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Making the same mistakes Add to ...

Robert Schaffer has worked with leaders for 50 years but the consultant says in the Harvard Business Review that despite a dizzying rate of economic, social and environmental changes, the mistakes they make still fall into four classic behavioural traps


Senior managers love to set bold goals, but generally they fail to set proper expectations. It sounds grand to say "We're going to reduce the use of cash by 40 per cent next year" or "We are going to shift focus from mid-market customers to the upper end during the next two years." But usually those ambitions hit the ditch, because the leader hasn't spelled out a credible plan for achieving the goal or specified who exactly - one person - is accountable, both important parts of setting proper expectations.

Sometimes leaders describe what must be done but then sabotage themselves and the effort with some weasel words that let people off the hook. Take the understanding leader who says, "I know you have lost some people, Stan, but you have to really give it a go - we really need to increase sales in your territory."


With operating managers so preoccupied with the performance of their own units, they often elude responsibility for organization-wide performance. Instead, they delegate the responsibility for that upward, back to the senior manager.

Mr. Schaffer cites as an example the CEO of a large IT-based company who determined that demographic and technological trends would gradually render many of its business lines obsolete. He tried to draft some of the smartest people in some key units to help him develop new strategies. But their bosses objected, claiming that while they understood the dangers of obsolescence they had critical problems those individuals had to deal with immediately. The CEO acquiesced, and allowed them to delegate the responsibility back to him.


Staff experts who advise leaders, and consultants brought in to help with change, are great at conceiving new production systems, organizational structures, and marketing plans. But they usually don't assume responsibility for outcomes. This collusion - leaving nobody responsible - comes because the experts are uncertain they can work with the client company to produce results and the leader wants to provide some distance from the effort anyway. If it works, the leader will be happy to be hailed as a hero, but if it fails it's nice to say "even the experts couldn't solve this one."


When senior managers challenge their employees to improve sales or reduce costs or make other improvements, they are often told, "Yes, but first we must …" Maybe that first item on the agenda is the need for staff training or a market study, but today's management culture accepts that the first step to improving performance is finding new programs to achieve those gains.

That's because everyone wants to believe they are doing their utmost under the current operation. But Mr. Schaffer offers examples where big gains were made within existing systems thanks to focus and effort.

MARKETING: Building sales with small companies

Big businesses that serve other big businesses often fumble when they try to turn their attention to attracting smaller business as customers. MarketingSherpa editor Sean Donahue recently offered lessons taken from Rogers Communications, which was trying to develop business with companies that had 20 employees or fewer:

Create dedicated small-business sales and marketing teams that can target these small operations properly, because in many ways they act like consumers but want to be treated like a business. Rogers also created a dedicated call centre for small business support, rather than relying on the regular consumer support line.

Develop products specifically aimed for small business, rather than adding a few bells and whistles to consumer products or stripping features and functionality from products for larger enterprises. In 2009, for example, Rogers launched the first land-line phone system for small business.

Partner with other large companies trying to reach into this marketplace, to make the effort more affordable and effective. Rogers helped create an alliance called The Committed To Growing Small Business Coalition with companies such as HP and Staples.

Get involved with groups such as local chambers of commerce, universities, and business incubators that support small business. Rogers also started its own venture-capital fund for high-tech startups.

Buy from small businesses; they love to get their foot in the door of large companies but often are stymied by procurement policies. As Rogers has been finding, however, it can be a significant challenge to change those policies.

MANAGEMENT: Why comparing workers with their peers can backfire

It is usually assumed that employees who are benchmarked against each other work harder. But research by Wharton Management Professor Iwan Barankay, reported in Knowledge@Wharton, suggests this is flawed thinking.

He advertised jobs on the Mechanical Turk website that involved analyzing images. In the experiment's first stage, he posted two identical jobs, but one offered feedback on the worker's accuracy at the end of the assignment while the other didn't. He thought the first would be more popular, given conventional management wisdom that people want to know how they rate. But the job without the feedback attracted more workers -more than three times as many (254 to 76).

In the second stage, he randomly divided workers into a control group receiving no ranking; in another group, people were asked if they wanted to do more work and also received feedback with a ranking from previous jobs. More people in the group that didn't receive feedback returned for more work (66 per cent to 42 per cent), while those who received feedback were 22-per-cent less productive in their work.


Act and react

Reactive tasks are those driven by others while proactive tasks are driven by your goals. Entrepreneur Scott Scheper suggests that you should balance your time so 20 per cent is spent on reactive tasks and 80 per cent on proactive. howtogetfocused.com

Filtering e-mail

Kevin Rose, founder of Digg, advises you to create a VIP filter in your e-mail program that captures messages from your boss, investors, close friends and siphons them into a separate folder that you check first every morning. Kevinrose.com

Google mapping

Most companies pay considerable attention to how their website scores on Google searches. But you also need to make sure that you are among the top choices when somebody uses Google Maps to look for your type of business in a specific area. Monday Morning Memo

Reality check

When assessing mediocre or lousy employee you have, ask five simple questions: Who hired them? Who trained them? Who coaches them? Who supervises their work? Who keeps them around? Donald Cooper Corporation Business Management Newsletter

To-do on the Web

Thingler is a free service that allows you to establish a to-do list on a website that can be shared with collaborators on a project. The list is on a unique page, and anyone on the team can add or delete items that the others can see when they refresh the site. Lifehacker.com

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