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July 2008 | Volume 27 / Number 2
Insiders Report

Eight Ways to Ruin Your Business

By Jeff Schmitt

I remember the day I learned we were being sold. I wasn't shocked. Or angry. Or even sentimental. I was too numb for all that.

You see, my company had been dying for years. Sure, we had some profitable quarters. We'd hold rallies and host dignitaries. Our bellies were full and our debts were manageable.

Deep inside, we all knew, though. Something had been lost — and something else was gaining on us. We lived in a vacuum, stuck in place, denying our growing dread.

Where did it go wrong? I'd like to blame overseas outsourcers… or tighter regulations... or emerging technologies. I want to believe our problems were inevitable, that we made decisions for the right reasons. And I hope we left a legacy, a sense of uncompromising excellence that we carry to our new jobs.

Looking back, I realize we weren't capsized by outside forces, bad data or defections. No, our culture was corroded from within. Somehow, we forgot who we were. We started coasting. We developed bad habits. We ignored our formula and lost that spirit that made us so different. Over time, we gradually quit practicing the fundamentals:

1) Transparency: While the pipeline was drying up, our leaders started meeting behind closed doors. When they emerged, we were flooded with new demands and rules. Despite this, we heard the same, tired speeches. The chatter grew — until the layoffs showed just how disposable we were.

In a post-Enron world, people want to know what and why. They need to believe their leaders are good stewards who are looking out for everyone, not just themselves. They need to be kept in the loop. Bottom line: they need reasons to trust. Without this buy-in, a company is destined for failure. A lack of transparency simply breeds a culture of paranoia, where the worst intents are always ascribed.

2) Mutual Respect: People want to work where they are valued. They want a place where the field is level, where they will be rewarded for going above-and-beyond. We forgot that. We quit viewing our peers as equals. We started taking our people for granted.

Look at your operation: what have you done to recognize each team member? How have you shown a personal interest in them? How are you grooming these people for bigger roles? Identify those people who perform, who sacrifice. Take the time to learn what makes them tick. Reward them for their perseverance.

Want commitment? Want loyalty? Ask yourself: what are you giving in return?

3) Openness: In tough times, there is a tendency to turn inward, to close ourselves off. We were no different. For years, we were successful, brimming with pride and potential. When the bubble burst, our leaders closed ranks. We learned not to ask questions. We kept our ideas to ourselves. We knew our place, fell into line, did what we were told.

We understood management's unspoken mantra: we know better.

Beaten down, we became "Stepford employees," with our glassy eyes and vacant smiles. We quit believing. We quit trying. We quit growing. We were suffocating — and our company was dying alongside us.

4) Vision: People are seeking meaning in their work. They want a company that has a compelling reason to exist…beyond making money. They want a sense of ownership, to know they were part of something larger, something that makes a difference.

Our CEO liked to say that you "owed an employer an honest day's work and an employer owed you a paycheck. Nothing more." That's how we knew our corporate credo was a fraud. Our soaring rhetoric didn't match our reality.

To thrive, you need an authentic foundation, reinforced by every employee at every level. Your people must know how they contribute to the outcome. They must see how their customers benefit, how their lives will be enriched. You must harness energy, convey hope, build momentum. Without that, you are only offering your employees a job. Nothing more.

5) Planning: Military analysts often speak of the "fog of war," where uncertainties about an adversary and environment can lead to strategic errors. Business has its own fog. In real time, it is hard to discern how social trends will drive new products or services. Sometimes, we cannot recognize how small shifts can create new costs, red tape, competitors or opportunities — until it is too late.

We, too, were too slow to adapt. And we acted indecisively when the fog lifted. We had simply grown too comfortable. We never envisioned the day when technologies would evolve, when markets would transform, when revenues would decline. We had no plan. We never gave ourselves a chance.

6) Execution: It is one thing to talk. It is another to act. We tried everything. We took retreats. We hired consultants. We even wrote a plan. We just lacked the discipline to turn our grand plans into reality. We encountered the same pitfalls as everyone else. We never had time. We were always sidetracked by the unexpected. We couldn't build consensus. Of course, there was the biggest of them all: the impact of change on our hierarchy, our systems, our culture.

They were all cop outs. We took the easy way out. We didn't make a choice. We didn't commit. And we paid the price.

You see, execution takes focus, organization and passion. It requires the guts to stick your neck out — and accept the consequences. Your window of opportunity is small, so always act. Summon the will to finish what you start. Evaluate the results. And return to where you started…and do it all over again.

7) Self-Control: We were a victim of our success. Our customers raved about our work. They asked us to do more, to do things we had never done. We fell prey to the oldest temptation in business: being all things to all people.

We grew distracted, putting out fires born from our inexperience. We lost so much time, energy and resources. Like so many companies, we learned too late the need to set boundaries and manage growth.

8) Community: As we declined, our personal bonds grew frayed. We gradually lost that innate connection, that sense of shared experience and belonging. Over time, we quit loving what we did and believing in each other. We stayed too long, collected our check, phoned it in.

After a while, we simply talked past each other…if we communicated at all. We went our separate ways after work. Our departments became silos. Our office, thinned out by layoffs, grew so quiet. There was no hustle, no laugher. We nursed our grudges. Our elbows were sharp and our fingers were always pointed somewhere else.

The best companies are families at best, communities at a minimum. Of all the fundamentals we overlooked, this was the most important. We quit doing the small things that unite people: sharing, listening, empathizing. We lost our smile and our purpose. We became like so many others: hollow and mediocre. We became everything we had railed against when we had started out. And we lost everything as a result.

Jeff Schmitt is a freelance writer who spent 11 years in the call center industry. He lives in Dubuque, IA and his e-mail is mailto:[email protected].

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