Tuesday, March 20, 2012

More Rush, Less Speed: A Manager's Lesson in Accountability

It's often amusing to me to realize how many business philosophies were first taught to me as life lessons in my early school years. I've been a long time fan of the author Robert Fulghum who among other books wrote the best seller entitled All I Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten. But where Fulghum learned his lessons in his earliest school years, I often draw on my experiences in grades six and seven. It was in grade seven that I had a wonderful teacher, Mr Squire, who often went above and beyond the standard school curriculum to try to impart some wisdom to enhance our lives. It was this teacher that taught me the phrase "More rush, less speed." He taught us that often by taking shortcuts or by ignoring the tasks that many others in our position couldn't be "bothered" to do, we would inevitably create more work for ourselves and others. Time and again I have found this adage proven true in both my personal and professional life.

As I fast forward a number of years to a communications conference I attended in my mid-thirties, I had the wonderful opportunity to hear a powerful speaker named Patrick Lencioni. Patrick is a professional management consultant and founder of The Table Group whose link I provide to the right of my articles. Patrick has also written some of the most powerful guides to business and management that I have ever read and that I recommend as a must read to any manager or senior executive. In one of these guides, Overcoming the Five Dysfunctions of a Team, A Field Guide for Leaders, Managers, and Facilitators, Patrick addresses the importance of embracing accountability. He briefly refers to an experience when a "chief executive claimed 'I don't have time for that' when someone suggested that he tell one of his direct reports to stop spreading unfounded rumors about his own promotion to president of the company." During the conference Patrick elaborated on this brief description, offering a tale that is all too familiar in my own experience as well. Here, as best as I can do it justice, is that tale...

It seems that there was a company where the president had decided he was going to step down from his role. However, being appropriately concerned for the well-being of the company he was very diligent in his search for a successor. After determining that the right candidate would not be an existing internal employee he decided to take some time off to search outside of the company. It was during this time that one of the senior executives who was not particularly respected because of his power trips and ineffective management styles, we'll call him Bob, started spreading rumors throughout the company that he was going to be promoted to the position of the president. This caused an increasing wave of dissent and discontent and finally one of the other senior executives called the president. As Patrick relates this tale, he acts out the conversation as follows...

VP: Hello sir...sorry to bother you. Just had a couple of quick questions for you. Are you aware that Bob is telling everyone in the company that he's going to be the next president.
President: Why, no. I had no idea.
VP: Okay, second question... Is he going to be the next president?
President: Well, no. To be candid I don't think Bob is qualified which is why I decided to look for a replacement outside of the company.
VP: All right. Final question... Are you going to TELL Bob any of this before more problems are created.
President: No. I don't really have the time or energy to deal with that sort of thing.

And there's the rub. A leader who doesn't have the "time" to deal with open dissent and discontent caused by a direct report. It was at this point of the conference that Patrick voiced his confusion at the "no time or energy" concept that so many chief executives cling to in avoiding conflict and professional accountability. His response was that the whole situation could have been diffused with the following phone call from the president...

"Hi Bob? It's the president. I understand you're telling people that you're going to be my replacement. Just wanted to clear that up and let you know that's not the case. Please stop telling people otherwise or else bad things might happen. Thanks Bob. Have a great day."

That's it. A 30 second conversation that addresses and solves the problem, preventing a greater loss of morale or confidence within the senior team that may even trickle down into other levels. Doesn't even require more energy than it takes to pick up a phone.

Time and again I have seen this type of scenario played out in one company after another. Somehow the concept of a promotion to higher levels of leadership has become twisted over the years. You see, even to our children we teach that there should be a balance between rights and responsibilities. If we want our rights and privileges to increase, we have to understand that our responsibilities to the welfare of the company and our charges must increase as well. Instead too many executives seem to believe that the increase of salary and status means that their responsibilities to the welfare of the company are lessened. Or perhaps to be fairer, they simply more innocently lose perspective of how to protect that welfare looking solely at the financial charts and reports. But as a businessman who has been responsible for preparing many of those reports I can confirm they only give you a part of the projection towards a company's success or failure. Even companies that experience the greatest financial success because of a new innovation or industry placement can be inevitably sunk if the relationship components are ignored. The willingness to invest the time to consider the whole picture and engage with your direct reports honestly and openly can prevent a costly amount of time and finances if the trusted and experienced members of your team leave because of avoidable professional dissatisfaction or stress.

As true as it was in seventh grade so is it true in the corporate landscape. As we rise up the ladder of success, the more shortcuts we take the longer the journey will take. Or in the simple words of Mr. Squire... More rush, less speed.

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Value of Demotivators

Once there was a corporate trainer that was asked to develop a series of training sessions for a call center that by nature of the business, was required to regularly deal with extremely difficult customers. The primary customers were mostly individual citizens who had been kicked in the teeth by life. They were injured, off work, and not happy. The call center employees suffered from low morale, minimum wage salaries, and a difficult work environment. And the trainer was tasked with injecting the group with a more positive energy and a stronger, more effective approach to customer service.

What was the trainer to do? Could he tell them the customers wouldn't be difficult anymore? Of course not. Could he raise their salaries to make it worth their while? Also, no. Perhaps he could fill them with tales of inspiring customer service! Unfortunately such tales were becoming more difficult to find. It was then that the trainer realized one of the most important rules and most common mistakes in training. He was not training call center employees any more than you train sales employees, or drivers, or any other type of "employee".

He was training people.

People who went home each night and faced their own customer service frustrations with phone companies, cable monopolies, or the grocery store cashier. People who were probably not going home very satisfied if they had spent the day yelling at customers, escalating arguments into a verbal form of a Looney Tunes conflict where each side just keeps bringing out a bigger gun.

And once he realized who he was actually training, the content of his training changed drastically and the results improved dramatically.

Rather than the standard opening pitch on how to become the new improved customer service representative 2.0, he appealed to the staff's personal frustrations on how THEY felt when they called a less than sympathetic "care representative" when their cable or home internet acted up.

Through humor, he found the common denominator that everyone shared, the realization that in far too many modern day environments customer service had been tossed out the proverbial window. Rather than showing them motivational "Successories" posters, he shared the more tongue-in-cheek "Demotivators". These were the common man's response to their everyday frustrations. Like Dilbert books and other similar comical statements on the working world these provided a common voice that every one of the staff needed to have for their own frustrations. And from those building blocks he was able to help them see their own contributions to those frustrations as they "vented" daily and failed to appreciate the life situations of their own customers.

From that position of new understanding and new-found empathy, the staff, these people, were able to find a common bond with those customers and develop the desire to learn new tools through the more traditional training elements to meet their needs more effectively. The trainer spoke of the satisfaction that can come from being the one person in their customer's day that might be able to, even for a moment, improve their quality of life. Solving a problem, demonstrating respect, even having a sympathetic ear - these didn't only take care of the primary customer, raising the quality of the call center and therefore the company. They also improved the quality of life for the employee allowing them to leave each day with a greater sense of purpose and job satisfaction.

I have experienced so many training sessions and seminars that become a simple walk through a text book or a step by step "how to" answer a phone properly, how to use correct body language when selling, etc etc. But if you don't first create in your audience a reason to learn, even the secrets of the universe can be lost in the midst of an overheated training room, clinking water glasses, and cheap hard candies. Humor, empathy, a step into their personal lives or even allowing them a peek into your own... these can be powerful tools that are often overlooked to help open their minds and even their hearts to wanting to learn all the other essentials. Use these tools, step outside the box, and never forget that you are NOT training employees. You are training people.

As a final note, what are Demotivators? You can find them at www.despair.com and in the right hands, despite their very sarcastic overtones, they can be very powerful at creating a common bond between trainers and trainees. Here's a few of my favorites...

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Power vs Authority: A Management Tale

A tale of two leaders, not entirely fictional.

Once there were two men, a big man and a small man. Both were entrusted with leadership roles over a number of employees. But the big man had worked his way up through the ranks while the small man had the benefit of shortcuts, never having had to work for someone else.

Now the big man knew what it was to be on the front line. He had learned through experience the tools of both good and poor managers. As he had diligently worked at entry level positions and over time grew in responsibility and stature to more senior roles, he had kept a keen and watchful eye to what had motivated him and his colleagues over the years. He watched as employees who were ruled with an iron fist usually accomplished only as much as they were required in order to keep their jobs. They were the first to leave at quitting time and seemed to be away as often as their sick days and vacation would allow. He continued to work faithfully even as he watched many of his fellow employees leave for other companies, requiring him to spend a great deal of his time training and retraining new recruits, only to see the cycle continue. He longed for a change, but continued to persevere, serving his kingdom faithfully.

Meanwhile, in another kingdom, the small man relished the power he had because of his position. In his kingdom he was the king! He would argue that the primary reason to have such a position is so that you didn't have to deal with the problems of those in lower rank. His employees were all disposable and he was happy to see them go so that he didn't have to be concerned with raises or improving working conditions. His motto was "There's always someone willing to work for little rather than starve." He surrounded himself with colleagues that would never truly speak their mind lest they earn his anger and wrath. He demanded the managers below him adopt his power-driven, dictatorial style insisting that "If they are willing to yell at their employees, they must be good managers." If anyone ever spoke against him he would bring out his mighty axe and smite them, sometimes just to show that he could. Unfortunately, because of his gifted high position, the small man continued on this way till the end of his days. He judged his own success only by the position he had been given and not by the responsible growth and well-being of his business and employees. And so his kingdom continued to struggle needlessly and those few that remained there did not live happily ever after.

But the story changes for the big man. For one day in his kingdom, the true king returned and was saddened to see he no longer recognized most of his own employees since so many had left. He removed from leadership those that had abused their power and recognizing the faithfulness of the big man he offered to let him lead in their place. The big man managed his charges with authority and with the understanding that they would best respect him if he also respected them. He was firm, but fair. He gave his employees opportunities to improve their own situations. He listened as they gave him considerate counsel. He paid them fair wages but just as importantly, he gave them opportunities to invest in their futures and the well-being of the kingdom. He lead them with a Consultative leadership and the employees felt good about their roles. They worked harder and longer than they ever had before, and with a glad heart. Sick days were hardly ever taken unless they were truly sick for they enjoyed sharing in the success of their workplace. Employees stayed and formed powerful teams increasing productivity and drastically reducing errors and mistakes. The kingdom prospered and grew. And in this place, everyone lived happily ever after.

History in all its forms: political, business, societal, all have taught the same lesson for thousands of years. In the battleground of management styles, Power vs Authority, Authority will inevitably deliver better results and success. Consider this common example... the person who yells at a fast food clerk to do their food "just right". It's true they'll get their burger with everything they asked for, but how often do you think they're also getting it with something that they didn't.

Everyone in a company, from the president to the janitor, has some level of power. And whether they use it for you or against you is often up to you.

Leave comments with your thoughts and whether you agree or disagree.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Service over Sales, 5 Requests for Employment Recruiters

Today's tale begins with a true story that taught me a valuable lesson early in my career.


Many, many years ago, when I was just a teen, I worked as an evening and weekend manager of a small book and music store, part of a small chain of four stores throughout the Greater Toronto Area. Our store was particularly small, nestled in the center of a small plaza in a peaceful suburb home to many quiet, conservative families. The owner of the store was a wonderful woman who was firm in teaching all the employees the value of offering excellent service to every customer. She started every shift by engaging the employees in a commitment to be aware of their attitudes, often preparing us for the most impatient or difficult customers with a reminder of what a difference we can make simply by exercising patience, consideration, and respect. Over the years the store steadily grew in both reputation and revenue and the chain grew from four stores to eight.

But then one day the owner retired, selling the chain to a businessman with big dreams of taking the chain to the next level. He had no time for pep talks advocating respect and good service. Sales was the measuring stick of success. And in his view, controversy and "edge" were the most effective tools. Knowing your customer was replaced with knee-jerk reactions to what sold somewhere else. Because heavy metal and hard rock were the music of choice in the youth-centered downtown Toronto location, loud music was piped in and played constantly in our little suburban haven. Employees were instructed to aggressively push products, or else. I tried to explain that our employees knew their customers well and our true financial success and growth would come from our service focus and good reputation, not from shoving our customers through the checkout line. The message was not received well and shortly after I left for greener pastures. Less than eighteen months later, the entire chain declared bankruptcy. Last time I visited my old neighbourhood there was a Bulk Barn in its place.


This experience taught me the importance of incorporating strong service and reputation into any effective sales plan. Now there are certainly some industries that could effectively convince you of the merits of the aggressive "push until you get the sale" approach. Automotive sales, furniture retailers, insurance... all are known for often selecting a sales over service philosophy. And if you're only planning on selling for eighteen months or so then that may work for you because what's the value of your reputation if you're going to be off and running soon? But I would argue that to encourage or even employ these "fast buck" focussed professionals will not only hinder the long-term steady growth of your business, it may even prevent it.

And that brings me to the industry of employment agencies and recruiters. Over the last number of years I have witnessed a tragic change in the philosophies of many of these agencies similar to my past experience. Few are the agencies that are dedicated to long term growth through good reputation, hard work, and an honest approach. As a result many of the agencies that I used to employ as little as five years ago have closed up shop. It's not uncommon for recruiters to fall into this pattern of fourteen months here, sixteen months at another agency, and so on. It is unfortunate that the burden of both sales and service must fall on a single individual but even more unfortunate is how many of these recruiters seem to favour the "quick sale" of a prospective employee over the quality service of a well-researched placement. There are many business articles out right now advocating the importance of face time and getting to know a company's active philosophy to ensure an effective complement between employee and employer. Ironically, I've seen some of these articles forwarded through professional networking sites by the same individuals that seem most committed to the quick sale, professional recruiters who have chosen to represent me at one time or another without ever having met me or having anything more than a five minute phone conversation and a quick glance at my resume. And so to recruiters, human resource generalists, and especially agency owners, I offer five tips from the perspective of someone who has been on both sides of your client base.

1) Meet in person. Without meeting your contract client how much do you really know about their work environment, their philosophy, their working conditions? And without meeting the prospective employee, how well can you determine a fit? Every person is a great deal more than simply a piece of paper or a degree. If a person can be praised or disciplined in a workplace for their attitude, communication skills, or even personal hygiene, shouldn't you have some knowledge of these as well? When was the last time an employee was given a raise because of where they worked five years ago? For a more elaborate response, take the time to read this article from inc.com. http://www.inc.com/rene-siegel/five-reasons-you-need-to-meet-in-person.html

2) REALLY read the resume. As I've stated, it's imperative to know the prospect more than simply their paper representation but if you are going to review their resume, review all of it. Why did they list what they did? What mattered to them? Not long ago I submitted my resume for a position that I had already been doing for more than ten years. However, my most recent job title for the last year was different as I had been working as a consultant privately. When I submitted my resume I received a quick response within ten minutes stating that I could not be presented because I had no work experience in that field. I called the recruiter and asked them to clarify considering my ten years with that title and I was told that they never noticed those roles because they stopped after seeing the 4 point blurb detailing my last year. Out of two pages the recruiter had skipped to one section, ignoring the detailed skill sets specifying my related experience, and then immediately stopped.

3) Beware the myths. I see employment agencies regularly distributing tips to recruiters regarding how to evaluate prospects and applications. Stop and consider the truthful situation of a job seeker before taking those at face value. Just one example involves the advice when searching for office or marketing professionals to consider the spelling, grammar, and professional style of their resume in evaluating their skill sets. Have you taken into account the number of people that use professional resume writers, career centers, or even friends to write their resume? The most professional presentation could simply be forwarded on by an individual with the literacy and professionalism of a child. That's where the face time becomes a necessary complement.

4) Be Honest. If you can offer some constructive criticism to a job seeker, then do it. Who else is more qualified than you, the individual or agency in whom they've placed their trust and future? Don't just disqualify a candidate for missing a section or missing an error. Help them. If your company website describes you as a "service" professional than make sure that you offer the "service" component with enthusiasm. It often only takes a few moments but it builds a sustaining loyalty and reputation that won't simply add to your coffers, but those of YOUR employers as well.

5) Consider the long term. At this point in my career, whether I'm an employment or employee seeker, there are a select few agencies that have earned my loyalty through a true commitment to service over the quick placement. By no coincidence, they are also the agencies that have remained steadily successful for more than fifteen years while others fall by the wayside. One wonderful example is Pat Buckminster at Drake International. Having effectively placed me in a position almost 18 years ago, it doesn't matter if I call Pat every few months or once in 5 years, she can immediately recall me and my placement with a professionalism and quality of service that is increasingly hard to find. If I leave a message for Pat, I can be sure of a quick response. Whether or not I'm a good fit for a prospective position, Pat will be honest and considerate. There are too many recruiters who seem to have either forgotten or have never learned the value of courtesy and respect, failing to keep the lines of communication open or developing an honest rapport with their clients and prospects. To those that act upon the enduring and profitable value of service over sale, a round of applause. To those that feel quality service takes too much effort or time, you might want to consider Bulk Barn. I hear they're opening new stores all the time.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Heaven and Hell, A Cautionary Tale for Companies

Greetings reader and welcome to Working Fables, a collection of both truthful and fictional tales from the working world. In my twenty years of experience in the "business world", I've discovered a place where personal and professional philosophies meet. Sometimes they merge, and sometimes they clash. What I hope to offer here are some of key learnings that have been shared with me or that I've personally experienced and that I've had the opportunity to pass on in my role as a corporate trainer and relationship manager. Some tales are cautionary, of a dark place that some businesses dare to go when all common sense tells them otherwise. Some are encouraging, an illuminating path to success and good reputation. It is my goal that all are productive. Enjoy.


HEAVEN AND HELL, A Cautionary Tale

There is a children's fable that I have known for many years that has often charted the course of my personal and professional decisions. It is simply entitled Heaven and Hell. Because of its spiritual overtones I was reluctant to share this tale in a professional forum but at the request of a colleague I introduced it to a class of service professionals that I was training a few years ago. The response was so overwhelming that I was encouraged to share it at the beginning of every training session to follow. Even now, I still receive occasional encouragements from those that I've trained that the story has now become as important to their lives as it is to mine. Some of the details vary from one story teller to another, but the message is the same.

It is said that there was once a man who lived so holy a life that before the end of his days, God appeared to him and offered to fulfill any one request. The holy man answered, "For years man has puzzled over the nature of heaven and hell. I would like to know the truth about each."

Immediately God whisked him to the depths of Hell where the man was amazed to see a banquet table, miles long, and filled with every delicious food and dessert ever known. Around the outside of table were the residents of Hell, all normal looking people with one very odd exception. Every person had four foot arms with no elbows with a fork strapped into each hand. As a result, even though there was such an abundance of food, they were all starving since none of them could bend their own arms to feed themselves. The screaming and wailing of these miserable souls was overwhelming and so the holy man pleaded with God to take him away. In the blink of an eye, he found himself in Heaven where the man was amazed to see the exact same scene.... a banquet table, filled with food and all those surrounding the table with the same arms and forks as those in Hell. However in this place there was only laughing and cheering with much celebration, for the residents of Heaven had learned the secret of their situation. Each person simply fed another from across the table.

It's not the situation that creates a heaven or hell, but the attitude.

Now as wonderful a tale that this may be to consider how we treat a neighbour or friend, how does this play out in the business world?

I can share that I have been part of companies that have embraced each end of the spectrum. I have witnessed employees, managers, or even owners that encourage either the "look out for yourself" or the "feed one another" mentality. I have heard colleagues argue the merit of each but to be honest, I've never seen genuinely positive results from the "competition is good for the staff" approach. It becomes a very slippery slope to a work environment ripe with distrust and ill will.

To ignore the needs of the internal customer is to sacrifice the successful satisfaction of your primary customer.

One clear example was made evident to me years ago during my time working for a hardware wholesale distributor supplying to both large chains and small privately owned stores. We had a sales staff of about 6 men who were taught to get the sale by any aggressive means. We also had a large warehouse with only 4 overworked staff. Good men and women who were simply being pushed beyond their limits. Suddenly we received a new contract for a large company that increased our shipping output by approximately twenty percent but the company decided they didn't want to invest in any additional personnel for the already stretched warehouse. Meanwhile, the sales staff were offering increasingly difficult shipping promises to their smaller customers including one hour pickup and same day shipping. The warehouse staff, unable to keep up but with no active voice to the senior managers, became uncharacteristically irate, even yelling at customers in frustration and refusing shipments. Salesmen began yelling in sales meetings about the incompetent workers. Shippers took longer breaks while venting about what jerks the salesmen were. And all the while the customers paid the price. I stepped in with a proposal that would allow both sides to sit down at a table and reasonably hear each other's griefs and situations. It was completely within the means of each side to offer fair solutions to the other department. Unfortunately the proposal was refused and the in-fighting continued on for more than six months until it reached such a crisis point that finally new staff were hired. In the meanwhile, we lost one of our five most major accounts along with the business of a number of other small stores. The unproductive stance of management to simply offer these two sides to find a common ground and work together created its own hell, unnecessary and unfortunate. The company lost good people, excellent customers, and most certainly damaged its own revenue in the process.

Within every company there are departments that by their very nature seem to be at odds. Commonly these can be sales and accounts receivable, dispatchers and drivers for those in transportation, even managers and front-line staff. The companies that experience the best success and growth are those that don't shy away from introducing and developing liaisons for these essential departments, offering each one a reasonable voice and encouraging the "feed one another" approach. Morale is naturally higher and therefore so is employee retention. New employee training costs and errors are reduced. Productivity and attendance are improved. And through all this the primary customer benefits and business improves. And the company lives happily ever after.

Not The End.