Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Pursuit of Something Better Book Review

I got a hold of a book called 'The Pursuit of Something Better' and was asked for my thoughts. This is a book about company culture - so I was excited. The book focuses on US Cellular, and how CEO Jack Rooney used the concept of the 'Dynamic Organization' to transform the company and maximize business potential.

I was annoyed early on. Employees gathered for 'the highlight of the year' with 'excited anticipation' triggering 'another round of celebration.'
'The people in this room must be among the happiest, most fulfilled workers in the country'. There was 'heart' and 'soul' and 'changing inside.'

Really? This is just too much.

The book focuses on CEO Jack Rooney's creation of a 'Dynamic Organization'. I stopped looking for what the Dynamic Organization is or why it's unique - and then I started to enjoy the book more. Perhaps it's semantics or pessimism, but I felt leadership, sound business principles and discipline were being displaced by this fancy 'Dynamic Organization' phrase.

I suppose it would be more positive to focus on the great changes that did seem to happen, eventually, when Jack Rooney made changes at US Cellular. There are some real life approaches I think many of us can apply to our workplaces. Management was caring and regularly gathering info from diverse groups of employees through significant and regular surveys, focus groups, town hall meetings and email hotlines. There was a focus on training. They made paying better a priority - which I imagine initiates a higher caliber applicant and improved retention. Cancerous issues in the organization were also addressed - things like firing those who steal from the company. There was discipline, facilities upgrades, empowering staff, clearly laying out strategy and sticking to it.

Overall, I took away two strategies, both not entirely conventional, that I think can be powerfully considered in our businesses:
  • #1) (Relentlessly) Focusing on the employee is a valid business strategy to positively effect the bottom line.
Before Jack Rooney changed the focus at US Cellular, Customer Service Reps in the call centers were judged almost exclusively on how close they came to efficiency. The traditional time-on-the-call metric meant if they got rid of a caller quicker they were doing better than if they resolved the customer's issue. A better approach was seen in empowering the employee to resolve problems, paying them more, and improving the work facilities. This trickled down to the customer, made them happier, customer retention and referrals went up, and the company made more money.
  • #2.) Cultural fit is even more important than performance.
At the new US Cellular, an employee resistant to the company culture (to the values and direction of leadership) is committing a serious crime, worthy of termination. On the other hand, and employee who fits but fails to perform is forgiven (and trained). You'd do better to fall short of a goal than to reach it unethically, or by taking advantage of a customer, or by treating customers, associates or even competitors with disrespect.

I think many of us do this already. We know the importance of cultural fit. We have different members of our team interview new hires. But do we make cultural fit a primary strategy? Are we willing to fire top performers if they don't fit the culture and values?

We can call all this a 'Dynamic Organization' but it isn't a secret program or puzzle to deconstruct. It's sound business. A lot of the successfully strategies, like empowering call center workers to please the customer, and prizing fit, reminds me of what Zappos does so well.

Metrics might not have that direct connection to the bottom line we so often like, such as sales per associate, or cost of benefit per employee. Perhaps the best recipe is a bit more indirect. Maybe leading indicators can be more about measuring and driving to keep employees thrilled, or to act ethically, or to reward the right attitudes?

In the end, authors Dave Esler and Myra Kruger left me thinking about some valuable ideas in The Pursuit of Something Better. Among them, do you have the right metrics in place? Can doing the right thing bring you financial success? Are you willing to stick to your guns when your plan is unpopular?

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