On the fourth of July I had an experience that I would rather not have lived through, but it taught me several powerful lessons with multiple implications.
After the fireworks display at a large city park, I was driving my family and my daughter’s friend to our house. There were adult volunteers directing traffic and so I paid attention to them and to the car in front of me. Soon I realized I was stopped directly over a set of railroad tracks. Sarah’s friend said, “This is making me nervous.” I said rather nonchalantly, “If a train comes, we’ll all run out of the car. Our lives are more important than this old mini-van.” In my mind I thought there was no way that the volunteers would have guided us over the railroad tracks if the trains were running at that time. Two minutes later the light turned green, and I moved ahead with traffic. Another minute later Barb turned back and said, “Now there’s a train coming where we were.”
I got very little sleep that night. We were in danger and I didn’t realize it. I did not have a well thought-out plan, and I didn’t proactively respond when I realized we were stopped over the tracks. I spent the night thinking about what I should have done differently.
Here are examples of how this scenario plays out in business.
On a work team
A group of eight people are given an important project. Seven of the eight work very hard and make tremendous progress. The eighth person skips meetings, fails to return calls and emails, and drops the ball on key assignments. However, when the group’s supervisor attends a monthly update meeting, this person always says something that catches the supervisor’s ear as being really insightful, even though the comments are not based at all on the realities of what the group is doing or finding in their efforts. Should anyone in the group speak up and clarify for the supervisor what is happening? They all decide not to. Then this person is promoted to being in charge of an even more important project. Is the company parked over railroad tracks?
In an organization
An entire company is experiencing record sales because of a new product that doesn’t really fit their brand at all, but has become a temporary fad in society. Should everyone just keep fulfilling customer requests and take their eye off of what made their company successful in the past or should they shift gears and build their brand around this new product? If they go all out to support their new product and ignore their existing products, they will endanger the delivery and quality of their other products and risk their long-time customer relationships. They are sitting over railroad tracks and they have to decide what to do.
These scenarios are real. And they involve the same dynamics that I faced in driving my family home. Well-intentioned people are waving you on as though everything is going great without realizing they are directing you toward a potential catastrophe. You have to be willing to look out for warning signs. If you choose to move ahead and find yourself “stopped over railroad tracks,” you have to make a decision. Nonchalantly choosing to do nothing and just waiting things out is a decision, but is it really the wisest decision? Looking back, I realize that it was the wrong decision for me. I encourage you to be proactive and really think through what you believe is the best thing to do, and then follow through on your decision.
Dan Coughlin believes that one person, regardless of his or her title, can make a positive difference in an organization of any size. He works with leaders in business and healthcare organizations to generate sustainable success for their organizations by impacting execution, branding, and innovation. Visit his Leadership Idea Center at www.thecoughlincompany.com. A full MP3 recording can be found at http://thecoughlincompany.com/cc_vol13_5.php.