Unleash the Potential of Your People With One Word

If you ask people to describe how they feel on a daily basis, it is amazing how many times the word that comes up is “overwhelmed”.

I remember visiting a Quick Serve Restaurant (QSR) with the COO of the brand when we happened by a bulletin board in the back room that had dozens of 8 ½ x11 sheets of paper attached to it. As a matter a fact, a number of the flyers were taped to the sheets above and reached down to the floor in two separate rows. It looked like some type of massive kite with tails. The COO asked, “What is this?” The restaurant manager replied the sheets were the initiatives and tasks that the restaurant received in just the last week from the various departments at corporate. The COO quickly asked, “How do you decide what to do?” She said, we tackle the items we think we would get in the most trouble for if we didn’t do them.  It was clear that the restaurant team had reverted to playing the children’s game “whack a mole” with special points for the knocking down the moles from the most feared departments.

So in reality, the right answer to fully engaging the talent of you people may be “no”. No to more strategies, no to more initiatives, no to more directives, no to more priorities, and no to more urgent requests. Even the Wall Street Journal saw this topic so interesting they recently published a lead article on why this tiny word is so tough to say.

“No” is often seen as a rejection and most owners of strategies or initiatives don’t want to see their babies rejected. The challenge is that when we don’t say no by drawing the boundaries and frameworks for our people to execute, we inevitably compromise our impact and hugely frustrate our people. Here are a few ways leaders and managers can do a better job of saying no to create greater engagement and results.

1. Prioritize Integrate, and Simplify

Often management teams start with a focus on 5 to 7 key enterprise initiatives for growth. They commit to cutting the list to the top three or four. The next step is always fascinating as they end up cutting the 5 to 7 priorities to a list of 15 or 16. Nobody on the team wants their initiative to end up on the cutting room floor, so new horse trading practices emerge with robust conversations of lost opportunity or unaddressed threats.

When we don’t say no by drawing the boundaries and frameworks for our people to execute, we inevitably compromise our impact and hugely frustrate our people.

The most important action of the leadership team is to prioritize, simplify and integrate the initiatives before they go to the entire organization. This requires leaders to connect the initiative dots, eliminate conflicting priorities, to modify their appetite for stretching people beyond their comfort zones, and be realistic about the organization’s ability to digest and execute change. If you are not saying no to a significant number of the candidates for organizational initiatives, you are most likely setting the stage for frustration and failure in execution.

2. If You Add One, Take One Away

Possibly the weakest of all leadership routines is the practice of “stopping” what has been done in the past and creating capacity for people to execute the new. A number of senior leadership teams have adopted new disciplines and behaviors on this issue. They agree together if they launch a new initiative, they must also take one away.  They recognize that as a team they are the bottleneck to people executing strategy when they keep piling on new demands without eliminating anything from the past.

3. Focus, Focus, Focus

Focus on follow up and follow through on the critical few, rather than be enticed by the new shiny object that appeals to the ADD in most leaders. Interestingly, this focus is most often lost when the critical few initiatives are not adequately resourced when we once again can’t say no to partial funding of topic we haven’t aligned on as a priory.

Few leadership actions can reduce the frustration of you people and step up your strategic initiative execution success like the practice of saying no.


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Jim Haudan is the CEO and Chairman of Root, Inc. For more than 20 years, Jim has helped organizations unleash hidden potential by fully engaging their people to deliver on the strategies of the business. Jim believes business results are achieved by meaningfully connecting strategy to all of the people in the company to bring it to life. For eight straight years Root has been on the Great Place to Work® Institute’s 25 Best Small and Medium Workplaces, and among the 2009 Top Small Workplaces according to the Wall Street Journal and Winning Workplaces Inc. Root’s clients include some of the biggest names in business, such as Gap Inc., Petco, Dow Chemical, Pepsi, FirstEnergy, Taco Bell, and Hilton Hotels – more than 500 companies and tens of millions of people. Jim is a frequent speaker on leadership alignment, strategy execution, employee engagement, business transformation, change management, and accelerated learning. He has spoken at TEDx BGSU, the Conference Board events and numerous client meetings. He also contributes regularly to business publications and blogs and has written a national best-selling book, The Art of Engagement: Bridging the Gap Between People and Possibilities (McGraw-Hill, 2008).

  • Great point well stated, thanks. I’d add to the no / stop doing notion the idea that to get people to stop doing something they need to be really clear on, a) what they will do instead of the item that has to stop, b) the benefits of taking on the new instruction / approach, c) how the implementers of the new directive will notice that they are doing it well.

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  • ruthschwartz

    In a way we all need to stop. What we don’t do always speaks very loudly. That in itself is an act of simplicity. Thanks for the post, Jim

  • Tim Kuppler

    Excellent points. I think it’s also extremely important for that prioritization to happen with groups. The worst thing is to get long lists of feedback from employees and then management does all the prioritization. It leaves everyone that gave the feedback judging whether they think the right priorities were selected.

    An extremely powerful concept is building culture muscle: brainstorm as a group, have the group vote / debate to prioritize, translate the priorities to specific goals and have management involved in removing barriers and supporting action. The first time it’s done people may be tentative about what issues they raise. Confidence grows and the real issues start being put on the table as the organization becomes used to the process and positive results (it’s like building a muscle). The prioritization step is the key but so many organizations just get the long lists of feedback, ideas or “recommendations.”

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