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Lifting Your Business Out of Mediocrity and More Questions for January

And how to share chores among staff to make sure they get done.

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I have two good candidates for the position of office manager, but I can’t decide between them. Can you suggest a tie-breaker?

Toss a coin and let fate be your arbiter. If they’re both equally appealing candidates and you can’t reduce the uncertainty by doing further research or interviews or trial runs, then your decision doesn’t much matter. That likely sounds like rash advice, but this paralysis you’re experiencing has a name: Fredkin’s Paradox. The computer scientist Edward Fredkin summed it up as, “The more equally attractive two alternatives seem, the harder it can be to choose between them — no matter that, to the same degree, the choice can only matter less.” To be sure, it will probably turn out to have mattered in hindsight, but by then it’ll be too late. Given that you’re unable to know how things will turn out, overthinking this one — or any similar tough choice — is futile.

How do you share the chores among staff fairly and in a way that is easy to enforce?

Store consultant David Geller feels he knows well the issues you’re facing. “Typically, we as store owners, when something isn’t done, pick our favorite person who is always willing to help to do what others should have done,” he says. “It’s not fair.” To create a system that IS fair, he suggests breaking your staff into groups and rotating the responsibilities. “Put some easy chores with some bad ones like vacuuming and cleaning the bathroom,” he says. The people whose names are under the different groups of chores (see table) do them for only one week, and then they move onto the next group of tasks. This shares around the bad and light chores and also makes it easy for the store owner to raise the issue when a job needs doing. “After doing this, I no longer need to complain to a person, I complain to a group,” Geller says.

Tell me, how do I lift my store out of the rut of mediocrity?

It’s said the toughest test of a manager is how they address lackluster performance. The reason is because it’s not so much about issuing dictates and drawing up policy as it is about fostering a culture that accepts nothing but excellence. Indeed, according to work by Brigham Young business school on high-performing teams, peers manage the bulk of the heavy lifting when it comes to maintaining standards. Counterintuitively, it is in mediocre teams that bosses must enforce standards and are the source of accountability. But how to get to that almost mythical land of self-enforced high standards? Joseph Grenny, a social scientist and author of Crucial Accountability, gives four leadership practices that can help: Start by showing the consequences of mediocrity, to connect people with the experiences, feelings, and impact of bad performance. Set clear goals and explain why they are important. “Use concrete measures to make poor performance painfully apparent,” says Grenny. Establish peer accountability so that people feel comfortable challenging one another when they see mediocrity. And be quick to defend the high standards. A chronic poor performer is an impediment to your goals. How you handle this situation will let your team know whether your highest value is keeping the peace or pursuing performance. “When you ask a group to step up to high performance, you are inviting them to a place of stress — one where they must stretch…where interpersonal conflicts must be addressed,” says Grenny. “If you shrink from or delay in addressing this issue … you send a message to everyone else about your values.”

Since launching in 2014, INVISION has won 23 international journalism awards for its publication and website. Contact INVISION's editors at [email protected].

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Ask INVISION

How to Keep Improving as a Manager and More Questions for April

Including ways to get over that embarrassing customer encounter.

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My husband is conservative by nature, but it can be hard when your partner is so pessimistic about every new project you suggest. How can I convince him that growing a business involves risk?

Don’t be too hard on pessimism — it has its uses, especially in business. The key is to know when a situation warrants caution and when it calls for take-that-leap bravado. Ask yourself, “What’s the cost of being wrong here?” If it’s high, such as you’ll lose a lot of money, be sued or someone will possibly get hurt, then optimism is the wrong strategy. If it’s simply a loss of your time, energy or even a threat to your self-view as someone who never makes mistakes, then go for it. We expect that when you put it like that, your husband will get behind most projects. And if he still can’t stop worrying, suggest he learn worry postponement techniques, which often involve setting a later time and space to think about these worries (just not now when there’s work to be done).

How do I keep improving as a manager?

Set smart, achievable goals (progress is a huge motivator), keep learning, and finally, get feedback, even if it’s self-generated. In his timeless classic on management, The Effective Executive, Peter Drucker argued monitoring yourself was the best way to gauge how you are progressing. “Whenever you make a key decision or take a key action, write down what you expect will happen. Nine or 12 months later, compare the actual results with your expectations … Practiced consistently, this simple method will show you within a fairly short period of time, maybe two or three years, where your strengths lie — and this is the most important thing to know,” he wrote.

e I’m thinking about doing a pop-up at a seasonal shopping fair about 20 miles away this spring. It’s not all that cheap but I figure it’s an easy way to meet new customers, raise brand awareness and maybe make some money. Am I being too optimistic?
Perhaps only about the work involved. That’s the first thing to appreciate about pop-ups. They seem like an almost spur-of-the-moment thing — throw up a tent or park a container and have some fun under the spring sun — but they can involve some serious work, both in the preparation and staffing. There are also lots of extra costs aside from rent — such as advertising, promotional giveaways and possibly extra employee costs. If the fair is in the common area of a mall don’t expect the competition to welcome this blow-in with open arms.
Still, at INVISION we never like to discourage anyone looking to get out of the store and out of their comfort zone. So, if you can avoid a tar and feathering, do your marketing correctly and get the product and the demographics right, pop-ups can reap you nice rewards. They are also an effective way to test the local market if you’re thinking of expanding or have started as a primarily online business.

What should I look for in a mentor?

The most important thing is you and your mentor click on a personal level. Such a relationship should be undertaken with a long-term view and you need to want to spend time together. As for more specific things to look for, Daniel Coyle’s excellent book The Little Book Of Talent: 52 Tips For Improving Your Skills, suggests the following:

  1. Avoid someone who reminds you of a courteous waiter. You want someone who pushes you to take risks.
  2. Seek someone who scares you a little.
  3. Seek someone who gives short, clear directions.
  4. Seek someone who loves teaching fundamentals.
  5. Other things being equal, pick the older person.

And when it comes to asking for help, don’t be too backward. Advice-seeking is a powerful way to make a connection with someone. Most people love to help and to know they’ve made a difference in someone else’s life. Of course, know there are limits to people’s time and generosity. Don’t exhaust them.

I had an excruciatingly embarrassing encounter with a customer earlier this week and now can’t get it out of my mind. It’s tormenting me. Help!

The psychoanalyst in us says we need to revisit this in punishing detail (These thoughts of perfection, where do they come from?) but it doesn’t sound like you want to go there. Instead, we recommend substitution (come up with a funny version of the story) or distraction. The latter gets a bad rap but studies show it’s pretty effective. Want to forget that screw-up? Do data entry for 30 minutes. Or start plotting dinner. Your brain has trouble focusing on more than one thing at a time so a new action interferes with recollection. And running the same scene over and over in your head really helps no one.

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Ask INVISION

How to Inject Some Freshness into Your Business and More Questions for March

Like how to find a mentor and mimicry for sales associates, yay or nay?

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How can I shake things up in my business?

Every good idea requires not only a fresh (and often random) catalyst, but also a new way of looking at things. In the words of design consultant Tom Kelley, you want to achieve “the sense of seeing something for the first time, even if you have actually witnessed it many times before.” That’s why it helps to ask new employees (after about a month) what changes they would make to the way your business is managed. Constraints, such as radically slashing a budget for a certain department, can inspire creativity. Reconsidering an issue in a different physical context helps, as does picking some specific type of person — a doctor, an astronaut or a historical figure — and imagining what they’d do in your situation. The key is to shift perspective as randomly as possible. We’re wired to stay on the well-trodden path. But it’s a place you’re unlikely to find those serendipitous collisions that are at the root of nearly all fresh and good ideas.

Should I encourage my sales staff to use mimicry? It seems manipulative.

If you’re worried about getting caught, you should take comfort in studies that show that most shoppers are actually really bad at noticing it. In his book Honest Signals: How They Shape Our World, Alex Pentland cites research showing subjects identified mirroring of their words and body movements only about 10 percent of the time and mostly only when it was a really unusual gesture. The students also liked the mimicking agent more than a neutral one, and rated him or her as being friendlier as well as more interesting, honest, and persuasive. Just adding mimicry, the research found, made a sales pitch 20 percent more effective. As for being manipulative, it’s no more so than any other social skill employed in the sales process.

I want to relocate, but am stuck in a long-term contract. What can I do?

You can lessen the consequences of breaking your lease through aggressive preparation. Janet Portman, attorney and author of Negotiate The Best Lease For Your Business, offers these three recommendations:

  1. Scrutinize the lease for any clause that deals with your right to terminate.
  2. Understand the consequences. You will be responsible for the balance of the rent, minus the new tenant’s rent payment once the landlord finds someone to lease the space.
  3. Find a new tenant. Ideally, this is someone who you find on your own that can come in right away and reduce the time you are responsible for rent. You can sub-let or assign the lease, but you are liable if the new tenant doesn’t pay. The best option is to get the landlord to terminate your lease and start over with your new tenant, if possible.

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Stop Setting SMART Goals, Set Vague Ones and More Questions for February

Plus how to handle suspected shoplifters and under-performing salespeople.

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After reviewing my sales team’s performance for the holiday season, I found I have one who underperformed hugely. She’s a lovely person but her numbers just don’t improve. Do we just persist with training?

It sounds like she has the right attitude and work ethic to succeed, just not in sales. Almost anyone can learn how to describe a product’s features (the knowledge), they can even learn how to ask the right open-ended questions to elicit a customer’s exact needs (a skill), but they’ll never learn how to push that prospect to get excited about a particular pair of glasses or a new vision technology and to commit at exactly the right moment. That is a talent some people just seem to be born with, says Marcus Buckingham, a leader of the play-to-people’s strengths school of business management. And besides, if she’s the worst performer in your store, she can’t be enjoying the work. It’s time to go your separate ways.

How do you suggest handling someone who is shoplifting in my store?

It’s good you’re asking; this is definitely an area where you do not want to be winging it, says Elie Ribacoff, president of New York-based Worldwide Security. Your policy on handling a suspected shoplifter should be part of your store or practice’s manual and developed in consultation with a qualified attorney, or local police to ensure laws are followed and that prosecution is effective. State laws vary but as a general rule suspicion is never enough — you need to observe the crime take place. As for confronting the person, there are obvious risks in confronting shoplifters. They may be violent, armed or working as part of a gang. And then there are the legal risks of trying to detain someone. As a general rule, it is nearly always better to be a good witness than to botch an arrest, says Ribacoff. Usually, the best approach is to have someone with a cellphone discreetly follow the shoplifter after he or she exits the store, and lead police to them.

Year after year, I set carefully plotted SMART goals for my staff, but we never attain them. Any idea what we’re doing wrong?

To the rational mind, it’s hard to argue with the S.M.A.R.T. mnemonic — Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Timely — when it comes to goals. Except, of course, when it comes to managing humans, it’s best to be wary of anything that gives off the clinical odor of rationality. In the place of SMART goals, we thus propose an experiment for you: This year, try some Vague and Seemingly Irrelevant goals (yep, the sort of targets that can’t even be counted on to form a clever acronym). Clear goals such as “increase sales by 20 percent” can be motivating, but also set extra hurdles to fail at, which can throw the human mind into a tizzy. Vague goals, on the other hand, can be liberating.

As for “seemingly irrelevant,” the key word is the first: “seemingly.” This is management at a higher level. Identify the secret drivers to business success, be it the cheery baristas at Starbucks or the actions in your store that result in a positive review on social media, and you may actually get the specific financial results you desire. In his book The Antidote: Happiness For People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, Oliver Burkeman tells the story of a Formula One pit crew whose members were told that they would no longer be assessed on the basis of speed targets; they would be rated on style instead. Instructed to focus on acting “smoothly,” rather than on beating their current record time, they wound up performing faster.

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