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.

The Reorganization, Part II

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The staff filed into the conference room in anticipation of the words Sarah would speak to them soon.  She had sent out a meeting invitation to discuss her plans for reorganizing the department.  As she was new to the role, nobody knew if these simply meant reshuffling responsibilities or a wholesale gutting of the staff.  There was some tension among the group.

She began without preamble.  She told the group that there would be no layoffs in her plan.  She went on to say that she felt everyone was doing their jobs competently, so there was no need to replace anyone.  The tension in the room visibly eased, and there was some surprised mixed in to the emotional content.  Sarah was never one to give out compliments.  Criticism, yes.  Suggestions on how to do better, yes.  A genuine and unfettered compliment?  No.  Not really.

For that moment, the staff filled with some hope.  Maybe this was how Sarah would now lead in her new position.  Maybe she wold be more complimentary to her people.  Maybe, just maybe, she had realized that all her criticisms and micromanaging had lowered morale among the groups she managed, and now that she was in charge of the department, that she was having a change of heart and style.

That moment passed quickly with what Sarah said next.

With only a slight pause after extending the compliment to the staff, Sarah commented, “Yes, everyone is doing well.  You know if you weren’t I would have no reservation in letting you go.”  That sound you heard was the staff being snapped back to reality.  Now that she had power and nobody really for oversight, she had signaled that she would exercise that power with ruthless efficiency, firing those who did not live up to her standards without a look backward.

In the end, the reorganization would add a few new positions to the department, but offer no real growth for those who had labored hard all these years.  One or two people in existing positions might be getting a new title, but there was nothing to really strive for, or to want to achieve.

That was the lesson of the reorganization.  Do you job, don’t expect to go anywhere, and if you don’t, I won’t lose a minute of sleep in firing you.  It was not the recipe for a departmental staff to give a damn.  They would come in, do their same jobs, and do just want they had to in order not to be fired.

This was the beginning of Sarah’s legacy as leader.  Is it one you would want as a leader?

The Conversation, Part 2

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In my previous blog, I recounted a routine one on one staff meeting between Henry and his manager, Violet.  In one part of that meeting, Violet updated Henry on the status of his tuition reimbursement request.  The request had to be approved by the department head, Lillian, who had not liked Henry for personal reasons for several years.  Lillian, true to form, asked Violet some questions that were designed to preclude Henry from using this benefit.

The conversation between Henry and Violet was unfortunate already, but was not finished, either in content or in being unfortunate.

For some time, there had been an opening under Violet, caused by the departure of one of the department’s employee’s.  Violet had worked to upgrade the position into something more than it was, in hopes of getting more help for herself and Henry, who were carrying a significant burden.  Violet, to her credit, was not interested in handing all the work to Henry, but was sharing it equally between the two of them.

During this conversation, Violet informed Henry that the position now had taken a different spin, and she explained what the position would now encompass.  Henry’s paid greater attention, as the position Violet was describing sounded very much like a position he had pitched for himself approximately a year ago.  Henry had pitched this because it would have expanded his responsibilities, giving him greater knowledge and allowing him to explore new areas of his profession. When he had come to Violet about this idea, she encouraged him to create a job description for it, which she would take to Lillian.  Henry did and, after some modification, Violet took it to Lillian.  The job description, and the revised position, were never to be heard from again.

Once Violet had finished, Henry asked two questions of her.  First, would his position description change due to the other person having this type of description.  Second, could he apply for this position.

Violet paused, looking for the right words.  While she had always been forthright with Henry, she wanted to make sure it was said in the most professional and gentle of manners.  When she did speak, she explained to Henry that Lillian had a certain view of Henry’s capabilities and where he should be in the organization.  There was no changing her mind on this, even though Henry had proven many times over to be more than what his position described.  Because of this, it would be futile of him to bid for this position, as Lillian would never approve him for it.

It was time for Henry to pause.  When he spoke again, he thanked Violet for her honesty and feedback.  On the exterior, they continued with their meeting.  Inside, Henry knew he would miss Violet terribly, but he had to move on.  He had no chance of advancing in the organization as long as Lillian had any say in his future.

We, as human beings, need change.  Some of us welcome it more frequently than others, some crave it more often, but we all need some form of change in our lives.  Whether it is a redecorating of our house or something new at work, we need it in order to keep fresh.  Sound businesses understand this, but also see that, in keeping up fresh, it also benefits the organization.  We learn new skills, new ideas, and new ways of viewing the word around us.  In most businesses, managers look for their people to learn something new every year, as it makes the employees more valuable to the company.

So, when the employee comes to the manager wanting to change, wanting to progress, it should be considered a good thing.  To want the employee to stay the same, do the same duties, because it fits the manager’s needs or because the manager has closed his or her mind to the possibilities of his or her employee, says a lot about the manager.  This is a manager who is looking solely at his or her need, his or her mindset, and his or her prejudices.  Too bad for the employee, I really don’t care about them, as long as I don’t have to change my mind or have any to consider anything new.  When a leader, who should know better, begins to actively block someone from becoming more than they are, it is time for both the leader to have some serious reflection and for the company to begin to think about whether they need that leader.

Blood in the veins doesn’t help the body if it doesn’t move, change, and circulate.  The same can be said about companies, and the departments within those companies.  The lifeblood of the company, its employees, need to move, circulate, and change.  To continue the medical analogy, if a blockage is discovered, it is removed.  Shouldn’t it be the same for blockages in the company’s lifeblood?

The Stiff Wind

In my last blog, I talked about Nelson, who had been asked to provide some training in a technology that his department head thought could help boost the visibility of the department, and help it meet its goals an objectives.  That blog talked about Harriet, his manager, and how she had hijacked his presentation, as she had done on multiple occasions to various colleagues.  There was another, separate issue that hung over the room during that particular session, however.

The department head seemed to like Nelson’s presentation.  She complimented it during the meeting, and thanked Nelson personally for taking the time to put it together.  Yet, her comments during the meeting revealed that, although she would say one thing, her old prejudices still had a tight grip on her.

One of the reasons why the department head has asked Nelson to give this demonstration was because he had shown a proficiency in teaching technical topics to various audiences.  He had even been hired because of his comfort with technical topics and his ability to translate them into language that everyday employees could understand.  Yet, after several years of being exclusive in this particular category, he was beginning to tire of it.  He needed to stretch, to grow, to expand his universe.

He had opportunities to do so, from time to time.  Staffing shortages, interim periods, crunch times.  During those situations, he had been called upon to teach something else but technical topics.  He believed he had acquitted himself well, and his attendees had rated him highly.  He knew he could always improve, but with each class, he believed he was improving, and proving himself to be more than what he was hired to be.  Moreover, each time he taught one of these classes, he had given himself a reprieve from burning out.  In an economy that wasn’t fully recovered after five years, very few could afford to up and quit.  That did not mean he would always have a job, especially if the burnout had begun to show in his job performance.

It had been a long road, but Nelson had, class by class, created a reputation of being able to teach topics that didn’t require a mouse, keypad, or computer program.  He just wished that the department head was able to see this.  When, in the meeting, she mentioned that, if anyone needed assistance with some professional skills training, they were more than welcome to contact Harriet, Nelson saw that much of his work had been for naught.  It was not that the staff could contact Nelson or Harriet.  No, they could contact Harriet…period.  If they had technical questions, they were more than welcome to contact Nelson.  The walls were still there, never to be scaled, and never to be broken down.  Nelson sighed, packed up his equipment, and shuffled back to his desk, wondering when he would be so burned out that he could not even keep up the pretense of enjoying his work.

Any job applicant will attest to the fact that companies boast the fact that they want to grow their employees.  Phrases like ‘develop from within’, ‘hire from within’, and ‘create bench strength’ are widespread on company websites and in company literature.  As the story above relates, sometimes it stays on the literature and never makes it into corporate culture.

The management ranks will say that it is the employee’s primary responsibility to develop themselves.  After all, the manager cannot take the class for the employee, can they?  While this is true, managers have a big part to play in the employee’s development.  Beyond allowing it to happen, they also have to be open for the employee to grow.  If a manager has mentally slotted the employee in a niche, and the manager never expands that thinking, no matter what the employee does, they won’t be able to grow in the company.   A manager with a limited imagination can be as devastating to an employee as the lack of funds or the lack of ambition on the employee’s part.  Leadership has to open their own mind to the possibilities of their people in order to allow that growth to happen.  They have to see the employee in a new light.  They have to take off the blinders.

If you have ever tried to walk against the wind on a particularly windy day, you know that you make very little progress in the face of such stiff resistance.  The wind is unyielding.  After a while, you tire and find shelter, hoping to either get your own second wind, or waiting out the wind storm.

Good management should be the wind at the backs of their employees, not the one that is impeding their every step.  Want to be that enabling wind?  Throw out your preconceptions.  View your employees in a new light.  Allow them to see new vistas.  Live up to what is on that website and brochure.

You, dear manager, might find a whole new group of people you never thought existed.

Privacy, Schmivacy!

The cubicles were being dismantled and walls were being knocked down.  Finally, the expansion of the department was under way.  The department had outgrown its current space for the past couple of years, and it finally was time in the queue for the department to expand its current footprint.  The leadership of the department was happy about this, as it gave them a chance to flex their creative muscles in deciding how the new department floor plan would look.  Too bad the staff didn’t share that enthusiasm.

Why?  For the answer to that, let’s look at the old and new configurations of the staff area.  The old configuration had old style cubicles.  They were serviceable.  Dull gray fabric, desk area, higher walls.  They would never make the cover of Modern Office design, but they offered something that the staff craved.  They gave the staff a modicum of privacy.   The higher walled cubicles meant that, unless the person was very tall, they would have to round the side of your cubicle to physically see you and what you were working on.  Turn the monitor a certain way, and you could be able to work without everyone seeing your business.  The fabric of the cubicles meant that there was some sound absorption, giving you a bit of peace from the chatter in the office.

That wasn’t the plan for the new office layout.  Oh no, the new office layout was to have newer cubicle styles.  Instead of higher walls, they would be lower, so as to let light and air flow through the office space.  Instead of fabric, the cubicle partition would be part glass, adding a modern and sophisticated look to the place.  It was going to be a showplace.

Now let’s look at it from the cubicle dweller’s point of view.  The cubicle walls were lower, meaning anyone could now just look over your wall and see what you are doing.  So much for privacy.  The lower walls let light, air, and noise through, disrupting your concentration.  Fabric absorbed the noise, while glass reflected it, meaning the chatter that was there would now be amplified.  There was nothing good about the new setup, and there was a lot of bad.

If that wasn’t bad enough, it was confirmed, though inadvertently, by one of the leadership team.  In talking about a possible new departmental screen saver, she said that she would be able to see if everyone’s screen had the screen saver just by walking past the cubicle.  Goodbye, privacy!

The staff realized that those who created this new scheme all sat in offices.  They could close their doors, and often did.  They had privacy.  When the planning occurred, no one from the cubicles was brought in to be part of the meetings.  Their point of view was not sought.  Even when one of them did speak up in a general department meeting, his comments were dismissed as nothing really to be concerned about.  After all, he was only a cubicle dweller.

One of the great animator Chuck Jones’ creations was Daffy Duck, a greedy, selfish character who was a frequent foil for Bugs Bunny.  In one Daffy’s more popular cartoons, he gains great wealth and is told that there will be consequences if he does not give it back.  Daffy’s reply was, “Consequences, schmosequences, as long as I’m rich”.  In true cartoon fashion, he was no longer rich and did suffer very painful consequences.

If we translate that to this story, the phrase might go, “Privacy, schmivacy, as long as it looks good.”  What’s saddest about this whole thing is that it could have been a much happier ending if the leadership, the office dwellers, had done one simple thing.  If they simply had asked the cubicle dwellers what was most important to them, instead of deciding it for themselves, they might have ordered different cubicles, created a different space, and had a happier crew.  Now, probably, they will have a very quiet office, so people won’t be overheard complaining about the new layout, and wonder why people aren’t happy.  After all, they now have better light and air flow, don’t they?  What more could they want?

What more could they want?  They want to have their opinions asked and heard.  It was the one thing the leadership team did not even consider.

That’s all, folks.

They Call Her Uptight Yellow

In my last blog, I talked about a department that was going about a rebranding project to change the image of the department.  Here’s a story to show that the department was interested in changing its perception by the rest of the company, but wasn’t interested in changing anything else.

Part of the rebranding effort were icons representing each unit of the department.  These icons would be used to identify each and every unit on promotional literature, marketing materials, announcements, and other items.  The staff had been given some input into what these icons would be, but the decision was in the hands of department management.

When the icons were unveiled, they were generally greeted with approval, with one exception: the colors.  In trying to keep with the company color scheme, some of the colors for the icons were not exactly well received.   In once case, the icon, a light bulb, had a color scheme that looked like dried mustard.  The heads of the units which were the brunt of the none-too-pleasing colors petitioned to have some colors changed for aesthetic purposes.

In the case of the light bulb, the manager of the unit presented some suggestions of her own, and from her staff.  While the department manager was receptive to her, she rejected the idea of changing to color of the light bulb.  Her reason?  ‘Light bulbs are supposed to be yellow’.  There was nothing more forthcoming about her reasons save for that pronouncement.  Light bulbs were yellow.  Whether this was the result of too many Warner Brothers cartoons was not made evident.  The unit manager was reduced to seeing if another shade of yellow might be used.

So, the encapsulate, the rebranding effort was designed to get the rest of the company to think differently about the mission and capabilities of one particular department.  It was designed to show that the department was not just there to prevent, but to find solutions to the problems brought with it that would move the employees and the company forward.  In trying to illustrate this, the manager in charge of this effort wanted to make sure employees were consulted about their opinions on the subject.

And when a few employees came forward and presented suggestions to make their icon have the coloring a bit less like what a baby might spit up, they were rejected.  Why?  Because there wasn’t another color available in the palette?  No.  Because there were certain restrictions in the art department’s color scheme?  No.  Because they were trying to save money and didn’t want to go get another change to the scheme?  No.  The reason was that, in this effort to have others think differently, the manager didn’t want to do the same.  A light bulb had to be yellow, because she said it was so.

There is an old saying that goes, for want of a horse, the war was lost.  For me, that means that small things can greatly influence the greater picture.  The department manager in this case had the opportunity to show she was truly committed to thinking differently, as she wanted the rest of the company to do.  She had an opportunity to show that she wanted to excite the create talents of the department and truly make this a highly collaborative effort.  Instead, with one little action, she reenforced the perception that the staff had of her.  Namely, that she was inflexible, had to have her own way, and did not want to consider anything beyond her own mindset.   What could have been a soaring balloon instead deflated on the ground.  How could the rest of the staff begin to think differently about the department when the management inside the department couldn’t even think differently itself?

A good manager knows that, if change is to be entered into, it has to be universal.  You cannot expect everyone else to change around you and for you to remain the same and get sterling results about it.  The good manager changes as well, stretching and growing in the process in order to walk with their staff through the change.  They know that they have to put something on the line in order to gain credibility with their staff, not just watch from the sidelines while everyone else does the heavy lifting.

When the light bulb telling the manager they also have to change appears above their head, it won’t matter what color it is.