First Steps—Do It Today

Tom Peters

As one of my recent seminars winds down, where a mass of ideas has been presented, one obviously frustrated participant shouts out, “So what, exactly, do I do first?” He paid $2,000 for the two-day affair, and he deserved an unequivocal answer. So here are the six steps I suggested, which require no up-front capital spending. In fact, there are no barriers to starting these steps today.

1. Change your calendar. Begin by devoting an additional and visible 15 percent of your time in the next 45 days to your top strategic priority. On a weekly basis, precisely and quantitatively measure your progress.

“Attention is all there is.” “You’re as good as—or as bad as—your calendar.” Those have been my broken-record messages since 1976, when my work with the so-called “excellence phenomenon” began.

If you’re the boss and you haven’t visited your two distribution centers in the last six months, the distribution people feel neglected. They are neglected, by definition. Interest in the sales force is expressed chiefly by time spent with the sales force. That is, your priorities are revealed by where you show up and the people whom you choose to stand beside or, by omission, ignore. It’s as simple, and as complicated, as that. The simple part is that only calendar alteration foretells or confirms a shift in strategic direction. The complex part is that any boss, at any level, at any firm, has hundreds of legitimate priorities to tackle, plus daily brush fires to fight; making the shift is tough.

The best news is that all of us are hopelessly inefficient. You can shift 15 percent of your time and not suffer any cost. But if you truly are convinced that you can’t, there is another answer. “Book” days on your own calendar three or four months from now. Calendars have a nasty habit of remorselessly filling up. However, you can co-opt yourself! Former Health, Education, Welfare Secretary John Gardner had a list of pet issues he wished to address, but his calendar was always booked solid. His solution: He scheduled a speech addressing the issue a year in advance. Once it got on the official calendar, it became “real.” As the date approached, Gardner and his staff began to devote time to the topic.

2. Starting this afternoon, don’t walk past shoddy quality or service without comment and action—ever!

A brochure is going out to customers. You’re already late. Five thousand have been printed, inserted into envelopes, addressed, sealed, and they are ready to be mailed. Your cash flow is pinkish to red in hue. And then you discover a typo on page two. Should you walk past it or act? Easy. Act—throw it out!

It doesn’t matter whether the firm has 15 or 150,000 employees. Whether you are section head or chairman of the board, if you knowingly ignore a tiny act of lousy service or poor quality, you have destroyed your credibility and any possibility of moral leadership on these issues. Period.

3. Tell the truth, especially when it hurts. Call the customer personally and tell him, the moment you hear the first breeze of rumor, that the order may arrive late—yes, the order both you and your customer need so badly.

Tell the people in the podunk factory that there is a 15 percent chance that the unit may have to close down a year from now, if that’s what the study indicates. The ability to lead and engender commitment and trust—by suppliers, customers, and, most important, employees—almost perfectly correlates with your credibility.

One trick: Assume that every wisp of would-be bad news you hear is already a full-blown rumor among your people, customers, suppliers, and Wall Street analysts.
It is.

4. Clean up your act. In my column last week, I begged you to treat cleanliness as if it is next to godliness. I urge you again, if you haven’t already, to become a housekeeping fanatic before the day—this day—ends.

5. Start listening. Put a list of your top 50 customers in your top drawer, under the glass on your desk top or, better yet, encase in plastic the list and put it in your wallet. Call two or three customers each week for a “how am I doing?” check-up. Get a list of employee birthdays or employment anniversaries, including first 90-day or six-month anniversaries. Put it in that same drawer. Stop by to celebrate each one. Each visit amounts to an unstilted opportunity to listen.

6. Promote on the basis of the ability to generate excitement; that is, on the basis of demonstrated leadership skill. Some units are “hot,” others are languid. The leader, regardless of the inherent excitement in the task, makes the difference. For instance, I’ve seen many a peppy accounting group and many a bedraggled sales group. Take the ability to energize seriously. Promote those who fully engage others and make
things fun.

Quality is free, proclaims the redoubtable guru, Phil Crosby. So is a strategic turnaround. Act on these six objectives today. The six steps require no funding, but they do require the most precious commodity of all: your time and emotional commitment.

(c) 1987 TPG Communications.

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