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Aesop & the CEOPowerful Business Insights from Aesop's Ancient Fables
By David C. Noonan
Nelson BooksCopyright © 2005 David C. Noonan
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Hound and the Hare
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Ahare was nibbling away at some plants in a field one day when she noticed a hunter she had never seen before patrolling the area with his hound.
Now I have two new predators to outwit, the animal thought, and since that hound is a lot younger than I am, he's probably a lot faster too. To offset the hound's speed, I'll need to know every inch of terrain by heart.
Seizing the initiative, the hare went out to the fields at suppertime when she knew the hunter was not around. She studied every hiding place, every briar, and the path through every bramble. A few days later, the hound spotted the hare and gave chase. The hare darted through the fields, briars, and underbrush, and she easily escaped. Tired and disappointed, the hound returned to the hunter.
A goatherd passing by saw the whole chase and began to berate the hound. "Some hunter you turned out to be! You ought to be ashamed of yourself, letting a hare so much smaller and older get the better of you." "You're forgetting one thing," the hound replied. "I was running for my supper, but that harewas running for her life."
Aesop's moral: Initiative is the child of necessity.
Perspective: Do you think some people, like the hare in the fable, are naturally predisposed to taking the initiative? Do you believe that workers can be taught to take the initiative? Do you suspect that some workers could take the initiative but choose not to because they figure the extra work will go unrecognized? When was the last time you undertook an initiative at work without being asked? Did your extra effort bear fruit? Did others in the organization recognize your initiative? Did it matter to you whether it was recognized or not? Would you take the initiative again?
Organizations are full of intelligent, motivated, and experienced people who lack initiative. I worked with many talented men and women who were ready to do anything the company needed, as long as someone else told them what to do.
Initiative is a fire that burns within an individual. It isn't waiting to be told what to do. It's an innate drive to make a process, system, or product better than it was before. People take initiatives to improve themselves by spending off-hours going to school, learning more about the corporation they work for or the industry they work in. Many people take the initiative not knowing whether their efforts will lead anywhere or benefit anybody. They are driven by the potential for new successes. And many of the same people are pleasantly surprised when their initiative reaps benefits much greater than anybody ever expected. In How to Be a Star at Work, Robert Kelley describes how one person's initiative resulted in an unprecedented windfall.
For ten years, Kathleen Betts processed Massachusetts' medical bills on behalf of Medicaid patients. But in 1991, the state's $460 million budget shortfall threatened not only her job, but also the jobs of hundreds of state workers and various programs for people with low incomes. Governor William Weld refused to raise taxes to cover the gap. The thirty-eight-year-old Betts had recently cut back her hours so she could spend more time with her two children, then nine and two years old. But the fact that she worked only three days a week didn't diminish her commitment to her job or impede her initiative. Searching for a way to inject more benefits into the Medicaid system, Betts took home Medicaid manuals and Department of Human Health and Services guidelines. Hour after hour, evening after evening, she scoured the deadly dull documents for a pot of gold.
One day she uncovered a flaw in the way in which state and federal agencies calculated hospital operating costs and income. The upshot? Massachusetts' Medicaid program was receiving much less reimbursement money than it was entitled to. The federal government kicked in an additional $489 million to correct the glitch. Incredibly, one woman's initiative eliminated the state's enormous deficit, saved hundreds of state jobs including her own, and kept fully funded the programs for people with limited financial resources.
Elated, Governor Weld pushed through a bill that provided a $10,000 cash award to Betts and subsequent state employees who make government more productive, stating that "often the best ideas come from the people on the front lines."
"The bonus was just the frosting on the cake," Betts later said. "To me, it was great that the state was recognizing our work and it brought to light some of the positive potential for mothers who want to work. There's so much good that I felt came of it."
"Betts was featured as the ABC News Person of the Week, landed on the front page of the New York Times, and was invited to be on David Letterman," Kelley says. "So why was she the nation's darling in the summer of 1991? Why did America fall in love with a state government bureaucrat in, of all places, the public welfare office? Because Kathy Betts had shown initiative."
Business moral: Personal initiative can mean the difference between business failure and success.
Chapter TwoThe Donkey Eating Thistles
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It was harvesttime, and the master and workers were out in the fields bringing in the crops. The harvest was bountiful, and the master and his family were going to prosper greatly. Lunchtime drew near. To fortify the workers, the servants at the house loaded up a donkey with beverages and good things to eat: breads, cheeses, olives, figs, grapes, and delicious meats.
As the donkey ambled down the path to the workers in the field, he saw a large thistle growing nearby. The animal was hungry and immediately went over to the thistle and began to eat it. As he munched on the prickly plant, the donkey thought, I bet there are many people who'd love to sample the delicious food I'm carrying on my back. But to my taste, this bitter and thorny thistle is more savory and satisfying than the most lavish banquet.
Aesop's moral: One person's meat may be another person's poison.
Perspective: What kinds of rewards do you seek at work? Greater responsibilities? A bigger raise? A bigger bonus? Wider recognition among your peers? More time off? What kinds of rewards do you think the person in the office next to you wants? Do you know what kinds of rewards other employees value?
In fact, the rewards that people seek in the workplace vary significantly and depend on the person. Some managers assume that money-in the form of a raise or a bonus-is the most important motivator. But other things, such as recognition, more freedom, more control, time off, or a piece of the action, can be just as important. According to Mary Kay Ash, founder of Mary Kay Cosmetics, "There are two things people want more than sex and money-recognition and praise."
Peggy Noonan, speechwriter for the late President Reagan, understands the power of recognition. Noonan had been working for Reagan for four months and had yet to meet him. One day, Reagan sent back one of her speech drafts with the words Very Good written in the margin. This bit of recognition was so exciting to her that she cut out the comment and taped it to her blouse so that everyone could see it for the rest of the day.
In 1001 Ways to Reward Employees, Bob Nelson stresses the need to match the reward to the person: "Few management concepts are as solidly founded as the idea that positive reinforcement ... works." He cites Catherine Meek of Meek and Associates for guidelines about what constitutes an effective reward and recognition program:
1. Develop your program so as to reward behavior consistent with the firm's values and business strategy; 2. Let your employees help develop and implement the program; 3. Vary the rewards. Make them informal and formal, cash and non-cash, individual and team; 4. Publicize the program and the employees who receive the rewards; 5. Change the program frequently; otherwise it will lose its vitality and power to motivate.
Let me offer a personal example of what can happen if you don't match the reward to the employee. Several years ago, I met with Edgar, a top scientist in our firm, to conduct his annual performance review. He was a brilliant man and a hard worker who had received stellar marks for performance that year. I asked him how the company could best reward him for his hard work over the past twelve months.
First, he told me what he didn't want. "Believe it or not," Edgar said, "I don't want a big raise. I'm well paid as it is, and if you give me a big raise, you'll start pricing me out of the market. People will be more reluctant to use me on their projects because my hourly rate will become an even greater burden. I could price myself right out of a job."
He then went on to explain what he really wanted: "There is a one-week conference later next year that I would like the company to let me attend. It will help me expand my technical capabilities, make me even more valuable to the firm, and satisfy my need for an intellectual challenge. Instead of money, give me time off to attend the conference."
I took his request to the regional manager. Incredibly, the manager said, "We can't give Edgar seven days off for the conference. But we can give him a nice raise." The manager's rationale was straightforward: the conference budget was based on four employees attending two-day seminars. Edgar's request would use up seven of the eight allotted days. The manager subsequently gave him a large raise but denied him permission to attend the conference. The sad fact was that the cost to the company of letting him attend the conference was a lot less than the raise we gave him. As you might expect, a frustrated Edgar left the firm the following year.
People's motivations will change over time with monetary rewards potentially becoming less of a motivator as they move up the ladder. According to Sumner Redstone, CEO of Viacom, "Most people who succeed in significant areas do not succeed because of a desire for money."
Excerpted from Aesop & the CEO by David C. Noonan Copyright © 2005 by David C. Noonan. Excerpted by permission.
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