Art of Managing—The Quest to Sustain Success

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.

The business and management equivalent of The Quest of mythology and story is the pursuit of the secret ingredients…the behaviors, actions and approaches that if adopted, will allow one firm to outperform (measured by one or more of: growth, profitability, share price, innovation, market capitalization) a peer group for an extended period of time.

Jim Collins has been looking for it since Good to Great and the McKinsey team in the study that culminated in the book, Beyond Performance, by Keller and Price purports to have cracked the genetic code of this vexing riddle.

As Jim Collins documented in subsequent works to Good to Great, there are ample reasons why many of the original great firms are no longer great, good…and some are gone. And while Keller and Price with help from thousands of McKinsey professionals appear to have mapped the genetic code of sustained performance, it’s not clear at all what portion of the details of the code (the levers and behaviors) must be manipulated or optimized in order to ensure ongoing success, particularly as external circumstances change. It depends.

And yes, external circumstances always change, introducing dragons and demons and foes bent on keeping our heroes (you and your colleagues) from achieving the over-arching goal of your quest.

Of Dragons and Demons and Foes in Pursuit of Sustained High Performance:

Every great quest has a series of foes that must be vanquished along the journey to success and business is no different.

  • Long-term success naturally breeds hubris and arrogance…or at least the laziness, that so easily catches management teams off guard as conditions change. In this world where even the concept of change is changing (speed, technology, location), disruption of existing industries, technologies and business models happens both quietly and noisily…and often quickly.
  • Another silent but deadly foe is the Dominant Logic described by Prahalad, where all situations, including those that arise based on a new set of forces are viewed through the knowledge and decision-making lenses formed based on prior experience. As the field changes…or at least as the rules change on that field, the lenses that offered so much clarity before introduce a type of strategic myopia that filters out new external forces and leads to decisions that worked yesterday but fail to hunt today or tomorrow.
  • And much like the Sirens of Titan who lured sailors to their deaths with their seductive song, business success created by a rising tide…secular growth seduces management teams into believing that their decisions are responsible for their results, more so than the market. When the rise slows or reverses, these teams are left floundering on the rocks.

7 Key Behaviors For Surviving and Thriving on the Quest to Sustain Success:

In great quest stories, there’s typically something that aids the hero and his or her compatriots. A talisman of some sort or a wise mentor. (Think Gandalf, Yoda, Obe Wan or Dumbledore in the quest stories of fantasy.) While we may have wise mentors in the form of senior leaders or board members, the quest for sustained success requires at a minimum a set of behaviors on the part of the firm’s leaders and managers that acknowledges the realities and risks…the perils of this journey.

Just a few of these incredibly helpful behaviors include:

1. Collective respect across the management team for the complexities and risks of translating what worked yesterday into something that works tomorrow. This is an absolute. It requires the collective confidence to move beyond old practices and strategies and to encourage and reward reinvention. This attitude is critical in combating the sin of hubris and for preventing arrogance from taking a firm hold in the management ranks. These dragons must be slain where and while they sleep!

2. Actively striving to diversify the experience base of the talent in the firm is critical to ensuring the view to the outside remains open and clear. One of GMs core tenets as it masterminded losing the world was that the management must always come from within. Nothing breeds contempt for change like perpetuating like-minded and like-kind managers.

3. The words or even the actions that suggest, “we’ve always done it this way” must be banished and replaced with ample quantities of new…new processes, new approaches, new experiments. “Because we’ve always done it this way” are evil words and destructive thoughts perpetuated by people fearful of what change might mean for them.

4. The speed of learning is a new performance metric, as is the speed to translating learning into new behaviors. Creating systems and opportunities across the culture that allow for easy, fast parsing of new insights and translation of these insights into actions is essential.

5. The hard work of exercising team decision-making muscle must be deliberately undertaken. Very few management or project teams ever decide how to decide, or, worse yet, they fail to take on the task of strengthening decision-making over time. Decision-making muscles must not be allowed to atrophy.

6. The attitude around failure must shift from one of shame and stigma to one of curiosity and opportunity. There is no learning without experimentation and most experiments fail…along the way to designing more informed experiments that ultimately succeed.

7. Teams must resist the Siren Song of the Rising Tide, where they mistakenly assume that good times accrue to them naturally as a right and due to their brilliance and enact the corporate equivalent of Odysseus who ordered his men to stuff their ears with wax and to lash him to the mast as a means of resisting the siren call.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

As humans, we love stories about great quests, and we love when our heroes survive and ultimately succeed. Our professional lives in our organizations…our corporations and churches and not-for-profits all enable us to participate in our own great quest in support of mission or market and like the stories we love so much, there are always foes to vanquish, trials to complete and new adventures just over the horizon. For the firms and teams who have enjoyed success, the most significant foes and demons are most often lurking inside their own walls.

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Art of Managing—Steering Clear of Flail and Fail

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.

Businesses of all sizes, shapes and ages run into rough patches. Rapid growth, disruptive competitors or technologies, regulatory changes or the end of the road for well-worn strategies are all potential culprits in the move from success to struggle. It’s critical at this point for a firm’s leaders and managers to react carefully and appropriately in this unfamiliar terrain or they risk moving quickly from flail to fail.

The “Flailure” Effect:

Whether the stimuli are positive promoting rapid growth or negative and threatening financial well-being, firms and management teams accustomed to a consistent rhythm and cycle to their business are often caught off-guard and unprepared to process and respond to sudden change. The initial symptoms include a rash of problems as conventional approaches and systems are stressed and teams are challenged to respond in ways they’re not accustomed to around issues that feel foreign.

It’s this point where the new stressors invite widespread anxiety to the corporate party. Tempers flare, fingers point and if left unchecked, dysfunctional conflict sets up camp. In response, well-intended managers scurry around settling disputes and putting out fires…often feeling like they are steadily losing ground against the onslaught of issues.

Obviously, these circumstances call for strong leadership, and it’s often the wrong kind of strong leadership (and decisions) on organization structure, strategy and key leadership roles that finally amplifies flail and moves the firm steadily towards fail. It becomes Flailure.

5 Starter Ideas to Help You Steer Clear of Flailure:

1. Share the Real Situation With the Organization. Your instinct is to mask the problems. That’s wrong. Everyone senses when things are going katty-wampus and the problem is magnified many times over when no one at the top is sharing the straight story. Context is King…and good people long accustomed to success, want to be part of the solution…not kept in the dark. But first, they need to understand the scale and scope of the challenges before they can contribute their energy and gray matter.

2. Get the Middle Involved. Your mid-level managers are involved in all of the work of the business and they are the source of most daily decisions. Additionally, they deal with every headache and they see the stressors clearly…in contrast to a firm’s senior leaders who are by the nature of their role removed from the daily heavy lifting. You need them on your side and active in seeking solutions. You need your mid-level managers engaged with each other and comfortable in translating front-line realities into unified ideas and actions. In addition to serving as the execution layer around fixes and changes, these people are the critical translation layer in helping a firm’s senior leaders gauge the progress and outcomes with new programs and strategies.  (For those of you who pillaged and eradicated your mid-level management layer in the name of efficiency, you’re exposed here.)

 3. Mind the Intersections. Our tendency is to hunker down in our functional silos, yet most issues in times of significant change involve hand-offs and collaboration and many of the problems and opportunities occur where processes and functions intersect. Building on the prior point, your mid-level managers are critical to gaining visibility into the issues and bringing the resources to bear to change processes and monitor results. Pay particular attention to gauging and improving the process work around the intersections. (Of course, the functional issues must be addressed as well.)

4. Build In Stress Relief. Yes, this one is lighter…and I know that I personally don’t do “light” very well, but I respect its power and importance. No one and no team does their best work under sustained periods of high stress. The stress becomes toxic to individuals (health, well-being) and relationships. The culture becomes sick. It helps to find ways to lighten the mood and shift the focus at least on a social level for moments in time during periods of tension. One leader I observed set up a bowling league and in spite of the behind the scenes laughs at a perceived trivial and unrelated activity at the wrong time, the people learned to relax, compete and have fun together every other week…taking the edge off just a bit. Howard Schultz famously took 10,000 managers to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to offer help rebuilding and then to meet and share frank talk on the downturn at Starbucks. He offered (I paraphrase): if we didn’t have New Orleans, we might not be here. Creating an opportunity to blow off steam and allow people to rediscover their human side is never a bad thing.

5. Senior Leaders… Avoid the Easy Temptations and Focus on Clarifying Direction. Our knee-jerk reaction when things aren’t working is to restructure…people, teams and the overall organization. We run around rearranging deck chairs and walls and we don’t have a set design or blueprint. Structural change won’t compensate for a failed or failing strategy and identifying a scapegoat for the problems and changing out functional leadership definitely won’t cure the disease. The same goes for unexpected growth. If it was accidental…this happy outcome is every bit as serious as the challenges of disruption. Get your arms around the strategy and then begin sorting through the best way to organize to leverage the opportunity. Remember, the directional decisions come first and this is where senior leadership must earn its keep.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

This is a big hairy topic and it’s one that I’ve observed in clients or prior employers over time. If you’ve lived through this, you recognize the symptoms and too often as an employee or manager, you feel helpless to stem the tide or make a productive difference. Fight this attitude and resist the temptation for knee jerk reactions. Communicate with your peers…have the confidence to surface the problems and propose ideas. Find opportunities to let the teams blow off steam. Your ability to galvanize the collective gray matter of your team members, peers and colleagues is absolutely essential for avoiding flailure, and you need their hearts and minds in the process.

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Art of Managing—Strengthen Performance by Clarifying Your Firm’s Values

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.

Clear, actionable corporate values…the type that are embedded in a firm’s DNA and used to reinforce ideal behaviors and support employee selection and development are incredibly powerful tools for managers to leverage in supporting the development of a great performance culture.

However, much like the infomercial that promises a nearly endless set of benefits with the frequently uttered, “But wait, there’s more,” there is indeed more that flows to you from the hard work of whittling your corporate values down to their meaningful, actionable essence.

The short-form of this post…if your values aren’t working hard for you and your firm every single day, it’s time for a refresh or reset.

Examples that Set Direction and Promote Performance:

Consider the primary value of The Mayo Clinic: “The needs of the patient come first.” Not only does this simple, powerful statement give birth to the hiring profile and support every single clinical and business decision, it points the way to the institution’s strategy…effectively how it will compete (as a relative term) in the market.

The Zappos Family Core Values define the hiring profile and expectations starting with the name “Family Core Values” and extending through ten short, crisp statements. The first value, “Deliver Wow Through Service,” goes a long way to defining how Zappos competes (strategy) and how it executes. As the firm’s founder has offered (I paraphrase), the original idea of selling shoes online seemed like another bad internet idea. However, the marriage of the first value with the business model supported the emergence of a firm that took a big chunk of the revenue and profit streams in the sleepy, unexciting old marketplace of shoe retailing.

Lesser known but successful regional chain, Mike’s Carwash, offers a set of Customer Service Values (separate from the Team Values) that leave no doubt about how the firm will compete and ensure that Mike’s is the destination for all of your future washes. The combined sets of values (Customer and Team) frame every decision and action from hiring to training to developing employees to managing the teams and the entire customer experience. Rocket fuel for effective performance!

The guiding principle behind the firm, S.C. Johnson (tagline: A family company) was stated by Herbert F. Johnson Sr. as, “The goodwill of people is the only enduring thing in any business. It is the sole substances. The rest is shadow.” The opening line in the “What We Do” section offers, “We make homes better for families.” Again, the simplicity and clarity of the thinking points in a direction and frames and filters every other decision at every level of the organization.

Successful companies in my experience operate with a set of clearly understood, actionable values. These values transcend behavior and point to purpose, direction and approach. Most of the time, they are codified or articulated,  however, in the case of some smaller or start-up organizations, they are present in the environment even if they are missing from the framed artwork on the wall.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

For those of us working in firms where the values are defined but not necessarily part of the daily routine, there’s nothing stopping you and your colleagues from translating them into something more meaningful and actionable for your teams. Use the existing values as starting points and work on clarifying them until they point to direction and frame decisions. And for those of you who either sit at the top or are comfortable catalyzing a positive revolution, start a movement to redefine your firm’s values. I checked, and there’s no law against discarding unproductive, cliché-riddled words with something that sets direction and defines the criteria for making decisions. It might just be a game-changer for your firm.

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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.

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.