The New Loyalty

10 06 2013

We live in a mobile economy. Pensions have given way to the 401k, the gold watch at 20 years of service has been replaced by limited term contracts and one year performance incentives. My father had never heard about corporate recruiters; I get several notes a year from them looking for talent for the next assignment. ‘How long have you been with the company’ has been replaced by ‘What have you done for me lately’. Just last week the recently named NBA coach of the year was fired. Who doesn’t have their resume constantly updated?

Have we seen the death of loyalty?

No, I don’t think we have. But we have to recognize that it’s changed, and much like we live in a different society and economy today, so to loyalty looks different than it did for the previous generation. 

Company loyalty is a quaint idea, to be sure. Gone are the days when the company stuck its neck out for the benefit of the employee. I don’t see that kind of loyalty coming back.  In simple terms, loyalty to an employee is about taking a short-term risk in order to create a long-term gain. There is simply too much pressure from Boards and external stakeholders to produce now for that kind of risk to be taken. It’s become far too easy to manage individual contributions on a spreadsheet and quickly cut and replace the cell that is causing issue. 

Loyalty today exists in personal relationships. As humans, we’re hardwired to empathize and care about one another. We engage, we connect, we take an interest and share with each other in ways both professionally and personally beneficial.

So take time to build relationships with the people you value. You’ll get the benefit of what they’ve learned and done, which is likely to enrich your own work. You’ll also build some goodwill in the event that they need to go to bat for you, which the company as a whole isn’t usually willing to do anymore. And these are the people you can turn to down the road, when you need help or assistance or advice. 

You’d be surprised how willing people are to help someone they built a relationship with, even when years have passed.

Trust Matters

31 05 2013

I wrote previously about the need to have a shared vision and trust within an organization in order to break down work silos. Clients that I have worked with generally understand the issues surrounding shared vision. Frankly, it’s not a hard concept to convey, both in terms of its importance and how to create and reinforce it.

Trust tends to be a little trickier. 

On its surface, it doesn’t seem like it should be. After all, we understand the concept, right? We have to believe that people we count on will do the right thing even if we’re not around to make sure of it. And I can think of hundreds of examples per day when I count on that for everything from being effective at my job to simply getting home safely. 

What I’ve found is that the interpretation of trust varies greatly depending on who you’re talking to, and that’s what makes the issue tricky. I have experienced environments where management says they trust their employees completely (as long as their employees show them everything they’ve done to make sure it’s correct). And I’ve experienced the opposite as well; people are trusted because they’re expected to be, no proof required. As a result of the differing interpretations, it’s hard for an organization to say whether they have it or not. I may say (and believe) I trust you while you experience no trust in the way I act. 

So how do we get there?

As with many things, going to the extremes is usually a recipe for failure. You’re either going to alienate your best talent, the ones who need a little freedom and leeway to be effective, or you’re going to leave your organization vulnerable to serious liability. 

My suggestion is to set expectations. Outline what trust means to you and acknowledge the gap between being tightly managed and having no management at all. Then communicate how you want your employees to work and solicit their feedback on an ongoing basis. 

At the end of the day, trust tends to be built, not given or taken.

Breaking Down Work Silos

19 05 2013

We owe a great deal of who we are and what we can accomplish to the Industrial Revolution. The ability to mass produce products brought with it a change to how we thought of and treated labor, lowered prices on once unattainable goods due to economies of scale, raised the wealth of the middle class, broadened awareness outside of limited geographical areas and paved the way for exponential innovation. Think of all the things we take for granted today that might not even exist otherwise; travel, computers, clothing, food, etc, the list goes on and on.

In my experience, a great deal of good is typically accompanied by some less than desired by-products. The work silo fits that definition. 

I have seen very few, if any, companies that don’t suffer from the inefficiency, miscommunication and political turmoil brought on by work silos. Certainly this existed in some form prior to the Industrial Revolution, but the intense specialization made possible silos that are harder to break through. 

Harder, but not impossible. 

The two fundamental keys to breaking down barriers are a shared vision and trust. The truth is, we couldn’t continue to produce and innovate at our current rate without the kind of specialization that exists in our workforce. But that doesn’t mean we need to suffer the negative effects of silos like we do today, either. 

A shared workplace vision unifies the disparate parts of the company toward a singular goal. It is an essential component because it requires each area, each silo, to see itself as a part of a whole. Without a shared vision, silos become small kingdoms, fighting with each other for dominance in meetings, emails and the boardroom. 

To make the shared vision a reality requires trust between departments. If you’re a part of the whole, then you know that the other parts have a direct impact on whether the whole is successful or not. And when success comes, the silo is hard-pressed to assume a disproportionate amount of credit. If you don’t believe me, go outside and kick a ball. Then ask yourself which was more important: the foot that kicked the ball or the foot that held you upright while you kicked the ball. 

Shared vision and trust. Indispensable tools if you want to break the silos that exist in your company.

We Are More Resilient Than We Know

22 04 2013

 I continue to be impressed. Granted, that may sound slightly odd in the wake of what can only be considered a terrible week for our country. Everyone’s attention has been consumed by the horrific bombings at the Boston Marathon, and rightly so. Sadly, that wasn’t the only thing that went wrong. Flooding in the Midwest has claimed many lives and the plant explosion in Texas has uprooted an entire town. 

What impresses me in the face of these many tragedies is our resilience and strength. Obstacles and misfortune are a constant reminder that we live in a dynamically changing, uncertain world. Murphy’s Law states that if something can go wrong, it will. I don’t personally subscribe to that level of pessimism, but there’s a nugget of truth contained there. 

Of all the traits that successful people demonstrate, I believe none to be so crucial as the ability to be resilient, to persevere in the face of long odds and repeated failures. It’s not just a critical trait in the professional world; it’s also important in your personal life. To see the nation rally around victims, to honor those that lost their lives while also lending a hand to those in need, these are the things that are humbling to see. 

Hopefully your organization doesn’t have to face events that could be categorized as horrific. Yes, we all tend to be invested in our jobs, but perspective usually finds its way into the conversation and we realize that not everything we deal with is life and death. Especially when we see actual life and death events playing out around us. Regardless, resilience and rallying to a singular purpose can occur amongst the people at your company just like they do with external events. Just don’t wait for something terrible to happen to harness these qualities. 

People will surprise you with their strength of spirit. Good leaders find a way to tap into that before something goes wrong.

Our Failures Don’t Define Us

1 04 2013

Happy Easter! If you celebrate this holiday then you know it’s grounded in the idea of rebirth. From the Bible’s words to the fact that spring is right around the corner (though that’s not quite so apparent right now), this is the time of the year to reflect on the idea of overcoming great obstacles, disappointments or failures and rising above them.

Whenever I work with successful people and ask them about their last year, they invariably say it could have been better. There’s always something that nags at them, something they wish they could have influenced to achieve a better result. I believe that’s one of the things at the heart of their success; they’re never satisfied. So they keep pushing forward and sometimes need help in defining the solution they need to take their business to the next level. I like working with these companies because the culture for success is already in place, the expectations for success are very high and my job is to get them to hone in on something usually very specific.

On the flip side, there are many companies that bring me in because they’re on the other end of the spectrum. They aren’t experiencing success and their companies are starting to feel the strain. I like working with these companies too, but the challenges are very different. For starters, companies (much like sports teams) need to create a culture of success in order for success to thrive there. Often, the culture changes need to precede the results they’re looking for, which means they need to make change in the absence of evidence that the change will work. 

That can be a very tall order. 

I’ve found that taking the first step is more about letting go of failures than it is planning for success. This may sound odd to you, but companies can often impede their own future success simply by focusing too much on past failures. It’s a little like a self-fulfilling prophecy; they spend so much time trying to avoid the last failure that they never prepare for success.

In the spirit of rebirth, I suggest your company take a metaphorical (and literal) deep breath and let go of anything that’s still hanging around from the past. Especially if it’s not doing anything to insure your future. 

Happy and Healthy

11 03 2013

Have you heard that phrase? My grandmother used to say it all the time, whenever someone would ask her how she was doing. The only other answer she was fond of giving, especially toward the end of her life, was Fat and Sassy. She wasn’t politically correct, couldn’t care less about it as a matter of fact, and it was one of the many things I loved about her.

At any rate, happy and healthy is not just a personal goal anymore. A study released in January by the Gallup organization, which has long shown the connection between personal happiness and engagement at work, demonstrated the link between health and workplace engagement. Amongst their findings as reported by BusinessNewsDaily: 

  • Engaged workers are less likely to be obese and suffer from chronic diseases
  • Engaged employees were 21 percent more likely than disengaged employees to participate in health and wellness programs at work

This has a number of interesting ramifications. First and foremost, engagement is one of the tried and true ways to generate high levels of productivity. It also contributes to important measures like retention and profitability. Now it also appears to have an effect on employee health, which contributes to things like absenteeism and overall health care costs.  

The discussion around employee health and health care costs are front and center these days, partly because of Health Care Reform legislation enacted in 2009 but mostly because businesses are having a tougher time than ever absorbing the increasing cost of providing health insurance for their employees. 

Does this sound like you? If so, I’d suggest you examine your company’s level of employee engagement. 

Sharks with Lasers

16 02 2013

I came across one of my favorite scenes from the movie “Austin Powers” recently. Dr. Evil gloats to Austin Powers and his colleagues about the means of their impending doom; sharks with lasers. However, he’s quickly informed by his henchmen that they were unable to provide the sharks. At this, Dr. Evil produces one of the great lines of the movie:

“You know, I have one simple request and that is to have sharks with frickin’ laser beams attached to their heads!”

Besides being (at least in my opinion) really funny, it is too often an accurate scenario playing out in executive planning sessions all over the country. And I’m not comparing the average company CEO to Dr. Evil.

The comparison is the nature of management’s requests. Most companies have some relationship with the calendar year, putting them at the beginning having just completed the year past. And regardless whether last year was a difficult one (meaning you can put it behind you and start fresh) or a great one (meaning you can build on success), our dreams of the coming year are usually filled with optimism. 

That’s a good thing. 

But it’s important to guard against the impulse to overextend and end up imposing a request similar to sharks with lasers. I’m a fan of aiming high. It gives everyone something to strive for, pushes the organization out of its comfort zone and forces growth. But getting into unrealistic territory with your expectations has an opposite effect; morale tanks, results follow and your best assets (people) head for the door. 

Instead of demanding lasers, I counsel leaders to find a realistic end of year scenario and build from there. The only laser to be employed should be a laser-like focus on the goals that have been set. So set your goals high! Just leave the sharks with lasers out of it.

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