We all have excuses for our bad habits, and you’d better believe that companies and organizations are full of excuses. The following phrases may sound familiar to you: “We’ve tried that before and it didn’t work.” “I didn’t make my numbers because…” “Here are all things that could go wrong.” “I can’t get everything done.” “It’s not my job. It wasn’t my fault.” “I wish management would stop changing their minds.”
Excuses signal systemic problems that are deeply embedded in the corporate culture. And while some hostile economic events are unavoidable, I find that many companies suffer from the same five crippling habits:
Crippling Habit 1: Absence of Clear Directives
If you’re hearing or saying any of the following, then your company or organization suffers from an absence of clear directives. “I can’t get anything done.” “Everything is a priority.” “I wish management would quit changing their minds.” “I didn’t know I was supposed to do that.”
As a leader, you must make sure everyone who reports to you understands and stays focused on achieving the company’s most important objectives, the things that matter most and must get done. Listen for what’s keeping people from doing what’s important. Have you set goals that are specific and measurable? Can everyone in your company articulate these goals? Do they understand how their jobs directly support these goals?
It’s easy to discover the answers to these important questions. When I’m working with a company to improve operating results and profitability, one of the first things I do is walk around and ask people at all levels what the company’s goals are. If they can tell me, pull it up on a computer screen, or point to a sign in their office or a break room and then describe how their work fits into the company’s top objectives, my job is going to be a lot easier.
Most of the time employees don’t know their employer’s top objectives, and they struggle to directly connect their work to desired outcomes. Sometimes I don’t even have to ask the questions, all I have to do is listen and observe. Are heads down and focused? Are people having action- and goal-oriented conversations, or are they surfing the Internet or reliving their weekends?
Of course, you can’t just announce your goals and expect them to happen. For example, if improving customer loyalty by five percent, reaching specific production and sales goals, and increasing profitability by two percent are your primary objectives, not only must you make them clear, measurable, and visible, but you must also find ways to get them practiced.
Put them front and center on meeting agendas, in ongoing written and verbal communications, and in marketing collateral. Make them come to life in everything that company does. If they’re just a number posted on the wall like the old Soviet quota system, then you’ll just have business as usual.
You also have to be expert at saying no. There are always more things to accomplish than time and resources allow. Therefore it’s management’s job to help employees triage their tasks to determine what’s most important to accomplish first. It’s just as critical to identify what won’t get done, relieving employees of less important responsibilities so the company can achieve the results that matter most.
I once reported to a senior executive who constantly frustrated me when I sent him requests requiring him to take action, and he would seldom respond. It didn’t take me long to ask him why. His response was, “I only work on my top priorities and leave the rest for my organization to handle.” So it was no less frustrating the next time I needed him to take action, knowing my request rested at the bottom of the pile.
Yet I had learned three important lessons. First, inform people of your priorities and what you will and won’t spend time doing. Second, time is finite—we all must prioritize. Third, he expected me to lead my department. After all, I held this experience because of my experience and ability. Remember why you were hired.
Crippling Habit 2: Lack of Accountability
If you’re hearing “I would have done it but…” or “It’s not my job,” around your company, then your business is suffering from a lack of accountability.
When I find a culture of blame or a victim mentality, it often points to a lack of clear ownership and the fact that the company’s reward system isn’t linked to results. People need to know what they’re responsible for delivering. They’ll know this if you tell them directly and unambiguously. You must also reward results, and to do that you have to measure performance against clearly defined goals.
When I visit a company, I ask people what they’re doing and if they know how their job fits into the company’s top directives. I then ask, “How well are you performing, and how do you know?”
To be effective you must measure results against goals—not just quarterly or at year’s end, but often weekly or even daily. While “meeting mania” is certainly unproductive, frequent meetings that focus on performance against those goals are absolutely necessary—and absolutely productive. Managers, along with everyone else in the company, must be held accountable. If you don’t make your goals, there must be a penalty.
The best carrot and the strongest stick are often compensation. I can’t believe how frequently I find that year after year workers who don’t meet their objectives continue to get pay raises. If there are no consequences for poor performance, you can’t expect improvement. What you can expect is a company full of poor performers.
As a leader, you must be a careful listener. There are times when people will tell you, “I would have done it but…” and the rest of the answer is not an excuse but a clue to a real problem. If your sales force is telling you they can’t meet quota because the price is too high, dig deeper to find the root cause. There might be a weakness in your value proposition or your competitor might have a lower cost structure. It’s also possible your team might not have the tools or training to make their goals.
Being able to differentiate between excuses and real problems is an essential part of management. Be responsible to people, not for them. By removing roadblocks to success, leaders enable employees to become fully responsible for delivering results.
It’s easy to shift the focus of every meeting to accountability. First, require everyone to ask themselves why they’re there. Can they make a difference? If not, ask them to disinvite themselves and get back to the tasks that can make a difference. Then make sure someone in the meeting captures the action items: what needs to be done, what assistance is required, who’s going to do it, and by when.
Next time the team meets, start the meeting by reviewing the list of action items and commitments from the previous meeting. This will ensure progress toward the ultimate objective. When you encounter roadblocks and objectives are at risk, the entire team should address the situation proactively and make substantive offers to help. Hold people accountable, and watch results improve.
Crippling Habit 3: Rationalizing Inferior Performance
Whenever you hear “they,” as in, “If only they would do their jobs,” and “I work hard, why are they complaining?” instead of “I” in conversation about meeting goals, you can bet someone is rationalizing by creating a defense mechanism that justifies inferior performance. When people in a company aren’t meeting their goals, but they take ownership by communicating what they require to succeed, how much it will cost, and who needs to help them, that’s an example of an organization committed to results. Leaders capable of changing the focus from excuses and rationalization to removing the roadblocks that inhibit great performance should be held out as role models.
When the most productive leaders hear someone rationalizing inferior performance, they switch the conversation from negative to positive. Instead of asking why an individual hasn’t met a goal, ask what he’s doing to get there. Does he need help? What stands in the way? During these conversations, make certain ownership and accountability are maintained while you focus on actions required to achieve the desired outcome.
If rationalization regularly dominates discussions of performance, leaders also must ask themselves a few questions: Are you tolerant of excuses? Is there clear ownership of objectives? Are you focusing on what’s most important—the significant few—or the important many? Is compensation tied to results or activity? Have you established the systems and culture to support your people in attaining their goals? Are you hiring people who are smarter than you, who can evaluate situations and offer wisdom and experience to narrow the performance gap and accelerate the attainment of objectives?
Crippling Habit 4: Planning in Lieu of Action
If only I had a nickel for every time I heard one of the following: “That’s not in the plan.” “We missed the plan and need a revised forecast.” “I’m updating the plan to incorporate the shortfall.” When companies don’t meet their profit objectives quarter after quarter, all too often everyone eventually blames the plan. Leaders then blame the employees and downsize the company. It’s a vicious, disastrous, and expensive cycle.
Even though it may sound absurd, this scenario plays out frequently. Companies spend enormous amounts of time, energy, and resources on planning. They hire consultants and travel offsite to planning retreats. They bring in experts to come up with brilliant plans, and afterward, everyone feels good for a while.
The problem is that companies too often don’t invest an equal amount of time, energy, and resources on achieving the results the plan targets. Instead they go through several quarters before realizing that they’re not achieving the results they’d planned for, and so they say, “Let’s revise the plan again.”
I worked with one company that dedicated incredible resources to planning and reporting. It seemed like all they did was create reports that sat on the shelf. After a couple of months of asking what all of the reports were designed to accomplish, I determined that many of them had just grown insidiously and weren’t used by anyone. Someone made a request and it was put on a to-do list, and, eventually, tremendous resources were dedicated to activities that in no way helped the company achieve its objectives. Unfortunately this unproductive and costly cycle still goes on today inside many companies.
The most effective plans are those with specific, measurable goals that are evaluated monthly. Long-range plans covering three to five years are useful for setting and communicating direction and should be restricted to senior management. Short-range plans covering 12 to 18 months are what leaders need most to remain on course and manage results.
Plans and associated measurements must focus on simple-to-articulate goals owned by specific people. The measurement system has to be visible weekly, or in some cases even daily, so that everyone knows the results and understands the deviations. When deviations occur—and they will—a company must act immediately to remedy the situation. Problems never get better without action. They only grow worse.
Critical projects such as software development and deployment of new systems and major capital construction projects are a few examples of instances where important measurements have to be managed closely. If progress in any area falls behind plan, immediate action is required to minimize the impact and to regain lost ground. Key measures include percent of project completed compared to percent of budget spent; number of milestones completed on schedule compared to plan; product/service revenue compared to plan; and expense as a percent of revenue. The more important the outcome, the tighter the results have to be managed.
Crippling Habit 5: Aversion to Risk and Change
How do you like this excuse: You’re new to a company, you have some great ideas for improvements, you share them, and then you get shot down with, “Once you know what we’re facing, you’ll understand why we do things this way.”
In other words, once you become a part of the problem, you won’t want to shake things up.
It’s true we’re all creatures of habit. We’d much rather navigate familiar territory and clutch the belief that if we just keep doing what we’ve done that produced good results, those outcomes will continue in perpetuity. Of course, that theory is ridiculous, because the world around us is in constant flux.
What’s even more ridiculous is that many businesses just keep doing things that have produced bad results, always expecting a different outcome. They become expert at rationalization and maintain that way of thinking until something dramatic happens to the business. Sometimes the higher up you go in an organization, the more prevalent this behavior becomes. Why? Because senior people believe they have more to protect, so they didn’t want to risk losing anything.
Picture an old dog lying on the porch, moaning. “What’s wrong with your dog?” a visitor asks the owner. “Well, he’s lying on a nail, but it doesn’t hurt quite enough to make him get up,” the owner replies.
It’s the same in business—the pain of change must be perceived as less than the pain of maintaining the status quo. Until this condition is met, little will change.
Most companies wait too long to change. They delay until there is no other choice. We see it every day. Companies are taking high write-offs, reducing their workforces, cutting benefits, dividends, and earnings expectations, then finally resorting to change because their competition has beaten them or they are facing a financial crisis. Not-for-profit organizations that react too slowly end up cutting services, depleting surpluses, reducing their staff, and receiving fewer donations.
In addition to a culture of excuses and rationalization, another symptom of aversion to risk is meeting mania. If a company is gridlocked in too many meetings, then someone in that company is afraid to make a decision. That someone is usually at the top, and, unfortunately, this behavior trickles all the way down through middle management to the line workers.
People want to work for leaders who have the guts to make a decision and stick with it. If your company holds meetings with lots of people to gain broad political consensus, then a leader is trying to ensure that if something goes wrong, there will be plenty of people to blame.
Instead, management must encourage calculated risk-taking and truly demonstrate that people who take risks and occasionally miss the mark will live to try again. A culture of blame, fear, and meeting mania can’t flourish in that healthy environment. Gains in productivity alone are reason enough to put a halt to unnecessary meetings.
What leaders must communicate by example is that calculated risk-taking, seeking expert advice, assessing the pros and cons, making a decision, and then vigorously moving forward are the behaviors that earn rewards.
Bob Prosen is president and CEO of The Prosen Center for Business Advancement. More information on Kiss Theory Good Bye (Golden Pen Publishing) is available at www.kisstheorygoodbye.com.