Wednesday, June 6

Managing Conversation: Tips For Business Owners

“Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.” — Gen. George S. Patton (War As I Knew It, 1947)

When most business owners first encounter the quote, many assume it's about innovation. But the quote from Gen. George S. Patton is only part of his overall ideology. Much of it is about communication — when to talk, how much to talk, and what to talk about.

Patton didn't have much of a choice in this assessment. Unlike many first-time business owners, he wasn't disillusioned in the belief that his business — war — was ever going to be easy. It's exactly the opposite. It's exceptionally hard work with sacrifices and consequences that are hard to live with, weighed against the greater victories that can be achieved.

Business isn't much different, except the consequences aren't usually the loss of lives as much as livelihoods — time, money, and sense of security. Generally, those are the three things you put on the line. But this distinction aside, his ideology has always been fitting for any business.

• When To Talk. The best executives don't invest too much time talking about things. They would rather be doing because doing helps action steamroll ahead toward the objective. Ergo, for as much as some people want to figure out the return on investment of tools like social media, they ought to pause long enough to factor in the return on investment for every meeting or conference call.

No one is suggesting that meetings are worthless when they have a purpose (even if that purpose is to boost morale), but put the cost of meetings into perspective — the hourly value of everyone in the room plus lost revenue by taking those people off the line. If there isn't a purpose, no matter how successful the meeting might feel, then it carries a negative return.

Patton didn't have much patience for purposeless meetings because he understood that many of them were little more than people jockeying for position. He had a quote for that too. "We herd sheep, we drive cattle, we lead people. Lead me, follow me, or get out of my way," he said.

• How Much To Talk. The crux of the initial quote is about ingenuity, innovation, and ideas. Not always, but often, the best ideas come from some semblance of collaborative strength, maximizing the talents of many individuals with different perspectives. In other words, one person sets down the parameters and then other people get to work on it.

In the field of communication and product development for example, creative people are generally given a loose vision of what they are to create (and any mandatories). When they return with a solution, someone reconciles the vision agains their reality. Sometimes it won't reconcile. Other times, people produce something better.

For Patton, his approach was a necessity. He did not have time to map out where every individual might be at any given moment. He didn't expect perfection. "A good solution applied with vigor now is better than a perfect solution applied ten minutes later," he said.

• What To Talk About. When conversations happen, make sure part of their measure of success is to make them progress driven with solutions in sight. Too many businesses invest too much effort in negative speak, focusing in on everything that might be wrong.

Sure, it's always useful to point out errors or realign expectations, but there is an old saying that I once picked up from a fellow political campaign strategist — you will never get anywhere with a negative message that ends on a negative. What the strategist meant by that is no candidate can win by talking about the bad unless they can end with a solution that gives people hope.

The same holds true inside companies. If you always tell the team that they can't do anything right, then there is a very good chance that you will always be right. You might think you win on that point, but there is nothing to gain in proving it. Consider what Patton thought about that too. “I don't measure a man's success by how high he climbs but how high he bounces when he hits bottom,” he said.

And if they don't bounce? Let them go. 

I've never met a successful business owner who ever kept someone around just to berate them. If they do, then they aren't generally successful. They're something else. And all too often, unlike Gen. George Patton, they are the instrument of their own failures, with most of those thinking themselves victims.
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