Stretching Reality

The HR director was rather proud of herself. She was speaking to one of the company’s departments outlining her achievements, including the fact that she had a strong commitment to stretching employees with new assignments, career advancement, and job rotation. It was a hallmark of her tenure. She went as far to say that she didn’t want to have employees who weren’t willing to be stretched in the organization. It was part of the company’s success.

The employees listened to this politely, thanked her for attending, and left. They were polite enough not to laugh at her words in front of her, but had plenty of conversation about them afterwards. Job rotation? Advancement potential? Stretch assignments? None of them were part of the department they were in.

The HR director had addressed this. If this wasn’t happening, she wanted to know. She would take action. However, the actions taken were more deleterious to the employees than awakening to the management.

In theory, the HR director should have known this. After all, there was a representative for each of the departments, wasn’t there? Yes, but for most employees, the only time they saw their HR representative was at these meetings. When they did come to the department, it was to meet with the executives. And when the executives were questioned as to whether they were growing and stretching their people, what do you think was the answer? The message to the employees? They weren’t important enough for the HR representative to visit and speak with, even though it may tell a very different story than the executives related.

This didn’t happen, and since it didn’t, the commitment of the HR director went unfulfilled. It would have been easy to remedy. Talk to the employees. Find out when was the last time they received a stretch assignment. Find out if they were being groomed for a promotion possibility. Find out if they had been offered a job rotation or offered a short assignment with another group or department. Nobody did, because nobody cared. The employees simply weren’t important enough to do so.

The HR director said she didn’t want to see anyone leave the company because of unfulfilled expectations or potential. If she had put her energy into ways to ensure that instead of just making speeches about it, she would find a much lower turnover rate. She would have found much more fulfilled employees and a lot more heads nodding in her meetings with departments.

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What We Have Here…

Even though a question was asked, there was silence in the room. It wasn’t that the question was so difficult that nobody could answer it. No, rather it was that nobody wanted to answer the question. Except one.

The venue was the monthly staff meeting. Human Resources had been invited to discuss the results of the yearly engagement survey. While there had been some good points, mostly in the area of serving the department’s customers, there were also some areas where improvement was needed. One of those areas was communication from the executives of the group to the rank-and-file workers.

The Human Resources representative had outlined what it planned on doing to rectify the problem, and had then asked if the department’s staff had any contributions about why communication was an issue and what could be done about it. That was the reason for the silence.

It wasn’t that the staff didn’t have any suggestions. The executives of the department only seemed to communication at these monthly meetings or when something was needed. Otherwise, they stayed in their offices, barely interacting with most of the staff who didn’t directly report to them. There wasn’t malice in this non-action, and most of the staff ignored the fact that they were ignored. Still, it bothered most of the staff that they were treated simply as workers, so that is how they acted.

It also wasn’t that the staff was afraid of retaliation if they spoke up. They knew they would be looked upon unfavorably, nothing would be done, and some being given the feedback might even take offense at the words spoken. Still, the staff kept silent, despite the benevolent gaze of the department head.

The silence was broken by one of the department executives who offered her interpretation of the results. She explained that there were two questions on communication on the survey – one for the company as a whole and one for the department. The executive speculated that the staff simply confused the two questions. They thought, as a group, they were answering the question on the company as a whole and not the one for the department. There was no problem to report, according to her.

While the staff continued to be silent within the conference room, there was much chatter after the meeting ended. The staff could not believe the temerity of the executive to explain away the results, and explain it as the staff not having the sense enough to know which question they were answering. Nothing demonstrated the gap between the executive group and the staff better than that comment. The ‘confused’ employees went back to their desk assured nothing would change with attitudes like that.

When evidence comes that shows there is a problem, a leader has three avenues of approach. He or she can choose to ignore it, explain it away, or find the reason behind the problem and work towards solving it. The good leader doesn’t have a choice, as only the last is an option. Not only does the problem get tackled, the staff is engaged in his or her leadership, increasing engagement and productivity.

Blame the staff? Don’t be surprised if the communication worsens, productivity goes down, and the scores decline. After all, if they can’t even differentiate between two questions, how can they be expected to do their jobs competently?

The Benefit

Henry sat across from the career counselor, patiently waiting for her to review his resume. He had worked diligently on his resume over the past few weeks and would wait as long a bit longer to get feedback on his creation.

It wasn’t that Henry was looking for a job. Consider it ‘pre-looking’. He had begun to grow restless at his current position, and since it had been a while since he was in the job market, he wanted the help of the professionals in assessing his prospects. He sought out a professional career counselor for advice on where to start a quiet job search.

The career counselor, Allison, thoughtfully reviewed his work, put the document down, and began her assessment. “Your resume is impressive, Henry. You’ve had solid experience in your jobs, along with progressive responsibilities given to you. You’re well qualified for your field. There really is only one thing that may be held against you, and that’s the time spent in your positions.”

Allison saw the look of confusion on Henry’s face. It was a look she had seen many times before in clients of Henry’s experience level. With practiced patience, she explained her reasoning.

“Henry, what did your parents tell you when you were entering the job market?” Henry thought a little bit and responded. “Well, find a good job, stay there for 30 or 40 years, and retire.” It was a story Allison had heard dozens of times.

She followed up. “Why did they say this?” Henry paused a bit longer on this one, with Allison letting the silence stretch. Finally, she broke in. “Was it because during that time the company would take care of you, keep you in a job, and at the end, retire you with a pension and possibly some other benefits?” The flash of recognition that appeared on Henry’s face was all the confirmation she needed. His almost awestruck, “yes” only strengthened that confirmation.

Continuing, the Allison said, “My brother-in-law works for the state. He not only hates his job, he hates his job. Every time I see him he says, ‘Only 9 years to go’ or something like that. He is already in countdown mode.”

“Being in the field I am, I naturally asked him why doesn’t he just find a new job? My brother-in-law replied, ‘as I said, I have 9 years to go’. When I asked him what that meant, he said he has 9 years until he can retire and get his pension and benefits.” She watched for Henry’s reaction, and wasn’t disappointed. “Right? Pension! Nobody gets a pension anymore, but he in his civil service job does. He even gets to continue some benefits after he retires.”

“I’m not here to discuss the benefit or drawbacks of a civil service career. I used that example of why your parents, and many of our parents, gave you the advice they did. My brother will suffer through nine more years of his job because of the benefit at the end. He is working towards that benefit. Your parents were in companies that took care of them throughout their career and then took care of them after they retired. Can you say that about your present company?”

Henry snorted at that one. What Allison had said was true. There was no pension. The company had set up a 401(k) and matched his contributions partially, when the company revenues allowed for it. When he left the job, he was lucky someone would hold the door open for him as he exited the front door. If the money in the 401(k) ran out, he was out of money.

She continued. “Those entering the workforce in the past 15 years or so were raised by parents who faced layoffs, reduced benefits, and companies which went from being benevolent parents to being concerned only about profits and more profits. They entered companies that worked them to death, fired employees without remorse whenever costs needed to be cut, and offered them very little to stick around. Promotions were fewer, raises delayed or didn’t happen, bonuses slashed or eliminated, though there always seemed to be enough for the top executives. In short, they gave them no incentive to stick around for five years, not to mention 40.”

“What’s the benefit for sticking around, Henry?”, Allison asked him. Henry paused for a bit, trying to find a reasonable answer. “Well, I do get extra vacation if I stay around.”, he replied. Allison smiled. “A recent study showed that most employees don’t use all their vacation time because of work demands. Are you able to use all your vacation time?” Henry had to admit Allison was correct. He hadn’t been able to use all his vacation time in years because of the demands of his job.

Getting back to the conversation, Allison continued. “The point I am trying to make is that the more recent generations in the workplace have had to look for different benefits for working at a particular company. If longevity is no longer rewarded, then why stick around? The conventional wisdom now is to work for a company as long as there are benefits to you. They may be a good manager, good benefits, close to home, flexible work schedule, or that you are learning valuable new skills.” A flash of recognition went across Henry’s face. He had heard those conversations in the company lunch room. His conversations with his younger co-workers who were leaving mentioned just those things. He thought they were being selfish. He now saw their logic was more self-preservation.

“This led to a rethinking of the time spent in a job by many employers, especially when the newer generations filtered into the HR and managerial functions. A long time spent in one job began to indicate an unwillingness to grow. To some, it indicated laziness. It was considered a bad thing to stay too long in one job.”, Allison continued. She paused, seeing the combination of realization and concern on Henry’s face. She gave him time to soak this in.

“So what do I do?”, Henry asked. He knew his age was going to be an issue and now what he considered an advantage, his tenure, had suddenly turned into a liability. Allison replied, “We turn some negatives into positives. Tell me Henry, what have you learned, how have you grown, how have you made a difference in your job? Let’s focus on that. Let’s review your social presence, improving or creating it. Let’s bring you in line with the new expectations.”

With that, and with the help of Allison, Henry began working for his own benefit.

I Have 99 Non-Problems…

It was a very simple issue. Sarah did not like Jane. She, Sarah, would not admit this, but it was evident to everyone in the department. Sarah did not like Jane. According to Sarah, Jane was not a good worker and, despite all that Sarah had done to ‘remedy’ the problem, nothing worked.

As time went on, Sarah received a promotion, partially based on Jane’s work. Jane no longer reported to Sarah directly, but to Tim, who reported to Sarah.

Under Tim, Jane blossomed. Tim encountered some issues with Jane, which they worked together to solve. He saw the Jane that her previous managers, except for Sarah, saw in her. Eventually he was able to expand her skill set with new duties that grew her professionally.

This, however, was not good enough for Sarah. She would not let go of her original opinion of Jane, despite the evidence to the contrary. She would seize on any mistake that Jane made, no matter how minor, as evidence that she was right all along. When one of Jane’s triumphs was pointed out to Sarah, she would dismiss it with a cursory acknowledgement and move on to another topic of conversation.

Sarah grew increasingly frustrated with Tim. Why couldn’t he see how bad Jane was! There was only one reason that Sarah could think of. Tim must be a poor manager. With the same resolve she demonstrated towards Jane, Sarah now went after Tim. Nothing he did was good enough. His reviews took a decided downturn. He was ‘called in’ for discussions with Sarah and then with Sarah and the Employee Relations representative.

As Tim saw he had one foot on the banana peel, he decided he had little to lose. He had candid conversations with Sarah and the Employee Relations representative, saying that this was all about Jane and his refusal to grant Sarah’s wish of firing her. He stated all the good things that Jane had done while under his supervision, and stating that Jane could do 99 good things and Sarah would point out the one thing that Jane did wrong.

Sarah’s response? “Now you just sound like Jane!” No denial. No argument. It was simply Tim’s poor management skills that caused this, not her unreasonable expectations. It didn’t matter that the rest of Sarah’s employees were also struggling under the burden of work she was assigning. It was simply their fault for not being efficient enough.

Eventually Jane was transferred from Tim and placed under a more ‘compliant’ manger who would agree with whatever Sarah wanted. Jane was eventually dismissed for the one reason while the 99 were ignored. Tim was punished for his ‘insubordinate talk’, and Sarah was happy. For Sarah, that was all that mattered.

When you work in an office, you encounter many different personalities and many different work styles. You really have no control over other people, though some do try. When you become a manager, that equation changes. You have a greater degree of control over your employee’s lives.

That control means you have a set of work to accomplish and have the resources to get that work done. It does not mean you have the only way of getting that work done. It does not mean anyone else’s way of getting work done is wrong. A good manager knows that they need to work with an employee’s style to get the best results, not dictate that the manager’s style is the only way.

It’s not about you when you are a manager. It’s about your team. If you spend your time trying to prove yourself right and ignoring the signs that you may need to adjust your ways, then you are not focusing on the team. You may get the work done, but at the cost of every other person working for you. That isn’t managing. That’s dictating. Dictating works for a while, but eventually fails.

Manage to your people, not the other way around. That way you won’t have to find 99 reasons to ignore the good and use a magnifying glass to prove your point.

Snow Day!

The company policy was pretty straightforward. Each employee had the technology to work remotely. If the office was going to be closed due to inclement weather or other emergency, employees were to work from home during what would be regular office hours. All in all, it was a reasonable expectation, especially in a time when every employee should have had home internet service.

Well, not everyone. An executive with the company posted on social media that the building was closed. He had made some hot chocolate, put his feet up, and turned on some reality TV. He would be back, ‘diligent as ever’, tomorrow.

In other words, while every other employee was hard at work obeying the company policy, the executive decided to have a snow day. Since he knew he was connected on social media to many of his employees, one could guess he didn’t really care what the reaction would be. The reaction, by the way, was far from positive.

Nobody commented on the post, at least in a negative manner. That would have been the same as career suicide. However, the talk in the office from those who had read the post and shared it with others expressed shock, dismay, and anger that the executive felt he didn’t have to follow the same rules as everyone else. The executive didn’t seem to notice, though, as he was involved in too many ‘important matters’.

We all would love a snow day. The thought of getting paid for reading a good book or binge watching that long-anticipated series is irresistible. For many of us, it remains a distant dream. There are no snow days. There are days where we plug into work, and put in our eight or more hours.

Unless you are an executive. Then you can not only take a snow day but also brag about it on social media, caring little about the reactions of those who read your post.

What message does that send to your employees? First, that the rules are different for you. Second, the consequences of that decision don’t matter to you. Third, you care more for your own comfort than for the good of the company.

You cannot tell your employees to give their all for the company’s profitability and you yourself not do the same. You cannot expect your employees to live up to a greater standard of behavior than you, as the leader, portray. You cannot expect that your behavior won’t have ripples through the productivity and engagement of your employees.

If you do, the landscape isn’t the only thing that is getting a snow job.

The Jelly Jar

jelly

The group sat around the cafeteria table, their jars in front of them. Most of them remained silent, shaking their heads. Arlene had really underdone herself this time.

Arlene was another member of the department in the executive ranks. Over the past year, she had come to each person who was sitting at the table requesting their help. She needed their expertise, their relationships with the customers, and their time and energy. She made no excuses why she needed that help, either. She said several times, “Without your help, I can’t make the numbers I need to get my bonus.” At Arlene’s level, that ran into five figures. They appreciated her honesty and could understand her motives.

Each member around that table put in significant effort for Arlene and her bonus. They had to forego work that would contribute to their achievement of their bonuses, leverage their good will with the customers, and put in some significant extra hours. They did it for teamwork and to help a fellow member of the department.

All that extra effort worked, and Arlene made her numbers, assuring her bonus. She was generous with her words of appreciation to the group, thanking them for helping her make that bonus. At holiday time, however, the situation was different.

For each member of the team, she proudly gave them a gift of…a homemade jar of jam or jelly. To add to this, she gave them a gift card to a local coffee house, each card in the amount of $5. She remarked it made her feel good to contribute to a local charity that made jams, and gave it with a smile to each member of the team. Yes, the jellies and jams were homemade, but not by her.

Sitting at the table, each member of the team was staring at their jar of jelly or jam. On top of each of jar each member of the team had placed their high-value gift card. Eventually the silence was broken by one member of the team who made a proposal. Each person at the table would chip in for a loaf of bread, which they would bring in, use the cafeteria toaster, and they would have some delicious toast and jam, all courtesy of Arlene.

That managed to get people laughing and talking, with suggestions that they could really go for broke and buy some butter to spread on the toast and have with the jam. This evoked even more laugher and talk.

When the laughter had died down, they each made a promise. They would spend the new year focusing on their goals and reaching them with the same energy they had given to Arlene’s request. As for any further request Arlene made? They would give it the same amount of respect that she had shown them in her gifts.

The sealed that promise with a toast of their jelly jars.

The Lessons of a Pizza Lunch

The group chatted affably over the slices of pizza. It was a scene they all were familiar with. They were asked to join upper management in the conference room to bid farewell to a co-worker who was going to another job. The speeches were made about how the person would be missed and thanking them for their contributions over the years. The employees would then be invited to have some pizza and mingle.

It was all very nice, but all very familiar. For some of the employees, this was a well-worn ritual that happened well too often. For those who had been there some amount of time, their estimate was that around 75% of the company had their pizza lunch or equivalent. Even for those who were not in the company a long time, they saw an inordinate amount of pizza.

Each time it was the same. The same reasons would be given. It’s the economy. It’s the nature of the business. People just don’t want to stay around and grow with the company anymore.

The truth was a bit different. People would have stayed if there was growth with the company. Sadly, except for a few, there wasn’t. The position you were hired at was the level you stayed at. The duties you were hired to do were the duties you always did. There was no growing, no stretching, no innovation. Even when some would suggest something to grow themselves, the answer was usually in the negative. There wasn’t money for that or the person wasn’t experienced enough for that, or it would take away from their more important duties. Eventually people became frustrated or bored and looked elsewhere. Then there was pizza.

The conversation died down and people drifted back to their desks, most of the pizza left untouched. There were some grumbles about that from those paid for the pizza. Why hold these gatherings when people weren’t eating? The answer was simpler than that. People weren’t eating because they had no appetite for yet another pizza party.

Much of management and leadership is asking the right questions. When there is a path being beaten out the door, an inattentive manager will make excuses. A good manager will ask, “What is causing this outflux?” An excellent manager will ask, “What can I do to stop this outflux?” If employees are very, very lucky, that question be followed up with, “Am I doing something to cause that outflux?”

A good manager sees a problem and immediately begins to try to solve it, not make excuses about why it’s happening. They don’t default to well-worn excuses of the economy or the industry. They look first to their actions or inactions, and ask themselves some hard questions…ones in which they may not like the answers. They then take actions to solve the problem, even if it means some sacrifice on their part. It’s a difficult path, but the one that is most rewarding.

If they do it right, they find themselves not having to pay for so many pizza lunches.