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Really smart people try to do too much, and that makes them look stupid

Why the proliferation of initiatives does not make you look smart, motivated, or aggressive.

Geoff Wilson

“I have too much on my plate.”

You probably hear that from people occasionally, but you rarely if ever actually hear it from the highest performing people.  And that’s the problem this post is about: When smart people try to do too much, it makes them look stupid.

If anything, one old management adage is “if you want something done, give it to the busiest person in your organization.”  Why?  Because, well, the busy people are the ones who are always finding a way to get things done.  And there’s a ton to like about that platitude.

But, as with all platitudes, there’s a ton of insight left on the cutting room floor. If you want something done, find someone who is smart, focused, and motivated.  Sure.

But if you really want something done well, find someone who is smart, focused, and motivated and then help them manage their workload appropriately. Smart, motivated people have a really hard time saying no to things.  And smart, motivated people often have a view of others that leads them to think others should be as smart and motivated as they are (and therefore have all the capacity they have).  This leads the smart, motivated, and overcommitted leader to proliferate initiatives ad nauseam.  

And that reality leads to big problems as you promote your smart, motivated people up the chain.  The problems look like executives who take on too much, and consequently ask their organizations to take on too much.  It looks like endless lists of initiatives, all running concurrently.   It looks like a mess of execution because everybody is scrambling to do too much.

And finally, it looks like really smart, motivated people experiencing failure as leaders because of the very virtues that got them to their leadership role in the first place.  Being smart and motivated leads some managers to take on too much, which leads to point failures in execution or in organizational leadership, which leads to the manager looking stupid.

The solution if this is your peccadillo?  Find that sounding board who will help you focus on the critical few things that matter and drive the organization to them.  Unfortunately, in an age where “more is better,” all too often those sounding boards have the same incentives as you do as a manager: To recommend more and bigger, not less and better.  If you can find an adviser or mentor who helps you know when to slow down and focus on fewer things, you’re already ahead of the game.

What do you think?  How do you find a way to ensure you don’t take on too much? 

 

Evolution and business transformation

A brief notion of what it takes to actually evolve in the business world.

Geoff Wilson

“We need to transform” says the executive.

But what does that really mean?

To the dude with the MBA, it means driving margins higher, generating more cash flow, and establishing the efficient organization of the future. Only, it’s too often that such “transformations” are drafted on somebody else’s template. I grew up in an age where everybody wanted to “be like Mike,” and those same kids are now adults chasing the best in the business. Only instead of trying to dunk a basketball with their tongue sticking out, they are trying to implement the business system of their favorite high-flying company.

If you’re in an industrial company, that might mean you are emulating Danaher, or drawing on time-tested lessons from Toyota, or attempting to be like GE (not anymore, of course, because GE is passé).

If you’re in tech, then you are emulating Netflix, who creatively leaked a slide deck on culture years ago that seems to have inspired legions of management engineers. Or, maybe it’s Google parent Alphabet, Inc. that strikes your fancy.

You learn about these business systems at current or erstwhile world-class companies, and it all looks doable as you contemplate your transformation. But it’s not, and too many otherwise really bright managers don’t understand why.

So let me try to explain.

I just returned from a fascinating trip to the Galápagos Islands. The Galápagos are well-known for their unique and highly differentiated species, some of which have adapted over many generations to their own specific islands. Everybody knows about the Galápagos tortoise. Most people are aware of the marine iguana, and many people know about the legendary clumsiness of the blue-footed boobie. Finally, many people are aware of the many varieties of Darwin’s finches, with their many different beaks specially shaped for different food types.

These species all evolved through a course of natural selection from some primordial ancestors along their family tree: The marine iguana doubtless comes from iguana stock, the giant tortoise from tortoise stock, and the finches from a finch ancestor. And today they are competitively specialized to their specific environments, some of which are only miles apart in distance while being worlds apart in hospitality to non-local species.

Which brings me to the natural illustration: You wish to transform your company, and that’s fine, but you have to transform from your own template. If you have iguana DNA, don’t pine for the airborne life of the finch; if you’re a finch, forget about evolving to be a giant tortoise.

That’s not transformation, it’s a delusion.

The punchline is this: You must know your DNA, and once you know it, you must steer your transformation along it. Great things can happen to companies that take the best of their DNA and add or snip. Horrific things happen to companies that attempt to transform via somebody else’s DNA.

I, and probably you, have seen such mutant companies slogging along in confusion and demoralization while some “smart and worldly” senior executive tries to impose their iguana DNA onto a finch culture. That is not the way to evolve a corporate culture. You do it by knowing who you are.

What do you think? Can an iguana become a finch? Can your organization do the same?

 

Where heroes go to die

For 95 percent of your business, it’s best to put your heroes in the graveyard.

Geoff Wilson

Meet Sam.

Sam is a hero.  She probably lives in your organization.  She’s the one that “gets things done.”

Product not getting shipped?  Sam is the one on the dock.

Work not getting done on time in the drafting room? Sam has uncanny ability to pitch in and get things over the goal line.

Individuals not delivering their work packages on time in general?  Sam will step in, re-cast the process, lay out for the pass, and ensure that the deadline is met.

Sam knows–or at least is known by–the CEO.  Sam has made a living out of making her bosses look great. The people around Sam may not like Sam that much because of how hard Sam works and/or how much Sam pitches in to do their job, but the reality is that Sam has probably saved them from being fired countless times.

Sam delivers. Sam is a hero.

And, in 95 percent of businesses that I know, the need for Sam’s heroism is a problem.

Why?

Because heroism makes for good beer-drinking stories and for really awful business.  It covers up for bad processes.  It lulls bosses into a false sense of security because “we are always on time” when, in reality, processes are broken, and people are left in tatters by the heroic culture.

It also creates single points of failure.  That is, if the hero gets hit by the proverbial bus, the entire system reverts to chaos.  Chaos is not good.  Your best bet in building a strategically sound business is to eliminate chaos where humanly possible. And, that means (oddly enough) eliminating heroism–the ultimate cover for chaos.  I believe that to be possible in about 95 percent of business processes.  The other 5%?  Those are where we all deal with uncontrollable variables like last minute changes in customer preferences or mercurial executives.  For those, I love heroes.

For the rest?  Use your heroes as indicators of opportunity, not as indicators of success.  Know that an effort at the strategic renewal of your company through thoughtful planning and strategic focus should be a place where heroes go to die.

But beware, because the Sams of the world can turn toxic when it comes to putting a bullet in heroism.  In general, heroes really hate business improvement.  Heroes like Sam often (not always) create job security and ego-stroking visibility through their ability to lay out for the pass.  Heroes often hate it when processes are re-evaluated.  They are the first to bring up terms like bureaucracy and waste of time.  They are the ones who (rightfully) will focus everyone around them on the results, but when everyone around them stops to say “let’s fix the process,” they might say “no thanks, I’m going to go get some more results.”  Sam may be rightfully focused on results (I applaud her), but she may also be protecting a virtual fiefdom of heroism when it comes to opting out of the nearer term process fix.

That, my friends, is ultimately not scalable.  And, that can be toxic.  Sam’s a hero, but toxic Sam is merely another form of a high-performing corporate narcissist.

My advice?  If your heroes live anywhere outside of sales or otherwise in direct interactions with your customer, find a way to put them in the graveyard.  In your strategic efforts, take the to the place where heroes go to die.

What do you think?

 

 

How to keep culture from crushing progress

Big ideas aren’t enough to change things. You need powerful sponsorship.

This anecdote has played out more times than reruns of the original “Star Trek” series, so bear with me as I set it up.

The situation

Geoff Wilson

A highly motivated, energetic, experienced new hire is brought into the organization as an agent of change by the business unit’s president. The new hire is brought in because she thinks differently and has rich and relevant experience in organizations that look the way her new organization’s president and leadership team say they want the business unit to look over the long term. She is the poster child for effective organizational change leadership in appearance, word, and deed.

The new hire does what all highly motivated, experienced hires do: She gets to work. Carrying the president’s imprimatur by virtue of being hired, she starts propagating new ways of doing things—perhaps on processes like project management or in performance areas such as pricing or cost efficiency. She’s driven. She’s smart. She’s organized. She’s logical. She’s practical. She is, quite possibly, right.

The president of the company, sensing the strong glow of a great hire, lets her “do her thing” without guiding or intervening. After all, that’s what great leaders do: They let great people go “do their thing.” Right?

The organization’s leaders quickly sense a world of pain coming from changes to the ways things have always been done. The changes aren’t necessarily bad—just different.

Fast forward to a year later. Our motivated change agent is watching the clock. She’s waiting for 5:48 p.m. every day (that’s just late enough to not signal that she’s thrown in the towel). Her great ideas sit on white boards and in documents across the organization. But progress has been slow. She’s figured out that the organization really didn’t want all of her resume—just a few parts. Her job is easy. Her life is hard.

The leadership team, having figured out that she had no power in the first place, decided that the change agent’s recommendations, while smart, were too painful for them to implement. They have marginalized her through passive and deliberate pseudo-compliance and back-channel opting out. When one functional leader delays participation with good reason, the rest simply follow suit.

The president has entertained every grievance. By making backroom agreements on who needs to comply and who doesn’t, he has undermined the change agent—unintentionally, but still.

The organization likes her. But, hey, “Those great ideas could never work here.” And besides, the president sure didn’t seem to mind that key leaders opted out.

The president wonders why there hasn’t been more traction on his new hire’s ideas, but in reality, he just likes the fact that the business unit is performing well this year and that everyone will achieve nice bonuses.

The change agent polishes up her resume.

When our once-motivated, now-crushed change agent leaves for greener pastures, the organization gives itself a self-righteous pat on the back. See, they were right all along.

The change agent and the president (if he is a person of vision and integrity) wonder what happened.

Here’s what happened

First, the president quickly moved from a position of obvious sponsorship (he hired the change agent, after all) to a role of spectatorship. He removed the most important tool in his change agent’s toolkit: the lever of executive sponsorship.

Second, the change agent—armed with the confidence that her ideas would work and work well—fell into the trap of idealistic pursuit vs. practical and pragmatic progress.

Both have ignored the practical realities of power—call it influence, pull, or realpolitikThey misjudged the power of an organization’s culture to reject even the best ideas in favor of the status quo. They let the organization and its culture crush a valuable addition to its midst.

Don’t kid yourself: Culture is heavy. The weight of any organization’s culture will crush any change agent.

So what?

There’s no such thing as a “fire and forget” change agent. The agent—whether in the form of an initiative team or a seemingly heroic individual like our anecdotal new hire above—must have real power.

In any change program or worthwhile process, there comes a point in the organization’s journey where the broad population realizes that change is hard. They have an “Oh, shit” moment. At that moment, there must be enough momentum and felt need (or other sources of power) to move the change forward. Otherwise, change won’t happen.

In turnarounds, the momentum and felt need is easy. Either we perform or we’re gone. The change agent can drive change with that implication alone.

In improvement situations, the reality is far more nuanced. Going from good to better is hard. Really. How often do you see people who are in great shape make a New Year’s resolution to get in better shape? Not often. They make choices that diversify their focus vs. intensifying it. They want to spend more time with their kids, take up art, or shoot for that promotion at work. Their health is secondary because, well, they already have health.

That’s the problem with change in organizations performing “OK” or, especially, performing great but in an unhealthy manner (a diversified business with a few bright spots that carry the portfolio comes to mind). The organization—convinced it’s “doing alright”—sees the change as an annoyance. This is especially true in the absence of a transparent agenda. And that’s where power comes in.

Executive sponsors and change agents have to agree on the source of power that will ensure the change. And they must follow through on it!

The agenda must be explicit and have teeth. The change agent has to be able to walk into any room with the full blessing of power, and with a ready set of implications for non-participants and opt-outs. But the change agent should never have to articulate them!

For the other leaders in the organization, opting out must be a visible, deliberate action that is advertised to the highest levels of sponsorship. Opting out has to have consequences. Or else, why bother?

Practical points

Cognitive dissonance being what it is, human beings aren’t wired to admit that they individually are the problem. Chances are, you read the anecdote at the beginning of this article with a real notion of who the victim was, and the victim probably looked a lot like you. The reality is that all parties in the anecdote hold responsibility. So, here are some things to do about it:

  • Sponsoring executives have to stay engaged and deliver their positional and personal influence through their change agents. Tell the organization that the agent has power and why. Never, ever leave that communication to the change agent. Define—honestly—the agenda the agent is working to implement. And, for goodness’ sake, don’t undermine the change agent by entertaining back-channel grievances and allowing one-off deviations from the plan without explicit, advertised, and good reasons. Sponsor the right behaviors through influence or force.
  • Change agents need to clarify the source of their power. Can they state in a short sentence what would keep the organization from opting out? Are the power dynamics such that the change agent is set up to fail? Remember: Idealism is great, but not sufficient. Just going and doing a good job is not enough if the power structure isn’t in place.
  • Group or organizational leaders have to own and explain their priorities. To be sure, there are myriad good reasons—ranging from timing to talent—for opting out of change initiatives. Handled transparently, these reasons can be managed well. If handled passively or through backroom deals, however, opting out sends a signal to the rest of the organization (that doesn’t have such good reasons for it) that opting out will be tolerated and accepted. So, why bother?

If you deploy change agents, be sure to back them with enough power to make them effective. Practice sponsorship, not spectatorship. Define your agenda. Lead. Clear the way.

If you’re a change agent, be sure you have enough power through sponsorship to achieve what the organization expects you to achieve. If you don’t have it, get it. Can’t get it? Move on.

What do you think?

Stop waiting for Han Solo

Relying on unidentified heroics is great for movies, but bad for business strategy.

This article contains a spoiler for the 1977 movie “Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope”. If you’ve never seen it, you’ve missed an important and largely wholesome artifact of modern popular culture, so please don’t read on until you watch it.

Geoff Wilson

Picture it. It’s a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. You’re Luke Skywalker. It’s the final battle of “Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope”. In your X-sing starfighter, you’re bearing down on the small exhaust port that is the Death Star’s only known weakness. Your strategy says a proton torpedo or two delivered into that port will be all she wrote for the evil Empire’s new toy.

But Darth Vader and two henchmen are closing in on you in their roaring, menacing TIE fighters. You only need a minute more to triumphantly blow apart the Death Star as per the battle’s strategy—but Vader is seconds from destroying you instead.

As he locks his TIE fighter’s weapons on you, Vader unleashes a sinister, foreshadowing boast in James Earl Jones’ deep voice:

“I have you now …”

And he does. All appears lost. Your strategy isn’t going to make it. But then, out of nowhere, Han Solo and the Millennium Falcon blast Vader and his entourage out of the picture and into outer space. Solo exclaims those classic words:

“You’re all clear, kid. Now let’s blow this thing and go home.”

You are. You do. And you all go. Everyone gets a medal. The galaxy is safe—for now.

Now, back to the real world.

Exhale …

I’ve got news for you: Han Solo won’t save your business (or life) strategy. So don’t plan like he will.

Business strategy, like an excellent motion picture, is a narrative acted out. It’s supported by facts and demonstrated through action. Any good narrative—and many sound business strategies—can use all manner of plot devices. Cliffhangers, climaxes, twists, bluffs, foreshadowing, flashbacks, and feints are all in bounds.

But the one plot device that should never penetrate the documented realm of any strategy is called deus ex machina. Literally translated as “god from the machine,” it is “… a plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly resolved by the contrived and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability or object.”

You see? Han Solo shows up out of nowhere and saves the day.

Examples of deus ex machina in business strategy are legion. Any time you review (or, God forbid, develop) a strategy that goes from point A to point Z, but you can’t find the connecting points between, you’re seeing this problematic plot device.

You’re probably part of a company today that has at least one business unit that plans for growth to rescue margins, acquisition to rescue growth, new products to rescue customer loyalty, or an expert new hire (his or her initials: TBD) to drive a new level of performance and engagement. But its done without growth plans, without an acquisition map, without articulating which products will unveil the promised land, and without the budget, candidates, or even value proposition to fill the open spot.

People who operate like this are waiting for Han Solo. Don’t wait for Han Solo. It’s dangerous. Here’s why.

Most long-term business strategies start with goals given by senior management, boards, or CEOs without more than vague notions of how to achieve them. The best of those goals constitute true “commander’s intent,” with end states in mind bounded by sets of values—definitions of what you won’t resort to in pursuit of excellence. Others are simply budget targets. We hit “budget as strategy” in another post; they can and do coexist, but tenuously.

Let’s assume the commander’s intent is your starting point. A beautiful strategic objective is therefore put in place, with an understanding of what we won’t do to achieve it. Own a market segment, grow at top quartile rates, be excellent to your customers. Be the most aggressive and the most admired simultaneously. Have it all.

But what if the strategy drawn up to get there relies on too many unidentified elements to succeed? It lacks specificity and shape. It is written as though the answer is “Trust us, we’ll figure it out.” In short, it is amorphous–not simply flexible, but in reality unbounded. “Han Solo will rescue us.”

Amorphous strategy creates at least three hazards that are brutally deleterious to an organization, your standing as a leader, and your own decision making:

  1. Creates confusion where there should be cohesion. All things are possible as long as they are even obliquely oriented toward the end objective. A thousand flowers bloom and quickly die due to shallow roots. In the end, scope creeps toward what is nearby and comfortable. Incrementalism abounds because it’s the least confusing option.
  2. Makes you, as the strategic leader, look like a short-term thinker. It leads organizations to believe that leaders are solely focused on the near term. Because there is no connective tissue between now and the future state, long-term strategies are viewed as mere window dressing. They are something you put on PowerPoint slides and show off at conferences, but don’t really believe in. More of the same, piled high and deep. All the advanced degrees. You get the picture.
  3. Confounds good decision making. Because the means and methods are undefined, principled decisions are hard to come by. Anything and everything can be “on strategy” and the same can be “off strategy.” Pet projects, politics, and personal peccadilloes can grow to dominate decision making vs. principled protection of proper perspective.

So what?

What are you to do? Here are a few practical ideas:

Believe in belief* – Yes, that’s right. Have a point of view and share it. The fog of war is no excuse. Practice the art of saying “I don’t know, but my hypothesis is …” vs. just artfully dodging the issue. If your business (or life) strategy isn’t built on a set of beliefs about yourself, your organization, your competitors, and the world around you, then you are, my friend, a sucker. Always have a hypothesis about what the savior will be and how you cultivate it. Test the hypothesis frequently.

Apply your beliefs to “Step 2” – If you have a strategy that is big and audacious (including a strategy for your career), it’s not sufficient to plan for incremental moves. Think of strategy as the often-quoted three-step framework. Step 1 in many, if not most, strategies is “Do what we are doing, only better.” Step 3 is usually some variant of the Jack Welch theme: “Be number one or number two in our market segment.”

You have to know at least the silhouette of what Step 2 is—especially if Step 3 requires a step-change in performance. Who would you acquire? What kind of product would you need to bring to market? What customer would you have to reach? What does your footprint need to look like? What capabilities should you build now?

If you can’t bridge the gap between Step 1 and Step 3, even conceptually, then you are now in possession of a powerful insight about the objective itself.

Pack for the journey – posted previously on the importance of answering the question “Have you packed for the journey?” If your strategy has a Step 1, 2, and 3, then ask yourself if you have resourced it and made the real risk/resourcing/return decisions necessary to go the distance. Many strategies founder on the rocks of stretched resources or capabilities—especially in today’s age of management by spreadsheet.

Pressure test the means – If you’re in a leadership or board position (or one that looks like it), be sure to ask about Step 2. Trust, but verify. A leader who demonstrates a grand strategy but cannot outline a practical step to get there is telling you something. Getting excited about an end objective is a good thing, but it shouldn’t crowd out sober assessment of the path to the objective.

You must ruthlessly eliminate the white knight, Prince Charming, Han Solo—pick your metaphor—from strategic planning. Using them as plot devices—or their relatives the unfunded mandate, growth by hockey stick, cost reduction by benchmark, and the unidentified acquisition—is strategy based on faith. It’s strategy by fairy tale.

A more direct appraisal is that it’s not strategy at all.

Han Solo doesn’t work on your team, so don’t plan as though he’ll save the day—or your strategy.

What do you think?

* I borrowed this adage as a direct homage to the late, legendary swimming coach Richard Quick. I’m glad to have known him. It was his motto, and it’s a good one.

The cure that kills

Corporate change programs can be toxic treatments unless heavily dosed with honest communication.

Geoff Wilson

Early in my career, I had a conversation with a mid-level manager (let’s call him Carl) within a large company undergoing a tense operational change. Carl was responsible for multiple small sites in the organization’s footprint. He led tens of people. It wasn’t hundreds or thousands, but still significant.

I was a fledgling consultant to top management at Carl’s company. My team was focused on designing the approach to the company’s change. In my conversation with Carl, I asked how things were done and what would help with the change.

The conversation was productive, but then Carl paused. I now know it was the pause that comes before someone actually breaks through the facade of their professional life. At that point in my career, however, I just thought he was thinking.

Carl then laid it out there: “All these corporate programs—I can’t tell which way things are going or why we are doing what we are doing.” He paused again, and then unleashed the words that have stuck with me ever since: “It makes you feel like a beaten dog. You flinch every time the corporate hand comes toward you because you are more used to it beating you than it helping you.”

And there, my friends, was a life-changing moment. It was life changing for two reasons:

  • Carl was an honest guy. He was trying to comply with corporate mandates—and was getting crushed in the process. He lacked access to any rhyme or reason for the change.
  • I had a core belief (now solidified) that no senior executive walks into the office seeking to foist valueless initiatives on his or her people for the sheer joy of creating confusion and frustration. (Side note: After years as an advisor and executive, I’ve known one or two executives who propagate valueless initiatives for the sake of their own ego, but not as real sadists. The end result is the same, but the intent isn’t)

In Carl’s case, the two sides of the circuit—top management and line leaders—had strong values and desires to do great jobs. But they weren’t connecting. The missed connection was consequently crushing drive and initiative where it was needed most.

In other words, initiatives, mandates, and highly valuable corporate performance programs driven from the top looked—to those most needed to buy into them—more like beatings than opportunities. They were systemic “cures” handed down from corporate offices that could literally kill local energy and focus. The programs dulled the edge of the very people meant to be sharpened by them.

Not only that, but the entire situation very quickly made senior leaders look like the “doctors” in this post photo. Not folks you’d seek out for a cure, eh?

In the history of medical science, many so-called cures have proven lethal not only to diseases, but also to patients. The history of cancer chemotherapy is rife with such instances. Actress/playwright Anna Deavere Smith deftly illustrated this concept in her solo play “Let Me Down Easy” when she wrote that cancer therapy is “like taking a stick and beating a dog to get rid of fleas.”

Corporate change programs—especially the big ones—sometimes have the same feel: indiscriminate cure targeting incorrigible disease launched against unassuming patients. A stick swung against the body, and then again but in a different way. Again. And again. And again. Striking nerves and tissue they don’t intend to strike, but doing damage anyway.

It’s a way of targeting performance that is often effective but sometimes lethal. Corporate change programs, like a stick used to beat a dog or a powerful chemical used to decimate a disease, can be a cure that kills. But the analogies break down at that point.

Why? Because we as corporate leaders are able to package and prepare our patients for our cure in a way that no canine or cancer patient’s body can ever be readied. We can turn the stick into a staff, or the chemotherapy into a nourishing concoction.

How? We can use the power of “why.” We can communicate not only what’s coming, but why it’s happening. We can explain the meaning of the action and its upside for stakeholders. In the cases of the worst outcomes—change programs that have necessary but terminal impact on some individuals—we can quite literally let those afflicted down easy.

We just need to take the time to do it. And do it repeatedly. And then to do it again. But how? Simon Sinek’s TED talk that encapsulates the concept of “starting with the ‘why'” is a helpful guide. For leaders to inspire action and minimize confusion, angst, and ultimately departure, we should ensure that the “why” reaches everyone the change impacts.

Summarizing change in a change story is a great way to start. Delivering it personally is even more captivating. Living the change out visibly is the ultimate approach. But there’s a catch: If you as an executive leader don’t change at all OR you change too often—especially if your “why” keeps changing while the world around you isn’t—you’re just swinging the stick in a different way.

Being outstanding at operations one quarter, great at growth the next, and excellent at efficiency the following only serves to show that you’re untethered from principle. That, or your principles aren’t what you’re packaging into your “why” to begin with. Either way, you resort to more of the same—except now, instead of death by confusion and randomness, you’re propagating death by disingenuousness.

Don’t be untethered, and don’t be disingenuous. You have to have vision and integrity.

Change leaders of all stripes: Stop beating your dogs. Use the power of preparation and communication. Drive performance by leading with the “why.”

Prescribe a cure that cures by preparing people for the treatment.

What do you think?

The importance of doing career due diligence

A little research and a few hints are plenty when you’re looking for your next job.

Geoff Wilson

Picture it: You’re thinking about joining a new organization. You just so happen to know a few people with very solid inside knowledge of the organization. One of them gives you this pearl: “On a scale of 1 to 10, the leadership team you would join is a solid 8—but the leader is a 4.”

What would you do? You might say “8, wow. That’s pretty good. I could do much worse.” Or you might say “Ugh, a leader who’s a 4. Back to the drawing board.”

Here’s what I’d tell you …

KEEP SHOPPING!

Any leader who has engendered enough bad will to have innocent observers rate them a 4 probably deserves elimination from your solution set. Of course, I write this with the assumption that you have other options; if you’re desperate, take your chances with a bad leader. After all, bad leaders deserve to have teams of desperate people.

Why does this matter to your career? Because a little due diligence is a good thing.

I’m actually wary of people who take jobs without asking questions. Like, really wary. Scary wary. Why? Because a person who will take a job with you without a question asked is probably just looking for a job. And you know what? There are lots of jobs out there.

People with purpose ask questions that relate to their purposes. I’ve had people ask questions about firm strategy, the career path, and even faith in the workplace. None of them were off-putting; these people showed sincere curiosity about where their own skills, purposes, and beliefs fit. But people without purpose just ask for offers; they don’t do any due diligence.

And those candidates deserve no offers when it comes to professional roles. “Ouch,” you might say. “What about junior people who don’t know any better?” Yep, they get a pass. But anyone who’s been around the block even once should know better.

I know of an executive who left a role with a firm after years within it, and the particular role he left was open and advertised for months and months. He constituted what I would consider a juicy due diligence target. Why? Well, he was there for all the world to see, regardless of what he could or couldn’t say about the role. He did, in fact, receive dozens of calls about the role and the organization. While I’m not sure how he talked about the role to those who were interested, I do know one thing: The person who actually took the role never called him. That would be a glaring red flag for me if I were filling the role. It says a lot about the depth of curiosity of the person who took the role, doesn’t it?

It’s not a sin to ask questions about a role that might be offered to you. And if you encounter resistance from your potential future organization when you do ask questions … run away! Any team that questions your motives for doing due diligence on them, particularly if you’re a very senior executive, doesn’t deserve to attract top talent.

Go ahead and look them in the mouths. Gift horses, they ain’t.

What do you think? Have you ever encountered resistance from an organization when you asked about it during an interview cycle? 

Don’t be friends with the monster

Honoring functional leadership above all else creates monsters in today’s over-scienced organizations.

“I’m friends with the monster that’s under my bed”

— Rihanna on “The Monster” by Eminem

Geoff Wilson

Let’s say you’re a leader of a corporate function. Pick one, it doesn’t matter. You may lead supply chain, procurement, human resources, information technology, corporate development, strategy, finance, accounting, or any other.

If I told you, right now, to find me a treasure trove of best practices for your function, you could do so in an instant. Starting with the old standby, Harvard Business Review, you could extend and expand your Google hunt to a dizzying plethora of functional associations, business school publications, case studies, consulting publications, and puff pieces that would provide you with more best practices than you could ever digest. Ever.

And that’s the kicker. Functional leaders now have access to more best practices than ever before, and that abundance has the potential to create a monster. How? In our pursuit of functional excellence within organizations, it’s easy to lose collective sight of business excellence. That’s right. Compliance with functional mandates can have monstrous consequences for business performance and productivity.

Consider an organization with a well-meaning leadership team that empowers several functions to demand compliance from line leaders on their own functional initiatives—all at once. To functional leaders, this is nirvana. They get to install “world-class HR approaches,” or “sector-leading procurement approaches,” or “outstanding business planning,” or “structured strategic planning.” But to the line leader, such initiatives manifest themselves as barbarians at the gate. They are monstrous.

Why? Consider the line leader who suddenly has to spend hours in meetings with functional teams. For some leaders, a specific functional team will hit the spot. The meeting or new approach will be extremely valuable. For others—say, a leader without real talent gaps, who is forced to sit through days of talent reviews and plans—they’re a waste of time. But they’re mandatory. They are “the way we do things now.” And they are, quite often, entirely wrong.

They sap productive selling and organizational-development time from line leaders who usually know they are wasting time. In the worst cases (“Hey, Bob, just fill out these talent templates and we’ll see you next Tuesday.”) they simultaneously kill morale and productivity while adding no value.

How do you avoid creating a functional monster in your organization?

The answer is hard because all the management scientists and consultants peddling best practices will find holes throughout an organization that adheres to it. But it’s simple: Have the guts to empower line managers, provide them with great tools, and get out of their way.

Let there be a rational discussion and rule set for allowing business leaders to spend time with customers vs. internal functional teams. Set the menu of initiatives and manage opting out closely, but allow it. Allow the gal whose business team has no credit-and-collections issues to skip the “best-practice contracting” seminar. Allow the guy whose team has high productivity and zero turnover to avoid the talent and recruiting review.

It’s OK. Really. And I say this as someone who has perpetrated plenty of broad-based, high-value corporate initiatives. Outside of obvious risk and legal areas, “compliance” to one-size-fits-all approaches to functional “excellence” results in a distribution of gains from that excellence that very clearly hurts some players who comply.

This isn’t to say that no functional initiative is applicable to all, but rather that you should know whether or not it is.

Don’t be friends with the monster. Don’t allow honor and appreciation for good functional practices to kill productivity and morale in your line organization. Know when to let your business leaders opt out of frightful functional initiatives.

What do you think? 

What If You Gig a Lemon?

As the gig economy continues to evolve, how do we define value in it?

I had this link come across my newsfeed today.

It looks like seminal gig economy facilitator TaskRabbit is pursuing a strategic sale.

From the article:

One of the earliest and most prominent startups of the so-called “sharing economy” or “gig economy” is evaluating the possibility of selling itself. As reported by Recode, freelance work marketplace TaskRabbit acknowledged that it is contemplating a sale after receiving inbound interest from a possible strategic buyer.

Now, I won’t comment on the merits fo the report other than to say that “inbound interest” usually means “we put ourselves up for sale and somebody called.”

Usually.

But it raises the question in this whole gig economy concept.  How do we place value on freelance contractors?  This issue is one that certainly matters to anybody contemplating the valuation of TaskRabbit as a company (because, one would assume, the value of a broker is in its ability to consistently snag a vig out of a high-value transaction for both the buyer and seller of a service).

When it comes to well-defined services like Uber, one can establish real regulating metrics for the service and scare out poor quality relatively quickly (especially when it comes to competing against taxis in most cities, which are decidedly…crappy). And, as with the mountains of venture capital that have underwritten Uber’s below market prices show, you can incite trial use of almost any simple service.

But, when it comes to more trust-oriented services, like those TaskRabbit sells, the ability to assure value becomes a big issue.  If I’m going to invite someone into my house to assemble furniture (one of the tasks that TaskRabbit puts right on its front page as an example), I have to know what risk I’m actually taking for the price.

And, you know what?  That risk is highly variable.  The person might break the furniture, soil the carpet, and scratch the floor.  Sure, TaskRabbit can reimburse for that, but who takes the risk of time, disappointment, and re-work?

You do.

And that’s where the gig economy will face its biggest challenge:  quality assurance a priori.

The more complex and critical the task, the more difficult the quality assurance mountain to climb.  Move from a contractor who assembles your furniture to one who builds your financial plan, and you start to see how trust gets built into the equation.  You always seek references (or the backing of a big balance sheet) when looking for a new financial advisor.

The problem with mass-market matching services (in both the consumer market, like Task Rabbit, and in professional markets, like any number of talent agencies out there), is two-fold.

First, the discerning buyer who cares deeply about quality and who is likely far more loyal to high-quality experiences–we at WGP call these the “clients you want”–won’t take the risk on a mass-market service. They will either demand a barebones price, or just go on about their business.

Second–and this is the real challenge for gig-talent-markets–people with real high-quality and trustworthy talents are usually already busy.  There’s a reason the A/V contractor all your friends like is booked 4 months out.

He’s a good one.

The confluence of these two factors leads gig-market-makers like TaskRabbit to face a version of the classic “lemons problem” in used car markets:  Because sellers can hide the true quality of their services ex-ante, buyers demand pricing that assumes the service is already a lemon.

This is a problem for any broker, and acts as a weight on prices (to the benefit of the buyer, to be sure…but to the detriment of the seller and the broker). So, companies focused on brokering services that are increasingly ambiguous will face the biggest issues and talent validation costs.  Talent markets for high profile independent consultants are already seeing some of these cracks.  Those services place, on average, very strong consultants with their companies. But that’s on average, which means not systematically.  And, it only takes one “oh crap” to screw up a whole lot of “atta boys.”

The solution?  The more critical the task, the more intense the background check and validation of the service needed. In the home furniture assembly market, it probably only means a handful of 5 star ratings on an app.  In the independent consulting market, it probably means a handful of real, solid references not coming from the broker themselves.

It’s the same as it ever was.  The outer circles may (and should) get contracted out through efficient means (like Uber, Lyft, etc.), but for the inner circles?

Trust is king.

I suppose this spells danger for the “strategic buyer” evaluating TaskRabbit today. In-home services are a challenge, and risk sharing in that world is doubtless fraught with concerns.

What do you think? 

 

Maliciously Delicious

Great compliance can equal unhappy customers.

 

Not long ago, I asked some people in my organization to make a change to how they submit expense reports.  Instead of titling the expense reports willy-nilly, they were to use a more systematic titling convention that allows our chief administrative officer (that’s me) to quickly sort through a high volume of reports.

I asked for a simple convention:

Last Name, Client, Month, Year

Admittedly, when reports are submitted this way, it has worked beautifully for me…shaving off minutes of time it takes to review, to book, and where needed to accurately bill expenses from our firm.

Today, I chuckled as I received an expense report titled “Last Name, Client, Month, Year.”  As in, literally named with those words.

Now, notwithstanding my amusement at what was clearly a person’s diligent attempt to remind themselves of how to name their reports that accidentally didn’t get updated prior to submission, it brings up a really interesting topic for the manager and strategist in all of us.

Have you ever heard of “malicious compliance?”

Malicious compliance is compliance with the letter and not the spirit.  It’s doing what you are told and not what’s right.

Good examples of malicious compliance come up in all organizations all the time.  Did you attend that “mandatory” meeting instead of fixing that customer problem because you knew your boss would focus (pettily I might add) on your absence vs. the customer?

Did you ever have someone do exactly what the customer wanted, even though it was exactly the wrong thing?

That’s malicious compliance.

In establishing change programs, we have to balance the need for strict compliance with what I will call “first things.”  First things are principles like the Hippocratic “do no harm.”  They are principles like “customer experience first.”  First things are values.  The first things have to come first.

You want all reports for your strategy deployment effort on time, every time?  Sure, but what about the fire down at the plant?

Having strong values is a way of avoiding instances of malicious compliance.

The point here is that great compliance–even with good rules and regulations–can equal unhappy customers and unhealthy organizations.  Your values should guide you to when it’s time to “overcome compliance.”

I’m curious:  What’s your favorite example of malicious compliance?  If you start the conversation, I’m betting this one could be more interesting in the comments than in the post!

What do you think?