Thanks for joining me again for this month’s installment of “Build it Better.” If you haven’t read last month’s column, you may want to take a moment to check it out, as this month we are building onto and applying the ideas introduced there. Last month we discussed the concept of “Continuous Improvement” and the importance of moving forward one small step at a time to get better each day.  This month we take that approach and apply it to creating a “Culture of Openness” in your rep firm. We want you to be able to identify and define the actions the leadership at your firm needs to take for Continuous Improvement to become the default mindset within your entire organization.

As a leader, everything you do sends a message to your team. As a leader in your organization, you must be purposeful in your words, behaviors and attitude in meetings, emails, and day-to-day interactions if you want those actions to promote a culture of Continuous Improvement.  Let’s start with what not to do.  

This scenario probably sounds familiar to all of us: Picture yourself in a meeting with members of your team discussing a problem; it could be your sales team brainstorming growing distribution on that new line, or your inside team trying to figure out how best to communicate shipping delays. As the meeting starts, people start telling their stories and framing up the problem and the challenges surrounding the problem. The team is having a lively discussion, everyone is engaged and wants to find a solution. You’re feeling great that the team, without much input from you, is driving a healthy conversation and leaning into finding a real solution. Then, the new guy speaks up with an idea that you know is not a good one.  The company tried it right before he got there and it crashed and burned. After not saying much, you interject with the truth - that his idea is something you tried before and it just didn’t work. Thanks, but it won’t work, let’s move on. Eventually, the team finds a solution that you’re confident about.  You leave the meeting feeling good. The problem is solved and that new line grows or you make up for those shipping shortcomings.

Over time, the impacts on culture and improving your team’s problem-solving skills will pay far more dividends than the short-term impact of not implementing your version of the “right idea.”

In the context of building a Culture of Openness, this meeting had some glaring failures. That new employee won’t be as confident about bringing new ideas to the table. These new ideas are the lifeblood of Continuous Improvement. You may think that your response was not a big deal, you just told the truth. But by shutting down the ideas of your new employee you send the message that all ideas are not welcome. Your actions made that meeting hostile to new ideas and uncomfortable for creativity. Your new employee will be more careful next time, vetting her ideas with others or waiting until you show favor towards an idea or direction before adding her opinions. This leads to a slower pace of innovation within your company and new employees who seek to fit in rather than bringing their fresh experience to the benefit of your organization.

So, how do you avoid this? How do you reply to that “bad idea” that you know won’t work?  Here are some key steps: 1. Ask for clarification.  2. Have the team explore the idea.  3. Have them implement it.  Let’s explore those alternatives.

Asking for clarification

In this scenario, your response to the bad idea is some variation of, “That’s interesting, tell us more about what you mean there.” This does two things. It signals to the new employee that you, personally, value their input.  Your work isn’t over after that first question, your job is to guide the discussion, focusing on using the new employee’s skills and experience to find a better way than the last time you tried this idea. Often you’ll find that her idea has much more depth than you thought and in that nuance lie hidden solutions. Old ideas with some tweaks are often the easiest to implement and have higher rates of success.

Have the team explore the idea

In this step, your response to your new employee is something like, “Interesting idea. Bill, when we tried something similar to this in the past, do you have any idea where we had opportunities to make it more successful?” Bill, who has been with your company for a while, takes over the conversation. This really engages that new employee with the rest of the team, and allows collaboration and empowers the team without leadership taking control.

Implement their idea

In this step, you take all or part of the new employee's idea and implement it as part of the solution. Often after following the clarification and exploration steps, there is a kernel of a good idea that you can use. What you implement may not be the entire solution as the new person proposed it, but any part of their ideas that you use will empower them in the future and build a basis of mutual trust. When you empower your employees to implement and own their ideas, whether you think they are ideal or not, you are investing in building the Culture of Openness. Over time, the impacts on culture and improving your team’s problem-solving skills will pay far more dividends than the short-term impact of not implementing your version of the “right idea.”  

So, what are the results of this Culture of Openness? You are establishing your company as a place where people are comfortable challenging the status quo from the very beginning of their time of employment. Our goal is Continuous improvement, right? To do that your employees have to challenge the status quo every day. This requires your leadership to lay the cultural groundwork for that mindset to take hold in each employee. This cultural groundwork takes place in every meeting and email reply where ideas are exchanged. Using the framework above, you have the tools to drive this culture forward every day.  If you get a chance to implement any of the actions above, send me a message and let me know how it goes. Drop me a line on