Friday, August 27, 2010

Yes, We Can Get Much More Of Our Employees

Have you ever thrown money at a problem? It always seems like a good idea at the time, and it’s easy to do, but usually a terrible mistake. We almost made this error twice in the last few weeks but, fortunately, we came to our senses before spending needlessly.

Before I explain how we solved the problems, here’s what we were up against in each case:

Problem #1: At our quarterly planning meeting where representatives from each department come together to prioritize short-term objectives, everyone came up with the same conclusion: We didn’t have enough resources to accomplish all of our agreed-upon goals. My CIO said we’d need two full-time contractors to make it happen. He constantly reminds us of what he calls the “Triple Threat” (scope, time, and money). You usually can’t have all three, and in this case something definitely had to give.

Problem #2: A few weeks ago, a confluence of factors doubled the number of in-bound calls to our customer service call center. We were ill-equipped to handle those calls, so customers were understandably upset with extraordinarily long hold times. My VP of sales asked me if he could hire more people as it appeared the number of calls was not going to subside, and the data he analyzed seemed to mandate it.

Both situations seemed to require more money. Or did they?

As the CEO, I believe two of my major roles are to (a) make people the best they can be, and (b) create a culture of effective execution. The question was whether I could do both in these situations. Would more money really solve the problems and improve the quality of our team, or were we not being creative enough with the resources we already had?

I took a chance and decided it was the latter. In the first scenario, I told the planning group that I would not authorize more contractors. Period. This was somewhat of a shock because we had all agreed on a list of priorities and must-accomplish goals. I asked the group to look at the list again and identify what they could not live without. Our senior programmer told our CMO that if we postponed one of the bigger, less critical projects, it would free up enough time to obviate the need for the extra programmers. Enough said. Case solved.

In the second scenario, I took the same tactic. “Figure it out,” I said. And that’s what they did. Our VP of sales had originally said he and his direct reports “had thought of everything.” But this time, he brought in more people — some of whom had never been asked for their ideas — to brainstorm a solution. Within two hours they came up with 11 ideas, implemented seven by the end of the day, and the other four by the end of the week. Not one more person was needed.

Here’s what I learned from the experience, which you can apply to your own business:

1. Necessity is the mother of profit. If you force employees to think harder, they normally will. Setting limits and asking penetrating questions encourages people to think through all of their decisions and come up with work-arounds that will both help the company and themselves. It’s a classic leadership development lesson I learned in Larry Bossidy’s and Ram Charan’s best-selling book Execution.

2. With diversity comes more perspective. Involving more people in the process helps bring a fresh way of thinking. It also puts pressure on those who’ve already given the matter a lot of thought. Even if the new people don’t have the answer, they normally say things that catalyze ideas in others.

Before throwing money at a problem, throw the question right back at a larger, more diverse set of people. Pushing your staff to think more critically has two advantages: You’ll get a more creative solution out of them, and they’ll improve their problem-solving skills. Everyone becomes better that way.

Is An MBA Sometimes A Waste Of Time and Money?

MBA applications always go up during a bad economy. That is because business school generally attracts people who are lost, and more people who feel more lost when the bad job market is lousy.

But let’s be clear: This is not the type of recession where there are no jobs for young people. This is a recession where there are no GOOD jobs. McDonald’s is hiring in management. There is a bank teller shortage and a shortage of actuaries. There is a shortage of insurance agents. It’s just that people don’t grow up dreaming of these jobs. So they don’t take them. Instead, people who are early in their career - in that time when an MBA sounds like it might work - those people are determined to have only a good job. And if they can’t have that, they get an MBA.

The problem is that an MBA makes it worse.

Here are seven reasons why you should take a bad job instead of getting an MBA.

1. Business school won’t help you be a good entrepreneur.

There is no correlation between being a good entrepreneur and going to business school. In fact, according to Saras Sarasvathy, professor at University of Virginia’s Darden Business School, the most important skill for an entrepreneur is that you know your weakness and you can find people to fill in your gaps. So you pay a bundle to go to school to learn what you don’t and how to find people who can do stuff you can’t? Sorry, that doesn’t add up. The ultimate irony: entrepreneur programs are booming at business schools.

2. You likely don’t need an MBA for what you want to do.

There are some jobs, very few, where you cannot land if you don’t have an MBA. These are mostly high-level officer-type positions in the Fortune 500. Even then, though, you probably don’t need an MBA. In fact, Forbes reports that CEOs without MBAs bring more value to investors than CEOs who went to business school.

3. MBAs who are not from a top 10 school don’t increase their earning power.

So if you’re not one of the elite, the degree won’t help you earn more. According to the recruiting firm Challenger & Gray, the degree simply does not separate you from other people in any significant way; it’s too easy to get an MBA from a second-tier school. The cost of the degree is so much more than the combined cost of taking two years off of work and paying for the degree that you are better off taking a job you don’t particularly like and getting a night-school MBA after work hours.

4. It’s pointless after a certain age.

Let’s say you do get into a top-ten school. Don’t go if you are older than 28. You are too far along in your career to leverage the degree enough to increase your earning power enough to make up for the sticker cost of the degree. In fact, it is so important to get the degree early in your career that Wharton and Harvard have started accepting women earlier than men because the biological clock truncates a woman’s ability to leverage the MBA early enough in their career to make it worth the money.

5. An MBA is too limiting.

You can’t take an entry-level job after you get an MBA, so you had better know what you like to do. And can’t take a job in a low-paying industry because you have to pay back the loans. So not only is an MBA useless for most jobs, but it also makes you unqualified for more jobs that it qualifies you for

6. An MBA makes you look desperate

Top ten business schools will not accept you unless you have a clear plan for what you will do with the degree after you graduate. You need to have shown that you have a propensity for some sort of business and that you need the degree to get where you want in that business. Unfortunately, most other schools will take you if you don’t have a plan even though it’s been shown that people who go to business school with no plan for their career graduate with no plan for their career. And then you look not just lost, but desperate.

7. Business school puts off the inevitable.

Look, it’s really hard to be an adult. You go to school for twenty years being told what to learn and what to think and when to show up, and then you get tossed into adult life and there is no one telling you what’s right for you. You have to figure it out, but you didn’t go to school for that. In fact, school is the opposite of that. So it looks fine to be lost in your 20s. This is when everyone is taking time to figure things out. It does not look fine to spend $150,000 to go back to school just to put off the hard knocks of figuring out where you belong in the workforce. Face reality. Join the workforce.

Dealing With Bad Bosses

Having a bad boss could be the worst thing ever when you are starting your career. U may either tolerate in silence the psychological impact and pressure of going to work in a nasty environment, or get in a head-on crash confrontation with the boss who had turned your work-life into a miserable experience.
Here are some tips to help you deal with a bad boss:
If you go head-to-head with your boss, you’ll lose. In What They Don’t Teach You in Harvard Business School, Mark McCormack describes a situation where an employee got into a heated exchange with his boss and got himself fired. “No matter how wrong or intemperate his boss might have been, that, unfortunately, was now a nonissue. The situation did not reflect well on this particular employee’s boss — but his boss still had a job.”
You actually have choices; exercise them. That’s right, you can’t pick your boss, but if you don’t like him, it’s a free country, you can quit. If you like or need your job, on the other hand, then get over yourself and suck it up. The choice is yours. But if you decide to go over your boss’s head or to HR, don’t be surprised if it ends badly for you. You may not want to hear this, but from the company’s viewpoint, you’re just a thin-skinned troublemaker who they’d just as soon not have to deal with.
Did it ever occur to you that it may be you? I’m not trying to burst your bubble here, but maybe you’re not god’s gift to bosses. Maybe the boss would be more relieved to get rid of you than you are to get rid of him. Sure, nobody thinks he’s a rotten employee, but they’re out there, and in far greater numbers than rotten bosses. So, if you actually like or need your job, you might want to take a long look in the mirror before you do anything drastic.
Burned bridges have a way of piling up. Maybe you’re young and carefree now, but the choices you make and the behavior you exhibit today will follow you throughout your career. More and more, employers are checking references you don’t provide, and a few little red flags can add up to one big red flag that says, “don’t hire this guy.” The truth is, if you burn enough bridges, you may very well find yourself all alone on an island somewhere with nobody else in sight. No bosses, and no jobs, either.
Bottom line: Look, I’ve had more than my fair share of dysfunctional and abusive bosses, so I don’t mean to appear insensitive to what employees of crappy bosses really go through every day. Still, if you act subjectively without gaining some perspective, you may end up making things even worse for yourself. Just remember, you always have a choice. You can always quit.

Business Books Can Be Bad For You

I stumbled upon this interesting article of an expert and thought I might share with my readers:

I read more business books than anyone I know, which is ironic because I can’t stand most of them. That’s not to say I hate all business books — after all, I’ve written one — but 95% go on one of two lists: “if you don’t know this already, you should be working at the DMV” and “if you do these things, your company will become the DMV.”

A cynical view? I don’t think so. Here’s why.

First, most business books use stories to cover over their complete lack of insight. This week, I read a galley of a book that I hope will never come out. After some catchy anecdotes about hero CEOs, it advised, among other things, that leaders figure out what’s really important, then do those things. It went way out on a limb by saying that great leaders are remarkable at forming relationships. And (are you sitting down?) the best leaders are honest when a strategy isn’t working.

Are you kidding me? How about we add that true leaders can dress themselves, use full sentences, and bathe before work.

Second, the stories themselves often highlight the wrong message. Here’s an example. I mentioned Zappos in a talk I gave, and Tony Hsieh, the CEO, was kind enough to endorse my work. Now I get lots of emails asking for an introduction to him. I almost never pass them on. Why? Because Tony, like me, is tired of repeating what no one ever hears: the Zappos story isn’t about Tony. It’s about a group of people that aligned on the same vision of what that company could become and pulled it off by sacrificing, working hard, and participating. If people copy only Tony’s actions, they won’t end up with a Zappos; they’ll end up bankrupt.

Business success isn’t a checklist, and that’s the implied message from many business books: do these things and you’ll be the hero. Business success is a dance: with the market, employees, investors, customers, landlords, and creditors — not to mention spouses and kids.

Third, most business books are air sandwiches: empty in the middle. One of my mentors told me to read the first and last chapters of a book, because everything in the middle is either stories or takeaways so simple that watching Mr. Rogers is a better use of your time. I’m too obsessive-compulsive to follow this advice, but in 95% of cases, it would be better if I had.

Business leaders need a reboot on the ideas that make organizations run. Is your time best spent reading business books, or talking with people with radically different ideas? Put down the business book and go interact with ideas that challenge you, frighten you, or piss you off.

People often ask me what the best business books I’ve ever read are. Here’s my list: The Odyssey, Atlas Shrugged, and Ender’s Game. None are about commerce or strategy. Read The Odyssey to understand character, purpose, and discovery. Read Atlas Shrugged to clarify your own position on how the political economy should run. And read Ender’s Game for how genius and leadership pull people in opposite directions. (Two of the three are well written — you can figure out which is the outlier.)

None of these books have takeaways, or to-do lists. None preach. They will make you think.

Anyone brave enough to venture into these waters with me? What are your favorite non-business books that teach you a lot about business?