How can we make employees go the extra mile…?

Photo by taberandrew

Bruce Temkin wrote today about how contact centers need to redefine their purpose; their raison d’être and that made me think about an interaction I had with a kind of a contact center.

I am in the process of applying for a Ph.D. in business administration. This means I have to deal with a lot of bureaucracy. Because I am applying to a number of universities I need to make sure I follow the specific rules of each university. As an international student, the number of forms I need to fill and rules I need to comply is just enormous and I admit that I constantly get confused. As a client in this situation, I can attest that it is very easy to determine if a website is truly user friendly or not.

Anyway, in one of the applications I had a specific problem with one form which I wasn’t sure if I need to fill out or not. I sent an email to the Ph.D. admission office and got a reply. The reply said something like: “We think we know the answer, but we are not sure. You should contact the graduate admissions office”. I could not understand why they could not give me a straight answer, but I sent an email and the correspondence to the graduate admissions office. The reply said something like: “We don’t really know. You should contact the international student office”.

Think about how many service failures you can spot in this scenario. First, the fact that I could not even be sure by reading the instructions on the website. Then, when I approach someone who should be my contact point, he passes the responsibility back to me and points me somewhere else. This somewhere else turns out to be the wrong place and points me to a third place.

A few days ago I wrote about standing out as a manager after being inspired by a Jon Gordon blog post. It was so easy to stand out here. How would I have felt if the first representative wrote an email to me saying: “I was not sure of the answer so I contacted the graduate admissions office for you, turns out, it is the international students’ office that is responsible for this. Their answer is X. ” Honestly, they are working for the same organization. Shouldn’t that be clear? Isn’t that the obvious answer as it involves seeing me as a human being?

I am interested not only the fact that as a customer I feel like I did not receive adequate service but especially in the question what in the environment, culture and structure of the university makes employees refuse to give adequate service? What could these people managers’ have done to make sure that the reply will satisfy me? What is needed to make sure people go the extra mile to stand out?

I am not sure I have the answers. I know that an approach of Next as Seth Godin describes it today is part of the problem. I am guessing that rules have something to do with this approach. And I am guessing that these employees don’t see their service as a true calling.

What do you think?


Are you standing out as a manager?

Photo by Cameron Cassan

Jon Gordon wrote yesterday in his blog about standing out:

It’s not enough to just show up to work. In today’s economy you must stand out at work to differentiate yourself and your company.

And what are his examples for standing up? People that eagerly and passionately doing their work by truly caring and connecting with other people.

Isn’t is surprising that the species that came to dominate this planet, in large part because of its ability to create social structures and deep relationships is now so enthralled in being a cog in the machine, that all you have to do to stand out is actually act like a human being? There are not enough people who actually wake up and decide each morning to passionately connect with others. To lead through infectious being. We have all been that person who is happy to get exceptional true heartfelt service like Jon did. We have also all been the one who gives it whole and feels the difference being created, at some point or another in our lives. But organizational hierarchies, the psychological safety provided by dehumanizing others and lack of inspiration and passion all prevent us from waking up every day with an urge to make somebody else’s day.

What can managers learn from all of this?

First that it is easy, even as a manager, to stand out. The bar out there is so low and there is so much mediocrity that just by being human, you can stand out. When is the last time you really connected with your team on the human level? Second, that it is so easy to spot and find the people who are really remarkable. They stand out just by being human beings. If somebody does not act like a human being and does not try to make the extra connection and instead acts like a cog, well…, than he deserves to be a cog somewhere else. He made himself replaceable, so, replace him. And if you act like a cog, don’t be surprised that it will happen to you too…

How are you standing out as a manager?



From homogeneity to heterogeneity through loss of control


I was reading Jon Gordon’s blog yesterday:

We had a good laugh but Cary’s customer service was no laughing matter. I go there all the time and have bought hundreds of meals because I know when I go there I’ll get what I want. It’s no wonder that Aqua Grill has been open for 20 years while every week it seems another restaurant in my area has opened and closed.

Success is simple. Give customers what they want and they’ll come back. You don’t have to give away the house. In fact Aqua Grill and Pappasito’s cost a little more than their nearby competition but they are busier and more successful.

If it is so simple, why is it so hard? Why is it so hard to give people what they want? One word. Control.

Control is a way to deal with heterogeneity. To produce homogeneity. If I only give one type of dish, I can make more of it, faster. It is based on yesterday’s world of thinking – where productivity was king and we standardized everything in order to produce more.

Those days are gone.

We are slowly but surely moving away from a world of productivity and mass production, to a world of creativity and customization. And trying to use the same mechanisms of control that were used to stifle heterogeneity in a world where heterogeneity needs to thrive, is crazy.

But we still do. Maybe it is our human nature. Maybe it is just bad habits or our resistance to change. It does not matter. The rules, regulations and other forms of control, all these things that deny people their autonomy and freedom in the work place have an expiry date. We don’t that date yet, but they do.

Read this example Gary Hamel’s post in the Management Lab about unshackling employees where he explains how by letting local employees set the opening times of their bank branches (at night, during the weekend or whenever), a bank created not only engaged employees, but more business. Here is a little excerpt (read the whole thing, it’s worth it):

Blair summarizes the changes at BNZ with a telling anecdote. “I was walking by one of our stores on a Sunday morning with my kids, and my son said, “Dad, the doors on the bank are open.” And I thought, crap, someone forget to close the doors. But then I looked in, and saw that the entire store was open. No one is forced to roster on Sunday, but team members had come in from other branches in order to swap their hours. One mom was there working on Sunday because she wanted to take Wednesday off. And it hit me: no one at head office even knows when the stores are open.” Adds Chris, “The freedom to open when you want may not be the biggest thing we’ve done, but it’s the most symbolic in terms of telling our people, ‘we trust you, and we’re serious about empowering you.’”

It is the same process. Same hours for all branches. A mechanism of control that is supposed to create homogeneity that is supposed to lead to productivity. However what the bank realized is that by losing control and succumbing to the heterogeneity they enable creativity that leads to the customization that customers wanted.


Team Maintenance

Photo by rkramer62


We have all been there before. We decide to go on a diet. Or start working out. Or spend more time with the family. It starts out great. We go to the gym 4 times a week. We eat only an apple for five days. We manage to get home three times in the first week before 7PM. We see results. But then, something happens. We stop. Life takes its toll on us. We can’t seem to prioritize our decision anymore. The way our life is built is not supporting our decisions. These decisions will not work in a vacuüm. They must be incorporated into our life, slowly, but surly. Otherwise, it is just to hard to deliver results.

Teamwork is just the same. We think that if we only concentrate on the results, on the task or the issues at hand, everything will be fine. And then we go into a spiral, where the task demands more and more time. And what gets left behind? The team. It’s culture, it’s structure, the interactions between the people.

We have so much work on our hands that “working on the team culture and processes” seem like an indulgence. Who has time for that? We have real work to do. So what do we do, we go to some team building exercise in the woods, where we pull ropes for a day and feel like we worked on our teamwork.

But that is just like going to the gym for a week. Very painful in the short run and not very helpful in the long run.

Every research ever done on the subject of teams suggests that real high performing teams require maintenance. It is enough to focus on the task at hand and on the deliverables. Teams are made of people, and people form relationships. And these relationships, just like our personal relationships, need to be maintained all the time. And they need a setting and environment that supports them. Otherwise, they became a relationship on paper.

Jon Gordon writes in his blog today:

Whether we’re talking sports, business, education, healthcare, etc. the key to success is to build a winning team first. Of course this seems obvious but with increasing pressure to reach certain targets and goals and a challenging economy it’s easy for leaders and their teams to become outward focused on numbers and outcomes rather than inward focused on building the right environment, culture, attitude and synergy.

We must remember that it’s not the numbers that drive the people but the people and team that drive the numbers.

Yes, it is about choosing the right people. About creating the right process. About creating a supporting environment and culture.  Like so many things in life, sometimes the best way to reach our goal, in this case the results, is to not focus on them. The indirect approach.

Just like every person needs to incorporate weekly thinking-time into his schedule, so does a team need to set maintenance time to work on its effectiveness (and not on the results). Time to talk about how the team is doing. Time to get to know each other. Time to reflect about the team’s purpose and every individual’s role in it.

Like starting a diet or going to the gym, there is no one who will do it for you. If you are a team member demand it, make it a part of the culture, of the norm. Ignore those who make fun of you and insist. If you are a team manager, there is really no one else who has more influence on the team’s design and processes but you – and your team – if you let them…

It’s time for some team maintenance.


More on managing meetings

A week and a half ago I wrote here about my most important concepts for managing meetings. I got many comments on this post, many of them offering other important concepts and some disagreeing with some of the concepts I mentioned. One of the disagreements that kept coming up dealt with my concept about coming prepared.

This is what I wrote:

Everybody must come prepared. And when I say prepared I mean totally and utterly prepared. When you get to the meeting you already: read everything; made the preparations; calculated the numbers; came up with your own ideas. I spent so many meetings where people come unprepared and as a consequence half of the meeting is spent on just understanding the issue or on doing things that should have been done earlier without wasting everybody else’s time. Too many people believe that they perform the best under pressure and rationalize their way into procrastination. This trend extends itself into the meetings and people say to themselves – “hey, I learn the subject while the meeting takes place”.

Here are some of the comments about this point:

Everyone needs to be prepared. However, avoid over preparation if you want to be innovative. If you want to build ideas as a group, you don’t want to have people come with their ideas nailed down.

Too much preparation can be a downside, leading to people coming in with pre-conceived ideas and already solved problems. Basic preparation is a must though, to understand the key facts etc. but I’ve found too much preparation can hold back a discussion.

While I respect the people who commented on this point, I have to strongly disagree with them.

First, I think the comments confuse between communication skills and preparation. One can come totally unprepared, but still be closed to other people’s opinions. On the other hand, somebody can come with his own ideas and solutions, but be open, receptive and listen to other people. The fact that some people come prepared and are not willing to listen does not mean that coming prepared is the problem (causality). It means that their lack of communication skills and ability to listen is probably the problem. I think one of comments actually described it quite well:

… but I think there is a thin line between coming prepared for a meeting and coming with THE solution. I think it’s very important to be open to new ideas and avoid selling your solution. The attitude that you have when you go to a meeting is crucial.

The issue is the attitude and not the preparation which is positive.

And this brings on the second point. Part of the problem occurs when only one person comes to the meeting prepared. The others, who are not prepared are not able to contradict that person so he seems like he is not listening to them and they are also not able to point mistakes or to create a positive influence on his idea. Everybody loses.

Third, most of the comments also talked about wasting time in meetings and the fact that we have to many meetings. If people come unprepared, everybody’s time is wasted because people have different abilities and speed of understanding. I honestly don’t see the negative connection between preparation and being innovative. On the contrary, the fact that everybody has come prepared only allows spending more of the time on the actual innovation and allows avoiding things like groupthink.  

Fourth, preparation is disregarded in many aspects of our lives, and while I don’t support excessive over perpetration I feel that it should be given its due place. Just recently Jon Gordon wrote a post exactly on this subject:

So often we fail because we fail to prepare. We focus on hitting the ball but we forget to take the time to tie our shoes tight before the game starts

I am going to come prepared to my next meeting. What about you?


The gift that keeps on giving

3008436618_c76e56593bPhoto by Saquan Stimpson/monstersh aq2000’s

A few weeks ago I realized that a very good friend of mine’s birthday is coming up. I am really bad at buying presents, especially for women. So, I decided to enlist two other friends to help me with buying the gift. After I approached them, without me doing anything else, one came up with the idea, the other implemented it. Before I knew it, without really needing to do anything else, a great present was bought and given (including a card, which I signed a minute before we gave the present). My friend was really excited with the present and it was a big success.

Now, this sounds a little like laziness on my side. I had to do some work that I was not good at (buying a present) and instead of doing it, I just made other people do it. But, when you think about it, what I did was actually to put into practice two very important concepts for managers:

The first one, is Use your strengths and manage around your weakness. In my e-book I quoted a paragraph from, Marcus Buckingham and Donald O. Clifton book: “Now, Discover Your Strength“.

“…[Y]ou will excel only by maximizing your strengths, never by fixing your weaknesses. This is not the same as saying ‘ignore your weakness’. The people we described did not ignore their weakness. Instead, they did something much more effective. They found ways to manage around their weakness, thereby freeing them up to hone their strengths to a sharper point. Each of them did this a little differently. Pam liberated herself by hiring an outside consultant to write the strategic plan. Bill Gates did something similar. He selected a partner, Steve Ballmer, to run the company, allowing him to return to software development and rediscover his strengths’ path…”.

I had a weakness in buying presents. I do not know how to do it and it is highly unlikely that I will ever learn. I do know how to manage, find the right people and bring them together. Sometimes, doing the work is not actually about doing the work.

The second one is “Get the right people on the bus” – this is a term I borrowed from Jon Gordon. Check out this quote:

“This principle of identifying the right people was echoed by the Director of Learning at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company. He told me how the Ritz has saved millions of dollars by identifying the key characteristics, strengths and traits of each job/position at the hotel and then creating a benchmark that every potential employee is measured against. Utilizing a company called Talent Plus they interview each potential employee and then identify how they measure up to the benchmark of the position they are applying for. As a result they are better able to identify who the right people are for each job at the hotel”.

Sometimes, doing the work is not about doing the work, but about choosing the right people. Check out this inspiring example for how to implement this idea.

So, as a manger, how do you choose the people you work with? How does their strengths compare to yours?


Comparing or not comparing – on the difference between excellence and success


Photo by Aloshbennett

There is a difference between success and excellence.

Success is often measured by comparison to others. Excellence, on the other hand, is all about being the best we can be and maximizing our gifts, talents and abilities to perform at our highest potential

This quote is from a post by Jon Gordon and is definitely one of the most captivating posts I have read recently.

I am a big believer in consternating on ourselves and not on anybody else. It is not that we should ignore all the others, but we should just not focus on them so much. Being the best and doing the best we can is much more important. This is something I am sure about when it comes to the personal life, but I am more and more convinced, it is also relevant to the business-professional life as well.

You probably would not believe me, so I will refer to others, smarter than me. The first, Anthony Tjan, from the Harvard Business Review blog, writing about what looking at others might do to a company:

Most small businesses think that big companies have limitless resources and tons of money, and accordingly can do whatever they want. At the same time, most large companies think that all small ones are entrepreneurial, acting quickly, and bursting with creativity. Neither of these common beliefs is true. Most big companies do not throw a lot of resources at every project, and most small companies tend to become stagnant when they are through with their initial, entrepreneurial stage

Second, from the Manifesto: “Hit the Ground Running” by Jason Jennings:

Dos and don’ts of america’s best new CEOs

The Don’ts – Don’t study the competition.

Managers are fascinated with figuring out what the competition has up their sleeve. Most of the time, though, studying of the competition isn’t really justified. It’s simply an exercise in saying “See, we don’t suck as much as they do.”

According to the best new CEOs, studying the competition won’t help you to hit the ground running.

I find these ideas so true. So much of our studies in the MBA is outward focused. What are our competitors are doing? How can we imitate them? What are the benchmarks and best practices of the industry? Let’s analyse our competitors…

I am not saying doing all of these things is not important. It might be very important. I am just saying that it is good to try and sometime focus on excellence. On being the best at what we are doing. On giving the best effort we can give. With no relation to what others are doing.

If you look at some of the best successes in the last few years, they come from companies that looked at the market and did not ask themselves – how do we compare? How can we do what are competitors are doing, just differently or better?

It came from companies that reinvented the game. That left the confines of the industry and created new industries where they excel. Itunes; Google; Twitter; Iphone; are just some of the examples that spring to my mind.

It is time for us to excel. What did you do today in order to excel, not only succeeded.