In a priceless 1988 interview with Fortune Magazine, Ross Perot boldly confronted General Motors’ corporate culture. He said, It’s like a blanket of fog that keeps these people (employees) from doing what they know needs to be done. I come from an environment where, if you see a snake, you kill it. At GM, if you see a snake, the first thing you do is go hire a consultant on snakes. Then you get a committee on snakes, and then you discuss it for a couple of years. The most likely course of action is—nothing. You figure, the snake hasn’t bitten anybody yet, so you just let him crawl around on the factory floor. We need to build an environment where the first guy who sees the snake kills it.”

Here we are, 23 years later. If anything, miasma has worsened in many organizations. I recently interviewed “Laura,” who had just vacated a plum VP position in a large health care products company. The CEO had hired her specifically to implement process changes. Once on board, however, she found cultural barriers that made forward movement nearly impossible. She described her former environment in a way that echoes Ross Perot’s sentiment.

Do you weigh the cost?

“Are you a leader,” she asked, “when you automatically form committees and schedule status meetings without weighing the costs of those activities against the benefits?”

“Many times, I was asked to review a document that had little importance to the overall business. In one instance, there were 40 people on the review list. The company spent roughly $30,000 in people-hours so that 40 individuals could insert their views into the process. Surely, most of these people had something higher in priority to attend to. I certainly did. We threw away the $30,000 (times how many projects)?

“I spoke with the ‘document owner’ to question the number of reviewers. She agreed but said, ‘This is how we do things here.’ Sifting through the competing input took her unnecessary days that she could have spent on higher priority activities. Trying to create a politically pleasing end product was ulcer-producing for her. Sure, it “passed” the review process. But the final watered-down version had no punch and ended up as boring tripe. What employee feels good about delivering an empty document? (Reminds me of Tom Peters’ warning: ‘People don’t feel good about producing schlock.’)

“It’s amazing to me that we produce anything in the U.S. Do I maintain my personal integrity when I accept a fulltime paycheck, knowing the ‘real work’ could be done by 2 p.m. and the other four hours I spend here are wasted in inefficient meetings or unnecessary reviews? Am I a leader if I try to change these inefficiencies, make no progress, but stay anyway?”

Are you studying your navel?

“In many large organizations—my former employer included—we are so focused on internal politics, and not saying the wrong thing, that we’ve lost sight of the bigger picture.

“To serve our stakeholders well, we need to be able to make decisions quickly and take decisive action. We need to remove barriers to agility:

  • Personnel who are ‘stuck in their ways’ and keep the organization mired in inefficiency.
  • Silos that keep functional areas from working together productively.
  • Processes and politics that cause us to spend endless hours revisiting past decisions.
  • Executives who override those ‘finalized’ decisions for their own political gain.

“Who has the corner office? Who has the big guy’s ear? When executives focus on these things, they are not focused on customers or the bottom line. Is that leadership?”

“It’s easy to get lost in the bowels of big companies by losing sight of cash flow. If I fail to keep employees focused on our central mission and the bottom line, am I a leader?”

Does truth-telling get you a wrist slap?

“A true leader calls out, ‘the emperor’s got no clothes’. If an organization wants to win in the marketplace, truth-telling must be valued more than corporate politics and sacred cows.

“If I stay silent and accept a paycheck for it, I’m following a herd of non-leaders who are sinking our business. I’m participating in a charade where form trumps substance.

“I am paid a lot to NOT bring things about. How do people respond to an environment that rewards non-use of one’s skills? We lose our passion. We start making excuses for our failure to make forward progress, blaming others or blaming the system. We lose our confidence. It gets sucked right out. I personally became less assertive in calling for change, because it was such an uphill slog. Is that leadership?

“If I stay at my job but am not passionate about my work and my company, am I a leader?

Laura concluded, “I was actively uninspired. I could not stay, because I am a leader.”

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CEOs: Remember the myth of Sisyphus? As punishment, he had to push a big boulder up a mountain. Before he reached the top, the rock rolled back down. He was sentenced to repeat this for eternity. In what ways are your employees pushing rocks uphill and feeling defeated?

HR: If your organization has low employee engagement scores, do you understand the true root cause of employees’ negative sentiment? Do employees harbor feelings like Laura’s?

Executives: If you feel like Laura, what happens to your psychological wellbeing if you “stay in the game”? Are the money and title really worth it?

 

How well are you keeping employees focused on the highest organizational priorities? Find out via the free assessment at www.ManagingPeopleBetter.com.

Leigh Steere
Co-founder, Managing People Better, LLC—a management research firm/think tank. Professional kettle-stirrer. Writer. Curriculum developer. Connect with Leigh on her LeadChange profile, website, or Twitter and check out the Managing People Better assessment where you can get some feedback on your management style and help with a research project.
Leigh Steere