Tag Archives: Strategic management

Learning Management From A Chef’s Life

It’s Foodie Friday and this week I’d like to highlight a business lesson I was reminded of while watching “A Chef’s Life.” If you’re not familiar with the show, it’s a series (now in its fifth season) that features Vivian Howard, the chef at a restaurant in eastern North Carolina, as she runs her restaurant, raises her kids, writes what is now an acclaimed cookbook, and improves her craft. I watch it both for the great storytelling as well as to learn about the local food traditions and recipes of the Carolinas

As the series has progressed and Vivian’s star has risen, she has sent some time ruminating on the fact that she spends far less time in the kitchen of her restaurant than when she opened it. She also talks about how strange it feels when she actually does go back into the kitchen, whether it’s to develop new dishes or to do a quality check. This resonated with me even though my business has nothing to do with running a restaurant.

Executive chefs are really managers. While they were once line cooks, the amount of time they spend cooking is inversely proportionate to the responsibility they have. Like any manager, their job is to make sure that the entire operation is moving in sync and that the people who do the actual work have the tools and materials they need. They teach where necessary but other than in emergencies, they don’t step in and actually do the job that is the responsibility of their subordinates.

This is probably the hardest thing for new managers to understand. I remember that when I began managing people it was extremely frustrating to watch my subordinates take more time to do projects I could do in a flash. Their work was often full of errors, mistakes I wouldn’t have made just because I had a lot more experience. But doing the work for them would have been just as big an error since they wouldn’t learn and I would not be working with the other members of the department.

On the show, Vivian remarks that show doesn’t feel as if she’s doing anything when she’s in the restaurant’s kitchen now because it runs most days without her. I used to feel the same way as I was learning that my job entailed different “doings.” Wandering around and listening, clarifying goals, working with other department heads, giving a pat on the back to someone and a kick in the butt to another are all part of the manager’s job but when you’re used to having an overloaded project list and deadlines, it doesn’t feel as if you’re doing much at all. In reality, Vivian has done a fantastic job managing since her operation runs well on its own. She can focus on the next project – new dishes, new restaurants, the next book – while knowing her business is operating efficiently. Not a bad model for any of us!

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Filed under food, Thinking Aloud

Embracing Change

“The only constant is change” is an old saw, but it got to be so because it’s true. I mean, it was uttered by an ancient Greek philosopher (Heraclitus) and has been repeated for 1,500 years. Change is inevitable yet a lot of us are incredibly resistant to it. We carry that resistance into our business lives as well.

Most businesses are pretty good at living in today. They have a grasp on their current situation and have allocated resources to deal with their daily operations based on that situation. A lot of businesses also have a grasp on what will happen tomorrow. They plan lines of succession within departments and train their staff to move up. They allocate capital to grow strategically based on how they see tomorrow playing out. Generally, the short-term doesn’t portend radical change.

The problem occurs when you ask businesses (and people) to think about the day AFTER tomorrow – the longer term in which change occurs. In some cases, people don’t even recognize that there will be a day after tomorrow. Try to have a chat with a 23-year-old employee about retirement and the need to start saving today for something 50 years down the road if you want proof of that. A lot of managers guide their businesses based on a series of short-term plans and goals without contemplating the sustainability of their plans over long-term. They don’t embrace change because they don’t want to accept that it’s going to happen.

The music business fought change and where are they now? My beloved TV business is going through this now as they continue to deny cord-cutting is a problem and refusing to adjust to this massive change. On the non-business side, I believe that many of the challenges our country faces are due to the refusal to accept how our demographic and economic base has changed. That refusal, both in business and outside of it, sparks fear as the signs of change become more prevalent. It’s really only traumatic, however, if we try to resist rather than accepting change and planning for it.

I believe in controlling your business. That means you need to contemplate change, accept it, and revise your plans before change happens to you and not because of you. Things happening due to circumstances beyond your control should be rare if you look to the day after tomorrow, embrace the inevitable change, and having a clear picture of where you’re going, not clinging to an unreasonable and unsustainable changed past. Make sense?

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Unintended Consequences

It’s Foodie Friday and I have unintended consequences on my mind. What spurred that were a couple of food-related things. I went to do some research about an alcoholic product and of course, I was asked to verify my age before being allowed to read the brand’s website. I assumed that was some sort of regulation imposed on beer, wine, and booze makers since it’s the sort of thing I caution clients about doing all the time: preventing the user from completing their task as seamlessly as possible. As it turns out, there is no rule requiring alcohol brands to do this. What it might do, however, is deter the very people who should have more information about alcohol – young people – from getting educated. This is an unintended consequence. If they lie about their age to gain access, you’ve also caused them to violate the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, and making them break the law is another unintended consequence.

I also read a piece on the growth of restaurant delivery services:

As mobile food delivery apps like Seamless, UberEats, Caviar, and Postmates steadily expand their delivery zones and their customer bases, many restaurants are increasingly relying on delivery orders as a significant source of revenue — and they’re having to adapt operations accordingly to keep up with demand.

The unintended consequence here is that restaurant personnel are often spending so much time servicing the take-out business that the customers seated in the dining room have a lesser experience. Putting aside the fact that there is the potential for a restaurant’s reputation to suffer when the product delivered is way inferior to the product in the dining room, a failure to properly prioritize the kitchen to service the folks who have journeyed to the dining room could set up a lose-lose situation, with neither the folks eating at home nor the people eating out being satisfied. There is also the stress caused by having to refine the operations plan to support the take-out business.

We see unintended consequences all the time. Kudzu went from being an ornamental plant to a menace. When the British governor of Delhi, India addressed a cobra infestation by putting a bounty on cobras, they got more, not fewer, snakes, as people raised them to collect the bounty. I’m sure you’ve seen examples in your business of this, whether it’s a different response to a price change than what was anticipated or a sudden wave of popularity of a brand or product based on some bit of social media madness.

Whatever it is, it’s incumbent on all of us to think about every decision in the context of what the effects of a course of action might be. Who is affected and how? How will it affect competitors and what might their possible responses be? Do this more each alternative you’re contemplating and your odds of avoiding an unintended consequence will improve. You with me?

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Navigating To Success

One of the roles I play along with my regular consulting gig is an advisor. I am what’s call a “Navigator” at one of the oldest incubators in the area. Each month, the Navigators get together and listen to a pitch from a resident company. It’s good practice for them (you can NEVER have enough practice pitching your business) and it’s good for us to become better-versed in what’s going on.

Most of the companies headquartered at the incubator are engaged in scientific research of some sort and there are a lot of Ph.D.’s wandering around the building. They know a phenomenal amount about their fields and about the company they’re germinating. The problem is that they don’t seem to know that they’re building a business and not a science experiment. We had one of these get-togethers yesterday and I was speaking to another Navigator, comparing notes about the companies we’ve seen and the pitches we’ve heard. He had found, as had I, that most of these very smart entrepreneurs had no trouble explaining the nuances of some very complicated science but had massive difficulty in explaining how they were going to make money.

A book from a few years ago wrote up research that found that 87.5% of Millennials disagreed with the statement that “money is the best measure of success.” On a personal level, I couldn’t agree more with their thinking. There ARE many more important things in life that reflect success and failure. On a business level, unfortunately, that’s dead wrong. When you raise capital, your ability to provide a return on that investment – i.e. money – is the measure of success. Otherwise, you’re not a business: you’re a charity. Since these entrepreneurs – almost all of whom are Millennials – claim to be building businesses, part of what I and the other Navigators help them do is to focus on the business of their business and not just on the science and their products.

We ask them the kinds of questions I hope you ask yourself. What problem are you solving? Who else is solving it? Why is your solution better? How much will it cost to build your product at scale? How is it priced? What is the profit margin? What’s the competitive set in how big a market? Pretty basic questions, I know, but these are smart people who have never been asked them before. The ones that can answer them clearly are the ones that will get funded and survive. Do you fall into that group?

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Taking One For The Team

When was the last time, other than The Super Bowl, that you actively watched an ad? I suspect that you’re like me and you’re actively doing what you can to avoid seeing ads at all costs. You wear out the buttons on the remote or you record your favorite shows and watch them later. You might even have jumped into the camp of those of us who pay not to see ads. We pay Netflix or Hulu or Amazon or all three to watch the content we love in an uninterrupted way. I pay SiriusXM not to hear my favorite music interrupted by product ads (still can’t seem to avoid those promos, although they’re usually appropriate to the content I’m consuming).

Then there is the web, both computer-based and mobile. It makes a NASCAR vehicle seems as uncluttered and virgin as the newly fallen snow. Pop-ups, pop-unders, hidden ads that spew sound from a minimized window, multiple windows popping in succession, far too fast for the consumer to read but quickly enough to record an ad displayed and a marketer charged. It’s a nightmare.

Let me digress. There is one topic we hit hard here in the screed: customer experience. We’ve covered the customer service rep that screws you over, the faulty products delivered without shame or recourse, and the airline that my friends and I call “Air We Don’t Care” (actually our name is a little different and a lot more obscene). We’ve also covered the other side of that – the customer service rep that goes the extra mile and solves your problem beyond your expectations. All of that relates to what is called the user experience in the digital world.

It’s nice to see that there are finally a number of publishers who recognize that a focus on user experience over driving maximum revenue call pay off in the long run. Digiday ran a piece about it, explaining how some brave publishers are overcoming their fear of losing money in favor of cultivating a more loyal audience. It finally dawned on these publishers that people aren’t coming for the ads.

I spent many years selling media. I know that our customer is really the marketer and their agency. However, in order to attract those customers, we need to have viewers and readers that consume our content – a LOT of our content – and keep coming back for more. Improving the user experience makes that happen even if it might cause a temporary drop in page views, ads displayed, and revenue. Heck, when even the NFL is recognizing that they have to reformat their games to speed them up and make the ads less intrusive (a better user experience!), all other content providers need to take notice.

Is the sales department taking one for the team as the editorial group improves the user experience? Probably in the short term, yes. But in a world where ad-blockers, remote controls, DVR’s, and streaming rule, it’s a smart sacrifice in my eyes. You?

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Filed under Consulting, digital media

The Pivot

Way back when in 1995, I was working at ABC Sports as their VP of Marketing. My job entailed meeting with advertisers and constructing packages of media and on-site benefits. We’d collaboratively design in-program elements, popularly known then as “enhancements”, to capitalize on the marketers’ involvement with a sport or an event. These things all took place on-air or on-site. The other big “on” – online – didn’t exist.

One day the president of ABC Sports walked into my office and asked me if I knew anything about computers. As a user of AOL, Prodigy, Compuserve and other early services, I replied that I did. He informed me that I was in charge and was to attend a meeting. ABC corporate had made a deal with this little start-up of under a million users called America OnLine and I was now to provide sports programming on behalf of ABC.

That was my pivot into digital. I didn’t realize it at the time, but saying “yes” to my boss’ question and being willing to take on some new, different responsibility had changed my life forever. None of us knew at the time that digital was going to disrupt the television business. We certainly didn’t think of it as anything other than an interesting sideline. But we began to see a little money coming in based on what we were doing, and once in a while, I could add some online stuff to the broad package of rights and benefits I was offering in my “real” job. Less than 5 years later, my job had become fully centered on digital, as I was now running a division of the NHL that didn’t even exist when I entered the digital world.

Being willing to pivot is a critical thing. Many businesses would be long gone if they were unwilling to do so. Foursquare, for example, pivoted their business from a consumer product to a B2B product, providing “location intelligence” to marketers. 90% of their revenue comes from that change. YouTube started as a video dating site. Nokia was a paper company. Twitter was a podcasting network. None of those businesses would be as successful, or maybe even exist, if they hadn’t been willing to shift their business paradigm and pivot.

I’d love to tell you that I saw the digital tsunami coming and got out in front of it on purpose but that would be a lie. I was lucky enough to ride the wave once it did show up because in my mind we were just doing what we’d always done – making great content and deriving value from the attention users gave it – albeit through a very different channel. The pivot was allowing my mind to be open enough to make that connection and to take the risk that it would be a rewarding road. Is your mind open to things like that?

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Filed under digital media, Growing up, Reality checks, sports business

Supermarket Sweep

It’s Foodie Friday but I want to talk about Thursday. Why Thursday? That’s the day I do my grocery shopping because my preferred supermarket gives a 5% discount to seniors. Stop snickering – I managed to live this long and I deserve the benefit!

One thing I’ve gotten much better about is saving as I shop. Nothing brings joy to me these days like finding a coupon that I can layer on top of an item already on sale. This happened yesterday with Duke’s Mayo and I was nearly brought to tears. In any event, I thought I might pass along a few things I’ve learned, and as it turns out, many of them have a lot of application to your business as well.

First, I try to make some sort of a weekly meal plan. You’d be shocked how much easier shopping is when you know what you’ll be making in advance. I leave myself some flexibility – maybe the rapini looks good and I’ll swap out the asparagus I’d planned to buy. Maybe I’ll just say “beef” as a protein and rely on whatever I can find that’s on sale or, even better, a “yellow tag” special that’s deeply discounted because it’s near its last day of sale. I do look at the circulars that come on Wednesday to help me plan, and the coupons that come the previous Sunday also guide my thinking. The key is that before I step foot into the store I already know why I’m there and what, specifically, I need to buy.

This sort of planning is something I encourage clients to do with their businesses. Chasing the latest shiny object without some sort of a coherent plan rarely works out well. Yes, I’m a believer in just walking to the meat or fish or produce section, buying what looks good on an opportunistic basis, and going from there, but I’ve found that in general, I do better in the long run (and the wallet) by having a plan. Opportunities will always arise but we should only take advantage of the ones that make sense, given our overall plan.

Next, once I have a plan I go through all the coupons, tossing the ones that have expired and matching the ones that haven’t to items that are on sale or in my meal plan. It’s rare that I purchase anything at full price unless there is a pressing need and I can’t find a brand on sale or with a coupon. Like you, I have preferred brands and I’ll stock up on them when they’re on sale. That sort of opportunistic and volume purchasing is something any business can do. Make commitments to providers for a long term in return for a discount. Don’t hesitate to take advantage of lower costs provided that you’re receiving equal value. By the way, this is how your customers think which is why it’s imperative that you emphasize that value you provide to go along with your reasonable costs.

By the way, even if you don’t get a newspaper, most stores post their circulars online, and there are plenty of free online coupons you can print off and take on your trip. As in business, the key is research, planning, and the careful allocation of capital on those things that are in the plan. Make sense?

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Filed under food, Helpful Hints