Setting and Maintaining Standards

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In a prior entry, I mentioned the fact that when I look for consultants and volunteers to work with here in Framework, I find myself looking for a particular standard.

In thinking about this, I realize that my standards are similar whether I am looking to hire a copy-editor to review a single article, or someone to lead programs to CEO’s of critical client companies.

There are certain basics that I look for, and the best business-partners are those who are able to match my own commitments to the following cornerstones, which I would call “The Unreasonable Commitments”:

  1. An Unreasonable Commitment to Keeping Promises
    This is especially true for basic practices such as starting and ending events on time, keeping due dates and working as hard as possible to create an environment in which everyone keeps their promises, and acts as if their word is an important part of who they are. They are careful in what they give their word to, because they treat the act as an almost sacred one, even when it seems to be unimportant. They break their promises infrequently, and only under duress.
  2. An Unreasonable Commitment to Mastery
    I like working with people who love what they do, and give 100% of themselves as often as they can. They are always looking to learn and master their craft, and are willing to practice the basics over and over again (a la Tiger Woods) for smaller and smaller gains that add up to greater expertise in whatever they might do.
  3. An Unreasonable Commitment to Communication
    There are some people who can be counted on to reply to business email, and to keep channels of communication open with those who they consider to be business partners. They just don’t drop off the radar of others, and work hard to stay in touch. They know that “80% of success is showing up” according to Woody Allen.

These are “Unreasonable Commitments” not because they are all that crazy, but just because in the Caribbean environment it may well be that no-one else is willing to keep these commitments.

Make no mistake about it — our regional companies are (in general) operated at lower standards than the average international companies. There are a few exceptions, it is true, but they demonstrate the rule.

Individuals that insist on these three commitments will appear to be “Unreasonable” simply because they are operating very, very differently and it might be hard to understand at first why a consultant should be on time even when the client never is.

On a slightly different note, my wife insists that it is easy to make money in Jamaica. All one has to do in business is the basics — return phone calls, answer the phone, be a little pleasant most of the time, keep the most basic promises and stay in touch in some way.

I think she has a point.

Volunteering and Standards

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I once “worked” as a volunteer for an organization that had 200 employees and 3000 volunteers. What was remarkable was that this company was a for-profit company.

There are a few companies that I have volunteered for that I consider to provide the kind of experience that made the time well worth it, and many that I think could learn a thing or two.

There were three lessons that I learned from my volunteer experiences.

Savvy organizations realize that volunteers give of their time for every reason that employees do, only without the prospect of material compensation. They seek to learn and grow themselves, to make a real difference and to be acknowledged for their contribution.

Savvy employees know that they need to make it easy for their volunteers to gain the benefits they seek.

Many of the best practices used to manage employees still apply.

Best Practice #1 – Insist on Providing Value
Managers of volunteers know that they need to sit down at the beginning of a volunteer assignment and talk about what the volunteer would like to gain from the experience. They talk about their goals, and what they would like to learn while they are on the assignment.

Some go even further, and explicitly insist that a condition of their engagement as a volunteer is that they gain value that exceeds the cost to them in time, money and energy. In other words, the onus is on them to gain the benefit.

Here at Framework, this is a part of our own volunteer agreement.

Best Practice #2 — Make the Agreement Explicit
A written agreement works better than one that is spoken. It covers the necessary basics that relate to any contract employee, minus a section on remuneration. ’nuff said.

Best Practice #3 — Maintain High Standards
In the best organizations, volunteers are part and parcel of the high standards the organization aims to deliver to its customers or constituents.

The question I ask myself most of all when engaging volunteers and employees alike, is whether or not they have what it takes to raise the standard of work done in the company, or whether or not they will have to be managed carefully so that they don’t lower it. With volunteers, the key is to create that expectation from the very beginning, and to be very clear with them that they are part of delivering it.

If they are treated as if they can deliver great things, they are much more likely to do so.

On the other hand, if little or nothing is expected of them, then it is likely that they will live down to that expectation also.

The bottom line is that the volunteer to company relationship is not very different than an employee to employer relationship.

HR Consulting Group Formed

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For some time, I have wished that I had an informal network of consultants to work with on different projects as they come up.

I have wondered to myself, what does it take for me to get the point where I feel comfortable working with another professional?

First there are the basics.

I have to know who the person is. Remarkably, this is a challenge for many consultants, who as far as I can tell have not found ways to stay on the radar of their clients, prospects and other consultants. I find myself still working very hard to do this, with several monthly products that I hope my clients find useful.

Once I know that a consultant exists, I need to reach a particular level of comfort with them. This has more to do with their competencies, standards and professionalism.

The best way for me to come to know someone in this manner is to start by generating a conversation with me in my blog, or by responding to FirstCuts, or by asking questions that are pertinent to the work they most like to do.

Someone who has the time to create the relationship is probably someone who I’ll call on to work with me on an upcoming project.

Recently, I took that principle and reversed it. I think that all the HR consulting practitioners in the region would benefit from having a single place to be in touch with each other, so I created a couple of things. The first was a discussion list (which I discontinued) and the second is a message board.

So far it is quite dormant, and we’ll see if anything happens to this virtual network/community. Here is the URL: http://caribcons.forumplayground.com/

Caribbean Employees are Exceptionally Sensitive

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This is a problem I haven’t solved, but I think that by stating it clearly, it might help me to understand how to think about a solution.

Do Caribbean managers have only one of two choices?

Should they be nice (in which case employees run all over them) or should they be harsh (and thereby lose the trust and loyalty of those from whom they most need it)?

Is the set of choices available really as limited as this suggests?

When Everything Becomes a Business

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It is unfortunate that in today’s world that everything has “become a business”.

Test Cricket — “nothing more than a business”
Professional Football — “a money-making venture”
Fine Art — “basically a form of entrepreneurism”
etc.

While it is accurate that these and other pastimes can be seen as businesses, I think it is a mistake to argue forcefully that they can all be reduced to mere financial concerns.

It is true that they all have commercial aspects, but untrue that they should be seen through this lens exclusively. Everyone suffers when this happens, and when it happens too often a certain cynicism creeps into even the most altruistic activities, such as volunteerism and donations.

It is almost as if there is an accusation that if a cricketer is not viewing, for example, his career as a business, then he is not being realistic, or not being professional.

This might have a grain of truth, but it is also true that a test cricketer is not a mercenary. To think of what they do as “just a job” is to reduce the activity of playing cricket at the highest level to the most empty kind of employment.

The greater truth is that business-leaders are desperately trying to move their companies away from being entities whose only relationship to their people is one of trade — my money for your time and effort.

Instead, companies are at their best when people are able to lay aside such interpretations and are able to approach their jobs as if they are volunteers, with the kind of fervor and commitment that enhances their experience of being human, and deepens their working relationship with their co-workers.

It is tragic when a young professional allows the “commercial trade” that is a necessary part of their relationship with their employer to override all over concerns, even the concern for their own frame of mind.

The New Approach to Creating Slides

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In an earlier post, I wrote about the new ways to use PowerPoint slides, emphasizing pictures rather than words.

I have some examples of how my slides have evolved over time from being full of bullet points, to being driven by emotional images that help the audience to focus on the words I am saying, rather than those on the screen.

I have found a book that goes even further and provides a template and a way of thinking about presentations that is just excellent.

In the book Beyond Bullet Points, the author, Cliff Atkinson, makes the point that a good presentation is like a movie script, and the different scenes that are shot in the making of a film.

He has done an excellent job of reducing a movie to its elements, and applying the elements to a different purpose.

Movies have a basic structure, he argues. They begin with a particular background setting, against which a protagonist (usually the star or main figure) is going along in their life until some tragedy strikes that must be resolved.

The movie is about the steps taken to resolve the crisis, and at the end there is some kind of wrap-up to bring things to completion.

(Of course, there are amazing films made as a departure from the basic structure, but most departures are amazingly awful.)

A presentation or speech is no different, and the template he provides to structure a speech in 3 acts like a movie or play is a real breakthrough in thinking. He also advocates using PowerPoint slides as pictures with a minimum of words to build emotions at different points of the presentation.

I recommend it highly.