Better Mondays - Chapter Ten
Go With the Flow and Don't Rock the Boat!
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Chapter Ten - Go With the Flow and Don't Rock the Boat!
Innovation and creativity are two of the most popular concepts in today’s world of business. Often hailed as the twin keys to navigating change and meeting the challenges of a constantly evolving market, these “visionary” concepts have become the new cornerstones of success.
Sounds good, right?
Yes, innovation and creativity sound great! However, implementation—taking action to effect significant change within the corporation—can be the equivalent of playing Russian roulette with your career.
Why the contradiction?
Listen closely: Being the instigator of change puts the eyes of management squarely on you. Moreover, some of those eyes will belong to people who have a vested interest in leaving things exactly the way they are. Although they may respond with a head nod, or scribble the word, interesting on the bottom of your presentation or memo, they typically do not want you changing or being creative with what may have taken them years to put into place.
Granted, there are activities in your day-to-day work where you’ll be given some flexibility or have the opportunity to do some independent thinking, but for the most part, large companies run on conformity—to the system, the policy, and to the standards used to determine satisfactory performance.
Stay focused on your job responsibilities and stay out of other people’s business.
In plain language, keep your nose where it belongs—pointed directly at your assigned responsibilities. You might think that suggesting a new method or system that saves money or improves effectiveness would be well-received. You might also think it would generate a lot of gold stars when it’s time for evaluations and promotions. But that’s not always the case. Initiating any kind of change comes with risk.
Moreover, that risk and the possible negative impact on your career grow exponentially with the degree of change you’re proposing. In short, the bigger the change, the greater the risk. Think of it in terms of escalating levels of career jeopardy: Small change equals small risk. Medium change equals a large risk. And big change equals an unacceptable risk. As a general rule, the degree of resistance you receive to your idea or suggestion will be directly proportional to the amount of change required to implement it.
For example, trying to improve or change a core system or process that has been in place for years can make you an especially vulnerable target. So before you become glassy-eyed with ambition and start suggesting modifications that are a radical departure from the way your company currently does business, stop and look at your actual work situation. Are your suggestions based on an objective assessment and a need to strengthen the company’s position in the market? Or are you trying to bring attention to yourself as the brightest and most innovative guy or gal in the company?
Suggested changes and exceptions to the existing system should never be about YOU. This should be obvious, but I’ve seen lots of new hires who think of themselves as the entitled elite, deserving of special treatment. Unfortunately, this often includes the belief that the rules don’t apply to them, and if necessary, the company should make an exception to established policies and practices to satisfy their personal wants and needs.
I’ll illustrate the point with a brief personal story:
Three months after I was hired by Acme, I received a note from fleet management informing me it was time to order my first company car. My reaction? I was excited. Since the car would be mine to use, both on and off the job, it was a company perk I’d been looking forward to.
But my excitement didn’t last long. After looking over the order form, I was disappointed in the choice of make and model. All the major brands were there, but I was limited to a full-size, four-door sedan with standard options, including cloth seats, non-premium colors, and basic wheel covers—a car my father would drive.
I wanted something sporty, the kind of vehicle that wouldn’t require an apology when picking up a date (Sorry about the ride, it’s a company car). I wanted a car that wouldn’t embarrass me when pulling up in front of a friend’s house, knowing their garage held a Mustang, or a Camaro, or (gulp) a Corvette.
I placed a call to the fleet manager and complained. “Don’t you have other models I can choose from?”
“Those are the standard choices offered to all sales engineers,” he said. “There are no exceptions.”
He told me I was welcome to add options at my expense, but the choice of manufacture and model were not negotiable. They represented the image the company wanted to convey—conservative, reliable, dependable. The fact that I wanted a vehicle more characteristic of a car driven by a twenty-three-year-old single male was irrelevant.
“But I’m going to be spending a lot of time driving,” I argued, “probably a couple of hours a day, and I would think the company would want that time to be as pleasant for me as possible. Doesn’t management want me to be happy with the car?”
The fleet manager was silent for a moment and then said, “Remember, you’re receiving a free vehicle. We pay all the operating expenses. Your financial responsibility is limited to the fuel used for personal mileage. You don’t have to worry about the cost of insurance, registration, maintenance, or repairs, and we don’t put any restrictions on personal use. You can use it on vacations and drive it anywhere in the United States. It’s really a hell of a deal.”
I tried again. “I understand the program. In fact, I calculated its value in dollars and cents when evaluating the company’s job offer. I just didn’t realize my choice of vehicles would be so limited.”
The fleet manager took a deep breath. “The cars we offer our engineers are selected to convey the appropriate image to our customers,” he said. “They provide excellent mechanical performance, and with normal maintenance, should . . .”
“But what if I’m out-producing my quota?” I interrupted. “I mean, if I’m bringing in an outstanding level of business, you’d probably make an exception and allow me to order something different, right?”
“I know you’re new, so I’m assuming you haven’t heard the story about Tony’s car,” the fleet manager said. Admitting I hadn’t, he continued. “Tony worked out of the Denver office. He was a young guy and wanted to order a car that was “off-list.” He knew the choices available to regional managers was broader and included several sports models. He decided if the company car program provided regional managers with more choices, it should do the same for a salesman working at 200% of quota.”
“Two hundred percent? That sounds reasonable,” I said. “He’s making the company a lot of money. Recognizing his performance with a nicer car seems only fair.”
“Our fleet program is not about being fair,” the manager said. “It’s about providing our people with the tools they need to get the job done.”
“So what happened?” I asked. “Did he get the car he wanted?”
“No. And since he refused to make a choice from the standard models, we ordered a car for him, a mid-line Chevy in white, thinking that would be the end of it. But Tony was determined to make his point. After delivery, he had the right side of the car painted black, visually dividing the car in half. After the paint job, he added some paste-on flame decals on the doors and removed the wheel covers, but only on the black side. Depending on which side you were looking at, you got an entirely different impression. Tony said he would drive the company car, but he wanted everyone to know how unfairly he was being treated.”
I wasn’t sure what the fleet manager wanted me to say, so I asked, “How long did he drive the car that way?”
“Just the first day. As soon as his manager saw it, he told Tony to repaint the car at his expense. Tony took it as an ultimatum.”
“That must have cost Tony a lot of money,” I said.
“Yes, restoring the paint would have cost him a couple weeks’ salary, but his final decision cost him a lot more than that.”
“How so?” I asked.
“That was Tony’s last day. The car sat in the parking lot for a few days, until we could get a local dealer to buy it. They repainted it and put it back on the lot.”
“Sounds like nobody won,” I said. “Tony lost his job, and the company lost a good salesman.”
“You’re half right,” he said. “There’s no argument that Tony lost his job.”
Our conversation ended with me ordering a Ford Gran Torino with a few personally paid upgrades. It drove like a boat. Parking was a pain in the ass. To fully open the doors required finding a space without cars on either side. I hated it. But I drove it—until I was making enough money to buy the car I wanted.
My point in relating this story is to illustrate the importance of conforming to the system—especially when there’s nothing to gain but your personal satisfaction. In Tony’s case, he thought his performance warranted special recognition in the form of a company concession, effectively giving him the same privilege and status afforded to a regional manager. He either forgot or refused to acknowledge that his annual bonus was designed to serve that purpose, and the company car program was never intended to reward salespeople for doing a great job.
Tony also didn’t consider the impression a more conservative car made on his customers, especially those over twice his age. Many of his customers no doubt considered the type of automobile he drove as an indication of his maturity and reliability—even if it was only a subconscious influence.
What about suggesting subtle changes, especially those you’re sure will benefit the company? Before you can answer this question, you’ll need to break down your work activities into two broad areas: (1) Your internal responsibilities and assignments, and (2) your external activities; what you do and say to those outside the company—your customers, vendors, and influencers.
Internally, it’s steady as she goes. Don’t even think of suggesting a change to the company’s methods or procedures until you’ve been at your job for at least two years. Granted, that’s taking a conservative posture, but it’s also a safe one. Yes, a two year period of “internship” is a generalization, but it’s a place to start when making an objective evaluation of your influence and perceived credibility. When you’ve been there long enough to be intimately familiar with the current administrative systems, then you can suggest small changes to existing practices, and only when you can demonstrate that it will save time or improve effectiveness.
“But wait, you argue, “what if making a large change will save the company a ton of money?”
I hear the rationale. But there are reasons some things are done in a specific—and more costly—way. And those reasons are often based on something other than money.
For example, let’s say you discover a manufacturing or paperwork process that appears redundant. Seeing it repeated without obvious reason or rationale, you believe it’s an obvious waste of money. But what if the redundancy you consider wasteful is necessary due to legal requirements, quality control, or some other aspect of the big picture you’re not aware of? Or what if the duplicated effort really is a waste, and by eliminating it, the employee responsible for maintaining the system would be shown to be a gold-bricking, ineffective piece of deadwood?
And that person turns out to be the CEO’s nephew?
At best, you’ll be accused of “shallow thinking.” You’ll be criticized for not doing enough research, implying you weren’t completely familiar with the system you wanted to change—a definite indication you’re not ready to manage bigger and better things.
Always remember to count the cost of changing anything by determining who will be affected. Your suggestion to eliminate a time-wasting, non-productive or economically ineffective function may be spot-on. But if it results in a dozen people losing their jobs, it’s probably not a suggestion that should come from you.
If you must be an agent of change, adjust instead of transform. Substitute, alter, and vary instead of revolutionize. Although you may not overwhelm others with your ingenuity and creativity (and then again, you might!), your efforts will demonstrate your concern about the company’s effectiveness, and you’ll poke fewer bears.
To give you an idea of how a simple suggestion to save time and increase effectiveness can backfire, here’s a personal example that tested my relationship with my boss:
At Acme Corp, I was required to complete a weekly sales report. Details included whom I met with and a breakdown of the amount of time spent on each product when the presentation covered more than one. This data was used to determine how salespeople were spending their time relative to their assigned product quotas as well as forming the basis for charging the cost of sales burden to a particular product group.
Completing these forms was time-consuming. I spent an average of three hours a week filling them out, keeping them organized, compiling the data, and if necessary, modifying my product presentations (at least on the report) to ensure my face-to-face efforts would ultimately reflect my assigned sales goals.
After doing this for a couple of years, I realized I could save a lot of time by reverse-engineering my schedule to match my product quota. This meant using my quota assignment as a benchmark for matching specific products to the customers most likely to buy them, and then allocating my face-to-face time accordingly. Using a spreadsheet, I entered each of my customers into a database and assigned each one a priority based on its percentage of my total sales volume as a historical average. I added two additional metrics: the type and dollar value of product purchases to date, and what percentage of my total assigned quota in that product group those sales represented. After entering my sales activity for the week, I printed an update indicating where I needed to spend my time the following week—not only by product group, but also identifying which customer(s) I needed to see.
Now I had a system that provided weekly feedback on how I was spending my time. If necessary, I could make adjustments to keep my efforts in sync with my product responsibly. The real benefit was the time it saved. At the end of the week, I would enter the new data, punch a few keys, hit print, and that week’s sales report was done. Not counting the several hours it took to set up the program, I reduced the time I spent generating the weekly sales report from three hours to about twenty minutes.
My first thought? Show it to my boss! I was sure he would shower me with accolades, congratulating me on creating a new time-saving process. I even envisioned him picking up the phone and calling the VP of sales, recommending me for raise—or dare I say it . . . a promotion!
“Don’t show this to anyone,” he warned me. “Yes, it automates the process, but you’ve included factors that provide for corrective manipulation, making the annual results a foregone conclusion.”
“That’s not the intent,” I argued, “This provides immediate feedback on the difference between assigned product quotas and how a salesperson is actually spending their time. More importantly, the weekly cumulative totals indicate which products are in the most demand, so we can factor the dollar value of those sales against the time spent to generate it. Using this information, product managers can match their quota requirements to markets that demonstrate the greatest current need and make adjustments on a monthly basis. There’s no need to wait for an annual review.”
He shook his head. “The marketing department won’t buy it. You’re advocating that product sales should be driven by market demand, but our sales time is prioritized and allocated to the products that have received the most invested capital.”
“Doesn’t that sound backward to you?” I asked.
He took the usual deep breath I’d come to expect whenever we had one of our “heart-to-hearts.”
The next half-hour was spent in one of the most stupid conversations I’d ever had with a manager. I should have let the subject drop, but I persisted. Eventually, he relented, permitting me to use the spreadsheet for my own reports, but only on the condition I never reveal it to anyone, including the other salespeople or office staff.
A week later, he confided that he recognized the value of my system, but he also knew the majority of the current product managers were too closed-minded and personally biased by personal agendas to recognize its value.
His cloaked compliment didn’t help. From my perspective, I thought I was making a real contribution. But in reality, I was dabbling in areas outside my immediate assignment. The data resulting from my spreadsheet was the marketing department’s responsibility to generate. Every year, they spent countless hours laboring over a formula to assign product quotas based on the profit they needed to rationalize a healthy return on investment, even when trade market reports indicated there was little or no actual market for the product. Suggesting they consider changing their approach—especially when the suggestion came from a member of the sales force—would be sacrilege!
The takeaway? Stay on your home turf. Trying to extend your influence into areas beyond your job scope can generate resentment and quiet anger. Worse, your well-intentioned recommendations may be interpreted as accusations that someone isn’t doing their job—otherwise, why haven’t they made the same suggestion?
You may have excellent ideas on how to improve some aspect of company operations, but if it’s outside your “jurisdiction,” you’re going to be seen as meddling in places where you don’t belong. As you move up in position and authority, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to review company methods and processes, when it falls under your job responsibility. Avoid the fallout and possible career suicide by keeping your proposals for improvement focused on areas assigned to you.
Here’s a relatively “safe” way of determining which systems and procedures can be changed or improved. Yes, there are changes that can be safely suggested, especially if they’re likely to benefit the company in its external relationships. You’ll typically have more latitude to improve situations, systems, and procedures outside the company than inside—as long as you don’t create negative feedback or lose business.
Here’s a simple example that worked: At Acme, one of my responsibilities was to call on architects and engineers who specified air conditioning chillers and air handlers as part of their design for large buildings and industrial plants. Many of these architects specified AC chiller equipment to be manufactured by the Trane Company. Trane had been an Acme customer for years, buying Acme electrical components for Trane’s control consoles and electrical systems. But there was a catch: All of Trane’s orders originated from a single location—the Trane corporate office in Wisconsin. This meant very little sales credit (about 15%) was given to field personnel located in the areas where the equipment was ultimately shipped and installed. This was a sore spot for a lot of us since any sales engineer with industrial control responsibility was expected to provide coordination and field service when Trane shipped equipment with Acme controls into their area. We could easily spend several hours to several days on a job site to correct a problem or when Trane supervisors requested a factory rep on-site to oversee some part of the installation and testing.
There was, however, a method by which a field rep could boost their sales credit. By notifying the Acme sales engineer in Wisconsin of Trane’s impending order prior to its placement, the Acme field rep could increase their portion of the credit to fifty percent.
Realistically, the only way to do this was to stay in constant contact with the local Trane salespeople, hoping to learn of new and pending orders. In effect, the Acme rep had to stay ahead of Trane’s internal order processing—a difficult challenge unless the rep literally made a nuisance of themselves by checking with the local Trane salesperson a couple of times a week.
With other customers’ constant demand for our time and attention, being a “nuisance” was neither practical nor economically feasible. The result? With the amount of sales credit being so disproportionate to the amount of time required to service the account properly, many reps dedicated their priority to Trane on an “as needed” basis, hoping the need was minimal.
After a couple of years of being on the receiving end of this lopsided sales credit program (and spending way more time resolving Trane problems than I was compensated for), I decided to change the way I was communicating with the local salespeople at Trane.
On my next sales call, I dropped off a stack of pre-printed postcards. On the back, I included blanks for Trane’s internal order number, job name, location, and needed delivery schedule. The front was addressed to me.
I explained that by having advance notice of upcoming projects, I could do a better job in communicating with our Wisconsin office, and in some cases, improve delivery times for Acme’s part of the job since we could allocate time in the manufacturing schedule before the order was officially entered into the system.
The Trane guys thought it was a great idea. Much of Acme’s control equipment was custom built, and typical delivery time could stretch from three to six months. Being able to shave a few weeks off the production schedule would help ensure on-time delivery of the completed system to the job site.
Now here’s the interesting part. This was nothing more than a simple stack of postcards, delivered with an explanation that emphasized the benefit to the customer. Personally, my motivation was based on receiving additional sales credit for fieldwork I was already doing. But the customer saw it differently. The local Trane manager wrote a letter to Acme headquarters commending me for my innovation and for recognizing that on-time delivery was a major challenge in supplying equipment to the final customer. More importantly, I’d done something about it.
Several weeks later, I was on a plane to Denver to make a presentation to all the salespeople in my region. The subject? How to use a pre-addressed postcard to expedite order processing, execute changes during construction, improve on-time delivery, and enhance communication between Acme and its customers.
Here’s the takeaway: This type of change represented a low risk of repercussions in the event my idea was rejected by Trane. More important, it did not require any alteration to Acme’s internal operation or processes.
Even so, the day following my Denver presentation, my manager confided that the Wisconsin salesman responsible for Trane’s business had already complained about my postcards. Although they would allow him to provide an enhanced level of service to Trane, he would now have to give up an additional thirty-five percent of the sales credit he’d previously enjoyed. Thankfully, his complaints were ignored in deference to the compliments received from Trane, a significant and influential corporate account.
Here are three suggestions to help mitigate the risk associated with changing existing protocol, methods, or systems:
1. Determine if your suggestion will affect your company’s internal systems. Hint: Modifications to external systems usually don’t require company approval before implementing them. If you have even the slightest concern that your idea could affect any aspect of internal operations, you need to do a full stop until you can do an intensive risk assessment and discuss the idea with your manager. Let her opinion prevail.
2. Do your best to extrapolate the worst-case scenario if your test fails. How would failure affect your customers, vendors, or external influencers? Do you have a procedure for damage-control that will insulate all parties from liability or lost business? Here’s the bottom line criterion for making the final decision: If there’s a chance your suggestion could disrupt a customer’s internal operations or result in negative feedback about you, your plan carries too much risk. Scrap it.
3. If you’re going to involve a customer, make sure you have excellent rapport with the customer's management and/or the owners. Discuss the suggestion with them personally. Obtain their permission for a trial or test run of what you have in mind, with the promise of follow-up and evaluation before full implementation. Sell them on the advantages of your idea based on how it will benefit their operation in specific terms. For example, increased profits, employee engagement, cost savings, etc.
I’ll wrap up this chapter with a final caveat. The idea of bucking the system because we know we’re right is a fascinating concept. The notion of going our own way, of creating more independence and autonomy in our work—and being rewarded for it—is intoxicating, especially with the business media inundating us with stories about those who broke the rules and came out on top. It stirs us with that rebel-mindset we all harbor at some level.
But I’m telling you, don’t take the risk. Expressing your inner maverick is a great marketing teaser to sell books and magazines. However, in the real world of eight to five, conducting yourself in unconventional ways, or taking action based on impulsive or spontaneous motives that are in contradiction to conventional and accepted methods—especially within the traditionally conservative environment of the corporation—will likely get you terminated.
Until you’ve sat in a manager’s chair for a couple of years (regional level or higher), you’ll be expected to adapt to the company’s existing policies and procedures—not the other way around. Ask any long-term, successful corporate employee and the majority will strongly recommend accomplishing your career goals by using the existing company architecture and adhering to the established methodology—if you want to be recognized for your accomplishments and stay out of trouble.
Coming up next from Better Mondays: Chapter Eleven - Bring the Right Kind of Attention to Yourself
Thanks for reading,
Roger A. Reid, Ph.D. is a certified NLP trainer with degrees in engineering and business. Roger is the author of Better Mondays and Speak Up, and host of Success Point 360 Podcast, offering tips and strategies for achieving higher levels of career success and personal fulfillment in the real world.