Art of Managing—Moving Beyond A Failure to Execute

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.

Ram Charan writing in his article, Conquering a Culture of Indecision (found in the HBR 10 Must Reads on Making Smart Decisions collection), offers, The single greatest cause of corporate under-performance is the failure to execute.”

While there’s a Thanks, Captain Obvious, feeling inherent in Charan’s statement, it’s his explanation that should give most corporate managers a cause to pause and even squirm just a bit.

I paraphrase: Such failures (to execute) usually result from misfires in personal interactions…and it’s these poor personal interactions that perpetuate a culture of indecisiveness.

Charan goes on in this very useful article to focus on the issue of building a culture to promote the right type of honest, robust dialog that leads to decisions.

There’s little doubt in my mind that decisions are the fuel that creates locomotive power in organizations and that high quality dialog leads to better decision-processes. The absence of timely and unified decisions on direction and priorities, not only sustains the status quo, it creates a corporate trap where people act like their feet are encased in cement blocks. Movement slows and when it occurs, it’s disjointed and short-lived.

The lack of healthy dialog manifests itself in a variety of symptoms in an organization, however, there are three key contributors to a failure to execute that jump out at me over and over again in my travels:

1. A wholesale failure of senior leadership…from providing clarity on direction and strategy to actively working on building and reinforcing an environment that promotes accountability for execution, learning and continuous improvement.

2. The absence of an empowered and unified middle-layer of management. While senior leadership is again at fault here, the layer of mangers in the middle controls the work that gets done in a firm and often has more power than it understands or uses in pursuit of execution.

3. The lack of creative or productive tension or dissatisfaction on the part of the entire workforce that good isn’t good enough, AND the belief that they are charged with the task of doing something about it.

While it’s easy and appropriate to indict senior management for all three of these contributors to poor performance, the issues tend to be more sins of omission than commission.

Most senior leaders care about their firms, their teams and their results and spend their time working hard in the business. And most middle managers work extraordinarily hard to keep things moving, often while coping with being under-staffed and operating in a state of uncertainty over the bigger picture of the firm and its strategies.

Resolving the failure to execute problem is much more like a long-term fitness program than a quick weight-loss diet. It involves changing the thinking about what’s most important for organizational health and success and doing the hard work of developing new habits that support continuous improvement.

It’s the hardest work senior leaders and managers will ever do.

7 New Habits to Help You Move Beyond a Failure to Execute:

1. Start and sustain a company-wide dialog over direction. Everyone who walks through the door in the morning must know where the firm is headed and why. The lack of context for direction and specifically for how team and functional priorities connect to corporate priorities is a guarantee of poor execution. Fixing this starts with the right, regular conversations.

2. Work hard to link functional and individual goals to the corporate goals. While this sounds like some advice from our friend, Captain Obvious, it’s more the norm that I find firms where corporate goals are vague and there’s little cohesion between individual and functional goals and corporate direction. The failure to align here guarantees failure.

3. Move faster and smarter. Redefine the operating cadence to reinforce communication on performance and to encourage learning and improvement. Consider applying Agile approaches to your operations meetings, where reinforcement and focus on priorities occurs constantly and the emphasis is on identifying and solving problems. Frequency, speed and focused built upon a foundation of accountability…priceless. End the debating society culture that pervades most operating meetings and focus on talking about what it takes for the firm to win…one decision at a time.

4. If you are the CEO, rethink your role. Seriously. If you signed on for the job…all of this is on you. You control the corporate agenda, you are a major contributor to forming and framing the working environment and you own bringing clarity and direction to confusion. If you’re not the CEO help him/her succeed with these important tasks.

5. Give the customer a chair in every meeting. Literally. A nameplate at the table, a stuffed animal or a cardboard cutout…I don’t care how you remind yourself that the customer is present, just do it. If the focus is on new markets and future strategies, these new…even blank-faced customers must be present as a reminder that no strategy works and no execution plan is worthwhile unless it aims to do something for someone who can pay you for it.

6. Invigorate mid-level management. Help them recognize their critical role in execution success and ensure that senior leaders, give them support to improve instead of giving them hell when things don’t go right. If this layer of talent is weak, top-grade the talent to build strong management here. These are your future senior leaders.

7. Get the whole company involved in the wins and the lessons learned. Build the excitement and creative tension to improve by celebrating and sharing the small and big victories. The workforce at large has to buy into the idea that execution and continuous improvement are their responsibility. Management must bring this to life by ensuring that the heroic efforts, great victories and even challenging lessons are made visible as part of the daily culture of the firm.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

There are no silver bullets or simple solutions for business execution challenges. It’s a journey that starts with senior leadership and all of management focusing on what counts…giving clarity to direction and goals and working non-stop to support the people working hard every day who help you move closer to your goals. It’s good, old-fashioned, grind-it-out hard work. But once it starts to take root in your culture, the habits of winning take over and the work doesn’t seem so hard. Just exhilarating.

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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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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.

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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.

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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—Managing Effectively is Hard, Good Work

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.

For some reason, the work of management and of managers often is positioned as a poor second cousin to the richer, nobler tasks of leading. Managing isn’t as captivating to many…sounding and feeling more clerical than inspirational and achievement oriented. Even the label of “manager” tends to connote someone of lesser rank toiling away over spreadsheets and far removed from the loftier issues of leaders.

The academic world and the world of business writers (and leadership bloggers!) have often worked to focus on the differences between leaders and managers. Kotter started this dialog, management texts explore the concept and it’s not uncommon for the dialog to become a debate. In my view, it’s a ridiculous non-debate. Do you really want to work for a leader who cannot manage and a manager who cannot lead?

Yes, leading is critically important. It’s also a tool of management and managing (planning, organizing, leading and controlling) and while those we label as leaders may dream and speak of building great monuments and testaments to the human spirit and ingenuity, those we call managers bring these visions to life.

The Proper View on Management and the Need to Reinvent:

Gary Hamel, founder of the Management Innovation Exchange (MIX) and a professor at the London School of Business, describes management as, “the technology of human achievement.”  (Note from Art: check out Gary’s fabulous video on this topic at the MIX site.)

Hamel also suggests that the present tools of management are steeped in thinking cultivated from the industrial revolution and early 20th century thinking and fundamentally not appropriate for our emerging world. This goes for how we lead as well. He offers: Current management practices emphasize control, discipline and efficiency above all else — and that’s a problem. To thrive in the 21st century, organizations must be adaptable, innovative, inspiring and socially accountable. That will require a genuine revolution in management principles and practices.

If Hamel is right, the work of today’s manager includes both flying the current plane and building a new one simultaneously.

The Critical Work of Today’s Effective Manager:

The effective manager understands her business and how her firm makes money with clarity, and her decisions are guided by this knowledge. She is well versed in strategy, constantly aware of environmental forces impacting the business and critically attuned to forming a work environment that allows her people to operate at their creative best. She provides frank feedback, knocks down barriers for her team and navigates the firm’s political environment and senior leaders with the agility of a world-class athlete. She finds and develops talent, translates corporate goals into specific functional objectives and works to constantly gauge progress and quality and identify opportunities to improve performance.

And while she’s at it, as Hamel suggests, the effective manager is looking for new ways to create an advantage by changing and innovating her practices. Consider just two key issues faced by today’s managers:

1. How to cultivate effective project teams (we live in a world of projects) with team members distributed across continents and cultures.

2. How to combat and outflank fast emerging competitors armed with technologies that were pipe dreams just a few years ago and now threaten a firm’s very existence. From external awareness to command of strategy to managing the process of turning ideas into offerings, this is critical, hard work indeed.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

The work of the effective manager builds bridges, moves mountains and brings great big dreams to life. Perhaps the world and our firms need a few more people proud of their role as managers.

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.