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August 31, 2009

Why Haven't You Fired Him Yet?

Blog cartoon 9-2-09

[Cartoon courtesy of Grantland Cartoons]

True, life in the work world during a recession can feel like an interactive production of  "10 Little Indians," but sometimes the problem isn't the lay-offs but why the right people weren't swept out. 

I know how merciless that sounds, but if you're honest with yourself you'll admit there are at least several co-workers or office-mates you wouldn't mind saying "goodbye" to.  One of the saddest lay-off stories I witnessed firsthand was that of a woman who had been with her business unit for 12 years, loved her work, and was loved by her customers and co-workers. Yet she was "let go."  Her business was due to be re-organized, folded into another of the company's operating units, but the work she did was still needed. We never knew for sure why she was laid-off, but she hinted to me a disagreement with her manager about the direction of her business. She hadn't refused to go along with upcoming plans. I sensed it was more of a style issue. Her manager didn't like her professional style. She was maybe a little too "creative" for the boss.

A boss can get rid of you for any reason at all, including not appreciating the way you do business, but if you're productive and liked by your customers, is that a smart move?  Sometimes in the lay-off process, corporate culture plays more of a role in deciding who stays and who goes than engagement and productivity, and that's foolish. With funds to pay workers scarce, the main criteria should be competency and excitement about the brand the worker is responsible for.

Around the same time my friend was let go, another worker, much less competent, but more of a "go along-get along-get brain-dead" guy flourished on the payroll. I say flourished on the payroll  because he didn't seem to flourish anywhere else. He consistently turned in sub-par work to his manager, and was noted by his co-workers to have little interest in his duties beyond receiving his paycheck. He did, however, conform to the all-important "company standards."  He was consistently what I call plain oatmeal—uninspired, afraid of his own shadow in the words he chose, and always mediocre at best. But he was non-threatening. He never mentioned anything that might be troubling, such as why his customers were unhappy about a particular company offering, and never pointed out possible innovations, such as new services that might work better, or exciting ideas to re-make old products that no longer worked at all. Of course the company loved him. He smiled at the right times and schmoozed when he should. He wasn't overly "creative," and that suited the company standards gurus fine (despite touting their "innovation culture").

I wished so much he would be fired (oops, I mean "laid-off"), and it never happened. Why is that?  Is it true your work performance doesn't matter if you're wearing the right suit, show up at the right times, and say the right things (even if those things are meaningless)?  Most trainers argue that competency is essential but so is alignment with the "corporate culture."  Unfortunately, I've found that means competent-enough-to-just-squeak-by as long as the worker has the right style. There would be redeeming value in this approach if it weeded out employees who are unpleasant to work with, but that's often not the case. If a manager, for instance, wears the right clothes and says the "right" things, it seems not to matter if anyone other than the person's boss likes him or her (including the company's customers).

It's understandable that a company's executives want to surround themselves with people who look and sound like themselves. It's a primal instinct dating back to the days of cave executives. But shouldn't we try to overcome our Neanderthal tendencies at some point—at least while at the office?  I've heard that it's unrealistic for us to overcome these ancient tendencies, but I disagree. I guess I'll concede that it's hard not to be like a cave person when dining with one's own family, but when at work, I always assumed everyone would do what I do—pretend to be evolved. Before you get too overwhelmed by what I'm suggesting, don't worry, your executives don't actually have to evolve (and you certainly don't have to work to make them that way; that's not your job), but they have to learn to feign evolution enough to put together a workforce that's more than ironed surfaces and nonsense catch-phrases about "synergies," "consolidation," and "driving revenues."

As an adult educator, how do you teach your company's executives to aspire beyond the tribal in their hiring and firing strategies?  How do you teach them it's OK to keep workers on the payroll who don't look or sound like them, or like the same cultural things they do?  And that it's not OK to keep Fred the Drone Jr. around because he's unoffensive (even nice) and says the things they expect to hear, but never shows much enthusiasm or superior work performance? 

It's a tall order, and it means overcoming habits ingrained since the beginning of time, but one way to take a beginner's crack at it is limiting the corporate "standards" memos unless those standards relate to the end-result of the work your employees are doing. If you're mired in memos about cubicle decor and shoes, there's a problem.

How about asking Fred (when he's finished updating you about the kids) what he's accomplished today?

Can you tell the difference between your star and sub-par performers when it comes time to decide who gets laid-off?  How do you know your company's "standards" are focused on what's most important?

August 25, 2009

Letter to Your Boss About Virtual Immersive Environments

So, you want to create a virtual immersive learning environment and you want to start with a well known product before thinking about paying some money for a behind-the-firewall solution. You've tentatively brought up the concept of using the virtual world of Second Life but have been shot down by the IT folks and your boss who want to know why Second Life should be considered as a viable solution.

Well, Second Life to the rescue.  Over at the Second Life blog, they have posted an open letter providing some pretty good reasons why it should be considered, at least for your initial pilot project into a Virtual Immersive Environment (I think other products are more appropriate for a larger roll-out but let's stick with a small pilot for now.)

Here are a couple of the reasons:
  • Second Life can solve real-life business problems. This is especially true for providing realistic 3D environments such as border crossings or retail environments.
  • Organizations can purchase private regions and have complete control over who enters the area.  
  •  Almost 20% of Fortune 1000 companies are doing something in virtual worlds. 
Check out the letter, it could prove very useful as you build your case for virtual immersive environments.

Also check out this report by ThinkBalm on virtual worlds which describe some very interesting results from a study they conducted. 

  • More than 40% of those surveyed (26 of 66) saw a positive total economic benefit from investments in immersive technologies in 2008 and 1Q 2009. More than 50% of respondents (34 of 65) expect to obtain a positive total economic benefit in 2009. The number of respondents who expect to obtain economic benefit of $25,000 USD or more in 2009 is more than double the number who indicated they achieved this level for 2008 / 1Q 2009.
  • Nearly 30% of survey respondents (19 of 66) said their organization recouped their investment in immersive technologies in less than nine months, once their project(s) launched. Almost 30% of respondents (19 of 66) said their organization did not recoup their investment.  Another 38% (25 of 66) said they didn’t know if their organizations had recouped their investment. This is not an unexpected finding because many Immersive Internet initiatives in 2008 and 1Q 2009 were experiments or pilots. 
So these little tidbits should help you to build your business cases for virtual worlds.

Karl Kapp is the Assistant Director of Bloomsburg University’s Institute for Interactive TechnologiesLogoggg_2 and a professor of instructional technology. See his own blog, Kapp Notes for information on the convergence of learning and technology. He is the author of the book Gadgets, Games and Gizmos for Learning.   

Did You Hear What I Said About You On Twitter?

Blog cartoon 8-26-09

[Cartoon courtesy of Grantland Cartoons]

There's going to come a time when Twitter will be the best friend of the passive-aggressive. Instead of telling Bob in the next cubicle that his habit of eating with his mouth open is driving you crazy, or asking the boss to do it for you, you'll be able to Twitter it, and hope he gets the message.

In addition to complaining about cubicle mates and supervisors in the open—albeit indirectly—social media tools such as Twitter allow for business connections without the hassle of making plans (or putting in effort) to connect. In the old days, you had to pick up the phone or e-mail to nag. These days anybody can be an obnoxious marketer with nothing more than a Twitter account. Convince your prospects and friends and friends of friends to sign on as one of your "followers," and then start touting your products without regard to whether anyone is listening. As long as prospects are listed as "followers," it's at least as good as getting the phone slammed down on you, or your inquiring e-mail fast-tracked to delete. It's better than that, actually, right?

The problem is when you, or your company's executives, offer up Twitter and other social media tools such as Facebook as devices for pushing your products and services, you run the risk that in trying to charm, your well-intentioned employees will instead alarm. Imagine this Twitter or Facebook update from a software marketer that answers the timeless question, "What are you doing?"

"Enjoying my fifth shot of Southern Comfort this afternoon as I reflect on all the many reasons you should give Productivity Version 7.0 a shot."

It's a cute entry, and I certainly wouldn't hold it against the rep that he was mixing liquid pleasure with business, but not all your customers are as understanding as me. Or what if another post happened to mention, in an effort to be friendly and approachable, all your great product characteristics as the rep logs in from a retreat held by a strange end-of-days cult?  One would assume most of your company's sales people and marketers don't belong to end-of-days cults, but you never know.

Social media urges users to reveal information about themselves they previously would only have shared with the closest of friends, so it's likely, somewhere along the line, your most diligent marketers will offend by mentioning a location or association in the course of promoting your company. It could even be as innocent as touting the victories of a sports team that many of your best customers don't count themselves fans of.

To make such faux pas more avoidable, put together a demographics tips sheet about your customers and prospects to give reps. You probably already gave them such information, but this time link for them what you know about your customers with possible social media affronts. If, for instance, most of your customers tend to come from a certain city such as NYC, it might not be a good idea to post updates raving about the Red Sox. Or if your customers are socially conservative, traditional people, maybe the only Twittering and Facebooking that should occur is from a page set up especially for your company, rather than having marketer employees Tweet and Facebook from their own, personal pages. What if one or two particularly traditional prospects is turned off from buying from your company because he discovers your reps listen to music that people give the devil sign to at concerts?  Or how about those who are grossed out by tattoos and body piercings?  One of the enlightening things about having your employees market your products and services through personal Twitter and Facebook accounts is seeing so many tattoos and piercings in so many places you never imagined knowing about on your workers. Yuck!  More than I wanted to know, I can tell you that.  What would your customers think?

If you go the safe route, and ask employees to Tweet and Facebook via a company account, you still (as funny as it is) have to remind your workers not to tell customers and prospects your secrets. It's bad enough they know the real you; do you really want your company's public to know you're not allowing workers to buy pens and paperclips, and that many of them are harboring ill will towards you thanks to the unevenly distributed hiring and salary freeze you've enforced for nearly a year?  Didn't think so. Web 2.0 inspires a certain psychology that makes extreme, imprudent disclosure hard to resist. So, before implementing a social media marketing campaign, have participants do a few dry runs on a site only training managers can access. And drill into their leaky heads that it's unacceptable for them to let slip how horribly unhappy they are in the course of hawking your products. Believe me, a few Freudian slips will befall your company before your Twittering and Facebook marketing experiment is done.

It might be your most challenging training endeavor yet: Training your employees to pretend they like you.

What is your company's digital management strategy?  Do you have any idea how much damage your employees can do to your brand in the course of promoting your company via social media?  Any tips for using social media to your company's advantage while minimizing the risk to your reputation?

August 17, 2009

Your Next Generation of Leaders: Donkeys or Race Horses?

Blog cartoon 8-19-09

[Cartoon courtesy of Grantland Cartoons]

When you host a bad party, it's tempting to sneak out the back door and pretend someone else hosted. Not surprisingly, a lot of chief executive officers are doing just that. They appear to wake up one day, notice profits are tanking and employees are unhappy, and decide to quietly slink away. According to The Conference Board research I highlight this week in the Business Intelligence section of Inside Training, last year the chief executive officers of more than 1,400 public companies left their positions by the end of the year.

Your company may not be so fortunate, and are still stuck with a clunker (one you won't be getting any additional cash for, by the way), but however happy or sad you are to see your executives go, go they will eventually. The unsuccessful ones will stick around, similar to donkeys picking at a worn patch of grass; the successful ones will gallop away like sleek race horses, ready for the next challenge.

So, who are you going to replace them with?  One horrible thing is many companies have nobody but other executives trained by out-going executives to step into leadership positions. If your company is like many I've heard about and witnessed, it's not a good thing to be in that position. Unless your executive board has created a company that's profitable as well as rewarding to work for, few of your employees will be excited to hear the good news that Sunny Boy Protege is next in line for a spot at the top. "Why not Rainy Girl Number Seven?" those aching for a sea change in management might ask.  "We could use an executive capable of washing away all the misery the CEO we're happy to be rid of caused. Why do we have to now be led by his protege?"

The good news is you don't—if your company is smart.  Many succession plans were put into place before the Great Recession of 2008 and Beyond set in, so it may be time to review those plans. Now that your current executive board may not have been as fantastic a long-term hit as you thought (especially if you're in the financial sector), why not wipe the succession slates clean, and start over. There are alternatives to Sunny Boys 1, 2, 3, etc., aren't there? 

Begin by asking yourself which employees and managers spoke up prior to your current financial woes, and weren't listened to, or maybe even were punished?  Do you think your company is big enough to acknowledge having made a mistake, and is now willing to embrace the strategies and ideas it previously said were wrong?  It may, in some cases, have nothing to do with anyone being wrong. It might just be that a financial crisis as steep as the one we've experienced for nearly a year requires a new approach to the way you do business—one your executives' current round of proteges may be incapable of delivering on. If the employees and managers who had good ideas your company dismissed before the financial collapse were frustrated enough to leave shortly thereafter, replacing the proteges on your succession rosters will mean a renewed recruiting effort.

Since many of you can't afford to hire additional employees, refreshing your succession ranks will mean deciding who to purge. To get back to the analogy of the donkey versus the race horse, which of your future leaders resemble the former; how many the latter?  Donkeys are cute, but if I were you, I wouldn't want them running my company. Race horses often are too slick and aloof to be cute, but they're fast and efficient. The donkeys at your company, rummaging through the same worn patch of grass, may be the golden boys of your less-than-stellar (thankfully) soon-to-be-departed executives. They're the friendly ones who love to tell you the latest strides made by their two-year-old, but are not so eager to tell you what happened to last month's profit or why they're perennially behind in their work load. The race horses could be those of your employees who who speed through their work, turning in a fabulous performance, but aren't in the "golden" circles because they aren't as cuddly.

To change succession course, consider a  leadership retreat with about a dozen managers or up-and-coming executives who have been with your company for at least the last few years, but whom you hadn't considered for leadership positions because—to be honest with yourselves—they aren't friends with the right people. To get a feel for those with potential whom you may have overlooked, try activities you haven't tried before at a leadership development event, and be sure the meeting isn't set up to favor one cultural demographic over others. What kind of setting do you choose for these events?  Is it usually a couples or family event those who don't match that demographic wouldn't thrive at?  What kinds of topics are discussed?  Are they topics that address all areas of your business, or does the conversation lean too heavily on new product development, neglecting most other areas of the business?  Do you find leadership in all areas of your business, or do you find your leaders most often from one or two facets of the company?  If so, think of all the leadership talent you may be missing. What if your next great CEO is a marketer, and most of the leaders you've been grooming are in finance? 

It might be that your succession just doesn't have a good shot at succeeding. Remember that last time you experienced an awful business debacle—when your competitor(s) pulled the rug out from under you with a product that far surpassed what you were offering?  Your donkeys must have been too busy mulling over same tuft of grass they had been mulling over for the last 10 years to hear competitor race horse hoofs coming.

Now, if you're not careful, you could be faced with Part II of that awful debacle: An executive board composed of donkey descendants.

When was the last time you reviewed your succession plans?  Given the business world's ongoing financial woes, are you still comfortable with those you've slated as next-in-line?

August 05, 2009

Movin' On Up—or At Least Out

Blog cartoon 8-12-09

[Cartoon courtesy of Grantland Cartoons]

When a company moves, it isn't always  like "The Jeffersons" TV show. The next place the company establishes itself often doesn't have anything to do with "movin' on up."  Rather, it's frequently the result of a need to downsize space after downsizing its workforce. To make matters worse, the move to a smaller space often is worsened by the location of the new office. Money being in short supply nowadays, employees who once enjoyed working in a cute, trendy, and safe neighborhood are likely to find their new work environment housed in a "developing" or "gentrifying" part of town—meaning if you're a petite female, it might be a good idea to have someone walk you to your car after sundown.

Employees also may find their enjoyable 10 to 20 minute commute to the office ratcheted up to a tidy one to two hours. And then once there—having endured the interminable commute and walk into the office through a sketchy neighborhood—they find their spacious cubicle, or maybe even office, transformed into a cubby akin to the spaces they keep stray cats in at the animal shelter. Indeed, instead of being at work, the worn out employee feels like he is in a workforce orphanage.

The picture of recessionary business relocation I paint is melodramatic, but those who have been through it will admit I'm (at least a little) right. The most astonishing part of the whole ordeal is the assumption employers make that employees will adjust. In this economy, as I've previously written, corporations have captive audiences of workers, but staying on the job (enduring the new commute, borderline frightening neighborhood, and uncomfortable work station), doesn't translate into productivity. What if the move you embarked on to save money does nothing more than move your workers from satisfactory performance to sub-par, just-here-to-pick-up-a-paycheck status?

Before you decide to relocate to reduce overhead, consider what's happening inside your workers heads. My source for this week's Inside Training Business Intelligence column, relocation management firm Cartus, says it might be a good idea to do an employee needs assessment prior to the move. I'll take it one step further and suggest conducting the needs assessment before you even make the decision to move. You may not be able to avoid leaving an office whose rent you no longer can afford, but you can (and should) use your employees' advice when deciding where to move to.

One way you could benefit from their wisdom is by establishing an employee relocation commission or board, a group of maybe a dozen workers from a wide cross-section of levels and job roles, to visit possible new work sites, and let you know [candidly] what they think. To fully unleash them, you might even offer a prize for the person on the board who is able to come up with the longest list of drawbacks at each potential location. Emphasizing the positive usually is the best policy, but not when considering real estate. It's awful enough to move into an apartment in which you discover the door to the refrigerator can't be opened without stepping into the bathroom (a real estate agent showed me an apartment like that a few years ago), but it's doubly awful to commit your business, and hundreds of your workers, to a space they (and you) won't be able to work in long-term.

Once the place is secured, make the most of it by asking the same, or a different board of, employees to work with your human resources and facilities planners in laying out the cubicles and other work spaces, and deciding the policy on who gets the few offices available. Maybe they'll suggest that nobody gets an office, and that the offices be used as additional meeting spaces and "quite time" rooms—at anybody's disposal as long as they're reserved ahead of time. You never know what those kooky employees of yours will come up with.

The big thing to remember when making a hasty move into more modest work quarters is, as I mentioned in my last blog, that some say the economy will eventually rebound. So, in addition to running the risk of making a short-sighted move, you might end up encouraging valued employees to depart from your payroll the first chance they get.

It's one thing if you're commuting an hour to a job where the office includes swimming pools, reflection pools, wading streams, artificial lakes where you can fish, and other superfluous, though fun, man-made bodies of water. But quite another if you've been asked to commute extra long distances to arrive at a place consisting of no superfluous pleasures, a great deal of mandatory drudgery, and some gratis suffering.

If you were to move your business tomorrow, what kind of location and space do you imagine your employees would find tolerable?  How would you prepare them for it so they stay happy and productive?  Any tips to pass along?

August 03, 2009

Fleshing Out Flush Times

Blog cartoon 8-5-09

[Cartoon courtesy of Grantland Cartoons]

Flush times aren't here yet, unless "flush" refers to how business-related enterprises have gone down the drain since the recession/depression began. But just this week there's news the recession/depression may have hit "rock bottom," and in a sign of the times, "rock bottom" connotes something good rather than the usual interpretation of that expression. 

So, lucky as we are to have "rock bottom" upon us, it's time to plan ahead. You never know, after all, when "rock bottom" will morph into business-is-a-bowl-of-cherries time. Most organizations, understandably, are still trying to swim against the downward flush, but some of you probably have your eye on what happens when the economy becomes more tolerable, and your best workers look elsewhere. First, do you think they'll look elsewhere?  That's the assumption, but I thought I should ask because I have a slightly more nuanced idea of what will happen.

The way my thinking goes is why would you look for something else after working hard and enduring misery through the recession?  Before looking for something else, the smartest of your workers (the ones you'd want to keep in light of their business savvy) will use their endured misery and recessionary contribution to the company as a bargaining chip. This could take two forms. 

In the first, the tired and disgusted worker who performed his heart out for one to two years of promotion-less salary freeze will limp into his manager's office to turn in an assignment or to deliver business-related news, and then, in a feigned-to-be-breezy aside, will say: "You know what I was thinking?  Just a crazy thought, really. But I thought I'd share anyway. I was wondering, with profits starting to get back to where they were before the recession, do you think the company would be open to re-introducing promotions and salary increases?  It would be great to have that promotion and salary increase we talked about a couple years ago."  

If the manager is equally savvy, she will fight for the promotion and raise—even if the salary and promotion freeze isn't over yet. "I know we're still under the promotion and salary freeze, but I really think we need to do something for Tom. He's done an outstanding job for us over the past two years, and it's been thankless since we weren't able to reward him. He brought it up with me the other day, and I'm afraid if we don't give him his overdue/much-deserved promotion and raise, he's going to look for something else. Mostly, though, I just want him to have it because it's something he's earned."

Another way the negotiation might ensue is worse for workforce managers. In this second scenario, the tired, under-appreciated-feeling worker (Tom) delivers the news to his boss that he was offered another job—one that pays $15,000 more a year than his current one. The manager knows it's possible to pay Tom that amount because, truth be told, he's been severely under-paid for the last couple of years, and the manager knows the only reason is they've been able to get away with it—until now, with the reappearance in the economic recovery of other opportunities."Hi there, Nancy, do you have a minute?" emboldened Tom will ask his boss. "Do you mind if I shut the door?  I have some exciting news to share: Existential Energies has offered me a job. I would be the Lead Controller of Existential Energies, and my pay would be $15,000 higher than I'm making here. But before I hand over my resignation, I want to give you the opportunity to make a counter-offer."

Well, the workforce manager in that second scenario is in a far less favorable position, of course. She no longer is going to get by with a $5,000 raise. The ante has been upped to at least (if not more than) $15,000 additional dollars. Wouldn't it have been easier to just push for the increase and promotion to begin with?  Unfortunately, the company's bureaucratic red tape probably will limit the manager's ability to make a timely competitive offer, and the company will lose a star performer. But look at what rival Existential Energies gets!

Other workers will just look for something else and take it, forgoing any loot available in a counter-offer deal because you've treated them so horribly that no amount of money your company could afford would be enough to make them stay. At a past job I experienced that, and it was funny. Funny to tell a nasty manager that I never considered (and wasn't open to) a counter-offer discussion because I no longer wanted to work with her. Period. Of course it was put in more mannerly terms, but the gist of it was the same.

But assuming your managers are still tolerable, maybe employees will be as smart as Tom, and try to negotiate. First, I have to ask you, how tolerable are your managers (when did you last roll out a tolerability assessment?) and how smart are your employees at the bargaining table when the bargaining chip is themselves?  Wouldn't it be ironic if they used the business acumen and negotiation skills training you provided them with to outwit your company's managers?  

Along with the delivery of overdue promotions and raises, your company can use the up-tick in business to head-off employee unrest. It can do this via learning and development. How about renewed or strengthened tuition reimbursement?  Or leadership development for a lucky 100 to 200 superior employees in a relaxing location that includes fun pastimes?  For the less spoiled of your workers, asking them what skill-set they most want to learn, and then creating a custom curriculum for them, also would be a big draw. The promotion and raise are unavoidably necessary, but the urgency of it, and the attitude employees bring to the negotiation table, can be positively shaped by whether and how the company takes the initiative to show them the opportunities that lie ahead if they stay put. 

That flushing sound your figurative hearing ability has picked up doesn't have to be a bad thing. If your company is smart, the flush will signal the elimination of bad management practices. Some of your best employees are still with you, but that doesn't mean they'll continue to go with the flow. 

What do you think the attitude of your top employees will be when the economy recovers?  How do you plan to compensate them for their hard work during the recession?  Do you think learning and development offerings will play a role in getting them to stay?