Like most of you, I did not have any kind of formal management training. Instead, my route to figuring out how to do it right was fraught with twists and turns, leaving my early-career staff members confused and unhappy.
At one point back then, I tried mimicking my boss since everyone responded quickly to his every request. But as soon as I tried talking his talk, he made a beeline to my office to tell me to knock it off. "You have to be you," he said. "You can't 'do' me and expect people to respond well to it; it's not genuine."
It wasn't the magic bullet but it sunk in and helped me recognize how lost I was at understanding my role as a manager. In time, I began to realize I didn't need to have all the answers. It was more important to know what questions to ask, examine a problem from every direction and seek the counsel of my entire team.
Last month, JCPenney ousted CEO Ron Johnson after only 17 months at the helm. This story was all over the news because Johnson, with an MBA from Harvard and success at Target stores, also spearheaded the wildly successful creation of Apple retail stores. He implemented Apple's Genius Bar, where customers go to get their technical issues resolved. In other words, he's a pretty competent guy.
He was recruited to JCPenney to breathe new life into the ailing retailer. Instead, under his leadership, the chain saw an additional 25% drop in revenue.
Those who have been analyzing why he so broadly failed at his post say, mostly, he failed to listen. Some say he came into the position with the pomp of someone who had all the answers: he told skeptics, in effect, that there was room only for "believers."
He didn't ask for, or listen to, input. Rather than test his ideas, he just rolled them out. He got rid of coupons and discounts—a main attraction for JCPenney customers. Ignoring a study of customer preferences that suggested otherwise, he was determined to create a "Bloomingdale's for Middle America." He made a deal with Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia that resulted in a costly lawsuit from Macy's. In trying to channel his late, great boss—Steve Jobs—this formerly very successful manager created a mess.
Part of Jobs' genius was that —without asking—he instinctively knew what customers would want. But Johnson is no Steve Jobs.
With our laboratory landscape shifting before our eyes, there's definitely a strain on the old foundation. Figuring out "next steps" is something every one of us is doing. In recent months, we've spoken to some lab owners who said the changes became overwhelming—they "were close to retirement anyway"—and they've left the industry.
But we've also added new laboratories to our database. They feel like kids in a candy shop: there is so much opportunity and so many business-model options to choose.
For most people, managing with our gut isn't sufficient. A gut sense needs to be carefully integrated with thorough research, knowledge and market awareness. Before any option can be comfortably selected, it's important to know if your customer base wants what you want to offer. For example, milling machine capacity is high; will dentist demand keep pace?
You also need to be sure the technicians you work with are as eager as you are to incorporate new technologies. Or, perhaps they are eager and you are not. Moving forward with conviction could be futile if everyone affected by your decisions isn't on the same page.
We all already know these things, but when you read about the struggles of a 111-year-old, beloved retail chain taking such a hit due to a management fiasco from a seasoned pro, it's worth taking a step back to do some rechecks of your own.