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Kenneth W. Keller: The ten ways businesses stay mediocre

Inside Business

Posted: September 29, 2009 10:22 p.m.
Updated: September 30, 2009 4:55 a.m.
 
Many best-selling books chronicle organizations that research suggests business leaders should look at if they want to improve their companies. This list includes “Built to Last,” “The Breakthrough Company,” and “Good to Great.”

The problem is that most companies don’t last, don’t breakthrough and don’t make the leap from “OK to fair,” let alone “good to great,” because these organizations maintain a focus and culture that ensures mediocrity.

If you believe your company is better than mediocre, put your ego aside and read on. Most companies are vastly capable of more than their current results.

What stands in the way is a mere five words: A culture of status quo. Organizations do at least ten things that will guarantee they will remain “mediocre.”  

The first is a lack of a single, simple and strategic focus. The governor of Indiana said in a recent interview that the focus of his administration is “to raise the net disposable income” of citizens.

Everything else “is just a means to that end.” Who couldn’t get behind that?

Too many companies have a strategic focus to raise the net disposable income of the owner.

There is no argument that profit is important — it is. In fact, mediocre companies focus too much on revenue and not enough on profit.

But what the mediocre companies fail to do is energize and rally employees, vendors, clients and it’s community around a short and focused reason to support the company for the long haul.  

The second is that, while many people in an organization can say “no” to initiatives, changes and improvements, there is only one person, the man or woman at the top, who can say “yes,” even if the change costs little or nothing.

With every decision resting on just one, or perhaps two at the top, it is clear that no one else really has any authority.  

The third is the organization hires down, not up. Hiring managers shun bringing in new people with more education, more experience and impressive backgrounds simply because  new employees of this caliber are threatening to the status quo.  

The fourth is ideas for improvement come only from the top. Ideas from anyone else are dismissed because they come from people who don’t see the “big picture.”

This is because the so-called big picture was never shared with those who have a responsibility to turn it into reality through daily activities.   

The fifth is few people step up to new responsibilities and initiatives. In a culture that believes “this is the way we have always done it,” those who step up are agents of change, vilified by those who desire to preserve the status quo.  

Nodding heads is the sixth. In meetings, only the few, the brave and, some would argue, the stupid say anything of substance.

The rest simply nod their heads in compliance; after all, who wants to risk a job by saying anything that could be construed as being disloyal?

Staff meetings become just one more thing to do. There is no serious discussion on how to have a better business.   

The seventh is that resistance to change thrives. This virus, manifested in meetings filled with people who simply nod their heads, moves to the department level once the meeting ends.

Any hope of meaningful progress is over when managers simply say to themselves, “I am not going to do this.” In a mediocre organization, no one is penalized for this attitude.  

The eighth is leaders practice the “mushroom theory of management” — keeping employees in the dark, under a layer of fertilizer.

If anyone pops up to see what is really going on, the response is, “Off with their heads” (punish them).

The slave ship scene from the movie “Ben Hur” says it all: “Row well and live.” Now it has been updated to, “when we want you to know something, we will tell you.”  

The ninth is education is feared. The mediocre company believes that it knows everything it needs to survive and thrive and sees no need for continuing education for anyone.  

The tenth is the company ignores the need for pay-for-performance. Mediocre firms believe that if they offer a nice place to work — without too much pressure and a steady paycheck with solid benefits — that it is serving all the needs of those who work there.

What this fails to take into account is that the best people continually look for opportunities to be compensated for doing their best regardless of what others in the company are doing.

Companies that are trying to improve have a certain characteristic to them. People arrive early and stay late; when present, the employees are focused and work hard.

The mediocre organizations are pretty easy to spot as well: You won’t find anyone coming in early or staying late because there is no benefit to doing so — no rewards for success and the effort that goes with it.

Ken Keller is president of Renaissance Executive Forums, which brings business owners together in facilitated peer advisory boards. His column represents his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.

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