Book Summary: Powerful

Great read, full of radical concepts and principles to build a culture and environment where people have the power and responsibility to perform at their best and produce amazing results. I hope you enjoy!

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The following are the passages I most enjoyed from the book Powerful, by Patty McCord. All content credit goes to the author.


Introduction. A New Way of Working | Foster Freedom and Responsibility

People have power. A company’s job isn’t to empower people; it’s to remind people that they walk in the door with power and to create the conditions for them to exercise it.

  • Inculcating a core set of behaviors in people, then giving them the latitude to practice those behaviors – well, actually demanding that they practice them – makes teams astonishingly energized and proactive. Such teams are the best drivers to get you where you need to go.
  • The most important thing to understand about transforming a culture, whether that of a team or a whole company, is that it isn’t a matter of simply professing a set of values and operating principles. It’s a matter of identifying the behaviors that you would like to see become consistent practices and then instilling the discipline of actually doing them.

Ch 1. The Greatest Motivation is Contributing to Success | Treat People Like Adults

The strongest motivator is having great team members to work with, people who trust one another to do great work and to challenge one another.

  • Great teams are made when every single member knows where they’re going and will do anything to get there. Great teams are not created with incentives, procedures, and perks. They are created by hiring talented people who are adults and want nothing more than to tackle a challenge, and then communicating to them, clearly and continuously, about what the challenge is.
  • The most important job of management is to focus really intently on the building of great teams. If you hire the talented people you need and you provide them with the tools and information they need to get you where you need to go, they will want nothing more than to do stellar work for you and keep you limber.

Ch 1. Questions to Consider

As you survey your company-wide policies and procedures, ask:

  • What is the purpose of this policy or procedure? Does it achieve that result?
  • What percentage of its time does management spend on problem solving and team building?
  • Could you replace approvals and permissions with analysis of spending patterns and a focus on accuracy and predictability?

Ch 2. Every Single Employee Should Understand The Business | Communicate Constantly about the Challenge

Truly understanding how the business works is the most valuable learning, more productive and appealing than “employee development” trainings. It’s the rocket fuel of high performance and lifelong learning.

  • What takes the place of rules, processes, approvals, bureaucracy, and permissions? The answer: Clear, continuous, communication about the context of the work to be done. Telling people, “Here’s exactly where we are, and here’s what we’re trying to accomplish.”
  • Even if you’re not at liberty to do away with policies, procedures, bonuses, and formal annual reviews, you can implement much clearer, more open, honest, and continuous communication about the business challenges and how employees are meeting them. This facilitates much more timely improvements in performance as well as more limber adjustments of goals. It also encourages people to ask questions and share ideas, which can lead to extremely valuable insights about how to improve your product, your service to your customers, and the business itself.
  • How do you know when people are well enough informed? Here’s my measure. If you stop any employee, at any level of the company, in the break room or the elevator and ask what are the five most important things the company is working on for the next six months, that person should be able to tell you, rapid fire, one, two, three, four, five, and ideally using the same words you’ve used in your communications to the staff, and, if they’re really good, in the same order. If not, the heartbeat isn’t strong enough yet.

Ch 2. Questions to Consider

Ask yourself these questions:

  • How well do you think people throughout the company could describe its business model? Ask them to do so.
  • Is everyone aware of difficult challenges your company faces?
  • Do you have a disciplined process for disseminating information and discussing challenges?
  • What areas of your business do you think your people know little to nothing about?
  • How well do you think you people understand who the customer is and what their needs and desires are?
  • What existing forums could be used to carve out dedicated time for communicating more about the business context?

Ch 3. Humans Hate Being Lied to and Being Spun | Practice Radical Honesty

People can handle being told the truth, about both the business and their performance. The truth is not only what they need but also what they intensely want.Telling the truth about perceived problems, in a timely fashion and face to face, is the single most effective way to solve problems.

  • Being transparent and telling people what they need to hear is the only way to ensure they both trust you and understand you.
  • Honestly helps people to grow, and it flushes out differences of opinion and alternative ideas that people so often keep to themselves.
  • The other vital point about honesty concerning business issues is that it’s got to go both ways. Employees should be told to never withhold questions or information from you or their direct superiors. As a leader, you should model this, showing, not just telling, that you want people to speak up and that you can be told bad news directly and disagreed with. Otherwise most people will never be truly open with you.

Ch 3. Questions to Consider

Ask yourself these questions:

  • How open have you been with your team about the current prospects of your business and the most difficult problems the company and your team are dealing with? Do people at all levels know the challenges the company is facing in the next six months?
  • Are people free to disagree with a point made by someone in authority during a team meeting? Have they seen it done properly, in front of the whole team?
  • Are there team members who rarely, if ever, speak up with ideas and concerns? Have you called on them or spoken with them about contributing?

Ch 4. Debate Vigorously | Cultivate Strong Opinions and Argue About Them Only on the Facts

Intense, open debate over business decisions is thrilling for teams, and they will respond to the opportunity to engage in it by offering the very best of their analytical powers.

  • Probably the main reason the company could continually reinvent itself and thrive, despite so many truly daunting challenges coming at us so fast and furiously, was that we taught people to ask, “How do you know that’s true?” Of my favorite variant, “Can you help me understand what leads you to believe that’s true?”
  • Actually orchestrate debates. You can have people formally present cases, maybe even have them get up onstage. Try having people argue the opposing side, poking holes in their position. Formal debates, for which people prepare, often lead to breakthrough realizations.
  • What better opportunity for employees to learn and grow than to watch, and participate in, such wrangling with the most pressing issues the company faces – and with the company’s best minds and most qualified experts? This is a way to show people what excellence is, what a good argument looks like, and what presenting a strong case requires.

Ch 4. Questions to Consider

Ask yourself these questions:

  • What problem or what decision do you have coming up, that you could stage a formal debate over?
  • How well is your team set up to conduct formal testing of ideas and to obtain the data they need to draw strong conclusions? Are there any ways in which you could provide them with access to tools they may lack?
  • How can you help your people to consider data beyond the information that is familiar to them and that they know how to interpret? What biases might members of your team – and you – have about which data you should be considering and your interpretations of it?
  • Can you establish a regular forum for the presentation of arguments about key decisions and the best ways to solve problems your team is working on?

Ch 5. Build the Company Now That You Want to Be Then | Relentlessly Focus on the Future

Successful sports teams are the best model for managers; they are constantly scouting for new talent and culling their rosettes. You’re building a team, not raising a family.

  • On a regular basis, take the time to envision what your business might look like six months from now in order to be high-performing. Make a movie of it in your head, imagining how people are working and the tools and skills they have. Then start immediately making the changes necessary to create the future.
  • Develop and promote from within when that’s the best option for performance; when it’s better to hire from outside, be proactive in doing so.

Envisioning the Future

  • Imagine six months from now, you have the most amazing team you ever assembled and you’re saying to yourself, Wow, those guys are awesome!.. First write down what the team will be accomplishing six months from now that it’s not accomplishing now… Then I say, “Okay, in order for those different things to be happening, what would people need to know how to do?”… What kind of skills and experience would it take for the team to operate the way you’re envisioning and accomplish the things you’ll need to do in that future?
  • Build the ideal team by starting with the vision down the road. Identify the problem you want to solve, the time frame in which you want to solve it, the kinds of people who will be successful at that, and what they need to know how to do, then ask yourself, What do we need to do to be ready and able, and who do we need to bring in?

The Most Difficult Advice

  • The most difficult advice for company leaders and team managers to accept is that they don’t owe their people anything more than ensuring that the company is making a great product that serves the customer well and on time. They don’t owe people the chance to take on a role they’re not prepared for and don’t have the talents for. They don’t owe them a different job created to reward them for their service. And they certainly don’t owe them holding the company back from making the personnel changes needed to thrive. I know this may sound harsh, because the motion that companies should make special investments in developing people, provide paths for promotion, and strive for high employee retention rates are deeply ingrained. But I’ve come to believe such thinking is outmoded and isn’t even the best approach for employees. It often leads to people becoming stuck in jobs they don’t really want or aren’t doing as well as they want to – or as you need them to – rather than scouting the job landscape for better opportunities.

Ch 5. Questions to Consider

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Have you systematically assessed the skills of all members of your team against the capabilities you will need in six months to a year?
  • Are there some ways of working in which you can foresee your team will need strong experience?
  • In which areas is your team or company at the vanguard of innovation, with leading talent spearheading the effort, and in which are you running as fast as you can to catch up, or soon will find yourself in that situation if you don’t make some new hires?
  • How much of your time are you spending on the development of your team’s skills, and how satisfied are you with how quickly people are getting up to the speed you need?

Ch 6. Someone Really Smart in Every Job | Have the Right Person In Every Single Position

All hiring managers should understand, really deeply, what the company’s approach to hiring is and how to execute on it, down to every detail. And this should be modeled from the top.

  • “Knowing when it’s time for people to move on goes hand in hand with bringing in top performers with the skills you need. They are two sides of the same coin. If you are not great at hiring high-talent people, then you cannot truly be comfortable letting good people go. You will never be good at one without the other and you will never be good at building a high-performance team.”
  • This is why I say that retention is not a good metric by which to evaluate your team-building success or whether you’ve created a great culture. The measure should not be simply how many people you are keeping but how many great people you have with the skills and experience you need. How many of them are you keeping? How many new people with the skills and experience you need are your hiring? You also want to closely monitor how rigorously you are evaluating whom you need to replace and how efficiently you’re acting on that determination.

Ch 6. Questions to Consider

Ask yourself these questions:

  • What change is underway in your business? How prepared are you being to interviewing for the new talent you need in the event the change happens faster than you’ve expected?
  • How creative are you in looking for candidates? Have you devoted time to cultivating lead generators among your professional network? Do you consider finding candidates to be primarily your responsibility, or do you wait for recruiters to find them?
  • How well do you think the recruiters working with you understand the details of the jobs to be filled and the qualities you are looking for in hires?

Ch 7. Pay People What They’re Worth to You | Compensation is a Judgement Call

It’s better to focus more on what you can afford to pay for the performance you want and the future you’re heading to.

  • The skills and talents for any given job will not match a template job description, and salaries should not be predetermined according to templates.
  • Consider not only what you can afford given your current business but also what you will be able to afford given the additional revenue a new hire might enable you to bring in.
  • I suggest identifying the positions that have the greatest potential to boost your performance and paying top of the market to fill them with the very best people you can get. Think about this: what if, by paying top of the market, you could bring in one supremely talented and experienced person who could do the job of two people, or even add more value than that?

Ch 7. Questions to Consider

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Who on your team has grown considerably in skills and proficiency since the time they joined, and do you think you are compensating them at a level commensurate with the value they are now contributing?
  • How much do you think being tied to predetermined salary ranges is holding you back from building the best possible team?
  • If you select certain roles for which you would make the case for hiring star performers at top-of-market compensation, which would they be and why?

Ch 8. The Art of Good Good-byes | Make Needed Changes Fast, and Be a Great Place to Be From

Use my algorithm in making personnel decisions: Is what this person loves to do, that they’re extraordinarily good at doing, something we need someone to be great at?

  • Employees need to be able to see whether their talents and passions are a good match for the future you are heading to, in order to determine whether they may be a better fit at another firm.
  • One of the benefits of the leadership communicating clearly to everyone in the company about where you’re heading and the challenges and opportunities that future will bring is that it better equips people to evaluate how well their skills fit into that future. They can also consider whether or not that future is one they want to be a part of and, if it isn’t, can proactively seek out new opportunities.
  • Managers don’t do best by their people by sugarcoating difficult truths, waiting until the last moment to let them go, or shunting them into roles they don’t truly want or the company doesn’t really need. The effects of all of these are disempowering, dispiriting, and corrosive, both for individuals in question and for entire teams. People deserve to know the truth of their prospects, in real time. Being totally honest with them and supporting them in finding new opportunities is the best way to ensure that both they and your team can flourish

Ch 8. Questions to Consider

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Might it make sense to determine feedback frequency based on benchmark deadlines for achieving team goals, rather than according to a set time period? That might, for example, mean timing discussions according to the stages of completion for a project.
  • Can you say that every person on your team is doing a job that they’re passionate about and great at and that you need them to be doing? If not, can you have a conversation with those who aren’t about other opportunities in the company they could consider or about the landscape of opportunity they can consider outside?

Conclusion

The process is evolutionary, and as with evolution in nature, some changes won’t be adaptive and you’ll have to try again. Some people will find the changes uncomfortable. People will push back, and some may decide to leave. Experimenting incrementally and allowing for variations on the themes is vital. Different team leaders may adapt the practices in different ways. Teams and whole departments can have their own cultures as well as incorporating common fundamental precepts.

Make sure your HR people are partners; you must stress to them that you want them to be true business-building partners. Make sure they know how your business operates. Do they know your three key drivers of revenue? Do they know who your top four competitors are? Do they know about the technology that’s about to disrupt your market? Tell them.

Keep reminding yourself that people have power. It’s not your job to give it to them. Appreciate their power, unleash it from hidebound policies, approvals, and procedures, and trust me, they will be powerful.


I greatly enjoyed this book, full of radical and empowering concepts shared by the author. A reminder to challenge conventional wisdom to build the environment and culture that best supports your business, your vision, and ultimately your people.

All content credit goes to the author. I’ve simply shared the bits I’ve enjoyed the most and found most useful.

Cheers ’till next time!

Alberto

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