Gary L. Mussell
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Lessons Learned from Living a Corporate Life

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In my travels I have found very few business persons who can balance the creativity side of a business with the often mind-numbing paperwork side required to keep the enterprise profitable. Hiring employees, training them, and leading them to success is hard work regardless of whatever business you are in. It's the way the system works. So what lessons have I learned - both as an observer and participant - that I can pass to anyone willing to listen and take notes?

Top 10 Lessons I Have Learned

1. "Plan the Work, Prioritize, Delegate, Work the Plan."

You can never do too much planning. I learned that from Thomas J. Peters, a world-famous business management consultant whose 1982 book "In Search of Excellence" sits on my bookshelf, now dog-earred and filled with yellow-marker underlines.

He descvribed what successful companies do: create a personal mission statement and set goals, then build a personal business plan around it. Once a goal is set, he writes, surround yourself with people smarter than you to get you there, listen to their advice, make decisions, delegate responsibilities, and then work the plan. Then revisit those statements and goals every year, and be willing to rewite them if circumstances dictate. But only if circumstances dictate. I have observed many managers over-react when something minor happens, and their panic sinks the ship.

Don't get so wrapped up in the day-to-day minutia that you forget about seeking new customers! A business should spend 25% of its time prospecting. The easiest road to new sales is referrals from happy customers. A dissatisfied customer will tell ten times as many people about you as an happy one.

2. Embrace Change

A corollary to #1 above is to periodically re-examine your budget, business plan, and market strategies at least twice a year. "We've always done it this way" is a phrase banned from my meetings. Just because it worked before doesn't mean it will work again and vise versa. Markets and Customer needs change rapidly. Even if you don't make any changes, just re-confirming you are on the right track is worth the exercise.

"Thinking outside the box" is an outdated cliché. There is no "box" anymore. Incorporate new technology if it makes you more productive. Utilize the Web to push information to potential customers. Get a Twitter account. Last year 25% of all holiday merchandise was purchased via the Internet. If you aren't doing that, you are a dinosaur and the asteroid has already hit the planet.

Make meetings more efficient by conducting them via cell phones and video conferencing. Use email to reach consensus instead. Assuming you have a company web site, re-write it every 6-9 months to reflect changes in your product line your marketing focus, or your customer's priorities. Please note: web users get bored looking at the same old graphics and text month after month. Remember, this "X-box generation" of Internet users has a short attention span!

3. Work Smarter, Not Harder

The 1973 Alan Lakein self-help book “How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life” had a major effect on my time management skills. Lakein espoused an “A-B-C” ranking method for handling multiple priorities that I still use today. His method is to assign all your tasks into three groups, A for the highest, B for important but not urgent, and C for everything else. Percentage-wise the A stack should be no more than 20% of the list, the B stack should be about 30% and the C list should be half the list. A’s are defined as things that are critical to the business, B’s can be put off for a short while, and the C list is for “when I get around to it” items. He advocates one should always work on the A list first, and never touch the C’s until such time as they percolate up to become an A someday. If in one month you haven’t touched a C item, scratch it off the list. Make lists every day, either at the beginning of the work shift or at the end, just before one goes home. Lakein also say to try to complete a task completely before moving onto another by “handling each piece of paper but once.” But even if an A priority is left unfinished, doing a little work on an A is a better use of time than working on and finishing several C priorities.

I had a manager once who considered everything a top priority, would assign tasks and deadline, and then call from his cell phone ten minutes later to make some new task the most important thing to do first. An office cannot run that way! He was constantly accusing us of not following his directions, but eventually he was “asked to resign.” Lakein also recommends setting specific times to respond to email and telephone calls, otherwise they will steal away all your productive time. In fact, I find people respect you more if you say "I can't meet with you until Thursday at 10 am. Does that work for you?" It conveys the idea you are a busy person whose time must be respected.

One tool I use not in Lakein’s book (because it didn’t exist then) is to use email attachments to send documents to the team instead of fax machines. While face-to-face meetings can serve an important synergistic purpose, reduce their number to only when necessary. Have them occur at pre-planned times and have their length strictly enforced. Nothing throws off productivity like an emergency meeting every few days.

Following Lakein’s time management ideas is the secret as to why my friends and business associates always see me as being “super-organized.”

4. Respect Other People's Effort, Time and Point of View

Another cliché favorite of mine states: “If someone asks for the time, don't tell them how to build a watch.” Forgive me for a little “watch building” here, so my personal philosophy can be better understood. Today, there are three basic theories for managing workers, named Theory X, Theory Y, and Theory Z.

Theory X is top-down management, all good ideas flow from above. Workers can’t be trusted to think for themselves as they dislike work and are only there for the money. They will cheat you if you let them, so give the workers high quotas and replace those who fail, because workers are really all interchangeable parts. Theory X dominated the American workplace for a hundred years.

Theory Y is the opposite of X. Motivational theorist Douglas Edwards states that, deep down, employees really do want to work and be successful and therefore they should be trusted and empowered to make decisions for themselves. In reality, not much gets done quickly, but everyone sure enjoys working there.

Theory Z came to America from Japan in the early 1990’s. Dr. William Ouchi's idea focused on increasing employee loyalty to the company by providing a job for life with a strong focus on the well-being of the employee, both on and off the job. According to Ouchi, Theory Z promote stable employment, high productivity, and high employee morale and satisfaction. Theory Z is based on Maslow's famous self-actualization pyramid (at left) and Dr. W. Edward’s famous "14 Points". Deming, an American scholar whose management and motivation theories were rejected in the United States, went on to help lay the foundation of Japanese organizational development during their expansion in the world economy during the 1980s.

While there are times when it appropriate to use any of the three, my own style is closest to Theory Z. To me, respecting employees means open and honest communication, speaking in the "Adult Voice", and not a "Parent Voice." (Example: “I believe this approach is better, what do you think?” verses “You should do it my way.”)

I try to delegate work to those who I think can perform the task, but frequently verify the progress being made. There is no shame in failing in my book, as long as I am told early enough to re-assign the task to someone else so deadlines aren't missed. Too many employees are left alone by the manager until deadline day, and then is forced to say “That’s not what I wanted” too late to fix it. Remember, bowlers don’t throw strikes by aiming at the pins. They make strikes by aiming at the little dots halfway down the lane.

. Agree what the end results should be and the steps to take to accomplish the task. Empower the employee to make small decisions within the boundaries of meeting the goals and coming in on time and under budget. When mistakes are made, discuss them in private. Nobody wants to appear foolish in from of their peers, and it destroys motivation for the tasks to follow later. I always ask, “what lesson did we learn from this failure?” because everything that happens should make us better the next time around.

Also remember, no matter how hard you try, some people can't accept anything except a win-lose (a win for themselves, a loss for everyone else.) Some employees cannot be saved from themselves and need to be released before they infect the rest of the team.

5. Discover the Unused Talent Right in Front of You

Most HR Departments are there to fill work orders. The manager wants an C++ Programmer who can also speak Japanese, and so that is what they look for. To be fair, candidates often leave off of their resume other interesting skills or accomplishments because they are extraneous to the job description at hand. But during the job interview, and especially later after the employee settles in, the manager should probe for these hidden talents, hobbies, and any skill sets not yet revealed. Companies overlook the potential right in front of them far too often.

6. Honor Thy Team’s Curmudgeon

Companies are full of Yes Men. I advocate always keep a naysayer around. You can't always have all the best ideas, no matter what the toadys around the Board room may say. Sometimes it takes that one (and usually not so shy) person who always sees the glass half empty to put your proposal to the test. The curmudgeon always makes the department better when making everyone think things through one last time before a decision gets made. Cherish this person. Let him/her know his role is to find flaws and not necessarily to win the argument. I have always tried to keep a curmudgeon on my team, and sometimes I have played the role. This management style also prevents you from using “majority rule” to get your way. If there is a strong objection, I have my team examine it and amend the task to cover the misgiving, if at all possible. This is my one concession to Theory Y proponents, because in the end it creates a win-win with everyone on board going forward.

"Your call is important to us. Please hold..."
7. Manage By Walking Around

This idea was championed by Robert Townsend in his book, “Up the Organization,” about the Avis vs. Hertz marketing wars in the 1970’s. Townsend advocates that managers occasionally call in from home, disguise their voices and either order merchandise or be an angry customer. This not only tests your employee's telephone etiquette, but it will demonstrate quickly any weak links that might frustrate potential customers. I have done this for years, and it is always a revelation.

8. Work Hard, Play Hard

Many managers refuse to co-mingle with their employees for fear it will undermine their authority. I always found the truth to be the exact opposite. Take the employees to lunch occasionally, or perhaps plan a paid "play hooky" day at the ballpark for them as a reward for a project well done. At Xircom, we took it to the extreme and held periodic water gun fights in the parking lot. Far from being a waste of time, I always found productivity improved following these occasional diversions.

9. Families Come First

Jobs and Contracts come and go, but families are forever. Allowing flex time for persons who need it is not stealing time from a company, as many Theory X companies believe. The reality is it takes two incomes today (if not three) to cover a mortgage, medical bills, schools, and all the things that make living worthwhile. Employees should never be forced to choose between a sick kid and work. With all the new technology available, most office jobs (at least partially) can be done at home or anywhere else. When I worked for the Navy they allowed every other Friday to be an off day, and you worked slightly longer daily shifts to meet the 40 hours. Employees there loved it. Allowing people to come into work after rush hour and leave later also is an invaluable option for those with school-age children or whose home is separated from the office by a perpetual rush hour bottleneck.

I always encouraged telecommunting when appropriate, but with strict expectations of what work is to be accomplished away from the office. Unless the job requires people to be together in one place, let them manage their 40 hours in such a way that they can still be mothers and fathers. In response, most people will work harder for you. And you'll know who are the few taking advantage soon enough if you are managing properly.

10. Nobody is Indispensible

In the corporate world, everyone can be replaced. And there is always someone out there who can do our job better than us. So no matter how many times in a row you make your departmental goals, with a bazillion "attaboy" certificate mounted on the wall to prove it, some bean counter on the other side of the continent can lop off your box on the organizational chart with the flick of a Delete key.

When all else fails, I always find it best to follow the directions of the guy who signs your paycheck. No guarantees here, as a few times the boss went out the door at the same time (or sooner) than I did. The old Organization Man cliché of "work hard, stay loyal, and you shall be rewarded" is a lie in the 21st Century. All anyone can do is know you did your best for yourself, your department, and your company.

And remember to always leave on good terms, if possible. You never know when you will need their referral.

Last Updated: 01/15/2010     This Web Site best viewed at 1024x768 resolution 24-bit color using Internet Explorer 7.0 or higher