February 24, 2010

Would It Be Better If the Boss Were a Cartoon?

My favorite part of online learning is the possibility with immersive simulations of exploring a world in which the boss could be a cat or dog, or any cartoonish incarnation you can think of. Thanks to avatars, your boss won’t necessarily look like your boss in a Second Life-like learning simulation. I also think I’d prefer my co-workers if they were tigers or rabbits (depending on personality type) instead of their usual boring selves.

The future of online learning is perfect for the innovation movement because it has the potential to force employees to think of their work environment, and the world at large, in much broader terms. Sure, everyone knows the “Lioness” is really the Sally the Boss, but it’s liberating to interact with the avatar representation of herself rather than the staid, predictable person called “Sally” who shows up at roughly the same time every weekday (9:30ish, usually) to slouch in her chair in her cluttered office.

Adding avatars to online learning in an immersive environment also, and maybe more importantly, allows participants to step out of their own shoes, and try on the persona they wish could inhabit in the “real-world” office, but are too repressed to try. Would Sally the Boss or The Lioness interact more boldly with subordinates and colleagues?  Would she put forth ideas she wouldn’t communicate in person as herself, and collaborate with people she ordinarily wouldn’t dare to due to “real world” personality conflicts?

One of the more interesting questions about immersive online learning that makes use of avatars is how it affects interaction between co-workers, and whether it impacts emotional intelligence. Could a person who’s not emotionally intelligent offline suddenly find themselves at ease with other people in a world of avatars, and therefore, able to charm them more easily, and more easily understand the social cues they’re sending? Conversely would those adept at real world, or “first life” interactions, suddenly find themselves uncomfortable in social settings (if online interaction between avatars can rightly be called “social)?

When I visited an innovation laboratory last fall, I was told the ideal space for innovation is one that’s as plain as possible, so, presumably, the potential innovators feel they have a blank palette to fill up with their ideas. Could an avatar be that “blank palette” in a self-representative form?  The avatar, like the empty room, can be outfitted anyway your the learner likes, and as enthused above, can even take on non-human forms. Instead of filling up a room with scribbles and physical models of plans, the innovator with an online avatar can fill up a representation of him or herself with the plans, maybe even morphing him or herself into whatever the innovation is hoped to be. For instance, let’s say the innovator is planning a new hotel with a novel design or a new software product with an improved interface. What if their avatar became the hotel or improved interface, so as the innovator interacted with collaborators their “face” would be the face of the work in progress?  It would be the avatar version of the old “medium is the message” approach.

Another article I recently wrote about the impact of physical space on the learning process also makes me think avatar-populated immersive learning spaces are ideal for innovation and worker happiness. My interviews for the article uncovered that a learning environment in whichworkers sit in one place for the span of an hour often is much less effective than one that’s dynamic, in which employees are asked to stay on their feet for at least part of the time, completing tasks that keep them in motion, such as following the literal “steps” of a physical learning map. I also discovered work spaces impact how much learners absorb in on-the-job training. Some companies feel so strongly about allowing workers to customize their work stations they invest in cubicle gardens in which workers are able (and encouraged) to grow vegetation in their cubicle walls.

The problem with creating personalized work stations in the “real world” is it’s costly. In an immersive environment, your work station is whatever and however you design it. I’ve always thought it would be fun to work on the edge of a swimming pool diving board. That way when I get tired of my assignments, I can jump in for a swim. I may not be able to float away the hours in between business calls but my avatar, the sophisticated me as a Labrador Retriever, can. I don’t know if my business colleagues will take me seriously as a Labrador Retriever, but that really shows there’s a problem with them, doesn’t it?

What does the future of e-learning at your company look like?  Will avatars in an immersive learning environment set free the innovative spirits of your employees?

February 17, 2010

What Good Dog Parents Know that Corporate Leaders Don’t

Blog cartoon 2-17-10
[Cartoon courtesy of Grantland Cartoons]

The thing about “leaders” is they often say “no” when they should say “yes,” and vice versa. Take the issue of exclusion—deciding which new hires align with corporate culture and which don’t. I used to think if you wore a dark, “sober” suit and didn’t say anything frightening in job interviews, you’d nail it. But decision-makers in organizations are much touchier than I thought.

About 10 years ago, I was in St. Petersburg, FL, (desperately) looking for a job, and was shocked at how easily prospective employers were scared away. One place I interviewed at mentioned they started at 8 (a.m.!), and when I joked about not being a morning person, I can see, looking back on the meeting, they were taken aback. I guess in their culture you’re supposed to be enthusiastic about everything. At another place I had just the opposite experience. I didn’t smile at one of the architecture firm’s partners as he strolled through the lobby, and I always wondered whether that affected my chances. I was going for a job as a public relations writer, so I guess it would make sense they were looking for someone who’s cheerful towards strangers. More than that, though, I think the firm had a “smile all the time” policy in which no matter how miserable you were you had to smile. All that smiling makes me miserable just thinking of it.

Anyway, my point is corporate culture is set by leadership, and it’s frequently more exclusionary than useful. Instead of saying “yes” to differing personality types, many leaders appear to have a specific Company XYZ person in mind. Beyond the cruelty of not embracing a wide array of personality types, the exclusionary approach to corporate culture isn’t smart because along with those “weird” personalities are talents that may be lacking at the carefully calibrated company.

In the area of unfortunate “yes’s” there is the inability some “leaders” have putting their foot down with clients or bosses asking them to do what would cause their work teams, or themselves, more distress than their paycheck will ever compensate them for. On the one hand they worry about getting fired for disagreeing too often, but on another hand, they’re just too scared to say “no.”  Their hesitancy has more to do with their fear of saying “no” than to professional concerns. Most “leaders” with an inability to say “no” also probably have the same problem in their personal life.

If they can’t say “no” to their bosses or customers asking for the unreasonable, what are the chances they’ll be able to say “no” to an unethical business strategy, or a request from the boss which the “leader” can see ultimately will hurt the company?  I’ve heard a lot about the “power of ‘no’,” but haven’t heard it discussed in the context of corporate leadership. It’s a lesson I would incorporate in every leadership development course if I were a trainer. How many of you do so already?

Some who have a problem saying “no” are what I’ve heard psychologists call “pleasers,” people who need to please others to feel like their life is in synch. When I was a little girl and my family was contemplating what kind of dog to get, my father bought a guide book on all the different dog breeds. Some dogs, like some people, were described as pleasers, while others weren’t. The traditional wisdom is you want a dog who’s a pleaser, but that’s not what we chose. What we chose was a crazy Standard Poodle with white and apricot markings. Sure, she tried biting strangers unless they were properly introduced to her, but she was super-smart and always did a great job protecting our house. Daisy had no problem saying “no,” and even would sometimes refuse to eat left over steak. I always admired her commitment to self-determination. I wish more leaders were like her.

Do your company’s leaders blindly take whatever is offered them, afraid to say they don’t care for it?
Interestingly, the lesson of Daisy also ties back to the problem of leaders who say “no” too often. What if my family had insisted on enforcing a dog culture of only accepting “pleaser” pets into our household?  We would have missed out on a dog who was perfect for us. It’s same with your employees. Why cultivate leaders who enforce a corporate culture with such strict parameters those who aren’t go along/get along types aren’t given a voice, or even a foot in the door? The dissenters frequently have the best ideas. They’re the ones who notice something isn’t right, and sometimes can offer a better way of doing things. Contrarians don’t always offer solutions, but one thing is for sure—you have to notice a problem before you can fix it.

Leadership is different than choosing and managing pet dogs, but I think in a lot of ways it’s not so different because of the ideas leaders are taught of how to get their point across to workers, and how to manage the initiatives cascaded down to them. When a dog does something he’s not supposed to, like jumping on a fancy couch or trying to bite a neighbor, a human dog parent who’s trained the pet right, and who has been trained right himself as a human dog parent, will say “no” sharply. That sharp “no,” and the strong affirmative when it’s warranted, accompanied by treats, is the kind of response to requests—whether from above, below, or outside the company—that’s required.

How good are your company’s leaders at saying “yes” and “no?”  Do they know when to go-along and when to take a stand?

February 10, 2010

Are Those Dinosaur Eggs On Your Desk?

Blog cartoon 2-10-10

[Cartoon courtesy of Grantland Cartoons]

When your manager went on maternity leave last month, were you tempted to ask her where the dinosaur eggs were stashed?  I’m lucky my current managers are pretty with-it, but that wasn’t always the case. I once, as a journalist, had a manager who couldn’t type (a managing editor who couldn’t type!). When considering how to stay evolved enough not to be wiped out by a workplace asteroid, it’s important to think about all the ways to be behind the times.

A lot of people think being up-to-date just means knowing how to use all the technological devices and systems housed in the office, but that’s the least of it. It’s far more important to understand the changing workplace culture. Stories abound of bosses who don’t feel comfortable about their employees’ productivity unless they see their scrunched up faces squinting and sweating before their eyes. Those stories, however, will have to change once the economy rebounds or the youngest, most promising workers will look elsewhere for their paycheck. Older workers like me might stick out because we’re used to not being treated well. But what I’ve heard about the youngest set is they (really strange; don’t know where they got the idea) expect to work for an evolved company that prizes their talents and the end results of their work rather than adherence to picayune rules.

As I’ve explained before on this blog, I love the idea of a staggered workforce because there’s a greater chance that way of avoiding people you don’t like. But more than that, customer service can soar in flex-time/comfortable atmosphere work environments. Allowing employees to choose a schedule that best suits their lifestyle means they will be fresher when the calls from customers, or requests to service them, come in. They also likely will be in a better mood (less resentful someone dares to call at 9 a.m.; doesn’t everyone know it isn’t polite to call until 10?).

There’s a great deal of talk these days about corporate wellness programs, and I’m even writing an article about it for our May issue. But it doesn’t seem companies yet make the connection between flexible schedules, work load, and health. It seems like companies feel guilty because they can’t stop (or aren’t willing to limit profit to top executives) the acceleration of work loads, and, so, instead are offering health screenings and fitness programs (you have to give up your lunch hour to participate in). The yoga classes and access to in-office gyms is fantastic, but doesn’t address the root cause of work related un-wellness issues—the stress itself. Instead of companies changing their behavior towards employees, they’re just giving them ways to cope with it. It’s like an abusive friend who, instead of changing her ways, decides to buy her continuously hurt companion a box of chocolates every Friday as consolation. If companies treated workers better, with more realistic work loads and fairer compensation, a company-sponsored wellness program wouldn’t be necessary.

But since most companies won’t change their ways to institute what some experts refer to as a “wellness culture,” creating an evolved workplace, with a multitude of coping options, is a good thing (the box of chocolates isn’t a solution; but better than nothing). In addition to flex-time, creating a non-dinosaur-led workplace should focus on developing observant, emotionally intelligent managers. I’ve noticed a lot of managers aren’t good at noticing bad dynamics between subordinates. I once worked with a man I disliked so much I chose to deal with it by not looking at him. I wouldn’t try to sabotage him (somebody once did that to me, so I know how awful that is, and wouldn’t do it to somebody else), but I also wouldn’t acknowledge his presence any more than I needed to. The funny part is throughout all this my boss noticed nothing. Or if she noticed something she chose not to deal with it. It’s a shame, too, because the reason he got on my nerves probably got on her nerves too, and effected the productivity of our business, but she didn’t feel comfortable dealing with it. He was a disengaged slacker, and that’s one thing I hate, and one thing any credible manager also should pick up on and resent. My boss was doing a quarter to a half of the work he should have been doing himself! 

That kind of obliviousness is the old, dinosaur way of management, something that only should have been seen in the 1950s or before. These days, and since the greater understanding of human psychology in the ‘60s and ‘70s, there’s no excuse for not developing emotionally aware managers who understand it’s part of their job to observe and react to the inter-dynamics of their employees.

The plight I describe also brings to the fore the problem of passive managers—another dinosaurism that should be part of the distant past. The old way of thinking (I heard Traditionalists or Matures are apt to think this way) is to work in fear of “rocking the boat.”  For the World War II generation, and those older, there was an awful fear, I heard, about not conforming, and of challenging authority. Those fears, I presume, also led to a tendency for passive management styles. With this old fashioned way of thinking in place, even those wearing the title of “manager” are afraid to take action against employees because they’re afraid of creating “a situation.”  I once heard about a manager whose employees had to be guilty of extreme absenteeism and profound on-the-job mistakes before he would get rid of them. Obvious slackerism wasn’t enough.

Do your young employees relate well enough to your managers to understand and follow-through on assignments?  If there’s a disconnect, think about speeding up the transition of Generation X employees into leadership positions. And make sure those you’re considering for new leadership roles aren’t young dinosaurs. It’s possible to be young and a dinosaur. And of course there are doubtless Traditionalists out there who were ahead of their time years ago, and now finally can flaunt the fact they weren’t born from eggs laid by the out-going CEO.

Is there anything you can do to encourage forward-thinking management?  What does your company do to evolve with the changing workforce?

February 03, 2010

The Case for the Dumb CEO

Blog cartoon 2-3-10
[Cartoon courtesy of Grantland Cartoons]

If your CEO could be attired the way you envision him when you're being honest with yourself, what would he be wearing?  Would it be the cap and gown of a person graduating from a fancy college with honors? Would it be a court jester's costume (smart but likes to slack off), or a dunce's cap atop a high chair in the corner of the room (not smart; got there due to interpersonal or familial connections; and not really that bright)?

Everyone assumes a successfully tested corporate leader has to be smart, or at least business savvy, but I'm not sure that's necessary. I wonder if maybe ignorance isn't bliss when you're a CEO.

Namely, I'm thinking about how the best person to write a manual on how to do something is somebody who doesn't know anything about it.  When selling products or services, maybe you do better making executive decisions if you know as little as your customers. Plus, isn't it social ability more than business acumen that got many CEOs their jobs, and enables them to seal deals with business partners?  To make the case on behalf of dumb CEOs, I have to note how helpful it is not to know much (won't alienate or intimate others who prefer being around dumb people) when doing business. First off, people are much less suspicious of you when you (honestly) know nothing, and second, an ignorant person likely will ask much better questions when
formulating a deal than an insider who takes it for granted he's aware of all the risks his company may encounter.

Of course the ignorant and none-too-bright also are great because they don't over-analyze things. A lot of business problems, I bet, come from missing the obvious (the place where, quite conveniently, the dumb mind lives) and making the simple unnecessarily complicated. Let's say you have a product customers don't like. A smart CEO may decide to put together focus groups and deeply study why the product isn't doing well. They may even consult with engineers and scientists on how to make it better. The dumb CEO wouldn't understand or have patience for any of that anyway (heaven knows he doesn't have the patience or depth to read anything longer than a one-page corporate memo about himself). So, what does he do?  He decides to scrap it and start over. You may say that isn't smart given the money the company has already sunk into it, but he isn't wasting time troubling himself over the "why"; he's taking action. I hate to show my personality preferences (you
can guess what I am), but in my experience, action-oriented people aren't always the most intellectual or interesting to talk to, but often they're the ones that get the job done. Not perfect, but good enough to scrape by.

Then you have to remember that people who aren't the brightest tend to be less plagued by mental illness and sadness than the smart ones. I have a feeling (based on some of my corporate experiences in the past) that there
are a lot of diabolical CEOs. "Diabolical" because they think of business as a chess game in which the figures on the board are their employees, and if those employees get shunted off the board, so be it. The dumb CEO wouldn't understand how to play chess, or have the patience for it. So, less of a chance unwitting employees will be used as long-suffering pawns. Also, "diabolical" because I think many of them may suffer from forms of mental illness that make them slightly obsessive compulsive and paranoid. I have no clinical evidence on that, but just a guess.

Plus, I like being around dumb people. They're a lot more relaxing. I think I like the vision of a dumb CEO strolling the cubicle aisles, nodding and smiling at everyone as guilelessly as a child, while distributing ice cream or Hershey bars to the suffering. I can't imagine a smart CEO feeling as psychologically free to do anything like that. There probably are a few exceptions here and there, but the smart ones probably would either shuffle down the cubicle rows with their hands jammed in their pockets, offering a stiff grimace or "firm" handshake, or maybe they would walk extra fast past the worker bees, with legs resembling scissors, barely making eye contact, eager to flee the scene of the crime.

The thing about the dumb executive is he isn¹t reflective enough to feel discomfort about the people he's (unfairly) doing financially much better than, and whom he may have to soon layoff. When you don't notice anything, you're able to interact more freely. When it comes to future tests for this CEO, he's calm and collected because he doesn't understand the ramifications of what lies ahead if he botches it (some smart ones, unfortunately, also are unfazed because though they see the ramifications they're wealthy and
insulated enough not to be affected by plans gone awry). There's nothing worse than a person wracked by neuroses in the face of a crisis. I come from a neuroses-full family, and have more than a few myself, so I know how that can be. The dumb aren't famous for having neuroses. Have you ever know a dumbbell with a hearty collection of neuroses?

But the best part of having a dumb CEO is communications. Now, while you may assume communications would suffer from the mouth and pen of a dope, but that's not so. It's like being back in kindergarten, and having a teacher talk to you as if every sentence were an enigma unto itself—everything is clearly, and all-too-concretely outlined. How many times have you heard a smart executive give a speech full of analogies and
vague language no one understands, or which thoroughly fails to resonate?

I definitely think the dumb are better in the c-suite. They say this year will be another doozey in the realm of CEO challenge, and I fear what an intelligent executive will do with another hefty set of problems. What
further Cubicle Land discomfort and horrors will the complex mind inflict? What if the man or gal dope at the top only came up with childish solutions to employee engagement like, say, Fudgsicle Fridays? You'd be surprised how many of your best employees and customers will come out to play.

How will your CEO meet the next round of challenges for your company? Is he over-thinking the solutions?

January 27, 2010

Not Only Do I Quit—I’m Suing You

Blog cartoon 1-27-10

[Cartoon courtesy of Grantland Cartoons]

A beleaguered employee wishes he could sue his company more often than he’s able to. Take the horror of doing the same work (only more of it and of a higher quality) than the workmate sitting in the next cubicle over, and yet being paid $10 to $15 thousand dollars less annually. What if the one being paid more (while doing the lesser amount and lesser quality) of work is a man and the other (harder-working/lower-paid) is a woman? Sounds dicey for the company, but you’d be surprised. Most companies can get away with it, I suspect. A friend of mine in that very situation has decided to bide her time and make requests for promotion rather than seek legal action. One protection many of your companies enjoy is pure dumb luck—you pay your workers so little they can’t afford an attorney.
Another case I heard about also left the employee powerless. He suspected a manager at a former company had spread defamatory gossip about him at his new company. With none of his new colleagues willing to go on the record that they had spoken to his ex-manager in a non-job reference context, there was nothing he could do. But even, for the sake of argument, if at least one was willing to verify the defamed employee’s suspicions to human resources, what could the defamed one have done?  He likely would have had no recourse anyway.
Companies are told to be wary of employee lawsuits, but with all the employment-related horror stories I’ve heard (and occasionally experienced), I’ve never known anyone to feel they had the capacity to fight back by suing their company. Consider, for instance, the survival strategy of many companies during the Great Recession/Great Recovery. They’ve laid-off countless workers, which is fair (albeit cruel) game, but they’ve also doubled or tripled the workload of existing employees with no pay increases, not even a cost-of-living adjustment. They know they can get away with it because in this economic climate non-heiresses will do nearly whatever it takes to hold onto their jobs. I assumed it would be illegal to increase workload exponentially without increasing pay, but I believe what these companies did is perfectly legal.
Since, in reality, few, if any, of your employees will sue you, what would be a better focus for corporate paranoia?  One idea I have is employee engagement. Most legal concerns are much more of a threat to employee motivation than to your legal security. You can legally get away with doubling or tripling workload without increasing pay, but can you afford the toll it will take on the morale of your workforce? Think of the bitterness you’re engendering. You would be lucky if your bitterest looked for a new job when the economy recovers; unfortunately most of them will remain until their demoralized lack of productivity gets them fired, or worse yet, leaves them languishing on your payroll indefinitely. When coming up with strategies to survive the unstable economy, reflect on the burden you may be placing on workers. If it’s substantial, think about offering them compensation you can afford, whether it’s additional vacation time or enrollment into a development program that will reward them with a promotion down the line in exchange for sticking with you through unbearable times.
Be sure to note unfairness in your pay scale in work groups. Does the current pay structure reflect reality?  During the height of the recession, work groups were consolidated, with some work groups perhaps inheriting an employee with a higher title and salary than the employee(s) already in the work group. If enough time has passed to evaluate and compare work performance, ask the manager of the work group in question to spend time thinking about whether the pay structure needs rearrangement. You might find the fairest thing to do is swap salaries and titles between two workers if one is out-performing the other. After all, why should a low-performing employee keep a higher title and salary than a high-performing one just because that’s the package the manager received him in when he joined the work group?
Another thing that’s legal, but most employees probably would agree shouldn’t be, are staggering pay differentials between mid-level workers and the CEO and executive board. Curiously, there don’t seem to be any laws restricting corporate leaders from making more than a specified percentage of their average employee’s pay. But that’s no reason to assume workers won’t notice the poorly performing CEO made $20 million last year while their salary stayed stagnant at some $40,000 despite a tripled workload. You and/or your Board of Directors might want to think about putting executive salary parameters in place that rise and fall commensurate (or much closer to commensurate) with employee pay.
As one source told me her mother used to say, just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Not to liken your CEO to a three-year-old with his fingers knuckle-deep in chocolate cake batter, but sometimes it’s for the best if at least some of the corporate goodies are kept out of reach.

Is your company concerned with the potential for employee lawsuits?  Are you doing anything this year to safeguard yourself against workers happy to sue you, or do you feel the risk of employee lawsuit is overblown?

January 20, 2010

Big Project, Not a Big Production

Blog cartoon 1-20-10

[Cartoon courtesy of Grantland Cartoons]

It’s not a nice thing to say, but I don’t like projects. Not a nice thing to say because there are people who make it their whole career—many of whom read our magazine—to manage projects. As a creative person, there’s something mind-numbing about planning a project, especially all the inevitable bureaucracy involved. You don’t mean to tell me there are people who savor that stuff, do you?

What I like is envisioning the project, focusing on finishing the tasks that need to be done, and helping others who are mired in project muck. These preferences of mine lead me to wonder whether a project leader is necessary.  I hate to ask (I don’t think it’s very smart of me to risk offending readers), but could someone plead the case of project managers to me—why they’re necessary and what their proper function is?

Here’s another thing that will make people mad: I don’t think the leaders of projects do as much work as the worker bees of the project. I also, despite my creative/visionary personality traits, don’t believe in the “envisioner” project role. I think the best people to do the envisioning are the people who will be responsible for carrying out the work. First, they’re the ones whose time and sweat are at stake. And second, they’re the ones who know what will and won’t work since they’re the ones with the professional or technical know-how.

I had lunch with a friend a couple years ago who was in a really good (uncharacteristically good) mood, and the reason was she had just earned her professional project manager certification. Of course I’m a nice friend, so I pretended to be impressed, and I was to some degree. She manages a team of IT workers at a large financial institution here in NYC, and has to push around people who don’t speak the same language as her (or at least they don’t speak it too well).  Her company has software releases for their branch offices or banks (not sure which it is they have), and there were times she was so busy with her project managing she had to stay at the office nearly all night with the IT workers she project manages. I can’t blame her for wanting a professional designation for that.  I’ve never (knock wood) pulled an all-nighter at the office, so I don’t need a professional designation yet (what would they call me, anyway?  Professional Long-Suffering Journalist?).

Instead of saddling one person with project management, why not make the management of the project a group endeavor, with no one person charged with organizing and selling the work?  I’ve heard it said that every work group needs a leader, but I’m not convinced that’s so. What if the high-flying (over-paid) executive charging a work group with a seemingly unmanageable project, asks each member of a work group to do a specific task? When “projects” are broken into small pieces, they cease to be projects, right?  And they’re not intimidating or unmanageable. I guess you’d argue the executive assigning the work is the project manager in this scenario, but I don’t think so. I think to have a project manager you need to have a gigantic chore set on your desk with no direction as to how it should get done, and have it be left to your discretion who does what. When an executive or manager has end goals in mind for which he asks individuals in a team, rather than one person, to help her meet, there’s more of a chance each person in the work group will pull his/her weight, and more of a chance everyone will know who is responsible for what. If the project falls through, there isn’t one person (the Professional Project Manager) to blame. Instead the executive can pinpoint exactly who slipped up.

Since project management isn’t going away, and most companies won’t do what I’m suggesting, are there ways to make projects less burdensome? The very word “project” gives me the creeps. Who wants a “project” anyway?  It sounds like a long uninspired process full of things nobody feels like doing. I suppose if I have to not only take part in a “project,” but be managed by a Professional Project Manager, I’d like not to hear too much about the “project.”  Basically, I’m asking to be left in the dark, and out of the loop. I’d like to just be given my chores, told when I’ll have to finish them, and told where new ideas are needed. I definitely don’t want to hear about what everyone else is supposed to be doing (I’ll just get annoyed when I notice they’re not doing it), what the end goals are (I’m liable to think they’re silly or wrong-headed), and the bureaucratic process for getting everything done (the counterproductive red tape will anger me). 

Gossip is fun and entertaining, but a danger of projects is once they’re labeled “projects,” office politics arise, and that nonsense can be dispiriting to employees with idealistic feelings about their work.  Do any of you project managers out there have good ideas for keeping office politics out of a “project,” thereby limiting counterproductive, demoralizing distractions? 

I see office workers, including myself, as horses. I’ve heard, and seen in the movies, horses going through disaster sites like fires with blinders on the sides of their eyes so they stay focused on taking the rider where he needs to go. I think that’s what employees often need.  The things that go on in a corporation are liable to spook the most stoic of workers.  The funny part is real horses will throw their riders off when they get spooked, and that’s exactly what happens in an office environment. Work horses plodding along get spooked and buck the project manager—and the company that put them on the path that frightened them.

What kinds of projects will your company roll out this year?  Are you worried they might not go well?

January 13, 2010

Tentative in '10

Blog cartoon 1-13-10
[Cartoon courtesy of Grantland Cartoons]

Employers are nothing if not circumspect when it comes to plans, meaning more cowardly than anything else. Few are truly worried about the business; more often the concern is those at the top won’t make as many millions as they did last year. The horror of making one million less than you had banked on!  Can you imagine?

Nevertheless, many workforce managers are finding their way these days thinking about what their executives expect in the way of this year’s circumspection. How careful (meaning miserly) do we need to be this year?  “Circumspect” enough to double or triple the workload of employees to launch money-making strategies without adding additional manpower? 

When it comes to full-time workers, it’s a tall order to expect companies to add more when we’ve not yet fully emerged from the effects of the recession, but it might be a good idea to hire help for “revenue driving” ideas. I was just talking to a colleague the other day about how worthwhile a special project manager is. We had one in a past company, and while the inhabitants of that position weren’t always spectacular (one I suspect was a borderline alcoholic), it was great getting to focus on the tasks we were hired for rather than getting sidetracked by marketing duties. With the rise of marketing via social networks, it seems these days everyone is a marketer. Since your company doubtless has a “revolutionary” social media strategy it’s planning to roll out in ’10, think about whether your want Dana the Woman with Seven Cats and a Bat in the next cubicle over to spearhead it, or whether it may be worthwhile to pay a few thousand to a trained marketer.

When it comes to part-time or temporary workers, the beauty is, both from a payroll and a human relations perspective, you don’t have to live with them for long. As I’ve often lamented on this blog, human interactions in the workplace aren’t always the best (stolen lunches; childish competitions; lying supervisors), so in addition to the fabulousness of not having to pay the special project person long-term, you don’t have to worry about the individual stepping on any valued worker’s toes. Believe me, as one whose workforce toes have experienced pinching, it’s a relief to remember Joe the Unproductive isn’t here for good (especially if his title and salary are higher than yours; happens sometimes).

Sometimes, of course, if you’re a company with multiple offices you can direct special project people just to the regions you need them most, and more importantly, pick desirable regional offices to transfer employees to as a reward. Let’s say your company is based in New Jersey, and you have a booming office that’s just opened in Malibu, CA, do you think a young up-and-comer might enjoy a relocation to benefit the company and her quest to become a surfer?  In other words, when you think about offering targeted manpower additions to your employees, think about how you can get the most bang for your buck by using the new positions as internal incentive rewards programs. Relocation isn’t a chore for the young, upwardly mobile, open-minded, and unanchored (no family of their own yet).

The emergence of green jobs to be hip, if not socially conscious, is another way to direct manpower funds to a specific kind of work role, while also exciting your youngest employees. I’ve heard workforce generational research suggest that Gen Yers are especially excited by the idea of “green” companies. A couple, or at least, one new job role that can be called “green” is something you can use to attract new high-potentials to your payroll, and, like the prospect of relocating to a better place, a great incentive to present high-performers players.

Another thing at least some of your recruits will have that you don’t is bilingual ability. That’s not because you’re lazier than they are or less educated. It’s simply a function of an ever-greater number of Hispanics entering the workforce. With many of these individuals from bilingual households, you could use their skills to launch one, or even a few, new positions centered on reaching out to the Hispanic market. It’s a growing market of consumers, so why not make the most of the bilingual skills under your own roof?  Many of your employees with the ability to speak Spanish probably will think of it as a great opportunity—maybe even a reward—to use their skills to tap a market that includes their family and friends.

Business travel is one of today’s big no-nos, but why should that be?  Sure, it’s expensive to travel compared to using a trusty online meeting service, but think about how much your employees can learn from cross-country or (better yet) overseas business travels. Aside from learning about markets different from their own by face-to-face/culture-to-culture contact, many of your employees would love a chance to travel. You pay them so little, how else can they see the world but for business travel forays?  It’s not frivolous if you choose wisely—picking only those workers who deserve to be rewarded and sending them on trips with a true value-add from face-to-face interactions. Be sure not to limit these travels to salespeople. Many of those workers already get hefty commissions and bonuses. Use posh travel opportunities as a reward to those who work just as hard in unsung positions.

When all else fails, you can just ignore your workforce. With bad financial times lingering for so long, many of you have tried so many approaches to being “circumspect” and “prudent,” that enforced ignorance of your employees’ activities and performance status may be all that’s left to try. The good part about the ignoring strategy is it usually doesn’t involve additional manpower. Imagine the job role: Chief Executive Ignorer.

What employment trends have you already noticed this year?  Any that particularly concern you?

January 06, 2010

Something I’ve Been Meaning to Speak to You About…

Blog cartoon 1-6-09
[Cartoon courtesy of Grantland Cartoons]

Employee surveys often remind me of one friend asking another if she’s fat. Is the kind (and smart) thing to do ’fessing up that her friend looks like she’s been working as a taste tester for a fast food restaurant for the last six months?  Or is it better to tell her she looks fine and nothing is wrong?  When a company asks you for your “true” and “honest” reflections on working for it, do you think they (or should I use the de-humanizing “it?”) expect you to tell the truth?  More importantly, what do the employees you’re rolling out the survey to think your company wants to hear?

I believe I’ve mentioned before on this blog that I once went overboard with employee survey truth telling, informing one of my previous employers that their pay scale and compensation strategy reminded me of how workers were treated in the “The Grapes of Wrath.”  Did I go too far?  Did I indulge too much in melodrama?

How would your company’s executives receive such a comment?  I wondered after submitting my survey responses, which I was assured would be kept anonymous, how my feedback would resonate, or, indeed, if it would resonate at all. Insulting (and horrifying to book lovers) as it is, I even wondered whether those reading the survey results knew the story of “The Grapes of Wrath.”

The way your company responds, or doesn’t bother responding, to employee surveys, and especially individual comments, says more than the feedback they receive. By “responding” I, of course, don’t mean talking individually to an employee about his/her comments, as doing so would violate the anonymity promise any reliable survey should offer.  I mean, instead, the action executives plan to take when they receive feedback such as my “Grapes of Wrath” reflection. If they can’t take action to correct the perception, if not the actual problem, what have they said to the company’s human resources and management team in regard to the comment? Surely, such sour feelings from an employee deserve some thought, don’t you think?

In case you’re wondering, I did not get fired for my bold observation. As expressive as I was regarding my feelings about the company’s approach to compensation, I was much more reticent about what I thought of my supervisor and boss.  As my supervisor at the time was a sociopath (not sure if I’m using the proper psychological designation; poetic license), who misrepresented me to our boss, and took joy making the lives of those under her miserable, my hesitancy to be honest in this area was unfortunate.  What if I could have told (and maybe even proven) the horror that was my work group’s supervisor?  I imagine the products my old work group delivered, and the state of our work lives, would have improved immeasurably. While I trusted the anonymity clause to protect me from retribution from the company’s executives and salary decision-makers, I couldn’t chance it with my supervisor. She only had five of us working under her, so if the HR department called her in to discuss her status as a sociopath, it wouldn’t take her (and our boss, whom she had tricked into thinking she was a nice person) long to figure out who said she was busy boiling workforce bunnies.

Boiling workforce bunnies aside, companies often overlook the most important and frequent employee survey of all—the exit interview. You can argue exit interviews can’t be taken too much to heart because the sample of respondents is skewed. Few leaving a company had a good experience. How many, after all, are ambitious enough to leave a good deal?  I also wimped out in my exit interview because, as much as I hope I’ll never have to use my former supervisor and/or boss as a reference, I just may have to some day. What if the supervisor I was fleeing found out I told HR she’s likely a sociopath with a compulsive lying problem?  Do you think that would lessen my chances of having her point out my industriousness and competence to future employers? 

In my exit interview, the HR rep was perceptive enough to see I was holding back feelings, and so diplomatically prodded me to agree my supervisor and boss weren’t the best communicators with their staff members. What kind of training does your company give HR personnel in reading the findings of exit interviews and other employee surveys?  Just as importantly, what preparation do you give them in interpreting the results for managers and executives? Along with reading the results to those with the power to make changes, HR and trainers should work with managers and executives to talk out possible improvements based on the feedback. Since those improvements likely will involve learning and development, trainers should be made part of the process.

Do your employees feel at liberty to tell you the company’s executives are loathed, their supervisor is brutal, and their chances of staying longer than the next viable job opening are slim to none?   Will they tell you the truth about how you look from behind?

How honest do you think the feedback is that you receive from employee surveys?  Can your managers and executives handle the truth?

December 23, 2009

Employment Suitors Calling?


[Cartoons courtesy of Grantland Cartoons]

If you're calling about new jobs with gratis (or should I say pro bono?) ice cream shops cubicle-side, complimentary concert tickets, and a hefty salary increase, there's a good chance your competitor's employees will be lured away. If not, I'm not so sure. With salary freezes and layoffs affecting so many industries, many workers know only an overwhelmingly impressive offer will induce them to take a chance with an unknown entity. The fear is they'll be jumping from the fryer to the fire. Sure, they're hardly in paradise at your company, but at least they've built up a base of support and trust with their manager and they've grown accustomed to the work. Their salary is frozen and they may be laid-off. But if your industry is still suffering, that same unstable scenario is likely at other similar companies, the ones most likely to court them.

To effectively court another company's employees, start improving conditions for those already on your payroll. Aside from it always being good business to motivate your workforce, happy employees will spread the word about their good work mood to friends in the same industry at other companies, and maybe even to the media. The monthly ice cream party with the free vanilla chocolate chip cookie dough scoops has not been in vain. How many of your employees, if you offered such a thing, would talk excitedly to friends about what a cool company they work for?  If you're a non-ice cream company, and like projecting a more stern tone to employees, you can still reap free ice cream-like benefits via gift cards, flex-time, or even greater development opportunities tied to rewards. What about an annual escape to the Caribbean in February for the company's top 20 high-performers?  Along with keeping workers thrilled with you, and making it more likely they'll have kind things to say about you to potential recruits, your human resources reps can use these perks to make the case for an employment switch to rival workforces.

What's your current pitch like?  Does it mostly focus on salary, or do you also emphasize the long-term stability of your company in an unstable economy?  Are there any business metrics you can share to convince new recruits they wouldn't make the jump to a new employer only to find themselves laid-off a few months later?  What's really sad is I was at a company, where a month after I was hired, an announcement was made that a department (luckily, selfishly speaking, not mine) was being "consolidated" and about a dozen workers would lose their jobs, including a young woman hired the same week as me. The story turned out well because that young lady found a new job within about two weeks, but still. That's a lot of trauma to go through. Who knows what she left to accept a new job with a company secretly preparing to do away with the department they hired her for.

That brings me to an important point about the C-suite adequately communicating with human resources and lines of business seeking new employees. Confidentiality about business strategy, including planned department consolidations, is understandable, but when luring competitor employees to your office, business ethics requires you not to hire them only to fire them before the year is out, doesn't it?  You may want to work with executives to set up quarterly confidential meetings about business decisions that will affect hiring and salaries. In addition to ethics, you have public relations to consider and the negative impact on future recruitment efforts of such a gaffe.

Is there any way to make the content of the work more fun for new recruits?  Personalization is big these days, so if there's a way to personalize the job role, drawing on strengths and interests particular to the person you seek to hire, so much the better. It pays to do your research before employment courting.  I hate to say it (lest it sound creepy), but you can find out a lot about potential new hires from the Internet when it comes to what they like. Aside from finding information ahead of time that may alert you that they'll be a poor corporate culture fit (they love dogs; your company tests cosmetics and drugs on dogs), you may discover they're a travel bug, have an enormous affinity for Asia, and speak fluent Chinese.  You weren't planning to, but now that you know the possible new employee is an Asia-phile, you could tell them about opportunities to aid in the research and development of new products targeting the Asian market.  Or you could tell them how they could put their knowledge of Asian culture to use in helping to design a new Website. "I'd be interested in hearing about best practices American-based companies could take from Asian companies in how they design and market their sites," you'd be smart to tell the subject of your courting.

Do you have work spaces you're proud of?  And is there a way to allow new employees to make themselves at home faster?  It's a good test of workplace environment to ask yourselves whether you'd consider it a wise move to ask those you're attempting to recruit to tour your office, both common spaces and up and down the cubicle aisles, and peering into offices. Is there a lot there you hope they wouldn't see, and too much that falls into that hope-they-don't-see category to chance a visit?  If you wouldn't consider your workplace decent enough not to deter recruits, chances are it's not helping your own workforce, and may even be driving some of them towards lower productivity and new employment (when/if they can finally find a good deal). If you determine your office is an embarrassment, ask yourself why for tips on improving enough to meet minimal livable-place-to-work standards ("great" isn't always doable, after all). Sometimes all you need are a few unused offices transformed into comfortable spaces with squishy sofas, foot rests, and tables with magazines and entertaining coffee table books to read and a sign on the door labeled "quiet room" to convince visitors you're a sympathetic employer interested in keeping workers happy. Is business going so swimmingly you don't have even one extra office to spare for a quiet room?  I just did a podcast, available within about a month on our training industry social networking site, www.trainingmagnetwork.com with Barbara Burke, the author of "The Napkin, The Melon, and The Monkey: How to Be Happy and Successful Simply By Changing Your Mind," on the topic of quiet rooms. Burke is a big proponent of them, and explained the whole thing to me. I'm a peaceful spaces-loving person, so she didn't have to argue the advantages of feet-up time too hard, but she makes compelling points.

Anyway, salary and office environment, including the spaces you (should) provide workers for respite, count when employment courting. Since most companies can't make promises these days, offering those you're attempting to recruit solace from corporate madness is the least you can do. An in-office ice cream parlor may be too tall an order for you, but what about a comfy chair to lounge in with the medical vanilla chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream they may need to make a run for in the middle of more days than you're willing to admit?

What's your value proposition to potential new hires?  What can you tell a competitor's employees about why they should work for you instead?

December 16, 2009

Perky Holidays?

Blog cartoon

[Cartoon courtesy of Grantland Cartoons]

Your co-workers may not be looking perky the morning after the corporate holiday party, not to mention your own sorry state (if not from over indulgence than from listening to and observing the over-indulged). But you should be thinking about last minute perks and frills to send towards your employees before the year is over.

Are there barter arrangements you can manage between your company and a local restaurant or retailer?  In exchange for a few hundred $20 gift cards for top performers, they get X service from you?  If that’s not a possibility, what about giving managers permission to grant top performers a few extra days off, free of vacation day charge, around Christmas or New Years?

As trainers, you also should be thinking of playing to your strengths, and offering a free personal development course between now and the end of the year. It should be something useful that imparts important thinking or life skills, but not necessarily directly job related. Do you or one of your fellow trainers know a craft, such as making bird houses or some other home-related object, that could be taught to interested employees in a couple of hours during the work day?  What about calligraphy or (for something more job relevant) a computer system they may find useful in both their professional and personal life?

Perks that send the message you’d like to do something for the beleaguered can be as simple as asking the trainers or instructors in your department to e-mail you one favorite family recipe some time over the next week. Once you’ve copied and pasted the collected recipes into a Word Document, e-mail to managers to pass along to employees with a “Happy Holidays” message affixed to it. Not so hard, but appreciated by more people than you think—even those like me who cook so little they’ve turned the gas to their stove off. It’s just nice knowing somebody at “the top” wanted to do something nice.

If, like many companies, yours usually is quiet Christmas and New Year’s week, let managers know it’s OK to surprise employees one afternoon with an outing to a museum, aquarium, or even the movies. If you’re low on funds, don’t feel as though you have to treat employees to the entertainment. That’s the generous, nice thing to do, but it’s also a nice treat to be given the afternoon off from work to do something fun. If it’s not expensive, employees probably won’t object.

You also could use the holidays as the perfect opportunity to assemble an employee wish list for next year—kind of like a list for Santa-Trainer—of requested development opportunities and rewards for high performance. Another idea (if you’re OK with constructive criticism) is to ask employees to write anonymous New Years Resolutions for you and the executive team. I’m sure they have points of needed improvement to tell you and the C-suite about. In addition to giving your workforce involvement, and therefore hopefully engagement in the company, asking for their opinion on improvement goals for the coming year will provide executives and managers with important leadership development lessons. It also will help them do their work as they set about planning and implementing strategy for the coming year. To encourage employees to take a chance and include their name (good for more than getting back at them for the critique; you also can consult with them during the improvement process), offer to enter contributors into a raffle for three extra vacation days.

Since this also is the season for performance reviews, it’s also a good time to put together a primer for managers on how to better help employees benefit from them. Pointers should include how to draw out of workers their true aspirations and wishes for their next career step, and how to get them to admit what’s most bothering them about their current position, including touchy issues they may be afraid to bring up such as co-workers who aren’t pulling their weight, or by their disengagement, making work harder every day. I’ve often wished in my career that I could give the boss, or whoever was in charge of employment decisions, a list of fellow employees I’d like not to work with anymore. Such a thing is too good to be true (or at least too impolitic and maybe illegal to be allowed), but there are emotional intelligence lessons to impart to managers on getting workers to open up candidly about work life torments. You never know. They may have picked up on something you suspected, but had no seconding, reinforcing, opinion on until now.

Most companies are crying poor these days (some are just crying), but it’s a good investment to pay for rewards as minimal as, say, donuts for each department. If your employees’ average trips to the vending machine is any indication, such a gesture wouldn’t go unappreciated. Can you really say you can’t afford donuts?  And you’re still in business?  Maybe you just can’t afford not to be embarrassingly cheap.

Free tickets to sporting events and concerts is great, and would be a respectable way to say “thanks.” But if you’re not able to swing it, don’t forget the low- or no-monetary ways to show appreciation. If you don’t, you’ll end up treating them to a game all right—the game of get-taken-for-granted-until-you-cry.

How are holiday perks this year at your company?  Is it a “perky” year for your employees?