Monday, December 14, 2015
Leaving a Legacy I’ve been fortunate to work with some great leaders over the course of my career, but ironically the ones who stand out the most are the bad ones. I remember a department holiday party where a new boss of mine asked the group what they wanted most out of their life. We went around the room and most answers were what you’d expect: • to be a good person, parent or friend to others; • to serve their church or community; • to have health and wealth; • to be successful. When it came to her turn she answered, “I want to leave a legacy.” No one asked her what that meant, but we soon found out that her path to leaving a legacy was to be self-promoting, blame others to deflect attention from her own deficiencies, and put herself and her reputation above all others. She was severely lacking in the technical skills necessary to run the department and never really gained the respect from the other executives in the company. When it came to making decisions she always sought the popular vote rather than what was truly needed. She mistakenly believed that leaving a legacy meant to be what others thought she should be. She forgot that being a leader was less about trying to impress others and more about helping those around you succeed. It was difficult for my team to work with her after working for a great boss and mentor for many years. He was technically skilled, tough yet demanding, a top notch collaborator, and someone who could be decisive but would prefer to guide you to learn on your own. He was such a good leader that he was often asked to manage areas outside of human resources, knowing that he could get the best out of those that worked for him. I don’t quite know why, but I’ve been thinking a lot about this topic of leaving a legacy. Perhaps it’s because our family was blessed with our first grandchild just before Thanksgiving, and I’m feeling a bit older and nostalgic. Or it just may be the holiday season causes us all to look back and reflect on the people and things in life that have impacted us the most. Whatever the case, I am truly grateful for my valued clients that have given me their confidence; my family, friends and business colleagues that have provided their support when I struggled; and those who have given me the gift of their legacy. Hopefully, I can do the same for someone else. From my family to yours have a safe and happy holiday season, and my best wishes for a healthy and prosperous 2016.
A History of Broken Promises For the next several months we get to hear the campaign rhetoric from the field of presidential candidates sharing their thoughts on how to make this country better. More often than not their energy is directed to criticizing the current administration and their fellow candidates rather than focusing on the true issues. It may make for great television and news fodder, but I find it hard to believe that whoever is ultimately elected will follow through on their campaign agenda. There has been a history of broken promises over the years that frankly make me cynical. It really is sad that the majority of the people we elect to run our great country can’t put aside their personal agendas and collaborate on issues that benefit us all. I shouldn’t be surprised that this behavior has translated to our corporate world and that some companies operate in the same manner as our elected officials with a lack of integrity and commitment. A close friend of mine worked with a company where a new senior executive team was brought in as self-proclaimed “change agents”, and many of the current executives were deemed unfit to continue in their position. One by one these executives were targeted; and the new executives were directed to orchestrate, or even fabricate, some type of performance problem that required correction and begin a progressive discipline plan to force the current team out of the company. Even more disturbing than the directive to “find something wrong” were the false promises made to this outgoing executive team by their new bosses. Some of the targeted executives knew what was happening and were bold enough to confront their managers. One executive said to her boss, “It’s pretty obvious that the company is changing direction and the new team has determined I’m no longer a good fit. If that’s the case, why don’t we just discuss an exit strategy rather than try to turn this into a disciplinary situation that is embarrassing for both of us and the team.” The boss was completely inexperienced at handling this type of situation and, rather than engaging the executive in a meaningful discussion or deflecting the issue to another time, denied any knowledge of the situation. He then assured the executive that she was in no danger of losing her job and that if there was a problem she would hear it directly from him. She left the meeting skeptical but somewhat reassured by her boss’s promise. Three weeks later, she was called to a meeting with her boss and the HR representative and advised she was being released from the company. After the details of her separation were discussed and she was leaving the meeting she looked at her boss who was staring sheepishly at the floor and said, “It’s been a pleasure working with you, and thanks for keeping me apprised as you promised.” When she and I later spoke about the situation, she told me the thing that bothered her most was not the separation itself but the cowardly manner in which her boss had handled the incident. “I’m angry with him for lying to me,” she said. “But I’m even angrier with myself for believing him.” Most of all she told me she felt sorry for the executives that remained and would have to incur the same type of treatment. True to form the other targeted executives were released and, as is the case so many times, the new team of change agents was replaced within a year after failing to develop the necessary trust and commitment of their team. Fortunately not all companies follow this sad example. I recently worked with a client developing a vision and values statement that the CEO wanted all employees to embrace. His first comment to me was, “I don’t just want plaque material to hang in the lobby but something everyone can understand and put into practice.” I admire this CEO’s dedication to creating a culture of honesty and integrity. He recognized that having a leadership framework for him and his executive team would lead to employee engagement and retention. Engagement studies have long supported that employees want to know both the good and the bad when it comes to the company they work for, but many organizations have adopted the philosophy of hiding or misrepresenting the truth due to unexplainable internal politics and simply poor leadership skills. Two of the values this CEO wanted his company to embrace were courage and integrity, both of which my friend’s former company were sorely lacking. Had the leadership of that company established and emulated similar corporate values I have no doubt that my friend’s situation would have been handled quite differently. While the outcome may have been the same, she would have taken solace in the fact that she was treated with the dignity and respect we all deserve. After one of the recent televised debates the CEO and I joked that perhaps his vision and values statement should be shared with the current field of candidates and that some might take them to heart. “We’d have a better chance at winning the Powerball,” he said, and I know he was probably right. If we can help you in sharing your company’s core values through effective HR practices, give us a call at 610-287-1162 or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Boardwalk Fitness Guru The Ocean City, NJ Boardwalk is one of my favorite places in the summer. Every morning there is a flurry of activity as runners, bikers and tourists fight for space to do their thing. One can’t help but get caught up in the fitness frenzy that accompanies the sunny weather and salt air. Even old guys like me lace up our running shoes and try to keep pace with the younger folks. Sadly, I know my running days are coming to an end as even the elderly lady in the motorized scooter now passes me like I’m standing still. But I keep at it, if for no other reason than to people watch. During one of my runs I recently encountered a very large gentlemen in full biking gear parked on the side of the boards speaking to a young boy about the benefits of an active lifestyle. With a cigarette in his left hand, a half- eaten cream donut in his right, and a Big Gulp sized soft drink in his coconut shell bike cup holder, he expounded the virtues of a regular fitness routine, quoting internet articles he had read on the subject. The young boy, who I presume was his son, listened intently as his dad quoted studies and statistics on the matter. As I limped on by I remembered a guy named Chuck who I had worked with years ago. Chuck was a self-proclaimed subject matter expert on the newest management trends always quick to talk about the book he was reading on how to motivate employees or the best practices outlined in a recent NY Times best seller. He was quick to point out to anyone who would listen how the company was on the wrong track and how things would change if he were in in charge. Ironically, for most of his career, Chuck was always the number two guy who had little or no responsibility for managing employees or leading a team. That all changed when an acquisition resulted in turnover at the executive level, and Chuck found himself in a leadership role. Faced with the reality of being in charge of several managers, collaborating with others in similar positions and maintaining the morale of his team in the face of a changing environment, he simply didn’t know what to do. Chuck could “talk the talk” but never having to “walk the walk” before assuming this role led to his failure. Within months, Chuck was let go. I’m not sure whatever happened to Chuck, but I hope he was able to find another job, preferably in a support role. Hopefully he learned that practical experience far outweighs what someone else has written in a book and that real life situations require real life experience. As the saying goes, “Words without experience are meaningless.” The fitness guru, on the other hand, is still probably trying to impress others with his knowledge and expertise. I can hardly wait until next summer to see him with funnel cake in hand and powdered sugar on his lips vigilantly riding his bike down the boards. An inspiring sight to be sure for those of us trying to stay in shape.
“I Just Can’t Let It Go” Despite an improving job market, there continues to be corporate layoffs and downsizings. During these periods of career transition, networking becomes ever important for the job seeker. I’ve always classified networkers into two distinct types; “givers” and “takers”. “Givers” freely provide time to those in need without looking for reward or return favor while “takers” only call or reach out when they need something. I like to believe I’m a “giver” and while trying to help a gentleman who was recently laid off, he expressed his anger and frustration about the way the company handled the separation. The event happened several months ago and the longer he remained unemployed the angrier he became. “I just can’t let it go” he told me. “No matter how hard I try I can’t help but hold a grudge against the people that did this to me.” Companies both big and small deal with this issue on a regular basis. Overly ambitious employees often believe they must degrade the work of others in order to advance and so they cast blame to deflect their own shortcomings. The victimized employee harbors ill feelings against his co-worker and may lie in wait with his resentment growing just waiting to retaliate. Even more damaging is the manager who holds a grudge against his or her employees for disagreeing with them or speaking out in a way that challenges their authority. I was recently part of an investigation involving a manager who methodically arranged for an employee to become so dissatisfied with his job that he eventually resigned. The employee was hired for his expertise in analyzing product trends. The manager who orchestrated his resignation was instrumental in his hiring which made the situation that much more bizarre. Shortly after joining the company, the employee disputed the findings presented by the manager at a high level meeting. His comments were not malicious but based on fact and the employee was publicly commended by the Vice President for his insight. Rather than congratulating the employee for his astute observation the manager took his comments as an insult and threat to his authority. So began a series of behavioral and performance attacks against the employee that ultimately led to the loss of top talent. The manager was subsequently counseled for his handling of the incident but the damage is done. No doubt others will be less likely to question his actions or information even when they know it’s wrong. We recently spent the weekend with some longtime friends and relating this problem morphed into a discussion surrounded the topic of happiness. My friend said he read somewhere that to achieve true happiness you have to release all grudges. Similarly, I remember attending a workshop with the renowned author and executive coach Marshall Goldsmith where he asked us the think about someone at work who really hurt us and made us feel angry. After a few seconds of thought he asked the group “Do you think they’re thinking about you right now?” We all shook our heads knowing that we were likely the last people on their mind. I told my colleague who was looking for work about these keys to happiness. I encouraged him to “let it go” and focus his efforts on finding a new opportunity in a positive manner knowing that the people responsible for his layoff weren’t worth the energy. I’m not sure he’ll take my advice but hey, if he doesn’t, I won’t hold a grudge.
Parental Interference While I was finishing high school and trying to decide on a career direction, my father made it clear he wanted me to pursue an engineering degree and attend the military academy at West Point. He even went so far as to line up the signatures from politicians and others required for the application to that institution. Math was never my strong suit and the idea of being a civil or mechanical engineer had no appeal to me whatsoever. My father was a strong willed first generation Italian gentleman, uncompromising in his belief that as the patriarch, he had full and complete authority over the family and its decisions. Most children are conditioned to obey their parents and never want to disappoint them but in this case, I needed to stand my ground. We butted heads on this subject for many months until he finally acquiesced. For him it may have been the first realization that I was truly becoming independent. In later years, after I was well into my career in Human Resources and before he passed away, Dad admitted that my decision had disappointed him but knew that forcing the issue of me being a cadet was fruitless knowing I had to pursue a career of my choice, not his. One of my life’s greatest joys is having kids. The memories my wife and I have of them growing up are priceless and so many of our discussions have, and continue to be, centered on their lives. Over the years we have had our struggles as the kids matured and fought for independence. It’s tough as a parent not to interfere, particularly when you see the potential for harm but knowing that you have to let them figure things out on their own. It’s a delicate balance between guidance and interference. Not surprisingly, many of the same issues that take place in the family setting also arise when a company is acquired and the parent company feels the need to force its will and maintain authority. In a typical acquisition consolidation of certain functions is imminent for cost savings and efficiency. But what happens when the parent feels the need to exert its authority over the operation of an organization that has been in business for decades and was acquired specifically for their industry expertise just to show who’s boss? A client of mine was recently acquired by a larger company after operating as a private, family owned entity for many years. Despite being a small company they had established many sophisticated policies and practices in order to remain competitive in their industry. The family finally decided it was time to sell and a larger organization looking to expand their market share acquired them last year. During the due diligence process, the leaders of the acquiring company assured the employees that nothing would change and that the primary reason for their interest in the company was the efficient way they ran their business. “Why try to fix something that isn’t broken,” they said. “Like the Billy Joel tune says “we love you Just the Way You Are.” The acquisition was completed at the end of last year and what followed was a classic case of parental interference with the same leaders who had made the pre-acquisition comments, jockeying for authority and seeking to influence virtually everything that had made the company successful. Terms like “We don’t do it that way’ and “That won’t work for us” became commonplace. Even more frustrating was the dreaded, “We’ll have to get back to you on that.” which paralyzed the organization and made folks realize that change was indeed coming and the promises made during the courtship process were just empty words. It’s still early in transition process but many of the employees have expressed concern that the parent company’s tendency to force their will on some issues and fail to make decisions on others is likely to result in turnover and disengagement. These conditions coupled with the feelings that the parent company was untruthful about what was really going to happen after the purchase has left people feeling distrustful and cautious. The leadership team of the acquired company is allowing things to transpire but is uncompromising in their pride and commitment to remaining an industry leader. They are ready to stand up for what they believe in even if it means leaving the organization. My hope is that like my dad, the parent company realizes that sometimes you have to forget your ego and make the right decisions for all concerned.
A Little Space Please The Labor Day Weekend has passed, and those of us who like the beach know that although it is the “official end of summer” it’s not the end of some great beach weather in September and October. This past Labor Day weekend was particularly crowded, but it never ceases to amaze me how some folks have no clue on the proper beach etiquette when it comes to setting up their chairs and umbrella. A long time ago someone told me to imagine a six foot circle around your intended “camp” area, and if someone already on the beach was within your circle you were too close. Similarly, if you could hear every word of their conversation, back away. Obviously, the family that chose to sit next to my wife and I both Saturday and Sunday never had the benefit of beach etiquette training. Otherwise, when they set up their umbrella and it shaded me in my chair they would have known they breached the six foot circumference. I’m also pleased to tell you that their Aunt Betty had just come out of gall bladder surgery, having reluctantly overheard all the details of her ailment and pending recovery. All of us need a little space now and then. But some leaders feel the need to micro manage every detail of the people that support them. I was recently helping a manager find a new project coordinator, and when I asked her to outline the primary duties for the position she responded by saying, “I’ll tell them everything they need to do and when they need to do it.” Sensing I was getting nowhere with this line of questioning I changed my approach and asked her to define the skills and experience she was seeking in the successful candidate. In true micromanagement fashion she said,” I want someone who is not afraid to take instructions and follows directions to the letter.” I finally asked her, “Why do you need this position?” to which she replied, “I’m overwhelmed and need an additional resource to help me with my workload. I can’t do everything myself?” “So”, I asked, “how will telling this person everything they need to do and when they need to do it save you time? It seems to me that you’ll actually be spending more time giving instructions than you are now and that, in fact, you’ll have less time to do your work. “Wouldn’t you rather have someone who could work with minimal supervision that you could rely on?” Truth be told, this manager was afraid to hire anyone that could be considered a threat to her position. Like so many inexperienced leaders, she believed her job security was based on keeping as much under her control as possible. Having someone on her staff that could operate independently and make decisions with minimal supervision was frightening to this manager. I’m pleased to say that this story had a happy ending in that the candidate we hired has shown the right balance of independence and deference. She has demonstrated her ability to work independently as a valued team member while making sure the manager still feels the level of control she needs for her own personal feelings of security. If we can help your managers with their candidate selection and/or personal development needs give us a call at 610-287-1162 or email me at email@example.com. We’ll be happy to help, and after another weekend at the beach, I may be able to update you on Aunt Betty’s progress.
When Siblings Collide I love working with family owned businesses. The hard work and dedication of the owners is contagious and when you are around them, you get caught up in their excitement and optimism. That entrepreneurial spirit was, and continues to be, the foundation of so many of today’s largest corporations. But what happens when a family member who has never before participated in the family business and has no leadership experience, decides that he or she wants to be part of the executive team? The sister of the company president where I was consulting decided she would like to be part of the family business. The business was started by their father many years ago and she had never before worked there in any capacity. Unfortunately for her brother, she became bored after spending many years raising her family and now that the kids were gone, decided she wanted to become a business executive. I witnessed firsthand the turmoil the president was going through. Here was his baby sister who he loved and respected and who was a part owner of the business wanting to get more involved. On the other hand, knowing his sister had neither the personality nor the experience to hold a leadership role, he felt like he was being forced into a situation he knew would not be healthy for his executive team or the company. In the end, he decided to give it a try. He suggested she take a role in marketing where she could use her creative ability to help the company drive more business. But his sister pleaded for a more functional role and so she was placed in charge of the production area that generated the majority of the revenue for the company. Her lack of knowledge about the production process, coupled with her tendency to avoid making decisions was a recipe for disaster. The members of the executive team were barraged by complaints from managers and workers alike about the sister’s failures and finally the COO himself went to the president seeking his help and intervention. As difficult as it was, he explained to his sister that her continued participation in the leadership of the company could not continue risking both the company’s performance and the potential loss of key members of the team. To her credit, she confessed her frustration and agreed that the best thing for all concerned was for her to explore opportunities outside the family business. She has since obtained her real estate license and is doing quite well. The business has recovered and fortunately all of the key staff members were retained. In speaking with the president him after her departure, he told me that this was the first time he had to face his conflicting responsibilities as a business owner and a commitment to his family. He knew his sister could not be successful in the role but he could think of no graceful way to say no to her request. In the end, she demonstrated great humility in admitting she couldn’t do the job and her greatest fear was doing something to hurt the company her father had built so long ago. He learned through this event that protecting the family legacy was far more important to his siblings than bruising a few egos. At a recent staff meeting the president joked that his older brother had sold his business and was looking for something to do. Not surprisingly, no one laughed.