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Creating the outward-looking business

AME management: Do you know the type of culture you want for your business?

Last month’s column addressed outward-looking versus inward-looking businesses. The idea sensitized me to watch other organizations (and to check myself!) to find evidence of one or the other. Often, the evidence is mixed.

Three examples

A hotel where we have hosted CTEAM for several years had the same three young guys providing support for the meeting rooms and lunches. They welcomed us by name on arrival, remembered how we like things done, and helped when we had projector problems. Very outward. But the cook who did eggs to order in the breakfast bar was surly, slow and often not at his station. The former make us want to go back. The latter makes us seek alternatives given what they charge us for breakfast.

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An integrated farming and processing company wants to change the outdated perception of their commodity with an array of new customer-friendly products relying on a range of sizes and qualities of that commodity. To induce retailers to carry the products, a major requirement is to deliver on spec, on time, every time. In turn, this means that the right raw product must be delivered to the plant on time and on spec to fill orders. The vision is outward, but one of the principals doesn’t want to change the way things have always been done on the farm to meet delivery requirements.

A machinery dealer and service provider of specialized orchard and grapevine equipment never questions providing warranty work, even when it’s questionable. His maintenance people drive for hours, even on holidays during the peak harvesting season of a very weather-sensitive crop, to help customers keep running. Revenue from service as well as from machinery sales grew much faster than projected — because they treat customers as people who need help in achieving their goals.

Fostering an outward-looking business

How do you instil outwardness throughout your farm business? As indicated last month, we are inspired by two leadership books from the Arbinger Institute: Leadership and Self-Deception and The Outward Looking Organization.

Intriguingly, their fundamental point is to approach managing like the machinery dealer above, with the simple question of “how can I help?” And it’s not only asked about customers. Ask it about the people you work with, those you work for, and those who work for you: how can I help overcome your challenges and achieve your objectives? Then adjust your actions when you get the answer and, finally, measure your success.

Conceptually, it’s simple: it’s like the Golden Rule applied to everyday life!

Arbinger makes several interrelated suggestions about transforming an organization toward being more outward:

  • Start with the mindset. For many of us, when we see something wrong in our organization, we immediately try to find the solution and change behaviours: it’s the quick fix. But it’s hard to legislate behaviour and harder to enforce it. In the long term it’s usually more effective to get people to ask the right questions: What, specifically, will make us successful? How does my work interact with others in the business? How can I help peers achieve their objectives? How can I help customers achieve their and our objectives? Are my reports developing their abilities? Do they understand how they contribute to our overall objectives? Do they understand how their work fits with others’ and how they can help each other?
  • Mobilize around a collective goal. Vision and clear strategic intents provide a vehicle. Developing intents as a team adds clarity because members are involved in developing them. They can clearly visualize their own role, understand others’ roles, and predict how they interact.
  • Allow people to be fully responsible. Note the word “allow” instead of the usual “holding” people accountable. Encourage individuals and teams to develop their own responsibilities. Outwardness is about understanding the needs of one’s customers, supervisor, peers and reports. Not surprisingly, a diagram can be developed for each person or team that identifies the four quadrants, their objectives and actions in response. Top managers can work with each person or team to develop their own diagram and the appropriate actions needed to achieve their objectives. Then the person or team can be responsible for achieving what they identified. In this context, managing people becomes less about controlling and directing and more about coaching, co-ordinating and continually finding improved ways to do things.

Finding ways to continually improve means looking for ways we are still being inward or if we have slipped back into it, and how to be more outward. The two examples at the beginning of this article show both inward and outward behaviour. Most organizations do. So, management’s job is to find ways to get the chef to be responsive and the farmer to see the advantage of change.

Alternately, it may be that the two are not compatible.

I once had a colleague who managed a project, gave vague directions to a young researcher and, when the researcher turned in a poor report, took it away and said he would do it himself. He failed on every level discussed here: failed to clarify expectations, failed to develop the researcher’s abilities, and failed to deliver a quality product to the customer. He reported to me. I failed to clarify my expectations and he failed to understand them. The researcher was unsuccessful in ensuring she understood and delivered on this. Inward-looking piled on top of inward-looking!

Our Country Guide articles are often about numbers. I like numbers: they have little nuance, are easy to understand and help identify what needs to be done. Many people think they are difficult. But deciding about the culture you want for your business and then creating it is what’s really hard. Arbinger has wisdom to share.

Larry Martin is a principal in Agri-Food Management Excellence, which runs the Canadian Total Excellence in Agricultural Management (CTEAM) program.

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