Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Back to Basics: The Key to Improving Performance

After many years of working with organizations in different industries on a variety of issues, I have discovered that the most common reason for performance falling short of expectations is a lack of attention to the basics.  I have seen numerous initiatives fail because of misalignment between, or inconstancy within, a company's purpose, values, objectives, and reward systems.

Consider the following objectives:
  • Improve EBITDA by 20% over the next two years;
  • Achieve compounded double-digit revenue growth each year for the next five years;
  • Introduce 5 new products to the market next year.
In each of the above examples, the organizations failed to achieve the stated objectives.  This was not because of a lack of talent or desire to meet the goals.  In each case, managers responsible for the objectives felt extreme pressure to succeed but were handcuffed by the problems related to trust, teamwork, reward systems, and overall company focus.

An organization cannot perform at a level beyond its capabilities for a sustained period of time - and its capabilities are determined by the basics.  Setting objectives that are beyond capabilities will do little more than create frustration or apathy among those assigned the responsibility to meet them.  You can challenge, pressure, or cheer as much as you want but unless you deal with the fundamental roadblocks to success, you will end up sorely disappointed.

In sports, it's common for individuals and teams to address a slump by getting back to the basics.  In tennis for example, correcting poor performance requires thinking about footwork, watching the ball, and focusing on each point.  Attempts to ascend to a new level of performance will be fruitless without mastering these basic aspects of the game.

Getting Back to the Basics

Addressing the fundamental issues in an organization can take several different paths depending on the company's situation, but generally involves the five areas listed below.
  • Reaffirm & Recommit to the Purpose:  Assure that the organization's purpose - including mission and vision - is absolutely clear.  Obtain commitment to the purpose at all levels and develop objectives that support its achievement;
  • Clarify & Commit to the Values:  Define the company's DNA and assure that the hiring process includes some type of assessment to assure candidates possess the desired values.  It is important to understand that, regardless of how successful an individual appears to be performing - if he or she does not follow the same values as the rest of the organization, damage will occur;
  • Align Focus on the Customer:  In relation to the purpose, assure that everything the organization does is focused on the customer.  As Gene Perkins, retired Group Vice President-Flow Products at Emerson Electric Company once said to his management team, "if we're not thinking about the customer first in everything we do, we might as well fold up our tents and go home;"
  • Increase Understanding of the System:  Especially at the management level, people must understand the company's overall system (i.e., how the company serves the customer) and work to continually improve how materials and information flow through the system.  Managers must be company-focused rather than functionally-focused;"
  • Align Measures & Rewards with Direction:  Once the direction and focus has been established, make absolutely sure that there is close alignment between them and the reward systems in the organization.  Be continually on the lookout for rewards that may encourage undesirable behavior.
It is very easy for an organization to stray from the above areas.  There is often so much going on and everyone is so busy that it is easy to be distracted with internal issues that do not tend to be as glamorous as improving EBITDA by 20% or achieving double-digit revenue growth.  Without a strong foundation on which to build the business, however, achieving and sustaining any type of significant improvement will not happen.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Successful Job Search: Getting the Interview

It's been a few years since the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression began and a large number of highly talented people remain unemployed and frustrated at their lack of success in the job search process.  Many regularly submit resumes for positions for which they feel perfectly qualified and receive only electronically-generated rejections - if they receive anything at all from the hiring company.

From a pure numbers perspective, it is easy to understand why this is happening, but understanding the reasons does little to reduce the frustration and depression that many searching for jobs are feeling.  It comes down to the fact that anyone applying for an open position needs to find a way to stand out from the crowd and get noticed by those doing the hiring.

Below are my thoughts on the job search process.  Although I would never describe myself as an expert on the subject, I have witnessed these steps achieve a 40% success rate in getting a positive response from the hiring company.  Keep in  mind that these steps will only help you get a dialogue going with someone in the company - getting beyond the initial contact is up to you.

Resumes are Secondary

Most people focus on the resume or CV as the critical part of the job search.  Resume writing services are booming these days with the promise of providing a CV that will set a candidate apart from the thousands of others who may be applying for an open position.

I believe that the resume is actually secondary in finding a job.  Attempting to communicate the ways in which you will benefit the company through a resume puts the responsibility on the person reading it to make the connection between your background and the needs of the job.  Regardless of how impressive they may be, a listing of qualifications, accomplishments, and keywords will not set you apart from others.  You really need to find a clear and concise way to communicate to people exactly how you will help the company.

Your resume will come into play after you convince the hiring company that you can provide what they need.  With this in mind, it is critical to have a clear and well-organized CV - and one that is specifically tailored to the open position - but it is not the most important part of the job search process.

The Critical Steps

With this in mind, a successful job search process should include the following elements:
  1. Read the Job Description very closely to gain a deep understanding about the company's needs.  Use the job description along with other information (e.g., website, annual report, etc.) to look for themes that identify what the company is truly looking for in the position.  Highlight the areas that identify critical issues and those where you have particular expertise.
  2. Develop a Plan that clearly addresses the issues identified specifically in the job description and, more generally, in your research.  Present a basic overview (exhibit 1) and include a more detailed explanation of the steps that need to be taken to be successful (exhibit 2).

    Sections of the plan will differ depending on the specific position.  The plan shown in the example is for a Lean Director position.  It would obviously need to change for other jobs (e.g., for a VP of Operations, the categories may include such things as People Development, Process Improvement, Product Development, etc.).  It depends entirely on the scope of the position and the needs of the organization.

  3. Identify the Hiring Manager.  With apologies to my friends in the HR field, most of the people who screen resumes do not really understand the position well enough (or have the time needed) to look beyond what is written in the job description.  In many cases, a junior person or computer filters the resumes to screen out those that don't have the correct keywords.  Your chances diminish greatly if you don't send your information to the person to whom the position reports.

    Depending on the level of the position, the hiring manager can be located through sources like LinkedIn, the company's website, or a web search.  This can take time, but is extremely important to assure you reach the correct person.  For higher level positions, don't be afraid to send the plan directly to a C- level person (i.e., CEO, COO, CIO, CFO, etc.).
  4. Send the Plan to the Hiring Manager.  This step requires patience and creativity to determine the company's email address format.  In some cases, the domain name for the company's website differs from the domain for email addresses, so it may take several attempts to finally get it through.
I can't take full credit for the above approach.  A friend of mine is a lawyer and told me that pursuing a position at a law firm often requires submitting a business plan to identify the target clients the candidate can bring to the firm and how much business these potential clients represent.  Combining this with my own experience leading an organization, I thought that a similar approach would make sense for those in other professions as well.  When I led an organization and hired for an open position, I was much more interested in how well the candidates understood our needs and how they could help than what was in their CVs.

The drawback of this process is that it takes a lot more time to apply for a position and you will probably not be able to apply for more than three or four positions per week, at best.  Besides getting you an interview, however, the plan can also provide a point of reference for discussion during the interview and help you get started once you land the job.

Good luck!  Everyone deserves a job that is challenging and rewarding.