The Project: A Vacation


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.

Let’s Get Larry

knife in the back

Larry was the employee that you really wanted in your organization.  He had been with the company 20 years, knew how to build relationships, always had a joke on his lips, and his employees loved working for him.  He didn’t take himself or the work too seriously, and he had a network in the company like none other.

Still, for reasons yet unknown, his upper management wanted him out.  Maybe it was because he wasn’t fitting the mold of what they thought a manager should be.  Maybe it was because he know too many people.  Maybe because they wanted to move some people into his spot.  Whatever the reason, his upper management wanted him out.

However, they could not just fire him.  That would have cause too much of a lawsuit and issues.  Instead, they changed his job description, causing him to have to travel around 50% of the time to far flung places around the globe.  Larry cheerfully accepted this new assignment, but after a couple of years doing this, the strain was taking its toll.  He looked tired, haggard, and he had lost a lot of his once abundant energy.  One day, coming to the end of his rope, he turned in his resignation papers, though he had another 7 to 10 years until an ‘official’ retirement age.

A few weeks after Larry’s official retirement, his significant other, who also worked at the company, was still be peppered with questions as to how Larry was.  Was he doing well in retirement?  How is he feeling?  Is he getting his energy back?  It was a touching moment for Larry’s significant other that people were still concerned about him, and that he wasn’t forgotten.

Leave it to the company’s HR Director to ruin the scene.  Upon hearing one of these conversations, the HR Director says the following:  “Well, I’m glad he retired.  If he didn’t soon, I was going to make life very unpleasant for him.”  Small wonder that the gathering broke up very soon after that.

One of the salient employment statistics about the Millennial generation is that they don’t seem to stay in their jobs very long.  One statistic said they may have 30 jobs in their lifetimes.  While the sociologists point to many factors, I would like to point to a very specific one.  How many Larrys are out there?  How many HR Directors would be saying the same thing?  Our newest generation in the workforce is highly educated.  They see what is going on.  How are they to react to treatment of someone who has devoted his life to a company?  They see what was done to all the Larrys, see all the similar HR Directors, and can draw their own conclusions.

Maybe, just maybe, our workers would stay longer at their jobs and work with more enthusiasm if we had more Larrys, fewer executive management, and few HR Directors who thought like they do.  What are we teaching our children?  We’re teaching them to collect a paycheck, for nobody will give a damn about them but themselves.

There’s No “You” in Team

nutcracker and nut

It had been a long week, and all Ralph wanted to do was go home.  He had been berated about his work all week from his new bosses, especially his new Director, and he just wanted to leave a once promising workplace.  His co-worker, Sam, had tried to help him understand that it wasn’t him.  His work was good, but these new bosses had to go prove themselves, and they were doing it by berating the both of them.  Ralph knew this to be true, but was still tired of the attacks.

It would seem that there was one more salvo coming from the Director for the week.  He called Ralph in, sat him down, and began speaking to him in a tone that brooked no argument.  “It has been reported to me that you have been exhibiting negative behavior in staff meetings.  I need to know right now if you are committed to the goals of this team or not.”

Ralph was knocked back on his heels from this statement.  True, both he and Sam were not always in support of what the new direction was, but had agreed that they had to support it with their work efforts to keep moving forward.  Taking a breath, he asked the Director who had mentioned this to him.  The Director refused to tell him.  Ralph then asked what was this negative behavior. “You rolled your eyes.”  Ralph said very succinctly that he would watch that behavior, and was given permission to leave the Director’s presence.  He beat a path out of the office and left for the day, more beaten down than ever.

When the word ‘team’ is used as a weapon, nothing good can come out of that conversation.  Teamwork is built, piece by piece, not imposed because the leader wants it that way.  Team loyalty is earned.  It is a slow process.  It is patient, and it can blossom.  It has to grow organically.  You cannot magically create a cohesive team simply because you have taken over the leadership of a department or group.  You can’t make a team by hammering the concept into everyone’s head.  Yet, some managers seem to believe this.  In reality, they are over a group of people, not a team.

What happens when a good manager hears of criticism or that an employee isn’t happy?  In most cases, they will ask the employee if they are okay, if there is something they would like to speak about, or ask some probing questions to find out what the problem is so it can be solved.  The good manager will try to get to the heart of the matter to see if it can be resolved.  It may not be able to, but the good manager will give the employee a chance to air their grievances, without punishment and without retribution.

The good manager inspires and facilitates healthy debate, not accuse someone of something without even letting them know their accuser.  The good manager asks why something happened, not makes a summary judgement about what could be an innocent gesture.

When a manager sets themselves up as judge, jury, and executioner, they are not building a team.  That manager is setting up an environment where nobody will speak, there will be whispers in the hallway, and people will give just enough not to get fired.  When they pronounce, instead of ask, they have let their employees know what they really think of the team.

What’s your definition of ‘team’, dear manager?  Is it one where people have the freedom to disagree, or is simply a handy term to enforce your will?


Knifing someone in the back

When you hear the word ‘betrayal’, what comes to mind?  Some political intrigue?  Some far off movie on spies and espionage?  Maybe a bad Telemundo soap opera?  How about coming out of the mouth of the head of a department at a professional conference?  Read up and see what is happening with Sarah and the Great Betrayal.

It happened at a teambuilder that Sarah had put together for her department.  She brought in a high priced coach to help the team get through some of the ‘issues’ that she felt the team had.  She sent the team to an offsite location so they would not be disturbed.  There was even lunch served.

One of the the exercises that the coach put the team through was to mention a word or phrase of something that happens to them in the office which angers them to most.  Participation was mandatory.  Everyone had to answer.  When it got to Sarah, the word she used as her emotional response was, ‘betrayal’.

There was a silence when she said that word, as if the staff and the coach had to digest it.  The session went on, but the word itself left a lasting impression on the staff.  What exactly did ‘betrayal’ mean to Sarah, and what implications did it hold for the staff?

First, they didn’t expect to hear that particular word coming from someone who holds herself us as the height of professionalism.  Second, it was a professional business event where Sarah used the word ‘betrayal’.  Not ‘unprofessionalism’.  Not ‘lack of business focus’.  Not ‘not achieveing our objectives’.  ‘Betrayal’.

The staff also wondered what constituted betrayal in Sarah’s eyes.  Was it not agreeing with her fully?  Was it simply disagreeing with her?  Was it not being 100% committed to her vision?  Was it not saying ‘good morning’ to her?  Was it something else?  With some of the things she had done recently, nobody was ready to dismiss anything.  The term ‘execute her vision’ had taken a very dark and ominous turn.

So, instead of the teambuilder showing the staff how to work together in a trusting atmosphere, all it had done was drive the specter of doubt and uncertainty further into the department.  People would be walking even more gingerly on those eggshells now so they didn’t stir up feelings of betrayal in Sarah.

The teambuilder did build one thing for the team:  paranoia.

If you are a leader of people, learn the lessons of how to deal with people as a leader.  Leave the ‘betrayal’ comments to the Telemundo soap operas.

Manners Make the Manager




Sadie and Herb walked out of the vendor meeting wondering what just happened.  It was supposed to be a review with the vendor of the previous year and a discussion of how to improve the process for this year.  What they ended up with was an even greater pile of work.  Worse yet, the work was due to the ‘ideas’ that their department head, Ellen, had brought to the meeting and dumped at their feet without a look backward.

Ellen had never bothered to discuss with Sadie and Herb that this is part of what she wanted to discuss with the vendor.  She never had a pre-meeting debrief with them about what was on her agenda.  She wanted to be at the meeting; that was all they knew.  In short, she didn’t have the courtesy to let them know ahead of time so they could prepare.  It seems they were too unimportant for her to loop into the conversation.

Now, to be fair, Sadie and Herb knew Ellen always wanted to go further, push the envelope, and ‘keep things fresh’.  What she failed to realize was that, while keeping things fresh with new ideas and programs, she never removed anything from their already overburdened workload to make room for the new.  No, her staff was just supposed to find some time to do this, and do it well, or else Ellen would come down on them for doing sloppy work, and brook no excuses for it.

There was never the one question that they longed to hear from Ellen’s lips.  That question?  “Do you have enough capacity to handle these new items?”

Now, you may say that Sadie and Herb should be more proactive with Ellen and tell her that they simply can’t handle the work based on what they have.  The short answer is that they have.  Multiple times.  With a wave of her hand, Ellen has dismissed these comments with one statement.  “You can handle it.  You simply aren’t efficient enough.”  At times, she would deign to spend ten minutes with them, show them what they were doing wrong from her ‘expert analysis’, and breeze away, assured she had managed the situation well and that they now had the bandwidth to handle the burden.  In the wake of Hurricane Ellen, Sadie, Herb, and the rest of the department would be faced with picking up the wreckage that she had created.

Leadership means making your people more important than yourself.  It means creating an atmosphere where your people feel they can do great things.  It means hearing them when they say that are overburdened.  It means respecting them enough to have the conversation with them about your next steps, especially when it means they will have a greater workload.  Leadership means showing respect for the people who are going to make you look good day in and day out.

Leadership does not mean throwing work on them, being inconsiderate of their concerns, using trite phrases to dismiss them blithely, and then patting yourself on the back for being such a ‘good leader’.  If that is what you think a leader is, then enjoy the self-deception, for nobody you manage will think many good things about you or your style.

A good leader has the good sense and the good manners to know their people come first.  How are your manners?

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.

How to Kill a Telecommuting Policy

In my last blog, I mentioned how a telecommuting day was held so dearly by a manager that not even the CEO’s meeting could get her into the office.  Now the fact that this was a Friday, I am sure, held no sway.

Recently, and separately, another story came up regarding telecommuting.  Same company, different manager.

Meg had been there during the battles.  Nobody in the company was allowed to telecommute, as upper management didn’t trust workers to actually work during their telecommuting days.  A lot of battles, a lot of compromises, and some new technology opened the door for telecommuting to come to the office.  It was still tenuous, but employees were telecommuting and upper management was watching.

Why, then, would Meg commit actions that would ruin it for everyone?

Ally, it seemed, was stretching the definition of telecommuting to its unnatural extension.  She didn’t bring her laptop home to work on.  She worked on an iPad tied into the company’s e-mail, and would send an occasional email to her staff to ask them to run something that she couldn’t do because she didn’t have her laptop.

The phone system allowed for calls to the work number to be forwarded to any number…home… cell.   You would call her extension and get her…extension.  If you knew her work cell, you would call it and get…nothing.  She would not pick up.  This led to a lot of speculation as to where she actually was on her ‘telecommuting’ days.   Yes, that’s right…days…as in more than once a week.  There were times when she needed to be in the office to meet a deadline on something and didn’t because she didn’t have her laptop while telecommuting, thus got things in late.  Since those things meant revenue for the office, it was noticed.

This was, after all, a choice, and Meg always made the choice to take advantage of the situation for her own benefit, not the company’s.  Whether this would affect what upper management thought of granting the telecommuting privilege, nobody knew, but they knew her actions could cause everyone to lose what they had so long fought for.

We all tend to bend the rules now and then.  We tend to see how far we can go in a granted privilege before someone notices.  While it is true that this was not the first time Ally incurred the disdain of her staff, she never seemed to get in trouble because of it.  So, why bother start now?  She thought of herself only, and this was good for her.

Except it wasn’t.   As a manager, she should understand that she needs to set the example and enforce the policies.  She needs to be the epitome of the telecommuter.  She needs to make it easier, not more difficult, for other people to enjoy the telecommuting privilege.

And those who manage Meg need to stop making excuses and start managing her properly.  That way you get a whole bunch of people who are affected by Susan’s behavior to be happier.  As for Meg…she can be happy, but she may have to start working on her telecommuting days again.