Sunday, December 26, 2010

If your company has meaning, write it down!

At first glance it may look as if most organizations do very well without having their values written down. However, this is only a surface impression, because all organizations are based on values. The most important concern how the organization views its customers and subcontractors – and how it treats its members.
– From Kolindkuren, by Lars Kolind (English version)

Lars Kolind was CEO of Oticon, a formerly successful manufacturer of hearing aids. The company eventually became a victim of its own success, and went into a seemingly unstoppable downwards spiral. Lars Kolind reorganized the company radically, turning traditional views about how a company should work on its head. His book, Kolindkuren, is a great example of a corporate guide: It is about meaning and values, yet contains a lot of practical advice useful to everyone.

The ability to care and play nice is becoming an increasingly important success factor for business organizations. The reason is simple: The Internet has enabled customers to communicate.
Twenty years ago, dissatisfied customers rarely could or did get in touch with each other. Today, it’s easy. If a customer is dissatisfied, she may tweet or blog, or just look for other dissatisfied customers, and connecting is easy.
Of course, other groups can connect just as easily, for example employees, ex-employees, and sub-contractors. And all these groups will cross-connect, and share information with each other.
For a traditional we-are-all-about-short-term-profits-for-our-shareholders company the environment looks more and more like a PR mine-field. When these organizations attempt to take control over the situation, they almost inevitably make it worse. 
On the other hand, a company that shows genuine care, and behaves responsibly towards not just customers, but towards everyone it interacts with, has got the same factor, easy communications, working for them. When people like what you do, they will talk about it, and the word will spread.
People will like what you do, if what you do has meaning. Assuming that you are a high level executive, ideally a CEO or equivalent, and you want your organization to stand for something, what do you do? I am going to assume that you belong to the select group of high level executives who are prepared to do battle for their beliefs.
Ricardo Semler's Semco is arguably the world leader in management and leadership innovation. Semler is a great writer, but for the purpose of this article, one of the appendices is the most interesting part of the book. It contains a corporate guide written in the form of a comic strip. Easy to understand, and the focus is on practical behaviors.
You do need to spread your beliefs and values throughout the organization. An important part of this is direct interaction: You must behave in a manner consistent with your values and principles in your daily work.
Unfortunately, if your organization is larger than just a handful of people, you can't spend as much time with everyone in your company as you need. Still, there are lots of things you can do. For example, you can make sure that the people you do meet frequently do share the organizations goal and values. That is important, but it is probably not enough. You need something that allows you to communicate more directly with the people in your organization.
For starters, I’d suggest that you write the meaning, values, principles, and desired behaviors down!
Writing your ideas down is one of the best ways to share them. You do not need to write a best-seller like Sir Richard Branson, or Ricardo Semler, but you should create something that will inspire the members of your organization.
Most corporate manuals are abominable: Command & Control style do-this and don’t-do-that lists. They are boring, and, all to often, insulting to the people who are supposed to read them (but usually don’t). They do of course tell the few people who actually read them about company principles and values. It is usually not the story top management intended to tell.
Givers Gain by Dr. Ivan Meisner explains the basic philosophy of Business Network International, BNI, and tells entertaining stories about how BNI evolved to be the world's largest business referral network. Every new BNI member gets a copy of the book.
Good corporate guides are quite different. They speak about the meaning of the company, the difference it wants to do in the world. They speak about the values of the organization, and how to apply them. In particular, they tell stories about how to apply the organizational values in difficult situations. Such a guide says: this is what we believe, and this is how we live up to it when the going gets tough!
Here is a simple test for a corporate guide: Is the guide something that you yourself want to go back and read now and then? If it isn’t, throw it out! Why inflict something on other people that you do not like to read yourself?
Dave Stewart and Mark Simmons wrote The Business Playground partially to inspire other business people to dare be more creative, and partially to show off their company Weapons of Mass Entertainment, and the creative abilities that power it.
A guide that uses real life examples can be particularly powerful: When Anna found herself in [a particularly difficult situation] she did [solution consistent with organizational values].
In order to do that you need to:
  • Find stories that are applicable and true, preferably in your own organization. However, if you are faced with a dearth of engaging stories, it is better to go for true stories from outside your organization than to invent stories about people in the organization. Writing fiction, as fiction, is OK, but trying to pass fiction off as something that really happened is a no-no. First of all, it is dishonest. Second, you’ll get caught. The first reason ought to be enough.
  • Write the stuff down! I am using write a bit loosely. You could make a set of videocasts, or presentations. (No bullet points! 99% of corporate presentations are c**p. If you present about this, make sure you are in the remaining 1%. Your audience deserves it.) If you write a book, make it available in both print and eBook formats. Print-On-Demand makes it really cheap to print good quality books. Make eBooks for the convenience of the reader, not because you are cheap. Believe me, readers can tell the difference!
The Virgin Group is a very large business organization. Sir Richard Branson writes to ensure that the company values remain strong throughout the organization. And he does it well, in a very entertaining manner.
Here is an important bit: If you bring in a consultant, like me, to create a corporate guide, make sure the project is still by people in your organization, for people in your organization. When the project is done, there must be people in your organization who can say, with pride: We made this!
If you happen to be a CEO, you might think “Great idea, but I can’t write a book to save my life, and I can barely videotape my children’s birthdays.” This may be true, but so what? You can still collaborate with with a writer/editor, and a videocast director.
If you have something to contribute, do it! I wrote Tempo! to be the guide I wish I had read before starting my own business seventeen years ago. It was a lot of work, but seeing Tempo! in print made it well worth the effort. Now, of course, I want to write more...
The only reason for not writing down the reason for a company to exist is if there is no reason for the company to exist!
Otherwise, in one way or another, you should make sure everyone knows what makes your organization special. It is well worth the effort.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

How Shahin Khoshnood made great leadership easy

Shahin Khoshnood is a remarkable manager and leader. She was recently promoted to a higher position, but for the past few years, as area manager, she has transformed eldercare in Linnéstaden, a district in Gothenburg.
To give you a small taste: Personnel turnover is in Shahin’s district is 0%. Her unit has always managed to keep within budget. When there was not enough money for a training budget, Shahin and her people turned the problem into an opportunity, and began packaging and selling courses to raise more money.
I met with Shahin last Friday to interview her for my next book. (Please do not hold your breath while waiting for it. It is a long time project.) A friend of mine, Per Dosenius, had recommended that I should talk to her. I am very glad I did.
When I arrived, Shahin showed me to her office. The office is quite spartan. Shahin has developed a very cost conscious organization, and she leads by example.
The secret to Shahin’s success isn’t very secret. She has put the essentials on the walls of her room: Four sheets of paper that expresses her management philosophy very concisely.

The first sheet of paper is the one you see above. The text reads Never give up.
The picture struck a chord. If you have a goal worth striving for, I mean really worth striving for, you will get into difficult situations. It will happen not just once, but over and over again. If you fight back, you will, like the frog, always have hope.
I’ll save describing the other three illustrations for the book, but I’ll tell you a little bit about Shahin’s recipe for success:
At the core is an unshakable faith in people. Since the beginning, Shahin has worked to encourage her people to take initiative and responsibility for their situation. She encourages them to think and to act, and lets them know that she is there to support them if they need it.
Shahin works by setting clear goals, and by working out intermediate objectives. That way, she says, when circumstances change, adapting plans is fairly easy.
Shahin views power as a means to an end, not a goal in itself. She makes a clear distinction between power and control. To achieve her goals, she delegates. Control over detail is traded in for power to achieve important objectives.
Shahin used to be responsible for about 50 people. There were no intermediate managers between her and people in her area. This is possible because the people who work for her know what the objectives are, and they have the skills, authority and confidence necessary to solve most problems for themselves.
With her recent promotion, the number of people working for her has doubled. Starting the 1st of January, she will have two or three unit managers. Shahin was careful to stress that they must be willing and able to work the same way she does.
As Shahin points out, when things are set up so that people are encouraged to take initiative and solve problems, managing and leading is much easier than you’d think. It is not easy in the sense that all problems disappear, far from it. But, her management style allows Shahin to focus on the things that are really important, instead of getting caught up in firefighting.
Shahin has the brainpower of her entire organization working on solving problems that would otherwise land on her table. Having goals aligned with moral convictions is also a source of tremendous strength for her, and for the entire organization.
As I listened to Shahin, I noticed the strong similarities with the philosophies of people like Ricardo Semler, Tony Hseih and Richard Branson. What they all have in common is a deep rooted faith in people and the courage to follow through on their convictions.
It was easy to understand the effect Shahin has had on her people, because when I left, I could feel it myself: A lot of energy and a desire to get going with the really important stuff.
Which is why I’ll end this blog post here. I have lots of fun things to do.
Be seeing you!