In the Executive Coaching Workshop I co-lead with John Vercelli for Coaches Training Institute, we discuss early in the curriculum the pervasive epidemic of Bad Boss Syndrome. It is jaw-dropping how many employees reflect on the lack of leadership and vision they receive from those who manage them, how starved they are for inspiration, and how little it takes to turn a bad day into a good day. When you think about the study published recently by Gallup noting that 70% of employees are disengaged — and that too many of them hate their jobs — boss improvement is a good place to start.
Another good place to start is the Dead Brand Graveyard, where we also focus in the workshop. Surely some brands die purposefully in mergers and consolidations, but my observation is that many more die because they break their promise to their customers, who simply move on. In a world of virtually unlimited customer choice, when a company fails to innovate or repeatedly breaks a brand promise, the Dead Brand Graveyard is soon to cement a new tombstone. For the employees who are part of the letdown, the lost promise, and ultimately the job loss that follows, demoralization is readily understood. Remember, a lot of these employees came to their companies with hope and passion and energy and ideas. They may have had the solutions to their company’s death sentence on their desktops. Perhaps no one was listening. That takes us right back to Bad Boss Land. It’s an infinite loop.
Let’s pull these two concepts together — bad bosses and dying brands — and then think about the twelve Gallup questions which you can find in last week’s post, Part 1 of this inquiry. None of the questions involve compensation. They ask things like whether individuals have the opportunity to do what they do best, whether their supervisor cares about them or their advancement, whether the mission or purpose of their company is understood and they are part of something that matters, whether there is a commitment to quality in the workplace, and whether there are peers or leaders in the environment who are supportive.
Human stuff, huh? HR mush? Not the stuff of hard-won profit and loss? Garbage! If companies have it so right, why are brands evaporating from the landscape in record time? Why are fully capitalized companies lasting half as long as the average human lifespan? Creative destruction, you say, the natural course of things business? Well, sure, I’ll give you that. So is top management willing to say the whole Circle of Life is out of their hands and the survival of the enterprise is entirely up to market forces, to fate rather than strategy, to a competitor’s campaign rather than a driven response to galvanizing the single most important asset in the company’s inventory, the intellectual capital that is allowed to rest idle and fester?
That’s not very optimistic. And yet, optimism is the spirit that drives opportunity, and opportunity is the backbone of capitalist enterprise.
Why do we so often get this so completely wrong? Why would we let 70% of employees churn in the ranks, angry and sad and defeated? Why would anyone allow a brand to go stale, to break a promise to a customer, to fail to reinvent itself when invention is the lifeblood of all revenue and profit growth? Borders, Circuit City, Kodak, Polaroid, Palm — all once admired companies, all with revered brands — what do you suspect the internal opinions were of management as repositioning opportunities were missed and tired product performance spiraled downward?
Much has been written about short-term versus long-term financial incentives as value destroying tactics, particularly among senior management at the top of the compensation bell curve. That is only part of the problem. Certainly if you set a sales target for a commission based or stocky savvy executive, she or he will chase that goal aggressively, often with widespread collateral damage. Yet is it the incentive that is the time bomb, or the misperception on the individual’s part of the fundamental rewards that may or may not be at hand? To that end, I mentioned that the Gallup poll does not reference compensation. I would be willing to bet Big Money that the disengagement factor cuts across every salary band in the spectrum. It is my own observation that once you get past basic human needs being met — housing, food, safety, decent educational opportunities for the kids and maybe a family vacation now and again — there is no guarantee whatsoever that financial reward brings vast job satisfaction. I have met as many or more unhappy wealthy people as I have in the middle class. The tendency to focus on the wrong motivation is not exclusive to the underpaid or overpaid, and the failure to align truly rewarding incentives with human performance is almost always the difference between long brand life and flash in pan cash register rings.
When I hear that 70% of employees are disengaged, and when I see brands and companies dying in record time, I experience one story. We try hard to focus the executive coaching mission on revitalizing the human potential in an organization, to bring the executive’s focus back to the brand promise, and to evangelize that set of values broadly among the members of a team as a rallying cry.
I see three major factors that matter in a job — what you do, who you do it for and with, and the compensation you receive for what you give. If the first two mandates of that string aren’t met, it seems ludicrous to believe that compensation is going to make up for the loss. And if the only thing that people are focusing on is compensation, what real chance does that company have at longevity? A brand will not be reinvented because it needs to be more profitable; it will be the magnet of innovation because people care about it and bond together to transform it into something it currently is not because it matters. From that investment of idealism will flow vast improvements in continuing profitability.
Short-term harvesting of any cash cow is possible — if you want to squeeze profits, go ahead and squeeze the people who are producing them. At the moment 70% of those people are telling you they don’t like what they are doing or who they are doing it for. Want to make the Big Money that lasts the long run? The Gallup survey tells you in the questions alone where we’re leaving the Big Money on the table. Start Thinking Different!
Bosses must learn to listen. Employees need to teach their bosses to listen so they can be heard and emerge. Coaching can be implicit or explicit, but it has to be obvious that letting ideas flow not only improves morale, it is vital to sustaining the enterprise. Companies that last do so because they apply long-term strategies, both in terms of bolstering their brands and employee engagement. Everyone can win — especially customers — if that’s the walk that leadership walks, leadership by example. It does not happen accidentally, but by commitment, and constant reminder of core values that can be shared.
For me, it will always be People, Products, Profits — In That Order.