How to Become Self-Selected

Posted by on June 13, 2011

The MondayMorningMemo for June 13, 2011

The Secret of Peter, James and John 

Dewey Jenkins is a self-made man, the sort of person every parent hopes their child will become.

Like many of us, Dewey started with nothing, nada, zip, zero. He worked hard, was focused and patient, always tried to do the right thing, accepted his setbacks with grace and his victories with humility. In this, he is not unique. You and I have met many successful people with those qualities.

I was sitting in a private auditorium in Charlotte, North Carolina, where Dewey repairs and installs heat and air conditioning systems. I was eavesdropping on the training session Dewey conducts each month with his several dozen senior managers.

“If it doesn’t add value for the customer, don’t do it.” This is Dewey’s criterion for decision-making. It’s a good one, but I’ve heard customer-focused mandates like this one before and so have you. Excellent companies are always customer-focused.

The surprising statement, the one that crossed my eyes, was this one: “The job of management is to focus its energies on its best people.”

That statement startled me because this is not what managers do. Managers put out fires. Managers plead and threaten and cajole employees to do what they’ve been trained to do. Managers usually ignore their best and brightest people, thankful that they, at least, can be counted on.

I asked Dewey to tell me more about this philosophy.

“Roy, if a baseball coach has a left-fielder who is a great batter, but barely acceptable as a left-fielder, it’s tempting to work with that player on his fielding. But it’s always a mistake. No matter how hard the player tries, his fielding is likely to improve only slightly. But if that same player is coached on how to become an even better batter, he’s likely to become the League Batting Champion, a real superstar.”

Just then a young man walked past. Dewey touched his arm to stop him. “Roy, this is Dennis, he’s one of our very best people. People often say, ‘Put me in, Coach, let me show you what I can do,’ but then when you put them in, they don’t do much. Dennis isn’t like that. Every time he asks to be given a chance, Dennis delivers exactly what we wanted.” Dewey then looked Dennis in the eyes and said, “Thanks for doing such a great job.” Dennis walked away with a smile.

“Roy, managers should invest their time where it will give the company the highest return on investment.”

“But who puts out all the little fires that spring up every day?”

Instead of answering me directly, Dewey took me on a little tour. During the next 10 minutes, he introduced me to a series of different employees, not managers, whose job is to respond to all the predictable crisis that happen each day. Dewey Jenkins has a smooth-running operation with an extremely high customer satisfaction index. 

The employees solve the problems. The managers build the employees, focusing their highest energies on the ones who rise above average.

There we have it, “the ones who rise above average.” The self-selected are those who take action, the ones who participate, the ones who don’t go away.

My conversation with Dewey caused me to remember something my business partner, Manley Miller, said during a class he taught recently on Fund Raising:

“A non-profit is not a democracy where everyone is equal. Non-profits have inner circles. When Jesus taught in Israel, he had thousands of observers. Among those observers were followers. Among the followers were disciples. Among the disciples were the twelve. And among the twelve were Peter, James and John. Can you imagine the scene when those three came down from the Mount of Transfiguration with Jesus and saw the rest of the twelve? ‘Wow! You’ll never believe what just happened!’ You gotta know the other nine were saying, ‘Hey! Why didn’t we get to go?’”

The inner circle that surrounds you will always be a self-selected group of insiders. It’s counterintuitive, I know, but the job of management is to focus its energies on these, its best people.

Where have you been focusing your energies?

Roy H. Williams

PS – The Patent Attorneys gave my sons the green light this week to roll out the project they’ve been working 7 years to perfect. Curious?

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