Mistakes and Passion

The Corner Office piece in last Sunday’s New York Times was an interview with Kevin Liles, the founder of KWL Enterprises.  Some of his thoughts on hiring people and the type of people he wants to work with are quite insightful.  Before reading the article take a few minutes to think about the people you work with and perhaps even those you manage.  How would you describe the best people and then how would you describe those who are not as much fun to work with?  How much of it is performance versus attitude?

There are many things Liles says in the article that I think are very important but perhaps the most interesting is his take on mistakes and passion.  I love the whole interview, but I would like to concentrate on just these two.  He claims he would never fire a person for making mistakes but would if they didn’t show passion and commitment.  It is very important to the culture of an organization for people to understand that mistakes will not be punished and that for those pushing the edge, mistakes are inevitable.  This is a leadership issue.  Growth can’t happen without mistakes and the key is to learn from and not hide things that go wrong.  So often it seems that those who mess things up get promoted and that is because they demonstrate leadership skills in taking a chance and going beyond where the average employee is comfortable.

The passion point is perhaps even more important.  Liles talks about approaching every job with a sense of ownership.  In the days when one representative was responsible for an area they were told that they owned that geography and were to run it like their own business.  They were the face of the company in that area and interestingly enough market research often showed that was true.  As the home office began dictating more and more who to call on and how often, this sense of ownership went away.  The same could also be said for when multiple reps were placed into one territory.  Ownership seemed to go away and it is interesting that at the same time access and salesforce effectiveness also declined.

This diminishing ownership issue spread into the home office as well.  When the product management concept was initiated the idea was to have one person totally responsible for a single product or product line.  They would be the real champions for the brand and treat it like it was a business unto itself.  That way no matter how small the brand was it would get the undivided attention of a leader who would be constantly working to maximize profits for that brand.  As brand teams have grown to an unmanageable size and with responsibility sliced so thin that ownership seems like a distant dream, the effectiveness of the product manager has also declined.  A once powerful position has in many cases been diminished to that of a project manager.

This lack of ownership has also resulted in a lack of passion.  There is a prevailing feeling that so many things are now beyond the control of the product manager and the list of things that can’t be done often seems overwhelming.  The sense of internal entrepreneurship has vanished and with it has gone the sense of brand ownership.  Brand teams have become more like caretakers than owners.

This sense of passion and ownership can be changed.  When I talk to the leaders of organizations they feel their brand teams should have much more control and complain that they don’t take charge of things.  When I talk with product managers they feel they have little control and are being blown around like snow in a blizzard.  There is definitely a gap here and those who have the sense of passion and ownership Liles talks about should be able to step up and take control.  My bet is many company leaders are just waiting for this to happen.  Seldom do you see people getting in trouble for having too much passion or trying too hard.  It would be a mistake not to try.

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