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Not All Classrooms Have Four Walls

Unexpected Sources of Business Education – Five Short Stories

By Ralph Smith and Jordan Smith

One of the keys to learning is keeping your eyes and ears open. My experience is that the best lessons don’t always come from a white paper or a textbook or a seminar — I see things in everyday life that strike me as fantastic and memorable applications of important business principles.  As Leonardo da Vinci said, “You can learn from everywhere… and from everything.”

These short stories describe the necessary ingredients to modern day, post-pandemic business success: communication, employee engagement, customer experience, process efficiency, and long-term vision. You can google any one of those topics and identify hundreds of articles written by renowned scholars that will tell you everything you need to know. (And some of them might even keep you awake!) What differentiates this series is that the lessons learned will hopefully be more memorable because they come from unlikely places. In fact, your “faculty” for the series will consist of:

Hope you enjoy!

Business Communication – A Child’s View

Make sure your employees understand your true intent

In all my years of consulting I’ve never heard a company say, “Our internal communication rocks.” Poor communication is a constant challenge for many leaders. Consequently, I’ve taught a wide variety of communication-related topics over the years- change management, facilitation skills, building a communication plan, and so on.

One key issue is communication style — there are two. There’s one-way communication, where the sender delivers the message with no opportunity for questions or dialogue. This is shown on the left below. Business examples include email, voice mail, memos, etc. One-way communication can be fraught with problems. Have you ever written an email, re-read it before sending, and thought “whoa, I need to edit that… they will definitely get the wrong idea.” Here’s the sobering thought: that’s just the ones you catch. Most of us have gotten responses to emails and thought, “What set them off?” — unaware our message would be received in an unintended manner.

The alternative (and preferred) method is two-way communication, shown above on the right. The sender still transmits the message, but this time there’s opportunity for dialogue and feedback. This method typically produces much better results, but the drawback is that it takes more time. Working with someone to make sure they understand requires more effort than simply telling them what to do.

Is the extra time worth it? I could justify it with business examples, but my most important lesson learned came from my 2-year-old daughter. From the time she was an infant we had an established pattern for communication when we wanted her attention. It went like this:

In a normal voice: “Lindsey.”

If no response, in a louder voice: “LINDSEY!!”

If no response, in a much louder voice: “LINDSEY ELIZABETH SMITH.”

At that point, she knew we meant business and would stop what she was doing and pay attention. This is classic one-way communication, since babies don’t have the capacity to respond. We followed this process for two years, not realizing how she was processing the information. Then one day I found myself on the kitchen phone (we had phone cords back then!) with a company president. Lindsey was playing with her little plastic tea set across the room. Amazingly, she didn’t care that I was on the phone with an important client- she wanted me to come have tea with her. So I heard a loud “DADDY!” I immediately clapped my hand over the phone and said “Shhh- I’ll be right there, honey.” After a few more seconds came another “DADDY!” followed by “Shhh, I’ll be with you in a minute.” And then the lesson of a lifetime:


What a great lesson for leadership, particularly in a post-pandemic business world where the challenges of communication are greater due to increased separation. Take the time to make sure your employees understand your true intent, lest you find out in two years that they think Elizabeth means “now I’m serious!”

Employee Engagement – Get it While It’s Hot!

Definition: Employee engagement is the extent to which employees feel passionate about their jobs, are committed to the organization, and put discretionary effort into their work.

Are your employees engaged? Hot topic in today’s workplace, particularly as the pandemic has made it tougher to feel a sense of community. I learned a great lesson recently from an unlikely source — a fast-food cashier.

I have a habit of asking front line staff “how’s business?” when I’m checking out of a store or restaurant. Why? I read an article that said an enthusiastic response promotes repeat business, but a funeral dirge keeps people away. The response I get from fast food employees is typically “fine”. Yawn. But a while back I asked that question at my local Firehouse Subs, and the young lady behind the counter responded “well, we’re the least profitable unit in our store owner’s chain right now.” I remember thinking ‘wait a minute, that’s a real answer.’ When I asked her to elaborate, she said:

“Our owner has four stores. She meets with employees every month to discuss how we’re doing. In our case, we have a very difficult location that makes it tough for customers to find us. That makes our walk-in sales lower than her other stores. She really wants to keep our store open, so we are trying to help make it successful.”

Now that is employee engagement. A front-line worker so in tune with the business that she wants to work with the owner to make improvements. And she was right, by the way- the location is horrible. Down the hill from a major traffic area full of competing restaurants, and the store is hidden behind a rock wall. Yikes.

How did the owner promote this level of engagement? Part of it was frequent communication. Employees cannot connect to the business if they don’t understand the business. The fact that the owner took the time to go over results and challenges with the employees got them invested in success. The second critical element was rallying the employees and ownership around a common goal- keeping the store open. It was presented as an opportunity, not a threat: We have a tough location and we can’t move the store, so what can we do to make us successful?

Did it work? Absolutely. The store is still open despite the pandemic. In fact, it might still be open because of the pandemic. One of the pre-pandemic ideas was to focus on lunch delivery to businesses, cancelling out their location disadvantage. When the pandemic put a premium on delivery, they already had the processes in place and were ready to go. They were also the first restaurant in the area to adjust instore delivery methods for the pandemic. I remember telling my wife they had a terrific setup to minimize contact and get customers their food quickly. They were doing things in April that didn’t become commonplace until September.

Am I 100% positive those ideas came from the engaged staff? Nope. But I am positive that the staff bought into them 100%. And it wasn’t about throwing parties or doing team building events- it was about making sure people saw that their interests and the interests of the business were one and the same.

That’s how you drive engagement.

Hustling for Customer Experience

Definition: Customer Experience (CX) is everything related to a business that affects a customer’s perception and feelings about it.

I was moving my pool table recently and a leg broke, so I needed it repaired. I called a vendor with a long list of glowing customer testimonials. After a brief positive conversation, we agreed on a price and I hired them. Then I was handed off from sales to the repair person, which is often an interesting transition. Let me describe what happened next.

It didn’t hit me until later that the very thing that drew me to this company was the list of reviews that I had just added to; it fed on itself and generated new business. That company “gets it.”

Have you instilled the mindset in your employees that they win if the customers win? If not, why should they go the extra mile for them?  Have you thought about things from the customer perspective, making sure all their interactions with your organization are positive?

If not, your company might soon find itself behind the 8-ball.

Cross-Functional Process Efficiency – a “Relay” Strong Parallel

Three Keys to Winning the Race

by Jordan Smith – Special to Orion

I’ll start off with an admission: when I embarked on my career as a track and field athlete, I did not have cross-functional process efficiency in mind. I know you’re thinking, “Wow, how could anyone have missed the obvious parallels between track and a successful business process?!?!” Now that I have seen the light, let’s dive into the relevant track applications through examining the components of a relay team.

  1. The Grit: It comes to no surprise that in order to achieve success, you are going to have to put in work in one form or another. On the track, it is essential that each leg of the four-person relay carries their weight in terms of training. Strong training sessions create faster relay legs, and faster relay legs create a more successful team. In the corporate world, hard work and dedication are required to achieve functional expertise… without which you cannot have successful cross-functional processes.
  2. The “Handoff”: Communication is essential between the members of a team, whether on a track or in the workplace. One of the most critical aspects of a track relay is a smooth handoff between runners. In order to maintain a constant speed and to perfect timing, countless hours are spent practicing the handoff from one athlete to the next. A smooth handoff can be the difference between first and second place (or last place, if you drop the baton). In business it is equally critical to perfect the communication, or “handoff”, between departments to ensure that processes will run smoothly.
  3. The Leader: Having everyone on a team united under one leader with a common goal is essential for growth and development. In the world of track and field, we have a coach tasked with setting us up for success. He designs workouts that peak our performance and chooses a relay order that promotes optimal handoffs between each member. Similarly, in the business realm an overall process manager should look out for the good of the process as a whole. A leader, whether it be a coach or a manager, is a key component when aiming for success in any institution.

My time as an Orion Intern has included being a part of cross-functional process mapping sessions. While the three key lessons described above may seem somewhat obvious, I have been surprised to find that different functional areas operate without an understanding of what the other functions do. Further, there have been many cases where it seems no one is managing the process as a whole. The good news is that the remedy is clear. If you work hard to maintain functional expertise, perfect the handoffs, and designate an overall process owner, then your business is headed for first place.

Vision, as Seen by Don Corleone

Understanding the Keys to Long-Term Success

One of my favorite books is The Godfather — the story of the rise to power of organized crime boss Vito Corleone. The Academy Award-winning movie was also great, but it’s impossible to capture the depth of his character onscreen. Gotta tell you- when I started reading the book I sure wasn’t expecting to get leadership advice, but The Godfather exhibited extraordinary long-term vision that can serve as a model for executives today… if it wasn’t fictional and didn’t involve murder, bribery and extortion, of course. (Details…)

Anyway, Corleone surveyed the landscape in the pre-World War II 1900’s and recognized that dozens of warring crime factions were causing loss of life and profitability for no purpose. He also recognized that media coverage of the never-ending violence made it way too visible, which would eventually force the government to step in. That meant that to ensure the survival of his organization it would be essential to look long-term and take some very difficult steps. What did he do?

And the result? On an “industry” level, disorganized crime became organized crime, and was able to fly under the radar much easier- increasing probability of longer-term success. On a personal level, Corleone became a rich and successful CEO of a powerful “corporation.”

Key business lessons from this example:

I’ll stop here, since I don’t want to build up a (fictional) underworld figure too much. But when I first read the book I was struck by how many times I thought “that’s exactly what a great leader would do,” making it a natural fit for this series.

You might say I was looking for the perfect topic for the finale… and this was an offer I couldn’t refuse.

Hope you have enjoyed these stories. At Orion we are dedicated to continuous learning, so there may be other lessons coming your way soon!

Check out other blogs and articles by Ralph Smith.

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