Opinions That Matter

Be cautious with the advice you seek. Be more cautious with the advice you offer.

I enjoy and appreciate seeking business input from all kinds of people on all kinds of topics, but lately, I’m noticing that much of what people offer is too off the cuff. I usually know a problematic opinion is coming my way when I spend several minutes framing the complexity of a souring issue, and the assessment I receive is preceded by this phrase:

“Why don’t you just…”

That warning prelude is often followed by a very simple response in a sentence or fragment encompassing very few words. Some examples of confounding suggestions:

“Why don’t you just reduce your overhead?”

“Why don’t you just hire someone else?”

“Why don’t you just find a new supplier?”

“Why don’t you just change the value proposition to your customer?”

“Why don’t you just worry less about your brand?”

All of these phrases were spoken in earnest, in a neutral tone without any particular agenda or adversarial intention. I said my thing and they said theirs.

There’s another warning sign that preceded these suggestions—the words were delivered quite quickly, the “Why” being initiated almost instantly on the period ending my lead-in sentence.

There is a word to describe this kind of give and take. It would best be described as “conversation.”

It could also be described as “bar talk.”

There’s nothing wrong with conversation or bar talk, as long as we realize that’s what it is. Banter is entertainment, not problem-solving. Words that pass the time are not thoughtful solutions. In matters of consequence, I find chit-chat troubling traveling in both directions.

The easiest response to a “Why don’t you just…” suggestion is probably the obvious: “Uh, yeah, we thought about that and ruled it out… months ago.”

A less polite response might be: “Buddy, can you take this discussion a bit more seriously?” If you are in a bar in the midst of bar talk with someone who has been drinking a few hours, be careful in selecting that response, or at least judicious in the tone you use to convey it.

The lack of thoughtfulness in idea-sharing may come down to a matter of confidence and overconfidence. I applaud you for having a quick response to my nagging torment. It is possible I missed the obvious in the fog, but when I hear my problems so easily solved, what I really hear is someone who might not have failed enough. We all fail and to some extent learn from failure, but where is the empathy in our counsel when it comes to someone else’s dilemma, where we are less likely to lose anything if we are wrong?

Some call that having skin in the game. There is nothing that will slow down your response rate quicker than putting your own money or success at risk. You may be confident in making an investment, but when it starts to flounder, overconfidence should have already left the building.

Opinions can be interesting, but when they fail to embrace consequences, they can undermine trust in relationships.

When I am sharing a problem with you, I am not simply venting. I am seeking an improved outcome. If you want to help me, try getting me to rethink the problem in areas I might be stuck. Try some of these approaches on me and you’re likely to catch me listening more intently:

“What is the data telling you about changes in circumstance?”

“When you made that choice, what were the key factors that led to your initial decision?”

“Are your competitors in the same boat, or is this unique to your company?”

“Is the situation temporary and likely to reverse with more usual market conditions, or have the market conditions fundamentally changed?”

“What other advice have you received on the topic, and how was it helpful or damaging?”

If I share a problem with you, I don’t expect you to have the solution. Unless I have gotten ridiculously lucky, you probably can’t solve my problem. Yet if we work through a set of abstracts together, it is possible you might cause me to look at the problem differently and start me on the path to identifying a new solution. Dialogue like that in times of trouble has infinitely more value than a spitball suggestion.

Ego gets in our way when we think the winning outcome of a discussion is to have the right answer. That kind of overconfidence is unrealistic at best and reckless at worst.

Our roles in listening to each other are about being helpful, about unlocking hidden secrets in our judgment and navigating safely around treacherous obstacles. Slam dunks may win bragging rights, but in my many decades on the job, I’ve never heard one that changed the landscape in real-time.

Our words have consequences. Noble advice requires discipline and credibility. If what you prefer is bar talk, let me know and I’ll tell you why I think the Dodgers lost the last two World Series. I can’t imagine anyone in Dodgers management asking my opinion on that. Why would they seek an opinion that didn’t matter?

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Image: Pixabay

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.

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

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

Tell Me About Your Day

Here’s something people often say in companies when you ask them what they accomplished last week, last month, or last year:

“A lot of time is taken up by everyday stuff.”

Let’s talk about that. What is the everyday stuff? Is the work being produced commensurate with the expense?

A few years ago I wrote a post called Too Busy To Save Your Company. I refer to this post often when I am asked to look at a company and comment on why it is not as productive as it should be. It can be a consulting or investment meeting, but when I see lots of people running around or pounding on keyboards but an income statement in decline, I usually start by asking a few key people in the company to describe their days to me.

They often tell me that they spend a lot of time going to meetings and responding to email. When I remind them that meetings and email are not tasks, they are tools for accomplishing tasks, there is often an “Aha Moment.” That’s when I know we can make some progress.

You are wasting time. It is inevitable. How do I know? Because I waste time. Everyone does. No one is 100% efficient. The question is one of scope. Do you own your priorities or do distractions own you? When you start there, you begin to take control of your destiny.

Time management is neither a touchy-feely topic nor a chokehold on creativity. It is how you allocate your most precious and perishable resource, the ways you choose to spend your hours. The portion of your time that is discretionary and how you choose to utilize it is the difference between having a shot at winning and losing for sure. Note that I say it is a choice, because even if you don’t make active decisions about how you spend your hours, the choice to squander time remains a choice.

Try this exercise for a week: Write down hour by hour what you do on the job. If you spend an hour on researching the cost of something, write that down. Log each of your phone calls and meetings chronologically. More importantly, note what you were talking about and if any key decisions were made. Be as detailed as you can. If you read an article on the internet write that down, including what you learned or didn’t learn. If you shopped for yourself, chuckled through laugh-inducing videos, or commented passionately on Facebook, account for these by collecting them into small blocks of time. Don’t worry about the confession, you can delete the audit later. Be brutally honest and exceptionally thorough. This is solely for you.

Now go back and look at your goals for the year. If you don’t have any goals, that’s a much bigger problem which you need to solve before this post will be relevant to your progress. I’m going to assume you have 4 – 6 overarching annual goals agreed upon with the people who pay you or your partners, stuff like “increase sales 25%” or “decrease customer complaints 10%” or “launch 2 new apps per quarter” or “hire 15 regional salespeople.” You get the idea, stuff that matters, the stuff that keeps you from falling into the trap of being too busy to save your company.

Color code each item on your time accounting to match one of your goals. Try green for sales or blue for product improvements, soothing colors of accomplishment. If a block of time doesn’t match up with a goal, use a different color for DOES NOT APPLY TO A GOAL. A good color for this is red because it should be a warning color.

If you see very little red and an even distribution of the other colors against your 4 – 6 goals, you’re doing fine and can stop reading here. Congratulations, you are in perfect harmony and have a well-balanced calendar. As long as your company is growing and generating a healthy profit, this post is not for you.

On the other hand, if what you see is a disproportionate allocation of color — say, 80% blue but you have 4 other goals with minimal color showing— you are out of whack. If what you see is a sea of red, either quickly finish this post and get back to work or find another good post about writing a resume.

Now on a clean calendar, I want you to block your time as you should be spending it. If cold calls are 25% of what you should be doing, block 10 hours per week; it can be 2 hours each business day or 5 hours twice per week, whatever you fancy. I know, you work way more than 40 hours, but for budgeting purposes use that as a baseline.

Now compare the calendars. Want to know why you are not making a bigger dent in your goals? That’s why.

Time management is a subject I address regularly with colleagues as a proactive tool. Each time I assemble a new team, I have this talk with the senior people about their own time management and how seriously they take it, manage it, and monitor it. Leadership by example, right? The people who take it seriously are usually much more successful than the ones who blow it off. At its core, it is active versus passive resource management. Time lost is unrecoverable.

Oh, one more thing: Please don’t forget to set aside time for brainstorming and dreaming. Sometimes we call that shooting the sh*t. If it’s about stuff you think doesn’t matter, it might be wasteful. If it leads one big idea in a year, it can transform your business. Leave time to shoot the sh*t productively. The 5% to 10% of your time you leave for dreaming is where real change starts to happen and companies begin to reinvent themselves. If every minute of your day is consumed with scheduled or forgettable tasks, big ideas are going undiscovered.

Don’t leave all your time to everyday stuff. Do stuff that matters. Then dream on.

Three Arguments Against Performance Reviews

sb-2015-blog-top-10I don’t like performance reviews. I never liked giving them, and I never liked getting them. They are like school report cards, only less well-meaning and more poorly formed. They make the workplace more political, needlessly enforcing nerve-wracking centers of power. They serve a legal function much more than a creative function. They don’t make products better and they don’t serve customer needs. They are obligatory, perfunctory, dreaded time sucks for both giver and receiver, putting a check mark in an annual rite of passage that is largely ignored until the Earth completes another full orbit around the Sun.

On the other hand, I love feedback—really good, thoughtful, useful, timely, focused feedback. I love to give it and I love to get it as part of a regular routine.  No check boxes, no check marks. Feedback, sometimes known as coaching, requires relevant substance to have impact. It needs to center on step by step improvement in how an individual is doing against goals, how a team is advancing by virtue of an individual’s progress, how innovation is being served by attitudes and decisions on a daily basis, and how an individual’s achievements are translated into outcomes valued by an employer.

I don’t believe anyone can effectively coach, empower, and bolster an individual’s workplace contributions sitting down once a year and filtering a list of positive and negative attributes. The best you can hope for is polite-speak that doesn’t upset anyone too much—unless you are marching someone to the door—and the worst you can muster is demoralization that shuts down all future hope of trust and collaboration.

Here are three thumbnail cases against performance reviews that you should find terrifying.

Argument 1: Performance reviews can put off for up to a year what needs attention now

Performance reviews can be a passive-aggressive haven for managers afraid to lead in the present. You know something wrong is happening, and you know it’s going to be uncomfortable to deal with it. Rather than do the right thing and jump on a concern in real-time, you kick the can, deluding yourself into believing there is a chance the issue will sort itself out. While it’s not sorting itself out, considerable damage is being done. You tell yourself if the individual doing wrong doesn’t figure it out by the next performance review cycle, you will deal with it then. This is pain avoidance up the ladder at the cost of pain induction everywhere else. It’s not leadership. It’s cowardice.

Instead of keeping notes for the big annual summation of all that has gone wrong, how about a simple human conversation today around what is and isn’t working for an employee. Start with an easy question: “How are things going?” If you don’t like the answer, offer your own opinion. Start a dialogue. Make it specific, give-and-take, and optimistic in nature. Do not catalog a set of ills. Begin with previously discussed goals and work forward from those to observations and measurements. Instead of feeling evaluated, an employee is likely to feel directed, supported, and knowledgeable about where he or she stands.

There is no greater fear in an employee than worrying about what the boss thinks. There is no confidence greater than knowing the truth of that opinion right now, while there is still time to do something about it.

Argument 2: Performance reviews are largely clueless  on the value of failure

Imagine this scenario: You are an executive with significant profit and loss responsibility. One of your most promising managers has just led a two-year late-to-market death march on a brand extension that has launched and failed. The team that worked on this product is angry and exhausted. Boatloads of resources, including millions of dollars of investment capital, have gone up in smoke. You have lost market share, customer service complaints are up, and your own boss is pissed off.

In most corporations, you can guess the review would be harsh. There would have to be accountability for the downside, the losses, the ceding of momentum. In the event you chose not to put the manager on a “performance improvement plan” (which both you and the employee know is a scripted formality), the mandated gravitas of your critique might get you the intended outcome—the employee’s resignation. If the employee doesn’t resign, what are the real chances he or she will bounce back and give their all on the next go around? Aren’t they more likely to tread water until they find a way to navigate to a new job elsewhere?

Here’s the problem with this exit: Your employee takes all the learning from the failure directly to your competitor. You have funded the education of your competition and put yourself further behind the curve by virtue of the reprimand. You got what you wanted, except you didn’t. A performance review codifies failure “for the record” as historical documentation of the negative case, and even where it might allude to the notion that learning has occurred, there’s something about those pieces of paper in our “permanent file” that never sits quite right with us. Talk with me as colleague, make me believe you embrace “mi fracaso es su fracaso,” and together we’ll put this learning to work. Mold my upside down experiment into a tombstone and you can forever bury me and all that might someday come of it.

Argument 3: Performance reviews require a level of mentoring expertise few managers ever master

It’s really hard to explain to someone how they can learn from mistakes and get better at what they do. I’m not saying it’s a little hard. It is one of the hardest things any of us are ever asked to do in a job function. Each time we blow it, we never get a chance to repair the enormous damage we create on top of whatever relatively minor damage has already been done. A career is a terrible thing to waste, yours or mine. Do you really feel up to the right to objectively assess where I’ve gone off the rails?

We need to be extraordinarily careful where we entrust the authority for talent evaluation in an organization. Too often it’s the battlefield promotion—or drawing the short straw—that puts an inexperienced manager on point for filling out these crazy forms. It’s a mistake to believe you’re ready to handle this delicate task simply because of where you sit on an org chart.

Let’s try that performance review about failure again in the form of higher level feedback rather than evaluation, from someone who has been at it several decades and really wants a winning outcome. The leader entrusted with course correction can ask a single question, and then shut up for about half an hour while listening to the answer: What did you learn from this failure?

If an employee has little or nothing to say in response—if the answer you hear lacks substance or authenticity in addressing what might come next—proceed to complete the performance review. It doesn’t matter what you write on the page. Your competitor is getting nothing but a disingenuous cost center. Lucky you. Yet if you like what you hear, you have the beginnings of a rebound, because all learning is valuable in a comeback. No one knows more than an employee who has failed what went wrong and how to course correct. It’s not about a performance review. It’s about what comes next, and how you get better.

A performance review is a task, feedback is a means

There are a hundred legal reasons your company wants documented performance reviews, every one of them sensible and with precedent. Sadly not one of them has anything to do with innovation. It’s not failure if it’s learning. Not many people ever learn to think this way. Any success subsequent to a failure can pay for the failure ten times over, a hundred times over. Any lost knowledge following a failed initiative is plain old sunk cost.

I write often about employer and employee loyalty and my sense is how employees are evaluated has a lot to do with their predisposition to hanging around for next year’s evaluation. Maybe you shouldn’t wait a year to communicate something that matters so much in a format that makes Human Resources happy. Remember, most employees don’t quit jobs, they quit bosses. The really talented ones who have options are likely to despise performance reviews, but they love talking with someone who cares about what they do and how they can get better.

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This article originally appeared on SmartBlog on Leadership.

Photo: SmartBlog on Leadership

Leading Teams Toward Success Using People, Products and Profits

I’ve written the words People, Products, Profits (In That Order!) so many times over the years it would be easy to think of them as simply a slogan I use, a catchphrase meant to pique your interest. I assure you this is no more the case than Apple using the words Think Different as a clever tagline. Like the words Think Different, People-Products-Profits is part management philosophy, part rallying cry, and in an aspirational context, part religion. When I invoke these words to set the table for embarking on the outrageous, it is with the full knowledge that I could sound silly, fail miserably, fall on my face, or possibly convince you that relentless pursuit of the extraordinary is within your grasp. That’s a lot to bite off in a very few words. It’s meant to be.

In my new book, Endless Encores, a veteran CEO named Daphne spends an evening talking with an up-and-coming executive named Paul, helping him come to terms with the potential first failure he could be facing following a huge initial success. They are stuck in an airport, passing the hours. She is a leader and he is leader, only at the moment he is too obsessed with his own personal exposure to realize that he is failing to be a leader by trying to duck out of the way of his own mishap. By worrying more about what he has done than what he has learned, he has shifted the weight of his problem from marginal to endemic. In truth, the failure he might be facing is not so much a setback as it is an opportunity. By the end of the story, he has embraced that and reset his sights on the long game.

Save for the guidance from Daphne, Paul might have missed the boat. And the plane. And all that might have been ahead of him in the form of material reward, passionate accomplishment, intellectual richness, and emotional fulfillment. It’s a close call, but he makes it over the coals. You can, too, if either you have a Daphne in your corner and you’re willing to listen, or if you otherwise come to acknowledge your role as a leader is more about the long-term example you set than the specific offering you at the moment champion. One is permanent and tangible, the other fleeting and beyond your control. Where would you prefer to focus?

Leading through People, Products, and Profits means committing to the idea that talent is a priori to all success. This has much less to do with your own talent than the talent you assemble, empower, and inspire. World class products and services don’t create themselves. They are created by human beings, most often high performance teams, and the time you devote to building and bolstering those teams is a direct reflection of your values.

When your team identifies a product concept that is worth pursuing, leadership becomes the championing of execution over the touting of an idea. We can all dream up big ideas, but few of us can bring them to market. Those who can almost invariably need some form of stewardship to hold the team together through unending punch lists of details. If that’s not challenge enough, you can have the best team in the world and the best product in the world, but if your business model is not sensible and doesn’t sustain the enterprise, it really doesn’t matter what you set out to accomplish. A business has to create value, usually measured in the form of profit, and if you can’t lead a team to do that more often than not, you’re not likely to get many chances to stand in the center ring.

The point of the rallying cry is to set a tone of priority, balance, and perspective. Everyone likely wants a business that is profitable, but leaping straight to the outcome ignores the most valuable element in the mix: your customers. An exceptional team that has been well-directed puts the customer in first position, in essence their supreme boss, with the primary hope that if a customer’s expectations are exceeded, that customer can become a customer for life. When we talk about the notion of lifetime value, we are talking about just that: Have we surprised and delighted a customer in such a way that they ascribe emotion to the brand we represent? Will they come back for more with cost-effective prompting, and will they tell their influence circles about the breadth and depth of their fine experience? That’s why a business leader is accountable first to customers, because they hold all the cards, and that’s why when they pursue a business opportunity, they place investment in talent first, product innovation second, and business model third. You need all three, but put them in the wrong order and you are left extracting value from a customer rather than bonding a customer who becomes a partner in creating value.

Yes, you have to juggle three balls at once in sequence if you want to repeat success, and you have to do it over and over. It’s not easy and it’s not supposed to be easy, because if it were, you wouldn’t be worthy of praise or wealth because anyone could do it. Likewise, leadership is a choice. It’s not for everyone. The rewards are far often more intrinsic than measurable, and falling on your face in a public forum is never going to be fun. You will fail. We all fail. If you learn when you fail you will also win. You have to decide if leadership is really something you’re ready to shoulder. If you are, choose your words and the order of those words carefully. The talent around you will only become cynical if you’re insincere and don’t stand for something more than winning right now.

Repeating success is about the journey. Leading is about tone and substance. Projects are always short. Careers can be short or long. The choice is always yours. Your values always matter. If you’re deliberate in determining how you build a culture of shared values, the best around you will always be listening. Stay authentic and their results will surprise you. Those are likely to be extremely pleasant surprises.

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This article originally appeared on Leadership Now.

Photo courtesy of Free Range Stock