The Balanced Budget Strategem


The conversation was light and joyful.  One time co-workers who had not seen each other in some time happy conversed about old times, old jokes, and some people they had in common.   Wayne, the organizer of the event, looked over the sea of faces at the table and smiled.  This was just what he needed.

He told a few people at the table his reason for this get together was because, when he walked down the halls of their once common workplace, he didn’t recognize anyone anymore.  There were so many new faces at the workplace that he felt a bit alone.  It was jarring for him, as the workplace had always been known as the place where people never wanted to leave.  Now, it seemed, people were beating a path for the doors.  Why were all his old co-workers leaving so rapidly?

“I have a few thoughts on that”, Mitch said.  With that, several heads turned.  Mitch had been content enough just listening to others during the gathering, making the occasional reply or comment, but generally keeping to himself.  So, when he made that pronouncement, people tended to listen.  They urged him to go on.

“Now, before I say anything, all this is speculation.  The facts I have fit the scenario, and the suppositions I make aren’t outrageous, as I think you will agree.  We all have to understand this before I go on.”, he said.  More heads turned.

Mitch started. “You recall when the CFO began making the same speech to whomever would listen?”  A few heads nodded, which Mitch expected.  The CFO was not the most dynamic speaker, so even if he was invited to speak at a gathering, he didn’t rivet the audience’s attention to him.  For those who didn’t remember, Mitch summed up what the CFO of the company had said.  Simply put, the company was spending more money than it was taking in.

This fact in itself didn’t surprise many people.  They knew from their days at the company that almost every major project had cost overruns, simply because the stakeholders had to have their ideas incorporated into it, and the executives in charge of the projects didn’t have the fortitude to tell them ‘no’.  It was easier to go along with the stakeholders and worry about where the money would come later.  Add in the vanity projects that each of the executives needed to have to highlight themselves, and you had a mess of a financial situation.

What Mitch followed this up with was more of a surprise.  He had found out from a reputable source, verified by an executive of the company, that the CFO, seeing nobody really listening to his plea to save money, had imposed a 1% cap on departmental budget increase requests.  This posed a problem.

The biggest part of any budget is the staff of the department.  Those staff will expect raises.  In a poor economy, you can defer those raises as many will not leave simply to have a job.  In a good economy, they would leave in droves to the competition.  Since the company was not known for its generous salaries in the first place, this could really be an issue.  How could you give raises of 2% to 3% when you could only have an increase of 1%?  Nobody wanted to lay off any staff, as they had fought too hard to grow the department and their influence.

Mitch let this settle with the group for a minute while preparing the next piece of evidence.

“How many of you who have left the company were there more than 5 years?”  Several hands raised. “10?”  Several hands raised.  “15 or more?” Several hands raised.  “How many of you know employees there who have been at the company as long, or longer than you?”  Many hands raised. “Are they the majority of those people you knew at the company?”  Many nodded.

He continued. “The company we worked at and some of you still work at”, he said with a nod to Wayne, “used to boast that it had a long tenured workforce.  It was a recruiting tool.  ‘Look how happy our people are…they never leave!'”  Nobody contradicted him.

“Now, the longer you are with the company…”, Mitch started, and Wayne finished for him. “…the higher your salary is.”  Mitch smiled at the flicker of awareness that was dawning upon the faces of those assembled.  To those whose face still registered, ‘I don’t get it’, Mitch continued.

“You don’t want to get the reputation or the lawsuits that mass firing will do.  You need to keep your budget increase at 1%.  You are in self-preservation mode.  What do you do?”  Mitch paused.

Several people jumbled together an answer, “You target the longer term employees.  Some you fire.  Some you make their lives so miserable that they quit.  You then bring in younger employees or people who will work for less money, and your budget problems are solved.  The work gets done and, aside from a possible flicker of conscience of the executive of the department, the fallout is minimal.”

“Fits what you have heard from others who have left the company, doesn’t it?”, asked Mitch.  Each person at that table had a story of them personally being harassed by their superiors or knowing of those who were harassed until they no longer could stand it and left the company.

“The defense rests”, said Mitch, to laughter. Wayne was a bit shaken up by this, but quickly recovered, at least for the sake of the gathering.  He would worry about Mitch’s suppositions and what it might mean for him later.  For now, it was time for friends.

He raised his glass.  “To friends, no matter where they are, or how they got there”.


The Knife Thrower

knife in the back

The air was light with laughter and good talk.  It was the first time the work friends had gotten together with Sam after he left the office, and everyone seemed to be enjoying him or herself.  They talked about old time, old friends, old enemies, and it seemed that no time at all had passed since Sam had said his farewell.

Somewhere during this conversation, Sam asked if anyone had come in to take over his spot, and the spot of Ralph, who had left earlier.  That led to yet a new round of conversation and laughter.  It seems they were interviewing for Sam’s spot, but for now they had a temporary worker there.  They also had a contractor come in to teach some classes.

The contractor was familiar to them all.  It was Audra, who had once been with the department, but had left — twice — after claiming she could not juggle both work and home responsibilities.  Audra had come back often to the department, mostly due to her status as FOS.  For those not in the know, that means Friend of Sarah.  Audra and Sarah had developed a fast friendship during Sarah’s early years with the department, and whenever someone was needed to fill in, Sarah suggested Audra get the call.  As everyone knew to translate Sarah’s ‘suggestions’ into ‘mandates’, Audra would get the call.

That was a good thing as well, as Audra would not be called by anyone on their own accord, for one simple reason.  Audra was a knife thrower, and her primary targets were her co-workers’ backs.  There was very little that Audra wasn’t willing to do in order to get what she wanted.  She was frequently in Sarah’s office gossiping about the latest tidbit she heard in the department, or hurling a knife in the back of someone who supposedly ‘offended’ her, or was making her do some work she didn’t want to do.  Her targets were many and numerous, and she implanted knives with the skill of an assassin.

Someone at the table volunteered that Audra had added a new trick to her portfolio.  It seems, before one of the managers came in for the day, Audra would request that her office be opened so Audra could sit there.  Why she did this caused the table to toss around some speculations.  Was it because she was looking to snoop around for something to run to Sarah about?  Was it that she thought herself too good to sit with the rest of the employees?  Was she doing something that she didn’t want anyone else to see?  The sad thing is that nobody, including the manager, would really know, as they could not ask Audra without her starting to sharpen the latest blade and aim for that person’s back.  Heaven forbid they ask Audra not to sit in the office.  The extra large knife would be unsheathed for that one.

The conversation at the table drifted to more pleasant things, but there seemed to be some seriousness in one question that a few people asked Sam.  Were there any openings at his new place of employment?  Sam smiled, and thought that, at least for now, he was able to put away the Kevlar vest, as he didn’t have to worry about anything Audra did anymore.

Not Worth the Paper…


A job description recently went up for a high level position at a company.  It was the the leader of the publishing arm of the company.  Since the company had many high profile publications, and were facing fierce competition, they wanted to make sure they hired the right person.  With the help of HR, they carefully crafted a job description that would encompass all the aspects of the position and the challenges that they would face going forward.

Who did they want for this position?  Let’s look at the requirements for the candidate:

  • An advanced degree – PhD preferred
  • An advanced degree in a field that many of the customers of the publication had, but had nothing at all to do with publishing

Nobody seemed to tell these people that people usually get PhDs so they can be published, not publish someone else’s content.  They also didn’t tell them that it might be helpful to have an advanced degree in, oh I don’t know, a publishing related field.

This reminded me of a few times in my career where I was told I could not move forward because I didn’t have a certain certification.  Now, this certification wasn’t mandatory for any position I was applying for.  It wouldn’t replace the experience, the knowledge of the organization, or the subject matter knowledge that I had accumulated.  Would it have helped?  Yes.  Was it a deal breaker in terms of being able to do the job?  No.

The above two examples, the degree and the certification are nothing more than vanity plates for the department or the organization.  They are to be used for bragging rights, not for job performance.  They will not help move business forward, get things done, or improve the conditions of anyone.  Sadly, the opposite at times happens.  The person meets all the vanity qualifications and is horrible at their job.  The company or department has focused so hard on getting someone who fills out the vanity that they shortchange whether the person is a good manager, knowledgeable in the field, or has the qualifications that really matter.  Everyone suffers then.

Let’s start focusing on what truly matters for an organization:

  • Has the knowledge, skills, and background to do the job required
  • Has an impressive track record of people management and leadership, showing how they raised the standard for people-focused leadership
  • Can make a positive impact on the company and its people

If they happen to have an impressive piece of paper as well, so much the better.  However, let’s put the truly important things first instead of the vanity plates.

The Staff Shunning


The staff of the department didn’t know which was more disconcerting:  the note from the CEO announcing that their department head had suddenly ‘resigned’, or that the person that was now sitting, temporarily, in that seat was someone not from the department and having no knowledge of the department’s functions.  That was exactly what happened, though.

The head of the department, Adam, was suddenly and mysteriously gone.  Usually in this situation, someone from the department was temporarily promoted into a position of responsibility.  The department would then be directed by someone who knew the projects, was known by the people, and could add some stability to a rather tumultuous time.

The CEO, for some unknown reason, had decided to appoint Doreen to the spot instead.  Many suspected that the reason this was done for expediency’s sake.  You see, Doreen was the kid in grade school who would raise her hand for any task that needed to be done, figuring that it would ingratiate herself to the teacher.  In Doreen’s case, it had carried over to the workplace, where if there was an important job to do, she would somehow shoehorn herself into the position.   This particular time was rather ironic, because Adam, when he was head of the department, had told Doreen several times to keep her nose out of his people’s business when Doreen had decided to inform some of those employees that they were doing things improperly.

In this time of transition, one thing that the employees of the department did agree upon was their dislike of Doreen.  Her previous behavior had won no converts in the department based on her previous comments, and her actions since taking over the top spot had alienated those who had been ambivalent about the woman.  They also had lowered their collective opinion about the CEO, who seemed to, again, have taken a very high-handed approach to a situation, ignoring the needs or wants of the staff.  His decisions during his tenure at the top spot seemed increasingly isolated from the needs and wants of the staff, only giving lip service to those who made his position possible and needed.

This was rather evident during the first ‘all hands’ meeting the department held in the wake of Adam’s departure.  Though everyone was informed it was taking place, and the message was that everyone should attend, only about 1/3 of the department did, leaving a lot of obviously empty chairs.  If that message wasn’t enough, what happened next sent a very clear message on the staff’s dislike and distrust of their management.  The CEO had agreed to attend the meeting to give support to Doreen in her new leadership role.  When he came up to speak with the staff, almost every head of every staff member who attended looked down at their smartphone, scanning mail, messages, and other items.  In other words, the staff was shunning both Doreen and the CEO.  They had enough of this behavior and indicated by their actions that they had no respect for either of them.  Whether this was noticed or absorbed by either Doreen or the CEO was not immediately evident, as both had long ago grown oblivious to the obvious signs that there was very little respect for either of them.

At the levels of the CEO and Doreen, the tactical, everyday items don’t, or shouldn’t, come into play as much.  It is the direction of the department, business unit, or company itself that should concern them.  In order to do this, they need to be intimately aware of the smallest change in the wind in order to steer their ship through ever changing currents.  If all you do is admire yourself in a mirror at how good you look in the captain’s uniform, you aren’t doing you job very well.  If 2/3 of your people don’t show up to a meeting, it should tell you something about how important they think your meetings are.  If they won’t even stop their electronics to hear from the CEO, what do you think their opinion of the CEO is?

You captain a successful ship, run a successful company, or head a successful department by being keenly aware of the needs of your crew or your people.  Respond to those needs, and you will have a devoted crew who will do anything to continue the company’s success.  Ignore their needs, and you can run into a huge amount of trouble very quickly.  Your company, your department is successful because of your people, not because of you.  When you forget that, you lose your most valuable asset.

Ignore your people at your own risk, for they may shun you right back.

The Stella Dallas Retirement

Stella Dallas Poster

For those who aren’t fans of old movies, a brief synopsis of the movie, “Stella Dallas”:  A low-class woman is willing to do whatever it takes to give her daughter a socially promising future.  You’ll see why I mention this movie at the end of this blog.

Mitch was doing his duty.  He and his table colleagues had shown up for the retirement party for Maxine in the company cafeteria.  Sarah was almost in tears talking about Maxine, and the obligatory gift was being given.  As Maxine was making her speech, Mitch was looking around the cafeteria, a recent memory coming to mind.

The previous week, Mitch had to walk through the cafeteria on the way back from a meeting.  There he saw another retirement party underway. Like Maxine, the honoree had been at the company quite a long time.  The cafeteria was jammed with well wishers for the employee.  The air was filled with animated voices, punctuated by raucous laughter.  The guest of honor had pulled over Mitch and twisted his arm to have a piece of cake.  People were in great spirits and enjoying the time, the company, and each other’s remembrances.

It was a very different scene for Maxine’s party.  Where the other party filled the cafeteria, this party barely took up a third of the space.  Indeed, if it wasn’t for Maxine’s co-workers, who knew they had to attend or feel Sarah’s wrath, the attendance would have been, to put it kindly, sparse.  There was no animated chatter, no raucous laughter, and no hint of joviality.  It was mechanical, and the people dispersed as soon as they thought it was safe.

Looking upon the two celebrations, one of the conclusions that someone could make was the degree of respect and affection that people had for the two honorees.

To be fair, Maxine’s job wasn’t the warm and fuzzy one.  She had the job of meeting with employees who were having issues with their managers, and employees who had to be disciplined.  She was also the one who would process the firing of people from the company.  Still, this could not be used as a blanket excuse for the less than robust attendance.

One of the wisest pieces of advice I have ever received is that a person has to be judged not only the the ‘what’ they did to get their job done, but the ‘how’ as in how they performed the job.  Did they do it by steam rolling over everyone else?  Were they collaborative, or where they rude?  Did they look out only for themselves and their own goals, or did they take someone else’s time and needs into consideration.

In Maxine’s case, by a good many people’s opinion, the ‘how’ Maxine performed her job was the cause of so few attending this party.  Maxine was known to support the highest ranking person in the room, whether that person was right or wrong.  This left many simple employees in the company dreading a call to Maxine’s office because they knew they would not be treated fairly.  Maxine wanted to be considered a friend to management, and would bend over backwards to make that happen.  Even Maxine’s own colleagues in her department would always look out for the bus Maxine would push them under if it were advantageous to Maxine.   This is why Sarah had such affection for Maxine.  She could always count on Maxine to support her, no matter what the decision.

None of this seemed to phase Maxine.  She accepted her gift ‘from the company’ with grace, shed the appropriate tears, and thanked ‘everyone’, especially Sarah, for all their love and support.  Those who applauded might have done so only because she was no longer going to be there to deal herself the most advantageous cards from the deck.

The movie Stella Dallas is, for all intents and purposes, a tearjerker movie designed to be a soap opera before the medium of television came along.  In it, Barbara Stanwyck does everything and anything to ensure that her daughter has everything in life, and alienates everyone and anyone along the way.  In once scene, Stella throws a fancy party to ensure their status in higher society.  She goes to greet her guests only to find out that nobody is there.  She has thrown a party and no one has attended.

As a manager or a leader, always think of the ‘how’ you are doing something.  Is it simply for your benefit or for the benefit of those you lead.  If it is simply for your own benefit, that’s not leadership.  It is selfishness, and something that should not be in your leadership curriculum.  It will wind up with not only an empty room for your going away party, but also empty looks in the eyes of those you lead and half their energy going into preventing that knife in their back.  If that is what your idea of leadership is, be honest with yourself and get yourself a title change.  The new title?  Mercenary.

The Buck Passes Here

Betty was sure that she had been on this conference call for days at this point.  At least it felt like that.  She would have drifted off to do some other work long ago if it wasn’t for one thing.  That one thing was Bill.

Bill was a higher level manager in the company.  Betty didn’t begrudge him this.  However, it was common knowledge among her colleagues how Bill got there.  Rather plainly, Bill would have others do the work he was responsible for and then bask in the credit given to him by his superiors for a job well done.   His greatest skills, it was said, was how fast he could forward something off to someone else to complete and hand back to him.

This had been rather successful for Bill.  Combining that with a pleasant personality, he had risen up the ranks to a position of prominence within the company.  The downside to this was that, now that he was at this higher level, he was being held accountable for work commensurate with this level, and he didn’t know how to do it.  In addition, the longer he passed his work off to others, the more people became aware of his work habits, and the greater push back they gave to him.

This is why Betty made sure she paid attention during the conference call.  Bill was at it again.  This time, he was trying to take a report that he should be doing and trying to hand it to Betty.  Betty was resisting, and a cadre of her colleagues were supporting her.  Bill didn’t know how to compile this report, having never had to do it before.  He had always given it to new employees who didn’t know any better.  Betty was a veteran, and Bill was finding it very difficult to get agreement that Betty should do his work. Thus, the conference call dragged on and on.  Bill was nothing if not tenacious.  He knew the stakes were high.  His superiors were watching for him to deliver work based on his higher level, and if he didn’t, there would be some very difficult questions asked of him.  The conference call would continue until he could once again make sure he didn’t have to do his own work.

Countless surveys about management show that employees are engaged when they see their managers and their leadership working as hard as they are.  That engagement drops when they see the manager or leader doing less work while they, the employees, do more.  That already lower engagement plummets when the employees see that the only thing the manager is adept at is handing off their work.  That can be mitigated a bit if the employee at least receives credit for the work.  When the manager uses it to advance their own career, forgetting about the employee’s effort fully when it comes to claim credit, the employee is not only disengaged, but they become wiser.  Either they will not do the work or do it so poorly as to embarrass the manager.  It is a dangerous game, but it shows what happens when an employee goes from disengaged to actively sabotaging the company.

If your prime reason to becoming a manager is to make sure you hand off all your work to someone else, and then leverage that power to make sure nobody says ‘no’ to you, don’t expect sterling work or much loyalty from your staff.  Also expect to be found out on your way up the ladder, as eventually you will be expected to do work only you can accomplish.  When that moment comes, don’t expect a lot of people backing you up.  Rather, they are probably at the bottom of that ladder setting fire to it.

A Slap on the Wrist? Don’t Worry, We Deliver!

If you were an employee of the company, who wasn’t a manager, but simply an individual contributor, you knew the drill.  If you were call to talk with Marion, the Employee Relations Manager, you came to her.  There was no courtesy of her coming to you.  You went to her.  You were in her office, as she wanted it to be.  It reflected her philosophy of exerting power.  You were on her turf, giving her the advantage.  People who worked for her reported the same thing, where she would make her employee set up the meeting, giving the subtle meaning that it was too small a task for her, but not for someone who worked for her.  Most people knew this, but since she was the Employee Relations Manager, a power position in itself, nobody could really complain.  Yes, Marion was all about power first, and if there was anything left over, she found some time to actually help the employee.

With this in mind, some eyebrows were raised when Marion reported that she recently had to speak with a manager about the manager’s behavior.  Now, this in itself was surprising, because people could count on one hand the number of times Marion had taken the side of an employee in her dealings wit them.  Usually it was the manager first, last, and always, even if the manager was holding a smoking gun and had a confession note hanging out of their pocket.  Many wondered what had this manager done where even Marion could not cover up for them.  The second surprise was that Marion said that, in dealing with this manager, “…we took a walk down to the manager’s office and had a talk with her.”  In other words, Marion left her Fortress of Solitude to go see an employee in that person’s office.

Still, even with this revelation, one salient fact came screaming out.  When it was an employee involved in a dispute with a manager, and the employee was at fault, Marion had no problem calling the employee down to her office, having the manager there always, and ganging up on the employee with the manager to tell the employee exactly what was wrong with them and how they had to improve.  Yes, the office door was closed, but there was no private chat with the employee.  Even when an employee would come down to talk about a manager’s behavior, Marion would not listen to it without the manager there.

However, when it was a manager who was so clearly at fault, the treatment was different.  Privacy was tantamount.  There was no ‘walk of shame’ through HR to Marion’s office for the manager.  Oh no, it was a discreet visit to the manager’s office for a chat.  It was all very civilized, and designed to make sure the manager’s confidentiality was assured.

A ‘meeting’ vs. a ‘chat’.  A call to Marion’s office vs. a stroll to the manager’s office.  A requirement that the manager be present in discussing an employee’s issues vs. a private chat with the manager.  It was an obvious illustration about who was favored in the company and who was not.  It was an obvious illustration of the respect Marion had for managers as compared to employees.

The one thing that wasn’t obvious to Marion was the ill regard employees held towards her.  She didn’t really care, as they had no power to help her. Manager’s did…so manager’s ruled.