An organization’s ability to learn and translate that learning into action rapidly is the ultimate competitive advantage. —
21 May 2013
I’m glad to see the stream of articles about Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, seems to be improving as people actually read the book. One of the better ones arrived in the New York Times by Anne-Marie Slaughter, who recognizes the value of both Sandberg’s urging that women develop more confidence in their contributions and possibilities as well as the importance of companies providing better support and encouragement. Anytime we hear ‘both’ is better than ‘either/or’ we can be sure someone’s on the right track. Nor can we particularly fault Sandberg, who mentions the need, but focuses on the key points she’s trying to make to women. Hers is the side of the equation that hasn’t been written about so well in the past.
There’s yet another message hidden behind Sandberg’s work, though – one that is getting missed and deserves a mention – her unwritten message to men!
This line of thinking started when I ran across a link entitled “Read What Facebook’s Sandberg Calls Maybe ‘The Most important Document Ever To Come Out Of The Valley’” The full document in question is embedded at the bottom of the article – a long slide show from Netflix about their culture of Freedom and Responsibility. I’m not sure I’d want to sit through 129 slides, but being able to flip through is great.
The presentation is well-structured and details the aspects of the culture that are important. It reinforces my earlier posts on the importance of maintaining a work environment or culture that is coherent and logical. As always it would be interesting to know how often it comes off the rails because a boss within the company does something not in keeping with it, doesn’t ‘walk the talk’ and ends up shaking employee confidence in these fine sentiments, but that’s another question.
Netflix has laid out some pretty high principles to live up to. Sandberg’s endorsement of them first caught my eye, but then I started to think we keep hearing how differently women lead and how well these principles fit ‘their’ style. Perhaps not surprising a woman would endorse them. I’ve often objected that that these aren’t exclusive to women, but they are, in fact, the style men, too, should be using to be more effective in today’s work environments.
But there’s the message that isn’t spelled out in the Sandberg coverage we’re reading so much about these days. Where women need to be more assertive, more confident in stepping into challenging situations… and then applying ‘their’ style without apologies, men have a challenge, too. In the past, all too many men succeeded in getting promoted or in starting businesses simply because they HAVE the confidence Sandberg argues many women lack. But once in power, men have been exceptionally poor at applying effective leadership principles in many cases.
Yes, women make mistakes and sometimes head off down the wrong paths (Yahoo’s CEO may be an example as we’ve noted), but far more almost inexplicable mistakes are made by men who lack the sensitivity or interest in others to be as effective as they could be in leadership roles. All too often articles end up being written almost more about how a male CEO succeeded in spite of his bad behavior and lack of insight than due to good qualities in those areas.
Let’s just say that if Sandberg succeeds in convincing women to learn the skills and confidence she feels they lack… those women will have BOTH and it will be the men who lack one of dual key elements for super-success. At the same time women are being coached to be more assertive, men need more coaching about listening, involving, engaging and providing support to their team members.
If we’re going to sit back and say what I’m hearing about Sandberg’s work from some quarters – “See we told you women’s lacks played a key role in them not ending up in the C-suite,” then we also need to be aware that we’re asking them to do BOTH things – continue to be the sensitive, supportive listeners they’ve been characterized as PLUS develop a more assertive edge. Well sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander as well. Men can no longer argue that they don’t have time to be sensitive, reflective listeners who support and encourage staff because they’re too busy ‘driving’ the business. If we expect both from women and promote and recognize those who do, we have to face up to the need for both from men as well, don’t we?
The plain fact is that a success like Sandberg’s proves one person CAN do BOTH. So if women can, surely men can also. And studies proving the tremendous financial advantages for companies with leaders who provide the listening, supporting, coaching style certainly suggest that people who can do both will ultimately emerge as the top choices for leadership in every case regardless of gender, which is the point I’ve continually attempted to make. In other words, as much as women need to ‘lean in,’ men need to ‘lean OUT’ – to become more ‘other-oriented’ and caring about what their team members need to innovate and deliver results effectively.
14 May 2013
As soon as we find simple answers to problems, someone jumps forward to tell us this is just common sense that we should all have known long since. Yet in workplace after workplace, these simple factors that could improve results are the ones not being addressed in many cases.
Fundamentally, HR is common sense, meaning basic sense, but not the kind that’s common for a lot of people. If we could think of it from the Golden Rule view or the ‘platinum’ version – treat others as you would have them treat you or as they would like to be treated, things might run more ‘sensibly.’
We all like to feel some autonomy and to contribute to a common goal, so setting out a clear, worthwhile purpose in a way that people can aspire to a long range, value-oriented goal and then encouraging, supporting, coaching, giving them the tools to go after it makes a ton of sense. Removing anything that conflicts with that or makes a mockery of it – harassment, bullying, not walking the talk as a leader, rewards that reward the wrong behaviors, favoritism over competence and not dealing with poor performance – all these and more turn up in dozens of unique, but equally bad forms that kill off faith in fairness, inclusiveness and importance of the mission.
It’s a total environment in which we work! When they say ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’ that’s what is meant. Aim people in the right direction with the right tools, encouragement and recognition and without dopey impediments and you’ll exceed your goals every time. Introduce derailers and you quite simply but effectively derail them. People will struggle on because that’s what they’re paid for – coming to work, but with no heart in it, presenteeism, retiring on the job, call it what you will, but it’s all the stuff of the unending Dilbert cartoons.
Someday in retrospect it’s going to seem foolish that we needed the mountains of research by academics and consultants to tell us these ‘common sense’ facts about how people behave and when they work best. All these are finally starting to be taken for granted in more and more organizations until finally they will be understood implicitly everywhere around the globe.
Now attention is turning further, to studies about WHY managers don’t follow these common sense principles in a great many situations and, slowly, we are coming to realize there are very common human characteristics in our thinking brains that we need to work to overcome if we are to apply these principles universally.
But it still won’t be easy. I liked this article from New York Times, but was shocked at the lack of insight in parts of it. I hadn’t read about Professor Adam Grant’s work, renowned because it puts numerical measures on the value of simply setting out a purpose for people’s work – in one study 142% more time on the phones in a call center bringing in 171% more revenue (if the math is right that’s nearly three times the original performance, followed by a study that achieved four times more). I guess it’s being written about because he has a new book out last week, which I haven’t read yet.
Still there were naysayers alluded to who offered situations where this wouldn’t work – telling Chinese factory workers how excited Apple iPhone users were with their product. That might not work well? Duh. And the article implies Dr. Grant has no answer to that. Well I do… and anyone with common sense does as well. Call center work is drudgery, though feelings about it can be improved significantly. Productivity will definitely be low and therefore relatively easy to multiply by a lot.
Giving people a clear example of how it benefits worthwhile results is going to be an ideal situation for driving immediate measurable improvements as in this case of showing how drumming up more scholarship money helps worthy recipients. Showing the impact on end users wouldn’t work as well if the phone center was pushing a scam or raising money for people who already have everything. You’d have to find some other, truly positive purpose. In less dull work environments, the immediate improvement might not be so visible, but without a purpose, you can be sure results would be less.
In other words, you have to look at the entire situation in each case, case by case. In the Chinese iPhone-maker example, some workers hearing how happy buyers are will likely be more motivated even in the example proposed, but our first impression is that many will feel, ‘so what – spoiled American consumers who have everything already, why should we bust ourselves providing even more?’ But that’s hardly the motivational example a great leader would provide. Instead workers might be highly motivated by the income they generate for family or the improved robustness of their community’s economy by turning out a product people (even if it’s rich people) are happy to pay a lot for.
Where so many discussions of HR strategies fail is in taking a limited view, focusing on just one or two elements or a particular example that isn’t fully examined in a 360 degree assessment. For humans to respond to strategies well, they cannot leave room for cynicism and flaws. They have to make coherent sense taking all aspects together. That is what so many people miss in their critiques – the most fundamental piece of common sense. The greatest bowl in the whole world won’t hold any water at all if you leave a hole in the bottom. Complete the strategy fully or don’t bother.
7 May 2013
The person who convinced me to join Goodreads, the site where readers review and make recommendations about the books they read, sent a link to a work called Good Strategy, Bad Strategy by professor/consultant Richard Rumelt. It is truly insightful and thought-provoking. If I were still in the business of consulting on strategy this is a book I’d keep handy.
Much of the power of the work lies in just three areas although there’s lots more for the serious reader. First it calls attention to a good number of the many ways you can create bad strategy such as simply setting stretch goals in a variety of areas where you’d like to see better results without actually thinking through fully all the factors make them achievable or not. How many so-called strategy sessions have you sat through where everyone agreed you have to raise sales by 10% and then brainstormed how training and motivation of the sales force would do it. But if the market is shrinking, the product is tired, the public is moving on to something else, the competitors are beating your prices, the regulatory requirements are now working against you… this isn’t ‘strategy.’
Just understanding what isn’t strategy would be a huge step forward for many organizations. It would push them to go further to find an actual, useful strategy instead of stopping short than congratulating themselves on another good annual session.
Second, he points out with lots of excellent examples, how strategy is situational. What would be good strategy for one competitor is poor for another even within the same industry. There is no such thing as a universally good strategy for a sector or an organization that can be simply copied or pulled off the shelf. This should be pretty self-evident, but clearly isn’t. So often, ‘strategy’ boils down to figuring out that your competitors are going to green packaging or some other new trend, so you should, too.
Along the way Rumelt points out how organizations get bogged down in inertia in various ways – slow-changing culture, lack of insight into and willingness to move with real trends, etc. More nimble organizations take over.
In the same chapter he talks about entropy as a problem – the tendency of systems to become increasingly disorganized if they aren’t properly maintained and if energy isn’t constantly invested to do so.
The latter point is more subtle, but it ties in with key point number three – the need for coherence in strategy. He discusses this in various ways, but especially pointing out that choosing a strategy is pursuing a hypothesis about what will and what won’t work to give you an advantage in a particular situation. Depending on what competitors are doing you need to do something else that will give you an advantage, so you have to understand your competitors, but more importantly you have to think in two particular ways. First, what should you be doing AND NOT doing so as to differentiate yourself in a way that makes you stand out as valuable to some block of customers or candidates for hire. Second, how can you direct ALL your activities to support and improve on the ways you’ve chosen to stand out in and away from the ways you have rejected.
Will your airline excel at short haul or long haul, passengers or freight, national or international? Or if you feel you are large enough to do it all, can you structure in a way that doesn’t confuse the people delivering each of those services and give each service the consistent, COHERENT supports it needs to thrive? The purpose of making choices is so you can consistently evolve your operations in a direction in which you can become expert, the number one or two leader. As many others have pointed out, this takes years to achieve effectively. You can’t be the cowboy who jumps on his horse and rides off in all directions.
This is the point I try to make all the time with HR strategy within an organization as well. The exciting thing about the pretty much neglected topic of employment branding, to take one example, is pretty much exactly this. You can’t be all things to all people, a little bit of everything for everyone. You need to understand the types of people you want to hire and what attracts and retains THEM. You can’t simply copy what competitors do. You have to evolve as your target market evolves – to continue to attract them and satisfy them. Certain elements are fairly universal, but even then not totally. Most employees want a company that seems to assure stability of employment, but there are super-free-agents who really don’t think about that, who want excitement and big reward opportunities… and so forth.
A key thing about a brand is what it is NOT. Google isn’t a work-at-home company, but Yahoo was much more so. Google looks for every possible way to offer on-site work under coherent, positive policies and it keeps looking and improving, avoiding deterioration of entropy. Yahoo distinguished its employment brand in part by work-at-home, but apparently did not do everything possible to line up all the aspects of that so that both employees and employer benefited. Maybe it was irreparably flawed or maybe it just didn’t get the strategic thinking it needed. Fixing a problem like that has to be difficult and has to involve more than sending a memo saying we’re ending the practice or it will leave a gaping hole in the overall plan.
30 Apr 2013
The tale was passed around in an earlier career life that when Larry Ellison, founder of Oracle, arrived in a Board room to do a deal with a high-flying IT guy, the signs of ego could hardly fit in the room – a flying squad of bodyguards (disguised as aides) paving the way beforehand, gold chains, open shirt, deep tan. It was one meeting I missed, but was regaled with opinions left and right about him and his entourage, all of which seemed to fit reports at the time along those lines.
Even though his intention to buy Apple never came about, it’s hard to argue with success as we continually observe in so many organizations. I might not even waste time calling such a story to mind except for the recent publicity about Oracle’s results. One day analysts were predicting rosy outcomes and, wait for it… the next day the company’s CFO was blaming its sales staff for missing expectations (therefore not so indirectly blaming HR as well for poor orientation and training of) – all the new staff they had to hire for their recent acquisitions… acquisitions no doubt that provided more feathers in the caps of Ellison and the CFO. Did they even involve HR in the planning? Lots don’t.
One thing you learn in public companies is there is lots of behind the scenes rumbling about ‘guidance’ to analysts to foreshadow and shape expectations about good or bad results. The worst thing is to allow surprises. A “surprise” that nevertheless the CFO had an instant answer for doesn’t seem like it should have been such a surprise. Can’t anyone read the sales reports leading up to public reporting? Yet this wasn’t foreshadowed even one day before results were announced that ended up seeing the share price drop 8% – a rather significant oversight, something not handled in any way by HR.
Of course, the news item goes on to say, some of the drop might be due to rumbling that tough cost-cutting President Mark Hurd, ex-Hewlett Packard operator, might be recruited away to run Dell in a buyout of that ailing company. And so the egos and musical chairs continue to shuffle at the top of behemoths in the industry. What would Steve Jobs do? (Oh, I suppose you’d have to buy the book of that name to give it a good guess.)
Apparently what these leaders won’t do is take responsibility for either poor planning, poor support for HR programs or poor anticipation of the impact of these things. One would have to include Hurd in that group and perhaps take a closer look at his record at HP and Oracle and others before offering Dell up to see if his standard approach is really what’s needed there. From everything we read, cost-cutting CEOs tend to be shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic compared to the success rates of those who promote highly effective HR and engagement to boost innovation and, pretty directly, financial results. Maybe, just maybe, even Oracle would be better off with a different sort of leader. But it’s hard to argue with success, right?
23 Apr 2013
Every few years someone makes a splash with an “HR is totally unworkable” article. We all recall Fast Company editor Keith Hammonds’ Why We Hate HR (I blogged a response and set up a debate with him for our HR association who first said yes and then cancelled on the basis that this was “old news,” which I argued would never be the case in our lifetimes). Then Richard Beatty, who trains HR people at Rutgers, gave his implied opinion that most HR people are doing it wrong, to which I also responded in several parts. He declined to debate.
The latest summary brings back Beatty and finds a few companies that are unhappy with their HR. Undoubtedly we’ll find some unhappy with their sales staff, their IT people, their finance departments and so forth. The answer is almost always to say ‘we can outsource you.’ It doesn’t usually lead to articles about the entire profession being disbanded… except with HR.
As usual the case in point this time is filled with inconsistencies and gaps. G Adventures we’re told had a funeral for its HR department and replaced it with – hold on for this – a ‘talent agency’ to find and recruit (isn’t that one aspect of HR – not all dead, just the name?) and a group of “Karma chameleons” who organize parties. Sounds like Why We Hate HR doesn’t it – turning HR into advanced party planners or rooters for the team who become mainly marketing departments for selling the company to prospective candidates. Does it occur to anyone there are other elements of HR?
At SCNetwork we just heard a CEO explain one reason he just hired and set up his first HR operation after 25 years. In part what he had to say was the senior line execs who were hiring were so focused on attracting the very young staff they believed would ‘fit’ they forgot these people actually needed to explain in interviews what their qualifications were and what they could do for the company. Not surprising when a 15 year old starts a new company, but it gets tired when the company gets bigger and older and finds people working (if at all) at cross purposes, doing their own thing (no policies, etc.).
He recounted that in one case they’d hired an executive early on to head tech (the core business operation) and had agreed to allow him to work where and when he wanted and moonlight for any of their competitors to the extent he ever felt like it. (Can we agree the typical party-pooper HR person who believes in ‘oppression’ as the article states [ie: having a policy?] would not have set things up like this?) They discovered this wasn’t working and had to put some boundaries around him until now he’s a major contributor at last and they don’t have to fire him.
So when the article quotes a company called Beam designing a new culture by asking ‘what would entrepreneurs do – not hire HR to start’ we might sigh understandingly initially until we note they have 3400 employees. Good luck with having 300 or 400 ‘entrepreneurs’ head the teams involved instead of supervisors or managers. In the words of the article, “Beam hopes to nurture what Molony calls "holistic managers," who take on deeper HR responsibilities. ” News flash – that’s exactly what entrepreneurs don’t want to do. It’s also exactly what my HR team used to say – “our job is to try to do ourselves out of jobs by making line managers so competent at their own HR they don’t need us.” It only lacks the last part of what we’d tell ourselves… “but that will never happen, so we’ll have jobs forever and the line will be happy to have us when they see what all is entailed.” As I quoted in a later blog post, studies show as many as 60% of managers don’t want to do HR or even manage, let alone become ‘holistic managers.’ We try to help them in that direction, but it’s not an easy path that will happen with no HR present.
It is great to have an HR department that tries to do itself out of a job. Line managers should be encouraged, coached, supported, even required where possible to take on HR tasks and become the senior HR person for their areas. It will always be an uphill battle in which the tendency is to blame HR for each and every shortfall.
The simple fact is the HR job is never done. It is never perfect. There will always be gaps and flaws to work on. That’s frustrating both inside and outside HR, but it isn’t always or even mostly the fault of HR. Every organization is a living organism that changes day by day, week by week, new boss by new boss, new business challenge by challenge. If Jack Welch says (in his book Winning) that HR is the second most important job in the organization (after Jack’s own at the time – CEO) and, as I noted a week or so ago and reiterate by citing another item – this time in the Zimbabwe Independent (a business weekly in Africa) – HR is being recognized as important everywhere in the world, then I think we can safely say HR isn’t dead, isn’t dying, isn’t being outsourced everywhere we look.
Every organization is different. Each requires a different mix of tasks to keep its culture developing, to keep innovation bubbling, to keep staff engaged and wanting to stay on. Study after study pulls statistics to show companies are figuring out how to get better at this and everything points to a new type of leader who nurtures the sort of work environments that multiply – triple or more – results. Entrepreneurs, though we all bless them for getting new, budding organizations going, are simply not the model we now know will help operations thrive. Everyone wants to look back to the mythical simpler day when a single know-it-all leader ‘just does it.’
Today we know better. Entrepreneurs and ‘just do it’ leaders need help and the help they need is exactly what they get from a well-functioning HR element in the organization, whether it’s a wise individual from day one who happens to be COO to the entrepreneur’s CEO role or an entire function. The question isn’t will we get rid of HR, but how do we get HR done best? Granted there are many examples of poor HR operations. Fine. Let’s report and dissect them so we can do better, but spare me the headline-making “HR at the breaking point” or “Does HR still have a role?” More and more organizations are doing it right. Let’s compare good and bad, not bad and ‘get rid of it.’
16 Apr 2013
It doesn’t seem very strategic, but recently a number of start-up company and related issues have hit the Internet in various ways that make one think about HR from other points of view than the large-company situations we usually expect are driving strategy in the field. One, for instance, was directly about sex jokes and who’s helping organizations deal with them,
This hit home further when listening to the webcast for SCNetwork’s most recent event (nice they are now available to members in recorded form afterward). In their annual “Tool Time” event, one of the four practitioners invited was a CEO who started his small, but successful company at age 15 and is only now, 25 years later, adding HR to the business. He told several hilarious tales about why this was very much needed, which I won’t repeat out of school, but the gist was the common story: they were just too busy getting things done to think about what often seem like complicated people implications. I expect most of this will be reported in the commentaries on the session due to be published in Canadian HR Reporter in a couple of weeks.
In addition, several African governments and related organizations have emphasized the need for HR (for example) to get things done. Once again the spectre rises of ‘too busy’ to get to it, with the resulting drag on results and healthy organization. But the good news is the message about the value of HR strategy and applications is spreading increasingly widely.
With this spread, the remaining questions start to come truly into clearer focus. As more and more is written about the value of effective HR, we have to ask if many people understand what that is. We don’t have to go very far to see pieces still being written about the same old beefs about HR being the police, the drag on performance from too much process, from a poor lack of understanding of whatever business it’s in.
The central issues is that HR needs to support the business and still find ways of introducing needed logic and process, ways to accelerate performance while making sure employees are working in a positive environment, free from harassment, bullying and with support, yet a certain amount of autonomy to put forward and try out their own ideas as well as coaching to get them onside with the company’s ideas.
The challenge that arrives front and center is that these are contradictory requirements and anyone who wants to make fun of HR can find dozens of examples in even the best organizations where someone, often someone in HR, erred on one side or the other. They let employees run wild, have the wrong type of ‘fun’ or (Yahoo?) work at home, autonomous, but with no controls. Or they set up the controls and are enforcing them too rigidly, destroying creativity and innovation.
Sound familiar? The fact is there is no way to make this less of a tightrope walk. Balance is the key, but to find a balance you have to sway to one side, then the other. The trick is to moderate the gyrations so they don’t result in falling completely off balance at any point. Moreover, to succeed, HR needs to help senior executives, who like decisive, final solutions, to walk the same tightropes, to struggle with the same balancing acts.
And the most fundamental balancing act of all? Knowing when to forge forcefully forward toward a goal and ‘damn the torpedoes’ and when to take a breath and reflect, to listen and gather opinions from staff with other novel ideas.
With that I’ll let you reflect for a bit, till at least next week, but just say that there has simultaneously been a rash of ‘brain science’ studies published with interesting implications about how and why we make decisions, whether we think through or just react to situations, all of which could be very enlightening on this subject.
9 Apr 2013
A friend and reader of the posts on Antifragility pointed out a great example of where it applies. He noted, as others have, that we use antifragile strategies fairly often without having had a name for them. My point, and the point of the book, Antifragile, is simply that having a name helps us by keeping us aware this is a unique way to approach things. It’s different from trying to build purely robust or strong systems, which we may not have the resources or ability to do in every situation.
Careers are definitely an area where having an antifragile strategy can work very well. You may have a robust career going but, as the author points out, if a catastrophe happens in your industry or sector, that may not suffice. What you need is a strategy that offers options, different directions and approaches you can take to getting the next job.
This sort of ‘other options’ approach can be built in different ways by different people. Another example would seem to be the story of a rapid rise by a 36-year old CFO and Chief Strategy Officer from a start in the mail room. On one hand you could read this as a strong individual impressing the right people in a single company and ask whether this person would do as well if his explosive rise had indeed blown up and he’d had to move to another organization. However there looks to be pretty good reason to assume that the numerous skills Mr. Bolinder developed would help him in quite a few places – especially when you note the changes in career streams within his short path – from mail room to sales to accounting to CFO to Strategy chief.
So it isn’t necessarily the fact you work in government or, as I did for a long time, education that positions you as a potential victim if big layoffs occur, but rather whether you have, in the words of the oft repeated saying, ‘put in 20 years doing the same year over and over or put in 20 years learning continually to seek and master new challenges each year.’ It isn’t the situation or the organization that limits you or allows you to build an antifragile career, but rather how you behave year to year in your career.
As you can see again from these examples, it isn’t that these strategies never existed before or that no one ever tried explaining. I always recommend to job seekers the huge value of offering to take on something new, volunteering for ‘extra’ duties, task forces or committees. It’s not so you can simply add that note to your resume, though that definitely helps at times, but so you get the learning available as you take on new challenges. As a side note I usually say, ‘don’t volunteer for the same stuff you’ve done a dozen times before, but for things that seem new and potentially interesting learning opportunities.’ Let someone else who hasn’t done it before try the old volunteer work so you can both learn new things and add to your value to the organization and to yourselves.
Does this suggest you should not ‘build on strengths’ (which is one of the new mantras of work)? No. But it suggests the key word in that phrase is “BUILD” on them, don’t just stick to, repeat, exercise your strengths and ignore the value of learning more in and around and beyond them.
By the same logic, it is incumbent on organizations and leaders to see that people have the encouragement and opportunities to do this. Where I often hear managers ruminating about their misfortune of having a great employee who wants to do something different and, worst of all, potentially leave the unit to do it, we need leaders who actively seek to help people take exactly those steps. In the long run everyone benefits.
2 Apr 2013
There are just so many hours in a day to keep up of course. One book that slipped by from 2009 was Teresa Daniel’s Stop Bullying at Work: Strategies and Tools for HR and Legal Professionals. If I saw it at the time, I’d have passed over it as just technical advice we probably already know. Since it doesn’t seem to be publicly available in any handy libraries I wouldn’t dig further.
This week it came to attention because the Connecticut SHRM chapter is having her present the findings which, they note, interestingly include information that HR professionals themselves are very often the targets of bullying and, in particular, it is due to their HR role.
That’s something I hadn’t considered although I’ve certainly paid attention to books on toxic managers such as my old friend Peter Frost’s excellent 2003/2007 book Toxic Emotions at Work. Peter’s focus was on managers in general who handled toxic work situations to protect others and took the strain themselves. In fact he attributed the cancer that finally killed him to such a work assignment.
Professor Daniel’s findings about how HR professionals often assume this role of toxic handling is outlined in her study summary available online. Essentially it shows HR people suffer bullying at about the average rate – pretty high: more than a third – but are somewhat unique in feeling that most of the time it’s because of their HR roles: that they come in conflict with the very managers they are trying to prevent hurting others or doing dumb things like firing people without adequate steps or justification.
Perhaps even more interesting is how often the bullies justify their bad attitude toward HR by insisting HR just doesn’t understand the business, has no ‘business acumen’ or the like. Sound familiar? It appears a good many of these claims are due to the HR role of having to say no to such managers for valid reasons that they might accept from a lawyer (although I’ve often heard lawyers accused of not understanding business as well), but from HR it is definitely waving a red flag.
Daniel’s, in both the study report and book, provides suggestions for HR to avoid these negative backlashes, but none of the advice suggests that HR can ever fully expect easy sailing from all quarters. Significantly, one of the major sources of bullying of HR is insecure managers who perceive HR as a threat. As I often observe, many, even most people don’t like to ask for help, which first of all means admitting they need it and they very much tend to dislike people they have to ask. So even HR’s most positive role view as those in an organization specifically hired to help everyone sets them up as potential targets.
She goes on to note that it is the most engaged, loyal people who put up with bullying longest, feeling (in HR’s case) they are protecting or shielding others in many cases, or simply tolerating being brow-beaten for the good of the company. Her advice begins with ‘take a stand,’ advice I often give as well though it may mean risking actual job loss. My view has always been if they are that bad, you’d rather be fired anyway, so find a nice way of saying ‘stop’ and find out. You either come our stronger or you get a severance package of some sort (in most cases). Again I often say to audiences, ‘use power or lose it.’ If that means attempting to use it and losing it abruptly I still believe people are better off, but it has to be an individual choice.
Daniel’s offers other good advice as well, including learning more about the business so the accusation doesn’t stick, but ultimately this the turning point is not tolerating bullying of yourself or anyone else. This goes far beyond just an immediate manager to the culture environment of the organization. If the culture tolerates bullying there isn’t much a single individual short of the CEO can do about it except try and accept failure gracefully and get out.
That’s why strategically providing protection from reprisals, bullying, harassment and discrimination is such an important part of providing a safe environment where staff can express opinions and disagree. If those basics aren’t in place, every diverse viewpoint, so necessary to today’s major need for innovation, will be suppresses as well.
So pushing for improved cultures and management behavior isn’t just a benefit for the company and business results as a whole, nor is it only the right thing just because it’s morally right, but it’s a personal benefit for HR managers and staff as well. Respect starts at home, like everything else.
On a final note of just pure add-on, it would be interesting to know if this is better or worse for HR professionals in the military, for whom I was surprised to see a two-week program called Silver Scimitar was set up in the US – an odd name, but certainly more interesting than the usual HR conference title. In reports on it, everyone expresses surprise about just how similar HR problem are in all organizations – duh!
26 Mar 2013
The last month saw two major operators with significant Work at Home arrangements end them suddenly. Both are relatively newly hired turn-around CEOs who seem to have concluded it hurts performance or they can’t turn performance around working in that environment. Without being inside (and possibly for insiders, too) it’s difficult to tell exactly, but both pose questions worth asking about HR strategy.
Former Googler, Marissa Mayer, now the youngest CEO of a Fortune 500 at 37, has gotten the most press, though we seem to be talking about only a couple of hundred people being recalled to a head office with lots of empty space to put them in (no cost? …and not a lot of staff to lose in a troubled company which might be saving on layoffs if some decide to quit – risky perhaps, but possibly sensible if reports that some were doing little work and even starting side businesses are correct).
Though accused of hypocrisy for building her own day care near the office for her new baby while cancelling work at home that may have helped new parents, a number of bigger HR questions remain unanswered that are undoubtedly more important than this particular program itself. First and foremost among them is the question why there hasn’t been more rationale given and more communication about help for employees whose lives are turned upside down.
First, observers clearly want to know if Yahoo will be helping new parents in other ways. This is being taken as an attack on women, but so far a fix seems unlikely initially based on vague comments from the CEO, though it may come as a patch later. More to the point – is the move primarily designed not as a message that Yahoo doesn’t trust absent workers and needs face-time as proof of effort, but as a parallel to what Mayer knew at Google, that employees collaborate better face to face and can develop more innovations that way? The latter seems most likely and could be a better rationale if spelled out, which doesn’t seem to have been done clearly at the outset.
Google provides lots of support that makes working on site easier, including bussing employees to work on wifi equipped vehicles so they can start work right away and later take time to enjoy free meals and other on-site perks. Without all that the cancelling of work at home has to look punitive, not a great hope for a positive culture change. While some observers blamed HR as the likely source of the cancellation, that seems totally unlikely, but apparently HR didn’t have enough clout to frame the transition to at least appear positive to everyone. All this smacks of inexperience and lack of forethought mostly. It’s significant coming from a CEO with just one previous company under her belt – always a surprise to find cultures differ dramatically even within the same industry – potentially an expensive lesson to learn at the CEO level.
Far more clear cut is the appearance of Best Buy CEO, Hubert Joly’s similar cancellation. He has plenty of other jobs and companies behind him, but maybe a poor view of employees. First there’s his now widely quoted comment to analysts that, "In a turnaround transformation you need to feel disposable as opposed to indispensable." This followed earlier comments that their ROWE (Results Only Work Environment – or ‘work whenever and wherever you like’ set up) was detrimental to effective leadership. Then a spokesman specifically noted managers can still allow some work at home set ups, but while favoring flexibility, there has to be a “conversation about what the results are and how the work gets done” (wasn’t there under ROWE?). All this screams ‘ending a sense of entitlement’ that inevitably hurts performance, but again without being inside, it’s going to be a while before we hear the deep story on this one about whether it was justified or a ‘baby with the bathwater’ move.
ROWE was touted as such a success at Best Buy for saving millions of dollars and raising productivity that the two OD originators left and wrote a book promoting their consulting about how to install the program elsewhere. Obviously Best Buy will now return closer to the culture they tried to leave, which was unfortunately characterized by the title of that very book, “Why Management Sucks And How To Fix It.” Joly is taking a hit for being a tyrant, but he’s at least left the door open for a balanced, thoughtful approach – for some to work at home if the rationale supports it, while others are in the office, ideally collaborating, though at first, as with Mayer, it doesn’t seem to have crossed his mind to try to spell out such a positive justification.
So, is work at home a bad idea? Will everyone now kill it off? Not at all despite the fact that many commenters are belatedly jumping on the collaboration bandwagon. In fact as we’ve noted dozens of social-media-type internal programs are being set in place to enable and make such programs more productive and collaborative wherever people are working virtually, whether at home or flung across multiple offices around the globe. Unfortunately it takes time for would-be collaborators to figure out which of these work and which elements don’t and ramp up productivity and innovation. In the mean time it’s hilarious to see publications which were hyping all the new collaborative virtual technologies a few weeks ago start bashing the idea of working away from a central location. Suck and blow at the same time anyone?
It’s clear work at home doesn’t suit every situation. One CEO who amply demonstrates Google isn’t alone in developing a consistent culture well without it is Tony Hsieh at Zappos, who also fits the humble leader model articulated by Jim Collins and others as you can see from his video comments on this issue.
What’s clear is that knee-jerk moves, poorly explained, are not advisable. Google is supremely successful and is innovating rings around most other companies because it has evolved the supports needed to make their particular approach work. Once again, this shows HR practices have to be consistent, that gaps and quick fixes that don’t fit logically with other programs are dangerous. Company cultures can’t be created effectively or changed overnight without tremendous care and continuing effort to iron out inconsistencies.
19 Mar 2013
We can probably trust Sheryl Sandberg is happy with the firestorm since it will undoubtedly bring tremendous attention to her March 11 book release: Sandberg, her book and her new organization!
Like many who are commenting I haven’t read it (yet). Unlike many I’m open about that. I suspect if I wait for the library copy it might take two years or more lining up. I believe those who say it reflects essentially what she says in her TED talk, but I’ll likely buy it anyway since the proceeds go to her great cause of encouraging women to more leadership. I still don’t feel comfortable commenting on the book directly, but I’m more than happy to get into the fray on everyone’s comments.
In short, I think she’s dead on. It’s foolish to criticize her for being a rich executive who is married and can afford daycare. She got herself there and is encouraging others to do the same, so what? Do we refuse to read Jack Welch’s books because he’s married and could afford not only daycare, but to buy most of us outright? No, of course not, we just want to know how he did it, so why does that make Sandberg’s contribution less valuable? Should we wait until a welfare mom with six kids she raised on her own becomes COO of Facebook? That could take a while. It’s obvious not every woman could or would want to follow the path to the big corporate office, but enough should to make it 50-50 there and they aren’t, so we absolutely need someone who has done it to tell us how and give her opinions of why more aren’t.
What the heck is wrong with a young woman from a family where dad’s an Ophthalmologist and mom quit to raise kids working hard and being smart enough to get into and succeed so well at Harvard that a professor becomes a mentor? Do men not get that support? What’s wrong with impressing bosses and prospective hiring managers so well with your credentials, attitude and track record that they hire and promote you? Isn’t this the dream? So why the firestorm suggesting we shouldn’t pay attention to career advice from someone who has managed one of the more ideal progressions? Why treat her remarks as if they came from someone daddy put in charge of his billion dollar company just because she’s family? That seems to be tenor of much of the criticism.
Of course Sandberg isn’t speaking for every woman. No one can, any more than a male CEO could speak for every man, for artists, for entrepreneurs, for people who have no interest whatsoever in corporate success. But as a reasonable representative of what is essentially the first generation of women finally arriving purely on their own merits as men do, albeit in small numbers, in top leadership roles, Sandberg deserves to have a say and we need to listen if we are ever to gain the equal benefit of this group to add valuable diversity of approach, thinking and contributions.
My experience and observations agree with Sandberg completely – men tend to inflate their views of themselves a little to a lot, certainly deciding not to take a back seat at the very least. They mostly assume they have what it takes to do the next higher job and usually a few more levels above that and they often volunteer. Oddly they still share with female executives like Sandberg the occasional moment when they fear they haven’t got what it takes, but they brush those thoughts aside a lot more easily from what I have seen. Women on the other hand, the ones I’ve worked with, almost invariably tend to feel they may well NOT have what it takes or that family will prevent them, and many dwell on these. Do they need a bit more support, coaching, encouragement to overcome that? Almost certainly and so do some men. If this brings more attention to the earlier book by Anne Doyle, Powering Up, which has many action-oriented bits of advice for different ways to get by these problems, even better.
If it takes a firestorm to get things moving, so be it. Just sad where a lot of it comes from, people who should know better.