How to Find People with the Right Fit

How attitude is a good predictor of prospective employee success, and how you can identify those with the right attitude for your business.

by  Andrew Cooke, Growth & Profit Solutions

Attitude - Churchill Quote

The top challenge for CEOs according to a survey from the Conference Board (January 2013) is Human Capital – the ability to develop and acquire the right people, with the right skills needed to take to the business to the next level.  But skills alone are not enough.

“Hire for Attitude, Train for Aptitude”

This is an old mantra which, if ignored, can be costly.  Companies I have worked with have found that recruiting people with the right skills can be costly if they do not have the right ‘attitude’, where there is a lack of ‘fit’.  This is reflected in a study by Leadership IQ of over 20,000 new hires over 3 years which found that 46% of the people about to be hired will fail within the first 18 months on the job. And they won’t fail for lack of skills but rather for lack of attitude.

Top 5 Reasons for Why New Hires Failed

The following are the top areas of failure (i.e., were terminated, left under pressure, received disciplinary action or significantly negative performance reviews):

1. Coachability (26%): the lack of ability to accept and implement feedback from bosses, colleagues, customers and others.

2.  Emotional Intelligence (23%): the lack of ability to understand and manage one’s own emotions, and accurately assess others’ emotions.

3.  Motivation (17%): insufficient drive to achieve one’s full potential and excel in the job.

4.  Temperament (15%): attitude and personality not suited to the particular job and  work environment.

5.   Technical Competence (11%): functional or technical skills required to do the job.

Top 5 Reasons Why New Hires Failed

The key point from this is that when new hires fail, and 46% of them will, 89% of the time it’s because of attitude and only 11% of the time because of skill.

As such, the key predictor of a new hire’s success or failure is their attitude, not their skills.  As such we need to be clear on what attitude we are hiring for. To do this requires two steps:

  • Define the Specific Attitudes – what are the attitudes that make your business different from the rest.  This is both in terms of what is good (which you want) and what is bad (which you want to avoid).
  • Adapting the Hiring & Interviewing Process – you need to makes sure that you focus on these attitudes, so adapt how you do this as appropriate.

How Do We Do This?

1. Define the Specific Attitudes

Attitudes in themselves are not visible or tangible.  Where they are made apparent is in people’s behaviours.  How people behave is an active display of their attitudes.  Their behavior should also be a reflection of the business’ core values which provides guidance to people in the business.  A good example of how the core values are made tangible, and the expected behavior (and hence attitudes) is shown below.

The US Marine Corp

The US Marine Corps has Core Values of Honor, Courage, and Commitment.  The concept of these core values runs throughout all aspects of Marine life, beginning in recruit training and continuing into combat. These “warrior ethos” provide guidance to Marines in difficult ethics situations and as a reminder to provide good order and discipline. These values are defined as:

  • Honor – integrity, responsibility and accountability.
  • Courage – do the right thing, in the right way, for the right reasons.
  • Commitment – devotion to the Corps and my fellow Marines.

US Marine Corp Values Card

 

2. Adapting the Hiring & Interviewing Process

Too often, when interviewing, we focus on prospective employees’ technical skills and competencies.  Why?  They are the easiest to assess but, as we have seen, they are a very poor predictor of the success or failure of a new employee.

When you look at jobs being advertised the experience, skills and qualification that are detailed it can be seen that the business advertising the position has the expectation that a perfect candidate will apply.  This is about as far from reality as you can get.  Realistically, there is no ‘perfect candidate’ and, as such, there can only be attitudes that are right for your business – they will never be perfect.

Tests for Finding the ‘Right’ Attitudes

1.  High Performers’ Test – what are the distinguishing attitudinal characteristics of your top performers.  List up to 10 responses that reflect your business.  For example:

  • They own the problem.
  • They always see problems as opportunities.
  • They are great listeners and communicators.
  • Etcetera.

2.   Low Performers’ Test – what are the distinguishing attitudinal characteristics of your low performers.  List up to 10 responses that reflect your business.  These are not just the opposite of the attitudinal characteristics that make a high performer. For example:

  • They avoid responsibility and are quick to blame.
  • They focus on themselves rather than others.
  • They do the bare minimum work required.
  • Etcetera.

Once you’ve got your two lists, conduct a quick assessment to make sure every point is on target. This can be done by asking yourself the following two questions about each attitude listed:

  • How does this attitude add value or competitive advantage to this organization? (If the attitude brings no benefit to the organization, it doesn’t belong on the list).
  • Who cares about this attitude? (If the attitude doesn’t bring benefit to your customers, it doesn’t belong on the list)

Doing this provides insight into both what you want and what you don’t want in the terms of attitudes and the associated behaviours.  It then helps you to prepare for the interview by focusing on how they respond to questions around both these areas.  However, how the questions are phrased is just as important as what the question is.  You need to develop the question with the kind of response that you are looking for in mind.  But that is a separate article.

Summary

In summary, be clear on what values, attitudes and behaviours you want in your business, and which you want your new employees to exemplify in what they do and how they do it.  Get clarity by distinguishing the attitudinal characteristics of both your top and low performers – this helps you to identify what you want from a potential employee, and what you don’t want.  Around this then adapt your interview and hiring process to ask the kind of questions that will help you elicit answers which will help you determine the prospective employee’s values, attitudes and behaviours.  Take this into account when you look at their technical skills, as it is their attitude that is a predictor of their skills – not their technical skills and competencies.

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Click here to find out more about Andrew Cooke and Growth & Profit Solutions.

How Middle-Management is at Risk

Why middle-management is essential for business survival and the risks you run of if you lose or alienate them.

The Challenges of Middle ManagementMiddle management.  Often described as the ‘backbone’ of the company, they provide the continuity across the business and the key people for getting things done; communicating and resolving problems up, down and across the line; translating strategy into action; leading key operational areas; have considerable expertise and experience within the business; providing linkages between senior executives and front-line staff; and are implementing and responding to change.

As such, middle management is crucial to the on-going success and survival of the business.  Senior executives are starting to appreciate their role and the impact of their work, but at a time when it becoming harder to develop and retain middle management.

Middle Management Stress & Turnover

In a recent poll by Lane4 in the UK (July 2012) more than 90% of workers believed that the vast majority of workplace stress was falling on middle management, and two in five (39%) of middle management reported that they were under severe stress.  As such, many mid-level managers are dissatisfied and would like to leave their current organization.   In harder times it is those middle managers who are your best and who perform well who find it easiest to find new roles and new opportunities.

This has several impacts on your business: firstly, the business will lose its top middle management talent, this will put an increase burden on those who are left behind; secondly, the exodus of mid-level talent seriously compromises the business’ future  leadership pipeline and its ability to have the right people in the right place to enable the business to grow and develop in the future; and finally those mid-level managers remaining will be the low-performers, who are more likely to be disengaged and who have “quit and stayed”.  All of this means that business’ ability to survive and thrive – especially in challenging times – is seriously compromised.

The Impact of Mid-Management Turnover

One of the current major growth challenges facing CEOs is the lack of key talent to enable them to grow the business.  This is exacerbated with the turnover of good mid-level manager as it compromises the business’ ability to execute the CEO’s strategy and drive results and outcomes.

Furthermore, the costs of middle management turnover are also high.  A common rule of thumb is to assess the cost of a middle manager to the bottom-line at one-and-a-half to two times their annual salary.  Assuming an average salary of $125,000 then this could mean $250,000 off your bottom line.  Alternatively, look at it in terms of the extra revenue you need to achieve just to stand still – assuming your net profit is 10%, then that is a further $2.5m of revenue required!

Practically, I think this heuristic is conservative.  Once you take into account the corporate knowledge, experience, expertise and insights that have been developed over a number of years you are looking at the loss of a very valuable contributor.  Furthermore, to recruit someone who is an equivalent is both difficult and expensive to do.

Causes of Mid-Management Stress

Middle management is under increasing stress for a number of reasons.  They are the people who have to lay off staff when the company downsizes (or more cynically “right-sizes”), in an environment of poor morale, having to do more with less, with little or no increase in salary or benefits whilst being responsible for more, a reduced opportunity for career progression, dealing with people who like them are worried and scared, and frequently being seen as an “unwanted layer” and at a high risk of being laid off themselves (often having had to lay off others first).

So what do we do?

Dealing with the Problem

In challenging times we need to maintain our middle management.  In economies which are struggling the senior executives need to work with and engage with their middle management even more closely.  It is at the mid-levels that the most important projects are, and reducing their resourcing is nigh on suicidal.  If the level of responsibility for middle management is extended, and their capacity and resources is limited or reduced, then you need to invest in their developing the necessary capabilities.  If this is not done then senior management will be faced with a “frozen” middle management compounded by cycles of low morale and low engagement.

Companies need to be resilient – leaders need to provide clear direction, they need engage the middle management and rebuild trust, and in doing so enable them to engage with their reports and teams in turn.  If you cut out the middle, then you are just left with the head and tail of the business – unable to do the necessary work effectively, and a corpse all but in name.

It may seem counter-intuitive but now is the time to invest in your middle management – this will pay off in terms of loyalty, results and longer-term growth.  Treat your key people as an investment, not a cost to be cut but people to be valued, developed and through whom you can achieve leverage and significant returns.

So what are you going to do?

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Click here to find out more about Andrew Cooke and Growth & Profit Solutions.

Engaging & Retaining Staff – Part 5

12 Ways to Engage & Retain Staff, Image (c) People Insight

In the first blog in this series we looked at why employee engagement is so important and provided an overview of Gallup’s findings from its extensive research.  This was summarised in the following 12 ways to engage employees.

In the second blog we examined the first 3 elements in further detail.  This included:

  1. I know what is expected of me at work.
  2. I have the right materials and equipment I need to do my work right.
  3. At work, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day.

In the third blog we continued looking at the second triad of elements including:

4. In the last seven days, I have received recognition or praise for doing good work.

5. My supervisor, or someone at work, seems to care about me as a person.

6. There is someone at work who encourages my development.

In the fourth blog we looked at the next 3 elements:

7. At work, my opinions seem to count.
8. The mission or purpose of my company makes me feel my job is important.
9. My associates or fellow employees are committed to doing quality work.

In this blog we look at the final 3 elements:

10. I have a best friend at work.
11. In the last six months, someone has talked to me about my progress.
12. This last year, I have had opportunities at work to learn and grow.

Tenth Element – A Best Friend at Work

What does it mean?

This element is a strong predictor of performance, describing friendships which are supportive. With people it is human nature that will always win over company policy – so it is important to create, capture and leverage the power of friendships.

What is the evidence?

People look out for their friends; tolerate disagreements better, and are more likely to invite and share candid information, suggestions, and opinions, and to accept them without being threatened.  Gallup research indicates that as trust between employees increases, employee engagement increases, employee performance increases, camaraderie between employees increases, and employee happiness increases when workers report having a best friend on the job.

What should we do?

Best managers encourage friendships in the workplace by creating the conditions under which such relationships thrive.  As such managers need to get to know people in their team both individually and in terms of the dynamics that exist between them.  This then allows managers to put together people who probably could communicate, first of all, but secondly be or become friends.  To achieve this there needs to be good communication between all people, and objective criteria for the team.

Eleventh Element – Talking About Progress               

What does it mean?

Here the manager provides regular, insightful, and personal feedback to staff on both a formal and informal basis.

What is the evidence?

Staff need a clear picture or mirror of how they are performing to avoid the “Double Curse” where people ether over- or under-estimate their abilities in the following ways:

  • Self-analysis on performance is poor – people to tend to overestimate how they have done.  They lack the skill or knowledge to estimate properly – a form of unconscious incompetence.
  • Also undue modesty – people who do well know they have done well, but do not know their accomplishment is unique.  They tend to err in their estimates of others – consistently overestimating how well people do on the same test etc.

Gallup research indicates employees are more likely to believe they are compensated fairly when their manager gives them regular performance reviews. Additionally, employees who receive regular performance reviews tend to stay with the company longer and are twice as likely to tell others that their company is a great place to work.

What should we do?

Firstly, understand that the type of information that motivates a given employee, and realise that it may be different from the types that motivate others or the way that you yourself prefer.  When appraising performance for it to be effective it must be tailored for specific tasks, occupations and even personalities.

Focus on people’s strengths to stop them becoming actively disengaged, but provide constructive feedback on their weaknesses.  The appraisals are more meaningful, and perceived as more objective by staff, if they are held on a regular basis and the feedback is about relatively recent things.

Informal and on-going feedback is also important.  When discussing things with people get them to think what the options might be, don’t give them the answer right away.

A key question to ask yourself as a manager is “What can I do to improve, to coach, the person, to help him, to teach him?

Twelfth Element – Opportunities to Learn & Grow

What does it mean?

When employees feel they are learning and growing they work harder and more efficiently – this has a particular strong connection to customer engagement and profitability.

The importance of learning and growing is best appreciated when they are not there.  A lack causes frustration, and dissatisfaction as their enjoyment of work is lessened with no meaningful new challenges causes them to languish professionally and personally.

What is the evidence?

People perform when they are working toward specific difficult-to-attain targets rather than told to “do your best”.  These stretch goals are psychologically invigorating and good for business.  We need to look at the accomplishment not just in absolute terms, but also relative to what might have been and how people construe the results – especially the individual himself.

What should we do?

To match a worker with the right opportunities you need to have a deep understanding of the individual’s strengths and hopes for the future.  You need to have regular and meaningful conversations with them to develop this.

Summary
Employee engagement is crucial to retain key employees, to raising productivity and enabling the business to grow profitably.  If you don’t engage employees the best will leave, and those who are disengaged will quit and stay!
How good are you at using these 12 ways in an effective way:
Which of these 3 elements have you used and to what effect?  If you were to rank them which would you use first?  Would you use them with everyone, some of them or with no-one? What are you favourite ways or preferred ways to engage employees?
Until then share your thoughts and ideas here, and feel free to share this blog and articles with any colleagues, clients or friends you feel may find this of value. If you have any particular areas of interest you would like article on then please let me know.
Share your ideas, and share the wealth!
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Click here to find out more about Andrew Cooke and Growth & Profit Solutions.

Engaging & Retaining Staff – Part 4

 

12 Ways to Engage & Retain Staff, Image (c) People Insight

In the first blog in this series we looked at why employee engagement is so important and provided an overview of Gallup’s findings from its extensive research.  This was summarised in the following 12 ways to engage employees.

In the second blog we examined the first 3 elements in further detail.  This included:

  1. I know what is expected of me at work.
  2. I have the right materials and equipment I need to do my work right.
  3. At work, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day.

In the third blog we continued looking at the second triad of elements including:

4. In the last seven days, I have received recognition or praise for doing good work.

5. My supervisor, or someone at work, seems to care about me as a person.

6. There is someone at work who encourages my development.

In this blog we look at the next 3 elements:

7. At work, my opinions seem to count.
8. The mission or purpose of my company makes me feel my job is important.
9. My associates or fellow employees are committed to doing quality work.

Seventh Element – My Opinion Seems to CountWhat does it mean?

Great managers are receptive to hearing ideas and opinions from their direct reports.  There is the need to understand the dynamics of a diverse group of people who are working together to avoid turf wars etc.  Managers and staff need to know and respect each others’ roles.

What is the evidence?

About 50% of employees who say their company is receptive to hearing their opinions report they are able to deliver very creative ideas while on the job.  Gallup studies reveal when employee-generated ideas are accepted and implemented, the commitment level to executing these ideas from employees is higher than normal.

What should we do?

  1. Be genuine and authentic with people, make them feel important and that they count
  2. Every system depends on the motivation of the people who run it; as such motivation requires people to strongly agree that “At my work, my opinions seem to count”.
  3. Make people feel that their opinions count,  this helps them to bring out more creative ideas and a higher level of engagement. As such it has a substantial impact on customer experience, productivity, employee retention and safety which collectively improve profitability.
  4. Incorporating employees’ ideas has 2 benefits: firstly, often the ideas are good; and secondly, it makes it more likely that the employees will be committed to its execution.

Approaches for developing this include:

  • Regular meetings with ground rules including one speaker at a time, no blaming, speak in headlines, give constructive feedback and “to directly address the issue.
  • Role plays – especially between positions where there are difficulties or tensions, with people playing the others roles.
  • Developing plans around how to work together, and what specifically you are going to do in terms of combined roles, communication and expectations.

Eighth Element – A Connection with the Mission of the Company

What does it mean?

Great managers are able to connect their direct reports to the mission of the company resulting in employees feeling their job is important.

This is about having an emotional connection with the company.  People need to have meaning and purpose, they want to understand how they fit into and contribute to the grand scheme of things.  This gives them a sense of purpose and belonging.

For example, Kodak positioned itself not as a seller of film, but a capturer of memories.  This focuses on the emotional outcomes of what they do, rather than the rational tasks of their work.

The more people agree with this statement is predictive of its performance on a wide array of measures

What is the evidence?

Project teams that are mission-driven report 15-to-30% lower turnover rates. According to Gallup research, trust-level in the decisions of upper-manager increases, less on-the-job conflict happens, and greater commitments to getting the job done occurs when employees feel a direct connection exists between their job and the mission of the company.

What should we do?

There are 3 “lenses” through which an individual can filter the world and define for himself or herself whether the work contributes to the quality of their life or not.  It is not the work that defines the individual.  The 3 “lenses” or categories include:

  • Work is a job; a necessary inconvenience and way of earning money with which they can achieve personal goals and enjoy themselves outside of work. They are the least engaged.
  • Work as a career; they enjoy the increased pay, prestige and status that comes as they work their way up the corporate ladder;
  • Work as a calling; usually associated with the belief that the work contributes to the greater good and makes the world a better place.

We need to be clear on the emotional purpose of the company, and how each individual’s work contributes.  We need to highlight what the values of the company are, and how what they do reinforces those values and contributes to the outcomes.  Having an on-going dialogue about this and making it relevant to what they do helps to strengthen this.

Ninth Element – Coworkers Committed to Doing Quality Work

What does it mean?

Great managers develop engaged staff who are committed and motivated to doing a great job

What is the evidence?

Research shows that 67% of employees fail to strongly agree that their co-workers are committed to doing quality work. As such, if people do “not pull their weight” it can have a negative impact on morale and productivity. For example:

One man pulls at 100%.  If two men are pulling the average man will exert himself at 93%, with four men it is at 75% each.  By the time the eighth man is added, each man is pulling only on average only half what he could.  In fact, 8 men on the rope pull no harder than seven, as the other seven relax enough to subtract whatever the eighth man adds.

So work groups can be 2+2=5, but they also have the capability of 2+2=3!

This can mean that teams with a poor work ethic and poor sense of responsibility, can become a place to hide laziness, push work to other people and to create a culture of blame.

What should we do?

We need to distinguish whether the lack of performance is about a lack of aptitude (i.e. they lack the relevant skills) or a lack of attitude (they lack the right behaviours).  You can only train people for aptitude; you can never do this for attitude.  Your three options are to Terminate, Transfer or Train.

Which of these 3 elements have you used and to what effect?  If you were to rank them which would you use first?  Would you use them with everyone, some of them or with no-one?

Share your ideas, and share the wealth.

In the next and final blog we look at the final three elements including:

10. I have a best friend at work.
11. In the last six months, someone has talked to me about my progress.
12. This last year, I have had opportunities at work to learn and grow.

Until then share your thoughts and ideas here, and feel free to share this blog and articles with any colleagues, clients or friends you feel may find this of value.

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Click here to find out more about Andrew Cooke and Growth & Profit Solutions.

5 Strategies for Hard Times

5 Things to Do When Times Are Tough

When the business environment is becoming harder, here are 5 strategies to help you focus your effort, time, resources and investment.

tough times ahead Every few years the business cycle turns down and things get tough. For good business people, this is a sign to get going because with competitors struggling, it is a great time to build your business. There are two key areas you need to focus on, your survival and your growth. This paper outlines just five things you must do to make the best out of the general business downturn. Follow the suggestions made and you will not only survive, you will prosper.

1. CASH FLOW

Cash is the lifeblood of every business.  You need to get as much cash as you can into the business and protect it once you have it.

  • Where do you have cash stored? It may be with your customers who are slow in paying you. It may be in overheads that you don’t need. It may be in assets that you don’t really need to own.
  • If you had to get some money within 30 days, how much could you get in if you really put all your effort into it?
  • Look at the cash going out of your business. Can you stop spending in any areas?  Can you slow down the speed at which it goes out?

2. RETAIN YOUR PEOPLE

In most businesses that employ people you have a third of your staff that you are lucky to have, a third you would do be better without and the remaining third are somewhere in-between. In tough times you must protect your best people, the top two-thirds (maybe you need to get rid of the bottom third?).

  • How can you make sure you keep the ones you need?
  • Do they have contracts?
  • Do you reward them?
  • Do you tell them how much you appreciate their efforts?
  • Is working with you fun?

3. RETAIN YOUR CUSTOMERS

Keeping your best customers is much like keeping your best employees. Work out who the top two-thirds are and spend time on them.

  • Find out what problems they are having and what you can do to help them.
  • Keep in close contact with them on what you are doing for them.
  • Thank them for their business; ask if they can give more business.
  • Do they have any friends who they can refer you to?
  • Are you linking your best people with your best customers?
  • How can you help your customer increase their business?

4. IMPROVE YOUR PROFIT

Cash and profit are closely related. Around 20-30% of your operational expenses are due to waste in your business. You could remove that waste and the savings become instant profit (and probably cash).

  • Can you reduce your overheads? What about your people and material costs?
  • If by law you had to double your profit within three months what would you do? Why not just do it anyway?
  • Do you really know what profit you make each year? What about each month? What about each day?
  • Where do you make your profit? Did you know that 20% of your customers and 20% of your products (and services) generates 80% of your profit? Why not just focus on these customers and products for the next six months?

5. MAINTAIN YOUR ENERGY

When you are energized your business is energized. You must develop and guard your energy levels.

  • Are you fit?
  • Do you love what you do?
  • Are the people you work with fun to be with or are they energy vampires?
  • Do you work too hard?
  • Do you make time for yourself?

Time management is the biggest thing to address in tough times. 20% of what you do generates 80% of the benefit you are to your business (and family) so what are you doing for the rest of the time? Maybe if you stop doing some of the low-value stuff, you will boost your energy levels.

Getting your business under control is critical in tough times. There is no point in growing a business that does not have good cash flow, profit or leadership. Get these five things largely right and your business will grow. Every leader and every business is different, so you need to decide where to start. All five strategies are equally important and the need for discipline and accountability for them lies with everyone – the responsibility is yours, it is up to you to make it happen.

Click here to find out more about Andrew Cooke and Growth & Profit Solutions.

Peter Drucker on Marketing

Peter DruckerLong ago Peter Drucker, the father of business consulting, made a very profound observation that has been lost in the sands of time:

Because the purpose of business is to create a customer, the business enterprise has two – and only two – basic functions: marketing and innovation. Marketing and innovation produce results; all the rest are costs. Marketing is the distinguishing, unique function of the business.”

Today, when top management is surveyed, their priorities in order are finance, sales, production, management, legal and people. Missing from the list: marketing and innovation. When one considers the trouble that many of our icons have run into in recent years, it is not easy to surmise that Drucker’s advice would have perhaps helped management to avoid the problems they face today.

Ironically, David Packard of Hewlett-Packard fame once observed that “marketing is too important to be left to the marketing people.” But as the years rolled on, rather than learn about marketing and innovation, executives started to search for role models instead of marketing models.

Tom Peters probably gave this trend a giant boost with the very successful book he co-authored, In Search of Excellence. Excellence, as defined in that book, didn’t equal longevity, however, as many of the role models offered there have since foundered. In retrospect, a better title for the book might have been In Search of Strategy.

A popular method-by-example book has been Built to Last by James Collins and Jerry Porras. In it, they write glowingly about “Big Hairy Audacious Goals” that turned the likes of Boeing, Wal-Mart Stores, General Electric, IBM and others into the successful giants they have become.

The companies that the authors of Built to Last suggest for emulation were founded from 1812 (Citicorp) to 1945 (Wal-Mart). These firms didn’t have to deal with the intense competition in today’s global economy. While there is much you can learn from their success, they had the luxury of growing up when business life was a lot simpler. As a result, these role models are not very useful for companies today.

There is a growing legion of competitors coming at new businesses from every corner of the globe. Technologies are ever changing. The pace of change is faster. It is increasingly difficult for CEOs to digest the flood of information out there and make the right choices.

But a CEO can have a future.

The trick to surviving out there is not to stare at the balance sheet but simply to know where you must go to find success in a market. That’s because no one can follow you (the board, your managers, your employees) if you don’t know where you’re headed.

How do you find the proper direction? To become a great strategist, you have to put your mind in the mud of the marketplace. You have to find your inspiration down at the front, in the ebb and flow of the great marketing battles taking place in the mind of the prospect. Here is a four-step process to pursue:

Step 1: Make Sense in the Context

Arguments are never made in a vacuum. There are always surrounding competitors trying to make arguments of their own. Your message has to make sense in the context of the category. It has to start with what the marketplace has heard and registered from your competition.

What you really want to get is a quick snapshot of the perceptions that exist in the mind, not deep thoughts.

What you’re after are the perceptual strengths and weaknesses of you and your competitors as they exist in the minds of the target group of customers.

Step 2: Find the Differentiating Idea

To be different is to be not the same. To be unique is to be one of its kinds.

So you’re looking for something that separates you from your competitors. The secret to this understands that your difference does not have to be product related.

Consider a horse. Yes, horses are quickly differentiated by their type. There are racehorses, jumpers, ranch horses, wild horses and on and on. But racehorses can be differentiated by breeding, by performance, by stable, by the trainer and so forth.

Step 3: Have the Credentials

There are many ways to set your company or product apart. Let’s just say the trick is to find that difference and then use it to set up a benefit for your customer.

To build a logical argument for your difference, you must have the credentials to support your differentiating idea, to make it real and believable.

If you have a product difference, then you should be able to demonstrate that difference. The demonstration, in turn, becomes your credentials. If you have a leak-proof valve, then you should be able to have a direct comparison with valves that can leak.

Claims of difference without proof are really just claims. For example, a “wide-track” Pontiac must be wider than other cars. British Airways as the “world’s favorite airline” should fly more people than any other airline. Coca-Cola as the “real thing” has to have invented colas.

You can’t differentiate with smoke and mirrors. Consumers are skeptical. They’re thinking, “Oh yeah, Mr. Advertiser? Prove it!” You must be able to support your argument.

It’s not exactly like being in a court of law. It’s more like being in the court of public opinion, especially with the rise of social media.

Step 4: Communicate Your Difference

Just as you can’t keep your light under a basket, you can’t keep your difference under wraps.

If you build a differentiated product, the world will not automatically beat a path to your door. Better products don’t win. Better perceptions tend to be the winners. The truth will not win out unless it has some help along the way.

Every aspect of your communications should reflect your difference. Your advertising. Your brochures. Your web site. Your sales presentations.

The folks who work for or with you don’t need mystical answers on “How do I unlock my true potential?” The question they need answering is, “What makes this company different?”

That answer gives them something to latch onto, and run with.

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