Thousands of books and articles have been written about how to organize and operate a business. And while the volume of publications might suggest that the subject has been exhaustively decided, in fact it has not. The dynamic nature of the environment requires organizations to be endlessly flexible, nimble and responsive.
The attitudes, expectations and tolerances of the labor force are not static either. We simplify the dynamics of demographic changes with broad-brush generational labels (Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, Millennials, Centennials), but these labels disguise the profound differences among members of these cohorts as well as the similarities between people of very different ages and experiences. All this is the basis for a continuing supply of ideas, recommendations, proposals, analyses, “bests practices” and treatises -- each seeking to unearth that which is perennial and that which is new (or evolving) in institutional life.
Having organized and operated businesses for fifty-five years, I have evolved my own set of ideas about how businesses should be run. In addition to my education and experiences, and my successes and failures, my “evolution” has been informed by battles with the team working with me - three of whom are my children. Sometimes it has taken years and the equivalent of a two-by-four across the back of my head to get (first) my attention and (ultimately) my assent. But the battles were well worth our improved understanding of the ever-changing landscape and what was required of us to operate successfully within it .
With that said, here is my abridged list of management principles:
1. Most business problems are the consequences of systemic failures, not individual ones. However, identifying the source of a systemic failure can be difficult and time-consuming. It is easier to blame individuals -- and blame is consistent with the human propensity to look for individual culprits when something goes wrong. “Someone must be to blame.” However, it is far more creative and productive to treat the “culprit” as a messenger bringing news of a systems failure. Suspend blame. Seek systemic explanations. Don’t shoot the messenger.
2. The individual “rainmaker” phenomenon is real enough but not as common as the world supposes. Significant production usually arises as the result of team effort and collaboration.
This is particularly true when the initial sale involves a material product and service installation process and a long-term commitment to intensive customer service. Nevertheless, it is all too common to allocate outsized compensation to the visible, public-facing “producers” at the expense of other team members, the very team members whose collective contributions made the “installation” and promise of “intensive service” possible in the first place and who are then responsible for ongoing customer satisfaction. All members of successful sales and service teams are critical to business success. Recognize and compensate accordingly.
3. Interests matter, a lot. Every business has a number of constituencies (stockholders, lenders, customers, employees, officers, regulators, the communities in which the business is located, vendors, the taxing authorities, and so on), each with its own set of interests, priorities and claims. It is crucial, therefore, that those responsible for business leadership have the firm’s priorities clear in their heads. How these interests are prioritized will differ from firm to firm, but my own view is that the interest of stockholders should be last. I am as interested in the wellbeing of ownership as anyone but I recognize that only if all constituencies are satisfied is the firm itself likely to survive and prosper.
4. Put service-oriented people in service-oriented jobs. Sounds simple and makes perfect sense, right? And yet, hardly a day goes by for any of us without a service “experience” that leaves a bad taste in our mouths and (no small thing) a negative impression of the company the service-provider represents. No matter how good a particular product or service may be, companies lose business because prospective customers are turned off by “service” people who are cold, indifferent or unhelpful. In most businesses, margins are thin. It doesn’t take a whole lot of lost business to move return on investment from positive to negative. Everyone knows what it is like to be served by a particularly capable waiter or waitress, someone you remember with pleasure. Put people in public contact positions who measure up to that level of service provision.
5. A flattened organization chart is generally held to be a sign of enlightened management. And so it is. One of the lesser recognized virtues of a flattened structure is that it constitutes an enforced form of delegation. It is a truism of management theory that delegation is a “good thing,” and the more the better. But the truism is more honored in the breach than in the observance. In “flat” organizations there is no issue regarding delegation. It happens automatically … which means that employees who might not normally be expected to assume responsibilities for decisions and actions “above their pay grade” will be asked to do just that or, if unprepared, to get prepared. This can only be healthy for the organization, not to mention for the employees involved.
6. Stop distinguishing between “soft” and “hard” skills. There is no way that one set of skills is somehow inferior or subordinate to the other. To believe that is so 20th century. Why? Competence in task (a “hard skill’) was what once defined hire-ability. You were either a good [fill in job title here] or you were not. But even in the old days, there was a recognition that soft skills mattered. A rough-and-ready metaphor for this is the notion of “bedside manner.” There were doctors who had it and doctors who didn’t, and generally people were drawn to doctors who had it. But “bedside manner” doesn’t really do justice to what is meant by “soft skills.” In the 21st century, the soft skills checklist is extensive and requires thoughtfulness and maturity. Among the most important soft skills are flexibility, curiosity, learn-ability, ambition, collaborative instincts, integrity and a service orientation. One of the implications of ceasing to distinguish between soft and hard skills is a lessening dependence on credentials as the sole or primary indicator of hire-ability. Going forward, assessment of hard skill competencies will be no less important; but assessment of soft skills “competencies” will enjoy a new “pride of place.”
Much more could be said on the subject, disadvantages as well as advantages, and whether and to what extent these principles are appropriate for all institutions. The most important take-away, I believe, is that business leaders need to be open to examining and potentially setting aside ‘tried-and-true’ practices in favor of (or perhaps in collaboration with) continuously evolving ideas and attitudes that determine whether a business thrives or not.
Chris Weil serves as Chairman of the Board of Christopher Weil & Company, Inc. (CWC). CWC is a boutique financial advisory and investment management firm serving individuals, families and small institutions. 1-800-355-9345, firstname.lastname@example.org www.cweil.com