What Business Can Learn From the Military

“Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier,” said Dr Johnson. Is this what is behind the large number of parallels that are drawn between military service and business? Business leaders are simply indulging their armchair-general fantasies, imagining their corporate decisions as battlefield orders to think less meanly of themselves? I don’t believe so. The military and civilian worlds are separate but there is much they have taught and can teach one another.

As for parallels, there certainly are a lot. I know that military history has inspired many business articles because I have written many of them. I have explored lessons from the motivation of French Revolutionary armies, the operational freedom of Napoleon’s Corps system and the political micromanagement of the Vietnam War. I haven’t written these pieces in order to give anyone a sense of martial pride, but to use history – military history in particular – to facilitate learning.

Yes, there are undoubtedly individuals out there trying to compensate for ‘not having been a soldier’ by fighting their own boardroom battles. This is evidenced by the influx of military language into the business world. Customers and clients are ‘targeted’, when perhaps they should be connected with or reached out to.   However, just because some have, for whatever reason, taken lessons from the military in a very literal and potentially unhelpful way doesn’t mean to say that there is nothing positive to learn.

As such, this article is primarily a defence of the idea that there is a wealth of relevant knowledge to be gleaned from the armed forces. Those who believe that business men and women merely enjoy playing at being soldiers point to the apparent disconnect between the two systems. The military operates within a clear rank structure; orders are given and followed. Conversely, in the modern corporate world there is an emphasis on delegating responsibility; on empowering and freeing your people.

However, modern businesses aren’t rudderless. Empowered employees still need to be working cohesively and not embarking on their own rogue agendas. How has this been solved? Businesses have looked to the military for inspiration – to the Prussian army 200 years ago, to be precise. The command and control of the armed forces is not as rigid as is imagined. The Prussian concept of Auftragstaktik (mission-orientated tactics) became a component of military doctrine across the western world and has since become a significant influence on how civilian businesses are run.

The central idea of Auftragstaktik is that commanders should give their subordinates general directions of what needs to be done, allowing them freedom to determine how to do it. For example, an officer might receive orders to attack a certain position but, as the person on the ground, it will be their decision whether to assault directly or from one of the flanks. The orders will contain the intent of their superior officer and the concept of operations on a wider scale. This should inform their decision making but not dictate it. If the commanding officer’s intent is to make a rapid advance, the subordinate will have to prioritise speed but still retains overall discretion.

This has proved equally successful in the civilian world. Managers are able to communicate to their subordinates what needs to be done when and where. Importantly, they must convey why this needs to happen, as ensuring everyone knows their manager’s overall intent and concept means that they will be working in the same direction. However, the manager can delegate the responsibility of how this happens to each individual. Empowered people, working harmoniously – all derived from a military doctrine.

The military is not an archaic organisation but a forward-looking entity capable of generating new thinking and new systems of management. Civilian managers only now learning about management methods which have been used in military circles for over two centuries may well discover other successful management and leadership techniques through studying the armed forces and their history. The military are people who know about managing people when the stakes are at their very highest. This is not playing soldiers or compensating for ‘thinking meanly’ of yourself – it’s learning from experts and there is much we can learn.

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Dealing with the unpredictable

It’s a sad fact of life that you can’t pay your mortgage, utility bills or the local supermarket with magic beans or ‘valid for one back rub’ vouchers. They tend to want money. Money is not necessarily hard to come by once you start your own business, but its arrival can be a lot more unpredictable. Are you comfortable not having a predictable salary?

If you are, let’s take a look at ways you can manage the situation. If you’re not, perhaps looking at strategies for dealing with an unpredictable income will make you feel more comfortable about it. A good first step when dealing with an unpredictable salary is to pay yourself a predictable salary.

That may sound obtuse, but paying yourself is crucial for getting to grips with your finances. You need to escape the situation where all your money arrives in the same account and you take what you need at the end of each month – not just to ensure that your company’s value is not skewed by your salary’s absence if and when you come to grow or sell but to give yourself a starting point.

It doesn’t matter (initially) if you’re not paying yourself competitively with regards to what you would be making in a large business or organisation, just that you’re paying yourself something. In terms of your personal finances, it’s easier to work with a very small but predictable income than a fluctuating mess.

Separate your personal finances from those of your business. Work out your own bare bones personal survival budget if need be. Use this budget to set your wages, not what someone you’re your skills and experience would be earning right now in a City job. Factor yourself into your business budget as an employee who must be payed and you’ll ensure that you are.

Taking from a kitty as and when makes an unpredictable situation even more so. Inject a sense of stability into your finances, even if it means you’re paying yourself less than you might have allocated to yourself in (some) months gone by. Add some stability to your business budget too by getting an accountant.

Firstly, you might not be good at accounting. Most people aren’t. Getting it wrong can seriously cost you – far more than an accountant’s fees. Secondly, think of the psychological aspect. Most people find accounting difficult, many find it downright unpleasant. Whether you’re sick through worry or hacked off at the inconvenience – you’re not in a good place and your business will suffer.

Thirdly, (which is where we draw in those who could do it themselves) every second spent on your books is one second less getting out there and doing the thing you do. It’s universally agreed that time is the most precious resource for a new business. Doing things yourself is very often a false economy as it takes you away from your own role.

It’s a plan that can evolve. Eventually, if you feel you’re earning enough you can give yourself a raise. Your personal budget can then begin to include emergency savings and priority savings. At some point you can supplement an accountant with a bookkeeper to provide year round support and free up more billable hours for you.

Nobody knows precisely how many iPhones will be sold each year or how many eBooks will be sold, but Apple and Amazon do okay. At the highest level, every business has an unpredictable income. By the time it filters down to staff the differences are less obvious. You just happen to be at the highest level of your business. Take pride in that, introduce some stability and predictability will filter down.

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Hurry up and evolve!

The dinosaurs get a hard press. ‘Don’t be such a dinosaur’, ‘you can’t afford to act like the dinosaurs whilst everyone evolves around you’, or ‘a business which doesn’t embrace change will go the way of the dinosaurs’. The poor dinosaurs didn’t have a lot of time to react. As far as they were concerned they were kings of the planet until a meteor brought about their very sudden demise.

There wasn’t a lot of time left for them to evolve themselves out of trouble. If a meteor impact today altered the climate, made the planet inhospitable for all but reptiles and we humans went extinct, we’d be upset to learn that descendants of today’s snakes and lizards sat in their offices telling anecdotes about how mammals should have evolved.

Evolution is a slow process. The textbook example is the mutation that gave a giraffe a slightly longer neck. Those with the longest necks were the most successful, reached the most leaves and survived to reproduce. The mutation was carried down their genetic line and longer necked giraffes bred with other longer necked giraffes. The result of millions of years of evolution is the incredibly long necked beast we see today: A great example of evolutionary progress and survival of the fittest.

However, we don’t live on the African Savanna; we live in the valley of the dinosaurs. The giraffes are evolving towards a stationary goal. Leaves are always on tall trees. In the 21st century, change comes at us like meteors.  One day we are talking about ‘satellite navigation’ as a luxury feature in executive cars, the next it is a free app on everyone’s mobile phone. In business, the leaves are always moving – they can move off of the tree entirely and be found somewhere different. Years of evolving a long neck comes to nothing if the savanna has changed shape.

Disruptive ideas, technology and companies hit us like meteors. We don’t have a giraffe’s luxury, we are much closer to the unenviable situation of the dinosaurs… and things didn’t go well for them. So can nature provide us with any hope or inspiration? Fortunately, yes. We have rapidly altered the planet ourselves and nature has provided examples of micro-evolutions in its attempts to deal with the sudden changes.

Love them or loathe them, urban foxes have adapted their diet and lifestyle to the modern city and thrive. London pigeons and stray Moscow dogs have been spotted using public transport to follow the crowds (and their free food) by travelling between tourist locations in the day and popular nightspots after dark. Birds in Mexico City have started using cigarette butts in their nest construction. The butts are freely available, have good insulating properties and contain chemicals which act as insect repellent – the birds have used the modern world to improve their lives.

In a rapidly changing world it is possible to make rapid adjustments and prevent business extinction. This may mean thinking about the way you work, the way you travel or the technology you employ. It’s important to have long term plans, but these plans need to be adaptable. Deforestation and urbanisation didn’t change the Mexican birds’ long term nest building plans – they were able to adapt and continue to thrive (and model upcycling while they were doing it). It is still survival of the fittest, but mental agility and the ability to think up innovative solutions plays a much more significant role in the fitness of a modern business.

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Who do you think you are?

Ever stepped out thinking you’re looking good only to be told that your shirt, tie or haircut really, really isn’t? An external perspective can be quite different from your own. With fashion, you can heed advice or go your own way, but reputation is a different matter. It’s a fragile thing and it rest entirely on the opinion of others.

Your reputation is what it is and not what you think it is. The same disparity exists in negotiation – many people completely misjudge how they are perceived during negotiations. When I began this post, I was going to consider the fine line between tough negotiators and difficult ones. However, wherever that fine line may be, I quickly discovered that a lot of us are a long way away from it.

There’s a balance we’re all striving to find – whether in reputation or negotiation, work life or social life – between being pushy and being a pushover. We’re looking for a confident assertiveness. The reality is, according to this study by Columbia Business School, that our perception of our assertiveness is often wildly disconnected with what others experience.

This disconnect manifests itself in two ways. Firstly and most obviously, there are those who feel that they pitch themselves just right. These are the overbearing, difficult (impossible?) negotiators and the complete wet blankets who all think that they’re being firm, fair and tough when in reality there a long way off in one direction or another.

Secondly, more surprisingly, many of those who are getting negotiation right mistakenly think they’re getting things wrong. Those who feel they’re too pushy or too soft and don’t realise that their peers perceive them as being spot-on. More often than not, these people feel they’re being too hard or overly assertive.

How do we solve this disparity? We’ve seen that it’s how you’re perceived that matters, not what you think, but how do you bring your own perceptions more in line with reality in order to make any changes (if necessary)? The ultimate solution is to develop our self-awareness. Easier said than done, but brain plasticity makes this distinctly possible at any age and recognising the need is by far the most significant step.

The first step is the most important, especially as there is no final step. You can only keep developing. This is a good thing. However, all the time you are learning how you come across and adapting as necessary be sure to enlist your trusted contacts to help you out. You’ll become more self-aware with time, but in the views of trusted friends you have an instant assessment of yourself.

Your reputation is everything and your manner can make or break deals without you even realising. Bravery and stupidity is another fine line. Trying to carry off the dodgy shirt and tie combo could be called bravery. Going about your business in an unpleasantly forceful or overly meek way without even realising it crosses over the line onto the stupid side. Work on your self-awareness, understand how you come across, and if in doubt ask a friend.

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Authentic Listening

‘Excuse me while I kiss this guy’ – Jimi Hendrix: Purple Haze

People listening to Purple Haze have heard ‘Excuse me while I kiss this guy’ instead of ‘Excuse me while I kiss the sky’ so frequently that it has become the title for an online compendium of misheard song lyrics. The archive also contains Elton John’s line ‘I remember when Iraq was young’ and Queen’s ‘the algebra has a devil put aside for me’. Fortunately there are few consequences for mishearing a song, save embarrassment (Someone I know who thought Bon Jovi were Livin’ on a Prairie has not yet lived it down). However, failing to listen at work can cost you dearly.

‘Donald Duck took my chances’ – Survivor: Eye of the Tiger

In the worst case scenario, failure to listen could result in total crossed wires leading to a waste of time and effort for everyone involved. More likely than failing to listen at all and embarking up the wrong tree entirely is failing to listen authentically. Minor misalignments, out of sync priorities, missing details and confused timescales will all cost. The cost might be in lost opportunities, damaged relationships, disagreements, or missing out on repeat business.

The examples of song lyrics on this page (and accompanying cartoon) demonstrate misheard words. There’s not much to advise if you simply hear something other than what was said, other than to apply your common sense.  A more subtle and more common problem is misinterpreted words. The 500 most frequently used words in English have 1400 definitions between them. The same words can mean different things depending on geography, industry, and public and private sector. An office can be a building, a space within a building, a title or a group.

‘There’s nothing that a hundred men on Mars could ever do’ – Toto: Africa

There is a clear need to pay attention to avoid mishearing but, when it comes to misinterpreting words and meaning, does the fault lie with the speaker?   Should they express themselves more precisely? No – the onus is on the listener to understand from the speaker’s point of view. Whilst you can realistically expect clients not to be totally ambiguous, you can’t expect everyone who speaks to you to deliver a comprehensive request, specific in every detail (if they did you may well be cursing them for being too meticulous).

Authentic listening involves communication. That means asking questions if there is any ambiguity. Be alert to areas of known ambiguity – a ‘report’, for example, does not mean the same thing to everyone. Each of us has an understanding of words and language unique to our experiences, knowledge and perception. There needs to be a certain amount of communication between two different people to establish an understanding. Authentic listening requires talking.

‘Money for nothin’ and your chips for free’ – Dire Straits: Money For Nothing

There’s an old adage about having two ears and one mouth. We should listen more than we talk. But the mouth is still there. If you’re listening, you don’t want to seem as if you don’t understand. But, unless the speaker has delivered a thorough proposition covering all eventualities there will more than likely be a valid question raised. A sensible question on a key area of ambiguity actually demonstrates that you have been listening.

It may sound rather twee, but it is as important to listen for what is not said. Spotting the blank spaces where a miscommunication could occur and filling them by asking a question will save time, money and reputation in the long run. Authentic listening builds a relationship and creates a shared understanding. If you listen authentically, each conversation will be clearer than the last and results will improve accordingly.

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What do people say about YOU when you are not in the room?

Whatever you call your business, you and it are joined at the hip. Your reputations are one and the same and, though it takes time to build a reputation, you can lose it in a heartbeat. This goes deeper than avoiding posting inappropriate tweets (though your virtual self is an equal part of the entity). People will infer an awful lot about how you conduct business from how you conduct yourself.

Having mentioned social media flippantly, it’s actually worth giving it a serious thought. Don’t feel afraid to be funny or light-hearted online – social media is intended to be an opportunity to let people see your personality.

Like real life networking, too much time spent plugging your business gets boring quickly. Have fun; just remember it’s a publication. If you wouldn’t be happy with what you type being quoted in a paper – don’t type it!

But what about the real world? For starters, don’t be late. We all know there are nightmare occasions when the travel gods conspire against the very best of us, but there are many more occasions when a bit of preparedness can prevent lateness.

Always allow sufficient time – even if that means arriving early. If you have to sit and wait for a while in a coffee shop across the road, it’s no bad thing – catch up with some emails.

Why is this important? Because of the inference people will make. If you cannot deliver your physical presence on time, people will (consciously or subconsciously) question your ability to deliver a product or service. Not turning up at all is worse. Not turning up without explanation…unforgiveable.

The same goes for keeping promises. If you fail to deliver the (relatively inconsequential) email you promised would be sent that afternoon, you sow the seeds of doubt as to what exactly your promises are worth. Can you deliver when it matters? At all?

I’m not sure when the magic transformation happens, but after being late or failing to deliver x number of times, you become known someone who is late and doesn’t always deliver. Think about your contacts and you will know some ‘late people’. You don’t want to become one in other people’s eyes. That’s why it’s worth making every effort, every time.

If you want to demonstrate that your business can deliver results and deliver them on time, you need to start by showing that you can deliver. Live out your business code of conduct in your personal conduct – show people what you can do!

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Deciding how to decide

Next week people across the UK will make their decision and cast their vote in the General Election. This week, therefore, seems an opportune moment to look at decision making. Don’t be alarmed, this isn’t a party political broadcast, nor is it a self-help article to assist you in making the best decision come the 8th of June. This is a look at how decisions are made in small businesses and start-ups – politics is best left out of it.

That said, politics reveals peoples’ divergent attitudes towards decision making. Many resented the EU referendum last year on the grounds that the public did not necessarily fully appreciate the choice they were making. Issues of such gravity should be decided by politicians who have been thoroughly briefed by experts and elected to make decisions on our behalf, they argued. Others clearly enjoyed the experience of direct consultation, calling for more Scottish and EU referendums to follow the previous ones.

In short, some see decision making as a leader’s responsibility whilst others believe that fully democratic consultation is preferable. Both methods have their merits and neither is perfect. Decision making in a small business can be interesting as they have far more flexibility in how it is managed. Sole traders make sole decisions and large corporations need to have clear leadership structures, but SMEs have the freedom to decide how they decide.

Many businesses are founded by a driven, charismatic individual and, as these businesses grow, a hierarchy is organically created below this individual. Perhaps this is you – if so, you’ll probably be aware of how difficult it is to let go of control and delegate decision making responsibility. Micromanaging is a tough habit to break but delegation will be necessary at some point. The advantages of being a small, agile business can be squandered if all decisions have to filter back to one person.

There are risks within risks if a leader has a monopoly on decision making – most notably when it comes to growing your business and hiring. It is entirely plausible that a business owner, making all decisions themselves will decide to recruit people who won’t challenge their opinions. In much the same way that people’s social media bubbles and echo chambers can detach them from the real world, surrounding oneself with “yes men” or people who are happy to be instructed without offering input can detach your business strategy from where it needs to be – potentially up until a crisis point.

At the other end of the scale you can find start-ups who began as close-knit team endeavours or the work of a couple. From the outset, decision making is not the preserve of a single individual. All decisions are taken together, either unanimously or by a majority vote. This works absolutely perfectly for a start-up starting up. You can probably imagine the difficulties which arise once these businesses start to grow. When a committee becomes too large, any painting commissioned by them is likely to end up being grey.

Whether it’s a group needing to escape a committee format or a single person needing to learn to let go, small businesses need to adapt their decision making systems. The good news is they have the freedom and flexibility to be adaptable.  Who are the key people to delegate responsibility to or elect to be responsible? If you have an IT expert on board, for example, could they be given the final say regarding decisions relating to their field? There is no cookie cutter solution, but it is the ingenious systems which evolve in small businesses which make them fascinating and often game changing. If you have a story to tell about how your business has evolved and adapted to make decisions effectively and efficiently, we’d love to hear from you.

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Can you say “no” and feel ok about it?

C.B. Fry was a remarkable man. Well into his seventies he performed his trademark party trick of a backward standing jump onto a mantelpiece; but this was just one of his talents. He played football in an FA Cup Final for Southampton, captained Sussex and England at cricket, played rugby for the Barbarians and held the world long jump record. In 1920 he was reputedly offered, and chose to turn down, the throne of Albania. As a man with an ambition for politics as well as sport, who had been frustrated three times in his efforts to become an MP in his own country, the offer to become the head of state of a nation must have been tempting. No details are recorded of the exchange, other than the fact that he was approached, and his reasons for declining are unknown. However, I imagine that most people (regardless of their ideas about Albania or the concept of monarchy) would experience at least some difficulty in passing up the opportunity to become royalty.

Sometimes you have to have the courage to say no to a business opportunity. It took me considerable time to learn to decline business opportunities and feel ok about it. I have four criteria which I apply and, if I were even to think about taking on a new piece of business without all four criteria being satisfied, I would need to have a serious talk with myself. History has shown that if I forget this discipline it tends to come back and haunt me. My four criteria are:

  • I only want to work with and for people I like
  • I only want to do interesting work
  • I want to make money but not be greedy
  • I want to have fun

During difficult economic times such as these, we are inclined to take on everyone who comes through the door. However, undertaking the wrong project can be just as damaging as turning down a golden opportunity, with potentially longer lasting damage. My criteria are, admittedly, personal ones for me and do not form a model for anyone to adopt but there are more universal, practical reasons for declining work.

Confidence in one’s own ability is commendable, but committing yourself to a project for which you have inadequate skills is a bad idea. We all like to be challenged and work that pushes you beyond your niche area of expertise can play a part in keeping things interesting, but if the Venn diagram of the required skills and your own skills does not overlap sufficiently you can be setting yourself up for trouble. If all you are bringing to the table is the fact that you are a quick learner then you could be embarking on a very unpleasant journey that could leave a permanent stain on your credentials and reputation.

It is important to be realistic about your resources. Time is finite – you can use time more efficiently, but you can’t add extra hours into the day. If presented with a new opportunity you have to be honest about whether you can devote the time that the project deserves, or that you can undertake this task without neglecting your existing clients. ‘Scope creep’ is a frequent concern – does this work involve exactly what it says on the tin, is it likely to snowball into something larger, what is the true size of this undertaking and does my pricing cover any expansion? The ‘creep’ in ‘scope creep’ implies that this is a gradual process, which is true, but it pays to keep alert for early warning signs. An expanding project may not just grow to demand time you do not have, but may start to require skills outside of your area of expertise, leading to the same problems mentioned above. If this situation is considered beforehand and planned for then all should be well, but if the signs are missed you can end up out of your depth, struggling for time and not able to put in the kind of performance you would be proud of.

Being proud of what you do leads to thinking about ethics. Most people don’t want to end up working for or promoting something they don’t believe in. Yes, where you set your own standard with regard to ethics is entirely up to you but you need to be consistent. Some people can work in the arms industry quite contentedly as they have never themselves pulled a trigger, whilst others have resigned from payday loan companies which, despite the legality of their service, troubled those individuals on ethical and moral grounds. You might find it easy to turn down work for an international drug smuggling ring but be unsure about whether or not to provide consultancy to a company that delivers financial services to a major overseas client known to use underage labour in their factories. Where you plant your flag on a moral map is up to you, but it’s worth thinking about where that might be and important to consistently stand by your ethical code.

The business world is becoming increasingly transparent – a change exacerbated by social media. If you enter into a project with the wrong skill set, insufficient resources or if that endeavour ties you to a particular ethical standpoint, it will become public knowledge. This is why it is worth giving these matters thought beforehand. It is not unprofessional to turn down work. However, if you feel you must decline work, it must be done with grace. Through word-of-mouth communication, social media and traditional networking, your decision to say no will likely become known. Your communication strategies must be positive and forward looking, even when delivering a negative response. How you deliver the bad news requires care, integrity, careful deliberation and should not make you look like an amateur. Respect and honesty are the order of the day.

I was honest with myself when I came up with my four personal criteria. Time and skills factors aside, these are things that I want from my work. I have tried to keep things positive. Instead of a ‘blacklist’ of work I would not contemplate they are a checklist of things I look for in prospective work.

Turning down work may seem mad, bad or dangerous to do, but some decision making goes beyond looking at the potential dollar signs, and taking on the wrong project can seriously dent you professionally and leave you very unhappy personally. It’s important to do what’s right for you. Not everyone wants to be a monarch. There are opportunities for work out there that you can do well, earn money from, take pride in and enjoy without sitting on the throne of Albania.

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The Accidental Troll

The ability to create and live through an online persona has been a blessing to some people – a chance to invent oneself anew. Others have used the opportunity to indulge the worst aspects of their personality from behind the perceived safety of anonymity. Your business has an online persona too – how closely does this resemble the real person or people who make up your organisation?

We’re all aware of the internet troll, though the term has departed from its original meaning. Troll has become a noun rather than a verb. Initially to troll was an action, derived from trawl. Instead of dragging a net to catch the most fish, internet users would write a post designed to elicit the largest response. It was, essentially, a game.

The more inflammatory the post, the more people would be drawn in. A post that could set two sides of an already established, contentious issue against one another in online argument has the potential to snowball and draw an ever larger number of people in. Thus trolling became synonymous with posting controversial, even reprehensible opinions.

You might be looking to raise your profile and attract online followers but you’re probably not looking to sow discord and trigger outrage, so how does this relate to your business? They key is the disconnect between the person and the front they put on. The term troll is now applied to those initiating the posts, rather than their actions. Anyone posting offensive material, whether as a device to provoke or as targeted abuse, is now labelled ‘a troll’ – the unifying factor is the fact they hide behind anonymity or a created persona.

Whatever their motivation, the trolls are unlikely to ever post the content that they do under their real name. When ‘troll hunters’ unmask these individuals they are often revealed to be somewhat unlikely offenders – the sort of people who would never dream of saying out loud the things they happily type. Whether they are posting things they do not really believe using the barrier of a screen or using that barrier to write the things they do think but would never admit in real life, it is the barrier which enables them.

Your business has an online presence and the same barrier which gives safety to trolls can serve to mislead your clients. Many will find you (or vet you) online. However you have chosen to present yourself and your business online will set their expectations. If, when you meet, the carbon based life-form sat across from them doesn’t match up to what they had been led to believe online they will be confused or even suspicious.

Just as the trolls seed of discord can grow, so can the seed of doubt planted by inconsistencies with your online business. If the services you’re offering at your meeting are not quite the same as those listed on your website, not only does one alarm bell go off – a whole string of alarms is triggered: ‘If he’s not been entirely accurate about services, can we trust him on costs, timescales, the ability to deliver..?’

If any disconnect between your online and real self is deliberately constructed, it will likely be found out. It is more likely that divergence is accidental and due to out of date or neglected websites and social media channels; or perhaps through an online over eagerness to put every new idea up in public view without considering the realities of how you would deliver them. In any case, consistency is key – consistency across the real and online world and between your various media outlets and social media. The internet allows you to cast a wide net, but ensure that your customers are able to recognise the fisherman.

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Professional courtesy – a dying art?

It never ceases to amaze me the lack of courtesy people display in the workplace. Recently there were two pieces of disappointing news I was entitled to hear but in both cases the other party, for reasons best known to themselves, chose to remain silent, with the result that I eventually found out in a far from satisfactory way. Firstly, this is poor business practice. Nobody likes to be the bearer of bad news for fear of the recipient choosing to shoot the messenger. However, communication is essential, even when the subject matter is negative.

You may have hear the saying ‘Good news is no news; no news is bad news; and bad news is good news’. Good news is no news because it means you’re meeting expectations, no news is bad news because it means being kept in the dark. But bad news can be good news because it means a problem is coming to light and you have the chance to fix it. The sooner this news is revealed the better. In general, people diagnosed with cancer at an early stage have much a better chance of beating it than those who discover the illness when it has developed and spread. In the corporate world, burying a problem or refusing to face facts can only have detrimental effects in the long term.

Secondly, it led me to think about the implications of politeness, manners and courtesy in the workplace on wider scale. With that in mind, I don’t intend to whinge and moan but to celebrate the application of courtesy and demonstrate how a little politeness can bring great benefits to your reputation, relationships and business.

Many seem to think we have developed beyond the need for courtesy. Archaic rituals and codes of behaviour seem increasingly pointless to us. Ancient proskynesis towards your host developed into kneeling, which was largely replaced by offering an open hand to be shaken. All of which were designed to impede one’s ability to draw a weapon or demonstrate an empty hand and thus no harmful intent towards the other party. This seems irrelevant today in an age when we no longer wear swords, but as a society we still sit up, take notice and comment when football managers refuse to shake hands after a game.

We can move on from certain social and cultural traditions, even to the point of making a deliberate statement by not conforming. But we shouldn’t abandon good manners. Companies wishing to project a specific image can relax their dress code or enforce a casual dress code, but it is definitely not common practice to maintain a deliberate policy of discourtesy (except perhaps for cold sales callers and spam emailers). Whatever the origins of our notions of politeness, the behaviors and attitudes that resulted still resonate with us. On an individual level, when you use manners and common courtesy, it shows consideration and professionalism. If you don’t then people make judgments about you regardless of your abilities. Applied to a business, courtesy demonstrates integrity, trustworthiness and inspires confidence.

In a culture of rudeness and disregard for courtesy it is easy to want to go with the flow. If nobody else bothers to switch off their mobile or set it to silent during a meeting, why should you? You can’t be singled out for criticism if it rings because everyone else there has had their phone go off in previous meetings. True, but you can be singled out as the person who always remembers and makes the effort to turn off their phone and concentrates fully on the matter at hand. You and your business can be singled out as being polite, respectful and pleasant to work with.

Every generation believes that we are in a state of moral and social decline. Modern commentators, medieval authors and ancient Roman poets have all written that standards of behavior and courtesy are not what they once were. It is possible that we are part of an ongoing decline. It is more likely that the ‘golden age’ every writer harks back to, when everyone behaved impeccably, never really existed and that we have always lived in a world where manners were there, were understood, but were not universally applied. Either way this is good news for those of us who do believe in courtesy – all the more reason to stand out from the crowd and not give in to impoliteness. In this world, an honest, polite, courteous individual or business draws attention. The darker the sky around them gets, the brighter the stars seem to shine.

Posted in: Life Skills

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