In the first two sections of the book we focused on getting everyone on the same page and the zeroed in on company strategy and getting the leadership team on board. For the remainder of the book, we’re going to get into the specific challenges that you and your team will face implementing these concepts on a daily basis. In this chapter, we’ll cover the unique challenges that small- to mid-sized businesses (SMBs) face in management and in the next chapter we’ll go into specific job roles.
Your Managers as Coaches
I listened to an interview with a new CEO of LEGO1 and he was telling a story about work-life balance. In it, he mentioned that his spouse was a physician and when he went from being a McKinsey consultant to being the CEO of a large multinational corporation, she said, let me get this straight, to be a physician, I have to go through undergrad, then four years of training, then three more years of practicing before I can be a doctor, but you just get to be a CEO out of nowhere?
That is the challenge that most managers face. We recognize talented leaders in our business who are great at their jobs and exhibit a capacity for handling information and navigating change, so we call them in one day and say, “Congratulations. You’re a manager.” No training, no instruction, just a hope that it works out in our favor. In order for The Human Being’s Guide to Business Growth to trickle down to all areas of the organization, we need to overcome this challenge by teaching our managers to be coaches.
Before we get started, let me define what I mean by coaching. Your organization, at this moment, does not have all of your people working on business development. Your organization of the future will have all of your people doing something with business development. Your management team is responsible for bridging that gap and they have a unique challenge ahead. They are managers because they have attained expertise in their area. Operations managers know how to keep the works in progress moving, the administration managers know how to best service their departments, and so on. Now you are asking them to help their people be more aware of business development, but they haven’t done that before. This is why we look to coaching for an example.
The best coaches are not required to be the best at implementation. They are required, however, to help their people implement change and offer correction and guidance along the way. They see situations for what they are, know where they want to go, and help their players get there. They don’t need to have the exact experiences their people will be going through, but they do need to be able to pull from their personal experiences to guide their people. Here’s the secret to business development that all of your managers already possess. Great business development is at its core, helping clients make good decisions. Sometimes a good decision means using your company’s products and services, and sometimes a good decision means using another company’s products and services. Your people have been making decisions for years. Your managers have been helping others make decisions for years. They need to tap into that rich vein of experience, mix in their people’s strengths, aim at the outcome, and make measurable progress in a reasonable amount of time.
Sounds simple, right? Again, simple but not easy. Let’s break out some differences between how new managers act and how experienced coaches act, in Table 5.1.
New managers tend to rely on what made them successful in their previous positions. Think about what skills that required. They needed deep knowledge of their task. They needed deep knowledge of the company’s written and unwritten rules. Most important, they needed to act independently to get things done within those rules. Revisit this double axis chart, Figure 5.1.
We assume that our new managers come from the upper right, where ability to act autonomously and alignment with the company’s strategy are strong. When we see new managers taking action but unable to act in concert with the company’s strategy, we write them off as lone wolves. This happens when the strategic direction of the company is not clearly communicated. Chances are your new manager is aligned with the company’s written and unwritten rules, not the company’s strategic vision.
This means the new manager acts autonomously and you can trust them, but without buy in to the big vision, they focus on how the job gets done. “I can do my people’s jobs better than they can,” is the new manager’s thought. Contrast that with the coach’s thought process. They focus on getting a bunch of individual performers to work together for a common goal, the vision.
The reason this is important is because to unleash the hidden growth potential in your company, your front-line managers need to act autonomously but in concert with your strategic vision. They need to get all of their direct reports to act autonomously toward the strategic vision. That’s what opens up new ideas leading to growth.
The question we get is, “Greg, I see those new manager behaviors in some of my most veteran people, but how do I fix it?”
We have two ideas to help your leadership team make this happen.
1. The leadership team takes responsibility for how the leaders lead. This starts by recognizing that anointing a high performer into management does not mean they will act like a manager. Gallup has evidence that the reason most employees leave a company is because of their immediate supervisor. Anecdotally, my own life confirms this. When someone becomes a manager, they won’t magically know how to manage. That makes it imperative that the leadership team take responsibility for the culture of how your leaders lead. Again, the culture of your company are the observable behaviors in your company. How your managers lead their teams is your responsibility.
2. Not all managers are high individual performers. The default mechanism for choosing management and potential management is job performance. The problem with that is when you take a high performer and put them in a position they aren’t ready for, you lose their production and hurt the team’s production. A double hit. High performance doesn’t equate to coaching ability. Take NBA coaches for example. How many professional NBA coaches were top-performing players? There are some, but the majority of great coaches are great at building a team and getting them to work together toward a goal. Your best managers have the same skills. They don’t need to be the best at doing the actual work, they need to be the best at getting their people to work autonomously in alignment with the company’s strategic vision. Look for great managers at all levels.
We will take a giant step toward unleashing the hidden growth engine in our companies when we help our managers lead with the company’s strategic vision in mind.
Matching Words to Actions
We’ve brought up culture a few times and how the further we move from the small leadership team that set our strategic vision, the more your employees will be looking for physical evidence that you’re serious about achieving the plan. Your people are always on the lookout for actions that match your vision.
When Peter Drucker says, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” he alludes to what most parents know intuitively. If you’ve heard a parent say, “Do as I say, not as I do,” they are living this concept. No matter how clear your vision is, and no matter how bought in to the steps your planning team is, the entire company is watching to see if day-to-day decisions are aligned with the plan and the vision.
When I went to work at the big bank, the management team did a great job of painting their picture of the future and where I fit in. It involved hiring up to 40 remote representatives up and down the west coast where they only had two current employees. They talked about the training, the targets, and the opportunity that we would be sharing as new value was created. After my two-week training period, I settled into my office and asked about the recruiting process. The HR department told me I needed an open requisition. Never hearing this terminology before, I went to my boss and asked what it was. “They’re asking for the new hire permissions from the division president,” he said, “we should have some for you soon.” How soon? I asked. “Well before year end,” he replied.
It was March. What was I going to do for the next nine months? Could I at least start prospecting/interviewing for the future open requisitions? “No, that’s not allowed because of [obscure bank rule].” Actions speaking louder than words.
That is what culture does to strategy. The vision of a rapidly expanding division taking advantage of a fleeting opportunity gets put on hold because of procedure. The words did not match actions, and my enthusiasm waned as culture ate strategy for breakfast.
To unlock growth, you need a strong focus, like we’ve been outlining in the first chapters of this book. But vision alone isn’t enough. Once vision is in place, your people are going to study the leadership to see what their actions are. Specifically asking themselves, do the actions match the vision? The importance of this is hard to overstate. The number of fantastic visions that are dashed against the rocks of company culture are countless. It doesn’t have to be that way. Here are seven ways to match actions to words.
1. Be open about past attempts that have failed. It’s no secret there are unsuccessful initiatives that have been attempted in the past. There will be paths to the strategic vision that will turn out to be dead ends. If you remember back in Chapter 1, we said that in all new business activities, there is an element of luck involved. The past is perfectly known and we’re terrible at predicting the future. Don’t hide from it, embrace it. That includes being unapologetic about past attempts that fell short.
2. Ask your people for their help identifying disconnects. The best source for identifying where your leadership team is engaging in behaviors that aren’t aligned with the strategic vision is your direct reports. The problem is, they have a vested interest in not telling you about shortcomings. “Boss, you keep saying that you want the company to be customer obsessed, but when customer X was unhappy with the results of our service, you refused to refund their investment or take their call.” That’s a hard thing to say to your boss who has your paycheck in his hands. If you use this tactic, be aware that you’re going to have to be open to critique. It hurts, but it’s effective.
3. Give your people leeway to achieve outcomes. Going back to Table 5.1, if your people are aligned with the company’s goals, give them the autonomy they need to get there. The best employees will embrace this opportunity. When training new managers, one of the first lessons learned is that it’s hard to get people to complete tasks in exactly the same way the manager does it. Focus first on the results, then work backward to fix process. One of the main drivers that unleashes the power of your people for business growth is that a suboptimal idea executed with vigor is more likely to succeed than a best practice that struggles to get implemented. Give everyone the leeway to achieve outcomes the organization needs within expected boundaries.
4. Eliminate fear with self-identified strengths applied to new behaviors. New goals and new activities are tough on your people and cause them to look for fault in their leaders. To overcome fear, we focus on changing behaviors. Doing that can be tricky because while molding behaviors is necessary, it can feel like coercion. A slightly better way to eliminate fear is to change their attitude, but like changing behaviors, trying to change attitudes can easily come across as a peer pressure tactic and falls short of real change. The best way to eliminate fears is to get to the beliefs that are behind the behaviors. And the easiest way to get to your people’s true beliefs is to use their self-identified strengths. What is a self-identified strength if not a belief? Start with what your people know best, their own self-identified strengths, and show them how those strengths can overcome the fears that keep them from developing new behaviors.
5. Admit the path is going to be rocky and failure is permitted. The black box of ambiguity is one of my most popular concepts because it recognizes that we’re fallible humans on an unpredictable journey. But like Will Cather’s Captain Forrester knew, if you keep the vision of your future clear in your head, you’ll get close to where you’re going. That message is one your people need to hear and if it becomes ingrained in the culture, it’s infectious. New employees pick up on the difference right away.
6. Flush out doubt when it shows up. Just as you can expose yourself and your leadership team to criticism when behaviors don’t match the vision, you can empower your leadership team to flush out any cynicism they suspect, and get to the root of it. That attitude of, “this is just another phase and it will go away soon,” is a weed in the garden and if it’s not addressed, it takes over. Each spring the gardens are planted with visions of the fall bounty, but too often August rolls around and the gardener looks at the weeds covering their raised beds saying, “I didn’t want this to happen.” Cynicism from your people is that weed. Don’t let it fester.
7. Be true to yourself. It’s a process, not an event. Your vision won’t be completed in a day. The first part of your plan won’t be completed in a day. It’s a process and the journey is the best part of it. When your team unleashes their growth potential and every employee is excited to tell your story, when every vendor tells tales about your progress, and when word on the street is your company is a great place to work, that didn’t happen overnight. It took a strong vision and focus on culture.
Refer to those seven tactics to start, but filter them through your self-identified strengths to find one or two that feel like the right way to match your behaviors to culture. Your managers are watching.
Using Continuous Reviews for Change
Regular feedback is required to stay on your strategic vision’s path. Like a boat on the open ocean, your journey will not be a straight line and requires a constant trimming of the sails to stay on course. With the leadership teams I work with, the question on feedback is how often is enough? We break feedback into three buckets and put a time frame on each as a guide.
Bucket 1 is human feedback. We’re lumping in most daily human contacts here. You know the saying, absence makes the heart grow fonder? In the case of your direct reports and your peers, it’s more like absence makes the heart wonder what’s going on. Left to its own imagination, the heart will conjure up worst case scenarios, so in the human feedback bucket we’re looking for frequent contact.
These are pleasantries, the how are you today questions, the how was the game you were going to, the happy birthdays. My brother-in-law has a brewery in Green Bay, Wisconsin (the Hinterland, if you’re ever there) and in that brewery are a dozen giant tanks of his amber colored liquid delights. He’s explained what’s happening in each of these tanks to me over and over again, but all I notice are the little liquid level gauges with the clipboards attached. As he explains what’s in where, he always stops and takes a peek at the liquid level and the clipboard. Like he’s a doctor doing rounds with his patients. Just checking in to see if things look good or if anything needs to be investigated further. That’s what bucket one human feedback contact is like. If you go too long between them, the ship can get off course in a hurry. Bucket one is human contacts that keep us in touch.
Bucket 2, on the other hand, are work project feedback items. The best way to describe this bucket is the phrase, task to goal feedback. What are you working on this week is a common question here. In the idea of FIT where “I” is individual strengths, this is where your leadership uses self-identified strengths. In bucket one it’s weird to say something like, “I’m happy to hear you had fun at the game last night, Greg, I’ll bet with your self-identified humor strength, you had a few laughs.” That doesn’t work. It does work in bucket two where I’m working on a particular project and my boss wants to help. “Greg, as you work on that this week, is there any way to mix in your sense of humor?” is a perfect use of self-identified strengths. And where bucket one, human feedback, can happen several times a day, bucket two feedback is best left to weekly input.
Bucket 3 feedback is the formal review process. Inside of most companies, this is the HR whole person work review. We carve out an hour to review the behaviors that have been exhibited and realign them to the strategic plan. Formal and tense, this bucket serves a purpose. It requires the leader to have put some thought into how the direct report has been doing, come up with specific good and bad behavior examples, and communicate them. Unlike the human contact that happens every day, which reminds us that we’re all on this big rock hurtling through space together and no one gets out alive, the formal review is all about what are you doing here in this job and is it meeting expectations, exceeding expectations, or coming up short of expectations. Annual reviews are too infrequent to help anyone, quarterly reviews may be too frequent for senior leadership but perfect for managers and front-line people.
Using those three buckets, go back to the question, how often do we give feedback?
Let’s turn that question on its side one more time. How often do you want to give feedback? How often do you want your leaders to give feedback? How often do you want your front-line employees communicating with your customers and vendors and affiliates? Communication is a strategic advantage in SMBs because it’s simply easier to communicate with fewer people. It doesn’t mean we do it, but it should be easier to schedule.
Jeff Huber, CEO of Home Instead Senior Care, a 1,000-franchise healthcare company has the dual challenge of leading a corporate office and leading a group of entrepreneurs. I’ve told him that he’s a CEO and a management consultant wrapped in one. He addressed the communication challenge question to me by jumping up on his soapbox and saying:
Lots to say on that topic. How many times have you heard: “it’s a communication issue.” Well, then fix the issue! With a strategy. People don’t think strategy applies to communication. They think tactics: “We need a newsletter; send an e-mail; let’s create an intranet.” But they don’t have a comprehensive, holistic strategy on how those work together; what messages need to be communicated, how, when, in what channels—and then stick to those channels to train people on where to go for what information at which time. Instead, they are frustrated that they have “communicated” but no one seems to have gotten the message. Communication strategy should serve to advance the business goals; they are inextricably linked. And the communication strategy, like the marketing or finance or technology strategy should serve to advance business goals.
He’s right, the answer to the question, “How often?” starts with the strategic vision of the future. What is your ideal? Use the strategy questions from Chapter 3. Get to the “Why bother?” core of the activity. What will better feedback in each of the three buckets do for your company? Then go back to where you are today. How often is it happening today? How close is that to the ideal? How will we bridge that gap?
The second common question asked about communication comes after frequency is addressed. It’s about quality of communication. Increasing frequency is the first step because when asking “is it better to be good or be there?” the answer is being there. Increasing frequency of feedback is “being there,” it’s quantity. Once quantity is where you need it, make those communications better. As my sister who has a senior HR position in a giant multinational says, improve the crucial conversations.
Strengths Training for Improved Communication
The fastest way to make your leaders more effective in their jobs is to teach them how to brainstorm with their direct reports about integrating self-identified strengths into their work. We’ve alluded to this topic starting in Chapter 1, and now we’re ready to put the rubber to the road.
Let’s revisit the FIT graphic, Figure 5.2.
The fastest way for this concept to be adopted by your people is for you to adopt it yourself. If you haven’t taken the VIA Test of Character Strengths yet, this is a perfect time. The first time I took the test was after hearing Dr. Martin Seligman explain his PERMA framework. I sat at the airport, pulled the test up on my phone, and it took 15 minutes to complete. Looking at my top three character strengths, I realized that when Seligman talked about positive psychology, he was tapping into something that happy people do without much thought. Eighty-sevenyear-old Warren Buffett was interviewed on PBS News Hour with Judy Woodruff in June 2017, and she asked him what his secret to a long happy life was. She added that he admits to eating like a six-year-old, drinking too much Cherry Coke, and sleeping at least eight hours a night, were any of those his secret? His answer was that he attributed his long life to finding the place he can apply his interests every day. His stress was low, that allowed him to sleep, and he moves from task to task with enthusiasm. My insight is he attributes his happiness to applying his strengths to his work every day, regardless of what the actual work is. Some tasks he hates, some he loves, but he does each one in his own way, applying his self-identified strengths.
Print out your top three strengths, the ones you identified, and post them in your work space where you can glance at them. With every task that you find yourself having trouble completing, ask the question, “How can I do this with [strength 1], [strength 2], or [strength 3]?” or “What is the best way for me to integrate [strength 1], [strength 2], or [strength 3]?”
How you phrase those questions in your self-talk are the key to minimizing your effort and maximizing the results you get from it. “How” and “what” questions do something very specific to your brain. We humans have these wonderful machines in our heads, our brains. And most of the work that your brain does is in the background. From looking for snakes, regulating effort, or solving complex problems as you sleep, everyone has felt the power of their brain making life easier. When we ask our brain “How do I” or “What do I have to do” questions, it goes to work on the answer. In contrast, when we ask our brain “Why do they” or “when will they” questions, it stops working on that problem. That contrast happens because of how the question is phrased. “How” and “what” are open questions that when coupled with the personal pronoun “I,” unleash the brain’s problem-solving prowess. Take those same open questions and put them with a third-party pronoun, “they,” and the brain stops working on a solution because we haven’t asked it for an answer. We’ve asked the outside world to solve our problem. “When will my people start using their self-identified strengths to get more done in less time?” is nothing your brain will stew over in your sleep. “How can I get my people to start using their self-identified strengths to get more done in less time?” is something your brain will stew over, see Figure 5.3.
Your leadership team, once it’s nailed the focus part of FIT, can start working on individual strengths. To be clear, this is step two because focusing on applying self-identified strengths to start is like applying motivation without direction. I think it was Zig Ziglar who said, you can motivate an idiot, but then all you have is a motivated idiot. The focus comes first, then we apply individual strengths to that vision.
For your leadership team and management team to use individual character strengths from VIA, they need one more idea that we touched on in Chapter 1. Finding the most passionate person for a job is a fool’s errand. Like when my high school coach sent me out to get a bucket of steam. Instead, find a competent person and teach them how to apply their strengths to the tasks at hand. Especially in a small company where there are more tasks to be done than there are people. If we let our people just work on the things they love to do, they won’t work on top priority activities that help us get to the strategic vision unless they happen to love them. Instead, we ask our managers help them prioritize tasks, then follow and ask how they will be applying their strengths to get the work done their own way.
The pushback here is always on process because it sounds like I am saying, let them do things the way they see fit. Let’s take the most process-oriented company I can think of, McDonalds, and my top strengths, Creativity, Ingenuity, and Originality; Humor and Playfulness; Capacity to Love and be Loved. Greg, you say, keep the fries hot and fresh. I may hate the tasks in the process, but when I’m bought into Focus, for example, this franchise’s vision of being “highest in customer satisfaction in the Midwest,” I get to figure out where hot, fresh fries fit in. To get over the repetitive nature of making that happen, you ask me to apply my creativity, humor, and loving nature to get those results. That makes me think about customer expressions of satisfaction. That makes me think of laughter. That makes me think of making someone happy today. With little effort, I can now make a show of fresh, hot fries. I can serve them up with a flourish, a fake stumble, and a smile that makes the customer’s day. I do what I can to get customers leaving the store to smile when asked, “Were those fries the best or what?!?”
You get the point. It’s not the task that you need to have passion about, it’s being passionate about finding a way to apply your strengths to the task. Here are some ways for your leadership team to get managers thinking about this.
1. Start by telling your own strength story. The exercise we did in Chapter 2. Take the VIA Test of Character Strengths and imagine a time in your work life where you were rewarded for achievement. Look for ways that you applied your strengths to make that happen. This is the perfect story to tell your people. It reveals how management can introduce the concept to their people. It becomes part of the culture.
2. Ask high performers how they are applying their self-identified strengths. The daily grind doesn’t allow for much introspection, so encourage it in face-to-face behavior reviews. You’re vitally interested in why they are effective. They are among your most autonomous employees, self-starters and aggressive, how do they get things done and still stay aligned with the company’s strategic vision?
3. Tell stories about your team using self-identified strengths to get more done in less time. That is the ultimate goal with the I in FIT. Once we are crystal clear on where we are aiming, we want to get there on the easiest path. We want the trade winds to be in our favor. Self-identified strengths are our trade winds. Encourage your managers to catch their people doing the right thing. Once the examples are made public, your people will see examples everywhere.
There are some serious practitioners of the art of using strengths, but for most of us, simply buying into the idea that using strengths gets tasks done faster with better results is enough to make a measurable difference in management.
Having Critical Conversations with Facts
Before this section ends, there is one more way you can help your managers increase their effectiveness. In conversations with their people, especially corrective conversations, focus on observed behaviors. Teach them to get a firm grip on defining facts versus results.
Studies show that when you are specific in praise or corrections, the behaviors you need will show up over time. Let’s look at corrections with a customer service agent. “Your phone calls are taking too long,” sounds specific, but it’s not a fact-based feedback item. As a consultant, a comment like that is begging to be followed up with these questions:
• What is it now?
• What would you like it to be?
• What’s the value of the difference?
• What’s the impact on results over time?
There aren’t many customer service agents that will ask their manager those questions, but just by reading through them, can you hear how a fact-based corrective feedback comment might sound?
Your phone calls are taking too long. You’re averaging 20 minutes with customers, and we’d like that to be closer to 15 minutes because that will allow you to help another 2 or 3 customers a day and give you some down time between calls.
Specific, fact-based, feedback forces your managers to take the next step. It forces them to identify the problem, give the parameters for the fixed problem, and a reason for why it’s in their people’s best interest to find a way to fix it. It leads to managers asking the questions, “What are some of your ideas about why calls are long?” and, “What are some ways you can shorten the calls that work for you?”
It’s powerful, but most conversations don’t happen in this format because it’s time-consuming. The manager already knows the answer. The shortest path is a straight line.
With regular reminders from the leadership team, you can start them on the right path. Remember, we’re after success, not perfection. In the next chapter, we’ll go from this broad idea of management into the specific roles in your company and ideas on managing growth.
• Coaches coach, players play. Teach management to coach.
• Your team will look for behavior evidence to match your words. The old saw, actions speak louder than words, is true.
• Focus on behaviors and strengths to minimize personality distractions.