Skip to main content

A Common Message

It seems like all the great books I have read in the last month are saying the same things. That probably annoys those executives looking for the magic bullet, that one thing they have never heard before that could turn everything around. I personally find it both delightful and reassuring.

Before committing to leading technology companies, I led classrooms. Honestly, the differences are not as enormous as I had expected. I’ve heard over and over and over, adult learning takes 7 times. I can’t tell you how many times this year alone I have bolted in to the house (or the “office”) and passionately shared my newest revelation with either Julie or Peter, to see them roll their eyes and bite back the words, “I’ve been trying to tell you that for YEARS.” The fact is, the answers are sitting right in front of you. They always have been. The answers are not even all that magical. You may have heard it but, as they say in stranger in a strange land, did you ‘grok’ it. Often an understanding, or a concept, is a matter of timing and persistence. After all, we are trying to build new behaviors. And therefor, for that reason alone, there will always be room for one more business book that shares the same principles in a slightly different manner. So, what did I learn from the last few?

I’ve just finished reading “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” by Patrick Lioncioni on the plane. Its a quickie. Over the last few weeks I’ve almost made my way through “Good to Great” by Jim Collins. Next (after a little Harry Potter) is the sequel to “Leadership and Self Deception” called the “Anatomy of Peace” and I can’t wait to tear into it. The funny part is that they fundamentally all address the same topic from a different perspective. How to build a team of people into an effective unit that will produce results for the organization. The keys:

an open platform for honest discourse
the right unifying vision
accountability to measurable results.

So there it is. Simple right? Actually it really is. It is totally and completely simple. It just not easy, not in the slightest. Recently I heard an old recording of Joe Caruso from the Learning Annex during which he is asked why people have a tendency to complicate things so much: “Its because we are struggling, and the implication is that if it is simple, and we are struggling, then obviously we are stupid. Therefor, it is human nature to want to complicate those things we don’t completely understand in order not to feel bad.” As human beings, whether alone or as a group, we naturally gravitate towards conflict and the negative. After all, how often do you hear people say: “That’s too good to be true.” When is that last time someone said: “That’s to bad to be true”? The fact is that a successful team is rarely an act of coincidence.

So, in the vein of sharing nuggets from the books I just gleaned that we will be trying to apply throughout the organization:

Nugget #1: Stockdale Paradox (Good to Great)
Confront the brutal reality of your situation while maintaining a positive expectant vision to the future.

Over chow mein on the deck a Charlie Hong Kong last Friday, Peter, Julie, Carla & I found ourselves within a pretty serious debate. The topic: chicken and the egg – vision Vs. financial structure.

Shane: You have to have a core unifying vision for the organization, which you use to steer the structure and determine which metrics have value to measure the organization.

Peter & Carla: You have to have a structure for the organization with metrics in place which you use to test ideas from which you develop your core unifying idea.

Both camps had good arguments and plenty of passion. The conclusion – concession on my part – time to quit futzing around and get some metrics in place so that we can make more educated decisions. Some information is better than none at this point.

Looking back at the dialog, though I still feel weird putting a financial system in place without having a long term concrete vision for the organization, I have to admit that we need these metrics now to confront what Jim Collins calls, “the brutal facts.” We need to know which of our activities are most profitable. What is the cost of acquiring a new client? What is our profit margin per client, per project, per service, per contractor? A vision which is not based upon those facts is a bit more like a fantasy. We are not starting from scratch here. We have a profitable company with a decent client base, brand recognition and a wide range of talents. We are generalists with a few specialties. I find myself wanting to move “The Paradox of Choice” further up my reading list just for this reason. We have so many places we could be great that we are having a hard time choosing. So we have begun hiring the experts and researching tools to measure and track our business progress.

Nugget #2: Trust

Now this topic is covered by every single book mentioned above, and in my opinion is addressed the best by “Leadership and Self Deception” Simple put, you can read all the books you want and apply all the management techniques in the world, but if you don’t have someone’s best interest at heart, it will never work.

Peter & I have an odd interview process. When we find someone that might fit on our team, we take a few minutes, explain our business. Then we ask a few question and shut up. We spend as long as we can, hours if possible, trying to find out about this person’s dreams, life aspirations, what they want to do, who and what they love, who they want to become, what they want to have. I don’t just mean business. I want to hear about family, friends, faith, fitness, finance … you name it. I am looking for two things. Do I believe that by working together we can help accomplish their dreams? Do I get excited by that prospect? If I can answer yes to both, then we may have someone we want to join the team. You see, if I am passionate about helping them attain those things they want most in life, do you think they might learn to trust me? And if I am confident that they believe they can attain their dreams through our organization, perhaps I can trust them. Now don’t get me wrong, I care about talent (a whole lot), skill and knowledge. But all that is secondary to a basis to trust.

Early this year, I asked a very large client why he was asking to use us for a series of small gigs that just didn’t seem financially viable from an outsider’s viewpoint. His response helped me identify one of our organization’s greatest strengths. “I keep using your firm [despite the expense] because you are the only team I have inside or outside my organization that cares and worries about the problem as much I do. When you are on the project, I know that I can relax.” Now this person is one of the best project managers I have ever had the honor to work with. I take this complement in the highest regards. It underlines this principle, You have to genuinely care about the people you are dealing with. That fact will allow you to shine beyond all competition when you are on the top of your game and will provide you some leeway when you blotch something.

More nuggets to come…

Currently reading: “Grinding it Out: Ray Kroc“. Still blows my mind that he didn’t start the first McDonalds until he was 52 years old.