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Kenneth W. Keller: Good employees are highly valuable

Inside Business

Posted: January 13, 2009 7:35 p.m.
Updated: January 14, 2009 4:30 a.m.

Jack Welch, the former head of GE, co-writes a weekly column for Business Week magazine. Sometimes the "Dear Abby" format is used, when someone sends in a question and Welch, together with his wife Suzy, provides answers and thought-provoking perspective.

One of the queries sent in asked about loyalty of employees and the role it plays in an organization.
The question was answered from a number of different perspectives, all of them worthwhile.

But at the heart of what Welch wrote was a comment about the role of loyalty during challenging economic times: "... these days, it's far more common for managers to protect and reward employees who consistently deliver results ..."

Welch goes on to state that organizations can only win when they have the best players who act in the best interests of the company.

Keith McFarland, author of "The Breakthrough Company" says that one way to grow a company is to hire ordinary people and give them extraordinary opportunities. In both cases, the goal is to win.

Let's define what winning is. Nowadays, it might mean simply being able to weather a storm that will drop revenue or the client base by 25 percent virtually overnight. It might mean staying even with last year's financial performance or growing it by some percentage, single digit or double digit.

In severe cases it might mean just being able to keep the doors open.

Winning means having an objective to achieve. One that is specific, measurable, action oriented, realistic and time bound.

If you haven't decided what "winning" is in your company for this year, this quarter, thing month, now is a great time to do so.

Regardless of how winning is defined, what the objective is needs to be communicated.

How does that happen? It starts with every employee knowing and understanding, and executing towards the expected results.

It means knowing and doing what is needed to do every day to help the organization achieve the objective.

Actually, it begins even before that by hiring people into the organization that are results driven and focused to achieve goals. This can only happen when hiring managers are in place that have bought into and possess a results mentality.

If there is a manager, even at the top, with hiring and firing authority who isn't focused on results, who doesn't buy into the concept of having and achieving goals and shirks being held accountable, odds are that his or her department is filled with underperformers, because they are not being held accountable.
When I finished reading Welch's article, I pondered something worth sharing. It's almost difficult to admit this, but most of the organizations where I earned a paycheck were mediocre places.

It doesn't mean the people who worked there were not nice and pleasant. It does not mean the facilities were unsafe or unclean.

It doesn't mean the place was boring or the products were not of interest. It doesn't mean the companies did not make money, did things that were illegal, immoral, unethical or wrong.

These were companies that employed people who worked and received a paycheck. The customers were taken care of.

There was cash flow and profits. Sometimes more profits, sometimes less. The sad truth is that these companies did OK in spite of themselves.

They had much more potential than was realized.

There's an old adage about "being part of the problem or being part of the solution." I must confess I was not part of the solution as much as I should have been.

The problem in these organizations, what made and kept them mediocre, was that they valued loyalty over results.

"That is the way we've always done it," or "That's always worked for us," were the kind of comments heard all too often. It was if a new idea was beyond comprehension, beyond the realm of options.

This atmosphere was allowed to perpetuate because people had become complacent. The cause of this condition was simple: top management was unwilling to have candid, rigorous performance discussions with their direct reports.

Those in middle management did not want to hold discussions about people who were not performing, and so those conversations never took place either. No one wanted to be the tough drill sergeant that was required.

And, because lip service was paid to the concept of a vigorous, candid discussion about the role and results of employees, people settled into a soft and comfortable world of complacency. Everyone assumed they were doing a wonderful job because no one told them any differently.

Over the years, the headcount grew, because managers were always able to justify why a position needed to be created, because there was never any evidence to the contrary, that a position could be eliminated because someone wasn't doing their job.

When the challenging times came, and the word came from the top to reduce headcount, it was always ugly, even sad.

I know one manager who was let go from a job she held for 16 years and never once had a written performance appraisal.

Welch says that "... it's usually when they're handing poor, unsuspecting Joe or Mary their pink slip that they (the manager) finally admits: ‘Look, all these years, you came in everyday, and you did your job, but you weren't actually very good. And now someone has to go, it needs to be you.'"

Don't you owe it to those that work for you to know exactly what is expected of them?

Kenneth W. 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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