I spoke to both Jeremy Eden and Terri Long on how leaders can improve their productivity, while growing profits. They have worked with the CEOs of a wide range of companies, including PNC Financial, H.J. Heinz, and Manpower. They are the Co-CEOs of Harvest Earnings Group headquartered in Chicago and author of the new book Low-Hanging Fruit: 77 Eye-Opening Ways to Improve Productivity and Profits. In this brief interview, they talk about the typical growth issues leaders face, what an unintentional squelch is, how leaders can make meetings more effective, and how leaders can boost morale in their companies.
Dan Schawbel: What are the typical business growth issues that leaders face that they didn’t when the company was smaller?
Jeremy Eden and Terri Long: Lew Platt, the former CEO of HP, summed it up best, when he lamented: “If only HP knew what HP knows, we’d be three times more productive.”
Small companies with few employees can easily involve everyone in improving the company. But, as they become larger enterprises, executives get further and further removed from the knowledge of employees closest to the work and closest to the customer. Capturing this crucial knowledge is the biggest challenge leaders have as their company grows. Leaders must institute new processes that start by asking people at all levels what frustrates them (see Question 5) rather than providing a “suggestion box” for ideas.
Schawbel: How can leaders avoid what you call the “unintentional squelch”?
Eden and Long: Employees are trying hard to figure out which way the corporate wind is blowing by guessing whether or not their boss is leaning for or against an idea. Body language of an executive often drowns out their spoken words. A leader might say, “That’s interesting” while they yawn and look out the conference room window to see who is walking by. Maybe the boss was out late the night before and is tired. Maybe he thought he saw his boss step onto the floor. But the idea nonetheless has been “unintentionally squelched.”
Leaders can avoid the “unintentional squelch” by requiring fact-based decision making. Create a culture where teams take seriously ideas that are worthy of analysis rather than dismissing them because of someone’s early analysis-free opinion. The criteria for being worthy of analysis differs from company to company: “has potential to improve earnings,” “can be implemented within two years,” “is valued by the customer,” etc. When an idea is proposed the boss should say, “If it meets the criteria of worthy of analysis, I want you to get back to me on X date with an update or a recommendation.” Then, and this is missed all the time, make sure that meeting is scheduled and held. Too often, there is no follow-up and ideas vanish into thin air.
Schawbel: How can leaders make meetings more effective instead of time wasters?
Eden and Long: The cost of meetings is invisible so they are treated as a free resource that can be wasted. If managers were held responsible for the costs of meetings, they would treat meetings as an investment. The four key elements of effective meetings are:
- Clarify the output: what specific output is important enough to have a meeting? Is there a specific proposal to be approved? Is there a conflict that is best resolved in person?
- Have the fewest attendees needed to deliver the output: eliminate “meeting tourists” invited out of habit or courtesy and add anyone who has critical information.
- Pre-work – replace most PowerPoint™ presentations with standardized short memos and require that attendees read before meeting.
- An agenda should include all of the information in points 1-3, including the specific time to be spent on each. We recommend a countdown clock to keep people on track. And why are there always hard stops but no hard starts? Make sure the highest ranked person is on time and start the meeting!
Schawbel: What are some ways that leaders can boost morale and retain employees?
Eden and Long: Most people are happiest when they are able to do their jobs serving their customers, whether internal or external, without obstacles and when they are appreciated for the good job they do. Many companies or divisions, suffer low morale and high turnover because they don’t even know about, much less remove, the obstacles that frustrate employees. Nor do they understand that a regular paycheck is not personal appreciation.
Fortunately, leaders can fix the “too many frustrations, too little appreciation” problem easily by instituting a process that actively involves employees directly in finding and solving the problems that cause so much frustration. It is exciting and morale boosting for teams to find a lot of low-hanging fruit that they can harvest to simplify their work and improve their customer’s experience. It gives the teams a chance to shine and it gives the boss (and maybe bosses all the way up to the CEO) the chance to personally acknowledge the talent, passion, and creativity of the teams.