March 25, 2011

The Perils of Poor Execution

Mary MahoneyBY Mary Mahoney

J. Robinson Group Blog

Many a chief executive officer and business have failed because a strategy – no matter how inspiring – was poorly executed.

In a study of 275 portfolio managers, managers said the ability to execute strategy was more important than the quality of the strategy. A 2010 Conference Board Survey of 2,000 senior executives said “strategic alignment and the speed of execution” are the most pressing challenges facing CEOs.

You don’t have to look too far to find a recent high-profile example of poor execution. Book lovers remember a time not so long ago when the stores of Borders Group Inc., the nation’s second-largest bookseller, were stocked with a wide selection of books, CDs and DVDs. But in the last few years, you were more apt to find that same space dominated by candy, stationary, pens, cards and novelty gifts. What had Borders become? What was the company’s strategy?

A series of CEOs took the helm of the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based company, each implementing their own strategies. The company wrestled with financial losses, a changing retail landscape and the rise of online and digital competition. CEO Ron Marshall came aboard in January 2009 with a focus on accelerating cost cuts and closing its Walden stores as well as improving the company’s execution at the store level. But then last month, Borders filed for bankruptcy. Clearly, the company failed to execute its strategy.

Only last year did Borders seriously begin to address digital competition with its partnership (and investment in) Kobo (the online e-book seller) and the establishment of its e-bookstore, but by then, it was too late.

“While Marshall’s actions did reduce the company’s losses in on year, it did nothing to slow the decline in sales, and the company still did not have a meaningful digital strategy,” said Jim Milliot, writing in Publishers Weekly.

Business Week’s top-rated management gurus, Ram Charan and David Ulrich, believe bad execution is the top reason business leaders fail. “It’s as simple as that: not getting things done, being indecisive on commitments…The results are beyond doubt,” said Charan, as quoted by David Willden in Poor Execution of Strategy – Top Leadership Challenge.

In The HR Scorecard, Ulrich and his coauthors cite a study by Ernst & Young of financial analysts, which sought to determine “measures that matter.”  The study found that the most important nonfinancial variable determining a company’s success or failure it its “ability (or inability) to implement strategy.”

The road to success is in the details. Experts say successful implementation of strategy requires an understanding of the “big picture” as well as the steps that lead to it. David Norton, author and founder of the Palladium Group, told themanager.org that fewer than 10 percent of all business strategies are implemented effectively.

There are plenty of hurdles along the way. They include overcoming longstanding company traditions, conflicting interests, poor communication and unforeseen details ingrained in the corporate culture. To avoid those pitfalls, companies must rise to a level of coordination and deliberation that is often unfamiliar to the order of things.

Here are tips to avoid the perils of poor execution:

Build a strategy: Defining and designing a strategy should not be seen as distinct from creating an execution plan. Recognize what your company realistically can deliver before creating a new direction. Develop a strategy that builds on your company’s strengths.

Seek broad input: Don’t create strategy in vacuum. Include input from customers, employees, suppliers and others “who possess valuable perspectives” on the company’s direction, suggests Bill Treasurer, founder of Giant Leap Consulting in Atlanta. Encourage participation and a lively discussion on all issues.

Provide clear objectives, tasks and accountabilities: Strategies should not be grandiose. “I prefer to make them doable, well-defined, and realistic, instead of implying that we’re trying to do something as big as solving world hunger,” said Karen Silverio, vice president of market development at Pearson Education.  “Clear definition of tasks, with clear milestones, is crucial.”

Move the plan forward: Sustain and build on goals achieved during the development phase.

Communicate constantly: Your employees need clear and continued direction. Most companies fail to communicate their strategy broadly or effectively. Say your goal is to improve service: What does that mean for a sales person in the store or the customer service representative at the call center?  Experts argue you need to continually explain the connection between the strategic initiatives managers and employees are working on the company’s high-level goals. You need to make it clear why the new strategy is important.

Provide needed resources and tools: Your employees need the tools and resources to carry out your strategic plan. It can be as simple as offering them time away from their daily business to help implement the strategy.

Fine-tune the process: Look for opportunities to make improvements. Reflect on what went well in previous planning processes and what didn’t. Explore all suggestions to make improvements.

So, when you think about what you will do differently come Monday, ask yourself this: “How well are we executing our plan?”  Then go find out!

March 16, 2011

Your Company’s Personality: Is it You?

Mary MahoneyBY Mary Mahoney

J. Robinson Group Blog

Trader Joe’s, the quirky food retailer, strives to recreate the feel of bygone neighborhood grocers. Its shelves are stocked with a limited selection of products at reasonable, if not cheap, prices, that appeal both to cash-strapped students and suburban professionals.

Customers sip coffee and sample fresh fruit and other fare as they shop.  Employees wear Hawaiian shirts, jeans or shorts and name tags with just their first names.  They chat freely and casually with shoppers at the checkout stand. The vibe for both customers and employees is fun.

Would you fit in at Trader Joe’s? Does that company’s fun, quirky personality match yours? Or would you be a better fit at a more serious, orderly insurance or financial firm? Or maybe you belong at a company with a brainy personality like Microsoft Corp. What about your own company? Does its personality match yours?

Every company has its own personality. Certain companies tend to attract certain types of workers. When you think of widely known companies, you can conjure a picture of their employees. Think of what it must be like to work for Google, Whole Foods and REI, for example.

Personality, like company culture, plays an integral part in employee performance, retention and, ultimately, an organization’s success in the marketplace.  Company personalities also play an important role in productivity and success.

Employees tend to excel in companies that match their personalities, according to an article entitled Does Your Company Culture Match Your Personality by Chrissy Scivicque that appears in Office Arrow, an online community for office professionals.

How do you get a sense of your company’s personality? The online consulting firm Companies Are People, Too, offers an 84-question assessment that can be used to develop a profile. The assessment looks at values, work environment, customers, behavior, change management and culture.

But you may be able to skip the formal survey simply by asking your employees and customers to describe your company’s behavioral characteristics and what famous person, if any, it is like.  The answers will reveal traits, some more important than others, that will help determine whether your company resembles your personality.

Scivicque suggests these questions:

  • Is your office stuffy, stiff, energetic or playful?
  • Do employees possess common traits?
  • Are your managers authoritarian or collegial?
  • Does the company have a long-term vision?

Lauren Dixon, chief executive officer of the New York advertising firm Dixon Schwabl, engages her staff in an annual organizational personality test.  The first test 14 years ago showed the organization was too driven by deadlines. So she made changes to give her staff more time to achieve the highest quality results.

Now the company makes small tweaks after each yearly test. Dixon says the exercise grounds everyone in the company’s values.  Inc. magazine chronicled Dixon Schwabl’s strengths, weaknesses, values, communications style, behavior during conflict and approaches to managing change in its June 2010 edition.

Strengths include the fact that Dixon Schwabl’s workplace is harmonious and draws the best from its employees. Weaknesses include the firm’s tendency to drop projects in favor of exploring new opportunities.

In her OfficeArrow article, Scivicque urges employees to evaluate their job satisfaction in terms of their own personalities, saying “don’t try to force yourself into an environment that doesn’t work for you. It can be an exhausting and unproductive endeavor.”

March 11, 2011

Would You Work Here? Creating a Positive Workplace Culture

Mary MahoneyBY Mary Mahoney

J. Robinson Group Blog

Every year Forbes and Fortune publish lists of the best companies to work for in the United States. It’s always a compelling list, and the buzz often focuses on some of the unusual perks top-rated companies offer their employees. 

FactSet Research Systems  in Connecticut, for example, gives its employees free lunches and WiFi laptops to work from home. California-based Google offers employees $1,000 toward the purchase of a hybrid or electric vehicle.

And then there’s e-Bay, which dedicates space at some of its California offices for prayer and meditation during the work day. The rooms are decorated in earth tones and have plump pillows and tatami floor mats. Employees are encouraged to decompress during the work day.

These unusual perks make for great conversation around the water cooler. But if you take at a closer look at these companies, you’ll see they’ve been recognized for more than just some great perks. They cultivate exceptional workplace cultures.

Some characteristics of successful workplace cultures are tangible: health-care benefits, child care, telecommuting options and bonuses. Successful companies also tend to create cultures where workers feel encouraged to balance work and their personal lives.

But what are the less obvious – but no less important –characteristics? What happens day in and day out at the office cubicle at these and other companies to make them stand out? What attributes separate the companies on the Forbes and Fortune lists from countless others?

Ranking at the top of the list are open communication, truth, respect and fairness.

There are many reasons to create a positive work environment. Employee satisfaction is among them. But the bottom line is economics. Retaining employees saves money. Among the reasons cited for employees leaving jobs after a short time is workplace culture. Employees are willing to leave if their employer doesn’t create a culture that provides choice, balance, development and care.

Motivation, productivity, quality work and retention are the results of a positive workplace culture, according to AttitudeWorks.com, an online business consultant.

Retaining employees will become even more important in the next decades, expert says. The available pool of workers is projected to shrink as Baby Boomers retire over the next few decades.

The most successful companies make employee retention a long-term goal. Managers who get the best from their employees inspire a positive workplace.

Graham Lowe, author of Creating Healthy Organizations, was quoted in Canadian Business Online as saying that a positive culture “energizes employees to excel in their jobs and supports them to meet their personal needs and goals.”

One of the first steps in creating a positive workplace culture is to identify issues that may be contributing to negativity including favoritism, a lack of recognition or different sets of standards for different employees.

Experts point to these six fundamental characteristics of positive workplaces:

Trust, respect and fairness. “A culture of trust means that everyone will have more honest conversations, will challenge one another and people will be willing to take more risks together,” said Gaye van den Hombergh, president of Winning Workplaces, an organization devoted to helping businesses create high-performance workplaces. “This can give a company an edge,”

Open and honest communication. Open communication should be practiced across all departments.  Employees should communicate openly with management and vice versa. Companies that were upfront with employees about the recession and kept them informed about financial realities were rewarded by employees who were more willing to share the burden of pay cuts, furloughs or other belt-tightening measures.

Rewards and recognition. Companies should recognize and reward achievement in both monetary and non-monetary ways. It’s important for companies to demonstrate that they care about their workers. They should be heard, respected and recognized for the work they do.  “Recognition can be one-on-one with a supervisor, a public mention in a company meeting, or a note in a newsletter,” said van den Hornbergh. “It doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive – just sincere.”

Learning and development. There should be opportunities for employees to develop news skills and advance.  Today’s employees have no interest working an unchallenging, tedious job or working for an employer “that doesn’t offer opportunities for personal development and advancement and the proactive programs to reach those goals,” says Your Employee Handbook.

Teamwork and involvement. Companies should create an environment in which employees feel that they have a direct role in the company’s success.

Work and life balance. The phenomena of more women in the workplace has impacted company culture profoundly and helped more employees balance work and private life. Companies should help employees balance the demands of home and work through policies, practices and culture. Many companies offer flex time, family leave and family-based benefits. Some make vacations mandatory.

Research shows that employees who work where retention is high and turnover is low are more likely to be inspired by their jobs.

Advertising mogul David Ogilvy summed up the importance of a positive workplace in Creating a Winning Work Culture: “If you ask me our primary purpose, I would say that is not to make the maximum profit, but to run our organization in such a way that our employees are happy. Everything follows from that – good work, and good service to your customers.”

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