Your own approach to the work that your company does transcends all aspects of your business. It sets the tone for pace, execution, employee engagement and results. By its example, top management must establish the culture of work on which excellence, and thus company success, depend.
But as I consult with companies — small, medium or large — I’m continually amazed at how work is getting done. What’s lacking in these businesses is a culture that clearly defines excellence and that values diligence, timeliness, efficiency and, as you’ll read in the case study presented here, honesty.
Absent these shared values, the answers to problems become those that a select group wants and not fact-driven solutions. Projects take on a life of their own, dragging on for inordinate periods and overrunning budget because goals, scope and deliverables aren’t defined. Time and resources are wasted on misguided efforts and activities that don’t support the company direction or mission. Employees then become frustrated by a process that makes it impossible for them to contribute their skills, talents and energies to a successful outcome.
How can a CEO turn this destructive culture around? An important first step is to understand the difference between challenging and communicating - a critical distinction that impacts how work gets done.
When you challenge a team, you risk directing the outcome to a narrow set of predefined options or to an impossible goal. For example, hitting a sales target that isn’t supported by market conditions. Communicating, by contrast, calls for setting the overall tone and parameters and creating an environment in which broad, even unforeseen options, can be critically explored and high achievements can blossom. This was one invaluable lesson that a CEO who called on me for advice learned.
When the CEO engaged me, his company’s sales targets and new product launches were consistently falling short of expectations. He wanted to know, “Why isn’t the sales team working effectively to launch new products, maintain current accounts and expand our customer base?”
In each of the three previous years, the company’s management had assembled members of the sales and marketing teams to explore how to achieve sales growth and position new products. In these meetings, the sales team had described the competitive challenges it faced in the marketplace, including effectively demonstrating the value of the company’s products to customers. Sales also had consistently reported that the margins distributors were capturing were not competitive.
But marketing, just as consistently, had responded that its research indicated high end-user satisfaction and high repurchase marks even at higher prices, and so, marketing had continued to raise prices. Management and marketing together had concluded that the sales team’s inability to position the products was the reason for declining sales.
As it turned out, the CEO’s challenge to grow sales had spawned a dynamic that had produced just the opposite. Determined to rise to the CEO’s challenge, the management and marketing teams had ignored the views of the sales team as they focused determinedly on raising prices and setting high expectations for sales. Unable to gain support at the distribution level, the sales team continued to fall short of goals as sales experienced even sharper declines.
Although he’d heard the arguments of both sales and marketing, the CEO believed he should continue to challenge his teams, assuming that they would present the best solution. As it turned out, however, marketing had not just discounted the views of the sales team but had also skewed its research rather than confront the CEO by questioning his challenge. So the CEO learned the importance of communicating rather than challenging. But he did so at a dear price for his company’s sales figures, his trust in the marketing team and his sales and marketing teams’ ability to work collaboratively and effectively.
Does your company lack a culture of work? If it does, what price are you paying?
Tony Arnold is founder and principal of Upfront Management, a St. Louis-based management and executive consulting firm. He can be reached at (314) 825-9525 or firstname.lastname@example.org.