This is the second in a set of articles detailing some of the management behaviors that took place while a certain department was working on a very labor-intensive project. This won’t be detailing the project specifically, but how management handled the stresses on the department resulting from the project.
The project was taking a piece of everyone’s soul. People were working extra hours, at night, and on the weekends. One person told the story of having Easter dinner and doing testing of the latest code in between getting Easter dinner ready. The bags under the eyes of everyone were growing steadily, tempers were getting short, and mistakes were being made simply from exhaustion. The deadline was everything to the heads of the department, and no excuse would be accepted for that deadline to be allowed to slip.
So, based on this, it was the perfect time for Sarah to take a vacation.
She had a very good reason for it, of course. This was when she always took her vacation, and it was, you know, the ritual that her family looked for. She couldn’t disappoint them, could she? After all, she worked hard for her vacation, and since she and her fellow department heads had extra vacation days that nobody else in the company had, they were hers for the taking.
It didn’t seem to matter to Sarah that other people in the department had given up their vacations or pressured to work more. It didn’t matter that the department was near the emotional breaking point. No, that was their problem, not Sarah’s. It didn’t seem to matter to her that the impression she was leaving by taking a vacation in the midst of everyone else’s herculean efforts to get their work and the project’s work done was one of selfishness and uncaring. She deserved her vacation, and she was sure that the refreshed, sun tanned, and rested appearance she gave to the department at the end of her vacation would be an inspiration to everyone.
It did surprise her that nobody really seemed interested in tales of her vacation. They were all too busy and too tired to really stop and listen to stories. They needed to meet the latest deadlines and get started with another round of testing. Yes, it surprised Sarah, and it even disappointed her some, but she was in such a good mood from her vacation that she didn’t give it a second thought.
After all, if other people needed a vacation, they could take one, couldn’t they? Funny how they didn’t though. Sarah wondered why for a few seconds, before sharing some of her vacation photos on her social network.
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.
Arnold was in a panic. Things weren’t going the way he had planned them, and he wasn’t happy about it in the least. If all had gone as he had manipulated, he would have had Vince exactly where he needed him, things going just as he wanted, and the near future looking good. Unfortunately, Vince had thrown his plans into such disarray that he didn’t know what do to next.
Arnold used to be Vince’s department head. Since taking the job, Arnold had relied upon Vince and his colleagues to look good to the client. Arnold’s clients would ask for a solution, which Vince or one of his colleague would work hard to provide. They were then mandated to hand it in to Arnold, who would take it to the client, take credit for it, and then reap all the praise for the great work.
In Vince’s case, Arnold added a bit extra to that formula. On a regular basis, Arnold would criticize Vince for one thing or another, demeaning his knowledge, running down his experience, and basically making Vince feel like he was lucky Arnold didn’t fire him and that Vince was fortunate to still have a job. This was Arnold’s way of ensuring that Vince stayed worked for him, and not seeking a better job or asking for a raise or promotion.
The whole system began to unravel when the company they worked for underwent massive downsizing and restructuring. Within a two year span, thousands of the employees were either downsized or their business unit sold to another company. It was a bloodbath, in no uncertain terms, and caused Arnold’s self-preservation instincts to jump into high gear.
The latest ‘restructuring’ was being announced, and though Vince no longer worked directly for Arnold, his work was integral to Arnold’s sterling reputation with his clients. As the rest of Vince’s colleagues had already been laid off, Arnold relied upon Vince more than ever.
So, in order to keep this good thing going, Arnold announced to Vince that he was going to ‘save’ him from the latest round of layoffs. The latest restructuring gave Arnold two employees, and he was going to make sure that Vince received one of those slots. Vince greeted this with less enthusiasm than Arnold expected, but he accepted the offer.
A week later, after the application deadline for all the ‘restructured’ spots was over, Arnold came to Vince and told him he could no longer consider him for that position. He used the old excuse of, ‘you don’t have the skills necessary’, though offered no explanation why he didn’t know this a week and a half ago. In reality, Arnold had been told in no uncertain terms that, if Vince took the position, he could no longer do the work for Arnold that had made him look so good. As this was the only reason why Arnold wanted Vince in the position, he quickly reversed course.
Realizing where this placed his gravy train, Arnold approached Vince and told him that he was going to fight to have Vince placed on a new team. What Vince replied with threw Arnold into a tailspin. Vince’s reply? “No, you won’t.”
If this had been a Hollywood film, Vince would have had a wonderful speech about how Arnold had finally gone too far with his lies, deceptions, manipulations, and other acts. Instead, he simply said, “You didn’t want me the first time. I don’t want to be part of yours or any other team in the company any longer.” He further admonished Arnold not to try to get him on any other team.
Arnold was dumbfounded. He had worked so long manipulating those around him to his own advantage. He thought he had Vince convinced that he was so worthless that only Arnold’s kindness and largess was saving him. Apparently, he had underestimated Vince’s resilience, as well as his tolerance for the nearly inhuman way he and his colleagues had been treated by Arnold’s peers.
A few days later, Arnold came back to Vince to offer him another ‘solution’. Vince could come back as a contractor! Vince looked at Arnold and asked, “If I don’t want to be part of this place as an employee, why would I want to be part of it as a contractor?”
In the end, Vince was laid off from the company, and Arnold didn’t even wish him well on his way out. He found a position soon after, but kept in touch with some of his former colleagues. From them he learned that, within six months, Arnold’s reputation with his clients was in tatters. He was no longer working miracles, and his clients weren’t happy about that. The two people he had hired for the spots under him, one of them his good friend, weren’t working out, and his life was miserable. Vince, still healing from the abuses heaped upon him at the company, reacted with muted recognition, and got back to work at his new job.
The picture above is from an old cartoon character, Popeye the Sailor. One of Popeye’s famous lines was, when he had enough, “That’s all I can stand; I can’t stand no more”. If your way of keeping your good people is to threaten, manipulate, criticize, and make them feel altogether lucky to have a job, be prepared to be surprised. Each employee, like Vince, will have their Popeye moment and decide that living with the abuse is no longer the way they want to exist. They will then do something surprising that you never expected, because your own ego won’t allow you to believe anyone but you is pulling the strings.
And, when that employee leaves, and you are left scrambling to have to fill some very big shoes, remember Popeye. Remember as well that, if you simply treated your employees with respect and courtesy, everyone succeeds. If you don’t, only your employees will emerge stronger at the finish.
They should have taken bets. The staff realized this too late, of course, so all they could do is sit and watch the creative excuses unfold.
Sarah had made telecommuting an art form. While most of the staff had one day of telecommuting a week, and a few had two, Sarah would try to see how many days she could get away with not having to come into the office. No subject was off limits for her to employ her excuses for staying at home.
- There was snow on the ground
- There was snow on the way
- It looked like it was going to storm fiercely
- She needed privacy
- She wasn’t feeling well, but well enough to work from home
- She had a half day off in the afternoon, so why bother coming in the morning?
- She had a day off in the morning, and it didn’t make sense to come in for the afternoon
- Her husband, son, neighbor, dog, neighbor’s dog, complete stranger wasn’t feeling well and she didn’t feel right about leaving them
- Alien invasion
If it were simply that she wanted to stay home, the staff would have been somewhat accepting of this. After all, it meant she wasn’t in the office to tell everyone their jobs and give extra work. This was a bonus.
Sarah’s telecommuting had a dark side to it, though. First, any day she telecommuted, she would inform everyone that they had to rearrange their schedules in order to accommodate her telecommuting. If they had to change everything for her, then so be it. She could not be inconvenienced by something as complicated as a web conference or conference call. Second, if she wasn’t there to sign off on something urgent, progress stopped. She needed to be in to sign off on items, and her telecommuting interfered with that. Third, there were simply things that staff needed to talk with her about in person. A phone call would not do. She had to make decisions, and she needed to be there for this. None of this mattered to Sarah, of course, as it was her telecommuting, and she wanted it to be that way.
When Sarah was tapped to head the department, her habits changed slightly. Based on what she was doing, the staff guessed that she was told by her new boss that she could take one telecommuting day a week, and one only. Sarah dutifully promised this would be the case.
The staff was still kicking themselves for not taking bets about how long this would last before she found some way around it.
For the first few weeks, Sarah was a good girl. She took one day a week as her telecommuting day, and that was it. She was out of the office other times, but they were for official travel.
Then, when no one was looking, the excuses crept back in again. One day stretched into a day and a half. A day and a half stretched into two. The stretching continued for as long as Sarah was able to get away with it.
Staff knew that if any of them ever tried what Sarah did, they would be hauled in front of her so fast it would make their head spin. Employee Relations would tell them the telecommuting rules chapter and verse from the employee handbook, and they would be informed that telecommuting was a privilege and not a right. If they wished to continue to telecommute, they would be able to do so only once a week, maybe twice, but that was it. After all, work would have to get done.
There was one silver lining in that, though. Sarah would want to make sure she told them all this personally. That would mean she would have to be in the office to do so. That might give the employee months and months before the conversation took place.
Adam was ready to go for his Masters. He had been in his job a year and now was ready to take advantage of the company’s tuition reimbursement plan and go for an MBA. He had talked to the Benefits Manager, understood that he was eligible, and verified that the school and the degree was on the approved list by his company. His manager was on board with this, and he knew the process to begin his work.
He then hit a wall named Anna.
Anna was his manager’s manager, and a direct report of Sarah. Her approval was not needed for the reimbursement request, but Sarah’s was, and Sarah was likely to speak with Anna about Adam’s paperwork. It wasn’t that Anna was against Adam continuing his education. It was that she wanted him to take her choice of education and not his.
For years, Sarah was interested in having her staff look more professional by getting a certain certification. She had it, so it must be good. She had made this ‘request’ of several of her people, including Sam, and always held out the carrot of promotion within the department when the person received the certificate. Unfortunately, it never happened. So, while Sarah made a big announcement to her colleagues that another one of her people has this prestigious certification, they went nowhere in the department. Kind of one sided, don’t you think? Yet, if someone didn’t get the certificate, or failed the examination, Sarah made sure they went nowhere in the department. Sensing a pattern here, aren’t you?
Anna, being a bit intimidated by Sarah, didn’t want to upset her boss. So, she as kindly as possible suggested to Adam that he go for this certificate as well. Implicit in this ‘suggestion’ was the statement that she would not be approving his MBA request, although it would also be of benefit to her department and to the company in general. It was against every principle of the program, but that didn’t matter in Sarah’s department. It was only what would make Sarah happy, and nice, compliant staff was what made her happy. Anna would not disrupt that peace, and her job, for anything.
What’s more important to you as a leader of people — making them happy, or making your boss happy, or making life easier for you? Sometimes is has to be the second in that list, but more often it should be the first in that list. And, if you do the first in that list, it usually leads to the last in that sequence. If your main focus is making life easier for you over the happiness of your employees is paramount for you, you will succeed at your goal, as your employees will never be happy. However, that probably doesn’t matter to you, as you want a smooth ride for yourself. Courage doesn’t factor into it, only preservation does.
And that is an education in itself.
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.
The new Director’s staff filed into the conference room and dutifully sat down. These meetings were common in the Director’s four month tenure at the company. A bit too common, actually, and the staff was getting tired of meeting.
Among the attendees where Phil and Don. Earlier in the Director’s brief tenure, they had both applied for the opening of Manager, reporting to the Director. Both brought skills, talent, and tenure to the position. The Director thought differently, though and decided not to choose either of them for the position. Instead, he brought someone in from the outside, who did not know the company’s culture or ways of doing things. Both Phil and Don were understandably disappointed, but soldiered on with their duties.
This particular meeting was one to discuss some of the statistics that the Director had unearthed in his research on the company. One rather disturbing statistic was that the company did a miserable job of hiring from within. Around 70% of the new managerial hires were hired from outside the company, the Director reported.
While that would have been ironic, what he said after that would cause whiplash. “That is a terrible statistic, and this company needs to do better for hiring from within. How is anyone supposed to feel engaged or that they are part of the company when there is no career path.”, the Director stated.
There needed to be no words to describe the look that Phil and Don gave to each other. They continued to listen at the meeting, having learned a valuable lesson about the type of person this new Director was, one which they would remember for a very long time.
You’re new to a company. You’re in a position of some prominence. Your new folks don’t know you from a hole in the ground. It’s probably a good idea to start earning a good reputation right away. A reputation that says you are honest, straightforward, mean what you say, and have your employees’ best interest at heart. You have nothing in your reputation’s bank account on which to draw, so you better make some deposits quickly.
Doing one thing while saying another probably isn’t the best way to go. Unless, however, you don’t care about how you are judged. If that is the case, be ready for a team that will be judging every word you say and action you take, and not giving you the benefit of the doubt at any time.
You also might see an increase in medical premiums…from all the double-takes they will be doing.
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.
There was a hard and fast rule in Sarah’s mind for any event that her group hosted. If there were prizes raffled off, her staff could not enter the drawings. It was a reasonable demand from her, the staff admitted. What happened if a member of Sarah’s staff won one of the really good prizes? Even if an auditing agency had presided over the drawing and signed affidvits testifying to the validity of the drawing, someone might believe that there was something crooked in the drawing and the department’s reputation could be damaged. So, even though some of the prizes were quite good, the staff members never entered any contest in which they were involved.
Then the naming contest came about. It seems that a room dedicated to the use of one of Sarah’s departments was built, alleviating the need for that department to beg, borrow, or steal a room from another group, or hope that a public room was available. As the room was being finished, it was decided that a contest would be held to name the room. Like the other contests, staff members of the company could enter their suggestion and an impartial panel would choose the best answer, giving the room a name. The contest was announced, a special mailbox was set up to gather the entries, and staff was invited to send in their entries.
Looking through the entries, one name stood out. Sarah had put in an entry. A delicate inquiry was made to her regarding if this could be seen as suspect by the staff for the same reasons she gave for staff not being able to enter any of the department’s other contests. Sarah answered that this case was totally different and there was no conflict of interest in her entering it. If her suggestion happened to win, well, then so be it. Nobody could think any worse of the department because of it. Why? Because, Sarah said so.
Guess who won? Now, to be fair in reporting, the committee that chose the winner had only one departmental representative on it, so there wasn’t an undue influence by Sarah on the choice. However, that wasn’t the point. Sarah made sure that a plaque announcing the winner was placed in the room, so her name would now live in perpetuity, or at least as long as the room lasted. It served another purpose, too. The plaque served as a reminder that, if it benefited Sarah, the rules for everyone else didn’t have to apply to her. They had seen it many times before, and, thanks to the plaque, would be reminded of it many times in the future.
There is hardly a more important rubric when leading or managing people than to make sure that the rules you create for them apply to you as well. When you begin to apply the rules only to some and exclude yourself, you set yourself apart. When you serve up excuses why ‘this time’ is different so you can enjoy some benefit, you set yourself apart. When the only time the rules are bent is when you want them to be, you set yourself apart. By setting yourself apart, you negate any feeling that there is a team effort in the department. The only team are the horses up front pulling your carriage while you wave to the crowds.
The team won’t consider you one of the horses, though they will think of as another part of the horse. I guarantee you wouldn’t want that put on a plaque.
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.