Oct 152014

Dr Earl R Smith II

Some time ago I wrote an article about avoidance. Crossing the Boundary – Surviving the Experience I started out this way:

It’s seldom the dog that you love that bites you
it’s almost always the one you can barely tolerate.

In my coaching practice, I regularly encounter clients who are avoiding the dogs that they can barely tolerate. It is such a basic component of human nature – to do what you enjoy doing and avoid what you do not enjoy – that avoidance is almost a common characteristic among humans. Founders and other entrepreneurs are no exception. In fact, I would argue that most of them are more determined ‘avoiders’ than the rest of their fellow humans.

The fate of the article has been curious. It is generally widely read and referenced by coaches and advisers. They seem to find it useful and often pass it on to their clients. On the other hand, it is one of the most derided by founders and entrepreneurs. They seem to think that it is way off base and that ‘avoidance’ is not a word in their vocabulary. In this case, the coaches are more forthcoming. Three recent experiences might help illustrate what I mean.

Hard Conversations: A client had the habit of finessing difficult issues, particularly when they involved other team members and their performance. When this was overlaid with a tendency to prefer the company of Chiefs rather then Indians, the team was not only out of balance but out of control as well. Two aversions combined to create a more prefect storm. There was work that had to be done; completed on time and according to requirements. Without performance metrics and accountability, the organization was not moving forward. As a result, a great deal of potential was at risk.

The situation was made worse by an aversion to bringing on the people who had both the skills and interest in doing the work that needed to be done. Instead, senior people were recruited to join the team. A kind of country club atmosphere dominated their efforts. They were all senior people who had worked for large corporations. In other words, they no longer worked for a living. They supervised those who did. The problem was that there were none to supervise.

Management by Metrics: Recently I was working with a CEO who quickly adopted the concept of performance metrics. Previously the start-up had run without them and the team was under-performing. Money was being wasted on a burn-rate which was not generating progress towards a run-rate. When I introduced the concept of performance metrics, the CEO jumped on it and set about putting it into practice. Within a week there was an extensive set of metrics in place. A week later we sat down to review progress and I hear this. “I’m really into performance metrics but my team is not buying into the idea.” I almost asked to meet the real CEO of the company. Who is in command here? My response was nearly as sharp. “Your future and the future of your company is on the line. If you want to run a girl scout troop, close down your company and buy a uniform. If you are serious about making this company a success, get of your ass and make your team understand how important performance metrics are to that success. If you can’t do that, you have no business sitting in the CEO seat.”

This was another situation where the CEO was avoiding doing something that was distasteful. The cost was almost certain failure but the aversion went on.

Accounts Receivable Management: My third example involves a company that was much farther along. It is a very well run operation experiencing a sharp increase in revenues and margins. But there was one area that needed attention. The senior team was hesitant to push the people who owed the company money. As a result the accounts receivable levels were raising faster than revenue. The aversion was to putting pressure on customers to pay. To his credit, the CEO in this case moved quickly. We outsourced the management of receivables. Sometimes the best way to manage avoidance is to transfer the necessary actions to someone else. Not always but sometimes.

Lessons: I suppose that my article will continue to be the darling of advisers and the bane of those it is really written for. We all have tendencies to avoid what we find distasteful. But here are some suggestions that might help you overcome such tendencies:

  • Do at least one distasteful thing every day: Pick a task that needs doing and see it through. Find those things that really do effect your chances of success and confront at least on of the every day.
  • Set Aside a Time to Do the Distasteful: It’s a good idea to initially set aside some specific part of the day to do the work. After a while, you will overcome the aversion and scheduling will not be part of the process. But it will help you take those few first steps.
  • Make it a Game: “OK, this is my distasteful time!” Remember the old “spoon full of sugar” jingle?
  • See it as liberation: Remember, you are freeing yourself from the aversion. That is a good thing. Celebrate it when it happens.
  • Remember that others are also ‘avoider’s: You are not alone in this behavior. Many of the people you work with will find your distasteful activities distasteful. One of the principal things about avoided behavior is that it tends to be avoided by both sides.
  • Persevere: You future and that of your company is on the line. Never give up, never surrender!

© Dr Earl R Smith II

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