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.

Executive Overreach

In a recent interview, Hillary Clinton said that Bill didn’t need to resign because of the extramarital high jinx he had with Monica Lewinsky. That Monica was an adult at the time and made her own decision.

Whether you’re “I’m with Her” or “Lock Her Up” on the Hillary scale, she’s simply wrong here. And it has nothing to do with Monica’s age.

No one should be personally involved with someone who works for them. Even several levels down in the organization. Or rather: especially several levels down in the organization. Period.

This is not complex, the power dynamic, even among consenting adults, is too strong. It’s simply impossible to separate the many possible underlying motives, the implicit pressures, and the resultant head games. On all sides of the relationship.

I say this as someone who just this week celebrated 35 years of marriage to a wonderful woman I met at the office. She worked in a different department, the only common manager we had was two levels above me. Yet we still snuck around like teenagers in love so as not to create scandal at the office.

I’m not suggesting some sort of Billy Graham rule where men and women are never alone at the office. Or that we ignore the natural tendencies for people who work together to occasionally find love.

What I am saying is that, regardless of ages, regardless of intent, and regardless of the seeming completely conscious decision of both parties, relationships among people where one works for the other are wrong. Full stop.

I don’t know if Bill Clinton should have resigned. But what happened with Monica was wrong. Those rules in the HR Policy Manual of virtually every organization about that kind of behavior are spot on.

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.

Where Have All The Scruples Gone?

Star Registry Web Site

On the way to the gym this morning I heard a radio ad that I’ve heard several times before. It’s from the International Star Registry. It’s a mind-boggling scam.

These people offer the chance to “name a star”, and tout it as a “great gift” — “a gift that will last a lifetime”. And, “your gift will be registered in book form in the US Copyright Office.” In some weird sort of way, it almost seems like a nice idea.

You can almost imagine taking your honey out to Lookout Point on a clear starry night, pointing up just to the right of the Big Dipper and saying, “Look, Dear, there’s the Candy Smith star. I had it named just for you.” And as you melt together into the evening, it all seems so perfect.

But it’s a complete lie. Take a quick look at the web site’s FAQ. Aside from several questions about how to order, there’s the real meat of the matter. Q: Am I buying the star? A: No. We do not own the star, so we cannot sell it to you.

More importantly: Q: Will the scientific community recognize my star name? A: No. We are a private company that provides Gift Packages. Astronomers will not recognize your name because your name is published only in our Star catalog. We periodically print a book called Your Place in the Cosmos © which lists the stars that we have named.

So let me see if I have this right. For my $59 – $159 I get a certificate from you that says you named some random star in my name. You will occasionally print out a list of these names and send it to the copyright office (as any author can). And that’s it. No one will recognize this name, and all I have to show for it is a credit card receipt and a piece of paper.

It begs an important question: how do these people sleep at night?

The International Star Registry sold something they don’t own, have no inventory of, have an unlimited supply of, and have essentially no cost-of-goods-sold. It’s raw profit. I could also print out a piece of paper that says “This star over here is the CLWill star”, send it in at essentially no cost to the US Copyright Office, and I’d have the exact same effect.

This is an incredibly inventive scam. But it begs an important question: how do these people sleep at night?

I can understand how some low life came up with this idea over a couple of beers. I can even understand that there are people in this world like this scammer who live for separating fools from their money. I don’t like that, but I realize they exist.

What I wonder about is all the other people in the organization. This can’t be a small endeavor. There are people answering the phone. People entering things into the database. People handling the accounting, payroll, taxes, etc. People developing the ads and the web site. There must be a dozen or more people involved in this scam.

It turns my stomach from 2,000 miles away

How do they all sleep? They all must know the ridiculousness of the deal. They must all start out chuckling at the people who order. But at some point it has to turn sickening. There just has to be silly levels of turnover as people tire of cheating their fellow man (or woman).

Then I wonder, what is this organizational culture like? Do people cheat and connive each other into promotions and raises? Do they stab each other in the back? If they scam strangers for a living, they must treat each other like crap.

On a personal level, can they really look themselves in the mirror every morning as they head off to work, and think this is really OK? Do they go to church and talk about “doing unto others”? What do they teach their children about work ethics? It turns my stomach from 2,000 miles away (they’re in Illinois), I can’t imagine being involved in such a thing.

And as I’m typing this blog entry, I got a new piece of spam from the “Heritage Registry of Who’s Who”. The exact same scam, in different clothes. Add in the incessant diet drug ads that proliferate this time of year, and the incredibly annoying ads for Enzyte, “for natural male enhancement” and you wonder, where have all the scruples gone?

Too Many Dealers, Not Enough Customers

Car in a Shopping Cart

Here’s a quiz for you: who has more retail outlets — Starbucks or General Motors (GM)?

If you listen to all the late night comics with their shtick on Starbucks and how there’s one on every corner, you think you know the answer. Well, you’d be wrong. Starbucks has about 6,300 company-owned stores and GM has almost 7,000 dealerships. Wow…

Now this is just a little unfair, Starbucks has another couple thousand franchise locations inside places like grocery stores and theme parks. And GM owns virtually none of their stores. But the fact that the numbers are even in the same ball park is stunning to me.

I wrote a couple of months ago about what a terrible experience buying a car is, and the toll it takes on the people who have to do it for a living (see that piece here). And about how the differences between the retail experiences can be easily seen here.

It’s a sick business that someone needs to change.

Simply put, buying a car is the worst shopping experience that you can have. Bar none. And people with any scruples find it impossible to work in the business for very long. It’s a sick business that someone needs to change.

I don’t mean to pick on GM just for the excess of dealers. A piece in the Wall Street Journal today (subscription-only link here) points out that none of the US automakers are immune from this issue. All the “big three” have well over 2-1/2 times the number of dealers per point of market share of Toyota, for example. Perhaps that (and this) explains why Toyota is doing so well, and eating Detroit’s lunch.

I think this excess of dealers is one good reason for the problem. Too many dealers chasing too few customers. And it leads to a fetid culture of sleeze-ball sales tactics, terrible service, and lousy margins. It’s little more than vultures preying on the few customers there are.

Starbucks has nothing in their store that costs over $250, and the vast majority of sales are under $10. I don’t know for certain, but I would have to imagine that their average transaction is in the $5 range. This just begs for a lot of outlets, to make the impulse purchase easy.

Why on earth do they need so many stores?

GM, on the other hand, probably has an average transaction around $10,000. I don’t know many people who decide on a whim to just drop by the Cadillac store and pop for a new $60,000 Escalade. Or stop in for a quick brake job. Why on earth do they need so many stores (or brands, but that’s another story)?

If the new purchasers of Chrysler, Cerberus Capital Management LP, want to really make an impact on the car business, they could start here. And rumor has it, they are going to — by combining all the Dodge, Chrysler, and Jeep dealers together. It’s a good start.

Forgive the Hiatus

Champagne

If you’ve followed along with this blog, you know a couple of things:

  • It’s past time for some sort of recognition for the one year anniversary, and
  • I’ve been quite remiss in posting over the last month or so.

As to the former, I say: “bah humbug!” I have grown weary of reading all the celebratory posts from people trumpeting their “blogiversary” as if it really mattered.

Suffice it to say, if you like doing this whole blogging thing, the first year flew by. If you did it for all the wrong reasons (because you’d become rich, or famous, or quoted, or perhaps even noticed) then it probably was a year of pure torture and pretty soon it will fade into obscurity. I like to think that for me, it was the first of these…

As to the lack of meaningful content herein over the last several weeks, I’d like to proclaim a number of really good excuses. To wit:

  • I came to the aid of a fellow blogger who, under relentless denial-of-service attacks, had to move immediately from one blogging platform to another. This resulted in herculean efforts to design, move, convert, and deploy an entirely new solution in record time. It went off with nary a hitch, and I’m pleased to note that the bad guys are being stopped at the gate (to the tune of 10,000+ attacks a day).
  • My main Windows computer breathed its last breath, a result of euthanasia. I’ve spent the last month making the final move of my life from Windows to the Mac — a sort of conversion that, like those of a spiritual nature, involves great joy and discovery coupled with several rites of passage. I plan to write much more about this experience in a more appropriate forum to be announced later.

  • Our eldest son just graduated from high school, and that comes with an inordinate amount of anticipation, preparation, visitation, celebration, and recuperation. This was a wonderful time for us all (dampened only slightly by a cruel theft of the diploma…), but one that is good to have behind us.

None of this is really justification for my lack of posting here, but it might explain to those around me the incredible lack of sleep I’ve had over the past month or two. And it does indicate why there has been at least a little to celebrate around here.

So, dear reader, please forgive the unintended hiatus, and stay tuned… I promise a reinvigorated effort in short order.

The Art of the Annual Report

Closeup of financial documents

It’s annual report season again, and with it comes the flood of plastic wrapped envelopes to our mailbox that carry the once-a-year bounty of glossy, over-polished, and saccharin manifestos from publicly traded firms. This is “the art of the annual report”.

I look forward to this flood, it offers insights that are hard to get any other way. Inside these envelopes, you get an unmodified view of the company. Certainly it is not an objective view, yet that is what makes it such a clear view.

You can tell volumes about companies and their culture by what they choose to portray in their annual report. Once a year, companies get a chance to tell the world who they are, what they stand for, and what they are trying to accomplish. And they can do it in a forum that is completely unadulterated by outside forces like the media or their critics.

Yes, of course, the government and tradition mandate that some information be included. And since most companies include their proxy information in the same mailing, included are some required documents to support their voting process. But if you take the time to look carefully at the whole package, the insights are many.

First and foremost, the report itself is a gold mine of company culture information. Because most companies try so hard to make the report a show piece, it is quite telling to see how they present it. There are some very interesting things to look at:

  • Is it a very polished, glossy document (over-polished)? Or a businesslike and direct report (not professional enough)?
  • Does it feature pictures of just the CEO (are they an egotist)? Or the executive staff (diverse)? Or the products (hiding the leadership team)? Or the employees (trying too hard to appear egalitarian)?
  • Does it overflow with flowery language about “the world today” and “XYZ Corp.’s place in it” (taking themselves a little too seriously)? Does it have a sense of humor (or even too much) Or is it just a dry recounting of economics (oh, lighten up)?
  • Is it written in the form of a letter from the leader(s) or with the polish of a marketing piece?
  • Who is that target audience? Shareholders? Employees? Competitors?
  • How much did it cost to produce? Those are your shareholder dollars you’re holding…
  • Most importantly, what does it say about the vision for the company? What are they trying to accomplish? Is it clear, obvious, obtainable and yet still a stretch?

These are all interesting questions, and they tell you a great deal about the culture. I like to read it wearing several hats. What would this mean to me if I worked there? Is this company just a vehicle to express the ego of the CEO? What would I think if I were their competition?

It’s a gold mine of information about the company and its leadership.

And then there are the wonderful proxy materials. Here’s where you get a lot of interesting stuff. In here are all the gory details of executive compensation, perks, and other dark secrets they try to bury in pages of dense text on toilet-paper-thin paper. It’s a gold mine of information about the company and its leadership.

The proxy materials are where I (and most of the world) found out about Robert Nardelli (formerly CEO of Home Depot) and his truly absurd contract and pay package. I wrote about it here, and since they were required to quote essentially the whole contract, it was great fun to read. This info proved to be a key part of Nardelli’s downfall. But you had to read the annual report to see it.

So I encourage you to welcome this bounty of “annual report art”. Next, I’ll talk about my favorite one of them, but in the meantime, don’t just toss them in the recycle bin. Plumb each and every one for the hidden gems that lay within.

Driven to Work

Car in Shopping Cart

I had to buy a new car yesterday. Interesting that I said “had to”, isn’t it? Pretty much sums up the state of the car buying experience these days. Despite all the potential for fun — lots of new shiny toys, all the options in the world to choose from, flashy ads from the car companies, the ecstasy of driving home in that new car smell — car retailers work furiously to take all the joy out of the process.

I used to have a nasty new car addiction, about half of the reason I kicked the habit was the pain of dealing with the dealers. I’m just over it, and I’m now driving a seven year old car with 100,000 miles on it. The car I bought yesterday was for someone else, or I wouldn’t have been caught dead in a dealership.

Why is this the only retail experience like this?

You see, when it comes to bargains, I’m not much of a hunter, I’m more of a gatherer. I’ll do all kinds of research so I know what a good price is, but if I have to fight for the price, it’s just not worth it. This makes me a lamb to slaughter in a car dealership. And they seem to sense it.

The whole experience is just rancid, and set up to make it absolutely horrible for the customer. It begs a lot of questions:

  • Why is it considered OK that ten different people would pay ten different prices for the exact same item, based solely on their skill at this silly game?
  • What happens to people who either don’t understand the game or can’t play it at all?
  • Why is it that you don’t even negotiate with the person directly, but send your representative (the salesperson, who is on the other team) into a mysterious back room to negotiate on your behalf?
  • Why is it that you have to threaten to leave before you have a deal?
  • Why is this the only retail experience like this? You don’t buy groceries, or appliances, or even a house this way.
  • How did the process get this way? Who came up with this process that is exactly the same in every dealership?
  • Why can’t anyone really change this terrible experience? Companies have tried (Saturn, Lexus) but it never sticks, and just rots into this same fetid mess.

But even these aren’t the questions that got me to thinking yesterday. I wonder about the people who have to live in this festering boil of a work environment, and what it does to them.

I wonder about the people who have to work in this festering boil.

As I was pacing waiting for yet another deal volley over the net to be returned, I was asked by another salesman if I was “having fun, yet”. I replied: “I’d rather be at the proctologist’s. I don’t know how you can do this for a living.” He said: “It’s my third day.”

What struck me was the way he said it. It was a combination of shame, humiliation, and resignation. Although I can’t say from experience, I would imagine you’d get the same answer from a new prostitute. I immediately thought, how sad.

Now that I think about it, I’ve never met a car salesperson who didn’t aspire to something else. Well, there are those who take a perverse glee in this sick game. But they aren’t common. Most just seem to be there until they get something better, or just something else that doesn’t involve french fry oil.

The whole car buying experience is so wrong.

The whole car buying experience, and the people in it, is so wrong. Even the latest innovation of getting multiple bids on-line is just a mask for the problem, as soon as you enter the dealer’s lair, you’re meat. How come some creative company can’t fix the whole thing?

What Hath God Wrought?

Man Meditating

At the risk of venturing into a philosophical quagmire about various religions or value of faith in general, there is a trend afoot that makes me question the role of religion in the workplace. I am struck by the ascendancy of new Christian movements into various secular portions of society such as law, government, and business. I’ll leave it to others to question the rest, but I have strong views about the place of religion in business.

Before anyone begins by impugning my own faith, I probably should lay that on the table. I grew up in what could be called a mildly protestant family, neither zealots nor godless, and spent years in school where there were multiple mandatory chapel services each week. But little of that has permeated my business life, and I think that’s for the best.

Recently, however, as the world seems to be fragmenting along religious lines, it seems people like me are fewer and farther between. Somehow, in this world of Shiite vs. Sunni, Jew vs. Muslim, Protestant vs. Catholic, and on and on, it’s rarely simple enough to disagree but you apparently have to go to war over it. More and more people seem to think it’s OK to draw lines based on religion as if thousands of years of history haven’t taught us any better.

They feel the workplace is a fertile ground for spreading their gospel.

And now it seems that there is a tendency for evangelical christians, especially, to feel that the workplace is an appropriate, and even fertile, ground for spreading their gospel. There is even an organization called Christ @ Work that is trying to promote this kind of thing.

Created by Crown Financial Ministries, the organization and website of the “Fellowship of Companies in Christ” is eye-opening (check out the questionnaire, or the employee emails section). And like most similar organizations, Christ @ Work is deeply conflicted. For example, it claims to be “a non-denominational organization”, presumably as long as it’s Christian.

Various companies call themselves “faith-based”. An example you see everyday and probably haven’t thought much about is Covenant Transportation. This is a publicly-traded Tennessee-based trucking company whose trucks are seen nationwide.

I first noticed Covenant when I saw “It’s a child, not a choice” plastered on the back of a trailer. I wondered if it was simply one trucker expressing an opinion… until I saw it on every trailer. No, Covenant seems to think that expressing a controversial opinion in such a broad way is a good thing.

Regardless of where you stand on the abortion issue, their use of the company fleet to take a stand on a controversial issue has to be a bad thing. Do they have a litmus test for all employees (“are you pro-life”)? That would be illegal under EEOC rules. Do they turn down deliveries destined for Planned Parenthood? I believe, as a licensed common carrier, that too would be illegal. Does their business suffer to some degree because of this controversial stand? Do they not want a pro-choice stockholder?

Curiously enough, the only place Covenant mentions that they are “faith-based” is on the About page (oh… and the back of every truck). The rest of the site only talks about what a great place it is to work, with “great pay, and great values”. In fact they stress the individual:

We encourage individuality. We encourage you to be yourself. We encourage you to see our company in your own unique way.

Presumably as long as your way of seeing includes the pro-life sticker on the back of your truck.

I find this whole trend utterly offensive. I don’t really care what you do on Sunday, or Saturday, or during Ramadan, as long as you get along well with the other children and get your work done. I fully and completely support your right to hold dear whatever beliefs you have, and if those beliefs require you to dress, eat, or worship in a specific manner, please do so. But the minute your beliefs reflect on the organization as a whole or, worse yet, challenge those of others, that’s where I draw the line.

It is the height of hubris for management to force its beliefs on the employees.

And I get truly incensed when a secular organization chooses to take an overtly religious position. It is the height of hubris to think that the management team somehow has the right to force its beliefs on the employees. Each and every person at Covenant is assumed by the general public to be pro-life. It’s not only a bad answer to WWJD, it’s certainly not supporting the individual, and it’s just wrong.

As an interesting side note, the title of this post: the famous saying “What hath God wrought“, was an example of religion creeping into business. It is a verse from the Bible (Numbers 23:23) but was most famously used by Samuel Morse as the first message sent by Morse Code. One can argue forever, perhaps, about whether this is a better line than Alexander Graham Bell’s “Watson, come here I want you”, but there is little doubt the latter is vastly less likely to spark a debate about the existence of a supreme being — unless Watson thought the voice was from the beyond…

Blog Flux Business Blog Directory

Blog Flux Business Blog Directory

Since you’re reading this site about business, perhaps you’d be interested in reading a number of other blogs on business topics. One of the best directories of this sort is the Blog Flux Business Blogs directory.

I find it fascinating to just troll through this directory looking for people with interesting things to say. Certainly it can be a chore to separate the wheat from the chaff, but there are some very unusual things to see.