Entitlement and the Danger It Represents

January 19, 2010

Few things frustrate me as much as working with entitled people or organizations.  I see this played out by individual employees and teams as, “It does not matter whether I do a terrific job, a mediocre job, or a horrible job–I’ll still have a job!”  It does matter. There is no need to reward mediocrity or less.

Common examples we see every day:
  • Customer service people with no sense of enthusiasm for their customers, their products or their company
  • Wait staff who treat customers with indifference
  • Manufacturing folks put vehicles in the delivery center for customer pick-up that aren’t built properly or have obvious manufacturing defects
  • A few government employees we encounter at the Department of Motor Vehicles or the Internal Revenue Service

There is a wonderful example of entitlement being played out in Massachusetts just today: the election of new U.S. Senator to replace the seat Ted Kennedy held for 46 years.  [Note: This newsletter is not about politics–it is about entitlement, so please stay with me.]

I lived in Massachusetts from 2000-2002 in a community named Marlborough just outside Boston.  Though I knew little about the politics of Massachusetts before moving there, this is a dominant Democratic state. I should have suspected that this was the case given the stature of the Kennedy name.

When Ted Kennedy died, there was little doubt in my mind that this U.S. Senate seat would continue to be held by the Democrats. Ted usually won elections with more than two-thirds of the vote.

And, that is what the Democratic candidate, Martha Coakley, believed as well.   According to a 16JAN10 Boston.com article called Amid Tight Race, Coakley’s Campaign Goes Full Bore:

After Attorney General Martha Coakley sailed largely unscathed through the Democratic Senate primary, her aides set a course for the general election that fit her status as the perceived front-runner: protect her statewide popularity, and ignore the little-known Republican opponent.

Off the record, Coakley campaign officials now say in the same Boston.com article:

…they were convinced that Brown faced too many hurdles to be a viable challenger in the race to replace Edward M. Kennedy. His political profile signaled no threat. They felt he was too conservative for Massachusetts, and that his legislative career had been unremarkable.

Mistake: Coakley believed she won the U.S. Senate seat the day she won the election primary and never mounted a serious campaign to aggressively secure her victory.   Boston.com calls it complacency–I call this entitlement.  She thought she had this one in the bag.

Entitlement in business is just as dangerous:

  • Employees treat customers with indifference
  • Employees treat other employees with indifference
  • No sense of urgency to address customer and market needs
  • Employees don’t see a connection between the how the experience a customer receives today influences their feelings about buying from the company in the future
  • The company culture is resistant to and/or impervious to change

Michael C. Hall, winner of Best Actor in a Television Series Drama for his role in “Dexter” at the Golden Globe Awards last evening, said something during his acceptance speech last night that really gets to the heart of an organization that does not suffer from entitlement:

“It’s really a hell of thing to go to work at a place where everyone gives a damn.”

While the language may be a bit rough, Michael nails it.

So, what to do about entitlement?

  • Watch for the signs of entitlement and let it be known that the behaviors associated with entitlement will not be tolerated.  Executives and employees need to show up everyday with their game faces on ready to give their teams and their customers the very best they can.
  • Companies cannot feel entitled about their position in the marketplace.  Market leaders work every day to improve their standing in the marketplace and earn their ability to continue to do business with their customers or they risk becoming irrelevant.
  • Excise the cancer of entitlement–it will not get better on its own.

If there are people on your team who are not willing to give up their sense of entitlement, they need to understand that there are people who are willing to do just that.

Dave Gardner, Gardner & Associates Consulting



Jazz Improvisation and Consulting

December 18, 2009

Those of us interested in getting involved in the school music program were summoned to the elementary school cafeteria to speak with the music teacher, Mr. Whiteside.

Mr. Whiteside looked at each of us carefully—almost as if he was going to purchase a horse at auction.  We had to show him our teeth and mouth so he could determine what instrument he deemed would be best for us.

When my turn came, he looked at me and said, “So, what do you want to play.”  I responded, “Trumpet, Mr. Whiteside.”  He looked carefully at me and declared, “With an embouchure like yours, I think clarinet would be best.”

I informed him in a rather matter-of-fact matter that my natural father had died before shortly before I was born, that he was known for being quite the trumpet player and I wanted to follow in his footsteps.  I told him that I had his horn and was ready to start.

Mr. Whiteside said, “Well, okay, but I don’t think you’ll ever amount to much of a trumpet player.”  It’s not good to tell me (or anyone for that matter) that I can’t achieve something for which I’ve set my intention.

I started playing trumpet when I was in the fourth grade.  When I entered junior high in the 6th grade, I wanted to be the first chair trumpet.  The guy who had held that seat for a couple of years was in his fourth year at the junior high school and didn’t expect some kid right out of elementary school to come in and take first chair—his chair. After all, I had only 2 years experience; he had 5.  I challenged him for first chair early in the school year and won on my first attempt.

The lesson: In music and in life, you can never become complacent; there is always someone who can come along and replace you.

Thanks to great teachers, inherited talent and hard work, I excelled at playing trumpet.  In junior high, I performed with high school groups. During high school, I performed with college groups and adult big band jazz groups made up of professionals who had toured with the likes of Stan Kenton, Woody Herman, Buddy Rich and others.

When it comes to playing trumpet, I’ve pretty much done it all. I played lead and jazz trumpet in big band jazz groups, had my own small jazz groups to earn money going through undergraduate school, performed with pit orchestras for musicals, marching bands, symphonic bands and symphony orchestras, etc.  Mr. Whiteside and I even played a few gigs together.

Please don’t ask me about one horrible January when I had to play for one month in a Palo Alto, California, German beer house polka band each Friday and Saturday night wearing lederhosen and a silly felt hat.  Thankfully, there are no photos of this—I would have to buy them.

So, what does playing jazz have to do with consulting?

When you play a jazz tune, the tune itself provides the framework or essential structure within which you live for the duration of that tune.  A tune is played in a certain key, with specific chord progressions, etc.  The tune sets the context; it is the target that you have to stay within the entire time you are playing it.

As jazz musicians, we play the tune, several of us take improvisational solos within the context of the tune, and we conclude by replaying the original tune in its fully-recognizable form—bringing it home as we say.  The start and ending are completely predictable; it’s the middle that holds the mystery.

In many respects, consulting is a lot like playing jazz.  You know what the outcomes are that you are intending to produce.  What you don’t know is all the twists and turns that project will take in the middle as you seek to create the outcome(s).  But, just as in music, you know what the ending has to look like to successfully conclude the effort.

Here is a story about an improvisation I made with a client in mid-Michigan back during the year 2000.

Powell Fab is a capital equipment manufacturer located in St. Louis, Michigan, a town of about 4500 people.  The company employed 43 people at the time.  The culture in mid-Michigan could not have been more different from what I was used to in Silicon Valley.  The majority of the team members were not very keen about me being there to implement changes to the way this 35-year old company had done business.  Here’s a bit about the situation I faced:

  • I was helping the company implement a small ERP system that the president had invested in but had not been integrated with any of the core business processes.
  • There was an open stock room accessible by everyone.
  • The president rejected the idea of installing a cage around the stock room to secure the inventory.
  • The inventory record accuracy was deplorable.

The challenge I faced was getting the employees to:

  • Transact all inventory consumed or returned with the person who oversaw the stock room to properly account for inventory and improve inventory accuracy, and,
  • Ensure that the parts were properly charged to the jobs they were used on.

In my gut, I knew I could never sell them on the idea of “transacting inventory.”  Those words would hold no appeal.  I’d be laughed at.

So, given my music background, I challenged myself to define a powerful metaphor that would change the behavior forever and ensure that my client got what he wanted: compliance with the new processes.

As I drove by the Wal-Mart in a neighboring town, it dawned on me:  None of these people would ever think of going into the big open stockroom called Wal-Mart and bypassing the cash register going out the door.  That would be shoplifting.  Nobody wants to get caught shoplifting.

When it came time to train people about the new process, I told them that if they didn’t stop by the check-out stand as they left the stock room on their way to the shop floor, that action would be the equivalent of shoplifting.  The team connected with that immediately.  They got it and we had instant, enduring compliance.

When people would come out of the stock room with one or more parts in hand, others would immediately look at that person, point and ask, “Did you shoplift that?”  They held each other accountable.

I help clients implement appropriate, sustainable solutions to their business execution challenges.  Sometimes, you have to improvise to create enduring change.  It works in jazz and in business.

Dave Gardner, Gardner & Associates Consulting http://www.gardnerandassoc.com

Why Does Everything Have to Be So Complicated?

November 18, 2009

I’m a straight-shooting, pragmatic person who thrives on making the complex simple. The systems and processes I assist people with are not for my use; they are for the stakeholders daily use.

This month, I’m taking a look at business simplicity.  It’s easy to take the simple and make it complex, but, far more difficult to take the complex and make it simple.  That’s my passion.

Many companies (and, sadly, many consultants) seem to go out of their way to make things complicated.  Sometimes, I listen to people and say to myself, “What the heck does that mean?”  If you need a decoder ring, something is just not right.

The following graphic is profound in its simplicity. Take a moment and ponder it.

I wish I had created the preceding graphic, but, I did not. This visual was created by Jessica Hagy under a blog post titled “Needles and Haystacks and Such” for a blog located at http://thisisindexed.com.

Confusion is a function of how much information is available: too little information promotes confusion just as too much information promotes confusion.

I was recently involved with a Fortune 500 company and noticed that the marketing people across the enterprise were just pounding the sales people with new product and service information, new promotions, etc.  I wondered how a sales person could do their job with this constant bombardment of information. After a while, it has to feel like spam, turning people off rather than turning them on.

If I had been in sales, I’m sure I would have ignored it–it was just too much information for a person to absorb while still being able to execute their jobs. I’m certain they respond to the priorities set by their management–that would be the safer course of action.

One marketing person I knew had some 40 projects on her “to-do” list all destined to go to the same group.  I asked her if she ever sought feedback about how well the information she created was being received or assisted sales to be more successful.  She looked at me like I was nuts.  Okay, call me crazy! If you don’t seek feedback, how will you ever know?

The optimal point in this process visual diagram is where the curve is at it’s lowest point.  After that, the economic “law of diminishing returns” sets in. Incremental information promotes more confusion and overload as it is added to the mix. The challenge is finding out where the point of optimization is for the people who are expected to execute.  The best way to find that point is to simply ask the recipients for feedback.

Americans are terrible dealing with people in foreign countries who don’t speak English.  We say things louder and in a more animated voice thinking that this is the royal road to communication success.  It’s not.  The same is true with confusion and information.  Just as increasing the volume is ineffective with someone who does not speak English, more information is not more, but, actually less.

Improve business execution through simplification.  If processes or systems are not being followed or no longer serve the essential needs of the business, change and simplify them.  And, if your role is providing information, validate that the information you are publishing is serving the strategy, not confounding or adding to confusion or overwhelm.

People who are confused or overwhelmed with information are not going to be efficient or effective.

What is the best practice?  Find the balance between information and confusion.  The people using the systems and processes to do their jobs are the best judge of how well the balance has been achieved.  Consider what you can do to create simple, effective solutions.

And, certainly, don’t be shy about reaching out for help from a dispassionate third-party like me.

Dave Gardner, Gardner & Associates Consulting http://www.gardnerandassoc.com