When It Comes to Workplace Success, It’s Usually Substance Over Style

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Feb 13, 2014

“Don’t settle for style. Succeed in substance.” — Wynton Marsalis, American jazz trumpeter

Some people believe that how something looks, or the way you do something, matters more than the substance of that object or action.

In rare cases, such as fashion, this may be true. But no matter how wonderful it looks, a charming dress still won’t last long if it’s made of playing cards or chocolate (and yes, there have been both).

Nonetheless, perception creates reality in most people’s minds.

Henry Ford’s “lazy” idea man

For example, you might think a person with his shoes up on his desk and his eyes closed is wasting company time, as one efficiency expert did when hired by Henry Ford. After just a few hours on the job, he recommended Ford fire the man.

Ford told him the “lazy” fellow was in fact his top idea man, who was busy thinking — and had already earned the company millions of dollars. The expert saw the idea man’s style and assumed that was all there was to him, just because he wasn’t busily scribbling away, dictating to a secretary, or touring the plant floor.

As I’ve said many times, someone who works eight hours a day and accomplishes a handful of important things can prove far more productive than someone who works 12 hours rushing round, staying busy putting out little fires, and crossing 37 piddling items off a to-do list.

The Visa vision

Dee Hock stands as one of the most productive executives of our times. The former CEO of Visa, he once pointed out, “The closest thing to a law of nature in business is that form has an affinity for expense, while substance has an affinity for income.”

Hock himself has an affinity for income. A largely self-educated man born in the mountains of rural Utah, he learned early on to respect what worked well over blindly following the rules.

When he entered the financial services industry in the 1950s, he became convinced that bureaucratic belief in form over function was killing the industry — and walked away from several high visibility, high-potential jobs because of it. Beginning in 1968, he leveraged his vision to make the BankAmericard credit licensing program — later Visa — into one of the most successful corporations in the world.

By then, Bank of America had all but given up on its credit card, having taken a beating in the very market it created. Hock talked the Board into giving up direct ownership and control over the licensing program, subsequently vesting it in member banks.

He retired in 1984, but Visa leadership retained his approach of focusing on substance over form. By 1996, Visa was a trillion-dollar company.

A modest proposal

Leave style to artists, philosophers, and fashionistas. Refuse to lock your team into rigid ways of thinking and doing, where the company line matters more than the bottom line.

Within ethical, moral, and legal limits, do what benefits your organization most and gets you closer to its goals, even if that requires you to think so far outside the box you’re in another time zone.

For example:

1. Break free from bureaucracy

Too often, organizations settle on what they consider “best practices” and stay there indefinitely. But “best” changes with technology and culture.

For decades, “best practice” in the magazine publishing industry required writers to submit stories via postal mail. Now that technology supports email and online submission forms, most journals and magazines have finally gotten away from the old “best practice.”

A few, however, still refuse to accept electronic submissions. Their thinking has fossilized.

2. Stop confusing busy and productive

Who cares how many items you cross off your list if you don’t accomplish anything worthwhile? Put your priority items at the top of your list and do them first, even if they take hours.

If you and your team get just three items done in a day but earn the company $100,000, you’ve beaten the pants off the drones who rushed around doing minor tasks and never managed to get to their most important tasks, earning nothing.

3. Work on your business, not in it

As a leader, you don’t have time to waste chatting, answering questions, handling brush fires, doing minor tasks an intern can handle, and otherwise just working in your business.

Your actions should make your team’s work easier, improve their workflow process, build profitable bridges with other teams and organizations, intercept red tape, and accomplish other substantial tasks.

It doesn’t matter how busy you look; working in rather than on your business gets nothing done that others couldn’t do less expensively.

4. Stop trying to impress

It’s nice to look good, but it’s better to feel good, despite Billy Crystal’s famous admonishment on Saturday Night Live.

How do you feel good? Stop trying to impress people with your style. Impress them instead with your insight and productivity.

Consider Apple’s Steve Jobs, who often wore casual clothing even to meetings with important shareholders. Did his fashion sense make him any less impressive? Of course not. His ability to turn vision into reality, choose inventive people to create products the public really wanted, and infect others with his sense of productivity mattered, not his clothing choices.

His style was always secondary to ensuring that what he did made his company money.

5. Don’t let individual style blind you to ability

Just because someone looks like an alpha geek doesn’t mean he’s your best choice as a programmer, any more than a person’s odd working hours makes them a slacker.

Business professor Alex Taylor tells the story of a hiring manager who looked closer at a young woman who had a bad reputation for not working normal hours, although she did great work. It turned out she was a single mother struggling to fit her child’s needs around the traditional 9-to-5 schedule.

When he created a schedule that matched her needs and offered her the job, she became one of the best employees he’d ever managed.

Beyond the superficial

It’s human nature to accept what we see as what we get. That’s a relic of the caveman days.

But in the modern era, we usually have time to think before we react. So don’t let what’s right there on the surface blind you; look through it to see what’s underneath.

Is “best practice” still best practice? Do you let small things divert you instead of tackling primary goals? Have you ignored your best workers because they don’t quite fit your preconceived notions?

Where have you experienced your assumptions not matching reality?

This was originally published on Laura Stack’s The Productivity Pro blog.

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