Successful Leadership – Beware The Silver Bullets

We are all tempted to keep looking for that one person, that one application, that one solution, that one customer that will make all the bad things go away and breathe new life into whatever we’ve been stuck with. The Silver Bullet – the epiphany – the stroke of lightning that cures all ills. Billions of dollars are spent every year on hope – and Silver Bullets – with little if any positive effect.

A story:

I was meeting with the Executive Vice President of a large multi business company. They had a business unit in Florida with continuing labor problems. The unit was union free, but every two years there would be an organizing attempt by a major national union. Two years was up since the last attempt, and another organizing attempt was in the works. The company felt continuing to resist, although expensive and disruptive in the short term,was better than having a union and third party representation of their workers. The business unit was highly successful, hadn’t had a layoff in years – in fact, they were in a hiring mode.

The EVP directly responsible for the unit was tempted to throw in the towel and agree to a union, but the CEO was dead set against it.

The EVP wanted to know how I could help turn this around, and avoid an organizing drive. We went through the checklist of elements that are critical to remaining union free,starting with competitive wages and benefits, a system of due process to handle issues, an equitable system to recognize length of service and a well developed communication process. As we talked he became increasingly impatient, and finally said ” We have all that. I’m looking for the one thing – the thing we don’t have – that will make this organizing attempt go away. We’ve tried all kinds of programs and processes, and none have succeeded.”

I suggested the place to start would be in evaluating the effectiveness of what they were already doing, then go from there. It’s possible to have lots of things – but possession and use are two very different things. He didn’t like that – he was looking for a new approach – a Silver Bullet. I told him I didn’t have any special formula to make his wish come true, and, frankly, I don’t believe in the Silver Bullet approach to managing a workforce.

They had an organizing attempt – after an expensive and extensive campaign the company was successful in defeating the attempt, but their profits, quality, shipments and employee relations all suffered because of it.

Moral of the story – Silver Bullets are so rare they’re not worth focusing on. Rather than spend time and energy looking for them, take that same time and energy and convert it into solutions that improve on what you already possess and do well.

Successful leaders know accomplishment is built on a solid foundation of good people, good products, good leadership and good practices. Successful leaders know the Program of the Month is a recipe for failure – as one fix after another gets introduced, supported, and then slowly fizzles away, to be replaced by another. All that happens is the people in the business become ever more cynical and resistant to change.

Successful leaders should put a sign on their doors – “No Silver Bullets Welcome.” They know the fundamentals need to be in place, excellence needs to be promoted every day, high expectations established, communications constantly improved, performance rewarded and recognized. Out of that comes the strength to grow and prosper. A few things done well beats a constant stream of new initiatives. It’s the constant, insistent emphasis on the basics that creates results, and effective change, and improvement. It’s the effective execution and implementation of the critical few things done well.

Actually, all the Silver Bullet approach does is to create distractions – they cause you to take your eye off the ball. Does that mean all the new ideas and programs and processes are without value? Of course not.

The Silver Bullet is most often created in its application. One organization’s Silver Bullet is another organization’s successful initiative. If the approach is a quick fix to an existing problem it probably won’t work – and if it distract’s from more substantial work being done, then it’s a Silver Bullet.

9 Questions to ask yourself to identify whether an initiative, program, process or change is right for your organization:

Does it build on what we do well?

How will this affect what we are already doing?

What has been our history – have they made a difference – or have they faded away – or have they become imbedded in the organization?

Will this become part of how we operate everyday, or will it have to be treated as an exception, and need regular maintenance and support ?

What do the people to be affected think needs to be done?

Can we measure the effect?

Do we have the resources to see this through to its conclusion?

Will this really affect positive change and results, or are we just staying ahead of accountability and hoping it works?

Is this a survival tactic or part of a growth and improvement strategy?

Every organization is different – every organization will answer differently, based on their situation, but answering these questions will allow you to see a Silver Bullet for what it is, and act accordingly.