Permission is Granted to Argue with the Owner

Peggy Noonan wrote a column in the Wall Street Journal on April 20 about her attendance at Margaret Thatcher’s London funeral service. She commented that Mrs. Thatcher was often frustrated with her staff. Thatcher once said to her aides, “I don’t need to be told what, I need to be told how.”

Best selling business authors have written about having “the right people on the bus.” These same authors also emphasize the need to get the “wrong people off the bus.”

Books by Jim Collins (“Good to Great and Built to Last”); Tom Peters (“In Search of Excellence”) and Marcus Buckingham (“First, Break All The Rules and Now, Discover Your Strengths”) are highly enjoyable books filled with ideas that are hard to implement.

In your company, what happens when disagreement surfaces about strategy? If a manager objects, most owners would think they were dealing with a disloyal employee, an internal terrorist.

But what if this was someone who cares about the business just as much as you? The person pushing back may simply possess a different point of view and is passionate about expressing it.

I’ve witnessed owners killing the spark of an employee having a different opinion with an unkind comment, an intentional slight, or by simply pulling rank.

Xerox’s Barry Rand said to his people, “…if you have a ‘yes’ man working for you, one of you is redundant.” Business disagreements are acceptable provided they are not personal. Arguments over goals, strategies and tactics should be encouraged. Do you want the best available thinking or the blind followers of the herd mentality in your company?

Assume your company allows open discussion until a decision is reached, and then all gather in agreement to move forward. Simplicity beats complexity so with apologies to the best-selling authors, I have different advice about execution. The first is to have annual goals of volume, revenue, expenses, profits and cash flow.

Volume relates to the number of units sold. Newspapers count copies, law firms track billable hours, coffee roasters measure pounds and realtors think listings and closings.

Expenses can be measured as a percentage against sales to maintain productivity and to keep costs from growing faster than revenue.

Those responsible for achieving the goals must set them. Company goals cannot be kept secret if the owner wants the company to achieve them.

Once goals are set, the second step is to create strategies for achievement.

Strategy is deciding what needs to happen to be successful. Most owners either know what the strategies should be, or they know who to ask for input. They usually fail to ask inside their own organizations; a significant blind spot.

The challenge is keeping the number of strategies for each goal to a manageable number.

My recommendation is to have at least three, and not more than five, strategies. This makes the process of implementation easier to manage.

The third step is to set specific tactics for implementing the strategies.

Tactics answer the “how” question, as in, how will we do this? This question is more completely answered as by whom, when, where and how much to invest is also answered.

The key to success in business is in execution, the “How.”

The How happens at every level of your company.

To achieve your company goals, hire the best people possible to get things done. Let these individuals argue with you, disagree with you, and then you challenge them to show you up by showing you how they did it their way. Let them teach you the how.

Mrs. Thatcher wasn’t too proud to learn, even as Prime Minister. Don’t fall into the trap that, as the owner, you must know all, because you don’t.