A fish goes rotten . . .

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The curse of the management consultant’s life is the challenge we have to overcome when dealing with a certain type of business owner. I’m about to bite the hand that feeds me. Most of our clients are dedicated professionals who are prepared to work hard and be flexible in their thinking in order to succeed — but some are not and this small minority give us 80% of our grief. I have the grey hair to prove it.

I’ve joked with my staff that some peoples’ motivation for going into business is the simple fact that they are unemployable, either because of extreme personality or lack of self-discipline. These people often gravitate into their own business, where the realities of management lead to a substantial attrition rate . . .

. . . but a hardy few of them survive — and a percentage of these — more by good luck than good management, grow to be a substantial size. Then we get a phone call with a request to come out and have a chat. These chats can be quite interesting, as they seldom reveal the true issues that are of concern. This is understandable in one respect — in that I appreciate peoples’ reluctance to air their dirty linen — but looking at it from another perspective it’s like going to the doctor when you’re sick, and when the doctor inquires as to your reason for being there you respond that you’re fine.

I often get the explanation that: ‘The business could do with a bit of tightening-up’, or words to that effect. I’ve come to understand that this really means ‘I’m stressed, I’m going broke, it’s descending into chaos, and I don’t know what to do.’ I wish they’d just come out with it because then we can proceed to assess the situation and take action if the situation is resolvable.

Sometimes they’ve been given the bad news by their accountant, who announces after the end of financial year that things are: ‘ . . . not good, you are losing money; and by the way — here’s my bill for $6000’.  This could ruin your whole week.

So we get the call, and in we go. Invariably the owner is the root of the problem; after all, the situation is of their own creation. We’ve learned that we have to work from the top down to achieve a long term turnaround and this can get really tricky. The owner of the business sets the culture of the organisation and the staff below them tend to follow the example set from above.

If the owner is disorganised, tardy, unreliable or indirect in their communication then that behaviour will usually be emulated all the way down the pyramid. Most business owners have no idea how influential their behaviour is on their employees. We usually start at the top, by imposing communication and time management disciplines on the most senior person, then working our way down the pyramid, installing management systems as we go.

We’ve had 25 years to work out how to do this, and most of the time our system works brilliantly, but there is one kind of business owner who screws us up every time. Let me describe their behaviour . . .

They start out really enthusiastic and come to our training courses with what seems to be a really positive attitude. We often get glowing course evaluations out of them and we’re often told how beneficial they found them. Then we follow them up at work and find they are making absolutely no attempt whatsoever to put into practice anything they’ve learned. It’s like some people regard training in the same way they regard the cinema — as entertainment for a period of time.

This is similar to the seminar junkie, who goes to all the self-development courses and buys all the books in the belief that by some mysterious process of psychic osmosis it’s all going to make them a better person.

When challenged they tell us that they want us to train all their staff but they don’t feel it’s appropriate for them. In other words, ‘Do as I say, not as I do’. Their staff then come through our training and return to work, and the first thing they do is look up. What do they see? A person who in their eyes is successful, but who is doing none of the things they’ve just been trained to do. Now if you were that staff member what would you do? Follow the trainer, or the person who pays your salary?

We then find ourselves taking two steps forward and two steps back. Never a truer word was spoken than the person who said: ‘A fish goes rotten from the head down’.

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