Sharpening the Saw

Abraham Lincoln said “Give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”

 

Old Abe knew a thing or two about chopping wood. As a boy, he helped out on his father’s farm as well as the farms of others, clearing the land, building wooden fences, and doing many of the other things that are necessary to successfully run a farm. As a young adult, he had a reputation for his strength and skill with an axe.

We still uses axes today, though perhaps less so for cutting down trees. Nevertheless, the principle is the same: Your tools must be in tip-top condition if they’re to perform at the level that they should.

 

If you’ve read Stephen Covey’s book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, then you’ll be familiar with the expression sharpening the saw. A saw is also a tool, and if you want that tool to function at its best and last for as long as possible, then you have to take care of it. That means cleaning it, protecting it from things that can harm it, using it correctly, and keeping it sharp so that it can always do what it was designed to do.

For Covey, sharpening the saw epitomizes what it means to work smarter; not harder. It refers to the time you use to allow the physical, mental, and emotional parts of your life to be restored and renewed. That means looking after yourself. When you look after yourself, then you sharpen your saw. You make yourself more productive than you would be if you just worked nonstop.

 

Only you know how to sharpen your saw

How you sharpen your saw is up to you. Only you know how much sleep and exercise you need, and what foods will give you the best fuel.

If you fail to sharpen your saw, then just like that tool, you’ll become less effective. Your ability to think will become dull; you’ll lose your edge. Indeed, you won’t be as mentally or physically sharp as you should be or have been. You’ll make poor decisions, especially under pressure, and you’ll tire and lose your concentration more quickly.

 

This is also true of your employees.

To keep them sharp means that you have to take care of them. You have to allow them time to rest, recover, and recharge, something which in the work-from-home climate is no less important. You have to deliberately incorporate time in their days to sharpen their own saws such that when they’re working, they can consistently deliver their best.

 

A problem

But there’s a problem.

The problem is that the managers for whom they work aren’t evaluated or rewarded according to how well they sharpen the saws of those they supervise. Instead, they’re measured by the number of trees they cut down.

The number of felled trees is a quantifiable outcome. In modern organisations, that equates to financial outcomes. The thing is that if all you do is cut down trees all day and never take time to sharpen your saw, eventually each iteration will take longer. It won’t matter how many hours you spend supervising the work or how many hours others spend doing it. You’ll become inefficient simply because you failed to sharpen the tool that mattered the most.

Lest we extend the analogy too far, it must be said that the people themselves are not tools, but their knowledge, skills and abilities are. You must not look upon your employees simply as some kind of manipulable resource, but rather as facilitators with their own toolbox. And your job is to help them to make the best use of those tools.

In order to overcome the propensity among managers to focus only on relatively short-term results, you must build into their evaluation and reward programmes their commitment to helping the workforce to stay sharp. You must hold them accountable for sharpening not only their own saws, but for providing an environment that encourages others to do the same.

What tends to happen, however, is that because managers carry so much responsibility for delivering results, they tend to redouble their own efforts when there’s pressure to produce more. And so what happens is that they not only burn themselves out more quickly; they also leave behind the folks who are best positioned to help them reach their targets.

 

Flawed metrics

A related problem is that managers become more concerned with the financial side of the business than they do with the tools that contribute to it because the internal policies of the organisation support that approach.

The imbalance between people and financial issues means that managers are encouraged to work towards financial goals without the help of the people who are most likely to be able to help them to do it. Not so much putting the cart before the horse, but leaving the horse in the barn altogether.

One reason offered for this oxymoron is that investors only understand financial metrics, and so it’s thought to be reasonable to expect that senior managers would be evaluated on them.

Of course, this is a cop-out. Investors, just like everyone else, need to be educated so that they do understand why people are so vital to the achievement of financial objectives. Not only that, but companies need to be far less concerned about using some kind of standard that’s consistent across all industries, and instead use one that best communicates the value of people to their enterprise.

You see, any attempt to create some kind of “universal metric” is simply another way of trying to quantify people in terms of finances. That makes as much sense as trying to quantify finances in terms of people. The two are different, but inextricably linked. It’s meaningless to attempt to take two different variables and express them as one. It’s like asking how many hummingbirds make an apple. Reducing many variables to one is fine for a maths’ exam, but impractical in real life.

To some extent, this is starting to change as executives recognise that culture, the direction of which they determine through their leadership, staff know-how, and employee engagement are an indispensable part of meeting fiscal objectives - that it’s impossible to achieve one without the other.

 

How to sharpen the saw

Sharpening the saws of your employees is much more than “investing in people”. It’s more than simply funding training and development; and it’s much more than completing a checklist or fulfilling some predetermined criteria that sounded great on the drawing board.

The saw consists of everyone - individually and collectively - in your organisation. And so to sharpen them means helping each to learn how to make a difference, not only in their own lives, but also in the lives of others; to learn how to think and then to apply it to solving problems at work. And that means that managers must permit them to do so.

 

Need we say it all?

It’s a waste of time, money, and the potential for employee motivation to send someone on a course only to deny them the opportunity to put into practice what the learned when they return.

Why would you do that? And yet, this seems to be common practice in many organisations. Attending a course is less about trying to solve a problem, and more about being seen to do the right thing. But to do the right thing means to make changes that the training suggests.

 

Environment

Sharpening the saw means creating an environment so that people won’t be afraid to express their feelings or to say what they think. Employees should be able to call out managers who are unfair, inconsistent, or arrogant; and that includes those who are at the very top of the organisation.

Policies aren’t for the “little people.” They’re for everyone. You’re no exception.

 

Continuous learning

Sharpening the saw means to recommend books and research so that people are as well-informed on topics as the managers are - as well as you are. There’s no question that some will be more interested than others, but you shouldn’t keep these sources to yourself just because a only a small number will take an interest. Share this wealth of knowledge. Some of the people who want to read what you do may make great managers or executives themselves.

This is a good place to dispel the myth that knowledge is power. It’s not. Knowledge is potential power. The power comes from its exercise. You must do something with it. You must act on what you know, and others must be permitted to act on what they know.

Doing nothing or hiding what you know in a wardrobe neutralises any power that that knowledge contains, and that’s because when you keep it to yourself, it has no more ability to change things than if no one knew it at all.

 

Technical skills

Sharpening the saw also means giving people the technical skills to excel in their current work and to take on greater responsibility as soon as they are able.

You need to recognize that when people aren’t challenged to excel, then they’ll look for opportunities where they are. If positions are only one-deep in your organisation, then combining or rearranging responsibilities may be the only way that you can keep people sufficiently challenged. This may mean that you have to delegate more executive work to those who work for you. Of course, this may not always be possible. Nevertheless, you must be aware that those who want more challenges, and who can’t get them, will seek them elsewhere. It’s human nature.

 

Shared decision-making

Sharpening the saw means including others in your decision making. You should be doing this anyway, especially where such decisions affect others. In fact, any kind of change initiative must include the people who will have to change or change the most.

 

Efficiency by example

Sharpening the saw means encouraging everyone to find ways to do their work faster and cheaper. You must set the example. You shouldn’t be trying to schedule your work to fill a certain amount of time, or to spread out your customers needs over weeks or months because you’re uncertain about when or whether more business will materialise. To do so is to encourage your employees to do exactly the same.

 

Monkey see; monkey do.

For Abraham Lincoln, a sharp tool was more important than additional hours of labour, and if you want your organisation to thrive financially, then you must make time to sharpen the people who can make that possible. You must create an environment for growth, give them opportunities to learn and to put into practice their new skills. You must include them in your decisions and encourage their input in making them, and you must set an example that’s worth copying.

If you’ve ever cut yourself on a dull razor, then you’ll know from personal experience that you cannot do as good of a job with it as you can with one that’s sharp. Not only do you have to reach for something better - in effect to the the job over again, you also have to spend more time dealing with the damage you caused. And all of that could’ve been avoided if would have used a sharp tool in the first place.

 

Sharpen your saw and sharpen the saws of others. To learn more, contact me here.

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