Friday, June 22, 2012

Better-A Surgeon's Notes on Performance

As Atul Gawande says in the introduction to this book " betterment is a perpetual labor."  He outlines three core requirements  for success in any endeavor involving risk and responsibility.    The three requirements are sufficient attention to detail to avoid error and prevail against obstacles.  Second is the requirement to "do right".  Third is ingenuity which he interestingly casts as  a character issue...a willingness to recognize failure, a deliberate reflection on those failures and a never ending search for new solutions.
Gawande uses stories from his profession....medicine... to illustrate these points and personal examples to add emphasis.  That said, the lessons and insights transcend his field and apply more broadly to leaders in any field.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

"A good plan, vigorously executed today, is better than a perfect plan executed next week."

"A good plan, vigorously executed today, is better than a perfect plan executed next week."  This statement puts planning and execution in proper balance.  A flawed plan can achieve success if executed well.  Why is this so?  First of all because all plans are flawed in some way... no amount of planning will ever be able to account for all risks and uncertainties.  Second, acting gains the initiative rather than reacting to circumstances....your actions actually help create the future. Third, at some point in the planning process the leader will have gathered all the pertinent data relevant to the decision, the facts bearing on the problem,  considered all the alternative courses of action, and taken action to mitigate known risks. It is time to act. 
Failure to act, ask for more data, or consult more widely are all symptoms of  "analysis paralysis"...that set of circumstances where the leader misses opportunities due to their inability to act. 
To be clear, it takes courage as a leader to act under conditions of uncertainty and today's business environment has never been more uncertain.  The leader must overcome his fear of making a mistake, of being accountable for a bad outcome, recognize that no plan is perfect and be prepared to adapt during execution.

Monday, June 11, 2012

A leader's dilemma: Implementing When you Disagree

I believe one of the toughest leadership dilemmas outside of "people" issues has to do with how you implement a decision or policy or project when you personally disagree.  All leaders, especially those in large organizations, will eventually find themselves in the position of leading implementation when they don't agree. This occurs in all large organizations and is especially common in global companies when standardization is involved.  My blogs of 13,14,15,16, 20 and 21 March go into the standardization subject in some detail.  So what's a leader to do when faced with this challenge?
First of all, I believe it is the leader's duty to argue her point of view vigorously during the decision making process, even if it is the minority, especially if it's the minority view.  The senior decision maker needs the honest view of all concerned.  Many times the "right answer" isn't clear; often the decision is a 51%-49% close call that must be made.  If there is a business case behind the decision you need to be prepared to challenge the assumptions of the business case.  However, after all the arguments have been made and all the points of view expressed, sometimes the decision doesn't go your way.  What happens next is an important test of leadership skill.
I believe the leader has three different choices, two of which are honorable. One, and I see this all too often among early leadership practitioners, is to say "Well gang I did my best to argue our case but I lost.  I know it's a dumb idea but "those guys" up there say we have to do it anyway".  This approach undermines confidence in the entire leadership chain. It's purpose is to make the speaker look good and absolve everyone but the higher ups of any accountability for failure.  This is inappropriate leader behavior under any circumstance.
A second approach is to resign.  This is an extreme approach only appropriate when there are legal, ethical or integrity issues involved.  No leader is obligated to take illegal or unethical action and resignation is appropriate under these circumstances.  That said, resigning just because you disagree, leaves your staff in the position of implementing without your's going to happen anyway.  The leader who does this is walking away when their staff need them the most.  The true leader stays and helps the organization through a difficult challenge. 
That's really the third option.  Having voiced your disagreement, and assuming there are no ethical/legal issues,  when the decision doesn't go your way, implement as if it were your own decision, even if you disagree.  Sometimes this requires you to explain that all the arguments have been made and that those making the decision are aware of the consequences and risks.  Sometimes it's necessary to explain that some policies/projects benefit the organization as a whole, even though the benefit locally is a hard to articulate or doesn't exist at all.

Stated another way implementing policies/projects when you agree can be done by anyone appointed to a leadership role..  Implementing when you disagree differentiates "real" leaders" from those who have just been appointed to the position.

Friday, June 8, 2012

More on diversity

I made nine blog entries in March and April on this subject, yet feel a need to once again highlight this issue.

Several things that have happened over the last few weeks to cause me to want to highlight this issue.  First, in mid-May results from the US Census have revealed that for the first time Asian, Hispanic and African American and mixed race children represent the majority of children born in the United States last year.  For the first time in US history Anglo-Europeans produced the minority of live births.  Second, last week there was an article in the Dallas Morning News about the 40,000 ethnic Chinese who have chosen to relocate to the Dallas-Ft Worth metropolitan area.
Then last weekend I went to my nephew's lacrosse game.  There were dozens of teams in multiple age groups from all over Texas and Oklahoma.....that's for a lacrosse tournament in Texas. On the way into the park for the lacrosse games we passed three fields of men playing cricket. In a separate newspaper article they went into some detail about disputes related to the the competition for ice time among youth ice hockey leagues in Dallas. 13 ice rinks and not enough available time to meet the demand..that's for ice hockey in Dallas.
All of these things combined caused me to do a little research.  Surprisingly, the Dallas-Ft Worth area is ranked 5th most racially diverse metro area in the United States...behind San Francisco, Houston, Los Angeles and Miami and ahead of Chicago, Washington, Atlanta, New York City, Philadelphia and Boston.  It may be surprising to some that Houston and Dallas are two of the most racially diverse communities in the United States.  The largest concentration of both Nigerians and Iranians outside their home country is in Houston.
What can be concluded from these observations and data and what do those conclusions mean to leaders?  First, from a strategic, long term standpoint , population demographics are a strong driver.  Certainly birth-rates among different racial groups are important but migration patterns and immigration policies are also important factors.  Ice hockey, lacrosse and cricket were sports rarely played in the southern United States even 20 years ago.  Migrations from the northern states and overseas have driven this interest.  The lesson:  Pay attention to demographics and shifting population patterns.  Second, be careful about regional stereotypes.  This is true for not only the United States but also other countries.  Texas is far more diverse than the stereotype....who would have predicted Dallas as more diverse than Washington, Chicago or New York City?  I've found similar rich racial diversity in Melbourne, Amsterdam, Singapore, Vancouver and  elsewhere.  The lesson:  drive to data to understand the unique qualities of a region/city.  Third, the business case I articulated in the 23 March blog remains strong.  Companies need access to the best talent in the world, they need to create a meritocracy....a work environment where staff can success and progress based on their performance.  Customers and stakeholders want to "see themselves" in the company. Diverse teams can reduce risk and increase innovation.

Mastering leadership of diverse teams is a fundamental leadership competency for the foreseeable future.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Vision and Purpose-"Every time you drive this car, your safety is in my hands"

Yesterday I had the windshield replaced on one of my cars.  These days a mobile repairman comes to your home and replaces it on the spot rather than taking it to a repair shop.  I started a fairly lengthy conversation with the repairman as he did his work.  I asked how he got into the windshield repair business  Answer:  He went to work for a friend's family business when he got out of the Army.  I asked how he was trained.  Answer:  On the job training, but now most training is provided by the company in exchange for a 3 year commitment/contract.  I asked about certification/accreditation.  Answer:  Certification required every two years..combination of written and hands on demonstration of tasks.  I asked about government regulation and audit.  Answer:  Federal OSHA(Occupational Safety and Health administration) audit certifications.  I commented that that seemed like a lot of administration/regulation for the windshield repair business.  The repairman stopped work, looked at me and said "Oh no, sir.  Anytime you get in this car from now on, your safety is in my hands."

I couldn't help but be impressed by this simple explanation of vision and purpose.  This repairman knew he wasn't in the windshield repair business but in the safety business.  I have to believe that his commitment to excellence, attention to detail and professionalism are driven by that simple understanding that "from now on, your safety is in my hands".

I don't know if he arrived at the broader frame on his own or a company leader helped him understand it.  All of my leadership experience leads me to believe the ability to articulate the broader help people draw a "line of sight' between their work and the real purpose is an important task of leaders.  It helps rationalize sacrifice, clarify objectives, focus effort and inspire commitment.  To the point of this story, it doesn't need to be a grand, world-changing vision.  It can be as simple as letting people know they are in the safety business, not the windshield repair business.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

A simple successful business model: The In-N-Out Burger Story

I received this book from my oldest son as a gift.  Over the years we've become part of the "In-N-Out Burger Cult" during our periodic visits to my wife's family in Southern California.  Both my son and I became fascinated with how In-N-Out burger created the cult-like devotion among it's customers.(Including us I might add)  I'd become convinced it's appeal lay in it's scarcity....until very recently they only operated in California, Las Vegas and a couple of sites in Arizona.  Stacy Perman's book uncovers a much more nuanced explanation.  One theme in the book is their rigorous adherence to the business model, a second theme is how they chose to differentiate that model when their competition chose a different route and a third theme is the difficulty of succession in a family owned business.

She outlines the history of how Harry and Esther Snyder created the brand and the underlying values that form their business model.  The model included rigorously adherence to three principles....simplicity, quality products in a clean environment and quality people.

With regard to simplicity, the principle was "do one thing and do it well"...their menu has never varied....hamburger, cheeseburger, double cheeseburger, french fries, milk shakes.  Devotion to quality products meant fresh ingredients , never-frozen-no-additives meat, fresh buns from local bakers, fresh potatoes cut to fries in the store, fresh lettuce, use of only only the middle five slices of a tomato or onions.  This devotion to fresh ingredients dictated they could never be more than 300 miles from the distribution center...this driving their limited geographical reach.  When it came to quality people their selection process is rigorous, they have always paid $2-$3 more per hour than competitors and offer generous benefits to part-time employees.  Most employees start out picking up trash and work their way up to servers, food preparers and cooks.  Training is thorough and conducted in "In-N-Out University".  A new store is opened by an "all-star" experienced crew to insure flawless start-up. The most experienced person in the store isn't the manager but it is the person on the grill preparing the burgers.

Their company has chosen to remain private with low to no debt, and allows no franchising.  This in contrast with almost every other name fast food provider...McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Carl's Jr, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell.  Over and again Perman reemphasizes how adherence to the business model drove these choices.....simplicity, control over quality and quality people. 

The last part of the book outlines challenges in succession in family owned businesses.  They are just embarking on the third generation of family leadership and the open question is whether or not they will adhere to the core model that has driven their success.

It's a fascinating read on a unique and successful approach to creating, building, growing and sustaining a business.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Take rocks out of your boss' rucksack...don't put them in. He's already carrying a load too

The point of this statement is to discourage leaders from "delegating up".  Clearly , there will be times when you need guidance or want to test your thinking but don't expect your boss to solve your problems for you.

In my leadership positions I always made it clear that staff could approach me with difficult problems, but I also expected them to have analyzed the problem, identified different courses of action, evaluated those courses of action and come to a recommended solution.  Likewise, I always tried to do the same thing with those I reported to.  In this way, the senior leader can provide feedback, challenge or support.

Why is this important?  First of all, I believe decision making needs to be taken at the lowest level possible in the organization....where leaders are closest to the action, have the best information and understand the impact of the decision more fully.  Second, I believe it's important for the development of the leader to do the analysis, come to a recommendation and then test that thinking.  This helps build the a process that gives the leader the capability to deal with issues of increasing size and complexity over time.  Third, in a global enterprise it is even more important that decisions get taken at the lowest possible level.  Leaders are often separated by thousands of miles and multiple time zones.  The local leader has to be the driver of alternatives, analysis and recommendations. 

To this thread of thinking there is also a cautionary note for senior leaders to not to LET their direct reports delegate up.  It's a tempting may be faster and simpler to "give the answer" based on your background and own experiences.  This "don't let them delegate up to you" approach is even more difficult when the junior leader wants take a decision contrary to the one you might have made.  Assuming the consequences of a mistaken judgment aren't catastrophic, it's acceptable to challenge, inquire and let them take the decision.  If it's a mistake, then there is an opportunity to learn and develop from the mistake.