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Business Officer Magazine

With a Little Bit of Luck And a Lot of Support

What does it take to help employees succeed? Here are seven practices that work.

By Lawrence R. Kelley

I have met very few people who really didn’t care what happened in their jobs or wanted negative results. I have observed that most people come to work aiming to be successful in what they do. How can we help employees achieve that goal? When I’ve seen and experienced success, the combination of the following seven practices has been present.

What’s the Secret?

So what does make the difference as some people and organizations find success and others don’t? Some might say that all we need to do is to hire people with high IQs. In his book Emotional Intelligence (Bantam, 1995), Daniel Goleman points out that some people with high IQs have floundered while some with lower IQs have flourished. President Bush reminds us that even C students can become president of the United States.

I once worked with a person who wanted to hire only people with degrees from Ivy League universities. Some of those he hired did well; some did not. They were all intelligent but something else must have affected their success or lack of it. 

Others might say, “Give me more people and more money. That will guarantee success.” Resources certainly help, but on their own they aren’t the answer. An article in the June 2005 CFO Magazine reports that Krispy Kreme donuts was a well-funded company that serves as a good example of how resources are not the only path to prosperity. When Krispy Kreme went public a few years back, the initial offering price was $21 per share. The stock soared to nearly $50. The company had lots of money and people. Most anyone who ever lived in the southeast knows that Krispy Kreme donuts had a cult-like following. If one was to bring donuts to work, it had better be Krispy Kreme donuts. The product was unique. It was rare, fresh, and hot. As the company expanded, however, they sold donuts in gas stations, grocery stores, and more and more franchise locations. Instead of being rare, fresh, and hot, the donuts became common, old, and cold. As Krispy Kreme lost focus of their purpose, the stock fell to $6 per share. Money and resources were not enough to ensure positive results.

Albert Einstein said, “If A is success in life, then A=x+y+z where X is work, Y is play, and Z is keeping your mouth shut.” This implied the importance of balance in life.

Is balance enough to make success our destiny? Truett Cathy, founder of Chick-Fil-A, one of the most prosperous restaurant chains in America, said, “Our destiny is shaped by what we say, what we do, and who we trust.” We probably can drill deeper into each of those things. For example, what we say and do is influenced by things like our talent, attitude, desire, training, and ability.

But what influences who we trust? Things like our willingness to make ourselves vulnerable, past experience, and common sense all come into play. Former President Reagan spoke the now-famous line in dealing with the Soviet Union: “Trust but verify.” I think if we choose not to trust we will have difficulty being as smart as all of us—to borrow from Ray Kroc, founder of McDonalds, who said, “None of us is as smart as all of us.” If we aren’t as smart as we can be, the “X” in Einstein’s formula is at risk and what we say and do comes from a much narrower field of opportunities.

1. Select and retain the right people. In his book Good to Great (HarperCollins, 2001), Jim Collins reports that great organizations have the right people in the right roles. We need to hire and retain capable, talented people who advance their departmental goals with enthusiasm while recognizing that they are part of a larger organization in which they collaborate with others.

2. Develop the talents these people bring. We need to provide the toolkit and support necessary to help. Things like techniques in planning, decision making, and problem solving need to be in that toolkit, as should metrics like those found in the balanced-scorecard process. And each person needs to know that his or her supervisor will provide support in both the decisions made and the materials needed. This support allows and requires growth by the person. It also can be one of the most difficult resources for the supervisor to give since it includes communicating regularly and allows mistakes to be made. We also need to involve individuals in understanding the job and how it relates to the larger organization as well as recognize the efforts and contributions they make.

3. Identify and live by common principles that can serve as a default position when situations get stressful. These principles are demonstrated in the encounters and actions on a daily basis. The principles can be supported by ensuring that all are aware of them, understand them, and are recognized for demonstrating them. At Cal Poly, we have identified the following as our principles in the administration and finance operations: integrity; commitment; empowerment; creativity; collaboration; and equity in an environment of trust, respect, communication, and results orientation. We include the demonstration of these principles as part of the annual targets for the department heads and survey all the staff to learn if they see these principles in practice. Further, we have an ongoing recognition program that rewards people who demonstrate the principles.

4. Promote a clear purpose. Fundamental elements of the purpose of the university’s administrative and finance operations are to provide service and accountability that support the academic mission. The accountability also supports the mission but often is driven by the need to provide information and reports to such agencies as the IRS, retirement programs, 403(b) companies, and the like. The administration and finance operation is the credible link to those organizations as well as to internal departments.

5. Establish and share expectations for performance. Possibly one of a supervisor’s toughest duties is to help set the expectations without micromanaging the operation. Knowing the expectations helps one determine if he or she is successful. As we work with many constituencies, we recognize that the expectations might not always be the same. In one instance I recall a group of faculty that complained repeatedly about the level of cleaning in their offices and classrooms. We worked with the faculty to help identify the expectations and actually posted the cleaning standards on each of the rooms. The custodial staff was involved in determining what was reasonable and, once the standards were in place and communicated, the complaints went away. 

There is a story about three umpires preparing for a baseball game. The first says, “Some are strikes and some are balls, I call them as I see them.” The second replies, “Some are strikes, some are balls, I call them as they are.” The third umpire says, “Some are strikes, some are balls, but they’re nothing until I call them.” I imagine we have worked with each type of umpire in our duties and, occasionally, all of them at the same time. The challenge for us is to know the expectations so we can meet performance goals and understand the difference between the “strikes and balls.”

6. Encourage flexibility and innovation where possible related to those expectations, promoting a “whatever-it-takes” attitude. I worked with a catering operation on a university campus in which one of the caterers told me that once an event begins, staff are to do whatever it takes to make the event go smoothly. He said that in the planning of the event they estimate costs, establish a budget, and gather supplies and materials, but once the event begins the only thing that matters is doing well. If they underestimated the costs, they accepted blame but did not let that have a negative impact on the event. They did whatever was necessary to make sure everything was executed to the best of their abilities.

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7. Promote ownership. The single most important success factor for a major student housing project on Cal Poly’s campus was that the group of people involved in bringing that project to fruition believed they were owners of the effort. They behaved with the care and attention one might give to a cherished piece of property or new equipment. They rose and fell with the demands of the project and shared in the joy of the eventual accomplishment. They behaved as owners. This $300 million student housing project began as a public-private partnership and changed dramatically as it became better defined. Throughout all the changes and approvals, the core participants owned the process, results, and eventual positive outcome.

I believe that these seven practices can make a positive difference—in fact, I am using them at Cal Poly as the expectations that serve as the basis for managerial staff annual evaluations. Since people can’t rely solely on luck to achieve their goals, these practices can help individuals accomplish the results toward which they strive.

Author Bio  Lawrence R. Kelley is vice president for administration and finance, California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo.