To "put the cart before the horse" is to reverse the natural order of things. It may be obvious that a horse can't push a cart backwards nearly as well as it can pull it forward. But when it comes to our businesses, we sometimes have a harder time telling the horse from the cart--or knowing which should receive our attention first.

Business owners and managers know they need good bottom-line results. That's clear. But sometimes it's a bit hard to remember that that's the load on the top of the cart, and the people who make up the organization are up front pulling hard--or ought to be.

Next Step
You and your employees are a team, right? So make sure you're acting like one. Read "Breaking Through 'Us Vs. Them."

In Making Horses Drink, to be released by Entrepreneur Press this summer, I share stories and tips from hundreds of experts on business and leadership. One of my sources is the venerable Gallup organization, whose pollsters recently discovered that nearly a quarter of U.S. employees are unclear on what they are expected to do, lack the materials to do their work, or are waiting for information from their boss. As a result, they are actively disengaged, meaning they are not doing anything productive right now.

One of the horse's legs isn't helping. We've got a three-legged horse trying to push our cart. If some employees are unclear on the basics of what's going on and why they are at work in the first place, I think we could say that someone has accidentally been putting the cart before the horse. To turn this equation around and get the entire work force actively engaged in the work requires leadership to focus not on the bottom line, but on the foundational elements needed to ensure active, productive effort toward it. Things like:

  • Communicate more fully to all staff. Sharing information about not only what to do, but also why it is important is a key to motivated, engaged employees. Goals and feedback about performance toward those goals is still the foundation of all good workplace leadership.
  • Ask employees what information they need. Leaders may often try to "manage by walking around," but this can degenerate into glad-handing and superficial "How ya doing" exchanges. Why not use one-on-one opportunities to ask each employee if he or she has any questions about their work, what to do or how to prioritize?
  • Make sure employees share information with each other. In meetings, research reveals that people talk mostly about knowledge they all share. That's a problem because something only one person knows about is unlikely to get discussed. Knowing this, you can make a special point of asking each person if they have any information that others in the meeting may not be aware of. The manager running the meeting can get a lot more information out on the table simply by asking each person to tell the group something others may not know.
  • Make a point of sharing feedback about the work and why it matters. This gives employees a clear "line of sight" from their daily tasks to the big-picture reasons for them. It adds meaning and purpose. It keeps the work force looking forward and moving in the right direction. Herb Kelleher, chairman of Southwest Airlines, is talking about this essential element of success when he says: "We try to show that what they do matters. That's why we share with employees the letters we get from passengers."

Techniques like these, as simple as they are, can have a tremendous impact on bottom-line performance by making sure the employees who must produce those bottom-line results are energized and focused and moving in the right direction. Leaders who take a little time each day to communicate well and fully with their employees are remembering to put the horse before the cart in their busy schedules. And that can make all the difference.


Alex Hiam is a trainer, consultant and author of several popular books on business management, marketing and entrepreneurship, including Streetwise Motivating & Rewarding Employees, The Vest-Pocket CEOand other popular books.