About Eric Denniston

Eric Denniston has proven experience with strategic business planning and financial management systems and processes. Working with non-profit and for-profit organizations, he has worked with leaders on corporate governance, leadership development, business planning, and strategic management challenges. He has also trained sales development and technical teams. His business planning activities include global businesses, resort, hotel and residential development and international healthcare projects. Eric has native fluency in Spanish and English and is also highly fluent in French. He has a masters in international management from Thunderbird School of Global Management in Glendale, AZ.

Where is Change Management Going?

By Eric Denniston, Change Architect, Denner Group International

Takeaways: A trending assessment of Change Management and Change Architecture. The connection between Change Architecture and Transformation.

A recent LinkedIn blog started by Jason Uppal, P. Eng. on the LI Group Business Transformation Made Straight Forward, has spurred a conversation about what Enterprise Architecture is in simple terms. One answer is that it is “(the) Science of Industrial Engineering applied to non-industrial value chains”. In my view this lacks simplicity because it uses business jargon not necessarily clear to most people. Further conversation from Kevin Smith in this blog uncovered details about the relationship of Industrial Engineering (IE) to Enterprise Architecture (EA). Diving even deeper, there is discussion about the inherent science supporting IE, Edwards Demming being an Industrial Engineer and whether or not architecture is based on good science and the fact that systems engineering defines specific requirements in both management and engineering.

This all frames part of the genesis of Change Management and EA which is too voluminous to cover fully here. The blog exchange continues to explore this train of thought toward where Change Management is going by introducing the specific topics of both Enterprise Transformation and Enterprise Architecture.

Two interesting conclusions have so far resulted in this thread: 1) “doing EA only exists to support Transformation”, and 2) the “EA will evolve into something that may look like industrial engineering.”

So, I take away the confirmation that EA is a tool, not a simple one, but still a tool to facilitate transformation. In addition, that this work on Enterprise Architecture is an evolving discipline that will likely experience its own accelerated change throughout my lifetime, and that it incorporates both Systems Thinking and Design Thinking. And finally, that in considering all this from a systems thinking standpoint, we can learn from Kevin Smith’s statement that “(It is) Not the Execution of Transformation, but the Transformation of Transformation, to better enable the Transformation of Operations”.

Leadership: Cheerleader, Coach, Dictator & holding people accountable

By Eric Denniston, Managing Director, Denner Group International  November 16. 2014

Takeaways: Compare three common leadership styles. Coaching as a leadership skill for business leaders. Eight “Be Attitudes” to help you maximize your ability to hold your team accountable.

Sometimes leaders display confusion about some very basic ways to be a leader. One we often encounter is an individual who consistently focuses on cheerleading-type activities, often ignoring other types of reinforcement, both positive and negative. They praise their team for their hard work and mention how much they appreciate them, but the leader is not working off any sort of plan with measurable results. How do you think the team members really feel about how they are being treated? Truly valued, or perhaps just being snowed? Granted, cheerleading is important since it ensures both the leader and the team members are reminded that celebrating successes is very important. But imagine a sports team that consistently has a losing record and is constantly being told what good job they did when the results say differently. At least in sports there is a scoreboard clearly identifying measurable results. What measurable results and programs for celebrating success do you have for your team?

Coaching skills are valuable

Coaching skills in business leaders have become one of the most valuable traits we can employ in leading teams. Coaches facilitate the team’s individual and collective success by first understanding very deeply what drives the team and ensuring the team is extremely clear about the desired outcomes of their work. Coaches also facilitate the maintenance of a shared set of values. There have been many very visible sports team coaches over the years whose success is legendary, as has their toughness with their team members. When we look closely at their styles in leading their teams, it’s clear they leaned much more toward facilitating their teams’ success instead of commanding or demanding it. Their toughness comes through more as having an uncompromising commitment to a system of values that helps keep the team members focused on their outcomes. This also distinguishes successful business and government leaders.

A dictatorial style of leadership has historically ended both abruptly and badly, for the dictator and the team being led. Regardless of whether a leader was leading a government, a non-profit, a commercial enterprise or a sports team, we consistently see a pattern of the team coalescing in support of the leader, high levels of energy toward the objective set by the leader and uncompromising pressure toward objectives set primarily by the singular leader. This is later followed by some thoughtful sub-leaders naturally questioning their direction, then external pressures rapidly growing against the leader and finally a relatively complete destruction of the organization and often the leader. Consider short lived sports teams, athletic teams and whole leagues involved in unsportsmanlike activities, many leaders of nations and yes, many leaders of large and visible businesses. Companies like Enron and Lehman Brothers, Arthur Andersen and Washington Mutual all displayed many of the characteristics of dictatorial leadership, straying from best practices in management and pursuing unrealistic and massively exaggerated objectives. They also knowingly violated generally broadly accepted tenets of law and human behavior holding team members accountable to very narrowly defined results and little accountability to a shared set of values.

Holding people accountable and leading them to achieve mutually desired and measurable objectives may just be one brief way to describe a successful leader. Of course, it’s not necessary that simple. I am reminded by the eight “Be Attitudes” of holding people accountable put forth by Bob Whipple, MBA, CPLP, a respected Fortune 500 senior executive, author and CEO of Leadergrow, Inc.

He lists those attitudes as:
•    Be clear about your expectations
•    Be sure of your facts
•    Be timely
•    Be Kind
•    Be Consistent
•    Be Discrete
•    Be Gracious
•    Be Balanced

Bob Whipple of LeadergrowIf you would like to gain more insight on these attitudes you can do so at the Leadergrow, Inc. website.

Developing and applying successful leadership skills are keys to succeeding in any type of managerial endeavor, but in leading strategy and change these are even more critical. How good are you at practicing the eight “Be Attitudes”?

The Future of Strategic Management

Staying in touch with developments in Strategic Management inevitably requires reading books, articles, blogs and viewing videos delivered by fellow practitioners of this discipline. Perhaps the greatest value in doing this is the constant reminder that the way to seek improvement in managing strategy is by implementing change, and in fact, accelerating change – and it keeps us sharp. It keeps us thinking. And it keeps us innovating.

Rick SmithTwo recent articles bring up topics related to improving strategy that address some fundamental issues we should keep in mind. One is titled Is Strategy Dead? 7 Reasons the Answer is Yes, by Rick Smith (Forbes.com, 9/22/2014).

SusanSmithThe other is Why I Think Change Management is Broken, by Susan Smith (susan.smith.live, 9/29/2014).

The first article cites the compressed time frames in which strategies must be created, planned, implemented and evaluated. It offers these seven reasons with supporting descriptions for the premise that strategy is dead:
1.    Incrementalism has been disrupted by disruption.
2.    Innovation is occurring with high variance outcomes.
3.    The past is no longer a good predictor of the future.
4.    Competitive lines have dissolved completely.
5.    Information has gone from scarcity to abundancy. (I will add indigestion.)
6.    It is very difficult to forecast option values.
7.    Large scale execution is trumped by rapid transactional learning.

The article concludes by stating: “The language of Strategy may be alive and well within the musings of corporate planners and external consultants. Unfortunately, the marketplace is no longer paying attention.”

Some interesting comments on the LinkedIn Group – Strategic Management Forum-Global by Tim MacDonald about this article say: “They want different outcomes. But not a different system.” And: “One challenge for Strategy is to come to grips with the letting go.”

Certainly, when we plan anything, we are creating change and therefore presumably preparing to let go of something. Aren’t we? So we must know that embracing the change and following through with it is the key. Doing so with the clarity of purpose when applying Systems Thinking, supports us in the adjustments that we must make to our strategies along the way.

So, what is your take on this? Is strategy really dead, or is our approach to strategy in need of some applied change management?

The second article also addresses the constantly increasing pace of change and the pressure on strategy and strategic plans to adapt to a “new normal”. Evidently there is a McKinsey survey that “demonstrates that 30% of Change Programs are still ineffective spanning a decade-long assessment”.

This article goes on to elegantly articulate the value of Systems Thinking as “providing the ‘final’ answer to a more effective framework to manage change regardless of its complexity or velocity, embedding it into our daily routines for profitable and sustainable results.” Susan reminds us we simply cannot “opt out” of the set of natural laws that make up Systems Thinking.

She adds that most people have not heard of Systems Thinking because they have not been introduced to it by its proper name. I would add those people have neither been given a clear definition, nor some good and simple examples of it. Once they have learned the definition, they almost always become avid students and practitioners of Systems Thinking, embracing its simplicity.

Susan continues with a conversation about the importance of using all of the Systems Thinking building blocks and not taking short cuts by only adopting one or two a-la-carte style. When you try these short cuts, your Change Program will most likely fail.

So, do you think Change Management is Broken? If so, what will you do to help fix it?

I offer you this bonus topic prompted by a post from Paul Barnett  where he asks the question: “…could this, and should this, happen to the teaching of Strategic Management?  I would argue that it could, and should.” His question in turn is prompted by the Financial Times article published on 9/22/14 titled, Universities to Revamp Economics Courses by Clare Jones.

In a nutshell, university students worldwide recently complained bitterly that economics, as it is taught today, is completely disconnected from reality and today’s economic issues. This has caused universities around the world to collectively begin to adjust their curricula to address this matter.

I find it fascinating how today’s technology can unite a group of seemingly unconnected stakeholders to create massive global change. One would think that continuously applying Systems Thinking to this singular course of education could have caused this change to be more organic and timely, and that it could certainly help in implementing the coming changes.

So, in terms of educating our future Strategic Planners and Managers, I find these threads of thought to be compelling, in particular about Systems Thinking:

If teaching economics at the university level needs some major change, what about strategic planning and strategic management? Should we be exploring what we need to change to address the “new normal”?

And what about addressing not just what is taught, but also teaching how to learn? My greatest takeaway from the years I spent in classrooms all the way through university, is that in addition to learning facts, figures and how to do things, I was also learning how to learn. Recognizing this made my graduate work so much richer.

What can we practitioners of strategic planning and management do to ensure future practitioners are being guided toward the most effective application of their craft and successful careers? Toward continuing to innovate and change how things are done in the world of strategy?

I would start with a good foundation in Systems Thinking. Illustrating how it can become a habit and just as importantly, how to distinguish it and complement it with tactical or analytic thinking. We know that Systems Thinking is not the exclusive solution to strategy and solving problems, we know that it is inclusive of other types of thinking because it is holistic in its process.

If you would like to further explore the topics of ttrategic thinking, strategic management and managing change, please contact me at eric[at]dennergroup.com.

Strategic Planning Career Takes Focus

Eric A. Denniston, Denner Group International   January 30, 2014

Takeaways: A strategic planning career defined. A possible career path to plan for. What size organizations to seek work in. Valuable certifications to obtain and keep.

Are you already planning to have a career, or switch your career in the direction of Strategic Planning? Make sure you ask yourself what long term outcomes you are looking for and once you are in that career, what becomes possible for you. If you are just beginning to pursue a professional career, ask yourself, what is it about Strategic Planning that spins your jets and what will cause you to pursue such a career with focus, vigor and tenacity. In either case, also make sure you talk to people who are in this career, either as internal practitioners or as consultants and executives who hire these people.

Having an undergraduate degree is a basic place to start if you are planning such a career after or soon after finishing high school. A business degree is more likely to lead to work that is best suited to gaining experience you will need; however, social and engineering sciences can also be very beneficial. This is true because strategic planning in fact requires multi-disciplinary skills.

Large Organizations Provide Platforms for Skill Building

Becoming effective as a planner involving strategy requires significant experience in tactical activities, and getting to know at least one organization of a few hundred employees or more extremely well. This can be accomplished by working in a number of different areas of a company, or a similar company in the same industry, say banking, manufacturing or insurance. Understanding how all those departments interact will lead to good insight for leading planning activities later on. Typical roles that will enhance your career include being a project leader or a department manager, and getting involved in process improvement.

Along the way, skill building will come through practice; and finding mentors, both inside and outside your company, will help immeasurably as well. You should also pursue general and specific education opportunities. A master’s degree in management is a good choice, if possible focused on strategic management, which is a growing area of discipline. You should also become certified in one or more of the following: Strategic Planning and Management (ASP), Project Management (PMI), Business Analysis (IIBA) and Enterprise Architecture (TOGAF). Each of these certifications leads their respective areas of discipline. Going through the training provided for each one will expose you to materials, knowledge and thought leaders that will give your career opportunities a substantial boost. Obtaining and keeping these certifications requires an ongoing commitment. Staying certified demonstrates to others your level of commitment to being among the best in the business.

Larger organizations provide amazingly rich platforms for working at and practicing the different disciplines that lead to being an effective strategic planner. The variety of challenges and problems that occur produce a rich environment for considering how tactical and strategic solutions can be applied to overcome them, and when to use both. Understanding how these complex living systems function and how their various parts interact is key to developing the insights necessary to succeed.

As your career progresses, seek more and more involvement in planning, whether it is department budgets, or planning and leading projects. Understanding the roles different levels of management have in planning will lead to deeper involvement as you prove your skills. Seeking leadership roles in higher and higher level strategic planning initiatives will help as well. Eventually, you may lead the strategic planning or strategic management team, or move on to Change Architecture, which is a natural extension of Strategic Planning and Management.

What’s exciting about work in strategic planning is seeing the broad view of a business while helping to create and execute successful long term plans, and the sense of value that comes from assisting large numbers of people to jointly reach shared goals. This occurs in organizations of all sizes. Job titles include Strategic Planning Manager, Chief Strategy Officer, Program Manager, Portfolio Director and Change Architect. These are all valuable and growing areas of management in organizations worldwide. Global firms present even more challenges generally rooted in the cultural aspects of managing strategy. If you wish to pursue a global career, mastering a second language and spending time in a culture to know it well is a sure way to both enhance your career and your life in general. Gaining a masters’ degree in Global Management is also a plus.

Personal Vision, Practice Key to Career Success

By Eric Denniston, Managing Director, Denner Group International,  September 2013

Takeaways: Focus on a Personal Vision and Outcomes. Combine strategic thinking with tactical thinking.  How this can pay off. Who can help.

I receChefs at workntly watched an episode of Chef Gordon Ramsey’s “Master Chef Junior” on Fox TV. In addition to being thoroughly impressed with the maturity and skill the 8 to 13-year olds displayed, I was also impressed that these young people in most cases had a very clear vision of what they wanted to do for work when they become adults. Few children that age have enough passion for something that they form a vision that drives them to pursue it.

Setting aside the circumstances under which these kids had to perform, what stands out is their focused drive and singular vision about what they want to do with their lives. And their performance proves the point that thinking carefully and with purpose about what you wish to accomplish is key to successfully doing so.

First, let’s consider the kids’ vision. Each one intends to become a master chef. Note that I say “intends to”, not “wants to”. There is a difference here. “Intends to” shows purpose, that it will happen, where as “wants to” simply indicates there is a vague sense of what could be possible. They have actually seen themselves as a chef in a major restaurant, perhaps owning it by themselves or with a family member. Thinking this way is perhaps the single most important first step in launching a successful and satisfying career.

These kids have obviously been seeking and getting feedback from accomplished cooks. Whether it has been from their parents, family friends or maybe even professional chefs they have met, they have certainly been told when they have done good and bad jobs. And they have made adjustments based on that feedback. They have likely sought out one or more mentors to both build their cooking skills and to understand the broader aspects of being a chef. Like running a restaurant, or food presentation techniques, or combining spices, flavors and textures, and how to experiment and when necessary, improvise when something goes wrong.

All the contestants recognize they are not professional chefs today; however, they are participating in a contest that provides them with an extraordinary opportunity to practice their craft and gauge their performance in a challenging environment. They are in fact taking stock of their current situation which will allow them to refine their actions as they move toward that vision of being a top-rated chef.

Will your chosen career path support the longer term vision for your life, like getting married, raising a family, living in a city or an environment that you desire, and ensuring your children get a good education? Is your chosen career likely to become stagnant or end due to changes in technology or government regulations, for example? Have you given this any thought?

Taking the time to think about a career in a disciplined manner is not easy. It’s not taught in school, not in a way that provides a simple framework for doing it. But if give extensive thought to answering five simple questions, and then take the appropriate actions, you will be on your way to achieving the results you want.

  1. Imagine and write down how your future looks 10 years from now – how it feels, where you’re working, where you’re living, etc.
  2. Create a list of no more than 10 goals which will help you determine if you’re on the right path and what deters you may need to make along the way.
  3. Take stock of your current situation by critically evaluating your current strengths and weaknesses and the opportunities and obstacles the future holds.
  4. Write down no more than five broad activities which you will need to undertake to reach your chosen vision – like additional training or education.
  5. Continually look for changes in your industry, the economy, and other areas that might affect your chosen career path and the implications they may present.

This suggested framework can help you have much clearer focus on your career, have plans that you can refer to and check up on to verify your progress, and have clearly stated actions that, when taken, will provide you with good feedback on the progress you are making towards your personal career objective.

Enterprise Strategy Management Best Practices: Using software tools

By Eric Denniston, Denner Group International – April 2013 (Lead – Think – Plan – Act)

Takeaways: Criteria for an integrated enterprise strategy management tool. Using a software tool for greater success and higher performance in tracking, managing and executing strategic initiatives. Reinforcing the importance of linking strategic tasks and cascading projects up and down the organization. Leveraging buy-in and stay-in with a flexible and scalable shared communications resource.

What tools do you use to track and control your strategic objectives? Are they doing the job you want and need? Every organization must constantly revisit its progress and performance on satisfactorily completing its strategic objectives. Depending on the size of the business, one or more people are responsible for creating, overseeing and shepherding this process. This is more compelling perhaps to larger organizations, due to the need to coordinate larger numbers of employees and numerous teams whose projects are often interconnected. However, even small firms need to be disciplined about measuring progress. Many different software tools are typically employed in this effort, starting with simple documents, spreadsheets, meeting minutes and, very likely, project management files. Enterprise strategy management best practices, however, suggest the need for software tools to facilitate the tracking of strategic initiatives.

Often these tools lack the integration necessary to achieve the most critical desired outcomes for the use of these tools. Perhaps you will agree that those most critical goals include:
1) document goals and processes,
2) track progress, and
3) share information

Might you also agree that using these software tools intends to achieve some secondary objectives? These might be some shared behaviors and practices in using the tools, creating a greater understanding of roles in supporting the strategies, linking projects and sub-projects to better track “soft” measures, and aligning tactical, or short-term, objective with the longer-term strategic initiatives.

All the above goals are then subjected to benchmarks and measures to help managers track progress and make adjustments as necessary. Only now we have to ask ourselves: How do we use these tools in a manner that really fulfills these three primary goals?

The likely answer is that we can document the goals, and possibly articulate the processes to track progress and share information, but does that really achieve what we need? Usually it does not.  The bigger challenges are the difficulties in:
•    driving and maintaining alignment,
•    sharing information,
•    improving accountability,
•    fostering efficiency, and
•    enhancing transparency for your stakeholders

Without an integrated tool that brings all this together, these are frequently overlooked or only partially addressed.

Linking initiatives

There are two key issues to address on linking initiatives. One is to create the links up and down the organizational levels and cross-functionally between departments and divisions by identifying which ones need to collaborate on each initiative. The next one is to create the structures, or processes such as reports or meetings, to support the feedback needed to keep people informed in an efficient and timely manner. This is one of the biggest challenges for those responsible for keeping strategies on track. The value in accomplishing this effectively is the resulting ability to react more nimbly to necessary adjustments and do the fine tuning that can really impact performance and therefore the bottom line. Keeping the information flow timely from the bottom up and from the top down and across functions is one of the most powerful accomplishments managers seek in driving strategies.

Best practices in the strategic planning process call for documenting these linkages. And it is a really tough challenge to track and manage them. You might recall the reports and Excel files mentioned earlier which present a challenge in keeping them updated when many individuals and departments are involved. What we want is to create and deliver reports in a timely fashion. Most tools fall short in supporting this in a simple and seamless manner which is so critical for helping everyone perform at the high level desired. Let’s explore what might make an integrated software tool for this valuable.

One tool that links strategies and projects really well is Y-Change.

Criteria for an integrated tool

It should be multi-user. It should support the needs of all management levels to access the level of detail that each requires. It should support existing tools, such as spreadsheets and other digital materials and data. It should support the specific structures and processes your organization has for managing strategic and tactical goals. And it should improve productivity and accountability. I have evaluated three such tools and from my perspective one tool that links strategies and projects really well is called Y-Change: an Enterprise Strategy Management solution.

I have used the Y-Change Enterprise Strategy Management suite, and really like the fact that it is structured to accommodate my systems thinking focus on strategic management. It is the software platform within which those who are accountable for creating, managing, measuring, monitoring, guiding and adjusting strategic and tactical objectives in an organization are better able to perform those duties. Having a multi-user application like this to manage the various levels of accountability within strategic initiatives, and being able to link tasks across projects and strategies, is most helpful in performing quick reviews and obtaining status updates. In addition, the tool makes it possible to link to other data files from other applications that contain more detailed information. Sometimes this means simply opening a file from another application to review the data, and in some cases, actually import that data into Y-Change.

From within the application I can launch email messages to individuals and groups to keep people informed of progress, or lack of it, focus on specific initiatives, request feedback and relate to the measures everyone agreed to. This means a quicker response time to adjustments in the related tasks.

Perhaps of greater relevance to upper level management, the strategic initiatives can have their interconnected actions linked across two or more core strategies, providing both a documented and visual cascade of actions and accountabilities down and up through the organization.  How people support the organization’s broader strategic objectives can also now be incorporated into performance reviews much more easily.

Maintain a culture of strategic focus

This is a great help in preventing actions, good and bad, from being overlooked, and in uncovering mistakes and diversions from the strategic objectives in real time. It is an ongoing challenge for those responsible for driving strategy in an organization to maintain a culture of strategic focus combined with operational flexibility to sustain high performance. This tool excels in helping do just that. The tool allows for customized views for different levels of management which provide either detailed or summarized views of performance. With this feature, managers at all levels are better able to measure, track, manage and adjust their and their team’s work toward the organization’s key objectives. In addition, this tool supports the cross-functional collaboration required to really sustain a high level of strategic and tactical performance.

Linking the various initiatives further supports the management of business unit portfolios and projects. The integration of the shared objectives provides transparency in the review and reporting processes needed.

The Y-Change Enterprise Strategy Management tool is uniquely suited to helping the organization’s leaders and teams create buy-in to the shared vision and support stay-in. The tool provides easy access to key and current pieces of information and reinforcement of vital concepts, like the vision, mission and values of the organization. This shared resource also provides controlled universal access to data by adjusting permissions access levels and limiting the capability to edit data as appropriate.

In essence, the Y-Change Enterprise Strategy Management tool helps to raise organizational competitiveness by helping employees at all levels become and stay engaged in the shared organizational vision. It helps them stay focused on those tasks and actions they need to accomplish that will more effectively reach the desired objectives. This means higher productivity, lower costs, faster communication, plus greater transparency and accountability.

If you would like to learn more about this tool or request a demonstration please contact me at eric@dennergroup.com.

About the author: Eric Denniston has a background of 30 years business planning and strategic management consulting on an international level. Working with non-profit and for-profit organizations, he has worked with leaders on corporate governance, leadership development, business planning, and strategic management challenges. He has also trained sales development and technical teams. His business planning activities include global businesses, resort, hotel and residential development and international healthcare projects. A native of Mexico he is fluent in both English and Spanish.
Email: eric@dennergroup.com – Website: dennergroup.com.

Life Coaches Help Guide Your Future Success

Eric Denniston, Managing Director, Denner Group International  July  24, 2013

Takeaways: What are life coaches? Why get a life coach? How do I get a life coach? When should I start or end a life coach relationship?

Have you ever heard of a “Life Coach”? Basically it’s a person whom you know well, who either knows you well or will get to know you well very quickly. Like a baseball, football or basketball coach, or maybe a tennis or swimming coach, they deal mostly with broader life issues rather than the particular sport. What kinds of life issues? It could be anything, from dating, to choosing a career or a college, to how to improve specific skills like public speaking, math, languages, business skills, etc. Or your life coach may help you figure out how to perfect skills for your hobbies or sports, and guide you on where to get tips and ideas.

A good coach doesn’t really tell you what to do. As a college student you are likely tired of being told what to do by your teachers, brothers, sisters and your parents. Sometimes the advice you seek is delivered as a solution, sort of “here is how you do this” which may not actually tell you why it’s a good idea or better than another idea. Rather than ask you questions, they offer solutions and ideas. Does that sound familiar?

While in my early 20’s I asked my godfather, who was a very successful businessman, about possible career choices. He started to tell me the various things I could explore. On the surface they were good suggestions but if he had some coaching skills, he might have started by asking me probing questions about what I liked to do and how I did things. It wasn’t until my early 40’s that I found out that there are people out there with some special skills at asking really good questions of me to get me to focus on what I do best, what interests me most, and what sort of work I could really love to do.

I got into banking because that’s what my father did, and began a decent career in that line of work. During graduate school I ran into a couple of people that kept asking me what I liked about banking. I discovered there was a lot that I did not like about banking, but also a lot that I like that was related to finance only more with manufacturing businesses that actually made things. That led to my dream job after finishing grad school. I became a regional credit manager for a division of Rockwell International. I thought this would be a fun and exciting job because of the international finance aspect and the opportunity to travel throughout Latin America in my job.  I was responsible for arranging loans our company made to nearly all the daily newspapers in Latin America.

What I did not consider was something my godfather brought to light when I told him what my job was going to be. He said: “WOW! What an amazing opportunity to meet people in a business who shape opinions and are invariably at the highest level of business leaders in their countries! You are going to have an incredible time talking to those people when you meet them!” That thought had not ever crossed my mind and he was so right.  Movers and shakers in Guatemala, Mexico, Venezuela, Ecuador, Panama, Chile and Argentina were my regular contacts. As were the Chamorro Family of Nicaragua with whom I had some very interesting conversations at one of the newspaper industry’s largest trade shows one year.

That little bit of unintentional coaching by my godfather not only gave me a different perspective about the work I was about to undertake but has influenced my ability to look more deeply and broadly into everything I do. In fact, it spurred my curiosity to better understand how organizations and teams of people can work together, and become skilled at helping them to work better. Now that is my work and I love it.

 Why get a life coach

So why consider getting a life coach, or two, or three? Honestly we have coaches in our lives all the time, we often just don’t give them enough of ourselves to really get back the kind of help that can really help us – our parents, our close family members (siblings, aunts and uncles), our close friends, our teachers and sometimes those folks at colleges who are called career counselors. What is important here is to recognize that all these people really do want what is best for us and are willing to devote some time and effort to helping us. Often we don’t feel very “helped”, but frankly I think if we dig deeply into why this is we would figure out that most likely it is because we did not know how to share and communicate what kind of help we want; and our “coaches” may not have had good coaching skills to know how to help us. By that I mean, we may all have been more focused on getting to a quick answer rather than being guided to find the right answers that we could come up with together. This is critical because when we participate in solving the problem, the solution is much more precise and lasting.

 So having a personal life coach for a short while, for a few years or for many, many years can actually be extremely beneficial to us. Sometimes having more than one coach helps even more, because those extra opinions can always help and can never hurt. Getting someone to be your coach may not be easy. Some people may think of it as a job and some may know there are professional coaches that charge considerable sums of money to be life coaches. There are others whose fees are very reasonable and there are many who might be willing to coach you long term for nothing in return but your friendship. The most important ingredient in a good coaching relationship is that the apprentice, you, always be extremely candid and honest with your coach. Do not hold back. A good coach will not judge you. Of course, your coach should have a code of ethics similar to that of an attorney who cannot, and will not, share private information about you with anyone else. The more you share with your coach(es), the more they will be able to help you.

 A good coaching relationship is also enhanced by documenting your conversations, at least the action items you agree are worth pursuing, and then using them as a checklist to help you both stay on track. It’s also good to have a set schedule for meetings, in person or on the phone, or via Skype or email. But have a schedule and stick to it, setting an appointment and agenda for the next meeting at the end of your current meeting.

 Everyone needs a coach

Everyone needs help from time to time to fine tune what we are doing in life. Not all the time, but certainly sometimes. Maybe you are after a promotion at work – your coach can help you identify how to best promote your skills that match the job or help you fine tune them to ensure the promotion. Maybe you are trying to take a particular course in college next year and getting into it is becoming a challenge – your coach might help you uncover a new approach to get into the class. Maybe you want to see how theatre plays are created and put on – your coach might know someone who works at a theatre company who would love to have an unpaid intern alongside to help with routine tasks, giving you the chance to live the whole process including attending a number of actual shows at no charge. Maybe you are having a problem in a relationship with a friend or a family member. Not the kind that requires professional therapy, just someone who knows you and can help you think it through and maybe suggest choices other than the ones you have come up with on your own. Possibly you are trying to figure out what you can be really good at, where your highest aptitudes are – your coach might be able to suggest people to talk to or assessments you can take online that will help you really understand what you do best and more importantly, why you do those things so well.

When is a good time to start a life coaching relationship? Frankly, anytime! However, the sooner you start, the more you will get out of your coaching relationships. I suggest you get started in college and remember, you don’t always have to pay a life coach. The sooner you get started, the better you will be at it when it might matter the most, such as, making good job choices; making good partner choices for your marriage; selecting good accountants and attorneys for your life and your business; or making good choices for neighborhoods to live in and to buy a home. These are all things that will work better for you if you have someone in your life that can coach you without having a stake in what you do nor judge what you do. You can always change coaches or have more than one. Just start and end those relationships with a high degree of integrity and honesty. If you are paying someone to coach you, make sure both of you understand what is expected of each other. Highly successful people in business, acting, sports and education have coaches they don’t pay and coaches they do pay – sometimes a lot of money – and the results they get are truly extraordinary. Many have written about their coaches in articles and books they have authored, so there is plenty of proof that this works.

The one other thing that is extremely important in working with a coach is to keep him or her informed along the way of your successes and your failures. This is part of being honest with them and it will be invaluable in keeping the relationship on an even keel.

Mentors and Life Coaches Help You Succeed

Eric Denniston, Managing Director, Denner Group International – 6/2013

Takeaways: What are the roles of mentors and life coaches? How to and why you should recruit them. How to ensure a healthy relationship with them. How to define what comes next.

Most of us are familiar with the word mentor, but have we really stopped to think about what a mentor should do, how a mentor should act, how a mentee (more properly a “protégé”) should act, and how a mentor and protégé should become a team and conduct themselves? Most likely not. Acting as a mentor is often taken too lightly. For example, a new employee is assigned a more senior employee as a mentor to “show him/her the ropes”. This is really more like training and not mentoring. A mentor is a trusted counselor or guide, while also being a tutor and coach.

That word “trusted” is key to the role. Trust, of course, is always earned, not given nor taken. A mentor must earn the trust of the protégé and that trust includes having a high level of ethics regarding the confidentiality of the relationship. It is becoming more common for adults in business to work with mentors who are from both inside and outside the business to help an individual improve and maintain the highest level possible of performance in his or her work. It is also becoming more acceptable for senior executives to openly admit to having one or more mentors, which not long ago was considered a negative stigma, a sign of weakness. The truth is that in our increasingly complex world, none of us is capable of doing everything perfectly or even with a high degree of proficiency, so we really do need some help along the way. And often that help needs to be of the highest caliber, and just as often, not from just one person. The confidential aspect of the relationship permits the protégé to really be candid in the sort of help he/she needs. The mentor needs to be sensitive to the protégé’s emotional needs but not to the point of being a therapist. There is a separate discipline for that and the mentor must have the capability of knowing where to draw the line, and be deliberate and clear about doing so.

Examples of mentors or coaches in a business or personal life environment can be found in numerous books written by well recognized business leaders around the world. In some cases they pay individuals to be in those roles. In other cases, the mentor/coach is someone within their company, and in other cases, the mentor or coach is simply a friend. One key trait among the best mentors and coaches is that they are diligent in ensuring they have no stake in the outcomes the protégé is seeking. This allows the mentor/coach to be highly objective in facilitating the protégé’s actions and decisions as a third party only interested in their protégé’s success.

The Role of a Life Coach

Jack CanfieldThe role of mentor has taken on a new name in certain circles. Now we hear life coach and executive coach as commonly used terms to describe a mentor whose role is to “coach” an individual in a manner that encompasses both personal life goals and personal work goals. To quote Jack Canfield, widely read co-creator of the Chicken Soup for the Soul book series and respected motivational speaker on personal fulfillment: “Of all the things successful people do to accelerate their trip down the path to success, participating in some kind of coaching program is at the top of the list”.

So, do you have a mentor or coach that you regularly check in with to help you overcome big challenges and keep you on track with your longer term objectives? Someone in whom you can comfortably confide and who has the acumen and guts to ask you, and help you ask yourself, those really tough questions? Like, “If you are not really happy with your job, what are you prepared to do to get your ideal job?”, and then help you work through the issues? This is what a mentor or life coach can do for you.

So now we might ask, “That sounds good but what if I don’t know anyone who can do this?” “How do I find such a person or persons?”

Most of us likely have people in our lives whom we have known and who have known us for many years. Sometimes they are friends, parents, or extended family like aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents; people for whom we have a lot of respect. That’s one place to start. There are also professionals who are devoted to exactly this kind of work. Being professionals, they expect to be compensated for their work, so we must ask ourselves if we will really reap benefits from such a relationship, and what the value of it is to us. Not necessarily in dollars, because we don’t make any money from getting health advice from our doctor – so this is similar. I suggest looking at this relationship as having a private teacher with you just about any time you need one.

Finding and recruiting a mentor or life coach should entail the same level of diligence as looking for a medical specialist. This is someone with whom you will be sharing some highly confidential things about your life and work, and you will be seeking really insightful advice. Therefore, the best mentors and life coaches have some experience in those roles and a ton of life experience in general. So yes, age matters. With it comes both knowledge and wisdom, both of which we, as protégé’s, must rely on. A solid and broad education is a major plus in a mentor or coach as is some measure of success in their chosen fields of endeavor.

Five Key Behaviors

Regardless of whether or not you have a hired mentor/coach or someone who will support you in this manner for free, here are some behaviors to consider.
1)    Don’t abuse the relationship by whining and complaining about what is not working, ask for help on real issues and be as clear as possible about the outcomes you are seeking.
2)    Be respectful of your mentor’s time, be brief and to the point.
3)    Have a plan or agenda for each meeting and write down some notes or minutes about the next steps for you or the mentor, and agree to deadlines. If your mentor suggests actions for you to take, agree what you will follow through on and then report back on the results.
4)    Use the easiest communication methods for both of you, whether it’s email, text, snail mail or phone calls.
5)    Both of you be mindful of the confidentiality issue and agree to boundaries.

These are some tips that will help establish and sustain a really healthy relationship between you and your mentor/coach.

As with most things in life, it is also important to consider what comes next. Many mentor-protégé relationships last for many years and even for life. A mentor or coach is usually very interested in the long-term success of his/her protégé, so you can generally count on them being on board with you for the long term. If you keep challenging yourself and have exciting results, chances are good your mentor will be along for the whole ride. You may have other specialized mentors from time to time. I have two mentors, not family members, both are friends. One I have paid and has also helped me for free, the other helps me for free, but that could change. The experience of working with them has helped me deal with some tough life challenges and to learn how to be a good coach myself. I have one long-term client whom I coach on life issues and global business challenges, so I see results both as a coach and as a protégé.

I firmly believe that everyone deserves to give themselves the opportunity to explore working with a mentor or life coach from as early in their life as possible. It takes a certain amount of emotional maturity to work with a coach. A mentor/coach can be tough and critical but we need to remember that it comes from a deep and true sense of being there to help us. We need to be open to seriously exploring other people’s thoughts and ideas and not be dismissive of them.

I encourage you to take a journey to become the best that you can be with the support of a mentor or coach of your choice. I guarantee you won’t regret it, and you’ll ask yourself what you might have accomplished if you had done this sooner in your life.

Overcoming Planning Mistakes

By Eric A Denniston, Managing Director, Denner Group International  11/18/2012

Takeaways: Overcoming planning mistakes requires some strategic thinking up front to ensure all the possible outcomes and issues have been addressed.

I recently had the opportunity to address a group of folks who are undergoing some community-wide leadership training. The topic I was asked to focus on is strategic planning and I tied some leadership issues into the process. I am about to describe a couple of examples of planning mistakes that were takeaways from this session and offer some possible lessons from them.

Imagine you are a coordinator for public services. This could be related to municipal waste management, child protection services or perhaps court administration. You are informed that a new building is being constructed and are told which departments or activities will be moved to the new building. To that end, the people in charge of the planning interview you and your teammates to gain insight about the best use of the new spaces where you will be working. You provide the input and everyone involved walks away with the impression that all the needs and details have been adequately handled.

The new building goes up and suddenly you realize that the way the spaces have been laid out –  in the way of room size, number of rooms and layouts – actually produces a large amount of wasted, generally little-used space.  In addition, the types of users of those spaces and the number of users were not really considered. The planners and designers made some assumptions along the way that were incompletely informed. Their intent was good, just not fully informed.

What do you think went wrong? What may have been missing from the process? Who should be held accountable?

Clearly defined vision is needed

Here are my suggested learnings from this example:

  1. It seems highly probable that a key missing element may have been a clearly defined set of desired outcomes for the public that will be served at that location. Basically, keeping the customer in mind, always.
  2. Not enough time was devoted to laying out the process and the structure for the planning. A little more time devoted to this might have resulted in keeping all the stakeholders, including you, informed, involved and engaged by asking why you thought certain things should be a certain way, all the way up to the end of the project.
  3. Once the initial consultation with you had taken place, the leader of the planning process could have held a brief meeting for the express purpose of laying out how you and the other stakeholders could continue to provide input. Those responsible for executing the project have ultimate decision-making authority but their decisions could have been better informed.

Accountability is subjective, to some degree of course. However, if you are coordinating public services, are you not accountable for how they are delivered and aren’t the facilities an integral part to how effectively those services are delivered? Consider for a moment that you might be engaged in coordinating services for family mediation.

Is it not really valuable to the family attending a counseling session that the environment they are in during such a session be of an appropriate size and have the right furniture to ensure a comfortable and safe environment?

Here is where leadership is also part of the conversation. You are experienced in coordinating these public services and understand the needs of your customers because you are on the front lines, right? Your leadership could be in play by setting up your own structure to stay involved in the planning and execution of the new building so you can keep asking the question “ Why?”, making you accountable to yourself for ensuring a good delivery of services to your customers. Others don’t need to ask you to do it, you just do it as part of your job of being a high performer.

That’s the first level of leadership – Self – followed by One-to-One, Within Departments, Between Departments, Organization-Wide, and then the Organization’s Environment.

Now for another example…..

Let’s say you operate a real estate brokerage with four employees and two months have gone by since you created a strategic plan. This plan outlines the broad strategies that your business is to follow over the next three years. You have established a vision for your business, assessed how the future environment may affect your business, established some key success measures, assessed the current state of your business, outlined those broad strategies, and now must define the major action items that will help you close the gap from today’s reality to your future vision.

Again, I ask: What do you think is going wrong? What may have been missing from the process? Who should be held accountable?

  • First, what strikes me as missing is actually typical of many long-term planning efforts, but probably more common in smaller organizations. Let’s acknowledge that planning takes time and in a small business this means time away from DOING the business, or time away from maintaining a balance in your life. You feel you have created your plan and that’s enough, it’s time to get back to business, right? I say “NOT YET!”
  • You still should spend some time putting the structures and processes in place that clearly outline the expectations and accountabilities of everyone involved in working the plan.
  • The structures could simply be a calendar of meetings that everyone agrees are mandatory.
  • The processes could simply be the owner sharing a series of agendas that the meetings will follow and assigning roles to the staff, like someone to send out reminders, someone else to take minutes of the meeting and someone to gather input from the others on specific topics before the meetings.

Essentially what is going wrong is there is nothing in place to make the plan sustainable. It’s two months after the planning session and you still don’t have action plans and a calendar to follow up. Do you agree with this? Do you sense the plan is already forgotten?

Now, what do you think the next steps are after the long-term plan is completed? Is it complete? I propose it is missing two key parts. One already mentioned is that the major actions are missing that need to be acted upon over time to keep closing the gap toward the vision. These actions are supported by the key success measures also previously mentioned, but they must be clearly written out to serve as references and checkpoints.

Another missing piece is what you can call a Yearly Map of Implementation. This is a schedule of meetings and actions that the business owner or CEO must set up as the strategic planning “retreat or meeting” is concluded. This Yearly Map includes the periodic meetings of the staff (to formally check progress against the plan and make adjustments), specific tasks the owner/CEO must do monthly to hold him/herself accountable to the plan and to check in with, mentor and coach the employees in staying true to the plan.

If your plans, short term or long term, seem to fall short of achieving their stated outcomes you might consider reading more of our articles and exploring how our customized coaching and consulting services can help you improve your organization’s performance. Just contact us to schedule a no obligations interview to determine your needs and how we might help.

Whether you are a non-profit seeking to maximize your fund-raising, an auto-repair shop facing challenges in growing the business, a department or a division of a larger organization or a thriving organization looking to sustain a high level of performance, we can help. Our passion for long-term, sustainable, high performance in managing organizations can help you save money, make your employees and customer happier, and your organization’s future more controllable.

Planning is Dead: A Restaurant Case Study

By Jeri T & Eric A Denniston, Denner Group International   3/24/2013

A Case Study about how lack of planning creates unintended consequences

Takeaways: Planning is critical to ensuring your objectives are realized. Lack of planning can cause unintended consequences that affect your outcomes and leave you with less than satisfactory results.

Imagine you own a Mexican restaurant in an area where there are a few other similar restaurants. You position your restaurant as having authentic food from Central Mexico, rather than the typical Tex-Mex fare that so many US Mexican restaurants offer.

As the owner of a Mexican restaurant you know there are certain times of the year customers expect you to offer something special, whether it’s a special food items or entertainment or special promotions. This requires planning. If you don’t plan in advance, you can be caught facing those nasty unintended consequences, such as the entertainment not showing up on time, or not enough customers coming in the door because you forgot to promote the occasion or you didn’t promote it properly.

Take Cinco de Mayo as an example. Like it or not, if you own a Mexican restaurant in the US, patrons expect you to do something special. Most people in the US think this is Mexico’s Independence Day, but in reality, Cinco de Mayo commemorates Mexico’s victory over the French in the Battle of Puebla. Nevertheless, it has become a “party” day in the US, much like St. Patrick’s Day.

So what should you do as a restaurant owner? You might bring in a Mariachi band. You might bring in Baile Folklórico dancers. You might offer special Mexican beers at special prices. You could offer specials on pitchers of Margaritas. You might offer a special dish, such as Pollo en Pipian Verde (Chicken in Green Pumpkin Seed sauce) or a Chicken Mole, which you normally don’t serve.  But if you don’t start your planning far enough in advance, you won’t be prepared. Here are some of the steps you might need to take.

  1.  Determine what you want to achieve for this day.
    • Increase your liquor sales by xxx dollars
    • Increase the food served by xxx dollars
    • Get new customers to try the restaurant for the first time
  2. Determine what success looks like

    • The dollar volume of liquor sales over your normal daily sales volume
    • The dollar volume of food sales over your normal daily sales volume
    • Introduce 50 new customers to the restaurant
  3. Evaluate your current situation

    • Number of servers on staff
    • Number of additional servers you might need
    • Your chef’s ability to make the specialized dishes
    • Your stock of beers and other liquors – is it sufficient?
    • Your food supplies – do you need to order more?
    • Where to get the entertainment
      • How much will it cost?
      • Do you have to pay travel expenses?
      • When will they perform, for how long?
  4. Determine your advertising budget

    • Is it sufficient?
    • Do you need to consider radio, flyers, billboards, online promotion?
    • Your customers – how can you engage them in bringing in new customers
  5. Identify the actions you need to take by when to ensure you achieve your objectives

    • When to start your promotions and where
    • How to engage your customers – special offers
    • Contacting the potential entertainers – how far in advance, what kind of commitments
    • Backup plans if the first choice entertainers can’t make it
    • Where to find additional servers
    • Do you need to advertise?
    • Can your current wait staff handle the extra load
    • Incentive pay for longer hours?
    • Getting commitments from your food suppliers to lock in prices and orders (they probably are serving your competition, too!)
    • Training your chef if necessary or hiring a special chef just for the day
  6. Scope out your competition to see what they are planning

    • Check the papers, the radio, the billboards
    • Visit their restaurants to see what they’re promoting
    • Ask your customers if they eat at other Mexican restaurants and what they like best about them, as well as what they don’t like
    • Ask your suppliers what they’ve heard about what your competition is planning

So when do you start thinking about this and then writing it down?
It depends on how far in advance you need to make the first commitment. If the entertainers are the key and require 3 months lead time, then that’s your start date. If they require 6 months lead time, then that’s your start date. Your vendors/suppliers will need advance notice as well. Find out from them by when you need to make those commitments. Your advertising / promotional choices will also determine how far in advance you need to start planning. If you intend to insert flyers in chamber newsletters, you need to create those a month in advance.

If you don’t write it down, something is bound to fall through the cracks. You’ll forget to get a back-up for the entertainers who suddenly can’t make it because of car trouble. A server you were counting on comes down sick and can’t be there. The radio spots you were planning on can’t run because the stations are totally booked and have no air time available, or the only time they have available is between 2 am and 5 am when your prime customers aren’t listening.  

These are some of the unintended consequences that can occur when you don’t plan far enough in advance to consider possible consequences and set contingency plans in place. Planning does not have to be onerous. But it is a critical step to ensure you achieve your desired outcomes. And you need to have a schedule to continually check the progress on each action to make sure everything is on track.

So don’t let planning die! Learn some of the tricks of the trade. Get help from experts. Devote the time. Spend the money. Train yourself, train others in your business, and build the skills for planning in your organization. Most importantly, set schedules to review and update plans to keep the documents alive and out of the credenza.

And remember these four steps, which you take in order then circle around and repeat them again and again: LEAD – THINK – PLAN – ACT. There must be a reason that the Association for Strategic Planning has that as their motto.