Thoughts & Observations

Don’t Let Them See You Cry

Reprinted from Jessica’s “The Practical Business Radical” column in The Business Press.

I had told myself I was going to hold it in. Thirty minutes earlier, as I put the finishing touches on what I was going to say, I felt sad, but not quite on the verge of tears. Then, as I stood in front of our organization’s 60 staff, box of tissues close at hand, I opened my mouth to speak. Only a couple of words made it out before I became barely audible through my tears. I looked around the room and my teary eyes were met with 60 other pairs of wet eyes staring back at me. I had just announced an almost 20% reduction in force, and there was no way any of us were going to get through something that difficult without crying.

I had sought advice from colleagues at other organizations before making the announcement and almost all of them had either implied that I should hold back my tears or had flat out told me not to cry. Had I just broken a major rule of business? Had I just proven why many people say women should not be business leaders – because we are “weak” and can not get through important business dealings without crying?

On the Martha Stewart version of the television show “The Apprentice”, Stewart told a female contestant “Cry and you are out of here. Women in business don’t cry, my dear.” And in a recent promotional ad for the new show “Kell on Earth”, tough-as-nails fashion show producer Kelly Cutrone tells her staff to go outside if they need to cry. The world has conditioned women and men to believe that crying in business is bad.

I, however, think that the perceived weakness of crying at work is one of the strengths that women bring to the table. It brings humanity back into business, when business is so often against letting people feel normal, human emotions. If you have to do something like a reduction in force, you and everyone around you is going to be sad, even the people who get to keep their jobs. Avoiding any show of emotion in the process makes you seem inhumane and heartless, even if you are not.

Part of the problem with most discussions of crying in business is that everyone seems to lump all crying into the category of being a career hazard. Crying at work is all bad. Period. I do not think the answer is that simple. There are times when crying in business is a bad thing, but there are also times when letting the tears flow when they want to is the right thing to do.

In the “ok in business” category I would put the crying that occurs when something truly sad is happening – people are losing their jobs or something awful has happened to an employee or their family. Also in the “ok in business” category would be crying out of pure love and adoration or in a truly moving situation – I almost always get teary eyed when I talk about how amazing our staff are or when I have to say good-bye to someone at a retirement party.

On the other hand, there are times when crying in business is not such a good idea. In general, I would recommend against crying in front of people who report to you (unless the crying falls into the “ok in business” category previously mentioned). Part of anyone being successful in business is being able to keep it together under immense stress. As the leader of our organization, it would start to make employees nervous if I went to the people who report to me and started crying because I could not handle the stress. That is why they say that CEOs and human resources professionals have lonely jobs – the people in those positions do not have as many people to turn to within the organization when they need to let their emotions hang out.

To me, crying should not be used as technique to get people to react a certain way, or to rack up the sympathy points. It should come naturally and be done openly when showing that you are human is the right thing to do. Thinking back to the day I announced our reduction in force, I would not change anything about how I reacted. So what if 60 people saw me cry? At least they know that I have a heart. Now, where are those tissues?

Thoughts & Observations

The Challenge of Execution Starts with Strategy

Reprinted from my “Practical Business Radical” column in The Business Press

The world is full of thoughtful strategy. Companies spend hundreds of hours every year and significant financial resources on ensuring that they have crafted a strategy that will lead them to success. When so much of a company’s intellectual capital is dedicated to building its strategic foundation, why does the execution of a strategy so often fall short?

First, crafting a strategy feels deceptively simple. It is a finite process. It involves a beginning (brainstorming, data gathering, conducting a situation analysis), a middle (analyzing and discussing data), and an end (crafting and writing the strategy). Even though this formal process may be revisited every few years, writing strategy is not work that a company has to do every day.

Execution, on the other hand, requires daily recalibration. If a strategy is going to be executed effectively, every moving part of an organization has to be aligned to delivering on that strategy, every single day. Even in small companies, it is difficult to align each department and staff person with the overall strategy of the company on a consistent basis.

It turns out that this challenge of execution can actually be tied back to an underlying problem with strategy. Often times, strategies sound visionary, but do not paint a clear picture for the individual employee of how they fit into the strategy. They may not see how their daily work needs to change or how they need to align themselves differently with another department in order to execute the new strategy appropriately.

Spending time at Zappos headquarters in Las Vegas back in October, I witnessed how a large company can effectively align all of its employees to its strategy. Zappos started as online shoe retailer and has come to be known not only for the shoes and other wares it sells online, but also for its phenomenal customer service, its creative culture, and its fast growth. Zappos’ first step in setting their strategy is defining their “BHAG” (Big Hairy Audacious Goal), which at Zappos is focused on growth in sales.

The BHAG is posted throughout the Zappos offices, complete with a graphic representation of the BHAG as a big, hairy beast, displayed proudly on the walls. Once the BHAG is established, the senior leadership at Zappos crafts plans for how each of their teams will contribute to achieving the BHAG. Each subsequent manager down the line finds a new way of refining the presentation to their group of employees to ensure that every employee knows what the BHAG is and knows how the work they do on a daily basis will contribute to achieving the BHAG. The employees in sports merchandising know what their growth in sales needs to be and the customer service representatives know what their level of performance needs to be in order to reach the company’s overall goal.

Taking a big goal and breaking it down into smaller, easily executable pieces is a daily occurrence at Zappos and is a skill that the company helps its employees develop. Zappos onsite coach, Dr. Vik, helps employees address a variety of personal challenges in their lives, from losing weight to reducing credit card debt. He teaches them the technique of setting their own personal BHAGs, and then slowly chipping away at their BHAG in small steps: doing 10 sit-ups a day or volunteering on a weekend instead of shopping. As employees see that this technique of accomplishing major personal goals one step at a time works, they start applying the same concept to the company’s BHAG. Everyone is focused on the BHAG and knows how they can help the company reach it, and it pays off.  Zappos recently achieved a huge BHAG – reaching $1 billion in annual sales.

Successful execution requires a strategy that is relevant to every employee. Although there are many factors that influence the outcome of execution, the rate of success increases dramatically when each employee can clearly see how they can contribute to achieving the company’s goals. How relevant is your BHAG?