“No!” replied the client and hung up.
“I quit!” said Bill out loud. “I haven’t made a sale all day.”
Jill, Bill’s big boss, happened to be passing his cubical as he announced his intent to terminate his employment, or at least sales calls for the day. “Bill,” said Jill, “We don’t quit. If you are having problems, I expect you to find a way to over come them. Getting to YES is an important principal of our division. I want you to spend the rest of the afternoon examining what what you have been doing and work with your team leader to figure out what you can improve. Both of you will report to my office in the morning with your findings.” Jill did not wait for a response. She turned and left. When she returned to her office, she called Bill’s team leader and told her about Bill’s problem and her expectations for corrective action.”
Jill said, “Getting to yes is an important principal.” She did not scold Bill for breaking a rule, but rather for failing to comply with a guiding principal. Guiding principals liberate leaders and employees from restrictive rules that require and prohibit behaviors by establishing clear boundaries, not rules. Employees operate within their boundaries established by guiding principals without fear of breaking some arcane rule. Employees use the principals to break the molds of past successes improving the organization. Sometimes people make mistakes, but in principle based organizations, leaders allow people to learn from errors, reorient themselves, and continue on the path to success. Guiding principles establish boundaries, not specific routes, for people to travel to achieve successful outcomes.
In the example at the beginning of this post, Bill probably violated several rules in his organization. Jill elected to call out Bill for violating a principle instead. According to Robert McDonald, Secretary of Veterans Affairs, “A rules-based organization is a safe place to work…because as long as you follow the rules, you’re never going to be criticized. You go to the General Counsel for each opinion, so you never have to take any personal risk.”1 Rules tell each employee what to do and what not to do in a given situation. The problem with rules is no organization can write a rule for every situation, and organizations like the VA have tried. Often rules conflict in a given situation. When faced with a situation not covered by a rule, or one where the rules provide conflicting guidance, people have to make decisions. That is why guiding principles are necessary.
Guiding principals, sometimes called values, are a short list of ideas that establish behaviors for employees to accomplish the organizational mission regardless of the situation. In some organizations, they establish their guiding principals a single words like, duty, honor, country. Others may use short phrases like, get to yes, respect all stake holders, continually improve. Organizational leaders boil down ideas until only those most important remain. An area cannot be established with less than three points. More than seven and people will not remember the principals; the area is too large.
The following morning Bill and his team leader Jane were waiting outside Jill’s office when she arrived. After being invited into her office, Bill explained to Jill that he and Jane spent the afternoon reviewing his sales pitches. They discussed some small improvements he could make to be more effective. Jane told Jill that she would check in with Bill a couple times in the next week to review his progress and make additional refinements to help him get to yes. Bill said, “I’ve learned the importance of seeking help when I need it to deal with frustrations.” Jill smiled. Bill’s outburst helped her develop Jane’s leadership skills and Bill’s sales skills. Had she just reprimanded Bill for disturbing other sales representatives, neither Bill nor Jane would have grown.
Leaders who use guiding principals establish markers to follow allowing freedom of choice instead of rules that fence in options. Guiding Principals develop effective organizations. They create a climate for employees and junior leaders to safely take risks within established areas. Leaders use mistakes as learning opportunities for the employee and others. Employees respond to increased trust by finding improved ways to accomplish the organization’s mission. All stakeholders receive the results they expected. By using guiding principals, people find their own route to success within establish boundaries. Now is a great time to review your organization’s principals and determine how you can improve them for increased success in the coming year.
Cubical: Drew from Zhrodague from Flickr.com
Fence: Jesse Loughborough from Flickr.com
Cairns: Sean Munson from Flicker.com
All used under Creative Commons Licenses.