership Requires the Long Term View

I recently read a number of articles on leadership traits. Each article pointed out traits that seemed appropriate such as tough mindedness, empathy, charisma and so on. On a recent LinkedIn discussion traits discussed included being a visionary, having humility and the ability to build trust and confidence.

A couple of the articles pointed out that leaders are not born but are created by situations and positions in which they are placed.
A leader then could probably be described as someone having the traits necessary to move an organization toward its desired goals effectively.
I think there are those who thought Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling were great leaders before the downfall of Enron. For a time I am certain that Bernard Ebbers was considered a good leader at Worldcom.
What is missing from most descriptions of leaders, leadership traits and leadership in general is the impact leaders have on the larger universe.
If you consider most of the regulations governing business today, they exist because at some point an individual or organization acted irresponsibly. After the regulations are put in place there are plenty of complaints about how much the regulations constrict freedoms, business activity and the free market in general.
I am certain we are all aware of the impact Enron had on business activity since the Sarbanes-Oxley Act was a direct result of Enron’s misguided leadership.
Responsible Leadership should consider desired outcomes while considering the organization’s role in the community and in society as a whole.
Traits for responsible leadership should include:
1)    Ability to recognize the organization’s impact on the community by its:
a.    People – Employees that live and are involved in the community. Is the organization in sync or in conflict with the community? Products and services – Do the products and services enhance the community’s quality of life and safety?
b.    Relationship - Does the location of the organizations outlets improve the community while improving the organization’s viability?
c.     Focus - Does the business strategy provide good returns and solid financial foundation for its stakeholders?
2)    Another trait of responsible leadership is the ability to take a leadership role when the community is in need. In times of crisis does the organization step in to provide needed goods and services?
3)    Responsible leadership should consider the future of the organization and the society in which it operates. Does the organization help develop people internally to lead in the future? Does the leadership make the decisions that are focused on the long-term benefit to the community at large, stakeholders and employees?
4)    Responsible leadership should have research and development and investment strategies that will insure the organization’s ability to survive for the long term.
5)    Responsible leadership requires a view that can discern whether an action that brings positive ROI in the short run is in the best interest for the long term. Would responsible leaders create a financial boom based on loans to individuals that likely could not repay the debt?
A leader of a responsible organization would have all the traits that are described in the many articles and studies on leadership attributes but would also consider the organization as a subset of the community and society as a whole.
Organizations that have recognized its responsibilities to the community and have these traits ingrained in their culture have a better chance of guiding leaders along the path of responsible leadership.
We are all familiar with organizations that demonstrate responsible leadership. They are from all industries and they work to build their business by being a positive force in their communities and are a source of pride for their employees. They are at the forefront when the community is in need and they support ongoing community programs such as museums, theatre and youth programs. They encourage their employees to participate in community affairs. They build their business and the community.
The community does not forget a responsibly led organization. It supports and identifies with the organizations that contribute and work to benefit the community.
Being a leader and having leadership traits is only the first step in being a responsible leader.