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 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.

Fish and Houseguests

End of the RoadThere’s an old saying that fish and house guests get stinky after about 3 days.  I’m not sure what the statistic is for a blog, but everything has an end.

This will be the 225th post in this blog.   We began this with a specific purpose, and now that purpose has been satisfied.  Like the picture above, we’ve come to the end of the road.  We’ll keep the blog up for a while, but there probably won’t be any more posts.  There are new mountains to conquer, and new roads to travel.

We can’t leave without some recognition.  Thank you to all of you who have become fans of the site, read about all our characters, and identified with the situations we wrote about.  It is your encouragement that kept us going for 225 blogs, and some great times relating our stories.

Remember, you always have the power to make your work situation better if you just give it your best effort.  That’s what we’ve done here, given our best effort, and what a ride it was.

It’s time to find another road…

Gone in a Flash

Greedy dog

The atmosphere was light and there was laughter around the table as the family got together.  Sam was enjoying himself, finally able to tell some of the stories about his new manager, but also surprised at how widespread the epidemic of bad management was.  The next round of stories went something like this:

Sam related that his manager came to him, excited for some new content sent to her by a provider.  It was on a flash drive, and as she wanted to give a copy of some of the content to others, she asked Sam what kind of reusable media the department had to copy the items.  Sam mentioned to her that they had a stock of flash drives, probably about 25 in number, that had been left over from an old project and were just sitting in the closet.  Occasionally he or his co-worker Ralph would use one for some purpose, and it was handy having them there.

His manager thanked him and headed off to the supply closet.  She returned a few minutes later, dashing into her office, her hands and arms filled with flash drives.  Pausing for a moment to process this, Sam walked to the supply closet and was greeted with an empty box where there were, minutes before, 25 flash drives for the department to use.  He related that, to this day, not one of the flash drives has reappeared for a business purpose.

As soon as the comments about this died down, one of his relatives piped up about something similar in her workplace.  Like most offices, her office received little thank you gifts from the vendors they used throughout the year.  It may have been a bowl of fruit, some other edibles, or something creative.  Usually, before her new manager took over, these were put in a common area for all the employees to enjoy.  After the new manager arrived, things went differently.  The new manager would take each package and bring it into her office, never to be seen again.  Oh, she did say that anyone could come into her office and enjoy the snacks, but she would either stare at the person the whole time they were in there, or the food would mysteriously have disappeared when someone went to avail themselves of something.  The manager was always at a loss of where these would go, but was seen many times carrying rather heavy bags out to her car.

Being a good manager is made up of many tiny things.  Fairly or unfairly, each one of those things are visible to your employees, who will form an opinion of you based on the actions you take.  You don’t need to be perfect, but you do have to have a favorable balance in order to gain the respect of your people.

When you show that you never learned how to share, you give the impression that you only care about your happiness and well being.  Nobody else matters.  Your happiness overrides everything.  If extrapolated into how you are going to deal with people whose work lives are in your hands, what are they bound to think?  They are going to think that you will manage them with the same greed that you have shown in your other actions, thinking nothing of them, but only of yourself.  And, if this is how you are going to rule them, they might as well take whatever they can whenever they can.  After all, isn’t that what you are modeling to them?

If you want a genuinely caring and giving culture, start with yourself.  If you only think of you, don’t be surprised when your employees only think of themselves.

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.

Cast Adrift

Penguins Cast Adrift

It happened as it usually happens at the company.  The employee is called into his or her manager’s office and is told that they are no longer employees of the company.  The security guard is summoned, the employee’s keys, purse, or such is brought to them, and they are escorted out of the building.

Yet, this isn’t an article about that process.

A note is sent out to the staff informing them that the employee isn’t working there anymore.  There was no time for goodbyes, no time for a hug, and there is no invitation by the manager or anyone in leadership to come discuss how this firing might affect them.  And affect them it does.  Each time this ‘rip off the bandage’ approach is taken, it makes the employees who are left behind a little more nervous about their jobs, a little more wary to say anything, and never knowing if their turn will be next.  Seeing that the company really doesn’t have any secret information that could be accessed by the employee to give to competitors, the employees wonder why it has to be that way.  They are never given an answer.

Yet, this isn’t an article about why the process has to be that way.

The manager, of course, felt they had good reason to let go of the employee.  Maybe the employee was under performing.  Maybe they were put into a job that they simply couldn’t handle.  Maybe their conduct was less than professional.  At the same time, maybe it wasn’t any of these cases, but just a case where the employee was thrown into the job without proper training and was trying their best.  Maybe the employee was staying late or coming in early, or on weekends, as this particular employee was, in order to get the work done.  Maybe the employee deserved firing, or maybe they were running full out to try to be successful in a job where they could not if they stayed on the job 24 hours a day.

Yet, this isn’t an article about that type of unfairness.  Well, not really.

What this article is about is what did the manager do to help make this employee successful.

How many times have you heard the company you work in say that people are their most important asset?  How many times have you seen a manager of the company, their representative, back up that motto with any action?  If you have, and have seen it many times, make sure you go into your manager’s office and give them a very big ‘thank you’, as you definitely have a good manager.

In the case of the terminated employee, that motto wasn’t put into action.  There was no tangible action to help the employee succeed, either by truly looking at the workload and if it was feasible to do, whether the employee had the proper tools or training, whether what they expected the job to be really was what the job turned out to be, or whether it could be done by anyone, anytime.  No, the manager in question simply ignored the words and pleas from the employees regarding the workload, ignored the employee coming in on weekends to keep up with the work, and the evidence that the amount of work was simply overwhelming.  The employee could not do the job and that was that.

‘Your employees are your most important asset’…until you need to put some effort into them, and then it is too much of a burden, so you cast them adrift.  If this is the attitude that you take as a manager, or that the company encourages, don’t expect anyone to step up and give their all.  ‘All’ is not rewarded.  Trying your best is not rewarded.   They will give you the same amount of effort that you have given to them, nothing more, nothing less.

It’s time to change the company motto…Sink or Swim.