Sunday, September 30, 2007

Ten Commandments for a Successful Career

Those of you who have read my Ten Commandments for Leaders will notice that some of these commandments are the same. I hope that makes sense to you, it does to me!

•1. Listen: No one knows everything! You don’t have to be an expert on every issue!
•2. Always say your mind! You are paid for what’s in your head.
•3. Never get yourself into an economic situation where you can’t afford to tell the company to go to hell!
•4. You have to risk your job in order to do your job!
•5. Don’t worry about politics! In the long-term it is the results that count.
•6. If you’re not passionate about what you are doing then go do something you are passionate about!
•7. Make your decisions on facts! An educated guess is better than no information at all, but facts are always best.
•8. Take responsibility for your own motivation!
•9. Be resilient! Careers are not linear, they go up and down and you always get a second chance!
•10. Have fun!

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

7. Make your decisions on facts! Intuition is better than no information at all, but facts are always best.

In recent years there has been a great deal of hype for intuition. Hopefully, most of the hype is the result of misunderstandings. I don’t want to believe that intelligent people would encourage us to make decisions in a “Blink” instead of analyzing the facts. In fact, while some people promote the value of common sense I can’t help but think that even if we may all have common sense, there sure isn’t much about common sense that we have in common! I don’t know how many times I have heard people arguing vastly different points of view and all base their arguments on common sense! Give me a good old fashioned analysis of the data any old day!

It is amazing that so many companies can be so successful despite the fact that many important decisions are based on the nice warm feeling some executive has in their tummy. This in itself must be evidence that the practice of intuition based management is much more widespread than anyone wants to admit. In a world where everyone is guessing, the one who guesses a little better is the winner!

I am not opposed to making an educated guess as a last resort to fill in the gaps of good analysis. I am against basing analysis primarily on intuition and acting as though these guesses and assumptions are facts! Substituting facts with intuition should always be an exception and these exceptions should be documented and frequently re-evaluated since they are likely to represent major risks in the analysis. Over time, the “intuited” facts can either be confirmed by trail and error or replaced by facts. All too often these intuited facts become “truths” and no one remembers the origin of the information.

Jeffery Pfeffer and Robert Sutton’s book “Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths & Total Nonsense” is the best thing I have read on the subject of “evidence-based” management. If this book doesn’t appeal to your common sense then you might want to take your common sense in for an overhaul!

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

6. If you’re not passionate about what you are doing then go do something you are passionate about!

It is really rather simple! Competition will demand that you are good at what you do. In order to be good you have to enjoy it. You may be thinking that it is unrealistic to expect that everyone in the company is passionate about their work. You may be right, but we aren’t talking about everyone, we are talking about you! We are talking about the leaders of these organizations. If the leaders aren’t passionate about the business then who the hell is?

The choices you make not only affect you. They will also have a significant impact on your employer and your colleagues.

Lose/Lose/Lose or Win/Win/Win

You lose
The world is getting more and more competitive. In most industries customers have greater choice and require better products and services at lower cost. In order to meet these competitive pressures organizations are struggling to drive down costs through achieving greater efficiencies. In short, companies are expecting fewer people to produce more! In essence each of us has to get better and better at what we do. The only way to meet this challenge is to work with something you truly enjoy. If it is not enjoyable you just won’t be able to put in the effort that is required to succeed. It will just be too much like work! If on the other hand you enjoy what you are doing you will perceive the effort you put into it as self-development or even as play.

If are bogged down in a job you are not passionate about you aren’t getting the satisfaction out of you work you deserve. Since we spend so much time at work it is fair to say that you are not getting the satisfaction from you life that you ought to grant yourself.

Your employer loses
If you are on a job you are not passionate about you will not be able to perform at the level of productivity your employer has the right to expect from you. This could ultimately undermine your employer’s ability to succeed in highly competitive markets.

The other guy loses
By filling a position that you are not passionate about you are blocking that position from someone else who may be dreaming of doing your job. They will not get the opportunity to get their dream position as long as you are sitting there (at least not at your company). There may be circumstances in which there just aren’t enough dream jobs to go around, but what a terrible shame if some of these scarce positions are filled by people who don’t appreciate them and who may be secretly dream of doing something else!

Monday, May 07, 2007

5. Don’t worry about politics! In the long-term it is the results that count.

All organizations have politics if we mean the kind of politics that occur from the natural group dynamics when people try to cooperate to achieve their goals (hopefully common goals). In this sense, politics is about how we work together as a group, how decisions are made and how power is distributed in the group. Everyone participates in this kind of politics, therefore, office politics or the politics of any group are in themselves natural.

What happens, when politics become the end itself and not the means in an organization? Sometimes, the goal of a group or an individual is to gain and hold power not to achieve any tangible goals for the organization? Any goals that happen to be achieved become tools to hold or gain more power.

This is common in the governmental politics of a country. From the beginning, at least some political parties start with good intentions: A group of people with a shared world view or common values join together to try and make their town, country or the world better. They soon realize that in order to create the changes in society which they believe are necessary they need power and in order to gain power they need support from voters. The temptation becomes very great to say and do things that are popular with voters in order to get the power to drive change. In the end political parties can find themselves so compromised that it is difficult to align their “real” actions with the values and world view they espouse.

Unfortunately, these “negative politics” are not restricted to the realm political parties. They are just as common in non-profit organizations as they are in large corporations. Anyone who has ever devoted time to their local home-owners association or their children’s athletic club has probably experienced the nasty backside of politics.

We all know someone who is well liked by some managers, (maybe not as popular with their peers or subordinates) who seem to be well connected and always in the limelight but who never really seems to achieve anything. I have seen people like this, on stage, taking all the credit for an award that everyone knows is the result of the inspiration and hard work of others (typically their subordinates). I have seen people argue adamantly against an initiative and all of a sudden try to take credit for the idea when it has gained popular support or become a big success.

Despite all this, I am convinced that in the long-term there are two elements that outweigh all the power of politics. Results and integrity!

Any organization that does not reward good results is doomed! In order to succeed organizations must deliver value to their stakeholders. Whether it be shareholders, taxpayers, patients or students the organization that doesn’t deliver will die! Therefore, organizations need people who are focused on delivering results. These results oriented people will, over time, be encouraged and rewarded by their organization for the sake of the organization. This does not mean that a “politician” cannot win short-term victories from time to time but they cannot win long-term or the organization will erode and fail.

Integrity and results go hand in hand! They are really all about who you are, or who you want to be. No person is greater than the combination of her thoughts, words and deeds. And the greatest of these is deeds! Good intentions are fine and well but if never converted into actions they become cobblestones on the path to hell! Intentions translated into words can be powerful and lead to positive change. Words that grow from great thoughts become art, a deed in itself, which may inspire others to great deeds. Great words, combined with bad deeds are hypocrisy. Good intentions transformed into words and reflected by good deeds are the hallmark of a life well lived.

I sometimes think of a time in the future when I am old and looking back on my life. There will undoubtedly be things in my life which I regret (anyone who would not lacks insight) and hopefully there will be things of which I am proud. The question is what has been the overwhelming tone of my life. Has it been a life of ass-kissing, ass-kicking and manipulation or a life of reflection, integrity and achievement? Have I lived the life I wanted to live or a life that looked good in the eyes of others? Will I leave the world better than I found it or taken as much as I could with no consideration price my life will cost the ones I leave behind?

Saturday, April 28, 2007

4. You have to risk your job in order to do your job! Losing your job is not the worst thing that can happen! (It can often be the best!)

Far too many people seem to think that the worst thing that can happen to them in working life is losing their job, especially, losing their job as a direct result of their own actions. The embarrassment of failure and/or the eventual threat of economic insecurity resulting from unemployment tend to limit our willingness, indeed maybe even our capacity to be creative and take risks. But risk taking is exactly what we have been hired to do.

The higher the risk, the higher the return! This premise is one of the fundamentals of economics. Despite this I have often heard people say things like “we need to minimize risk” or “we need to eliminate risk”. From the perspective of economic theory minimizing or eliminating risk is the same as minimizing or eliminating profitability. In any healthy company the direct opposite of this should be true; we should encourage our people to take risks.

I don’t know how many times I have seen looks of panic on the faces of various managers when I say things like this. I can almost hear them saying “What if an employee takes a risk that bankrupts the company?” When I talk about risk I am not talking about jumping out of an airplane without a parachute or playing Russian roulette with a loaded gun. These activities are not risky they are stupid. Risk taking should be the result of intelligent fact-based decisions making full use of our skills and knowledge while pushing the frontier of our competence. Risk taking is not foolish squandering of resources or wild guesses!

Companies in highly competitive industries will fail in the long-term if they cannot develop a culture that encourages risk-taking. The same is true of the individual careers of all employees in these companies! My own theory is that the greater your responsibility in the company, the greater risks you must be willing to take to succeed. Unfortunately, there often seems to be a reverse correlation between seniority in the organization and willingness to take risks.

There are many more jobs in the world for people who make $50,000 a year than there are for people who make $2,000,000 a year. It would not be strange if someone who has a $2,000,000 job were inclined to do whatever possible to keep it. They might also be inclined to avoid anything that might jeopardize their positions!

Risk avoidance will lead to failure in achieving results and ultimately to losing your job. Risk-taking over the long-term will lead to growth and profitability, however, on the short-term a risk that doesn’t work out well could also lead to losing that cosy high-paying job. If you do the math at an individual level you could come to the conclusion that you are likely to end up getting fired no matter what you do. If you play it safe and maybe offset declining profitability and lose of market share with cost-cutting initiatives you might just be able to prolong your employment longer than if you take risks. I am not saying that there are never scenarios where you should play it safe or that cost-cutting for that matter is always wrong. I am saying that these initiatives can and sometimes are misused by managers for there own benefit to the detriment of the company!

Saturday, April 21, 2007

3. Never get yourself into an economic situation where you can’t afford to tell the company to go to hell!

Many years ago I worked together with a man who I respected very much. I was around 30 years old and he was closer to 60. Back then nobody used words like mentor to describe those kinds of relationships but looking back now he was clearly my mentor at the time. One night when we had been working late and sat talking he said to me “Never get yourself into an economic situation where you can’t afford to tell the company to go to hell!”

He continued by explaining that if you get yourself into the “Golden Cage”* two things are likely to happen. First of all you risk losing your job satisfaction and secondly your value to the company will decrease. When you sacrifice your economic independence you may stop taking risks and saying what you think (especially when what you think might be uncomfortable for your superiors). Paradoxically, the freer you are to walk out the door the greater the value you are likely to create for your company.

I remember a boss I had at my first job after graduating from college. He was always trying to get me to buy a house or at least an expensive car. One day I asked him why it mattered to him if I bought a house or a car. He said very bluntly that if I got into debt I would be more likely to stay with the company. This might very well have been true but the question is if this was really the best thing for my boss or the company? By increasing my dependence on the company I might very well have decreased my productivity (as well as my job satisfaction). There is no doubt that motivation increases productivity. As long as I work where I work because I want to, my motivation will be high. When I start feeling that I work where I work because I have to, my motivation and productivity will decrease. Add this to the “fear factor” (or prostitution factor as one of my friends calls it) ,that is the fear of doing or saying something that might jeopardize my job, and you might well have taken all the entrepreneurial spirit out of me.

*Some call it the Golden Cage! Maybe you have a job that doesn’t stimulate you intellectually. Maybe you even hate your job! The problem is that it pays the rent. It might even pay a great deal more than the rent. That job you hate may be providing you with a lifestyle that is hard to give up. Nice cars, nice house (or houses), fancy food, great vacations and a nice boat.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

I was only following orders!

“I was only following orders!” This classic statement has been used by people throughout history to justify immoral and unethical behaviour. The question is whether or not this is a viable excuse in our daily work environment.

Clearly a senior executive has the right to make decisions and to expect those decisions to be followed. I would even say that a senior executive has the right to have wrong decisions followed. Occasionally, I find myself in discussions with colleagues who are frustrated because of a poor decision made by a senior manager. Sometimes my advice to them is simply to implement the decision (after first having done your best to point out the why the decision is a poor one). The fastest way to get some managers to realize that a decision was wrong is to actually do what they say. You might never get that person to see their mistake by arguing, but it will be very clear once the decision is implemented. (Who knows, it might even turn out that the decision was the right one.)

What happens if a senior executive insists that you do something that is either ethically wrong or possibly even illegal? The simple answer is that if you agree to do as this superior says, you are accountable. Morally you are complicit in the action which has been done. You are equally guilty if you see unethical behaviour and do not act to correct it.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

2. Listen: No one knows everything! Your job is to lead, not to be an expert on every issue!

Make sure you have the best people in your organization and then listen to them. You cannot win on your own!

In the best of all worlds people get promoted to management positions because they were perceived as being good at their old job. If they perform well in that management position they could get promoted to a higher one. It might not be unreasonable for someone who has been promoted many times and finds themselves in higher management positions to start believing that they are gifted! They might start thinking that the reason they are the boss is because they are better or brighter than the “normal” employees. Nothing is further from the truth. If I where to come to the conclusion that I really was smarter or better than all of my employees I would leave the company! A company where I am the smartest guy is bound to get beaten by its competitors!

I recently spoke at a conference for sales managers and I asked them to raise their hands if they were the best salesman in their company prior to being promoted to sales manager. About 2/3 of the people raised their hands! I would not argue that the best salesman couldn’t be a good sales manager, nor would I argue that a mediocre salesman couldn’t also be a great sales manager. The skill set needed to lead salespeople is not the same skill set that is required to be a great salesman!

Some years ago I got promoted from a marketing manager position to be the president of Whirlpool Corporation’s Swedish sales organization. In the beginning it was very hard for me to keep my nose out of the marketing manager’s job. I really thought I could do his job better than he could and was never really satisfied with his performance. It took some time before I realized that he just did things differently, not worse, than I would have! Even if I acknowledge that sometimes “my way” might have been better than his it was not significantly better. Finally, one day my marketing manager came to me and said that he thought I was a great marketing manager but he wondered who was running the company while I was doing his job?

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Ten Commandments for Managers: A Closer Look

I have received a number of emails from people who appreciated “The Ten Commandments for Managers” that I published here some weeks ago. Some of them have asked me to elaborate on these commandments, so here comes commandment number one!

1. Be humble: No one is as good as they think they are! (Or as bad either for that matter)

One of the cardinal sins of managers is over confidence. It may very well be the case that you have made it where you are today because of your talent, but you do not know everything. No matter how talented you are, you are going to make mistakes. No matter how wise you are your judgment will fail you. Don’t worry about it, accept it!

Another cardinal sin of managers is lack of confidence. Even if some try to hide their lack of confidence with bold displays of overpowering arrogance, from time to time, every manager feels the burden of inadequacy. In those quiet moments of self-reflection every good manager in every organization realizes that they have failed to meet their own expectations regardless of how much praise they receive from the world around them. The best leaders acknowledge their fears and failures, learn from them and move on.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Keep It Simple: Wise Words from a Wise Man on Organizatonal Change

One night, many years ago while I was doing my MBA at the Stockholm School of Economics I was sitting beside the late Prof. Gunnar Hedlund in a pub. We were having a pub night and Gunnar had lectured for us during the day and tagged along to the pub that evening.

Gunnar had spent a large part of his life researching how international organizations organize themselves. Sitting there beside him I couldn’t help but ask him some questions that had been on my mind during his lecture. One of the questions I put to Gunnar was “have you seen in your research that some organizational form is better in some way than other organisations?” Looking back I suppose my question was a bit na├»ve but I couldn’t help but wonder if companies that use matrix organisations might be more profitable over time that strict hierarchical ones or vice versa. Gunnar smiled at me, probably thinking that here is just one more eager young man looking for simple answers to complicated problems. His answer to me was this: “There is no empirical evidence to indicate that any organizational structure is better or best” he continued “I can imagine that there may be certain organizational structures that are not suitable in certain situations but there are probably may that are equally suitable.”

Gunnar said: “Choose a simple organizational structure and keep it that way. Companies often re-organize in order to adapt to changes in the world around them but the market place changes much faster than organizations can re-organize. If you choose a simple organization you can then spend your effort on teaching the people in the organization to be flexible and adapt to changes in the market place.”

During my working life I have lived through many large and small organizational changes. I have even initiated some of them. More and more I begin to wonder if Gunnar wasn’t right. Organizational changes are time consuming and costly. In most cases the benefits of the re-organization are marginal if they exist at all!

At one point in my life the head of HR for a company I was working for asked me what I thought about the ongoing re-organization and I said “You can’t ruin a good company by re-organizing”! This VP of HR broke out in laughter.

Monday, January 08, 2007

The Ten Commandments for Managers

1. Be humble: No one is as good as they think they are! (Or as bad either for that matter)

2. Listen: No one knows everything! Your job is to lead, not to be an expert on every issue!

3. Never get yourself into an economic situation where you can’t afford to tell the company to go to hell!

4. You have to risk your job in order to do your job! Losing your job is not the worst thing that can happen! (It can often be the best!)

5. Don’t worry about politics! In the long-term it is the results that count.

6. If you’re not passionate about what you are doing then go do something you are passionate about!

7. Make your decisions on facts! Intuition is better than no information at all, but facts are always best.

8. Always say your mind! You are paid for what’s in your head. If you think it but don’t say it, you are defrauding your employer.

9. Your employees work for you of their own free will!

10. Remember: The Company chose you as a manager, but your employees choose their own leaders!