Embrace Turbulence

How many really bad things can go wrong in business in a single day? One or two? Five? Dozens? Dozens of dozens?

A key employee leaves because a spouse is offered a job a thousand miles away.

A key partner botches a supply chain handoff and your warehouse is empty ahead of an annual sale.

You discover a critical hidden formula error in one of your financial spreadsheets that even your auditors missed.

Your customer service lines light up for a problem with your competitor’s product being confused for your own.

Sound like a normal enough day?

Then why do we think of turbulence as extraordinary?

Maybe a better question is how many things can go right in a day. Sometimes if you achieve one modest success you count your blessings and call that an outstanding day! A win is the welcomed exception. Problems are the norm.

Just remember one of the key maxims in career longevity: If you’re a manager, problems are job security. If there weren’t problems in business, we wouldn’t need management. Lucky for us, huh?

I was recently talking with a colleague about his desire to offer calm to his staff after a rough few weeks. He wanted to give a talk where his message and tone signaled that the bad stuff was behind them.

I advised against it. How could he possibly know what fate might bring even later that afternoon. You never want to make a liar out of yourself with stuff you can’t control. Besides, the very notion of calm to me signals surrender.

What is the stuff you can control? Attitude, anticipation, and readiness.

It’s a question of urgency over fear. Fear in the form of debilitating anxiety may not be your friend, but urgency in the form of nimble responsiveness is always your friend. There is so little in our future that we can control, pretending it is otherwise is advancing the clock on the certainty of smack down.

Complacency lets down your guard. Predictive, proactive realism keeps you sharp at all times.

How many times have I heard hardworking but tired employees utter the phrase: “If only we can get through this [fill in the blank], we’ll be fine.”

Remember this instead: The reward for getting over a hill is the opportunity to climb another hill. There is always another this to get through. Beyond each valley is always another hill, often steeper and higher than the one behind you. That is the nature of economic cycles. That is the nature of problem-solving. Whatever you solve today may create an opportunity, but the market response to that opportunity will likely create the next problem on your plate.

It’s no different for capital and equity markets, where despite our hope for smooth sailing, volatility is the norm. That’s why for so many stock picking is a loser’s game. You’re in for all the good and bad days or you’re out.

What to do then?

Embrace turbulence before it becomes turmoil.

Make turbulence your constant companion. Celebrate small wins, but never be fooled by a quiet few hours. Once you are comfortable with the inevitability of unpredictability, your confidence level will rise. You will learn to address change because you accept the inarguable market force that change is constant.

A good sales quarter is always exciting, but as every prospectus states, past performance is no guarantee of future results. You know that like you know your boss’s ugliest shirt. Why pretend otherwise?

Did AOL fall on hard times or fail to respond to turbulence?

Did Yahoo suffer an explainable devastating blow or wander aimlessly amid turbulence?

Did Kodak get ambushed by new technology or fail to play its strongest hand in a climate of turbulence?

Each of those companies allowed turbulence to become turmoil. When turmoil escalates to the unbound, creative destruction has usually made its decision.

Think about what those implosions mean to you.

Did the last project that didn’t go your way take you down or prepare you to outperform it?

Did your last failed product launch demoralize you or teach you how to make a better product?

Are you looking for comfort in the quiet ordinary or comfort in outrageous curiosity?

Big Company Syndrome is believing your paycheck will always show up. Smart Company Syndrome is knowing you have to earn your keep every day. Doing work and adding value are not the same things.

Turbulence in business is the norm, not the exception. Companies that win do so because they surf over, around and through turbulence. They might purposefully avoid an obvious storm they can’t navigate, but they expect storms, they don’t anticipate their magical elimination.

In daily business dealings, if you know that bombs are regularly going to drop, you won’t be surprised when they do, no matter from where. If you’re a CEO or close to one, you know it’s the job of leadership to address crises, not to hope they will slink away.

Make peace with turbulence. Pace yourself for a ceaselessly bumpy endurance contest. Expect an unruly rollercoaster ride and be mildly pleased the days it doesn’t throw you from the train.

When you have one of those good days—and you will—you will appreciate it even more. Your definition of a good day may also begin to change. Mine certainly has. Stay tuned to this channel for how.

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Image: Pixabay

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Staying Alive

This will be the third post in an unintended trilogy following my last two on why companies that might appear to be “built to last” may suddenly evaporate before your eyes. In response to those stories (Gone So Soon and 8 Warnings That Your Company Is Toast), I received several inquiries wondering if there were ways to spot an imminent mudslide while there’s time to escape.

Executive turnover is something to watch closely, especially the C-suite. Either too little or too much turnstile rotation can be a warning sign. With no leadership change over long periods of time, a company might become entrenched in its plodding, convinced it knows how to do things so well no seismic shift in the landscape requires reinvention of the company’s ways. When executives are repeatedly jumping ship in under a year, the lack of stability in teamwork, embrace of new ideas, or core strategy might be signaling a torpedo crater in the ship’s hull that can’t immediately be seen underwater. Certain presidential administrations come to mind.

An escalating executive dump of equity holdings will usually light up an analyst’s eyes, but what about yours? If your top management is seeking liquidity while proclaiming they are simply reducing concentration and balancing their holdings, ask yourself why now. It’s good to be loyal when there’s a reason to be loyal. Ignoring the siren to go down with the ship will never seem as noble when your colleagues have departed in first class and you are left treading ice water. Much of the dot-com bubble unraveled this way, with most of the stock prices dropping swiftly to zero.

Ever sit in a meeting, listen to a colleague or team of co-workers present an innovative, visionary solution to a core concern the company has long identified as critical to its survival, only to see the framers of the big idea summarily dismissed without adequate explanation? Sure you have, most of us have. Perhaps those framers then quit, go across town and put their concept to work for a competitor, of course without violating their nondisclosure or trade secret agreements, modifying their ideas to a variation on the theme. If you believe they are as smart as they think you are, consider following them. That’s how companies like Intel started.

Do you observe evidence that your company understands its core competency, protects it through a culture of learning, and openly admits its weaknesses as opportunities for improvement? When you go to an offsite, is the point of that retreat an honest evaluation of the company’s strengths and threats, or is the current leadership pontificating on how unlikely it is that your competitors can take your market share? Sears has been dying for decades. I wonder when in each of the past years they thought they were winning.

Are you building a project or a company? A lot of people aren’t sure. Most startups begin with a product offering, but if the company building that product defines itself too narrowly, it may soon cease to be a company when it is folded into a larger company with a lot of “synergies” found in the combination. If the word “synergies” doesn’t ring a bell for you in the world of mergers and acquisitions, it usually means overlapping functions that are removed as redundant costs, possibly you. Look at the string of product builders that companies like Microsoft and Google synergized throughout their history. How many of them can you still name?

Are analytics, diagnostic evaluation, empirical assessment, and primary research core to your company’s self-evaluation? Are key decisions made on gut instinct or debated with facts? Ask yourself if that’s what the top leaders in your company say they want to do or if it’s what they really do. That which gets measured gets done. That which gets quantified gets fixed. If you’re in the room where people are swapping stories rather than interpreting data, you’re probably better off gambling in a casino where the odds are at least known.

Another way to think about this is whether you believe top management in a company is truly focused on staying alive, and whether you can help overcome the challenges to a company you love or want to love. If the decision-makers around you are people you trust who are committed to vetting solutions, perhaps you can be as well. Too often when the axe falls, we acknowledge in hindsight what we should have applied in advance thinking. There are artifacts of knowledge all around you—both positive and negative—if you choose to pay close attention to the reality of your situation.

You can always be pleasantly surprised or devastatingly rocked by good or back luck on the job. Predicting the likelihood of an outcome is a learned task that is likely more tangible than you think.

The Press and the President

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders at a briefing of journalists this past week exclaimed in exasperation:

“You guys have a huge responsibility to play in the divisive nature of this country, when ninety percent of the coverage of everything this president does is negative, despite the fact that the country is doing extremely well, despite the fact that the president is delivering on exactly what he said he was going to do if elected.”

It would be difficult to disagree with her observation that media coverage of the president is 90% unfavorable.

Why is the press overwhelmingly negative toward this president?

1) He lies obviously, shamelessly, and constantly.

2) His ideas and policies are uninformed, constructed from whim, and largely empirically wrong.

3) His behavior is morally repugnant and his driving force is feeding his ego.

4) The circumstances of his election are being investigated for criminal intervention by credible authorities.

The press is doing its job. The press is reporting on the dangers it sees threatening our nation. Were the weighting of critique not so uniformly negative, we might wonder if there was some hidden agenda in an institutional bias, some collusion with ulterior motives. The only collective agenda I can glean is the reporting of information allowing us to make critical decisions about our freedom and well-being.

Fake news is not the work product of trained journalists under credentialed editorial supervision. Journalism and a free press are the backbone that anchors the ongoing experiment that is our democracy.

Fake news is the drivel that emerges from undisciplined commentary and targeted propaganda. Misdirection is a tactic of human divisiveness, subversion of logical process, and chaos that beckons autocratic control.

Journalism and misdirection are not the same, unless one purposefully hijacks the other. When a true journalist makes a mistake or misstates a fact, the press runs a retraction. When an ignorant or hateful opinion-maker deliberately attempts to mask a lie as the truth, the lie is left to stand because it was intended to spread falsehood.

To confuse journalism with fake news is to misunderstand the fundamental pillar protecting democracy from authoritarian rule.

The press is not the enemy of the people.

Our president is not a victim. His relationship with the media is his own making.

Make change happen. Change happens when the pain of change is less than the pain of staying the same. We are in severe pain.

Read your ballots carefully. Studied reporters have filled our news sources with more analysis than at any other time in history. We always have a choice.

Get out the vote.

Bad Behavior Made OK

I haven’t written about Donald Trump for quite some time. No, I’m not unwell, not more than anyone else. I brought out my third novel earlier this year and wanted to try to focus on storytelling without being overly divisive, although I will say at some of my book talks the social sparks found a way to fly. Guess I can bring that out in an audience even when I don’t try too hard.

I also became creatively exhausted on the topic of politics as it pertains to my blog and let Facebook do a lot of the heavy lifting for my rolling commentary. Apologies if you have been overwhelmed by that. Well, no apology really. It’s stuff I needed to say, just not here.

Sadly the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings have roped me back in for the moment. It’s not just Kavanaugh, with whom I sadly share a branded diploma. It’s the voice of Trump that set me off. It always is.

The pervasive nature of Trump’s dysfunctional behavior for the almost two years he has been in office oozes without containment far beyond the Capital Beltway. The question of Kavanaugh’s judicial temperament was brought to bear during his highly combustible vetting. Even if he were deemed to fail this test, his shortcomings are but a pittance compared to Trump’s demonstrated abomination in presidential temperament.

Trump is not satisfied laying waste to government conventions and respectable demeanor. He has declared a culture war on civil discourse as we know it. His public comportment does not end at being reprehensible. He strives to be offensive in order to fully make the point that he has the bully pulpit, he is in charge, and he is entitled to any style of verbal combat he alone condones.

Unfortunately, his influence does not end when the video clips cease to loop. He has changed our neighborhood rules of engagement. His warring rage on opponents is bad behavior made OK.

Perhaps The Beatles said it better:

I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.

If he can be an aggressive jackass without any filters of polite society, then it’s an easy step to thinking so can I. So can you. So can we all.

So many of us are now emulating his frightening postures, we are transforming our interactions into Trump World. This seems to be what he wants. It divides us. It keeps his platform solidified while we crumble into anarchy.

What makes me so sure? It’s hard to argue with the psychological tyranny of the workplace.

If you’ve worked in an office—or pretty much anywhere with a hierarchy—you know that people begin to take on behavioral traits of the boss. It’s a real phenomenon that begins subtly enough with quirks and builds over time with implicit permissions.

Allow me to illustrate the case, and then you can fill in your own anecdotal corollary.

I once had a prominent boss who sat at the head of the table during meetings with a disposable plastic water bottle. When he finished drinking the water, he would put his hands on either side of the bottle and crush it accordion style. Within two weeks of his arrival most everyone around the table was doing the same thing. With the echoing thunder of crushed plastic, our meetings began to sound like the Fourth of July.

Want another one?

I often use a borrowed expression in work situations: “Luckier than Steve Guttenberg.” At this point in pop history, few remember where it came from, let alone the target of its sarcasm. When the movie Three Men and a Baby was released in 1987, it starred the very famous Ted Danson, Tom Selleck, and… Steve Guttenberg? In its time it was a quirky joke. It still comes out of my mouth when we get unexpectedly lucky in business. Within a week of saying it in any environment, I will hear it repeated back multiple times. I’ve asked the younger people who parrot it what it means. They have no idea, but they keep saying it. Often they laugh at the joke, not even googling the punchline.

Let’s call those relatively innocuous examples of boss behavior becoming everyone’s behavior. It gets much worse.

I had another boss with a penchant for taking credit for other people’s creative work. I should have known something was up when he regularly used brilliant media samples created by companies unaffiliated with ours to pitch the potential of our company to clients and investors. He never actually said we created those samples, he just used them to illustrate possibility, so I bit my tongue and let it go. I noticed others around me were also squirming, and the level of trust with this boss became built on silence rather than candor. Later he decided a high-profile project I had designed from concept to prototype hadn’t really been created by me but by him. He took over development of it from me and asked me to focus again on blue-sky initiatives. At that point I fully understood the downward norms of his success. I quit and restarted my career in a much better place.

Think of your own office emulation. Got a nasty example you can’t shrug off?

Now imagine the biggest Boss-in-Chief. Imagine how his daily abhorrent conduct is eating away at our nation’s cultural norms. Think about what you are seeing, hearing, and reading in routine circumstances that two years ago would have been considered appalling.

He mocks a victim of sexual assault. He mocks a physically disabled journalist. He belittles the military service and wartime imprisonment of a senator. He insults the supreme sacrifice of a Gold Star family. He touts his wealth as permission to have his way with women at his whim. He proclaims that his ability to avoid taxes makes him smart. He denies climate change in direct opposition to the vast majority of the global science community. He cries out “America First” in a nation that already consumes the most natural resources per capita and maintains the planet’s unequalled reserve of nuclear weapons.

What impact might that egoism be having on the rest of us? I’m not suggesting most of us long to lead rallies with chants of locking up an opponent, but think about what you are doing that you wouldn’t have done publicly in the prior time frame. Might you be acting ever so slightly differently? Are you feeling OK about it? I’m not.

Trump’s impact on our lives rises beyond the content of his thin theories and thinner policies. His stab to our innards is more than the overt lies he tells without remorse. The deterioration he is causing is systemic. Were we to be transformed in his image, his chaos would become our chaos.

Modern leadership is a privilege built upon empathy and humility. To rise above cynicism, we must embrace the notion of leadership by example. When we are entrusted with authority, what we do is what we allow others to do.

When a boss whispers, it’s a shout. When a boss shouts, it’s a call to arms.

Ridding ourselves of this malady will be no small trick. If it’s crept into your world view, start to root it out. If it’s infected your workplace, blow it up with a bomb. No, no bombs. Just eliminate it without drama. Insist collectively that the dreadful antics go away!

When enough of us allow Trump’s norms to become our own, the detriment to our well-being will last well beyond his term, likely beyond the life service of a Supreme Court justice. That vile tone will remain his legacy long after we think we are done with him.

When we rot, we decay until we dissolve. It’s not OK to let ourselves rot. Not now. Not ever.

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Image: Pixabay

Proactive Means Now

For many of us the new year begins with the best of intentions. It’s not so much that we delude ourselves in committing to resolutions we will never pursue as it is the open calendar before us filled with possibility and promise. What can we do with all of those days between now and the end of the year? The choices are as endless as the opportunities.

Almost immediately we start falling behind in our daily tasks. Days into the new year we are already playing catch up. Why can’t we get ahead of our task lists and beat the daily grind into submission? Why can’t we focus on projects and prospects that matter? Why do we spend endless hours on stuff but still waste so much time?

Maybe it’s just too easy to kick the can.

Difficult challenges don’t sort out themselves. They have to be wrangled and wrestled. That’s the kind of intellectual and emotional commitment that takes the force of will to muster. If you want to achieve meaningful progress, you have to get ahead of your calendar, not let it consume you.

Want that glorious promotion at work? It’s not going to find you.

Want to make a significant dent in your competition? They aren’t going on vacation to give you breathing room to pounce.

Want to learn a new skill, a new language, accelerate your ability in an artistic discipline, or finally figure out why your department is going sideways instead of upward? Those are all really difficult things to do that won’t take place between Facebook posts or tweets.

If you want to stop drowning in your dizziness, learn to think proactively. Set your sights on a potential outcome and work your way back to the present. Envision a roadmap and establish a set of checkpoints that will lead you to a better outcome. Own the outcome by owning the process.

Most important, you need to do it now. Not in a month. Not in a week. Not tomorrow. Not in an hour. Now means now.

Procrastination will cost you your dreams. If you have dreams, you need to act on them. Even if you don’t have dreams, and you should, if you have stuff to do that will make you more successful and personally fulfilled, you need to do it immediately.

Not after breakfast. Not after lunch. Not at the day’s end when you are exhausted, pissed off, and want to climb under a blanket. Do it now.

I don’t care if you’re busy. We’re all busy. If you are putting off the stuff that matters for busywork, knock it off. Do the hard stuff first. Busywork is a punt. People do busywork to look busy, often at the expense of making a difference.

What does it mean to be proactive? It means not waiting to be reactive.

Reactive is a deflating death march of punch lists.

Proactive is an uplifting rallying cry of planning.

Reactive is missing a sales forecast and formulating a remedy to catch up on lost business.

Proactive is outpacing a sales forecast by building customer loyalty through surprising and delighting.

Reactive is compiling a list of customer complaints bludgeoning customer service.

Proactive is regular ride-along listening sessions in customer service to turn suggestions and trends into repeatable wins.

Reactive is lowering prices to steal market share with thin margin transactions from customers who will easily abandon you to save pennies.

Proactive is designing a brand that is equal parts price, service, and quality so that small fluctuations in price become ignorable noise to your best customers.

How do you stop being helplessly reactive? You have to commit to the habits of being a self-starter. You’ll know you’re a self-starter when your boss asks a question in a meeting and everyone looks at you to serve up a suggestion fearlessly.

Ready to be a self-starter?

You need to move faster. If you thought something was going to take a week, do it in a day. Force yourself to accelerate.

You need to act with higher quality. If you thought good enough was going to please a customer, you’re wrong. Exceed their expectations.

You need to utilize fewer resources, not more. Use every tool that is available to you and don’t worry about what you don’t have.

The formula for reinvention is better, faster, cheaper. Not one, not two, not two and a half, all three.

What does being proactive mean?

Proactive means to take on a task before someone asks you to do it. It means to finish the task with excellence before someone even knows you started it.

Proactive means knocking the stuff off your to-do list that will have an impact, not the maintenance stuff that no one will notice.

Proactive means knowing that email is a tool, not a task. Unless you work in customer service, no senior executive is going to promote you because you answered all your email.

Proactive means plan for a crisis by avoiding it. If you’re dealing with a surprise crisis, you’re already reactive. Anticipate the crisis. Write down your response to the crisis before it happens. Scenario plan. Have notebooks filled with scenario plans.

Proactive means investing in quality assurance testing at five cents on the dollar instead of a product recall at 200 cents on the dollar.

There aren’t that many commonalities in the success stories you may admire, but one that holds true is urgency. Setting priorities, making time for abstract planning before reporting memos consume you, carving out blocks of time to schedule the milestones of your challenge — that’s how big things in your life will happen.

No outsider will hold you to the promises you make to yourself. You have to decide you want to be proactive. Then you have to remain consistently proactive.

Someone has to make change happen. Why not you? Your future outcome is at this moment in the making. Think about how you could be feeling this time next year if only you can get ahead of your day.

Being proactive is more than a choice. Being proactive is finding the freedom to make this year a year like no other.

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Image: Dilbert.com ©Scott Adams

Standing Your Ground

How do you know when it’s time to stand firm on a point and when it’s time to cave in and go with the flow?

The answer is obvious: You never know, not for sure.

The hardest calls are the ones you make alone. You listen intently, gather data, think about the situation, seek counsel from close advisors, but in the end if you decide to take a stand, consider yourself alone.

Values, ethics, morals — all of them seem clear on paper when you are reading about someone else’s lapse. That’s called history. You read it in hindsight with reflection. You wonder in amazement at how something so rotten could have been advanced.

Looking forward is another problem entirely.

If you think making a decision on principle is easy, you probably haven’t yet made a hard one. If you have put yourself on the line for a heartfelt conviction, you know that courage is not something usually acknowledged in the present tense. It is awarded upon completion of a task, win or lose, based on context.

In the present you might be called something else entirely: difficult.

Difficult people tend to get a bad rap, and being difficult just to be difficult is not likely to lead you to the corner office. Some of the questions we face in staring down adversity include:

  • Whether we have thoroughly thought through an objection to the more genially accepted plan we oppose.
  • Whether dissension without triumph creates any intrinsic value of its own.
  • Whether the cost of standing in isolation is worth it.

Let’s think about those three filters as we ponder a few hypothetical but easily applicable real-world examples of standing your ground in the corporate world.

Someone Getting Fired Unjustly. Suppose a colleague of yours, Charlie, has somehow become the fall guy for a project that has spiraled wildly off schedule and budget. The project team has found an easy out because your department VP is already known to dislike Charlie, so all the group has to do is subtly throw Charlie under the bus and the clock resets to zero. You don’t particularly like Charlie, but you know he is no more innocent or guilty than anyone else on the wayward team. When you suggest a defense of Charlie to the group, it becomes clear that if you go to bat for the loser, you will be ostracized, And hey, everyone knows the VP has been looking for a way to get rid of Charlie for years, so how are you going to talk her out of it?

Bonus Calculations Are Manipulated. You work under a sales leader who is a notorious sandbagger (someone who asserts a goal is a Hail Mary when it’s an underhand toss), but smooth talker that he is, his forecasts go through every year and your team receives handsome bonuses. This year he sets a revenue goal that your team has already achieved with existing repeat business. His plan is approved. This year’s goal is in the bag before the starting gun is even fired, so bonuses will be flowing like water. Then you attend a company meeting and hear the CEO say in earnest that the company is having some critical financial issues this year and will probably lose money unless everyone digs deep for a better outcome. You approach your sales leader and suggest he increases the sales goal so bonuses aren’t paid out of losses. He tells you that you don’t understand the CEO’s game, and if you so much as mention taking up the goal again, you will certainly need to find another sales team, and possibly a new employer.

Confidential Information Is Compromised. After months of going in circles and failing to make progress on a design problem, the senior engineer on your team circulates a breakthrough project plan. Your company has been losing market share to a competitor for the last year on inferior feature design at high cost, but at last that is behind you. Late one night when you are building out your portion of the specification, you overhear a conversation where the senior engineer jokes that it only cost him a few thousand dollars cash to hack the competitor’s database and extract the secret sauce that has been causing your company to lose. You approach the senior engineer and tell him you are uncomfortable with what you overheard. He tells you he was just bragging, it was open-source code he found and modified, and he would appreciate it if you didn’t broadcast that because open-source solutions are frowned upon in the company. Is he lying about open-source vs. hacking? Either way, if you speak up you’re going to be responsible for stalling the turnaround.

On first blush I’m sure most people considering these scenarios think they would do the right thing, because we all like to believe when faced with a crisis of values, ethical people will choose to act with ethical intent. Now ask yourself this: Do you know someone working beside you who has faced a similar situation and not acted in the appropriate ethical manner? If you do, why haven’t you confronted them? If you have confronted them and they have brushed you off, how far were you willing to pursue the compromise in judgment? Why are you willing to work in an environment where a person like that can get away with something so wrong?

Courage is a word that is tossed about without nearly enough care, but understand that in your time on the job you will have multiple opportunities to act courageously or not. Are you ready to put yourself to the test? Are you willing to stand your ground and take what comes with that decision when the consequences may not be reversible? If you want courage to be a descriptor of what your life is about, you’ll need to embrace the notion that poetic justice is much more present in literary fiction than it is in real life. Situational ethics may be a useful convenience, but they aren’t likely to do much for your self-esteem. You only win by doing what is right if your definition of winning is more about who you are than the outcomes you direct.

Courage is at the heart of a true leader. It can be costly in the short term, but it will always reflect your character. Standing your ground is not a question of options; it is the challenge of identity.

 

You Can’t Fix Morale

Here’s a phone call I sometimes receive, usually from someone senior in executive management or the investment team behind a once promising company:

Inquirer: Hey, we need your help with something. We have a situation and we’re not sure what to do about it.

Me: Sounds intriguing. What is the situation?

Inquirer: Well, we’re having… I’m not sure what you would call it exactly, I guess a problem with morale.

Me: What would you like me to do?

Inquirer: We would like you to help us fix morale.

Me: Oh, that. I’m sorry, I can’t help you.

Inquirer: We haven’t spoken two minutes and you already know that?

Me: Yes, I’m quite sure. I certainly would like to take your money because I’m sure you are willing to pay a lot to do something about this, but I only take on projects where I can actually help someone.

Inquirer: How can you be so sure?

Me: You can’t fix morale.

Inquirer: What do you mean? Morale gets fixed all the time.

Me: Yes, exactly. Morale gets fixed because whatever is causing it to deteriorate gets fixed, but that is where you need to look, at the disease, not a symptom.

Inquirer: Are you saying we need to fix something else in our company so that maybe it can have an impact on morale?

Me: Yes, that is what I am saying. In fact, you probably need to fix your company.

Inquirer: So a contract to fix morale is not big enough for you? You want a bigger contract to fix our company? But our company is not broken.

Me: Then you probably don’t have a morale problem and don’t need any help.

Inquirer: You’re not doing yourself any favors turning this down. It’s a big project. We have a sizeable budget for it.

Me: It’s tempting, but why don’t you have another look at the situation and maybe we can talk again.

The call usually ends there and we don’t talk again. Every once in a while we do talk again and then I tend to get involved in long stretches of dialogue with team members up and down the line. We talk about a lot of things: leadership talent, product quality, business model. We talk about creativity and innovation, passion for excellence, dedication to the customer experience. One of the things we never talk about is trying to fix morale.

Let me say it again: You can’t fix morale.

Bad morale is a byproduct, most often of poor direction, sometimes of impossible goals so ridiculous no one ever feels appreciated, other times of uneven credit and compensation in times of success. There are successful companies with good and bad morale, and struggling companies with good and bad morale. Good morale is also a byproduct — you achieve it by focusing on the right things.

I view morale as a result of process and outcomes. Process involves day-to-day workplace routines that reinforce or strip away employee engagement. Outcomes involve the continuity or deadend at the culmination of a milestone, the reward or repudiation for the commitment of time, expertise, or passion. If your process is bad, morale will be bad. If your outcomes are bad, morale will be bad.

Suppose your company wildly missed earnings targets three quarters in a row. You’ve seen your second round of layoffs in less than two years. More than half of your VPs were fired and hired in the past ten months. The CEO, also rumored to be teetering, has said repeatedly everyone needs to “work smarter, not harder,” but no one is sure which product in the pipeline is going to carry the day. Employee morale as you would expect is rotten all around you. Your colleagues are irritable and nasty. Every week someone you like leaves the company for another gig.

Let’s look at some options for addressing this:

  1. The company hires a consultant to run a survey on employee satisfaction and weeks after you fill out your survey they find out what everyone knew before the survey: Morale stinks like a decaying carcass. The CEO announces Fridays will be half days, the company will be publishing a weekly newsletter celebrating its best employees, and all VPs and above will be taking classes in how to write better reviews and talk nicely to their teams. Everyone is told he or she is appreciated and reminded to work smarter, not harder.
  2. The company holds an executive offsite where all the VPs get to articulate everything that is wrong with the company. The VPs report back to their teams that the CEO agrees, there are not enough resources in the company to go around, the timelines for deliverable are insane, and the competition has an edge on the industry that is daunting. Starting today you will have realistic goals, more resources, flexible timelines, and as long as everyone is doing their best, then management will back off and be satisfied.
  3. The CEO pulls together a half-dozen of the best minds in the company to conduct an honest post-mortem of why the company’s strategy is failing. That team then strips away all the derivative efforts that are draining resources from the company’s true mission and recommits to a narrowed product strategy that capitalizes on the company’s identified competitive advantage. The CEO then directs the executive team to align the best talent in the company with key roles on the narrowed agenda and hire new talent where mediocrity is being tolerated, then communicates the new plan to the full company in verbal and written detail, not just in an inspiring kickoff speech but in regular progress updates that are candid and coherent.

You might think the answer is obvious, but sadly it is not — especially to less experienced management teams where too many influential individuals have achieved authority through battlefield promotions. Here we are talking the bedrock of directing process and refocusing outcomes. Good process takes a lifetime to learn. Steering through outcomes whether planned or unplanned requires a deft touch. There are no shortcuts. If you don’t have the energy or commitment to take apart process and outcomes one building block at a time, you have little shot at repairing morale.

I often ask people to share with me whether they have had a single good manager in their careers. You would be surprised how many say no. In fact these days it is the rare exception of people who actually rave about a boss from the past and talk about how they are putting that learning to work. The ones who are tend to have fewer morale problems on their hands. Too many leaders’ lives are filled with morale problems because they haven’t learned how to steer past them.

Now think about all those unicorns out there — you know, the 150 or so privately funded startup companies currently valued at $1B or more. Those should be some of the happiest places in the world for people to work, big idea places filled with promise and hope for future riches. Go take a random walk through those gardens on Glassdoor. You might be surprised at what you find. They have a lot of problems. When the majority of them are unable to achieve liquidity for their option holders, they will have even more. With that will come a wave of demoralization sweeping through employee workstations. How would you go about fixing that?

You can fix a product. You can’t fix a byproduct. Fix what’s wrong in your company, not the normal human emotional reaction to what’s wrong in your company.

You certainly can fix engagement. You fix engagement through authentic vision, brilliant product design, and a rallying cry around consistent execution. Fix engagement and morale fixes itself.

Align the finest talent you can identify with challenging projects that allow them to do the best work of their careers. Keep an eye on process. Celebrate outcomes and share the wealth. Be generous with people who are meaningfully contributing to company success. Morale will be swell and you’ll have bragging rights to let everyone around you know what a great environment you’ve created for the next wave of outcomes.

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Image: Dilbert.com ©Scott Adams