As a leader, you probably feel a strong urge to take control of this situation. After all, that kind of "take charge" attitude is what got you into a leadership position. But how do you control something that changes by the hour? How do plan and execute a policy when the ground won't stop shifting?
In short, you can't.
Many states and local governments have begun ramping up constraints on gatherings, public services, and other facets of daily life. As a result, many businesses have been forced, or chosen, to temporarily close or curtail their offerings. That's a hard position to live in. They don't know what tomorrow will bring, so how can they know what to do to prepare? I've talked to many company owners and CEOs over the last few days, and none of them see a clean, straight path.
But the most effective ones are asking their team for input, and they're talking to customers to see what they can do to meet their needs. Fortunately for some companies, they have the ability to have their teams work remotely and isolate. In this way, they can maximize efficiency without jeopardizing the health of themselves or their employees. But most don't have that option, and they feel the pressure to keep doors open or risk closing them for good.
Navigating these conditions will require us to stay on our toes, communicate often, and pivot when new information comes to us. Let me know what choices you're making for your organization. I'll start compiling these together and pushing them back out to the community so we can all find solutions together.
In modern business, it’s easy to get pulled away from where you really excel. Leaders advance because they’re good at their work, but managers have to become generalists. And that creates a problem.
You see, generalists have a nasty tendency to gravitate toward areas where they don’t belong. They want to try every niche, and they often know just enough to be dangerous. My advice: Try recognizing what you’re good at rather than what excites you. Because even if you’re really excited to go play in that new sandbox, you might end up just making a mess.
If you’re a leader, try relying on those core skills that made you successful. And when you’re not in your area of expertise, rely on your team who does this for a living. You don’t need to know everything; just be aware of what you don’t know and let your specialists fill in the gaps.
I saw this a lot in my years in the newspaper industry. An ad director would get promoted to run a newspaper, and without fail, the first thing they did was go into the newsroom and decide to be an editor. Reporting on real news had always been off limits in their field, so they were excited to try this new area. But, as you might guess, being an ad director didn’t translate well into being an editor, and there was a lot of frustration from the editing staff who had to slow down their processes for the new boss.
A better route for them would’ve been to stay in the world of ad directing, where they excelled, and left the editing to the editors, perhaps with some check-ins and discussions. That’s the difference between working with your strengths and working with your interests, and believe me, that distinction will change how your business runs.
If you’re really interested in this subject, I’d recommend So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love by Cal Newport. It’s insightful, gives actionable advice, and delves deeper into this topic than I can swing in a weekly newsletter.
As much as Nordstrom can attribute its success to quality products and good marketing, there is another unique feature that sets the brand apart: their customer service. Historically, Nordstrom was known to have some of the best employees with the friendliest attitudes.
Now, this is a major, international company. How does something that big create such consistently positive customer experiences? The same way any other organization shares its culture: the employee handbook.
So what secrets does this tried-and-true handbook hold? How did Nordstrom defy the odds and create a bulletproof company culture with something that every major company has? Well, I can tell you, because the employee handbook is six words.
“Use good judgement in all situations.”
That’s it. No flair, no pinwheels, just this simple piece of guidance. Obviously a one-sentence handbook wouldn’t work for every company, which means that we need to figure out why it worked for Nordstrom.
In every organization I’ve worked with, there has been one consistent theme: Culture eats strategy for lunch. By that, I mean that it’s not about how great your plans are or how well-thought-out your ideas seem to be, but it’s about what your company culture will allow you to do. You can have a world-class business plan, but if you don’t have the culture to support it, you don’t have anything.
And let me tell you, Nordstrom’s handbook was the perfect basis for a strong culture. The big winner here is that it shows each employee exactly how they contribute to the organization. Even with a grand plan, your line workers need to know how to execute it and why their work matters. But by creating a culture that stressed good judgement and responsibility, Nordstrom had already set up an infrastructure that prepared employees to take on new plans and strategies. This way, they wouldn’t be limited by what their company culture allowed them to do.
Creating great culture takes time and hands-on work from the highest levels of management. The great part is that once you get it started, it will replicate and ultimately position you to have a simple policy like Nordstrom’s. Let it fester, however, and the opposite it true—no handbook in the world will guarantee strategic execution.
My advice isn’t to replace your employee handbook with a Post-it note. Rather, my challenge to you is to show your lowest rung on the corporate ladder exactly how they help achieve the company’s goals. Because if you can do that, then your plans will only be bolstered by your company culture, not limited by it.