Have you read Christine Brennan‘s excellent column about FSU this morning in USA Today? You can do so here and I’d encourage it. This is how it starts:
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Were Jameis Winston a fourth-string punter rather than a first-string quarterback, he almost certainly would have long since been kicked off the Florida State football team, probably for good. Instead, the Heisman Trophy-winning problem child is being protected by his university and athletics department for the worst reason possible. He is being coddled because of what he can do for them.
It’s easy to get outraged when you look at how the FSU athletic department, the school administration, the local police, and other “responsible” entities are behaving here. They are enabling bad behavior. The folks in the athletic department at FSU, unfortunately, aren’t that different from many of us and how we deal with problem individuals in our businesses. Let me explain.
Any of us who have ever managed or worked with other people realize that some of them have issues. Those issues may run the gamut from a bad attitude or incompetence all the way to serious drug problems or criminal behavior. Try as we might in the hiring process, people with issues slip through our screen and end up on our teams. Maybe we inherited them. In any event, what happens next – or doesn’t – is critical.
Some of us think that the problem, once we’ve identified it, will fix itself. It won’t. Maybe we weigh the pain of confrontation and disruption with the pain of maintaining the status quo. Perhaps we’re in state of equilibrium – other people have picked up the slack caused by the problem child and everyone is coping. Every one of those rationalizations is wrong and cowardly. More importantly, they’re holding back both your business and the individual involved.
You can’t hope to isolate the problem. Others on the team will see that the high standards you set are lies and are not adhered to by everyone and bad behavior is rewarded or at least not punished. Eventually, a major crisis hits as the individuals involved hit bottom. The solution is to identify the problem, document it, and put the individuals on notice that you’re aware there is an issue. Offer to help in any way you can but make it clear that with or without that help you expect the person involved to stop the bad behavior. Now. Otherwise, you’re an enabler and part of the problem.
Ever been a part of a feasibility study? You know – a bunch of people have a bright idea and it’s good enough that there needs to be a serious investigation into whether it can be done or not.
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A team is put together (hopefully including those whose idea it was in the first place) and questions are drawn up. In some ways those questions are like a mini business plan. What’s the potential market for this idea? What are the resources needed to bring it to life? What sort of on-going support will it require? Can it be done in a reasonable time frame or will it take so long that the potential evaporates? And of course, what are the legal ramifications if we do what we’re proposing to do?
I want to focus on that last little bit because I think it’s illustrative of a broader point. Lawyers are trained to protect their clients (which are, by the way, the companies for which they work and not YOU, dummy). To many of them, the status quo is a lovely place (assuming the company is not tied up in litigation). That’s not really the best place, however, for many businesses. In fact, in some businesses such as tech, the status quo is a death sentence. When the feasibility of something new is brought up, I’ve worked with some lawyers who were fabulous at finding ways to say “no.” The could spot a potential problem long before any of us could and they didn’t hesitate to cite those problems are reasons not to proceed.
Here is what they – and you – need to keep in mind:
Obstacles are huge and opportunities are small: one often hides the other.
How many people underestimate what’s feasible since obstacles can be readily apparent but the opportunities hidden behind them get missed? We need to do what the better lawyers (and executives) I’ve known always did: spot the opportunity and find a way to remove the obstacle blocking your path. Some feasibility efforts are the business equivalent of the blue screen of death: the system has reached an issue it can’t handle and throws in the towel.
I’m a believer in almost anything being feasible as long as there is flexibility, some tolerance for risk, and a willingness to adjust as you learn. People – and businesses – have done things a certain way for years and in most cases it’s working for them. Trying something new or doing things in a new way might not seem feasible and it’s not if there is a predisposition towards allowing the obstacles to obscure the opportunity. But I’ll bet you can tell me about a time when you tried to do something in a new way – you shut your eyes and didn’t see the obstacles but visualized the opportunity – and succeeded. So tell me!
What’s the best work situation you’ve ever had and why was it so? Was it working for yourself, a start-up, or a big corporation? I got a chance to ask myself that question again Saturday night when a number of us who worked together 20+ years ago at ABC Sports got together. Most of us hadn’t seen one another in at least a decade but like most reunions of closely knit groups, it felt as if we’d just spoken last week.
Let me explain why this was the best work situation I’ve ever been in and offer some suggestions how you might try to replicate it wherever you are. What’s interesting to me is that what I’m going to say was echoed by every single one of us in the room in terms of what we experienced and how we felt. None of us are kids any more and yet we all agreed this was the best period of time we ever spent over our professional lives.
- The boss was very much in charge. That seems like a prescription for heavy-handed disaster, but in this case it means he gave us all clear, firm direction.
- The boss allowed us to figure out how to accomplish the goals. He was smart enough to recognize that many roads travel to the same place and we needed to take those which we could navigate effectively.
- There were no staff meetings or other “process” items wasting our time. Oh sure, once a quarter or so we’d get together to go over stuff but the emphasis was on results, not process.
- There was the equivalent of a very productive staff meeting every morning. Because of the next point, the senior staff would end up in someone’s office every morning an hour before work officially began going over what we were doing, opportunities for action, rumors, and anything else. It was the equivalent of a 5 hour weekly meeting and many times more productive.
- The executive team liked one another as people and respected one another as professionals. We socialized outside of work and some of the team I still count among my closest friends.
- Finally, the boss cleared away all the corporate stuff to allow us to do our collective thing. He fought for budgets, he made sure we were paid well, he took the heat when something didn’t go as planned. Like a good parent, he wasn’t afraid to let us know when we’d screwed up (BOY did he let us know) but we never doubted that he supported us and we never felt like we’d get fired at any minute.
That’s the prescription if you’re the one building the work environment. Assemble a great team, give them clear direction, provide resources, and get out of the way while staying connected. It’s 20 years later now and I think most of this team would go back to work together in a minute if the opportunity arose. Many of us agreed we didn’t realize at the time how special an environment we had but we sure do now.
What do you think? Ever been in this sort of work environment? Is this about what you had?
One of my favorite Shakespeare quotes is from Julius Caesar and is spoken by Cassius. He’s trying to get Brutus to stop Caesar and reminds him that “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings”. In other words, we control our own destinies, not fate.
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I thought of that this morning as I saw some research on recruiting from the folks at Bullhorn. It’s an annual survey of recruiting professionals and in it they asked about what those folks perceived to be the biggest challenge they would face this year. As MediaPost reported:
Recruiting professionals listed their biggest challenge for 2013 as a lack of skilled candidates (33%). Additionally, in a separate question, 76.1% of respondents claimed to have a shortage of skilled candidates in their respective recruiting sectors.
What does this have to do with the Shakespeare quote? We’re in the midst of a nasty employment cycle. You’ll notice I said “employment” cycle, not economic. The stock market is back to where it was in 2000 and corporate earnings have doubled since then. Even so, employment is soft. Part of that has to do with how technology has made many processes way more efficient. I think it’s had another effect which has to do with why qualified job candidates are so hard to find.
Many managers have come to think of employees as disposable. They’re lucky to have jobs and if they’re not happy there are lots of people available. Due to this, there’s less of an emphasis on training and development The tech factor is at work here as well – think about how many people can’t write properly because the machine checks spelling and grammar (but not meaning or homophones or homonyms). We don’t train so people are less skilled. Because they’re less skilled, the recruiters have a small pool from which to draw. The fault, dear hiring employer, is in ourselves. You agree?
I hope all of you had a good holiday and managed to recharge a bit.
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One of the things I did was to see the movie “Lincoln“. I’d encourage you to see it for a number of reasons. The acting is amazing but so too are the leadership lessons the film conveys. With apologies to my friend Geoff who wrote the very fine “Lead Like Ike” book, I think the leadership Lincoln shows beats Ike by half a century and is a great place to start this year’s business discussion.
I’ll state in advance that I recognize that the film grossly oversimplifies a very complicated time in our country’s history – the passage of the 13th Amendment which ends slavery although most of what you see is pretty accurate. I’d also encourage you to read the Doris Kearns Goodwin book “Team of Rivals” on which the movie is based. That said, what’s very clear is that Lincoln possessed some incredible leadership abilities.
First, he set clear goals – get the bill passed by a certain date. Second, while he left it to his team to figure out the particulars of how the team would get the necessary votes , he was very clear about one thing – there were to be no cash bribes paid in return for votes. Setting boundaries to go along with charging people with tasks is an often overlooked element of good leadership. Third – he was supportive and understanding until several members of the team became discouraged enough to argue against the attempt. At that point he became firm and inflexible, recognizing that while there are many roads to get to Rome the choice of destination was not a part of the discussion. Lastly, he stayed out of his team’s way for the most part right up until his personal influence was needed to sway some votes. He recognizes out loud that it is the power of the office that moves people, along with the strength of the cause and never confuses the power in those things with himself.
There’s a reason Honest Abe is so revered and this film help us to understand that. Along with the obvious reasons, his brilliance as a leader is also on my list. How about yours?
While I’m too lazy (or burnt) to write a few new screeds this week, as has become our tradition we’ll look back at the posts you guys read and shared the most over the past 12 months. This first one was also one of my favorites because it’s a good example of what I’m trying to do here most days. That is, of course, to take the things that go on around us all the time and find actionable business lessons among all the other stuff. This was from last April 10. Enjoy!
Suppose you have a small but very popular business. You began as a handful of people, most of whom are still with you after you kicked out a couple of uneven performers. While you’ve added some staff as the business grew, every employee is a key employee since there really aren’t any overlapping roles.
Thirty five years go by, the business grows, and while there are good years and bad, the product mix is generally well-received by customers and reviewers. In an industry where products come and go very quickly, this one endures, even though it went through a period where everyone wondering if it had lost its way. The product focus changes with each release cycle to match the times – no one has ever called your business stagnant even though its product sector has gone through some very rough times. In fact, there is an entire secondary business of add-ons and information providers that has grown up around your business. Not a bad place to be.
One day, you learn that a key employee is sick and several months later he dies. You adjust by hiring someone who can do what he did albeit without the strong emotional bond to the team as the late employee. A few years later, another key member – your right hand – passes away suddenly. The team is devastated and there are real questions about the ability of the business to continue. The emotional toll on you is palpable and the business community wonders if you’ll retire and shut it down.
Instead, you decide to replace the man who everyone thought was irreplaceable. You let customers know that it will be different, and while you will make best efforts to minimize the differences, you are up front about it being different and don’t try to pretend as if nothing had changed. You bring on more employees to reinforce some of the differences, creating a transformed product in the process. You release new product – one developed primarily with an outside team for a fresh perspective. It’s very well received, and breathes life into the older products, and customers continue to buy it in droves. The business remains true to its core values and it’s obvious that the old and new employees are on the same page thanks to excellent leadership.
It’s really a textbook case on managing business transformation in difficult times. I was privileged to witness it myself last night. Ladies and gentlemen, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.
For our Foodie Friday Fun this week, let’s examine confit and what it tells us about business.
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I’m thinking specifically of duck confit, one of my favorite foods, but the process is often used with fruit or vegetables such as onion or garlic. For those of you who’ve never experienced it, duck confit is made by salting the duck, generally legs, and letting it cure with some herbs for a day or so. The salt is removed and then the legs are poached in their own fat at a low heat. In a way, it’s a fancy version of barbecue where meat is spiced, left to cure a bit, and then slowly smoked to add flavor and render the fat. The result is a rich-tasting product that can be heated (particularly to crisp the skin) and eaten as is or shredded to use in other dishes.
Interesting, you say, but what does this have to do with business? The beauty of confit to me is that the key to the dish isn’t fancy external additions but, rather, the technique. The main ingredients – the meat and the fat – are right there when you begin (OK, you might need some additional duck fat to cover the legs when cooking but stay with me here). That lesson is often lost on us in business.
It’s hard for someone who makes a living parachuting in to help companies to say this, but more often than not the keys to success are already in place. What happens is that managers tend to make things too complicated by searching for external resources or solutions when the ingredients they need are already on hand. Confiting something is nothing more than a deep, gentle immersion in something that’s already there – fat for meats, sugar for fruit. Instead of cutting off the fat and discarding it since it’s often seen as a problem, it becomes the key to the dish. How much better off would many businesses be if they allowed all of their resources to shine instead of writing them off as “just” an accountant or secretary or junior analyst?
There’s a Shakespeare quote of which I’ve always been fond – “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves…” That’s confit, and good business advice in a nutshell. What’s your take?