Earlier this year, I discovered the book Awesomely Simple and wrote a book review on it for this blog. I admired the book’s down-to-earth approach and wanted to learn more, so I reached out to its author, John Spence. John agreed to sit down with me last month for an interview.
Jennifer: Thank you so much for your time, John. Let’s start from the broad perspective. What’s has the reaction Awesomely Simple been?
As I talk with people about the book, here’s what I’m finding: business owners are hungry for any idea that will help them improve their business. They are running so fast and lean that they don’t have a lot of time to work ON their business. They are able to get solid ideas [from the book] that they can implement immediately. I tried to write the book in as simple a manner as possible to help them out.
Jennifer: That leads to my next question. You say that the premise of your book is complexity versus simplicity and running an effective business is simple, but not easy. Why do you think sometimes the business books make it so complex?
John: Many business books today are written by academicians or people who are big serious thinkers and are seriously into research. These people get paid for being brilliant and making things complex so you have to hire them to explain it. That is part of their job. I just wanted my book to be simple and clear to understand. Here is the important part: if it is easy to understand, then it is easier to apply.
During my presentations to leaders, I often ask: “How many have read “Good to Great?” Just recently, during a lecture I gave at Wharton, many raised hands. Then I asked, “How many used it?” Not so many hands raised. Don’t get me wrong, I love Jim Collins. I always think this is an interesting dichotomy; there is a big difference between reading a book, understanding a book and then applying the ideas in the book. To me a book is useless if you can’t get to the third stage of applying the ideas. I wanted [people to take] ideas to action in my book.
Jennifer: Is it that the ideas in some books are too esoteric?
John: It might be that they are a little too challenging to grasp. Too esoteric. It’s that old “Knowing/Doing Gap;” a lot of people know what they have to do but making that gap as narrow as possible is extremely difficult to do.
Jennifer: So we are talking about how your book is different. It swings the pendulum in a completely different direction—back to simplicity. The book outlines six principles of business success. Have any of the six been resonating more strongly than others when you talk with folks?
John: “Best People” has definitely resonated. I am starting to hear something that businesses are concerned that when the economy turns around their employees will bail as they have been worked so hard, maybe with less pay. This is a bad thing to hear a business owner say especially if they know they have some great quality personnel.
Another one that has resonated with many people is “Disciplined Execution”. Leaders are saying “I know these things, but I’m not doing them consistently. It’s isn’t about learning a whole new model, it’s being more consistent about doing the basics. I can’t believe we don’t nail the fundamentals.”
Here is a classic example. Everyone knows how difficult it is to lose weight and what has to be done: reduce your calories and increase your exercise. So simple, yet not many of us do it really well. You need courage, discipline and determination to do these things really well. In my book there are just six thing to focus on. Just do the fundamentals really really well and you’ll devastate the marketplace.
Jennifer: So what is getting in the way?
John: Tolerating mediocrity, being so busy trying to put out fires that they don’t take time to build a fire station, getting caught in the daily busy-ness. People are so busy working in their business that they don’t have time to work on their business. They are always hoping for a magic bullet. The six [principles] I have listed are the most critical.
Jennifer: You mentioned tolerating mediocrity. I noticed this is a strong theme throughout your book. In your experience of working with a broad section of leadership, why is this going on?
John: There are a several sides to this issue. First of all it is impossible to create a culture of excellence unless there are clear standards of excellence. I think companies may tolerate mediocrity because they have not defined what superior performance looks like clearly enough. You can’t hold someone accountable to a standard that is ambiguous. No one ever told them [employees] what good performance is and how it will be measured. You have to clearly outline the standard.
In my book I discuss: Train/Transfer/Terminate. I love the Jack Welsh quote: “I never fired anybody that was surprised.” You need to tell the employee you have set clear standards. Leaders need to say “we know you are not meeting them, what can I do to help you?”
Tolerating mediocrity falls back on the leader to set standards, discussing those standards, holding people accountable for those standards, being honest, and having courageous communication around those standards and letting people know when their performance is subpar.
Here’s another factor: consider the middle or senior manager who may not be performing that well either. They don’t want to shine a light of accountability on someone else because they know that light will be reflected back on them.
In “Five Dysfunctions of a Team” by Patrick Lencioni talks about this really well when he talks about vulnerability. It is about people thinking: I am afraid to say “I don’t know” or to say “I made a mistake”. Then the thinking evolves to “I don’t want to hold anyone else accountable because I don’t want anyone to hold me accountable”. I think a lot of times a mediocre leader lets mediocrity go because they don’t want to be held to a higher standard either.
Lastly, I think it is very challenging for people to have the conversation around “your performance is not to standard.” Many leaders are reluctant to have this conversation because they are just afraid to confront it. They just hope the situation fixes itself. One of my favorite phrases is: hope is not a strategy. Leaders need to get better at those courageous conversations. Allowing someone to perform poorly when it eventually puts their job in jeopardy without talking to them is really mean. It’s not fair to the person, or the company. So, the earlier you have those conversations, the better because there’s still a chance you as a leader can fix it. But leaders need to have those courageous communications so that they aren’t tolerating mediocrity.
Jennifer: Speaking of conversations, I think your book really outlined some helpful specific dialog and practical tools to use.
John: Yes, there are several tools I have put in the book to help leaders. They’re sort of common sense and yet have been huge hits. For example, there is the “four pieces of paper” to help with managerial the four levels of decision-making. I just met with a board of director and taught him the four level decision-making process. He thought it was so fantastic and would be able to apply it immediately.
Jennifer: In the chapter outlining the “Best People” principle, you tell a story from your personal consulting experience in which you stood in front of a client’s entire workforce and told the truth, which in turn got you fired from the project by the company’s leadership. It was a great example of “telling the truth to power”. Readers from my blog are external leadership consultants and internal leaders. Please give them some advice on how to speak “truth to power.”
John: First of all, if you are a consultant: As a trusted advisor, you have an absolute responsibility to tell the truth all of the time— as you see it. Even if that costs you your job. [As a consultant] I have been terminated for saying things that were uncomfortable or saying things that no one else would say.
The things I share [with clients] are not based upon my opinion or my thoughts and feelings. I collect information from hundreds or thousands of employees. I deliver the message from the employees. Most of my stuff is based on interviews, confidential surveys, and gathering data, with just a little bit of my opinion added in.
Now, if you’re a leader receiving unflattering information: I believe that when someone delivers that kind of information to you [as the leader] that the good lead r (metaphorically speaking) hugs that messenger. The leader’s message should be, “I hate to hear that, I love that you told me.” It may be painful to hear but it is important to listen and be thankful.
Jennifer: John, this has been an extremely interesting conversation. Readers of The People Equation will benefit tremendously. Thank you so much for your time.
John: My pleasure.
NOTE FROM JENNIFER:
John has generously offered to give me three signed copies of his book Awesomely Simple to share with my readers. Want a copy? Write a comment here or at the SkillSource Facebook fan page to the following question:
“What’s the most simple, yet awesome advice you ever received from a leader?”
I will take all comments, put them in a hat and draw out three winners. Enter your comment by 5:00 PM (EDT) Friday April 23, 2010. I’ll contact you via email if your name is drawn.