One Thing…Holding Your Company Back

As you probably know, I like to talk. More than that, I like to observe and listen. In the last few weeks my travels for the Wharton Global Consulting Practicum and for my own company, Benari, took me to such far-flung places as board rooms and business schools in Israel and cancer centers in Ghana and Senegal. I had an opportunity to watch all kinds of people in action and listen to their stories about striving to ensure great success for their organizations.

I noticed a common theme I’ve often seen wherever I am, seen in many different forms and heard through many different words. It kept appearing time and again. You’re very familiar with what I’m talking about. It’s something you do. And something I do too.

In one case I watched the boss accuse the people working on a project he was overseeing of being stupid and lazy, and not caring if the work was completed well. In another I witnessed someone continually interrupting whoever was speaking and interjecting his own ideas without letting them finish their thought. In a third, several people implore their indecisive boss to just make a decision so they would know what to do.

The action or lack of action I observed in each case was different but the effect was the same. It was negative. For both people and the organization.

We all do things, either through action or inaction, that impair our ability to help those around us and our organizations be the best they can be.

Mostly we’re oblivious to the impact of our actions. The boss telling his people how stupid they are probably thinks this will somehow motivate them. The co-worker who kept interrupting achieved his goal of getting his point across, but at the expense of keeping someone else’s idea from being heard. And the results of NOT making a decision are just as destructive…wasted time and effort, confused people going in the wrong direction, an inability to move forward.

So in the New Year spirit of self-improvement, and thereby improvement in the lives and work of those around us, let’s each decide to perform this little exercise.

During a team meeting or session with a group you work with often, ask each person individually to share the one thing you do that helps them and the organization function well. Write down their responses. Then steal yourself. Tell them to be open and honest as they share the one thing they’d like you to either stop doing or start doing for their benefit and for the good of the organization. Hold back from commenting on their answers other than to ask a clarifying question to make sure you really understand what they’re saying. Once again, write down what they offer.

Then pick one thing from the second list to either start or stop doing. It may not be difficult to choose. (Sometimes you’ll hear the same or similar things from everyone!) Share your choice with the group in this exact format: “I commit to start or stop _______________ for the good of all of you and the organization. “

Now for the hard part. Ask them to hold you to it by telling you when you stray. Again, no protests when they call you out for transgressions. Take it as helpful advice on your journey of improvement.

Regularly check in with your colleagues to make sure you’re still on course.  In a few months, after you’ve fully incorporated this new behavior, begin the cycle again and pick another thing to work on until you’ve mastered it. By the end of the year you’ll be amazed at the impact of your changes on yourself and your organization.

Not only will you be on better footing with the people you work with, you’ll also find that everyone joins in to change an aspect of their own behavior…if everyone works on something, imagine what a positive effect that will have on the success of your organization. And imagine how much better your organization will be.


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Do Nothing

Most people have high regard for Warren Buffett, Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway. For decades he and Vice-Chairman Charlie Munger have been making quite a bit of money for those lucky enough to own a few shares of their enterprise. They’ve been so successful that the annual meeting these low key, self-effacing billionaires hold each year draws tens of thousands of people to Omaha Nebraska, all hanging on the Chairman’s every word.

I once had the good fortune to have lunch with Buffett at the Omaha Club. Actually, he was at the next table so perhaps “with” is a bit of an overstatement. But I did get to say hello and notice his lunch order: tuna fish salad on white bread, potato chips, and a Diet Coke.

The client who was my host told me later that Buffett’s office was in the same building as the club so he lunched there regularly…and always ordered the same thing. I’ve thought about this now and again in the years since that meeting. One of the world’s richest men, idolized by many, happy with a simple sandwich, chips, and a Diet Coke for lunch.

Buffett’s lunch preferences are not the only thing about the man that seems to have remained steady. Many people have dissected his investment style and tried to figure out how he does it. In doing this, they overcomplicate and look for hidden methods. “If the Fed raises rates, what will Buffet do?” “If China starts arresting corrupt executives, what will Buffet do?” “If Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow what will Buffett do? And if he doesn’t see his shadow?”

The truth is, that through the years as Berkshire Hathaway has become larger and amassed huge profits, Buffett’s “method” has stayed as simple as his lunch. And he has happily shared it with anyone who asks. “When there’s nothing to do, do nothing.”

Unfortunately most people in the investment arena get paid for activity. Even if they are temperamentally aligned with the even keeled and low-key Buffett, they profit from making moves, not from doing nothing. It’s transactions, trades, and deals they revere, the more the better…and the higher the commissions.

Do nothing. So hard for many people whether they get paid for transactions or not. And yet, doing nothing is the right answer more times than you think. Some things take time to gestate, some get better with age, some morph and develop without any action on your part. And some will shrivel up and blow away all on their own thus saving you the trouble of having to kill off bad ideas.

You’ve been trained to take action. We all have. Action is good. Inaction is not. Except when it is. Keep this in mind as your training takes over and you leap to do something without fully thinking it through and figuring out what the best response is. And in case you’re still wondering about his guidance, Buffett has some further advice for you about doing nothing. “When you are right, you can wait indefinitely.”

Buffett and Munger

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