On Time

Alice in Wonderland's White Rabbit -- I'm LateThe flop sweat caught me off guard. Driving to a doctor’s appointment, I was running just a couple minutes late. Yet I was filled with panic and driving like a jerk, darting from lane to lane and cursing people for driving too slowly. This for an appointment I was paying for, and where I’d likely spend many minutes in the waiting room.

It happened the previous day as well. I arrived only three minutes late for a lunch with an old colleague. I found him searching his phone for a text or other sign from me. “You’re never late,” he told me, “I was getting worried.” Because I was three minutes late.

I go to great lengths to never be late. But I wasn’t always that way. A leadership mentor of mine once enlightened me: “timeliness is respect”. Especially as a leader. I’ve lived that way ever since.

Time is Money

I know many leaders who don’t see it this way. They are always late. Rushing into meetings, breathless, meekly apologizing and then asking “so where are we?” The answer is almost always: “waiting for you.”

They’ll be late to their own funeral.

One leader I know is so predictably late that others show up to meetings with them five or ten minutes late themselves. “[leader’s] always late, why be on time?” It’s even become a joke behind their back. “They’ll be late to their own funeral.”

These leaders feel that their time is money. And the higher up in the organization the more expensive the time. So they pack their time to the second, rushing about, flying into this meeting, hustling off to the next, scattering insincere apologies: “Gotta run…” But they are really bad at time management. They are five, ten, even twenty minutes late. All the time.

What they don’t see is that the time they are wasting is everyone else’s. That the ten (or hundreds of) people waiting for them are worth at least as much per hour as they are. From a simple economics perspective, being late is expensive.

Timeliness is Respect

Worse, all those people aren’t sitting there thinking “he’s so important, he must be really busy meeting with all kinds of important people, I’m so lucky to be getting even a few moments of his time!”

Nope. In reality, they are thinking “who is this pompous jerk who doesn’t even respect me enough to be on time?” The meeting is already off to a bad start, and the leader isn’t even in the room yet.

When the leader is late, everyone wonders if they should begin without them. If they do, they risk the very real chance that when the leader finally arrives, they will want the meeting to go in a different direction. With the leader frustrated that things went one way, and the rest of the room frustrated that they didn’t know better. And the meeting starts again, from the top.

The lateness multiplier

Whether it’s just the leader or a participant who is late, we’ve all been in a meeting when a latecomer demands “so where are we?” And, there you have it, a rehash of the last ten minutes, that takes five minutes. The lateness multiplier.

Whatever the effect of tardiness is to the meeting at hand, the overriding stench is a lack of respect. The person who is late clearly doesn’t respect the people waiting. The people waiting rapidly lose respect for the person who is late.

It’s a Sign

Shortly after I learned that Timeliness is Respect, I found ways to be on time. My amazing assistant, Jill, always scheduled meetings allowing for travel time. Even time to the next building, or a few floors away. She would even take into account the number of meetings in a row, and add restroom breaks into the travel time. We would push meetings back a half-hour to make sure that spill-over from one, with travel time to the next, would get me there on time. She’d pop into meetings, or even call my cell, to get me to end a meeting and move on to the next one.

But it wasn’t just Jill, I focus on it too. If I am the leader of a large meeting, I’ll get there ahead of time and wait down the hall, just so I can enter precisely on time. Not to make some form of dramatic entrance, but only to make the subtle point that everyone’s time is important. I’ll be on time, I expect you to be as well.

Timeliness forms a foundation of an organizational culture

And this timeliness passion spills over. If meetings, calls, and presentations are always on time, everyone begins to expect everything to be on time. Being late with a promised deliverable is not accepted. Failing to follow up with that email you promised yesterday is just not done.

Timeliness forms a foundation of an organizational culture that sets expectations that aren’t just goals, but promises. There is an implied contract that you’ll do your job, I’ll do mine, and we’ll all get things done. And that kind of leadership of expectations is set right at the top.

Leading on Time

Being on time is one of hundreds of small signals that leaders can send that build the tone and culture of an organization. We’ll discuss a lot of them here on Leading Smart. These small signs tell your team that they are important, and that you are a leader, a team member, and that you respect them. And you respect their time.

The Why Matters

When working with Brainpower workers, companies are finding out that the “why” matters. I noted it in the foundational explanation of The Brainpower Age, and more companies are feeling the effect.

Today’s New York Times writes about tech workers who want to know “What are we building this for?” Employees are asking more questions about not just what and how to build it, but why are we building this thing in the first place. And they aren’t being shy about objecting if they don’t agree with the end goal.

When you hire smart people, you get the whole person.

As they ask more employees to use their brains, companies are finding that asking them to only use part of their brain isn’t going to cut it. When you hire smart people, you get the whole person, and asking them to ignore issues they care about is unlikely to be successful. This is a trend that will likely only get more intense.

The nation’s political climate has already caused some firms to discover that employees don’t just bring their work lives to the office, they bring their entire lives. Google suffered a backlash when some employees and conservative groups felt the company was penalizing, even firing, them. Other firms, as the Times notes, are finding that employees want more information on the Why behind their projects. Sometimes the firms can’t, or won’t, offer a satisfactory reply. Some employees may leave, others may feel unmotivated and will work to less than their full potential.

Today’s rancorous political climate only means more of these kind of issues for team leaders.

Getting employees completely behind your project is the goal of most managers. And when everyone is rowing in the same direction, having both the hearts and minds of the employees fully engaged has remarkable effect. Just look at the amazing efforts during World War II when the country reached productivity levels previously unheard of. But alas, that was when we all seemed to agree that Nazis were evil.

Today’s rancorous political climate only means more of these kind of issues for team leaders. More and more employees, specifically those in high level brainpower jobs, will ask Why. And more and more companies will have to find a good answer to that question.

Visions of a License

Colorbyte Logo

I talk a great deal about visions. About how they should drive organizations, about what they should contain, and about the importance they have on the effectiveness of teams. I see many cases of strong, clear, focussed visions leading to great success.

And I see the opposite. I see organizations that either lack a vision, or that don’t measure operations against the vision on a regular basis. I have two examples right in front of me.

Both examples are from the software industry and both show how easy it is to get distracted from the main point of the company and off to “the plumbing”. It’s a tale of my trying, seemingly in vain, to simply purchase two different companies’ products.

Both examples show how easy it is to get distracted by “the plumbing”

I have had, since youth, a deep interest in photography. And I have owned, in recent years, a parade of better and better photo printers. When I decided to donate two of my older printers to my children’s school, I found that it was a case of “you can’t get there from here”.

You see, both printers were driven by software called a RIP (raster image processor). RIPs are sophisticated programs that control, to minute detail, the output of the printers. They insure that what you see on the screen, ends up on the printer. Sure, you can just press “print” from within your program, but for best results you use a RIP.

There are a number of these programs, and they are all absurdly expensive. The license for these two printers was several thousand dollars (ouch!). So when I decided to donate the printers, clearly I wanted to donate the RIP to drive them. I wouldn’t want the school to have to pay for them. So began my ordeal.

You see, the licensing is obtuse, and is controlled by a tiny (the size of about 6 dimes stacked up) device called a “dongle”. You need the dongle plugged into your computer to run the program. This is a silly form of copy protection. I emailed the company and explained what I wanted to do. It went south from there.

Colorbyte explained that would have to return the dongle (to Florida), pay hundreds of dollars, pay for shipping both ways, and so on. I pleaded for mercy, this was merely a donation, perhaps they would want a charitable write-off too? I exchanged 8 emails, and had five 20 minute phone calls with the sales manager. In the interim I lost, and later found the silly little dongle. I offered to handle the case in any number of ways. I even agreed eventually agreed to their terms, and they suddenly changed the terms.

Colorbyte set up so many hurdles they lost an upgrade sale

Eventually, I gave up. I convinced my local dealer to sell me the competing product at cost (and take a write-off for the balance). Colorbyte set up so many hurdles they lost an upgrade sale — and ongoing maintenance updates from the school, no doubt. And undoubtedly cost the company many times the profit they ever made on me just from the time the sales manager spent handling my case.

I’m not alone. Reading the support forums for their software, Colorbyte’s confusing and obtuse licensing, and this ridiculous little device, cost their customers hours of frustration. The dongle drives people nuts, and makes all the customers feel like criminals.

Colorbyte’s vision clearly wasn’t to create hurdles for their customers, it was surely to create the best RIP they could. But their tech support time, their sales time, and I’m sure their software development time, has been sapped by the silly paranoia about software theft. This clearly costs the company in the long run.

Adobe Logo

My other experience involves the venerable giant of the graphics software industry, Adobe. Makers of Photoshop, Illustrator, and a number of other high-end graphics arts tools, the company has been a software industry stalwart for decades. Simply put, if you are really concerned with the quality of your graphics, you use Adobe’s products.

But the company’s vision of creating the world’s best graphics software and serving the graphics professional, which has served them so well, clearly doesn’t extend down to the licensing department. Buying Adobe’s products has always been hard. And I have the wounds to prove it.

Adobe has always charged far above any comparable product for their software. And because they make the best products, people pay the price. But along with this premium strategy (high price, but you get what you pay for) should come good service, respect for your customer, and a certain amount of benefit-of-the-doubt thinking.

But, no. Adobe, you see, is paranoid too. Because their products are out of the reach of the non-professional, they get stolen. Probably a lot. So Adobe has complex licensing and authorization hoops to jump through when you buy their products. And their licensing people are ruthless, and treat every customer as a potential criminal.

Their licensing people are ruthless, and treat every customer as a potential criminal.

I’ve just hung up the phone from a 54 minute phone call with Adobe customer service. My seventh such phone call in the last month. All because I wanted to buy their latest upgrade.

But I made it hard, you see, because I recently switched from Windows to the Mac. This makes it a “cross-platform upgrade”. And apparently something really hard to do. I had to sign and fax in three different affidavits, certifying that I’m going to destroy the old versions. I had to pay for the new version in advance. And I apparently had to wait.

I placed the order and jumped through all my hoops, five weeks ago today. I still have nothing to show for it. In the meantime, I’ve called customer service seven times, each time having more hurdles tossed in front of me. All for this seemingly simple $399 purchase — a purchase every other company would let me do online and download the software immediately.

Each time I call customer service, I find that the purchase has been stopped on another bureaucrat’s desk. Each time, no one bothered to tell me. Each time, I had to call, wait on hold, wait while some poor sap in Bangalore looks up the information, only to find that somehow the purchase failed to meet some ridiculous test. Last Friday, after another hour of hoop jumping, “Jen” promised me it would be expedited, and shipped overnight. She promised to email me the status immediately. I never heard from her again.

Clearly, Adobe, like Colorbyte, has lost all profit from this sale.

Today, “Frank” spent 54 minutes looking up my order, and eventually gave me a tracking number for DHL. A number DHL says does not exist.

And amazingly, I just got a call from “Jen” at Adobe to tell me that the heavens have opened and the product has shipped. Ground, not overnight. I should see it in 7 – 10 business days. Almost seven weeks after this simple purchase was made.

Clearly, Adobe, like Colorbyte, has lost all profit from this sale. Even at the rates of customer service in India, the phone charges, overhead, and pay to “Frank” and “Jen” has to have made this sale a total loss for the company. And has left them with a thoroughly upset customer. And as the old adage goes, “a happy customer tells a friend, an unhappy customer tells everyone they know.”

Both of these companies forgot why they got into the business — to create great software.

In the end, Adobe has probably lost site of their vision, just because of all this paranoia. And all because people who wouldn’t buy the product in the first place are stealing it. There is no lost revenue here, the thieves never could afford it, and people who make their living with it happily pay for it. And perhaps, when they grow up and can afford it, since they’ve been using it, the thieves would buy it. But they have to jump through the hoops — maybe it’s easier to steal it.

Both of these companies forgot why they got into the business — to create great software. They let paranoia over come them, and let their lawyers or “compliance people” rule the day. They forgot customer service, and respect for their customer. They forgot their vision. And they are much the worse for it.

Lose the Bad Apples


Like many police departments these days, Seattle’s is under fire for the handling of a number of incidents, and the possibility that the officers overreacted. I’m not going to dive into the depths of the argument over individual cases. It is so hard to be sure of the facts, and all sides immediately jump to polar positions. No, I’m more interested in the effect this has on the department and its leadership.

Unfortunately that effect is not good. And it’s not at all assisted by the Chief, Gil Kerlikowske, who has spent the last few weeks angrily lashing out at the various review boards that have criticized the department and specifically his leadership of it. His reaction has been shrill, and embarrassing. It’s achieved a level that the only reasonable result can or should be his resignation.

But then today comes the Seattle Post-Intelligencer with an interesting article about this issue. In the article entitled “Few police officers trigger complaints” the Police Officer’s Guild (the union) attempts to shine a good light on the department.

Their main point is that, in a department of over 1200, something around 10 officers get more than three complaints a year. That’s less than 1%, they argue, and that shows this is a good department. Their point is that everyone should get their knickers out of a twist, this just isn’t that big of an issue.

To me, this is just a leadership problem

In some sense, they are right. This is a small number, and we shouldn’t overreact. However, to me, this is just a leadership problem… and a union problem.

You see, I’m a strong advocate of losing the bad apples promptly. I have always advised leaders to cut their losses, and to escort the poor performers, the troublemakers, and the bad attitudes quickly to the door. And choose again from the barrel of apples.

I always tell managers: “wouldn’t you like to be done with this problem, and have a chance at getting a superstar in the exchange?” Imagine life without the hassle of this person, and with the true possibility that you replace them with someone who could really light the place on fire. Most managers with whom I have this conversation realize the logic immediately. Their eyes glaze over and they dream of life in the post-hassle era.

I even advocate moving on from the only average performers. “Wouldn’t you want to change that C player for a chance that you could get an A+ player?” As long as you hire carefully, make decisions quickly, and cut your losses often, you’ll end up with an A team in no time.

In the case of the Seattle Police Department, my question after reading this article, is “why the heck do these officers still work there?” Move them on. Choose again from the barrel of apples.

Why the heck do these officers still work there?

I’m not advocating firing officers who get any complaints. Clearly some complaints are baseless. But when only 13% get one complaint, fewer still get two, and only 10 get three or more, the course is clear. Move them on. I don’t even care if these complaints are questionable. By the time you get three complaints, something is wrong. Where there’s smoke there’s fire.

And this is especially true when there are people lining up to be police officers. They got 1200 applicants for their last police academy class. Surely somewhere in that mod are some truly good apples.

The stickler in all this, of course, will be the Guild themselves. They have, no doubt, negotiated a terrible contract where firing someone takes years and something just short of an act of God to accomplish. They should be embarrassed themselves to be creating an environment where these bad apples can sully the reputation of the whole department.

But the lesson here is clear, if you are spending time managing the bad apples, lose them and choose another from the barrel. You will thank me for it.

How NOT to Quit

Seattle Mariners Logo

Mike Hargrove, the manager of the Seattle Mariners walked into work this morning as said “today is my last day as manager of the Seattle Mariners”. To say this was a shock would be a vast understatement.

The thing that was most curios about the announcement was his reasoning. He said: “It was just getting harder and harder for me to get up for the games each day. I still could, it just took me longer than I would like.” When asked if he had “lost the fire for baseball”, he quickly replied “no, that’s not it.” In fact, other than this curious problem of getting motivated, he said essentially nothing. He’s just leaving.

Aside from my admittedly partisan view of the team, the thing that most bothers me about this is what it says about the organization and/or Mr. Hargrove. The team insists that they didn’t push him, and in fact begged him to stay. What team wouldn’t? Finding a manager before the All-Star Break is just a nightmare. So that leaves us with Mr. Hargrove.

Lacking a family member in immediate peril of death, there’s really no excuse for this behavior.

Lacking a family member in immediate peril of death, there’s really no excuse for this behavior. Unless the working conditions had become terrible, the situation so untenable, that he simply couldn’t walk into work, there’s just no way to justify leaving a job on 24 hours notice — especially a job like this. This job has annual contracts, a defined start and end to each year. What could possibly so bad that you couldn’t just grind it out for the balance of the year?

The most curious thing is that the team is hot. They’ve won seven straight. They are 11 games over .500 baseball. They’re on track for their best record in the last 5 years. He turned the team around, he’s just starting to look like a guy who knows what he’s doing. Then he quits. Ugh.

I’m sure we’ll find out a lot more about this in detail in a few weeks.

I’m sure we’ll find out a lot more about this in detail in a few weeks. He’ll eventually tell somebody the true story. And I sure do hope that it’s because the management is totally screwed up and the organization is a mess. At least, there’d be a good reason.

Because if that’s not it, it shows an incredible lack of class, judgment, and guts. I’d like to believe he’s a better guy that that.

Update: After listening to his press conference, and post-game interview (they won, BTW), I’m convinced what happened was an ultimatum. I’m willing to bet dollars to donuts that Mr. Hargrove deeply objected to some move/trade (trading Ichiro? bringing back Ken Griffey Jr.?) and said, “if you do that, I’m outta here.” They did it, he’s gone.

After the trade deadline, and whatever move is announced, I’m sure we’ll hear Mr. Hargrove’s real reason for leaving. Ugh, again. I hate this kind of thing. It just ruins the entire organization’s morale…

Leadership Lessons from the “No” Meeting

Boeing 787

A good friend of mine is part of the senior management team for the Boeing 787 “Dreamliner” project. As a student of project management, I love to catch up with him every now and then to discuss this unbelievably complex endeavor.

While I’ve been up-close-and-personal to tremendously large and complex projects (like Windows NT) involving thousands of people and hundreds of thousands of variables, nothing can compare to the development of a new commercial airplane.

Just imagine hundreds of thousand of parts, some larger than a football field, some smaller than the tip of a pen, and all being built (especially for this project) by suppliers located around the world. Stir in tens of thousands of people, billions of dollars, and oh yeah, don’t forget that peoples’ lives are at stake, and you have a recipe for a project management nightmare. And my friend’s job is a key position in the coordination and assembly of all these various parts. With the plane scheduled for its maiden flight in a few months, he’s having a lot of fun these days.

With the plane scheduled for it’s maiden flight in a few months, he’s having a lot of fun these days.

One of the things that Boeing and many other companies have long struggled with is delivering the best product they can build while simultaneously pleasing their customers. With previous airplanes, Boeing has let customers design their own interiors, galleys, bathrooms, overhead storage, seats, avionics (cockpit controls), and so on. The company essentially offered a shell that flew and let customers make the inside to suit their needs and taste. This explains why your carry-on fits in some overhead bins and not in others. Each airline chooses their own style.

This approach was remarkably customer-friendly, but it exponentially increased the complexity of building aircraft. With every airline choosing different configurations, each plane — even each bathroom, was custom made. At most they would see a customer order 10 or so planes with the same configuration. Imagine the pain that Boeing and its suppliers would be in never getting to scale up production for even the soap dispensers. And try to imagine the complexity of assembling and testing these incredibly complex machines, each one different from the next.

This was all supposed to end with the 777 model a few years ago. My friend was told repeatedly by management that customers would be given only a few choices to make for each item, and that configurations would be standardized. But then the sales team began selling the planes. And customers began expecting the same custom-built planes they always had in the past. The sales people had a hard time telling a customer who was placing a multi-BILLION dollar order, “no, you can’t have fries with that”.

Boeing 787 Assembly

Pretty soon, the number of bathroom configurations mushroomed from 4 to 40, and they were back where they started. The 777 is widely different when flown by United than when flown by British Airways. It’s a complex and difficult product to build and test. And it’s nowhere near as profitable as the company had hoped it would be.

For the 787 project, to quote Bullwinkle J. Moose, “This time for sure!” This project is made significantly more complex by the choice of vendors quite literally from around the globe. Parts are being made in Italy, Japan, and all over the US. To allow customers to choose from an infinite variety of configurations would be a potential coordination disaster. So with this plane the company is being far stricter about forcing customers to stay “on catalog”.

In fact, my friend leads a weekly meeting they call the “no” meeting. Sales people from all around the globe call in trying to convince manufacturing to build just this one custom part for this very special customer. And the answer is always “no”. They push the sales person to escort the customer back to the catalog.

My friend leads a weekly “no” meeting.

And you know what? The customers are fine with that. The 787 is the fastest selling plane in commercial aviation history, with almost 600 orders before the thing has even left the ground [pun intended]. Turns out customers recognize the value of standardization in cost savings, quality, training, and time to delivery. They didn’t really need custom soap dispensers, they were just pushing as far as they could, because they could.

So far the “no” meeting has held, except for one special case. The galley carts (you know, those knee bashing things they drag up and down the aisle) are customized. You see, the airlines already have thousands of them, with each airline’s different from the next. Boeing just couldn’t tell them “no” in this case. So they’ve built adapters to make the standard galley accept your special cart. But they’re holding the line everywhere else.

What’s the leadership lesson here? The same lesson I preach about all the time: have a vision, stick to it, and sell the heck out of it. Your team will love you, and customers will beat a path to your door.

When the Boeing leadership let the customers run roughshod over the manufacturing team, they paid the price.

When the Boeing leadership let the customers run roughshod over the manufacturing team, they paid the price. Now that they have decided to stick by their team, sales are up, morale is up, all signs are that the product will be better, and it certainly will cost less.

How can you learn from the experience of one of the largest manufacturers in the world handling a project a thousand times more complex than yours? The same thing: believe in your vision, your product, and your team. The customer isn’t always right, sometimes you need to stand up for your vision. Sure you need to recognize your own “galley cart” case, but most customers, like children, appreciate it when you show a little discipline.

Quick, Cut the Good People

Cover of the New Yorker Magazine
New Yorker – April 30, 2007

The current issue of the New Yorker has an interesting article this week entitled “It’s the Workforce, Stupid!”. The article highlights the short-sidedness of companies that layoff huge portions of their workforce in an effort to appease Wall Street and other critics.

Using the current examples of Citibank and Circuit City, the article takes the leadership of these companies to task for their recent layoffs. It points out that layoffs rarely have any real long term effect on the finances of the company. But, with CEO tenures running so short (around six years), it doesn’t matter because layoffs aren’t done for the long-term. They are done in hopes of a near-term stock lift to fatten the option-laden leadership team.

The article touches on the ham-handed way so many companies handle “downsizing”:

More recently, however, downsizing has become less a response to disaster than a default business strategy, part of an inexorable drive to cut costs. That’s why Circuit City can proclaim, “Our associates are our greatest assets,” and then lay off veteran salespeople because they earn fifty-one cents an hour too much.

This, to me, is the crux of the issue with downsizing. In my experience with layoffs, the problem is the effect they have on the team. There is no way to do a layoff for purely financial reasons that doesn’t play havoc with organizational morale.

There is no way to do a layoff for purely financial reasons that doesn’t play havoc with organizational morale.

The problem is, as I have said repeatedly, that you can’t treat people like automatons. Constantly repeating “people are our most important asset” doesn’t make them feel any more valuable. In fact, it often makes them believe you think of them like the other assets — cash in the bank or that drill press over there.

The catch is that people can think. They draw their own conclusions about what you think is the most important part of the business. And it’s just really hard to send a good signal to person A while kicking person B out the door. It’s one thing if B was a loser who deserved to go. But more often than not, B just lost the layoff lottery, and A thinks “there but for the grace of god, goes me.”

In my experience, as a member of a leadership team trying to cut staff, as a member of a team with people being cut around me, and as a consultant trying to help people do it right, there is almost no way to cut people without causing collateral damage. There are only two ways to cut people for financial reasons: 1) voluntarily, where you ask people to self-select, or b) involuntarily, where management chooses the losers. This is a lose-lose situation.

In the first case, where you ask for volunteers, it should be obvious that the first people to leave are those with the best prospects for other employment — the good people. What remains are the losers who either can’t or won’t find work elsewhere. Not really the kind of team you upon which you want to build a turnaround strategy.

Rats deserting a sinking ship is an apt visual.

In the latter case, even if you chose to jettison only the lesser performers, the remaining good people are scared about the potential next round of layoffs. Since they have the best alternative job prospects, they leave as fast as they can. Now you have little or no team left at all to effect the desired turnaround.

I’ve seen several examples of both cases up close and personal. Rats deserting a sinking ship is an apt visual. And every scenario ended up getting far worse before they ever got back to anything resembling normal.

There’s only one way I can imagine a downsizing working effectively. I say “imagine” because I’ve yet to see it be done this way. The leadership needs to be absolutely positive about the stable financial state they need to obtain. They need to calculate precisely how many people need to go, with complete confidence, so that they can do one, and only one, layoff. Repeated fits and starts toward the final workforce numbers are just the kind of thing that makes people panic.

There’s only one way I can imagine a downsizing working effectively.

Then the management team needs to be stunningly frank with the employees, admitting the problem in detail, and drawing out the precise path to success. Like any other project they need to have a very clear, concise, and credible vision for the future, and be able to sell that vision to everyone. It’s vital that this vision is believable by everyone, as they will be almost infinitely skeptical.

Then, they need to individually go to the people they want to keep and sell them on that vision. Each “keeper” needs to understand why they are a key part of that future vision for success. Management can’t just be reassuring, the case has to be personal and credible. Remember, these people are just short of panic, they will be skeptical. They need to truly believe, so that they won’t bolt for the door.

Finally, the layoff needs to be done quickly — like tearing off a band-aid. Downsizing rumors ripen with age, and not in a good way. The mean-time to implosion is days, a couple of weeks weeks at most. Having something out there for a month or two just gives the good people time to polish their résumé. So once, it’s clear this has to be done, do it promptly.

This is a path to success with downsizing. But as I said, I’ve never seen it executed this way. Perhaps you have. I’d love to know about your experience with downsizing. Add your comment to the discussion to tell me about your take on it.

HT to Nancy for the pointer to the story

Proud Member of the Cult of Buffet

Warren Buffet

As I noted in this post, it’s annual report season again. I just opened my Berkshire Hathaway annual report and once again was not the least bit disappointed.

The Berkshire report confirms, as it does every year, why I am a card-carrying, stock-owning, unabashed member of the Cult of Warren Buffet.

The report, most of which can be found here, is such a wonderful read. Warren crafts his usual narrative about the state of the company, and it is with out a doubt the most readable annual report I’ve ever seen. Even though his note is long, at over 20 pages, there’s almost no business jargon, there’s no filler, and not a smidge of the spin so many reports are drowning in. I read every word — and every word of all the accompanying documents. All in one sitting on the airplane.

The report confirms again what a really great manager and leader he is. He simply does just about everything right, and does it with such frankness, charm, and sincerity, that I can’t help but gush over the guy.

It’s not that he’s perfect, and not that he’s magic. He’s made mistakes, and rubs a number of people the wrong way. But I think most of those people need to untwist their underwear and take some deep breathes (or a couple Valium).

Just like Warren, I’ll be straight with you: I’m a shareholder in Berkshire, and it’s just hard not to like the guy when the returns are so great. But in reality, that’s just a small part about what I think makes the guy so special.

Berkshire's Home Page
Berkshire Hathaway Home Page

Reading his report, or even looking at the Berkshire web site (seen at left), the first thing you notice is how upfront and frank the whole operation is. Who else has their link to their SEC filings as the fourth item on their home page, or includes the last 30 years of Chairman’s letters right in plain sight, or has their answer to the most controversial of their shareholder motions posted on the home page?

With most companies, this kind of stuff is buried in the filings, if it is available at all. Nothing is ever said that some spin doctor hasn’t crafted beyond intelligibility. And acknowledging mistakes? Well that just isn’t done, doncha know.

But with Warren, it’s all right there. In plain sight, in plain english, and it’s just the plain truth. After plowing through miles of other poop in other glossy annual reports, this one is like a cool ocean breeze. And there’s not a glossy picture of the CEO, or the Board, or the remarkably (intentionally?) diverse workforce in sight.

So stop reading me, go read Warren’s letter. Here’s the PDF file:

Then come back here, and tell me what you think.

How Not To Fire People

Alberto Gonzales

Once again, I’m going to risk taking this blog into the political realm by discussing a current political controversy. But, I promise, the emphasis here is not on the who, or the why, but rather the how.

Alberto Gonzales, the United States Attorney General, is in a lot of hot water lately about the firing of eight US Attorneys around the country. This action has stirred up a hornet’s nest of political noise, and has once again backed the Bush administration into a corner. No matter the outcome, there is a lot to be learned from how this was handled.

Let’s begin by stating that I firmly believe the Bush administration has every right to have whoever they want as US Attorneys. These are political appointments, and often turnover between administrations.

But there are ways to handle this problem, and ways to not handle it. With most incoming administrations, the typical approach to these political appointments is to fire the whole lot of them, then fill the positions with people you want. This has the great advantage that you get all your own team, and more importantly is it eminently fair. Nobody feels singled out because everyone was escorted out. Sure it feels harsh, but it is hard to argue with the process.

Unfortunately, Mr. Gonzales took another approach. Drawn into the incessant politics that seem to permeate the Bush whitehouse, it appears that he yielded to the pressure of the machine. He picked only a few attorneys who had somehow angered the powers that be, and summarily fired them.

No job action should be a surprise.

The problem with this approach, aside from the overtly political nature of the process (a discussion I’ll leave to others) is that is was inherently unfair. Of course it was biased by the politics of the decision, but more importantly to our discussion, it violated my number one rule for job actions: no job action should be a surprise. As witnessed by the testimony of the fired attorneys on capitol hill a few days ago, clearly every one of these people was at least somewhat surprised by their termination.

All of the terminated attorneys received stellar performance reviews in the last several appraisals. They were praised for their hard work, their integrity, and their results. Then they walked in one day and — poof, they were fired.

Now this is just simply bad management. I’d like to recommend that Mr. Gonzales, the entire Bush administration, and you all read my FAQ on how to fire people correctly. It is a clear guide on how to move someone out when you’ve decided they need to go.

But to make matters worse, and perhaps a more devastating political issue than the suddenness of the firings, was the uniform denial of the reason for the action by the entire Bush clan. They denied the fact that they were political actions (which I will remind everyone the Bush administration has every right to do), but instead called them actions based on performance problems.

The facts do not back up a claim of performance issues.

Just as I note in the FAQ article, this is bad management because it’s not being honest and straightforward with the victim, and is likely to cause them to get upset. Especially when the facts do not back up a claim of performance issues. Quite the opposite, in fact.

So, it should come as no surprise to anyone that the terminated employees cried “foul!” And it should come as even less of a surprise that an overtly political process handled poorly would become a firestorm.

Too bad, because if they had simply handled it right, we’d all be arguing about vastly more important things, like how to get out of a quagmire and who the next person to lead us there should be.

How Good Is Your “Saydar”?

Public Speaking

A key component of being a good leader is being able to speak to the team in a way that is engaging, informative, and motivating. Certainly, understanding the objectives, marshaling the resources, making good, timely decisions, and getting the job done are important aspects of leadership. But I was reminded yesterday how absolutely vital it is for leaders to be able to, often spontaneously, get up in front of the group and communicate effectively. This is far more difficult for some than others.

I’ve seen more than a few people who were technically competent, even brilliant, with deep understanding of the goals and how to accomplish them who simply fell apart when required to speak to the group. Most of them weren’t frightened by the challenge of public speaking, they were often even arrogant because they had such overwhelming command of the issues. No, they were just lousy at it.

And, as anyone skilled in public speaking will tell you, a major part of being a good speaker is knowing your audience and making sure you are talking about issues they care about, in ways they can understand. This is important not only for your preparations, in deciding what to say and how to say it, but even more importantly during the talk.

It is crucial that you pay close attention to more than just your talk, but also to your audience.

It is crucial that you pay close attention to more than just your talk, but also to your audience. You need to constantly ensure that you are engaging them, that they are understanding you, and that they are taking the journey along with you. This takes practice, and from what I can tell, it’s a skill not everyone has.

There was a continuing skit on NBC’s Saturday Night Live about a woman (played by Rachael Dratch) who had no “gaydar” — she couldn’t identify stereotypical gay men and flirted with them fruitlessly [oops, really bad pun].

Many people have a similar problem with public speaking, a problem I call having no “saydar”. They can’t say anything while also respecting their audience. And there are many flavors of this malady.

Some are so frightened that they simply want to make it through this horrible experience. They have shut out all thoughts that there might be people listening and they become the “little engine that could” of public speaking: “I think I can, I think I can…”

Others are so enraptured with the sound of their own voice that they are oblivious to all other input. You can even see them sometimes close their eyes and talk as if a singer lost deep in a ballad. “Don’t bother me while I pontificate.”

Still others ignore the obvious signs that they are losing their audience and press on regardless. It seems that nothing less than an “Animal House” level food fight would disrupt them from their mission of getting through the material. “I’m going to say this, and you’re going to listen, dang it.”

They aren’t paying attention to the target

They all share the same problem: they aren’t paying attention to the target. They just aren’t watching the audience to see if people are restless, bored, distracted, or following the material. It’s really not that hard, and if you can manage to pick out several in the audience you know you are connecting with, it can even make speaking a lot of fun. But it does take effort, and more than a little selflessness.

So, I ask you: how good is your saydar?