Friday, June 03, 2005

How Can I Do It Without Getting Fired?

It’s a question I periodically hear after delivering a corporate speech, and I just heard it again last week: This is all great stuff, but you don’t know my company (or boss, or business, or industry). We need to shake things up in this company, but I’m not the CEO. How can I do all this innovative stuff without approval—or without getting fired?

If your first name isn’t “CEO” and you’re somewhere in the middle of the hierarchy, here’s a quick and dirty set of responses:

• I meet with a lot of executives, and to a person they tell me that they desperately need ideas and initiatives from everyone. The big caveat is that they don’t want people to simply have a great idea (or a great complaint) and then toss it upstairs. They want people who are willing to create some alternative solutions. They want people who will do some due diligence to show that their great idea has an economic and market logic. They want people who will create a plan of action, who will form a team, who will take responsibility for results. Do these things and your career will zoom past that of your colleagues who simply wait for orders.

• The CEO of an agricultural equipment manufacturer recently told me his perspective: “If you’re prepared to demonstrate that it’s good for the customer and good for the company, then do it without asking.”

• An executive VP of a big utility company described the best management lesson he ever learned: “When I was a young manager,” he told me, “I was cautious. I waited for my boss’s directives. One day he came to me and said ‘What have I told you that you can’t do?’ ‘Uh, nothing’, I stammered. ‘Exactly’, he responded. ‘That’s why I hired you. Instead, you’ve built your own box around yourself. Climb out of it.’”

• Michael Abrashoff, who had a brilliant Navy career and captained what was called “the best damn ship in the Navy”, told a group of us that one can respect a hierarchy without fearing it. How did he get away with all his actions that went against the grain of military conventional wisdom? He would fire off a message to his superiors that read: “Unless otherwise directed, here is what I will be doing….” Amazingly, he never got stopped, or even questioned.• Most of our fears of punishment and retribution are self-imposed. However, if you’re in an organization where your job and career are really threatened if you make conscientious efforts to create new value for customers and shareholders—then you’re on a sinking ship and you ought to be polishing your resume and getting ready to bail out.

• Finally, even under the best of circumstances remember that there will always be some people who resist your change efforts. People love to talk about innovation and change, but when somebody actually does it, people freak out because their comfort zone is threatened. Expect it, confront it, deal with it. That’s what leadership is all about.


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