Archive for September, 2007

If the Employees are Starving for Information, Let Them Eat Cake!

September 28, 2007

Here we went again! The President of the corporation announced another massive reorganization and new strategic vision. We all received the memo. It was about 500 words long. We had been operating as business unit segments but now we were returning to the tried and true method of being organized as separate companies under one corporate banner. Great! The previous restructuring had begun about 18 months earlier and we were just about half way through getting that one all organized. Of course everyone was still reeling from the catharsis. This was a large multi-location corporation and our last strategic move had been a huge undertaking. Employees had been transferred all over the place. Reporting relationships had become so convoluted that no one was sure of who did what. Scores of people came and went. Now it was to be chaos time all over again.

After reading all of the new platitudes like, “When it comes to quality we take no prisoners”, “The customer’s vision is our focus” and blah, blah, blah, we got to the paragraph that everyone was really interested in. Hmmm, it seemed that some of the VP’s and their staffs that had been brought on over a year ago would be leaving, some would be staying with new titles and, of course, a few new VP’s and directors would shortly appear to support the strategic vision du-jour. What about the rest of us? The memo ended abruptly with the line, “If you have any further questions, please see your manager or supervisor.”

Hold on! I was a manager. My direct reports were inundating me with questions. I had no answers and no more information than they did. At the time, I believed that this was probably just a slip up by the wordsmith who had penned the memo. I was certain that more information would follow and placated the staff with my confidence that soon we would all be informed of the gory details. Two days later, it was time for our weekly management conference call with my superior from headquarters. My level of middle management was functionally “matrixed” into the headquarters staff and so I had at least some form of connection there. The agenda called for a discussion of the reorganization and the memo. Super! The boss asked if everyone had read the document. All managers answered in the affirmative. He then proceeded directly to the next item on the agenda. Huh? We anxiously awaited the end of the meeting when he always asked if there was any other business. When he did, the questions flew. He was silent for a moment and then asked us again if we had all read the memo. Again, we answered in the affirmative. “There are your answers,” he stated in a semi-sarcastic tone. End of meeting.

Weeks went by and nothing seemed to change. There was no further communication from above. Everyone kept on doing what he or she was doing but there was heavy tension in the air. Rumors flew and productivity began to slip. Where was the leadership? Everyone hungered for information. Where were the meetings with our new leaders to discuss the new organizations, the new strategies, etc.? Although there was always a bevy of strange characters running through the plants and offices appearing to suffer severe eyestrain from constantly staring into their cranberries and looking like deranged madmen talking aloud to themselves on the bluebirds stuck in each ear, very few employees or even managers had ever spoken to, met or even seen their business segment or company leaders from even the prior reorganization let alone the latest one.

A few months passed and things seemingly returned to normal – at least whatever “normal” meant in our goofy organization. Then a bombshell hit. Another memo from a General Manager of one of the newly reorganized (but not as yet really organized) companies announced that his “company” was being sold. It was another tersely constructed document that lacked any kind of details. The tension level rose again. Everyone was waiting for the next shoe to drop. Still, there were no further communiqués from headquarters or our local company leaders.

Finally, we all received an Email from the corporate head of HR. We would be asked to complete an attitude survey. Wow! I’d been through these before in my previous corporate lives. Here was the opportunity that many had been waiting for. Perhaps now we could vent our frustrations and get some answers. But the surveys were short and concentrated only on inquiring as to whether we were all in lock step with the corporation’s new vision and how we felt that we could contribute to it. What? There was only one small area in the survey where employees could “free-form” any questions or comments. The surveys were completed. Disappointment and anxiety returned.

A month later, we were graced with the results. The corporate leadership was shocked by the statistics. Over 85% of the employees reported that they neither understood the new strategy nor how they could contribute to it. In fact, demographically, only those respondents in the very top layer of management voiced any detailed knowledge or support of the new vision. What a surprise! It seemed that that the rest of us were neutral and confused. Something had to be done.

The answer came about a week later when corporate HR sent out a mandate that each of the company’s offices and plants were to encourage corporate sponsored bowling or softball teams and we were all to implement a monthly celebration of service anniversaries topped off with a cake! There was no further information and again, we returned to the status quo. The tension and anxiety grew and grew. We did get a cake every month.

Perhaps the fans of Marie Antoinette live on!

When Stories about CEO’s “Chucking it All” Become Cause for Upchucking

September 21, 2007

Hold on to your hats! This is going to be another corker!

If I read one more article about a CEO or some other high-powered executive “chucking it all” and devoting the rest of his/her life to their families or some altruistic pursuit, I think I’m going to vomit. I just finished reading one of these tearjerkers that was linked to, of all things, a website where workers can vent about their jobs and bosses. Can you believe that? According to the author, we should all have pity and admiration for this young dynamo. He neglected his wife and children for seven years while slaving away in the high six figure corporate ether. He now wants to make it up to them by buying a ranch or a farm or an island or something and live the simple life. Uh huh. The moral of the story is that we should all be considering how hard we all work and what we’re missing out on in life. Is our paycheck really worth our soul? Can’t we emulate this fine individual? How inspiring! What hogwash!

Doesn’t everyone have the financial wherewithal to say goodbye to the workaday world and devote their time to family and/or the arts? Can’t we all sell one of our homes (perhaps just the summer cottage on Cape Cod) to purchase the ranch or island and then pay our living expenses from the dividends and interest earned on our portfolios? Maybe trade in the Bugati and the Bentley to purchase a luxury motor home and tour the country for a year or two with the Memsaab and the kiddies? And if, God forbid, we should run low on funds – why we can just give old Biff a call over at XYZ Corp. He’s an old frat chum. Surely he has a vice presidency or consulting gig just waiting for us.

No! We have mortgages and bills to pay. We need to put food on the table; get our kids’ teeth straightened and hope to God that we can save enough money to retire on without having to eat dog food. We have to live in the fear of our jobs being outsourced, co-sourced, right sized, downsized, etc. When was the last time you read about “executive” positions being off-shored? Even when it is reported that some high powered corporate types get canned, the terms of their golden parachutes are always conveniently “undisclosed.” Our severance packages are always disclosed – two weeks pay and accrued vacation. Hmmm, I guess I’ll have to cancel that trip to Japan to climb Mt. Fuji.

Where do these writers come up with these stories? Why do they insist on nominating these characters for sainthood? What is the fascination when the wealthy and powerful seem to do something “ordinary”? (As if buying a ranch or an island and not working for the rest of one’s life is ordinary.) I’m sure not inspired – or even impressed. Listen, I do not begrudge anyone having the wealth to unshackle themselves from the gristmill and pursue happiness. God bless them. But don’t throw these characters up to me as role models. In the words of Hyman Roth, a character in the film Godfather II, who was lecturing Michael Corleone on the perils of being a mobster, “This is the life we chose.” It’s the life that THEY chose (or lucked or connected into). It just so happens that THEY have a lot more options for survival than WE do. And don’t try to sell me some apologetic pablum that lifestyles and needs are all relative. A 3,000-acre working ranch in Wyoming is NOT equivalent to my 300 square foot back yard. The ability to spend endless carefree time with one’s family is not equivalent to my having to beg for a few hours off to attend a parent teacher conference and then be made to feel guilty about it. The loss of “face” experienced by a fired but well-heeled executive is not equivalent to losing my house or health care benefits if I get the axe.

Remember Maslow’s hierarchy of needs? Most of us commoners fall in the Safety and Security category. We can’t afford Self-actualization yet – let alone an island.

Procrastination Station

September 14, 2007

All aboard you five-minute managers! The train is leaving on track four. Destination? Procrastination Station. Even though you’re neither the conductor nor the engineer, it’s your responsibility to see to it that the train arrives on time. It’s tough always riding in the baggage car or caboose. Sorry, the dining car and first class accommodations are reserved for the elites.

Let’s see how this timetable works:

It’s fifteen minutes before the big meeting. Your boss hands you a report and asks you to prepare comments on it. Of course the report sat on his desk for two days before the meeting. He never got around to giving it to you earlier. You don’t even have enough to read it let alone comment on it. Now you have to scramble and will be ill prepared for the meeting. It really doesn’t matter. By now you should expect to be looked upon as a dolt anyway.

Headquarters just put out a schedule for next year’s budget. To save time, they’ve abbreviated a lot of the detailed requirements but set a very aggressive and firm due date for delivery of the first go around. Headquarters explanation is that they just want a feel for the numbers. Questions and adjustments will be passed down after top-level review. You’d think that would be hailed as a real step in the right direction. No dice! Division management wants it as detailed as possible so they can pick it apart in true picayunish fashion BEFORE it goes to HQ. They fool around and fool around until the very last minute. Then bingo, you’re on the hook for delivery. Did anyone consider your lead-time to prepare the data? I think not – even you mentioned it on numerous occasions. Good luck this weekend trying to get everything summarized and downloaded to meet HQ’s schedule!

Sue is a cash application clerk and processes a lot of transactions. Some are pretty complicated. No one else in the office knows her procedures or the cash application system. You work for a “lean” company after all and having a back up for Sue would be an expensive luxury. Sue announces that she will be leaving in 60 days and moving out of the country. What a nice gesture! A 60-day notice. You prepare all of the paperwork and request a replacement. The quicker, the better. There’s a lot to learn and you’d like the transition to be as seamless as possible. You wait and wait and wait for a response. You even begin to plead and give notice that if Sue leaves without replacement, the job cannot get done. Time is running out and you can’t seem to get anyone off the dime. It’s Sue’s last day and you’re throwing her a little going away luncheon. Here comes the boss who gives his approval for the replacement while munching down a piece of chocolate cake. How about adding just a couple of more hours to your workday for a few weeks (or months) to figure it all out, interview, hire and train a new clerk?

The big shots are away at the “secret” two day meeting. You sense something’s up. You have a vacation scheduled for next week. Your holiday was scheduled and approved six months ago. You’re leaving on Saturday morning. You’ve planned out everything so that operations run smoothly while you’re gone. Wednesday rolls around and the bigwigs return. It’s “all quiet on the western front.” Or so you thought! Friday morning dawns and your boss inundates you with requests for information and reports that are needed by Monday. You remind him of your pending holiday and your travel schedule. His response, “This is important! Couldn’t you……?” Bon Voyage!

Of course you have every right to go ballistic and blow a steam valve. You wouldn’t pull any of these stunts on your staff. You try to plan ahead and be proactive. No one ever accused your superiors of doing that. They’re too busy with other things. Your protests will be countered with YOUR need to be more flexible. Even if you recount your warnings and drag out all of the memos and requests, you’ll probably just be told that YOU should have been more assertive and forceful. You’ve been derailed again. Can’t you shovel coal any faster?

Wouldn’t you just love to pull the emergency cord or get off at the next stop?

Post Labor Day Thoughts on Misdiagnosing Workaholics

September 7, 2007

There are a lot of people who had to work on Labor Day just as there are a lot of veterans who had to work on Veteran’s Day, Moms who had to work on Mother’s Day, Dads who had to work on Father’s Day, etc., etc. Though Labor Day is an officially recognized “day off” for most, there are those that are specifically scheduled to work; police fire, retail, food, etc. Most of these workers will receive some sort of remuneration for missing the holiday, perhaps a different day off, extra pay, etc. Those that were scheduled to work probably made the appropriate adjustments in their personal itineraries to accommodate these schedules. They might not like having to work on a holiday but it’s a scheduled part of their jobs and their lives.

I did not go to work on Labor Day. Our company was closed for the holiday. I did not drop by the office. I did not take my “laptop” home (I rarely do). I’ve had enough of that. I had occasion on Labor Day to sit back and surf around the Internet for stories about working. Not surprisingly, there were more than a few articles about “workaholics” and, of course, the ever so popular self-diagnostic tests to determine if one qualifies for the title. I always find the ten or twenty questions interesting. Although I specifically did not intend on thinking about “the job”, those articles and questions starting me thinking about someone from our company that I just knew would be working that day – even though it was an official company holiday and he was not required to.

Ken works out of our Portland, OR office. He’s an administrative type, a fairly high paid employee but not considered management. He’s in his mid 50’s and has over twenty years of service. Ken lacks a formal education but has been a steady and trusted employee. He’s definitely not interested in relocation and so any career advancement opportunities are nil. Ken really doesn’t report to anyone specific in the West Coast office. He just handles all of the administrative tasks – and a lot more. Several years ago, during one of the company’s many, many, many reorganizations, Ken volunteered to take on some very tedious and complicated account reconciliations that were assigned to our division in Louisville, KY. Ken handled the work quite deftly and became quite expert at it. Taking on all this extra work caused Ken to work longer and longer hours, weekends and even holidays. But instead of just saying, “No, I’ve had enough,” he kept on volunteering for more and more.

My first encounter with Ken occurred right after I came on board with the company. The department that I managed had originally performed some of the extra work that Ken was doing. About a week into my employ, I received a call from Ken that lasted nearly two hours. He complained bitterly about his workload and wondered when I was going to “take the work back.” I had no idea of what he was talking about at the time. I decided to ask around and discovered that Ken always had a penchant for volunteering to do things and then complaining about how much work he had. I asked why Ken was never given any assistance and was told that he had always rejected the notion and, in fact, preferred to do everything himself. I recalled that during his two-hour tirade, Ken had even expressed to me that he could never be a manager over staff because he knew how demanding he was. I remembered asking him why he felt it necessary to put in all of the hours. His answer was that “they” wanted all of the deadlines met, that “they” wanted all of the accounts reconciled to the penny and that the work just had to be done. When I asked whom the “they” were, he just laughed incredulously, “Why Charles in corporate finance of course. Don’t you know who he is? Hasn’t he given you all of the deadlines?”

Every conversation that I would have with Ken since that time went the same way. First, he would remind me of his workload. Next, he would go into the most infinite of details about what he was doing. During these conversations Ken would use a tremendous amount of acronyms and “shop talk”. He would speak as though I already understood everything he was talking about it. Whenever I’d interrupt and remind him that I was new to the company and not ”hip to the jive”, it seemed to frustrate him. Yet at the same time, it seemed to make him feel important to use lingo that was foreign to me and required me to ask him to explain further in even greater detail. He was definitely well versed in the company and superb at what he did. Ken seemed to love talking about the minutiae at length and then complaining about the amount of work in the same breath. It was a strange dichotomy.

I had no organizational authority over Ken but I agreed that the work needed to be transferred back to the division. I hate to see people working hellacious hours and so I came up with a plan to transfer the work to Ann, a new staff member in the department. Ann had no problem with the transfer and so I attempted to coordinate an orderly transition. The work appeared to be of a complexity that did not lend itself to training over the phone and so I attempted to get Ken to come to Louisville for a week to train Ann. To my surprise, it was like pulling teeth. Ken could not free himself up, even for a few days. It took months to put together a schedule and I got the impression that Ken had only grudgingly agreed to it.

So we finally got Ken to come to Louisville for a week to work with Ann. It was nearly a disaster. Ken blew through the processes and procedures so quickly that Ann could not even take notes. This was complicated and painstaking work. I could hear Ken talking a mile a minute and using the usual jargon that set Ann’s head spinning. Ann did the best she could. Ken had set his own schedule for the trip that included earmarking an entire day to be spent with Charles in corporate finance.

It was apparent that Ken idolized Charles. Charles was one of those penultimate micromanagers in the finance department at corporate headquarters. Ken and Charles were kindred spirits of a sort although Charles was at least three rungs higher up the organization ladder. Charles was not very highly thought of by his staff. He was overly demanding, extremely detail orientated and single minded. I was told through the grapevine that Ken had complained to Charles about Ann. According to Ken, Ann was not a team player and a slow learner. I also learned that Ken had also complained to Charles that I was not pushing Ann hard enough to take on the work. In fact, Ken and Charles both believed that I should have been taking on the tasks myself and not delegating them to Ann. I was a manager and Ken felt that those tasks could only be performed at that level because prior to reorganization, the former manager had performed the work. Charles agreed with Ken. I’d already had a few run-ins with Charles myself over several issues. Our philosophies about management seemed to be at opposite ends of the spectrum.

So Ken returned to the West Coast and Ann was only able to retain about 60% of what Ken had “taught” her. After debriefing the bewildered Ann, I spoke to Ken to obtain his take on the training session. Not surprisingly, Ken complained that Ann was not “devoted” to the work and was not making a sincere effort. OK, the next compromise was to try and figure a way for Ann and Ken to accomplish the rest of the training over the phone.

Ken worked on Pacific Standard Time and liked to stay late. Ann worked on Eastern Standard Time and started early because of her children’s school schedule. There were only three to four core hours per day when they were both available to communicate. But Ken filled the workday with his normal duties as well as a variety of projects that he had also “volunteered” to take on. Ken demanded that Ann stay late to complete the training on his terms. Ann could not. I intervened and told Ken that if he really wanted the work transferred, he would have to compromise and free up time during the day to work with Ann. Ken grudgingly agreed. This went on for two weeks. During that, time, Ann mentioned that she was starting to get the picture of how these reconciliations were being performed and that she now believed that Ken had so overcomplicated the processes that it might take her a few months to reengineer them.

Now it’s the Friday before the Labor Day weekend. It’s 6PM EST and I’m about to leave the office. Everyone else is long gone. As a final “pre-holiday” gesture, I decide to check my E-mail. And there it is – the scathing E-mail just sent by Ken to Ann. The document accuses Ann of not working hard enough, shirking her responsibilities and skipping out early on the Friday before the holiday – once again leaving poor Ken holding the bag. Ken will now have to work the entire weekend to meet Charles’ deadline. Of course Ken copied the world including Charles on his E-mail.

Come Tuesday morning, I grabbed Ann before she logged onto the computer and warned her about the E-mail. Ann was livid. She countered that she had been unable to communicate with Ken for two days prior to Friday. She had E-mailed Ken several questions during that time and Ken had not replied. Ann was pretty fed up with both Ken and the entire process. She actually threatened to quit. After she calmed down, Ann decided to privately reply to Ken’s E-mail. Per Ann’s request, I reviewed and sanctioned the “cleaned up” version with all of the expletives deleted. Boiled down, it went like this…”If you’re so intent on getting this work off of your plate and on to mine, then you’d better start communicating in simpler terms. If you think that you’re going to get me into some sort of “trouble” over this in order to get me fired or disciplined, think twice! If I go, you’re stuck with the work.” That was a true statement. No Ann; no transfer. I backed Ann 100% on this and made sure that my superior knew about all of these issues. Again, I had no real organizational authority over Ken and in our goofy organization structure; I couldn’t seem to find anyone who actually did. Of course I received a visit from Charles who snarked about the fact that Ken had to work all weekend to meet a deadline that was ultimately MY responsibility. Rather than get into a long and drawn out argument, I ignored him. That infuriated Charles even more.

What is Ken’s agenda? Why is he constantly putting himself and others through this? Why did the company allow this to happen to a trusted employee?

I harkened back to the articles that I’d just read about Workaholics and thought about the characteristics and behaviors displayed by Ken. One might consider this workaholism but I am not so sure. Over the years I’ve run into types like Ken before to one degree or another. Here are a few more test questions that I might ask seeking a different diagnosis:

-Does the employee or employer equate long hours with loyalty?

-Does the employee feel a lack attention and work horrendous hours thinking that it will get them noticed?

-Does the employee idolize micromanagers and/or workaholics? Does the employer openly reward those types?

-Does the employee or employer confuse working long hours with working hard?

-Does the employee make things more difficult than they really are in order to spend more time on them in response to the previous questions?

-Does the employee volunteer for more and more when their plate is already full? Does the employer encourage it? Does the employer discourage it?

-Does the employee set unreasonable expectations for themselves? How about the expectations of the employer?

-Does the employee complain about the grueling hours or insane schedule that is associated with any of the above?

-Does the employer tacitly approve of these behaviors and ignore the complaints?

When I’ve noticed these symptoms in employees that report to me, I immediately sit them down for a long talk. This is not healthy behavior. My normal workweek at the office is 60 hours plus. I do not expect this from my direct reports. I know my limitations and after thirty years of this, I know when enough is enough. I’ve seen the results of this kind of behavior before.

One thing that seems to separate the classic workaholics from people like Ken is the apparent love and devotion that many workaholics have for their work. There is no love here. Not with this kind of complaining. In fact, I’d bet that many so-called workaholics are people just like Ken whose motivations for killing themselves over a job stem from a whole host of emotions other than love and devotion.

Any thoughts?