Contribution is Key

A plant supervisor I coach told me about something that solidified his belief in his company.

And it’s a great lesson for leaders everywhere.

This supervisor’s work occasionally took him on location with their customers in other parts of the country. And seeing the huge benefit local communities get from his company’s product, gave him a sense of pride in the business.

We then talked about his team, who didn’t have that same opportunity to visit customers, and thus didn’t get to see the product in action. We talked about how important it is for a leader to connect the work of the people he supervises to the difference that work makes in the real world.

It’s the concept of contribution. It’s something I’ve written about here before and this supervisor got it right away. He talked about how his team shares Facebook posts from a customer who uses their product and a recent newspaper article that mentioned the use of their product in disaster recovery.

It’s an especially important topic in a manufacturing facility like the one this supervisor works in. Most of the people who work in manufacturing don’t have the opportunity to see the difference their work makes for the end customer.

It’s the job of the leader to connect individual contributions to real world impact. That’s how you connect people to the mission of the company and make them understand that their work is making a difference in the lives of real people.

It’s what makes work meaningful and it hardly needs to be said that people are more likely to stay in meaningful jobs.

So, if you lead people, be sure to let them know the contribution their work makes to the lives of their fellow humans.

Learn from experience… of others

There’s an old saying that you’ve probably heard.

It’s, “Pride comes before the fall,” and it’s one that I think of often. 

The saying originates with the Bible. Proverbs 16:18 states: “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” 

It’s a reminder that wisdom is eternal – and universal. 

I see that lesson played out in many aspects of life, but I was thinking about it in context to business and how sometimes our pride gets in the way of seeking and receiving good advice. 

It’s so important to learn from those who went before you. 

Contrary to what you may have heard, experience is not the best teacher. Those lessons can be painful.

OTHER PEOPLE’S EXPERIENCE is the best teacher. Learning from the mistakes of those who went before you is much less painful than making those mistakes on your own.

Often when we get into business leadership we start to think we need to have all the answers. Successful people figure out that’s not true. Nobody has all the answers. We can learn them from each other. That requires humility, and an openness to listen and learn. 

That’s why I have hired business coaches. So I can learn from their experience.

A few verses later in that same chapter of Proverbs is a related piece of advice applicable to our business life and leadership” “Wisdom is a fountain of life to one who has it, but folly is the punishment of fools.”

If you’re trying to grow your service business, reach out to see if I can help you learn from the experience of all the other companies I have worked with.

You can’t know everything

In a meeting with one of my clients, a member of the leadership team mentioned that she was surprised when a member of the team she manages asked about a new development in another area of the business and this leader didn’t know about it.

The implication was that there was a communication breakdown at the leadership level and to her team it appeared that she was out of the loop.

I pushed back. Was it something she needed to know?

Growing businesses like the ones I work with require different things from their leaders. Some changes are obvious. Others are less so.

In the early days, everyone is a doer. But as you grow, leaders must become supervisors, managers or, well, leaders. Having to do everything will limit the growth potential of the company.

That part of leadership development is pretty straightforward.

But adaptation is also required when those leaders come together as a leadership team. They must play a new role there as well.

Just as they have to trust their team to perform their responsibilities, they must also trust other members of the leadership team to lead their part of the business.

That means that they can’t know everything going on because that would place another limit on the growth of the business. It would also make leadership team meetings a long series of informational updates. Anyone ever been in one of those?

As a business grows, you must become comfortable focusing your attention on fewer and more important aspects of the business. That goes for each leader individually and as a leadership team.

She asked how you know what you should share as a leadership team and what you shouldn’t. There’s only one way: constant communication.

If she felt like she really needed to know the information that surprised her, she should simply say to the leader of that part of the business, “My team surprised me with that and it would have been nice to know in advance.”

But I challenged her first to think hard about whether or not she really needed to know about it. If not, she could have simply replied to her team member by saying, “As the business continues growing I’m getting used no longer knowing everything that’s going on. But I have full confidence that the leader of that part of the business is leading well and will keep me in the loop whenever necessary.”

The only business where you can know everything is a small one. If you want it to grow, sooner or later you’re going to have to accept that you can’t know everything.

Elephants Don’t Bite

Near the end of The Invisible Leader (a book about which I will have more to say on this blog), author Zach Mercurio gave a useful analogy about African safaris to make a great point about modern business.

Mercurio pointed out that when people are on safari in Africa, they are focused on the elephants and giraffes in front of them. What aren’t they focused on? Malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Writes Mercurio:

Elephants don’t bite, but mosquitoes do. It is the small, even tiny, things that have a huge impact. Similarly, organizations focus on the big things – the branding initiative, strategic plan, key meeting, value proposition – while the little things are creating their reputations. How the receptionist out front says hello, how a call is handled or how an email is returned, these are all important experiences that, when added up, become the organization’s reputation.

What Mercurio is talking about, and something we wholeheartedly agree with, is the impact of customer experience on an organization’s reputation. Organizations can get the big things right, but it’s the hundreds or thousands of daily interactions with their customers that determine the public perception. It’s the little things that can kill you.

By the way, I looked it up. Elephants kill approximately 500 people per year, according to National Geographic. Mosquitoes? The W.H.O estimates 435,000 annual malaria deaths, or 870 times as many as elephants. Elephants don’t bite. Mosquitoes do. Get your organization to pay attention to the mosquitoes and you’ll stand a better chance of survival.