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October 22, 2009

Why Aren't You Seasonal?

Blog cartoon 10-28-09

[Cartoon courtesy of Grantland Cartoons]

When it comes to seasonal workforces, I'm envious. It would be a relief to work for a company that mostly employs seasonal workers. The best arrangement would be one with different workers for each of the four seasons. One of the hardest parts of work life is monotony, and is there anything more monotonous and grueling than seeing the same people every day. Talk about a drain on creativity!  Innovative minds need to be nurtured with dynamic environments, and seeing the same people every day (often eating the same unpleasant-smelling health food—not a steady diet of chocolate chip cookies, unfortunately) is not dynamic.

If only the people you didn't get along with, or whose presence you didn't savor, were limited to the holiday season (maybe just a one-day holiday like Fourth of July when you won't be in the office anyway). Even if they were around for a full month (Thanksgiving to Christmas), it would be a relief to say to yourself, "Well, awful, unproductive Hal is here again, and boy, I sure hate listening to him chomping on imitation potato chips all day, but luckily he'll be gone after Christmas."

Of course the joy of keeping the non-enjoyment inducing (a politically correct way to say "really disliked") isn't as important as the quest for a dynamic, innovation-inspiring work place. So, since that's the more mature part of my vision, that's what I'll focus on.

To vary work routine and personality interplay, think about creating a post-Space Age office in which  workers are given the option of signing up for varying schedules. One work group will sign up to keep the standard 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. routine; another will offer to come in from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.; another will agree to come in from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; and a last group will come in from 1 p.m. to 10 p.m.

Sure, you'll have to work out the schedule with your office's janitorial and security departments, but other than that, isn't it a great idea?  Where do I begin with the myriad benefits to be offered by asking workers to sign up for the work schedule that would most appeal to them?

First off, you probably would end up avoiding the colleagues you're not crazy about. That's my hypothesis because I think most of the time there's a personality/cultural difference issue at play when people significantly dis-enjoy (another new euphemism) one another. "Oh, thank the cubicle gods," you would say to yourself, "irritating Irma is one of those odd people who seeks to be awake in the morning, so now, as a more-evolved night person, I don't have to see her anymore as she signed up for the 7 to 3 group and I'm safely ensconced in the 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. group."

On a more serious level, if you're working with people with inner-clocks and scheduling preferences you're in sync with, don't you think you'll be more productive?  No more annoyance with those who expect the working mother to stay late at the office and give her child up for adoption; and no more horror-stricken looks from the men and women-about-town at the idea of having an 8 a.m. meeting every morning to accommodate people like the working mother.

On top of that, you've got a hook with this pick-a-schedule regimen to snag talented Generation X and Y recruits looking for an alternative to the "Oh, yes, we're all expected to be here by 8:30 a.m., at the latest" crowd.  I'll bet a lot of super-high-potential 20 and 30-somethings loathe those kinds of cultures. And, of course, who could forget the advantages for Boomers seeking a more accommodating schedule as they near their creaky (oh, whoops, I mean "golden") years?  "Oh, now I have time in the afternoon to go to the doctor, visit the grandchildren, and go fly fishing/play my Woodstock CDs again,"  Getting-Old-Lou will say to himself.

On a less fun note, your office will have an easier time spreading out ever-thinning resources with employees spacing apart their in-office time. Your IT servers won't have as much stress placed on them at the same time, and, therefore, may operate faster, and with fewer glitches. You also won't need as much physical office space if workers aren't all coming in at the same time. From a societal perspective, if cities encouraged businesses to pursue these types of innovative arrangements, traffic on the streets during morning and evening rush hour would improve immeasurably. Don't you think?

Now, nay-sayers will say the varying work times schedule won't work because as much as you don't like Snorty Sally (so called because she reminds a lot of people of a snorting dragon in her meanness), doesn't mean you don't need to see her face-to-snorty-face. And just because Pigeony Peter (spends too much time outside feeding the birds instead of doing his marketing reports) is really frustrating (especially because your boss likes him for no apparent reason), doesn't mean you don't need to ask him questions in a face-to-face meeting that allows for the reading of non-verbal language (his twittering eyelid when you ask him where the marketing report is).

Well, I'm going to be way-ahead-of-my-time, and say "not so!"  You have no need to see these people who wear on your nerves and drain mental energy you could better direct towards the kinds of ideas that will win your company new, long-lasting customers. Am I right or am I right?

Thanks to the wonderful introverts who invented the Internet, nearly all work discourse can be accomplished via e-mail and instant messaging. If necessary, you can even watch Pigeony Peter's twitchy face via Web-cam.

What do you say workforce managers?  Do we all have to see each other every day?  Can you arrange the closest thing to making the work peers we don't-like-so-much into seasonal phenomena like, say, golden leaves, new-fallen snow—or horrible hay fever you're so glad isn't an every day/all-the-time thing?

Are you thinking about more innovative ways to manage your employees that mirror the flexible schedules offered to seasonal workers?  Do you have any great ideas in this area to share?

Corporate Training and Collaboration

I just completed a video trailer for a mine and Gary Woodill's book. We, at AHG, do a lot of simulations and general Second Life projects (including shooting video in Second Life!), but when it comes to editing video I will not pretend to be a pro. Hope, you still enjoy the show! More info on www.TheVirtualWorldsBook.com  




October 20, 2009

Alice in Corporate-Land

Blog cartoon 10-21-09

[Cartoon courtesy of Grantland Cartoons]

Do you know of the phenomenon no one is supposed to talk about in which a company or manager sets an employee up for failure?

Over the last 10 years I've come to realize I'm like Alice in Corporate-Land in my wide-eyed surprise at what people do to each other in the workplace. Who knew so much ill-will-filled manipulation could be contained in office buildings?  A salesperson I knew told me her company fired her by interesting means. It didn't just fire her. She says it purposely gave her unrealistic sales targets to achieve. She said she was suspicious they wanted her gone because the goals were obviously unattainable. There wasn't a reason I can think of that her bosses wouldn't want her around based on professional performance and likability. But then I thought twice, and realized I needed to take my Alice in Corporate-Land blinders off and see office politics probably were in play. In that case, the reason for her "failure" could have been anything from offending the bosses' golden girl to being too honest at meetings about what she thought of the bosses' plans.

When it comes to who fails and who succeeds, financial targets and other formal goals mean little, unfortunately. Granted, usually the employee can't be entirely incompetent and stay on the payroll (at least not to the point the company faces consequences with customers), but if the right office politics are in place, an inept worker can remain on the job for a long time, while, due to those same dynamics, a talented and hard working peer can be booted out before progressing. Have you noticed the same thing?

Not to be too Alicey, but why do you think this phenomenon occurs at companies that promote their formalized performance evaluation systems, and make such a big to-do about productivity and smart management?  Do you think it's because of middle school?  I wonder whether the politics in offices is an extension of the social politics that are played in the pre-adolescent and adolescent years?  It's really the same thing, isn't it?  The salesperson who told me her story (we'll call her "Sally"), lost her job because she wasn't in the right office clique. She wasn't friends with the "right" people (i.e. the cool kids didn't want her sitting at their lunch table), so they gave her goals they knew she couldn't reach (i.e. they teased her, or created such an uncomfortable environment for her, she was forced to leave).

Your employees, even those pushing retirement, aren't getting wiser, unfortunately. So you need to somehow (any ideas how?) figure out a way to make performance the main criteria for success or failure, and in setting those standards, you have to watch for loopholes like the unattainable goals trick. Come to think of it, most of you have this criteria about performance in place, but your more crafty and childish managers have found ways around it. When getting performance reviews back, how many of you have the resources to evaluate the goals set for the coming year, and decide whether anything looks suspicious about them?  At the same time, when an employee is fired for "performance issues," do you take the time to see if the goals they "failed" to meet were knowingly unrealistic? 

Some companies think they're safeguarded against the set-up-for-failure hazard because they have employees set their own goals. But that's hardly a safeguard because the employee may feel pushed by her boss to over-promise, or the worker may not realize what he's promising is impossible. The boss supervising (and encouraging) the goal setting, may have her reasons for not guiding the employee towards a recipe for success. I guess this is the point where you may want to say to me sarcastically: "Gee, Alice in Corporate-Land, do you think so?" 

Laugh if you will, but I'm really shocked!  I still can't believe there are (many) managers who don't want their employees to succeed. As a workforce manager, think about adding a segment to your performance review training that addresses bosses' responsibility to help workers set realistic goals, and let them know managers will be held accountable if human resources discovers during the exit review process that an out-going employee was led astray by a boss who obviously didn't have her best intentions in mind. I (now) realize there are tricks around every management "rule," but it's worth a try, isn't it?  I think if you pay more attention, you'll find at least a few managerial villains (mean cool kids) residing in your best cubicles and offices.

I guess the mean ones are little Red Queens, always eager to shout "Off with her head!"  Like Alice in Wonderland's Red Queen, the grievances of your office's intolerant (and silly) despots often lack in substance. Sometimes the grievances are more the result of a manipulative mind than a poor workplace performer. 

Looking at the world through the corporate looking glass, so much looks distorted and strange. Many employees who loom large according to their fast rise up your ranks, aren't like that at all. Many fallen at the "sword" of their own Red Queen had a work performance far greater than you realize.

What are you doing to ensure employees succeed and fail for the right reasons, and "performance" isn't a game rigged in favor of golden boys and girls?

October 13, 2009

Employee Nip

Blog cartoon 10-14-09

[Cartoon courtesy of Grantland Cartoons]

I've talked a lot about my cat Miss Minnie on this blog because her life reminds me of corporate employees. While it's true she's furrier than most corporate workers, and has better night vision than most of them, she, too, needs stimulation to remain engaged as a pet. And, before you get insulted, I do think the word "pet" also applies to corporate employees.

These workers' companies are not their "master," technically speaking, and most don't labor under lock and key (at least as far as the authorities know), but since most need to make a living in order to eat, pay their rent or mortgage, and find enjoyment in life, they may as well be on a leash and chain for all the control they have over their day-to-day environment. With that in mind, you can't blame your employees if they, like a pent-up house cat, get a little antsy and irritable at times.

My solution for Miss Minnie is cat nip, and lots of it (along with Gerber's chicken baby food—her favorite), so maybe what your employees need (what some entrepreneurial company will soon begin selling) is employee nip. The formula of the nip will vary depending on what you've noticed about each of your workers, but just as all cat nip is derived from the same plant, so, too, do the fundamental ingredients of employee engagement remain the same.

First, what's in it for your workers?  Do they believe they have opportunities for advancement?  Most significantly, do they feel they are being rewarded right now for their hard work?  Times are shaky and uncertain, if not downright financially bad, but as I like to continuously point out, there are non-monetary ways to reward workers. Would having a stellar, high-performing employee work from home every Friday be the end of the world?  Or would it be so bad to note to that person his incredible efforts, and let him know that as soon as/or if-ever his division is able to, he will be recognized with a promotion for his hard work and ingenuity? It's such a cliche it's become old-wives-tale-wisdom, but just hearing the recognition, and that the promotion wheels will be in motion as soon as possible, is a great help. "It's nice to hear," as Grandma would say.

It may be time for a Recessionary Recognition class to appear on your curriculum as a requirement for managers. Since the lessons it should encompass involve acquiring and exercising emotional intelligence, be sure to do this one in person. Some managers (shocking) are not the most sensitive people in the universe. So you need to give them clues about what to say and do to make high-performing employees feel appreciated enough to stay engaged. What would those conversations sound like to you?  What would be safe to say without getting your company into legal trouble, or falsely raising the hopes of workers?  There must be something you can say. At the very least, would it be advisable to have closed door sessions with top (albeit unrecognized) performers to tell them what a great job they're doing, and that the manager is well aware of the unfairness of the situation—that the company is in a place where it is unable to provide a promotion or monetary reward for the hard work?  From there, your managers could ask these employees other ways they would like to be recognized, whether it be through a more flexible schedule, or a few extra vacation days tacked on around the holidays (the office is so slow then, why not?).

If awarding additional schedule flexibility or time off makes you uncomfortable, the "nip" can come in the form of exciting new projects—the kind that earn rather than cost the company money. Just as cats enjoy chasing rats, your employees will enjoy chasing business-oriented rats (not to disparage your business associates). What I mean by that is the challenge of chasing a project that excites employees, including the challenge of doing it on a significantly, or altogether restrictive, budget will distract them enough to keep them motivated and interested in you.

Keeping them interested in you is the biggest problem. When top-notch workers put themselves out continuously, and are not recognized—or worse—treated the same as less top-notch workers, they eventually give up, and start ignoring you, or only paying attention to you enough to get their paycheck. In the world of felines, they make all sorts of lures to dangle overhead so the bored cats can bat at them until sufficiently amused. The best of these lures incorporate cat nip. First, you have to make sure, whether it's through work challenges, or opportunities to become stimulated by helping another employee through mentorship, that your employees have something to reach for, and second, it's best to ensure that all assignments—including those that are day-to-day rather than aspirational—incorporate some "nip," something that peaks their interest, or an opportunity to make it their own.

Now that you know about employee nip, all you need are those convenient little cardboard boxes with the holes to cart them around in.

What are you doing to keep your employees engaged?  Is there anything companies can do to hold workers' attention and stimulate their capacity to do a great job?

October 07, 2009

Live from World Business Forum: Clinton On How To Maximize Good Intentions

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) seems to mostly mean how to make companies look not so evil. So, when former President Bill Clinton this afternoon mentioned the goal of "maximizing good intentions" in whatever it is you choose to do to address the world's ills, my ears pricked up. 

The Clinton Global Initiative, which he said brings leaders from across the world to discuss how to solve international problems such as providing impoverished areas with clean drinking water and how to stop deforestation, might, on a smaller level, be a good model for your own CSR program. Clinton pointed out that while some give millions to the clean drinking water program, others give just a dollar, and even so, provide clean water for 10 children. 

Most of your companies won't be able to bring together local leaders across the world, but many of you are able to summon local business leaders across the country and in particular regions of the world. What if, as part of your CSR push, you annually asked business partners such as suppliers and companies you don't directly compete with to join your executives and a handful of young high-potentials at a gathering in which you discuss how to combine your resources to address a specific local challenge such as providing disadvantaged children with vaccinations and/or free breakfasts for those same children and/or help towards a college education?  

It's tempting to make your CSR initiative all about making you, like I said, look not so evil, but it could be so much more than that. You also could parlay the CSR program into a development opportunity for employees with teambuilding exercises encompassing community service such as beach cleanups and building houses for Habitat for Humanity, but, more selfishly, you could use community involvement as a proving ground for your company's future leaders. Teambuilding is spectacular, but what about taking your top three candidates for chief marketing officer, and asking each of them to head a separate CSR-driven community program sponsored by your company?  Watch how they handle that challenge, including how they summon human and financial resources, publicize it, and deal with interpersonal conflict, and you have a precise preview of what you'll get when you put them in a key executive position. 

To maximize your company's good intentions (if, indeed, they are good intentions and not just an attempt to salvage a reputation hurt by lay-offs and cruel treatment of the remaining workforce), don't be lackadaisical in your CSR approach. In other words, don't just send out a mass e-mail entitled Planet Ending Relief with a request for donations, and expect that to earn you a clear conscience. It's great to ask for help, and it can't hurt, but what would be better is to challenge employees (with a substantive reward) to come up with their own novel, enterprising ideas for providing aid. This exercise of thinking up new solutions for a community crisis counts as innovation training. Getting the brain used to solving difficult problems, even if—gasp—it's for the public good, works the same parts of the mind that can be used to create billion dollar products and services. 

You also can maximize the good intentions by using CSR for fun. It's hard for some to believe, but as fun as new SUVs and additional vacation homes are, helping others also can be fun, and not just because of that thing your mother used to tell you about helping others making you feel fulfilled. What if, for example, a local charity needed 50 employees to play softball once a week with struggling teens, or if (my dream) the company decided to adopt 100 stray dogs and cats and set them up in a company-sponsored space that required 100 to 200 employees to take turns staffing?  A dream come true for animal lovers!  

Incentives (a bad word at some companies these days) can also be linked to CSR. A trip to a gorgeous place can be used as an opportunity to also participate in help for the locals or for the local wildlife. From a selfish perspective, the incentive then will pay for itself in positive publicity, and will offset some of the feared criticism about sending spoiled corporate executives on trips to the spa. If you really want to be cutting-edge about incentives and CSR, think instead about sending a batch of deserving entry and mid-level workers on one of these beautiful place/community aid trips. What a great way to motivate high-potentials you can't adequately pay!  And what a great way to earn the loyalty of these top performers. Who's going to leave a company that sent them to a place they always wanted to go because it believed they're deserving enough to be rewarded, and have enough potential to contribute to the company's international CSR push?

Generation Yers say they're interested in companies who get them involved in helping the world. They're drawn to companies with strong CSR programs. So, why not attract and cultivate these young business stars with your own global initiative, even if "global" in your case simply means aiding the struggling parts of your company's home city?  You'd be surprised. Maximizing "good intentions" can be a great help to the world and your organization—even if your intentions weren't all that selfless or "good." 

Live from World Business Forum: Apocalypse Now Has Become Apocalypse Put-On-Hold

The science fiction flashing of green lights, and the collapsing of mountains and overflowing of oceans and rivers until cities are engulfed, won't happen—at least for now. It may have seemed like the end of the world a year ago immediately following the financial collapse, but thanks to government intervention, the end isn't quite so near, economist Paul Krugman said this afternoon at the World Business Forum. "Apocalypse Now has become Apocalypse Put-On-Hold," he offered with as much optimism as he could muster. 

The great thing about Paul Krugman is he doesn't pretend things are OK. If it made you feel better to think how lucky we are compared to the Great Depression, you may want to reevaluate those feelings. It's better in most ways, but in the case of world trade, the topic Krugman focused his talk on, it's worse. With world economies more integrated than ever before, the "synchronized financial crisis" that hit a year ago sent global trade plummeting in an unprecedented way. It's "fallen through the floor in a way that's never happened before, including during the Great Depression," he said. 

He showed us a chart with one line denoting world trade before and after the Great Depression and another denoting world trade before and during our own era's crisis, and what we saw was bleak. Our world trade dip was, indeed, worse, and what's worse, our world trade recovery appears to be going slower. 

Over the last 10 years nearly every company I wrote about described itself as "global."  I never knew what they meant by that term, and whether they could truly afford to be an international company, and, if they could, whether it would even make sense for their niche in the market and company profile. Now I'm especially curious about the allure of labeling your company "global."  

First, why would you want to given the crisis global trade is up against, and second, if you really are a global company, how are you currently coping?  Would it be a good time to emphasize a different part of your strategy?  

From a workforce management perspective, how do you continue to keep your employees thinking globally when you may have needed to pull back some of your global resources and investment?  One idea is to continue brainstorming global strategy even if you're not able to immediately implement the plans. It's important to show workers laboring under a hiring and salary freeze, and being told "no" all too often to ideas that would cost your company money, that their ingenious, big picture thinking is still welcome, and that as soon as possible, your executives will begin looking for ways to reinvest or continue their expansion abroad. 

In addition to continuing to encourage global thinking, consider reinvesting in prudent trips overseas. The last thing you want is to develop a next generation of leaders who are provincial. You don't currently have the budge to send them on business trips to China or Brazil every month, or even every few months, but what about twice a year for your budding leaders? Instead of reserving travel during the current crunch for top executives only, extend the global education where it's needed most—to those who will lead your company through, and hopefully beyond, the global recovery. 

It may be time for a global trade mentorship program at your company in which 100 or so (depending on how big your company is) top up-and-comers are invited to tag along with executives on trips overseas. Beyond accompanying executives on the trips and during the meetings, these junior global mover and shakers would sit in with the same executives before and after the trip to hear about and contribute to the global game plan. 

Your first priority is survival through the "recovery." But if you pull back on your global expansion and investment to a degree that's too sharp, and smacks of fear, then ultimately you'll box your company in with young leaders too provincial to understand how to grow globally when you're finally able to. Apocalypse Deferred will morph back into Apocalypse Now, with new executives suffocating in the tidy domestic business boxes you created for them.  

Live from World Business Forum: Criticize the Boss Publicly—Without Getting Fired

Gary Hamel, a professor, author, writer, and consultant on the topic of management innovation, has a proposition for you: imagine asking your employees to rate their bosses and then publish the results online. This, along with other strategies such as allowing employees to say "no" to any request, is what Hamel listed on an LCD screen over the stage at the World Business Forum this mid-morning in an attempt (hopefully not in vain) to get us to imagine another way of managing workforces.

With professional etiquette so much in the news, I wonder whether it would be OK, and even advisable, to have one of the rating points touch on that topic?  One of the most common "efficient" manager profiles is that of the corporate "superstar" who makes the company a lot of money (or at least is friends with the right people), but has few "people" skills, meaning he doesn't know how to act like the semblance of a human being.

What's funny is at a company I once spent time at there was an employee who had been there for a while, and wasn't liked by many people. No one knew why she continued there. And, actually, I shouldn't say "an" because there was more than one of these individuals at that corporation. That's funny enough. But what's even more funny is how she/they would act when someone new to the company passed her/them by in the hall. Their face would remain immobile, and sometimes they would even arch eyebrows or look right past you. Is there something funny about that kind of behavior? 

Is shyness these managers' defense?  Hardly. I'm a shy person, but know enough to say "hello."  That knowing about saying "hello" would be even more of a know, I would assume, if you were a manager charged with overseeing the work of other people. That's bad etiquette, isn't it?  How many management points should they lose for this infraction?  

How about the manager who doesn't answer e-mail?  The ones who ask for your ideas, and then don't bother to acknowledge when you've reached out with a few strategies of your own?  That's improper for a manager, don't you think?  I think that unresponsiveness also deserves a few points whacked off. 

Then, of course, you have the managers who take liberties they don't extend to even their most dependable workers. Let's say, for instance, there's a manager who comes in every day at 10 and leaves at 4.  But he doesn't mention to his top performers that it's OK if they want to pick one day a week, or even a month, to have a day like that. Is that hypocrisy or insensitivity?  How many boss points should be lost for that no-no?  It's also, rude, right?  

Yesterday, as I ate a hot dog from a street vendor outside Radio City Music Hall, where this conference is being held, I overheard a young woman describing to a friend the bitterness of a former employment situation. It was staggeringly wide-ranging. Her female boss pressured her to lose weight and cut her hair (she did; and lamented that it was just now growing back). At the same time, this boss was angry rather than supportive of the young worker's ingenuity. When this woman's manager found out she was working on a Website for her business unit, she flipped. The former employee speculated that she was angry because she couldn't do that kind of work herself, and that she couldn't think of any way to take credit for it. She was angry because she felt like the young worker was upstaging her. 

At a former company I experienced that, too, and share that young worker's pain. In addition to being managerially stupid, a boss who is more competitive than supportive also breaches etiquette best practices because such behavior is unprofessional. 

With managers like those, another of Hamel's ideas, to allow workers to say "no" to any order or request, would save your company a lot of money. I once worked with a person who came up with what seemed to her and all her co-workers like a great idea for improving the Website. There was no doubt, in fact, that the suggested changes would correct a flawed site. No doubt, that is, to all except the manager, who promptly told the young innovator that she didn't like the new look. This enterprising person was forced to follow orders to maintain a flawed site or risk getting fired. If she had the power to say "no," how many more users would that site have gotten?

Some companies remind me of the military in that saying "no" amounts to the most fatal of "errors."  If your employees can come up with a good reason for not doing something the boss asks them to do, would that make your executives angry?  If they have a compelling counter argument that saves or makes you a substantial amount of money, what are you so mad about?  

I think the anger comes from a control complex. I also think the unacknowledged presence of another person at the office, the unanswered e-mails, and the arrogance of not offering subordinates the same liberties a manager enjoys, also comes down to an urge to exert control on others. 

It would be really funny (even funnier than that other stuff) to see that ability to exert control taken away via public report card. It looks like someone needs some remedial tutoring...

Live from World Business Forum: Is Your Company See-Through?

Not to be overly titillating, but the most successful company going forward may also be the most see-through. That's what Dennis Nally, global chairman of PricewaterhouseCoopers said, anyway, at today's opening presentation at the World Business Forum. 

He pointed out that investors wouldn't feel secure about risking their money if the company's results weren't transparent, and if those results weren't judged by consistent standards globally. To get to that place of transparency, he said collaboration between companies and government regulators, and between countries to set up uniform standards, would be necessary.  

I think that may be hard, if not unrealistic, because of the competitive, suspicious mindset at many companies. Many, it seems, have little interest collaborating with other companies as much as hunkering down and guarding their assets. Rather than a focus on collaboration, I've noticed a focus on suspicion and defensiveness in the corporate world. 

Never mind trusting other companies, countries, and government regulators, many companies aren't even willing to trust their own people enough to share news of budding business strategy. Instead of optimizing the talents and intelligence of their own workforce to make business strategy better, the norm at too many companies is to keep developing deals a secret to be sprung on affected workers after it's already a done deal. Yes, it's essential to keep certain information secret to maintain a competitive advantage, but why and how are companies employing workers they don't trust enough to share with them the kind of information they could use to help their company do better?  

Instead of concentrating on superficial cultural elements like dress and cubicle appearance (I've heard about that happening at some companies), a better approach would be to let such nonsense go, and concentrate instead on hiring and nurturing the kind of employees managers and executives can share business strategy with. A mid- or lower-level worker often has insights about the way business is done day-to-day that could make for better deals with new business partners. A conversation with a forum of mid-level employees, for instance, might quickly show the executive deal makers that a new arrangement with a supplier or a new acquisition isn't the best idea after all. "Oh, we haven't had a good track record working with them," or "Well, if we acquire them, we'll have our work cut out for us. In all our dealings with them, they seem very disorganized, and even unethical."  

If you can't trust your own people, how will you ever trust outside entities like government regulators and other companies?  Collaboration starts at home, so as workforce managers, I would try helping managers add a trust focus to the hiring process. If it already isn't one of your hiring criteria, ask managers to make sure they think about whether they can see themselves feeling comfortable sharing business strategy information with potential new hires. As they would for other hiring criteria, reference checks should include questions to reveal how trusted the employee was at his or her former company. "Can you tell me about a time when Gladys offered insight into a budding business deal or strategy?"   You could argue that no matter how low-level the employee, at least one example should come to mind from a former boss of a time when the job candidate was trusted with business news, and offered an enterprising suggestion to improve business. If a worker is both trusted and enterprising, those examples will spring to mind.

I had experience at a former company with a manager who was enterprising, but untrustworthy. Of course that doesn't do anybody any good. Even me, as a nearly entry-level employee, worried about sharing ideas with her. You never knew what she was cooking up in her corporate cauldron. At the same time, I have experience working with the archetype of the employee who's entirely trustworthy and entirely useless (hate to be mean, but true).  He would never share business information with competitors because he also would never come up with an enterprising business idea.

In times like these, you need both the trust and the enterprising nature of employees to get you through the day. I've had work days in my employment past when I wanted to become the Invisible Woman. I felt like conversations stopped and doors closed when I, or my co-workers, walked past offices. If your employees feel like they're playing hide-and-seek with their employer, how will potential business collaborators feel?  

Ghosts also are hard to see. Companies with a habit of conducting business in opaque ways may soon find themselves inhabiting the corporate graveyard. 

October 06, 2009

Live from World Business Forum: Ready for the Participation Economy?

You may not trust your employees beyond giving them a security swipe card to get into your office building and a password to access limited parts of your IT server. But if Kevin Roberts, CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi, is right, you may have to start trusting them—and their friends—with your branding. 

When Roberts came of age in the marketing business, he said he was taught that brands had all the power, now he recognizes that maybe the 1960s Woodstock Nation was right—that the future is about "power to the people." 

"Now the consumer is the boss, and she really is. She's living the life she wants; the only problem is she has half the money she had a year ago," said Roberts, speaking late this afternoon at the World Business Forum. He said you have to coach your company's leaders to figure out how to create product loyalty beyond reason. Customers are looking for the purchase that's priceless from a non-monetary perspective. "What are you giving me that's emotionally priceless, and will let me have some joy?"  Roberts said your customers are asking you. 

Since, as Roberts explained,  marketing today revolves around the consumer, with "the consumer the medium," it occurs to me that you might want to ask yourselves how to encourage your employees to take branding to their social networks to spread the word. "We live in the age of the idea," said Roberts. "They will take your idea and move it along," he said of the public. 

In your company, maybe instead of investing energy and ideas solely in conventional advertising, you can round up your workforce for your own mass marketing appeal. To encourage innovation, launch a contest to see which of your employees can come up with the best YouTube spot about your company, and then let it rip. See if it catches on, and offer rewards not just for the most innovative video but for the one that receives the most play across the Internet. How many of you have tried something like this already?

Your employees will need to be guided by your request that the videos not violate your "corporate culture" (whatever that term means), but, ultimately, this new way of marketing will require that you let go and trust them. If your "corporate culture" is all you say it is, then you have nothing to worry about. If your employees get it, then they, as an automatic response, won't violate it.  If your corporate culture is nonsense (which it appears to be at many companies), then this marketing experiment will offer your company an opportunity for growth. 

After all, the videos will say just as much about how your employees feel about your company and brand as they do about what they think of those you sell to and what they think their friends will like. You'll also be forced to ask yourselves uncomfortable questions. How secure are you about your (true) work life?   Would you be comfortable if some of the scenes in the videos were shot in your own office?  Would your own office violate your brand?

The funniest thing that I keep hearing about are companies who sell products or services that its own employees don't benefit from; or that the company, through what it sells, espouses a philosophy it doesn't extend to its own workers. What if your company, for instance, specializes in creating beautiful spaces for other companies but you have your own workers slaving away in a ramshackle building?  Or what if you're fond of telling the public what a great "family company" you are, but you're stingy with benefits like maternity leave and flex-time for working mothers (and fathers)?

Since consumers, including your own employees, are the best way to get the word out about your products and services, shouldn't you be treating them nicer?  And shouldn't you be preparing them to spread the word via their social networks?  

Of course you'll need quite a sense of humor to allow them to take the marketing plunge for you. How about this: What if enterprising employees decided to create a humorous YouTube video about a food product your company sells with a scene set in your boardroom with dirty farm pigs feasting on what you sell?  Would that be a no-no?  Why?  If it gets passed along on the Internet and spreads the word about what you're selling, shouldn't you, and your board, just swallow their pride (or trough)?

The youngest of your workers, those most adept at spreading information to their friends, and beyond, about what you do, have their own irreverent way of communicating. Thinking back to this morning's presentation from Patrick Lencioni, are you prepared to trust them?

How many live pigs in your boardroom are too many if it means a viral YouTube video that's just what you paid a marketing firm  in futility to create?  Don't underestimate the power of pigs—when you encourage them to share.

Unemployment To Reach 10.5 Percent and a Recession every 7 years?

We're in the Great Recession, but at least it's not the Great Depression, said David M. Rubenstein, co-founder and managing director of the private equity firm The Carlyle Group, this afternoon at the World Business Forum. Before you begin to search for a society of dogs to live with instead of humans (and their troublesome financial system), take heart that it could be worse—well, worse in so far as at least you're not a character in the Grapes of Wrath.

I think I've noted in this blog before the helpful comment I gave to a former company of mine on a corporate feedback form. They asked what I thought of their pay structure, and I told them it reminded me of the Grapes of Wrath in that they could pay as low as they wanted because there was always someone, somewhere, willing to work harder for less money. 

It's kind of like that now, but Rubenstein points out that our unemployment rate of 9.8 percent isn't so bad compared to that experienced during The Depression. I can't remember the exact figure quoted, but unemployment was in the teens back then. Luckily not even Rubenstein predicts it will get that high, but he says we have at least one or two more months of the Great Recession, and that unemployment will probably reach 10.5 percent. Worse yet, I didn't know this (never bothered to think about it being a mostly liberal arts person), but U.S. history shows that recessions occur about once every 7 years. So, enjoy the recovery because in seven years you'll most likely go through a watered down version of what we're experiencing now. It's like "The Seven Year Itch," only not as glamorous or fun because it's about finances instead of Marilyn Monroe. 

Naturally, all this gloom and doom is taking it's toll, said Rubenstein. Consumers aren't as confident, and neither are individuals about their retirement savings. And maybe because the financial crisis was at least partly caused by economic deregulation or mismanagement, many are skeptical that government can better our financial woes. 

So, what to do about it?  Rubenstein says to invest in emerging markets such as India, China, and Brazil. He also says, among other things, to get real if you're in a losing industry or you've hitched your suffering workforce star to a losing company. He says not to be so foolhardy as to think you're enough of a genius to do a masterful turnaround job. You might be better off directing your energies elsewhere.

All this leads me to wonder what questions you should ask your executives and workforce to get your company back on track. How do you broach the subject of whether you're in a losing industry, and whether your company, on its current track, is losing?  Of course you have to be diplomatic, so you can't just say at your next meeting "Oh, you know what I was thinking?  That we're a bunch of losers around here."

Instead try organizing some in-office "retreats" that won't cost you any extra money, but will allow brainstorming time to decide how to push your company, for instance, into some of those emerging markets Rubenstein cited. Maybe there's a product you could market to China. Rubenstein says if you seek to be a global company, and you're not thinking often and hard about China, you're not doing business in the real world. 

On a personal development level, you might want to brush up the persuasion skills of your workers because, says Rubenstein, "we're all selling something."  Also—and this is more challenging—think about how happy your workers are. Rubenstein reminded us of the old wisdom that you have a far greater chance of success if you're doing something you like, so what can you do for your workforce in that regard?  At your next round of performance reviews, ask your managers to take a few minutes to ask employees about their career goals, and how they can help them get there. Ask them about what they most enjoy and most loathe about their jobs, and see what they can do to make the enjoyable tasks a bigger part of their work lives. 

We all may be bound every 7 years to experience Grapes of Wrath Lite, but it makes it so much better if you don't feel like you're laboring in your own Dust Bowl. In other words, see where the fertile fields are for your workers (and your company), and help them spend the better part of their day there.