We recently ran an executive training programme for a group of senior engineers. Wading through the feedback, a number of people remarked that they appreciated being allowed time to catch up on emails. It’s an old trainers trick to allow people to focus. Many years ago we used a technique called the ‘clear your mind’ exercise. Participants would be asked to list everything that was bothering them on a sheet of paper and then physically place this in a sealed envelope for the duration of the programme. The good old days! It’s more difficult now to get people to ‘forget about what’s happening at the office’, for any length of time. Some participants would allow you to remove their kidney before they’d let you take away their laptop.
Smart Technology: On one level this wanting to stay in touch makes perfect sense. We all have Laptops. And Desktops. And Tablets. And Smartphone’s. And more Apps than you could swing a stick at. I know this because, as a management consultant, I operate from all sorts of locations. I’ve done great work sitting munching chicken drumsticks in dreary KFC’s and on cold station platforms waiting on the next train (there could be a song in that). When people expect an almost instant response, you have to be mobile i.e. fast. The formula is simple: Client’s have a query and they want an instant response. It’s like some form of a new managerial protest: “What do we want?” (the Answer). “When do we want it?” (Now!). So, we use speed as a competitive weapon and offer instant diagnostics, organization change plans, or …whatever. With all of this ‘smart technology’ in our backpacks (yes, briefcases are so yesterday) we must be more productive, right? Eh, I’m not convinced. To borrow a phrase coined by Brent Tripp, one of the engineers on the programme : “We’re using smart technology – but often in a stupid way.”
Who are you calling stupid? Just about all of us. Many years ago I read a book by a Canadian author called The Output Oriented Organization. I know, I know. It’s a brutal title. But forget about marketing and drill into the message. The central argument was as follows: It’s not about what you do; it’s about what you deliver. Think of it like this. Two sales reps are talking in Cork. The 1st one says: “I made a lot of strategic contacts today”. The 2nd one says: “Yeh. I didn’t get any sales either.” The management consultant Peter Drucker never tired of making the point that it’s useless being efficient if you are working on the wrong things. So, what might these ‘wrong things’ be? I’m not talking about the obvious i.e. trawling the net on dating sites or looking to sell a dodgy 2nd hand car on Done Deal. I’m talking about executives doing genuine work – but – stuff that people at a lower level in the same organisation could do. For example, ‘back in the day’ when we had secretaries, some of this stuff was taken care of. Now, arranging a meeting can take an hour, depending on the number of people involved and getting a flight to Madrid can bite into a huge chunk of time. Is this productive? Some stuff has to be done and there’s no-one else to do it. But, sometimes, the fact is that this ‘busy work’ is not only unproductive – it’s actually a form of avoidance.
The Reluctant CEO: A couple of years back I visited a pharmaceutical company in a small Irish town. I was there to chat with the General Manager about developing a strategic plan for the site. In the multi-National sector the real competition is normally from sister-sites in the same company looking to erase your plant from the supply chain. We were going to discuss a combination of strategic planning and internal politics, a complex topic that this CEO didn’t enjoy. When I arrived, the guy was down in the bowels of the factory. Under time pressure, I gowned up and went down to talk to him. He was physically fixing a tablet press. In an ear-to-ear grin he told me about the trouble he was having with the machine (I’d never seen him so happy). We briefly spoke about the planning session. 25 minutes later, I was back on the road. So, what was that all about? It was about a former engineer going back to his comfort zone. Doing something practical which made him feel good. I was informed later that he’d fixed the machine and I already knew that he was a brilliant engineer. While I don’t doubt his technical proficiency, that’s hardly the point. He was 3 pay-grades above that particular task. I’m not being snobby or stand-offish here. As a senior executive, this isn’t about having people running after you as if you’d suddenly been adopted into the Royal Family. But what you have to guard against is a gravitational pull back towards what you know AKA your comfort zone.
Two Issues: Firstly, you have to do the job you are being paid to do (or even one level above that) – not a job that makes you feel good because you can ace it! Let go of the past job and embrace the future. Secondly, you might need to give up that addiction to perfection! Another engineer Oliver Hauser, told me: “You need to engineer something as good as is necessary, not as good as is possible.” Sometimes that felt need to ‘do things right’ can be cultural – similar to the ‘Schwaben’ idea in Germany where people are responsible for keeping the common areas clean and tidy. Being a successful executive is not about doing things right; it is about doing the right things.
Of course, technology can help you become more productive. But, don’t become a slave to it. OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) around keeping your in-tray clear is not actually a KPI nor a sign of managerial competence. Until someone designs an executive robot, you’re still in charge. Just make sure you’re focusing on the right stuff.
Beep Beep! Sorry, I have to go now. It’s an email alert. Maybe, Donald is looking for me to get his campaign back on track!
PS Lighter Note:
Q: What do you call a group of Lawyers at the bottom of the sea?
A: A start!
Guy goes into a bar. Orders a double brandy! Barman says: “You look a bit shook. Everything OK?”
Guy says: “No, I’m really worried. It’s about getting my wife off drugs”
Barman Says: “Hey, that’s tough to deal with. How do you know she has a drug problem?”
Guy Says: The phone rang 20 minutes ago and a man said: “Is that dope gone yet?”
From the (now famous) Brent Tripp: “If a Grizzly Bear eats a Chinese hiker, is the bear hungry an hour later?”
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