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Archive for July, 2008

I’m not going to talk about the humorous (or horrifying) ways that human error is displayed at work.  Instead, I’m interested in the tension between organizations (with their impersonal tendencies) and the  human spirit (with its assertions of personality, commonality and innovation).

I like fresh and innovative thinkers, especially in the field of management.  Steve Byrum is one of those guys, and his book From the Neck Up:  The Recovery and Sustaining of the Human Element in Organizations (2006) is a refreshing read.  In it he looks at the work of Frederick Taylor (the father of Scientific Management) and Robert Hartman (the father of Formal Axiology) and draws some very interesting comparisons and contrasts.

Taylor was concerned about finding the one right way to do things, and the focus was on efficiency.  Under Taylorism the human element too often has gotten reduced to just a “cog in the wheel” of the system.  Human beings were best replaced by automation and robots wherever possible.  That may be oversimplifying, but it captures the essence.

Hartman was a philosopher concerned with defining what exactly “goodness” is.  His discoveries led to the founding of a new field called value science.  Hartman placed great importance on the human element in organizations.  He affirmed this through promoting the practice of profit sharing and through his consulting with several large corporations in the 1950′s and 60′s.  Hartman was interested in organizing goodness; the modern term of “adding value” (in all dimensions) has many deep resonances with Hartman’s ideas.   He saw it as possible and desirable to align people, processes and materials in a way that was effective, efficient and ultimately affirming of the people involved in the enterprise.

There are many insights in this 150 page book that would reward a few hours of reading.  The only drawback is that the book is not readily available (either in bookstores or online).  You can reach Steve Byrum directly and order a copy from the Byrum Consulting Group at (423) 886-5587.

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A Culture of Accountability

Every day at work there are opportunities to make things happen, and also ways to avoid the action.   I think the basic difference comes down to this:  If you want to make things happen, take responsibility.  If you want to stay out of the action, avoid accountability at all costs.

Too simple?  Think about it for a minute.  Regardless of whether a person has been given “authority”, if you just look at those who are consistently effective you’ll notice that they demonstrate initiative, a can-do attitude, and they step up in a responsible way when something needs to be done.  You’ll also notice that people who shy away from the work or who usually have a ready explanation for why something wasn’t done or can’t be done usually point somewhere else for the cause.  It has nothing to do with them.  

Now amplify that into a company or a whole organization.  If the overall attitude is “We’ll find a way to make it happen!” or “I’ll get right on it” (and you see the follow-through) there’s usually a strong culture of accountability in place.  We’ve all seen the opposite as well:  lots of excuses, finger-pointing, justification and rationalizing. 

Here’s the point of it all:  a strong leader takes responsibility for bulding a culture of accountability and modeling it personally through their words and actions.  They are a living example of what a difference a single committed person can make, and they aren’t content to stay alone for long.  They inspire confidence, a can-do spirit and taking responsibility in others.Buckminster Fuller showing geometry in action

I was reminded yesterday of someone who took such a position and inspired many people through his life:  Buckminster Fuller.  What inspires me about Bucky’s life is the turnaround he experienced at age 32.  Earlier in life he had been expelled from Harvard for “irresponsibility and lack of interest”.  Bankrupt and jobless at the age of 32, he lost his young daughter to polio and meningitis.  He felt responsible and wanted to commit suicide.  However, on the bridge he was going to jump from he decided to begin an “experiment to find what a single individual can contribute to changing the world and benefiting all humanity.”  He became accountable to a higher purpose and that changed everything.  Over the next 50+ years this independent visionary designed and invented things like the geodesic dome, wrote 30 books, received 28 patents, and dedicated himself to working on behalf of all humanity.  There’s an institute dedicated to disseminating his ideas where you can learn more about this original thinker.  

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The Leadership Vacuum

After writing the title for this post, I had a humorous picture of a big vacuum cleaner that sucks up leaders.  In many companies, it’s a nightmare or in fact a sad reality.  Business owners have often asked me plaintively, “Ron, you deal with a lot of people and companies.  Is the lack of leadership as bad out there as it is in my organization?”  I reassure them that it is, then I also challenge them,  “…but it doesn’t have to be.  There’s actually quite a bit you can do about the lack of leadership you see around you.”

Leadership development is the key to facing the leadership vacuum and doing something about it instead of complaining or resigning yourself to what seems inevitable.  Leaders can be grown inside your company, but the owner has to be committed, it takes some planning and investment, and consistent follow-through is a must.

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  • Filed under: Leadership
  • Strategy and Business

    I was facilitating an all day strategy session for a large business unit yesterday and a leader sitting next to me leaned over and confided, “I knew about this initiative but I haven’t given it any thought.  With all the ‘noise’ and distractions, I have to focus my attention on what impacts my business directly.”  I appreciated his candor and also realized that he is most likely in the majority.

    Why do I focus on strategy?  Two basic reasons come to mind:  waste and leverage.  I see far too much waste in business: wasted capital, wasted effort, misplaced or misused talent, wasted ideas.  You can often trace these back to an inadequate or a wholly missing strategy.   That’s the downside.  I also see the potential for impact, for leverage, for positive business advantage by giving a little more thought to strategy and execution.  If people took more time to ask “What are we doing?  Why are we choosing that approach?  How will we get there?  Who will play the key roles?” then a business and its people could make a much more positive contribution.

    At the end of the day, the same leader turned to me and said “This was a really worthwhile effort and I’m glad I took part.  Our business also booked an additional $2m that we didn’t expect this quarter while I was in this session.  I wish all my days were this productive!”  I smiled as I thought about the many other leaders I’ve worked with who have “mysteriously” experienced similar outcomes.  The truth is, good planning positions us for success.

     

    P.S.  Leaders wanting to stay current on strategy and business might want to check out the magazine www.strategy-business.com published by Booz Allen Hamilton.

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    The importance of culture

    “Who invented money?”  The question caught me off-guard.  My six year old son asked me this yesterday and I took time to explain we don’t know the individual who invented money, but money has its roots in barter and exchange transactions that must go back a long ways.

    My six year old knows who invented the airplane (the Wright brothers, of course).  He is learning this week about Gregor Mendel, the man who discovered genetics.  So I can see why he assumed someone must have invented money.  His question led me to think about another question:  Who invented culture?

    This is not just a philosophical question.  I’m also not asking the same question anthropologists might help us with in looking at specific ethnic or national cultures.  I’m curious about who invents the culture that every company or organization seems to develop over time.  Have you ever thought about it?

    My observations have led me to one conclusion:  company cultures are usually originated by the founder(s) and always seem to be shaped by leaders.  Leaders are not just the people at the head or top of a company; they are the ones who have significant influence on the basic direction of a company.  Look at how the leaders think and act, listen to what they say or write, examine how they use their influence and you’ll get some clear ideas about where culture comes from and how it is shaped.

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  • Filed under: Culture, Leadership
  • Do you have a strategy?

    The majority of smaller enterprises and businesses do not have a stated strategy.  A strategy at the most basic level tells you how you are going to succeed in business.  Clearly, every business needs a strategy, and most think they know what is required to succeed.  Logic would say that they therefore have a strategy.  But let’s look deeper into this.

    Why do I say most businesses don’t have a strategy?  Just look and listen and the reason becomes clear.

    Look at results.  Why do many businesses fail and others struggle for long periods?  One reason is a lack of a defined  strategy.  That means stating what they believe is needed for success and then regularly looking at their assumptions and challenging them.  A different problem is companies who are successful for a while (but are not truly aware of their strategy) and then find themselves in a painful situation when their customers or the market or the competition suddenly shifts and they are behind the curve.

    Second, listen to the reasons business leaders give for not thinking hard about strategy.  When a company is successful, the argument is basically “Don’t mess with something that’s working.”  There are a lot of excuses for not doing what you know you should be.  It is easier to look outside and pin the responsibility on something else external.  If things are not going well, you can be deluding yourself with hope, optimism or just bad excuses. 

    So, what should you be doing?  First, take time to actually define your strategy.  How are you going to succeed in business?

    Second, play the “what if” game for a while.  What will happen if your competition starts winning market share from you, or brings out a new product/service that gains favorable attention in the market?  What if your top five customers were to defect or you lost their business?  What if a new, well-financed competitor enters your market and the rules of the game seem to suddenly change? 

    Finally, make an appointment in your calendar right now to do some serious thinking about strategy before the month is over.  Resolve to follow up on it in three months.  Strategy is actually an ongoing process, not a once-and-for-all event or an annual ritual that is meaningless.  Instead of having a strategic plan (slightly better than no strategy at all), focus on thinking and planning more strategically on a regular basis.

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    Welcome to our new website

    Leaders are looking for ways to grow both themselves and the people they lead.

    They are committed to learning, and that’s what makes them such good teachers.  Leaders are people of vision and passion. 

    Leadskill is all about leaders and how they grow.  Welcome to the site, and come back often.  You’ll find new resources regularly added that help you become a better leader.

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  • Filed under: Introduction