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Ken Keller: Unmasking the mediocre company

Posted: March 2, 2014 2:00 a.m.
Updated: March 2, 2014 2:00 a.m.

Books like “Built to Last,” “The Breakthrough Company,” and “Good to Great” were written to help business people improve the companies they own, lead and run.

Unfortunately, many companies don’t last, don’t breakthrough and don’t go from “poor to okay” let alone “good to great.” This is because those companies harbor a culture that guarantees mediocrity: It’s called the status quo.

Companies, often unknowingly, do at least ten things, and maybe more, to insure they will remain mediocre. Here is my list to be used as a barometer to see where some improvements might be made in your company.

First, there is a lack of a single, simple strategic focus. The governor of Indiana stated that his focus was “to raise the net disposable income of citizens.” This is understandable and appealing to everyone.

If your strategic focus is to “raise the net disposable income of the owner” your employees are going to find it pretty hard to get interested or excited. A strategic focus has to offer something for employees to gain traction and engagement.

Second, there is only one person who has the authority to say “yes” to most things in the company. With every decision resting on the one person at the top, no one else has genuine authority.

Third, does the company hire down or up? When hiring managers shun bringing in new people with more education and experience along with impressive backgrounds this is a warning sign that a potential new employee is a threat to the status quo.

Fourth, ideas come only from the top. Thinking from lower levels is dismissed. Those top down ideas usually die before being implemented. The cause is usually anger and frustration by those folks at the lower level who are never asked to provide input, only to do what they are told.

Fifth, very few step up to accept new responsibilities. In a culture of “this is the way we have always done it,” those who volunteer as change agents are vilified by those preserving the status quo.

Sixth, nodding heads, or bobble heads, is normal meeting behavior. Only the stupid speak candidly. Who wants to risk losing their paycheck by saying anything that could be construed as being disloyal? Meetings become rote; serious topics and decisions take place only behind closed doors.

Seventh, resistance to change thrives. Managers walk out of meetings and say silently, “I am not going to do this.”

In a mediocre organization no one is penalized for having this attitude or for their non-cooperation.

Eighth, the “mushroom theory of management” is accepted. Employees are kept in the dark, and if any ask questions that are deemed inappropriate, are told, “When we want you to know something about that we will tell you.”

Ninth, education is feared. The mediocre company believes that everything it needs to survive and thrive is already known and practiced internally, and sees no need for continuing education.

Tenth, a pay for performance program is a non-starter. Raises aren’t based on merit; they are based on loyalty, or seniority. Mediocre firms believe that providing a nice place to work, without too much pressure and a steady paycheck with solid benefits serves the needs all those employed there.

This fails to take into account the best people, who continually seek opportunities to be compensated for doing their best regardless of what anyone else in the company is doing.

Companies focused on improving have a certain characteristic to them. People arrive early and stay late; employees are focused and work hard.

The mediocre organizations are pretty easy to spot as well: you won’t find anyone coming in early or staying late because there is no benefit to doing so, no rewards for success and there is little recognition given. The status quo reigns supreme.

Ken Keller facilitates The Wise Owners Advisory Boards, bringing business owners together for education, sharing and on-going success. Contact him at Keller’s column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.



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