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Book review: Do More Great Work

This review originally ran in The Hamilton Spectator on Oct. 25.

Do More Great Work

By Michael Bungay Stanier

Workman Publishing Co ($14.95)

When coworkers suddenly start leaving to unexpectedly pursue other opportunities, playing it safe can seem like the smart bet.

So you stay well within your comfort zone. You make yourself busy and useful, sticking with productive work that’s familiar and predictable. Work where there’s little chance you’ll screw up. Work that you’ve done a thousand times before.

You settle for good work and take a pass on what author and senior partner in Toronto-based Box of Crayons Michael Bungay Stanier calls great work.

Great work takes a great deal of effort. Great work comes with a great deal of risk. Great work takes you to the outer edge of where you’re capable and competent, to a strange new world with a whole lot of uncertainty, self doubt and more than a little discomfort.

“The discomfort arises because the work is often new and challenging, and so there’s an element of risk and possible failure,” says Stanier. “It can be a time of uncertainty, groping forward when you’re not sure of where you’re heading. It can mean picking yourself up off the floor and carrying on after the unexpected has just slapped you around a bit.

“The very nature of doing more great work means there will be times when you stumble, times you lose the path, times when you’re hacking through the jungle.”

So during a time of budget hacking, pink slips and unplanned pursuits of new opportunities, forgoing great work in favour of good work might seem like the better, smarter and safer bet.

But it’s not. And here’s two compelling reasons why.

All of us want to make a difference. To do work that matters. Work that makes an impact and has a real purpose beyond just earning a paycheque. We want our work, and our lives, to count.

That’s what great work delivers.

Great work is engaging and energizing. It inspires, stretches and provokes. Great work is where you’ll develop new skills and build new strengths.

“Great work is the work that matters. It is a source of both deep comfort and engagement – often you feel as if you’re in the ‘flow zone’ where time stands still and you’re working at your best, effortlessly. The comfort comes from its connection, its sight line, to what is most meaningful to you – not only your core values, and beliefs, but also your aspirations and hopes for the impact you want to have on the world.”

Doing great work is your best safeguard against falling into a rut and getting pushed off to the sidelines or out the door altogether. Great work will make you a more valuable and valued employee. And most important of all, great work will make you a happier and better person.

Not only is doing great work great for you. It’s great for your employer.

“For organizations, great work drives strategic difference, innovation and longevity. Often it’s the kind of inventive work that pushes business forward, that leads to new products, more efficient systems and increased profits.”

To find the great work that’s right for you, Stanier offers up a series of 15 exercises. You’ll start by figuring out where you are right now in terms of your mix of good and great work and what great work is best for you.

“You don’t need a coach or a shrink or a consultant or a weekend retreat to figure out how to do more great work,” says Stanier, who was named Canadian Coach of the Year in 2006. “You just need a pen, some paper, and a little bit of time to get clear on what matters and to build your own plan to do it.”

We spend more than half of our lives at work. We owe it to ourselves, our families, our employers and our community to make sure we spend as much of that time doing great work that matters and makes a real difference.

Book review: Power — Why some people have it and others don’t

Power: Why Some People Have It And Others Don’t

By Jeffrey Pfeffer

HarperCollins ($32.99 Cdn)

You’re a team player. You do your best to fit in. You go along to get along. You play by the rules.

You’re a workhorse. You get the job done and done right. No fanfare. No drama. No blowing your own horn. You believe your actions speak louder than words.

Which is all well and good unless you’re banking on a promotion any time soon. 

“One of the biggest mistakes people make is thinking that good performance – job accomplishments – is sufficient to acquire power and avoid organizational difficulties,” says author Jeffrey Pfeffer and a professor at Stanford University. “If you are going to create a path to power, you need to lose the idea that performance by itself is enough.”

So what else do you need?

You need to get noticed.  To move up the org chart, the people in power have to pick you for a senior role. But powerful people are preoccupied with their own agendas.  They aren’t paying much, if any, attention to you and what you’re doing.

They’re not going to seek you out so you need to stand out.  You need to be visible, familiar and memorable.  You need to tell your boss what you’re accomplishing and contributing.

“If you blend into the woodwork, no one will care about you, even if you are doing a great job,” says Pfeffer. “Being memorable equals getting picked.”

Do not listen to anyone who believes that the nail that sticks up gets hammered down. It’s lousy career advice, warns Pfeffer.

“In order for your great performance to be appreciated, it needs to be visible.”

It’s not just what you tell your boss. It’s what you ask. You need to find out what matters to your boss. Because what matters to your boss should matter to you.

“Many people believe they know what their bosses care about. But unless they are mind readers, that’s probably a risky assumption. It is much more effective for you to ask those in power, on a regular basis, what aspects of the job they think are the most crucial and how they see what you ought to be doing.”

And that’s where you need to turn in a command performance and deliver stellar results.

There’s one other thing you need to do. You need to make your boss and others in power feel better about themselves. “The surest way to keep your position and to build a power base is to help those with more power enhance their positive feelings about themselves,” says Pfeffer. “The last thing you want to do is be known as someone who makes your boss insecure or who has a difficult relationship with those in power.”

It turns out flattery really will get you everywhere. “Flattery works because we naturally come to like  people who flatter us and make us feel good about ourselves and our accomplishments, and being likeable helps build influence.”

A professor at the University of California-Berkeley did a study to see if there was a point beyond which flattery becomes ineffective and the flatterer comes across as insincere, annoying and a suck up. The prof couldn’t find that threshold in her research. So when it comes to flattery, you can never overdo it.

The big lesson here is that you need to worry about your relationship with your boss as much as you worry about your job performance.

“The people responsible for your success are those above you, with the power to either promote you or to block your rise up the organizational chart. And here are always people above you, regardless of your position,” says Pfeffer.

“Therefore, your job is to ensure that those influential others have a strong desire to make you successful. That may entail doing a good job. But it may also entail ensuring that those in power notice the good work that you do, remember you, and think well of you because you make them feel good about themselves. It is performance, coupled with political skill, that will help you rise through the ranks. Performance by itself is seldom sufficient, and in some instances, may not even be necessary.”

Pfeffer says most leadership lectures, courses and books by well-known executives should be stamped with a caution warning so we’re fully aware that the material could be hazardous to our organizational survival.

Successful leaders tend to gloss over the power plays that got them to the top. And the teaching on leadership serves up prescriptions “about following an inner compass, being truthful, letting inner feelings show, being modest and self-effacing. In short, prescriptions about how people wish the world and the powerful behave.”

Pfeffer’s book doesn’t need a caution warning and warrants a careful read by anyone interested in knowing how the world really works, how to gain more power and influence and how to move up the ladder of success.

Book review: Islands of Profit in a Sea of Red Ink

Note: This review was originally published in The Hamilton Spectator.

Islands of Profit in a Sea of Red Ink

By Jonathan Byrnes

Portfolio / Penguin ($35 Cdn)

The next time all your managers get together for a meeting, here’s something worth adding to the agenda.

Get each manager to list the five customers you shouldn’t do business with. The five products you shouldn’t sell. And the five services you shouldn’t offer.

Now, compare lists. If everyone’s top five is different, you’ve got yourself a serious problem with profitability.

And odds are your problem goes like this.

Forty per cent of your business is unprofitable.

Thirty per cent of your business is so profitable that it keeps you in the black and subsidizes your losses.

And the remaining 30 per cent makes no more than marginal contribution to your bottom line.

In other words, you’ve got islands of profit in a sea of red ink.

Author Jonathan Byrnes, a senior lecturer at MIT, first discovered these tiny islands and the red, red sea while working with a lab supply company 20 years ago.  Every department was making their numbers but that wasn’t translating to a healthy bottom line.

And the pattern has kept repeating itself in Byrnes’ consulting work with more than 50 of the highest-performing firms across business and industry.

Turning the islands into continents and draining the sea starts with a smart and sound business strategy. “Strategy is the foundation on which all profitability initiatives are built,” says Byrnes, who believes that three core principles capture the essence of a good strategy.

One, it’s all about customer value.

Two, strategy is defined by what you say no to.

And three, you have to be best at something.

“If you get these right, chances are strong that you’ll succeed.”

Too many organizations take their customers for granted. They assume that already know what their customers want. And they believe those wants never change.

“The starting point in strategy development must be the creation of value for customers by deeply understanding their real underlying business needs and developing innovative ways to meet them,” says Byrnes. “Customer needs are a moving target.”

Trying to be everything to everyone guarantees unprofitability. “A manager can develop a winning strategy only if he or she is willing and able to define crisply and clearly what is out of bounds. In this way, strategy acts like a laser, bringing the whole company into phase, and enabling the company to burn a hole right through its target market.” Strategy is all about focus and alignment. You need to know which customers, products and services aren’t a right fit for your organization.

And your organization must absolutely be the best at something. If you’re not the best, someone better will always beat you. “Companies that fall into the trap of trying to be everything to everyone almost by definition cannot be best at something,” says Byrnes. “This leads to a vicious cycle.”

The good news is that hunt for profitability can start in your own backyard. “There is an enormous amount of money to be made by improving the business you already have in hand,” says Byrnes. “For some managers, it’s easier to spend money on glossy new initiatives than to systematically improve the business. But when your business is tuned up to its full potential, you can drive it like a Ferrari. It’s hugely fun and immensely satisfying to manage. It’s also very rewarding.”

Byrnes lays out a gameplan for doubling down on the 30 per cent of your business that makes money, improving on the 30 per cent that’s marginal and phasing out the unprofitable 40 per cent.

Pulling this off requires what Byrnes calls paradigmatic change. To break through the inevitable wall of “the way we have and the way we will always do business”, you need to build a strong, clear and convincing case that there’s no choice but to change. The platform may not be burning but the clock’s ticking.

And the most important thing any president or CEO can do to maximize profitability? “Creatively, systematically and relentlessly build the capabilities of the company’s middle management team,” says Byrnes. “Middle management performance is the single most important element in corporate performance.”

The key to excellent performance is to manage at the right level. “As managers progress up the business hierarchy, their focus must increasingly shift from managing the company as it is (or as it was) to building the company for the future.”

So, the next time your managers are all in a room, get them making a list, check it twice and find the 30 per cent of your business that’s keeping you in business.