I was in high school during the last years of the Vietnam War, and I was struggling with my conscience as my 18th birthday approached and I became eligible for the draft. Luckily, history spared me this choice and the war ground to an end before I had to face the possibility of fighting in a conflict I deeply opposed.
My most powerful memory of that time came from a discussion I had with my English Teacher, Mr. Orr. He was our resident “hippy” teacher and was as happy as any kid in the school when the dress code was modified to allow boys to grow long hair – after which he grew his long as well. Mr. Orr was a teacher I could confide in about my misgivings about the War. I knew he would be sympathetic to my concerns. I told him I was researching conscientious objector status and even considering leaving the country.
Mr. Orr, in the most unexpected way, challenged my thinking. He said, “Jim, if you don’t like war, join the army.” This advice was stunning to me, and I found it perplexing and disappointing. More than anything I wanted Mr. Orr’s blessing and support to evade the war. But in the years since I’ve returned to this conversation with Mr. Orr many times to tease out the meaning of what he said.
When we are unhappy with the direction of an organization, our first impulse may be to flee. But organizations need people who stay and fight too. Maybe by joining the Army I could have saved lives by being in a position of influence to tamp down some of the needless violence of the War. Maybe if I had joined the Army I could have asked “what are we doing here?” “Is this helping anyone?” “Is lobbing that next grenade going to make us safer?” Maybe by getting inside the Army I could do more good than by walking up and down Main Street with a protest sign.
And, maybe joining the Army would have been a terrible idea. Maybe I would have been utterly powerless and frustrated, maybe I would have challenged authority one too many times, and maybe I would have gotten swept up in the madness and killed. I’ll never know.
Most of us will be faced with this “to be or not to be” question in our career. If I don’t like what’s going on where I am – my culture, my job, my family – should I stay and fight “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” or should I head to greener pastures and find a more comfortable place, more in line with my values?
If everyone chooses the latter, we end up with bland organizations that don’t change, and which reinforce their cultures and behaviors through groupthink. Maybe you should stay in that bad situation and try to make it better.
Or, maybe you should get out before the bombs start exploding around you, to find a safer and happier place.
What matters is that you ask yourself the question – and answer it from the highest possible motivation.
So you spend a lot of money training your employees, making sure they know the basics of their job, the specific qualities of your products, and how to enter orders and expense reports on the company computer. You even conduct training on safety, and you make sure everyone understands that sexual harassment is a BIG no-no.
But of all the training you provide, do you provide perhaps the most fundamental training of all? Do you teach every employee to understand how your business model works and how it makes money?
Your business has a profit and loss statement, it has cash flow, it has competition, it has marketing strategies, it has development budgets, it has payroll cost ratios, and it has to closely manage the Cost of Goods Sold.
How much do your employees know about any of this? Do they think your gross margin is 75% when it’s really closer to 25%? Do they think management and ownership is bleeding the business dry by taking home huge amounts of cash each year? Do they understand the risks of ownership, the cost of money, the challenges of taxation and government regulation? Do they know which competitors are beating you and why, and which competitors you need to beat? Do they know what your financial and non-financial goals are?
I argue all of your employees – down to the people who answer the phones and sweep the floors – deserve to know all of these things. And best of all, if they understand how your business works and how it makes money they’ll be better employees.
In any business, our employees need context in order to feel engaged and motivated. They have to know what their behavior means in the biggest possible picture, why it’s important they answer the phone in two rings, why it’s important they turn off the lights when they leave the office, and why it’s important they participate in that continuous improvement project you’ve been badgering them about.
Most employees – even those highly educated ones – need to understand the nuts and bolts of your business. Each business and each market are different, and each owner has different needs and goals. Educate your employees on all this, and include this kind of business fundamentals training in your training plans. It will result in employees who are more engaged and make better, independent judgments. If they don’t know where their paycheck comes from they may not do the best job of earning it.
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I graduated from high school (okay, don’t look so surprised) in 1974, at the tail end of the Vietnam War.
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Take your pick:
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