I think we need to get one thing straight up front: I am a patient person. I just have an internal clock that seems to run at a faster rate than other people’s clocks. Okay, maybe it runs faster than most people’s clocks. Everybody’s clock? Whatever, I don’t have the time to try and explain it.

I think it is also pretty well known that I am not the world’s greatest proponent of meetings and reviews. Staff reviews, team reviews, whatever, I can lose some interest in them rather quickly if there is not something in them specifically for me. I tend to drive toward very short and succinct reviews, when I have them. I prefer to have people doing things as opposed to reporting on the things they have been doing. It’s funny how you seem to get much more done that way.

Why then, you may ask would someone lacking such an apparent abundance of patience, who does not ascribe to a significant amount of value in reviews say that sometimes they are in fact called for? It all depends on what needs to get done, who is needed to get to do it and when it needs to be complete.

Violet Fane is attributed as having said “All things come to those who wait” as a phrase extolling the virtues of patience. I think it has been modified many times and has entered the language lexicon in many forms since then. I guess in Violet’s world I would not be the most virtuous person available.

Abraham Lincoln is one of those that have been attributed as having slightly modified this phrase and said “Things may come to those who wait, but only the things left by those who hustle.” (Somehow I have a little bit of a problem believing the man who had such a command of the English language and penned something as memorable as the Gettysburg Address used the word “hustle”, but it seems to have been corroborated on multiple web sites. I guess I will have to go with it for now.)

What I am getting to here is the seemingly diametrically opposed forces associated with wanting to make something happen within our own predetermined time frames and waiting for something to happen in its own appropriate time frame. Sometimes you can push to get things done, and sometimes you can’t. But which is which as these differences can be crucial to both success and sanity.

We have all seen and have been steeped in the idea that leaders “make things happen”. They are movers and shakers. They act. They don’t react. They shoot, move, communicate and repeat as necessary. They never sit in economy coach when flying. We have all come to believe that the way to be a leader and the way to move ahead is to be first on the scene, the first to recognize and respond to a problem, the first with the answer.

In many instances this is indeed the appropriate course of action. In most cases a leader is the one called upon to recognize an issue, either before or after it has happened and to chart an appropriate course of action to either respond to or avoid the problem. They are required to act, solve and move on to the next problem.

When a leader has the ability to directly address a problem or issue, then they have the ability to be the active participant in the solution that we all aspire to be. However there are many instances where the solution or the implementation of the solution may be outside of the leader’s direct sphere of control or influence. In effect many times a leader must rely on someone else to implement the desired solution or take the desired action.

This is a point where mismatch in expectations regarding the desired solution can occur. If the person who has responsibility for the resolution does not have the same priority for resolving the issue as the person who needs the resolution then there will be incremental stress added to the situation. It is always good to remember that just because you have a problem does not mean that other people see the same problem, have the same problem, or even have a problem at all, for that matter.

So not only does a leader need to be able ascertain if a solution needs to be “driven” versus allowed to occur, they must also know how to modulate the priorities of those that must be relied on to implement the solution.

In many instances this may not be a difficult thing to do. If those that are responsible for the solution are on the leader’s direct reporting team then it is just a simple matter to reassign priorities (understanding what is elevated and what is reduced) and moving on.

However if the person responsible for the solution is not on the leader’s team, then the leader must find a way to make sure that the two group’s priorities are aligned. In many instances this can be done by appealing to or aligning with a higher order organizational priority. Priorities such as revenue increases, cost reductions, margin improvements are universally recognized across an organization. Aligning desired activities and solutions with these priorities are an excellent way to make sure that people align with the desired goals.

No one wants their inaction to be pointed out as the reason a margin improvement, or an incremental sale was not recognized. This is probably one of the best ways to get an action from an external entity or individual.

But what happens when a leader needs something done and there is not a higher order priority that can be aligned with in order to get another party to act on the issue? This is the situation where no matter how immediate the leader’s perceived need is, there is no leverage that can be applied to motivate the party that may be responsible for the activity.

A good example of this type of situation is the hiring process. No matter how much the candidate may want the decision maker to make their hiring decision, there really is not much that they can do to expedite the process. The candidate may be in a position where they would like the selection decision made as soon as possible, but the hiring entity may actually be incited to slow down the process in the hopes of attracting more and better candidates for the role to choose from.

So how does a leader get an activity prioritized outside of their own group? The simple answer is patience. A simple clear and concise explanation of what needs to be done and more importantly “why” it needs to be done will be required. An explanation of the time frames and their relevance will also be helpful. The final key will be the agreement not so much on when things will be done, but when the milestone reviews will be held.

No one likes to go time after time to a review that they agree to hold or attend without their deliverable being complete. Knowing that a review is coming and that there is an agreed agenda item that they must provide an update on is normally enough to get people to move on their commitments, even when there is no apparent downside to their non-delivery.

The idea here is that no one likes to be reminded or re-asked to provide a deliverable regardless of whether or not it may be germane to their own functional requirements. This goes for leaders (and the rest of us impatient types) as well. However the patient leader usually needs to only ask once for a deliverable, if they accompany that request with an agreeable schedule of reviews where progress against that deliverable can be reviewed.

Once the desired deliverable has been supplied, there will no longer be a need for the review and it be cancelled, and then everyone can get back to the real work at hand. Most people dislike reviews, so the added incentive of not having the review once the deliverable is supplied can work wonders.

Reviews rarely serve a useful purpose within an organization. If there is good leadership in the organization, there will normally be good communication, thereby rendering a review somewhat redundant. However across organizational boundaries they can be useful as a methodology for inspiring those outside an organization to provide deliverables that are required within the organization. The inspiration being that the responsible party has the dual drive of first avoiding having to report any potential lack of progress on their deliverable, and second knowing that there will be no additional reviews once they have provided their deliverable.

Just as we have heard management say “The beatings will continue until morale improves”, we can now say “The reviews will stop once the deliverable is provided”. Patience and perseverance will usually prevail.

Over Specialization

It seems as though business, or maybe more accurately organizations and the conduct of business, is at a crossroads. Like “process”, organizations seem to have drifted into the position that if a little bit of specialization (and process) is good, then a whole lot of specialization (and process) must be better, right? After all, if one man who is a four hundred meter specialist can run the distance in about forty five seconds, and four men who are hundred meter specialists can run the distance as a relay team in thirty six seconds, then forty men who are ten yard specialists should be able to do better than that, right? When does specialization run its course when it comes to creating an advantage?

I absolutely agree that some specialization can create a competitive advantage. As noted above, four one hundred yard sprinters working together will usually beat a single person running the distance alone. The focal point of this is the word “usually”.

Since 1920 the United States four hundred meter relay team has won the gold medal fifteen out of a possible twenty one Olympic games. One time they didn’t compete due to a boycott. So three out of every four Olympics they have run the race and won. The other twenty five percent of the time they either finished behind, or didn’t finish at all because of poor handoffs of the baton. The handoff either slowed them down, or they dropped the baton and did not finish all together.

On the surface this looks like a pretty good performance. From an Olympic standpoint there is no doubt. It is excellent. But what is our reaction if we translate this performance into business terms? What would you do if someone came up to you and said:

“I am going to quadruple your costs (going from one employee to four), improve your performance by just under twenty percent (reduce your time from forty five seconds to thirty six seconds), and introduce a one in four chance that you will not even finish the project (the baton gets dropped twenty five percent of the time). In return for these increased costs and risk, you will succeed three quarters of the time.”

Now admittedly I have stacked the deck here a little bit. The Olympics happen only once every four years. This rarity of opportunity has a tendency to breed a “Win at all costs / Win or go home” sort of mentality. It is indeed a high risk – high return mentality. But I think it helps to make my point.

Business on the other hand occurs every day. While there is competition, success is usually measured in relative terms. I think that the Sales role is the only one where there is a win – lose relationship with the competition. You either beat them, or you don’t get the customer order (“the gold”). After that everything is more of a “how well did you do” question as opposed to a “did you win” question.

What I think it also points out is that specialization does introduce incremental expense in the form of multiple specialized participants where in the past there may have been fewer potentially more generalized people. The idea here being that if you can grow the business to the point where you can break the increased work down into smaller more specialized roles that can be aggregated it can be more efficient. This brings up the next point.

How far can the work be efficiently broken down and aggregated? If four can do it faster than one, can eight do it faster than four? Can forty do it even faster than that? At what point do you spend more time passing the baton than actually running the race? If no one can ever accelerate to their potential ability (top speed) before they must pass the baton, will the relay team actually be faster in the total?

The final aspect of the added cost and complexity of over specialization is the risk it induces. If the best relay teams have three hand-offs of the baton (first leg-second leg, second leg-third leg, third leg-anchor), and manage to drop it one out of four races, what happens when more and more baton hand-offs are introduced. It is possible to theorize that there is a point where there are enough handoffs that it is statistically probable that there will always be at least one dropped transition, and no race (project) will ever be completed, at least without some secondary group to monitor the transitions and make sure that a final work project is in fact delivered.

I believe that this secondary group responsible for making sure that all business baton handoffs occur (amongst other process responsibilities) is usually called the “Quality” group, but that could just be my opinion. They are the group that is usually responsible to make sure everyone runs in their proper lane, and hands the baton off when they are supposed to.

Specialization is the logical extension of what is known as “Fordism” in the theory of production. As we all know Henry Ford was one of the first to recognize the values of specialization and the production line. Although Fordism was a method used to improve productivity in the automotive industry, the principle is thought to be able to be applied to any kind of manufacturing and by extension business process.

Fords major success is thought to have stemmed from a couple of major principles:
1. The standardization of the product (nothing hand-made: everything is made through machines and molds by unskilled workers)
2. The employment of assembly lines, which used special-purpose tools and/or equipment to allow unskilled workers to contribute to the finished product

I didn’t make that last bit up. I looked it up in my cyber wanderings regarding specialization.

Ford wasn’t the first to do this but he saw the value in breaking complex tasks down into component simpler ones in order to better utilize the available labor component. The point that I see here is that specialization was born from the need to get the most productivity possible from the predominantly unskilled labor force. Today we seem to be continuing to try and further apply these principles to a very skilled and in many cases knowledge based labor force.

I think some specialization does in fact produce returns that can be justified against the increases in complexity and added potential risk of a “missed hand-off”. I also believe that there is a point where the number of hand-offs and the added complexity of having tried to add too many runners into the relay race generates decreasing returns.

When a business gets to the point where it loses visibility of the overall delivery responsibility, it has probably decomposed its work products beyond its optimal granularity.

Most businesses today do not rely on unskilled labor. If fact most of the technology based organizations that are looked to as drivers of the new economy require not only college degrees as a minimum threshold for employment, but would prefer that employees come with previous experience for the job. In short, organizations are looking for smart people who already know how to do the job.

It is against this increasingly intelligent and skilled workforce requirement that organizations seem to be trying to reduce the skill and intelligence needed to do a job by ever reducing the scope of the job as it gets more and more specialized. Business in effect wants people who can do more, but wants them to be limited by specialization to doing fewer things – hopefully better.

In encouraging team members to focus on smaller and more specific roles instead of understanding and requiring more and broader capabilities, organizations run the risk of stifling future leaders. If team members are incited to only worry about their specific task, where will the next generation of leaders who will be responsible to the team’s performance of aggregated tasks come from?

Business leaders require a very good working knowledge of many different business disciplines in order to be successful: Sales, Finance, Marketing, Operations, and Service, just to name a few. A lack of knowledge in any of these areas, or an over dependence on any of these specific disciplines can weaken the leadership capability of the organization.

Even in the age of (over) specialization, the title of the “Worlds Best Athlete” still is bestowed upon the winner of the decathlon. The decathlon is the event where there are ten different aspects of the competition. The winner of the decathlon is not an expert in any one or two of these aspects. They don’t have to win all of them (or potentially any of them) but they must be very good in all of them.

Leadership today needs to recognize the trade-off between specialization in the drive for efficiency, and generalization in the need for a broader end to end view of business. Future leaders cannot be expected to easily move from a specialized discipline experience set to a generalized business leadership set, anymore than a sprinter should be expected to be able to effectively compete in the other nine aspects of the ten event decathlon. Nor does the decathlon allow for a passing of the baton between ten people, one for each event.

While business does depend on team work and the ability of the team, sometimes it is not a specialized relay race.

Saying Yes

I have written a few times in the past about the requirement that leaders are obliged to present a dissenting opinion when they genuinely feel that there may be a better alternative solution. I have also noted that that the word “no” can be one of the most important and valuable words in the leader’s lexicon. Having a different or contrary opinion does not make anyone any less a member of the team. It makes them someone who continues to maintain a different perspective on the business knowing that the diversity of opinion is a key to business health.

It is an exceedingly difficult line for a leader to walk. Many times a dissenting opinion can be confused with open opposition, which is something most managers cannot tolerate. Sometimes management doesn’t want to hear a differing opinion. Many times they can be quite content with a single perspective. What do you do when you have much to say to the contrary, but all that is desired of you is to hear you say “yes”?

I think we have all probably been in a situation like this from time to time. Most of the time situations like this are usually transient. Sometimes there is complete alignment on business topics. Occasionally there is divergence of opinions. Many times there are aspects of both alignment and divergence of opinions. This is what is known as a healthy business environment.

In this sort of business environment differing opinions are understood and accepted. The challenge is to the idea or the process, not the individual. The objective is to try and get to the best solution. As I said, this is in an ideal environment. Unfortunately individuals are prone to differing behaviors in the business environment.

Issues such as cultural differences, personalities, management styles and differing individual versus corporate objectives can come into play. Any one or more of these factors can contribute to a situation where the differences of perspective, opinion and approach are no longer the exception to the management alignment, but seem to become the standard.

In many instances there can also be “opinion drift”. If another manager sees that the alignment of opinion is better rewarded than the healthy discussion of alternatives, eventually a polarizing of positions and opinions can take place. It can fall more and more to the leader to make sure that the contrary is both heard and considered.

In time a situation can evolve where management is no longer looking for a specific or studied input on any new idea or direction. As more and more opinions drift into total alignment with management all that is desired is for all the various team members to align and say yes to each new process or direction and immediately get behind it. There can be a total breakdown in the structure of the healthy challenge business model. Contrary views and opinions in such an organization can begin to be viewed as oppositional and divisive.

Before leaping to specific conclusions along this line of thinking, as always it is best to take a step back to understand and assess the situation. Sometimes it only feels as though the stars are aligning and that everyone is aligning without due consideration. A complete management alignment along the lines described is a pretty rare event in my business experience.

On the other hand, I can hear the words my dad used to say in just about any situation that could even be remotely considered a parallel to this. His favorite was:

“Just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean that they are not out to get you.”

He would also say:

“Aim low because the bad guys* could be crawling.”

*Dad actually used a more colorful word for “bad guys” that also started with a “b”, but I know my mom occasionally reads this and she doesn’t like it when I use such colorful language.

Needless to say, you needed to take what dad said with a grain of salt.

Sometimes the best approach to a potential situation, particularly one that involves the input and behavior of others, is to not be in a hurry to resolve the perceived issue. This approach runs almost entirely contrary to everything we have seen, learned and thought about business leadership.

We have learned that those who recognize the issue first, are the first to take steps to resolve the issue and those that do in fact resolve the issues first are the ones usually rewarded. This approach does normally work when identifying and resolving business issues. However when the issues are not business or performance in nature and are more personality or management style related, an immediate and direct approach may be difficult.

It is best to remember that it always takes two to have a difference of opinion. In most instances no one sees themselves as being either wrong, or in the wrong. Sometimes a mismatch of this type can occur.

It is again at times like these that I think back to my dad and what he told me about these instances. He said:

“I may not always be right, but I am always boss”

I think that this was his way of telling me that while I was under his purview I was the one responsible for finding a way to rationalize our cultural or generational differences. Since he was the one paying the bills at that time, it did make a certain amount of sense.

However the parent offspring relationship is not the same as the leader team member relationship when it comes to differences of opinion. Leaders need to understand that differences of opinion, even prolonged ones, are something that should be expected. The recognition by the leader that opinion diversity needs to exist for the business to stay healthy is key. Differing opinions do not mean wrong opinions.

One of the best ways to establish a baseline for dealing with these management differences is to revisit past differences with an eye toward what the different positions were and what the eventual resolution of the difference was. Facts are normally everyone’s friends. The historical record has a funny way of refocusing the disagreement away from positions and more toward resolutions.

Business is about performance. Performance comes from taking the right positions and making the right choices. The historical record is always very clear along these lines. If the right positions are taken, contrary or aligned, the business performance will reflect this. If they weren’t then there are usually second and third “adjustments” that get made as the corrections are implemented.

I have found that members of teams that I have been leading are in many instances much closer to the specific issues at hand than I was. Because they have been closer they usually had a better vantage point from which to derive a solution. It has served me very well in the past to stop, even when I am so absolutely sure of the elegance, purity and accuracy of my solution, and truly understand why they are saying “no” when all I wanted to hear was “yes”.

In many instances I was fortunate to have done so. We can all be prone to having blind spots in our solutions when we are so sure of their accuracy. When someone wasn’t ready to go along with the desired solution, it usually was for a good reason, and that reason probably needed to be reviewed and possibly incorporated into the actual solution.

It almost always made for a stronger final solution.

All leaders will always want their teams to say yes, but will be open to addressing and incorporating differing or contrary opinions. This is how solutions are strengthened. Other managers may be less tolerant and accepting of differing positions with the resulting opinion drift I mentioned before.

Understanding which environment you are in will be a key in deciding how you can respond when someone is looking for you to say yes.

When to Network

I think we have all seen the statistics that say when we are out looking for a new position that it will be the people you know that are going to be the most valuable resources when in comes to identifying and landing that new role. For those of you who may not have seen the statistics, they show that between seventy and eighty percent of all new positions are found via networking. With estimates of up to seventy percent of all positions no longer being advertized, whether you are currently in a role and looking to move, or are already between positions and are looking for your next assignment, it is going to be your business associates, friends and acquaintances that will probably be responsible for your next role. I think that this sort of information clearly demonstrates that while what you may know is important, it will be who you know that will help you identify your next position.

Most of us have a tendency to think about our networks only when it comes time for us to start looking for a new assignment. While this might be the necessary time to exercise a network, is it the optimum time to be exercising the network?

I personally have been through multiple business changes. My son thinks my biggest change probably occurred when the Chicxulub meteor struck and wiped out my first cretaceous network. That fact did not however dissuade him from asking for help with his physics home work last night.

Meteors notwithstanding, I have found that for me the best time to network is not when I am in a search mode but rather when other people are in a search mode. When others are in a search mode they are already reaching out. In any network there will be those that respond and those that for whatever reason (to busy, not interested, etc.) that will not. I have made it a policy to always respond. I have found that it not only puts me in touch with my own network, it puts me in touch with the networks of others.

Networking is about creating links with others that may be two or three times (or more) removed from our own spheres of relationships. We already know who we know. It is by helping them that we get connected to the people that they know. By helping someone you not only confirm an existing relationship directly with that person, you establish a relationship with all the other people that person knows.

My dad, who I seem to give an increasing amount of attributions to, used to tell me:

“Never miss an opportunity to put the universe in your debt.”

I think this is his spin on the older version of:

“What goes around comes around.”

The latter phrase has a decidedly negative connotation associated with revenge or retribution for a previous bad behavior done against someone, whereas the former phrase is more associated with doing the first good deed for someone in the expectation that future good deeds will be done for you. In other words the best networking can be done in a “pay it forward” sort of mode.

Such is the essence of networking. Doing the first good deed is an excellent way to get and keep your network engaged. It gets to the point where the consideration of future good deeds coming back your way becomes secondary. I personally am not the best at asking for help, but I try to be pretty good at offering it. If you only network when you need something from your network, then that is the type of behavior that will quickly become associated with you.

The value of a network comes from being able to access it. The best way to access it is to be bringing something to it. Passing along position leads to others, or potential candidates for positions to recruiters, or just responding to general questions and requests for information rapidly generates a good receptivity when it is “your turn” to ask for help. Not everyone will reciprocate. That is human nature. But there will be many who feel and operate the way you do who will respond.

I have read several articles where successful business leaders have looked at themselves as the stewards of their business. Not surprisingly many of the leaders that I have had the opportunity to network with have looked at their networks the same way. They focus on the value that they bring to the system by enabling others to connect.

I guess it is appropriate to note that the network does not owe you a new position. You have to earn that. That is where the “what you know” part of the adage comes into play. You should not impose on your network to provide you with a new position, but rather look at it as connecting you with the opportunity to compete for a new position, as there will undoubtedly be others who are also in the market for something new.

Jerry Goldstein, the former CEO at Scott’s Liquid Gold is attributed as the author of the quote:

“Good fortune is when preparation meets opportunity.”

An active network, or better, a network that you are active in is one of the best ways to get connected to or “meet” an opportunity. It is obviously up to us to be prepared for such an event.