05 Nov WHAT Might Be Wrong With Your Company
I had an interesting conversation with a business contact the other day – not a client – just a friend who wanted to talk.
A bit of context – I left the traditional corporate arena some time back to build my own business after 38 years in the pharmaceutical world. But I really didn’t leave – I simply put on a different hat as a consultant, executive coach, and trainer to companies across a number of different industries.
I assumed a slower pace might be coming. I had no appreciation for just how much a fledgling company like my own – one focused solely on people, leadership, and culture might be in demand.
Which takes me back to that conversation I referenced. My friend was frustrated about the latest company initiative and its implications for the division she headed. Results were lagging – and it was time, as she put it, “For Performance Improvement Plan season to get underway.”
I of course asked for a bit of clarification on this and she answered, “Whenever we slow down someone somewhere demands to see the corrective actions we’re taking – to include a search for the guilty.”
“The guilty?” I asked.
“OK, but performance management is a necessary part of every company – and high expectations can and should be a part, right?”
“That isn’t the issue here. We aren’t interested in really analyzing the situation – assessing our marketing strategy, our operational effectiveness, or our resource deployment….we want to show senior leadership that we can call balls and strikes…and that includes throwing a certain percentage of our organization under the bus.”
“Ok….but differentiating talent is a core skill every leader must have,” I offered…”It’s not like we can turn a blind eye…”
“You’re not hearing me, Mr. Consultant,” she interjected. “I am all for identifying top, medium, and lower performers….any manager who can’t do that doesn’t need to be in the role.”
Using my infinite supply of wisdom I said, “So, what’s the problem?”
“The problem is we aren’t really addressing the problem at all.”
At this point my infinite supply is already at empty. I simply nod and then she adds, “We do this EVERY year…EVERY year. We restructure the organization at the end of one cycle, we trumpet the opportunities for what’s to come, and then we watch momentum stall at some point…so we move to our The Best Defense Is a Good Offense strategy.”
- “First we sound the warning bell – we say to the company we aren’t doing very well. That’s followed by a hiring freeze to further add to employee anxiety levels.”
- “Second, we make it personal – we say to those closest to the customer, ‘You aren’t getting it done.’ And we make them build elaborate Performance Improvement Plans so we can carry them to our bosses and say, See what we’re doing…aren’t we good managers?”
- “Third – we prove that by quickly building long list of employee rankings to show that everyone below the Mendoza line is clearly sub-standard and will be the first to be sacrificed if things don’t change.”
I pause at this point – maybe because I have lived this more than a few times myself. “Look, companies have targets they have to hit…and employees that are in high profile roles understand this.”
“I KNOW they understand it….but my question is simply this, are we doing the right things to correct the trends…or are we simply kicking up a lot of dust to justify our own existence?”
“What do you think?” I asked.
“Tim, we’ve done this for 9 of the last 12 years – same pattern – same results. The heat in the kitchen gets hot and we react with The Search.”
“For the guilty…”
“You got it.”
“And if you ran the company and not the division, what would you do differently?”
“Well…” She paused here. “I’m not so sure…”
“A good friend and an early mentor in my career gave me advice when I was younger – and believed myself to be a lot smarter than I was. He said, “It’s easy to run a company when you’re not the person doing it.”
“Your friend was right…but this is just stupid.”
“You said something I wanted to come back to… you said we’re not addressing the problem at all. What did you mean by that?”
“Hey, it’s easy to push organizational problems down in a company…but if anyone REALLY believes our problems are solely because of our front line customer facing employees they’re crazy.”
“OK, you’re president for the day – what are those other problems?”
She paused and then said, “Operationally, we’re a train wreck…we’re slow to respond to market changes. And when we do it’s well after our competition.”
“Our marketing campaign isn’t in line with what customers want to hear…and that’s hurting us at the point of sale.”
“Noted. What else?”
“You seriously want me to come up with all our problems? I didn’t call you for a consultation.”
“You’re the president, remember? You told me what you’re doing is a tremendous waste of your time and doesn’t change anything. My question to you is – what are the problems? If you can’t articulate them then how do we do anything other than what we’re doing…search for the guilty?”
I could hear her sigh over the phone and then she answered, “We lost all of our customer continuity in the first quarter…and then we shake our heads in amazement when we ultimately lose momentum in sales. Doesn’t anyone ever account for that when we restructure?”
“Organizational disruption – cause and effect. What else?”
“That’s a good start right there, isn’t it?”
“It’s a darn good start I would say…so if you’re the person in charge, what do you do with this?”
“You’re the consultant, what would YOU do?”
“Well played,” I answered. “Here’s something to consider. In a 5-minute conversation you’ve told me 4 things:
- Your company default when things get tough is to commence The Search – Performance Improvement Plans, rankings, and reports that justify to the higher ups that heads will roll unless we improve.
- In your opinion this is simply another paperwork exercise and does little to no good in improving the situation
- The real opportunities are much more multi-faceted – and you cited several that scream for attention – operational effectiveness, marketing strategy, and organizational disruption head the list.
- And the final point – and it’s more implied than stated – your organization is fully focused on the WHAT, today’s numbers…and almost oblivious to the How or the Why behind them. Let’s think about that for a minute….”
“That’s it!” She almost shouted over the phone. “That is exactly what I’m saying….it’s like we get so darn focused on a sales or profit report that we lose our bearings…and we make that our total focus.”
“I agree…and if you want to know the truth, I did a lot of that in my career too.”
“It’s easy to…WHAT is the low hanging fruit.”
“Yep,” I answered. “And if you invest your time and attention on just the WHAT you might miss the big picture.”
“So, what’s the fix?”
I paused. I was serious when I said I was often culpable for the same offense over the course of my many years in the corporate world.
“Here’s what I learned…the hard way,” I answered. “We often forego diagnosis in the business world – we move straight to treatment – and many times that treatment is either punitive or ill advised. I finally came to grips with a very simple approach to addressing performance gaps, downturns, or even catastrophes…and I’ve used it for a long time.”
“OK, I am officially on the clock. What would you do if YOU were the president?”
Full disclosure – I was often as reactive as the powers-that-be described here. But over the years I managed to amend my leadership style in a way that helped me better address performance issues – and sometimes avoid the Don Quixote approach my friend describes. With apologies for the windmills I attempted to slay over the course of my career, a few essential steps that can help every leader take a more strategic approach:
- Step 1 – Analysis. In most companies this is an afterthought but a good starting point to truly assess your organization’s effectiveness begins with looking at 4 dimensions:
- The Market
- The Competition
- The Customers
- Your Company
Reality check – few look at all 4 and instead focus fully only on the last dimension, your company. Even then they often fail to do a Deep Dive – looking at structure, systems, skills, styles, and strategy. That takes work – it’s much easier to simply default to – you guessed it, THE WHAT (IE-latest Results.) Why? Three reasons:
- No legitimate forums for that level of analysis
- No interest in looking at those factors
- No appreciation of the interplay each of the 4 has on organizational success
Understanding the Why behind performance (either good or bad) is far more important than today’s trends. Analysis demands we do that.
- Step 2 – Diagnosis. If I walk into my doctor’s office and proclaim I’m having chest pains he doesn’t put me on a nitroglycerine pill and an ACE Inhibitor and shuttle me out the door. He looks at the blood work, the symptoms, the stress tests (Analysis) and eventually arrives at a Diagnosis. The same approach should be in place for business but there are a lot of employees out there who have already been identified as “terminal” – without benefit of any pre-work. The WHAT (chest pain) dictates the resulting action. But what if I simply am stressed, have esophageal reflux, or never should have eaten that day-old spaghetti last night when I was watching the football game? No matter – the die has been cast.
How my symptoms manifest themselves and what that means comes only after I have arrived at a sound diagnosis.
- Step 3 – Treatment. We waste (literally) millions each day in poorly conceived programs that do nothing more than push one pile of work to someone else’s desk – and often hurting rather than helping our cause. My friend’s frustration is very real – because the disproportionate focus on the WHAT was leading the company down another rabbit hole. My reflux problem – which might have been relieved with a simple antacid, has now taken me on a course of diet, exercise, medication, and a battery of tests that do absolutely nothing. Companies create work (or treatment plans) because to do nothing at all seems counterintuitive.
Our conversation had to come to an end right about then. My friend had a conference call about to commence with other senior leaders – the weekly sales numbers were in and they were about to be dissected accordingly.
The WHAT can dictate our lives and it often does – but I believe my colleague has a starting point with which to challenge some of the conventional thinking – and the knee jerk responses.
The treatment plan in place for her company may very well be dated – and counter productive to the point of being dangerous.
But simply proclaiming it as such will make little difference. Offering broader alternatives – ones that start big and then go small – and asking questions that help others to think through the 9th iteration of the same failed approach over the past dozen years is a start.
But only a start.
The WHAT is today’s business – the WHY and the HOW speak to tomorrow’s.
We can manage today – we can only lead to tomorrow.