February 14, 2019

The Case for Thinking Small, Even at a Big Company

(Hopefully) Happy Valentine’s Day!

I’ve been thinking a lot about Valentine’s Day (regardless of how it’s treating you) — specifically how at this one time of year many of us think about making some big gesture to honor that special person in our lives.

Except that’s not how relationships work, is it? If you made just one grand gesture to your partner in a year, you’d be a bad partner.

But that’s exactly how large organizations treat their employees — with one grand gesture a year: A once-a-year employee engagement survey. A once-a-year company picnic.

So how do we make things better at large organizations? By remembering that the grand gestures are easy (and let’s be real, nice!), but it’s the consistent, small acts that let you know someone truly cares.

The meeting room marker conundrum

As I’ve been on the road selling Sift, I’ve gone to a lot of meetings in big companies’ conference rooms. I’ve learned a lot about sales, but here’s my most important lesson: Bring your own markers.

Maybe you think I’m some kind of an eccentric germaphobe or a control freak. No — I’m just tired of walking to whiteboards in unfamiliar conference rooms to demonstrate the amazing value of my business only to find that there are no markers in sight.

You might be wondering what dry erase markers have to do with Valentine’s Day. Or large organizations. Well, a marker in the conference room is the ultimate small thing for a business. So why do I never see them? Surely, I can’t be the only person who has noticed the markers are missing.

But that’s the thing — if everyone assumes something is someone else’s job, then it’s no one’s. I call it the Marker Conundrum. If I don’t see those markers waiting for me, I know the company has much larger issues.

Go look in your nearest conference room. Is there a dry erase board, but no markers? If so, you’re reading the right article.

‘How can I think small?’

You know where I always see dry erase markers? At smaller organizations. That’s because smaller organizations are built on a culture of ownership.

Because employees interact with each other more often, there is a sense of shared obligation and responsibility. They have to do the little things. Without them, the business would fall apart. And if they don’t know whose responsibility is whose, it’s easy to find out (or they just do what needs to be done!). They trust each other, and there are far fewer barriers to communication.

So if you’re making the decisions at a larger organization, ask yourself “How can I think small?” Thinking big, after all, is what got you in this conundrum in the first place.

Take a look at some of the structures throughout your organization. Let’s start with your expense policy. Is it easy to buy those markers? Or is your reimbursement process a maze of tricky approvals, forms and fear?

Simplifying processes throughout your business has an exponential impact on your people. The less people have to worry about the little things, the more time they have to engage in the creative problem solving that can drive innovation — like brainstorming around a dry erase board.

It’s not much different from a relationship. We do some extra chores when things get busy. We change lightbulbs when they go out. We cook when it’s our turn, or when our better half has to work late, or just because we wanted to that night. And we make sure our partner has markers.

And it just makes everything easier.

Thinking small IS your job (especially you, leaders!)

I believe in servant leadership (mostly because I saw how critical it was to running a high-performing team during my time in the Marine Corps). Servant leadership boils down to making sure that as a leader, you constantly do the small things.

Markers may seem trivial, but it’s these types of small, “minor” annoyances that are the sand in the gears of innovation and progress. If there are no markers in the conference room, the printer is broken and my computer keeps crashing, it’s going to be hard for me to do my job effectively.

Solving these “minor” issues is one of the most time-effective things you can do as a leader — because making your team’s life easier means they can do the mission you’ve been charged with completing.

And if you one day are lucky enough to be a senior leader, it is even MORE important to go out of your way to solve issues for your leaders and frontline team members.

You’ll set the example and expectation that the job of a leader is to remove barriers for their team. If your leaders see you taking the time to solve “minor” issues for them and their team members, they’ll see it as important work.

Also, chances are good that as a senior leader you have horse-power to get bigger, small things done. Maybe a frontline leader can’t change the work-from-home policy, but a VP who cares can make it happen.

Communication is key

Most of the people challenges at big companies arise because people are afraid to speak up. If your boss is scared to bring something up to their boss, how do you think that behavior models down throughout the entire organization? And how many problems do you think stack up because of that?

So here are some tips to work on your communication — and you don’t have to be in management to use them:

  1. Set expectations. Tell people that you’re here to help them do their job better. And that if they need something, they need to speak up. This will make the process easier for your employees.
  2. Follow through. Even if you don’t take an employee’s suggestion, at least talk to them about why you didn’t. They might be upset, but they’ll get over it. Most importantly, they’ll respect the time and consideration you showed them.
  3. Model and show examples of people who are speaking up. For example, mention in a company-wide email that you’ve taken an employee’s suggestion. Show how it has benefited the organization. This will give employees even more permission to speak.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a senior leader or an intern. You can use all three of these tips to strengthen your organization. If people are afraid to speak up — or aren’t sure who they can speak to — then you’ve got a real problem on your hands.

After all, honesty is the most important part of any relationship.

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