youth, ideas, and bureaucratic resistance

kebabI received two very interesting questions from a young man I met several years ago, passing through Houston on the way to some romantic big city (go ahead, get the whole NYC/LA/SanFran/Boulder/places-you-can’t-eat-but-feel-sexy/thing out of your system.) He asked for lunch and had two questions for me:

1) How do you personally influence people to take ownership of your ideas in order to gain support and momentum to implement change?

I’m going to try to answer that one in a future blog post as my notes for our meeting were a bit too direct for public blogging.

Question number 2!

2) What advice would you give me, a high-energy, optimistic, and idea-generating young guy, operating in a inefficient, bureaucratic, and change-resistant large corporate company?

Listen. Listen. Listen. For both the employee and the employer, almost all of this tension is eliminated if BOTH groups master the art of listening. So to the questioner, my first question is are both you and your managers TRULY listening to each other? If yes, keep reading. If you aren’t actively listening first then none of this matters. Listening is a beautiful thing. One of my favorite quotes.

“Knowledge speaks, but wisdom listens.” – Jimi Hendrix

OK, so you are listening. Then here goes a two part answer from different perspectives.

From the Employee perspective:

Q: What advice would you give me, a high-energy, optimistic, and idea-generating young guy, operating in a inefficient, bureaucratic, and change-resistant large corporate company?

An answer for the employee with the company’s best interest at heart perspective:

As a young employee I found great resistance to my ideas. I read like crazy. I love learning from the mistakes of others. But at 25 few 50 year olds wanted to listen. They had 20 years + experience but I believed had been ingrained in 20 years of outdated experience. So I had a problem. I tried. I pleaded my case. I used logic. No luck. I was a very frustrated employee trying to do the best for the corporation.

I found three magic solutions that worked for me.

1) Accept the burden of communication and go 100% to make your case.

So you are saying youth is a handicap in getting your ideas heard? Well tough. Deal with it. People have burdens and it is their job to overcome the burdens. And in this case the burden of communication is on YOU. The burden of communication is always on the communicator, not the listener. Have you created visuals to explain your point? Have you done dry-run-explanations to others to practice and prepare to communicate your point? Have you created a prototype to prove you believe in the idea so much you will invest your own time on behalf of the company? If you do those things, and back it up with short but direct facts, most ideas, even in a big bureaucracy will be heard. If you aren’t a good communicator, document your idea and recruit a stronger communicator to make the case for you. Still not enough?

Join Toastmasters. Study Tufte for visual communication. Ask your parents how they would handle it even if you are 35. (Seriously, who else besides your parents has your best interests at heart no matter what?) My point is if you give up on trying to express the idea, well, you didn’t believe in it very much either so why should the higher-ups listen?

They shouldn’t because you are the communicator and you aren’t committed to it. Weak. Man up and accept the burden of communication even if it is a taller order for your age group. Or as Covey says; “Any excuse no matter how valid is still an excuse.”

If your response to the above is “Ed, I promise I did all of that and I’d like to show you what I showed them.” then I’d love to see it. And if it really is a good idea. And you really are fighting for the corporation as you should. And you have exhausted every other option of making your point with data and rationality and visual communication then you do have a few more options. These linger near the line of machiavelli, but they do work and if your goals are pure can be executed ethically.

2) Quote old dead people.

Yes, really. I found so much resistance to my ideas from reading Demming and TQM, and getting Microsoft Certifications before my peers, for my constant study. So I found out pretty quickly that you can overcome the prejudice against youth (it’s there, it really is, and sometimes for good reason) by QUOTING PEOPLE. (It was an Excel file that became a database. True story.)

If I said “I have some ideas that I think the corporate office hasn’t taken into consideration” then my store manager heard a punk-25-year-old saying he knew more than the 60 year old CEO of a multimillion dollar publicly traded company. That wasn’t going to happen. BUUUUUUUT, if I said,

“wow, I really like district-manager-x’s ideas. They remind me of a quote from Total Quality Management on systems defining quality. Like the marble experiment. Can I show you the marble experiment and see if you think it might apply to our problems? I could really use your help and I’m not sure I understand Demming completely. I’m just curious and really want to help the company. Can you help? Meet Thursday?”

– if I did that. I had a shot. It worked. It is true that with a good management team you should not need to do this. You should be able to make your case logically above and beyond politics. But if that fails, you do have a plan B. You get no credit, but the company and therefore you benefit. It ain’t perfect, but it works.

3) Convince someone else it is their idea.

This is manipulative and should be avoided. But if you must, it does work. And it is clearly plan C. And if you are executing plan C either your communication is poor (see “1” above) or you didn’t integrate “2” with “1” above. Or maybe you just have a bad management team. But if you must, here goes.

Find a manager or a “chosen one” among the employees. Take a slightly similar idea or remark they made and emphasize it to make them think the primary idea is their idea. Then reinforce it. Whenever you mention that change it is

“I really like Tracy’s idea to improve the warehouse systems and improve on-time delivery for our customers.”

– this worked for me because I didn’t care who got credit. I wanted my employees working in an efficient system. I owed that to them. If my employees were happy who got credit for the idea was irrelevant to me.

If enough awesome stuff happens AROUND you some of the glory gets applied to your personal brand regardless. So get over your ego and give others credit even if you think you guided them to the point. And isn’t it possible they were already headed that way and your reinforcement just pushed them over? Listening for thoughts aligned with your idea might break YOUR bad habit of not listening too. So, good for all, right?

In modern times with programs like Google Desktop or Copernic, I’d probably search my emails until I found one from a higher up that made a salient point along the same lines and use that as my launching point. And to be fair, quite possibly that executive DID have the idea and the company (YOU!) didn’t execute on it. Regardless, get in front of the cart, give credit to the exec if she is ego driven, and start pulling in the same direction.

Again, who cares? You get no credit, but the company and therefore you benefit.

But to be clear. Using this method in anything other than as a last resort will out you as a manipulative bastard and is a CLD. I recommend you focus on (1) and add a few quotes (2) in your arguments for greater persuasive power.

From the CEO perspective.

If you are close minded in your youth, stop reading now. But let me flip this around and point out that you may not be the only person with a brain and the higher ups may not be fools. So here goes.

Q: What advice would you give me, a high-energy, optimistic, and idea-generating young guy, operating in a inefficient, bureaucratic, and change-resistant large corporate company?

1) Listen

Leaders got there because people are willing to follow them. They are usually right. They inspire confidence. Sadly this can also lead a leader to think their ideas are always the best. They aren’t. Frequently the person closest to the customer has the best data and therefore may make better decisions or have better ideas than you. So listen. Listen carefully and don’t just “hear” the idea, but be sure you “see” the employee and truly “see” what they are proposing.

Take the time. Be respectful. And listen at a level that causes you to almost wince at the intensity. This is hard for me. So I work at it. I try hard to be Mindful.

The exception is if you know an employee has not studied, worked with, has no domain knowledge, and they are emphatically arguing a point they know nothing about (ie haven’t done their homework) then perhaps listening isn’t a good use of your time. Remember, they aren’t your only employee so your time is valuable. The idea might be good but the employee can’t express it.

A derivative of listening is to TELL EMPLOYEES HOW TO TALK TO YOU. Be explicit. For example, I like facts. I tell employees this right up front so I don’t get a fully wishy-washy this-might-work-kind-of-hug-a-thon email. But even if they don’t express the idea perfectly, I still make sure I focus on listening. That is a HUGE part of my job. And it’s fun. It is awesome when you find a diamond in the rough who is willing to take risks within your own ranks. It is truly humbling. And it starts with the leader’s obligation to listen.

2) Second – hire on attitude and intelligence.

A person with the right attitude can learn. It sounds funny, but do NOT hire on skill. Skill is over rated and can be learned. Yes there are exceptions for people who have put in their 10,000 hours of mastery of a subject and those people are very valuable. But if some applicant has 50 hours of learning in technology X you are best to ignore it. 50 hours is insignificant. 50 hours is little more than a week and they might have had a bad teacher. 50 hours of learning and they have a “great idea” and it is probably crap. Maybe not, but probably. Skill is over rated.

No, you should evaluate hires on attitude and intelligence. (And ethics, but ethics are baseline so lets assume evil people are out from the beginning.) Young employees don’t get this. They feel you should hire skills first. But if I wasn’t prevented from discussing HR issues about former employees, I could show them the trail-of-tears of promising people who knew technology but didn’t truly understand the client comes first. Their attitude sucked and it ruined any advantages of their “skills.” Keep toxic people OUT of your company. If they sneak in, fire them fast.

OK, so you’ve hired on attitude and intelligence. Now you have people with the possibility of a decent canvas. In six months, you are wrong. Yup. About half of these folks will start saying things like “we’ve always done it that way” after a mere six months. Yes really. They were “open minded” during the transition, got a partial view of the company, locked on to either a bad process, or a process that needs to change and they fight letting go. First have them read Who Moved My Cheese. Then, sadly, educate or terminate if they can’t adapt.

I have never said “gee, you know, I should have waited a few more months to terminate that guy who is pissing everyone in the company off with his refusal to change, his negative attitude and snide remarks.” Nope. Get the bad eggs out NOW. I don’t care if they are profitable for you as an individual. A strong leader must be willing to terminate their top salesperson if that salesperson doesn’t live up to the company vision, mission, values and honor code. The collateral damage is greater than what they bring in. Get the negative-nelly’s out and your profit WILL go up. Maybe not this month, but it WILL go up when the bad karma is gone.

2) Understand that Change is Risk

You now have just the good eggs. Good. Yet they still resist and fear change. That is human nature. And it is HEALTHY. Remember that change is risk and if our ancestors all decided that storing water in lead pots was a good idea we’d all have lead poisoning and crooked spines. Change is risk. It is healthy and natural for people to resist risk. Thus it is up to you the leader to make the case. THIS IS YOUR JOB AS A LEADER. If this fails, it is your fault.

As far as convincing people, younger employees have the most energy but also have a lot of trouble with change. While they think they are more flexible, this has not been my experience. They do things differently, but are locked in to these “different” ways just as much as your team is locked into their “different ways.” Experienced people have seen change before and frequently adapt more willingly.

Millennials want to know EVERY reason for a change to be bought in. In fact they challenge you with

“OK, but just explain to me all of the reasons why we are doing this?”

The leading “OK” means they think it is a negotiation. And frankly to a CEO it is a request to brain dump 25 years of business experience so they can feel better about your decision. And they couldn’t consume the info that fast anyway. (Nero meet Morpheous. It took you a while to beat him in the arena.) This transfer of knowledge might be a great conversation while you pay them to listen to you for months on end, yet they don’t believe you anyway until they relearn the same lessons. That is no way to run a business. That is how to raise a child, but it isn’t how to make a profit.

As a leader you make the best call with the data you have. And you never have enough data. And the employees work for you. Sometimes you just have to be like Nike and say “Just do it.” The employees that can’t handle it will be the same ones who fold in a crisis anyway so best to have them gone too. (sorry, but it’s true.)

For a loyal employee, try saying “Trust me on this one. Put your shoulder into it 100% and lets talk about it after the plan is implemented. I believe you will see then.”

For the pups – try explaining. I typically try asking

“So you are pretty smart and a great employee now. Right? If you were debating with yourself, current-you debating you+20+years, who would be smarter?”

Of course they say “well, future me is just as smart but with more experience so they are probably right.”

Now, if I am feeling sarcastic, I say “so just how amazingly much stupid-er must I have been at your age for me+20+years to be less knowledgeable than you right now?” I don’t mean it disrespectfully, and save this for the really belligerent-you-are-thinking-of-firing-them employees. But it is a shock-treatment that just MIGHT save you a truly valuable employee who can’t see through the fog. And YES, it is better to shock an employee with potential than lose them.

If you are a weak leader you can just let them walk. But I’d rather try hard to get them to see the light before letting them go. They have to fight for the company. But YOU also have to FIGHT FOR THEM! And sometimes that includes tough-love I guess.

The bottom line  if you lose someone is that IT IS YOUR FAULT. You are the leader. You controlled the hiring. You controlled the training. You controlled the leadership. You controlled the management. The one thing you absolutely can NOT do is blame the employee. Nope. It is your fault. If you made the mistake you still have to fix it. But no excuses. LISTEN TO THEM! Who knows, the young bucks idea might be your next million dollar product!

Closing thoughts

This is a natural tension between younger employees, businesses, leaders and knowledge. It’s OK. The key for the employees and the leaders both, the one thing that will reduce this tension 90%, is to first master the art of listening.

Your question, to the young man who asked me, was specific. I gave you specific answers. But as I said at the top, my one wish is that all of us would listen to each other more. If we listen. If we “see you” and truly “hear” your idea, much of this tension dissolves like sugar in water. And you have indeed made a brilliant cup of lemonade.