March 2006 Newsletter

Hello everyone, and welcome to the March 2006 edition of my newsletter. 

This month I'm previewing with you the contents of my latest project.  I'm honored to have had the opportunity to work on an anthology entitled Mission Possible!, with some very knowledgeable and successful authorities.  The 12-chapter book contains one chapter per author, featuring some of the world's most successful possibility authors, such as Stephen Covey, world-renowned author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, and Brian Tracy, author of Turbo Strategies.

My chapter is about building effective business communities, and I'm happy to share with you an overview of it.  The book should be available from Insight Publishing next month.  Enjoy!

 

Mission Possible!

By: Rhonda Jones

Any mission is possible, if we just apply a little common sense.  That’s the whole purpose of humans having the ability to develop common sense, which is the practical wisdom derived from everyday experiences.  It’s the lessons we learn from everything we see, hear and do each and every moment of each and every day.  During my career, I found that the people who didn’t learn from their so-called mistakes continued to have the same problems over and over.  Where I grew up, the older people used to say, “She has to learn everything the hard way.”  I finally realized that learning the hard way through learning from everything we see, hear, and do is actually the way we grow our common sense. 

Since Teaching Common Sense has been published, and I’ve begun to elaborate on it more and more through teaching and speaking, I’ve come to the realization that the foundation for my management theories originated in the small country community where I grew up.  Just as having a strong community was critical to our success living out in the country, building community is critical to an organization’s success. 

We tend to define businesses by the products they sell or the services they provide.  But the reality of business is that it’s about the people.  If you took the people away, it would all cease to exist.  Businesses are communities of humans.  Whether companies and organizations are intentional about building community or not, they have one, and it may be effective or it may be terribly ineffective.  There are those who profess to be community-building experts, some of whom approach this from a theoretical or psychological perspective.  I’ve studied and understand all those theories, but for me it all comes down to the common sense principles of community I learned first hand growing up in a small country community in East Tennessee. 

The true nature of an organization’s community is evident in obvious ways.  Is it evident, from talking to people and observing, to conclude that the culture of their work community is conducive to achieving the goals they claim to be pursuing?  In other words, is there congruence between what they say versus what they do?  Is there congruence between what they say they value—especially what the leaders and managers profess to value—versus how it actually feels to be among them.  To be truly successful and totally leverage their human resources—their greatest resource—organizations and businesses must become intentional about diagnosing the true culture of their community, defining the culture they need, then doing the right things to build a community capable of getting their particular job done in a mutually beneficial way.  Based upon my experience growing up in a thriving country community, I’ve identified ten factors I believe are not only transferable to the workplace but also must be transferred. 

First, everything in the community needs to “make sense.”  If I heard my Dad say that once, I must have heard it hundreds of times.  “Why are you doing that?” he would ask, “That doesn’t make sense.”  He trained me to analyze in advance the potential outcome of all my words, thoughts, and actions—to understand the cause and effect relationships linking everything together—in order to increase my probability of success at whatever I was doing.  We couldn’t afford to act haphazardly or recklessly and waste our precious resources.  There was no money to go out and buy more.  Plus, if you made a mistake with the crops, you could destroy that season’s entire harvest.  That would have been devastating, because we really did live from one harvest to the next.  If you think about it, it’s no different in companies or organizations, where resources are always limited and efficient employee effort is critical. 

Always making the most sensible choice, which often meant asking for advice from more experienced people in the community, and then working hard to carry out those decisions was an important lesson I learned on a small farm in that country community.  That statement tells you about the second factor, working the plan.  Once the best possible decisions had been made—such as which crops to plant in which field—we had to work that plan.  The growing and harvesting season isn’t over in a day.  It took time for the results of the plan to materialize, with attention required all along the way.  Getting lazy, losing interest, or letting our focus wane during implementation defeated the whole decision-making process.  Likewise, despite spending extraordinary amounts of time on planning, organizations tend to give up too easily when the going gets tough.  The easiest thing to do is just go back to how it was.  But an effectively functioning community doesn’t just happen by accident.  Working the plan is critical. 

In addition to a prevailing commonsense approach to decision making and visible evidence of hard work and effort being expended to carry out those decisions, there were an additional eight factors that turned a loose connection of farms into a community.  I’ll talk about each one but, in short, they are purpose, spirit, expertise, abundance mentality, helping, self-sustaining, legends, and language.  All of these were not only critical to our little country community, but also are extremely critical to the success of businesses and organizations. 

The geographic center of our community was shaped like a diamond—the school and store next door on one corner, the Methodist church on another, the old country store on the third corner, and the community center and baseball field on the fourth corner.  That area was the heart of our community, and it was also very symbolic of the purpose of the community.  The purpose around which our whole community rallied was family and faith.  Farming to feed and clothe the family, pay for the school to educate the children, and support the church to minister to the community’s spiritual needs was a primary focus in the community.  Everything in the community was aligned to that purpose.  The country store stocked the kind of hardware, seed, grain, and supplies needed on the farms.  And the church services and community dinners, picnics, and ballgames at the community center extended that sense of family from the individual farms to the community-at-large.  We were one extended family, united around that common purpose. In the same manner, for a business community to thrive, it must have all its members rallied around a common purpose.  Everyone needs to be pulling, pushing, and guiding the wagon in the same direction, so to speak. 

As a result of that commonly accepted purpose in the community where I lived, there was a prevailing spirit in the community.  It was something that you could both see and feel.  People were proud to be a part of the community, and they worked hard to live up to the values for which it stood.  Farms were kept so neat and maintained; they were truly picturesque.  People dressed up to go to church or to the community center for a dinner or to the ball field for a baseball game on Sunday afternoon.  Seeing those country folk fixed up in the best they had taught me something about the spirit and pride of belonging to a community and always giving it your best.  Unfortunately, I often do not find that same spirit of pride and esprit de corps when I walk through some organizations.  And, if a person’s spirit is not fully engaged, they won’t be able to give you their best effort.  It’s the leader’s job to create an environment to foster that. 

Speaking of giving it your best, that leads me to the fifth key factor in building community, which I previously described as expertise.  In the community the prevailing culture was one in which people simply did whatever it was they did best.  There was one lady I remember who was always the event planner.  If there was a dinner or picnic or covered-dish supper to be planned, in minutes she could pass out assignments for how many pounds of meat, mashed potatoes, corn and green beans, or potato salad, slaw and baked beans were needed and who should cook how much of what…not to mention the bread, cakes, pies, and homemade iced tea.  Everyone knew that the wise thing to do, on these occasions, was to delegate that task to her, because she did it best.  That’s how it worked.  If you were good at farming, then you farmed.  If you were good at carpentry or plumbing, then you were a carpenter or plumber.  If you could wire, then you were an electrician.  If you had a welder and knew how to use it, then you were a welder.  You weren’t made to feel inadequate because, for instance, you didn’t know how to weld or to plumb.  It was understood and even expected that each individual would be different.  The community was characterized by an environment in which each unique individual had the opportunity to contribute whatever he or she did best.  That helped create the sense of pride, because it gave everyone an equal chance to feel that they were an important and valued member of the community.  It was clear to them how they fit in.  This may be the biggest problem I see in organizations.  Employees haven’t been correctly placed where they, personally, can flourish; they don’t understand how their work is linked to the overall goals of the company; and they don’t know what they can do to help reach those goals.  On top of that, their managers are not actively seeking to know what their talents are and what they are capable of, so their value is all too often lost. 

If communities are able to create an environment in which each member feels they can contribute what they also love to do, one of the great results this fosters is an abundance mentality, which is factor number six.  I’ve mentioned earlier that our resources were scarce.  That was just a reality of life in the country.  Nevertheless, not once did I ever feel deprived.  We were always working hard to improve our farm and our community, yet there was always the feeling of enough.  We had a table full of fresh vegetables, meat and eggs from right there on the farm.  Every meal was a feast.  We had new clothes that Momma sewed by hand—custom tailored just for us.  There was always something going on at school or at church or at the community center to bring us together and keep us entertained.  No one felt like they were missing out on anything or that they had to take anything from someone else in the community.  On a more technical note, no one felt the need to lock their doors either.  There was a prevailing feeling of abundance.  Consequently, no one was jealous or covetous of another.  Each had their own specialty, their own identity, their own prosperity, and everyone understood that it all worked together for the good of the community.  So, instead of tearing one another down, effort was aimed at building one another up.  Too many times in organizations I see a scarcity mentality.  People hoard knowledge and don’t share what they know with co-workers because they somehow feel this hoarded knowledge is their security.  Or they incorrectly think their success, recognition or promotion can only come at the expense of those around them.  Often their leaders simply haven’t created a safe environment in which they can express themselves.  However, by operating with that mentality, they are actually destroying their security, because they are undermining the effectiveness of the company and its chances for success.  If the community doesn’t turn that scarcity mentality into an abundance mentality, then this negative, scarcity type of thinking will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

That leads to the seventh factor of helping.  In the community, neighbors helped neighbors.  Referring back to the comments I made about different expertise, everyone in the community helped everyone else by sharing their expertise, resources, and abundance.  If a farmer had a banner year in corn or hay, for instance, but a neighbor had a bad crop, they would share the excess.  Everyone in the community called on the person who was a carpenter or plumber or electrician whenever they needed that kind of help.  Sometimes a little token money exchanged hands, but usually it was just taken out in trade.  It all centered around the abundance mentality of the communityThe most obvious examples were when a family was struck by an unfortunate injury, illness or death.  The whole community would rally around them and do whatever was needed—cook food, milk the cows, tend or harvest the crops, re-build the barn— sometimes for weeks, months or even years on end.  It might be something as simple as taking groceries to shut-ins.  In one way or another—both large and small—people in the community helped one another by sharing their expertise and abundance.  That’s what companies must do.  The whole must be greater than the sum of the parts.  Team members must be able and willing to pick up the slack for another team member when the need arises.  It’s the visible sign of expertise and abundance mentality in action.  This, too, must be enabled by leaders who create the right atmosphere for it to become commonplace. 

When a community is characterized by a culture of helping, that leads to the eighth factor I look for, and that is it becomes self-sustaining.  As I mentioned earlier, people in the community didn’t waste time thinking about what they didn’t have.  They didn’t sit around feeling sorry for themselves for having it so tough, while their farms fell down dilapidated around them.  On the contrary, there was a constant hum of what I call happy industry.  There was an awful lot of work to be done in the spring to plant and then in the summer and fall to harvest and preserve, mainly to prepare for winter, during which there was still more work to be done cutting firewood and feeding livestock and poultry.  Yet, through all that hard work, there was happiness and prosperity.  There was always joy, if only in the simplest things, and that joyous industry sustained the community year after year, generation after generation.  The focus of the members of the community was always on how to carry on this legacy born of their special interdependence.  Sustaining the community and what it stood for and perpetuating it through the children and grandchildren was a way of life in the community.  Likewise, even if it has only been operating for a short time, any successful business community can show how it has intentionally put forth the effort to continually build on a strong foundation and has put those reins of the future into the hands of well-developed successors. 

One of the key ways the community legacy became self-sustaining was through what I call legends, and that’s factor number nine.  What I mean by legends are people who have lived in the community who embodied what the community was all about.  Maybe they were some of the original settlers and founders of the community.  Maybe they had been active in starting or growing the church.  Maybe they played a large role in the school.  Or perhaps it was some other reason entirely.  But always, in a successful community there are those individuals to whom people can point and about whom people can reminisce who helped make the community what it is today.  The stories of the founding fathers and mothers, and the values of the community they founded, need to be kept alive and perpetuated through the storytelling of community legends.  In this manner, they provided an ideal image—a role model—for everyone, especially new members, to seek to emulate.  To be a part of the community and to take pride in ones role in the community is to aspire to the standards those legends of the community have established.  A community without legends lacks the important symbols of that for which it stands.  It may be difficult for me to explain something to you with words, but if I can show it to you, then you understand because you can see it.  That’s what we gain from these legends in the community.  They teach us what our community means to us.  They show us the way.  Leaders in the business community must be willing and able to become these symbols.  They must walk the talk, because people are always watching.  They must know what kind of community they want to build.  They must be intentional about their efforts to build it.  And they must be consistent.  Then they will become the legends and the symbols that employees seek to emulate, and they leave the legacy that no member of the organization wants to tarnish. 

Those legends help give a community a common language, which is also very important in the community, and it’s our final factor.  Similar to what I was saying earlier about using legends to show someone the behaviors you are trying to describe, in a strong community there is a common understanding about what matters most.  A good example would be the word successful.  To be successful in one community might be entirely different than what is considered successful in another.  In a farming community, success was defined in farming terms.  But in a community located closer to town, for instance, daily life might revolve more around commerce; so the definition of success and what is acceptable in the pursuit of success would be different.  A strong community has clarity about its desired results and the inherent meaning of the words and ideas used to describe the values and acceptable behaviors of the community.  There is a common understanding.  Through this common language people know what it “looks like” to be an effective functioning member of the community.  Any confusion about that is eliminated.  Business communities must spend time getting very specific about what they’re about and what they need from the members.  Then they need to have done the right things to ensure that everyone is speaking that language. 

The profoundness of these ten factors of effective business communities lies in their simplicity.  They are not rocket science.  There’s certainly nothing wrong with being a PhD, but you don’t need a PhD to apply this approach to work and life.  You just need to focus on these commonsense principles; be intentional about what you think, say and do when you’re attempting to live by them; and pay attention to and learn from the results you generate.  That’s how each individual grows their common sense, and that’s how we grow effective business communities.  It’s just common sense!