Archive for May, 2010
Recently I began a grant writing project to help raise funds for a local emergency services purchase. The process got me thinking, what if every organization had to write a grant application every year? What an organizational soul-searching process that would be.
Grant applications, I’ve discovered, really ask you to ask some hard questions and paint the big picture in terms of organizational responsibility. Why does your organization exist? What need does it serve? How is success measured? Why do you deserve assistance? How will you make good use of money if it’s given to you? If all you can say is that you exist to make a profit, then in essence you’ve got nothing to say.
I think every organization should have to answer questions like that periodically; not just organizations that are applying for government assistance, but every organization. And they should have to answer the questions as if a very important cash infusion depends on the quality of the answers.
How would your organization answer? Do you serve a need, or do you only exist to make a profit?
If you want to get inspired to change your life for the better, read The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss. That’s assuming you haven’t already read this much-talked-about bestseller. While it’s certainly full of practical tips for cutting the clutter in your life and making more money in less time, its best feature is that it makes a solid case for the philosophy of carpe diem. Why on earth do so many people slave away at a job they hate in order to save for that far-off retirement in which they’ll finally enjoy themselves? You don’t know how you’re going to feel when you’re 65; you may no longer have the energy or physical ability to do all those things you’ve dreamed about. Heck, you don’t even know if you’ll still be alive!
Ferriss talks about how important it is to define what you want to do now, and then figure out a way to finance that freedom now, whatever age you might be.
I did it when I was 36. I quit my job, sold my car, put my furniture in storage and let my rental house go. Then I took off and traveled around the world for seven months; I got scuba-certified on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, went on safari in Tanzania, trekked in Nepal and studied Thai cooking and massage in Thailand. When I came back, I moved up into the mountains in Colorado and became a ski instructor, a freelance writer for adventure sports magazines, and a volunteer mountain rescuer. A few years later I began consulting in what I would describe as a partial return to the “real world,” but I emphasize the word “partial.” Having the freedom to have many different experiences remains important to me and I focus on keeping that capability in my life.
When you talk to people about things like this the response is usually, “I’d love to do that but _____.” Insert the appropriate barrier in the blank: I have kids, I have a family, I have a mortgage, I have too much debt. I’m not dismissive about these things; I have to admit, they are challenges that I didn’t have when I did it. What’s neat about Ferriss’ book is that he addresses some of these challenges with real examples, like the family who saved for a couple of years and figured out how to sail around the world with their three children. I’m not saying it’s easy, but if you’re willing to question some of the “needs” you take for granted and able to think a little creatively, you might get there.
It’s certainly not a new idea, but it’s a timely one given the current job market. Are you one of those job seekers beginning to get frustrated? Go get this book. It might help you to think differently about how to move forward.
During a teambuilding session this week, I led a leadership team in an exercise to identify style. I asked them each to work in groups to identify three words that described each person’s leadership style; then they had to switch groups and try to match the words with the correct person.
As we were debriefing, someone made the observation that they hadn’t really come up with words to describe leadership style, but rather words to describe personality. There were descriptors like sense of humor, compassion, energetic and steady. We had some debate about that. Some people said, what’s the difference, really? Some argued that the difference was significant, that personality was innate and leadership style was learned. Others said, the exercise is too simplistic; you can’t describe a leadership style in three words anyway. There is so much more to be said.
Finally, we said that personality characteristics influence leadership style to such an extent as to perhaps make them inseparable. And that what really matters is the three words that get through loud and clear to those we lead. When one employee asks another, “What is your manager like?” that question usually gets answered with about three descriptors. “She’s harsh. She barks orders at you and doesn’t listen.” Or, “He’s great, everyone really feels like he gets where we’re coming from. But he expects results.” We can sit in leadership classes and talk about complicated theories and models all we want—and I’m not saying it’s without merit—but in the end, our employees will distill us down to a few descriptors that arguably describe personality more than anything else. And because we all have blind spots, it’s important to get a handle on what those descriptors are likely to be. Ask your colleagues, your employees and your spouse. Use a 360 instrument. Search for clues in your interactions with others. Until you really understand how you come across to those you lead, you’ll find it hard to assess your leadership effectiveness.
Harvard Business’ tip of the day this morning was to put culture before strategy in a turnaround. “To right an organization headed for trouble, you need to build a culture that supports strategy implementation.”
How true this is! Not just for turnarounds, but for any type of major organizational event. Early in my career, the hotel company I worked for merged with another. There were about nine of us working in corporate HR from both sides of the merger, and we stumbled just integrating our own team never mind the rest of the organization. The VP of HR from the other company, Cynthia, was infatuated with efficiency, centralization and standardization. I still remember how proudly she presented some of her systems for a new hotel takeover to us: she had pre-made files that could simply be installed in the new hotel’s HR office, and ready-made employee handbooks, and pre-programmed takeover presentations. On our side, we had always spent three times as much time and effort as she had on a takeover; we’d tried to understand the previous systems of the new hotel, and created customized documents and presentations that reflected the need for the hotel’s staff to keep some of their old ways and make still enough changes to fit in with us.
Cynthia couldn’t understand why we weren’t thrilled about her time-saving ideas. She tried to sell us on her systems over and over, touting the benefits and talking about how it would free up our time to focus on other things, like training and employee engagement. She was right that we would have loved more time for developing and engaging employees; what she didn’t understand was that we felt her systems would have worked at cross-purposes to the goal of employee engagement. We valued individuality and freedom of expression, and she valued efficiency and standardization. We believed that employees who are forced to follow a corporate SOP for every procedure will lack opportunities to develop their managerial skills and thus will be less engaged; she believed that supervisors wanted to have things be simpler and easier on the administrative side so they could focus their time elsewhere.
Who was right? It didn’t matter. Until we aligned the values, and then aligned “the way we do things around here” based on those shared values, we weren’t going to get anywhere with anything else. And if HR can’t align, what about the rest of the organization?
I wouldn’t say the merger failed. It just took a very, very long time to take the speed bumps out of the road; many years, in fact. And we lost a lot of good people in the process. Eventually, I was one of them.
If you’re going through a turnaround, acquisition, or merger heed Peter Drucker’s warning: Culture eats strategy for breakfast.
For Mother’s Day this year, my mother and I had our traditional seafood dinner at her house, with fresh lobster and clam steamers. What was different this year is that for the first time, neither of my brothers could make it so it was just my mom and me. That meant I had to kill the lobsters.
At one point my mother came into the kitchen and asked, “So, is it traumatic?”
“I don’t know yet,” I said grimly. The water was not yet boiling, but I was already getting thoroughly worked up in anticipation of the moment. The lobsters sat in the sink, waiting, waving their claws at me.
Later, after the deed was done and all the food was on the table, I answered my mother’s question again. “It was terrible,” I said. “I think I did something wrong. It seemed like they were still alive for a long time after I put them in the pot.”
Somehow, the lobster didn’t taste as good as it usually does.
I know you’re waiting for me to make a cheesy connection between the lobsters and what we do in the workplace, and I’m not going to disappoint you. It’s like managers who have great ideas about saving costs by laying off workers, but they don’t want to do the dirty work themselves. They get HR to handle the termination interviews, and because they don’t have to see the look in the eyes of a departing worker, they don’t take as much time and care to make sure it’s done as humanely as possible. Or perhaps they don’t handle the communication with surviving workers as sensitively as they should. Or perhaps they don’t try as hard as they could to avoid the layoffs in the first place.
Years ago I worked as the HR director for a small specialty financial services company that was constantly growing and cutting back, growing and cutting back. Every time they cut back, senior leadership asked me to handle all the layoffs. Managers were not required to sit in the room with me, and so they were free to be quick with the layoff decisions and stingy with the severance packages, never having to see that look in their employee’s eyes. Never having to see the lobster thrashing. (Sorry, I know that was really bad.)
Next time, kill your own lobster if it really must be done. You’ll do a better job of it.
As for me, I’m thinking of having steak for Mother’s Day next year.
When I teach a business writing course, my favorite part of the class is when I get to rail against “corporatese,” that pompous, inflated and indecipherable language that business people of all levels seem to feel compelled to use. I put great examples like this up on the screen: “Unless otherwise specified, the following specifications and standards of the issue listed in that issue of the Department of Agriculture Index of Specifications and Standards specified in the solicitation, form a part of this specification to the extent specified herein.” We have a great time with this, and we make fun of the government for using such language and speculate about whether it’s done on purpose to confuse people into thinking they’re getting a better deal than they really are.
So this week when I went to teach a business writing course to a group of employees at a federal agency I thought, uh oh, how do I handle the “corporatese” discussion without offending anyone?
I needn’t have worried. Within a milisecond of my first example hitting the screen, everyone laughed and said, “That’s government-speak.” So they know, I thought. They know it’s ridiculous but they do it anyway.
I learned a lot from chatting with them. I’ve always presented a list of the causes of corporatese: one is that the attorneys make us do it, sometimes for good reasons, such as that we need to be very specific and detailed about a particular topic in order to protect against alternative interpretations of the language. Another not-so-good reason is that managers are conditioned to believe that simple language reflects a simple mind. As Scott Adams says, “If you want to advance in management, you must convince people that you’re smart. A manager would never say, ‘I used my fork to eat a potato.’ A manager would say, ‘I used a multi-tined utensil to process a starch resource.’”
What the folks in my class this week added to my list of causes is that they work from templates. Creating letters and emails from scratch every time would be incredibly inefficient, so they adapt from previous pieces of communication, and thus they institutionalize the old “that’s how we’ve always done it” dilemma.
We had a great time in that class. We took some of their templates, beamed them up onto the screen, and attacked them, working as a group to simplify the language and make it more accessible and understandable. I got the impression we could have spent another couple of days doing that and it would have been worth our time, because they would have had a whole new set of templates to work from.
The next time you put on a business writing class for your organization, send the participants to class with some of the forms and letters you typically use. If the group can spend time revising them, it will have a lasting effect for years to come.
I drove across country last week and listened to Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink on the way, my second read of this fascinating book. If you haven’t read it yourself, the term “blink” refers to rapid cognition or “thin-slicing”; in other words, decisions made in the blink of an eye based on a very thin slice of experience. Gladwell talks about many different types and consequences of rapid cognition, and two of his more interesting points are that:
- Sometimes it is a gut reaction of a highly trained expert in a certain field, and further thought might lead to “paralysis by analysis,” the destroying of the truth of intuition. So we should trust it.
- Other times it’s a gut reaction caused by unconscious or subconscious bias. So we should not trust it.
The questions naturally arises, how do you tell the difference? And what do you do about it?
Gladwell talks at length about the IAT, a standardized test that measures unconscious racial bias. He and other people of color have taken it and shown measurable indications of racial bias themselves. But Gladwell says with repeated test-taking, he has been able to lower his score over time.
Most diversity awareness trainers talk about the conditioning that happens during our childhoods and how it results in unconscious biases of various sorts for all of us. The theory is that by bringing these biases to the surface, we can choose our behavior and ensure that it is not influenced by the bias. But Gladwell’s observations call that notion into question; apparently, it takes a lot more than just a little classroom consciousness-raising to influence our decision-making process and thus our behavior. It’s a scary thought, especially when underscored by Gladwell’s tale of a black man shot and killed by NY police officers who acted on intuition, clearly influenced by unconscious bias or stereotyping.
But how do you take a deeper dive within the time restraints of an awareness class? You can’t practice an IAT over and over. You can’t cram years worth of conscious resistance into a one or two day class.
I do think we can treat the subject with the seriousness it deserves, however. We can use examples like Gladwell’s police shooting, instead of the harmless little anecdotes I often tell about my struggle to overcome tattoo-and-piercing bias, or my humorous stories about skier vs. snowboarder bias at ski resorts. Those stories may make the point in a way that doesn’t inflame the discussion or make anyone in class uncomfortable, but they don’t make the point that our struggle to overcome bias is a serious and important endeavor with potentially deadly consequences for those who don’t work at it.
For those of you who do diversity awareness classes, what kind of approach do you take to talking about unconscious bias?