Sunday, February 15, 2009

The One Thing You Need to Know

The One Thing You Need to Know... About Great Managing, Great Leading, and Sustained Individual Success is the title of a book written by one of my favorite authors Marcus Buckingham. This book is an excellent read for managers in private industry and the nonprofit sector alike. The One Thing You Need to Know is provocative and challenges traditional thinking about the primary roles of effective managers and leaders.
A number of key management strategies and leadership principles are advanced in this book. And most of them are of high value for managers of disability employment programs. I really enjoyed the chapters on sustained individual success including playing to one’s signature strengths to achieve lasting career growth and success. All of this material was very helpful to organizing my thoughts about management and leadership strategies. However, one particular passage continues to resonate with me since I finished the last chapter and closed the book.
In a discussion on leadership, Buckingham writes about the universal needs of a company’s employees and what they crave most from their leaders. In his words: "the most powerful universal need is for clarity." If a leader wants to influence and motivate her colleagues, she needs to "transform their fear of the unknown into a confidence in the future."
Buckingham offers four critical points he says are instrumental to driving clarity, transforming behavior, and keeping a company’s employees focused, challenged, confident, and engaged. These four points include clear answers to the following questions:
  1. Who do we serve?
  2. What is our core strength?
  3. What is our core score?
  4. What actions can we take today?

Each of these issues is critical to an effective leadership and communication strategy. And each is a cornerstone to defining an organization’s purpose and fundamental goals. Of course, we could spend a lot of time discussing each one of them. However, I would like to take up his first point of clarity in this post– Who do we serve?

Hey, that’s the easy one, right? Everybody knows who our principle customer is!

Well, I don’t think there is as much clarity on this point as one is often led to believe. Of course, it’s quite common to hear "people with disabilities" are the primary customers of community rehabilitation programs (CRPs) because they are target recipients of our services. Another conventional viewpoint is that "government or funding agencies" are the principal customers of CRPs because they refer people and purchase our services. Most CRP managers would identify "community businesses" as core customers since they offer the jobs critical to our participants’ employment outcome success. And finally, we hear other viewpoints that "family members, community agency partners, internal customers, or the taxpaying public" are valued customers of CRPs. I have offered seven possibilities here and this is by no means an exhaustive list.
To carry this discussion further, it’s very common for CRPs to conceptualize their business as serving multiple customers. For example, I often hear agency managers say– "We are unique because serve three sets of customers: people with disabilities, government funding agencies, and employers."
I have a few related questions here. How do agency staff effectively serve three, four, or five customers each and every day? How can we prioritize staff functions and time allocations so each of these customers are served efficiently and effectively? How can we craft policies and practices to simplify, integrate, and clarify the focus and energies of staff? How (where) do we invest our limited funding resources to maximize impact on our many customers? How can we rally staff around a common vision and set of principles to maximize teamwork and create synergy with so many customers to please? In the end, what does performance excellence look like for the organization and its professional staff?
In his discussion on leadership, Buckingham reveals that many private corporations tend to struggle with the same types of questions. He shares somewhat whimsically that most companies tend to believe in this notion– "We serve many masters." However, serving many masters obscures the clarity we are seeking and divides available energies and resources into numerous parts. So the core question is– How can we reconcile this issue?
Research on organizational excellence indicates the most successful corporate leaders work hard to simplify this question by focusing on "one master." In other words, the best run, most successful companies clarify by focusing their attention and energies on serving one primary customer. And by tapping power of the ripple effect, the most successful corporations end up serving all of its customers effectively.
For example, mega-corporations such as Wal-Mart, Walgreens, and Best Buy have taken quantum leaps in their respective markets by providing a high degree of clarity for their employees. In these corporations, there is no confusion about who the primary customer is. To illustrate this fact, Buckingham points to the corporate strategy of Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart has chosen to focus its full energies and resources in serving people who live "paycheck to paycheck." Of course, this doesn’t mean shoppers with greater means are unwelcome to shop there. It simply means Wal-Mart’s entire corporate strategy is passionately focused on welcoming and attracting the loyalty of shoppers who live on the lower end of budget spectrum.
Controversial and political issues aside, it’s hard to argue with this point–Wal-Mart has successfully branded its product. This retailer has done a remarkable job identifying its primary customer base and its employees have a high degree of clarity concerning the question "Who do we serve?" All of Wal-Mart’s corporate resources and energies are directed at doing this job better than anyone else.
Let me take this discussion closer to home. There is little question most CRPs and similar adult disability service organizations engage a number of stakeholders on a day-to-day basis. And it’s really not my point here to say one set of customers is more important or valuable than another. Rather, at the heart of this discussion is the fact most CRPs are very complex organizations and lack a high degree of clarity on the fundamental question– Who do we serve?
Who does your agency serve? Actually, it’s a pretty easy question to answer after spending a little time examining your organization’s business fundamentals. Show me your mission statement and strategic plan. Show me your annual corporate goals. Tell me how your agency’s fiscal resources are invested. Show me your organizational chart and staffing structure. Share with me what your staff do and how they spend a majority of their time. Tell me where they spend their time. Show me what your staff development training looks like. Tell me which policies and practices are driving the daily activities of your staff. Finally, show me your annual report and outcome data. As we sift through this information objectively, we should have a clear idea of who your primary customer really is.
I've weighed Buckingham's thesis and it's strengthened my view most CRPs (and similar disability service organizations) have it all wrong. In my view, the primary customer of a typical CRP ought to be private industry. This may sound counterintuitive to the priorities of many organizations but this focus makes great sense. If integrated employment at competitive wages and benefits is truly our preferred and desired outcome, then we have to change the way we do our business. We need to restructure policies and practices to breakdown the ‘silos’ we have erected that segregate people with disabilities. We need to work toward a new vision of universal design where people with disabilities are supported in valued community roles not programs. We need to increase the demand for our "product" in the marketplace by making the business case for hiring people with disabilities. We need more "foot soldiers" directly engaging employers on a day-to-day basis. In sum, we need to invest more time, money, and energies in ways that engage business leaders to play primary not secondary roles.
I will offer an educated guess here– despite claims to the contrary, business and workforce development is not really the principle focus of most CRPs and a disproportionate percentage of time, expertise, and resources are directed to other customers. OK, certain programs (e.g., housing) are not designed with employment outcomes as their principle goal. I get this. However, this tends to be a minority of programs in most CRPs. And yet many others could embrace employment-first strategies and practices but choose not to.
Be sure of this– attaining the full inclusion of people with disabilities will remain a distant dream, until CRPs turn their human services and rehabilitation emphasis on its ear. To this end, we need employers driving the proverbial bus. Business and workforce development needs to be the principal focus and CRPs should be dedicating a much higher share of their time, resources, and energies to building dynamic partnerships with business leaders.
When you think about it– naming private industry as our principle customer would completely change the future landscape. It would fundamentally change the way CRPs and their employees think about and do their work. It would change the very core of who we are as organizations. It would mean transforming our operations from human services or rehabilitation providers to business partners. Of course, it would also mean restructuring staff roles and duties to cater first to the service and support needs of private industry. In this emerging role, CRPs would concern themselves with what businesses need to hire, train, employ, and support their employees with disabilities. And we would work passionately and with higher clarity to deliver it.
When we engage business partnerships and support people in the competitive labor force, we will also witness the "power of the ripple effect" Buckingham refers to. In other words, the "other" customers served by CRPs will be equally pleased and well-served by this fundamental change in focus. People with disabilities will go to work in greater numbers, earn more money, and achieve integration within the community’s workforce. Family members will be excited about the inclusion and success of their loved ones. Government funding agencies will be pleased with the CRP’s performance in securing integrated jobs at higher wages and benefits. And taxpayers will get more bang for their buck.
And here’s the one thing you need to know–everyone wins!

5 Comments:

Anonymous Randa Niederhauser said...

I don't see many comments on your site, but want you to know that I always read it. From my perspective as a parent of a young adult with disabilities, you're one of the few people (in or out of "the system") who gets it. Your posts always leave me hopeful and encouraged. Keep writing!!

9:20 AM  
Blogger Don Lavin said...

Hi Randa,

Thank you for your kind comments and the encouragement. It’s very rewarding to hear my blog is providing helpful information to parents and family members of young adults with disabilities. I am a strong believer in our need to get better information out to family members to change expectations about integrated employment and encourage our working together to make competitive employment the first choice of their loved ones. In truth, we are only beginning to recognize the full potential of individuals with disabilities and how emerging strategies such as customized employment can make a big difference in widening job opportunities through strengths-based practices.

Randa, you might be interested in hearing Minnesota’s Employment First Coalition has recently identified two major goals for the coming year. One of these goals is to plan business-to-business mini-summits to increase business leadership and expand workforce opportunities in support of Minnesotans with disabilities. However, our second focus is to plan Minnesota’s Third Annual Employment First Summit to meet the information and transitional support needs of self-advocates, parents, and family members. This is an event that is long overdue and we are very excited about planning it.

I guess the pace of change is too slow for my own temperament but we are indeed making steady progress! Thanks again for taking the time to comment and best wishes.

Don Lavin

9:03 PM  
Anonymous Randa Niederhauser said...

Don, I am in Missouri which is languishing in the "sheltered sweatshop" mentality. We have an entrenched system that is very invested in maintaining the status quo. The paradigm shift and new vision of true employment is just starting to bud, and will be vigorously opposed. The leap that you've made to understanding yourself as an employment broker between individuals and businesses would be completely foreign to most of our systems. My daughter is fortunate to have a fantastic (real) job with Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City because of a contact I made at the KC APSE conference a couple of years ago. They're using Erin Reihle's model. I want more than anything for others to have the same opportunity, but haven't found a way to plug in. Typically, most of the efforts in my state focus on those already in the system and don't know how to include parents. Is that ironic? Anyway, thanks for your reponse.

10:14 AM  
Blogger Don Lavin said...

Randa, congratulations on your successful advocacy in support of your daughter. She is lucky to have a parent who is connected and demanding better opportunities and outcomes for her. I am familiar with employment model used by Erin Reihle and it's another successful method of engaging business in the work we do.

One of the reasons, we are hoping to focus our 3rd Annual Employment First Summit in Minnesota on self-advocates and families is the very point you are making. Most educational and adult service systems don't know how to include parents and family members effectively in critical decisions and choices facing their loved ones. We need to work together to create a higher demand and make integrated employment at competitive wages and benefits the first choice. And I believe things will only improve when self-advocates and parents demand it.

BTW, I will be speaking at a Missouri APSE conference event on organizational change issues in Columbia on August 6, 2009. If you will be attending, I'd love to meet you in person.

2:56 PM  
Anonymous John Papers said...

Thank you for this article..
John..

7:19 AM  

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