Burning Down the House

Recently, an experienced, hard-working CEO shared with me his concerns for his business. The urgent issue at hand was stressed bank covenants due to a perfect storm of events, partially anticipated, that keyed around a long-standing top customers drastic drop in business due to it being acquired by private equity.

The writing was on the wall, it was real and it spelled potential doom. As we talked, he understandably focused, as he had for years, on new sales efforts and finding that next big deal. As I challenged him that this is not a sales problem but rather an organizational health issue, he recoiled.

We debated about other areas in the organization that perhaps had stress fractures that needed repair now, that if continued to go unchecked, could be catastrophic.

I flippantly piled on with, "Jim, sales are like grout, they cover a lot of blemishes and cracks in the tiles. If you don't fix the structural flaws today, while still flying this aircraft at 34,000 feet, you eventually will crash and burn - ending a great run for you and your employees."  That philosophy didn't seem to help him.

Devastating Outcomes

It caused me to ponder a personal devastating experience - a large lake house that succumbed to fire and was destroyed.  Fortunately no one was harmed and we had insurance.  After extensive reports from the fire marshal, the insurance company and a special engineering company brought in by the insurance company, it was determined that no one could clearly state the cause of the fire.

However, all three admitted to me that they were convinced it was a flaw in the framing of the firebox that over time, under pressure of heat, failed.  That "small" failure brought down a 5700 square foot cabin in less than eight hours.

If we do not tend to small things, they quickly can become devastating.  If we do not take the time to technically and honestly assess any potential breakdowns in our organization's health, devastating outcomes are only hidden behind a bit of drywall and paint.

Critical Questions

This story emphasis three critical questions leaders need to ask in order to move on during change and difficulties and get different and better outcomes.

1. How did this happen?  

2. What do we do now?

3. What flaws do we have that we have not yet seen?

In NY Times best-selling author Andy Andrews book The Little Things, Why You Should Sweat the Small Stuff; he claims that the smallest issues can change an outcome in our life - in war or in an Olympic race.  A fraction of a second made all the difference for Michael Phelps.  But where did he "find" that split second?  Was it in his training, in his positive attitude prior to the race or something else?

Small Things

Well according to the NY Times (AUG. 15, 2008) it was something else. After 3,200 meters and 16 races, Michael Phelps's pursuit of Mark Spitz came down to a single stroke. With five meters to go in the 100-meter butterfly final, Phelps realized he had misjudged the finish. He had two choices: glide to the wall, kicking like crazy, or take an extra, awkward half-stroke. To his left, Milorad Cavic was having the race of his life. Phelps, who was seventh at the turn, had no room for error.

Most swimmers would have impulsively chosen to glide, but Phelps proved by the slimmest of margins what sets him apart. Following his instincts, he took an alligator-arm stroke and touched the wall. Cavic, a California-born Serb, hit the timing pad in full glide.

Both swimmers spun around and stared at the video screen. In the moment it took the scoreboard to unscramble the results, the tension inside the National Aquatics Center was palpable. Phelps was timed in 50.58, a personal best and an Olympic record. Cavic, a California-Berkeley graduate was one-hundredth of a second behind.

Phelps had caught Spitz by a whisker. It was his seventh gold medal, tying Spitz's record haul from the 1972 Munich Games and earning him a $1 million bonus from Speedo, one of his sponsors.  Little things do matter.

Healthy Teams

And according to Patrick Lencioni of The Table Group and author of many best-selling books, a healthy organization makes all the difference in success vs. failure. A healthy organization can help answer those questions. 

Patrick says, organizational health is essentially about making a company function effectively by building a cohesive leadership team, establishing real clarity among those leaders, communicating that clarity to everyone within the organization, and putting in place just enough structure to reinforce that clarity going forward.

Simply put, an organization is healthy when it is whole, consistent and complete, when its management, operations and culture are unified. Healthy organizations outperform their counterparts, are free of politics and confusion and provide an environment where star performers never want to leave.

Avoiding Ruin

So evidence supports honest debate about what might be wrong in your organization can lead to "fixing" it before it becomes a problem.  Are you looking for problems, even those not easily spotted? We know, challenges left unaddressed fester into bigger issues. Furthermore, evidence supports a healthy organization performs better than an organization that does not create a healthy culture. And finally, experience tells us that little things left undone, unsaid or unresolved can have a devastating impact on outcomes over time.

As a leader, ask yourself tough questions, look at where things are broken today and may be broken but unseen.  Go ahead and sweat the small stuff that can, if ignored, burn down your business.

by Tony DiLeonardi

Tony DiLeonardi