May 15, 2012

What would my replacement do?

I just attended the Chick-fil-A Leadercast event, which was very good. It was a simulcast presentation viewed live by 125,000 people with a goal of creating better leaders. It is an annual event that I would recommend: The presenters were very energizing, I picked up ideas for a few leadership and personal growth development books I want to read, and most importantly I came away with a new blog topic!

The general theme of the event was making decisions, and the first presenter, Andy Stanley, gave three rules to use for decision-making. For me, it was worth attending the event just to hear the first one. He said, in making a decision, ask yourself, “What would my replacement do?”

He gave the example of Intel’s CEO and CFO, who were wrestling with the company’s direction. They asked themselves, “What would a new management team do differently?” Asking this question led them to make a radical shift in the company, away from their legacy business line.

This is a very intriguing question that forces a fresh and unbiased look at things. It is a tough question because it challenges the status quo. It is thought-provoking because it doesn’t necessarily lead you in a specific direction. However, my first thought was about accountability. When a new regime comes into a big company, they often strive for better results by “cleaning house” and announcing they are bringing in a new management team.

This objective approach may result in draconian measures like firing the bottom 10% of producers, closing underperforming plants, or selling off unprofitable divisions.

That’s somewhat compelling, but also a little scary. It could lead you to believe that this question drives you toward objective accountability and a more cutthroat environment. But that might not always be the answer.

The replacement may be coming into an underperforming situation due to a less-than-optimal culture. Interestingly enough, Patrick Lencioni touched on this as the bookend concluding presenter at the Leadercast event. He’s probably my favorite business author, and if you haven’t read his books, I would recommend them. They are fun to read as the books are fiction, kind of like parables with business lessons.

Lencioni talked about the theme of his new book The Advantage, which is that the only sustainable competitive advantage in a modern business is organizational health (aka its culture). So the question “What would my replacement do?” could lead you to improve morale and commitment (a more subjective change) so you can capture not just employees’ heads but also their hearts. If the talent is in place, this kind of positive team atmosphere could be what is missing in order to achieve optimal performance.

Those two thoughts of objective accountability and playing hardball versus the more subjective idea of improving company culture seem to be opposites. The question could obviously point you toward an answer totally different from either of these as well. I think that’s the beauty of this question. It doesn’t necessarily lead you in a specific direction or toward a certain management strategy. But it forces you to look at things through unbiased eyes. This bias naturally creeps in as you become friends with coworkers and grow emotionally attached to company tradition. If you’ve been at the company a while, you may even need to acknowledge shortcomings you have helped create in your tenure, which can be very difficult to do. It’s the old “can’t see the forest for the trees” scenario.

“What would my replacement do?” is not just a question for managers. Think about how it can apply to just about any employee. What would someone with a fresh perspective do differently? He or she would undoubtedly question old practices, look to automate manual processes, eliminate inefficiencies, and generally move things forward. I think Andy Stanley is on to something with his question “What would my replacement do?” If it catches on, maybe I could make some money on the side selling "WWMRD?" bracelets!

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