FYI, Ralph’s book The Adventures of Larry the Lemur is available at Amazon.com!
It’s a reality of life in many organizations. The powers that be decide to embrace The Next Big Thing and they begin to bring in new managers to implement this new idea.
Then the exodus begins. At first, the powers that be are excited. Obviously, these people are walking out the door because the bold new managers are stirring things up. Their absence will only help things, since they obviously must have been the people holding things up, right? That’s probably true in some instances, but it might be a good idea to keep an eye on the situation and look at the feedback from exit interviews. Or just ignore everything and assume that this is the fire needed to clear away the unnecessary underbrush.
Or you could find yourself like Enron. When many people looked at the aftermath of Enron’s colossal collapse, it became clear early on that the company’s efforts to modernize itself and increase its stock price had placed it into an insurmountable death spiral. The company’s core business had been transporting natural gas around from point to point. When a brash young executive arrived on the scene and revolutionized the relatively mundane business of selling natural gas, the company took notice and quickly elevated him to company stardom. Jeffrey Skilling was the future of the company and the board wanted everyone to take notice.
At first, things seemed to be going well. While many longtime staff members ran for the exits, they were portrayed as “not getting it” and the company was deemed to be better off without them. Skilling quickly surrounded himself with others who thought the same way he did and they mocked and ridiculed not just the old guard at Enron, but their competitors, customers and industry.
Thus Enron began taking its eye off of the fundamentals, concentrating on the next shiny thing that would impress Wall Street. The people who actually produced the products and services for sale were marginalized and treated poorly. The brash, rude and obnoxious new blood soon chased off the people whose institutional memory and skills were vitally important in running an energy company. When the flashier things didn’t pay off, the company was forced to begin using accounting gimmicks to prop things up. Eventually the gimmicks became criminal acts and the company collapsed because the very people who could save it had been chased out years earlier.
Now the point of all this isn’t to say that companies should resist change; change is an inevitable part of the workplace these days. Yet change should be carefully managed and overseen. Rather than ignore the feedback when employees voluntarily depart after a change, it should be collected by a neutral party in the organization and analyzed to make sure that the organization isn’t setting itself up for defeat by putting in an abrasive leader who will just chase away staff and enforce his or her will regardless of whether it is workable or not. A good leader gets the lay of the land before making any changes. A disastrous leader barrels through his or her new department eliminating things just because they’re “old” or not in fashion. Just like the fashion world, businesses can become enraptured with trends and fads. How it deals with them can dictate whether the company is successful or a failure.
Once a company gets big, it often tries to spread out its product lines by adding new items it thinks will bring in new business. The important thing to know, however, is what customers expect and want from the brand. While companies like Wal-Mart or Dollar Tree could put their names on just about anything, regardless of quality, many companies find themselves damaging their brands by selling merchandise that their customers wouldn’t expect from them.
In a best case scenario the items are largely ignored- a bizarre footnote to corporate history. In the worst case scenario, the brand could suffer from slapping its name onto a seemingly random, low quality item. These pitfalls can be avoided by knowing exactly what customers expect and giving it to them. Even a great item can be derailed by sloppy branding.
Good ideas can come from anyone on the team! A good leader will value all ideas and suggestions regardless of who makes them. Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton always listened to front line employees because they were the people who were interacting with his customers every day. To him, a good idea was a good idea whether it came from an overnight janitor or a district manager. So cast aside those preconceived notions; you might just find the next big idea that will revolutionize your organization.
Imagine you’re being honored with an award that was voted on by your colleagues. An exciting honor, right? What if nobody bothered to invite you to the meeting where the award was being handed out and the manager who oversaw the team who voted on it was seemingly not enthusiastic about handing out the ‘honor’ in the first place? Obviously the organization would have been better off not doing anything; as a matter of fact, they most likely made things worse. Believe it or not, this anecdote actually happened and is an example of the pitfalls of doing something just because it is expected and not because the organization genuinely wants to do it.
Recognition programs can vary wildly depending on the organization and its budget. Some places offer huge bonuses or exciting rewards while others offer items of little or no value. Even the small awards can mean a lot if they are offered with GENUINE appreciation. Awards offered solely because they are expected can be more demoralizing than not offering anything at all. Great leaders know that a quick note of genuine appreciation can do more to make someone’s day than a valuable award presented with little enthusiasm just because the Human Resources department mandated it.
Walt Disney completely understood this. He may have sometimes been a bit sparing with compliments, but when he provided them, he MEANT them. That’s why his employees were so loyal. Mr. Disney left us over fifty years ago, yet the people who worked for him still gush about how great a boss he was and ardently defend his memory. Richard Sherman, pictured above between his brother Robert and Walt Disney, still gets teary-eyed speaking about Walt Disney:
“Walt was always a great believer in the team. He felt that the team made the pictures, and he was the captain of the team. He just got the best of everybody in the world. So, I’ve always felt very happy that people know our songs, and I feel very lucky that I was a part of that team.”
“On what would have been Walt’s 100th birthday at DISNEYLAND, I began to play his favorite song- ‘Feed the Birds’ when a bird suddenly flew down from a tree and landed right on my piano. It stayed there until I finished the song, then as quickly as it flew down, it flew away. I’m convinced, that that bird was Walt.”
Walt Disney earned such loyalty from his employees by genuinely appreciating their efforts and talent. If Mr. Disney handed you an award, gift or compliment, you knew he was sincere and genuinely appreciative. Not all of us can have the same impact on the world as Mr. Disney, but by genuinely appreciating the hard work that happens around us, we can try to have a positive impact on our respective organizations.
When Colonel Harland Sanders began franchising his fried chicken restaurants he constantly traveled around the country to do his own taste tests. Since he had created both the secret chicken recipe and the unique cooking process, he knew just by tasting the food whether a particular restaurant was following his procedures to the letter. If they weren’t, he would head to the kitchen to give the staff a refresher course. Colonel Sanders was a leader who knew his business well enough to be able to do it himself.
Obviously, Sanders was a unique leader. As the company founder, he had created the very system that made him famous around the world. Nobody would expect the head of Kentucky Fried Chicken today to know as much as Colonel Sanders did about the chicken cooking process. However, he or she should have more than just a cursory understanding about how the restaurants are run; as well as how decisions made at the upper levels of management will affect the customer experience.
On the reality show Undercover Boss, however, we often see how little some company executives know about their businesses. The show follows a different CEO or division head each week as they don a fake disguise and visit different locations to see how things really happen out in the trenches. The strangest thing about the show is that it can find enough executives willing to go on it to begin with. We can forgive the predictable fumbling around as they try to make burgers, take customer orders or work on the assembly line, but the real shocker is how often the leader appears surprised about how some cutback or policy change negatively affected operations out in the field.
It seems obvious that cutting staffing, maintenance or supply quality will have an adverse effect on customers and employees, but often the show features the leader shaking their head in disbelief. ‘Cutting back on the maintenance budget resulted in less efficient operations and customer complaints? Who’d have guessed?’ The show often ends with the leader telling the camera that things will change, but why did the company choose to make such important decisions without considering the implications in the first place? And why didn’t they actually go out to the trenches to gauge how a change might affect operations? Often the answer is that the only thing that mattered was the bottom line or that management thought it knew better than the people on the front lines.
Good leaders don’t have to know the minutiae of the business like Colonel Sanders. They should, however, have an understanding of how their decisions will affect their front line staff and customers. Walt Disney constantly walked around Disneyland to see how things were going or what might need improvement.
He spoke with guests, experienced the park like a regular paying customer and tried to understand the park’s everyday operations. He often consulted with front line staff to figure out the challenges they faced and get suggestions for improvements. He might not have been able to operate Matterhorn Mountain, but he certainly understood how staffing and maintenance cutbacks would affect its daily operations.
Taking time to understand the organization’s operations and how each piece fits together is not only a sign of a great leader, but it can also help reduce unforeseen consequences when budget and policy changes are made. Plus, customers and employees appreciate being genuinely listened to. An organization might still run into problems, but having an ongoing dialogue with all stakeholders will result in them being much more patient when any slip ups occur.