The USU John M Huntsman School of Business shares tips for managing and working effectively in the professional world.
Age Of Entrepreneurs
An entrepreneur is a hero. My first job was created by an entrepreneur and most jobs are. Some call this the Age of Information but I call this the Age of Entrepreneurship. But you don’t need a pile of cash to start a business. My Uber driver in LA started it with his family car. My neighbor, who has an empty nest, started with Airbnb. Others start with a computer or a tool box. Too often we think too big when we think entrepreneurship. But for every Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, there are thousands of small and medium-sized entrepreneurs and they are the core of the US economy and they create first jobs for people like you and me.
One of the best skills that a leader can develop is the ability to ask questions. Not questions with an implied solution, but neutral, non-judgemental questions that show respect for employee commitment. For example, “Why is that important?” “What would our customers think?” “Why are you committed to this course of action?” “How does that make you feel?” There is no judgment in these questions, just honest curiosity that assumes the employee is committed and gives the employee respect.
Competence In A Crisis
Last summer I was swimming laps at a public pool. A 90 lb teenager with a lifeguard t-shirt sat there in an oversized chair nearby. “Hardly a responsible adult,” I thought. After a few laps, I heard three loud toots of a whistle and then I looked up to see the lifeguard launching himself into the water. He flipped over a facedown swimmer, and then with expertise and three swift kicks he brought the swimmer to the pool’s edge where his waiting colleagues gave successful treatment. If you want to look more valuable at work, become an expert who knows exactly what to do in a crisis. Surprise your colleagues with competence in a crisis.
“Let’s get this one right,” the group leader called out to her team who was building a complex custom design. Then she corrected herself, she said, “Let’s get this one righter!” Awkward language aside, people who work continuous improvement, lean manufacturing, or enterprise excellence know that every product and every process can be made better. Nothing is ever perfect. They are comfortable with the permanent question, “how can I make that better?” If you cannot see ways to improve your product or service, ask your customer. If they don’t tell you your competitor might. But, by then it might be too late and you’ll be out of the game.
Westfield, Mass. is known as “Whip City” because 120 years ago, 40 companies made Buggy Whips, tools, and carriage parts. Today, only Westfield Whip Manufacturing remains. Harvard Business School Professor, Theodore Levitt gave sound advice to businesses facing change. Back in 1960, he said, “businesses should concentrate on their customer’s needs, not on specific products.” If buggy whip makers had thought of their businesses as transportation accessories, they might have survived into the automobile era. There were 13,000 businesses in wagon and carriage parts in 1890. Today, less than one percent of those businesses still exist. But, that one percent exists because they listened to their customers.
I once saw a near fist fight at work because a well-meaning worker awkwardly corrected his colleague. First ask, “may I give you some feedback?” That opens the door. Then ask a non-judgemental question like, “are you frustrated with these results?” This creates the need. Finally, give a personal answer. Say, “this is what I did and what I learned.” Don’t say, “this the best way or the only way.” Remember, the last thing you say is what people are most likely to remember, so always end on a positive note.
Nothing motivates like appreciation. Poet David Whyte who writes books on business says, “this is not the Age of Information. This is the Age of the Loaves and the Fishes where one good word is bread for a 1,000.” We remember kind words from bosses, employees, customers and colleagues. They are the building blocks of our professional identity. Similarly, negative comments could corrupt our capacity to contribute. They erode self-esteem. Think about the kind words you heard today, then think about the kind words you’ve spoken. Find ways to speak more sweet and less vinegar.
Lead With Humility
I once called a CEO who had been on the job for about three weeks. Because I didn’t have his direct number, I called the main office of his large company. To my surprise, he answered the phone. “Doesn’t a president have something more important to do than just answer the phones?” I asked. “Well, the power went out at the plant,” he explained. “And the best thing I could do to help was to work at the switchboard where worried customers were calling in.” Shigeo Shingo, who designed much of Toyota’s manufacturing systems, said, “lead with humility. Good leaders are humble enough to what others need to succeed.” And that may be even answering the phones.
Master The Details
I recently spoke with a graduate who was at the edge of losing his first job six months into his career! He complained that the big ideas he was contributing were unappreciated. “What did they hire you to do?” I asked. “Data analytics,” he said. “Who’s doing your job while you’re doing this other job?” I asked. Well, it was awkward, but he learned just in time that first jobs are about detailed work. Every organization needs people who will do the mundane and routine work. To have a successful career, you need to master the details before you can earn the right to contribute big ideas.
I recently heard an employee complain that “my boss doesn’t respect my opinion!” Instead of giving sympathy I said, “leave your opinion at home.” In a good work environment, opinions don't matter, facts matter. Facts are data combined with analysis. If you have data and solid analysis, then your leader and colleagues better listen and they probably will. But your opinion doesn’t matter, so leave your opinion at home and bring facts and analysis to work.
Personal And Business
Have you ever heard somebody say, “it’s not personal, it’s business?” Well, in some cultures it is always personal. Americans are mostly a rules-oriented culture. We think we can do business after a few social encounters and then sign a lasting and binding agreement. But Latino cultures and Asian cultures are relationship oriented. It’s personal. You are expected to spend a month, maybe more building a trust relationship before you reach an agreement. Then the agreement can be easily modified if needed. If you’re rules oriented, take time to get to know your potential partner. If you are relationship oriented, don’t be offended by the legal contracts and specifics they will need. After all, it’s personal AND it’s business.
A business leader who built a company came to me complaining, “I can’t solve all the problems. I just don’t have the time.” My response was, “Why are you solving problems?” A leader should be a problem clarifier and coach those who stand face to face with problems. But good leaders don’t solve problems. They help others avoid, organize and yes, sometimes solve problems. It is a real challenge for most of us to let go of things we were good at earlier in our careers and move from becoming a problem solver to becoming a problem clarifier.
A medical services company was losing business and management told a group of about 50 employees that 10 positions would be eliminated before the end of the year. This close-knit group did not want to face layoffs, so they redefined the problem. They began by identifying potential clients within walking distance of their service areas. They also developed a walk-over discount for services that had no transportation cost. Then, on their lunch breaks, they began to visit potential clients, who were surprised that the professionals, not salespeople, were calling on them. In the end, instead of losing 20 percent of their workforce, they added 20 percent new business by redefining a problem.
Lots of people think resilience is an individual characteristic, but it’s also a team characteristic. Teams with resilience don’t blame each other when they fail. They use failure as a learning opportunity. Blame is found in the system, not the individual. Learning is found in individuals and learning is what creates resilience. Team resilience can lead to greater productivity. It also leads to greater innovation. People are more likely to risk innovation when a team will back them up no matter what.
Whether you pick the western New Year, the Chinese New Year, or any other time to make New Year’s resolutions, you’re probably wasting your time. Research shows annual resolutions do little to move the improvement needle. So, what do you do? Whether on a personal level or with a global company, continuous improvement is the answer. Goals are important, ideals are good, but continually raising standards to new levels brings unimaginable excellence. Commercial aviation safety, automobile quality, medicine, are all fields instant, not annual improvement has created excellent results.
Undercover Bosses become a popular television program. A boss, leader, CEO, goes undercover in his or her organization disguised as an employee. The program documents their surprise as the boardroom meets line workers and learns about their challenges. I have two big problems with this program. First, your lying to your employees. Going undercover is a lie! Deception undermines trust, even if there is a good outcome. Second, and this is the most important thing, a good leader will already know. Undercover Boss uncovers bosses who need to go undercover to learn. This is the wrong kind of culture and the wrong kind of boss.
A business leader frustrated with his organization’s inability to do quality improvement recently called me and invited me to consult. “Are you a specialist in our industry?” was his first question. “No,” I said. “Then how can you help?” he asked. I said this, “Because in your workforce of 120 employees you have 120 specialists in their area. They need better communication, better trust, and confidence that they can solve problems. I can help with that and then I will leave.” Consultants come and go, employees stay and build up often untapped expertise that is a well-spring of excellence.
Have you ever had a meeting standing up? If you want a short, information only meeting that’s a good technique. How about a sit-down meeting that lasts for days and discovers and designs a new future for your company? These long dialogues are also a very valuable use of time. The key to a good meeting is to know why you are meeting, who needs to be in the room, and what you want to accomplish. That will help design how you will get there. You don’t use the same map for every journey, and you don’t want to use the same meeting format for every meeting.
The great baseball philosopher, Yogi Berra said, “You can learn a lot by looking around.” If you want to improve work processes, look around! You might start with familiar territory, like a kitchen. We watched “Kitchen Work” in our family and then made the following changes: we moved the knife drawer closer to the cutting board, we eliminated clutter in the refrigerator by cooking meals with no leftovers, we got a larger trash can so food preparation was not interrupted by trips to the trash, and we put dishes in the cupboard next to the table. Simple changes can reduce waste, increase efficiency, and improve quality, even in personal space.
Are you on a work team? Great! Well, a work team is very different from a sports team. A work team can stay together for a long time, not just a season. A work team doesn’t play to win, they play to excel. That means that there can be a lot of winners. On a work team, you don’t compete for playing time, everyone has a meaningful role. You might have a coach on a work team, but you’re more likely to have a mentor and mentor each other, help each other, and support each other. If you have much experience in a work or a sports team, you know that working on a winning team is deeply rewarding.