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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Business Rocks – Future-Back Football

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This week’s focus: For the past year I have been the Assistant Coach for the Boston United Under 10 team – or, as I call it, Head of Laces. This summer we have been working on the boys’ development programme and are in the process of setting out the skills we expect to see from each age group. By explicitly defining these skills we are already starting to identify new ways fundamentally improve the content of our twice-weekly coaching sessions.

Most of the planning I see – both personal and organizational – is ‘today-forward’ in the sense that it sets out to improve the current situation. It is rarer to come across ‘future-back’ planning, where the plan is focused on achieving a specific, clearly-defined future level of performance.

The benefit of future-back planning is that, as with the Boston United development programme, it significantly raises the bar on performance and leads you to take actions that you would not have considered in a more incremental, today-forward approach.

For instance, why not think about one of the big issues that you’re currently working on – the skills and capabilities of sales teams, an organisation’s ability to launch new products and the productivity of a warehouse team are all issues I’ve discussed with clients this week – and, instead of asking how it could be better than today, ask yourself what level of performance you want to see in two years’ time, in 12 months’ time and even in 3 months’ time.

As you go through this exercise, what new ideas and possibilities emerge and what new actions do you realise you need to take that you hadn’t previously considered?

Off the record: Better Things by The Kinks

I know you’ve got a lot of good things happening up ahead

The past is gone, it’s all been said

So here’s to what the future brings

I know tomorrow you’ll find better things

© Stuart Cross 2016. All rights reserved.

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The Fear Of Failure Paradox – And How To Overcome It!

Text concept on blackboard with businessman

A retail CEO once invited me to the opening of a new concept store. The company had made a big investment in the new concept and so there were high hopes that this trial would succeed. The store looked great, and the initial customer reaction was extremely positive. I turned to one of the project managers and asked him if he’d been closely involved with the development. “Well,” he replied laconically, “It’s too early to say.

Behind his witticism was an understanding that his business demanded immediate success and had an unwillingness to accept any sort of failure, even when testing new concepts. Failure was not a learning opportunity; it was simply an opportunity to seek a new career. Unsurprisingly, this business did not have a strong track record of either innovation or pace. Managers did not want to stick their head above the parapet and take a risk on a new product or initiative, as the chances were they would be shot at.

There is a paradox here. The desire to avoid risk and potential failure can create the very conditions that make failure more likely. There is no growth without risk, and yet many successful companies seem to forget the behaviors and attitudes that created and drove their success. Researching my new book, First & Fast, I came across numerous examples of major corporations including Nokia and Boots that had seen growth plateau and decline as a result of a bureaucratic, risk-averse culture gaining hold in these organisations. And, through my own experience, I have seen first-hand how the fear of failure can inhibit the growth and success of many smaller and mid-sized businesses.

But it is possible to reverse this cultural shift and develop an entrepreneurial approach in businesses. Here are 12 ways you can overcome the fear of failure paradox and accelerate growth:

  1. Clarify your expectations. What is your #1 goal? If you’re not clear on what you want your organization to achieve you’ll never settle on a strategy or the best route to success. Ask yourself – and your teams – what you want the business to achieve in the next few years.
  2. Strategic focus. As Richard Baker, the former CEO of Boots the Chemists told me, “You can’t spray and sprint!” You can only grow at pace if you are clear on your handful of priorities and have agreed these priorities across your leadership team.
  3. Have everyone focused on the same goal. Once your people understand the goal they will move mountains to help you get there. As Matt Williams, the CEO of Topps Tiles put it after he had led the delivery of the company’s goal of achieving 33% market share, “A specific and clear goal galvanized the entire organization and has been a key part of our success.
  4. Take every opportunity to communicate. Talk about the goal, the successes and the failures, and show people that it’s OK to fail if the failure was in pursuit of the company’s goals. Communication of your aims and aspirations isn’t just what you do at your annual conference; it must be built in to your conversations and discussions every day of the week.
  5. Develop or remove risk-averse managers. Your managers are a reflection of you and if you allow poor managers with little appetite to take prudent risks to remain in situ your people will think you don’t really mean it. Your first option is to coach and develop your managers, and improve their confidence and capability to lead their teams, but if they are unable to change you have no choice but to find managers who will lead in the right way.
  6. Become great at protyping. The best high-growth businesses are expert at building, testing and refining rapid, low-cost prototypes before launching the final solution. Overcoming your fear of failure does not mean betting the company on high-risk ideas; it means focusing on action that enables you to sensibly and rapidly develop winning new ideas.
  7. Err on the side of cannibilisation. Most new ideas will threaten parts of your existing business to some extent. While companies with a fear of failure will focus on protecting existing business rather than developing new businesses, higher growth corporations embrace the need to cannibalise sales. Gillette, for instance, has driven the growth of the brand through strategy of cannibalization, where Sensor, Mach3 and Fusion brands have all purposefully destroyed the brand that preceded them.
  8. Reward behaviours, not just results. Not all new efforts will achieve their goals, and it is essential that these ‘failures’ are not unjustly punished. So, at your annual awards ceremony, why not have an award for “the most glorious failure”, “the very-nearly-but-not-quite-a-success” and “the most entrepreneurial manager”?
  9. Celebrate victories together. A couple of weeks ago I advised a CEO client to celebrate the victory of new sales with her organization. She reported back to me about the impact of that message and how everyone was energized by the latest results. Success breeds confidence and that gives people the motivation to take the next step out of their comfort zone and achieve even more.
  10. Increase your review cadence. Most executive teams review sales weekly, but review their key growth initiatives on a monthly basis, at most. Driving out the fear of failure and building traction with these initiatives means that they should become just as important and ingrained in your organisation as your weekly sales. Amazon’s leadership team, for instance, meet every Tuesday to review their big new growth initiatives.
  11. Run regular growth summits. Similarly, you can’t expect to drive growth if you only think about new initiatives once a year. A quarterly session, at least, is essential to generating the quantity of ideas and the energy to drive a compelling growth pipeline.
  12. Involve your customers. The closer you get to your customers, the more willing you will become to change. DFS, the UK’s leading sofa retailer, has driven changes to its marketing, service policy, product ranges and acquisition strategy on the back of its customer satisfaction reviews and greater engagement between the top team and the views of the retailers’ customers.

These 12 steps can shake your organization out of its fear of failure and accelerate future growth. Which of these steps could help you escape your own fear of failure paradox?

© Stuart Cross 2016. All rights reserved.

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Business Rocks – Broad Churches

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This week’s focus: A couple of days ago I heard a politician on the radio telling the interview that her party was a “broad church”. The facts would suggest otherwise. Political parties are pulling apart here in the UK, characterized by in-fighting between rival factions, and are being threatened by up-start, more narrowly focused rivals. Using social media and targeting specific social groups, these challenger parties, including UKIP, SNP and The Green Party, have rapidly built up a meaningful base of support. It’s the same in many European countries, including Italy, France and Germany, and even the two big parties of the USA are under tremendous strain to remain intact.

There are similar trends in business. In many markets, large, previously successful businesses are struggling to grow in the face of competition from smaller, niche rivals. Last week, for instance, The Economist reported that consumer product companies such as Nestle, Unilever and P&G are all struggling to hit their growth targets in the face of these trends. In retail, meanwhile, giant ‘broad churches’ such as M&S and Tesco have seen recent and ongoing declines in sales and customer loyalty.

There are three broad options for the leaders of these ‘broad churches’. First, is to gain even greater scale by acquiring rivals and smaller brands, and cut costs to improve margins. This is what the private-equity firm 3G has done with Heinz, Kraft. Second, is to break up the company into smaller, more focused businesses, as P&G has done and as Tesco is currently doing. Third, is to strengthen and build your areas of competitive advantage, which is what M&S is seeking to do in Food and Fashion.

There are no easy answers, but at some point the answer must be to become more meaningful to your target customers. You can’t simply cut your way to long-term growth. In the meantime, if you run a smaller business, you should remember that the big boys are nervous and while their ‘churches’ may look big, they are more fragile than you might imagine and the walls could easily come tumbling down!

Off the record: Take Me To Church by Hozier

Take me to church

I’ll worship like a dog at the shrine of your lies

I’ll tell you my sins and you can sharpen your knife

Offer me that deathless death

Good God, let me give you my life

© Stuart Cross 2014. All rights reserved.

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The 5 Disciplines Of Highly Successful Companies

Business Graphs and Charts

I have been running my consulting business for nearly 10 years and over that time I’ve had the privilege of working with some of the UK’s leading businesses, including Boots the Chemists, Dunelm, Nectar, DFS and GSK, as well as many excellent mid-sized companies.

All success is both hard-earned and a combination of many factors, but I have identified five disciplines that make the difference between those companies that thrive and those that struggle to survive.

  1. A clear #1 goal. Ian Filby, the CEO of DFS plc once told me, “A strategy has to meet a clear goal. Without agreement about the goal, you can never settle on your strategy.” In my experience, settling on a #1 goal acts as catalyst for energy, action and commitment across the organisation.  My first assignment with Topps Tiles plc, for example, was to help establish a #1 goal for the business, which the leadership team – after much discussion! – set at growing market share from 25% to 33%. The goal acted as a ‘magnetic north’ for all subsequent strategic decisions and Topps achieved this goal one year ahead of schedule at the end of last year.
  2. A distinctive strategic position. As a business you have to stand out, you must have clear competitive advantages. Topps strategy, for instance, can be summed up in their mantra of ‘out-specialising the specialists’, with a focus on superior range authority, inspirational service and locational convenience. This strategic position has helped accelerate their growth. Dunelm, on the other hand, has focused on offering its customers huge choice on homewares products at low prices. As both these businesses support their proposition with an integrated business model, their market position has become extremely hard to copy by their competitors.
  3. Simplicity and speed. All of the most successful companies I know are driven by a focus on rapid action, underpinned by a mind-set that encourages brevity and simplicity. This means the leadership team pursues a focused agenda, creates clear and distinct senior responsibilities, sets demanding timescales to their teams and follow-up relentlessly. As Richard Baker, the former CEO of Boots the Chemists, once told me, “You can’t spray and sprint!
  4. Organisational engagement. The leaders of the most successful businesses I have worked with spend a disproportionate amount of time engaging their teams and colleagues in the priorities and goals of the business. They ensure that their people understand what is required of them. They don’t do this simply through newsletters and annual conferences; they do it in their everyday conversations and the stories they tell, and link every decision they make to their company’s bigger strategic aims. Richard Baker was brilliant at repeating the same strategic priorities during his time at Boots and never knowingly missed an opportunity to articulate the company’s priorities and why they were important.
  5. Implementation discipline. The final discipline is about ensuring new ideas and initiatives are delivered brilliantly, and generate the results required. It’s not about dryly reviewing project plan timelines, but, as one of my clients put it, “working it till it works!” That means having frequent reviews – at least monthly, but potentially weekly –, a focus on action and having the sheer doggedness to ensure that your big, strategic priorities are achieved.

As ever, past achievements are no predictor of future success, particularly given the UK’s economic uncertainty following the referendum result. But by following these five disciplines you will step-change your chances of achieving your goals.

Which of these five disciplines does your business follow, and which should you now focus on to deliver your future success?

© Stuart Cross 2016. All rights reserved.

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Business Rocks – The Problems With Quick Wins

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This week’s focus: One of the biggest drains on many organisations’ time and energy are ‘quick win’ projects. These projects often emerge at the end of strategic ‘away days’ when a slew of ideas are reviewed on two dimensions: (1) their overall impact on value; and (2) the ease of implementation.

Unfortunately, few ideas are ever easy and big, and so you end up choosing between big, hard projects or small, easy projects. More often than not, the latter win out. The barriers to the bigger prizes just seem too massive, especially at the end of a long and tiring workshop.

But the pursuit of ‘quick wins’ is mistaken for three fundamental reasons: (1) their impact on performance barely ever registers; (2) they consume far more effort than originally envisaged and, (3)  most critically, they prevent you from getting on with much more important and valuable projects.

Where are you wasting time pursuing needless ‘quick win’ projects, when you should be focusing your efforts on initiatives that could make a real difference?

Off the record: Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right by Bob Dylan

I ain’t saying you treated me unkind

You could have done better, but I don’t mind

You just kinda wasted my precious time

But don’t think twice, it’s all right

© Stuart Cross 2016. All rights reserved.

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