Interview - Leslie Kossoff, international business and management adviser and HW contributor

Leslie Kossoff, international business and management adviser and HW contributor - image HW
Leslie Kossoff, international business and management adviser and HW contributor - image HW

If you want to know how to improve your business, you might want to make it your business to start reading the Executive Field Guide. An even better place to start is with the guide's author, Leslie Kossoff, an American business adviser who combines straight talking with a punchy writing style that pulls off the near impossible - to give life and panache to a genre as stolid as business writing.

Kossoff is fun to read and she has done it again with what will be a series of books, the clue to their style and tenor being in the generic title "field guides" - quick-fire, fact-packed advice to those on the front line of commercial horticulture, whether retail, growing or contracting.

Kossoff is fast - timing is everything in business - and it is no surprise that this globally-acclaimed adviser has made the perfect pitch to her target audience.

"Small and medium-sized business owners don't realise they are making bad decisions and right now that's more dangerous than ever," she says of the post-election reality of cuts, taxes and fears over the possibility of a double-dip recession. "Meanwhile, supply-chain issues have become very big, and these different sides of the spectrum are simultaneously impacting the industry.

"In this economic environment, smaller organisations don't have war chests of funding for consultants. But they need help now more than at any other time because they must be able to transform their organisations in very targeted, very directed ways. They have to do it fast and for comparatively little money, which is hard, especially in the UK."

If Kossoff ran a small business in the USA, where she spends a third of her time when not here or in mainland Europe, she would benefit from a host of supportive legislation for small businesses. In the UK, there is nothing, which is why her advice can be hailed with almost cultish zeal. One manager impressed by her direct advice dubbed her a "virtual consultant", always at the shoulder when one of her books was open.

Except she is not really a consultant. Indeed, she claims she is "anti consultant model". Consultants can and do bring valuable information, she explains. However, the model is designed not to fulfil a company's current needs, but to identify what it needs next. This is often expensive and can leave it plundering badly needed resources, which is "demotivating and depowering" for staff.

"The small guys have not been targeted by the big consultants," says Kossoff, a Horticulture Week contributor for the past four years. "Big firms can grow the way they want because they have a level of smarts and sophistication, which is why Dobbies was so attractive to Tesco. But cut to the smalland medium-sized guys and they are not taking advantage of the capabilities out there and available."

"Smarts" is classic Kossoff, a unique blend of homespun and hard ball. Take this from the woman herself: "I take my clients by the hand and we go wherever it is they want to go." Or this, from the first field guide, Becoming a Best of Breed Organisation, on the need for essential but slow and tedious preparatory business research: "Tough. Read it."

If Kossoff invests her prose with an air of urgency, it is because these are urgent times for the small firms that she is seeking to help. "This is such a wonderful sector and it's positioned to be a powerhouse. It's as if you are waiting for someone to say, 'Go.' But you need to bring disparate voices together to speak as one. If you don't like B&Q's 90-day payment structure, find other people that pay faster.

"Why should your business be so adversely impacted? Look at other options. Look at the pound. There are export opportunities that are not being exploited or even adequately investigated. There has been progress, but it is not far enough, fast enough, deep enough. Figure out your value proposition, the combination of product and service that gives ongoing benefit to the customer."

This is where the small guys have it easier than the big boys, whose value proposition is size, price and not much else, she says. Differentiating yourself to "create the 'wow' experience for your customers" in the supply chain or the garden centre is easier for a smaller, leaner, flexible set-up that can use a more nuanced approach to target potential customers.

In addition, the really good businesses will not only improve their business models but also have enough smarts to reduce their costs. All they need, insists the author, is a few well-targeted words, not to mention judiciously placed full-stops, from her field guide: "It is my pleasure to help you get there. Because you can. And you will."

- Becoming a Best of Breed Organisation is published in association with Horticulture Week. For further details, see www.kossoff.com/hortweek

CV

1977-81 BA and MA in organisational communications and MSc in managing science research methodology, all from US universities

1981-88 Director of performance engineering, Hughes Aircraft

1988-90 Director of quality, large pharmaceuticals company

1990 to date Leads her own consultancy, Kossoff Group


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