Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Skill vs. Attitude

In the mid 80′s sales guru Zig Ziglar stood at a whiteboard and smiled at the 20 students staring back at him with big eyes. Zig had written several bestselling books and created America’s most popular sales training program. The 20 students were neophyte managers, trembling with excitement at having been chosen to be in that room.

Marker in hand, Zig said, “Name for me every attribute of the perfect employee.”

Students called out attributes while Zig wrote them down. They had nearly 90 on the board before they began to slow.

“Can you think of any others?” They painfully named two dozen more.

“Think hard. I want you to describe the perfect employee. I need every attribute.” They studied that whiteboard until they began to sweat. They got to 114.

Pointing now at the first word on the list, Zig asked, “Is this a skill or an attitude?” They said it was an attitude. Zig wrote a big “A” next to it. Pointing at the second word, he asked, “Skill or attitude?” Another big “A.”

Twenty minutes later, Zig tallied the final score: of the 114 attributes on the list, only 7 could be classified as “Skills.” Five were “Skills/Attitudes,” and a whopping 102 of them were purely “Attitude.”

Zig could have saved himself 30 minutes by just blurting out the punch line: “Employees don’t lose their jobs because they lack skill. They lose their jobs because they don’t have a good attitude.” But Zig didn’t want to say these things and then try to convince them of their truth. Zig wanted them to say it and thus convince them to “always hire people who have the right attitude.”

By now you should be drenched in realization that you are attracted to me and our firm equally for our attitude, as our skill set, AND yes this is deliberate!

“I know one man of really brilliant parts who has not the ability to manage a business of his own, and yet who is absolutely worthless to anyone else, because he carries with him constantly the insane suspicion that his employer is oppressing, or intending to oppress him… Tonight this man walks the streets looking for work, the wind whistling through his threadbare coat. No one who knows him dare employ him, for he is a regular fire-brand of discontent.” – Elbert Hubbard

I had a similar moment with the great Deidre Krause. “I finally figured out how to improve employee morale,” I said. “Productivity skyrockets and everyone loves coming to work. It’s a program that never fails. Works every time.”

She sat there looking at me.

I stood there looking at her.

Finally, she raised her shoulders and turned her palms upward. Looking steadily into my eyes, I said, “Fire all the unhappy people.”  I could see those words struck her with relief and agreement but also with such comical force that she began to laugh. But I wasn’t laughing.

None of us wants to run a sweatshop. None of us wants to be that hard-hearted boss who fails to appreciate the humanity of employees. None of us wants to abuse our people with the cold pragmatism displayed by many in corporate America.

BUT this is why so many businesses become country clubs for employees. I’ve played victim to it from time to time but it’s a focus to never be repeated and squelch offenders with a heavy hand.

Here’s how it happens: a whiner makes a reasonable request and you grant it. That request is expanded upon and accelerated until it ceases to be a privilege granted to employees and becomes an inalienable right. And that was only the first request in an unending stream of others brought to you by an increasingly dissatisfied staff. And you, sadly, are now seen as the oppressive dictator.

It’s time the “Dictator” delivers the declaration of independence to the whiner.

My advice, and Deidre’s agreement, is that you identify the “firebrand of discontent” within your company – if you have one – and give that person a smiling declaration of independence as you shake their hand, thank them for their months of service, and say, “You are now Free… free to go.”

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