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…


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.


Ain’t Nobody Sees the Sarah, No Way, No How!


The jokes were already floating around the office:

What’s the difference among Elvis, Bigfoot, and Sarah?  You occasionally get a sighting of Elvis and Bigfoot.

You know what is similar between Halley’s Comet returning to Earth and Sarah’s door being open?  They happen with the same frequency.

The jokes revealed a truth around the office.  Sarah, since ascending to the top spot in the department, seemed to have no time for the department that helped her get to that top spot.  Her door was always closed, she ‘worked from home’ as much as she could, and getting an appointment to see her had a difficulty rating above the Normandy invasion.   It was noticed she carved out time for things she deemed important, like a three-day retreat to a seminar in a resort town, in which she took her family.  Other things, like one on one meetings with her staff, or even regular staff meetings, were regularly cancelled and discarded, which indicated the things that Sarah seemed to deem unimportant in her new role.

Any communication came via e-mail, or updates from her administrative assistant.  If she came out of her office at all, she may give a small royal wave and a ‘hello’ to the folks on her staff as she rushed by.  Otherwise, people were escorted into her office, and seen leaving her office, and there were days where, if you didn’t see her walk into the office, you would never even know she was there.   It was ‘the bunker’, and she never seemed to leave it.  While most of the time her staff accepted it as a fact, there were other times when it was very frustrating.  They needed to speak with her on important matters to them.  However, since she determined that those things weren’t important, or that other things were more important than her staff’s needs, many of those things went unresolved.  However, if there was fallout in that matter because they could not get to her to make a decision, you can bet she would take them to task.  Even that, however, was usually by e-mail.

You’re busy.  Your staff gets it.  Your job is important.  There are a lot of things to do.  However, the thing is, you wanted this job, big manager.  You lobbied for it and you worked yourself hard to prove that you deserved it.   The thing also is, you also worked your staff very hard in order to get that job.  They were an integral part of you being in that chair.  Now that you have firmly planted your backside in it, don’t you think those same people whose hard work put you there should get part of your attention and appreciation?

When your door is always closed, or when a subordinate is told they can be ‘squeezed in’ to your schedule, or you cancel face to face meetings with the staff who support you, you are sending a very clear message about what you deem important and what…and who…you deem unimportant.  You can’t then expect to emerge from your cocoon for five minutes and expect your staff to think you are a wonderful leader.  Moreover, you shouldn’t be surprised if your staff has a much lower opinion of you.  You were the one who caused it, after all.

You are not a leader of a department;  you are a leader of people.  When you ignore that central fact, you lose your people.  It is not the paperwork that gets things done.  It is not the projects for your boss that keeps the business going.  It is not the calls with your fellow executives that make your department highly rated among your peers.  It is your people.  A good leader realizes that and cherishes them, no matter how high they climb on the corporate ladder.  A poor leader thinks only of themselves, neglecting the very same people who will make the leader look good.

Step out of your office. Open your door.  Pay attention to your people, and not only when something goes wrong.  It is a poor farmer who ignores their garden and is then surprised to see only weeds growing.

Thanks! Now Let Me Kick You in the Teeth!

Kick in the teeth

All in all, Val accepted the news rather well.  She had been told that her job function at a branch office was being transferred to someone at the central office, so her services to the company wasn’t going to be necessary anymore.  It was not going to be an immediate termination, and Val was even given some latitude as to when her last day would be.  She could leave earlier, or stay around a few weeks more to help train her replacement in the central office about what she did.  It wasn’t exactly a fair question, as Val was told the company would really appreciate it if she could stay a few weeks more to train her replacement.  While she had no reason to stay, she agreed, out of a sense of professionalism and duty.

The weeks dragged on and she had performed her duties well.  Her replacement had been brought up to speed, her file put in order, and she kept the lines of communication with her replacement in the central office.  The one thing that she didn’t know was when her last day was.  Nobody in her department had let her know, or even been in contact with her.  Val really needed to know so she could give prospective employers an idea of when she would be able to begin working for them.

Out of frustration, she contacted Human Resources, and asked for the Employee Relations Manager.   As the ER Manager was instrumental in her exiting out of the company, maybe she would know, or be able to provide some guidance.  After a few rings, the ER Manager got on the telephone to speak with Val.  Val quickly recounted what had happened and asked if the ER Manager had any insight into when Val would be released from the company.

The ER Manager responded thusly.  “You’re getting paid every two weeks.  What more do you want to know?”  Biting back a retort, Val thanked the ER Manager for her fantastic insight, and hung up the phone.  She was quite glad she was leaving a company that would employ someone who acted so unprofessionally.

So, to review, an employee who know she is to be laid off agrees to stick around to help the company adjust to her no longer being there.   The company then promptly ignores her requests to know when this period will end so she can get on with her life, as she will no longer have one with said company.  The employee calls Human Resources in hopes that they might be her advocate to find a small piece of information.  The person she reaches, who is the person who will be escorting her out the door, makes a smart remark instead of actually helping her out.

There is an old saying that you can take the measure of a man (or woman) by how they treat someone they don’t have any need to please.  It seems for this ER Manager, it was easier for her to prove she could be a smart ass rather than help an employee.

In short, for Val, no good deed went unpunished.

An All Too Reflective Mirror

Snow White Queen Mirror

It was time for Sarah’s once a month, one hour, direct reports meeting.  Let me repeat that.  Sarah had a formal meeting with her direct reports, all four of them, once a month, and scheduled one hour for it.  They would have to fit all agenda items, all action items, all the things they would need the other managers to know or take action on, in one hour.  Sarah saw nothing wrong with this, as it was her time that was the most valuable.

Needless to say, the meetings were usually chaos, as Sarah didn’t practice good meeting management.  Though they were pressed for time, the managers would bring up extraneous things, dive into tangential issues, or have conversations that would be best suited offline, but somehow got into Sarah’s meeting.  Sarah herself was as guilty as her subordinates, asking questions that she knew would take time from the managers’ precious presentation time, and then complaining that the meeting was going too long.

So, when it was time for Celeste, the last of the managers to present, she had all of 3 minutes to do so, as the hour was almost up.  Condensing what she could, she began outlining her points to the team. When the clock struck the hour, two of her fellow colleagues excused themselves, indicated they had another meeting to go to, got up, and left.   Seeing it was only one other manager and Celeste, Sarah called the meeting to be over and dismissed the remaining participants.  Celeste sat there momentarily, her jaw agape at the treatment from both her peers and from her manager.

There were several messages communicated in this scenario, all of them simultaneously not spoken at all, but loud as a shouting match.  Here they are, in no particular order.

From Sarah —

My time is much too important to meet with my staff.  I am granting you one hour for the four of you once a month and you should be grateful.

I am much too important to be concerned with the running of this department.  I have to be its leader, and leaders don’t get involved in problems.  My staff is to do this, and they should be able to do it without having to come to me for anything.  Don’t you know who I am?

Though I tell others how to have a efficient and effective meeting, I don’t practice this myself.  I will not recognize that I have given a scant 15 minutes to each of my direct reports to wrap up a month’s work of items they feel are important enough to share with me, and will not shut down non-productive conversations or questions, especially from people I like.  If that means someone like Celeste gets only three minutes, that is too bad.

From the Other Managers —

My work is paramount, not the fact that I need to support my fellow managers.  So, when the conversation isn’t about me, I feel it is perfectly professional to get up and leave in the middle of someone else’s conversation.  After all, I must keep to my meeting schedule.  Plus, it gives me a perfect excuse to get out of this staff meeting.

It is all about me, first, last, and always.

This is the same leader, and these are the same managers who will sit silently and wonder why the department, the people they manage, act the way they do.  They will wonder why all the employees are out for themselves, bolt out the door at the appointed hour, do not want to volunteer for anything, and hold on to their knowledge as if it were spun gold.  These same employees will interrupt each others in meetings, hold side conversations, and check their devices instead of listening to the speaker.  They will wonder why their employees aren’t interested in improving the conditions of the department.

I could give reference after reference to management theorists on where the issues are as presented in this blog, but I think I shall go with someone a bit more unconventional.  To begin to understand where the problems in the department are, all Sarah and the managers have to do is follow Michael Jackson’s invitation to look ‘at the man in the mirror’.

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?

The Song Remains the Same

gary cole office space

The latest company-wide meeting had just ended and Joan, with her fellow employees, began exiting the room.  Some folks were chatting, others were looking at their mobile devices, trying to catch up on e-mail, and others, like Joan, just walked quietly, absorbed in their own thoughts.

It wasn’t that the meeting was that thought provoking.  It had been rather ordinary.  Statistics on how the company was doing, a few presentations by people wishing to highlight how wonderfully their department was doing, and a few jokes by the executive team which went over like balloons filled with lead.   No, Joan’s thoughts were focused on the presentation by the head of Human Resources on the employee engagement score results.

The results were not unexpected.  Good in areas where they were good last year, bad in areas where they were bad last year.  No, none of that was causing Joan to ponder.  Instead, it was one particular statistic and one comment by the head of Human Resources regarding that was causing Joan’s musings.  The statistic took Joan by surprise:  almost a third of the respondents to the survey did not feel the company was a ‘safe to say’ environment.  In response to this, the head of Human Resources had said, “We’ll need to work on this.”  Joan smiled as she walked, because she had heard that before, many times.

The first time she heard it was years ago in another organization responding to another employee engagement survey.  The survey had revealed the department was in the basement regarding engagement.  The department head, a man who could charitably described as ‘out of touch’ with his employees, told the assembled department that this wasn’t good and that he was taking concrete steps to ‘work on this’.  He outlined the steps for the department, dismissed them, and then seemingly lost that piece of paper, as nothing was every done.  Joan wasn’t surprised.  Knowing the politics of her department, she knew the department head’s own manager and the department head did not get along.  He had probably been ordered to get things right, but had ignored this mandate beyond saying what he was going to do.  It was a poor choice, as he was asked to resign after the next employee survey results showed even worse results.

A year after that, another employee survey, still poor results, but this time the department head’s manager had reported the results.  During the intervening year, the company cost-cutting program had wielded not a scalpel, but a chainsaw, decimating not only Joan’s department, but every department in the company.  Delivering the results to the department, the manager had said simply, “We’ll have to do something about this.”  Needless to say, nothing was ever done.

Since that time, in the companies where Joan had worked, the same phrase, almost word for word, had been uttered in response to one survey or the other.  So, when the head of Human Resources at Joan’s current company had uttered those words, Joan could do nothing but smirk.  She knew nothing would be done, partially because of her prior experience, partially because she was in a department in the company which had received abysmally poor scores.  She had to credit the management of the department.  They didn’t say, “We’ll have to do something about this”.  They simply reported the results and took no action of any kind.  Joan had to give them credit for being efficient.  Since the head of Human Resources knew all about this and had done nothing to mitigate it, she knew empty words when they were spoken.

If you don’t recognize the picture at the top of the page, it is the department manager in Office Space, that wonderfully accurate and subversive movie about corporate life.  Most any time this manager appeared, he would say, “Uh, yeah…” and then deliver some news with all the warmth and sincerity of a bad actor.

When you blatantly speak something that you know you are not going to fulfill, you send a message.  That message is that you consider your audience to be so dumb, so out of it, so blatantly sheep like, that they will accept anything you say at face value.  The truth usually is much more complex.  Your employees say nothing because they are afraid for their jobs, not because they trust your words.  Each time you say something you know you are not going to fulfill, you erode whatever meager confidence your employees have in your abilities even further.  The only saving grace is that, by this point, they know the lie when spoken, so it means very little to them.

Even if you cannot do anything about the situation, being straighforward and honest with your employees will elevate you in their eyes inestimably.  They will appreciate your candor.  They will appreciate that you have shared something with them so openly.  They will appreciate that you respected their intelligence.  When that may be the only thing you have left in a company, it becomes a very valuable asset.