Get out from behind your desk

Nearly anyone can tell you that sitting at your desk for long periods of time takes a toll on your physical wellbeing. You need to get up and move around—it’s good for both your mind and your body. What isn’t often shared is how important it is as a leader to get out from behind the desk and see firsthand how things are going and what challenges your people are facing.

I’ve often joked that everything is crystal clear from the perspective of one’s desk. All plans look perfect and wellconceived. However, something is bound to break, some unplanned-for event is bound to happen, somebody is going to drop the ball. In the military, it’s called the fog of war— the uncertainty that a good leader needs to anticipate and be ready to respond to. Unfortunately, you can rarely offer an effective response if you make all decisions sitting behind your desk and not seeing things for yourself.

During World War II, Gen. George Patton found one of his divisions stopped at the Seine River. Patton went to the commanding general’s headquarters where everyone huddled around a map, trying to figure out the best place for the army to cross the river. Various staff members offered opinions on where the river would most likely be shallow enough to cross the river safely and face the least opposition, but no one could agree. Finally, Patton reached in and tapped the map with his riding crop. “This is the best place to cross,” he said with complete conviction. Everyone looked at him, astonished, and finally someone asked him how he knew it was the best place. He stepped back and, pointing to his wet pant legs, said, “Because I was just up there and checked it out myself.”

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A couple years ago, we noticed at our company that a great many price overrides were being done. We pay our salespeople on gross profit dollars, so they had the ability to increase prices or, in turn, decrease prices to meet a competitor’s price. Unfortunately, our system had initially been set up somewhat simplistically, so everyone had this ability. It hadn’t been a problem in the past, but now we were seeing some margin erosion. Our first instinct was to take away the ability to change prices from almost everyone, but our concern was if we didn’t know why pricing was being overridden, how would we know how to “fix” it?

So, I ran an override report for a month’s worth of business, sorted it by the people who overrode pricing the most, and hopped in my car. I spent three days, driving more than 650 miles and visiting 20-plus employees at 12 locations to find out why they were doing what they were doing. Their answers were anything but obvious. One primary reason was that because pricing for a couple specific secondary product lines were not being maintained regularly enough, they had lost confidence in our overall pricing and were now pricing items at what they thought was a more correct price (usually based on a set markup they always used). Another reason was that because they had lost confidence in our pricing, it didn’t take much feedback from a customer to get them to lower the price. A more basic reason was that the salesperson did not know how to use our system correctly, so he was cutting and pasting line items from quotes to orders, rather than converting the quote to an order. It required him to enter his own, all-new pricing versus updating the order with system pricing.

Needless to say, my visits were very informative, thanks to our employees’ willingness to be honest, but they were also very energizing. While we still had a pricing problem, it wasn’t because salespeople had the ability to override prices. It was due to a lack of confidence in the reliability of our pricing; a lack of knowledge of how and why we priced things; and overall, a training issue. So, we implemented a more regular routine of updating pricing, and established multiple methods to get feedback from our salespeople and managers on the effectiveness of our pricing. Once we got people comfortable and more confident in our pricing, employees only changed the price when specific and credible competitive information was presented, rather than just because a customer commented. Lastly, we now conduct ongoing training for all employees, not just new ones, on how to use our system effectively. Many procedures had improved the more years we had under our belt on our ERP system, but rarely were we communicating updates to people who had been originally trained on the system.

If I had made these decision without getting out from behind my desk, I would have treated the symptoms, not the disease. So, don’t lead based on what you perceive to be the problem. Get out and talk to your employees and customers. You might get your pants wet, but chances are, you’ll find the best way across that river.

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