Financial Times EXPANDED
First Things Before First Things

(Note: The Financial Times published a column of mine on 29 August. Editors must edit—and they did. All writers think editors are heartless; some writers, lucky enough to have blogs, can post the version they first submitted. Here it is, 1,200 words rather than the 700 that eventually appeared in print.)

There is no logic to this column.
Which is precisely the point.

I was initially trained as an engineer. (And have an MBA as well.) That essentially means that I am a slave to linear, logical analysis. Hence my presentations start at the start and I carefully build a logical structure for all that follows.

Fair enough. Except I frequently find that critical things I want to say get left out or buried. Hence, about a year ago I threw off my logical halter and decided to say what I thought was important, come what may, at the top of my remarks.

Consideration of business strategy, approaches to product development, and the like, are of the utmost importance to enterprise success. Yet there are other factors—perhaps mundane at first glance—that are the true differentiators between mediocrity and excellence. I'll touch upon four, which I call "First Things Before First Things." Most will agree that each one is important. But my goal is to induce you to convert them into strategic obsessions.

Front-line managers. If the regimental commander lost most of his 2nd lieutenants and 1st lieutenants and captains and majors, it would be a tragedy. If he lost his sergeants it would be a catastrophe. The Army is fully aware that success on the battlefield is dependent to an extraordinary degree on its sergeants. Does industry "get it"?

Research by the likes of Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman, reported in First, Break All the Rules, demonstrates that the first-line manager is the single most important key to employee satisfaction, retention—and productivity. No matter how fine the organization, if the employee is sour on his immediate boss, her or his performance will significantly suffer. I am not suggesting that execs don't take the front-line boss seriously. I am suggesting that, unlike the Army, they are not obsessed with developing their full cadre of front-line managers as a primary strategic asset and engine of enterprise performance! For starters: Are your font-line boss selection and training and mentoring processes unmistakably "knock-your-socks-off"/"best-in-class"?

Cross-functional excellence. Look at any organizational failure, and poor cross-functional integration is more often than not the chief culprit. Within an engineering company, for example, research, marketing and finance are routinely at each other's throats. The result is a critical new product comes to market 18 months late. Or take the local police and federal police: Each have the fight against terrorism as their pre-eminent goal—but frequently refuse to share all their data with one another. I chose in introducing this topic the word "excellence," as in "cross-functional excellence." That is, the idea here is not merely about "removing barriers." It is about what I believe is no less than the #1 opportunity to achieve competitive dominance—e.g., cut new-product development by, say, 50 percent or even more.

I have the utmost respect for Oracle and SAP. But this is not primarily a software issue. Or, rather, it is—but a softer form of software. Secret #1 (yes, I'll go that far) is "Let's do lunch." In fact I insist that bosses literally measure their direct reports on the number of lunches per month they have with members of other functions!

It works like this: Joe in procurement invites Sam in finance to lunch. Odds are high that along the way they discover a host of connections—e.g., both have eighth-graders in the same school. Joe will still tenaciously represent his "function" and Sam his—but the tenor of interactions is likely to change significantly, if not dramatically, from "gotcha" to something approaching "How can we jointly add maximum value?"

I call thing like "doing lunch" the "social accelerants" of cross-functional excellence. I can muster a list of 25 in a flash—e.g., present small weekly awards to those in other functions who have helped your team-function move forward. One should not promise miracles lightly, but taken together these notions can lead to miracles of the first order.

"Strategic" listening. Harvard M.D. Jerome Groopman wrote a fascinating book titled How Doctors Think. Dr. Groopman claims, not terribly surprisingly, that the best source for a doctor concerning the patient's complaint is—the patient. Yet he goes on to cite research showing that on average the doctor interrupts the patient after ... 18 seconds. I'll bet you a bundle that the average manager does not surpass the 18-second mark!

Like developing first-line managers and trying to improve cross-functional coordination, most bosses would agree that listening is "important." But, again, do they make it a strategic obsession? Because beyond a shadow of doubt that is precisely what listening per se should be.

I made a list of the things that flow from effective listening ("strategic listening" or "aggressive listening" as I prefer to call it). Listening is ...

the heart and soul of engagement,
the heart and soul of recognition,
the heart and soul of strategic partnering,
the heart and soul of learning,
the heart and soul of customer connections.
And on.
And on.

As with all things important, the key is becoming a serious student and practitioner. In fact I'll go so far as to say that listening per se is/can be a "profession" ... as much as playing the cello or flying a commercial aircraft.

Meetings. Find me a boss (or non-boss) who doesn't constantly bitch about "too many meetings"—I've never found one. But here is the irreducible fact of "boss-world": Meetings are what bosses do. There is no escape. And if that is true, then, also by definition, meetings are therefore the principal platform, or theater, in which every boss projects her or his leadership skills.

Immutable "bottom line": Every meeting that does not stir the imagination and curiosity of attendees, and increase bonding and co-operation and engagement and sense of worth, and motivate rapid action and enhance enthusiasm is a permanently lost opportunity. Call that a stretch if you wish—but then please explain to me why it is not the self-evident truth!

Let me be clear: This is not a rant about "conducting better meetings." This is a rant about the heart and soul and hour-to-hour reality of leadership effectiveness. One obvious implication: Prepare for a meeting/every meeting as if your professional life and legacy depended on it. Because it does.

There they are: "First things before first things." None, I strongly suspect, would disagree with the fact that all four are "important," even "very important." But it is my claim here that the four are in fact the "guts" of effective organizations—and, in fact, sustainable competitive advantage. Make each of these an "obsession"—and watch the bottom line soar.