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Working on the business, not in it

I just finished working with other leaders on the coming fiscal year initiatives. As I worked through the identification of our future efforts it occurred to me that some of my peers were caught by surprise by this planning exercise. Some were prepared with specific needs of their organizations because of well defined goals and value definitions. There were also several folks that grumbled under their breath about how unrealistic it was to be expected to define our planning for the coming year in only a couple of days. It was easy to see who consistently planned for the future, looking for input about how to expand or improve their core critical deliverables, and those who were caught up in the day to day running of their business.

Its tough for a leader at any level not to get embroiled in the daily operations of their business. The easiest way to show personal value is to engage in issues that have short term fixes. The “diving catch” makes us feel good and usually provides immediate recognition for a job well done. Unfortunately, tactical activity begins to consume most of peoples time and they don’t have the opportunity to think of organizational improvement. “Vision” is expected of a leader, but developing future goals is a long term investments with little immediate praise. It requires tremendous trust of those within the organization to play their roles.

Working on organizational vision should be happening at every level of leadership. From the individual contributor that embodies organizational value, first line manager, all the way through CEO. Its a leader’s primary job to identify and articulate future goals in understandable terms. Of course nobody has all the answers. This future vision must be developed by observing and talking with people that work within the organization to understand the details of any consistent obstacles for the organization. They must also talk with stakeholders within the business and directly to paying customers. Sure, tactical problems are an opportunity to talk to those paying customers, but you can’t only talk with customers that require help. Many customers fix their issues on their own so you’ll have to reach out to understand their experiences. This takes time. If you’re caught up in the day to day functions of business you can’t look for improvement opportunities or value expansion.

The only way that leaders have the time to develop their organization’s future is to ensure that everyone within the team is clear about roles, goals, and deliverables. People need to be empowered to make decisions and able to work through conflicts. There are always impasses that required escalation; however, if people know their jobs and are trusted to make decisions, these escalations should not happen often. Leaders have to be careful that this empowerment does not turn into a bureaucratic culture of rules. Everyone in the group has to feel strong ownership for mutual goals with other groups throughout the company and with customers to maintain some flexibility in problem solving approaches.

Leaders should always be looking at their business and try to find ways to expand their value. Remember, everyone is employed to either increase revenue or decrease cost. There is no other purpose in business but to bring value to the customer. Organizations must be set up so that the daily business is managed by individuals who are empowered to make decisions in most exceptions. This should provide growth and job satisfaction for the team and allow leaders enough time to work with people inside and outside of the group to establish future direction.

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2 comments to Working on the business, not in it

  • JB

    “The easiest way to show personal value is to engage in issues that have short term fixes. The “diving catch” makes us feel good and usually provides immediate recognition for a job well done.”
    100% agreed – This can quickly turn into an organizational addiction.

    Many of the best “diving catchers” often are promoted into management roles due to their visibility, acts of heroism, and “can-do” attitudes. If these folks continue in what has made them “succesful” to that point (and it is human nature to do so) – the “diving catch” culture not only continues but intensifies.

  • Bill

    Devin…breath, you have touched on several major topics in a single entry :-)

    Leadership is a continuum, at one extreme a pure visionary bound and determined to take the hill without a clue of how to do it. And at the other extreme a “manager” punching the clock day in day out while not missing a single un-crossed ‘T’ or un-dotted “I” So my question is this: Is it better to have an entire compay filled with leaders that fall dead center or a mix that covers a range around the center? Not sure I have the perfect answer, believe I could argue either side. In either case education and reward systems would need to be part of the equation.

    You also touched on value creation, without discussing value capture and value delivery. You have to answer the – ‘if and how the company can make money” and “how the company can get the product/service to the customer” I have no doubt you were implying these in your entry, but there are plenty of folks out there that might spend valuable time and resources if they don’t take the time to answer all the question.

    Last comment (thumbs getting tired from typing on iPhone).
    There are three groups that need to be kept in the loop. The steakholders, the customer (buyer) and the user. Knowing the pain/needs/desires of all three will pay anyone or any project BIG dividends. Bypassing or ignoring any may not spell disaster but will lead to sub-optimal results.

    Keep the entries coming

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