Work

This blog is a little different from other blogs I’ve written.  Typically, I try to draw a practical lesson from a business or leadership book I’m reading.  This blog follows that pattern (it is based on a book I’m reading), but it’s also more of an intersection between business and faith.

Back in my December blog post I mentioned the pastor of a New York City church named Tim Keller.  Keller has written several books, and his most recent book, Every Good Endeavor, focuses on the topic of “work.”  Specifically, Keller takes on the question of what was work designed for, and how can we find meaning and purpose in our work.  Both employers and employees face this question.  Employees want their work to be meaningful for obvious reasons.  Employers know that satisfied workers are better, more fulfilled workers, and therefore want their employees’ work to be meaningful.  Today’s millennial generation is asking the “meaning and purpose in work” question more than ever.  In this context, Keller draws on the book of Genesis, part of both the Christian and the Jewish sacred texts, in search of answers to the question of how our work can be about more than just drawing a paycheck.

Keller focuses on two passages from the book of Genesis (Genesis 1:28 and 2:15) in developing his thoughts about work.  These passages come directly after the creation account.  One contains the instruction to “fill the earth and subdue it” as well as to “rule over the fish … birds … and every living creature.”  The other exhorts Adam to “work and care for” the garden in which he was put.  Sometimes the words “till” or “cultivate” are used instead of “work and care.”  So what could these passages from a book written a few thousand years ago possibly have to do with us today in the 21st century, in the world of Apple, Google and Mixed Martial Arts?

Keller has a very interesting take on what it means to “work and care for” (or till and cultivate) the garden.  According to Keller, this text calls us to “rearrange” the raw material of creation in a way that helps people around us to thrive and flourish.  The materials we’re given to work with on this earth are good, but not complete.  Our job is to shape these raw materials into things that enhance people’s lives.  We’re tasked with serving others through building things that make their lives better.  Considered this way, we end up with a totally different perspective on our work, one that brings meaning and dignity to any type of work we do, particularly physical work.

Let me try to make this as practical as possible.  In Genesis we see God as a gardener; later in the scriptures we see him as a carpenter.  Both of these jobs involve physical as well as mental labor.  The fact that God engages in these physical jobs infuses them with meaning and dignity.  In the hardwood lumber industry, we can think of what we do as cutting logs and processing boards, or instead we can see our work as rearranging the raw material of creation (trees) into useful products (chairs, tables, cabinets, floors) that help people to live better and more productively.  For me, viewing our work as rearranging creation’s raw materials is more motivating and inspiring, and brings dignity and meaning to all kinds of work.

So do you think of your work as just a way to draw a paycheck?  If you’re an employer, do your employees think of it that way?  Regardless of your faith background, the first few chapters of Genesis provide a framework for making your work, and the work of your employees, meaningful and full of purpose.  This is eminently modern and practical for a generation that craves more meaning in their work.  Follow this blueprint and it will make your work, and the work of your employees, more meaningful and purposeful.

Meaning and Significance

The Small Big.  The title caught my interest a few months back as I was reading a business magazine.  So I read this book through the holidays, finishing it a few weeks ago.  It’s an easy read, focusing on small things we can do that will make a big difference in how effectively we persuade and motivate people.  I liked a couple things about the book.  First, it contains 52 really short (3-6 pages each) chapters, which makes it easy to read in “bite size” pieces.  Second, it is eminently practical, dealing with topics like how a company can make its sales people more effective, developing simple strategies for negotiating more successfully, making small changes in the work environment to encourage creative thinking, and how fundraisers can convince donors to give more to non-profits.

There was one chapter, however, that I found the most helpful by far.  It provided some fascinating advice from University of Pennsylvania economist Adam Grant on how to improve employee productivity.  Grant argues that if employees are reminded why their job is “significant,” why it has “meaning,” they become more highly motivated and ultimately more productive. To test this hypothesis, Grant conducted a study of employees whose job was to contact alumni of a university and persuade them to make donations to the school’s scholarship fund.  Prior to contacting the alumni, one group of employees read stories about the financial benefits of their job and the opportunity their job gave them to develop their personal skills.  The other group read stories from students who had received scholarships which described the hugely positive impact the scholarship had had on their lives.

The results were nothing short of amazing.  After hearing the stories, the employees who read about the financial benefits of their job raised the same amount of money as they had raised before hearing the stories.  In other words, no change.  However, the employees who heard stories about the impact the scholarships had on students’ lives raised more than twice as much money after hearing the stories!  The power of making sure employees understand and don’t lose sight of the significance of their job at work!  Understanding the meaning and significance of their work surely energized these employees, and elevated the results of their work to new heights.

For those of us in business, how can we follow this advice and get these results?  One way is to collect and prominently display stories of how customers have been helped by our products and services.  Maybe post them on a bulletin board.  Maybe read them aloud.  Or even have team members pick out their favorite stories and read them aloud to their colleagues.  Regardless of how you do it, not letting employees forget the real significance of what they do will lead to better results for your business.  I’m confident it will also result in more fulfilled employees.  This is just one example of how making a small change can have a big result.

Barely Getting a Leaf Out

Recently I read a Wall Street Journal article about a New York City Presbyterian minister named Tim Keller.  The article described the dramatic growth in Keller’s church (Redeemer Presbyterian) from a few families in 1989 to over 5,500 parishioners today.  Quite a success!  However, at the end of the article Keller makes a surprising admission.  Keller admits he often feels like he hasn’t accomplished as much as he should have, and that there is so much more to do.  He uses an image to describe his feelings that captured my imagination.  He says he feels like he has “barely gotten a leaf out.”  As we take time to reflect during this last week of 2014, I believe Keller’s image of the single leaf can provide us with comfort, solace, inspiration and encouragement as we look toward 2015.

“Barely getting a leaf out” is phrase used by J. R. R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, in a short story he wrote about a painter who spent his whole life trying to paint a very beautiful tree with snowcapped mountains and forests behind it.  In spite of his continual and diligent efforts, when the painter dies he has finished painting only one leaf.  The painter is disappointed, but when he goes into the afterlife he sees something in the distance that quickens his heart.  As he approaches more closely, he realizes that there is the completed tree he was trying to paint all along!

Tolkien’s point in this story is that despite our best efforts to make a significant contribution to our societies, our workplaces, our families, our friends and our churches, we often accomplish a lot less than we hope for.  We have high expectations, and often find ourselves disappointed, discouraged, even disillusioned, at how little we’re able to accomplish.  We feel like there’s so much unfinished, so much still to be done.  We’ve failed to make a meaningful dent in the work to be done.  Like the painter, we feel like we’ve completed little more than a single leaf.

The story, however, provides us with encouragement.  In fact, the one leaf that we paint often goes together with leaves that others paint to create a beautiful tree.  The tree wouldn’t be complete unless we did our part.  As a person of faith, Tolkien believes that our vision of what we want to accomplish is often inspired by God, and that in the end God can weave our leaf together with the leaves of others to create the beautiful tree.  Tolkien’s story encourages us that, together with others and the help of God, we can in fact make a difference.

So this Christmas season take comfort and satisfaction in “barely getting a leaf out.”  It’s not so much the size of your contribution, but rather the fact that you’re making a contribution at all.  Make the best leaf that you can.  Continue to make your own small mark, and together with others you may be surprised at the beautiful tree that emerges.

Crisis Creates Opportunity

Crises create reputations that stick in customers’ minds.  Your response in a crisis can either cement in your customer’s mind that reputation you’ve worked so hard to develop, or it can flush it all down the drain.

Whether or not you live in Buffalo, you surely heard that parts of the Buffalo area were hit with unprecedented snowfall last week, paralyzing parts of the city for four days.  Last Saturday evening, just after the driving bans were lifted, I was checking in for my Southwest Airlines flight at the Buffalo airport and heard an interesting conversation at the counter next to me.  The ticket agent was talking to a couple who were clearly inexperienced travelers.  They had missed their flight and been forced to re-book (presumably because of the storm), and were nervous that doing so would result in a higher fare.  The ticket agent told them that in fact their new flight did have a higher fare, but for that day Southwest was waiving all charges for higher fares on new reservations people were making due to flights missed during the storm.

The couple was visibly relieved and very vocal in their thanks to the ticket agent.  As I witnessed this encounter, I said to myself “right answer.”  Southwest got it right.  I don’t know how much this couple will fly in the future, but I’m sure Southwest has a customer for life.  More importantly, I’m sure this couple will tell several of their friends what happened that day.  And beyond that, the person at the counter next to that couple (me!) happens to write a blog, and now all of you are hearing about it.  A clear display of the power of one good decision.

One of my business colleagues has a favorite saying, “crisis creates opportunity.”  This is never more true than when a business, or an individual, is faced with the “moment of truth” of how to respond in a crisis.  Make the right call and you have a customer (or friend) for life.  Make the wrong call and you may waste years of hard work.  Make the right call in the moment!

Networking

I recently read the book View from the Top by Dr. Michael Lindsay, President of Gordon College.  Dr. Lindsay is one of the youngest college presidents in the nation, an award winning sociologist and frequent lecturer on the topic of leadership.  Lindsay interviewed 550 top national leaders as the basis for his book.  While View from the Top contains many thoughtful and helpful insights, his focus in the book’s opening chapter on “building your network” really caught my attention.

I’ve always had a gut reaction against “networking.”  Undoubtedly many of you will find that strange, and many of you probably network instinctively.  It’s a pretty typical thing for leaders to do.  However, networking conjured up images in my mind of talking to someone at a party and having them constantly looking over my shoulder checking out who they could talk to next.  Networking has always struck me as a “political” effort, a way of getting ahead based on who you know as opposed to what you do.  I’m not saying this view was right, just what I felt and thought.

Lindsay argues persuasively for leaders making networking a top priority.  There are many ways to succeed as a leader, according to Lindsay, but all require developing an effective network.  At first I resisted this and found the concept grubby.  However, as I read further, Lindsay opened my mind to see that one could develop a network without being selfish, arrogant or pushy, and that failing to develop an effective network ultimately limits one’s growth as a leader.

Lindsay speaks of “developing a wide ranging network of acquaintances.”  An effective network involves knowing people in a variety of different areas, people different than us, and even people we may not particularly like, not just people to whom we are naturally attracted or who can help us tomorrow.  Leadership involves serving others, and networks serve as “entry points,” or “introductions,” to people who can help us as we seek to serve others better.  In a time of unexpected crisis, they can make finding someone who can help much easier.  Using networks correctly are less a means of self-promotion and more a means of finding ways to serve and help others more quickly, efficiently and effectively.

One other perspective on networking.  I’ve written previously about John Maxwell, a speaker and author on leadership who has helped me tremendously.  As a younger leader, John would offer to pay people he wanted to meet $100, as well as buy them lunch, for two hours of their time.  Whether they needed the money or not, it was amazing how many of these people said yes.  These lunches allowed him to build his network effectively.  I think John would say that building his network at a young age was one of the primary keys to his success as a leader.

Finally, Lindsay makes an interesting point about how we can best form networks.  The most common and effective way, he argues, is to have a good mentor.  A  mentor can, and usually will, introduce you to other people who can help you.  A mentor can do this in a fraction of the time that it would take you to do it on your own.  In fact, having more than one mentor who can each help you in a different area is even better.

So, while I still need to fight my instinctive negative reaction to networking, Lindsay’s book certainly helped me develop a more balanced, positive view of how networking can help me in my leadership.  I encourage you to check it out.

 

Millennials

Last week, I experienced an interesting connection at my monthly Vistage meeting.  Vistage is a group of business leaders (about 15 in our group) that meet once per month to listen to an outside speaker and then discuss business issues that group members face.  This month’s speaker, Gustavo Grodnitzky, spoke on the topic of recruiting and retaining “Millennials”, or “Gen Y” folks (people born between 1982-2000, currently ages 14-32).  Gustavo presented an interesting summary of the four generations that are currently in the workforce, and then made a compelling case that the future success of businesses and other organizations will depend largely on their ability to recruit and retain Millennials.  At the end of his talk, Gustavo recommended two books, one of which was Drive by Daniel Pink.  As you may remember, in my last blog I wrote about Drive, focusing in particular on Pink’s theory of what motivates people.  Gustavo told us that while Pink’s theory of motivation applies to people of all ages, it applies especially to Gen Yers.  This captured my attention, and I thought you might find this connection between Drive and what motivates Gen Yers helpful.

In Drive, Pink argues that the three things that truly motivate people are “autonomy” (freedom to do your work when and the way you want), “mastery” (opportunity to master a skill or body of knowledge), and “purpose” (feeling like you’re doing something of broader significance, that you’re working for a cause).  In this blog, I’d like to focus on the importance of providing Millennials with a purpose, or cause, if you want to recruit and retain them.

At the Vistage meeting, Gustavo argued that Millennials need to feel that their work contributes to a worthwhile cause, to something more significant than just making money.  My wife and I have experienced this first hand over the last couple years.  As our now 23 year old son was exploring various career options a couple years ago, he mentioned frequently that he wanted to do something with more significance than just making money.  In other words, he wanted to pursue a worthwhile “cause”, something that makes a difference.  My wife and I reflected on how different his view was from our view 30 years earlier when we entered the workforce.  For us, it was all about getting a good job, working hard at something you liked, making some money, and then maybe at 45 or 50 having the opportunity to do something with more significance.  To be honest, we probably thought our son and his friends were looking for “too much too early”, and needed to be willing to pay their dues.  As it turns out, this was probably misguided thinking on our part.

As both a father and an employer, this wasn’t something I could ignore.  It’s a reality that’s much different than how baby boomers like me think about career and life.  At Baillie, over 20 years ago we identified the purpose of our hardwood lumber business as “To Help Others Succeed.”  The details of how we identified this purpose is a story for another day, but suffice it to say that I’m confident this purpose is more than just window dressing for us.  For the most part, our employees have bought into and connect well with it.  However, listening to Gustavo and reading Pink made me realize that we need to develop more concrete, down to earth ways for our entry level employees (most of them Gen Yers) to connect with and experience our purpose.  The morning after the Vistage meeting, I sat down with our HR Director and together we came up with a couple new strategies for doing this.  We’re actually pretty excited about them.  Hopefully they will work, but if they don’t, we will try others.

So what to do?  Maybe start by making sure your organization has a simple, clear statement of purpose.  Something a sixth grader can understand, that employees could recite easily at gunpoint.  Then, develop one or two strategies for making that purpose come alive for your entry level workers.  If Gustavo and Pink are right, if you can connect Millennials to a purpose it will be very hard for your competitors to lure them away with more money.  In fact, it will likely give your organization a competitive advantage.  I’m on this journey with you and certainly don’t have all the answers, but I’m convinced this is one of the keys to building the workforce that each of us will need to not only survive, but thrive, in the future.

Motivated?

Ever wonder what motivates people?  Really motivates them?  I’ve debated this question regularly with some of my colleagues in our hardwood lumber business.

Daniel Pink’s book Drive provides some surprising answers to this question.  Surprising because most experienced industry veterans think it comes down to one thing:  money.  Show me the money, they say.

While money does matter, Pink has a different view about what truly motivates people and drives results.  In fact, Pink argues that relying on money (or any external reward) can actually diminish performance, crush creativity, and foster short term thinking.  So what does motivate people?

Three things:  autonomy, mastery and purpose.  While money is not unimportant, according to Pink once people have a comfortable level of compensation these three things are what really matter.  Let’s unpack them one by one.

Pink says organizations tend to either “control” their people, or let them operate “autonomously.” Businesses that offer people autonomy have historically grown at a faster rate.  The dictionary defines “autonomy” as being independent, or self-governing.  In other words, giving people the freedom to decide what they should do, when they do it, how they’ll do it and with whom they will do it.  Sound scary?  Think it will lead to chaos?  Pink gives multiple examples where giving this kind of freedom to people led to intense engagement, and ultimately extraordinary business results (including the invention of Post-It Notes at 3M).

The second motivator Pink points to is “mastery”, or the desire to get better and better (even be one of the best!) at something that really matters.  When people are given the freedom to master a particular skill or field, they report getting into “the flow.”  I’m sure you’ve experienced being in “the flow” when you’re doing something you love, whether it’s skiing, hunting, baking, gardening, walking in nature, meditating or doing something else you really love.  When people are in “the flow”, they live deeply in the moment, they feel utterly in control, and their sense of time and place melts away.  Oh, and yes, they become more productive workers.  All this happens when a person feels they’re on the road to mastering something, becoming an expert in something that truly matters.

The final motivator comes from linking autonomy and mastery to a purpose people can see and buy into.  Pink provides a simple test to determine whether your people feel they’re working for a purpose.  Do they refer to the company as “we” or “they?”  If they refer to the company as “we”, they generally feel engaged by a purpose beyond a paycheck.  Pay attention for a week, and see how people refer to your organization or business.

I know you crusty, battle scared veterans are skeptical, probably even a bit cynical, about relying on anything other than money or external rewards to motivate.  But why not try it in a small part of your organization and see if it works.  It certainly worked for the several organizations Pink studied and describes in his book.

Welcome Your Critics

Last Saturday I read an interview in the Wall Street Journal with Tim Geithner. Geithner was Secretary of the Treasury during the 2009 financial crisis, and recently published a book describing his experience trying to lead the country through this difficult financial period. After discussing the financial crisis, the interviewer asked Geithner if he could point to any lessons he learned during the crisis that would apply to other walks of life.

His response really made me think, and I’d like to share it with you. Here’s what he said:

Make sure you surround yourself with people who will disagree with you. Make sure you have competition in diagnosis around you all the time. Make that an ongoing, relentless effort. If you do that, and put aside the concerns of how your actions will be perceived and how you will be criticized, you’ll be in a much better position to sort through all of the bad choices you face. It’s really important to make sure people feel they can disagree with you.

This statement made me think of the best-selling book Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns. In this book, Kearns describes how Abraham Lincoln surrounded himself with advisors who thought much differently than he did. In fact, the advisors he appointed were often from another political party, and in some cases had run against him for political office. They weren’t friends, and in fact they were often political enemies who at various times tried to sabotage him. However, Lincoln knew that he would make the best decisions, and be the best leader for the country, if he surrounded himself with people who thought differently than him, disagreed with him, and were even hostile toward him. He knew that the decisions that came from this body of advisors would be far superior to decisions that came from a body of advisors that all liked each other, got along with each other and thought like him. Although it led to numerous conflicts, this approach proved successful for Lincoln.

I’ve seen this work in our hardwood lumber business at Baillie. Over the last 25 years, we’ve had people in leadership positions who think differently and are not afraid to disagree with each other. Although it sometimes makes things less comfortable and leads to conflict and stress, there’s no doubt that we make better decisions, and ultimately have better strategies, when we have this diversity of approach and opinion. It’s not about being friendly and cordial, but about making the right decisions.

Even if you’re not in a leadership role in an organization, this principle can still help you. In your personal life, if you surround yourself with people that think like you, act like you, and are like you, you’ll probably have a stress-free, peaceful existence. The only problem is that you probably won’t grow, won’t be tested, and won’t increase your ability and capacity to do whatever you’re called to do in life. On the other hand, if you surround yourself with people who provoke you, who disagree with you, who challenge you and even make you mad, you’ll be on the path to growth and personal improvement.

So whether you’re leading a large organization or just thinking about cultivating a couple new friendships, think about surrounding yourself with people who think differently than you.

Innovation Reconsidered

Clay Christensen is one of the world’s leading writers on innovation.  I recently read his book The Innovator’s Solution, which was actually a follow-up to his previous book, The Innovator’s Dilemma.  The hardwood lumber business is often not on the cutting edge of innovation, so the book caught my attention.

The basic idea underlying Christensen’s books is that real value, over the long term, is created only by innovation.  If you’re not innovating, eventually your competitors will commoditize you, your margins will shrink, and your business will be worth less.

The whole book is worth reading, but I thought the most interesting part of the book was in Chapter 3.  In this chapter, Christensen explores the best way to pursue innovation.  He rejects the traditional wisdom that innovators should focus their analysis primarily on the customer, but instead says that the focus should be on how and when the customer uses your product or service.  This probably sounds a little vague, so let me share with you the example that Christensen gives.

A quick service restaurant chain wanted to improve its milkshake sales and profits.  Two sets of researchers came in to study the situation.  The first focused on the customer and the product itself (milkshakes), and asked a group of customers whether they wanted thicker, chocolatier, cheaper, chunkier, etc. milkshakes.  These researchers got feedback from the customers, and then used it to make some changes in the milkshakes.  However, despite these changes, the restaurant got no substantial increase in sales or profits.

The second set of researchers took a different approach.  They focused on what the customers were trying to get done when they “hired” the milkshake, and this gave the company’s managers new insights.  The researchers spent an 18 hour day in the store and recorded the time of each milkshake purchase, what other products the customer bought, and whether the milkshake was consumed on or off premises.

Interestingly enough, nearly half the milkshakes were bought in the morning.  People who bought in the morning often faced a long, boring commute, and wanted something to eat or drink in their car that would last a long time, wouldn’t be messy, and would satisfy them past 10 AM.  By way of contrast, people who bought milkshakes at other times of the day were most often parents trying to placate their children after a long, hard day.  Unlike the morning folks, parents wanted their kids to finish the milkshakes quickly and not have to struggle to suck a thick milkshake through a thin straw.  As a result of these findings, the restaurant created a thick, chunky shake for the morning customers (so it would last longer), and a thinner, “quick drinking” kids shake for later in the day.

The second group of researchers focused on the job the product was being “hired” to do, and ended up designing different types of milkshakes based on what the different groups of customers were trying to accomplish.  It wasn’t just about the customer and the product, but rather was about the circumstances in which the product was being used.

In the hardwood lumber business, it’s sometimes challenging to think about what real innovation means.  And when we do think about it, we tend to think about the product we sell and how we can change that product.  However, for me, taking Christensen’s advice would probably mean more focus on the circumstances surrounding how my customer uses my lumber and less on the lumber itself.

Christensen’s book certainly challenged me to think about innovation differently

It Was the Best of Times and the Worst of Times

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”  The first sentence from Charles Dickens’ famous novel A Tale of Two Cities captures well the state of the hardwood lumber industry over the last five years.  For most hardwood lumber producers, the last six months have been among the best times that they’ve ever experienced.  And yet, the pain of much of the previous five years remains seared in our memories.  So how do we handle these two radically different images at war in our minds?  As I’ve thought about this, I’ve come up with some advice for myself.  Maybe some of this will work for you.

 

  • There’s an old stockbroker’s saying that goes something like this:  “Don’t confuse brains with a bull market.”  So, in our context, enjoy the good times while they last, but don’t let them convince you that you’re suddenly a lot smarter than you were a year or two ago.  The current runaway market will end sooner or later, and it isn’t our smarts that has created it.  We need to enjoy it while we can, but be ready for it to return to normal.
  • Don’t let rising prices and increasing margins cover up sloppy operations and sales practices.  It’s easy to be lulled to sleep by increasing sales and margins, and not look hard enough at what’s “underneath the covers.”  We need to keep pushing just as hard for the half percent efficiency increase, or the 1% gross margin increase, as we did in the depths of the recession.  It’s just as important now in good times as it was in poor times.
  • Keep investing.  When business is good, there’s a temptation to think that it’s not as important for us to keep investing in our business.  I’m not just talking about equipment, but also about investments in IT and other areas that make our businesses more efficient and cost effective.  Continuing to invest will give us a cost advantage when things turn back to normal.
  • Work harder than ever at getting close to our customers.  The temptation in times like these can be to think “we’re in the drivers’ seat.”  At all cost, don’t give into this temptation.  Suppliers and customers need each other and the pendulum swings back and forth.  Don’t be afraid or embarrassed to raise prices, but travel and work hard to keep strong personal connections and relationships, and don’t present a “take it or leave it” attitude.
  • Proactively look for talent that we can add to our team, whether it’s in production, operations, sales or support functions.  Don’t wait until someone leaves to try to fill a spot.  With our business growing again, we will need more and better talented people.  Try to get ahead of the curve in hiring these people in advance, even if we don’t have a position open for them right now.

 

These are a few thoughts that I remind myself of these days.  Hopefully one or two of them will help you.