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Mortal blow #3: Mistaking Activity for Results

From “5 mortal blows guaranteed to kill your culture”

By Kathleen Quinn Votaw

The CEO of a mid-market company I know spends a lot of time keeping tabs on his staff. He notices who makes frequent coffee runs, how long people take for lunch and whether they send personal e-mails from the office. To him, how focused people are on work-related busyness reflects his investment in them and their level of integrity. Business owners who want to make sure their employees are “working hard” and putting in “a full day’s work” are mistaking activity for results.

Like taking the number of hits you get to your website as a measure of your marketing success, this kind of measurement tells you little or nothing. Who would trade the sales rep that breaks all sales records, but takes a two-hour lunch, for one who is tied to the desk all day making calls but no sales? You’d be surprised …

The most effective leaders focus on only those things that matter in generating results. They build cultures where people work smarter, not necessarily harder.

Breathtakingly costly mistakes

Lengthy plans, detailed reports and time clocks may make you feel good, but they aren’t necessarily an indication of productivity or the precursor to success. A long day at the office can give us the illusion that we are creating value for our companies, when the reality is we are creating a culture of survivors rather than producers.

It’s true that nothing happens without activity, but results-driven cultures are about trust and accountability, not about hours worked or papers pushed. You measure success by results, which are achieved when people are held accountable for achieving them, not always by how they go about it. When you confuse activity with results you may be making breathtakingly costly mistakes for your business.

Leadership and results-driven cultures

Creating and maintaining the desired culture falls squarely on the CEO. There are many things CEOs and their teams can do to ensure the company culture supports results—cultures where everyone is responsible for achieving goals, not just leaders and managers. In the most successful companies, every employee understands how their activities relate to results and how what they do fits into the company as a whole.

Results-driven cultures begin with effective management of highly valuable and limited executive time. Leaders should start by investing the time to clearly identify, prioritize and communicate key goals. Make certain that everyone in the organization has heard them and understands them.

Second, strategically choose the activities that fill your day; define your expected results based on urgent/important and urgent/non-important activities that all too often consume leaders. Choosing what occupies your time may be the most critical decision you make each day, and the greatest driver of successful outcomes.

Many years ago, during the dot-com boom, I read a study comparing outcomes for two California technology companies with similar numbers of employees. One was a typical dot-com where people worked 60-plus hours a week, including most evenings and weekends. The other was headed by an executive who insisted that everyone leave the office by 5:30 every weekday and, except for rare and special projects, the company was closed on weekends. The two companies achieved essentially the same results. One company burned up its people and lost profitability because of high rates of costly turnover; the other made up the difference through practically no turnover.

What is the ROI of your activities?

Kathleen Quinn Votaw is founder and CEO of TalenTrust, a Recruitment Process Outsourcing (RPO) firm that helps companies accelerate their growth by hiring exceptional talent. TalenTrust LLC is located in Golden, CO. Kathleen is president of the Association for Corporate Growth (ACG), Denver. Reach Kathleen at or 303-838-3334 x5.

This article is the third in a five-part series on the “5 mortal blows guaranteed to kill your culture,” inspired by A&P CEO Sam Martin.

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