Getting Curious Gets Results

Curiosity might kill the cat, as the old saying goes, but it might just bring your business back to life. This month’s edition of Harvard Business Review focuses its spotlight on “The Business Case for Curiosity.” Harvard business professor Francesca Gino provides many thought-provoking ideas and practical ideas in her cover article. She also helped me realize how pivotal curiosity has been to the growth and success of Intertech, even though we do not expressly call it that.

“When we are curious, we view tough situations more creatively and have less defensive reactions to stress,” she notes. I’ve seen this very dynamic in meetings with senior leaders. We all ask a lot of questions and challenge each other to think deeper. Sometimes the best ideas emerge because one leader was particularly curious about a particular issue and kept pushing back with more questions.

Knowing that we all have a shared investment in the company’s success makes it easier to stay curious and not get defensive. This is an important part of our company culture too, which is why we host an annual Town Hall for employees to talk and share their ideas, concerns and recommendations (more about that below).

But, back to Professor Gino’s idea in brief: “Leaders say they value employees who question or explore things but research shows that they largely suppress curiosity, out of fear that it will increase risk and undermine efficiency. . . Curiosity improves engagement and collaboration. Curious people make better choices, improve their company’s performance, and help their company adapt to uncertain market conditions and external pressures. . . Leaders should encourage curiosity in themselves and others by making small changes to the design of their organization and the ways they manage their employees.”

She then lays out five ways leaders can bolster curiosity at work:

  1. Hire for curiosity. Google asks applicants: “Have you ever found yourself unable to stop learning something you’ve never encountered before? Why? What kept you persistent?” Finding people who keep learning out of personal interest is a good sign that they’re innately curious. A question I ask in interviews is “What is the last book you read for professional development?” To ensure they’ve read what they say they’ve said, I follow this question with “What is the biggest thing you learned from that book?”
  2. Model inquisitiveness. From our leadership to sales teams, we agree upon and read a book per quarter. Then we share insights we can apply to our firm.  I read The Economist and several other periodicals, two daily papers, multiple economic and business forecasting newsletters, and at any given time, a couple of books.  I also have always believed it’s important to listen more than I speak as a leader. In my book, The 100: Building Blocks for Business Leadership, I devote chapter 84 to the importance of listening to employees and to asking key questions. Listening to customers also is key, particularly in the early stages of a new project when we are working to understand expectations. Last, I look for ways to double down on learning and turn time commuting or running the kids around into learning with Audible and Blinklist.
  3. Emphasize learning goals. This one really hit home with me. Every Intertech team member has an annual learning goal. In an industry like software, staying ahead of the curve is essential. Notes Professor Gino, “Leaders can help employees adopt a learning mindset by communicating the importance of learning and by rewarding people not only for their performance but for the learning needed to get there.”
  4. Let employees explore and broaden their interests. I’ll admit that in the press of daily business, this can be hard. Employees with proven expertise are extremely valuable. But we know the best employees are most excited about learning new skills and staying ahead of the pack. Every month, we have a company-wide “Second Friday BBQ” lunch (being honest, the BBQ turns into subs or pizza when the snow starts flying in Minnesota). On the Second Friday BBQ, one or more team members deliver a chalk talk on an emerging technology.
  5. Have “Why?” “What If. . .” and “How might we. . .?” days. As I referred to earlier, our annual Town Hall meeting is dedicated to just such questions. Employees take a half-day off from their regular client projects to gather in small groups to explore how we do things and how we can do things differently or better. This feedback is provided to senior managers anonymously so employees feel completely free to speak their minds and ask tough questions. It’s one of the most valuable management tools we have and employees consistently tell us they appreciate the chance to share in this way. In the past, we’ve also used a concept we call “FedEx Day” where employees have 24 hours to work on whatever they choose then present their results to the company.

Staying curious might be difficult when you’ve been running a business for a long time, but resist the trap of thinking you know it all. No matter what your industry, it’s no doubt changing at the speed of light. Curiosity is the only way to keep growing your business and your mind!

The 100 on Audible–Fall 2018

The 100 will be available on Audible this fall.

I narrated the book and the recording sessions are finished.

It is now in production.

Keep a Scorecard (and keep learning!)

If you read my book, The 100: Building Blocks of Business Leadership, you might (mistakenly) assume I’m done learning and implementing new business management ideas. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, one of the guiding principles at Intertech is “Keep Learning!”

In that spirit, Intertech’s leadership team read the book “Traction: Get a Grip on Your Business” by Gino Wickman. We were intrigued by Wickman’s Entrepreneurial Operating System (EOS), which addresses the six most fundamental aspect of any business: vision, data, process, traction, issues and people.

He notes, “Successful businesses operate with a crystal clear vision that is shared by everyone. They have the right people in the right seats. They have a pulse on their operations by watching and managing a handful of numbers on a weekly basis. They identify and solve issues promptly in an open and honest environment. They document their processes and ensure that they are followed by everyone. They establish priorities for each employees and ensure that a high level of trust, communication and accountability exists on each team.”

In addition to his book, Wickman runs a business helping organizations implement his EOS principles. On average, his clients’ businesses grow revenue by 18 percent per year. That 18 percent certainly peaked our interest! Isn’t it uncanny how numbers help to focus attention?

Since we already were following many EOS principles, we decided to begin with data. Wickman advocates developing a Scorecard as a means of using data in the form of metrics to “free you from the quagmire of managing personalities, egos, subjective issues, emotions, and intangibles by teaching you which metrics to focus on.”

Most of us look at profit and loss statements of course, but as Wickman notes, by the time key metrics are uncovered with a P&L statement it’s too late to do anything about them! With a Scorecard you get insight into your organization in close to real time. A Scorecard is:

  • The financial pulse of the company.
  • Comprised of leading indicators.  A leading indicator is a signal that something in the future will impact your business.  (A group called ITR Economics, which we’ve used for years, can help your organization identify your leading indicators.)
  • Updated weekly

The first step in establishing our Scorecard was agreeing about which metrics were the strongest leading indicators. We started by outlining where we want to be in three years.  There was good discussion about what we measure and target goals (as quantified with numbers). We’ve made some tweaks now that we’re in flight toward our 2019 targets.

Our Scorecard includes 15 metrics (the maximum number Wickman recommends) and is updated weekly. The metrics are shown in green to indicate that they’re on track. Red is used to show when they’re not on track. The metrics also are compared against what we’re aiming for in our three-year vision.

While the scorecard is updated weekly, at our monthly management meeting we have a discussion around the numbers. It’s typically a quick review unless we see red. Taking action early, when red becomes a trend, is why the Scorecard is a valuable tool.

Having the scorecard updated weekly keeps us all on the same page regarding our financials and critical numbers. But while the numbers typically “speak for themselves,” the story behind them sometimes is key to helping us know if something is just a temporary “blip” or the beginning of a negative trend that needs our attention.  When the scorecard is sent out, there are a few paragraphs telling the story behind the numbers.

According to Gino Wickman, there are seven truths about the Scorecard. If you believe them, using a Scorecard could be just the ticket for getting you company on track toward the growth and profitability you seek. They include:

  1. What gets measured gets done.
  2. Managing metrics saves time.
  3. A Scorecard gives you a pulse and the ability to predict.
  4. You must inspect what you expect.
  5. You can have accountability in a culture that is high trust and healthy.
  6. A Scorecard requires hard work, discipline, and consistency to manage, but it’s worth it.
  7. One person must own it.

We’ve seen positive results from using a Scorecard and we’re committed to continue using it. To learn more about this smart management tool, check out Traction. It’s also a great way to keep learning!

Next time I’ll share how Traction helped Intertech improve our meetings.

Learning from Leaders by Steve Schmidt

Guest Post

By Steve Schmidt, President, AbeTech Bar Code & RFID Solutions

When Tom Salonek wrote his book, The 100: Building Blocks for Business Leadership, I was eager to read it. I’ve long admired Tom’s company and the many awards it has received, not to mention Intertech’s consistent growth and profitability. I run a small business of my own and thought Tom’s book might give me some new ideas.

Oh boy, did it ever!

If you haven’t read The 100, I highly recommend it. This little book is crammed with practical management strategies that Tom has tested and proven at his company. Not only does the book provide 100 practical mini chapters (Tom calls them “takeaways”), it is sprinkled with fun quotes and Tom’s trademark humor. It’s the perfect book for a short business flight.

I should confess that Tom is my cousin, but please don’t think for a minute that this is a gushing “puff piece” based more on familial connections than merit. I’ve known the guy a long time and he’s always been highly motivated, focused and eager to learn and grow, both personally and professionally. He’s a, well, natural born leader. I’ve watched his company (and his family!) expand over time, and seen first-hand the productive and healthy workplace he and his partners have cultivated.

The word “mindfulness” is trendy now, but it’s a perfect description of Tom’s approach to business and life. By thinking and acting in deliberate mindful ways based on hard science and life experience, he has built a thriving organization on a solid foundation of values, like delivering beyond what is expected, treating people kindly and fairly, and keeping things in perspective. His book generously shares that experience and practical knowledge in an easy to digest format. It also comes with dozens of downloadable forms and other tools that I’m guessing are worth much more than the modest book price.

Now a confession.

When I first read The 100 it was still in the galley (pre-print) stage. Like the leader he is, Tom reaches out to others for input and alternative perspectives. I was happy to read the manuscript and give him my honest feedback. And, to be honest, I found it all to be a bit much. There are so many great ideas and recommendations; frankly, I wasn’t sure where to begin or how to implement them at my firm without losing a lot of time in the process.

I shared this reaction with Tom and he responded by explaining that following the ideas in The 100 actually save time by reducing surprises and increasing employee retention. Then he created a calendar showing how to implement his leadership program in the most efficient way possible. I reviewed the revised manuscript a second time and was pleased to give it my highest endorsement:

The 100 “artfully captures Salonek’s decades of leadership achievements and details repeatable steps that we all can take to improve our business results. Read the book, learn the secrets and enjoy the fruits of winning in the marketplace.”

Make Meetings Work

If you’ve read my book, “The 100: Building Blocks for Business Leadership”  you know I’ve devoted a fair amount of thought and study to the subject of effective meetings. While many people hate meetings, I’ve found that efficiently run meetings are productive and even fun. Just when I thought I had the perfect formula for meeting magic, I ran across a great business leadership book called “Traction,” by Gino Wickman, which expanded my thinking and meeting practices in a number of positive ways.

Traction provided some great ideas for making our meetings better than ever. For example, not only do we find time to connect as people and colleagues (without the meeting veering off into a 20-minute account of someone’s new car or perfect golf game), we definitely focus on the issues that matter most. Wickman calls this a “meeting pulse,” which gets taken with the help of his “Level 10 Meeting Agenda.” He says, “The Level 10 Meeting Agenda is a tool that will help you get to the core of what makes for great meetings, namely conflict and resolution.”

Here are some takeaways that might help kick start your meetings too (see my sample agenda at the end and feel free to adapt it for your own organization):

  • Start with sharing personal items during the “Segue” portion of the meeting, which helps to build personal connections.  This is where I ask everyone to share something personal to build personal bonds (like, my kid is having challenges in school, and I’m doing A/B/C to help). The agenda has suggested time allotments for each section. This helps everyone to remember to share meaningful information concisely.
  • In the part of the meeting where people share customer/employee highlights the idea is to get the meeting off on a positive note. I don’t want to ignore problems or issues, which we tackle in the “workout” section, but remembering the positive employee and customer experiences is especially important since our leadership team only meets once per month.
  • Covering the Scorecard (see my previous post for more on Scorecards) and goals/rocks right away without discussion is by design because this section of the meeting just sets the stage for the in-depth discussion to follow.
  • The bulk of the L10 meeting is to discuss ideas/issues.  As things come up from one month to the next, I’ll email our office manager, who keeps the agenda, to make sure these items are added to the agenda. This process makes it simple to create the agenda (anyone on the leadership team can add items knowing they’ll be covered at the next meeting).

Intertech Meeting Agenda:

  1. Segue (11:00, 5 Minutes). Each meeting answer one of the following:  What’s one good personal and professional thing since the last workout?  What’s working at Intertech?  What is one highlight from the weekend?  What’s the biggest win in the last seven days.
  2. Scorecard (11:05, 5 Minutes). Review of financial and operating metrics.  Update, not discussion.
  3. Rock Review (11:10, 5 Minutes). Review top goals.  Update, not discussion.
  4. Customer/Employee Headlines (11:15, 5 Minutes). Share positive wins since last meeting.
  5. Workout (11:20, 90 Minutes). This is the core of the meeting.  It is going over upcoming plans for
  6. strategic goals and important issues that surfaced in end-of-day huddles.  Review/update quarterly goals (All).  Review/update Work Plan items (All).  Define 90-day work plan for ’18 goals
  7. Conclude (12:50, 10 Minutes).  Recap To-Do List. What shook out today that needs to be tackled by whom?  Cascading messages. What messages need to be communicated company-wide?  Next meeting: When’s the next meeting?  Rate meeting 1-10 (Should be 8+). Less than 8 merits discussion so we can improve.
  8. Next Meeting Date