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Golden Oldies: Process vs. Bureaucracy

Monday, April 24th, 2017

It’s amazing to me, but looking back over more than a decade of writing I find posts that still impress, with information that is as useful now as when it was written.

Golden Oldies are a collection of what I consider some of the best posts during that time.

The interest in some subjects is eternal — like avoiding bureaucracy. This post dates to 2006 (before I added pictures) and the subject is still a hot topic.

Too many bosses and founders confuse organizing business segments with becoming bureaucratic and everyone hates bureaucracy.

In reality, not organizing and developing a process to accomplish each function facilitates a wild west mentality, which usually results in a bullet in the foot or worse.

Read other Golden Oldies here.

People sometimes confuse process and bureaucracy. Process is good—it helps to get things done smoothly and efficiently; bureaucracy is bad—it’s process calcified, convoluted, politically corrupted, or just plain unnecessary.

Good process is an easy-to-use and flexible method of accomplishing various business functions. It is informal without being haphazard, and neither ambiguous or confusing.

Occasional surveys (internally asking staff and externally asking vendors and customers how things are working) alert you to when processes start to mutate.

By creating a skeletal process and a corresponding graphic in areas where it is needed (financial controls, hiring, purchasing, etc.), you lay the framework for your growth in the future, no matter how hectic.

Bureaucracy may stem from a manager, whether CEO or first level supervisor, who believes that his staff is so incompetent that it is necessary for him to spell out exactly how every individual action needs to be done. To correct this, the manager responsible must

  • reduce his own insecurity,
  • increase his belief in his current staff, or
  • hire people he thinks are smart!

Bureaucracy is often fed by people’s fear of change, “We’ve always done it like that.” and similar comments are dead giveaways.

Another significant factor that contributes to unnecessary bureaucracy is the failure to align responsibility and authority.

If a person has the responsibility to get something done (design a product, create a Human Resources department, meet a sales quota), she should have enough authority (spend money, hire people, negotiate with outside vendors) to get the job done.

Giving people responsibility without concomitant authority forces them to constantly ask their superiors for permission, thus reducing productivity, and lowering moral.

The final, and most important difference between process and bureaucracy is that people like working for companies with good process in place, and hate working for those mired in bureaucracy, but not for long—they leave—making bureaucracy-eradication a major tool in the retention game.

Educationally Speaking

Wednesday, March 15th, 2017


No matter your circumstances, married/involved/single, there are probably kids somewhere in your world.

I read a lot of articles about education, but three about kids really stood out for me and I believe will be of value to you.

The first looks at the unpleasant fact that our so-called modern education is producing workers more fit for 19th and early 20th Century jobs than those that will be available when they enter the workforce. In other words, acing standardized tests does not prepare you for anything more than functioning in rote.

In the future, if you want a job, you must be as unlike a machine as possible: creative, critical and socially skilled. So why are children being taught to behave like machines?

Speaking of behind-the-times teaching.

The only thing that can be said for the traditional approach to math, which, along with critical thinking, is one of the most critical skills needed in the future, is that it stinks.

Whether you look at the results by age (including adults), race or gender math skills are sadly lacking in the US and many other countries.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

John Mighton, a Canadian playwright, author, and math tutor who struggled with math himself, has designed a teaching program that has some of the worst-performing math students performing well and actually enjoying math. There’s mounting evidence that the method works for all kids of all abilities.

Finally, or maybe foremost, is culture.

Just as in companies, the culture in a school is the determining factor on whether kids learn — or not.

The prevailing culture of many schools, especially the vaunted charter schools, has been one “no excuses.” A culture focused on regimentation and inflicted mostly on poor children of color.

But as any idiot knows, regimentation is not going to produce the next Marc Benioff or Larry Elison, So what does?

Ascend Public Charter Schools network began to retrain teachers to focus on social and emotional development. This provided the framework for creative problem solving to help prevent conflicts between students, or between teachers and students, from escalating.

Does it work? Is it making a measurable difference? Short answer is a resounding ‘yes’.

Around the same time that Ascend was transforming its culture, it put in place a new curriculum, more closely aligned with progressive schools, that focuses on intellectual inquiry rather than received knowledge. At Ascend’s lower and middle schools in Brownsville, passing grades on the annual state English test increased to 39 percent in 2016, from 22 percent in 2014, while the rate on the math test increased to 37 percent, from 29 percent. It’s hard to isolate the cause for the improvement, but it is likely to be a combination of both the academic and cultural changes, which makes Ascend a bold testing ground for the theory that children from low-income homes can be educated the same way as children from affluent families.

Finally, what about adult education, specifically the much ballyhooed MBA? Does it provide the education that provides the skills to climb the corporate ladder?

Not really, according to Henry Mintzberg, Cleghorn Professorship of Management Studies at McGill University, who looked at CEOs from what is considered the most elite university on the planet: Harvard.

Joseph Lampel and I studied the post-1990 records of all 19. How did they do? In a word, badly. A majority, 10, seemed clearly to have failed, meaning that their company went bankrupt, they were forced out of the CEO chair, a major merger backfired, and so on. The performance of another 4 we found to be questionable.

I sent the article to another Harvard-educated CEO I know. His reaction?

Excellent  article. Very true. It took me years to unlearn what I’d been taught at business school…

The article is well worth your time, especially if you, or someone you know, are considering spending the money/going into debt for your MBA.

One more irreverent note, compliments of CB Insights, that is oh, so, true.

Hack: How to hire MBAs
My co-founder Jon stumbled upon this hack to get lots of MBA resumes which I’m going to let you in on.
Whatever the job title, throw the word “strategic” in front of it.

Image credit: .waldec

Golden Oldies: Narcissism And Leadership

Monday, August 29th, 2016

It’s amazing to me, but looking back over a decade of writing I find posts that still impress, with information that is as useful now as when it was written. Golden Oldies is a collection of what I consider some of the best posts during that time.

I wrote this post back in 2009 and since then the number of narcissistic leaders in all walks has exploded. It’s literally a global epidemic, with tech leading (pun intended) the way, although the current crop of politicians is still out front. Read other Golden Oldies here.

narcissus“Leaders tend to be narcissistic, but you don’t have to be a narcissist to be a leader.” –Amy Brunell, assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State University’s Newark campus.

“…narcissistic behavior is a “trait predicting charismatic leadership. People who are charismatic and charming… They think they’re entitled to it. They think they’re smarter than other people and they can get away with it.” –W. Keith Campbell, head of the psychology department at the University of Georgia in Athens.

Narcissism isn’t necessarily bad, but it is growing. When psychiatrists deemed it a bonafide personality disorder in the 1980’s it affected 1% of the population; in 2008 the number stood at around 6.2%.

Most politicians are narcissists, as are many media personalities (neither is surprising), but it seems that more and more business leaders fall in that category also.

There are 7 component traits that are measured.

  • Authority
  • Self-sufficiency
  • Superiority
  • Exhibitionism
  • Exploitativeness
  • Vanity
  • Entitlement

Although I have no proof, I bet that most, if not all, Wall Street honchos would score fairly high on these traits.

“A study published in December in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that people who score high in these traits are more likely to be leaders, but these individuals don’t necessarily perform any better and potentially may become destructive leaders.”

So much for the much-ballyhooed ‘charismatic leader’.

Now let’s have some fun.

Go to Take the Narcissistic Personality Inventory and take the test.

Then come back and share your score and whether you believe it fits you.

My score was 11, but if I had taken it 30 years ago I think it would have been at least 5 points higher. (Age is either mellowing me or I’m more realistic:)

There are no right or wrong answers and even if you score off the narcissism charts that doesn’t mean you’re ‘bad’—as with any trait it is how you handle it in everyday life that matters.

Cultivating Disaster

Wednesday, July 10th, 2013

http://www.sxc.hu/photo/498916What happens when a normally ethical person is told to “fix it” by a person in authority?

Research shows that most people put a high priority on following orders from authority figures, a trait that is cultivated and rewarded in families, schools, churches, the military and the workplace… “As human beings, we are predisposed to be obedient to authority, no matter how malevolent it may be,” said Edward Soule, an associate professor at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown who has a Ph.D. in philosophy and focuses on the intersection of morality and management.

What bosses at every level need to recognize is the effect their position has on those below them.

Not only recognize, but understand the impact and the possibly disastrous results that can come from trying to comply.

It’s not necessarily an implied “or else” that gets them, but the implied “whatever it takes” coupled with that human predisposition that gets them in trouble—and can take the whole company down with them.

Quote the above to most managers and they’ll equate authority with the CEO and other executives, but not with themselves.

However, ask workers about authority and they usually start with their immediate boss.

Stock.xchng image credit: ugaldew

If the Shoe Fits: Leadership

Friday, February 15th, 2013

A Friday series exploring Startups and the people who make them go. Read allIf the Shoe Fits posts here

5726760809_bf0bf0f558_mI rarely mention ‘leadership’, because I believe that given the opportunity to act anyone can and will step up and lead when the time and cause is right.

That’s why I when I coach one of the mantras I offer is “leadership is like manure, it produces the best results when spread around.”

You wouldn’t think founders today would even consider any kind of old world hierarchical management, but they do.

Not overtly, but covertly—and often unconsciously.

It shows in their unwillingness (fear?) to delegate the authority to make decisions along with the responsibility of doing the work.

But there are major advantages to spreading leadership opportunities at every level in your organization.

Foremost is the fact that if you want to hire these days you need to offer your workers meaningful opportunities to grow or they’ll walk.

Growing includes leading and managing—even if it’s only a group of one, themselves.

It means pushing responsibility further and further down in your organization—not just the responsibility—but the authority required to accomplish whatever it is.

And that’s where most founders (and bosses) blow it.

They assign the task, but then require their people to keep running to them for permission to do each step.

I’m not saying to hand over total control, but you need to hand over enough authority to get the job done.

Even when it comes to money, which is often the biggest hang-up, you can still do it.

Create a budget for each task and give the responsibility for spending it to the person responsible for getting it done. Let her decide how to spend it without interference or “help” from you—unless she asks.

If she goes over budget don’t freak out. It’s not that much (or shouldn’t be) in the big picture and if you freak she may never recover.

She already knows that she messed up, so beating on her will accomplish nothing. Sit down calmly and let her walk you through the thinking and decision-making that led to being over budget, discuss it and lead her through a pattern that would have succeeded.

But if it turns out that the error is yours and the estimate was wrong, admit it, don’t try and convince her that someone else could have done it.

People aren’t stupid, she’ll know that the discussion ended as a CYA function for you—as will everyone, since stuff like this never stays secret.

Other great reasons to spread leadership around are increased productivity, more employee satisfaction, fewer logjams when you’re unavailable or traveling, easier staffing and less turnover.

Finally, spread it around because that’s what great founders do—they pay it forward by fostering the growth of more entrepreneurs.

Image credit: HikingArtist

Ducks in a Row: Titles—Silly or Serious?

Tuesday, January 17th, 2012

4266001311_8916dfd9cc_mA few days ago an article about titles in Forbes caught my eye—and got my goat.

It caught me because I’m not a lover of sweeping generalizations, since very few hold up against reality and this was one of them.

In this case, the author, with a typical consultant-pundit in support, denigrates as silly the raft of new CXO functions in business.

While I agree that they can be empty window dressing, the majority I’ve seen are powerful positions. You can tell the difference by the report structure—if the position doesn’t report directly to the top boss—CEO, COO, President or owner—it’s likely fluff.

Another statement, that titles were “likely dreamed up by the marketing team,” was really hilarious considering the corporate examples cited.

Kodak and Dell appointed Chief Listeners. Facebook recently added two Chief Privacy Officers. Coca-Cola is really gung-ho on the trend, employing a Chief Administrative Officer, Chief Sustainability Officer, Chief Scientific and Regulatory Officer, and Chief Quality and Product Integrity Officer, among others. Microsoft has a Chief People Officer; IBM a Chief Information Officer; Xerox a Chief Strategy Officer; and New York City has its very own Chief Digital Officer.

I find it hard to believe that the likes of Sam Palmisano, Michael Dell or Steve Balmer, let alone Michael Bloomberg, have marketing designing their organization.

The list also displays a high level of ignorance, since several of those “silly” titles, e.g., Chief Information Officer (CIO) and Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) have been around for decades, while others reflect important new priorities.

It’s not that I condone title inflation, but making sweeping statements that disparage efforts by companies to focus knowledge, skills and resources on specific problems and increase accountability by putting one person in charge are worse.

Creating new areas of responsibility to meet the needs of a changing world is necessary and bosses who ignore the changes or the need are setting their companies up for failure sooner, rather than later.

As long as the CXO has a well-defined mission, the authority to achieve it and direct access to the top the position deserves respect and support.

Outsiders who belittle that effort should be ignored.

Flickr image credit: Bengt Nyman

Management Isn’t About Authority

Monday, November 30th, 2009

manger-project-managerIs managing a group boring in comparison to managing a project?

Is it a bigger challenge to manage with no actual authority as opposed to when you have it?

Project management is the ultimate matrixed management position—responsibility sans authority, i.e., no leverage.

But managers’ traditional leverage—do it or you’re fired—doesn’t work on today’s workforce, whose reaction is more likely to be updating their resume.

Granted, there are many abusive managers out there who believe that their authority gives them the right to order people around, but it’s less and less effective. That’s especially true when creativity, innovation and productivity are requirements for getting the job done.

What it boils down to is that PMs can’t give orders by dint of their job description whereas managers can’t give orders by dint of their workforce—and neither one is going to change any time soon.

Image credit: HikingArtist on flickr

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