Posts Taged culture

The One Year, Thirty Minute Challenge :: Week 16 :: Culture :: Lifelong Learning

None of us, no matter how skilled, can afford to stay the way we are. Our industry, employees and customers change and so must we. Even if the founding generation and current generations have done everything right in steering the organization to its current state, their work may not be applicable in the future. We must be lifelong learners.

Lifelong learning embraces the idea that we never will “arrive”. Our business acumen, industry awareness and personal skills can always improve. Gary Keller, in his book The One Thing, reminded us that we must commit to running our organizations “the best it can be done” not “the best we can do it”. The “best we can do it” imposes the limitation of our current capacity and intellect. “The best it can be done” introduces the possibility that we can seek out new information and new skills that will make us better managers and leaders.

Not only must we as leaders be committed to lifelong learning, but we must build lifelong learning into the culture of our organization. Every team member must see personal and professional growth happening in those who lead the organization and must have opportunity, tools and accountability to affect their own personal and professional growth.

Let’s jump in to this week’s One Year, Thirty Minute Challenge. The goal this week is two-fold. Use your 30 minutes to –

  • Think through everyday tasks and recreate them as learning opportunities
  • Create tools and time for team members to deliberately grow personally and professionally

 

Reframe Tasks – Stephen Covey reminded us to “Begin with the end in mind”. When navigating the mundane, fixing the urgent problem or capitalizing on the immediate opportunity, work to identify and verbalize how that task pushes the organization towards overarching initiatives (strategic plan, new sales campaign, etc). To illustrate, let’s say one of our new long-term strategic objectives is to decrease product delivery time from four days to two days for 90% of all orders. Today’s issue has to do with billing for an order from a brand-new customer. The customer wants to set up an account and be billed since they plan on doing more business with us in the future. However, upon submission of their billing information, we find some problems with their credit information and even find some unfavorable credit reporting in an industry reference publication. We could work with the employee who reported the problem to get this new customer set up and billed (and we should), but it would be best to reframe this problem and examine it in the light of our strategic initiative. In order to get this new customer his or her order in two days (in fulfillment of our long-term initiative), do we need to make changes to our order process to identify problems like this earlier? Do we need to look for a way to programmatically check credit reporting when the order is submitted online? Do we need to change the sales process so prospective clients with credit problems are excluded from the sales pipeline? Reframing problems – and slightly expanding their scope if necessary – attaches larger meaning to the problem and makes solving the problem tactical instead of operational, moving the organization closer to reaching its long-term initiatives and making everyone involved in the process better equipped for the future.

Put Employees First – When urgent problems surface, they are, most of the time, screaming to be solved right now. Our natural reaction is to solve them ourselves or get them quickly to the person who can solve them best and fastest. What about using urgent problems as a training opportunity. Take an employee who has the requisite knowledge to solve the problem but has never had the opportunity and walk them through it as you solve it. Or pair them with the staff expert in solving the problem and let them walk through it together. It might take slightly longer, but afterwards you’ll have a deeper bench. If today’s urgent matter is an emerging opportunity, show the employee how you step through an evaluation to make the determination whether to pursue it further. This helps the employee to see how you evaluate opportunities in the light of the organization’s mission, vision, values and current long-term initiatives.

Go from the Outside In – In the press to make to make problems go away or make the internal processes behind our mundane tasks easier for us, we occasionally make decisions that generate unintended consequences. Many times, the recipient of those consequences is not us, but our customers. By making life easier for us, we make it harder for them. Amazon famously sits an empty chair in every meeting. That chair represents the customer. It’s a physical reminder to make decisions that get the customer better products and services, make transactions more frictionless and deliver more value for their money. When problems surface, start with the customer perspective and work inward, navigating through the company’s internal processes. Solve the problem so the customer wins. Team members engaged in this exercise build a stronger customer orientation.

Embrace Cross-Discipline Problem Solving – In his book Range, David Epstein tells the story of two labs working on the same problem at the same time (proteins they wanted to measure would get stuck to a filter, which made them hard to analyze). One lab, staffed by only E. Coli experts, took weeks to solve the problem – experimenting with multiple methodologies. The other lab, staffed by scientists with chemistry, physics, biology, and genetics backgrounds, plus medical students, figured out the problem in their initial meeting. Were the staff members in the latter lab that much smarter than those in the former lab? Unlikely. Those in the latter lab had the advantage of a much broader base of knowledge and a larger pool of diverse experiences. To build lifelong learning in an organization, leverage the knowledge of employees with diverse skills and experiences. Turn the finance people loose on an operational problem. Invite the IT people to weigh in on a sales problem. Create cross-discipline meetings and encourage collaboration to solve problems. Let team members experience the problem-solving methodologies of people from other departments.

Be Deliberate – Finally, provide resources for growth. Start a business book club inside the organization led by the CEO or GM. Meet once a month during lunch to discuss a chapter. Encourage employees to attend classes and webinars. Ask them to report back to the organization on ideas they found especially helpful. Encourage cross-discipline learning. Pay for a salesperson to take a Python or accounting class. Formally recognize those who are learning and growing both personally and professionally.

The goal is to bake the actions that promote lifelong learning into the culture.

The One Year, Thirty Minute Challenge :: Week Four :: Culture :: Mentor Mindset

Management guru Peter Drucker reminded us that, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Even the best strategies and tactics, when unleashed into a company with a toxic culture, are headed for certain death. All of you that have worked in a place with a toxic culture just offered up a hearty “Amen”. We’ll visit the topic of culture multiple times during The One Year, Thirty Minute Challenge and this is one of those times. During the course of a consulting engagement, I’m occasionally asked if I have a list of cultural imperatives, that is, attitudes, approaches to work and actions that should absolutely be baked into the DNA of the organization. I do and one of those imperatives is a Mentor Mindset.

Without question, every leader in the organization should have the Mentor Mindset. But I’d advocate for screening for the Mentor Mindset when hiring even the most junior associate. The Mentor Mindset is that baked-in concern an employee has for making the people around him/her better. It’s the opposite of the person who hoards what they know so they can leverage it for more power.

So, here’s this week’s exercise. We’re going to focus on two things – helping you practice the Mentor Mindset and prepping your staff to develop and practice the Mentor Mindset.

Helping you Practice the Mentor Mindset

Below, write one “why” you’d like everyone in the organization to understand. It might be why you forego cheaper raw materials for your product and insist on a specific high-quality input, why you insist that every customer be greeted in a specific way or why you only promote from within.

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For the “why” listed above, identify how understanding that “why” will change the way your team approaches their work. Will they be better able to explain to current and potential customers why your widget is better than your competitor’s? Will they have a new-found appreciation of every customer that comes in the door? Will they better understand your goals for the organization? Will they gain insight into an existing process and now be able to make suggestions as to how to improve it since they understand the endgame?

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Design a way to “mentor” by disseminating this information to your team. Is the best medium a company-wide meeting? An email to everyone in the organization? A series of departmental meetings? A series of one-to-one meetings? A video posted on the company intranet? Whatever it is, make it happen by the end of this week. After you share the information, gather feedback. Was this new information? Did this correct an errant perception that they had? How will this change their approach to their everyday work? Will this operationally change their work?

If this returned positive results, look for other “whys” you can share.

Here’s a second exercise for you to try. When the next problem lands on your desk that only you can solve, identify someone else on your team that could solve it if they had more training, more experience, more perspective, more information and go find them. Let them know that you don’t want to be the only person in the organization that can solve this kind of problem and you want them to carry this responsibility with you. Then start at the beginning and walk them through the process of solving this problem. Show them how you gather information, explain your thought process in deducing the best course of action, show them the resources you use, show them how you communicate the solution and anything else involved. I realize this will take a lot longer than solving the problem yourself. The next time the same problem surfaces, pass it off to your team member and sit by them as they solve it. Over the course of several instances, let them take the lead. Soon, they will be proficient, and you’ve multiplied the problem-solving horsepower in your organization. And, who knows, they might even find a better way to solve the problem. I’ve written about this approach more thoroughly here.

Helping your Team Practice the Mentor Mindset

When you model this behavior, it’s a strong motivator for your staff do likewise, but here a couple of deliberate ways you can encourage your staff to practice the Mentor Mindset.

  • When you send a team member to a class or conference, ask them to prepare a written recap or short presentation of what they learned. Disseminate their recap or let them make their presentation to the rest of the team.
  • Ask each of your direct reports to share a specific operational task (how they prepare for their staff meeting, how they order raw materials, how they prepare for a sales call, etc) with one of their team members and have them ask that team member if they see any way to improve their work on that task.
  • Ask each person on your team to document one of the tasks they do regularly. Collect all the documents and redistribute them to other team members. Have the team members critique the documents, looking for steps that are unclear or lack a “why”. Send them back to the original author to be updated.

Doing every one of these exercises requires humility. Someone might find holes in your processes. Someone might identify a better way. But, humility is a good thing and, in fact, ought to be one of the attitudes and approaches baked into our culture. This exercise is a good accelerator.

Would you be disappointed if 2020 looked exactly like 2019?

I’ve been asking myself that question. And now is the right time to ask it. The time between now and mid-December has been called the “100 day sprint” or “the most important 100 days of the year”. Why? Because everyone is back in the office after summer, back in the routine and hunkered down for a busy three and a half months. For some companies, it’s the run-up to a busy holiday season. For others, it’s time to prepare 2020 strategic plans and operating budgets.

In a very real way, the foundation for your organization’s 2020 is going to be laid in the next 100 days. Do it well and 2020 could be your best year yet. Do it poorly or don’t do it at all and 2020 might be just a carbon copy of 2019.

So, what should you be looking at right now? I have a longer list, but if you can’t swing a full-blown strategic planning exercise (which, in my opinion, you should commit to), I’d turn my attention to these four items first –

  • Ask hard talent questions – Do you have the right people in the organization who can take you where you want to go in the next 2-3 years? If not, can you develop existing staff or do you need additional talent? Do you have chronic personnel problems you’ve been reluctant to deal with – people who are poisoning the culture or who are consistently under-performing? If so, what are you going to do about it? Are there one, two or three people, who, if they left, would put your organization at risk? If so, what have you done to mitigate that risk?
  • Gauge organizational health – Is the company culture healthy? For example, is there clear and complete communication up and down the org chart? Is there transparency so that people have the information they need to make good decisions? Are you and are the other leaders in the organization setting a good example in your approach to work and in your interactions with every stakeholder group?
  • Reexamine value creation activities – Do you know the key drivers of the value surplus for your customers? When was the last time you examined your entire value creation chain looking for opportunities to improve vendor performance, inventory management, cross-department collaboration, processes, quality and logistics?
  • Measure what matters – When was the last time you revisited the metrics on your balanced scorecard? Are they really indicative of organizational health? Are your systems providing data quickly enough and to the right people so your field decision-making is data-driven and your longer-term decision-making is data-supported?

Inertia is strong. The pull of ordinary daily days will drag you right into the holiday season before you’ve taken any time to plan for 2020.

I’ve rewritten this last paragraph several times. Originally it said that you’re busy and looking at just these four things is better than doing nothing at all – that’s true. But, I want to encourage you to do the hard thing and take a much deeper dive into your organization. Don’t make 2020 slightly better than 2019. Make it much better by critically and accurately evaluating the current state of your organization, thoughtfully envisioning what you want 2020 to look like and deliberately crafting a plan to get you from the former to the latter.