It’s one of those common motivational phrases, “It never gets easy, you just get better.”
It’s not necessarily true though. Sometimes it does get easier. It just depends…
– On how good you are at it
– On how naturally gifted you may be at it
– On how long you’ve been at it
– On how committed you are to it – or how passionate you are to pursue it
– On how willing you are to put in the work
It’s your work. Easy is relative. Getting better is the never-ending goal.
You’ve have to hone your craft. First, you have to learn it. Honing – improving – comes later.
Not everybody is willing to learn. Some want to skip ahead and jump straight to expert status. It’s not uncommon to encounter leaders who think they’ve reached mastery, but they’re really woefully in need of some fundamental learning. Watch any episode of The Profit and you’ll see it. Marcus Lemonis regularly confronts clueless business owners who struggle with his people, process and product formula. That’s their prerogative, but it’s also his choice when he walks away from helping them. These are struggling business owners who have contacted the show for possible help. They’re asking for help. That’s always puzzled me, but it demonstrates the delusions that often plague leaders and business owners.
We think we’ve already figured it out. Or we think we’re already good enough at whatever we’re doing. And sadly, too many leaders think there’s some performance plateau called, Good Enough. There isn’t.
Lose focus and you’ll find out. Stop paying attention to the things that garnered your success and you’ll find out. Let up, stop working so hard and your performance will surely slip.
Entropy vs. Improvement
en·tro·py – lack of order or predictability; gradual decline into disorder
It happens automatically. That’s why you have to paint your house every few years. And mow your lawn. And vacuum your floors. Just leave things alone and entropy ensues.
im·prove·ment – a thing that makes something better or is better than something else
It only happens intentionally. Even then, it can be tough to come by. And it’s a lot harder than leaving things alone.
Sometimes I’m engaged in conversations with executive leaders about mastery. It’s a fascinating topic and one I don’t suppose gets enough attention in leadership circles. Mostly because it’s difficult to quantify and even tougher to execute. Besides, there’s the aim of the mastery quandary…what are you trying to master? When we’re thinking about leadership there are so many facets to aim at. Do we have to be experts at all of them in order to achieve mastery? Or can we just master most of them?
But improvement needn’t get the mastery distraction. There’s little point in aiming at mastery if we’ve yet to achieve consistent improvement. It’s a “you-can’t-get-there-from-here” conundrum. NO improvement, NO mastery. First things first.
Forget the whole notion of status quo and maintenance. Whether or not it’s possible doesn’t matter. What does matter is that it can’t be our objective as leaders. We can’t look at our organization’s performance and say, “Yeah, that’s good enough. Let’s just keep doing this and no more.” So who cares if we can actually maintain the current condition or not — we shouldn’t want to.
With that said, we’ve now got 2 basic options, directions, from which to choose: get better or get worse. Jack Welch guided General Electric by putting it this way, “Get better, or get beaten.” That sort of brings it home more clearly. In a world where there are always alternative and options – either in the internal marketplace or the external marketplace – those really are our only 2 choices. We either improve and produce good work or we lose our jobs. We improve and produce good work or we lose to the competition. Either way, we either win or we lose.
Improvement is about getting results, but it goes deeper. It’s about getting results fast enough.
Decisions, Decisions, Decisions
Leaders, at any level, are in place to make decisions. Solving problems, making choices and figuring things out — that’s the work of leadership.
At the highest levels leaders aren’t producing specific work. They’re not painting the houses, installing the security systems or serving up french fries. That’s why you’ll see a C-level executive on Undercover Boss look like a blithering idiot when it comes to doing the work. He’s unskilled at it. In most cases, he’s never done it before. She’s out of her element, doing things she’s unaccustomed to. Leadership is a different skill set. It’s all about decision making!
Your operation has a performance level. It’s not static, but it mostly hovers within a range. If you’re a tech start up with venture capital backing your range may be extraordinarily wide. Maybe you’re experiencing 300% growth quarter over quarter. That’s not typical. Far more are experiencing more sane fluctuations, up or down. Sometimes things beyond our control can drive things up or down. Big weather events like hurricanes can drive home improvement sales up, or down (up if people are preparing and repairing; down if the whole area is shut down). But when you examine your “normal” performance range you’ll see how decision-making is the major contributor.
Organizations tend to follow the comfort level of the top leadership. They also follow the expectations of top leadership. Organizations, like people, tend to meet, but not exceed those expectations. Your operation has a comfort zone. If you’re the top leader, it likely mirrors your comfort zone. Ditto for the expectations.
A CEO who expects 3% growth this quarter is likely going to be somewhere in the ballpark of a 3% increase. Maybe it’s a pace he’s comfortable with. Maybe it’s reasonable, like the CEO. Quarter after quarter the CEO makes decisions based on his view of the world, and his operation’s place in it. Down the line, leaders and managers comply with decisions congruent with the CEO’s style, expectations and choices. People who behave differently may not fair too well.
Paid to make good decisions. That’s your function as a leader. And we’ve talked about the importance of not just making the decision, but in executing the decision. That’s just part of it.
Doing What Needs To Be Done
Yes, it presupposes that what needs to be done is the best thing given what’s known. Sometimes that’s easy. Sometimes it’s more difficult.
The gym where I workout is closed for renovations. The company just reopened another nearby location after completing re-doing it. For now, I’m going to this newly re-opened, completely renovated gym. It’s very nice. All the equipment is new. All the flooring is new.
I’m on a treadmill the other day and smack dab in the middle of the floor – in the direct path where people walk – is a white wadded up paper towel that somebody had dropped. I’ve got enough OCD in me to be bothered by such things. Mostly, I’m a detail freak with a mean streak against service and presentation lapses. A trainer at the gym – a gym employee – steps over the paper towel, ignoring it. Another employee does the same. Then another. And another. Seven employees ignore it in a 15-minute time span. Many more gym clients do the same.
I’m a customer, but I would have picked it up. Nobody does. Men, women, white, black, Asian, old, young, fit, fat – they all completely ignore it. There it sits in the direct path of everybody walking in that area of the gym. I’ve got earbuds in my ears listening to some tunes. I’m on the treadmill wondering how much longer that paper towel is going to sit there. I’m thinking, “As soon as I’m done with this treadmill, I’m going to go pick that up.”
It’s a simple thing. A paper towel in the floor needs to be picked up and placed into a trash bin that stands about 15 feet away. This is not a big decision. This isn’t something a CEO of this outfit needs to be concerned about. Or maybe he should be, given that I’ve been staring anxiously at this paper towel for going on 20 minutes now.
Eventually, a club employee bends down and picks it up. He’s an employee who first encounters it, and does what needs to be done. Unlike his previous co-workers, he does what needs to be done. Why? Why did he pick it up? Why didn’t his co-workers pick it up? Why didn’t any clients pick it up?
This podcast doesn’t have the bandwidth to even consider all the possible answers. Just know that nobody did what needed to be done until this one person did. I’m guessing 50-100 people passed that dropped paper towel. Some passed it more than once. One person picked it up. But then again, only one person could pick it up. Lifting a paper towel from the floor isn’t a two-man job. And it’s not a job that requires repeated action. You pick up the paper towel, walk to the trash bin and throw it in. Job completed.
So I continued on this treadmill pondering these questions and mostly wondering, “If it’s something so easily accomplished, and people still don’t do it — then how can an organization get people to do what needs to be done, when what needs to be done is much harder?”
I started thinking of the clients I serve and the problems they face. Well, to be fair I rarely stop thinking about such things. It’s why I’m good at my craft of serving leaders. I’m very vested in the challenges facing my clients. I feel their pain and I want to help them find solutions.
Immediately I’m thinking of the leaders I’m working with who have team members that have NOT being doing what needs to be done. Some of my clients have team members who have failed to improve in specific areas where they’ve been told improvement is required. I’ve looked into the faces of my clients and seen the pain of knowing they’ve got people on their team who aren’t picking up the dropped paper towels laying around. It’s vexing.
Sometimes employees do only what they’re told. Every rookie supervisor experiences this soon enough. It doesn’t require super diligence to comply with specific instructions. No leader can possibly convey the specific instructions needed to cover every possible situation. Imagine the training session at the gym:
When you see a paper towel laying on the floor, pick it up and put it in the nearest trash bin.
Imagine how thick that training manual would have to be and how impossibly incomplete it would end up being even if it were multiple volumes. We can’t possibly plan for every single action that needs to be taken by the people in our organizations. Rather, we need a system in place to address that. Some call it culture. Others call it an attitude. It’s a way of life in our organization. It’s our values, beliefs and priorities all rolled up in our identity. It’s who we are and how we roll.
“A” Players Do It The Best
The short answer for why so many people passed by that paper towel without picking it up is – FEAR. It was safer to ignore it. Maybe somebody blew their nose in that paper towel. I’m not picking it up. It surely has somebody’s sweat on it. I’m not touching it.
I thought of all those things when I first spotted it. My immediate thought was to go get another paper towel and use that to pick it up. Right beside the trash bin is a wall dispenser of hand sanitizer. I could have picked it up inside a fresh paper towel, then for good measure used the hand sanitizer. Fear conquered.
But nobody did that. Even the employee who picked it up. He just grabbed it, tossed it in the trash bin and went on his way. You could tell he never thought much about it. He didn’t study it, survey his options and agonize about it. He just saw it, bent down to pick it up and did what needed to be done!
Yes or No
Let me challenge you to eliminate “maybe.” Just take that option off the table. Maybe is no man’s land. Limbo. Nothing gets done in the Land of Maybe.
Instead, take the powerful (but ridiculously simple) lesson from the dropped paper towel. Yes or No. Most people said, “No, I’m not going to pick that up.” Maybe they thought somebody else would do it. Maybe they thought it wasn’t their job, or place to do it. Maybe they were scared of getting kooties. Maybe they were in a hurry and couldn’t take the time to do it. It doesn’t matter why they refused. All that matters is that most people said, “No.”
One guy said, “Yes.” And in a flash, it was done. Accomplished. No longer sitting there on the floor like dog turd in the snow. Problem solved!
Don’t misunderstand. The best answer isn’t always, “Yes.”
Our businesses face many decisions every single day. We don’t say yes to everything. What kind of leader would we be if we did? We’d be like those uncaring, unconcerned parents who just agree with whatever the kids want. It’s a dangerous thing to say yes to everything. “Sure, go ahead,” are famous words uttered by foolish parents. Or foolish leaders.
It could be anything. A budget request. A suggested promotion of an employee. A production request. A process suggestion. Anything.
There’s a right choice. There are less right choices. And there are wrong choices. Sometimes the differences are slight. Other times they’re monumental. But refusing to make a choice rarely leads us to an ideal outcome. Indecision isn’t a top-notch leadership quality.
Choosing “no” isn’t the same thing as refusing to make a choice. When we say, “NO!” we’ve been decisive. We know it. Our people know it. When we waffle or camp out on the fence of indecision we know it. And all our people do, too. See the difference?
Great leaders don’t embrace “maybe.” And they don’t foster their people to embrace it either.
When the information is insufficient to say “yes,” good leaders say, “NO!” Saying, “No, not until_______” isn’t the same thing as saying, “Maybe.” It’s more decisive with a mandate to whomever wants our “yes” to give us more information. “Maybe” puts the burden on us, not the people who want our “yes.” WRONG.
Why is this important? And what does it have to do with getting people to do what needs to be done?
It’s leading by example. If people don’t perceive leadership as being proactive and doing what must be done, they’re going to be less likely to do it themselves. Dad doesn’t help make the bed, why should I make mine? The same logic applies at work. As leadership goes, so it goes with the troops.
Establishing values includes setting the standard in every area of the enterprise. It impacts dress code, conduct, speech, communication, cooperation, collaboration, work ethic, commitment to performance, and anything else that affects our operation.
I’ll give you a one word question that answers all of this…
Why is it important to pick up that paper towel? I know what you may be thinking. “I shouldn’t have to tell people that.” Yes you do. And I’ll go you one better – they deserve for you to tell them. If you’re going to serve your people well, then you have to be willing and able to tell them why things are important.
That dropped paper towel represents an opportunity to show our clients how important it is for us to keep our gym clean. It’s an opportunity to show our clients how attentive we are to the smallest details. If we don’t do the right thing with that paper towel then it signals to our clients that we don’t care about our gym, so why should they? Leaving that towel on the ground tells our clients that we’re irresponsible and carry an “it’s not my job” attitude.
One dropped paper towel screams many important messages to us, and to all our clients. THAT’S why it’s important for you to do the right thing.
In 1982 I was thrust into action running a retail operation that was struggling. The first thing I did was a clean up. I had learned the power of cleaning up in previous engagements. When a clean up is necessary, it means there’s a lack of pride. People no longer care. When you clean up – and do it well – you can instantly get the pride back, or put it place for the first time. It’s one of the most instant things I know that a leader can do to change the climate of a workplace. And if there’s no pride in the workplace or the work, you’ll never achieve high performance. First, you’ve got to make sure people care.
Well, part of the clean up process was a short class on how to vacuum the carpets in the stores. Here I was the 25-year-old leader of a company showing other adults how to vacuum carpet, but it wasn’t demeaning. It was enlightening. It was a way for me to show them why we were going to start doing things differently, better!
The carpet in the stores wasn’t a high plush carpet, but it did have a plush to it unlike inexpensive commercial grade carpeting. Like mowing a lawn, you can tell which way you vacuumed this carpet. If you just went willy-nilly with the vacuum cleaner, it showed. If you vacuumed in a single direction it looked MUCH better. But people weren’t thinking about that. They were just thinking of getting the job done. Doing it well didn’t matter all that much. They just didn’t care. Nobody had given them enough reason to care!
The carpet was just a metaphor for all the other things that ailed us. Stock rooms were atrocious. Behind counters was filth and clutter. Everywhere you looked you could see the same thing – a lack of care. At every turn I told people the stories of WHY it mattered. It wasn’t just me being a clean freak. It wasn’t just some exercise in busting their chops and making them do menial work.
There was a purpose behind every single act of cleaning we did. We were accomplishing a lot more than cleaning. We were establishing new standards of performance (and pride). Together, we were learning why these things mattered, and why they needed to be done properly every single day. Remove the why and you’ve got a bunch of grunt work and resentment. Insert the reason for the clean up and you’ve got, “Oh, okay. That makes sense.”
Did everybody do what needed to be done every single day? No, of course not. But most did. And in time those who refused were gone. Those who refused to pick up the paper towel weren’t allowed to infest the culture. We had no tolerance for their refusal to do what needed to be done because it was unfair to the rest of us who were willing. Again, there was no “maybe.” It was YES or NO. We needed people willing to answer the call by doing what needed to be done.
Today’s show is an exploration. It’s provoking. I can’t wrap this up in a tidy bundle and put a bow on it. I only hope to help you think about how you can better lead your company to learn how to do what must be done. It’s not about micro-managing, or back-seat-driving. It’s about instilling pride and performance among your people. It’s about giving your people permission to do what needs to be done.
I’ve known leaders who behave with such rigid micro-management that if a paper towel needed to be picked up, everybody would be fearful that the boss doesn’t want it picked it up. Or he doesn’t want ME to pick it up. Or he doesn’t want it be picked up now. They want to be the big cheese who goes around telling everybody what to do and how to do it. Otherwise, they see it as insubordination. And these autocratic nut jobs are constantly frustrated by people who won’t just do what needs to be done. It’s their own fault, but they’re too stupid to see that they’re the problem.
So let me close today’s show with some questions.
Do your people know why the things that are important to you…are important?
Do your people know they can and should do what needs to be done without getting a form filled out in triplicate?
What are the consequences for people failing to do what needs to be done?
What are the benefits for people who do what needs to be done?
When people don’t do what needs to be done are you certain it’s a lack of willingness, or might it be a lack of know-how?
How consistent are you in communicating why you expect what you expect?
How consistent are you in communicating how to deliver the results you expect?
How supportive are you in giving people the resources – including consequences or rewards – they need in order to achieve what you want?
Are you the constraint to high performance OR are you a contributor to it?
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