Management Letter Featured

10:01am EDT July 22, 2002

Employee involvement and empowerment are important keys to improving organizational performance. Many examples exist of how these programs have helped organizations become more competitive. But without a strong sense of stewardship among all employees, progress toward even the most critical changes can be slow, or, at times, almost nonexistent.

Stewardship isn't inborn. It's learned. It must be in the head before it's in the heart. And while it must be learned, there are barriers that interfere with its being put into practice-even after it's understood and accepted.

Remember the parable in the Bible of the master who gave his servants gold coins to care for while he was on a journey? Two servants practiced good stewardship with the coins entrusted to them. They invested them well, received a good return and were given great wealth and positions of increased responsibility as a result.

Why, then, did the third react differently? Why did he bury the coin and not practice good stewardship?

Perhaps he thought he was being a good steward under the circumstances. He buried the coin to protect the resource. To him, that may have been good stewardship. Remember, he wasn't told specifically what to do with the coin. He wasn't told the objective was to enhance the value of the resource. He only knew that it had been entrusted to his care. And he saw his master as a hard man ... an exacting man ... a man who reaped what he didn't sow.

That servant's experiences and perceptions were different from the others. He had a different frame of reference. He simply may have done what he thought he was supposed to do. He protected the resource, but it didn't increase in value.

So perhaps the master should have shouldered a portion of the blame. He provided little guidance. He didn't provide an overview of the objectives, or a game plan, or a focus. He only gave the coin to the servant with instructions to "care for it".

"Wait just a minute," you say. "The other servants had the same instructions, and they had the good sense to invest the coins and allow them to increase in value." And you're right. But as managers, can we assume that good stewardship-as we define it, will always be uppermost in the minds of our employees?

The distinct analogy to this parable is this: In many of our organizations today, billions of dollars in collective resources aren't aggressively being enhanced. Add to this the billions of dollars worth of resources in the charge of those who, by the nature of their jobs, just don't care. This includes the many "bureaucrats" in the public and private sectors who are isolated from scrutiny and accountability and who have been allowed to let the resources under their control atrophy. A billion dollars here, a billion there-pretty soon we're talking about some real money.

As a leader, you must recognize that there are any number of factors which can limit a person's propensity to put good stewardship on the front burner. Here are several that are especially critical:

  • a lack of a clearly defined focus, or mission statement;

  • complacency;

  • a concern over job security;

  • a lack of trust within the organization;

  • organizational politics.

The primary barrier to good, effective stewardship is a lack of proper guidance by management. Like the master in the parable, many managers assume the mission is clear. But it's pure folly to make this assumption. In most organizations, the mission isn't as clear throughout the organization as it is to the management team.

Research has shown that, quite often, even some of the management team isn't in complete accord about the mission. Think of it this way: In every organization, people view problems and opportunities from completely different perspectives. It's as if they are looking through the opposite ends of a telescope. People who look through in the conventional manner see problems and opportunities as very close at hand. They feel a heightened sense of urgency and the need to take immediate action.

At the same time, some look through the opposite end and see these same problems and opportunities as far away and less critical. They feel no sense of urgency and no need to make what they consider hasty moves. The result is a difference of opinion which, at times, can cause serious conflicts within the organization.

At the very least, it interferes with the application of proper stewardship. The only effective focus is one that everyone in the organization can see, understand and accept. Until a proper focus is in place, the question of stewardship may remain in doubt.

This leads into the second most important factor affecting stewardship: complacency. People "bury coins" because they are too comfortable. They are satisfied with the present level of performance. They see no reason to take any action that might place themselves, or their people, in jeopardy. Their passivity is more likely to put the resources at greater risk than simply burying them. In this dynamic era, the organization can most effectively deploy resources that will gain the lion's share of the rewards.

Complacent people are the last to recognize the need for change. They are satisfied with the status quo and unlikely to make a move of any kind until they're sure it's absolutely safe and their positions are secure. As long as they are "getting by," they won't take action. Like the third servant, they have a different perspective, and need the explicit directions provided by the focus to provide necessary guidance.

As for concern over job security, when people are worried about their well being, stewardship is the furthest thing from their minds. It's difficult to be concerned about enhancing organizational resources when you feel you may not be part of the organization for long.

In this age of downsizing, people are concerned about their futures. Organizations can no longer accept employee loyalty as a given. Recent research has shown people will change jobs several times during their working careers-some will change careers several times. With conditions in a state of continuous flux, looking out for No.1 often is a worker's highest priority.

However, the ultimate success of the organization will continue to be determined by how well its people can enhance the value of the resources for which they are responsible. How important is this? Over the years, I have noted that at least 20 percent of the activity that takes place in any organization doesn't add value. Recently, another author set the number at 30 percent. Downsizing, without specifically addressing these activities, tends to exacerbate the problem of wasted resources, rather than eliminate it.

One of the most effective ways to recover some of your coins is to have each employee, including the bosses, review each activity to determine its value-adding impact. To add value, an activity should:

  • increase profitability;

  • reduce costs:

  • improve throughput;

  • address a specific customer need.

Activities that don't meet one or more of these criteria should be eliminated or revised so they do add value. Of course, there are a few exceptions. People involved in training and safety have a less direct impact on performance in these areas, but an impact nevertheless.

And certainly some administrative functions are critical as well. But it's difficult to justify the many bureaucrats who act as 'gatekeepers' to the implementation process. These are the people who spend most of their effort justifying their positions and precious little time enhancing value.

Then there's the matter of trust. I was recently asked by a major corporation to assess one of its facilities to determine why the level of employee enthusiasm and involvement was so high. When I went back to the facility to present my final report, a union official stood and, with immense pride, pointed out to everyone that I had used the word "trust" 17 times in the report. He felt the high level of trust between labor and manageme nt was the major contributor to the work environment.

Trust, like employee loyalty, should not be assumed to be a given. Team building, quality circles, and other programs aimed at increasing employee involvement have worked wonders for some organizations. But any program that isn't fully implemented and well maintained can do more harm than good. Over a short period of time, programs based on the "book of the month" can fragment trust. A consistent focus greatly enhances a sense of trust throughout the organization.

Another major deterrent to good stewardship has always been-and always will be-organizational politics. Any organization that tolerates or encourages politicking between functions, or within levels of the organization, will suffer greatly from buried coins. People won't have the inclination to fully enhance all of the resources if they see games being played within the organization, or evidence of favoritism.

When this happens, and it's commonplace, people will sit on the coins rather than invest them. There is too much concern that the "other side" will benefit more than the "home team". These conditions seem to be especially prevalent in large companies, or where the facility is located some distance from the headquarters.

To make certain your "coins" continue to increase in value-and to maximize your effectiveness as a leader- make certain that every person in your organization is practicing good stewardship, and that every resource is carefully invested in a way that will continue to enhance its value.

William Armstrong is president of Armstrong/Associates, a Pittsburgh-based management consulting firm. The second edition of his book, "Catalytic Management: Success By Design," is now available at Barnes & Noble, Borders and WaldenBooks Stores. He can be reached at (412) 276-7396.