Updated: Sep 23, 2019
Credit by: Tim Williams
Are you unwittingly cultivating less committed professional relationships when you tell the people in your firm that you trust them, then put in place dozens of ways of auditing how they work and spend their time?
In many firms, employees sign in and out, complete detailed daily timesheets, and are subject to regular formal performance reviews. Some companies monitor screen time, regulate internet access, and make the automatic assumption that if an employee wants to work at home on a given day they are devoting less time to their work. What company leaders say (“We trust you”) and how they actually behave doesn’t square.
A trust tax or a trust dividend?
The degree of trust you have with your associates has genuine economic consequences. As Stephen M.R. Covey eloquently explains in his book The Speed of Trust, when trust is high, speed goes up and costs go down. Low-trust environments create the opposite dynamic — the work slows down and costs increase. In effect, if you don’t have authentically trusting relationships, your firm pays a “trust tax.” On the other hand, high-trust environments benefit from a “trust dividend.”
Covey teaches that to get trust you have to give trust — and leaders must go first. This relates directly to the critical distinction between management and leadership. We can manage things but we have to lead people. Management systems should be applied to workflow processes, not human beings.
Too many milkers
In many advertising agencies, there exist ludicrous layers of people involved in serving a client. The Account Executive is supervised by the Account Supervisor who is supervised by the Management Supervisor who is managed by the Director of Client Services. That’s far too many people engaged in supervising and too few people engaged in the actual doing. The same is often true in creative departments where work is subjected to multiple levels of review and approval. No doubt some amount of oversight is required (along with some mentorship) but when clients complain about agency complexity and overhead, the multi-layered structure is often at the base of the problem.
In many professional service firms, people in finance, operations, and management roles outnumber the people on the front lines of client business. For every one person doing the work, there are sometimes two people managing, measuring, and analyzing it. As the legendary David Ogilvy once quipped, “In most agencies, account executives outnumber the copywriters two to one. If you were a dairy farmer, would you employ twice as many milkers as you had cows?
Only doing is doing
Measuring the work done inside a professional service firm doesn’t create client value; only the work itself does that. It’s no coincidence that the firms doing the very best work often have the smallest finance and operations departments.
As advertising professional Dave Trott writes, our business suffers from “Too many people having opinions about work, measuring work, observing work, commenting on work, writing criticisms about work, theorizing about work, dissecting work, analyzing work, summarizing work, and having meetings about work. Too few people actually doing any work".
Bureaucratic organizations create layers of people to observe and measure expressly because they lack confidence in the talent and dedication of their colleagues. It’s easy to view the issue of trust as a mushy platitude featured in vapid mission statements. But as Covey reminds us, trust is an economic driver, not just a social virtue.