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October 06, 2009

Live from World Business Forum: Is Your Company New Orleans' 9th Ward?

Is your company the Ninth Ward in New Orleans?  Meaning is that a good metaphor for the financial status of your company these days, in the "aftermath" of the financial crisis?  That's one of the questions Bill George's talk this morning at the World Business Forum brought to mind. He said the "eye of the storm" has passed, but that, like Hurricane Katrina, we're now left with the aftermath, which may be even worse than the height of the storm. Namely, he was referring to the extraordinary number of unemployed people. 

"We've got to get these people back to work," said George, "and we can't do it through saving jobs; we have to create jobs."  

With so many of my acquaintances, friends, and family unemployed, the "create" mandate is hard to imagine, but he has a point. Since we all agree innovation is key (however you define innovation; for some companies that may mean finally allowing employees to openly disagree with their mangers and executives without getting fired), why not proactively tie your innovation initiative to a push to create (and salvage if you can) as many jobs as possible?  

In a recession, the last thing you have is funds to hire new workers, so, as I've recommended before in this blog, what you need to do is think about who has truly performed well, and who could stand to be dropped from the payroll or at least given a probationary period to improve. This idea of mine may seem counter to producing jobs, but it isn't. Taking a proactive rather than a passive approach to whom you choose to lay-off will, indeed, save jobs—it will save the jobs of the people who deserve to have their jobs saved, and it will create new jobs for those who deserve it via their hard work and talent. Too often those who get dropped from the payroll are not those who who performed poorly; but those who were unfortunate enough to be tied to a struggling business unit. Those who are kept on the payroll are too often those who just happen (thanks to no genius of their own) to be related to a more lucrative unit or who found themselves inherited by new bosses because they hadn't done anything offensive (though nothing outstanding either). 

To kick start your innovation strategy, look for top performers in struggling business units, and charge them with launching new enterprises. Be honest with them, explain that their jobs are on the line, but that due to the acumen they've demonstrated and their hard work, you have faith to give them a chance at another endeavor in the company. Simultaneously, take a hard look (one of George's "7 Strategies for Leading in a Crisis" is to face reality) at the slackers who have been mindlessly pushed along in your more successful business units, or those units you've decided, for one reason or another, need to continue to be supported. Does this individual (or individuals) have anything to do with the brand's usefulness to the company?  Or are your managers keeping them on because they don't want to deal with the emotional stress of firing them or forcing them to perform up to the level of their high-performing co-workers?  As a workforce manager, your job is to support your managers emotionally in addition to bureaucratically so they can make these difficult human resources decisions. 

Another of George's strategies for survival as a leader is not to be Atlas, meaning not to operate with the world on your shoulders. He pointed out that sharp leaders rely on teamwork with co-workers and other support networks such as mentors.  As a workforce management, maybe you could be an innovation mentor to your company's managers. Can you give them the courage to make the difficult people management decisions to launch and nurture innovation? It's hard to lay-off, or give an ultimatum, to a "nice guy (or gal)," but if they're not performing up to the standards of their more talented and hard working co-workers, then you're tying up funds that could be used to give a more enterprising individual on your payroll a chance to develop, or work on, your company's next greatest hit. Or maybe, depending on how much the under-performer is being paid, forcing them to perform better or dropping them from the payroll, may give you the ability to give a new job to an unemployed innovator. 

George brought up an old saying about a smooth sea never creating a mariner. Well, when the hurricane rolls in, or you're left with a dilapidated ship post-storm, what you don't  want is a crew composed of "nice guys" who mainly enjoy sunning themselves on the deck. 


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