- Be familiar with your company’s procedures and criteria for approving and managing capital expenditures. Your management will require a compelling return-on-investment (ROI) study (net present value, payback, breakeven, or internal rate of return estimates) vis-à-vis explicit or implicit hurdle rates.
- Establish clear links between your budget and corporate strategy. If your management can see the real benefits to the business, they’ll find the costs easier to absorb. Amazon’s customer-oriented culture requires every proposal for a new feature, product, or service to be pitched by means of a “Mock Press Release” arguing how a hypothetical Amazon customer would first learn about the feature and its utility.
- Don’t just roll your budget over from the previous year adding a certain percentage “and then some.” Many companies have adapted a cost-management tool called “Zero-Base Budgeting” that requires you to justify each line item in your budget as if it were an entirely new claim for an entirely new project.
- State your assumptions explicitly. Prepare worst-case and best-case scenarios to augment realistic forecasting of the future and help prudent decision-making. Keep your budgets ambitious but realistic.
- Allow room for contingencies. Avoid rigidities that could inhibit the quick and effective response to an unexpected event. Bring your contingency planning into the open for a careful review.
- Add some fat, but not too much. Keep this in your back pocket, but be ready to make some cuts by knowing what their impact can be. Be clear and confident when questioned about any of the numbers in your budget.
- Explain how true you were to the previous year’s budget. Make a distinction between controllable and uncontrollable budget variances. This will build your management’s confidence in your pitch for the year ahead.
- Put your budget proposal to test with your team and supportive peers. Encourage them to ask all the difficult questions they can imagine. They may not only know where the skeletons are hidden and help you with the answers you’ll need, but also become indispensable allies in getting your budget approved.
- To persuade each member of management, know what matters to him/her and link your budget to his/her objectives. Discuss your budget with the key decision-makers separately before a group discussion. (Management consulting firm McKinsey calls this technique “pre-wiring.”) By getting each participant’s buy-in, you can count on his/her support and avoid surprise reactions and disagreements.
If you’re terrified by the prospect of going over your boss’s head to pursue an idea after she’s rejected it, consider the following steps.
First, have an in-depth conversation with your boss to make sure that you’re not misreading the circumstances of getting rejected. Your boss may well have a good reason for her decision.
Ask your boss what’s lacking in your proposals.
- Is your idea solid enough, but lacking the right support products or services to go with it? Is it feasible to implement? Will it divert valuable attention away from other initiatives?
- Does your idea actually enhance the customer’s experience? Have you explained how your idea translates to the bottom line?
- Do you lack credibility? Have you previously blown an assignment? Do you need to rebuild leadership’s trust in you before pitching your idea again?
- Have you prototyped your idea? Have you tested your idea on others? Do you have data confirming your idea’s feasibility? Are you disclosing all underlying issues and potential challenges that will have to be attended?
Address the above concerns, rework your idea, strengthen your proposal, and pitch it to your boss again. Consider meeting with your peers and your managers’ peers to build some grassroots support (management consulting firm McKinsey calls this “pre-wiring”) for your idea.
If your boss rejects your idea again, handle your boss’s negative response by reiterating that you respect her judgment, but would like a go-ahead to take the idea further. Your boss may surprise you with a green light.
Think twice before stepping outside the chain of command and talking to your boss’s boss about something on your mind.
A manager who has the tendency to put his oar in his employees’ ideas ends up killing their ownership of ideas. This diminishes their motivation and performance.
When employees feel disrespected or unappreciated, survival instincts will kick in—employees turn inward and stop participating fully in their teams. It will only erode their commitment and led to poor results.
People Tend to Reject Ideas Offered by Others in Favor of Their Own
If you’re inclined to get wrapped up in adding your two cents and improving the quality of an idea a little, you may devalue an employee’s commitment to execute the idea:
Imagine an energetic, enthusiastic employee comes into your office with an idea. She excitedly shares the idea with you. You think it’s a great idea. Instead of saying, “Great idea!” you say, “That’s a nice idea. Why don’t you add this to it?” What does this do? It deflates her enthusiasm; it dampers her commitment. While the quality of the idea may go up 5 percent, her commitment to execute it may go down 50 percent. That’s because it’s no longer her idea, it’s now your idea.
Effective Coaching is Helping Others Discover Insights
Focus on helping others discover insights—not by solving the problem for them, but by helping them improve how they’re thinking about the problem.
- If you have an idea that the other must hear, don’t tell them immediately. Use Socratic questioning to tease the idea out of them.
- Examine how you hand out ideas. Resist the temptation to add your advice. Before you propose an idea, pause and ask yourself, “Is it worth it?”
- Avoid declarative statements such as “you should …” or “I think … .”
- The higher up you go in an organization, the more your suggestions become interpreted as orders.
- Don’t marginalize the concerns of your team members in the interest of moving your ideas forward. Ignoring employees’ inputs can send a message to the entire team that you’re not actually looking for their creative ideas, but that you’ve got your own agenda and just want them to rubberstamp it.
- Get your team involved early. People are more motivated to do the things they have to do if they are part of the planning and strategy.
Idea for Impact: Improve your team performance by encouraging better thinking, not by handing out advice.
Don’t give unsolicited advice. Don’t make team decisions to which you—but nobody else—is committed. Learn to persuade others to see things your way by tapping into their talents, passions, and abilities.
Remember, being an effective manager is not about winning yourself; it’s about making other people winners.
In Venice: The Hinge of Europe, 1081–1797 (1974,) the eminent University of Chicago historian William McNeill outlined how the Venetian Republic shaped European history. Describing the notion of trans-cultural diffusion, he wrote,
When a group of men encounter a commodity, technique, or idea that seems superior to what they had previously known, they will try to acquire and make their own whatever they perceive to be superior, but only as long as this does not seem to endanger other values they hold dear.
University of Washington’s Roger Soder quotes McNeill’s remarks in The Language of Leadership (2001) and supplies a case in point:
This is best illustrated by the technique of Jesuits who brought “new math” [including astronomy and mechanics] to China in the 1600s. They created the myth that the new Western mathematics had in fact evolved out of ancient Chinese ideas. The new ideas, they felt, would be accepted much more readily if they were seen as a natural progression of previously accepted methods.
That’s an important lesson on how to sell change: as a natural progression of the status quo.
Idea for Impact: People find themselves unable or unwilling to make fundamental changes in their lives. They tend to be particularly unwelcoming of ideas that they fear will alienate them from their core values. Tread delicately if you want effective change.
Herb Kelleher (1931–2019), the larger-than-life cofounder and long-time CEO-chairman of Southwest Airlines, passed away earlier this year. He is celebrated for establishing a people-oriented company culture that any leader would envy.
What started as a doodle scratched on a cocktail napkin (this account has been disputed) changed the face of flying. Herb’s then-revolutionary vision of low-cost air travel boiled the business down to its essentials. The disciplined execution of this strategy broke the mold of the aviation industry, brought the freedom of travel to millions of people, and encouraged successful copycats the world over—from JetBlue to Ryanair, and IndiGo to Air Asia.
Here are some key lessons that Herb (he preferred to be called just that) had to teach.
Companies are built in the image of their founders. Herb was well known for his competitive chutzpah, his extroverted antics, and his knack for unforgettable publicity ploys (e.g. his paper bag commercial or the ‘Malice in Dallas’ arm wrestling contest.) To the flying public, Southwest became a brand infused with the unconventional, flamboyant, free-spirited personality of its boss. That culture will continue to reflect his vision even after he’s gone—the tone he set at Southwest is not unlike those set by Steve Jobs (foresight) at Apple, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield (social values) at Ben & Jerry’s, and Walt Disney (teamwork.)
Ego is the enemy of good leadership. Southwest stands as the paradigm of the power of a lighthearted culture. Herb’s stewardship of the well-being of employees started with the ego at the top. At a 1997 testimony before the National Civil Aviation Review Commission, Herb introduced himself saying, “My name is Herb Kelleher. I co-founded Southwest Airlines in 1967. Because I am unable to perform competently any meaningful function at Southwest, our 25,000 Employees let me be CEO. That is one among many reasons why I love the People of Southwest Airlines.” An ego-bound leader with no sense of humor can cast a shadow across everyone’s work, whereas a self-effacing leader who engages a genuine, self-deprecating humor can help create an environment in which employees take risks, work as a team, and enjoy themselves more. “Power should be reserved for weightlifting and boats, and leadership really involves responsibility.”
Focus on your people, they’ll take good care of your customers. Southwest’s successes are widely attributed to its highly committed and motivated workforce. From the very beginning, Herb fixated on looking after his employees, so they looked after each other and took care of their customers. And, the devoted customers ensured the growth of the business. He famously declared,
The business of business is people—yesterday, today and forever. And as among employees, shareholders and customers, we decided that our internal customers, our employees, came first. The synergy in our opinion is simple: Honor, respect, care for, protect and reward your employees—regardless of title or position—and in turn they will treat each other and external customers in a warm, in a caring and in a hospitable way. This causes external customers to return, thus bringing joy to shareholders.
Hire committed people who’ll fit your company’s culture. Under Herb, Southwest pursued job candidates who exemplified three characteristics: “a ‘warrior spirit’ (that is, a desire to excel, act with courage, persevere and innovate); a ‘servant’s heart’ (the ability to put others first, treat everyone with respect and proactively serve customers); and a fun-loving attitude (passion, joy and an aversion to taking oneself too seriously.)”
Hire for attitude, train for skill. For Herb, recruiting was not about finding people with the right experience—it was about finding people with the right mindsets. “We will hire someone with less experience, less education and less expertise, than someone who has more of those things and has a rotten attitude. Because we can train people. We can teach people how to lead. We can teach people how to provide customer service. But we can’t change their DNA.”
Get your employees committed. “We have been successful because we’ve had a simple strategy. Our people have bought into it. Our people fully understand it. We have had to have extreme discipline in not departing from the strategy.” Herb’s magic extended to making employees think like long-term business owners. He once reflected,
We don’t just give people stock options. We have an educational team that goes around and explains to them what stock options are, how they work, the fact that it’s a longer-term investment. From 1990 to 1994, the airline industry as a whole lost $13 billion. Southwest Airlines was profitable during that entire time, but our stock was battered. Eighty-four percent of our employees continued with Southwest Airlines stock during that four-year period. That’s the kind of confidence and faith that you have to engender, so people have a longer-term view, and they’re not trying to outplay the market every day.
Southwest has never been in bankruptcy, nor has it had to layoff or furlong employees—an extraordinary achievement in the turbulent airline industry.
Stay focused on the core mission. During Herb’s era, Southwest never wavered from its core operating strategies. “We basically said to our people, there are three things that we’re interested in. The lowest costs in the industry, the best customer service, a spiritual infusion—because they are the hardest things for your competitors to replicate.” Herb’s low-cost recipe, however, did not expand to pinching on his employees’ earnings during tough times.
Herb’s Idea for Impact: “The business of business is not business. The business of business is people.”
Herb left a colossal impression not only on the airline industry and on those who worked with him, but also on people-management as a practice.
Volumes have been written about Herb’s exemplar of how organizations can be responsibly people-centered. Read Kevin and Jackie Freiberg’s Nuts: Southwest Airlines’ Crazy Recipe for Business and Personal Success—it provides an insight into the unique culture and legacy that Herb shaped at Southwest.
Akio Morita, the visionary co-founder of Sony, liked to tell a story about recognizing opportunities and shaping them into business concepts.
Two shoe salesmen … find themselves in a rustic backward part of Africa. The first salesman wires back to his head office: “There is no prospect of sales. Natives do not wear shoes!” The other salesman wires: “No one wears shoes here. We can dominate the market. Send all possible stock.”
Morita, along with his co-founder Masaru Ibuka, was a genius at creating consumer products for which no obvious demand existed, and then generating demand for them. Sony’s hits included such iconic products as a hand-held transistor radio, the Walkman portable audio cassette player, the Diskman portable compact disk player, and the Betamax videocassette recorder.
Products Lost in Translation
As the following case studies will illustrate, many companies haven’t had Sony’s luck in launching products that can stir up demand.
In each case in point, deeply ingrained cultural attitudes affected how consumers failed to embrace products introduced into their respective markets.
Case Study #1: Nestlé’s Paloma Iced Tea in India
When Swiss packaged food-multinational Nestlé introduced Paloma iced tea in India in the ’80s, Nestlé’s market assessment was that the Indian beverage market was ready for an iced tea variety.
Sure thing, folks in India love tea. They consume it multiple times a day. However, they must have it hot—even in the heat of the summer. Street-side tea vendors are a familiar sight in India. Huddled around the chaiwalas are patrons sipping hot tea and relishing a savory samosa or a saccharine jalebi.
It’s no wonder, then, that, despite all the marketing efforts, Paloma turned out to be a debacle. Nestlé withdrew the product within a year.
Case Study #2: Kellogg’s Cornflakes in India
The American packaged foods multinational Kellogg’s failed in its initial introduction of cornflakes into the Indian market in the mid ’90s. Kellogg’s quickly realized that its products were alien to Indians’ consumption habits—accustomed to traditional hot, spicy, and heavy grub, the Indians felt hungry after eating a bowl of sweet cornflakes for breakfast. In addition, they poured hot milk over cornflakes rendering them soggy and less appetizing.
Case Study #3: Oreo Cookies in China
When Kraft Foods, launched Oreo in China in 1996, America’s best-loved sandwich cookie didn’t fare very well. Executives in Kraft’s Chicago headquarters expected to just drop the American cookie into the Chinese market and watch it fly off shelves.
Chinese consumers found that Oreos were too sweet. The ritual of twisting open Oreo cookies, licking the cream inside, and then dunking it in milk before enjoying them was considered a “strangely American habit.”
Not until Kraft’s local Chinese leaders developed a local concept—a wafer format in subtler flavors such as green-tea ice cream—did Oreo become popular.
Idea for Impact: Your expertise may not translate in unfamiliar and foreign markets
In marketing, if success is all about understanding the consumers, you must be grounded in the reality of their lives to be able to understand their priorities.
- Don’t assume that what makes a product successful in one market will be a winning formula in other markets as well.
- Make products resonate with local cultures by contextualizing the products and tailoring them for local preferences.
- Use small-scale testing to make sure your product can sway buyers.
Just about every interaction is about selling something, whether you realize it or not.
When you try to be persuasive in a pitch or a presentation, you may come to pass as being overconfident at best, or boastful at worst.
Here’s a method that can help you transform your boasts into benefits in support of a prospective customer.
“I have 15 years of experience in this field,” may sound boastful. Instead, say, “I bring to you 15 years of experience in this field, promising you that, should any problems surface, they will be handled promptly and proficiently.” This tolerable way to promote yourself also won’t make you seem forceful.
More to the point,
- Avoid self-superiority declarations such as “I am better than others.” Instead, couch your claims as endorsements from others: “My past clients have told me that … .” According to a study by organizational theorist Jeffrey Pfeffer, you’ll be regarded more likable and competent if you can get somebody else (even a paid agent) to sing your praises for you.
- Steer clear of humblebragging, i.e. masking a boast as a self-deprecating statement as in “I’m a perfectionist at times; it is so hard!” Humblebraggers appear less sincere than blatant braggarts do.
Intellectual inquiry is effortful, and you need a durable internal push to engage in it.
An inflexible approach impedes critical-thinking. I’ve discussed previously (here, here, here, and here) that a sophisticated critical-thinker considers alternative world-views that may cause him/her to philosophize differently.
For example, if you cling rigidly to a “raise taxes on the wealthiest people” position, you are possibly unwilling to contemplate that, among other problems, higher taxes disincentivize productivity, promote economic behaviors to dodge taxes, and contribute to class warfare. Examining all sensible inferences and considering a variety of possible viewpoints or perspectives may help you to arrive at more moderate, practical positions that are conceivably within acceptable limits.
Charlie Munger’s Iron Prescription: Avoid Intense Ideology
One of the central wisdoms of Charlie Munger, Berkshire Hathaway’s Vice-Chairman and the distinguished beacon of multi-disciplinary thinking, is to keep an eye open for dangers that accompany in submitting to a particular ideology.
At his celebrated commencement address to the graduates of the University of Southern California Law School on May 13, 2007, Munger affirmed,
In my mind, I got a little example I use whenever I think about ideology and it’s these Scandinavian canoeists who succeeded in taming all the rapids of Scandinavia and they thought they would tackle the whirlpools in the Aaron Rapids here in the United States. The death rate was 100 percent. A big whirlpool is not something you want to go into and I think the same is true about a really deep ideology.
I have what I call an “iron prescription” that helps me keep sane when I naturally drift toward preferring one ideology over another. And that is I say, “I’m not entitled to have an opinion on this subject unless I can state the arguments against my position better than the people do who are supporting it.” I think only when I reach that stage am I qualified to speak.
This business of not drifting into extreme ideology is a very very important thing in life if you want to have more correct knowledge and be wiser than other people. A heavy ideology is very likely to do you in.
In the era of social media and group polarization, it’s easy to slip into confirmation bias by committing yourself to a self-imposed ideology.
As I’ve mentioned previously, studies have shown that associating with likeminded folks can make you even more disdainful of contradictory viewpoints. Nothing will ruin you faster than an ideology burrowing deeper in a closed mind.
Idea for Impact: Nothing deceives you as much as extreme passion
Stay away from intense ideologies until you’ve examined the opposing viewpoint. Don’t ignore the counterevidence. Consider the other side of any thought as carefully as your own.
Postscript: Munger’s other iron prescription concerns avoiding the victim mentality: “Whenever you think that some situation or some person is ruining your life, it is actually you who are ruining your life… Feeling like a victim is perfectly disastrous way to go through life. If you just take the attitude that however bad it is in any way, it’s always your fault and you just fix it as best you can—the so called iron prescription—I think that really works.” See my previous article on Charlie Munger and lessons on adversity.
Reciprocity, as described below, is a manipulative technique. My aim for this article is twofold: firstly, it sensitizes you to one of the many things people can do to get you to do their bidding. Secondly, reciprocity is a handy technique for those circumstances where certain ends can justify certain means.
Reciprocity is treating other people as they treat you, or for the purpose of this article, as you wish to be treated—specifically with the expectation that they will reciprocate your favor in the future.
In other words, reciprocity is a sneaky trick that permits deliberate interpersonal influence. Do something for other people and they will be willing to do something for you, partly because they’ll be uncomfortable feeling indebted to you.
The concept of reciprocity is ingrained in human nature. As part of our upbringing, we are taught to give something back to people who give us something. Reciprocity and cooperation are the underpinnings of a civilized society—they allow us to help people who need it and to hope that they will help us when we need it. Research suggests that the desire to repay goodwill is hard-wired in the human brain.
Jack Schafer’s The Like Switch: An Ex-FBI Agent’s Guide to Influencing, Attracting, and Winning People Over (2015) offers a clever technique to put reciprocity into action:
The next time someone thanks you for something, don’t say, “You’re welcome.” Instead, say, “I know you’d do the same thing for me.” This response invokes reciprocity. The other person is now predisposed to help you when you ask them for a favor.
The effects of goodwill are short-lived. A long-forgotten reputation for helpfulness gets you nothing. You have to renew your reputation by helping others regularly.
To learn more about reciprocity, read social psychologist Robert Cialdini’s Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (1984.) He identified reciprocity as one of six principles that can help get others’ compliance to your requests.
Left to themselves, much of our opinions and judgments are subjective, imprecise, incomplete, narrow-minded, or utterly unapprised.
A good critical-thinker deliberates objectively about alternative world-views that may cause him/her to philosophize differently. The English philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill made an unparalleled case for this intellectual obligation in his treatise On Liberty (1859):
If the cultivation of the understanding consists in one thing more than in another, it is surely in learning the grounds of one’s own opinions. Whatever people believe, on subjects on which it is of the first importance to believe rightly, they ought to be able to defend against at least the common objections. … on every subject on which difference of opinion is possible, the truth depends on a balance to be struck between two sets of conflicting reasons. Even in natural philosophy, there is always some other explanation possible of the same facts; some geocentric theory instead of heliocentric, some phlogiston instead of oxygen; and it has to be shown why that other theory cannot be the true one: and until this is shown, and until we know how it is shown, we do not understand the grounds of our opinion. But when we turn to subjects infinitely more complicated, to morals, religion, politics, social relations, and the business of life, three-fourths of the arguments for every disputed opinion consist in dispelling the appearances which favour some opinion different from it. The greatest orator, save one, of antiquity, has left it on record that he always studied his adversary’s case with as great, if not with still greater, intensity than even his own. What Cicero practised as the means of forensic success, requires to be imitated by all who study any subject in order to arrive at the truth. He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side; if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion. The rational position for him would be suspension of judgment, and unless he contents himself with that, he is either led by authority, or adopts, like the generality of the world, the side to which he feels most inclination.
Mill recommends anticipating the potential objections to one’s argument, coming to terms with the merits of opposing points of view, and establishing why the balance of reasons still supports one’s viewpoints:
Ninety-nine in a hundred of what are called educated men are in this condition; even of those who can argue fluently for their opinions. Their conclusion may be true, but it might be false for anything they know: they have never thrown themselves into the mental position of those who think differently from them, and considered what such persons may have to say; and consequently they do not, in any proper sense of the word, know the doctrine which they themselves profess. … So essential is this discipline to a real understanding of moral and human subjects, that if opponents of all important truths do not exist, it is indispensable to imagine them, and supply them with the strongest arguments which the most skilful devil’s advocate can conjure up.
Idea for Impact: Consider objections to your viewpoints; Remain open to alternative interpretations.
Suspend your inclinations and commitments and ask whether any of the objections have some force against your argument.
Don’t argue merely from those premises that appear compelling to you; address the premises that appear compelling to your opponent.
As Aristotle counseled, “The fool tells me his reasons; the wise man persuades me with my own.”