Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Plate Spinning

When I was a little boy, I used to enjoy watching the Ed Sullivan show on TV. Frequently on the show, he would have as one of his acts a “plate spinner.”

The plate spinner would have a number of long, thin wooden rods sticking straight up, all in a row. Starting at one end of the row, he would put a plate on top of the wooden rod and start spinning it until it was going fast enough to not fall off of the rod. Then he would move on to the next rod and get another plate spinning. He would continue this down the entire row of wooden rods.

Soon, the plates he began spinning earlier would slow down, start to wobble and almost fall off the wooden rod. The plate spinner would have to stop what he was doing and go back and very quickly get that plate spinning again. Eventually there would be so many spinning plates that the plate spinner would be frantically running from rod to rod trying to keep them all going.

Eventually, he would not be able to keep up with them all, and plates would start to fall and break. As a young boy, seeing someone breaking plates on TV seemed like fun.

In the business world, leaders are confronted with a great number of tasks and responsibilities. Often times, it can feel like being one of those plate spinners. You are frantically moving from crisis to crisis just trying to keep things from breaking. There appears to be no time for quiet reflection or strategic concerns. All the effort is used just to keep the plates spinning.

It doesn’t need to be that way. In this blog we will look at how to stop being a plate spinner and how to become a more effective long-term leader. Plates were originally made to hold scrumptious meals. Let’s stop spinning plates and use them to feast on the fruits of successful planning.

Back around the late 1980s, I read a book summary about how to be an effective manager. The author studied a number of executives who were noted for being effective leaders. He then wrote about the traits he saw in the effective leaders. I’ve forgotten the name of the book or the author and tried in vain to locate the book on the internet. If any of you know the name of the book, let me know.

What the author found was that there was no single way to be an effective leader, but rather several, although the methods did have something in common. As I’ve pondered what I read in the book summary so many years ago, I have modified the common principle of success to being “leveraged focus.” Using the analogy above (something the author did not do), when compared to plate spinning, the successful leader would not try to spin all of the plates by his/her self. Instead the leader would focus on only one of the plates. However, the leader would focus in such a way that the plate he was spinning would have an indirect impact on all of the other plates. His spinning of the one plate would leverage all of the other plates to keep them spinning without a need for the leader to focus on all of them.

The author mentioned several different types of “plates” to focus on and how they could leverage all of the others. I do not remember them all, but here are most of them:

1) Focus on People
2) Focus on Investment
3) Focus on Vision
4) Focus on Process

Each of these will now be described in greater detail.

1) Focus on People
This type of effective leader would focus on making sure that the right people were in the right part of the organization, pretty much to the exclusion of most other factors. This leader would get very involving in the hiring process for all executives, making sure to be part of the interviewing. This leader would spend a great deal of time making sure the skills of people matched their responsibilities and that there was a cultural fit.

The leverage works as follows: If you get great people properly aligned in the organization to take advantage of their strengths, and give them the right tools, they can do great things. In other words, if the “people focus” plate is spinning well, it will create an environment where great people on their own will find the right plates and spin them for you. Just get the right people in the right place and then get out of their way. By focusing on one plate, you get them all.

Dick Schulze, the founder of Best Buy is probably a good example of this type of leadership. He was always fond of saying “you win with people.”

2) Focus on Investment
This second type of effective leader would focus on making sure that the company was putting the resources behind the right projects. He or she would spend a lot of time focusing on capital investments—where and how the money is being spent. Returns on investment would be a key point of interest.

The leverage works as follows: If you can effectively control where the resources are placed in an organization, then you can effectively control what the organization does. In other words, you focus on determining which plates are the best ones to spin. Then you put enough resources behind those plates to ensure that they will keep on spinning without a need to constantly monitor them. The resources will get the work done, so you don’t need to be everywhere at once trying to spin the plates yourself.

3) Focus on Vision
This third type of effective leader spends a significant amount of his or her time on making sure the vision and mission is right. Then this type of leader spends most of the remaining time communicating the vision, to make sure that everybody understands it and is behind it.

The leverage works as follows: If you can get everyone focused in moving in the same direction, then you will end up moving the company in that direction. The details about which particular plates should be spun would occur naturally as people gravitate to the plates most in line with the vision and start spinning them. By focusing only on the direction, you can get all the proper action from others as a natural consequence.

Steve Jobs is probably a good example of this type of leader. He sets the tone for what Apple stands for, and because the people intimately know what he is looking for, they deliver.

4) Focus on Process
A lot of the failure in business comes from poor execution. Therefore, this fourth type of effective leader focuses a great deal of time on process—examining how things get done in the organization. This type of leader looks for ways to streamline a process, eliminate bottlenecks, and make handoffs more seamless. Process flow charts consume the interest of this leader.

The leverage works as follows: By focusing on the Process Plate, one is creating an environment where it is harder for things to fail. Therefore, one does not have to keep running from wobbly crisis plate to wobbly crisis plate, because the efficiencies of the process tend to make the plates keep spinning longer all on their own.

The point of all this is that leaders cannot do it all themselves. However, they still need to make sure that all the proper plates are spinning. So rather than be half-hearted at everything, pick a plate to really focus on. And then make sure that you leverage that effort so that the impact of that plate indirectly gets all the other proper plates to spin on their own. This then allows the leaders the freedom to be true leaders, rather than just frantic plate spinners.

Even though a lot of things have to go right in order for a business to be successful, that does not mean that leaders need to spend time on every little thing that has to go right. In fact, if a leader gets spread that thin, they will end up being effective at nothing. Instead, leaders need to focus more narrowly to ensure that one particular aspect gets done supremely well, be it the people factor, the process factor, the resource factor or the vision factor. Then, the trick is to make sure the effectiveness in that one area ripples out to all the other areas, so that the consequence of the narrow focus causes everything else to naturally fall in line and get done without the need for constant leader attention.

Of course there are always exceptions. Great companies like GE tend to be able to do multiple things right. Regarding people focus, GE has one of the best executive development programs around. Regarding process, they have gotten their arms around processes like six sigma. Regarding resource allocation, they were leaders in no longer investing in businesses that were not #1 or #2 in their field. The mix of the GE portfolio has changed greatly over time, as investments changed with the environment. Regarding vision, people quickly start to understand “the GE way.”

However, even here there has been focus. They didn’t try to institute or perfect all of this at once. Instead, they would tend to focus on only one of these four areas at a time to get it right and then just rotate to the next focus. It has been more sequential plate spinning rather than simultaneous plate spinning.

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