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.

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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 Exclusive Club

You could hear the pure joy in Sarah’s words in the email.  She was announcing the promotions of three of her managers to higher level manager positions within the organization.   Sarah extolled their virtues, recounted their successes, and gave each one of them her heartiest congratulations, and encouraged the staff to do the same.

If you looked at the numbers, as much of the non-managerial staff did, you began to notice a recurring pattern in the department.  In the past eight years, there had been about twelve promotions of existing managers into higher level managerial positions.  In the same eight years, the number of non-managers in the department who had been promoted into the management ranks?  One.

It wasn’t that the opportunities weren’t there.  In that same time period, there had been five openings for a manager within the department.  All save for one was filled by an outside candidate.  It wasn’t that employees in the department hadn’t applied.  In at least two of those instances, staff from the department applied for the positions.  What were they told?  “We’re not even going to consider you for the job”.  Great recruiting tool, huh?  In the one time when they did hire internally, an extensive search was conducted externally before management was forced to realized that no one had the skills that the person right in front of them had.

What Sarah and her predecessors in the department had done was to make management in the department an exclusive club.  The velvet ropes had been put up and a ‘No Staff Allowed’ sign had been hung on them.  On the other side of the ropes there were promotions and self-congratulations, all in view of those who knew, no matter how hard they strived, how far they advanced in knowledge or skill, they would not get the chance to pass beyond those velvet ropes.  Their colleagues within the company, those colleagues with progressive managers, were moving up the ladder.  Sarah’s people knew they could not even step on the first rung.  The only chance they would have is to move on to another company.  When that day came, Sarah and the group behind the velvet ropes would wonder why they were leaving.

They would not worry long.  They would console themselves with another round of internal promotions.

The Too Long Goodbye

fish and houseguests

A few weeks ago I wrote about the retirement party for Maxine.  The party, typically, was a gathering in the cafeteria, with some presents, some speeches, and a sheet cake.  Maxine’s party, though sparsely attended, followed this pattern well.  The one exception was the gushing speech, complete with tears, from Sarah, her supervisor, on how valuable Maxine was and how she was irreplaceable.  While many of Maxine’s co-workers disagreed with this assessment, they smiled politely, had some cake, and left.

After the party had ended, the staff of Sarah’s department went back to the department and found a new e-mail in their boxes.  It was an invitation from Sarah, indicating that there was going to be a lunch for Maxine in a few weeks.  Maxine would not have to return to the office for this, as her retirement was going to be gradual, with her coming in as a ‘consultant’ for several months.  The staff began to refer to Maxine’s retirement as the Farewell Tour, wondering how long this would be dragged out.

The lunch itself even had a precedent.  For many retiring employees, their friends would hold some type of gathering for them.  The difference was that it was off company time, and paid for by the employees themselves.  The employees invited had the ability to attend or not attend, based on their feelings for the employee.  This lunch was different.  First, it was being held on company time.  Because of that, you were expected to attend, whether you wanted to or not.  If an employee pressed the issue, they would be allowed to stay behind, but would then face the wrath of Sarah in many small and ongoing ways.  No, this was a mandate to attend, or to face the consequences.

Additionally, this lunch, held at a rather expensive restaurant, was to be paid for by the department.  No other employee had ever received this type of treatment, and it made the staff wonder why Maxine received it, when others had left the department and had nothing done for them save for a cake and a card.  Was this going to be a precursor of Sarah’s tenure in the department, where some were treated differently, and better, than others?

Appreciating your team is something every leader should do.  A staff that is appreciated is a staff who will work harder, work longer, and provide more quality work.  However, that appreciation has to be uniform.  Everyone has to be be appreciated in some way or form, and the staff has to see no favoritism in this treatment.

When there is favoritism, the concept of appreciation takes a dark turn.  A manager who shows appreciation for one person’s work, but not another person’s, creates an atmosphere of distrust, disengagement, and disappointment.  For the haves, there is no real impact.  For the have-nots, it breeds a ‘why bother’ attitude, as nothing they will do can get recognition.

A good leader knows how to appreciate, but also how to do it justly.  They don’t let bad policies overstay their welcome.

The Conversation, Part 2

stuck-in-a-rut

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 Definition of ‘We’

The open house event was over and the members of the department slowly made their way to clean up the decorations and the food.  The event had been a success.  Hundreds of people from the company came to visit and comment on the look of the department.  Feedback was gathered, prizes offered, and there was lots of conversation.  More importantly, the department leadership was pleased.

One member of the leadership made sure she walked around and told people how well they did and how pleased she was with their work.  Another took a slightly different tack.  She was pleased with what had transpired, but said it this way.  “We did a wonderful job.”

We?

To the members of the committee who were tasked with planning this, the only participation they remembered the executive having was to assign it to them and to receive updates.  She would nod assent and then let them go on their way.  There wasn’t much lifting and carrying involved with giving a nod and approving a budget.  She did make sure, however, to be there for the event, happily accepting compliments for doing such a wonderful job.

To members of the department who had seen her meteoric rise up the ranks, her comment was not a surprise.  She had the reputation of incorporating anything good anyone did into her own portfolio.  Nobody would be surprised if she had a throw down with Al Gore over who invented the internet.  To those who had helped her, saw her rise, and saw her leave them unceremoniously behind with more work and no promotion, the behavior was typical.  Was it any wonder that, short of being outright ordered to do something, nobody in the department wanted to give their best effort and just did what they had to in order not to be fired?   They were tired of helping her career when she didn’t reciprocate.

The executive in this story once said to her department, “Your development is your own responsibility”.  To a point, I will agree with that statement.  However, you cannot move up without the help of those above you.  They have to be willing to give you that opportunity to rise to the next level, and reward you with that promotion (and raise…I have seen too many so called ‘promotions’ where cheap companies give no raises) based on your performance.   That manager sets up a duality.  They are willing to trumpet their accomplishments, even if they had no part in them whatsoever, but want to keep you out of the spotlight entirely.  When this happens, no amount of work their people do, no amount of effort their people expend, will ever be enough.  The manager needs their people where they are because the manager wants to grab the glory of what their people have done.  Without their worker bees, they are nothing.  Sadly, the bad manage realizes this and has no trouble adjusting their conscience to keeping their down.

Part of what makes a good manager a good manger is the fact that they want to see their people succeed.  They don’t look to share credit when it isn’t due, but rather give credit wholeheartedly to their people.  The good manager knows their reward is that they will be recognized as having a highly motivated team who always delivers their best.  Wise company executives will want this person and their gifts motivating larger and larger teams. The good manager doesn’t have to steal the credit.  They earn it legitimately by enhancing their own people.

The good manager knows that they don’t have to expand or contort the definition of the word ‘we’.  They know that they will be told time and time again, “I couldn’t have done it without you”.

You’re Good, I’m Outstanding

The management staff of the store had been told by their manager to spread the word to all their reports.  In terms of the self-ratings in their reviews, they were not to rate themselves above a 3, though the scale did go up to 5.  “Nobody is a 5”, said the manager, and indicated that was the same for the 4 rating.

Upset, but obedient, the management staff communicated this to their staff, and obeyed the same for themselves.  When staff asked why, all they could do is explain that this is what the head manager wanted and communicated, and that she had said nothing more than that.  The staff, knowing this head manager, understood what was being said to them.

About a week later, one of the management staff came into the head manager’s office, which was open, to drop off the reviews for his staff.  Sitting in plain sight was the head manager’s self-evaluation, ready to be sent to the regional office.  The ratings the head manager gave herself?  All 5’s.  Apparently, she felt nobody but herself was outstanding.

Have you ever had a manager who let you know that to get the top rating on your review, you pretty much had to leap tall buildings with a single bound, work 25 hours a day, and single-handedly double the company’s stock price during the rating year?  Then, when you have worked as hard as you know how to, exceeded all your goals, and needed IV coffee just to get to your desk, your manager sniffs derisively and says, “You did average work this year.  Good work.”  This setting of the bar so beyond expectations is a major demotivating factor for staff, who feel that management is only looking at the bottom line of the company in terms of raises, and not on what the employees are contributing to their department and the organization as a whole.

What is more galling is when those same managers, who say that you would have to win the Nobel Prize in order to be considered for the highest level, turn around and give themselves an evaluation of ‘outstanding’ year after year.  When they actually get that rating from their management, who have a different expectation of what the highest rating means than your manager, you have then turned your staff from disengaged to outright hostile.  What you have demonstrated is that the only thing you care about is what goes into your wallet, not your staff’s.  Pity you, such an outstanding performer who is saddled with all these ‘average’ direct reports.

When you set the bar so high that it is unreachable, it is not an incentive to the staff to try to reach it.  Instead, they slump their shoulders, shuffle under that bar, and wonder why they should do anything more than just the bare minimum to keep their jobs.  After all, there is no hope for them to actually get a higher rating, so why try?

When you compound that by not following your own standards, using the lowered expectations of your management for your high ratings, and then beaming because of it, you have demonstrated that the only thing you are managing is your own career.  If your management’s expectations of you are more reasonable, why aren’t yours for your staff?  Who are you in your position for…them or yourself?  The answer could tell you a lot about whether you are a good manager in your staff’s eyes.