Creating information-rich environmentsCreating businesses of engaged business people Connecting people and their work to goals Aligning measurement, rewards and recognition with business strategy

Learning the Value of “No”

I’m currently advising a large company that typifies almost every company I know, in one respect.  Everyone is busier than hell.

Last week a 30-something woman framed it perfectly, “We spend most of our days in back-to-back and sometimes double and triple-booked meetings. Then we go home at night or on weekends and try to get the real work done.  And we’re encouraged to have work life balance!”
In many company cultures, being insanely busy is a badge of honor. People don’t stop by a fellow employee’s office and announce that they’ve run out of things to do. That’s not cool.

Nor do you hear people sharing the fact that they’re just coming off 20 minutes of quiet time where they went into their office, closed the door and just sat back and thought for a while—pondered about new ideas, different perspectives or the world’s weirdness.

Why are so many people so busy? Do they really need to be?

Part of the problem is that people are unwilling to admit that they can’t take on another task or project. High performers in particular have rarely said no to another challenge. “Bring it on. I can take anything,” has been their mantra since first grade.

But saying yes to everything means you’ll take on anything, regardless of its value to the customer or shareholder. That’s not good business. Taking on everything might, in fact, be draining value from the organization because the amount of work the project demands may not be creating sufficient returns.  “I’ll do anything (not only great stuff that will save the world but crap that no one gives a damn about).” Bring it on!”

I asked a group of people recently if most of their work would fall into the 8-10 range on a continuum, when they plotted the work they did from 1 (no value) to 10 (high value) just to see where they spent their time.

“Of course not.  It would be all over the place,” one said. Everyone else around the table agreed.
“Why are you doing low value-added work?” I asked.
“Because we aren’t taught to say no,” said one.
“Because our managers say it all has to get done,” another explained.

Isn’t it the responsibility of a leader to make sure your teams are adding as much value as possible—as defined by the customer? Isn’t an important part of leadership to provide tools that enable people sort out what’s really central to organizational success and what’s resource-draining busywork?

Have you, as a leader, invited your team to force rank the value of every piece of work they do based on its value to the customer.  Force ranking means no more than one piece of work can occupy any point on the continuum.

Teach the value of saying no. Champion an effort to get all low and medium-value work off the table—starting today.  All new projects must pass the value test. Pick an arbitrary point on the continuum like 8, for example.  “No work below an 8 will be performed in this department from this day on.”

Mean it!

Where Have All the Leadership Role Models Gone?

The recent gutter fights between the President and leaders of Congress have given me plenty of presentation material.

While players in Washington were fighting it out like school children (“It’s your fault! No, it’s your fault!”), I was addressing two different audiences on leadership. The Washington spectacle enabled me to say, “Here’s a situation that is the direct opposite of emotional maturity, as described by Dan Goleman in his book, Emotional Intelligence.”

My first presentation was in Philadelphia, to a class on leadership at Villanova University. My book, The Leadership Solution, is a class text. The instructor, Rick Anthony, is a friend, colleague and one of our firm’s partners.

The second group was in Indianapolis at an annual conference of an international organization of which I’m honored to be a lifetime fellow.  My presentation, titled “Beyond Talking Points,” emphasized that leadership is more about what you do than what you say. Oratory is useful if you have the gift, but oratory without substance behind it is blather.

Both groups wanted to know what leadership really is all about—what is expected of a Southwest Airlines or 3M leader, for instance?

I’ve reduced it to three things great leadership engine companies do that can also apply to small businesses like Fred’s manufacturing plant, Kathy’s real estate firm or Chuck’s insurance agency.

First, they make it very clear what they expect from their leaders. Yes, they expect superior financial results but they expect those results to be created with a deep respect for people. That means truly engaging people with an unwavering focus on meeting their customers’ needs. Always. Every day. Every hour. Not just sometimes or when you get around to it.

Second, they regularly and rigorously assess the leaders on how well they’re meeting the expectations and then deliver constructive feedback about their performance and offer intense coaching and development so they succeed. Assessments come from the leaders’ leaders, their peers and members of their teams. Often referred to as a 360-degree feedback.

Third, they hold their leaders accountable for meeting or exceeding those expectations through the reward system, special recognition and new, challenging assignments that capitalize on their strengths and help them continue to improve.

A client we’re working with now is a good example. Their expectations refer to creating a clear, shared vision, strategy and goals that set high expectations, building a culture of continuous improvement, collaborating with each other to accelerate innovation, selecting and nurturing people and providing resources so they can succeed. They talk about holding themselves and others accountable for results and putting customers front and center

Great leaders communicate well.

Jack Welch, former CEO of GE said: “We like people who are passionate about what they’re doing—who have a vision about where they want to go and can communicate that vision to the people they want to get there with.” He added, “When people of the same basic intelligence get the same information, they come to similar conclusions within a very small band.” There’s a lot to be said about that last sentence.

The great leaders put the desire for the right result ahead of the desire to be right.  They share power because they know that an informed and empowered team is apt to achieve their goals and realize their dreams. Great leaders grow their people and help others become healthier, smarter and more autonomous.

Great leaders are authentic. They’re vulnerable; they admit when they’re wrong, when they make a mistake, when they need help.

Poor leaders tell and tell and tell. Poor leaders “take questions” because they think they have all the answers. Great leaders ask questions because they know they don’t have all the answers and want to stay in better touch with their customers and employees.  During my two presentations, it was easy to point to our so-called leaders in Washington who seemed to be conducting a clinic on Leadership Immaturity.

These are our young people’s role models? That’s disgusting. I want my children and grand children to have role models who are decent not duplicitous, who bring people together rather than tear people apart, who help people see they can get to places they never imagined. That’s what leadership should be all about.

Who are our leadership role models today?  Miley Cyrus?

As Mike Myatt, author of Hacking Leadership, writes in the current issue of Forbes,

 “Whether through malice or naïveté, those who abuse or tolerate the abuse of leadership place us all at risk. Poor leadership cripples businesses, ruins economies, destroys families, loses wars, and can bring the demise of nations. The demand for true leaders has never been greater – when society understands the importance of leadership, and when the world inappropriately labels non-leaders as leaders we are all worse for the wear.”

Leadership matters!

Level Conscious? You’re Underpowered!

The young man in the Indianapolis Colts ball cap sitting at the end of the table had something he really wanted to say.

I’ve facilitated thousands of focus groups over the years. I know the people who are itching to tell their story from the look in their eyes.  On this day, we were talking about how people are treated differently depending where they sat in the organizational hierarchy.  It’s called level consciousness and it represents a severe form of friction that damages performance.

Mr. Ball Cap blurted out his story.  “I was on the elevator and missed my floor. It took me to 26 where the carpet got real thick—almost hid my shoes. I just peeked around, never been up there before. It’s where all the top dogs work. But I didn’t see anyone working. It was real quiet like no one was there. Well, pretty soon a woman comes and asks what I was doing up there. She just looked down her crooked nose and said, ‘Are you supposed to be up here?’

“I said I guess I wasn’t, turned around and high-tailed it back to the elevators. It seems like it took a week and a half for that damned elevator to come back up those 26 floors,” Ball Cap said. “Left a real bad taste in my mouth. Not sure I want to bust my rump for those assholes, wherever they were.”

  • Is the carpet thicker where your bosses work?
  • Do people dress better on your equivalent of Ball Cap guy’s 26th floor?
  • Do people refer to the “C-Suite” with reverence?
  • Do people dress a little better on days when they know they’ll have meetings on the 26th floor?
  • Is more urgency and attention given to requests from the C-Suite than requests from employees who have direct customer contact?
  • Do people refer to others by level, as in, “She’s director level and he’s a manager so….”
  • Are certain meetings for “directors and above” or other such titles?
  • Do meeting dynamics change when the boss leaves the room?
  • Are parking spaces reserved by level with “top dogs” getting the choice places?

What’s so bad about all this level consciousness?   Other than it devalues people, if winning and losing is based on meeting or exceeding customer requirements, then the answer is  just about everything.

Sure we need some order, but a leader’s role is to clarify a vision, make sure people understand that vision and then make sure people have the resources they need to take the organization to unheard of heights so they can realize that vision. A leader should be an enabler—serving the members of the team.  Ego trips and a need for power aren’t part of this equation.

Focusing on the customer is about empowering people. This increases entrepreneurship.  Focusing on the boss is about focusing on control. Excess control creates bureaucracy.

Where in your organization is level consciousness stifling performance? Where are people acquiescing to bosses because it’s safer than presenting fact-based cases that argue on behalf of the customer?

Where in your organization were people put on the black list because they weren’t afraid to challenge the boss in a meeting—especially when the boss was dead wrong?

Where is level consciousness getting in the way of transparency—where employees are afraid to tell the truth to each other because it might reveal flaws in their omniscient leaders?

Who do you want to send this to because it makes a point that you’re uncomfortable making but needs to be made!

Good luck!

Helping CEOs Add Value

The CEO of a Fortune 200 company had regular town hall meetings with his employees for years. When we conducted focus groups with employees to learn what they thought of the meetings, they liked what the CEO said during the town halls but when the meetings were over employees didn’t know what they were supposed to do differently as a result of the CEO’s message.

“We want to help but don’t know what to do differently,” one employee said.

Were the CEO’s town hall meetings adding value if nothing changed as a result of them? Not if you subscribe to the lean definition of value–any action or process that a customer would be willing to pay for.

I know many people who would say the CEO’s visibility and willingness to communicate information about high level strategy added some measure of indirect value. To some extent I agree. On the surface, he didn’t do any harm.

But to a larger extent I disagree. Resources were spent on the town hall meetings. Employee downtime added to the cost. But work didn’t change. And because work didn’t change, results didn’t change.

So the effort was a pure investment with no short or anticipated long term gain.  Try as you might to make a thoughtful gesture equivalent to adding value, it isn’t. Is it safe to say that the CEO town halls were actually draining value from the organization?  If the CEO is getting paid to increase shareholder value, did the town hall meetings reflect an activity that was counter to the CEO’s goals?

I believe so.

So, should the CEO stop conducting town hall meetings. No. The company should supplement the town hall meetings with other activities that interpret the CEO’s message to the people in the organization. Business unit and department leaders need to interpret the CEO’s message. They need to explain:

  •  How company goals relate to our business unit of department goals.
  • Here’s what we need to do to drive corporate success.
  • And then relate this to the various people in the organization.

The sales person in the field, the brand manager at headquarters, the R&D people in the lab, the inventory manager, the machine operator, and the folks in shipping and receiving all need the information custom tailored for each area.

Leaders at all levels then need to make sure that everything they say and do are consistent with the CEO’s message. They need to make sure people have the resources they need to get the job done. Then leaders need to get out of the way.

The CEO’s town hall message adds value only when it gets translated and communicated throughout the organization.

We Do That

A client recently asked how some companies are able to develop such strong leadership teams.  So, I spent a couple of minutes explaining how companies like IBM, P&G, 3M, PepsiCo, McDonald’s and General Mills clarify their expectations for leaders and then select, assess and develop them based on those expectations.

These companies also use the performance management process, often including a healthy portion of incentive pay, to hold leaders accountable for assuming the agreed-upon roles and meeting or exceeding expectations.  They make it abundantly clear that what you achieve in terms of financial or operating results is as important as how you achieve it.

My client grimaced and responded, “We do that.”

I hear “We do that” from too many business leaders who confuse adopting  basic  fundamentals with executing them exceptionally well.  They confuse checking the box with an obsession to be excellent. They confuse having a great plan with having great execution.

How well do you, “do that?”

A CEO’s Lost Connections

The CEO of a large company recently expressed frustration to me because he had a sense that his people weren’t connected to his vision and the strategy—“despite having explained it maybe a hundred thousand times,” he said.

“We need to connect people,” he said. “People in the field need to understand that if they keep doing the same things, we’ll just get the same results. That’s not good enough.”

Lack of connectedness, both vertically and laterally, is rampant in companies. It represents a form of organizational friction that prevents people and the business from achieving performance levels that are otherwise achievable. Many employees don’t know how their work directly affects company goals (vertical connection), or they are beset by organizational silos that practically dare people to work together (lateral connection).

Everyone reading this Report is part of an organization dealing with this type of friction. No company is immune. Many companies, however, have done a stellar job making the connections.

One of the best places to start improving connectedness is by building business and financial literacy. It arms people with the information they need to make better decisions. Better decisions lead to smarter actions that produce better results. The more you properly connect, the better your operation gets.

Business literacy teaches people about the competitive marketplace, customers and their requirements, the company’s products, services and market position. Financial literacy teaches people about the real game. The money game. If we don’t make money, we won’t be around no matter how noble our cause.

Real-Life Example

A high tech engineering company we work with has taught its employees how they can influence cash flow.  The parts inventory manager knows she needs to maintain just enough inventory to make sure the machine operators on the manufacturing floor can meet the promised customer delivery date. If she can’t get a needed part to the machine operator in time, she’s messing with cash flow because the customer isn’t going to pay for the product until it’s received.

Is it an extreme concept to think that every person should understand their impact on the business? Is it an extreme concept to think that every member of a given sports team or orchestra should know their role in winning the contest or playing the symphony? Of course not.

Why don’t more businesses teach people the real game? Because it’s hard work.

It’s easier to tell people what to do and hope “they get it,” but that ends up frustrating both employees and their CEO.  Doing what’s easy doesn’t help people make smarter decisions, create ownership, or change work so results skyrocket.

By taking on the more challenging approach to creating connectedness through business and financial literacy, you will see business performance get jacked up to unheard of levels.

Communicate Like Air Traffic Control

Why don’t some people let you know when they get your emails, especially when the messages contain important information? Not only is it bad form, but it can set the scene for mistakes.

In today’s business environment, there’s way too much at risk NOT to close the communication loop. There’s an overreliance on assumption. “I assume she got it. I assume she understood it.”

Not always!

Just because you send an email doesn’t mean you communicated anything. And because you received an email doesn’t mean the sender knows you got it—unless you use the Outlook feature that enables this.

My model for closing communication loopholes is the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s Air Traffic Control (ATC). Their exchange helps assures that sender and receiver clarify what was said and heard.

Here’s how an ATC exchange might go.

ATC: “United four zero five cleared for takeoff on runway two four right.”

Captain: “Cleared for takeoff, two four right, United four zero five.

ATC: “United four zero five, climb and hold at ten thousand feet.”

Captain: “Climb to ten thousand and hold, United four zero five.”

Now, everyone doesn’t need to exert this much rigor in their communication. In fact, some might consider it a bit anal. Well, ok, perhaps it is too much. But, it’s a hell of a lot better than no response at all.

The point is that when they’re closing the communication loop, the opportunity for mistakes declines while the opportunity for clarity and understanding increases.

People say they’re too busy to respond to emails. Busy is no reason for not doing it right. One of the busiest people I know is a big muckety-muck for a large corporation. He responds to every email, even if it’s simply, “Got it.”

Works for me.

It’s How You Play the Music

The leader of a large organization wanted help shifting his first line leaders’ roles to servant leadership, which means leading others through development, coaching and facilitation. Servant leadership is intended to replace command and control leadership.

We’d just finished assessing this leader’s work environment.  People we talked with told us the current leadership doesn’t foster a climate of openness and trust. They said they don’t have the information or resources they need to do their jobs well. First line managers weren’t involving people in decision making. The operation was underperforming on three of its four major goals.

Clearly, if the work environment was improved in the right way then performance could improve.  The leader asked what exactly could we do to address his dilemma.

I began explaining the steps in great detail, including brief stories about other large companies who had successfully navigated their way through the same process. I mentioned how they’d clarified the leaders’ roles, gave them new skills, measured their progress and held them accountable for doing their jobs differently. In each case, operating or financial performance improved.

When I finished describing the process he responded, somewhat abruptly, “We already do that!”

Ah, but it’s less about the process itself and more about how it’s executed.

“All music groups have access to the same sheet music,” I told him. “All sports teams have access to the same plays. But it’s not about the sheet music or the plays. It’s about how well the music is played or how well the plays are executed.”

With that, he nodded and we proceeded to improve his operation.

I repeatedly hear reputable and well-intentioned business leaders who think the shiny new object will be the source of skyrocketing performance. “Let’s do one of these,” a leader says pointing at a new business book that promises instant success. The staff says, “Yes sir,” and another program bites the dust.

Great execution is hard work. If your goal is excellence, ten percent of the trip should be about having the right strategy or plan. Ninety percent should be about damned good execution.  How well do you play the music?

What Every CEO Needs To Know About the New Communication Department

Communication departments are transforming themselves. That’s good news.

Many communication departments are in the same business they were in 25-30 years ago—informing “audiences,” which conjures images of someone speaking to an audience.

A confluence of forces including customer demands, increased competition, technology, regulation, environmental pressures and workforce changes are requiring every department and function to generate more value.   The business reality is that budgets that generate acceptable returns aren’t as likely to be cut as those that don’t.

True, not everything that’s done in a communication function–or any other function–adds the same value in terms of its contribution to cash flow, customer satisfaction, operating income or whatever financial measures the company is chasing.

But these forces and the need to add value are requiring communication departments to shift from being a source of information directed at audiences, to a function that eliminates communication defects impeding organizational performance among and within teams.

This shift makes sense to customers who benefit from improved quality, delivery and value. It makes sense to business leaders who can gain a new resource for measurably improving organizational performance. And it makes sense to those in the communication department who can go home at night knowing they influence something important to the greater good.

Communication department transformations today are not unlike those that occurred in HR in the late nineties, or in manufacturing and supply chain management before that.

  • Using rigorous analytics to focus the department’s work on activities that increase value–work that improves business results. (One auto company CEO told me our approach was similar to portfolio management.) This helps eliminate low value work that’s traditionally been done because “it’s always been done.”
  • Adopting lean six sigma principles and processes that weed out the nice-to-do activities that add no value to the customer who buys the organization’s products or services.
  • Shifting the focus from generating output to creating outcomes that are consistent with the higher level organizational measures. This includes eliminating communication breakdowns that cause people to underperform, like mixed messages or inaccurate information.

This systems-wide approach requires far more integration with other disciplines and departments, such as HR, finance and line operations, where much of the money is made.  And because the department is becoming more business-focused, it often requires new skills and knowledge, including business and financial literacy.

As the work becomes directed toward higher value activities, there’s more focus on systems and processes (e.g., measurement, rewards and recognition) that communicate and affect performance more powerfully than, say, newsletters and portals.

Communication departments have an opportunity to shift from a pure cost center to one that adds measureable value when the gains it creates are greater than the cost of creating those gains.

That’s a good news story all around.

Time Is Currency

It hasn’t taken me 30 years to realize that great companies and great people manage time well, among other things.

I initially heard “time is currency” when I was working at Microsoft. Referring to Bill Gates’ obsession with time management, my host told me they refer to his time as “Bill capital.” “It’s a strategic asset that we monitor regularly.”

I was recently reminded of that comment when I was waiting for a client to start a weekly leadership meeting. Scheduled start time was 10 am. At 10:15, people were filing in as though it were a backyard barbeque. There was no sense of urgency. The meeting ran 20 minutes late.

Contrast this experience with one I had when I was working with GE Chairman Jack Welch at the company’s leadership institute in Crotonville, NY.

Welch and I were facilitating an afternoon session on leadership for Amtrak, who was one of my clients. Welch’s office had sent me his schedule for the event: Helicopter lands at 1:10 pm, he speaks at 1:15.

Sure enough, at 1:06 pm I heard the whop-whop of the chopper blades. It landed at 1:10 and we started precisely at 1:15.

  • Being on time means people can count on you.
  • Being on time shows you respect others around you.
  • Being on time communicates you have your act together.

Of course there are extenuating circumstances when you simply can’t help being late. But not chronically late.

Being late means you’re undisciplined. If you can’t manage your own time, why should I put my trust in you?

Being late probably means you’ll run late. When you run late you do so at my expense.

When a group of people schedule a time to start, they’re making a contract. When you show up late, you’re breaking the contract. Why bother to agree to a start time if you aren’t going to live up to your end of the deal?

When a television network or cable channel says a program will start at 6 pm, they don’t start at 6:03 because someone couldn’t get through traffic or misjudged how long it would take to get to work because of the rain.

6 pm is 6 pm.