Musings at Year’s End

the thinker 214x300 - Musings at Year’s EndDid this year go fast or what? As I’ve talked with clients and friends during the recent holidays, that’s the universal comment.  Last year seems like yesterday.

Here at the Jim Shaffer Group, 2015 was filled with a variety of clients spanning industries from big pharma to digital technology and several points in-between. Our projects were vastly different, too.

This year, we not only helped a client connect people in multiple businesses to a single business strategy, but also developed an aggressive growth plan for another company’s business, as well as helped a global company re-invent its internal and external communication function.  It was challenging and rewarding work.

My Year-End Rant
My professional training is to observe and listen for clues to the prevailing collective thought.  During this past year, I developed some pet peeves around business language/corporate speak that needs to get on the table.  Here are a few.  Bear with me, please.

  • Narrative.
    This has to be the most overused word among news commentators and political operatives. Who starts these verbal fads? Who was so influential that when he or she used the word “narrative” to describe a “story,”  everyone else abandoned the word story and replaced it with narrative? Listen for it.
  • Awesome.
    Urban Dictionary defines it as “a ‘sticking plaster’ word used by Americans to cover over the huge gaps in their vocabulary.” Awesome is yesterday’s actually. Another reference says its popularity originated in California, more precisely in Silicon Valley. A speaker at a conference I recently attended used awesome 15 times in one hour! I counted. That’s one every four minutes.
  • Totally.
    As in a totally awesome narrative. Or, “The sun will come up tomorrow morning.”
    “Totally.” (Meaning, perhaps, that the sun will not come up one piece at a time.)
  • Amazing.
    As in totally amazing or amazingly awesome.
  • Insanely.
    Insanely amazing is pure Silicon Valley. I sat in the Hyatt Santa Clara lobby one evening working on a client report. The young folks sitting at the next table must have described 15 different things in their lives as insanely amazing.
  • Lead from Behind.
    Lead from behind originated in Nelson Mandela’s autobiography as he equated a great leader with a shepherd. “He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind.” Good for shepherds, perhaps, but not for today’s leaders and their complex organizations.  Leading from behind has become a diplomatic way to describe leaders who abdicate or are aimless–perhaps like the sheep in Mandela’s flock. Leading from behind is a step toward anarchy. I prefer the title of Ted Turner’s book, “Lead, Follow or Get Out of the Way.”

And Now, On Another Topic…
Employee engagement. The most misunderstood concept in business.
Gallup reports that only 32 percent of US employees are engaged. So what? That number should mean nothing to CEOs running a business today. What they should care about is whether their company is under-performing because people aren’t engaged.

Employee engagement is not a goal. It’s a condition that serves as a means to achieving goals. In short, employee engagement is a blend of two things:

  • Cognitive identity, a fancy term that means the employees and the organization share the same values (Think of people who work at the Mayo Clinic.) and;
  • Discretionary effort, which means when an employee has a decision to make, he or she will opt for the decision–and action–that furthers the goals of the organization.

BUT, and this is a big BUT, the discretionary effort needs to be laser-focused on the right actions (“right” being defined by the business strategy). People need to be engaged to do the right things. If not, the engagement could be meaningless.

Why meaningless?
Because resources are required to engage people. Engagement has a cost associated with it. If the returns from engaging people exceed the cost of the effort, value has likely been added. If the returns aren’t greater than the cost, you have likely drained value from the organization.
That’s why engagement scores by themselves don’t mean much. You can increase engagement scores and lose money.

Here’s to an abundant and successful New Year!


  1. Jim, I nodded with every line until my head went a little off vertical with the description of discretionary effort. Though I completely agree discretionary effort needs to be focused on the right things, I prefer a definition that speaks to employees taking initiative to work more efficiently, anticipate and head off problems, and generally ignore the boundaries of the job description. Engaged people see themselves as part of the team… as such, they typically have the big picture understanding needed to act on what will provide the most value.

    I appreciate your writing, and the opportunity to comment and read others’ thoughts.

    All the best for 2016!

    1. Thanks, Jeff. Great to hear from you. Thanks for pushing the subject to the next level.
      You’ve described some of the actions that would result from the use of discretionary effort. That is, when employees have a choice between taking the initiative or not taking the initiative they will opt for taking the initiative around the things you mentioned.
      In addition to seeing the big picture, they also need: line of sight between what they do and what they can influence; autonomy or the ability to make decisions and take appropriate action; resources, including information, needed to do the right things; and an understanding of how they will benefit–or “what’s in it for me when I take the right action”.
      Thanks again for sharing. You, too, have a great 2016!

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