Breaking Down Work Silos

19 05 2013

We owe a great deal of who we are and what we can accomplish to the Industrial Revolution. The ability to mass produce products brought with it a change to how we thought of and treated labor, lowered prices on once unattainable goods due to economies of scale, raised the wealth of the middle class, broadened awareness outside of limited geographical areas and paved the way for exponential innovation. Think of all the things we take for granted today that might not even exist otherwise; travel, computers, clothing, food, etc, the list goes on and on.

In my experience, a great deal of good is typically accompanied by some less than desired by-products. The work silo fits that definition. 

I have seen very few, if any, companies that don’t suffer from the inefficiency, miscommunication and political turmoil brought on by work silos. Certainly this existed in some form prior to the Industrial Revolution, but the intense specialization made possible silos that are harder to break through. 

Harder, but not impossible. 

The two fundamental keys to breaking down barriers are a shared vision and trust. The truth is, we couldn’t continue to produce and innovate at our current rate without the kind of specialization that exists in our workforce. But that doesn’t mean we need to suffer the negative effects of silos like we do today, either. 

A shared workplace vision unifies the disparate parts of the company toward a singular goal. It is an essential component because it requires each area, each silo, to see itself as a part of a whole. Without a shared vision, silos become small kingdoms, fighting with each other for dominance in meetings, emails and the boardroom. 

To make the shared vision a reality requires trust between departments. If you’re a part of the whole, then you know that the other parts have a direct impact on whether the whole is successful or not. And when success comes, the silo is hard-pressed to assume a disproportionate amount of credit. If you don’t believe me, go outside and kick a ball. Then ask yourself which was more important: the foot that kicked the ball or the foot that held you upright while you kicked the ball. 

Shared vision and trust. Indispensable tools if you want to break the silos that exist in your company.

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We Are More Resilient Than We Know

22 04 2013

 I continue to be impressed. Granted, that may sound slightly odd in the wake of what can only be considered a terrible week for our country. Everyone’s attention has been consumed by the horrific bombings at the Boston Marathon, and rightly so. Sadly, that wasn’t the only thing that went wrong. Flooding in the Midwest has claimed many lives and the plant explosion in Texas has uprooted an entire town. 

What impresses me in the face of these many tragedies is our resilience and strength. Obstacles and misfortune are a constant reminder that we live in a dynamically changing, uncertain world. Murphy’s Law states that if something can go wrong, it will. I don’t personally subscribe to that level of pessimism, but there’s a nugget of truth contained there. 

Of all the traits that successful people demonstrate, I believe none to be so crucial as the ability to be resilient, to persevere in the face of long odds and repeated failures. It’s not just a critical trait in the professional world; it’s also important in your personal life. To see the nation rally around victims, to honor those that lost their lives while also lending a hand to those in need, these are the things that are humbling to see. 

Hopefully your organization doesn’t have to face events that could be categorized as horrific. Yes, we all tend to be invested in our jobs, but perspective usually finds its way into the conversation and we realize that not everything we deal with is life and death. Especially when we see actual life and death events playing out around us. Regardless, resilience and rallying to a singular purpose can occur amongst the people at your company just like they do with external events. Just don’t wait for something terrible to happen to harness these qualities. 

People will surprise you with their strength of spirit. Good leaders find a way to tap into that before something goes wrong.





Our Failures Don’t Define Us

1 04 2013

Happy Easter! If you celebrate this holiday then you know it’s grounded in the idea of rebirth. From the Bible’s words to the fact that spring is right around the corner (though that’s not quite so apparent right now), this is the time of the year to reflect on the idea of overcoming great obstacles, disappointments or failures and rising above them.

Whenever I work with successful people and ask them about their last year, they invariably say it could have been better. There’s always something that nags at them, something they wish they could have influenced to achieve a better result. I believe that’s one of the things at the heart of their success; they’re never satisfied. So they keep pushing forward and sometimes need help in defining the solution they need to take their business to the next level. I like working with these companies because the culture for success is already in place, the expectations for success are very high and my job is to get them to hone in on something usually very specific.

On the flip side, there are many companies that bring me in because they’re on the other end of the spectrum. They aren’t experiencing success and their companies are starting to feel the strain. I like working with these companies too, but the challenges are very different. For starters, companies (much like sports teams) need to create a culture of success in order for success to thrive there. Often, the culture changes need to precede the results they’re looking for, which means they need to make change in the absence of evidence that the change will work. 

That can be a very tall order. 

I’ve found that taking the first step is more about letting go of failures than it is planning for success. This may sound odd to you, but companies can often impede their own future success simply by focusing too much on past failures. It’s a little like a self-fulfilling prophecy; they spend so much time trying to avoid the last failure that they never prepare for success.

In the spirit of rebirth, I suggest your company take a metaphorical (and literal) deep breath and let go of anything that’s still hanging around from the past. Especially if it’s not doing anything to insure your future. 





Happy and Healthy

11 03 2013

Have you heard that phrase? My grandmother used to say it all the time, whenever someone would ask her how she was doing. The only other answer she was fond of giving, especially toward the end of her life, was Fat and Sassy. She wasn’t politically correct, couldn’t care less about it as a matter of fact, and it was one of the many things I loved about her.

At any rate, happy and healthy is not just a personal goal anymore. A study released in January by the Gallup organization, which has long shown the connection between personal happiness and engagement at work, demonstrated the link between health and workplace engagement. Amongst their findings as reported by BusinessNewsDaily: 

  • Engaged workers are less likely to be obese and suffer from chronic diseases
  • Engaged employees were 21 percent more likely than disengaged employees to participate in health and wellness programs at work

This has a number of interesting ramifications. First and foremost, engagement is one of the tried and true ways to generate high levels of productivity. It also contributes to important measures like retention and profitability. Now it also appears to have an effect on employee health, which contributes to things like absenteeism and overall health care costs.  

The discussion around employee health and health care costs are front and center these days, partly because of Health Care Reform legislation enacted in 2009 but mostly because businesses are having a tougher time than ever absorbing the increasing cost of providing health insurance for their employees. 

Does this sound like you? If so, I’d suggest you examine your company’s level of employee engagement. 





Sharks with Lasers

16 02 2013

I came across one of my favorite scenes from the movie “Austin Powers” recently. Dr. Evil gloats to Austin Powers and his colleagues about the means of their impending doom; sharks with lasers. However, he’s quickly informed by his henchmen that they were unable to provide the sharks. At this, Dr. Evil produces one of the great lines of the movie:

“You know, I have one simple request and that is to have sharks with frickin’ laser beams attached to their heads!”

Besides being (at least in my opinion) really funny, it is too often an accurate scenario playing out in executive planning sessions all over the country. And I’m not comparing the average company CEO to Dr. Evil.

The comparison is the nature of management’s requests. Most companies have some relationship with the calendar year, putting them at the beginning having just completed the year past. And regardless whether last year was a difficult one (meaning you can put it behind you and start fresh) or a great one (meaning you can build on success), our dreams of the coming year are usually filled with optimism. 

That’s a good thing. 

But it’s important to guard against the impulse to overextend and end up imposing a request similar to sharks with lasers. I’m a fan of aiming high. It gives everyone something to strive for, pushes the organization out of its comfort zone and forces growth. But getting into unrealistic territory with your expectations has an opposite effect; morale tanks, results follow and your best assets (people) head for the door. 

Instead of demanding lasers, I counsel leaders to find a realistic end of year scenario and build from there. The only laser to be employed should be a laser-like focus on the goals that have been set. So set your goals high! Just leave the sharks with lasers out of it.





Our Role Models, Good and Bad

1 02 2013

My last post explored the idea of great problem-solvers as great leaders. I said that when I think of great leaders, I tend to come up with people who made their mark on history by solving the big problems of their day. These are the kind of people that inspire great admiration. 

We also tend to admire people who achieve things others can’t, whether due to intellect, athletic ability or simply being in the right place at the right time. We’re a country built upon the idea that individual achievement will be rewarded, regardless of our gender, race or some other characteristic of birth. We’re a “can-do” country so we revere the doers, especially when they do things most of us can’t do. Just think of the times when another person made your jaw drop. I bet they were doing something you couldn’t do. 

Charles Barkley, ex-NBA basketball star, made a commercial for Nike many years ago that generated a lot of controversy because the core message of the ad was that he wasn’t a role model. The point of the commercial was that kids shouldn’t put him on a pedestal; they should look up to their parents. But many people argued that he wasn’t recognizing the powerful impact he had on kids as a result of his profession and ability. 

I get both points and when I was younger I didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. Now as a  father with kids of my own, the argument he created resonates with me more deeply. Personally I don’t think he was abdicating his responsibilities as a role model as much as he was emphasizing our society’s infatuation with athletes. 

In the wake of revelations by more recent “role models” like Lance Armstrong, General David Patraeus, Tiger Woods, Martha Stewart, etc., it’s hard not to think we’d all have been better if we’d listened to Barkley in the first place. 

Or maybe we need to take a different view of our role models. In most cases, we don’t know these people, not in the way we know our family, friends and co-workers. So we probably shouldn’t be so quick to idolize. Also, it’s possible to respect someone for the good they’ve done without endorsing all their faults.





Problem Solving

23 01 2013

We live in an exceptional country, filled with exceptional people. I know it’s in vogue to bemoan how bad things are, how they’re progressively getting worse, how things never used to be this bad and if only everyone would just see things the same way as (insert a person you admire here), everything would be perfect.

I think that notion is silly. And worse, it’s dangerously naive. If I’ve only learned one thing in my life (and I hope I’ve learned more), it’s that there is no shortage of problems. There never has been, since the dawn of our nation. But we all suffer from the bias of immediacy, which causes us to simultaneously overemphasize the issues of today and gloss over the issues of yesterday. 

So let’s agree that our country has never been perfect. And while we’re at it, let’s also agree that imperfection does not mean we’re not exceptional. What makes this an exceptional country is not a lack of problems; it’s that there have always been exceptional people who rise up to solve those problems. George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Ronald Reagan. Thankfully, the list is long and their accomplishments longer.

I don’t know if this is true for you, but when I think of great problem-solvers, I tend to think of people that could universally be thought of as leaders. I don’t tend to think of people whose main contribution is fame, talent or some remarkable feat. I think it’s important to point out the difference between personal heroes (which I’ll talk about in the next post) and people who solve problems.

The other lesson in this is that problem-problem solving is generally a competency of great leadership but leaders aren’t necessarily great problem-solvers. You can’t go a day without hearing about the failings of some leader, whether in business, politics or elsewhere. 

My advice? Focus on solving problems. It’s an essential requirement for success and one of the things that will continue to ensure we live in an exceptional country. 








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