Category Archives: Corporate Culture

The cesspool syndrome

I’ve read and re-read the Arthur Bedeian and Achilles Armenakis article, The cesspool syndrome: how dreck floats to the top of declining organizations. In my opinion this article is worth the time to read. At its core it talks about how their research shows that unlike in successful organizations where the cream rises to the top, dreck often rises to the top of unsuccessful organizations. They argue that largely this is due to the fact that the more successful and desirable employees have greater opportunity to leave an organization that is on a decline. Whereas the less talented and desirable employees do not have the same options and stay with the organization and ultimately work their way to the top. Ultimately, the authors are suggesting that organizations need to do a better job of identifying valuable employees and putting programs and incentives in place to retain them.

I believe that this is incredibly important because an organization does not need to be in a full blown decline to experience this phenomenon. Many of our organizations go through lulls or short-term declines. In addition, I would also point out that the uncertainty that is created during a merger or acquisition can easily create an environment in which your best employees leave for new opportunities or more “stable” environments.

Read this article and treat it as a cautionary tale.  Lastly, ensure that your organization has programs in place to further develop and retain your best employees.

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The business environment has changed more rapidly than Middle management

Stephanie Armour in her USA Today article, “Who wants to be a middle manager?,” discusses the challenges facing today’s middle manager, and that a growing population of Generation X & Y employees do not view a move into middle management as a desirable career move.  The Gen X or Y managers that she interviewed discussed their challenges with work-life balance, struggling with increasingly wide-spread employees, pressures of managing the output (and the interpersonal issues) of employees while counterbalancing that against the objectives of senior management.  The article indicates that the role of the middle manager has dramatically changed over the years – becoming a less desirable role.

Some of the primary issues the article references are:

  • Lack of flexibility in work schedule – often there is a need to be available nearly 24×7

  • More demanding work and technology have forced managers to multi-task

  • Generational differences between the Baby boomer senior managers and the Gen X & Y middle managers and front line employees – who often have different views on company loyalty, career paths and job security

  • Work flexibility and security are perks that the middle managers do not get to take advantage

She finishes by pointing out that some organizations, like IBM, are attempting to offer executive-like perks to middle managers in the hopes of making the positions more attractive to employees.  Some companies, she points out, are being more flexible with valued middle managers.  One such company allowed a middle manager to retain her position, supervising a largely US-based team, when she relocated to Europe.

A few questions that occurred to me as I was reading this article: Has middle management changed more so than the work world?  Haven’t there always been employees – regardless of generation – who understand the additional commitments that management requires and would rather not have the additional responsibilities?  Are there a percentage of Gen X & Y managers who share similar views as Baby Boomers?  If so, how large is that group?  If Gen X & Y employees are wired differently than Baby Boomers, what ways will the business world need to change to accommodate this change once the Baby Boomers begin to retire from the workforce?

I believe that the work world has been and continues to change at an incredible pace.  Today you have companies that are less than 25 years old – that are among the most successful entities in the world (i.e. Google, Cisco, Microsoft, eBay, Dell, Lenovo, Yahoo).  My point is that there will be a company that starts in someone’s garage or basement tomorrow that may be a global brand within 5 – 7 years.  Those types of successes place an enormous amount of pressure on established businesses in many industries.  In addition, there is a greater amount of competition globally which has forced many organizations to face fierce new competitors.  And if that was not enough, businesses have additional focus on financial reporting – due to the misdeeds of senior mangers from organizations like Enron, Adelphia, WorldCom, etc.

All levels of management are facing enormous amounts of pressure.  Can you remember a time in which new CEOs were given such short amounts of rope before they were replaced?  So with senior managers facing a tremendous amount of pressure, it is understandable for middle managers – those who are tasked with implementing the organizations strategic plans – to feel incredible pressure as well.

I have known a number of Baby Boomer first-line employees who no desire of being in management.  The belief that this is a phenomenon that is owned by Gen X or Y employees is a myth.  You will always find that a fair number of employees do not want the additional responsibility that comes with being in management.  Every generation produces individuals who are driven to be the best that they can be, not every generation takes the same path to success, but Gen X & Y is no different in their drive.  If anything there is probably some truth in Gen X & Y wanting to move farther at a faster rate.  Not wanting to wait and “pay dues” over an extended period of time.  Some of this is due to the “peer pressure” of witnessing peers launch successful companies.  As a result they will increasingly look for opportunities of upward mobility outside their present organizations.  So while some Gen X & Y employees want to take charge of an organization, generally, they don’t want to wait 15 or 20 years to do it.

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Filed under Baby Boomers, Corporate Culture, Dell, Gen X, Gen Y, IBM, Leadership, Management, Microsoft, Middle Management, Stephanie Armour, USA Today

Promise-Based Management

Promise

 

Most of the vexing challenges leaders face – improperly executed strategy, lack of organizational agility, disengaged employees, and so on – stem from broken or poorly crafted commitments.  Executives can overcome some of their thorniest problems in the short term and foster productive, reliable workforces for the long term by practicing what we call ‘promise-based management’: cultivating and coordinating commitments in a systematic way.

 

I came across this article written by Sull and Spinosa, Promise-Based Management: The Essence of Execution, in the April edition of the HBR and was fascinated by its title.  As I read the article I began to reflect on my own personal experiences with the organizations that I have worked for, and with my own staff.  I agree that one of the quickest ways to take the wind out of a person’s sails is to break a commitment – especially one that was made publicly.  Most employees realize that in business, as in life, that change is one of the few constants.  With that said, it is hard to justify breaking a promise that was made without adequately considering the impact.  I am suggesting that there are those around us who are “serial committers” – they always say yes and rarely say no, even when they should.  These individuals become so engulfed by the shear number of commitments that they have made that it becomes impossible for them to execute on any of them, at least not effectively.

 

I found Sull and Spinosa’s five characteristics of good promises particularly interesting.  They define good promises as those that individuals are committed to keeping.  And point out that they are:

  1. Public – promises that are made, monitored, and completed in public are more binding.
  2. Active – negotiating a commitment should be an active, collaborative process.
  3. Voluntary – effective promises are not coerced.
  4. Explicit – requests must be clear from the start.
  5. Mission based – explanation of why the commitment matters.

In conclusion, it is time for us to retrain our staff, colleagues and senior executives that it is completely appropriate – if not valuable to the organization – to say no.  Or looking at it a different way, to put the commitment on hold until there is ample time to evaluate the entirety of what is being requested, and its impact on the organization.  It would provide us all with the requisite time to evaluate what the impact would be if the promise is not acted upon.

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Filed under Charles Spinosa, Corporate Culture, Donald N. Sull, Harvard Business Review, Management, Strategy

Nasty People Drain Productivity in the Workplace

Nasty People

I recently re-read the Robert Sutton article entitled Nasty People.  This article, which helped lead the way to his recently published book The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace, discusses the impact that employees who create a hostile work environment have on others and the organization itself.  I immediately began to reflect on the various nasty people who I have worked with over the years.

I thought of two people in particular who didn’t know what a carrot is, but they have a mountain of sticks.  They need a mountain of sticks because they wear them out so quickly – figuratively bashing those that don’t do exactly what they want, when they want over the head.  More frustratingly they will often employ their clubs when they only have a small amount of facts, often clubbing an innocent person.  And once proven wrong, they can not muster the strength to say “I apologize,” instead they are out clubbing the next person.

 

By clubbing I am referring to the nasty, accusatory and public emails (conference calls and face-to-face meetings) that a large number of us have had the displeasure to witness (or experience).  You know the type – the one that has nearly every member of the organization on copy – and it serves to public point the finger at an individual(s).  More often than not, its purpose is to cover the butt of the person sending it.  This is because they are admitting that, while the subject of the email is near and dear to them, they couldn’t manage to stay engaged in the project to help keep it on track.  But they will now cast blame, after the fact, where they believe it should lie.  Go back and re-read these emails, as a key stakeholder do they accept any responsibility?  I am willing to bet that in 98% of the cases the answer is NO.

 

What these individuals don’t seem to understand is that this behavior does not accomplish what they hope.  My belief is that they feel that by publicly chastising people, it will motivate that employee to work harder the next time.  While I am not a Psychologist, I have to believe that this actually de-motivates people as well as it creates bitterness and resentment.  As Professor Sutton points out, it can often lead towards the escalation of this nasty behavior as people begin to lob verbal hand grenades at each other.  I would also argue that as a result of these behavior productivity decreases, which is exactly the opposite effect that the “club” holder would argue they were trying to accomplish.

 

If there was no management intervention following a “clubbing” the employees learn that they need to “CYA” from this point forward.  So they begin to document every step and wait for countless approvals and signoffs before they move forward.  Projects begin to take much longer than they could or should, often because the employees are covering their butts by documenting where the problem has probably always existed – with the person(s) doing the clubbing.  The net effect is that the mood of the group drops and so does productivity.

 

I disagree completely with publicly embarrassing a colleague and those that do it should be disciplined.  And when it is done with a lack of evidence the penalty should be more severe – up to and including termination.  People who are too busy to pick up the phone, or visit with a colleague that they “believe” missed the target, in order to gather data and possibly council them (if necessary) are too busy to continue to work for the organization.

 

Because of the nature of business, we ask employees to deal with a lot – from 50+ hour work weeks, nearly 7 day work weeks, and on and on.  We should not hire or tolerate nasty employees who make work life even more difficult.  And when you consider the price of unproductive behavior and possibly future legal activity, they can produce a very tangible negative financial impact on the organization.

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Filed under Corporate Culture, Ethics, Harvard Business Review, HR, Leadership, Nasty People, Productivity, Rant, Robert Sutton, The No Asshole Rule

Perfecting product launches

HBR

 

The April 2007 edition of the Harvard Business Review contained the article “Preparing for the perfect product launch” by James P. Hackett, President and CEO of Steelcase.  Hackett does a wonderful job of explaining the troubles that many organizations face when developing and launching new products and services – failing to adequately think out and plan their strategies.  He points out that in one of his organization’s less successful product launches, that their “concept was a breakthrough, but the development process” broke down.  He attributes this in large part to the fact that they did not fully think through and test the entire process – every one was focused on “doing” and had not rigorously scouted out “the territory before we sprinted down the execution path.”

 

This is very common in most organizations.  We often notice a trend or base our opinions on a finite number of facts and – in our goal to introduce a new product to the market first – we mobilize resources to develop and launch that new product.  While not realizing, until it is too late, that our facts were flawed, because we did not do the proper due diligence in advance.  Often we subjectively find facts that support our business plans, rather than letting the facts determine what the correct decision should be.

 

Employing complexity theory and critical thinking skills, Hackett developed the following four phase process for new product development that he and his team implemented at Steelchase:

1.      Think – deeply consider the problem or opportunity

a.       Have every member of the team consider the problem independently.

b.      Ask the correct questions about the problem. 

c.       Divide the topic among the team members, read and research as much as possible. 

d.      Employ your team’s network to talk to the smartest people that you know about this topic. 

e.       Document all of your discoveries.

2.      Set the point of view – Develop a specific approach to the problem

a.       Have the team collegially and open-mindedly discuss all of the options generated.

b.      As a team, define the mission and what constitutes success

c.       Assign a member of the team to “own the point of view.”

d.      Once the point of view is set, stay the course.

3.      Plan implementation – develop the launch strategy and test it

a.       Make sure that the mission is understandable to non-team members.

b.      Determine the role that stakeholders will play in the implementation.

c.       Practice the plan so implementation runs smoothly.

4.      Implement – they implement the strategy

a.       Elect a spokesperson to be the voice of the company.

b.      Stay true to your measures of success.

c.       Give credit liberally and where it is due.

 

Now I can all ready hear most people saying that they do this currently.  It is important to point out that in this process, Steelchase does not cut corners, they provide employees with the time to fully think out and research new ideas.  They fully engulf themselves in any and all data available on the issue.  Once they are done with the thinking phase, then they move on to develop their solution to the problem.  Another key difference is that Steelcase has made this part of their company’s culture.  Hackett feels so passionately about this process that he personally teaches it to his employees.  He believes that it is more effective coming from him than a trainer or consultant that he could hire.

As busy as we all are it is much too easy to “go-go-go” and “do-do-do.”  It is much more difficult to stop, and consider all of the facts.  Test out your theories.  Create your plan and practice it.  And then implement your plan.  This is an enormous culture shift to the “reactionaries” who love to shoot from the hip.  But the long-term benefits to the organization are tremendous.

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Filed under Business Plans, Corporate Culture, Harvard Business Review, Innovation, Marketing, Product Development, Product Launch, Product Management, Steelchase, Strategy