In a Great Business, People Trump Things
October 17, 2012 /Forbes/ – For the past 20 years, I’ve taught aspiring young business leaders at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business. These ambitious future leaders – drawn from every race, religion, ethnicity and nationality — spend two years in Palo Alto honing their business know-how and communication skills. Our goal is that all the intense training prepares them to take on the many thorny challenges that come with leading an organization.
In my 40 years in business, I’ve learned plenty of management lessons – more than a few the hard way. To help my students from repeating the mistakes of the past, I give them three basic truths of leadership to take with them as their careers gain altitude. They are these:
People > Things
Actions > Words
Wholes > Parts
1. People trump things: It’s impossible to build a great business without focusing most of your energy on your people. To build a high-trust organization, every team member needs to be valued and respected. That means being invested in each employee’s growth, future, and the ways he or she can best help the business thrive.
But the best employee development practices start with hiring the right people in the first place – the people who share the firm’s values. Along the way, you’ll find people who don’t meet that standard: let them go sooner rather than later.
While that may sound harsh – maybe even the opposite of taking care of your people – careful hiring and disciplined termination are vital to building an organization where trust is highly valued. You’re not showing respect to your employees if, through your inaction, they’re forced to put up with co-workers who don’t carry their own load or share the company’s values.
In addition to smart hiring and timely termination, a leader can show respect for employees with thoughtful on-boarding and continuous coaching. Business strategy author Tom Peters also suggests “management by wandering around.” That’s not micromanagement, but staying in touch with employees, showing real interest in what they’re doing, and helping them create a “line of sight” from their own work to your firm’s overall goals.
Leaders who wander around are more likely to discover their employees’ successes – and celebrate them. Irv Grousbeck, a legendary Stanford professor of management, encourages would-be entrepreneurs to “reflect credit” and “absorb blame.”
People are smart. They spot phonies. Managers who step into the klieg lights when things go well — and duck behind the curtains when they don’t — are risking their employees’ trust, and asking for politics.
2. Actions trump words: Early in my career, a woman who worked both for myself and a partner passed away suddenly. I expressed my heartfelt grief to her family and sent eloquent condolences and genuine concern.
My colleague, meanwhile, flew into action. He took a plane to the family’s side, helped arrange funeral services, and set up a scholarship for her child’s education. And he did it all quietly and without fanfare. Though well-intentioned, my words were far less effective and helpful than his decisive actions. I said; he did.
Since then, I’ve sought to show my values by what I do rather than what I say. That’s what a leader does. People can see our real values through the ways we spend our time, our money, and our attention.
3. Wholes trump parts: Managers are trained to pull apart problems and analyze the pieces – that’s often how we find insights. But if you want to make real progress, you’ve got to put the parts back together in a new and constructive way.
If you don’t actually apply what you find in your analyses, all you’ll get from your critical thinking is criticism. The true art of problem solving comes after you’ve studied the numbers and talked to clients and employees: it’s the creative way you weave a solution out of all the conflicting pieces you’ve discovered.
In the end, you’ve got to convert every analysis into work that will help the enterprise improve and succeed. The best leaders know how to find workable, if imperfect, solutions to tricky problems, especially when there’s disagreement over how to move forward. I tell my students that polemics are often just the triumph of analysis over synthesis.
Remembering that the perfect is the enemy of the good can help you rebuild the parts into a workable whole. Most of the time, progress comes not from a series of perfect decisions, but from a drive to move in the right direction, even if you have to stumble a bit along the way.
By Joel Peterson