14 September 2009

Grading the Boss

14 September 2009,

It’s great armchair sport, grading the president’s first 200 days or 300 days—or in the case of President Obama his first major political gamble, health care reform. Grades land all over the board depending on one’s ideology or access to facts. Although objective observation generates the most accurate grades. All this got me to wondering how small business leaders could objectively observe and grade ourselves—our pluses, our developmental needs. It’s important to know those grades.

When is the last time you evaluated your own performance? How did it look? What did you do about it? It sure ain’t easy to get good evaluations. We beat up on ourselves too much or ignore faults altogether because that’s less painful. Denial and rationalization can rush in when we turn inward.

Here’s a quick primer on self-evaluation. I found many angles on this when I was Head Coach (aka, CEO) of Tires Plus, the 150-store retail chain I cofounded and sold to Bridgestone. I did an annual performance review of myself and added that to feedback from people who reported to me, submitted anonymously to our HR director. 

I still chuckle about the reaction this got from people a few years ago at the American Management Association’s CEO Conference in Quebec. When I mentioned feedback I got from an employee review other CEO’s were appalled that I had allowed my employees to talk about me like that. Ignorance is not bliss, I told them. I’d rather know what employees are thinking and saying and make corrections based on valid criticism. That’s how you avoid the Emperor-has-no-clothes syndrome.

Another evaluation tool I’ve always used is coaching myself on the run. “Nice job, Tom, on your helpful interaction with and advice to Charles,” I’d say to myself. Or: ‘‘Uh-oh, Tom. You got defensive again when John gave you feedback.” It’s healthy to talk yourself via objective self-observation.

You can also fix on how you’re doing by candidly asking people around you, “What do you like about what I’m doing? How can I improve?” Sure, at first they’ll hesitate to tell “the boss” what she’s doing wrong. But if you lead with the pluses, and keep repeating, you’ll pan some gold.

Indeed, it’s fine to grade presidents and employees but not to the exclusion of grading yourself. No one knows you better.

2 May 2008

Donkey-Chickens Roosting

2 May 2008,

Who knew the Democratic primaries would be like a book of small-business lessons? The latest: Business leaders do well to treat employees with respect, during and even after their tenure, the better to avoid chickens coming home to roost. At Tires Plus we worked hard to build a culture that honored our “teammates.” When they left, we called them alumnae; they often came back to visit and were always in our thoughts and prayers.

The roosting-chickens lesson came up this week via the state of Indiana, where I grew up. In what has to feel like water-torture to Camp Clinton, superdelegates have been consistently dripping from Sen. Clinton’s side into Sen. Obama’s side. A few days ago when superdelegate and Indiana native Joe Andrew switched his vote from Clinton to Obama, it had to feel like getting dumped on by a cold bucket of water for Sen. Clinton.

The problem for Sen. Clinton is that Joe, a former head of the Democratic National Committee, appointed by Bill Clinton, wasn’t the first Clintonista to jump ship. Others include New Mexico Gov. Bill “Judas” Richardson; former Clinton labor secretary Bob Reich; and attorney Greg Craig, defender of Bill Clinton during impeachment. According to Clinton super-surrogates Paul Begala, James Carville and Lanny Davis, the problem is that Joe and the rest didn’t duly genuflect in appreciation for what Bill Clinton did for them. Ergo, they’re traitors.

According to this logic, leaders should think that our employees are lucky to have jobs with us. I feel just the opposite. A leader should actually feel fortunate that people give themselves over to the pursuit of his company’s mission and vision. You’d think that would be especially true of government. I saw Richardson, then energy secretary, in Minnesota the day he faced unmerciful heckling as the Clinton Administration bombed Iraq during Ramadan (and during the Lewinsky scandal). It’s so easy for leaders to underestimate the challenges their people face day after day. Generally they don’t merchandise it to us. They just get the job done.

Which brings us back to Joe Andrew and the office he occupied. DNC chair is a thankless job, somewhat like a referee (ask Howard Dean). Notice comes only when there’s a problem. Yet Clinton enforcer Terry McAuliffe unceremoniously dumped Joe. No thank you, no party.

Ironically, I happened to have an appointment with Joe the day McAuliffe canned him. Joe still took the meeting and didn’t complain, didn’t blame. Lawyer, entrepreneur, author, Joe didn’t hold anything against the Clintons and even endorsed Sen. Clinton for president. Then he watched this dreadful campaign deteriorate. Evidently there weren’t enough warm feelings left to overcome the pandering of gun-toting, shot-pounding, gas-tax holiday-supporting Sen. Clinton.

That’s the constant drip-drip message for the Clinton camp (and small business) during this campaign: Treat your people well, now and once they move on. Otherwise, watch out for those darn chickens.

18 April 2008

Know How to Play Political Spin

18 April 2008,

I can’t be the only one who follows every beat and machination of this year’s presidential campaign. Mostly it’s fun to watch both Dems and Republicans spin the words of their rivals — or their rivals’ supporters — to their own advantage. What’s this got to do with small business? Generally it has no effect. But in the last week, a couple of spin shots could affect small business.

Let me explain. First, Obama supporter Oprah Winfrey has come under heavy fire from some Evangelicals who’ve put out a popular viral video denouncing “the church of Oprah.” (It’s been viewed more than 4 million times on youtube.)

The two primary complaints about Oprah are:
1) She supports Obama
2) She has said that she believes there are many paths to eternal life, Christianity being one among many (Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims also have a shot)

To many, this is heresy.

Again, what does any of this have to do with business? There’s a connection. First, an ever-increasing percentage of small- and medium-size businesses compete globally. Since Christianity is one-third of the world population, it’s probably not be a good idea to believe, even subconsciously, let alone broadcast, that two-thirds of your market is headed in the wrong direction (down) eternally speaking.

Second, it’s a pretty exclusive, anti-client/customer frame of mind to feel more spiritually enlightened than people who think differently than you. There’s a lot of people out there in the global village who feel that our Judeo-Christian texts shouldn’t trump their founders’ teachings.

If you’re still with me … the second political issue on my mind relates to how we eat. “And what does this have to do with small business, or politics?” New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd recently ridiculed Obama for quizzing chocolate workers about why they might enjoy the sugary items they make and for talking about Whole Foods markets in Iowa.

One might reasonably conclude that Dowd doesn’t get the connection between disease and what we put into our bodies and rising health-care costs. Rather than knocking a candidate who emphasizes doing your part to stay healthy (last month Obama also implored a mostly African-American audience to quit feeding junk to their kids), people who say what they think about health should be applauded. Cracks like Dowd’s cause us to take our eyes off the health-care ball, for ourselves, our families and our employees. Costs associated with all three are nothing to ridicule.

So, whether religion, food or myriad other issues, follow the campaign but don’t let others interpret what is happening for you. You know what’s best.