Archive for the ‘Sustained Growth’ Category

The Key

September 6, 2011

“One thing you’ll notice if you spend very much time talking with Sam about Wal-Mart’s success. He’s always saying things like ‘This was the key to the whole thing’, or ‘That was our real secret’. He knows as well as anyone that there wasn’t any magic formula. A lot of different things made it work, and in one day’s time he may cite all of them as the ‘key’ or the ‘secret’. What’s amusing is that for almost fifty years he’s managed to focus on all of them at once – all the time. That’s his real secret.” – David Glass, former CEO, Wal-Mart

Hmmm… focusing on all the key elements all the time… sounds like a management system… but I digress…

The quote from David Glass comes from the final chapter of Sam Walton: Made in America, Sam’s autobiography. I don’t read ‘how I did it’ business books, but Sam was so likable, so accessible, so successful, I read his book when it came out in 1992 and thoroughly enjoyed it. What I most remember is Glass poking a little fun at Mr. Sam on this point. We all want to know the magic formula for successful organizations and Glass’ insight is probably the best in that it’s seldom one thing, but a lot of things considered together.

I have come to see two things as being ‘key’ (there, I said it, so go ahead and poke fun at me… but please read on) to creating the conditions for success: Enrollment and Deployment. Everything else flows from there.

Enrollment is perhaps too fancy a term for what we often refer to in other ways: buy-in, or getting everyone on the same page, or sometimes alignment. Enrollment means more. It’s having everyone committed to the same things so powerfully that if any one of those things isn’t happening, it becomes a breakdown for all. Having everyone enrolled means that you tap the full capabilities of every person and not just a few at the top. Buy-in often manifests as sincerity or compliance, not powerful commitment. Enrollment is more important than loyalty, which implies blind obedience without engaging everyone’s full energy. Enrollment results not in getting people to do what needs to be done but getting people to want what needs to be done. I learned that lesson from Michael Hammer, but I found out that Dwight Eisenhower raised the point far earlier.

Deployment means action, putting into practice what you said you were going to do. It’s wonderful to have great ideas, but as Drucker said, they are meaningless until it all degenerates into work. Work isn’t as easy to define today when so much of what we do is based on ideas more than manual labor. Knowledge work must be every bit as disciplined as physical work or it tends to manifest as groups of people talking past each other, an indication of an imbalance of much more talking than listening. Ground rules can be just as important (or more so) than process instructions to foster autonomy and creativity on the way to producing intended results. Deployment is about putting sound ideas into practice, about walking-the-talk.

Management has many responsibilities, but creating the conditions of success is prime among them. Enrollment and deployment are the foundations of achieving that goal. How does it work in your organization?


The Leader or The System?

May 20, 2011

The May 23 issue of Fortune magazine is the annual Fortune 500 edition. The lists are predictably boring, but the feature story on Apple is riveting. The picture is created from too many unattributed sources, so we can only interpret how accurate the picture may be. But our direct observations lend credibility to the story. And the story is what we suspected, or feared, or admire: Steve Jobs is the story.

Financial analysts are positively ghoulish in their anticipation of Jobs’ departure or demise. Corporations are going concerns that are intended to endure beyond their leaders. But leaders matter, and the imprints on their organizations are indelible. The impact of Jobs’ leadership has been a globally cultural phenomenon, as much or more as any CEO you can cite. The Fortune story says his impact on Apple as an organization is what we suspected, or feared, or admire: Steve Jobs is Apple.

I don’t want to diminish the commitment and contribution of a corporate population of extremely talented people, but the Fortune story puts Jobs’ fingerprints on everything. Not just the context and culture of the organization. I mean everything, from product design to food service, architecture to transportation. What remains unclear is the opening that exists for many in the organization to contribute their imagination along with their effort. Beyond fulfilling their need for affiliation with a history-making company, what’s in it for them? Why should they follow Steve Jobs and do what he, and apparently only he, wants?

For that matter, why do we follow any leader? Here’s my take.

People follow a leader when they are enrolled in the mission, vision, and values of an organization. They believe in what the organization’s all about, its core context. And they also follow courageous leaders in time of crisis, whether it’s a crisis created by declaration or by hitting a brick wall. In these instances, it’s all about the leader. Absent the crisis, the core context still matters, but people are committed to follow their leader when the leader is committed to enabling the people to systematically achieve ever higher levels of success (as defined by the context), both organizationally and personally. What results is systemic innovation from the gifts of all its people, and consequently a much higher prospect of sustainability. Despite the leader’s impact, it’s all about the people.

The day will certainly arrive when Apple operates without Steve’s hand on the wheel. I hope that day is the distant future. For all he has meant to Apple, to his family, to Apple’s people, and to all of us, I believe that he leaves a legacy greater than products, a system that continues its history by setting cultural paths for the world.

What’s your take: will Apple without Jobs diminish to mediocrity, or will Apple continue to flourish?

The System Built by a Special Leader

January 18, 2011

We all got a bit of upsetting news yesterday. Steve Jobs is taking a medical leave to focus on his health. He has his priorities right. Jobs and Apple have been characteristically quiet on the details, so all any of us are left with is speculation based on incomplete information, which is not very productive. Our hopes and prayers are with Steve and his family, especially in that this is someone who has impacted all of our lives and the world in which we live.

Financial markets around the world have him as good as buried, believing that AAPL without Jobs is yet another company. What they may not see is that Jobs is the leader of a system, built with his focused leadership and operated through a network of people committed to the same things. I do not have an insider’s knowledge of Apple, only that of an observer at a distance who admires what he sees.

Jobs has led Apple well by seeing to it that they are clear about who they are, where they’re going, what’s important, and what they’re trying to accomplish. He has assembled a rock star team of executives to extend that leadership throughout the organization. Perhaps by strength of his personality, everyone is enrolled in working for the same things. He is crystal clear about not only what they are doing, but especially about what they are not doing… the very epitome of excellent strategy. Apple is fanatical about the experience it creates for its customers, with an equally strong commitment to Apple coming back. Apple gets more attention for their hardware products than for their software, but in the past 30 years, Apple has been a leader in developing approaches that are now commonly accepted in software engineering. Apple’s processes are disciplined and focused, whether it is in product development or working closely with contract manufacturers to design and build ground-breaking devices. There are robust processes in running the Apple stores, in iTunes, in planning and staging events,… in everything. The system is completed by people throughout the company who know that they are a part of something special, and who energetically work to make sure the system generates ever higher results.

One interpretation of the financial markets’ response to the news about Jobs’ health is that the system will go to pieces if he’s not there to lead it. That’s possible, but I have more faith in Steve. I don’t think he built this organization just as his playground. I think he built it to be the legacy of all who have contributed along its evolution. Think back to the first Mac. Inside the plastic casing was the signature of every person on the team that created it. Apple isn’t about Steve Jobs, despite the fact that his impact is seen throughout the place. He has created a brilliant system, one that is likely to endure without his hands-on participation.

I wouldn’t for a second diminish the power of Jobs’ direct impact, but I see it in the system he has built, not just the products. Let’s all pray for his well-being, but let us also honor him by appreciating all he has accomplished.



October 25, 2010

I had an unexpected conversation over dinner on Friday night.  A close friend went on a lengthy rant about meteorologists. “Name one other job in which you can be so wrong and have no accountability.” This is not an original observation, as we have all felt the same at some point having been fooled by the forecast. But if you think about it a little, you can find parallels in many other lines of work. Another close friend complains about baseball players. “Where else can you succeed only 30% of the time and be considered a star?”

I have a different POV. It is my contention that most of us are, at best, .300 hitters.  We do stuff, try stuff, all the time that doesn’t work out. We don’t measure every effort with the relentless precision of baseball stats, but if we did, we might find more empathy with batters, or even with weathermen being judged by an enormous audience.  With things completely under our control — like that ever happens — we might have the expectation that we should be right far more than wrong.  But with most things, we are but a single force among many, so the best we can do is to give it our best shot, learn from the result, then go back and do it again.  Repeat that process often enough and you win.

Failure, as a path to learning and success, is way underrated.  The downside of failure is that we weren’t taught to embrace it.


Management Stealth

October 19, 2010

My wife has a car that she says is stealth. It’s not good enough to stand out, it’s not bad enough to stand out. People around town who always wave to her while driving never wave when she’s driving that car. She herself once passed it and never saw it when our son was driving it one day.

Sometimes the most powerful things are so pervasive or so ingrained that you never see them. You invoke them so automatically that you never have to think about invoking them. The best management system is one that is so much a part of your daily existence, so easy, so natural, that its power is automatically applied to your business every day. And it’s so unobtrusive that no one feels that they are being managed. [What a great vibe that is.] Yet the self-applied discipline is one that people live proudly.  When you get there, you’ll know you have generated something special.

Celebrating Service

October 5, 2010

“I shall not attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description (‘hard-core pornography’). But I know it when I see it.”

—          Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart

It is National Customer Service Week.  Service is a great metaphor for every business, so it’s worth celebrating and definitely worth remembering the basics.  They should be a part of every organization’s growth strategy.

I’ve worked for companies whose businesses were difficult to describe. [Uniqueness is a special trait that is essential to being competitive – see a recent blog.]  Sometimes, especially on social occasions, it’s just easier to say that the company does something that they had heard of before.

So how do you describe your business when friends ask?  I find it more relevant to think of most knowledge economy organizations as being in the service business. A colleague once stated that “every business is a service business”.  At one point, IBM had 400,000 employees, but only 6% of them built computers.  The rest did knowledge work… service.  Most products can be thought of as services if, as Harvard’s Rosabeth Moss Kantor suggests, you look at what it does, not just what it is.

Services can only be judged after they have been purchased and delivered.  Here are a few elements to consider when designing and delivering services to customers:

  • Understand — and meet, or ideally exceed — the customers’ expectations.
  • Let your commitment, cooperation, responsiveness, expertise, and courtesy show.
  • Be especially determined in problem situations, those ‘moments of truth’.

That’s easily enough said, but what do we know of how customers judge service?  The customer’s assessment of service is a subjective one.  How do they know it when they see it?  Ten specific attributes were identified by the Marketing Science Institute as being the important elements on which customers judge service.

  • Reliability – dependability in meeting commitments and expectations
  • Responsiveness – willingness to help, promptness in doing so
  • Credibility of the service providers
  • Communication – candor, articulation
  • Competence – skill, knowledge, expertise
  • Ease of Access to service providers (reaching them when they are wanted)
  • Courtesy — so easy yet so forgotten
  • Understanding/knowing the customer’s business
  • Security – freedom from danger, risk (including corporate political risk), doubt
  • Tangibles – physical attributes of the product or service (appearance of people, facilities, products, etc.)

Reliability and responsiveness comprise almost 70% of what customers call service. Customer satisfaction is a key measure of organizational performance.  You can’t get better at these things unless you dimension just where you stand in the minds of your customers.  And you want your customers to use a consistent yardstick, one you understand very well, to measure just how valuable or un-valuable your services are.

Always remember that in its purest form, you are not just in the [fill in the blank with the way you define your organization] business — we’re all in the service business.