Thursday, May 25, 2017

Integrity

If you have integrity, nothing else matters. If you don't have integrity, nothing else matters.” --Alan Simpson

I was at the airport in Denver, wrestling with a crossword puzzle (10 down, 9 letters, begins with I and ends with Y, clue: morally upright) while waiting to board a Southwest Airlines flight, when I heard the person sitting directly behind me stage-whisper this advice to his companion:
It doesn’t matter whether you actually have a disability—they can’t ask you for proof—just go up and request a pre-boarding document like I did. They have to give you one. Why should you wait to board with the C-group? We can sit together in better seats if we pre-board.
Intrigued, I turned around to look at the co-conspirators. The speaker was a tall, tanned older guy who looked like he had just come off the golf course. His companion was shorter but could have been a member of the other guy’s foursome. Their objective? Gaming the Southwest boarding process so they could get on board before passengers who had checked in early or paid extra for early boarding privileges. The shorter guy initially demurred, but when his companion gestured toward the ever-swelling group of pre-boarders assembling near the jetway, he acted. He was back in a minute with a pre-boarding document. Grinning and fist-bumping, he and his pal enthusiastically joined the pre-boarding scrum.

A few minutes later, my boarding group was announced and we pushed onto the plane. The co-conspirators were parked side by side in the second row, the middle seat between them piled with their personal items to discourage anyone from claiming it. They looked very pleased with themselves.

While gaming the boarding process at the airport probably doesn’t register very high on the moral lapse scale, it is another example of how societal norms about acceptable human behavior are shifting. Remember being taught that that behaving with integrity was critical to success in life? Our parents, our teachers, our clergy, our extended family, even our friends encouraged us to be honest, to make ethical choices, and to do the right thing. Maybe that’s what society expected of us, but it’s a new world out there, a world that rewards and celebrates achievement, but no longer obsesses about the behavior that enabled the achievement. It’s all about the outcome, not the process that produced the outcome. Imagine yourself back in school, taking a math test, writing down answers and not having to show your work calculations—it’s like that! Society admires people who win, and if those winners are clever or devious enough to win by taking advantage of shortcuts, cheats or hacks to beat the system, we often admire them even more.

While the “morally indifferent” behavior exhibited by the pre-boarders was disappointing, low integrity people who operate without any moral compass at all tend to act out much more egregiously, and in the work world that can be very challenging. I am thinking of folks I worked with over the years who, by many measures, enjoyed tremendous success even though they routinely played it fast and loose when it came to honesty, integrity, and doing the right thing. They had no rules, no limits, no honor, no shame, yet they were often celebrated as winners. They lied, and cheated, and misrepresented, and intentionally undermined their colleagues. Yet they were showered with praise, promotions, and rewards-- behavior reinforcement which helped to make them even bolder and more committed to their strategy. Sure, a couple got called out or got careless and eventually crashed and burned, but I still remember the other ones—the ones who got away, who behaved callously, immorally and unethically yet still ended up “winning.”

It’s difficult not to wonder how that happens. Why do employers tolerate low-integrity employees who behave badly? It might be a lack of attentiveness, or a leadership/management failure, or even a deliberate decision—intentionally excusing bad behavior because of “good” results. But experts such as Dr. Cameron Sepah and Jack Welch argue that companies should not tolerate “high-performing” employees who behave badly. Imagine a two-by-two with Performance as the Y-axis and Behavior as the X-axis. Sepah recommends companies deal with employees in each quadrant as follows:


His message is clear and it tracks with Welch’s—employees who behave badly must be rehabilitated or removed, not tolerated. But what, exactly, is bad behavior, and how capable and willing are executives to identify it and intervene? It’s often easier and more convenient to take a consequentialist view of behavior, where the consequences of a person’s conduct are the basis for any judgment about the conduct, which means behavior is only bad if the result is bad (i.e., the end justifies the means). Yet Peter Drucker tells us that if bad behavior results from the absence of character and integrity, that’s a weakness that cannot be cured:
By themselves, character and integrity do not accomplish anything. But their absence faults everything else. Here, therefore, is the one area where weakness is a disqualification by itself rather than a limitation on performance capacity and strength. 
For more on this topic, you might enjoy reading Amy Rees Anderson’s Forbes article Success Will Come and Go, But Integrity is Forever, but let’s close with Warren Buffet’s tongue-in-cheek description of the importance of integrity in the workplace:
Somebody once said that in looking for people to hire, you look for three qualities: integrity, intelligence, and energy . And if you don’t have the first, the other two will kill you. You think about it; it’s true. If you hire somebody without [integrity], you really want them to be dumb and lazy.
So don’t hire low integrity employees, but if you must, make sure they are also dumb and lazy!

Dean K. Harring is a retired executive who now enjoys his time as an advisor, board member, educator, and watercolor painter.  He can be reached at dean.harring@gmail.com or through LinkedIn or Harring Watercolors

Friday, March 10, 2017

Don't Make Me Hollah...


He was a droopy-eyed old timer, heavy around the middle, and when he strained in his folding chair to make change or rearrange his buckets you could see he had something wrong with one of his legs. But that didn’t prevent him from making serious eye contact with potential customers while bellowing like a beer vendor at Fenway Park.

“Don’t make me hollah, they’re only a dollah!” he would boom as I and hundreds of other commuters trudged past him to board our trains home. He was selling flower bouquets for a buck, and they were just the right size to carry on the train. Since he set up his cart at the main walkway to the platforms every weekday afternoon, anyone boarding a train had to walk right past him.

In the 1980s I walked by that guy most weekdays for almost five years, and I bought plenty of flowers from him, but I was young and preoccupied with my own issues so I never gave much thought to him or his business—and then I moved away. But recently, while planning a lesson on competition and competitive strategy, I started thinking about him and his business once again.

If you have studied economics at all, you probably know about Michael Porter and the work he has done on industry competition, particularly his “five forces” of competition model. You can watch him talk about that model here, but basically, Porter's five forces include competition from established and known rivals, new or emerging rivals, the threat of substitute products or services, as well as threats tied to the bargaining power of suppliers and customers. The weaker the forces, the more attractive the industry in terms of profitability.


As I remember it, the flower seller at North Station had no rivals on-site other than a more traditional flower shop inside the B&M terminal which offered a larger assortment of flower arrangements at much higher prices. I have no idea how he secured what seemed to be the exclusive right to sell flowers near the walkway to the train platforms, or why other competitors didn’t try to enter that space. Maybe he had competitors originally but drove them out of the market with low prices and superior location. Or maybe he had a special flower vendor’s license that was no longer available to potential competitors. I don’t know where he got his flowers, but I remember the wholesale flower exchange was not far away from the train station.

His sales transactions were quick, his product inexpensive. Impulse purchases were accommodated effortlessly--a commuter running for a train who decided to buy flowers from him could do so almost without breaking stride since he had just one price and he only accepted cash. Factor in the convenience and social usefulness of being able to purchase flowers at the last minute, particularly on birthdays, anniversaries and holidays, and it’s not hard to understand why buyers didn’t try to negotiate purchase prices with him.

I don’t have all the details, of course, but at least in my memory that flower vendor seemed to be operating in an ideal market featuring weak forces of competition, steady product supply, reliable and predictable product demand, low price sensitivity and the opportunity to make a profit. In other words, he was one lucky flower vendor! He had no real competition, so he didn’t need to worry about sources of competitive advantage, but I am sure he had a value proposition in his head built around what benefit he provided, to whom, and how he provided it better than anyone else. Using Geoffrey Moore’s template (from Crossing the Chasm) to outline his value proposition, I imagine it might have been something like this:

Value Proposition
For Target Customer B&M Railroad commuters at North Station, Boston
Who Need or Opportunity
who want to bring flowers home as a surprise, or gift, or symbol of love and affection
Our Service/Category we are the only flower stand directly on the walkway to the trains
That Statement of Benefit and we offer a wide selection of fresh flower arrangements—quick, one low cost, no waiting.

The good news is that after reminiscing for a while I was able to include the flower vendor scenario as a case study in the lesson I was developing. The bad news is that my efforts to get additional details about him came up empty. I’d still like to know which of Porter’s five forces of competition eventually impacted his business, when, and how, and what he did to manage them.

I plan to keep digging, but if you (or someone you know) commuted by train from Boston’s North Station in the late 1980s, please send me an email (dean.harring@gmail.com) describing whatever you remember about that flower seller, his competitors, and the North Station marketplace in which he operated. It would be great to know the rest of his story.


Dean K. Harring is a retired executive who now enjoys his time as an advisor, board member, educator, and watercolor painter.  He can be reached at dean.harring@gmail.com or through LinkedIn or Harring Watercolors

Friday, January 27, 2017

Why Work Doesn't Work

“The price of anything is the amount of life you pay for it.” –Henry David Thoreau
I spent most of my working life inside insurance companies, and as my job responsibilities increased, my workspaces improved dramatically. I started my career at a desk in a noisy bullpen with about fifty other people, and I ended it forty years later in a hushed and private executive office suite, but one thing was constant: I always had difficulty getting my work done while at work.

Noisy people, piped in music, ringing phones, scheduled meetings, ad hoc meetings, offsite meetings, committee meetings, meeting invitations, scheduled and unscheduled visitors, emails, text messages, and seemingly endless requests from colleagues for input, collaboration or assistance interfered with my ability to focus and concentrate. So I came in early, and stayed late, I worked at home at night, or on the weekends, and on flights, in the quiet car on the train, and in hotel rooms, just so I could function without those interruptions and distractions. Many of my colleagues did the same thing. We were convinced that there weren’t enough hours in the work day to get our important work done, so we willingly exchanged “life” time for more “work” time.

Once I retired I realized that most of the work accomplished in those extra hours might have been urgent, but it wasn’t really that important. In retrospect, we probably would have been better off tackling the underlying problem, i.e., redesigning our workplace and reframing our work styles to make it possible for folks to actually get their work done while at work.

This all came back to me again recently when I listened to an HBR IdeaCast in which Basecamp CEO Jason Fried was interviewed by HBR’s Sarah Green-Carmichael. The topic: Restoring Sanity to the Office. You can read the full interview transcript and/or listen to the interview here. Some highlights of Fried’s observations:
  • You know, people go to work. And when you actually ask them when they get the work done it’s not typically during the day. It’s early in the morning, late at night, on the weekends, on a plane, on a train, somewhere else. And that’s always bugged me. It just doesn’t seem right.
  • It seems like something that, for whatever reason, people put up with. But they really shouldn’t.
  • It’s very hard to do really good work when you’re constantly being interrupted every 15 minutes, every 5 minutes, every 20 minutes, every 30 minutes.
  • Certainly there are some meetings that need to happen. But my point is that I want to push back on the fact that the meeting is the first resort. I think it should be the last resort.
  • The idea that we should just layer in more time because we’re inefficient with it and we waste it– I think, basically, if you really break down your day there is more opportunity to waste time than to use time in many companies.
Fried delivered a TED talk in 2010 (Why Work Doesn’t Happen at Work) in which he identified the cause of the “work not happening at work” problem as M&Ms (Managers and Meetings.) Both interrupt work, and work interrupted can be every bit as damaging as sleep interrupted!

I work from home now and I control my own time and project schedule, so almost all my interruptions are voluntary and any distractions and time-wasting are of my own making. I work in a comfortable, quiet room, at my own pace, and I take breaks whenever I want to walk, or play with the neighborhood dogs, or fill the birdfeeders, or work on a watercolor portrait. I don’t have a manager interrupting me, and I only go to meetings I find interesting. I still keep a calendar, of course, but I have a different tool installed on my desktop that helps me think about how I am spending my time. It is called the countdown clock, and I installed it right after I heard Kevin Kelly (founding executive editor of Wired magazine) describe it during a Tim Ferriss podcast a while back. Based upon my birthdate, actuarial tables and a few other factors, the clock estimates how much time I likely have left on this earth.


You don’t have to be retired to use the countdown clock—it is nothing but a gentle, sobering reminder that time flies, no matter how you spend it. Kelly said it helps him think about what’s important each day. It helps me do the same thing, but it also helps me remember that exchanging “life” time for “work” time during my career probably wasn’t quite as important and necessary as I believed it was at the time.

Intrigued? You can read more about the countdown clock at Kevin Kelly’s blog and hear him talking about it in a short 2007 NPR interview here.

Dean K. Harring, CPCU, is a retired executive who now enjoys his time as an advisor, board member, educator, and watercolor painter.  He can be reached at dean.harring@gmail.com or through LinkedIn or Twitter or Harring Watercolors