Times are tough and the economic seas are rough. The future is rife with uncertainty. So, what else is new? We, who are beyond a certain age, have seen much of this before. By the way, that doesn’t make it any less tough or any more certain. Just familiar. And, to be fair, today’s global economic reality – and all its collateral effects – are more dramatic than anything I’ve seen.

However, this no time for handwringing. Nor is it a time for “wishin’ and hoping’.” There are three proven “secrets” that work well in any economy but seem to be paramount in one like we have today.

1. Stop valuing everyone equally.

(Ouch! Did that sound a little harsh or perhaps politically incorrect? Read it again. “Valuing.”) I am in full and complete agreement with the self-evident truth “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…” I further believe that same Creator creates everyone with an equality of intrinsic worth as human beings. Please do not confuse intrinsic human value with talent appropriate for the job and aptitudes, innovative thinking, initiative, contribution, perseverance and other high achieving traits and characteristics.

We love all our employees. And, those who make a positive difference in business performance (thus creating more value) should be valued differently. Treat your high achievers differently. A former colleague used to say, “Feed your eagles and starve your turkeys.” (I can hear the folks over in human resources cringing even now!). Every employee deserves the right to succeed or fail. They further deserve – to the extent possible – the necessary resources to do their job. If you look closely you’ll probably find that your high achievers need more resources (hint: there’re getting more done).

Also, reward your high achievers accordingly. As an employer you want to “get what you pay for.” You should also “pay for what you get.” If your organization is fairly typical, many, if not most, of your lower achievers are very nice, affable and even loyal employees. Don’t be misled by the difference between “loyal” and “competence or contribution.” There should be a noticeable gap between the pay of your high achievers and your lower achievers. 

2. Hire slow and fire fast.

Chick-fil-A is one of those rare companies who “get it” when it comes to “hiring slow.” Andy Lorenzen, Director of Talent Strategy and Systems for Chick-fil-A says, “We take time to get to know the person, not just because we think it is the right business decision, but because it is the right thing for the person. We want the candidate to understand what it means to work at Chick-fil-A and have clear expectations as a result.  We also believe that there is ‘wisdom in a multitude of counsel,’ and because of that, many people typically speak into a selection. Doing that takes time. We believe in hiring slow because the outcome is usually better.”

The Vice President of Human Resources at another one of my client companies likes to say, “Engage early and often” when it comes to performance issues with employees. When Jack Welch was CEO of GE, he said, “When you don’t fire underperforming members of your team, you’re not only hurting the organization, you’re hurting them – because you’re giving them a false sense of what success looks like.”

Here’s how you keep this aligned: hold people accountable to the job you hired them to do. If they’re struggling, help them. Really. Don’t enable their shortcomings. Don’t just “keep book” or “paper the file” in anticipation of a termination. If they can’t live up to the minimum requirements of the job or are barely holding on to the bottom rung, you’re likely “giving them a false sense of what success looks like.”

Firing people is not about rude or heartless behavior. What is truly rude and heartless is to hold captive an employee who cannot be reasonably successful in your organization who might otherwise grow and blossom elsewhere. Set them free!

3. Understand that culture trumps strategy.

One of my intellectual heroes, Peter Drucker said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Your culture is often hard to see from the inside out. Well, you’re part of it. It’s “the way we do things around here.” It’s the collective assumptions about how we deal with external problems and internal integration. It includes artifacts and rituals (easy to see), shared values and beliefs (a little harder to see), and unspoken rules (very difficult to see), which are often underlying drivers of corporate culture. Culture is the most difficult corporate attribute to change and thereby one of the most powerful.

Louis V. Gerstner, Jr., former CEO of IBM said, “I came to see in my time at IBM, that culture isn’t just one aspect of the game – it is the game.” Is your culture helping or hurting your performance? How do decisions get made? What is the “pace” of business? How responsive is your organization? Does your organization focus more or accountability or blame? Does it value innovation or entrenched ideas? Do you have an idea-friendly environment? How open to change is your organization (adaptable or rigid)? Are your strategies and your culture in alignment?

A culture change initiative as a stand-alone project is dead on announcement.

If you decide to work on changing your culture, keep two things in mind: (1) keep your focus on the very few changes that matter most. Maybe two or three simple but important changes over the next 18 months. (2) Weave these change efforts into business improvement activities or projects.  A culture change initiative as a stand alone project is dead on announcement. Since culture is how we do things around here, make the desired changes part of how we do things now around here.

You can weather this storm. It’s as simple as 1… 2… 3…

Note: read more and about 3 culture change secrets here (PDF)

In Other Words…

“An innovation culture isn’t about problem-solving. It’s driven by power of questions – hunger moving into the unknown.” – Ashley Munday

“A manager is responsible for the application and performance of knowledge.” – Peter Drucker

“If you don’t execute your ideas, they die.” – Roger von Oech

“Doubt, the essential preliminary of all improvement and discovery, must accompany the stages of man’s onward progress. The faculty of doubting and questioning, without which those of comparison and judgment would be useless, is itself a divine prerogative of the reason.” – Albert Pike

“An ounce of performance is worth pounds of promises.” – Mae West

In The Word…

“Know well the condition of your flocks, and give attention to your herds,” – Proverbs 27:23