Art of Managing—The Pursuit of Excellence is a Choice

Graphic with the words of Art of Managing and other management termsThe Art of Managing series is dedicated to exploring the critical issues we face in guiding our firms and teams to success in today’s volatile world.

Too few managers and management teams talk about what it means to promote a culture of business performance excellence in and across their organizations. Even fewer work on it.

Perhaps the lofty sound of anything with “excellence” in it creates an eye-roll or seems like some far-away mirage best left for pursuit inside classrooms. It’s great fodder for business books as well. Perhaps it’s the reality that by admitting that you are striving to pursue business performance excellence, you are admitting that you or your team or your firm is one or more degrees separated from anything resembling excellence.

It’s hard to show up at the management team meeting and say, “We suck, and we have to do something about it. Or, “We’re good, but we’re not great and we should do something about it.” It’s a difficult conversation to start, but one that offers remarkable potential for tangible outcomes once a firm’s senior managers have opened up to the topic and accepted the challenge to pursue excellence.

The Common Symptoms of a Systematic Failure to Pursue Excellence:

Many organizations struggle with a number of very common issues. They lack cogent direction. Strategies are incomplete or missing in action or in some state of flux. Employees are unengaged and unaware of how their efforts and functional or vocational goals plug into the bigger picture. Priorities are fuzzy and ever-shifting. Customers aren’t particularly loyal or happy. There’s cross-border conflict between functions where there should be cooperation and collaboration. Metrics are fuzzy and mostly rear-view mirror looking. And finally, there’s an incredible amount of waste and inefficiency due to poor and undocumented processes.

If these sound familiar, you’re in an environment where management has failed to step up and align on the pursuit of business performance excellence. It’s a choice waiting to be made.

It’s the System, Stupid!

The late, great quality expert, W. Edwards Deming spent much of his career chastising managers for the systemic failures they perpetuated through their sloppy practices. He offered: “85% of organizational problems are system related and only 15% are related to people.” While I’m not certain of the derivation of those precise metrics, I’ll wager my 30 years of management and leadership experience that his theme is spot on.

Deming was quick to highlight the sins of management and the failures of the management system employed by many firms, including: lack of constancy of purpose, mobility of management, poor evaluation practices, the failure to eliminate fear from the workplace and others. Their presence along with the maladies highlighted above are all indicators that a management group has not decided that business performance excellence is a worthy pursuit.

What It Looks Like When It Works:

Whether a firm uses a formal framework such as Baldrige and its Criteria for Performance Excellence or one of the other Quality/Business Management Systems, or, it pursues high performance with common sense and unity of purpose in a home grown manner, the outcomes when the system is working right are recognizable and desirable:

  • Employees see how their work connects to the firm’s larger goals.
  • Everyone understands strategy and everyone has a role in executing it. Many are involved in creating it.
  • Employees are involved in the activities of improving the business and are serving customers with passion. They feel like true stakeholders in the enterprise.
  • Problems are met with a fierce resolve for not just a fix, but systemic improvements built around clear processes and measures.
  • The environment promotes healthy debate and regular dialog on tackling the tough issues.
  • Financial results and key indicators improve. Done right, they thump the performance metrics of close competitors.
  • Customers vote with budgets and loyalty for the firm’s products and services.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

I’ve had the good fortune either as a consultant or an employee to work around and in firms large and small where the pursuit of business performance excellence provided the motive power for greatness. Whether it was the small, owner-led firm where her enthusiasm and passion for doing remarkable things for her firm’s clients infused the culture with the drive to excel, or it was the mega-firm where management pursued quality and customer satisfaction with relentless energy and precision, excellence is alive and well and much more than a myth. Neither firm started from a foundation of excellence, they started with a commitment to become great. The pursuit was the journey of a career for the people involved. It starts with a simple, deliberate decision.

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1,000 Blog Posts and the Lessons Learned without the Cheering Crowds or Champagne

Success One Step at a TimeA few years ago during a hot Chicago summer, I set a goal to ride my bicycle 1,000 miles. While modest for many hardcore riders, this was a non-trivial challenge for me given time pressures and many other family obligations. Oh yeah, and age and my relative level of fitness may have added just a bit of drama to this personal goal.

As the miles crept closer to the magical number, I motivated myself by imagining the exhilaration of riding the last mile of this personal fitness milestone. It’s possible as I struggled with oxygen deprivation and sweat blurring my eyesight that visions of cheering neighbors hoisting champagne glasses during my last mile may have entered my mind.

The reality was that I goaded my wife and younger son into riding the last mile with me and then we went home and got on with our Saturday. No cheering neighbors. No darned champagne. Nothing but the solid satisfaction of a goal achieved. Priceless. 

Imagine my surprise a few months ago when I noticed the blog counter here at Management Excellence ticking closer to the number 1,000. Again, nothing magical about this number in the world of blogging, and in this case, the post count has never been a goal. The focus of my work here has been and always will be to explore the challenges of managing and leading effectively and to offer ideas, guidance and a bit of inspiration to strengthen personal and organizational performance.

And like any craft that you labor at for an appreciable amount of time, you’re bound to learn a few things along the way. Here are a few of my lessons learned in writing 1,000 posts on management and leadership.

At Least 8 Lessons Learned While Writing 1,000 Management and Leadership Posts:

1. I discovered that I’m not as good of a writer as I thought I was. Ouch! I work hard to presentable to the world in this medium. Oh, and I suck at proofreading. For all of the typos, please accept my sincere apology!

2. My interest in effective leadership and competent management has evolved over time into a burning passion for the pursuit of great leadership and remarkable management. It’s hard to explain, but I love this stuff! (My sixth grade teacher would punish us mercilessly if we ever used the word “stuff.” I trot it out every chance I get!)

3. There’s a reason I called it Management Excellence and not Leadership Excellence. While the pursuit of and practice of great leadership is all too rare in our world and leadership is always an issue or even the issue, it’s the promise of the tools of management to create that keeps my fingers glued to the keyboard and my brain in overdrive. From developing high performance project and management teams to developing and driving great strategies to teaching teams, individuals and organizations to learn how to make better decisions, I’m convinced that we’ve barely scratched the surface of this topic of management…a topic that Gary Hamel calls, “the technology of human achievement.” (I agree with Gary.)

4. I write to help. I’m grateful for the many of you who have reached back to let me know that something here prompted an idea that helped you in your own cause. There are over 1 million words here at Management Excellence, and every one of them is offered up as help.

5. The work of writing this blog has changed the way I learn and create. Every post is an exploration prompted by something in the business environment. The kernel of an idea remains just that until I put fingers to keyboard and think and write. I’m practically helpless without the keyboard or a really big whiteboard.

6. The people I’ve met through this work are truly remarkable. A number of you I hold dear as friends. Thank you for your friendship!

7. This work of writing has transformed me as a professional. Yeah, that sounds corny, but it’s true. This has been the single most powerful, sustained personal professional development activity of my lifetime. I love it. I highly recommend that you try it. With apologies to the original author of this quote, writing is simple, all you do is stare at a blank page (screen) until drops of blood form on your forehead.

8. I’ve learned that I’m long winded and I need to work harder at getting to the point and then tying things off. Therefore…

The Bottom-Line for Now:

That’s enough time reflecting. There’s work to be done in the world of management. Thanks for being here and I’ll see you during the next 1,000.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! Register herebook cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

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An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.

 

 

Art of Managing—Don’t Set Artificial Limits on Employee Involvement

Graphic with the words of Art of Managing and other management termsThe Art of Managing series is dedicated to exploring the critical issues we face in guiding our firms and teams to success in today’s volatile world.

A firm’s senior leaders and managers are supposed to feel the weight of responsibility for the health of their organization. It comes with the job. However, no one suggested they bear the weight of the worries or the burden of finding the solutions in silence and without ample support from the broader employee population.

Too often, groups of well-intended senior leaders and managers spend the lion’s share of their collective energy in discussion, debating and frankly, worrying over issues of direction and performance without drawing upon the considerable gray matter found somewhere outside the conference room doors.

Of course, failing to involve the employees in the business of your business is the mistake that keeps on giving…just in the wrong way. Instead of feeling involved and (here comes that pop management word) “engaged,” individuals are effectively placed on the outside looking in at the corporate walls and wondering what’s going on in there.

In my experience, people do their best work when they have context for “why it matters” and ample input into suggesting and implementing improvements. The “closed door” approach of self-proclaimed “open door” managers is a formula for failure. 

Sins of Omission or Commission? And Don’t Forget to Ask:

Oddly, when questioning a firm’s senior managers about my observation of the citadel like approach to working on a business, I frequently walk away concluding that involvement limitations are more sins of omission than commission. (Although, there are exceptions!)

In some instances, there’s a deep regard for how hard the employee base is working in the business and a hesitancy to ask for more. That’s noble, but short-sighted.

In other instances, I’ve found senior managers who are almost embarrassed to be asking for help on topics that they perceive are core to their jobs. Sounds like hubris getting in the way of common sense.

And for a few senior managers, my highly clinical observation is that it never occurred to them to involve more people to work on the business. Cue Homer Simpson and a loud, “Duh.”

If you are interested in increasing the flow of ideas, improving overall performance and having your employees treat their jobs like they are part owners of your business, it’s critical to get them involved in helping you work on the business. However, getting started can be awkward. Here are some ideas to help you pry open the citadel doors and let in some fresh air and fresh ideas.

6 Ideas to Jump-Start Improved Employee Involvement:

1. Share the targets and the results. The once per year vague recap, usually couched in percentages, doesn’t cut it. Share key revenue, profitability and efficiency targets AND results and explain what they mean to the firm’s situation. Get creative with this. I’ll still never forget the Town Hall Meeting where the CFO played guitar and sang the results. By the way, this is really working when the employees are active in setting the targets and pushing themselves harder to meet the targets than you ever would have.

2. Teach your employees about your business. Take a lesson from Jack Stack in The Great Game of Business. Don’t assume that employees understand terms like EBIT or the various financial metrics you use to report performance. Take the time to teach them what these numbers mean and importantly, how their work impacts the numbers.

3. Share (and ask about) market and competitor dynamics. While it might be tempting to roll out your strategy plan as a first step in getting employees more deeply involved in your business, a better place to start is to help everyone understand more about the markets that you are competing in and moving towards. Use tools like Porter’s Forces or a simple P.E.S.T.E.L. (political, economic, social, technology, environmental, legal) framework to get everyone on the same page. Do this iteratively by sharing the high level view and ask for input at the departmental or team level and roll it back up and make it the company’s view of the external environment.

4. Give your customers a voice. One of the most “engaging” activities you can do is ask for input from all customer-facing groups on what’s really happening in their businesses and with your offerings. Better yet, after asking your employees, bring some customers into the process (interviews, company visits, advisory boards). Ensure that everyone from the front door to the factory floor has access to the customer insights.

5. Begin involving the employee base in strategy. The above items…sharing targets and results, assessing the external environment and cultivating a fresh view from the perspective of the customer are fairly straightforward. Getting a broader employee base involved in strategy is a journey not an event. Explain the present view and then ask for questions and begin to solicit ideas. Involve all of your managers in understanding the firm’s strategy in detail and then work with them to define a mechanism for teaching and challenging assumptions, asking questions and suggesting ideas. I don’t mean to simplify this step…it’s challenging and requires on-going, deliberate work in creating and executing strategy. As needed, ask for outside help to build the right processes and programs to make this meaningful and actionable.

6. Leverage the collateral ideas. Often times, one of the benefits of driving a process with the actions above is a flood of new ideas…many operational and efficiency oriented. Ensure that people and teams have a means for implementing the ideas and then measuring and reporting on their impact over time.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

This isn’t a program of the month, it’s a deliberate and on-going process to gain ideas and input, and importantly to capture more of the creativity, energy and overall gray matter of a team that in the right circumstances, wants to give more. But remember, if you fail to sustain or to leverage the good input you’ll simply exacerbate the problem you set out to solve.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! Register herebook cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

For more ideas on professional development-one sound bite at a time, check out: Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development

New to leading or responsible for first time leaders on your team? Subscribe to Art’s New Leader’s e-News.

An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.

 

Art of Managing—It’s Your Job to Bring Your Firm’s Values to Life

Graphic with the words of Art of Managing and other management termsThe Art of Managing series is dedicated to exploring the critical issues we face in guiding our firms and teams to success in today’s volatile world.

I’ve long been a student of the values that organizations espouse. They are after all an attempt to encapsulate the accepted and aspirational behaviors of the firm’s employees and officers. And while the words on the wall or in the placard are typically interesting, noble and even somewhat predictable, what’s truly fascinating is to compare and contrast the behaviors of people in an organization to the values statements hanging on the wall.

In too many organizations, the values statements are corporate furniture. They’re décor…eye candy and while people see them every day, when questioned on what their firm’s values are, many employees will stumble and stammer. That’s too bad, because the values of a firm are powerful tools, intended to aid people as they navigate complex issues of strategy, talent identification and development and problem-solving.

It’s been my experience that organizations where the values are clear, meaningful and importantly, lived, are better able to sustain success, navigate the problems and challenges that arise in the course of time and business. And while my observations are entirely that…just observations not backed by research, it’s been my experience that firms with strong, clear, well-lived values create environments where people who relate to those values enjoy themselves in pursuit of their vocations and assignments. That’s a fancy way of saying that people enjoy themselves when they align their own internal value sets with those of the organization they work for. The output of all of that enjoyment and alignment can absolutely be higher performance for the firm over time.

I’ve helped a number of firms discover their values over my career and while yes, the output included something framed and hung on a wall, the experience of discovering and then describing the existing, often unstated and aspirational values that mattered to all employees (from the board-room to the shop floor) was humbling. Many people want to believe in something and they want to believe they are committing in their work to something they can both build and be proud of. It is hard to be proud of an organization that either appears valueless or, displays behaviors that are in opposition to our own values.

And from a practical perspective, the values are powerful tools to apply in the identification and development of talent. They create filters for hiring and foundational tools for evaluation and development. And yes, they are important in voting people off the island as well. While I’m momentarily channeling my inner Jack Welch, I don’t care if you’re an A player, if you operate in opposition to well-described standards for behavior, you’re toxic and you’re off my team.

Finally, where I’ve seen the values most…valuable (sorry!) has been in navigating challenging circumstances. When the market changes or the existing strategy runs out of gas, it’s easy for firms and their leaders and managers to flail and then fail. Bad choices become tempting as quick fixes and band aids. It’s easy for collaboration to break down into confrontation and conflict, particularly in boardrooms or the senior management arena, and in all of these circumstances, strong, clear values serve as powerful guides to right and wrong. We all need those guides in our lives from time to time and organizations navigating stormy seas are no different.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

At the end of the day, we as managers are accountable for bringing our firm’s values to life…and of course to helping refine what those often slightly too lofty statements mean in the context of desired and accepted behaviors. We’re accountable for putting the values on display every single day…not so much be parroting them, but more so by living them in every encounter and with every decision. Values are powerful performance tools that when used for good, can make a firm and team very good indeed.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! Register herebook cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

For more ideas on professional development-one sound bite at a time, check out: Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development

New to leading or responsible for first time leaders on your team? Subscribe to Art’s New Leader’s e-News.

An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.

 

Leadership Caffeine—The Struggles Really Do Make Us Stronger

image of a foam coffee cup with brown outer sleeveThe Leadership Caffeine series is over 200 installments strong and is dedicated to every aspiring or experienced leader and manager seeking ideas, insights or just a jolt of energy to keep pushing forward. Thanks for being along for the journey!

The world of leadership development lost a giant at the end of July this past summer, when Warren Bennis passed away. In tribute, I’m including his classic article, “Crucibles of Leadership” (HBR, fee required) with Robert Thomas in one of my leadership courses this year. Revisiting this article is always inspirational both for myself and for the students who share their own crucible experiences including: personal loss, business and career struggles, and being on the receiving end of discrimination, sexism and racism. I’m humbled not only at the hardships these good professionals have endured, but at their remarkable attitudes about surviving and leveraging the experience for good in their lives.

In case you’re not familiar with how Bennis and Thomas applied the term crucible to professional development, consider: “…the crucible experience was a trial and a test, a point of deep self-reflection that forced them to question who they were and what mattered to them. It required them to examine their values, questions their assumptions, hone their judgment.”

Almost to a person, the students in my courses describing their own crucible experiences look back at them as transformational in their careers. The strength it took to endure the hardship translated into resolve and commitment to persevere, to make right a wrong for others and to do good in their own lives.

In my own hiring practices, I look and listen for the challenges and struggles, more than the successes. While this doesn’t crop up in many articles on best practices in hiring, I’ve used it to good success.

Consider this very real crucible scenario I encountered a few years ago:

I traveled from my home city across the country to interview two very different candidates for an important strategic leadership position on my team. The first candidate boasted a nearly spotless record of achievement and accomplishments and his career progression looked like he had been shot out of a cannon, gaining responsibility and altitude with each passing year. His life story read like a storybook…the one we all wish we might enjoy.  He was indeed a solid professional and almost a no-brainer of a hire.

The other candidate’s record was good, however, there were several points in time when things appeared to have gone wrong. A start-up failure was the first red flag, followed by a few years of seeming under-employment. Strikes one and two in many books. As I probed a bit more, it was clear the individual quickly had established herself as a leader in her under-employed role. A definite positive. Finally, upon closer review of her background, it was clear there was a gap of about 7 months followed by still more under-employment, albeit, once again moving quickly to a position of responsibility in a struggling not-for-profit. The roller-coaster was confusing to me. However, since that time she had rebounded nicely, recently passing the three year mark in a role of significant responsibility with a well-regarded firm. And while my position was likely a stretch role for her, she was in the game, but not nearly as attractive on paper as the other candidate.

I always like to do my own reference checking (I know, H.R. professional everywhere are shuddering) and during the course of the discussion with one of her bosses from the under-employed phase of her career, he volunteered how much he admired her for her ability to navigate life’s challenges. I probed a bit and it turned out that she had spent several years living through a litany of crucible moments, including serving as the care-giver for a terminally ill parent and then navigating the loss of her spouse and her new role as a single parent. I was told that her start-up had fallen victim to an unscrupulous financial advisor, although according to her former boss, she viewed herself as 100% accountable for that employee and in fact had repaid all of her friends and family investors over the years.

I reached back to her and asked very generally for her to talk about the challenges she had encountered and what they had taught her. What I uncovered was an attitude in the face of adversity that was truly remarkable and humbling. I doubt I would have conducted myself as well as she did.

The first candidate was compelling for all of the right reasons.

I hired the second candidate without hesitation. There was no charity case here. Both candidates were qualified, although one was stronger on paper. Nonetheless, I was (and am) committed to fielding the absolute best talent to help our organization grow and an individual who had fought through hardship and evidenced the ability to survive and ultimately prevail, would bring a level of personal and leadership depth and hunger to succeed far beyond that of my more traditional and well-heeled candidate.

She was a great hire and continues to prosper in her career.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Your struggles and even your failures are important elements of who you are as a leader.  A track-record of chronic failures is different than having encountered and survived a profound setback in your life. It’s the setbacks, the unexpected crises and your approach to surviving and persevering through these crucible moments that forge your character as a person and as a leader. Learn, live and lead. And as a hiring manager responsible for building your team’s and your organization’s leadership future, open your eyes to people who understand what it means to struggle, survive and ultimately succeed.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! Register herebook cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

For more ideas on professional development-one sound bite at a time, check out: Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development

New to leading or responsible for first time leaders on your team? Subscribe to Art’s New Leader’s e-News.

An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.