Archive for March, 2008

Distressed about Job Stress? Don’t Worry, Your Employer isn’t!

March 25, 2008

So a new survey just came out from Watson Wyatt Worldwide, a global consulting firm: 48% of US employees report that stress caused by working long hours is affecting business performance but only 5% of companies are addressing this concern.* Hmmm, sounds like a new way to weed out those burnt-out malcontents and replace them with a new crop of eager and happy loyalists that, of course, will work for less and give even more. Perhaps I’m being a bit too cynical (and conspiratorial) here. Maybe the other 95% of companies are really just trying to help everyone out!

Layoffs, outsourcing, the mortgage meltdown, health care costs, increased taxes, high gas prices, the affect of the plummeting stock market on 401K’s (did I forget anything?) are all contributing to workers’ stress. To help take your mind off all of these woes – just work more hours. Ah, that’s the ticket! Wasn’t there a popular Reggae song about this a while back? Don’t Worry, Work longer.

This isn’t even funny anymore. Last week, I watched as the company that I used to work for chopped another 35 administrative and technical positions. The “non-surprise” for the survivors was that none of the work was eliminated and none of the deadlines were changed. Those who remain will just have to do more. But the few keep getting fewer, more tired, cranky and scared to death of what could be next. What a great way to work and live! To top it all off, the corporation has embarked upon one of those “Help us define the ‘values’ of our company” programs. Talk about adding insult to injury! This is just the latest gimmick to get the employees to buy in to what the top executives “value”. In my view, all the talk about focusing on the customer is just a smokescreen. Controlling overhead costs is what it’s really all about. Actions speak louder than words. Just ask airline passengers how they feel about that industry’s focus on them as customers!

Just who are those 95% of companies that don’t seem to be concerned about stress? Could it be that crop of global multi-nationals that have gobbled up many US companies? Is it our own homegrown corporations and business enterprises that have become so bottom line driven that they no longer care about the effects of stress on their once oft-advertised “Most Valuable Resources”?

I realize that the days of paternalism in American industry are long gone (if they ever existed at all). Employees are now simply a commodity to be purchased at the lowest price and run into the ground. The innovative technologies that should be utilized for creating growth in business are simply being turned into “innovative” tools to squeeze more labor out of the workforce. Look, they’ve given you a laptop, a cell phone, a blackberry, and one of those blue gizmos to stick in your ear so you can walk around appearing to talk to yourself like an escapee from an asylum.

You’re hooked up and on call constantly. Deadlines are becoming more and more compressed. It might be 4AM where you live, but it’s time for the daily teleconference with corporate HQ overseas. Get up and get going. As long as you’re up, could you also get the report ready for the regional meeting at 3PM? That’s Pacific Standard Time, of course, and since you happen to work for the division in Oklahoma, be ready at 5. You get to leave an hour early for a parent teacher conference and are then asked to work most of the weekend to make it up. Vacation? Who will prepare the trend report on Monday, participate in the conference call on Tuesday, attend the forecast meeting on Wednesday…. and on and on? There are no back ups or even the smallest of redundancies. Work from home? Of Course, so long as you do it on Saturdays and Sundays.

I got into conversation with a group of survivors who were talking about a guy in IT named Mel. It seemed that Mel was working seven days per week “Isn’t that illegal?” cried one of the participants. “Well, maybe not”, answered another, “You see he works from home on the weekends. They don’t count that as working.”

Where is the executive leadership in all of this? Buzzing around in their Gulfstreams? Please don’t feed me some line that the executives are simply trying to keep the corporations viable and that the stockholders and boards of directors are demanding more and more from them. Some would argue that the Execs are as helpless as we are. Nonsense! I’m not buying it! Remember your 401K or retirement plan? You’re a stockholder too. They sure don’t seem to be doing a very a good job at keeping your investments safe and growing. Their answers to decreased profitability always seem to result in cost cutting and staff reductions. The usual reactions from the ususal suspects. What about the egregious salaries and golden parachutes for the executives who fail? I sure don’t remember being asked to approve of those at the last stockholders’ meeting.

I’ve always believed that an employee should never have to leave work at the end of the day not knowing where they stand. Did they do a good job? Did they contribute? Perhaps that’s all a bit idealistic and seems certainly outdated. The Corporate Cynic’s own survey indicates that many employees are actually beginning to dread even getting up in the morning and going to work. Where have we gotten to? I don’t like what I’m seeing.

* Careerbuilder article, Sunday March 16, 2008

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Some Notions on Promotions

March 16, 2008

One of the things I really enjoy about blogging is when a reader’s comment provides the inspiration for a new post. This week’s rant was inspired by Androcass. Here’s a snippet of Androcass’ observations of the leadership in the world of IT:

IT is especially rife with much of what you’re saying, in that nobody who is promoted to manager understands a fraction of what is going on even a month after the promotion. That doesn’t stop them from acting as if they know, of course, so a strange kind of disconnect is created: their management thinks them wise and deep because they retain some buzz words, the people reporting to them recognize their essential buffoonery.

I’ve written a lot about how people find themselves in positions as managers of others without any talent for leadership whatsoever. Besides the ones who get there through “connections”, political maneuvering (aka sucking up) or pure luck, many get hired or promoted into management because of their technical skills that have nothing to do with leadership whatsoever. IT is one of those highly technical areas where this probably occurs more often than not. One of the motivations of the decision maker might be the need to pay a valuable technician more in order to keep them on board. Since the higher paying positions in companies often include the management of others, great technicians often find themselves in positions of management that they have no business holding. Another motivation might be mistaken belief that somehow those that are promoted can impart their great technical strengths to other members of the team because they are now “in charge”. This is very shortsighted thinking on the part of hiring authority or the executive making the decision to promote.

I say all of this because oftentimes those making the decisions create more problems than they solve. These problems are not necessarily for themselves but for the poor souls who will find themselves under the thumb of a bad leader.

Good managers are as equally important as good technicians and require as much talent! This is even truer in large organizations. It has always been my opinion that leaders are born and not made and that there are innate leadership characteristics and qualities that cannot be taught in business schools or management seminars. Some people have them and some just don’t. It is also my belief that management is an art and not a science. Leadership requires a certain temperament and personality that doesn’t always blend well with the personality type of a good technician. You may disagree with my premise here but I’ve seen the results of bad promotions many times over my career. Oftentimes companies end up actually losing their best technical people by promoting them and receive poor or bad managers in return. Refer to my post Why Companies Love Micro-managers dated August 10, 2007 and categorized under The Corporate Cynic’s Manifesto for more on this.

My advice to the decision makers here is simple: Pay your technical people what they’re worth to you! Do not use promotions into management as a pay raise!

If you’ve read 160 Degrees of Deviation: The Case for the Corporate Cynic, you know that the worst outcomes of all occur when the personality type that I refer to as a ”Born Jerk” (use your own imaginations here) gets promoted into management. Something strange, sinister and (to some observers) “inevitable” seems to happen when these people get raised into positions of authority. It’s as though their anointing triggers a metamorphosis. They begin to truly believe that their promotions and new titles give them the ability to instantly speak with wisdom, intelligence and authority. They no longer need any training or experience. They have “arrived”. The most dangerous part of this thinking is that any and all of their bad traits and behaviors have been sanctioned, validated and even rewarded by their promotions. A real monster has been created.

Their egocentric thought process goes something like this:

Since a company would only promote a brilliant and wise individual, I must be one. Because I received the promotion over the others on the team who now report to me, I must be more brilliant and wise than they are. My brilliance and wisdom should now be self-evident to all. I am innately better than they are.

Believe me folks, I’ve seen this delusional kind of thinking and the damage that it can do.

I place much of the blame for these phenomena on the executive levels of organizations as it is they who make and/or sanction these choices and are remiss on following up on hiring and promotional decisions. Besides, they never have to deal with behaviors of their own creations. It’s the subordinates who fall prey to the self-indulgent idiosyncrasies, unreasonable expectations and arrogant posturing of these characters.

My advice to the decision makers here is equally simple: When promoting employees into management keep in mind that it is important that the subordinates respect their new manager. Management is not a popularity contest, be wary of promoting people whose only claim to fame is being well liked. Never promote those who are distrusted or despised. There are ways to determine these characteristics in your candidates. Here’s where the cynics and skeptics in your organization can prove to be invaluable. Don’t be lazy and take the easy way out. These decisions are critical to the health of your organization.

Back in the day, management used to be defined as “getting things done through people”. I still believe that but I want to draw a real distinction between management and manipulation. In my view management requires true leadership. Manipulation is the forte of a “Born Jerk”. There are a lot of good employees being manipulated today!

I will end this rant with some advice to both the decision makers as well as those who get promoted into management. It sums up my beliefs about leadership as it relates management. I know this sounds corny but:

Being given the opportunity to be responsible for the activities of others should be a humbling experience. Managers who expert their subordinates to humbly prostrate themselves before their superior’s feet should be “humbled” right out the door.

One Year Down and Hopefully Many More to go!

March 9, 2008

My how time flies. This week marks the 1st anniversary of The Corporate Cynic blog. In honor of the occasion, I’d like to enumerate some interesting statistics from my blog’s dashboard:

# of posts – 55
# of blog hits – 8,000
# of comments – 57.

It’s truly been a labor of love but also a lot of hard work. Readers will recognize that I’m still a working stiff who puts in over 60 hours a week at the office. That sure doesn’t leave a lot of time for writing. I’ve tried to publish one post per week and hope that all of my stories and writings have brought some insight into the workplace and management issues that I consider important.

In honor of the event – and like all “service” anniversaries, I picked something out of the gift catalogue. Hmmm, slim pickings for one year of service. I chose the pen and mechanical pencil set. (It was actually a promotional item form the store where I buy office supplies.)

The best gift of all, however, was the very nice article about yours truly written by Linda Hatcher for the March issue of Leadership Guide Magazine. Here’s a link if you’d care to read it and visit this fine organization’s website: www.leadershipdevelopment.com. I’ve also posted a copy of Linda’s article under the Recent Articles category on the blog. Thanks again, Linda! I really appreciated you kind words.

To be honest, I’d almost given up on the blog several times over the past year. I wondered if anyone was even reading it. Every time that I considered calling it quits, I’d notice that someone new was linking to it or that one of my posts was published on another website or blog. I’m not one to give up easily but I do need some positive reinforcement from time to time.

So please keep coming back, I’ve got a million stories to tell. During my interview with Linda, she asked me about my favorite post from the Never Fail to Amaze category. Truthfully speaking, I don’t have one. As long as I’m employed in the modern corporate world, I’m certain that I will never fail to be amazed by what transpires there. The best stories are likely yet to come.

Remember, if you want to be good manager and run a healthy organization, read these stories and DON’T do what these managers, executives and companies do.

Thanks again. I’ll be back next week with another corker.

Leadership Guide Magazine, March 2008 Issue

March 9, 2008

Hi Friends. Read more from Linda Hatcher and other great articles at www.leadershipdevelopment.com

From Cynicism to True Leadership in the Workplace by Linda Hatcher

Jerome Alexander has made a needed mark in leadership thinking with his self-branded moniker and related writings “The Corporate Cynic.” He writes honestly, and sometimes painfully, about the front-line truths of today’s corporate world. From reading his writing, we can learn the WRONG ways to do things, with the hope we can strive harder for the “practical ways to do the right things right” slogan of this magazine.

For example, he talks about the euphemisms that have been draped over Draconian measures, often taken without proper regard or even bare-minimum fair treatment of the hard-working individuals on the front-line. “Having seen the best and the worst at work, I am sorry to say that the worst clearly outnumbers the best,” he concludes after more than 30 years working in Corporate America in finance and administration middle management. He says one of the most flagrant recent examples he saw in a management memo was to tell people that their jobs would be “co-sourced” (as opposed to the actual “outsourced.”) Other examples are being a project “champion” (versus being volunteered or “stuck” with even more work for no more money, with no additional resources), and the now-common “rightsizing” for “force reduction.”

He gives many detailed case studies of the action of some corporate dramas in his blog and has written a book aimed at one of the leading characters of the downside of business today: what he calls “the 160 Degree Deviator.” Writes an Amazon.com reviewer about the book: Even the best organizations have good intentions when instituting new plans or policies. Something always seems to go wrong, because of a type of manager called the 160 Degree Deviator. These are people with their own agendas who damage company morale and cause frustration to rise. The reason that they aren’t called 180 Degree Deviators is that the author gives the company 20 degrees “credit” for having the right idea.

Alexander lays much of the blame for corporate chaos on what he calls “Hollywood-esque” images that leaders try to present and maintain, versus the substantive ethical character needed to treat people with genuine respect and dignity.

“Deviators have personal agendas which causes morale to suffer and frustration to set in,” he says.

His blog is full of interesting and sometimes outright hilarious inner looks at the downsized America that will only head more the same way, given intense global competition. For example, he tells the detailed front-line story of a merger in action. “We were all waiting to see what new directive would be coming down the pike. Something goofy always seemed to happen after these events.” He goes on to describe the “double secret” he and other middle managers had to keep as the new management team began moving in. “The circus continued for another week,” he writes. Finally, he recognized a macabre truth that we have all seen, a Hollywood-esque cinematic epiphany: “digging your own grave.”

He realized, “the sooner we completed the transition, the sooner they can cut all of us loose. Dig faster! Dig faster! Dig faster!”

Despite his cutting truths, Alexander still retains an optimistic outlook that some leaders, some companies, are ethical. “I have been criticized for dwelling too much on the dark side of corporate leadership and painting all leaders with the same brush,” he admits. “That has never been my intent. The thrust of my “rants” has always been aimed at those who destroy morale and create cynicism and malaise.”

He identifies the characteristics of ethical leadership from three outstanding leaders he has known. True Leaders, he says are….
• Unpretentious. There are no airs about them.
• Even tempered. They don’t “fly off the handle.”
• Thoughtful. True Leaders never made a rash decision. They always think things through.
• Supportive. If someone needs help, a True Leader is
always available.
• Well spoken. True Leaders do not use profanity, only measured clear and concise words. They always make sure that what they say is understood.
• Responsible. They are the first to admit when they make a mistake.
• Trustworthy. A True Leader would never betray a confidence unless he obtained one’s permission.
• Hard working. Very hands on. Would never dream of asking anyone to do anything that they wouldn’t do themselves.
• Respectful. True Leaders treat everyone with dignity

He talks about a specific leader, Steve, who had the respect of the entire staff, as well as that of a multitude of others in the organization.

“Even the malcontents respected him,” Alexander notes. “He beamed with a low-key aura of self-confidence. He knew who he was and what role he filled in the company. He very seldom ever threw the weight of position around and never with the staff. If you did a good job, he’d make sure and tell you. If you screwed up or got out of line, you’d hear about that too. His praise or criticism was always aimed at what you had done and never about you personally. He could mix it up with the staff at the Christmas party but always remained slightly aloof. If Steve had any personal idiosyncrasies or peculiar habits, they were never evident. He was much more respected than liked but he was a likable guy. He looked, acted, and sounded like an executive. Steve was not a stodgy old man either, only about ten years older than I was.”

Under Steve’s leadership, Alexander goes on, a great deal of issues confronting the organization were solved. There was no fanfare or accolades. We knew that we were just getting done what needed to get done. If Steve asked you to put out more effort to get a project completed, you just knew that it was important to the corporation. He didn’t have to tell you that. He’d never send you off on a wild goose chase or waste your time.

“A new president was appointed to the company back in the 80’s that had different kind of style,” Alexander says. “Steve was moved around to a variety of other positions and then retired early. A great loss.” Alexander said a similar fate was in store for a former VP of Human Resources for the same firm.
.
“Warren possessed all of the traits and characteristics that you would expect in a Vice President of Human Resources. He could spot a problem employee or manager a mile away. He always acted with ultimate discretion. Warren insisted that everyone in his department be responsive to the needs of both employees and management.”

Unfortunately, Warren fell to the same fate as Steve. The new president replaced him with an attorney.

“No one that I ever spoke with about these individuals has ever mentioned respecting or admiring these people for being workaholics, closing “big deals,” saving millions of dollars, or having TV shows,” Alexander says. “These leaders never blew their own horns and dissuaded others from doing so on their behalf. There was humility and a dignity that they brought with them to work every day. It was self-evident.”

Does Being a Leader Mean Never Having to Say You’re Sorry?

March 4, 2008

It’s time to come clean with the readers. I admit that I totally lost it at work two weeks ago. I succumbed to the pressure of being part of the team charged with the integration of my recently sold division into the structure of its new owners, the prospect of being unemployed after the integration is complete and the unreasonable demands of my new “interim” superiors to speed up the process. Yes, I lost it. Late on a Friday afternoon, I unleashed my own frustrations on the staff accountant who reports to me. I was tired and drained. When the accountant approached me to review a project he was working on and asked about taking some time off the following week, I fired off a fusillade of the same phrases and comments that I’d been inundated with over the previous few days: “I don’t think you know what you’re talking about.” “What you’re saying makes no sense.” “You’re not helping me here.” “I need this NOW not tomorrow.” “Don’t leave work until you have the answers.” The accountant’s eyes widened in shock and then turned down at the floor as he artfully backed out of my office. I thought that it would make me feel better to “share the wealth” of the hammerings I’d taken. The opposite occurred. I knew what I had done. I felt bad about the incident all weekend and the first thing Monday morning, I apologized for my tirade. The accountant thanked me but told me that it was no big deal. He understood what was going on. I felt much better after that and resumed my tasks. Our relationship had been repaired.

Having been on the receiving end of tirades, lies, insults, unfair dress downs, smartass comments, unreasonable demands and the like both personally and as a member of various groups over the years (and right now for that matter), I have always vowed to never act in such a manner toward my direct reports. Some would call it unprofessional behavior. I agree. But the theme of this post goes beyond just what constitutes unprofessional behavior. It goes to the core values of personal responsibility, contrition and leadership. You see in over thirty-five years of working in business and reporting to countless managers and executives, I can only remember two who have ever apologized for any of the above. Hats off to them. They were widely respected individuals. Hey, I’m no psychologist or philosopher. I’m just trying to get into the heads of these other characters to see what makes them tick and why they act the way they do.

Is it a cultural thing? From the time that I was a small boy, I remember hearing that admitting you were wrong or apologizing was a sign of weakness. Leaders didn’t do that because it made them look weak and they needed to look strong. Where did that come from? I’ve always rejected that theory. Maybe it was a result my religious and family upbringing.

Sometimes I think that these characters actually believe that their cause is so important that they feel vindicated by their acts and therefore need no contrition for them at all. Hmmm! Making some clerk feel like an idiot because they forgot to include someone on a distribution list is no way to gain any respect.

I also think that others actually believe that the things they say under pressure or on the spur of the moment should be forgiven out of hand by the recipient of the remarks. It’s as though their rank and status automatically insulates them from the need to make amends. Their thought process works something like this, “THEY should know that I didn’t really mean to say that.” Sorry Charlie, if you really didn’t mean it, say so! That rationalization only reinforces your image as a complete ass.

Others yet could never admit they made a mistake if the facts hit them in the head like a sledgehammer. Are they really too big and important to make such an admission? Would that be such a blow to their pumped up egos? I dread to think about the way they conduct their personal lives.

I’ve seen many examples of this behavior over the years and am still perplexed about how to explain it. Is this something taught at the “Double Secret Society of bad Executives”? Take George Miller for example. George was the Vice President of Operations at a company that I worked for a few years ago. George had real penchant for getting his facts wrong about our plant’s productivity and the intelligence and capabilities of several of our employees. He seemed to take particular delight in spouting off misinformation during meetings with the CEO of the company. His comments would always make us look like fools in the eyes of the top dog. We had no idea how or from where he was obtaining this bad information. If anyone tried to correct him during these meetings, he’d simply change the subject without any amendment of his commentary. Even after the meetings, he would continue to spout his erroneous data and ignore the corrections. This was really chilling to those about whom he had made disparaging comments without any basis in fact. His antics nearly destroyed the reputation and career of one of our managers.

Gene Jones was another one of these types who used a slightly different tactic when caught in a lie or confronted with contradictory information. Whenever backed into a corner, Gene would immediately respond with the words, ”You’re right!” – even though we all knew that he didn’t mean it. One could just tell from his flippant tone and body language that he was already plotting his revenge for getting busted. I saw many good employees suffer due to his vindictiveness.

Then there’s Carl, the executive from our new parent company who’s in charge of the integration of our division. I was actually warned about Carl by another manager from that firm. “Carl is never wrong. Even if he is, he’ll never admit it. He’ll tell you one thing one day and another thing the next. Don’t even try to argue with him. He’s always right even though he’ll change his mind a hundred times. Carl’s not always truthful, so take everything he says with a grain of salt. He could care less about anyone. It’s all about him” “How can they let him get away with that?” I asked in reply. “They’re all like that at his level,” came the response. Boy, am I glad that I won’t be working for that company after the integration.

About the closest thing to an apology or act of contrition on the part of one of these characters that I’ve experienced came from a former division president to whom I directly reported some years ago. I had approached this gentleman and voiced my frustrations about being ignored with regard to some serious issues confronting the business. My motivation was to voice my concern about being cut out of the process and to offer my assistance. His response to my frustration was simply; “I apologize but don’t apologize for keeping you out of the loop and ignoring you. I have a company to run and I’m extremely busy.” I apologize but don’t apologize. Just what in the hell does that mean?

Interestingly enough, some defenders of these behaviors would counter my rant with “It’s lonely at the top” or “You just don’t understand the pressure that these leaders are under.” What lame excuses! I always thought that a leader’s role was to be responsible. If they take no responsibility for their own actions, how they can hold others responsible?

Others would say, “That’s the price you pay for being a leader.” Huh? I thought that we were supposed to respect and admire these people.

At this point in the rant, I’d like to make one thing abundantly clear: Leaders oftentimes have to make unpopular and tough decisions. I fully recognize and respect that. But let’s draw a distinction between DECISIONS and BEHAVIORS. If the definition of a strong leader includes losing the respect of your subordinates because of your behaviors, call me “weak”.

I do not want to sound political here, but with government leaders offering apologizes on behalf of their nations for past events that their current citizenry took no part in at all, what’s wrong with business leaders offering apologies for things that they’ve done in the here and now?