The Business Efficiency of Integrity

A 2-fer! One of my favorite companies & sites! Menasha, 165+ years old, is growing, profitable, solving customers' real problems and having an impact.  Key? Integrity - it truly pays dividends. Read on.  

"While much has been written about the relationship between integrity, trust and profitability in the last few years, there are companies who have lived this for over 100 years, like a 165 year old, billion dollar plus, 6 generation family business in Wisconsin, Menasha Corp.  Last year, in a discussion on the paradox of integrity, trust and vulnerability with John Hagel, Saul Kaplan, Mike Waite, President of Menasha Packaging Corp. (MPC) and myself, shared how integrity is key to Menasha’s success."  Read on..

When Did Accountability Become Passé?

From customers’ and suppliers’ viewpoint, Company X is fast growing, exciting, and high-energy. Inside, though,Diamantini & Domeniconi and designed by Tak Cheung  it’s a tornado. Fighting fires, arguing over who committed to what, why it didn’t happen, and noticing things that fell through the cracks in just enough time is normal.

How can this happen when they have weekly departmental meetings, keep track of action items, and post projects and timelines everywhere? Easily! There is no accountability. They don’t hold each other accountable for commitments. They’ve seen what happens when you fail, and it isn’t pretty, which undermines individual commitment. Requesters frequently change their minds, reprioritize, or create new, more urgent projects without ever really closing the loop on the old ones.

The Bell Labs culture I grew up in had a strong sense of accountability. When you’re working on things that literally change the world, it’s easy to be committed to something bigger than yourself. The “Labs” culture meant failure was a viable option. Success was discovery and application, not climbing a corporate ladder. At AT&T, the culture was the opposite. While I was privileged to have great management, the majority of AT&T focused on the bottom line. Failure was not an option. When I left AT&T and started working with many companies, I realized this culture was more the norm, not Bell Labs. That’s why I believe culture creates (at least?) two reasons for people’s struggle with accountability.

First is the fear of failure. Even before kindergarten, we’re taught failure is bad. What if we can’t do it or do it right or something goes wrong? So, we whittle down the scope, involve others so blame can be shared, make resource requests we know won’t fly, or let our fear hold us back from really creative solutions.

Since “failure is not an option” is still the modus operandi in most organizations and the odds of success are never certain, accepting accountability can be very risky. What if I can’t deliver? What if the people I need to work with won’t make the time or collaborate? What if factors I can’t control impede or inhibit success? Will I get a poor performance appraisal? Will I lose prestige, status, or my promotion? If there is a downturn, am I going to get cut? Unfortunately, these are natural, normal responses to accountability.

Accountability means putting our word and reputation on the line. Someone is counting on us — and we should care that someone is counting on us. If failure’s not an option, that can feel like too much of responsibility — or a liability — to take on.

The second problem is a lack of commitment on either or both sides. Either we don’t believe the request is important enough to make us change our priorities, or we don’t trust the “asker” to keep his end of the commitment. If the requester keeps changing his mind, his priorities or timelines, then it’s tough to accept accountability for the outcome. Trade-offs have to be made which means sacrifice — of time, priorities, perhaps things we are passionate about. Accountability works both ways, and if one party isn’t really committed, it can undermine the entire project.

Realities of 21st century business make accountability even more daunting. In the “old” days, a commitment’s path to success was fairly clear, linear, defined and prescriptive: follow this framework or process, and you’ll get there. Today, the path is usually messy, ambiguous, paradoxical, and maybe unknown. We may need to create our own frameworks and processes. It’s a discovery, not a prescriptive process, with many ways to get where we’re going, not “a” way to succeed. Success itself has changed; it used to be via a tangible output, a new product or service, a “thing” based more on what was probable than possible. Success today can be both tangible and intangible, like new learnings, viewpoints, networks, or opportunities, where we look for what is not just probable, but possible.

So, how do we help our cultures, ourselves, our people overcome the fear of failure and commit in a uncertain world? I have a few suggestions based on my experience in both accountable, and unaccountable, company cultures:

  • Communicate100. Communicate why the request is important to the organization, to both of you, and how it’s fulfillment will make a difference. What may seem trivial to us may be profound to someone else. To commit, we need to believe in something bigger than just ourselves or the organization, such as the mission and purpose of the organization. That is how we start changing behavior and making new habits.
  • Make sure that you’re present to support the request and remove or mitigate obstacles. Meet regularly to identify potential challenges and opportunities before they become a major problem.
  • Re-prioritize responsibilities and tasks to allow the person or team to complete the request. Don’t just add on. Not everything is urgent and important. Seriously, show your commitment to the request you’ve made. If it’s not worth re-prioritizing, then it isn’t worth asking.
  • Create ways to eliminate or minimize the stigma of failure. Focus on what’s been learned and how that applies, watch how you react to and treat the person, how you discuss it with others affected by the result and how you let it impact that person’s future success in the organization. Even if you can’t change the organization’s performance management process, your own personal demeanor and handling has an enormous impact.

I’ve also started to experiment with using the classic virtues to help improve accountability, but don’t have enough data’ to posit it as a suggestion above yet (though it can’t hurt).

Accountability is important on so many levels — professionally and personally. Let’s create the environment where it’s easier to have it be the norm than not.

Originally published in Harvard Business Review

It's not High School Anymore Guys!

It seems I’m spending more and more time in high school these days.  No, not my kids’ school, the business 21 - Sheesh! by Jess Esch world.  Perhaps the economy has increased insecurity, doubt and lack of trust in business; perhaps adolescence’s creeping into the 30’s is why its taking longer to grow up and be professional; or perhaps we’re so politically correct, or conflict avoiding, that we are sacrificing accountability and productivity for fear of offending.  

There are times I feel so “old-school” with my kids’ friends and and in the corporate world.  I see behavior that wasn’t tolerated in ‘my day’ and I’d never tolerate…from my kids let alone colleagues, including the C-suite.  The Harvard Business Review even ran an article “Rudeness at Work: What’s Your Story?” What the heck is going on? Are permissiveness and indulgence endemic everywhere?

Increasingly, the virtue I see that is most needed, aside from Courage, is Temperance.  I love that word.  It comes from Greek sophrosyne (moderation), which Cicero translated into the Latin temperantia.  By the mid-14th C, it evolved from the Anglo-French temperaunce to mean “self-restraint, self-control, moderation.”[*]  I think we need a heavy heavy dose of Temperance today – in any business, be it for/not-for profit, ‘social’, entrepreneurial, etc.   We need to balance protecting wealth with creating wealth, efficiency with effectiveness, and yes, compassion with responsibility. 

Many workplaces are enclaves of aiding and abetting immature, disrespectful, even harmful behavior.  People end up spending more time working around or with these people instead of doing the jobs at hand. Physical and emotional energy is sapped; time is spent in the weeds providing unnecessary levels of detail and hand-holding because people want to be told exactly what to do instead of taking the initiative; and employees are not asked to step up their game, limiting their professional growth and burdening the entire organization culturally and productively.  Trust declines, morale declines, and the company’s ability to attract and retain talent erodes.

What is the outcome? Increasing risk in delighting the customer.  Plain and simple.  At the end of the day, that’s what matters, because otherwise there is no business.  While it may be ‘easier’ in the short term to aid and abet, it will destroy your organization in the long term.  At some point, it’s very difficult to prevent this behavior from affecting your customers in some shape or form.  And let’s face it, we’re not helping anyone by avoiding the issue…we’re kicking the can down the road. 

So, please think about how you can apply Temperance in 2013.  Apply to yourself first, your team, and your organization. As the leader, you set the tone. This may not be easy, but it is so important to create and sustain a culture that continually delights it customers…because of it’s people, it’s culture.

A special Thank You to my friend, Jess Esch, for letting me use her fabulous sketches in my posts! 


[*] temperance. (n.d.). Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved December 11, 2012, from Dictionary.com website: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/temperance

 

Happiness or Value?

21st century capitalism is shifting focus from making money to making meaning (ends vs. means, trailing indicators v leading indicators). This is good and necessary.  However, ‘happiness' is starting to dominate discussions about 21st C capitalism, even in governments' measures of economic growth.  While it is important to find happiness in life, make no mistake, even in the 21st C, business is all about value, not emotion.  To keep creating jobs, paying taxes for schools, donating to the arts, growing communities, etc., business must first and foremost create and deliver real value to customers (and then to other stakeholders, like shareholders).  Happiness  Value!

This is not to say that happiness isn't important.  It is.  It makes total business sense to try to create an environment in which employees can be happy.  The way Tony Hsieh has run Zappos is a great example of a ‘happy' culture...which delivers significant value.  But a company, a person, an experience is not responsible for another's happiness.

Happiness is taking on a tone of a right, of entitlement.  We must not go from "it's all about mywealth/stuff" to "it's all about my happiness" with "MY" remaining front and center.  Usually, happiness focuses on ‘me' - extrinsic, external things making me happy - my friends, my family, my job, my stuff, my stature, etc.  If happiness is the goal, it's a fool's errand - the desire/need to constantly feed it is insatiable.  The incredibly prescient Declaration of Independence states, "We hold these truths to be self-evident...endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness..." As Saul Kaplan, a sage and friend, asked, what if the Founding Fathers had replaced ‘happiness' with ‘goodness'?

John Stuart Mill, a stalwart believer in free-markets and liberty, said, "Those only are happy who have their mind fixed on some object other than their own happiness...not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else they find happiness by the way."

What if that meant creating something truly good, truly valuable, consistently, for someone else?  Isn't that what companies should be doing? If they don't, we won't need to worry about happy employees and customers. So, in this 21st century, let's focus our energies, time, and resources on providing real and significant value.