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.

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The Price of Inflation

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Shortly after Sarah had ascended to the head of the department, she announced that, with upcoming hires, there would no longer be ‘position inflation’.  What this meant was the practice of rating a job higher than it should be for one reason or another.  It was a drain on the department’s finances, she explained, and it served no useful purpose.  True to her word, shortly after she had completed a reorganization of the department, the hire to fill the position she vacated was lower than the level she had occupied when doing that job.  The position was labeled as Director level, where she had been a Senior Director.

Several of her staff members paused at that.  When she was in the position, she felt it was necessary for her to have a level of Senior Director, with all its requisite perks and salary level.  Now that she was no longer in the position, she had a revelation that the position was too high and needed to be lowered for the good of the department and to prevent the dreaded position inflation.

It was strange how pretty much the same position demanded different levels, with the only change being who had been within the position.  It was no surprise to the staff, as they were used to this type of logic with Sarah.

Even more puzzling, soon after she promoted a few people within the department, as she no longer had to pass it by anyone within the department for approval.  One person, who only recently had been promoted, was promoted again, in direct violation of company rules.  A couple of others also were promoted.  So, the savings she gained by lowering one position was eclipsed by the higher salaries needed for the new promotions.  When Sarah was asked why she did this, her response was, “I felt it was needed”.

The rest of the staff, the ones who weren’t promoted, felt that the only things that were inflated in this whole deal, were so egos.

The Project: A Vacation

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This is the second in a set of articles detailing some of the management behaviors that took place while a certain department was working on a very labor-intensive project.  This won’t be detailing the project specifically, but how management handled the stresses on the department resulting from the project.

The project was taking a piece of everyone’s soul.  People were working extra hours, at night, and on the weekends.  One person told the story of having Easter dinner and doing testing of the latest code in between getting Easter dinner ready.  The bags under the eyes of everyone were growing steadily, tempers were getting short, and mistakes were being made simply from exhaustion.  The deadline was everything to the heads of the department, and no excuse would be accepted for that deadline to be allowed to slip.

So, based on this, it was the perfect time for Sarah to take a vacation.

She had a very good reason for it, of course.  This was when she always took her vacation, and it was, you know, the ritual that her family looked for.  She couldn’t disappoint them, could she?  After all, she worked hard for her vacation, and since she and her fellow department heads had extra vacation days that nobody else in the company had, they were hers for the taking.

It didn’t seem to matter to Sarah that other people in the department had given up their vacations or pressured to work more.  It didn’t matter that the department was near the emotional breaking point.  No, that was their problem, not Sarah’s.  It didn’t seem to matter to her that the impression she was leaving by taking a vacation in the midst of everyone else’s herculean efforts to get their work and the project’s work done was one of selfishness and uncaring.  She deserved her vacation, and she was sure that the refreshed, sun tanned, and rested appearance she gave to the department at the end of her vacation would be an inspiration to everyone.

It did surprise her that nobody really seemed interested in tales of her vacation.  They were all too busy and too tired to really stop and listen to stories.  They needed to meet the latest deadlines and get started with another round of testing.  Yes, it surprised Sarah, and it even disappointed her some, but she was in such a good mood from her vacation that she didn’t give it a second thought.

After all, if other people needed a vacation, they could take one, couldn’t they?  Funny how they didn’t though.  Sarah wondered why for a few seconds, before sharing some of her vacation photos on her social network.

The Project: What’s In a Name?

All about me

This is the first in a set of articles detailing some of the management behaviors that took place while a certain department was working on a very labor-intensive project.  This won’t be detailing the project specifically, but how management handled the stresses on the department resulting from the project.

The department was several weeks into the work on the project, and the strain was showing on everyone.  People were working insane hours trying to get their project work done while getting their regular jobs done as well. People putting in 50 to 80 hours a week was becoming typical, and there was no end in sight.  Nights, weekends, and holidays were being taken up by project work, as were the notes from supervisors as to why a certain regular work task wasn’t done.  The silent reaction to that kind of demand was usually, “You are kidding, right?”

Many looked to the office of Sarah.  Claiming she was ‘swamped’, she had not volunteered to take any burden off of anyone regarding the project, though she had hired a temp or two for some of the tasks.  While the staff was appreciative of the temps work, they also looked skeptically as Sarah’s claim, as they were all swamped with work even before the project.  Now they were simply overloaded.

In the midst of this, Sarah had decided what her major area of focus was going to be.  She needed a new title.  Claiming her present title didn’t sufficiently convey the importance of her role, she had gone on a campaign of trying to change her title to something more appropriate.  As the machinery of this involved some of the systems that she was in charge of, she would appropriate some of the time of the people of the department to make this happen.  It didn’t seem to matter to her that her people were already beyond their capacity.  This was important to Sarah, as it would give her the title she so well deserved.

So, it came as no real surprise when a member of her department, involved in getting testing done before the deadline later that day, opened her mailbox to see a note from Sarah designated as high priority.  Opening it, they saw all the approvals necessary for the title change had come through and that Sarah had to have it officially put into the system right away, or, in Sarah speak, by end of day.

Dutifully, the employee of the department closed the testing they were doing, opened up another system, and entered the information to officially change Sarah’s title.  After saving that information, the employee looked at the clock and saw that, with the time used for that ‘high priority’ task, they would now have to stay late, again, to finish the testing for the day.  Otherwise, they risked a note from their supervisor or from Sarah herself scolding them for not getting this done, causing someone to call her and ask why the testing wasn’t done, and suggesting they really needed to manage their time better.

“Yep”, the employee thought to them self, “I now feel so much more respect for Sarah now that she has this new title.”  The employee looked to Sarah’s office.  She had decided to leave for the day, probably claiming that she deserved the time off for all the work she had done that day.

The Unexpected Response

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Arnold was in a panic.  Things weren’t going the way he had planned them, and he wasn’t happy about it in the least.  If all had gone as he had manipulated, he would have had Vince exactly where he needed him, things going just as he wanted, and the near future looking good.  Unfortunately, Vince had thrown his plans into such disarray that he didn’t know what do to next.

Arnold used to be Vince’s department head.  Since taking the job, Arnold had relied upon Vince and his colleagues to look good to the client.  Arnold’s clients would ask for a solution, which Vince or one of his colleague would work hard to provide.  They were then mandated to hand it in to Arnold, who would take it to the client, take credit for it, and then reap all the praise for the great work.

In Vince’s case, Arnold added a bit extra to that formula.  On a regular basis, Arnold would criticize Vince for one thing or another, demeaning his knowledge, running down his experience, and basically making Vince feel like he was lucky Arnold didn’t fire him and that Vince was fortunate to still have a job.  This was Arnold’s way of ensuring that Vince stayed worked for him, and not seeking a better job or asking for a raise or promotion.

The whole system began to unravel when the company they worked for underwent massive downsizing and restructuring.  Within a two year span, thousands of the employees were either downsized or their business unit sold to another company.  It was a bloodbath, in no uncertain terms, and caused Arnold’s self-preservation instincts to jump into high gear.

The latest ‘restructuring’ was being announced, and though Vince no longer worked directly for Arnold, his work was integral to Arnold’s sterling reputation with his clients.  As the rest of Vince’s colleagues had already been laid off, Arnold relied upon Vince more than ever.

So, in order to keep this good thing going, Arnold announced to Vince that he was going to ‘save’ him from the latest round of layoffs.  The latest restructuring gave Arnold two employees, and he was going to make sure that Vince received one of those slots.  Vince greeted this with less enthusiasm than Arnold expected, but he accepted the offer.

A week later, after the application deadline for all the ‘restructured’ spots was over, Arnold came to Vince and told him he could no longer consider him for that position.  He used the old excuse of, ‘you don’t have the skills necessary’, though offered no explanation why he didn’t know this a week and a half ago.  In reality, Arnold had been told in no uncertain terms that, if Vince took the position, he could no longer do the work for Arnold that had made him look so good.  As this was the only reason why Arnold wanted Vince in the position, he quickly reversed course.

Realizing where this placed his gravy train, Arnold approached Vince and told him that he was going to fight to have Vince placed on a new team.  What Vince replied with threw Arnold into a tailspin.  Vince’s reply? “No, you won’t.”

If this had been a Hollywood film, Vince would have had a wonderful speech about how Arnold had finally gone too far with his lies, deceptions, manipulations, and other acts.  Instead, he simply said, “You didn’t want me the first time.  I don’t want to be part of yours or any other team in the company any longer.”  He further admonished Arnold not to try to get him on any other team.

Arnold was dumbfounded.  He had worked so long manipulating those around him to his own advantage.  He thought he had Vince convinced that he was so worthless that only Arnold’s kindness and largess was saving him. Apparently, he had underestimated Vince’s resilience, as well as his tolerance for the nearly inhuman way he and his colleagues had been treated by Arnold’s peers.

A few days later, Arnold came back to Vince to offer him another ‘solution’.  Vince could come back as a contractor!  Vince looked at Arnold and asked, “If I don’t want to be part of this place as an employee, why would I want to be part of it as a contractor?”

In the end, Vince was laid off from the company, and Arnold didn’t even wish him well on his way out. He found a position soon after, but kept in touch with some of his former colleagues.  From them he learned that, within six months, Arnold’s reputation with his clients was in tatters.  He was no longer working miracles, and his clients weren’t happy about that.  The two people he had hired for the spots under him, one of them his good friend, weren’t working out, and his life was miserable.  Vince, still healing from the abuses heaped upon him at the company, reacted with muted recognition, and got back to work at his new job.

The picture above is from an old cartoon character, Popeye the Sailor.  One of Popeye’s famous lines was, when he had enough, “That’s all I can stand; I can’t stand no more”. If your way of keeping your good people is to threaten, manipulate, criticize, and make them feel altogether lucky to have a job, be prepared to be surprised.  Each employee, like Vince, will have their Popeye moment and decide that living with the abuse is no longer the way they want to exist.  They will then do something surprising that you never expected, because your own ego won’t allow you to believe anyone but you is pulling the strings.

And, when that employee leaves, and you are left scrambling to have to fill some very big shoes, remember Popeye.  Remember as well that, if you simply treated your employees with respect and courtesy, everyone succeeds.  If you don’t, only your employees will emerge stronger at the finish.

4000!

4000

We’ve reached 4000 views of The Good Management Blog!  Thank you to everyone who has read, commented, or liked a post!  If it’s all right with you, we’ll keep doing this a while longer.  Heaven knows we never seem to run out of subject matter.

On to 5000!

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?