Friday, January 29, 2010

What Teachers Make

Poet Taylor Mali gives a short, inspired talk in response to the question, 'What do you make?'

According to his bio, he's not actually a teacher, which is a shame because I would send my kids to his school.

A few highlights:

'I make students work harder than they thought was possible.'

'I make a C+ feel like the Congressional Medal of Honor.'

'I make a difference. What about you?'

So, we know employee morale is rather low these days and there is some disagreement about what we should do about it.

Some take the attitude of,
'If they leave, good riddance. They weren't committed. We don't want their kind here.' Well, then. If the proof is in the pudding, I'm thinking these people will be eating pudding soon. And not the nice chocolate kind.

Others recommend implementing various appreciation programs, improving the quality of communication, that sort of thing. Now, you might think long-suffering employees would be too jaded to believe in new management approaches that are mostly talk and no mulah. But fortunately, people are so desperate for a pat on the back at work these days that it might actually improve morale.

Still, as long as we're on the topic, let's go deeper. Let's imagine we work for someone as demanding as Taylor Mali claims to be. Someone like my old chemistry teacher Mrs. Glasso, who used to yell,
'Think! Think! Think!'

Guess what? We thought. We tried harder. We read the assignments before class. We studied for tests.

(Well, except for a few people who failed chemistry.)

Did we love her for working us so hard? Sure, um... about twenty years later. But getting an A from her
meant something.

Appreciation was pretty thin on the ground in Mrs. Glasso's class. You had to
earn it. You didn't just get it for showing up and taking notes. But when you got it, it meant something.

She knew what we were capable of and accepted no less.

I think appreciation has its place in the workplace. When deserved there's no excuse for withholding it.

But appreciation may be a stronger motivational tool if it isn't too cheaply come by.

Monday, January 11, 2010

No more stars?

I've read a couple of thoughtful and thought-provoking posts lately on how teams may perform better without stars, including this one at The HR Capitalist.

First of all, let me say that I have personal experience with teams that have one 'go to' person, which depending on the topic can either be frustrating or kind of nice.* When the go to person moves on, the team shakes out into a new constellation, sometimes a better, more open one with new stars, sometimes a sad, disfunctional one.

*Obviously for fun and prestigious topics we all want to be the go to person, whereas for mind-numbingly boring and obscure topics we're grateful if some sucker's willing to cover the bases.

This being said, I'm not sure I buy into the idea that a good team doesn't need any stars. I played varsity volleyball in high school and no, I was not the star player. The star player was Caroline, who could jump four feet in the air and spike the ball at some poor girl on the other side of the net.

Our job was to get the ball to Caroline and I was totally on board with that because it was a winning strategy.

Caroline may have been the star but she couldn't have done it without the rest of us. For example, Kimmy would dive for the impossible shot. Laurie had nerves of steel and a talent for knowing when the ball was going out of bounds, even on close calls. Heather was known for her 'spikable' sets. I myself had a sizzling and fairly reliable serve, which was duly capitalized on in the overall game plan.

But Caroline won the games for us because no one could return the ball to her once she spiked it down their throat.

There's an unsettling short story by Kurt Vonnegut called Harrison Bergeron in which all people are forced to be equal - if anyone is found to be better than anyone else they are handicapped with loud sounds ringing in their heads or chains to weigh them down. Thomas L. Friedman also laments the loss of excellence and diversity that comes with standardization in his early masterpiece The Lexus and the Olive Tree.

My point is that you shouldn't rush out and get rid of your stars so that others can shine. . . or clip their wings so they can't perform better than anyone else. What you should do is figure out what people are good at and want to be good at and work that into your game plan.

It's not a star problem, it's a management problem.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Working Girls

In the US women make up 49.9% of the workforce and it is predicted that the percentage of women in management will also increase over the next decade. It seems that the glass ceiling has relaxed - somewhat - for women who are willing to make the necessary personal sacrifices.

For women with children, however, the story is different. Due to a combination of insufficient childcare and gender neutral expectations in the workplace, women are often forced to choose between children and careers. Even with a viable childcare solution, working mothers must sacrifice quality time with their children in order to pursue a 'real' career.

But what about working moms who have found an acceptable compromise as an individual contributor, perhaps working part-time or on a freelance basis? I can't speak for all of them but among the professional moms I know it seems I hear the same theme cropping up every time I talk to one of them.

What it boils down to is this: At some point in your career, especially if you used to be a high-flyer and are really good at what you do, being an individual contributor gets old. Especially as younger professionals join the workforce and end up managing these highly professional, experienced women.

Don't get me wrong. All of the women I spoke to are grateful to have a job and more time with their kids. My point is not that all of these women are ‘management material’, nor am I arguing for more women in management just because they are women - my best managers have been women but my absolute worst have, too.

Nonetheless, I find it interesting that in the last month I’ve chatted with five working mothers, each at the top of their professional game, who are frustrated for very similar reasons. For example:

C designs highly technical outer wear for some of the biggest names in outerwear. Chances are you own something designed by her, as do all the firemen and ski patrollers in Germany. ‘I love designing,’ she tells me, ‘but I'm tired of the endless meetings proving myself to people who don't even know what questions to ask. Ten years ago I didn’t mind, I was a childless workaholic and marketing myself was part of the price you pay to build a reputation. Now I mind.'

T is a doctor. It’s taking her twice as long to complete her residency because she works part-time, although she completes the same amount of work as her full-time colleagues by working more efficiently. What frustrates her the most is poor scheduling. ‘We have a person who works two days a week but they never get scheduled for surgery because no one bothers to check which days they're working each week. It means more work for me because I only work mornings but you can't just leave during surgery.’

K is a recruiter who is heavily in demand because she consistently brings in the talent all over Europe. Recently she’s been frustrated by the repetitive nature of her work. ‘I’m recruiting college grads,’ she complains, much like you or I might complain about dung beetles. ‘I did that ten years ago. And our processes are so inefficient, I could totally turn them around, but no one wants to hear it. And there’s too much work but no budget to hire someone to help me. My boss is nice enough but she’s just a kid.’

S designs enterprise software. If you use enterprise software at work there’s a good chance you use at least one of her products. ‘They have this new process where everyone works together at every stage of the design,’ she says. ‘I used to hash out the difficult bits, then work with the development team to refine and make changes where necessary before going into development. It was really efficient. Now I spend hours justifying the most basic and obvious business requirements to development. The new process takes forever.' She grins and adds: 'And they call it ‘agile development’.’

B is an electrical engineer who designs microchips. Your car probably has one of hers. She feels very deadlocked in her job. She explains: ‘It’s the same old conversations only with new people that have to reinvent the wheel. Maybe it’s an exciting voyage of discovery for them but I’m past that. I don’t know everything, and there’s new technology I haven’t worked with, but I know what works and what doesn’t. The problem is, I don’t have deciding power so I have to sit there and listen and try to persuade. Then after wasting most of my day in pointless meetings I have to dash out at 5 to get my kids.’

What these women seem to share is a high degree of experience, a strong desire to work more effectively and a frustrating lack of autonomy that prevents them from doing so.

There’s a fair amount of literature out there now that discusses the evolving role and increasing importance of women in the workplace. The primary focus seems to be on childcare, women in management, equal pay and the glass ceiling. All of this is interesting but not really the point.

I think the more important issue to tackle if we want to harness the power of women in the workforce is how experienced talent is managed, regardless of gender.


Image courtesy of Canarias 7.

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