Sunday, December 27, 2009

December Carnival of HR is Up

All the usual suspects and a few new ones, plus a poem! Check it out here.

Thanks, PseudoHR!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Peter Principle

First of all, thanks to Alex Drexel over at Talented Apps for posting about a recent NYT article Random Promotions positing that promoting people at random is better than promoting them for competence.

It's our old friend the Peter Principle in action, which states that a competent person will be promoted to his or her level of incompetence.

It seems that some Italian scientist have now demonstrated the Peter Principle via computer simulation, which shows you're better off picking names out of a hat than promoting someone who is good at their job. Even promoting the worst performers is better.

However, what computer simulations can't emulate is human emotion. If you promote someone based on merit who ends up being a poor manager, their team will at least have the comfort of knowing their manager was once good at something and that doing a good job sometimes gets rewarded.

Whereas no matter what the numbers tell us, there's no way to promote a complete slacker without anger and discontent brewing in the ranks. Now, most of us are desensitized to people hating their managers but it doesn't have to be that way.

I'm just saying.

What is missing is a better understanding of what makes a good manager and identifying those traits as a critieria for promotion. And it's not that hard, we pretty much know what separates a good manager from a poor one. We just don't bother doing our homework most of the time.

That being said, there's no magic formula that makes a manager good for everyone. We see it in sports all the time, a star player moves to a new team with a new coach and stops performing because he doesn't respond to the new coach's management style.

Even with the best will in the world it's impossible to please all of the people all of the time because people are different, not only from each other but from themselves, say, five years ago.

When I was fresh out of school with no kids and working 80 hour weeks I felt like my efforts were holding the team together. I had little appreciation for managers and/or colleagues who knocked off at 6 to go home to their families. I also managed several teams in those early days and kept up the intense pace so that my team would see I was working as hard as they were.

But life is ironic. Today, a decade and two kids later, I have much more appreciation of a relaxed, hands-off management style that allows experienced employees to 'get on with it' with minimal distraction.

Generally speaking, I have found that experienced bosses are more comfortable delegating and often work less that people on their team, which can irritate ambitious newbies no end. Whereas less experienced bosses tend to be control freaks because they fear making career-limiting mistakes, which can be like getting fingernails pulled for experienced employees.

Chances are, you have both experienced and inexperienced managers and employees and they all have to work together. So, regardless of which criteria your company uses to select its future leaders, don't just promote people and turn them loose to reinvent the management wheel. Work with them and help them understand that there's no one-size-fits-all when it comes to management.

Their teams will thank you. So will your balance sheet.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Appreciation <> Rewards

These days it seems impossible to keep employees happy. About 60% of 900 employees surveyed by Right Management said they’re leaving once the economic situation eases up and 21% are ‘networking’.

Derek Irvine from Globoforce makes a compelling case for lack of recognition and overwork as top reasons for leaving.

According to Peter Cappelli on HRE, the reason people leave is because their rewards don’t match their expectations and are therefore perceived as ‘unfair’.

(In other words, people believe or are told they performed better than others but the rewards tell a different story.)

Added to this is the whole confusion with low performers thinking they’re high performers.

So, let me get this straight:

If you give employees a low performance rating they disagree because low performers think they’re God’s gift to your company.

If you give employees a high performance rating with an average monetary reward they think they should have gotten more than the average performers.

If you can’t afford to reward employees they gripe about lack of honest communication and recognition.

BUT if they get honest communication and recognition without monetary rewards, they think you’re stringing them along.

It seems like there’s just no pleasing some people. Or any people.

Perhaps. And I think we could stand some more gratitude on the employee side of the table for having a job right now. But let’s be clear about one thing: Appreciation <> Rewards.

Saying thank you is NOT a reward, it’s just good manners. And if you haven’t been saying thank you all along, you may have a leetle credibility problem.

Because you can’t throw money indiscriminately at people while failing to appreciate them, then pull the plug on the money, then implement some random employee recognition program out of the blue instead of money (with the same management team that everyone’s already planning to bail on) and expect people to be happy.

My friend (who's not in HR) put it rather well: Appreciation should be a given. Rewards should be tangible.

My advice?

Reward people as fairly as you can.

If you can’t afford ‘fair’ rewards, communicate this honestly.

Say thank you.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Business is about community

Patti, a blogger friend of mine, was diagnosed with breast cancer and just completed her treatment. She lives in Denmark and works remotely as part of a global team.

Recently she blogged about the supportiveness of her team mates, who took on some of her work and sent her regular supportive messages, cards and gifts. Here is what she said:

'I am thankful for my co-workers. Every few weeks over the past year, a new card would arrive from the states with little notes from all of them. They have covered whatever work was mine whenever I wasn't able, and have been supportive and understanding through it all."

Patti's team is more than just a group of people working together - it's a community.

There's plenty of noise
out there about social media and its implications for business but what we are really saying when we boil the message down to one simple sentence is this:

Business is about community.

According to Wikipedia, there are four elements of "sense of community": 1) membership, 2) influence, 3) integration and fulfillment of needs, and 4) shared emotional connection.

Wouldn't it be great if that were also the defintion of 'business', instead of, '...a legally recognized organization ... formed to earn profit that will increase the wealth of its owners and grow the business itself'?

Stories like Patti's remind us that the two definitions don't have to be mutually exclusive, and how nice it is when they aren't.

And let us not forget Meg's butt cake, another fine example of community in action.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Organizing Principles

An acquaintance of mine, who used to be a Navy fighter pilot and now works in marketing, explained to me one night over dinner that the Air Force and the Navy have very different organizing principles. It was these organizing principles that helped him choose between the Air Force and the Navy way back when he decided to become a fighter pilot.

The Air Force gives you a very thick book of things you CAN do. Anything not specifically mentioned in this book is not allowed. This means that all of your actions are completely regulated, including how you fly your plane. By implication, the Air Force is more likely to attract talent that likes being told exactly what to do.

The Navy gives you a somewhat thinner book of things you CAN'T do. Anything not specifically mentinoned in this book is allowed. This means you have to rely on your own judgement to solve problems because someone realized that it isn't possible to anticipate all the problems you may face. By implication, the Navy is more likely to attract talent that is adept at solving problems creatively.

Now consider these questions:

1) Is you company more like the Air Force or the Navy?
2) What kind of talent do you want to attract and retain?
3) Is there a possible mismatch?

Friday, November 27, 2009

The 'I' in Team

"There's no 'i' in team."

I've never liked that phrase because I think it sells teams short by devaluing its members.

Successful teamwork requires collaboration, which means putting team success ahead of your own agenda.
But a key measure of team success is throughput. Efficient throughput depends on effective leadership and each team member doing his or her job efficiently, reliably, accurately and on time.

So, there may not be a small 'i' in team but there is a big 'I'. As in, 'Don't worry, guys, I have it covered.'

November HR Carnival is Here

And what a carnival it is, too! Thanks to Mike for hosting with style, class and compassion.

Check it out.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

It's in their eyes

If you haven't watched this TED talk on Music and Passion by Benjamin Zander, do it.

Benjamin Zander is a conductor. According to him, the job of a conductor is to make other people powerful. His measure of success is whether the eyes of the people he conducts are shining.

If you manage people, please think about this.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

It's Just Good Business

Our kids go to a Munich Kindergarten that is in house at a local business. The people who own the business, which specializes in IT firewalls, established the Kindergarten so that they and their employees would have good, quality daycare while they work.

No, we don't work for them but we were lucky enough to get a spot for our kids because the owners are friends of ours and the Kindergarten supports working parents.

Last night the Kindergarten celebrated the festival of Sankt Martin, a Roman soldier who was reknowned for good deeds. The children performed several songs and dances while waving the lanterns they had made. Several dogs could be seen running around inside and outside the building, including two beautiful Dalmatians and a big black collie, Harley, who belongs to the owners. While the children sang, employees leaned out the window and waved or came down for some hot punch.

I chatted with Magnus, co-founder of this great place to work, as we stood around the fire. He shared that he'd recently had a meeting with a major German IT company about listing his company's products with them. Although their company is already doing very well, such a deal could potentially put them in a new league of business.

When the executives from the other company arrived, Harley, who comes to work every day to hang with the other employee's dogs, ran to greet them. Stern faces relaxed into smiles. Harley, being a large beautiful well-behaved dog, has a natural talent for breaking the ice.

Then, as they walked into the building, they noticed the Kindergarten on the first floor. More smiles and a few nods of respect for the open, people-friendly, dog-friendly atmosphere.

At the end of the meeting the top executive said he wants to work with them because they have such a great vibe.

Our friends don't treat their employees well so they can get more business, they are actually good, socially responsible people. But strangely enough, it seems to almost magically bring more business to them.

If people want to work for and with you, well, that's just good business.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

November HR Carnival

The November HR Carnival is here. Thanks to Ben Eubanks for putting together such an amazing list of HR goodness!!

Friday, November 6, 2009

Always Available, Always Broken

'Always Available, Always Broken' is the name of an article I read recently in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung.

According to a study of people working in the IT branch throughout Germany, there is a level of stress permeating the entire industry that can negatively impact health and productivity.

There are several predictable culprits, for example:

  • Fewer people having to do more work due to the current economic situation.
  • The expectation that one is available round the clock via several different types of media.
  • The ever changing nature of information technology, resulting in an overwhelmed feeling.
And one culprit that may surprise you: performance management, in particular goals.

The study cites 'new management techniques' involving the rollout of goals and frequent performance reviews. Sound familiar?

But wait, we like performance management and we sort of like goals. And frequent performance reviews are a plus for the employee, in fact some bold thinkers have even referred to timely and constructive feedback as part of employee compensation now that there's no money.

Plus, we all know that Generation Y loves regular reviews because they can't wait a whole year for feedback.

However, the researches who conducted this study warns that this can lead employees to feel like they have to permanently prove their right to be employed. And that can be unnecessarily - as in not value adding - stressful.

Because it creates a feeling of control and insecurity rather than trust.

And the results?

Well, for one thing, more people come to work when sick, which is not good for productivity or general workplace health. Or the national health care bill, come to mention it.

And of course team work tends to get shot to hell in this kind of paranoid, suspicious atmosphere.

But more importantly, highly qualified workers, who are expected to be pretty scarce in just a few years, are being systematically burned out.

This definitely raises some interesting questions about the level of stress of employees in other countries that have a less generous social net and vacation policy than Germany. Not to mention the possible social cost of stress related illnesses over the next decade.

In any event, it sounds like somebody's missing the boat on talent management. If done correctly, one doesn't expect big German men to cower in a corner weeping or laughing hysterically during a simple job satisfaction survey.

(This is why I always say you should talk to people, you don't get nearly as much depth from an online survey.)

What do you think, when does performance management turn into unhealthy micromanagement?

Thursday, November 5, 2009

I Want to Work for Diddy

I dislike most reality TV but I found myself getting sucked into 'I Want to Work For Diddy' because of its unexpected insight into HR topics.

The basic premise is that they pull a bunch of people together who admit they don't want to do any real work and one token achiever, then give them impossible and annoying tasks to perform as a team. People get voted off until one finally gets to work for Diddy.

I was watching this at the gym one day and found myself in complete sympathy with the overbearing team lead, who was also the only one on the team who was capable of getting anything done. She was also pretty open and obnoxious in her critique of the other people on the team but then again, they really weren't very good.

Not surprisingly, when it came time to vote someone off, the team voted unanimously against her because they didn't like her.

At first I thought this was kind of dumb because without her the others didn't stand a chance of buying a pack of cigarettes for Diddy and coming back with the correct change but then I thought about it a bit more carefully.

It's clear that their decision to vote her off the team was an emotional one, which is a good reminder to all of us that even if you think you're better than everyone else, it isn't wise to flaunt it.

But there is a subtle logic to voting her off the team that reveals itself if you think about the probable outcome of not voting her off the team: over time it would become more and more apparent that she was the one getting the work done. Her competence actually represented a threat to the collective, which protected its members from being negatively singled out with its uniform incompetence.

My respect for the dum-dums rose when I realized this.

What can managers learn from this, besides 'don't be a jerk or people won't work for you'?

Don't expect people to make decisions that promote the greater good of their employer if it conflicts with their own greater good. Smart companies bring everyone's greater good into alignment.

That, my friends, is talent management.

Diddy apparently realized this as well, because his factotum (a hard-faced girl who used to be his PA) ended up keeping the competent girl in the running, kicking the worst of the losers off, giving the competent girl a pretty stinging lecture about her unbearable personality and telling the other losers they better straighten up or get lost.

And that, my friends, is performance management.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Manager Strikes Back

I'm afraid that the poor manager (which is a double entendre, get it?) has been getting a bad rap on this blog. . . and is pretty upset about it.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Enlightened Self Interest

Anyone can manage by fear and intimidation. Especially in these uncertain times.

The problem is that although it may be possible to 'control' things that can be measured, employees managed this way will withhold their best creative energy unless there's something in it for them (like professional opportunities, personal growth, job satisfaction, etc.)

And they will work against poor managers whenever they can. In small ways, perhaps, like complaining on company time. Or doing only what is asked and not one iota more. But although these small acts of defiance may not hit the corporate metrics in an obvious way, they do add up.

Personally, I think the Canadians are onto something with their fake potholes. Sure, you can have a law against speeding but people will follow it sporadically at best and you have to measure it to manage it. The fake pothole neatly sidesteps this problem by making it in the driver's perceived self-interest to slow down.

It creates a positive incentive to do the right thing, which tends to work better than a negative incentive to do the wrong thing.

Get it?

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Change - Are We Having Fun Yet?

A blogger friend of mine just wrote a great post about joy as an agent of change.

Change is a must in business, a foregone conclusion. Failure to adapt is failure to survive and great ideas can come from fresh thinking.

But few people actually enjoy change, not low performing employees who fear they won't be able to change and certainly not high performing employees who have perfected a process that works well for them.

And somehow all this change inevitably requires lots of boring meetings.

What makes a meeting boring? Barring a presenter who speaks like a plank of wood, I think it comes down to three things: 1) lack of discipline; 2) lack of relevance; and 3) lack of discussion.

Lack of discipline manifests as a meeting with no clear agenda and/or people droning on about whatever occurs to them because 'we're scheduled for an hour anyway.' I'm sure you've all been in meetings like this.

A good manager will cut these people off, keep them on track and end early.

Lack of relevance occurs when someone talks in great detail about something you don't care about and don't need to know in order to do your job. A common culpit is the deadly roundtable meeting, which can be a highly valuable forum for sharing useful information but so often isn't.

A good manager will identify topics that are suitable for large meetings. There's a fine line to be walked here because you have to find the right balance between encouraging communication v. sticking to topics that actually need to be discussed in a large weekly forum.

Lack of discussion occurs in meetings where the purpose is to 'communicate down' or inform people of how it's going to be. It also helps if the manager doesn't welcome honest feedback. Of course, too much lively discussion can result in either of the previous two problems so again, it's a fine line.

A good manager knows how to walk that line. Enough said.

So, to recap, a good manager calls the right meetings and keeps people on topic while encouraging discussion.

A great manager also injects some fun into the process.

A great manager asks, can the new process be somehow more enjoyable than the old process?

If it can't, is there something in it for the people who have to change how they work, such as demonstrable value add or time saved?

If not, can we at least find some humor and have a good laugh about the new process?

Maybe a prize can be offered for the biggest embracer of the change?

Or how about just a little heart felt appreciation for people being so open to newness?

See? It's not so hard.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Merit or COLA?

I just put down an interesting survey published by the Economic Research Institute on how cost of living adjustments sometimes replace pay for performance.

The most interesting finding in this survey is that taking the easy road may be more expensive in the long run.

The good: COLAs are easier to administer and roll out that pay for performance plans for obvious reasons. For one thing, they are highly standardized and easy to understand. You don't need a team of compensation specialists to give everyone a 2.3% COLA. Even managers understand it. And you don't have to deal with whiny or litigious employees who think they should be getting a higher than average raise because everyone is treated equally.

The bad: COLA tends to be a self-fulfilling prophesy. Once you have a COLA culture people expect it every year, regardless of their own performance or company performance, and over time modest increases can really hit you in the bank. And sadly, it's easier to close a plant than control salaries.

The funny: Here's my favorite takeaway line because it shows that even a fairly dry topic can amuse: 'There's a reason why comp specialists always go to lunch in threes.'

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Tiny Budgets

The Compensation Cafe has recently published some great posts on how compensation professionals can make the best of tiny merit budgets.

It's all good stuff and I have nothing to add except this poem:

Dear Employees,
This year’s budget is pretty lame
But we still all have to play the game.
Be sure to complete your performance review
Although there may be nothing in it for you.
Calculating your bonus don’t need a math whiz
Just close your eyes… and there it is!!!
Merit increases will be tiny
But before you get all whiny
Your manager has been trained to offer succor:
‘I know you worked hard, but we ain’t got the lucre.’
Oh, and stock? Not so much.
That’s just for top performers, which you’re not as such.

You were pretty close but no cigar
So work harder next year to be a star.
We still want to show appreciation so everyone wins
Therefore we are also handing out these lovely
tie pins.
Now that’s what we call talent management.
Sincerely, your HR department.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Common Cents

My first real job was with Andersen Consulting (Accenture today, not the Enron one). Now, you may disagree with me, but although I've worked with and for a number of great companies since then, to this day I look back at Andersen as a model of Talent Management.

AC's recruiting process was really good. Their recruiters had refined the job descriptions and identified the core traits of people they were trying to hire. Fancy that! Applicants were given an opportunity to AC employees from staff consultant up to partner, giving both sides an ample opportunity to sum each other up. Not surprisingly, AC had a high success rate among new hires.

AC didn't pay much and explained it like this: "We pay a bit less but we'll train you and give you so much practical business experience that you can walk out of here and earn three times as much after two years. Or stay the course and in time, if you've got the right stuff, work your way up to partner." Sounds fair to me.

There was a full-sized campus near Chicago to handle AC's classroom training needs, where I spent a week going through various excercises, like managing a virtual project team. My virtual team members came to me with various problems, complaints and requests and it was my job to keep them productive.

Apparently I got the highest score ever on this part of the exam. Wanna know how?

Here's the secret to winning the virtual HR game: Apply a healthy dose of common sense to daily situations and be quick to show appreciation for the people who help make the business successful.

And here's another secret: It works in real life, too.

Career & Succession Planning:
Andersen offered a standard career plan that allowed people to move up the ranks to partner in a predictable amount of time, assuming they performed to clearly defined standards. Naturally, such an ambitious career path for so many people also required a high rate of attrition. Succession plans were clearly defined in each project and in fact, ex-Andersen consultants are seeded all over the business world today, so pretty smart, really, to encourage attrition.

OK, you get the idea. Obviously this model couldn't work for everyone. Most companies can't get such a high rate of return on new employees, which means mass hiring isn't feasible, which means en masse attrition isn't desirable, which means professional growth opportunities tend to be a bit thin on the ground, which means you can't offer professional growth in lieu of a high salary.


But I think we can still learn something from these talent management strategies.

Speaking from personal experience, I worked crazy 80 hour weeks for not much money, helped make large strategic clients successful and waited to leave until I could be replaced, even turning down one tempting offer to do so.

That's called loyalty. If you can inspire it, it's cheaper than a six-figure salary and you don't have to pay taxes on it.

So consider this: What do you offer your employees? If it's just money, and not much of that these days, how many of them do you suppose would show the same loyalty if a better offer came along?

Be honest, now.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Talent MANAGEment

A cynical person might describe Pay for Performance like this: Management pretends to have a bevy of rewards that are earmarked for top performers and employees pretend that their daily activities are aligned with corporate goals and that their performance was instrumental in helping the company meet them.

But I'm not cynical. Let's face it, it's human to want to put your best foot forward and 'Pay for Performance' has a much better ring than 'Punish Medicrity' or 'We Have No Money This Year But Thanks For All Your Hard Work.'

When I started blogging on human resources topics about a year ago the market was depressingly oriented toward automated talent management solutions, as if to supplement poor management rather than improve it. Kind of like treating the symptoms rather than looking for a cure.

What not many people seemed to realize is this: The key player in making performance management process successful is the manager, not the process.

A good manager is more than someone with decent social skills who does an acceptable job of consolidating team metrics. Heck, anyone can do that. A good manager: someone who makes employees feel important and valued.
...motivates people to either take on more responsibility or else be satisfied with the responsibility they have, as needed.
...makes employees believe they are rewarded in accordance to their contributions, which is especially important when times are tough and there are no promotions or raises to be had.

In other words, a good manager is equally versed in the art of mentoring employees and stringing them along.

And with respect to the current economic situation, if you only have a tiny merit budget, you need even better managers. Kind of like you have to spend more on flattering clothes if you're overweight - if you're skinny you can look great in any old thing but if you like to hit the cake you need better clothes.

From a corporate point of view the quality of managers is the single most important thing you can get right.

Think about it: This is the person you are counting on to coax the best possible work out of average performers, motivate or identify and eliminate underachievers, and retain the loyalty and channel the creative energy of top performers.

And it goes without saying that managers also need and deserve good managers.

The good news is that today I see ample evidence that the attention of HR professionals is starting to shift to the manager. Every HR blog I visit seems to have something to say about the importance of good management. Which is great but it's only the first step.

The next step is answering this question:

How can companies do a better job assessing and developing the skills of their managers?

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Celebrity Compensation

This isn't the first time I've blogged about celebrities and human capital management. In my post about Non-Monetary Benefits, for example, I discussed the motivational benefits of hiring celebrities as managers instead of just normal people. And in my Diddy post I showed how performance management is alive and well in reality TV.

As a compensation specialist it was therefore inevitable that I would eventually fix my sights on celebrity compensation.

So let's talk about American Idol. I don't watch American Idol but I have caught snippets while channel hopping or being held captive at someone's house while they were watching it and on those occassions felt myself drawn to Randy Jackson's laid back competence and Paula Abdul's warmth.

Recently Paula announced that she would be leaving the show due to dissatisfaction with her compensation. Although the offer was rumored to be around $10 million, which you and I would probably find fairly generous, the sticking point seemed to be how it measured up to her colleagues' compensation.

Is this a case of gender discrimination or could it be fairly argued that Paula wasn't performing as well as her AI colleagues and therefore received a lower offer?

In any event, the AI producers decided to let her walk without upping the offer and I find myself pondering whether they made a good decision.

On the one hand, I am a firm believer that talent management is about treating good people fairly and well, so I personally side with Paula in her demands for more equitable compensation. I think paying her more would have been an overall win for the show since she clearly has a loyal fan base and has played a significant role in making the show a huge success.

On the other hand, after much soul searching I can't honestly say the producers made a mistake from a purely business point of view because no one is irreplacable once a critical mass of success is reached.

Not even someone who helped make a business venture successful and continues to do so.

What do you think?

Monday, September 7, 2009

A Convenient Truth... for some people, anyway

This weekend we were invited out to the countryside for a friend's birthday party. The weather was perfect, with a stunning blue and white Bavarian sky over lush green rolling hills as far as you could see, dotted by the odd red roof or light brown cow. All day long we sipped wine, grilled everything you can grill, ate frozen Snickers and downed all manner of ecclectic side dishes.

In between the more serious business of eating we talked about everything under the sun. We were a youngish (think new 30), urban, professional group from all walks of business and it was a great chance to compare notes on the workplace with other working moms.

One discussion stood out for me because it dichotomized two sides of a debate that I have been personally interested in since having children:

Part time employees and the role they play in modern business.

On one side of the debate was Tanja, an experienced orthopedic surgeon who has taken twice as long with her residency because she has two kids and only works part time. She feels it is unfair that her residency has been extended so long when, except for the actual hours present in the clinic where she works, she performs at the same level as her colleagues. At the end of the day, she sees the same number of patients, performs the same number of surgeries, fills out the same volume of paperwork.

'Part-time workers are the deal of the century,' she informs us. 'They cost about half what the full-time people do and they work more efficiently. When I was full-time I would take a long lunch break, chat for an hour, procrastinate before doing my paperwork, because I had plenty of time. Now I get in, check out my case load and usually grab a sandwich between cases because I know I have to leave at 3. But supervisors need to be more flexible to reap the benefits.'

Brigitta, a tall, blue eyed Austrian who seems quite friendly until someone whispers that she manages the entire pension fund of one of the world's largest companies, and then you think she can't actually be that nice, nods but disagrees.

'I think some jobs lend themselves to greater flexibility than others. Your job is a perfect example. If you're operating on someone's knee it doesn't matter if you do it in the AM or the PM, and Monday may work as well as Tuesday. But if you're working on something like ongoing negotiations, where you need to be in constant contact with the other parties and easily reachable, it's not feasible to make the other person wait or brief someone else to step in on your off days.'

Then she laughs and since this is before I know what she does for a living I see it as a friendly laugh, and maybe it is, because who says that women who are reponsible for billions of dollars in a male dominated culture can't also be genuinely nice? 'I personally hate it when I can't reach someone.'

What the heck, I laugh, too, because I'm tipsy and, I mean, who does like that?

She continues: 'Whenever I call someone in the US and get their voice mail it drives me crazy. And I know it drives the Americans crazy to call here and not be able to get straight through to the person they want to talk to because anyone in the office might pick up. Americans like voicemail better than talking to people.'

I felt this was a little off topic but it still struck me as an interesting observation.

She focuses on Tanja's situation again and offers a truce: 'Look, I'm pretty easy going about letting folks work from home, although I have plenty of colleagues that are total hardliners about that because it makes them feel out of control.'

Tanja rejoins with: 'Exactly. They feel uncomfortable. But I see that as a lack of trust.'

Brigitta: 'True, I see your point. But it's easier to work with people if they're right there.'

Tanja: 'Oh, ja, it's definitely easier, if that's all that matters.'

Brigitta (raising her wine glass at Tanja and me): Hey, if someone would offer me my current job at 80% FTE I'd jump at it!'

We drink to that. And I thought Brigitta raised a fair point about ongoing negotiations and the different levels of suitability of some jobs over others when it comes to working fewer or more flexible hours.

But bottom line, I think Tanja hit the nail on the head when she pointed out the potential economic advantage of part-time workers, if only companies could be more creative about utilizing them.

What do you think?

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Everything I ever learned about good management from bad managers

Several weeks ago I had lunch with a colleague of mine, who had confided to me that she had had the worst managers ever at a former company. Naturally I was intrigued, because poor managers are a special interest of mine, and I hoped to cash in like Scott Adams on her tale of woe. So, while tucking into a delicious French country salad with mushroom pizzata, I settled in for a pleasurable tale of pointy haired bosses.

Here is her tale: Her first hiring manager out of school had left the company by the time she showed up. Her new manager was not unkind but unable to either communicate what he wanted or understand what she needed from him. She moved to a new team and again her new manager transitioned somewhere else. Her next manager was a 'resource hog, an information hog and a gate keeper.' On one memorable Monday she was no where to be found - it turned out she was in Europe and couldn't get home until the middle of the week! When my friend requested some additional training to grow professionally and add more value in her current role, this was denied on the grounds of it being unfair to the other team members. And when she finally complained about her manager's incompetence to the next level manager, that manager failed to treat the information in confidence and disclosed the entire converstation to her manager, making it impossible for them to continue working together. She then went on to have several other medicre manager encounters before going to graduate school and starting over with a clean slate.

What chiefly struck me as I listened to her tale is that nothing very horrible happened - no one was yelled at or publicly insulted or forced to clean toilets with a toothbrush. No sexual harassment or anything like that. A fresh, ambitious new hire was thwarted in her desire for speedy professional growth, which is frustrating but not that unusual. And a poor middle manager was protected by an equally poor upper manager. In fact, if anything the upper manager is the real villain in the piece for allowing a poor manager to destroy team morale on his watch.

But far more interesting than my own reflections is what my friend took away from this experience: She learned that bad managers get away with bad management and that the only way to escape bad management and enjoy management perks - and make a positive difference - is to become a manager.

Our conversation made me wonder if this is what companies are teaching people by promoting people who lack management skills into management positions and then allowing them to continue in leadership roles regardless of whether they have the makings of a leader. If so, the workforce is probably full of people who are dissatisfied with both their current role and their current manager.

Oh, wait, it is.

I refer you to a thought-provoking post over at Talented Apps about the importance of job fit when considering promotions. Here we see the hint of an ideal world where success is not about the next promotion, but about doing what you love and being recognized and rewarded for doing it well. This can only happen, however, if management stops being seen as the path to autonomy, recognition and higher pay.

Or alternatively, I should add, a thankless job that involves lots of paperwork and political tapdancing so that no one with the right skills wants to do it.

What do you think?

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Human capital only appreciates if you appreciate it

This seems to be the ultimate secret of human capital management. You may think you know this, but do you really?

If you look at any financial statement you will see debits and credits, which in turn represent assets and costs.

That's the secret of accounting, by the way.
Most assets become less valuable over time. Again, nothing mysterious happening here, if you buy a new SUV (shame on you!) it will depreciate the microsecond you drive it off the lot because now it's: a) used; and b) already outdated.

Within the realm of non-animate assets, this depreciation rule seems to be universal: Stuff becomes less valuable over time. Our economy hinges on this so it's pretty important.

The only exception to this asset depreciation rule - besides antiques, that is - is human assets, which can actually appreciate before they depreciate. If only financial accounting could measure this as it occurs executives might finally put some effort into hiring good people managers instead of fiddling around with spreadsheets.

Because people don't appreciate automatically. You have to invest in them and manage them well.
Heady stuff, huh?

You already know this? OK, then answer this question honestly: How happy are the people at your company with their direct reporting managers? Because managers are the front line embassadors of appreciation or lack thereof.

So, unless you can say 'estatic' or at least 'pretty happy' (maybe estatic is overkill) your company doesn't really get this, no matter what verbage you have on that mission statement poster in the lobby.

Appreciation of human capital begins, not surprisingly, with appreciation. Appreciation can take many forms, both monetary and non-monetary, and the good news for the bottom line is that non-monetary appreciation can be extremely effective. Not to mention cheap.

But what it comes down to is this:

Do your employees feel appreciated?

Here's an idea: Ask them. If the answer is no, don't be surprised if you find yourself with an office full of depreciating assets that are captured in your general ledger as costs.

Monday, July 13, 2009

How do you roll?

I was recently caught by a short but excellent post by Meg over at Talented Apps about the importance of building up a 'team' that helps you be successful. The individuals on Team You are not necessarily direct team members, rather they are all the people who enable you to excel at your job.

This post grabbed me because I've recently been thinking and blogging about
'top talent' and why it's important not to forget about all the people who enable and support top performers.

I was high school valedictorian. This was in large part due to hours spent memorizing geometrical proofs and how a Bill becomes a law but even then I was enabled by a large supporting cast. For example, there was my English teacher who loved me and would have given me an A+ for writing my name on a crumpled cocktail napkin. There was my dorm mother Joan who let me stay up after lights out finishing my homework whenever I blew off study hall watching TV instead of studying. There was my family, who sent care packages and expressed pride in my achievements.

There were many others, too, but you get the idea.

It may seem like I'm going a little off topic here but I do have a point: No one is successful in a vaccuum. If personal academic achievement requires a diverse supporting cast, how much more so a job performed as part of a team?

Lately I've been thinking Talent Management could use a healthy kick in the behind for failing to take a holistic view that focuses on people and results. It's not about meetings, spreadsheets and picking the right software; it's about people, what motivates them and how they work best.

Standardized processes can support this but all too often they don't.

Talent comes in many guises. If your company only has one way of doing things you may find yourself with a limited talent pool because your pool will favor people who do that one thing well, instead of cultivating a team environment where creative diversity can thrive.

Isn't that what talent management is all about?

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Social networking or stand up?

In the early days I assumed that social applications like Facebook and Twitter were all about networking because, well, that's what everyone said. But then I got confused because there didn't seem to be all that much networking going on.

For example, after first reconnecting with school friends and catching up for all of five minutes, most of my Facebook relationships involved my 'friends' letting me know what movie or flower they are at all hours of the day and night. Not that this is completely uninteresting but it feels less relationship forming than an actual conversation or shared experience.

Mind you, it's not all one-sided. If I so choose I can also publish which Spice Girl I most resemble or announce to my network that I am watching 'Pimp My Ride.' It's also a good way to stay informed of the latest Youtubes or breaking news. And Facebook makes it easy to contact someone with a quick question or update, or write on someone's wall to express sorrow that their dog died (which is way more convenient than writing a card or calling), as well as stay in touch with people I don't see very often, all of which qualifies as networking.

But primarily people seem to use Facebook to create a virtual persona that is just a little cooler, wittier, happier and more glamorous than the real person. It's not about interaction, it's about advertisement. It's less about connecting and more about being connected.

Basically, it's not about us, it's about me. That's right, me, Captain Nine Tails, superhero, at your service. No time for a real conversation but I'll occassionally poke or 'like' one of your comments to show I haven't forgotten how close we are.

And the sarcastic shall inherit the Internet.

There are no interruptions in this virtual space, no need to listen politely to what someone else is saying while secretly thinking about your next comment, just the blessed quiet of the Internet that lets you to hide behind your gorgeous profile picture in tatty old pajamas and take as much time as you need to come up with a witty or jealousy invoking status.

Of course, with companies increasingly jumping onto the social networking bandwagon, the trick is to come up with comments that will make your friends laugh without alienating the colleagues and business associates that are also connected to you.

It's a fine line.

It's the best of both worlds. We never have to be alone again but we also don't have to deal with actual people.

So, it's clear why Facebook holds a certain appeal.

Twitter allows us to take our self-absorption a step further with real time updates of every thought that enters our heads, every cool thing we read and every fro yo stand we visit. Of course, we don't call it self-absorbtion, we call it 'personal branding.'

We count our followers the way 2nd graders count their Valentine's Day Cards.

Admit it.

It's brilliant really, scratching an itch most of us didn't even know we had. I mean, who could have guessed that each of us a deep, irresitable need to tell people that a carrot in our garden looks just like Einstein?

Well, OK, if you put it that way it's obvious.

Gone are the days when you would think of a great one-liner in the shower and not have anyone to say it to. . . (I see a huge market for shower Twitter, by the way, waterproof units installed right into the tile in case you have a thought worth sharing while shaving your legs, so you can 'shweep' to your 'tweeps'.)

Back then you'd have to remember your dazzling comment for days, maybe weeks, until you could finally contrive a situation to use it and try to make it sound spontaneous. And sometimes you forgot it altogether and the world lost a brilliant commentary gem.

It was like living in the dark ages.

But that's only half the story, and not the most interesting half. Twitter is also emerging as an informational platform for a worldwide collective intelligence, where the latest trends and ideas can be posted to a group of interested parties. It is a viable platform for applying political and social pressure. Opinions are shared and formed. Tipping points are reached. Communication is exponentially faster and necessarily more shallow.

The collective plugs in, absorbs data and subtly changes its nature.

I sometimes wonder where this sound byte-oriented, realtime communication will take us as a society. I wonder if when my children grow up they will be capable of having a face-to-face conversation with actual eye contact or if that will already be an outmoded concept. Perhaps it will cease to matter who people are as long as they have a cool avatar. Maybe over time people will cease to live in the real world altogether, preferring a cerebral existence that makes no ethical demands.

Then again, it could also be that the vast growing social network will become an important tool of human evolution, making us wiser, more tolerant, more informed, more connected to one another.

What do you think?

Monday, June 22, 2009

A Few Good Managers

A friend of mine who is looking for a new manager at her company recently asked me for advice on finding a good one. Although the importance of good management is a recurring theme on this blog, it's not an easy question to answer.

First of all, what is a good manager? It's fairly subjective but I think most of us can agree that we'd rather work for someone who is honest, competent and mentoring than someone who is a self-serving suck up who spends all their time angling for the next promotion.

Unfortunately, it's difficult to tell in an interview whether someone is in it strictly for themselves or also has some genuine interest in the individuals they are to manage. But difficult or not, it's pretty important because you're hiring this person to lead a team of people who do paid work for your company and you'll get a better pay-to-work ratio from satisfied, well-managed employees than bitter, frustrated employees who sneak off to Starbucks to complain about their manager.

Here are several questions that can help identify whether candidates have their heart in the right place when it comes to managing people:

1. What do you think the primary job of a manger is? This question will help you get a sense for what the candiate is all about. Of course, no one will be totally honest and respond with, 'I think a manager's primary job is to pontificate at meetings, overengineer simple processes and pretend they understand what their team is working on so they can take credit for it,' but it's a start.

2. Describe projects you have worked on as a team lead and how you supported your team. This question helps uncover specific examples of how the candidate worked with people in a team lead capacity. Does the candidate focus primarily on how masterfully he presented to the project sponsors on a daily basis? Or is anything forthcoming about how she helped people meet their deadlines and/or personal objectives? This is where you may get a more honest answer to question #1 through specific examples and can start to form a picture of this person in action.

3. How do you think your colleagues and direct reports would describe you? This question forces the candidate to see him- or herself through other people's eyes. A more commonly asked question is, 'Describe your weaknesses,' which everyone is prepared for with some answer like, 'I'm just too dedicated and hard-working [heavy sigh].' I used this one myself with great success before it got published in the Dummies Guide to Job Interviews and everyone started using it. The point here is that because the stock answer won't work for this question you may be rewarded with a candid answer.

One other question worth asking if the candidate comes from a company that just went out of business. (Side note: It always amazes me how eager companies are to snap up the management teams of failed companies. I mean, think about it.)

4. Why do you think your former company was not successful? This question also forces the candidate to be introspective and again, surprise may elicit an honest response. There are limits to how much candor you can expect, of course, but this question will give you some insight into the candidate's problem analysis skills.

Important note: The interview is just one tool for vetting candidates, and not necessarily the best one since even serial killers have been known to make a great first impression. Be sure to ask the candidate to include at least one direct report on the list of references and also use your own social network. Ask colleagues if they have any contacts that have worked with the candidate. At one company I worked with we asked employees to check their LinkedIn connections on a candidate with a glowing CV and the prompt, consistent feedback was, 'Bit of a waffler, really.' We passed.

And finally, let the team members with a stake in the decision interview the candidate and have a say in the hiring decision. It's only fair, not to mention respectful.

Having said all this, the bottom line is that if you care about good management, hiring a good manager is only the opening move and won't get you very far unless you have a corporate culture that is conducive to good management. In other words, you also have to make sure you're getting good management from your managers after they are hired. This means defining what good management means to your company, monitoring that it is occuring and rewarding it where you find it.

This could be a topic for my next post so stay tuned. . .

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The best review I ever had

I've written several posts about how a good manager puts the 'manage' into performance management. I think we can all agree that the manager plays an important role but what does that actually mean when push comes to shove?

If there were a cut and dried formula for good management someone would bottle and sell it. There isn't. While there are definitely some wise guiding princples, different styles and techniques work best for different people.

Here are two examples of management techniques that worked well for me.

Technique 1: Constructive Feedback

When I first entered the workforce I was a process consultant with the company formerly known as Andersen Consulting (Accenture). Andersen did a lot of things right on the Human Capital Management front, from recruiting people who would be successful at Andersen to mentoring and training these people to letting them go graciously when the time came.

Because most of the work at a large consulting firm is project based, staff Androids like me would switch managers with each project. One of my first project managers was Joan and she gave me the best employee review I've ever had. This doesn't mean I got a stellar rating and huge raise, alas, it means her input was so constructive and honest that I keep it mind to this day.

I don't remember the specifics of the review. I received an adequate rating accompanied by some positive feedback about my hard work, discipline and quality output, yada, yada, yada. Then came the useful part that stuck with me.

'I've gotten some feedback about you that concerns me a little,' she said, after all the nice bits. She was quick to reassure me that it was nothing serious or career damaging, just something I might want to keep an eye on.

Apparently I had a habit of asking the same question over and over again in different ways until I got the answer I liked. Several people had noticed this and mentioned it to Joan.

'This isn't all bad,' said Joan. 'A good consultant and project manager needs to be tenacious. But you might want to tone it down a little.'

I leapt valiantly to my own defense: I was just seeking clarification. I was just trying to save everyone from making huge costly mistakes. I was just this and I was just that. Plus, whoever said that was clearly biased.

Joan stopped my outburst with an upheld hand and a suspiciously twitching mouth.

'Stop,' she said mildly. 'I know you have your reasons and I'm sure they are good ones. But here's the takeaway, Grasshopper (she didn't really say, 'Grasshopper'): If one person says something about you they may be biased and you may be able to shrug it off. If you get the same feedback from several people, however, take a mental note and watch yourself in action.'

This excellent advice has served me well over the years in team lead, project management and individual contributer roles. I feel fortunate that I ran into Joan and her constructive, personalized feedback early on in my career because subsequent performance reviews tended to be written by me. And I could never have given myself such great feedback.

Technique #2: Trust

It was a big week in the Munich office. Tom, the VP of Application Development was coming to town. There was a line up of people who wanted to meet with him, to apprise him of urgent situations as well as garner support for pet projects. I somehow scored a morning slot, and not right before lunch, either, so I was feeling pretty good.

Tom's claim to fame did not lie in his organizational genius, fiery temper, decisive decision making or skills on the golf course. He didn't even check his email on his Blackberry during our meeting, which was a bit disconcerting at first. He was soft spoken, polite and an excellent listener. He asked intelligent questions about my presentation and listened carefully to the answers.

At the end of our meeting, when a decision had to be made between A and B, he looked at me and said, 'I trust you. You make the call. It's OK if you make the wrong call, just make sure you have a good reason for making it.'

Then he shook my hand and thanked me for my preparation.

Incidentally, I made the right call.

Tom never came back to Munich so that was our first and last meeting. And yet, ten years later he stands out in my mind as one of the best managers I ever had.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Back to the Basics

I work in Munich. Not surprisingly, my colleagues are German. We're a small group so we often have lunch together in our favorite local restaurant, which happens to be Italian. Every month or so they publish a new menu and we dutifully select one of the specials, eat it, have an espresso, pay and walk back to work.

Today we had an Italian guest, a global IT consultant that came to discuss global payroll strategy. He used to manage IT for the United Nations and has a steady supply of stories and business insights. We took him to our Italian restaurant.

Without glancing at the menu he engaged with the waiter in Italian, asking him what he recommended. After several moments of consultation it was decided that lightly grilled fish with a side order of steamed vegetables would be the best choice.

I've spent time in Italy and know enough to follow Italian recommendations on food so I promptly ordered the same, even though I didn't understand much besides, 'fish.' Wine was also procured.

Naturally, it was delicious. 'Was that even on the menu?' I asked.

He smiled. 'I have no idea.' An expressive shrug to show that it was of no importance.

Waving his fork, he continued. 'It's all about people. You have to engage with people to get the best results. You have to talk to them.'

Yes, I thought. You have to engage with people if you want them to do their best for you. If you give people a form to fill out they will fill out the form, with varying degrees of enthusiasm or boredom. Nine times out of ten they will not bother to do more than fill out the form because that's what you asked them to do. If you want them to do more you have to ask them to do that, too, and pretty soon you have to tell people to dot every i and cross every t.

Sometimes the menu is just in the way.

Recently the
Compensation Cafe blogged about how processes can get in the way of people doing a good job. The actual credit goes to Steve Roesler at his All Things Workplace blog. The main idea is that most people want to do a good job but in too many cases it's the organization and processes that try to force them to work in a particular way that discourage engagement and prevent them from meeting their full potential.

I would say it like this: The best organizations let people play to their strengths.

My lunch companion also shared with me three rules for effective management, none of which had anything to do with organization or process:

'I tell my employees three things.

One: Be curious. If you aren't curious you will never stretch your potential.

Two: Don't be afraid to make mistakes.

Three: Don't work alone. Even if you do your best thinking on your own, come up for air and communicate. Share. Connect.'

Well. That beats filling out forms any day.

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