Retiring Your Professionalism

Pouting Baby

It had been a good run for Vance, but he decided he just didn’t want to go into Sarah’s department one more time.  He was eligible for retirement, had planned his retirement well, and was ready to enjoy the rest of his life.  So, when he dropped his papers on her desk, there were no regrets.

This left Sarah in a bit of a spot.  One of Vance’s people was out on medical leave, and the others were scheduled for training that could not be moved the first week after he left the company.  She asked him if he would postpone his retirement for a few weeks.  The answer was no.  She asked him if he would come back as a consultant for a few days a week to provide coverage.  Why would he, Vance asked, come back with reduced pay and benefits to do the same work he had done as an employee?  No, this is when he was retiring that that was it.

You might think Vance was being unreasonably stubborn, but he wasn’t.  He had worked for Sarah for approximately 5 years.  In those 5 years, he had seen his workload doubled, if not tripled, with Sarah being unmoving on giving his people a break in their work.  Sarah had continually demanded more innovation, more programs, and more things that she could report on that ‘she’ had done with the department.  It could be honestly said that Sarah based her rise in the ranks on Vance’s team’s work, with the only reward that they received was a continuous demand for more, more, more.  He did this without one extra person on the team in all those years, doctor verified high blood pressure, and the stress causing his health did deteriorate.  On the times when Vance did try to tell Sarah these things, Sarah would reply, “You’re not overworked.  You’re simply not efficient enough.  Put some of your work on your people. You need to learn how to delegate better.”

Oh, Vance did get one extra day off about three years ago when his team achieved monumental cost savings for the department, but that was it.  So, now it was payback time.  Sarah was now in a spot, and it was Vance’s turn to be intransigent, and he was reveling in every moment of it.

Sarah’s reaction to all of this was pure Sarah.  Instead of finding ways to cover the gap and wishing Vance well, Sarah decided instead to try to recruit people into an anti-Vance clique.  “Doesn’t it make you mad that Vance is leaving you at that time, with all this work to be done?”, she would ask some of his people, trying to make them resentful.  To their credit, no one would join Sarah in throwing Vance under the bus.  He had treated them as well as he could during his tenure and they would not turn on him simply because he decided to put his own interests first.  Sarah was not happy.

How do you treat someone who helped account for your success?  Do you look at the whole of their work and thank them for all they have done?  Do you put on your pouty face simply because they finally have decided to look after their own best interests, something you have done for your entire tenure at the company?  Which is the behavior of a leader?  Which is the behavior of a three year old?

There’s a picture of a pouting face at the head of this article.  I was going to put in another picture instead, but I didn’t think a picture of ‘big girl panties’ would go over too well.

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Now It’s Time to Say Goodbye to Their Hypocrisy…

Walking Out the Door

It was a seminal moment for Sam.  There was no turning back.  He walked into his manager’s office and handed in his resignation.  It felt incredibly freeing and the culmination of so many years of effort.

Several hours later, Sam was called into his manager’s manager’s office.  The executive wanted to let Sam know what a valued employee he was, if he would consider changing his mind, what a great member of the team he was, and the fantastic quality of his work.

Sam was grateful for the training in maintaining a neutral expression he developed over the past few years.  If not, he might have burst out laughing halfway into the conversation.

This was the same executive who had:

  • Told him the body of his work was extremely poor, but so was everyone else’s who reported to him
  • Ignored all the extra work he had done to keep the department going, and rated him average, affecting his raise and bonus
  • Told him he wasn’t qualified for a promotion available in the department
  • Told him that, in the executive’s previous position, his peers would have tossed out his work as being inferior

So, now being given such head turning compliments rang more than just a bit false with Sam.  It was obvious that the executive was worried about who would do the work that he relied upon for his success, and wanted to keep Sam there and happy.  Sadly, it was too late.  For Sam, it wasn’t just a letter of resignation, but rather a declaration of independence.

Still, if Sam had any hesitation about leaving, the none-too-convincing performance by the executive erased it completely.

Simply said, if you want your employees to stay, then treat them as if you want them to stay.  Don’t expect to rush in at the last minute with sweet words and expect the employee to come rushing back saying, “You had me at hello!”.  Work is not a romantic comedy with a happy ending despite all the hardships that took place in the movie.  As a manager, however, you should not make it a horror movie, either.

Pretty words don’t change ugly actions.  Good managers make sure that they put actions behind the pretty words, so the pretty words are necessary at all.

Let the Hostility Continue!

hostile-work-environment-250x210Ralph knew it was a risky proposition from the start, but felt it needed to be done.

He prepared well.  He had his evidence, had practiced what he was going to day, brought examples, and was going to ask for solutions, not demand them.  He made the appointment with the department Director and walked in ready to have a discussion about the hostile work environment that he was experiencing in the office.

It did not go well, thanks to the Director.

Instead of weighing the evidence, the Director dismissed each and every example that Ralph brought in.  Instead of discussing why Ralph felt this way, he trotted out every instance where Ralph had done something wrong. (according to the Director and Ralph’s Manager)  Instead of bringing in a neutral third party from Human Resources, the Director once again told Ralph what a crappy department this was and that the Director had gotten there just in time to save it from itself.  Instead of seeing both sides of the story, the Director decided to blame Ralph for everything.  Instead of taking copious notes about this conversation or bringing in Human Resources, the Director just talked, at one time confusing the issue and having to be corrected by Ralph.

Instead of giving Ralph’s concerns due consideration, the Director decided to make the work environment even more hostile towards Ralph.

A few days after this talk, the Director and Manager pulled Ralph in to inform him he had been placed on a ‘Performance Improvement Plan’, which could result in termination if he did not fulfill it to the letter.  The plan was filled with misstatements, uncheck claims, and was fully one sided, as Human Resources didn’t bother to speak with Ralph at all about his side in the matter.

In short, everything that the company had said about a safe to speak environment was torn up in tiny pieces, and set afire by the Director, Manager, and Human Resources.

If you as a leader of people can’t get past your own ego and take a few critical comments, then you are no leader of people.

If you as a leader of people can’t listen to those comments, carefully consider them, and change your behaviors based on them, then you are no leader of people.

If you as a leader of people believe yours is the only voice and opinion that counts, then you are no leader of people.

A good leader wants to solve problems to make their people happy and productive.  If the only solution you have ends in the words, “I’m right”, then don’t expect much else from your people.  Then again, your ego probably won’t allow you to expect anything from anyone, as you are the only person who matters in the world.

Be that leader your people need and want.  Ditch the ego and open your ears.

A Little Support Goes a Long Way

Help and Support Sign

As I approach my 200th post in this blog, I thought I would shake things up a bit and present a story of a truly good manager and the lessons that this manager’s actions hold for all the Sarahs and Maxines in the management and leadership ranks.

Mitch was understandably depressed.  Having received yet another rejection for a job he applied and interviewed for, he began to question what was wrong with him. Was it his approach?  His appearance?  His talk or mannerisms during the interview?  His age?   He really wanted to know, but most of the recruiters he spoke with would not provide him with anything more than the legally approved and safe, “You just weren’t right for the job”.  He smiled a bitter smile at all the ‘experts’ out there who say that you are supposed to be brave enough to get feedback on yourself so you can do better the next time.  How can you do that if the employers won’t give you anything more than the standard answer?

He wanted feedback on his search to have Sarah’s organization be one he saw in the rear-view mirror of his life.  He was following all the advice.  He was trying to improve where he could and add to his professional and experiential credentials wherever possible.  It all seemed for nothing, and he was tired and dejected.  He know somewhere, somehow, he would find the strength to go on, but at times like these, he wasn’t exactly brimming with enthusiasm.

Mitch realized one of the advantages he had was that, unlike some of his friends, he was employed still, and grateful for that fact.  It also meant he had the advantage of speaking to people in the workplace who might be able to provide some insight on his professional demeanor, habits, and standing.  That advantage also proved a challenge, however.  Who could he speak with?  Who could he trust?  Who could he both gain some insight from and know that the conversation would be private?  After considerable thought, Mitch chose to ask Phil.

Phil was an executive in the company who didn’t act like an executive.  From a working class background, he had never left those sensibilities behind and really looked out for his people.  He had come to his standing honestly, and had a great amount of respect from those who worked for him.  Mitch had seen this early in Phil and had kept in touch with him throughout his career at the company.

Phil was delighted to hear from Mitch, and readily agreed to meet him for lunch.  After listening intently to the reasons Mitch wanted to speak with him, and understanding the confidentiality of the matter, he and Mitch began talking.  After the talk, Phil began his assessment of both the situation and of Mitch.

While Phil was distressed to hear what was going on with Mitch, he assured Mitch that, from his perspective, Mitch had a good number of strong gifts, and that from Phil’s vantage point, he used them well and professionally.  Based on his interactions with Mitch, Phil could see no glaring professional gaps in Mitch’s presentation, presence, or demeanor.  In other areas, he was honest when saying he didn’t see anything glaringly bad, but also had not interviewed Mitch, so could not be as sure that there weren’t issues.

Phil then went and examined the strengths that Mitch had, and asked Mitch to consider using those strengths in a different career path than Mitch had considered.  He laid out his argument that there were other callings out there where Mitch might be a worthy candidate, and some he might enjoy.  Phil promised to keep an eye out for these opportunities with his colleagues in other organizations, and encouraged Mitch to look for them himself.

Finally, Phil drew upon his own job hunting experiences, including the one to find his current position, and acknowledged it was a tough market out there.  The job doesn’t always go to the best or brightest or even the most qualified.  ‘It’s a numbers game, when you come down to it.’, was his advice on the matter, and told Mitch he had to keep up the fight and find that one special employer who would recognize all that Mitch had to offer.

Mitch thanked Phil warmly, with Phil wishing Mitch success and offering to meet on a regular basis to see what was happening.

Now, what just happened there?  It may look like a failure, as Mitch was no closer to finding a way out than at the beginning of the lunch.  Phil provided no instantaneous solutions or cures for Mitch.  Yet, what Phil did in that short span of time was an indicator of what made him such a good manager.

What he did was provide Mitch with two great gifts — hope and possibilities.  He took time to analyze Mitch’s attributes and give an analysis of them, not a cursory, ‘You’re just fine!’.  He took time to bolster Mitch’s resolve with stories of his own that related to Mitch’s situation.  He provided Mitch with new possibilities to explore that were good for Mitch, and opened up new vistas to explore.  In the big picture, Phil gave his time to Mitch and made Mitch the center of the universe over that lunch, which was something Mitch needed.

In doing that, Phil showed one of the greatest skills a manager can have…the ability to listen to and interact with their employees.  A manager who can put the employee at the center of their world for a short amount of time has employees who know they can trust and work with their manager, and thus want to work with their manager to achieve great things.  The goals are still the same, the work has not decreased one iota, and the manager hasn’t made any concessions.  Nothing has changed, yet everything has changed.  The employee sees they matter to the manager, and that the manager is willing to listen and to brainstorm new possibilities and help the employee see their own potential.

A good manager helps every employee see the greatness within them, and then helps shepherd it to the forefront.  It is the best investment they can make in their staff.  Sadly, too many don’t want to do it.

 

The Self-Preservation Effort

Boot licker

Sarah’s department retreat had not happened yet, and she had a request transmitted from the corporate coach who would be conducting the session:  “Please have your people contact me, confidentially, so I can get a good pulse of the department”.  Though this was fraught with danger, as if the coach was not going to treat this confidentially, there would be retribution by Sarah.  Still, even with this danger, there were a fair number of employees who took the corporate coach up on this offer.

The coach very patiently and kindly listened to all the callers, and made a surprising revelation.  Each caller had said the same thing about Sarah and the department.  Each caller had indicated that it was a not a safe to say environment, that there was retribution, that Sarah was never wrong, even when she was…all topics that readers of this blog have become familiar with in the tales of Sarah.  The coach then promised that these issues would be addressed in the coaching sessions.

The first session came and the staff waited for these issues to be addressed.

And waited…

And waited…

And, with the exception of the coach saying that everyone was expected to speak openly and candidly, which the staff who had been around a while promptly ignored, not another word was said regarding any of the issues that was spoken about to the coach.  The staff began to worry that they had spoken to freely and that the purpose of the coach’s invitation was to gather evidence to pass along to Sarah.  After all, one person had mysteriously ‘been terminated’ shortly after the session.

The second set of sessions did not have the coach ask for any feedback on either the previous session or on the progress, if any, of Sarah.  During this set, the coach went further, extolling the virtues of Sarah and saying how much he admired her.  To be fair, he also complimented the staff, but only Sarah stood out for special treatment.  The staff saw very starkly that the coach had not lived, and was not going to live up to his promise.

We all prefer the soothing words over the words of criticism.  It is human nature to want to do so.  We prefer to hear that we are doing well over the idea that we might be doing something poorly.  However, we need to hear what is wrong, especially when so many of those who have had dealing with us say the exact same thing.  If all we desire to hear, or reward hearing, is the good and not the bad, we are deliberately avoiding items that might make us a better leader, manager, or person.

When you aid in this, by deliberately avoiding some appealing truths, what does that say about your worth as an adviser, coach, or confidante?  Are you simply selling out to the highest bidder?

If, as a leader, you say you value honesty, but then don’t want to hear it.  If you favor those who only say favorable things about you.  If your interest in improving by looking at your weaknesses is nil.  If that is you, don’t bother calling yourself a leader, and don’t expect anyone else to, either.

Well, except those you pay to do so.

A Little Lie from an Executive Never Hurt

Pants on fire

A few weeks ago, I wrote about a company meeting where the top management invited the staff to write in with their questions.  The top questions, based on votes by the staff, would be answered in the session. The answers were, to be charitable, less than what the employees deserved.  This is the second of two blogs that focus on two of those questions, both asked of the HR Department.

“With all the automation that has taken place”, the question to the HR department head began, “why do you have so many more staff now than you used to?”  It was a fair question.  There were more staff now, even though there was more automation in the HR processes than ever.  What the writer failed to realize was that there were many more HR services than before, as well.  So much had been added to what HR provided that, even with the automation, there needed to be additional staff to handle all the extra responsibilities.

That would have been the professional and honest response from the head of HR.  It also would have provided a strong response to the question. While not everyone may have been satisfied with the answer, it would have been accurate and made people think.  Sadly, this was not the answer that the HR head had provided.  What did she say?

“The HR Department has not grown.  We have not grown in many years.”

There was only one thing wrong with this answer.  It was a lie.  Additionally, it was such a bad lie as to have neon lights on it and a barker on top of it calling out, ‘Hey everyone, look at the lie!’.

Staff who had to visit HR people sitting outside of HR’s area because there was no more room within HR’s area knew this was a lie.  Any one who attended the grand opening of HR’s new space, which took over the area adjacent to it because they needed room for more people knew it was a lie.  Anyone who saw the smaller desks now used by most of the cubicle dwellers in HR because of space saving measures knew it was a lie.

So, why did the head of HR presume to make such a boldfaced prevarication in a company newsletter?  Only she would know, but here are some speculations.

  • She figured nobody would read the article, and if they did, nobody would give a second thought to the claim
  • She figured she was at the top of the heap, so why bother being open and honest.  She has gotten what she came for.
  • She didn’t want to be bothered giving the real answer, so just made something up that was more face saving

Whatever the case was, the one thing that was true was that she had lost a large chunk of integrity not just for herself, but for her department.  She showed that she cared so little for answering a tough question that she threw any answer at it, even if that answer wasn’t accurate.  How could anyone believe her from now on, and how much had she damaged the reputations of those who worked in the department?  Based on the answer she gave to the question, she probably didn’t care.

Part of leadership is answering the tough questions and being called to account for your decisions.  When the best you can do in that area is to utter an untruth so brazen that the majority of the company knows it is an untruth, the damage goes beyond you.  A leader should care about such things, as that is something else they do — care about their people.

Excuse me, dear leader.  Your pants seem to be on fire.

New Rodeo, Same Clowns

sad clown

You had to hand it to the Executive Council of the company.  They found new ways to try to get the pulse of the company.  In anticipation of the latest all hands meeting, they had harnessed the power of social media to get the opinions of the employees.  A site had been set up where employees could write their questions of the Executive Council.  Employees could also vote on those questions, improving their ranking.

This wasn’t just a fanciful test of technology.  For the past three years, the Executive Council had been the recipient of increasingly poor rankings of trust and leadership, as expressed by the employees.  As they were in the midst of the latest survey, and that Board of Directors would be watching the scores, it was important for them to be seen as wanting to get the voice of the employee.

The employees did not disappoint.  The questions were sharp, to the point, and pulled no punches.  Those questions expressed frustration, anger, and distrust.  If those questions were answered in a forthright way that equally pulled no punches, it would reflect a new era in relations between those who were governing and those who were governed.

Based on the title of this article, I think you can guess what happened.

The all hands meeting came around, and, as promised, the top vote getting questions were selected, asked, and then answered.  The answers were safe.  The answers were careful.  They answers were the same things that were heard every single time the questions were asked.  No bold promises were made.  No trails were blazed.  No responsibility taken by any of the executives…only responsibilities assigned by the executives, saying the employees had to find their own answers.  For every question asked, a buck was passed.  It would never be the executive’s fault that promotions were not given, or bonuses lacked, or that there was unfair treatment.  What did the employees hear?  “Don’t bother us, peons, we have governing to do”.

The employees left the meeting with ironic smiles on their faces.  Once again they had been duped.  They had been asked for their opinions, with the implicit promise that these questions, no matter how painful, would be answered.  They were answered…with the same trite phrases that had been used by the executives of the company since time immemorial.

One of the greatest traits that an executive can have is that of courage.  Many will claim they do have it, usually in response to the latest round of layoffs or cuts they have authorized.   That, I suggest, is not courage.

Courage is admitting that you may be wrong in your approach.  Courage is having a willingness to listen and change.  Courage is addressing questions with the same frankness as they have been asked. Courage is making yourself vulnerable, stepping outside of your comfort zone, and be willing to try the new and innovative, even if it means you won’t be as comfortable or secure as it once was.

Courage is not providing the same, trite answers to questions, but realizing there is something deeper in those questions.  It is finding out why those questions were asked in the first place and taking bold, innovative steps to address them.

Come to think of it, that is also called Leadership.