Monthly Archives: November 2011

//November

Xmas cards, invoices and my old accountant

Last week while selecting the company’s greeting card for 2012, I was reminded of something that happened to me many years ago. This is a story about cost savings gone mad!

Back in the 1980’s when most companies in the UK sent Christmas cards to their entire address list, my accountant once sent me a Christmas card that remains in my mind to this day. 

It was printed on very cheap quality paper with very poor quality printing and in an envelope so thin, you could see through it like a cotton shirt with a t-shirt underneath! It must have been the cheapest of the cheap Christmas cards I have ever seen.

OK so it was from my accountant, maybe that is to be expected. But when I opened it a scrappy piece of roughly folded paper fell out onto my desk.  Carefully unfolding it I found it was his annual invoice with an additional one line statement telling me how much tax I still needed to pay before the end of the year!  If there had been even a slight feeling of ‘oh, that’s nice of him to remember me and to wish me and my family well in this Christmas time’, then it did not last long. In fact I became so angry and cheated that I immediately called on the phone:

“What’s this?”  I said, “Is this some kind of a joke?” but he said “I always send out my final year invoices in my Christmas cards, it saves on postage.” I said “But you are mixing up seasonal wishes of peace on earth and 'good will to all men’ with taxes and a commercial transaction!” “But it saves me and you money.” he said. “If insincerity is the cost of saving money then you can find another customer, I am out of here!”

I was so mad that I told all my friends about how I had just discovered the meanest person on the planet.  Luckily one of them told me about an accountant he knew that seemed honest and decent and fair.  I contacted him and nearly thirty years later I am still using his services.  Accountants (good ones) understand their customers. They are after all handling some of their most private matters and giving personal advice and guidance. 

Building relationships in business, based upon sincerity, is a must for me and there are moments when we need to be absolutely sure we are not forgetting who our customers and suppliers are; their emotional sensitivities as well as their professional needs.

In this day of globalization, we need to also be sensitive to people’s religious beliefs and cultural values and we need to achieve this without watering down our key message. “Happy Holidays” is not an acceptable alternative to “Happy Christmas” for me. With modern IT systems it is very easy to handle diversity in a respectful way.  The bottom line is: if you feel  that a Christmas card might have the total opposite effect to what it is intended, then don’t send it!  Wait until the appropriate New Year (China or Europe &US etc.) and send that customer or supplier a ‘Happy New Year’ card instead!

Have a good week,

Harley

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Slow Thinkers, Fast Thinkers

If I were to ask you a relatively simple mathematical question, how confident are you that you could answer it quickly?  Let’s start with the easiest question imaginable “what does two multiplied by two equal?”  Unless you thought there could be a trick in it, the answer should have been instant.  But what if it were a little more complex, such as, “A bat and a ball sold together cost 1EUR and 10 cents, if the bat costs 1 Euro more than the ball, how much does the ball cost?”

If you answered this question instantly and had never heard it before, then there is a very good chance that you got it wrong. In controlled trials, over half the students of Princeton University got it wrong too!  The simple truth is that the more confident you are, the far more likely you are to think too fast and to jump to erroneous assumptions (and no, ‘10 cents’ is not the correct answer)!

Professor and Nobel Lauriat, Daniel Kahneman has spent the last forty five years studying behavioural economics and the psychology of judgment and decision-making. His latest book ‘Thinking fast and slow’ is an inspiring collection of his thoughts and findings, culminating in observations on how our assumptions can wildly lead us down the wrong path.

However, the main point I want to make this week is that the old saying ‘the fast will be slow and the slow will be fast’, is very true in business.  If you are like me and have a tendency for fast thinking, then unless you have someone close to you that you respect deeply that does not simply agree with everything that comes out your mouth, and is prepared to take the time to consider and think carefully before they answer, then you can be vulnerable to all sorts of fast thinking pitfalls. A balance is essential.

It is not the case that fast thinkers cannot, or do not, sometimes think slowly. Most people can switch between the two. It’s just that the combination of outward confidence and fast thinking can in some circumstances be very dangerous. Experience teaches us the warning signs to look out for, but they are not always reliable, especially in complex decision making.

Over lunch last week, my lawyer gave me another ‘bat and ball’ type mathematical problem to try out on the students in my ‘Complex problem solving classes’. “If a car travels from A to B at an average speed of 60km per hour and then travels back from B to A again at an average speed of 90kms per hour, what is its overall average speed?”  (and no it is not 75km per hour!)

Have a good week,
Harley

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LOL

My grandmother was not the kind of woman that one could easily like.  She came from another era and she never let you forget it.  It was as if one day she woke up and selected that very moment to spend the rest of her life comparing with how things used to be. 

She was very fond of opening a conversation (better described as a monologue) with the words: “The trouble with the younger generation today is….”  

It was if she liked to turn her audience into her subject matter and if you plucked up the courage to try and defend yourself she had the really annoying habit of saying :“Now please don’t interrupt me dear, you are far too young to understand these things, or to have an opinion”.

I remember one such topic as if it was yesterday; she had got onto the subject of language; “the filth one reads in the papers, the expletives that one hears on the street, the ridiculous new words that don’t mean anything!”  

I kind of wish she was around today, because I believe that I have reached an age where she might consider that I am old enough to be entitled to an opinion.  I would feel much more comfortable to defend myself, perhaps we could even have a conversation on a more equal footing? Perhaps I could motivate her to reset her life clock and start living again?

I would love to see her face when she discovers that even my 80 something mother now has a ‘smart’ phone and that she enjoys the descriptive and colorful language of SMS texting.  Perhaps I could impress her by saying that nothing is new?  That before the phone was invented telegrams were the norm for those rich enough to send them. And that the abbreviations we enjoy today were born because of our desire to communicate deep and important messages with the minimum number of letters and spaces and that terms like ‘LOL’ can work on many levels depending on the context: ‘Laughing out loud’, ‘Lots of Love’, ‘Little old ladies’ . The possibilities are almost endless!

I would delight in pointing out to her that words like ‘hello’  and ‘OK’ are in fact very modern, made popular by the invention of the fixed line telephone.  And I would tell her that what I like about today is that applications like Microsoft’s ‘Lync’ and Skype are bringing video conferencing to everyone with access to the internet and because they are completely free of charge we can take our time again to greet one another correctly with phrases like ‘Good morning, how are you?’ Or perhaps even one day: “Good morning my dear chap, you’re looking rather splendid this morning, if I may say so?”

For me, great communication is about saying much with as few words as possible. It’s about allowing the receiver to create an image in their head without the need to go into every minute detail.  A great communicator is a person that observes and listens very intently and always knows precisely the right words to say, at the right time, to create the effect they want to have, after all isn’t that what communication is for – to have an effect on the receiver?

Have a good week,

Harley

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Two more speeding tickets!

In the last two weeks I have been caught speeding twice. People tell me that in Belgium the speed cameras do not work – that’s not true. And this is happening to me at a time when I am telling myself to slow down. In my car I have a Coyote communication system that not only compares my current speed with the speed limit of the road it also warns me (most of the time) of the presence of mobile speed traps. On top of this I have a conventional speedometer the size of a small dinner plate, two clocks and a giant flat screen GPS system and still I drive too fast. When am I going to learn?

I guess the answer to my question is either when I receive even more speeding tickets or when I learn to grow up? Perhaps it’s going to be right here, right now? Perhaps this time on my way home from Germany I will decide to fall into line with all the other vehicles happy to travel at a steady 110Km per hour? Or will I, as usual, hog the left-hand lane with my foot on the floor until an even faster fool from behind flashes me out of the way?

Logic tells me that the problem of driving too fast is that, apart from the increased risk of causing an accident, that the faster I go the narrower my vision becomes.  It’s a proven fact. Try driving on an unrestricted highway at a speed of 180-220km and then slow down to 80. I swear you can visibly notice the enormous amount of additional visual information you are able to process left and right. 

The same is true in business, leaders that do too much are simply unable to see the complete picture and sooner or later they begin to make poor decisions. There’s another aspect of moving too fast that also needs to be considered. Yesterday, Philip Gould a British member of the House of Lords, strategist and corporate adviser died at the age of 61 after a battle against cancer. His wife is entirely sure that his tough career played a leading role in his untimely demise.

Now I don’t want an early heart attack and I don’t ever want to cause an accident or be accused of having too narrow vision, so I guess there nothing more to it than to simply slow down?

How fast do you drive your life?

Have a good week,

Harley

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How to become much more interesting!

Here’s a really quick way to become a much more interesting person. Imagine you meet someone for the first time and they ask the question “tell me, what do you do for a living?” You know for sure that within just a few minutes of your reply (sometimes even seconds) the questioner's eyes will start to wander around the room and there will be that embarrassing and depressing moment when you realize that you are boring them. So here’s what to do.

Let’s assume you work in a bank, in this case you will most likely answer the “what do you do for a living question?” with “I work in a bank” or even “I am an area manager of a national bank”.  In either case you know for sure that this is not going to hold the questioner’s attention and you might even get a rude and unwelcome comment in reply.  So, my advice is to try answering it this way:

 “I look after other people’s money. In fact just the other week we had a customer on the phone that had been burgled while on a business trip in Tunisia.  He had no money, no ID and he desperately needed to get back home. Well we found a way to advance him some cash via his hotel, got him to the airport and helped him on his way.” This answer is very likely to encourage a much more positive response, with a likely follow up question “and what is this wonderful organization you work for?” 

Notice I answered a ‘what’ question (‘what do you do for a living) with a ‘why’ answer that explains just one reason why the bank is there (ie to help people). I also immediately backed up my answer with a little ‘how’ story to illustrate it. I also added: ‘just the other week’ and ‘we’ instead of ‘now’ and ‘I’.  This is only because I am assuming that a story like this does not happen every day or even to every bank employee.  Whatever the answer, it is the story that matters, as it gives meaning to the existence of the bank and the importance of what you and your colleagues do.  Here’s some other examples:

Project Manager = ‘I help realize my client’s dreams and ambitions’

Taxi Driver = ‘I take people wherever they want to go’

Software engineer = ‘I write complex mathematical algorithms that allow machines to do useful things”

But what if you are one of the lucky few and your job really is exciting and interesting and you cannot be bothered to answer it in detail for the millionth time?  Then try this:

“And what is it you do for a living exactly?” “I am an astronaut.”  “Wow that must be exciting?” “No, not really, mostly it’s just hanging around waiting for something to happen.  And when it does you’re strapped into a seat for days on end just staring at a set of dials. Even the view isn’t that much because they make the windows so small that only one person can just about see out of them, and even then,  mostly there’s not so much to look at anyway”.

Have a good week,

Harley

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