Thoughts on Excellence Free E-Newsletter Series
Volume 13, Issue No. 10
By Dan Coughlin
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We need a sea change in how executives and managers view employees. We need a movement. I’m calling this The Any Person Movement. It simply says that any person, regardless of his or her title, income, or authority can make a positive difference in an organization of any size.
A positive difference is doing something that causes your organization to achieve better sustainable results. That “something” could be influencing how other people think, building a more effective team, innovating a new product or service, strengthening the brand, developing a strategy, improving daily execution, listening empathetically, encouraging another person, delivering great customer service, solving a significant problem, and so on.
A negative difference is doing something that causes your organization to achieve less than what it otherwise would have done.
The Traits Necessary to Make a Positive Difference Are All Learnable Characteristics
One of the most exciting aspects of this movement is that the traits necessary to make a positive difference in an organization are all learnable characteristics. No one is born with these traits. Any person can develop them if he or she chooses to do so. These traits fall into three categories: human performance (thinking, leading, and team-building), business performance (strategizing, executing, and enhancing other people’s careers), and performance improvement (innovating, brand-building, and learning every day).
No one has to be born with the ability to think about how they think or to know how to innovate or execute or how to create an effective team or establish a clear strategy for long-term success. Each of these traits can be developed through understanding clear, simple processes and practicing them over and over again. The fact that these traits are learnable and can be improved through effort is the primary reason why any person can get to a point where he or she is making a positive difference in an organization. No one has to master all the traits to make a positive difference. The main point here is that not having a well-developed trait does not prevent a person from ever having that trait. It requires focus and effort to develop them in yourself and in others, but they are learnable as opposed to inherited traits.
It’s Not The 80/20 Rule, It’s The 80 + 20 Rule
The 80/20 rule states that 20% of your employees generate 80% of the results. There is some truth in that. Top performers do outperform the other performers. That’s how they got the name “top performers.” The problems occur when executives and managers start to think the top 20% are the only people who can get things done. The problem becomes even worse when managers assume that people with certain labels are better prepared to step in and be in the Top 20% right away. Consequently, every project and every decision is funneled through the top 20%. They become stronger at what they do and they get paid better for doing their work at a higher level. Still no problem with this situation. People deserve to be paid better for doing better work.
The problem is what is happening with the other 80%. Without realizing it bosses are sending messages to those employees that say, “I can’t count on you to take charge of a project, and I don’t have the time to listen to your ideas because they probably aren’t that great anyway.” You end up either developing employees who feel helpless or hopeless, or you end up losing those employees who go somewhere else where they can make a positive difference. This is how organizations end up with high turnover, low employee engagement, or both.
An organization can never become what it is capable of becoming by using the 80/20 rule. The only way an organization can achieve its full potential is the 80 + 20 rule, which says 100% of the people in your organization are generating 100% of the results. This is where 100% of the employees are using their best strengths and their greatest passions on a regular basis to help the organization improve and achieve the desired results. The top performers will still perform better than the other people, but the key is to focus on getting the best performance out of all the employees, not just the top 20%.
If you want a quick visual of the 80 + 20 rule, watch a championship game in any team sport. Watch the whole game, not just the highlights on ESPN. Over the course of the game the top 20% of the players usually do make many important contributions. However, the winning team almost always has many important contributions from people who are not in the top 20% group. In other words, the result was achieved by 100% of the team members, the top 20% AND the bottom 80%. The same pattern holds true in a film, a theatrical performance, a musical concert, and any other group activity. You need all of the members of the organization contributing. Don’t rob your organization of its potential by focusing solely on the top 20% of the employees.
Moving to the 80 + 20 Mindset
The first step in The Any Person Movement is for managers to move away from the 80/20 rule to the 80 + 20 rule. If you are an executive or manager who always turns to the same people to lead projects or to make decisions or to give you input, then I can pretty well guarantee you that you are disengaging a large percentage of your workers. You’re creating an atmosphere where a lot of people don’t feel valued. Over time these people who originally wanted to make a positive difference start to give up on any hope of doing anything meaningful in their work. They become mired in the 80% Mindset of “tell me what to do and I’ll go do it.” They think, “I won’t rock the boat. I won’t offer any new insights because I know they won’t be listened to anyway.” Or they think, “I’ll leave. No point in staying.” And then they leave as soon as they find a position that pays close to what they are making now. Or if they are really courageous, they just leave.
The 80 + 20 rule does create more work for managers in the short term. It’s much easier to just give every new project to the same 20% of the people who have always run projects in the past. You know you can count on those people. But guess what? Over the long term your organization has a lower cap on what it can achieve because you have unknowingly reduced the capacity of the other 80% of your employees. And you may burn out the top 20% as well.
What I’m Not Saying and What I Am Saying
Notice I’m not saying any person can be a CEO, a COO, a Director of Research and Development, an account executive, an administrative assistant, or a VP of Sales. Every role has certain skill, knowledge, rational thinking, and emotional requirements necessary to be successful in it, and not every person can develop those at a high enough level to be effective in those positions.
I’m not saying everyone should be paid the same amount. Decisions have to be made as to the financial value of an individual’s contribution to the organization. That will not be the same for every person.
I’m also not saying that no person should ever be fired. If after a reasonable amount of time you become convinced that an employee does not have the skills, desire, and/or attitude necessary to do a quality job for your organization, then do the right thing and let the person go so he or she can find a better match for himself or herself.
What I am saying is that any person you have hired can make a positive difference in an organization. They brought some technical ability or experience that led you to believe they will help your business. Think of it this way. If a person doesn’t work for an organization, then he or she makes zero impact. The baseline is zero. If the person works for your organization, then each day he or she is either making a positive difference or a negative difference. Be sure to believe that the person can make a positive difference and give the person enough room and support to make that happen.
We Can’t Predetermine the Positive Contributors
Any person can make a positive difference, but not every person does. We can’t tell who the positive difference-makers are going to be based on their labels. We can only figure out who these people are by looking back at what kind of an impact they had on the organization. Not every person will have made a positive difference, but any person could have made a positive difference. Be open to the possibility of each person making a positive difference because you don’t know ahead of time which ones will and which ones won’t. Let go of predicting and help prepare each person to make the difference he or she is capable of making.
If you think I’m wrong about this idea that any person can make a positive difference but we can’t predetermine who these people will be based on their labels, I would like for you to do the following exercises.
First, make a list of five people you’ve worked with whom you consider to be positive difference-makers and five people whom you consider to be mediocre or worse as performers. Write the names down the left side of a sheet of paper. Then on the right side write down each person’s gender, race, height, personality type, family background, level of formal education, grade point average, name of the university they graduated from, and function in the company. When you get all done, compare the labels of these ten people and see if you can find any common denominators. See if you could have predicted their success, or lack thereof, based purely on their labels.
Now do the same thing with people in your neighborhood or surrounding neighborhoods. The people you sit on your driveway with and talk to after dinner or you’ve met at your kid’s soccer and baseball and basketball games. Write down the names of five people you’ve met who you consider to be very successful and five people who are doing only mediocre in life according to your perspective. Then write down all the labels for each person. Now compare their labels. What do they have in common? Could you have predicted the successful people if all you knew about them was their labels?
As I write this there have been 44 presidents of the United States. Pick your favorite five and your least favorite five. The five you felt made the greatest impact as president, and the five you felt did the worst job. Now write down each person’s labels on his first day as president. Describe each person’s personality, military background, formal schooling, family wealth, height, size, and career leading up to being president. Do they have much in common? Could you have predicted their future greatness based on their labels prior to their first day in office?
My experience in having worked with thousands of people over the past thirty years is that there is no correlation between their labels and the amount of positive difference they made in their organization.
I believe this means that any person in an organization can make a positive difference. We just don’t know which ones those people will be. I think we are vastly too quick to label people. Employers spend a lot of time interviewing candidates trying to find just the right person for their organization, and then within six months they’re labeling these new hires as “Top 20%” or “Bottom 10%” or “a real sales person” or a “detail worker, but not a big picture thinker.” Rather than labeling people, try to get out of their way, and in some cases help them get out of their own way, so they can make the difference that they are capable of making.
Tangible Resume Strengths versus Intangible Non-Resume Strengths
When you’re hiring new employees, it’s easy to get seduced by tangible resume strengths. Think of a resume. On one sheet of paper you have a person’s work history, education history, awards, achievements, grade point averages, and titles. It’s easy to compare two resumes and decide which one is stronger. That information is tangible.
Now consider what’s not on a resume. That includes desire, work ethic, decision-making ability, emotions, passions, purpose, level of caring about quality and customers and co-workers, attention to detail, creativity, operational skill, ability to work with other people, capacity to lead and to follow and to support other people, and strength at finding insights into customers.
These are all intangibles. Intangibles are extremely important drivers of business results. Every job consists of functional, relational, emotional, logical, creative, and purposeful aspects. The functional aspect is the technical ability to do your specific job. That’s tangible. That’s what people get hired for. The other aspects are intangible. That’s what needs to be developed in people.
As you help all your employees to improve in relating to other people, consciously strengthening their emotions, thinking logically, creatively developing new solutions, and identifying their purpose for the work they do, you are automatically increasing the capacity for success in your organization. The primary work of management is to develop both the tangible and the intangible strengths of the employees in order to improve the organization’s desired results in a sustainable way.
Management’s Role in The Any Person Movement
Since you don’t know based on their labels which of your employees are going to be the ones to make a positive difference, it’s very important to believe that any person can make a positive difference. If you start winnowing out the possibilities in your employees, you may very well be limiting your organization’s success over the long term. Give each employee opportunities to apply their strengths and passions to improve the company.
W. Edwards Deming, the granddaddy of the quality movement, said, “Common cause variation is part of the system or process. To decrease common cause variation, you must change the system. This is management’s responsibility. Only management, not the front-line personnel, has the authority to change the system or process.” In using the 80/20 rule, managers have inadvertently created a massive problem. They have left out of the realm of possibility many people who could be making a positive difference in the organization. In shifting to the 80 + 20 rule they will create an organization where any person can make a positive difference. When you get an organization filled with positive difference-makers, you can generate sustainable success.
Instead of looking at employees as labels, think of them as individuals. Each individual employee has specific strengths and passions. Your job is to work with each person to figure out how his or her individual strengths and passions can be applied to improve results for your organization. Find out what ideas the person has that can help the company to become better.
Here’s one more list exercise. Make a list of your employees that report to you. Don’t categorize them or label them. Just meet with each one and ask the person to talk about his or her strengths and passions. This may take a few conversations to really uncover them because people generally aren’t thinking about those things. They’re thinking about their work and the next project and the big meeting coming up. If you have to do so, suggest other strengths and passions you see in the person that he or she may not be consciously aware of.
After the two of you identify the person’s greatest strengths and passions begin to discuss how that person can use their strengths and passions on a regular basis to improve the organization’s desired outcomes. You will still have a top 20% and a bottom 80% in terms of performance, but this way you will get 100% of your employees focused on making their greatest contribution to the organization.
The role of the manager becomes even more important in The Any Person Movement. Now in addition to all of your other duties you need to focus on leveraging the potential greatness in each employee. That’s a big task. But that’s where you can make your greatest contribution. This is how you can lift the organization to an even higher level. It becomes a major way for you to make an even greater positive difference in your organization.
Realize Your Own Capacity for Greatness
For The Any Person Movement to be successful, it is not only up to executives and managers to think differently. It also requires that employees throughout the organization see the possibilities in what they have to offer to the organization.
The Any Person Movement isn’t about taking away responsibilities from individuals and paying everybody the same. It’s not about dumbing down workers and giving everybody a reward. Employees can still be fired.
The Any Person Movement simply says that any person can choose to take responsibility for his or her decisions and get better at any age. Any person can consciously work to enhance his or her emotions and to better understand other people. Any person can become an effective leader and an effective team member. Any person can be an asset in helping to improve other people’s careers. Any person can invest efforts in observing customers and determining what would be of more appropriate value for the customer through more innovative products and services. Any person can see what is hurting the organization’s brand and offer recommendations. Any person can develop and maintain strong desire, dignity, and optimism at work. All of these intangibles can be developed by any person in an organization.
The Purpose of The Any Person Movement
The purpose of this movement is to increase the percentage of people in an organization who are making a positive difference on a regular basis.
There are two sides to The Any Person Movement: managers and employees. Consequently, there are two parts to this movement: focus on practical ideas that any individual, regardless of his or her title or income or level of authority, can use to make a positive difference in his or her organization, and focus on practical ideas on how a person can help other people become positive difference-makers.
The higher the percentage of positive difference-makers you have in your organization at every level, the better the chances are of your organization achieving its desired future. This takes conscious effort applied daily to make it into a reality.
Republishing ArticlesMy newsletters, Thoughts on Excellence, have been republished in approximately 40 trade magazines, on-line publications, and internal publications for businesses, universities, and not-for-profit organizations over the past 20+ years. If you would like to republish all or part of my monthly articles, please send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org with the name of the article you want in the subject heading. I will send you the article in a word document.