Texas A&M Aggies Teach a Florida Gator a Lesson in Culture

9 09 2012

Business leaders often struggle to define corporate culture.  The right culture is elusive and fragile, and if it’s not a carefully protected part of what you’re about every day you can lose it.  This weekend I got a lesson in organizational culture I’ll never forget.  I went to my first football game at Texas A&M University.

These guys get it.

This weekend the Aggies played their first game as newest members of the mighty Southeastern Conference.  The University of Florida Gators had come to town, and although their last season had been a disappointment, Florida was only a few seasons removed from its dominant run of two national championships in three years.  The Gators represented SEC royalty, and they had been picked to travel to Aggieland so A&M’s inaugural conference game could be played at home.  This was to be an epic game, the dawn of a new era at A&M on college football’s biggest stage.

The game had been sold out almost since the more-than 83,000 tickets were printed.    Saturday broke crisp and electric, the weather gorgeous and the energy palpable.  The city was awash in maroon and RVs had been parked for days.  History was being made, and everyone within 5 miles of historic Kyle Field felt it.

Into this other world walked about 5,000 Gator fans. My son and I were among them.  We wore our Gator jerseys and our orange and blue hats.  We steeled ourselves for the harsh and sometimes insulting epithets to which we had become accustomed in less hospitable environs, places where foreigners are often considered fair game and common expectations of decency often suspended on game-day afternoons.  As we emerged from our car and into the maroon milieu we thought we had prepared ourselves for anything.  We were wrong.  We weren’t prepared for the one thing we found.

Genuine friendliness and hospitality.  It was pervasive and natural.

It was a culture.

People smiled at us and welcomed us to the campus.  They thanked us for “letting them into our conference”.  They wished us luck before the game, and after a Gator win they congratulated us with sincerity.   Members of the famed Aggie Corps of Cadets posed for photos with enemy Gator combatants.  People offered directions when we appeared lost, waited so we could go before them at every queue, and let us know that they were glad we had come to the game.

It was a remarkable experience, and as the day wore on I realized that I was witnessing perhaps the most pervasive positive culture I had ever seen.  Sure, to a person they were passionate about the Aggies.  But at their core, they were just as passionate about being polite hosts and friendly neighbors.  They were welcoming us to their home, and it was important to them that we had a great experience.

Understand, I’m not talking just about elderly and statesmanlike alumni.  I’m talking about students, and parking lot attendants and concessionaires and ushers and every single person who’d paid god-knows how much for the chance to see their beloved Aggies win their first game in America’s premier football conference.

That kind of culture doesn’t just happen.  It’s built, and it’s nourished.  It’s taught and it’s passed on.  Ultimately it becomes part of the fabric that makes up what and who you are.  And the Aggies have it.  In spades.

My hat’s off to Texas A&M University and the Aggie nation.  On a beautiful Saturday afternoon you showed me what culture is all about.  Well done.

Business is tough.  Hang in.  If we can help you, just let us know.

Jeff Whittle is Managing Director of Cogris Consulting, and the President of The Alternative Board – Metro Dallas.  We kick around business issues regularly on this blog, and on his Twitter account.  You can follow him @jeffwhittletx, and be sure to check out our Facebook page.


6 09 2012

I observed a role-playing sales exercise at a recent national business conference.  One person was assigned to be the buyer, one person was the salesperson.  After exchanging pleasantries the buyer asked “so, how much do these widgets cost?”

“The list price is $1,000,” the seller replied quickly “but if you’ll buy today I can discount that to $600.”

Wow, that didn’t take long.  And that’s exactly the way it unfolded.  We had gotten two sentences into the meat of the discussion and 40% of the potential transaction value had been taken right from the seller’s  bottom line and dropped right into the buyer’s pocket.  Why?

Because the salesperson rushed to get a deal done before he figured out WHY a deal needed to be done.

This exercise was devised by my friends at ZThree in Austin, and they set it up to make a great point.   Prior to exercise they had briefed the “buyer” that he was to assume that no matter what, he had to buy those widgets.  The price didn’t matter.  So far as the exercise was concerned, the only way he could fail was to come away without a deal, no matter what the cost.  Failure would cost him his job.

The salesperson, on the other hand, had been briefed that widgets sold for $1,000 each, but his sales manager had given him discretion to discount the product up to 50% — or in our example, down to as little as $500.  He would make the same commission for any sales price over $500, and no commission for any price under $500.

See how the dynamics worked?  As soon as the buyer mentioned price the salesperson immediately tried to leverage the perceived value of discounting.  He left himself a little room in case he needed it, but his first reaction was to slash price to get a deal done.

Of course the salesperson didn’t need leverage.  He only needed widgets.  He had plenty of those, and rushed to sell them far below list price without ever knowing whether price for the buyer was an issue or not.  It wasn’t, but it still cost the seller a ton of profit.  Not the salesperson – whose flat commission was not price dependent – but that’s an issue for another blog.

The lesson here is that buying and selling involves people.  And different people are motivated by different things.  This exercise could have gone really differently if either side had chosen to do some probing for those motivations.  That’s not about manipulating or taking advantage of someone, it’s simple logic.  Don’t assume that you know what someone else needs or wants until you ask them.

So ask yourself…if you’re a salesperson, do you rush to discount your product in hopes of making a deal happen?  If you’re a buyer, do you jump at initial discounts just because you know you need a product but don’t necessarily know the best deal you can make on it?

You can do better than that.

Business is tough.  Hang in.  If we can help you, just let us know.

Jeff Whittle is Managing Director of Cogris Consulting, and the President of The Alternative Board – Metro Dallas.  We also talk business on our Facebook page and we tweet @jeffwhittletx.

Tomorrow is the most important day of the year.

3 09 2012

Tomorrow is the most important day of your work year.

Tomorrow is September 4, 2012.  It is the day after Labor Day.  Did you enjoy the beer and burgers?  Have one last marathon lounging in the pool or enjoying the outdoors?  Hope so.  Because now it’s time to accept the cold, hard truth…

It’s crunch time.

Though it hardly seems possible, the summer is already gone.  Football games are on television.  The Olympics are over.  Before you know it, November will be here, and with it the holidays.

That’s right.  In less than 12 weeks it will be Thanksgiving.  For many businesses that means an inevitable slow-down as you enter that cheery but largely unproductive holiday period.  And there’s not much you’re going to be able to do about it.

Are you behind on your annual goals?  Do you have a project that isn’t due until the end of the year?  Have you procrastinated finishing a project until it really needed to be done?

Well then, tomorrow is that day.  It’s September 4, and whether you know it or not you are rapidly running out of 2012.  Tomorrow is the day to review your annual goals with your team or with yourself if you don’t have a team.  Tomorrow is the day to make hard decisions about what you have to do in the next 12 weeks to make your budget or hit your goals.

So what are you reading blogs for?  Better get going.

Your business New Year’s resolutions are doomed

2 01 2012

Have you made any new-year’s resolutions about how you’re going to improve your business in 2012?  Good for you.  Now here’s the great news.  You’re probably doomed to fail.  The people who make the most positive changes in their businesses don’t make resolutions.  Instead, they set goals.  That makes all the difference.

Sure, it’s tradition to enter the new year with resolutions both for yourself and for your business.  But be honest…when was the last time that you and your company spent an entire year truly focused on even one of your resolutions?  What was the last new-year’s resolution that you kept?  Resolutions aren’t a bad thing, they just typically don’t set you up for success the way clearly defined goals do.

Resolutions are easy to make and hard to keep.  Sometimes that’s just a function of discipline, but more often than not it’s because resolutions are just too general.  Let’s say you’re entering the year having resolved to do a better job marketing in 2012.  Chances are that’s a really good idea, but it’s a really lousy business goal.   What does “better” mean?  What results do you want to achieve?  How will you know if you’ve achieved them?  When you make a resolution, you’re usually just putting voice to a vague hope that’s virtually impossible to measure and easy to lose sight of.

A clearly articulated goal, on the other hand, identifies the criteria you will use to evaluate success and commits to a date by which you will achieve it.  Instead of a vague resolution to improve marketing, what if set the goal of generating three new leads every month of the year?  Now it’s easy to know whether the target has been hit.  If it has, you’re happy.  If it hasn’t, you can make good decisions about what needs to change to achieve the goal.

Sit down and write down specific goals for your business in the coming year.  They have to be specific, they have to be measurable, and they have to have a target date by which they’ll be achieved.  Do that, and you’re way ahead of the game.

QuickBooks is an oxymoron

6 11 2011

I Tweeted a moment ago that “the term QuickBooks ® is an oxymoron”.  That’s not entirely fair.  QuickBooks is a great program that my accountant is thrilled with.  And I absolutely concur that it keeps the books.  But is it quick?  Not for me, it isn’t.

During the course of my lifetime I have taken a grand total of two accounting classes, both of which I passed, but neither of which I understood.  I actually made an “A” in my MBA accounting course, but to this day I attribute that to academic benevolence and much-appreciated graduate school grade inflation.    My undergraduate “C” came only with the patient assistance of my dorm neighbor Howie Lewis, who to this day regrets having ever volunteered to help me once I had become hopelessly lost by mid-semester.

Take the whole “debits” and “credits” thing.  As Howie dragged me through one assignment he once told me that all I had to do is draw a T on a piece of paper and remember “debits to the window, credits to the door.”  Or maybe it was the other way around.  Whichever way one tossed credits and debits, however, Howie was confident that this keen insight cleared up the entire mystery of double-entry accounting.  In class, however, the professor prattled on about how adding something to an account was sometimes a debit and sometimes a credit and it depended on this intricate ecosystem of nonsensical rules that Italian merchants figured out centuries ago.  She never once mentioned windows or doors so I became lost and blamed the whole mishap on Howie.

It made no sense to me.  Our sophisticated system of modern financial reporting was grounded on a methodology used by Italian merchants hundreds of years ago?  We haven’t made any progress since then?  I was an English major, though, so I knew what to do.  I skipped to the back of the book, read the final chapter and headed for the university book store to find the Accounting 101 Cliff’s Notes.

As for my stormy professional relationship with accounting, it has been ever thus.  Over the years I became proficient at reading and understanding the outputs of accounting exercises (income statements, balance sheets, large invoices from accounting firms) but never the magic going on behind the curtain.  Accountants loved it that way.  For years I’ve worked with CFOs, controllers and outside accountants who quickly learn that they can tell me anything about the “why” a financial report is structured the way it is, and I’m helpless to push back.  They find it great sport to make up terms and concepts to glibly rationalize any accounting convention, whether real or imaginary.  Once during my questioning an accounting explained they were forced to proceed in a certain way based on “Johnson’s Revenue Generation Convention”.  That sounded vaguely off-color to me, but I recognized it for what it was – just one of a zillion ways that an accountant learns to say “because that’s the way the Italian merchants did it.”

Fate plays cruel jokes.  After years of working with talented financial minds I now find myself deep within the bowels of QuickBooks on a regular basis, slogging slowly through general ledgers and journal entries, wondering which entries are debits and which are credits and where in the hell the windows and doors are in the entire equation and why I’m paying taxes when I’m not making any money.  I will never know.  But whatever happens with my books, I know one thing.

It won’t happen quickly.

© JPECA Inc. 2011

Why don’t you go reboot yourself?

10 09 2011

When your computer locks up and refuses to respond no matter how many keys you pound on, what’s the best way to get it back up to speed quickly and safely?  If you said “reboot”, you’d be right.  Sometimes your computer just gets bogged down with too many applications and processes going on all at the same time.  The computer’s brain is just too jumbled to be effective.  You give it a nice little break, turn it back on, and it works again.  Magic.

Now ask yourself…don’t you sometimes lock up, too?  Admit it.  There are times when you sit at your desk looking at the stack of work to be done, emails and calls to return, tasks to tackle, and realize that you just can’t do any of it effectively?   No matter how long you sit there trying to push yourself to get something done, nothing really happens.  You’re wasting your time, and it won’t get any better by pounding on your own mental keys trying to flog yourself into productivity.

If you’re like most people, sometimes you just lock up, and no amount of staring at your looming stack of work is going to change the fact that you just don’t have it in you to do a good job on anything at all right then.  That’s the time to go reboot yourself.  Power down your computer, put your cell phone in a drawer, kill the lights, and leave.  Go watch a movie.  Hit golf balls.  Mow the lawn.  Do whatever it takes to get away from the work, not just physically but mentally.  Allow yourself to enjoy being away, focus on something different, and fight the urge to think about what you’ve left undone on the desk.  When you do that, you give your personal processors an opportunity to clear out the junk so you can be effective when you return.

Don’t be afraid to power yourself down for a while.  It can be magic.

No, your business is NOT that different

13 08 2011

You’d be amazed how many business owners tell me “look, my business is really different and nobody can help me because nobody else understands what I do and how I do it.”

They couldn’t be more wrong.

Let’s agree on the front end that a business owner has a unique insight into operations and the idiosyncrasies of his people, customers and processes.  That’s not always true, of course, but most of the time the owner knows a lot about the business.

But no matter how unique the market niche, the product offering, or the operating processes, my experience has been that underneath that thin veneer of novelty, most businesses really are the same.  Think about it –name a business that doesn’t have inventory.  Sure, the inventory can take lots of different forms.  For manufacturers it’s raw materials, work-in-progress and finished goods.  For retailers it’s product.  For a service firm it’s the quantum of time available from their people resources.  Every business has inventory, and every business must deal with the challenges of managing it.  Every business has customers, and must market, sell and service those customers.  All businesses must manage their employees and control their finances.  The list of common challenges is a very, very long one.

Why does this matter?  It matters because there’s a big world of operational best-practices out there, and with a little creative thinking just about all of them can apply to just about any business.  A manufacturer wants its vendors to deliver raw materials just-in-time.  This lets the manufacturer minimize its inventory investment.  The same concepts drive the consultant’s desire to maintain networks of delivery partners that can be called on to handle specific projects as needed instead of hiring personnel to handle every conceivable consulting opportunity.  Extraordinarily different business models, but the same conceptual solution reduces costs for both.  Businesses are much like people.  They might look different on the surface, but underneath the skin they’re very much the same.

I can’t think of a business that is so unique that it can’t leverage operational best practices from a variety of industries.  While it’s important to differentiate your business from your competitors, don’t neglect spending time thinking about how your business is the same as others.  Once you do that, you open up a world of opportunities to improve your business without reinventing wheels.

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