Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Never let money get in the way of doing the right thing

By Darcy Hitchcock

This is the first in a series of articles I want to share about ‘good work,’ how to manage organizations ethically in a way that develops employees’ full potential, and serves the greater good. Most of the stories are from what I experienced working with Marsha Willard in our firm, AXIS Performance Advisors. Please let us know if you appreciate these insights. We would be curious to know whether you like them as blog posts or would prefer them pulled together into a book.

Credit: Iosphere, Freedigitalphotos.net
While it’s true that you can’t go bankrupt trying to do good in the world, there are all too many situations where people are tempted to do the wrong thing just for the money. In our experience, living by the principle of never letting money get in the way of doing the right thing built our credibility and brought us goodwill. In the long run, these actions often paid off in one way or another, or the sacrifice to our time and business were minimal. It became a principle we referenced often.
This principle has manifested itself in different ways during my career:

  • Referring clients to other consultants who could serve them better or partnering with other firms when we could better serve the client.
  • Doing work for free or at a huge discount
  •  Refusing to make the sale and give the client what they ask for, even when you really need the money

Referring clients/partnering

Referring clients strengthened our relationship with both the client and the other consultant. Clients were often shocked to find you would honestly tell them there are others who were better at what they needed. This built our reputation as being ethical. This wasn’t easy when we were just starting out, but it was preferable to doing a mediocre job.

We periodically would bring in other consultants to work on projects with us. It didn’t always lead to them returning the favor, but we always learned so much working side by side and enjoyed the camaraderie.

Doing work for free/discount

Working for free is tricky because you want the client to have some skin in the game. But we started ‘adopting’ a non-profit for a year, offering them free services, as part of our social responsibility. It started when a charity asked us for help and when I told them our hourly rate, they just whimpered, saying one hour would be their whole annual budget for professional development. I didn’t have the heart to just say, ‘sorry,’ and walk out the door. They needed services. So we just scaled the project to keep the time to a minimum.

This project turned out to be only marginally successful, in part because their management really wasn’t as invested as if they had had to pay for it. So we changed our approach. We looked for mutually beneficial opportunities, non-profits that needed something that we wanted to test out or learn. One year, we approached the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, offering to lead their new sustainability steering committee for half our normal rate in exchange for testing out our processes.  They got something of value but so did we; and this turned into a long-term relationship.

Refusing to give the client what they ask for

Before starting AXIS, I worked for a packaged training company. A plant at Cadillac was interested in buying a three-day team leader training for their employees, but the sales person, to his credit, picked up some odd vibes and asked that I go do an assessment. I spent three days on site, talking to managers, union officials, supervisors and frontline employees, learning what a truly terrible place it was to work.

What they didn’t know was our company was teetering on the brink of insolvency. The secretaries had to carry change to the copy shop because the store would no longer trust us to pay the monthly statement on time. I was faced with a situation where if we sold them the training program, the company could survive for a bit longer; and if I didn’t win the work, we would likely go under.

The problem was the training program wouldn’t fix their problems. Wouldn’t come close. So I told the joint union-management committee, “I wont sell you the training program, because it won’t do you any good. What I hear you wanting is an empowered workplace.” I described what were then called semi-autonomous or self-directed work teams and said, “This is what I hear you wanting and needing.” 

I put up an overhead showing a two-year project plan we thought would get them there with so many zeros in the cost column, I couldn’t say it out loud. It was a whole order of magnitude larger than what they had said they wanted. We had never had a project this big. “But if you’re serious, here is a plan to get you there.”

I stopped talking and waited, completely uncertain of what their reaction would be. I was prepared to get kicked out of the meeting. Finally, into the silence, the union president said, “You know, she’s right.”

That was the beginning of a grueling but most dramatically successful consulting engagement of my life. My dedicated and talented team took an autocratic culture and turned it around in two years. One manager, known to be a controlling autocrat said, “I used to make all the decisions. Now I probably make 5 percent, and I probably shouldn’t make half of those!”

Union employees were coming up with ideas to save money, improve the workflow, and even start internal businesses to make the corporation more money. The plant contributed to Cadillac’s winning the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award. I heard after I left that General Motors brought plant managers from far and wide to try to replicate what we did, with little success, in part because they thought of it as a technique, not a leadership philosophy grounded in respect for people. The company and I used this transformative and prestigious experience to springboard us into new work.

So never let money get in the way of doing the right thing. Don’t trade your integrity for cash. It’s not worth it. And sometimes, when you do the right thing, you get paid back in surprising ways.

What you can do

·      Distractions—Don’t be tempted by work that isn’t part of your core mission unless it is the direction you want to go in the future, no matter how puny your accounts receivable look.
·      Not quite a fit—When you have a big opportunity, have an open discussion with your staff about your organization’s suitability. Would the client be better served by another organization or might you partner with someone else to strengthen your team? Do what is in the best interest of your client.
·      A stretch—If a project is a real stretch for your team, but it’s one you passionately want to pursue, be up-front with the client. Find a way to make it in their interest to work with you, valuing your enthusiasm over experience. This might involve sharing copyright or public credit.
·      The hand-off—Graciously refer business to other respected competitors in your industry, but let your competitors know you have done so to build goodwill.
·      Hand up, not hand out—Find a way to repackage your services for organizations that are not well-heeled. Set a goal to help a certain number of charities or small, disadvantaged businesses each year, but look for opportunities that are mutually beneficial, not just a hand-out.
·      The train wreck—Walk away from opportunities where your client’s demands will prevent you from being successful. Often clients will have a preconceived notion of what they need which often is not what they need. Suggest alternatives and explain how you see those approaches better serving their underlying needs. However, if the client continues to demand an approach which in your professional experience is likely to backfire, tell the client you don’t think you are the best fit for their needs.

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