I am fascinated by the Uline catalog – a monstrous collection of items that businesses need to function: carpet mats, cardboard boxes, shrink wrap, strapping kits, pallet racks, stair treads, labels, rolling ladders, utility jugs, safety goggles and no parking signs – just to name a few. Not only do they carry thousands of items, but they also have seemingly infinite variations on the items they do carry. (For example, they stock over 220 sizes of gusseted poly bags!) In short, Uline carries all the non-sexy but essential items for shipping, packaging and industrial use – things that are taken for granted when they are in stock but cause operations to cease when inventory has run out.
Sometimes I think that the backroom employees are the Uline of personnel staffing. Operational staff often accomplish their work in anonymity and few understand their role. They deal with a level of complexity that outsiders don’t (and don’t need to) understand but it would baffle others that so many nuances even exist.
So often the focus is on those who deal directly with the customers, but without the work of those in support functions, service would be detrimentally impacted and it couldn’t be business as usual. We may not see those who pay the bills, ensure that taxes are submitted, change the air filters or buy the printer paper, but if they failed to do their job it would cause a commotion for everyone else.
Uline has found a niche by being in the business of helping businesses be able to run their business. Your backroom staff is doing the same for you. You may have no desire to understand their work but acknowledge that it is critical in order for you to do yours.
I spent some time this weekend reading one of Sandra Brown’s suspense novels that involved a scene where an airplane pilot is describing the near-miss he had earlier in his career. He termed it “The Swiss Cheese Model.”
“In order for a catastrophic event, such as a plane crash, to occur, a sequence of events precedes it, Think of these separate factors as slices of Swiss cheese lined up one behind the other. If any one of the holes in them doesn’t align with the others, the series of events is changed or curtailed, and a catastrophe is prevented. But if all the holes line up –”
The character went on to describe the scenario from his past: the first officer spilling his coffee, the mechanic who failed to notice the coffee had shorted out a wire, the false alarm the short triggered, the pilot being short on sleep, the lightning storm, etc. It was not one factor that nearly caused a crash, rather the (mis)alignment of many events in a row.
Think of how you can install warning signals in your organization that could alert you when a few pieces of “cheese” are beginning to assemble. Are there trigger events that should signal a management review or certain actions that should require more than one person to be involved in the decision making? Many organizations monitor key performance indicators, but do you pay attention to sequencing, not just the data itself? And when something does go wrong, do you review the “pieces of cheese” that led up to the problem rather than just examining the ultimate outcome?
Every strategy has holes in it. Your job as a leader is to ensure that the holes don’t line up in a way to create a disaster.
Source: Low Pressure by Sandra Brown, 2012, pp. 269-270.
The book I chose for class, The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle, had me nodding my head the entire way through it. “YES!” I wanted to shout as he recounted story after story about how little actions add up to create significant enhancements to an organization’s culture and individual behavior.
Coyle outlines three skills that his research shows are necessary for an effective culture:
- Build Safety
- Share Vulnerability
- Establish Purpose
To create safety means that it must be safe for team members to speak up and to embrace candid feedback. He advocates going beyond “not shooting the messenger” who delivers negative news but to actually embrace that person and thank them for sharing the news that the leader needs to hear.
To create vulnerability, the leader must demonstrate this first by admitting challenges and continuously encouraging input from others. “I screwed up” and “I need your help” are two key phrases that are infrequently in the leader’s vocabulary but should be. Coyle writes that vulnerability creates trust and must come first, not the other way around as is commonly believed.
In order to establish purpose, leaders must take care of each other and cultivate the culture as the first order of business. By sharing frequent stories, inside phrases, reminders of the reason for existing and creating high-purpose environments leaders reinforce the connection to something bigger than the moment and create a safe and meaningful culture that allows groups to learn quickly and to become more successful.
It is not easy to admit vulnerability, to hear negative feedback or to prioritize taking care of colleagues as the primary mission but the initial discomfort is far outweighed by the benefits a safe culture provides. Coyle’s book provides a set of action steps to help develop the three skills, and all are small steps that are repeated with consistency over time even when they are uncomfortable at first. Start today by purposefully letting your guard down and saying: “I don’t know” or “I need your help” and help your whole team make it a habit to express those sentiments as well.
With the tight labor market, changing generations and the high cost of employee turnover you can’t afford not to pay attention to culture as your organization’s most valuable asset.
The Culture Code: Secrets of Highly Successful Groups by Daniel Coyle, 2018
Yesterday I advocated keeping reflective notes to aid in your ability to see situations from a broad perspective. Today I encourage you to capture not just your emotions or commentary about your experiences, but to also develop a method of saving and collecting as many of your ideas as you can. Even if they have no apparent use at the moment, old ideas have a way of morphing into something valuable – maybe even years later.
Lin Manuel Miranda recently shared that he wrote the melody to one of Hamilton’s hit songs when he was 16 and another when he was 10 years old. He tweeted: “Learning to pilfer your own thoughts and doodles for something later is another tool in your toolbox.”*
I keep a notebook of potential leadership dot ideas. Sometimes items sit on the list for ages as incomplete thoughts, but then later connect with a new reflection to give the lesson clarity and depth. I have files (ok, files and files and files and files) of articles, handouts, and reference materials that often lay dormant – until they become perfect resources at the right moment.
A colleague recently called me a “repository of information” – quite the high compliment for me – and indicative of my pack-rat nature of clipping out articles, screen-shotting tweets, making notes and hoarding them all to create a matrix of ideas that can coalesce to provide the perfect training tool or analogy almost on demand.
A blank page is a productivity and creativity drag for almost everyone. It is far, far easier to start with something, even if it is rough, old and not quite on target. Keep track of those nuggets and ideas that cross your path. One day you can use them like kindling and assemble a few tiny twigs to get your creative fires blazing.
*Lin-Manuel Miranda, @Lin_Manuel, 8/29/18
The coach of a new football team was asked to donate an item for a fundraising auction. He contributed the team’s jersey with the Number 1 on it. “No one on my team wears #1,” Coach Regalado is reported to have said.
In that small action, the coach shared more about his values and team philosophy than could be captured in an entire playbook.
Are your behaviors consistent with the culture you are trying to create? Take a lesson from this coach and deploy small actions to create a big impact.
At the supervision workshop, we received some questions about how to implement the strategies we discussed when their boss wasn’t a great supervisor, when others had lower standards than we were suggesting or when the previous supervisor had not established expectations. My answer: “pocket of greatness.”
It is a term used by Jim Collins in the uber-influential book Good to Great and the accompanying Good to Great and the Social Sectors. Collins writes that “It might take decades to change the entire systemic context, and you might be retired or dead by the time those changes come. In the meantime, what are you going to do now?” He goes on to write: “Every institution has its unique set of irrational and difficult constraints, yet some make a leap while others facing the same environmental challenges do not….Greatness is not a function of circumstance. Greatness, it turns out, is largely a matter of conscious choice, and discipline.”*
To all the aspiring superstar supervisors we had in the workshop – and to all the readers of this dot – I would urge you to heed Collins’ advice and focus on what you CAN do and start there. You can have a great department, even if the rest of the organization is dysfunctional. You can become an influential boss, even if yours isn’t. You can change lives, even if you are the only one doing so.
We often become overwhelmed thinking about how big the problem is when we would be better off focusing on the small steps we can take to make things even a tiny bit better. Consciously choose to start today toward creating your own pocket of greatness.
*p. 30-31 Good to Great and the Social Sectors – A Monograph to Accompany Good to Great by Jim Collins, 2005
A colleague shared an analogy about change that seems appropriate for this first day of August. Think about when you were a kid and you spent some time in a neighborhood pool. One of the first things you would do would be to walk around the edges – all in the same direction – trying to create a whirlpool effect. It was hard work at first, but then you gained momentum, and eventually, the current would just allow you to float along in it.
New people automatically joined in the flow as they would have had a hard time stopping it. Sometimes you slipped up when trying to create the momentum, but you just got back in the circle and tried again. The same was true when someone bumped into you as they tried to go at a different speed. You made amends and pressed on.
Creating a whirlpool in the swimming pool is a lot like creating change in an organization. In the book Good to Great, author Jim Collins describes it as a flywheel – that the first turn is quite difficult, but with enough turns in the same direction, it creates powerful momentum that it is difficult to stop. The problem comes in when people give up too easily and try to go on their own path because making one collective motion is challenging.
If you are trying to create a culture change or alter your organization’s trajectory, think about being a kid in the pool. One loop around the pool does nothing, but by the end, you’ve got some serious force at play in your favor.