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The Truth

“Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.”
-Aldous Huxley

“The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.”
– Flannery O’Connor

“It is better to disappoint people with the truth than to appease them with a lie.”
– Simon Sinek

“and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
– The Holy Bible

No one questions the value of the truth, but in our businesses we sure have a hard time nailing it down. Most of us have read Jim Collins exhortation to “confront the brutal facts,” but reaching consensus on what those facts are can be challenging. How can this be? How can something so vital be so elusive?

I’m afraid we engage in some dangerous “truth-hiding” behaviors –

  • Have you ever told a subordinate, “Don’t bring me problems, only bring me solutions”? I understand what you were after – you want that employee to think for themselves and take responsibility for their work. Great, but you might be telling them that you don’t want bad news and if they don’t have an answer for a looming problem, you’d prefer not to hear it. You’ve just shielded yourself from a bit of the truth.
  • Have you ever spotted a new competitor on the horizon, but because you knew the principals in the organization from sub-par work earlier in their career you dismissed the threat? Maybe that earlier sub-par work motivated them to pair up with new capable partners or maybe they learned from their earlier missteps and are now a formidable competitor. You’ve just dismissed some truth.
  • Have you ever received a call or email from “that customer” – the one who is never happy – and dismissed the content of their communication as more sour grapes? What if this time they’re calling with a legitimate problem about your product or service or about a real misstep by one of your employees? You’ve just ignored some truth.
  • Is there a problem that keeps resurfacing in your organization and someone (peer or subordinate) has had the nerve to suggest that part of the problem might be you (your style, your time management, your lack of planning – you fill in the blank)? You discounted their observation because you’ve successfully run your division for more than 10 years and only have this problem with one person. Maybe there’s some truth there that you’re unwilling to hear.

 

If some of these resonated with you, great. If not, create your own list of other behaviors that could be keeping you from getting to the truth in your organization. You can even share them at the end of this post.

So, what are some positive steps we can take to make sure we’re getting a steady diet of the truth in our organization?

  • Make sure bad news can easily travel up and down in your organization. Make sure there are no reprisals for “truth tellers.” As a matter of fact, recognize their efforts in getting all the facts on the table.
  • Proactively ask for feedback from employees, customers and suppliers. Make phone calls and send surveys. Take the totality of the feedback to make a balanced, accurate picture of what it’s like to work at your company, purchase products or services from your company or sell to your company.
  • Engage the services of a third party who can bring a fresh perspective. Maybe a consultant, an advisory board or business-owner peer from a networking group.
  • Engage in vigorous discussions. Build enough trust inside your team so that you can talk to each other about failures in execution, faulty plans and blown opportunities. Commit first and foremost to the purpose of the organization. That makes the momentary discomfort of discussing individual lapses subordinate to the importance of resolving nagging problems or the exploiting of looming opportunities.
  • Squash every form of defensive behavior. When you hear things you’d rather not hear about your organization, your product or your people, resist the temptation to defend. Instead, figure out what you can learn from the feedback and teach your team to do the same.

 

I realize that what I’m advocating is difficult. It goes against our natural inclinations to defend our work and reputation. I also realize that taking feedback without defending could look like you’re being disloyal to the company, its products or its employees. There’s a great way to deal with that, but that’s another article for another day.

For now, let’s get back to the supremely important topic of truth telling. How can you develop your team if you don’t where they struggle? How can you retain clients if you don’t know where your current performance is deficient? How can you make an accurate strategic plan if it’s based on a flawed perception of today’s reality?

I saved perhaps the saddest “truth” quote for the end. In the 1992 movie, “A Few Good Men,” Jack Nicholson’s character, during a military court proceeding, told his questioner, “You can’t handle the truth.” Whether we can’t handle it or don’t want to handle it, the result is the same. We continue to live in deluded bliss while our organization perpetually stumbles along on faulty information, never reaching its full potential.

One Shining Moment

I love March Madness – three weekends of great college basketball filled with drama, athletic prowess, underdogs and Cinderellas.  Between TV, radio, print and the web, each team’s journey through the NCAA tournament is chronicled hundreds of times.  We learn about universities, individual athletes and coaches.  Often times, these stories propel people into the national spotlight and we never forget them.  I vividly remember Jim Valvano taking North Carolina State to the Championship in 1983, delivering the speech of a lifetime in 1993 and succumbing to cancer just eight short weeks later.  There was “the shot” – Christian Laettner’s last second jump shot to beat Kentucky in the 1992 East Regional finals.  How about UCLA guard Tyus Edney’s coast-to-coast drive with 4.8 seconds left to push them past Missouri and ultimately to the 1995 NCAA title?

In all the flurry of games and fascinating stories, there’s one thing I always look forward to.  At the end of the championship game, CBS plays a compilation video of the championship team’s rise to the top of the college basketball world.  There’s nothing quite like the “One Shining Moment” video.  This year (2011) will mark the twenty-fifth time David Barrett’s “national anthem of college basketball” will immortalize one team’s achievement of the ultimate college basketball dream.  I can’t wait to watch.

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about “one shining moment” – not the song, but the fact that so many lives are defined by one of “those” moments – and not just in athletics.  I just finished reading Sully Sullenberger’s book.  His life will forever be defined by the moment he successfully ditched his disabled US Air passenger jet in New York’s Hudson River in January 2009 saving all 155 people aboard.  After being injured on her previous attempt, American gymnast Kerri Strug landed a spectacular vault in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.  After nailing the landing, her ailing ankle gave way and she collapsed on the mat.  Her performance guaranteed the Americans a gold medal.

Around the time of Christ, Seneca, the Roman philosopher, opined that “luck is when preparation meets opportunity.”  That thought has surfaced often as I’ve pondered “one shining moment”.  Was Sully Sullenberger lucky when he piloted the plane to safety in the Hudson?  Was Kerri Strug lucky when she landed her medal-winning vault?  Was Christian Laettner lucky when he hit the game-winning jumper?  I’ve got to think not.  That one life-defining moment was the result of hundreds of hours of sacrifice, study and practice.  While others enjoyed the love of family, the companionship of friends and the enjoyment of recreational activities, these people spent an extra hour in the flight simulator or in the gym.  For these folks, and a relative handful of others down through history, it was obviously worth all of the blood, sweat and tears.  But what about the rest of us?  More than likely, we’ll labor in obscurity until the end of our career or the end of life.

I want to spend the rest of my post putting in a shameless plug for preparation as if your “one shining moment” was guaranteed and was imminent.  If I were to orchestrate life, I’d move from one success to the next, each one building on the previous one.  But I don’t orchestrate life and that’s not the way it works.  Instead we alternate between success and failure, victory and defeat, prosperity and leanness, peace and strife.  The method of the “lucky” is to wring every bit of learning from each of these – continually adding new skills and knowledge to our bag of tricks.  We learn from those who went before us – successfully and unsuccessfully.  When we’ve leveraged everyone of life’s experiences into deeper levels of understanding, we’ll be ready when or if our “one shining moment” comes.

But what if it never comes?  Will all of the work be worth it?  A million times over – and here’s why.

  • The relationships that are strengthened, the wisdom that is gained and the discipline that is built are far more valuable than the fame that comes from the “one shining moment”.
  • In almost every case, “one shining moment” comes looking for us, we don’t go looking for it.  Our only responsibility is to be ready when it come.  The readiness for “one shining moment” makes us ready to tackle with excellence the multiple obscure moments we encounter every day.
  • “One shining moment” almost always comes in the course of carrying out our regular responsibilities.  In the examples I cited earlier, each of these folks experienced their “one shining moment” in the context of something in which they were already involved.  They were just doing their jobs and their “one shining moment” swooped in unannounced.

 

The odds of filling out a perfect NCAA bracket are about 1 in 9 quintillion – a 9 followed by 18 zeroes – and that’s not counting any play-in games, just the main 63.  I don’t know what the odds are that any of us will experience “one shining moment”.  But I do know the odds of getting value from a life of passion, purpose and preparation – they are 1 out of 1.

We can prepare for a public “one shining moment”.  Maybe it will come and maybe it won’t.  We might never be immortalized while David Barrett’s music plays in the background, but we can build value in the people and organizations around us.

First Break All the Rules and Drive

It’s not good advice for safe motoring, but it is the name of two exceptional books about workplace performance.  The books were written 10 years apart, but as I recently read both of them, almost back-to-back, I was struck by the complimentary messages.

First, Break All the Rules by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman was the end result of a Gallup study that gathered information from 80,000 managers.  Their quest was to find out what made a great manager.  The book has insight after insight, but the key finding is that great managers create an environment where employees answer these twelve questions in the affirmative (it sounds too simple, but you really need to read the book to appreciate the simplicity) –

  1. Do I know what is expected of me at work?
  2. Do I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right?
  3. At work, do I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day?
  4. In the last seven days, have I received recognition or praise for doing good work?
  5. Does my supervisor, or someone at work, seem to care about me as a person?
  6. Is there someone at work who encourages my development?
  7. At work, do my opinions seem to count?
  8. Does the mission/purpose of my company make me feel my job is important?
  9. Are my co-workers committed to doing quality work?
  10. Do I have a best friend at work?
  11. In the last six months, has someone at work talked to me about my progress?
  12. This last year, have I had opportunities at work to learn and grow?

 

Drive by Dan Pink explores motivation in the workplace.  Pink summarizes his book in 100 words, “When it comes to motivation, there’s a gap between what science knows and what business does.  Our current business operating system – which is built around external, carrot-and-stick motivators – doesn’t work and often does harm.  We need an upgrade.  And science shows the way.  This new approach has three essential elements: (1) Autonomy – the desire to direct our own lives;  (2) Mastery – the urge to get better and better at something that matters; and (3) Purpose – the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.”  Pink fleshes out these three elements – Autonomy accords people control over 1) what they do, 2) when they do it, 3) who they do it with and 4) how they do it.  Mastery challenges people with work that is not too hard and not too easy.  It also abides by these three rules – 1) abilities are not finite, but infinitely improvable, 2) mastering a task takes determination, effort,  and on-going practice and 3) no matter how hard you try, you will never fully master your craft.  Purpose manifests itself in the organization by 1) using profit to fund purpose, 2) identifying objectives that supersede just the enrichment of investors or employees and 3) creating opportunities that allow employees to engage in these objectives on their own terms.

As I contrasted the approaches of the two books, I weighed the external focus of Buckingham and Coffman (good managers create an environment that breeds fulfillment and performance) and the internal focus of Pink (external motivation is ineffective in today’s creative work environment and must be replaced by tapping into the intrinsic motivation of each employee).  I believe these authors have identified two sides of the same coin – good managers tap into the internal motivation that each of us possesses.

Notice how 8 of the 12 First, Break All the Rules questions fit nicely under the internal motivations in Drive –

Autonomy

  1. At work, do my opinions seem to count? (what I do, how I do it, when I do it)
  2. Are my co-workers committed to doing quality work? (who I do it with)
  3. Do I have a best friend at work? (who I do it with)

Mastery

  1. At work, do I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day? (not too hard, not too easy)
  2. Is there someone at work who encourages my development? (abilities are not finite, but infinitely improvable)
  3. In the last six months, has someone at work talked to me about my progress? (no matter how hard you try, you’ll never fully master your craft)
  4. This last year, have I had opportunities at work to learn and grow? (mastery takes determination, effort and on-going practice)

Purpose

  1. Does the mission/purpose of my company make me feel my job is important? (profit is used to fund purpose, engaging in the purpose on my own terms)

As I see it, 4 questions don’t fit neatly into the 3 internal motivations, but instead give context to these drives in the organization.

  1. Do I know what is expected of me at work?
  2. Do I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right?
  3. In the last seven days, have I received recognition or praise for doing good work?
  4. Does my supervisor, or someone at work, seem to care about me as a person?

I find it interesting that 2 of the 4 outlier questions deal with being valued and validated (Qs 4 and 5).  Each of us, whether we labor in the spotlight or in the shadows, wants to know we’re doing work that’s important and appreciated.  It’s certainly not as meaningful as being plugged in to our internal motivations, but contributes to a healthy view of work life.

The remaining two questions deal with expectations and equipping.  People, for the most part, want to do a good job and feel pride in their work, but they must know exactly what “doing a good job” looks like.  Finally, employees must be equipped with the talents and resources they need to do what is expected.  Owners, managers and supervisors shouldn’t expect a house when they’ve not provided building materials.

This is my shot at connecting the dots.  I’d love to get your take on the connections between these two excellent books.