Great piece I read in a book. I can’t remember which one now. It opened my eyes. just as one Sunday morning, the blooming Laburnum in early April would, in this part of the world. Thought I’d share it with friends.
As a 10-year board member of the Peter Drucker Foundation, I had many opportunities to listen to this great man. Among the myriad wise things I have heard Peter Drucker say, the wisest was, “We spend a lot of time teaching leaders what to do. We don’t spend enough time teaching leaders what to stop. Half the leaders I have met don’t need to learn what to do. They need to learn what to stop.”
How true. Think about your organization. When was the last retreat or training session you attended that was titled, Stupid Things Our Top People Do That We Need To Stop Doing Now? When was the last time your CEO delivered an internal talk, designed to motivate employees, that focused on his negative traits and his efforts to stop this destructive behaviour? Can you even imagine your CEO (or immediate supervisor) admitting a personal failing in public and outlining his efforts to stop doing it?
There are good reasons for this, largely allied to the positive tone and fast-forward momentum organizations try to maintain. Everything in an organization is designed to demonstrate a commitment to positive action – and couched in terms of doing something. We will start paying attention to our customers (rather than stop talking about ourselves). We must begin to listen more attentively (rather than stop playing with our BlackBerries while others are talking).
Likewise, recognition and reward systems in most organizations are totally geared to acknowledge the doing of something. We get credit for doing something good. We rarely get credit for ceasing to do something bad. Yet they are flip sides of doing the same coin.
Think of the times you’ve seen colleagues go on a sales call and return with a huge order. If they’re like the salespeople I know, they’ll come back to the office brandishing the lucrative sales order and regaling anyone who’ll listen with a blow-by-blow account of how they turned the prospect around. What if during the sales call these salespeople added up the numbers and realized that they were about to close a deal that actually costs the company money with every unit sold? What if they decided on the spot to stop negotiating and say no to the sale? Do they rush back to the office and boast about the bad deal they’ve just avoided? Hardly – because avoiding mistakes is one of those unseen, unheralded achievements that are not allowed to take up our time and thought. And yet…many times avoiding a bad deal can affect the bottom line more significantly than scoring a big sale.
Think of Gerald Levin when he was the much-admired chairman of Time Warner in the 1990s. Levin was hailed as a visionary CEO, the man who foresaw the future of cable TV and helped invent HBO, transforming Time Warner from just a combo of magazines, movies, and music into a broadcasting powerhouse.
But then in 2000 Levin made a mistake. He merged the venerable Time Warner with the upstart online service AOL. It was the biggest corporate merger in US history at the time – promising to create a company that would dominate for decades. Of course, it didn’t work out that way. The merger nearly destroyed Time Warner. The stock lost 80 percent of its value. Thousands of employees lost the bulk of their retirement savings. As for Levin, he lost his job, a big chunk of his net worth, and all of his reputation. He went from being chairman of Time Warner to being the architect of the worst corporate merger in US history.
Now imagine if Levin at any point in the negotiation with AOL had applied the brakes and walked away from the deal? Chances are, we’d never know about it. Levin would not hold a press conference to announce, “We are not merging!” He’d keep it to himself, as just one more example of a bad decision avoided. And yet…if he had done this—if he had simply stopped what he was doing – his reputation and net worth might have remained intact.
That’s the funny thing about stopping some behaviour. It gets no attention, but it can be as crucial as everything else we do combined.
For some reason, we are less likely to poison our thinking this way in normal everyday life. When it comes to stopping behaviour or avoiding bad decisions outside the workplace, we congratulate ourselves all the time.
A few years ago my wife and I decided not to invest in a real estate venture. Too risky, we thought. Fortunately for us (though not for some of our friends), it went bust. Not a month goes by when Lyda and I, sitting around the kitchen table paying our bills, don’t say to each other, “Thank God we didn’t plunk our money into that scheme.” We’re quiet for a moment, think sadly of our friends’ losses, and then resume paying our bills. This is our way of honouring the bad decision we avoided.
Likewise, with stopping a bad habit in our personal life. If we successfully stop smoking, we regard it as a big achievement – and congratulate ourselves all the time for it. Others do too (as well they should when you consider that the average smoker tries to quit nine times).
But we lose this common sense in the can-do environment of an organization – where there is no system for honouring the avoidance of a bad decision or the cessation of bad behaviour. Our performance reviews are solely based on what we’ve done, what numbers we’ve delivered, what increases we have posted against last year’s results. Even the seemingly minor personal goals are couched in terms of actions we’ve initiated, not behaviour we have stopped. We get credit for being punctual, not for stopping our lateness.
We can change this. All that’s required is a slight tweak in our mindset, in how we look at our behaviour.
Get out your notepad. Instead of your usual “To Do” list, start your “To Stop” list. By the end of this book, your list may grow.