Mar 152012

I was cleaning out my spam folder the other day and one subject line caught my eye as I deep-sixed it to oblivion where it belonged. “Be Your Own Boss!” I believe they were offering the latest work at home scheme, guaranteed to give me the peace of mind I must be looking for while relieving me of my bank account.

Those who know me understand I have been interested in having my own business for years. I call myself a closet entrepreneur, eager for the excitement but scared of the unknown and deeply addicted to my current paycheck. While I would love to run my own show, there are certain realities I have to deal with, such as my current salary is high enough that any attempt at starting a business would require a catastrophic pay cut.

For some reason, though, when I read this piece of spam, something triggered in my mind. I am my own boss. I control my job, my career, my finances,  so many aspects of my life already. Sure, I have a manager at work who fills in quite a few details in regards to what I do for the company where I work, but ask most business owners and they will tell you their clients often stipulate such things.

On the way to work that day, I started thinking about how I would act if I were the CEO of my own company. How would I act as I worked at my client’s site? How would I attack the pile of work on my desk? Would I think differently about the decisions I have to make? I am somewhat ashamed to say that there were many things that came to mind I would do differently. The rest of that day I tried to act like a CEO. I walked confidently down the hall, greeting everyone. I approached decisions from a company standpoint instead of just my little area of focus. I worked to use every minute as effectively as possible, planning every move as if it were costing ten times my actual salary. I have to admit it was perhaps the most productive day I have had in a very long time. It was fun, too.

Since that day, I watch CxO leaders and small business owners more carefully. What do they do that I don’t? How do they act? What do they concern themselves with? Who do they talk to and what do they discuss? How do they get between meetings? How do they schedule their days? How do they manage the endless piles of work on their desks? My observations have been very telling on where I can improve as CEO of my own company.

Here is a partial list of some of the behaviors I need to improve:

  1. Delegation. These people are always handing off tasks to others. They aren’t ducking the responsibility, but they are looking for the right person to do the work at the least expense possible. Their time is at a premium. They shouldn’t be spending time making meeting reservations, document proofing and such. They know who does it better than they and assigns the work to them.
  2. Organization. Their days are filled with meetings, appointments, calls and other requirements. Yet they still have to get all their other work done. They know what has to be done and how to fit into the little cracks. This is where an administrative assistant can be very helpful. Of course, I don’t have one assigned to me, but there are tricks I have learned from David Allen’s book, Getting Things Done, that help. A weekly review can be as good as an administrative assistant for the rest of us. Identifying all the tasks to be done, prioritizing and having them on a list, ready to execute when the time allows provides a huge advantage when a meeting ends early. Pick one and go.
  3. Make a decision. I tend to dither over decisions. I always want more data, to seek consensus and advice of others. And then I want more data. Guess what? Make a decision and move on. Unless a life is at stake, the decision can be adjusted later when more data becomes available.
  4. Smile while walking. People are always watching a leader for a clue as to how things are going. When the CEO walks down the hall, eyes on the floor, brows furrowed and mouth set in a frown, no one guesses he is trying to figure out what to get his wife for her birthday. Instead, they run and polish their resume, assuming the worst. When our business owner walks around with a smile on her face, head up and eyes sparkling, likewise no one suspects she is going over the sales shortfall for the month and how to proceed without having to do a layoff. They see confidence and push harder themselves. Learn to hide emotions. Perhaps this is why poker is such a popular game.

I have tried to treat my work as if I were the boss lately. It has changed the complexion of how I look at the work. It is a little more exciting, a little more daunting and a little more rewarding. I can see there are many behaviors I have yet to learn. Some days I revert to the victim employee, just waiting for someone to tell me what to do. I work at pulling myself out of that mindset when I recognize it and head back to my lists for a next action. I’m the boss. I better start acting like one.

Jan 302012

Not only do they make diamond drill bits, but they make colorful gem diamonds as well.

Recently, I had a most unexpected networking experience. I was invited to visit an amazing company that does some truly incredible work. Chances are they will never make it to the cover of a major magazine or be the subject of a best selling business book, but they deserve to be. While they don’t make the flashiest of products (diamond bits for deep bore drilling rigs), how they do it and what they have become because if it is the real story.

From the moment I walked in the front door, I could tell this was not the typical manufacturing company I expected. Everyone from the receptionist forward was polite, happy and eager. I met my friend, the president of the company and he started me on a tour that would leave me astounded. He first introduced me to the IT team and left me in their capable hands for a few minutes. As they showed me around their area, the pride and excitement for their jobs was evident. They understood their job wasn’t to make cool technology, but to move the company forward. While cool technology abounded, they all knew exactly how it was going to help everyone else. Everything had a purpose and nothing was overkill, which I have seen in too many IT shops over the years.

They showed me some of the cool things they were doing to bring the company closer together as it grows. In the cafeteria, they have displays mounted showing the latest performance, safety and financial results. The cafeteria, by the way, was also completely unexpected to me. This is definitely a manufacturing company, but the cafeteria would have looked at home in Google or other hot company known for their pampering of employees. I was starting to get the idea I had stumbled into something special by this point.

The IT Director and I swapped stories as he showed me his pride and joy – a state of the art data center. He was proud of every switch, cooling system and server. He told me how they had embraced virtual servers recently that had reduced the need for new servers to the point of saving an entire second row. Huge savings for the company. He then proudly told me meant to showcase their network capability, but actually started to explain why this company is special.

Recently, the whole company had been working hard to win the Shingo Prize for Operational Excellence. When the award was announced, my friend wanted to do something nice for everyone. The answer? iPads for everyone. Keep in mind, “everyone” was around 800 people. The IT Director’s first thought was “Awesome!” The second was “I wonder if the network can handle it?” Yes, the network could handle the influx of new attached devices. The part that interested me was the focus of shared reward.

I have read many management books and have strived for years to be a different kind of leader. I gnash my teeth at the leaders presented in popular culture, like The Office and The Devil Wears Prada. I strive to be the kind of manager whose people are all more productive because of the work I do in the background. What I found at this company was exactly what I have been trying to espouse for the last decade and a half.

It was time to talk with my friend. He wanted to show me the floor. As we walked around, everyone knew him by his first name. He knew theirs, too. He proudly showed me how they take diamond dust, a fine talc-like powder and exert the same pressure the earth uses to create diamonds. The result is a diamond drill bit. He explained how they switched from a linear factory flor to LEAN processes, grouping several tools into cells. By making small teams that do several steps of the process together, they find defects fast – hours instead of days, saving thousands of bits being wasted should a defect crept in.

Quality is everyone’s job. Each team meets at the beginning and end of each shift to discuss how this could be improved. Everything is driven by these suggestions and rapidly implemented. I forget the number of improvements they have made at the request of the people doing the job, but it seems like it was over 10,000 suggestions. What is the result? These people make over 10,000 drill bits per day of the highest quality. That translates into a solid company that is very successful and profitable. And, you guessed it, the employees share in that profit.

I have read about companies like Toyota and Motorola who have pioneered this style of manufacturing, but I had never actually seen one before. I was simply amazed. Their systems were nothing short of amazing. The work they have put into making their product the best in class is obvious. I can see why they are so successful. I have read book after book on better process, management, leadership and alignment to create a better business. I just found a company that appears to live these principles. It actually exists! I am more motivated to take the ideals back and implement them in my own job now because I know it is possible. It has been done and I tip my hat to them. It was the most fun I have had in all my years of meeting people and companies. This is why I love networking – the chance of stumbling on a gem of a company or individual. In this case, I found a man-made diamond.

Bravo to them. Congratulations on the 2011 Shingo Prize. I hope someone writes their story one day.

Jun 262011

Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter by Liz Wiseman with Greg McKeown 

I like to read books on business management and leadership. I fancy myself as a good manager and leader of people, but know there is much for me to learn and improve. Every now and then a book comes along that causes me to stop and evaluate where I truly fall on the continuum of good leadership. Multipliers is one of those books.

This book operates from the premise that within an organization, there are Diminishers and Multipliers. A Diminisher is “”a person who led an organization or management team that operated in silos, found it hard to get things done, and despite having smart people, seemed to not be able to do what is needed to to reach its goals.” A Multiplier is “a person who led an organization or management team that was able to understand and solve hard problems rapidly, achieve its goals and adapt and increase its capacity over time.” In short, a Multiplier can get more out of their people than a Dimisher.

Liz Wiseman and Greg McKeown researched the question, “What are the vital few differences between intelligence Diminishers and intelligence Multipliers and what impact do they have on organizations?” Through interviews they identified people in both categories and then identified the characteristics and measured the productivity gains, or lack thereof. They found Diminishers tend to tap only 50% of the team’s potential, while Multipliers often get more than a 2X increase of productivity from their people.

They identify five key attributes and discuss them, including key activities one can employ to develop these multiplying effects. They include:

  1. The Talent Magnet
  2. The Liberator
  3. The Challenger
  4. The Debate Maker
  5. The Investor

Each chapter is illustrated with many examples of each side of the equation. The examples ring true, as I have worked with many people who exemplify both of these good and bad traits. I could easily see the evidence of the attribute and began immediately identifying them in those I work with now. Then I started seeing them in my own behavior.

One thing I usually find lacking in leadership books are concrete, ‘next action’ tasks provided by the author to move the reader to the desired goal. Wiseman and McKeown don’t fall into this trap. The entire last chapter of the book is devoted development of the characteristics they espouse. The exercises are valid, pertinent, and I look forward to doing them.

For me, the best chapter of the book was one found deep in the appendix: Frequently Asked Questions. The authors answer many questions they have encountered while presenting the material. Not surprisingly, they were the same questions I had. The answers spurred me to take on my own experiment of their work.

I don’t have direct reports in my current position. In fact, my organization has purposefully limited the ability of the project manager to influence their destiny by removing any responsibility for the people who work on our projects. This makes it easy to walk away from attempting anything Wiseman and McKeown recommend. washing the hands of responsibility. However, after reading this book, I am determined to hone my strengths and improve my weakness and see if I can multiply my project team. I may not have direct responsibility of the people, but I can attempt to capture their best effort on my project. I am looking forward to the challenge of attempting something they don’t even cover: multiplying the efforts of contractors. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what any author would hope to achieve: the reader breaking from their comfort zone to implement the material of their book. This is one of those books. Get it. Read it. And read it again.