Where did the initiative go?

Dear Ken Keller,

I took a long weekend to think about my business. While it was quiet and I was driving down the road, it occurred to me that I was the only person in my company that takes the initiative to do anything.

The more I thought about this, the more I thought about the fact that I have to carry this burden 24/7 and maybe this is why I get angry, frustrated, disappointed and am often dead tired by Tuesday afternoon.

I don’t want to complain about my employees, they are good people. But is it always this way in the businesses you work with? -–Ted H.

Dear Ted,

To directly answer your question, in some companies many employees take the initiative and in others it’s how you described your company.

You may laugh when you read this, but the line about the factory of the future may be the kind of culture you have created without knowing it: The factory has a man and a dog. The man is there to feed the dog, and the dog is there to keep the man away from the machines.

When any individual takes the initiative they take the risk of making a mistake, doing something they weren’t supposed to do; spending money they were not authorized to spend; say something they weren’t supposed to say.

If you want initiative, you will have to make it acceptable for it happen, and when it does, you can’t complain, criticize or discipline a person for taking it because if you do, they won’t take it again.

Many years ago I was screamed at by one of the Vice Presidents for not having enough finished goods inventory to completely fill an order. Rather than be screamed at again, I went the other way and made sure that every order would ship complete by increasing the finished goods inventory to the point where the finance department was asking me what was going on. I replied, “I am trying to maintain 100 percent customer service levels per the VP.”

The finance people then asked the VP what was going on. When he confronted me I pulled out my notes from our conversation from a few months back and read it back to him, word for word.

I told him that he could carry the larger inventory and have 100 percent fill rates or we could reduce the inventory and do backorders, but not both. It was his choice to make but he could not have it both ways.

If he wanted to be pissed at the results of his decision he could go look in the mirror but his days of screaming at me about his decisions was over.

This is likely why your employees don’t demonstrate initiative; they simply do what is required to get a paycheck. Somewhere along the line they got burned by taking the initiative.

So, how do you change the situation? You have to be ready and prepared to allow your people to make mistakes. You have to trust them to not make the same one twice and you need to encourage them to take the initiative, and coach them on how to make better decisions. If you really want to make this work in your company, start the process with your managers first.

Dear Ken Keller

I am hiring sales people and want to know a great question to ask the candidates during their first interview. Do you have one? —David T.

Dear David,

I would ask: “If you had a choice of making a base salary of $2000 a month and a commission of five percent of all your sales, or no base salary and a commission of fifty percent on everything you sold, which compensation plan would your choose?”