Want Higher Profits…Reduce Management, Not Employees


OverheadDid you ever wonder, when you hear stories about workforce reductions followed shortly thereafter by record earnings and generous management bonuses why some people get rewarded for failing and stay employed and others seemingly get penalized for doing exactly what was expected of them? Me too!

Did you ever wonder why you couldn’t make a decision to spend $500 of company money without getting a manager’s approval but you can apply for a mortgage without asking anybody? Me Too!

Did you ever wonder why we give managers an office with a door, maybe even a window and everyone reporting to them sits in an eight by eight sound muffling half-walled enclosure? Me too!

Did you ever wonder whether management necessarily means managers? Me Too!

I was once again reminded of all these questions, and more, when I made a visit to a small business in Bellingham where one of my friends is helping the owners establish work practices…that don’t require managers!

Fortunately for me when I was a business owner, and our other employees, I was able to arrange to bring a top-notch manager in as a partner and he took care of all our management needs. One thing I had been clear about from my time as an employee was that I preferred as much autonomy as possible while pursuing my objectives so I sought to attract employees who liked operating in the same fashion. In fact I told several of them on more than one occasion that if they needed to be managed they were not the kind of people we were looking for. I would much prefer paying them more to manage themselves.

As for my friend and her employers, since her arrival she has reduced labor costs by around $20,000 per month. That’s a tidy sum that drops right to the bottom line for the owners and it has been achieved while improving service overall and reducing errors. Her first recommendation, eliminate one of the management positions and begin to allow the employees to step up to greater levels of freedom and responsibility. What quickly followed was the recognition that there we too many employees for the work that needed to be done. Too many employees meant people with time on their hands; idle hands are the devil’s workshop, etc., etc. Within a short time after eliminating the manager the “keepers” made themselves known and those who needed to be managed moved on.

Over the years a great deal has been written about the need for more leadership, engagement and innovation in the workplace. Only recently have management experts begun to recognize that some of the greatest barriers to these capabilities developing naturally are manager’s needs to have something or somebody to manage. The purpose of the business is to create a customer and generate a profit. While that may seem obvious to the casual observer of many businesses what is often found in practice are managers who work hard to create a reason to be part of the business. Keep in mind, these are not bad folks just folks who recognize that without something of value to do they show up as excess baggage and become expendable.

In the mind of at least one prominent management thinker, Gary Hamel, too many managers is emblematic of too much bureaucracy and too much bureaucracy creates a tax on the future of an organization.

In an article earlier this year Hamel cited the following examples of bureaucratic taxation…

  • Adds overhead—by creating multi-tiered structures where hundreds of managers spend their time managing other managers.
  • Creates friction—by forcing new ideas to run a multi-level gauntlet of approval that creates significant lag between “sense” and “respond.”
  • Distorts decisions—by giving too much power to managers who often have much of their emotional equity invested in the past.
  • Misallocates power—by rewarding those who are the most politically adept rather than those who are the most capable leaders.
  • Discourages dissent—by creating asymmetric power relationships that make it difficult for subordinates to speak up.
  • Misdirects competition—by encouraging individuals to compete for promotion and political advantage.
  • Thwarts innovation—by over-weighting experience and under-weighting unconventional thinking.
  • Hobbles initiative—by throwing up barriers to risk-taking.
  • Obliterates nuance—by centralizing too many decisions and demanding compliance with uniform rules and procedures.

It isn’t that Hamel believes that all management is bad; he’s out to reduce the “management for the sake of management” that has characterized bureaucracies for many years.

Don’t think you have any bureaucracy? How much company money can an employee spend before coming to you? If an expenditure of any amount must be approved you are paying a pretty high management tax.




Some Managers Get it …and Many Don’t

Scratching Head“My strong belief, after a couple decades of effort in this arena, is that by and large, people don’t hate their work at all. In fact, most of us rather like our work. Some of us even love it. What we dislike, and what we have difficulty ‘engaging’ with is our jobs, that broader context within which our work resides…”

Bill Catlette, Contented Cows Partners

Bill Catlette is one of the wisest men I know when it comes to creating working environments that encourage both engagement and high levels of performance. He and his partner, Richard Hadden have built a thriving practice over the past two decades, writing three books, delivering keynote speeches and workshops, providing engagement analysis and making recommendations to leaders in a variety of businesses about how they can go about improving the quality of their workplace and thereby their profitability.

When I read the monthly “Fresh Milk” newsletter last week I was struck by two things; the first, Bill referenced the by now almost universally recognized, measured, validated, quoted, re-quoted, cross referenced and beaten like a dead horse statistic for employee engagement across the economy. According to every possible source available this number, appalling as it is, was about 30% when it was first measured twenty-five years ago and remains at 30% today. This despite years of consultant interventions, surveys, recognition systems, books, videos, audios and even TED talks for goodness sakes. (In 2012 employers spent just north of $750M on employee engagement, projections indicate a spend of $1.5B within five years)

The second thing I noticed is that Bill and I presume Richard as well are not sucked into the traditional mode of writing like employee engagement is 100% the responsibility of management or the employer. Quite honestly it seems that this attitude may well have been developed by consultants who clearly recognize where the money is!

Bill in his newsletter sticks to somewhat safe suggestions like …

  • Becoming more intentional and selective in hiring…always a good idea and frequently violated by hiring managers who offer that it is just too hard to find good people ß While true at times this does not justify a subpar employment decision.
  • Getting serious about learning and development…you’d probably think it was not even necessary to mention this but it is since lazy management approves development like it is a discretionary expense then cuts the same expense when push comes to shove with the numbers. Consider this, rather than cut the training and development budget of people who are getting the work done cut the salary of managers who don’t perform on their objectives. That would very likely boost engagement numbers and save money and reduce turnover.
  • Don’t mess with what’s working…again, at the risk of offending some newly promoted manager or some “know it all” employer…it is not necessary to put your personal mark on your territory like you are some dog who has just moved into a new neighborhood. Respect the contribution of your employees; allow them to solve problems as often as possible. If things are working leave them be.

What I’d like to see, along with these fairly traditional ideas,and what seems to not be in fashion, is to look to employees to be more responsible for their own engagement. That’s right, I said it! Employees need to be responsible, at least in equal measure with the employer for their own level of engagement.

It may well be asked why this is not a more frequent topic since in virtually any other type of relationship we’d be quick to hold both parties responsible. As I said earlier, follow the money. Consultants know it is far more likely they will be able to collect significant fees from employers than it is to address individual employees and ask for by comparison, small change.

Some managers already get this; it is time for many more to do the same. And this is not an either or conversation or a “who is to blame” issue either. Employee engagement levels, if they are meaningful, and that is a legitimate question, indicate that whatever we’ve been doing isn’t working.

The time has arrived, actually well passed, when it is necessary to approach the topic of employee engagement from the standpoint that employees have a responsibility to advocate for themselves around issues that they feel adversely affect their mood in the workplace. No one ever gets everything their way in life but certainly grown ups know this. And…maybe this is the real issue, if managers/employers begin to treat employees as grown ups, who knows what havoc may be unleashed in the workplace?

But as was said earlier, many managers get this, many still are fearful of treating employees as grown ups.

Leading for Engagement: Tickle Their Fancy

TicklishA short time ago while leading a workshop I was asked the following question by someone who sounded like an experienced manager. “What do I do with an obviously talented report who just doesn’t seem committed to the work he has been assigned?” Following the question the manager and I engaged in a brief dialogue to establish the “signs” that the employee was not committed. What we rapidly determined was both enlightening yet not all that surprising; the manager was not necessarily reporting on the results the employee produced, she was reporting on her observations of the mannerisms of the employee. (She didn’t like his attitude!) The results were fine, though not exceptional and the employee was often overheard discussing matters related to Fantasy Football with colleagues in the break room or when time could be used for additional production.

I am in and around a lot of managers and supervisors in any given year. It is not uncommon for me to hear similar concerns expressed by many who have management responsibility about what they perceive as the insufficient level of engagement on the part of their employees. And of course all the relevant studies would agree with them, employees across occupations and positions are not engaged at high levels. What the studies don’t tell you is why the engagement level is low.

For my part, I’ll be the first one to say that I believe employee engagement is the responsibility of the employee…when I am talking to employees…and when talking with managers I’ll be the first one to tell them that employee’s engagement is their responsibility. From my perspective the conversation depends on where you are in the relationship and make no mistake about it, engagement is a matter of relationship. Like any other relationship worth being involved with, there is no simply doing your part; you are either in for the whole thing or not at all.

As the conversation continued with this particular manager I asked an intentionally provocative question. “Have you ever asked this employee what he finds so engaging about Fantasy Football?” The manager came back quickly with, “Why should I have to do that?” The point of the question was to establish where the manager stood with regards any responsibility for this employee’s level of engagement. I inferred from her quick response that she felt her responsibility was limited.

I went on to ask whether she understood that Fantasy Football was a fairly complex topic requiring considerable research and attention to detail and nuance. Yes, it was a game that concerned a sport but the skills involved in gaining proficiency called for dedication and study to statistics and a commitment to keeping up to date with an ever-changing landscape of information. What if she sat down with this employee and explored his interest in depth, strictly for the purpose of understanding what it was about this game that the employee was so passionate about? Might an exploration like this allow her to understand what it was about the game that captured this employee’s interest and warranted such freely given dedication? Perhaps then she might be able to consider structuring the employee’s work to take advantage of his natural interests and get more of the “attitude” she was looking for as well as more productivity.

FrownShe didn’t buy it! And so it goes.

By now you are probably thinking that this encounter I have described is an exception and managers who follow a compliance-based approach to managing productivity and overall performance are the exception. I beg to differ and I beg you to consider that to the degree you don’t recognize your own or know your manager’s basic attitudes about employee engagement your employee base, your organization’s working capital, is at risk.

Intuitively I have suspected that engagement, productivity, retention and profitability are intertwined like the links of the DNA helix. Mainly I came to this belief this by observing myself in relationship to whatever work was required of me. But now, with all the research, we can go beyond just belief or intuition and I think we owe it to ourselves as business owners and managers to do just that. Thanks to a timely tweet from an associate a while back I received a “heads up” on a posting from Bret Simmons titled appropriately enough, Employee Engagement and Performance: Finally some Credible Evidence. You might well heed Bret’s closing words to his post, “If you find yourself lamenting that your employees don’t appear engaged, you are going to have to do something different.”

The corollary to this is of course is that if you are not willing to do anything different you can reduce your suffering by not expecting anything to change!




Responsibility and Compliance: Two Sides of Different Coins


For many years I have begun all my management development initiatives with the admonition to anyone in the room that their success as a manager would have an upper limit. That limit would be determined by the cumulative emotional intelligence of whatever group of employees they were charged with leading.

But I am not writing about emotional intelligence today, I want to talk about responsibility. But… responsibility is much harder to practice than it is to talk about; especially without setting up the right conditions, and this is where emotional intelligence does come in. If you cannot handle a grown up relationship with your employees or they with you… you’ve got very big problems.

When attempting to establish working relationships grounded in responsibility it is best to step back and determine whether the group involved in the conversation has a shared understanding of the concept. Historically employers have assumed compliance from employees and called it responsibility. Moreover, and as an extension of the desirability of compliance we have after all done a pretty good job of tying the concept directly to character and thereby locked it into the good/bad context that surrounds many of the ideas that have been turned into commodities.

What is needed now, when many of the workplace problems are complex and do not yield to simple compliant behavior, is a new way of being related, a new way for employers to relate to employees and a new way for employers to determine whether the people they employ are sufficiently grown up to provide the performance they require.

If, from the employee’s perspective, we consider responsibility as more a matter of individual initiative, they are or are not responsible as a matter of choice rather than history or upbringing, we get into the arena of gifts and gifts cannot be assumed. If, from the employer’s perspective we consider responsibility to be more of an offer than a right, we get into the arena of tools and tools have their uses, in the proper circumstances.

Try this on; you are responsible if you say so and not if you don’t. Now of course I am speaking in terms of the workplace. Society at large has this “in the eyes of the law” notion, where responsibility is assigned. In the workplace this concept has been interpreted as “in the eyes of the employer” and most often looked upon as the right of employers to assign responsibility. From the employer’s perspective employees are responsible if the employer says so. OK, but is there any power in that?

Consider this, if the game is rigged so the employer always wins, so the employer has the say so and employees get only to respond Okey Dokey to all demands, then where is there any responsibility; if by responsibility we mean a willingness to respond when the going gets tough, or even simply when the boss is not around? Seems to me that there is mainly duty in this condition. And therein lies the problem. Where is the room for initiative, passion or creativity in that sort of relationship? Can all parties involved be counted on to stand for what was agreed to when the poop hits the cowcatcher? This is a very different relationship from the one that many still assume, whether employer or employee.

A manager somewhat long in the tooth recently approached me a question. He asked, “Can you tell me what to do about these younger employees, they don’t always do what I tell them to ?” I asked in response, “Do they say they are going to do what you told them to?” He was at first silent then spoke, “Do they need to? I always just did whatever my boss asked me to do.” So I went on, “ This is not your father’s workforce or workplace any longer. The newer generation of workers is no less energetic than you were they just have different conditions under which they are willing to work. You need to get to know them at a more intimate level. They do not want their responsibility to be assumed, they want to be asked, they want to be given a choice, at least much of the time. If you don’t do that for them I bet you will continue to be disappointed in the sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t performance.” This was a shocking shift in reality for this manager, but he made the change and later reported that his employees had “gotten a lot better” once he began the practice of letting them know what he wanted them to do and then confirming their willingness to do it. In my view what happened was he brought his management style up to speed with the people he had reporting to him.















Is your company designed to support its employees’ development?


DeliberateWhat about it… is your company designed to support its employees’ development? Before you answer the question let me guess… your answer is going to be some variation on one of the following two themes; “Of course it is!” Or, “What the heck are you talking about? This is a business, not a summer camp, we are designed to make a profit.”

OK, so maybe you might not have used those exact words but before we get an argument started take a look at the following, excerpted from an extended white paper titled ‘The Deliberatively Developmental Organization’ authored by Robert Kegan, Lisa Lahey and others…

“If we walked up to a random member of your organization—whether a leader, a manager, a support-staff member—would he or she say, “yes” to any of the following questions?

  • Does your organization help you identify a personal challenge that you can work on in order to grow?
  • Are there others who are aware of this “growing edge,” and who care that you transcend it?
  • Are you given supports to overcome your limitations?
  • Do you experience yourself actively working on transcending this growing edge on a daily or at least weekly basis?
  • More particularly, after you perform the essence of your work—whether running a meeting, securing a set of buildings during your shift, or landing a big client account— is there any process in place by which you are helped to see how you could have done any of these things better?”

From reading this maybe you can see that there is a gap between the way you answered the original question and what the authors of this paper seem to be pointing to, and you would be correct.

If there is truly any connection between the Kegan et al’s assertion that employees have a strong desire to grow and the current levels of engaged employees in any workplace, currently hovering around 30% nationally, maybe there is something to consider here.

What do you think most employees’ experience with development is? For that matter what has your own been?

Does any of this sound familiar?

  • moments outside the flow of day-to-day work, an hour here and there
  • stand- apart trainings
  • high-potential leadership- development programs
  • executive coaching
  • corporate universities
  • once-a-year retreats

This of course includes that the training or programming available has likely been cancelled at least once for budgetary reasons without any commitment to reschedule.

Yikes! Development as a discretionary expense, that sounds strategic. No it doesn’t; and that’s because the prevailing mindset in most organizations is that employees are both expense and expendable. We want the best from our employees but we see “their best” more as a matter of natural talent, effort and the right incentives, rather than development.

Most business owners would not think of sending new employees out on any job requiring knowledge proficiency without some form of competency testing or skill training. This is not just a good idea, it is a practical imperative. Customers would not stand for cable installers who could not install or plumbers who could not plumb. Employers need programmers who can program. That kind of training makes sense to us, it is tactical, practical and necessary. As business owners we accept this type of training or purchase of skills as a cost of doing business. But this type of expenditure does not convey to the employee any sense of caring about them. They know this type of training is in the best interest of the business.

Think about this. How might you be different, as a manager or a business owner, if someone had shown an interest in you developing to the fullest extent of your capabilities? How would your working career have been different both in terms of outcomes and experience? Do you think your attitude towards your reports or employees might be different in some way?

Here’s what there is for you to know, contrary to the mythology of many a work place, very few employees are interested in competing with each other. They are looking for an opportunity to do good work and develop to their full capability. Let that sink in. Let it sink all the way in to your own experience and notice how you feel? Isn’t there somewhere in there a sense of an old desire to belong someplace, to do work that is worth your life with people you both appreciate and are appreciated by?

Responding to this deep desire that I think truly does reside inside many of us is what heading in the direction of being deliberatively developmental is all about. Maybe you don’t go as far as the organizations in the article but surely there is room for movement from where your organization is now. Why would you wait?


Change Agents Take Heart…the Era of the Mindful Leader Has Begun

For years practitioners in the development field have fought for a transformation in the Thoughtful Warriormindset of business leadership. Agents of change have known that when the challenges they faced were technical in nature solutions were possible. However, when the problems they were charged with solving were leader induced or at least affected by leadership behavior in some way the probability of success would plummet. The tip off of course was when they were asked by leadership to “fix them”, meaning others, and report back. “Them” of course being the employees who were seen as failing to perform to expectations.

Having leaders be unwilling, much less able to see themselves in any way part of or the source of the problem in organizations has led to literally millions of dollars being spent for limited or no benefit.

If this sounds like business leaders have had an attitude problem when it comes to their own responsibility for issues in their organizations then that would be an incorrect interpretation. Yes, maybe some leaders display hubris to a great extent, maybe most display hubris at least some of the time. That, however, is not a shortcoming of leaders, it is a limitation of being human. In the simplest of terms…it is nearly impossible to see your own point of view, not merely your opinions, but “the point” or origin of your opinions. Moreover it is as difficult to see how this fact of human life impacts the actions we take. When things aren’t going well, or the way we had intended it is unnatural to look at yourself first as the source of the problem. Even when we suspect that we might be in part responsible for a problem we are facing it is equally difficult to see our own perspective without the aid of an outside source.

Years ago, early in his practice Dr. Edwards Deming offered his observations that a system simply cannot objectively observe itself. And so it has gone for nearly fifty years since he began, business leaders wanting the results practitioners like Deming claimed were possible yet unable to see how their behavior and perspective were limiting the return on the investments they were making. Meanwhile many around them helplessly knew the truth was not possible to expose. Painful, expensive and true as anyone in the field of organizational development will admit. Yet, persistence is paying off to some degree.

It seems the time for an idea’s time to come never really happens all at once, rather it is a gradual process of endorsement by sources respected by the audience at large as “credible.” With the appearance of the article ‘Change leader,change thyself’ in the McKinsey Quarterly in March it might be time to declare that the work of organizational,leadership and management development have entered a new era. Business change professionals get a real boost from this article regarding the value of their work, especially as it relates to the need to understand the perspective of the actors in the business environment.It is not so much that the content is new, the most remarkable feature of the piece is how familiar its message is beginning to sound and the source of the message. Here are a few excerpts…

 “Taking accountability as a leader today includes understanding your motivations and other inner drives.”

“Simply put, change efforts often falter because individuals overlook the need to make fundamental changes in themselves.”

“A new strategy will fall short of its potential if it fails to address the underlying mind-sets and capabilities of the people who will execute it.”

…and I would add…Duh!

But here’s the thing and what is so exciting about seeing this written about in a McKinsey publication, which I might also add uses several references to work being done at Harvard! See, that sells it, McKinsey and Harvard in the same sentence, instant credibility.

But I digress…what is so exciting, if you have hung in there with any attempt to change a business leaders mind about anything or to have them SEE what they cannot see…you can now share the article with that very same business leader and now have an increased possibility to have them recognize themselves in the mirror it provides. At the very least you can use the article as an excuse to have a conversation with others about the concepts discussed and whether anyone can see themselves reflected in the message.

…With the efficacy of reflective thinking going mainstream does that mean there will be no more obstinate business leaders or an end to the need for change agents;hardly. There are always going to be plenty of problems to solve. What may be different is that they can be approached with the optimism that real solutions rather than bandages can now be achieved.

Don’t Let “finding good people is hard” Be an Excuse to Keep the Wrong People

Last summer my son and his wife took on a major addition/renovation project at theirRegret home in Portland. I had observed the progress of the project from afar here in Anacortes, getting weekly progress reports, photos and so forth as events unfolded. The project was pretty large, involving the entire second floor of their home. They even made arrangements to live elsewhere for a period of time for the work to get done quicker. In all the process was supposed to take about four months from beginning to end so when they began in early July all expectations were that the job would be complete by the end of October. Well the end of that month came and went and soon it was January, then February and finally around the first of March they declared everything complete. The progress reports and photos had stopped coming in early October having been replaced by lengthy complaints about the contractor which continued from then until Late January when they finally dismissed the original contractor. They made that decision when they realized the job might never be finished without drastic action. They then found someone who agreed to finish the job and six weeks later everything was wrapped up.

This past week my son and his daughters came to visit during the school break in Portland and I had an opportunity to spend some time with him and get some of the details I had missed during that October to March window.

My first question to him was “So when did you suspect you might be in trouble with this contractor?” His answer was one I have heard from many employers when talking about employees they held onto for far too long. He said, “When we were supposed to move back into the house at the beginning of September I could see the process was well behind where we had expected it to be and we began getting a steady stream of excuses instead of results around the same time.”

You can probably anticipate my next question. “So why did you keep him on so long?” I asked. His response again echoed those of employers I have worked with that when asked to explain their failure to take action with under performing employees when they first became aware that there was a problem… “Well I was hoping he could get it together and work things out. I wanted to give him a chance to make good on his promises.”

At this point I decided to press my son a bit since I know that as a construction architect he runs big jobs for his employers where millions of dollars are involved and I knew he would not be this tolerant with his employer’s reputation at stake. “So really, why were you so patient with this guy?” My son bristled a bit then shot back, “Do you know how hard it is to find good contractors?”

So there it was, the classics reason I have heard time and again from employers when confronted about keeping under performing employees, “Do you know how hard it is to find good people?”

So I continued with my son, “Aren’t you really telling me that you know you made a poor choice with that contractor and now you were questioning your own ability to make another similar decision?”  He thought about it for a moment then admitted that he was more disappointed in himself than the contractor. He knew for a while that the contractor wasn’t going to work out but simply had a hard time facing the mistake he had made ; such a hard time that he caused his family undue hardship while they lived through the mess until the right contractor was found. Not knowing if he could correct his mistake made things that much worse.

How many times as employers have we made this same mistake? Are we living with our mistakes right now rather than facing up to what needs to be done? Here’s a 10 second test that I got from reading an article by James Raybould, Senior Director of Marketing at LinkedIn. Go through your employees one by one and ask yourself if you’d regret any of them departing. Raybould says this quick test will give you varied outcomes and courses of action and questions you’ll need to answer

  • If you’d find a departure devastating, are you investing enough to ensure your star is fully motivated, with a clear and compelling career path ahead?
  • And if you’d find a departure desirable, are you on the road to fast improvement or do you need to move more quickly to consider alternative options?

Are you imposing on employees you’d regret losing by keeping ones that you wouldn’t? Take 10 seconds per employee to ask this question today.






Is There Hope for Capitalism? Maybe…If We are Willing to Say No to Greed.

“If you want me to do things only for ROI reasons, you should get out of this stock.”

Tim Cook, Apple CEO, responding to a challenge from a shareholder at Apple’s annual shareholder meeting     pogo_3


OK, this is going to be something of a rant so hang in there.

I left my position in corporate life just over thirty five years ago. One of the reasons I left was for what at the time I perceived as a basic conflict between my understanding of capitalism, more accurately “for-profit” pursuits and what I saw in practice. It seemed to me that the short term, quarterly targets, stock price etc. frequently trumped the long term interests, especially those of employees, and often shareholders if they were in for the longer term investment. Somewhere behind the short term moves it was always possible to find a small group of employees, usually senior managers, who benefitted disproportionately from the impact of short term maneuvering.

A second fundamental reason for my leaving was related to the first and it was the apparent inability of many people in power positions, usually managers, to operate consistently with common moral standards when they appeared to be in conflict with the priorities of a for profit enterprise. I saw far too many instances of profit being chosen over principle and it was not possible for me to look at it any other way.

I left with this question; are basic capitalistic principles at odds with the concept of right livelihood and the notion that I should consider my neighbors interest in all my actions? I have been working to resolve this perceived paradox since that time with varying degrees of satisfaction. Most importantly for me, I have turned the question into a declaration of possibility…The basic principles of capitalism, when viewed as guidelines and not rules, are not in conflict with the concepts of right livelihood, standards of human decency, and a world that can work for everyone. What has unfolded in the years following my departure from the corporate position has been my life with its ups and downs. On balance I think that greed is winning but now and again, as I have witnessed recently I see a glimmer of recognition that there are business leaders who do not see always compromise in favor of profit.

I regularly read in a variety of sources about the news in the business world. Quite frankly it is often hard to think that there is any news that is in some way not a reflection of the business world, or at least driven by the background of capitalism that motivates much of human action. But is it capitalism, a system of ideas, or something more basically human, say greed for example that often gives us pause when we think. “What the hell is going on here really?”

On a day in and day out basis is it an adherence to capitalism that has us choose to ignore basic human decency and respect for the other, or greed? For instance when a business is not meeting its objectives and yet employees are doing everything they’ve been instructed to do and maybe more; why is it they who get laid off and senior leaders then collect a bonus for what only appear to be good management? Why isn’t it common practice for management who sits at the controls of business to suffer greater pain in times of decline than front line employees do? That would seem more like capitalism to me.

I am not for anybody necessarily losing their job but often times across the board pay cuts, starting with management, would send a message that we are all in this together. But the message from the greedy seems to be that, “No we are not all in this together and by the way, see you in church sucker, just make sure you sit in the back!”

When I saw the story about Tim Cook taking on a baiting shareholder at Apple’s recent annual shareholder meeting I actually got tears in my eyes. It had been a while since anything in the news from business had been anything but merely interesting. This story came across to me as inspiring. Apple under Steve Jobs, for all his genius, was not the best corporate citizen. I don’t know that in the long run whether Apple under Tim Cook has now assumed a new kind of leadership role, time will tell.

What I do know is that for one moment as Tim Cook addressed his audience I saw a glimpse of a future that calls to me, for the sake of my grandchildren; a future where morality and capitalism co-exist as partners in a world that can work for everyone.

The enemy of the welfare of our future is not capitalism, it is us.


Confidence Can Be Gained or Lost, Can it be Borrowed or Lent?


confidenceHow important is confidence in the workplace? What role does it play in employee engagement? If you are at all curious about what factors impact performance you must have asked yourself questions like these; “Why do people of equal skills consistently have different outcome?” “Why do some of our teams perform above their talent levels?” I believe managers need to have an appreciation of the importance of confidence to overall performance and be able to intervene effectively when they see it is missing.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter, distinguished professor of business at Harvard feels so strongly about the importance of confidence that back in 2004 she went so far as to write a book, ‘Confidence: How Winning Streaks and Losing Streaks Begin and End.’ This is a big fat book which might look daunting to some but reading just Part Three for application makes getting it a great addition to your reading material if you are a manager with an interest in improving your skill set. These days you can buy copies used as well so it is a great value.

Kanter continues her interest in the topic of confidence right up until today. (Some messages bear repeating as you know.) As recently as January this year she wrote a piece in her Harvard blog identifying and cautioning against getting caught in any of eight distinct confidence traps…

  • Self-defeating assumptions
  • Goals that are too big or too distant
  • Declaring victory too soon
  • Do-it-yourself-ing
  • Blaming someone else
  • Defensiveness
  • Neglecting to anticipate setbacks
  • Over-confidence

Many of these traps are self explanatory, you’ve seen them yourself or been guilty yourself, others maybe not so much. I recommend reading the piece just to get her understanding for yourself.

But back now to my opening question, we know confidence can be gained or lost, at least that is the way it gets talked about. Can it be borrowed or lent? In the inspirational film ‘The Pursuit of Happiness’ Will Smith as the lead character Chris Gardner counsels his young son…

 “You got a dream, you got to protect it. People can’t do something themselves they want to tell you… you can’t do it!

Given his circumstances it may be hard to tell if Gardner is talking to his son or himself but the message would seem to be that a leader in any circumstance can notice an absence of confidence in an employee, a friend, a child or even a stranger and offer to share their own experience as a temporary substitute for the missing ingredient. Of course you can’t make the patient take the medicine but you can see the opportunity to step in and lend what seems to be needed. Rosabeth Moss Kanter would offer that it is this type of action that defines leadership. In her view leadership is not about the leader but how she/he builds the confidence of others so that leaders emerge throughout an organization.

Fungible is a funny word but in this case it may apply to the conversation. Is confidence fungible, can yours or mine be substituted for that which may be missing in someone else? I think so. I also think it can be taken, which is a form of violence we unfortunately see all too often in the workplace. A manager gives an associate an assignment which does not go well. In the future the manager refrains from giving that associate similar opportunities. There may be no words spoken, the message is clear, the manager has no confidence in the ability of the associate in that capacity. The net effect of an experience like this can shape a career.

A few years back a in a seminar I was conducting a woman asked me about a circumstance she was facing. She said that for some time she had a desire to attend law school but she had postponed the pursuit in favor of raising a family, a not too uncommon scenario to be sure. There was now time for her to get back to her vision but she said she had serious doubts about being able to make the grades after all the time away from school. She was asking me for advice, maybe she was asking me to agree with her and put an end to her quandary. I knew she was married so I asked how her husband felt about her dream. She said that he had expressed full confidence in her ability. My response surprised her. I said, “Why don’t your borrow his confidence in you until yours shows up?” Four years later I received a note in the mail, a thank you card announcing the recent graduation from law school of this lady with no confidence. Enough said? I hope so. There are no guarantees so don’t wait for them.


Hiring the Right People for the Right Assignment May Well be a Manager’s Most Important Job

“Human development, if not nurtured, eventually leads to frustration and sadness. And those are not performance boosters.”

Paul ZakEnthusiasm (1)

I am going to start today with a short true story. Back around spring of 1992 I met one morning with a woman who had been recommended by one of our staff members for a position we needed filled. What impressed me immediately was the energy she put into connecting with me during the conversation, she was not passive in the least, her mood was enthusiastic; I found myself immediately captivated. This lady had an energy that I thought would fit in well, I was certain she would blend well with the team we already had in place. The fact that she already knew one member of our small administrative staff was a plus. Honestly, I was so enrolled by this lady in our conversation that I skipped a lot of the detail background questions and went right to asking what she needed to move from her current employer and join us. I knew that in her current position she was managing a retail operation so I wanted to make sure our environment and the work we were going to ask her to do was going to be a good fit. Her current salary was a good deal more than we were planning to pay but she seemed to have so much more to offer that I felt the additional expense would be a good investment. I thought we could work it all out and told her I just wanted to meet with our other employees before I made her an offer. I and asked her to think it over as well and told her I’d call back the following morning.

After she left the office I convened other staff members who had also interviewed our candidate and found that they concurred with my view and agreed we should make an offer. So it was settled, we made the offer, she accepted and we prepared to move forward.

That proved to be one of the most significant hiring decisions I made during my 20 years of running the business. Our new employee proved to be even more beneficial and talented than I had imagined. In the years that followed she became engaged with the primary offerings of our business, asked to be trained to deliver our programs and eventually became the highest billing of all our consultants. She now has her own business as she grew to a point where we couldn’t offer her the development she was ready for.

As Paul Zak says in the opening quote, if what you are offering people as assignments does not keep pace with their developmental capacity you can pretty much count on dissatisfaction setting in. Rather than that option I always felt that I needed to pay attention and when people reached the point where their needs were greater than what we could offer an arrangement would be made to transition them out of our business and set them up in something that worked for them…and us as it turns out.

So I see now that my story has gone on longer than I had planned, let me get back to the part I left out. Shortly after we made this new hire I found our new employee practicing typing on the computer. Not being sure what to think I decided to take my office manager aside and ask the question I had. To my surprise I found that my office manager had assumed that during my interview I had covered the fact that our new employee did not type and had in fact never used a computer, the basic tool of our administrative process! But, my office manager informed me, she was learning and it should not be too long before she was up to full speed!

At the conclusion of the conversation I asked if our new hire was going to be successful. She said yes, she guaranteed it. She was, as was I, so taken by our new employee’s attitude and enthusiasm that she knew things would work out. And, as I have already told you they did and more.

     In my experience, enthusiasm often trumps training…Paul Zak

I suppose you also want me to tell you this story was the exception in our hiring practices. Yes and no, more often than not we hired for attitude and embraced the opportunity to teach the skills needed. No regrets!

“That one can hire only a whole man [or woman] rather than any part thereof explains why the improvement of human effectiveness in work is the greatest opportunity for the improvement of performance and results,”

Peter Drucker