One of my favorite business books, which also made it as a Broadway play and a big-screen movie, is “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” written by L. Frank Baum in 1900. My hero in this story is not the young orphaned Dorothy, nor the Cowardly Lion, the desperately in-need-of-some WD-40 Tin Man, nor even the Scarecrow in search of a brain.
Instead it is the Wizard. To understand why the dubious Wizard is my favorite character, one must get past the portrayal of him as scheming, phony and at times nasty.
To appreciate the man behind the curtain, recognize that he is a very effective presenter, though at times this ex-circus performer behaved a bit threatening. OK, he was a jerk, but the point of this column is to take you down the yellow brick road on the way to the enchanted Emerald City and corporate success.
From this tale there is a lesson that one can say all sorts of things, not be visible, and yet still have a meaningful impact.
Another takeaway is that playing this role provides plausible deniability. This absence of visual recognition is particularly beneficial in negotiating when you, as the boss, use a vicar, aka a mouthpiece, to speak on your behalf. This allows you to have things said to others that you as the head honcho could never utter without backing yourself into a corner.
Another plus is you can always throw your mouthpiece under the bus if necessary, of course, with his or her upfront understanding that sometimes there must be a sacrificial lamb. This is not only character-building for your stand-in, but also many times presents an unprecedented opportunity for him or her to learn in real time.
Perhaps the Wizard was the first behind-the-curtain decision-maker, but today this role is used frequently in business and government. In a similar vein, the “voice” of Charlie from the well-known 1970s TV series “Charlie’s Angels” was always heard, but he was never seen.
Frequently there is much to be said for using anonymity to float a trial balloon just to get a reaction. Think about a son having his mom test the waters by talking to dad before the son tells him he wants to drop out of junior high school to join the circus. Maybe that’s even how our former circus-drifter-turned-Wizard-of-Oz got his start.
In the negotiating process it is important to have a fallback when the talks hit a rough patch by instructing your vicar to backpedal, saying that he or she has just talked to the chief and the benevolent boss said, “I was overreaching with my request.”
This also serves to build a persona for the boss-behind-the-curtain as someone who is fair-minded and flexible. All the while, of course, it’s the boss who is calling the shots and maneuvering through the process without getting his or her hands dirty.
The value of using this clean-hands technique is that it enables the real decision-maker to come in as the closer who projects the voice of reason, instead of the overeager hard charger who at times seems to have gone rogue.
It actually takes a bigger person to play a secondary role behind the curtain rather than always be in the limelight. It also takes a hands-on coach and counselor to maneuver a protégé through the minefields to achieve the objective.
However, accomplishing the difficult tasks through others is true management and the No. 1 job of a leader who must be a master teacher.
After you have guided a handful of up-and-comers a few times through thorny negotiations, you will gain much more satisfaction than if you had done it yourself, while engendering the respect and gratitude of your pupils. They in turn will have learned by doing, even though they were not really steering the ship alone.
The final step is to let the subordinate take credit for getting the big job done. This will also elevate you to rock star status, at least in his or her eyes. Soon those who you’ve taught will emerge as teachers too, and the big benefit is that you will populate your organization with a stellar team of doers, not just watchers.
So, forget about the Wicked Witch of the West and move backstage for the greater good of the organization.
A few years ago, one of my friends embarked on what he deemed an ambitious, yet simple plan: Write a New York Times Best Seller.
“Ed” had reason to be optimistic: His first two books had sold well and he had successfully leveraged them to launch a burgeoning consulting practice. Ed also had a nationally known book publisher to handle distribution for this book, and he had developed a comprehensive marketing and promotions plan for the launch.
Ed felt all the pieces were in place and was sure he would succeed. His goals were two-fold: break out from the pack and grow his business, and hit the New York Times Best Seller’s list. While his head told him the first goal was more realistic, his heart was set on the second — publicly claiming it was his only true benchmark of success.
Needless to say, Ed’s book didn’t make the list. Few books do. That doesn’t mean Ed’s book was a failure. Quite the contrary, it was a huge success.
As a result of Ed’s book, he landed numerous speaking engagements with organizations and companies around the world. He began to command four- and five-figure speaking fees from those engagements, and his book was purchased and distributed to every attendee.
Further, Ed’s speaking engagements lead to dozens of private companies hiring him to provide one- and two-day seminars, where he taught executive teams how to implement the ideas he espoused in the book. Ed was also presented with numerous business opportunities for new and existing clients to tackle initiatives beyond the book’s subject matter that he had not previously considered but were related to his expertise.
Finally, Ed did sell thousands upon thousands of copies of his book in bookstores nationwide and online through booksellers like Amazon.com and BarnesAndNoble.com. His book was in the hands of the right people — and lots of them — and he had established a national profile.
Viewed through this lens, there is little doubt that Ed’s book was wildly successful — even if it wasn’t a New York Times Best Seller and even if it didn’t stack up to his primary benchmark.
This is the reality of book publishing. Each month, I speak with dozens of entrepreneurs and CEOs about their nascent book ideas and the possibility of having Smart Business Books handle development and publication of their stories and manuscripts. I begin every conversation the exact same way: “If your goal is to have a New York Times Best Seller, we’re not the right option for you.”
That’s because you should write books for the right reasons. If your only goal is getting on a best-seller’s list, then your ambitions are off the mark. Writing and publishing a book is not like a professional sports team’s season — there isn’t one winner who takes the championship and a bunch of losers who fall short. Publishing a book is not an all-or-nothing proposition.
This isn’t to say you shouldn’t aim high with your goals, and having your book become a best-seller is certainly one way to measure success. Setting reasonable expectations, however, is essential.
So why write a book?
One of the most important questions you should be able to answer when thinking about writing a book is, “Who is going to read it and why?”
As Ed’s story demonstrates, a book is a very useful business development tool. It is an immediate conversation starter, an excellent credibility builder and one heck of a leave-behind. If you’re engaged in marketing, why not capture your expertise through a book?
Another reason is to celebrate a milestone or establish a legacy piece. It could be for a 50th or 100th anniversary, or to recognize the history of an organization upon the founder’s retirement or death.
And, if you are interested in helping others succeed, a book is a great way to share your expertise or what makes you and your organization special. For example, if you’ve built an amazing corporate culture where productivity blossoms and innovation flourishes, the “how” and “why” are good subjects for a book. And if you’ve been involved with several mergers and acquisitions, consider sharing what worked and what didn’t, and the lessons learned along the way.
Whatever your story, the key is having a reason to share it with others. The bottom line: It’s your story. Make it count.
Mindfulness, a concept originally characterized by Ellen Langer in 1989 as a state of alertness that is manifested in active information processing, includes creating new categories rather than relying on categories present in our memory; welcoming new information by being open and attending to changed signals, welcoming more than one view and being aware of multiple interpretations, and avoiding being on auto-pilot.
In 1999, Karl Weick and Kathleen Sutcliffe extended the concept of individual mindfulness to the collective dimension, describing it as the widespread adoption and diffusion of mindfulness by the organization’s members. Mindfulness helps organizations to notice more issues, process them with care, and detect and respond to early signs of trouble. Weick and Sutcliffe describe five cognitive processes that constitute organizational mindfulness: Preoccupation with failure, reluctance to simplify interpretations, sensitivity to operations, commitment to resilience, and deference to expertise. These, they contend, are prevalent among members of high reliability organizations.
So how does organizational mindfulness apply to the management of organizations?
Let us look at these five processes one by one.
Preoccupation with failures
Mindful organizations demonstrate an ability to learn from failures and breakdowns. The organization learns from what did not work and identifies gaps to ensure transformational success. These firms see failures as an opportunity to learn and to try again instead of getting discouraged and throwing in the towel.
In no way does this mean that you ought to get totally absorbed with failures. Mindful leaders spend equal time celebrating successes and analyzing failures to move the organization forward.
Reluctance to simplify interpretations
High performance organizations refuse to simplify interpretations, especially when facing intense competition, increased complexity and large amounts of data.
Business professionals are exposed to an enormous amount of internal data and market information. They face variations in the degree of analyzability of market information, in the degree of information commensurability, and in the equivocality of information coming out of multiple sources in the organization.
The inherent levels of information uncertainty and ambiguity require they focus on complex problems without reducing and oversimplifying them.
Sensitivity to operations
Leaders of mindful organizations purposefully invest in developing capabilities of their front line personnel. They pay attention to all organizational actors whether in leadership or in the “trenches.”
Mindful leaders listen actively to the rumor mill and embrace feedback coming from organizational skeptics. Being sensitive to operations also entails adjusting strategic programs by taking into account the knowledge of people who actually do the work.
Commitment to resilience
Resilience is one of the dimensions of the organizational confidence construct.
Leaders of mindful organizations commit to the success of all organizational programs. They purposefully develop shared beliefs, courage and resilience when implementing business strategies so that the organization keeps going when facing adversity.
The role of organizational champions and change agents is equally important to build collective confidence in teams.
Deference to experts
Decision-makers in business units should rely on the expertise of specialized centers of excellence to optimize business decisions and firm performance. Business leaders should avoid improvising and ought to defer tough decisions or complex problems to internal experts.
The five characteristics of high reliability organizations proposed by Weick and Sutcliffe can be applied and operationalized by any company in search of business excellence. Organizational mindfulness and mindful champions can play a critical role in the success of organizations. I call this mindful business management. I encourage you to read more about this emerging theory on organizational mindfulness.
Stephan Liozu (www.stephanliozu.com) is the founder of Value Innoruption Advisors and specializes in disruptive approaches in innovation, pricing and value management. He earned a Ph.D. in management at Case Western Reserve University and can be reached at email@example.com.
As businesspeople and business leaders, we have full plates. Whether it’s balancing work, home, community, social obligations, aggressive business targets, strategic initiatives to sponsor/support/implement, unwelcome external influences, or customers expecting more for less, prioritizing all of that can be a daunting challenge.
Prioritize and focus are the business vernacular terms we always hear. We smile grimly, mutter “uh huh,” and return to our overwhelming pressure cooker without changing a thing about what we do or how we are approaching our work.
But those words really are the key to managing our crazy world of over-commitment and under-capacity — when combined with two more words: critical few. Prioritizing and focusing on the critical few results, products and people who truly matter more than others is job No. 1 for executives.
How to look at it
The facts: You have a critical few customers, without whom your business would dramatically suffer. Ensure that your organization serves those customers disproportionately well. That does not mean ignore the others; ideally, all customers would be served flawlessly.
You have a critical few products/offerings that make up the 80 percent in the 80/20 of your business. Ensure you get them flawlessly right. Your brand is set by those core products or services. If you get it wrong there, the rest may not matter.
You have a critical few employees/direct reports who play a disproportionately impactful role in the success of your business. Your time should reflect that understanding. It doesn’t mean ignore everyone else; it simply means that you cannot leave to chance that your key people are sufficiently directed, motivated, feeling challenged by their work and appreciated.
They are people you can build the rest of the organization around. You’ve got to get it right with these folks above all others and then rely on their help to reinforce and motivate the rest of the organization.
Optimize and organize
So clearly, identifying your critical few customers, products and people is job No. 1 for results. How do you optimize your short list of the critical few? Simply answer these three questions:
? What are the critical business results you need to deliver?
? Who are the key performers who will deliver those results?
? What are the critical few behaviors that your key performers must do?
That reads like common sense, and it is. But achieving it isn’t so simple.
Don’t forget reliability
You know your critical results and key performers right now, but what about those all-important critical few behaviors that people must do to make it work? If people don’t do the right things, you won’t get results.
Many initiatives are designed to get those critical few behaviors to occur — behaviors that we think should automatically happen, but they don’t. How do we get people to do the right things reliably?
It’s not about making people happier at work. Many happy workplaces go belly-up. It’s easy to be distracted by things that create fun and do little to improve performance.
It comes down to (1) pinpointing those actions, which if performed reliably, will move the needle for your organization and (2) ensuring there are reinforcing consequences for those critical few behaviors and corrective consequences for behaviors inconsistent with what you need. That alignment is necessary, and it is often overlooked.
So in a nutshell: Ensure focus on the critical few results, people and behaviors. Don’t allow yourself or your organization to be distracted. Without the critical few happening well, you will spend many more hours fixing things than growing your business. ?
Business owners are still cutting corners to cut costs and stretching their staffs in an attempt to stretch their budgets, but a lackluster economy shouldn’t be the only thing affecting their business decisions.
When companies try to manage “on the cheap,” the result can be anything but savings. The price of cutting corners in HR can lead to escalated risks, decreased productivity, increased turnover and ultimately higher costs.
Risk of noncompliance
To mitigate risk and minimize costs, HR compliance should be a constant consideration for business owners. Employment laws govern how companies hire, schedule, compensate and behave toward their employees. Adhering to these and other government regulations is not just the lawful thing to do, but it’s also the smart thing to do to protect a business from unnecessary risks.
Federal wage and hour laws are one of the most common noncompliance violations for companies. According to one report, the average settlement per case is nearly $13 million.
Allegations include employers’ failure to pay minimum wage, unpaid overtime and inaccurate “exempt” or “nonexempt” employee classifications. Exempt, or salaried, employees are not eligible for overtime pay regardless of extra hours worked, while nonexempt, or hourly, employees can earn overtime.
Corporate anorexia and the cost of turnover In a lean economy, making do with less is simple common sense, but when companies try to operate with too little staff, the unhealthy result is what some experts call “corporate anorexia.”
Remaining employees are expected to carry a heavy portion of the company’s workload. When consistently stretched too thin, employees become less productive, and the most marketable and highest-performing employees eventually look for better opportunities.
Experts estimate that turnover costs companies anywhere from one-half to five times an employee’s annual wages depending on his or her position within the company.
While that may sound like an exaggeration, consider the hard costs of recruiting and training a new employee. Add to that the softer costs of lost productivity and lost opportunity.
So why would a business owner ever choose to ignore employment laws? Or risk losing the most experienced staff? For most, it’s not a conscious choice but an unavoidable outcome.
When a company is making do with less, its HR function is often severely understaffed or nonexistent. How can a small business owner or a one-person HR department effectively manage the volume of duties and stay abreast of constant changes in employment law?
HR experts suggest that when limited means dictate that companies cut corners, they should focus on the fundamentals. That includes a comprehensive employee handbook and regular compliance audits.
A handbook is the first line of defense in employee matters. It outlines company policies and establishes a guideline for behavior. When employees review and sign a handbook, they acknowledge that they have reviewed and understand the company’s policies and intend to abide by them.
Regular compliance audits can help ensure a company is properly meeting its obligations and can help identify potential risks before they become costly oversights.
Business owners can also augment their HR by outsourcing part or all of the function. Professional employer organizations and HR outsourcers employ experienced human resource professionals who have extensive knowledge in a variety of HR disciplines.
PEOs and HROs also dedicate significant resources to developing proven processes and systems that can help minimize the most common and costly mistakes. As for cost, many qualified firms cost roughly the same as one full-time HR employee.
Cutting costs can be smart, maybe even necessary, but cutting corners on critical functions or deeply into staff can backfire. If you cant cover all the bases, focus on HR’s fundamentals and enlist assistance where needed.
John Allen is president and COO of G&A Partners, a Texas-based HR and administrative services company that manages human resources, benefits, payroll, accounting and risk management for growing businesses. For more information about the company, visit www.gnapartners.com.
Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs and Sir Richard Branson — the methods they use to run their businesses are so unusual, so against what we typically expect from a CEO, that exposés on their leadership style make for pretty good stories.
But recently, I’ve found it odd that the behaviors of CEOs warrant entire articles. After all, I talk with business owners and managers every day who exhibit what would be considered unconventional traits. More than ever, CEOs are beginning to break the stuffed-suit stereotype for a chance to create a business culture that one day might also be emulated.
Of all the business fads and leadership traits I’ve seen go in and out of style, I am particularly fond of the following three:
Leaders who know when to be led.
It might sound counterintuitive, but people who run businesses have a reputation for being a little thickheaded and stubborn. I’m sure you’ve had a boss in your career that no matter how many times they asked people for advice, they never actually took it. People like having their opinions confirmed. So if the sought-out advice conflicts with that opinion, it tends to get ignored.
And that’s a shame because a real leader should know that there is a time to lead and a time to be led. The managers and employees of a particular department were hired because they brought a certain level of expertise about the department to the business.
When a CEO asks for feedback, they need to actually take what is said into consideration.
Managers and CEOs who give their employees a bit
of breathing room.
Our social media manager likes to let her employees have a bit of downtime while on the clock. For her, it’s important that they have some time to rejuvenate their minds as blogging requires constantly producing new and interesting content.
That downtime can be spent scrolling through Reddit, checking out their Tumblr dashboard, cleaning out their Gmail accounts, whatever they want to do, as long as the time is spent on something that isn’t work.
Typically, having that bit of time helps them break out of routine and ruts that can result in bad writing. The same can be said for those in less creative positions.
For example, someone in sales could get a little too used to saying the same thing over and over again. Suddenly their pitch starts to sound scripted, even if they never had a script to go off of in the first place. Potential clients can pick up on how stiff their speech is, but a quick break away from work to recharge their batteries can help loosen them up.
Leaders who help employees have a life.
There are always things you can do to make your business more profitable — really leaning on your employees to increase their sales, for example, might bring in a little bit more money. But it ends up sacrificing their peace of mind if you push too heavily. Employees will begin to dread coming into work. And when they are at work, they will be a frayed ball of nerves.
In order to achieve long-term success, business owners need to remember that they have to hold onto reliable employees. If businesses have a high turnover rate and are constantly training and retraining people, they’ll never have a chance to grow. Once again, things will stagnate, and that can spell the death of a company when sales inevitably slump.
There are still entrepreneurs who hold onto the old ways, believing that an iron fist and a crazed obsession with perceived profitability will lead them to success. This may be true in the short term. But the resulting turnover and general attitude of their employees will eventually be their downfall.
Deborah Sweeney is the CEO of MyCorporation, an online filing services company that specializes in incorporations and LLCs. Find her online at mycorporation.com and on Twitter @deborahsweeney and @mycorporation.