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October 2019

Contrarian Thinking

Oct 9, 2019 2:00 PM
Bruce Hunter

An article in Toronto’s Globe and Mail this morning caught my eye.  It was a piece reviewing a book by David Burkus entitled “Under New Management” which espoused some contrarian thinking about leadership and management.  While there were some interesting ideas proposed, it was the concept of listing management techniques that run counter to today’s workplace axioms that intrigued me.  So, with no further ado, here are a couple that I’ve come up with from my experience as both Executive and Coach.  I’ll bet you have a few to add to the list yourself or at least have some commentary on those I’ve outlined in this note.

1.  Ditch the “Vision” exercise for your business.  Think Destination.

About a million years ago I was responsible for leading the process of building the strategy of a very large organization.  The prevailing academic view was to start with the creation of a Vision for the organization and thereafter to engage the organization in its pursuit.  While laudable as an overall exercise to create dialogue, the unfortunate outcome was a tremendous amount of navel gazing, time and lofty words that meant little to people who had been outside the process of creating it.  Since those days, my preferred route is to talk about a destination in combination with a defined timeline.  One great example of this came from a worker on a production line for a mid-sized manufacturing client of mine.  “I just want to be big enough to move to a new location!” he offered after sitting through a navel - gazing Visioning exercise at a planning meeting.  To credit the management, “Big enough to move” became the destination.  Credible, believable, simple and desirable.  Much more effective than self-absorbed fancy words on a page.

2.   Fire Your Worst Customers.

The cost of having these soul suckers hang around goes well beyond merely the margin hit you’re probably taking because of their focus on price.  These same customers also require an inordinate amount of your focus, resources and management time.  Find a way to rebalance the resource/effort equation and if that doesn’t work, get rid of them.  Of course this doesn’t mean that it’s necessary to confront, simply changing the pricing relationship at your next contract renewal will suffice.  They’ll either put up or shut up by going away.  In either case it will be a much better thing for your organization than extending the status quo.

3.  Show it, don’t say it.

Somewhat akin to Vision, the definition of the values of an organization has received a fair amount of airplay in planning circles.  The Plexiglas list of Values hung reverently in the office foyer for all to see has been ridiculed by a few of late.  It’s not that this is  wasted discussion.  The issue is that the whole exercise loses power when reduced to a laundry list of superlatives posted on a wall.  Having been through a countless number of these exercises, my experience is that the end product of 1000 of these processes yield 999 with largely identical words. Words like: Leadership, Empowerment, Teamwork, Innovation. The exercise should really be about the personality and DNA of the organization.  What makes us unique?  What makes some people right for this place and what does not?  Some of the most powerful insights come from people outside of the organization.  Use them to both help define and test whether you’ve captured the company DNA accurately.

4.  Treat employees like the adults they are…give them the straight goods.

One of the most devastating and yet oddly motivational career discussions I’ve had ended in me losing out on a promotion to someone else.  I was called to the President’s office for a career discussion.  I had been a key leader in a merger between two large packaged goods companies and with it came an opportunity to run one of the new divisions. The President sat me down and got right to the point.  “We’ve been very impressed with your work with the merger” he began.  “So much so that I want you to know that we have been considering you for the new role as Division lead.  I also want you to know that some days your name was the top of the list, some days not.  At the time I made the decision, it was not.  That doesn’t mean that your name won’t come up in future.  Just not this time.  I also want you to know that your name may never come up down the road.  I can’t predict the future.”
Wow!  He had let me down gently by praising the work but also been brutally honest with me about the road ahead.  I came away feeling impressed. He had some tough news to share and did so with integrity but didn’t sugar coat or make promises.  Give them the straight goods!

5.    Share the numbers.

Many of the business owners I meet have an aversion to sharing the numbers with their employees.  There may be a few select inner circle folks in the know but the list is very small.   There are lots of reasons given for keeping the stopper on the financials.  Competition.  Compensation.  Confidentiality.  (Sometimes embarrassment given small returns).  Armed with the truth, your employee base can become a vast resource of cost, revenue and process improvement!  Stephen Covey said, “What gets measured, gets done.”  If you aren’t giving some financial transparency to your employees, they can’t help.  And in that case the real loser is you!

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