Organizational Currency

Leslie Kossoff As far as I'm concerned, there are three primary currencies in which we all deal - all the time. They are time, money and reputation.

Money as currency is easy. No matter who you are - and, unless you're Bill Gates or Warren Buffett who have the good manners not to say anything so gauche out loud - you don't have enough of it. Whether in your own enterprise or through investments or just somehow - everyone is committed to either having or getting more.

We want to put our kids through college. We want to buy a larger home, a better car, a new wide-screen TV. We want to take that vacation we always promised ourselves but never quite got to take.

And in order to do so, we need more money. Simple.

On the corporate front, money as currency is easy as well. No matter what the business - manufacturing or service - and no matter what its sector - public or private - there's not enough money. There are so many things that could be done if only there were a bit more. If we could get the budget upped just that little bit, we could add a new person, buy more technology, expand our markets . . .

And we just know it would add to revenues. Really it would. No matter how deeply embedded we are in the organization we know we can draw a line directly from that one more expenditure right to the improved bottom line. We can make the company more money.

Really we can.

Which leads us to time - which is, by far, a more precious currency than money - whether personally or professionally.

I learned that lesson last year when my mother died. During those last few days, time became elastic. Somehow the days with her were far longer - and far more valuable - than any 24 hour measure. Time became the primary currency and, in many ways for me, has remained so.

Yet on the professional side, we equate time with money to such a great extent that we measure ourselves and our employees into oblivion. Productivity measures are the key. Output per employee is the measure. We, in too many ways, make no differentiation between the two. Time is money.

Or is it?

Time, in corporations, is not the same as money - although waste of time costs far more than any corporation ever measures.

All you need is one employee at any level in any job that can't quite perform his or her duties, that then requires either another employee to step in real-time or, worse, to clean up afterward and you know what I'm talking about.

Wasted time is far worse than just the cost of the time, itself. Wasted time leads to disgust and dismay not just with the organization but with its leadership. It leads to questions about the ability of the organization to succeed under its current stewards. And that, eventually, leads to brain drains.

It doesn't matter how much you pay your employees (there's that currency again). Among the best and the brightest - which is, of course, what you most want and need to hire - if the organization is seen as a loser, they will leave you without a backward glance.

And good for them. Because if management isn't doing its job - whether in structuring and designing the organization for satisfaction and success, ensuring that all employees are more than adequately trained to perform their duties or that action is taken to either move or remove employees at all levels who are not doing their jobs - then the best and the brightest should take themselves and their contribution to the bottom line to an organization that knows how to do business with and for the best.

A lot of organizations have been getting away with murder because of tight job markets. But that's changing - and just watch how fast those best and brightest start draining away from your company if you're not careful.

All of which takes us to reputation - which is the one currency with which so many organizations are constantly playing fast and loose.

Think about it. How would you feel if you, personally, were referred to as being slow, incompetent, behind the times, rude, unprofessional, a cheat . . . basically someone that no one would want to know.

Or someone no one would want to do business with - unless they really, really had to.

Interestingly, companies and their executives that aren't keeping their eye on that ultimate bottom line of reputation are risking exactly that - and getting that awful reputation every day.

Sometimes it sneaks up on a company. They get busy. They are looking at productivity and revenues and global markets and marketshare and they forget that every one of those transactions ultimately comes down to a relationship - either with a customer or a supplier. (Yes, even suppliers can - and should more frequently - decide that some companies aren't worth the money with which to do business.)

On the customer front, I had cause to see this in action recently - and, for me, it was sadder than words.

One of my mainstay suppliers since before I started my own business was Kinko's. For those of you who don't know it, Kinko's is, now, a global document production and reproduction company. I started with it when I was in college - and they provided both a means to get professors' notes for cheap and for me to make necessary photocopies at a cost I could endure.

As I moved from college to business, Kinko's stayed with me. And as technology improved, I regularly used them in cities around the world - always knowing that I would have what I needed on time, at a very fair cost - and with a level of service and professionalism that was always a joy.

Evidently no longer. During the year or so since Kinko's was acquired by FedEx I've been watching the service quality go down so low - and so quickly - that I had to make the decision that I just can't go back. Frankly, I can't afford to. Between the incompetence - and rudeness - of the employees to the fact that equipment doesn't work on a consistent basis whether self- or full-serve, Kinko's has become a business risk for me.

Which, oddly and sadly enough, has also led me to decide that I no longer want to do business with its parent, FedEx. I'd rather send my packages by UPS, DHL or even the postal service. By extension, another long-time supplier off my books.

Some may say, "Well, that's just one person" - only I know I'm not the only one. I can't be. I've seen how people are reacting inside the Kinko's stores I visited. They all had my same facial expression - and we all walked out un-serviced and disgusted at the same time.

And if that's happening at the storefronts I've visited, it's happening elsewhere. You can put money on it.

All three currencies are precious. But the way to achieve the one on which everyone focuses - money - is to spend your time on the other two.

Look at the way you spend your time - and the ways by which your employees have to spend theirs. Remember that, as a decision maker, your employees can only perform as well as the system you provide for them allows them to perform. The whole time and money thing is really up to you.

Then look at the way you behave to everyone around you - as an individual and as a corporation. Think about your reputation and the image you leave behind. Now extend that to your organization. Do people want to do business with you - or do they have to right up until they can find somewhere else? Which, I promise you, they will.

Individuals and corporations are always told to keep their eye on the ball. Until now, though, the only ball supposedly in play has been money.

If you're smart - and I think you are - then you'll know it's time to take a broader look at the playing field and figure out just where you should be putting your attention and your reputation. When you do, the rest will fall into place.

Leslie L. Kossoff has been cited by About Management as "one of the most intelligent and perceptive voices on managerial leadership today." She is a leading international executive advisor with clients in the United States, Europe and Japan. A highly regarded speaker at conferences around the world, she is the author two books, including the award winning Executive Thinking: The Dream, The Vision, The Mission Achieved, the "Executive Horizons" e-column for as well as writing and contributing to numerous articles on leadership and executive strategy for journals such as The Financial Times, Entrepreneur, Across the Board and Investor's Business Daily.

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