Business Rocks: Frankie Says

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This week’s focus: My son was playing football for a team where the coach is both competitive and highly strung. A few weeks ago, the coach became so frustrated with how the team was playing that he saw red. “RELAX!” he screamed at one of the boys as the ball looped in the air towards the hapless teenager, perhaps in the mistaken hope that this would somehow transform the lad into a ball-playing genius.

Unsurprisingly, the boy froze and, instead of controlling the ball and curling a delicious shot into the top corner of the goal, the ball simply bounced off his body as if he was a brick wall and went out for a throw-in.

As a leader it’s not what you say that people necessarily notice; it’s how you behave. It’s not your speeches or the banners in the hallways or the messages on the intranet that tell people what’s important; it’s your off-the-cuff remarks, your decisions and how you behave that are more important.

What are the behaviours that you’re exemplifying and how could you make sure that they always reflected your real priorities?

Off the record: Relax by Frankie Goes To Hollywood

Shoot it in the right direction

Make making it your intention

Live those dreams

Scheme those schemes

Got to hit me, hit me

Hit me with those laser beams

© Stuart Cross 2016. All rights reserved.

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Business Rocks: Statement of Intent

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This week’s focus: I’m working with a client on their strategy. As part of the early process I’ve met most of the top team and, during our conversation, have asked each of them to describe the company’s strategy.

The responses I’ve received are revealing. While there are some generally shared principles, no two answers have been the same. Some of the directors I’ve met have spoken about the big projects the business is taking, others have talked about their key goals, while one or two have focused on a simple vision statement. In other words, there is no consistent strategy statement.

I think this matters. A lot. A strategy doesn’t just impact the ‘big’ investment choices; it drives a myriad of decisions of actions taken by colleagues and managers from across your organisation on a daily basis. Like a magnet being waved over iron filings, a strategy creates alignment and ensures that everyone is pointing in the same direction.

If you and your leadership team are unable to give a clear statement of your strategy – with clarity on your key strategic goal, the scope of your business, how you will win and your key priorities for action – it is impossible for those decisions and actions to be aligned. As a result, you will end up with conflicting decisions and actions, as well as gaps in activity.

Can you state the strategy of your organisation in simple terms? And will your statement match those of your executive colleagues?

Off the record: Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood by Nina Simone (written by Benjamin, Caldwell and Marcus)

But I’m just a soul whose intentions are good

Oh Lord! Please don’t let me be misunderstood

© Stuart Cross 2016. All rights reserved.

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Business Rocks: Thank You

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This week’s focus: It is 10 years ago this week that I left the corporate safety net of Boots the Chemists to launch Morgan Cross Consulting. I can honestly say that the last 10 years have been the best, most enjoyable and most rewarding years of my life. Having been my own boss now for so long, I am also happy to let you know that I’m now completely unemployable!

During the past decade I have learnt so much – about marketing, about consulting and coaching, about running a business and about myself. But perhaps my biggest lesson of all is that even in a one-man business like mine, you are nothing without the support, commitment and engagement of other people.

Strong, effective relationships are not simply important to organizational success, they are the cornerstone of all organizational success.

So, to borrow a line from the Oscars ceremony, I want to thank everyone who has encouraged and helped me over the past decade, including all my clients – I’ve carried out over 100 assignments of various sizes since launching my business with my first paying customer, Rick Mills of Walgreens Boots Alliance – my family, my friends, my coach, the readers of my articles and books, the people who’ve come to my workshops or hear me speak, and everyone else that his given me help and advice.

You’ll all never know how much I appreciate your support and friendship.

Thank you.

Off the record: ‘No Man Is An Island’ by John Donne

No rock lyrics this week. Instead, the first words that came to mind were from this poem by Donne, written in the early seventeenth century.

No man is an island,

Entire of itself;

Every man is a piece of the continent,

A part of the main.


If a clod be washed away by the sea,

Europe is the less.

As well as if a promontory were,

As well as if a manor of thine own

Or of thine friend’s were.


Any man’s death diminishes me,

Because I am involved in mankind.

And therefore, send not to know for whom the bell tolls;

It tolls for thee.


© Stuart Cross 2016. All rights reserved.

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Business Rocks – Naked Truth

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This week’s focus: A week or so ago we returned from our family holiday in Ibiza. We had a beautiful villa – a private pool, a shady garden and a gorgeous view of the sea. In fact, the only slightly unusual aspect of the villa was the fact that naturists were staying in the neighbouring property.

At the start of our break, our three teenage boys were appalled by the sight of a group of naked people strutting about next door with everything on show. By the third night, however, their attitude had changed slightly, and they went for a late night ‘skinny-dip’. Naked swimming became more common as the week went on and by the end of the holiday the boys were wearing fewer clothes than our naturist neighbours!

When it comes to change management, you can’t ‘change’ people, you can only change the environment in which they operate. If you want your people to be more customer focused, for example, don’t simply demand that they change their behavior. Instead, focus on creating a new, more customer-focused environment – become a customer-obsessive role model, reward those who are most customer focused and bring customer feedback to the fore of your management reports, for instance.

If you do this, you will find, over time, that your people will change their behaviour. Perhaps not everyone will change – you’ll be delighted to learn that my shorts remained firmly ‘on’ throughout the week – but most people will, and that’s the naked truth!

What steps are you taking to create an environment that encourages the ‘right’ behaviours for your business?

Off the record: Stupid Marriage by The Specials

I was walking down the street one night

When I saw here silhouette in her bathroom light

Her way of life may be nothing to hide

With her frosted class shattered, curtains open wide

Naked women, naked man

Where did you get that nice sun tan?

You live in a castle built of sand –

Naked woman, naked man

© Stuart Cross 2016. All rights reserved.

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6 Steps To Brilliant Strategy Execution

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High-level strategy is as useful to most workers in an organization as a high-flying airliner is to people in a bus queue. The bus passengers may briefly look up and notice the plane and its vapor trail, but, even if it is traveling in the same direction, it cannot possibly help them reach their destination. Similarly, unless you can bring your strategy down-to-earth it will have no discernible effect on your organization’s performance, or, worse, it will create confusion, paralysis and decline.

It is often said that a strategy doesn’t fail in its formulation but in its implementation. I don’t agree. I believe that in many cases strategy simply falls through the gap between formulation and implementation: it fails in its translation. Many leadership teams, in their excitement and enthusiasm to turn their strategy into reality, fail to take the necessary steps to ensure that the strategy is sufficiently grounded and that the organization is able and geared up to deliver it.

A $500 million consumer services business I worked with, for example, had invested heavily in developing a compelling new strategy and direction. The executive team was excited about the new opportunities that were being uncovered and had set ambitious and demanding growth targets.

The CEO and his senior executives had also spent time with front-line service managers communicating the vision and the high-level strategy for achieving it. However, over the following months the CEO became increasingly frustrated that the organisation was failing to make sufficient progress towards the new goals and targets.

As we investigated we quickly discovered that there were three barriers preventing the organisation from delivering the new strategic agenda.

  • First, individual accountabilities had not been re-set. Managers had understood the new KPIs, but their own performance objectives had not changed.
  • Second, talent had not been re-deployed. The new agenda demanded that the people across the business work differently, with a far greater focus on providing an outstanding customer experience. The roles, however, were exactly the same as the previous strategy.
  • Third, critical resources had not been re-allocated away from the old activities and projects and into the new priorities. In essence, the projects that were driving the old strategy were simply re-packaged under the new one, and none had been dropped or fundamentally re-scoped.

The result of these failures at my client was that the organisation made little progress in executing its strategy, and this is a situation that I see in many businesses. You cannot turn your 50,000 feet, high-level vision into success on the ground in one giant leap; you need to get there in a series of smaller jumps. Translating your strategic vision therefore involves a mix of decision-making, persuasion and acting as an exemplar and involves six leadership tasks:

  1. Creating genuine alignment. Tiny differences of opinion in the boardroom can become huge divisions across the organization, rapidly reducing your chances of successful implementation. I know a CEO who, in his first six months in the role, focused on involving his new team in creating a shared strategic direction. The result was not only an improvement in the quality of the strategy, but also, and more importantly, a step-change in the level of engagement with the strategy across the leadership team.
  2. Relentless communication. The strategic intent should form the basis of all communication with the organization. Communication isn’t so much about the big conventions and set-piece events, it’s about the corridor conversations and one-to-one meetings you have whether it’s in your office or on the front-line.
  3. Resource allocation. Resources should be allocated on their ability to deliver the agreed strategy, and not simply reflect historic trends and decisions. Your strategy is only as effective as your willingness and ability to invest the necessary resources – financial, people or key assets – to help deliver the results you’re after.
  4. Talent deployment and development. Your best and most able people should be leading the delivery of your key strategic priorities. Not only does this increase your chances of success, but it also sends a signal to the organization about what you consider important.
  5. Setting accountabilities. Individual performance, and the collective performance of the top team, should be directly based on implementing the strategy. At one of my clients the executive team broke down the company’s biggest priorities into specific targets and objectives, with managers and executives made accountable for each. The CEO now uses this summary of objectives and accountabilities to hold his team and other managers to account. As a result, strategy implementation is part of the company’s everyday activities, and not something that happens when the ‘day job’ has been completed.
  6. Agreeing corporate KPIs. Your KPIs should mirror the strategy, as should your associated rewards and bonuses. Focusing the management and reporting of your strategy’s delivery around KPIs, and not just project plans, also ensures that people remain focused on delivering results and not just managing tasks.

Don’t leave your strategy at 50,000 feet. The success of your business is based on your ability to bring your strategy down to earth so that your people can implement it and deliver on-the-ground success. This requires a focus on the six translation tasks and not simply the creation of an implementation plan.

© Stuart Cross 2016. All rights reserved.

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Business Rocks – The Heart Of Leadership

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This week’s focus: The business world is moving so rapidly that leaders must be ready to make rapid decisions, often on partial information, to change and even destroy successful initiatives and business models in order to be even more successful in the future, and to work with diverse teams and customers to create new, innovative solutions on the back of a series of rapid, low-cost prototypes.

But what are the critical leadership skills and characteristics that can deliver these results? In my experience, the real trait at the heart of successful leadership is a healthy level of self-esteem and self-confidence. This allows the best CEOs to demonstrate these five behaviours:

  • The desire to follow their passions and to have the ability to stand out from the crowd, even when it’s not a popular place to be;
  • An ability to be bold enough to make big decisions, but sufficiently self-aware to also seek help, support and challenge from others;
  • A willingness to experiment and an appreciation of the need to fail – both fearlessly and rapidly – in pursuit of a bigger goal;
  • The skill to engage others and enable their managers and teams to deliver and take the credit for success, rather than needing to take all the glory themselves; and
  • A knack of looking for simple, customer-driven and common-sense solutions that can be deliver rapid results, instead of relying on the latest, often overly-complex, management ideas and fads.

An absence of genuine self-esteem means that you can be overwhelmed by events, not knowing which way to turn, while excessive self-esteem that turns into hubris and smugness – the belief that you know everything and have nothing left to learn – can lead you take poor investment and resourcing decisions.

Contrary to popular views of the autocratic, arrogant boss, I’ve found that most leaders need to increase, not rein in, their level of self-esteem. That means you should be finding ways to put yourself first, to appreciate your strengths and recognise you’ll never be perfect, to acquire, develop and apply new skills continuously, and to find the personal emotional support network you need to maintain perspective and build resilience.

What steps are you taking to ensure that you develop and maintain the healthy levels of self-esteem that will enable you to maximise your leadership effectiveness?

Off The Record: Leaders Of The Free World by Elbow

But the leaders of the free world

Are just little boys throwing stones

And it’s easy to ignore

Till they’re knocking on the doors of your homes

© Stuart Cross 2016. All rights reserved.

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7 Ways To Be More Productive And Less Busy


Whenever I meet a business person, the most likely opening question I get asked is, “Are you busy?” This is unsurprising as it’s the first question executives tend to ask each other whenever they meet. The expected answer is, of course, “Yes” and this is seen as far superior to a negative response.

But why has ‘busy-ness’ become a badge of honour? Why does working 15-hours a day provide prestige and status to managers? And, critically, why isn’t the question, “Are you productive?” From a company perspective it is far better to be productive than busy, but we seem to have created a business culture where productivity is ignored and the hours spent in the office is taken as the lead indicator of commitment and professionalism.

The problem is that, in practice, the focus on hours creates organisational cultures where long, rambling meetings are tolerated, managers are given too many objectives and are also given administrative responsibilities that would be better done by others.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Here are five steps you can take to lead a fightback in your company, so that you shift the focus to results and productivity, rather than hours spent in meetings and in front of your emails.

  1. Determine your Most Important Task. I got this idea by a recent blog post by Dan Pink (see here). His view is that each day you determine your Most Important Task and then do that before you do anything else; before you open your emails, before you have that team meeting and before you make your calls. By identifying and focusing on your Most Important Task you will ensure that you achieve something useful every day!
  2. Carve the time out. If you have some important projects you need to work on you will only get them done if you actually set the time aside, probably at least two hours at a time. Most managers’ lives are ruled by their calendars, but they allow them to lie empty so that can be filled up by other people’s meetings. Instead, set aside clear blocks of time to work on your big projects and keep them sacrosanct.
  3. Ditch your to-do lists. I hate to-do lists. I see managers in meetings adding to their list which already might have 50 or more actions in there. These to-do booklets act like a weight around their energy and effectiveness. If something is important, create a task in your calendar; if it isn’t, forget it. In addition, to my Most Important Task, I identify three further priorities each day and have them in my calendar to do. If it’s not in the diary, it doesn’t get done.
  4. Reduce time in meetings. For some managers I know, over 70% of their time is spent in formal meetings. Some meetings are essential and useful, but too many are not. I know that you cannot always control the meetings you must attend, but you can reduce the time you spend by taking some of the following actions: (1) Reducing the standard time for your own meetings from one hour to 30 minutes, or maybe even 15 minutes; (2) Making your meetings ‘stand-up’ events with no seats so that people don’t get too comfortable; (3) Having a clear structure for your meetings and chairing it effectively so that you don’t get distracted; and (4) Proactively questioning the owners of meetings to which you’re invited, so that you reduce the number of meetings you need to attend.
  5. Delegate, delegate, delegate. As someone once said to me, if you don’t have a PA you are a PA!. If you want to be highly productive and effective, you must get some support for your administrative tasks and, in fact, for any jobs that you aren’t best placed to carry out. Could you share a PA with other managers, for instance, or use one of your team or even external agencies to help you reduce your administrative load.
  6. Ban cc’s on emails. How much of your time is spent reading emails and replying to them? As I walk around offices it seems to be the only thing people are doing. For many managers most of these emails are ones where they have been copied onto a list; they are not the direct recepients of the missive. By banning cc’s you can reduce the number of emails you receive by at least 50%.
  7. Turn off your phone. The other thing about emails – and texts and phone calls – is that they can become highly distracting. As soon as you hear the ping you want to see what it is and, before you know it, you’re writing a response. Many meeting leaders ask people to switch off their phones, but I advise that you do this all the time. You can still check in two or three times a day without being a Pavlovian slave to your phone.

I’ve nothing against being busy, or working long hours, if that’s what you really want. However, I am totally against being busy for the sake of it and allowing your ‘busy-ness’ to prevent you from being productive and useful. Life is just too short to waste time in that way. Take these seven actions and you can re-take control, step-change your productivity and enjoy your life more.

© Stuart Cross 2016. All rights reserved.

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The Two Key Enablers Of Speed And Agility


In my book, First & Fast, I set out six speed drivers, as set out in the chart above. As I reflect on these drivers, however, I’ve realised that two are more important than the others. In fact, if these two are missing, the impact of the other four drivers, no matter how well they are delivered, is severely limited.

The two key enablers are:

  1. A high-speed culture; and
  2. Strategic focus

A high-speed culture provides the fuel for organisational speed and agility. Without a genuine environment that promotes, believes and demands speed, you will never be able to accelerate the pace of change in your business.

For instance, I once ran a process improvement initiative at a major UK retailer. We did some great work, identifying ways that the processes could run both faster and at lower cost. The changes were implemented, but the attitude of the leadership team had not changed, and so the decision-making processes did not improve, slowing down the entire system. A poor culture had inhibited organisational changes designed to increase speed.

Contrast that experience with what is happening at Amazon. Delivery speed is both a strategic priority and a core belief of the entire Amazon organisation. In just the last week, I have seen articles on Amazon’s purchase of its own jet – see here – and a new, faster picking system – see here. That’s on top of its development of delivery drones. These process and organisational improvements aren’t independent of the Amazon culture; they are driven by it.

The second enabler is strategic focus. This is a sub-set of my speed driver of ‘Rapid-Fire Strategy’ and is based on two critical elements: a clear strategic goal and a focused strategic agenda. If the culture injects the fuel for speed, strategic focus delivers the grip and traction.

In First & Fast, for example, Richard Baker, the former CEO of Boots the Chemists, highlighted the importance of strategic focus to his transformation of the business. As he put it, “You can’t spray and sprint!”

Baker identified five strategic priorities for Boots, which he consistently pursued over the three years of his tenure. A consistent, focused agenda enabled everyone across the business to understand what was ‘mission-critical’, what they should be working on and what was no longer important. The business had stopped chopping and changing its priorities and the pace of delivery quickly began to increase.

If you can embed these two critical enablers, you will have the foundations for faster innovation, higher-paced implementation, a slicker, more agile organisation and the ability to let your customers aid your navigation. Without these two enablers, your ability to rise to the challenge of today’s dynamic, unpredictable markets will be severely limited.

What steps do you need to take to embed a high-speed culture and clearer, strategic focus into your business, so that you can then transform your organisation’s speed and agility?

© Stuart Cross 2016. All rights reserved.

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Business Rocks – Olympian Belief

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This week’s focus: The Rio Olympic Games will be officially launched this evening. The Games are taking place at perhaps one of the lowest ebbs in the history of the Olympic movement. The continuing drug scandals affecting athletics and other sports, the reportedly poor preparation of some of the facilities, the ongoing political situation in Brazil and the threat from the Zika virus are all having an adverse effect on people’s belief in these Games.

Yet, within a few days we will all be hooked on the competition and will find ourselves screaming at the TV as we cheer on our favourite athletes. At London 2012, for instance I didn’t just cheer Mo Farah and Jessica Ennis-Hill to their gold medals, I found myself compelled to scream out support for weightlifters, canoeists, shooters and competitors from other sports I never ever watch. Despite all the doubts and fears about the Games, our respect and admiration for the athletes with the talent and determination to compete and strive to achieve their goals will win through.

I currently have a couple of clients who are going through big levels of change. As with Rio, it is easy for managers and colleagues to become fixated on the risks, fears and doubts about the actions they’re taking and their ability to win through. But, in both instances, I can already see real, tangible improvements. It’s critical that the leaders of these organisations help their people identify and celebrate these improvements – just as we will all soon be celebrating the efforts of our Olympic athletes – and keeping everyone’s focus on the future benefits of the changes.

What steps are you taking to build Olympian levels of belief in your business, keep your people’s focus on achieving your organisation’s future goals and objectives, and to help them avoid becoming fixated on today’s problems and fears?

Off the record: Rio by Mike Nesmith

I’m hearing the light from the window

I’m seeing the sight of the sea

My feet have come loose from their moorings

I’m feeling quite wonderfully free

© Stuart Cross 2016. All rights reserved.

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Business Rocks: Zombie Project Apocalypse

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This week’s focus: It’s easy to start a new project. You just set an objective, agree some timescales, sign-off the necessary resources and agree who is going to do what. Even in the most bureaucratic organisations – perhaps particularly in the most bureaucratic organisations – projects are being set up and launched all the time. In some businesses I visit, I think that there are more projects than there are people!

What’s far harder is to stop projects. Even when initiatives are clearly failing, or if they’re simply spinning their wheels, they refuse to die. Most people are happy to be a project midwife, but few put their hand up to be the project executioner. As a result, these initiatives trundle on, losing energy and focus and support. To misquote the aphorism, old projects don’t die, they just fade away.

In the meantime, however, these projects – I call them “zombie projects” – eat up valuable resource and time. Almost unseen, they clog up the organization, depriving it of energy and oxygen, and inhibiting progress on more important matters.

There are two solutions. First, you must be more ruthless in saying “No” to new project ideas, so that you can maintain your focus, time and energy on your most important priorities. And second, you must be even more ruthless in slaying the “zombie projects”, making sure that they are respectfully but firmly laid to rest.

Which of these two solutions would benefit your organization or team, and how could you better prevent and defeat your own zombie project apocalypse?

Off the record: Zombie by The Cranberries

What’s in your head?

In your head?




© Stuart Cross 2016. All rights reserved.

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