Echoes of past blogposts

If you have been blogging for a few years, you likely witness some of your older blogposts resurfacing with more interest. In my case, it is not uncommon for some older posts to be more widely read than at the time they were written.

Now, I am not referring to those blogposts that have consistently drawn attention. The ones that pop-up in your most-viewed list after being long absent are to what I am referring. Here are a few late-blossomers that are getting more attention:

“Don’t laugh at me” written in September, 2013 – This one resurfacing is less a surprise as I think people are alarmed by the divisiveness in America and western democracies. The Peter, Paul and Mary songs resonates saying quietly and pleafully “we are all the same.” It’s message is place yourself in the shoes of the person who is being ridiculed. At some point, each of us has been ostracized. Here is a link.

https://musingsofanoldfart.wordpress.com/2013/09/30/dont-laugh-at-me/

“Who is Paul O’Neill and why should his opinions matter?” written in March, 2013 – This one is more of a surprise, given the relative anonymity of Paul O’Neill. Yet, I think people are craving leadership with the dearth of such in the two largest English speaking democracies. O’Neill is a quiet, studious and effective leader who deserves notoriety for his ability to observe what is wrong and how to arrive at solutions. Plus, it shows great leaders facilitate communications up and down organizations as the best ideas often come from those closest to the action. Here is a link.

https://musingsofanoldfart.wordpress.com/2013/03/20/who-is-paul-oneill-and-why-should-his-opinions-matter/

If you do not remember these posts or were not following my blog back in 2013, please check them out. I am delighted they are getting a little more interest given their subject matter. Also, please share a link to similar posts of yours. I would love to revisit them or read them for the first time.

We should pay attention when people sound alarms at their own peril

It fascinates me when an old post starts getting some attention. Right now, one called “Who is Paul O’Neill and why should his opinions matter?” is getting a few looks (a link is below). In essence, O’Neill was fired as Secretary of the Treasury for voicing an opinion the President did not like.

What did he say, you ask? He said he was concerned about the debt and felt the Bush Tax Cuts were unneeded. This is after Bill Clinton handed a surplus budget to the younger Bush. It should be noted the debt is now 5 times larger.

Recently, the well respected Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats resigned under pressure as he told the inconvenient truth about Russian influence and its continuation. Like O’Neill, this clarion call should be heeded. Like with General James Mattis’ resignation last December, Coats departure is giving GOP Senators pause, yet they refuse to act.

Back in late 2007, a Texas financial analyst noticed that people who could “fog a mirror,” were getting huge mortgage loans on properties that seemed to be over-inflated in value. He did his homework and was able to get a meeting with the CFO of Bear Stearns. He told the CFO he thought Bear Stearns was over-extended with risk and was going to to go under.The CFO thanked him and the guy uttered these parting words – well, I am going to bet against you. Within the year, Bear Stearns was bought for a very discounted price before it went under.

Colin Kaepernick is a good NFL quarterback, but he has been blackballed from the league after calling attention to the unequal rights and treatment of Blacks in America. His civil protest was hyper-politicized by a hyper-political president, so he was blackballed, a term which seems apt. Yet, we have a difference in how Blacks are treated. Even further, our society is more economically unequal than it has ever been, with haves owning much greater shares. A society cannot withstand such differentiation for too long. Kaepernick’s protest should be heeded not condemned. His protest is far more emblematic of American values than a flag or anthem ever could be.

Those who are giving clarion calls should be given due consideration. There are financial analysts who have cautioned against Brexit from the outset. Those concerns have fallen on too many deaf ears. Their corollary message is even more dire – do not leave the EU without a deal. That is beyond poor stewardship. It matters not what the current PM says. Yet, if it does happen, it is only fitting that Mr. Johnson is the one trying to deal with the fallout.

Before I close, let me go back to someone who is similar to the Texas man who tried to forewarn Bear Stearns. The movie “The Big Short” highlighted one person of several who saw the housing recession coming. When his concerns fell on deaf ears, he had them create a product to pay off if he was right.  The industry laughed at him until a couple of years later they realized he was right. His clients made a fortune. The movie ends by telling us what this man is now investing in – water. While it does not get much play here, we have a global water crisis which rivals climate change as a concern. He saw it coming.

https://musingsofanoldfart.wordpress.com/2013/03/20/who-is-paul-oneill-and-why-should-his-opinions-matter/

Great leaders make everyone around them better

Thomas Friedman, the award winning author (“The World is Flat” and “That Used to be Us”), made an important observation in an interview with Charlie Rose. A great leader makes everyone around them better – think Michael Jordan, Tom Brady, Wayne Gretzky or, if you are older, Bill Russell. Donald Trump makes everyone around him worse.

This is a powerful observation. Defending this immoral man requires his people to go to a bad place in their nature. They must lower themselves and lie like he does. General Kelly harmed his reputation by lying about a Congresswoman. Sarah Huckabee-Sanders is not worth listening to as she defends the indefensible with inconsistent and nonsensical statements.

Trump values loyalty over competence, so the tendency to become a sycophant is rewarded. While he does have some competent people, they are fewer in number and the depth of talent is not as much as needed. Many experienced people could have helped him, but they either did not pass the loyalty test or chose not to work with such a narcissistic man. His team is not deep and they are very distracted trying to keep Trump between the white lines, so they cannot focus on global trends, issues and strategy.

On the flip side, I think of great leaders like Paul O’Neill, who turned around Alcoa by opening communication channels which improved productivity and safety. I think about my former boss whose mantra was hire good people and have them go see our clients. He kept senior leadership off your back and empowered you to work with others to serve.

Let me close with a story about Bill Russell, the NBA Hall of Famer with the Boston Celtics. He did all the heavy lifting (rebounding, defense, passing, blocked shots) letting his teammates do most of the scoring. His Celtics won eleven championships, his college team won two NCAA championships and he was on a Gold Medal Olympic team.

Great leaders make everyone around them better.

That elusive employee engagement

As a former consultant in the compensation, benefits and HR arena, I am often asked about improving that elusive employee engagement, as if there is a formula. I was having a similar conversation this morning with a good friend and compensation person in a major organization. When I started to chuckle, he asked why?

The problem is employers have been after this difficult goal for years, but it has become even more elusive in the last ten years. Why? Because employers killed employee engagement. You cannot treat employees poorly and not shoot straight with them during difficult times, and then say every thing is alright now and we want you to be engaged.

During the most recent economic downturn and even before, employers, cut pay, froze pay, downsized, right sized, off shored, and outsourced all in the name of controlling expenses. It was not unusual for people to be let go and then walked to their desk to collect their things and escorted out the door.

Employers would say we have to hold the salary budget tight as things are tough, going to be tough or it is too soon to adjust pay. Or, one of my least favorite tactics is to let people go before salary increase time and not adjust the median increase forward. In other words, they would cut the bottom performers and force fit the performance metrics down making a “meets expectation” performer a “partially meets” as the distribution of performance is now out of whack.

Yet, it need not be this way. There was a company in Germany where leaders sat down with all employees during the recession. They said times are tough, but we all are going to give a little, so the CEO, EVPs, and all employees, took pay cuts that would be restored in full when times got better. The logic is the company did not want to let anyone go. Everyone pitched in. This is a strong message. You should not be surprised, these employees remain engaged throughout.

Employee engagement is not created by a panacea. Using the Nordstrom model, it would look like inverting the pyramid where customers are at the top and people who serve them are next, with shareholders at the bottom. The thesis is if we treat our customers and those who serve our customers well, the shareholders will make more money.Yet, this is a mission where everything flows from the customer. It also allowed a communication avenue for the best ideas to flow from those closest to the customer.

I have written before about Paul O’Neill who turned around Alcoa in the 1980s. He focused on employee safety first and foremost. Why? It was the only thing he could get management and the union leadership to agree on. As a result, communication improved up, down and across the organization as safety improved. But, with new found empowerment, process and customer service improvement ideas started flowing from those closest to the action.

Engage employees, glean their input, value their opinion and pay them fairly. If companies do that, the employees will also feel they have a stake in the game. If you set this framework in motion, decisions can be made in support of this mission, whether they be compensation, benefits, flex schedules, stock ownership, etc.

One final thought is the commitment has to be more than mere words. O’Neill got management attention when a few weeks into his tenure, an employee was killed in an accident. He gathered his leaders together and said “We killed this man. I want to know in 24 hours, how he died, why he died and what we can do to not letting it happen again.” I don’t know about you, but that is what leadership looks like. I would  be willing to work hard for this leader.

 

A Great Leader

I have written before about great leaders and bosses I have witnessed or read about. Not that I am an expert, but the following opinions about leadership resonate with me.

A great leader…

deflects credit to others and does not take credit when it is not deserved.
– reaches out to others for their thoughts, even if it is to validate a preconceived notion.
encourages communication with those up, down and across the organization.
– recognizes the best ideas to improve sales, performance, safety or efficiency come from those closest to the action.
empowers his or her people to do the jobs they have been hired to do.
– admits mistakes and seeks to remedy them, not cover them up.
encourages people to share their concerns with him or her and not look for people to agree with everything he or she says or does.
– creates a culture of doing the right thing and shows little tolerance for cheating the system.
establishes BHAGs or Big Hairy Audacious Goals, which show a path forward. *
– treats people fairly and consistently.

Please note I did not indicate any personality style. Great leaders can be introverted, as an increasing number of CEOs are, of they could be extroverted. Yet, we often mistake the ability to tell a story with someone who can actually lead.

Finally, great leaders are not perfect. Seeing how they react to business or personal failure is key. Do they blame others or accept the failure? The is the best window into how the person will lead.

* From the book “Built to Last” which reviews why companies are successful over time.

Lessons from Sully Sullenberger and Paul O’Neill for GM

I have written before that organizations take on the personality of its leaders. Earlier this week, CEO Mary Barra of General Motors (GM), reported on the findings of an internal audit of why they did not have an earlier recall when problems arose on some cars. Many heard a lot of blame down the ladder, but we did not hear much about culpability at the top. The key question asked, but not answered, is why did people not share their concerns with management that something was amiss? The unstated answer is it is in the culture of the organization, where people at the top did not want to hear of failings or heads would roll. An analyst who covers the car industry noted there was a modus operandi of “don’t mess with the launch of new line.”

I have written before about two leaders, Captain Sully Sullenberger and Paul O’Neill, who was the CEO who turned around Alcoa and later became Secretary of the Treasury under President George W. Bush. They have some good lessons that GM should emulate  going forward. Sullenberger was the right person at the right time as captain of US Airways Flight 1549 that he safely landed in the Hudson River. He not only studied accidents for airlines, he was on task forces to go to crash sites and help ascertain why the planes went down. So, he knew from his research and experience, what he needed to do to safely land in the Hudson.

He also knew what GM failed to remember. He was the leader of the crew, but he understood all to well that each member of the team has a role in the safety of the flight, including the flight tower personnel. His research showed that many accidents occurred because navigators and co-pilots did not feel comfortable offering input to the pilot or tower. A couple of examples might help. A plane crashed in Japan, because the co-pilot had to acquiesce to the pilot due to seniority. In this case, the co-pilot was on record as being correct that the plane was off course, but the pilot’s judgment could not be overturned.

In another, the Brazilian flight crew of a doomed flight did not have confidence to disagree with an American flight tower. They did not feel comfortable in countering the flight tower and the plane crashed. Sullenberger was aware of other examples that had been noted and improved over time. But, what he did every time he had a new flight crew (even one new member), was get them all together to get to know them and encourage them to speak up if they saw something amiss. Anything, even if small. He noted in his book, that what gave him great comfort during these few seconds on Flight 1549, was he could hear everyone doing their job. He got quick advice from the tower, his co-pilot and navigator. He shared his thoughts quickly and made sure everyone knew what was going to transpire. When he concluded that getting nearby Teterboro Airport was not possible, he offered up and concluded, “it looks like we will be in the Hudson” which allowed rescue crews to be alerted.

O’Neill joined Alcoa which was struggling. And, his first public comments were “we are going to make Alcoa the safest company possible.” This was an odd mission to start out with and many analysts were not impressed. One analyst told his investors to sell Alcoa stock, which he later added, was the worst advice he had ever given. O’Neill knew that the only thing he could get management and union leaders to agree on was safety. So, that is where he started. He also knew that for safety to be important, managers had to talk to floor personnel to understand better the problems, so that a plan to fix them could be developed. So, communication got better up and down the line. The empowered employees starting sharing ideas on how to improve not only safety, but process as well. The company performance and stock price took off.

Both Sullenberger and O’Neill knew that they were part of a team. They also knew the best ideas can come from anywhere, but especially from those closest to the action. So, it is not only vital, but imperative, that management create a culture where ideas can be shared. Otherwise, you would be flying in the dark. It should be noted at the same time GM was having these troubles, they missed a huge market opportunity. Why? Because they were not listening.

GM piloted the first electric car called the EV-1 in California in the early 2000’s. They did not sell them or market them, but a cult-like following was growing as people who wanted to make a difference started leasing them by the thousands. Eventually, the EV-1 was killed as the result of an alleged collusive effort chronicled in the documentary “Who Killed the Electric Car?” which can be accessed by the link below.* The drivers wanted to buy the cars, but GM collected them and shred them. They wanted no evidence. The Board of Directors of GM asked why the EV-1 pilot was being shelved at the same time they were building Hummers, and management said this is the direction America car buyers want. Hummers are no longer made as they were gas guzzlers.

Here in 2014, GM could have been the predominant player in the electric car market, which will grow as more power stations and better batteries become available. Yet, they chose a short-lived strategy, made other bad decisions and had to be bailed out and only now are seeing the failure of not having an open culture to communication. The lesson that was not said by Barra is we did not have an environment where people could offer input and we would listen to them. She needs to talk to Sully Sullenberger and Paul O’Neill and set a more open path for the future. It is not ironic, that both are known for safety.

* http://www.whokilledtheelectriccar.com/

 

 

 

 

A journey begins and is made up of small steps

Oftentimes, we look at huge efforts and never start to tackle them because of their enormity. There is an old quote that I often use, “opportunity is missed because it is often dressed up as hard work.” Yet, to accomplish any major task or to embark on an arduous journey, you must take that first step. And, remember the journey is made up of small steps. This is my way of saying break the huge effort down into smaller steps and it won’t seem so overwhelming. But, I would add that you should do each step well, as if you don’t you may need to go back and do it again.

Hopefully, you will also have some semblance of a plan, rather than embark without an idea or goal. But, even without a plan, doing nothing will most likely not get you where you need to go. On this last point, with three children and during some tutoring I have done, I will share with the student on tackling a problem they don’t know how to do – “well let’s start with writing down what you do know.” Once you start, the problem becomes more visual. On old professor called it “thinking with your pencil.” Plus, a teacher wants to see if you have a clue, even if you miss the problem, so they can help you work through the problem.

I have written in earlier posts excerpts from some interesting starts to solving major problems. Each of these three examples were actually ridiculed, yet they paved the way to a successful problem resolution. From the book “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg, I wrote a post about Paul O’Neill, the very successful CEO of Alcoa who went on to serve in President George W. Bush’s administration. The post can be found with the attached link. https://musingsofanoldfart.wordpress.com/2013/03/20/who-is-paul-oneill-and-why-should-his-opinions-matter/.

O’Neill joined Alcoa and turned the company around by focusing on safety. When he said he wanted to make Alcoa the safest company on the planet at his first CEO public appearance, he was ridiculed and one financial advisor told all of his clients to dump Alcoa stock today. The advisor later said that was the worst piece of financial advice I have ever given. Why safety? O’Neill told people later, “that was only issue I could get management and the unions to agree was important.” With this focus, communication between management and the workers on the manufacturing floor improved and it was a two-way street. Information on how to make things safer and improve processes started being discussed and Alcoa improved safety and productivity. This translated into financial success and the stock took off.

Malcolm Gladwell used an example in his book “The Tipping Point” about how terrible subway crime was stopped in New York City. Although more complicated than this, it started with the subway management painting over the graffiti on the trains and walls every day. If graffiti appeared, they made every effort to make sure it was gone the next day. What happened next is the vandals and robbers starting seeing this and felt if they are going to this much trouble to paint trains and walls, then we better not do any crimes here. This seemingly small step was laughed at, but it made a huge difference.

The final example is another small one, similar to the above two, courtesy of Steve Jobs. When Jobs built his first plant in China, he was involved in the intricate details. When he was asked what color to the paint the walls, he said white. When he was told that was foolish as it would show dirt and grime, he retorted we will just paint it again. His point is white is a cleaner look and if we keep it clean by repainting, this will show we have great attention to detail and the workers will notice. They will extrapolate that to other areas. This attention to detail continued until right before he died as Jobs had a heavy hand in designing the new headquarters for Apple. He was insistent on having small meeting rooms with white boards along the highly trafficked routes in the halls to the rest rooms and break rooms. The reason is the chance encounters and “hey, what are you working on” hall conversations would lead to idea sharing meetings.

Small steps. Harder problems are made easier if broken down into small steps.These three success stories involved safety and buckets of paint, which few thought were the most important or necessary steps to success. If you break large tasks into smaller steps and try to excel at each step, then the journey will be made easier. No matter how small that step may appear to others, that first step has to be taken. And, suppose you make a mistake along the way; remember the lesson of Steve Jobs and the New York subway – you can always paint over it – and move forward.