People in leadership need handlers

As I watch with unsurprising bemusement, the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, routinely is in the newspapers with actions or words that reflect a consistent lack of good judgment. Apparently, there is a lot of fodder in his history just as PM, that begs the routine question, “who on earth told you that was a good idea?” But, maybe that is the problem – the PM like others in leadership positions need a “handler.”

I recognize this is supposed to be one role of their Chiefs of Staff or whatever title said person has, but that person is not enough. There needs to be someone who has a watchdog role that can step in and say “that would be a very unwise move.” Boris, among others, would benefit greatly from such a person. Yet, Boris would need them to be doing a lot of overtime, as he has a wont to expound on things.

Boris is compared to the former president of the United States, but as one reporter said yesterday, they are not alike, but swim in the same cesspool. The numerous books and articles about Donald Trump paint a very untruthful and mercurial person to work for. This is a key reason he has so much turnover – people leave or get fired for getting on his wrong side.

Mercurial is a good word as Trump staff’s trying to manage him is akin to trying to hold Mercury in your hands – it is not possible. The more reputable books about Trump indicate a person who to sway him, you want to be the last person to talk with him. They are the Trump whisperers. Sadly, those Trump whisperers are not handlers as much as manipulators. Trump needs before, during and after the White House a handler to tell him not to attack everyone and stop opining on things that don’t matter. Plus, the person could be his fact checker telling him that something he is saying is not in the ballpark of being accurate.

Every leader would benefit from a handler, but there are some who would benefit greatly whether they are elected Downunder, in South America or in eastern Europe. I am setting aside the autocratic type leaders as their caretaking is a whole different matter. The handler would ask key questions hopefully before the action occurs:

-is calling someone a “loser” or “idiot” the best argument?

-is pretending to know a subject matter when you obviously do not the best thing to do?

-is opining on the entertainment news of the day something that in your position should be doing?

-is now the best time to take a vacation when people are in a bad way?

-if this got out in public, is this something you could defend?

-do you honestly think anything these days can be kept out of social media?

-the best closing argument would be “you could do that, but it would make you look like an effing idiot.”

Handler. It would be a tough job. Especially when the boss is his own worst enemy.


Who’s got the monkey? (a revisit to an earlier post)

Henry Ford once said, “Don’t find fault, find a remedy; anybody can complain.” It reminded me of an article I read about twenty years ago called “Who’s got the monkey?” penned by William Oncken, Jr. and Donald Wass.

In essence, the article is designed to help managers budget their time.* The authors called the delegation of an assignment – the monkey. The manager has passed along the oversight of this task to a member of his or her team. Yet, what often happens the team member will get stumped and bring the problem back and place the monkey on the manager’s shoulders.

The only result of this process is the manager becomes a bottleneck and nothing gets done, as the manager lacks the time. The manager also gets frustrated and stressed. The key theme of this article is for the manager to not accept the monkey back, unless one condition has been met. The monkey comes back with a couple of ideas to solve the impasse. Rather than bringing an unsolved problem back, the subordinate brings a solvable problem that just needs an OK.

So, if a team member just hands the problem back, the manager should not accept the monkey and ask that he or she work through a couple of paths forward. So, Henry Ford quote is very relevant, in my view. The article can be linked to below.

*Note: Management is hard work and often it does not get done as well as it should due to busy schedules or unfamiliarity with what is needed. One of the best pieces of advice came from a staff member of a very busy manager. She helped the manager manage her by making the best use of his time. She asked if she could set-up a fifteen briefing with him a couple of times a week to ask him questions and tell him where she is on various projects. The manager loved the focused time. It was her way of managing up.

Would you work for this kind of person?

I have noted before that the most ardent of folks would not work for the kind of person who they hold in high esteem. Let’s entertain a few questions.

Would you work for the kind of person….

who takes credit for anything good that happened in the business, even if it was the result of a team effort?

who would do the same, even if it was due to circumstances outside his control?

who would blame other people or entities for failures, even if the boss had a heavy hand in causing such failure?

who would do the same, even if the failure was outside his control?

who is so short of attention span, efforts to brief him have to include pictures?

who is so mercurial and blows up at people, that staff walks on egg shells around him?

who tends to change decisions based on who got to him last?

who routinely calls people losers, idiots, stupid, et al who dare ask him tough questions?

who berates people who study an issue when their more learned conclusions run counter to a narrative, even if he decided it on a whim?

who does not respect relationships and views every partner through a win/ lose binary lens?

who can be easily swayed when buttered up, especially when he does not know the history or context?

who does not appreciate or take the time to strategize and plan execution of changes, nor communicate them very well?

who makes staff chase their tail to prove an inane comment he made is less inane?

who pits people against each other to promote adversarial behavior?

And, who has a very hard time with the truth?

Two-time Pulitzer Prize winning author and reporter Bob Woodward helped capture the answers to these questions in his book “Fear” after 750 hours of interviews with White House staff. The title “Fear” is based on an interview Trump gave that said he manages by fear. He bullies people into acquiescing to his whims.

The answer to the above questions is not for very long. It should be noted no other White House has had this much turnover and this many open positions. We are at more risk than ever before because of such and further because those who remain are less experienced than those who departed.

Extremely poor form, but not surprising

Rather than focus on the obvious concerns about the timing and reasons given for the firing of FBI Directior James Comey, I want to focus on the absence of common decency exhibited by our President. Firing someone should be hard, but one thing you must do is let the person know before you tell others not involved in the process. Apparently, Comey found out while making a speech across the country after someone saw it on a TV news report.

That is extremely poor form, but not a surprise given our President’s history of taking advantage of people. It should be noted that a White House source said the President kept the firing close to the vest, so the roll out was chaotic, even beyond their normal chaos level.

As a former manager, I have had the misfortune of having to let someone go. Even after vetting the issue to make sure this action was ultimately needed, it still bothered me to have to ask someone to leave and it showed when I did it. The process must be handled with as much grace as possibly can be mustered.

Yet, our President did not take the time to make sure Comey knew beforehand. Comey served our country for many years and deserved better. When a senior person was being let go in my office by the bold line matrix management, I asked if I could sit in to honor the man’s thirty five years of service. We owed him that.

To me, it is very obvious this President is hiding something. The fact he wanted to get the firing announced in time for the evening news is telling. The fact he wanted to do something to respond to Sally Yates saying he knew well before Flynn’s firing that Flynn is trouble is telling. The fact Comey was fired after he wanted to expand the scope of the Russian investigation per several Senators is telling.

But, let’s set that aside. The fact our President fired someone and announced it before the employee acknowledged it is telling. It tells me exactly what kind of leader our President is.

Looking like a leader versus being one

There is a saying about leadership. The better leaders tend to deflect credit to others, the worse leaders tend to assume credit even when it is not due. Think about this as you consider various leaders.

One leader in the news is known as a narcissist. He is on record as saying he alone can solve our problems. He has said  that no one knows taxes better than he does maybe in the history of taxes. He has said no one knows ISIS better not even the generals.

He has beaten on his chest saying how great a job he is doing when most observers see chaos and incompetence. Yet, he controls the message to his followers and says he is being treated unfairly.

He would not be the first leader to take advantage of photo ops, but this man lives a life without substance. He is all about smoke and mirrors. He is all about appearing to be a leader. He is not about being one.

Leaders have to deal with the truth and not bend it to fit their view. How can someone solve problems when they don’t know what they are or what caused them? How can someone lead when their history is one of self-service and not helping people? How can one lead people who he has taken advantage of his entire life?

This leader looks the part. He is successful  and wants people to know it. He stands in front of airplanes as successful people have airplanes. He has his name on everything as his name represents success. The dilemma is it is all for show. His business career is spotty. His mentor taught him to never admit mistakes and to sue everyone. He has had over 4,000 lawsuits in his career.  And, he has trouble admitting his mistakes. It is always someone else’s fault.

A leader does not do these things. There is another leader who did not look the part. He took over after a great, popular leader had died. He almost lost his reelection. He is known for two things. He said “the buck stops here” meaning he owned the problems. He is also viewed as one of the best presidents. His name is Harry Truman. We all know the name of the other guy.




Who’s got the monkey?

My blogging friend Persia inspired a revisit to an old topic with her recent quote courtesy of Henry Ford, “Don’t find fault, find a remedy; anybody can complain.” It reminded me of an article I read about fifteen years ago called “Who’s got the monkey?” penned by William Oncken, Jr. and Donald Wass.

In essence, the article is designed to help managers budget their time. The authors called the delegation of an assignment – the monkey. The manager has passed along the oversight of this task to a member of his or her team. Yet, what often happens, is the team member will get stumped and bring the problem back and place the monkey on the manager’s shoulders.

The only result of this process is the manager becomes a bottleneck and nothing gets done, as the manager lacks the time. The manager also gets frustrated and stressed. The key theme of this article is for the manager to not accept the monkey back, unless one condition has been met. The monkey comes back with a couple of ideas to solve the impasse. Rather than bringing an unsolved problem back, the subordinate brings a solvable problem that just needs an OK.

So, if a team member just hands the problem back, the manager should not accept the monkey and ask that he or she work through a couple of paths forward. So, Persia’s Henry Ford quote is very relevant, in my view.  The article can be linked to below.

That elusive employee engagement

I just completed a very unscientific poll regarding whether people would be in another job or have another job title at this time next year. While the survey group was biased and the questions were simple, the end result of over 2,500 respondents is about 50% felt they would be in another job or have a new title.

Setting aside the veracity of the survey, many employees are eager to do something different. This is one sign the economy is percolating better, but it also sign that employee engagement continues to be largely elusive. Employees have become free agents since the turn of the century and employers have only one group to blame for it – the employers themselves. Employee engagement is lacking because employers killed it.  

As a retired manager, employee and consultant, I have witnessed countless layoffs, downsizings, rightsizings, reductions in force, offshoring, etc. I have also witnessed countless communications of how we have to keep the salary increase budget down because of a recession, downturn, not a full recovery, or because we need to simply watch expenses. With the recession, I have seen the elimination or curtailment of broad-based benefits and perquisites, on-job training, travel budgets, party budgets, office kitchen budgets, etc. that are like an ice-pick chipping away at a sculpture.

The end result is employees do not feel valued. Employers say employees are our most important asset, then the employees see examples of the above and they realize these are merely words. They witness long time employees unceremoniously walked out the door after a downsizing. They see such employees denied the ability to say goodbye. They do not learn of others in different offices in large companies who have been similarly treated until they reach out and the others are gone. What happened to Susan or Michael?

So, the fact employees have always been free agents, becomes even more true, and the employees execute on their newly discovered freedom. The result is employers are searching for ways to try to keep people. They did not have to worry about it as much until the last couple of years, but with an improved economy, others are now hiring. Yet, when a company shows by actions it does not care as much as they should for these assets, then the remaining assets are difficult to engage.

Here is a huge tip to employers. Treat your employees like you want to be treated. Improve communication up, down and across your organization seeking and using input on process improvements. Pay them fairly and include incentives that will make a difference to them and the organization. Teach your supervisors how to lead employees. Help the employees further their careers through training and offer internal movement within your company. Recognize these employees value their families and hobbies, so offer flexible schedules and paid time off.

There are other ideas, but one I will close with is how you treat employees when you must make cuts matters a great deal. The others who remain see this. If you treat people like they committed a crime, the people who remain start polishing their resume. The movie “Up in the Air” with George Clooney starring as a consultant for an outsourced firm that helps companies fire people is highly offensive to me that companies would do this. The company does not have the compassion to do this themselves.

Treat people like you want to be treated. Be fair and communicate as appropriate. Then, you can start looking for ways to attract, retain and reward employees.



Don’t let your paradigm shift put your thinking back in the box

As a former consultant and client in a business setting, I get a kick out of the use of catch phrases that our bandied about within corporate walls to convey larger meaning. These expressions are over-used to the point of “Dilbert-like” status. Consider the following examples:

We need a “paradigm shift” or to “change our paradigm” – these tickle me as they allow the user to use a fancier word than model or template. It is an elegant way to say what you are doing is not working too well.

The most overused expression is we need to “think outside of the box” – this one conveys we have boxed in our thinking with our own processes, bureaucracy and cultures and don’t know what’s going on outside in the real world. I have also heard to “look beyond the nine dots” but to this day I do not know what that means and I am pretty sure the speaker does not either.

When all else fails, “let’s throw things against the wall and see what sticks”- this is a nice way to say, let’s just try some things and see what might work. It is also notes that no one has a clear cut idea of what to do.

Of course, change becomes easier when we have a “burning platform” – this phrase has great symbolism. When you are having some success, change is difficult, as some feel it is not needed. The burning platform means we better change as our ship is on fire.

The best business expressions, though, come from military service where their version of corporate headquarters is rife with opportunity. The most popular expression is SNAFU, which has actually made it to Miriam-Webster and Wikipedia. Even the most religious of people do not need help in spelling out the meaning of SNAFU. Trailing its more popular brethren, FUBAR has its own advocates. In the ranking of being screwed up, a FUBAR is worse than a SNAFU, with the exception a SNAFU is more normative. For the less familiar the BAR part is short for “beyond all recognition.”

Yet, my old friend Mike, who served in the Navy and was in the Control department of a company I used to work with, was my favorite with expressions. My favorite of his was “open the kimonos” meaning we should share information and not withhold any data. For the more worldly readers, the term is derived from how prostitutes would merchandise themselves to sailors on shore leave in an Asian port city.

He was also prone to describing how hard it was to change our bureaucratic organization saying it is like “turning a battleship in a harbor” which should not be tried due to its poor chance for success. He also had his own version of throw stuff against the wall, when he would say “we should just through the old bones and see what turns up.” This could refer to bones being dice or it might refer to a witch doctor or medicine man who would throw bones to read his own version of the tea leaves.

While these sayings range from being fun to the trite, they mask how hard it is to change and be forthcoming. If change were easy, more people would do so as circumstances present themselves. You need good information, but you don’t need every piece of information. The company Mike and I worked for wanted more information to decide something and often missed the market opportunity. Yet, the information should be a fair and honest assessment of the issue and potential resolution.

Also, the people closest to the customer or activity often have the better or good solutions, so their input should be solicited and considered. The only caveat to this is if someone’s job depends on the continuation of an old process. So, here is where some balance of outside thinking would be helpful, as the person may be reluctant to change.

Let me close with the phrases that convey trying things and keeping what works. Companies need to do this more than they do either in a pilot setting or small market or department. In the book “Built to Last” which is about extremely successful companies who dwarfed the success of their best competitors over time, a key tenet of these companies was trying stuff and keeping what works. In fact, a couple of the companies failed at their first product, but kept going.

So, it is more than OK to throw the old bones or throw stuff against a wall to see what sticks. But, at least be colorful with your expression when you do. Let me know some of your more memorable sayings overheard in your jobs.

2014 – the year employers try to keep employees from leaving

I was reading an article on a trade website with a reminder for human resource professionals that 2014 will be the year of retention. With the economy improving, a key indicator is people will begin to move from their current job. The article touched on this, but did not say it as directly as I will now – employee loyalty to an employer has been broken, and the employer need only look in the mirror for the reason. We are now a workforce of free agents.

This has been a trend since the turn of the century, but the recession put the final nails in this coffin. Real wage growth for the average Joes and Josephines has been pretty stagnant for some time, even before the recession. Coupling that with continual downsizing and employees have become dispirited. Especially, when they saw colleagues sometimes walked to the door the same day (or hour) they were let go. And, for those in other offices or locations, you did not hear that Betty or Steve were let go, as the company did not want to send out a widespread information release saying they just let the following 250 people go. So, you found out through the grapevine.

I worked for a company that had about twenty-five reductions in force over a fourteen year period that I was there. Some were small, some were in a different lines of business, but they occurred with agonizing routine. Oftentimes, the cuts were done around salary increase time, so they would not have to give a miniscule raise to someone. The reasons varied. This area is not growing fast enough. This idea did not work out as the leaders who sold it have left and now you must. We bought this company and now we have to find savings in other areas as we promised the old headquarter city we would need not cut too many there. We have a tight budget on salaries, so we need to cut the higher paid people who are on the downward side of their greater success (they would never say this, but this was a key reason).

The downsizings got more pronounced during the recession. Plus, other cutbacks occurred such as 401(k) plan employer matching contributions, greater healthcare plan cost sharing, training budgets and salary freezes. Yet, how these changes are communicated and executed matter a great deal. The companies that are more forthcoming and share information behind the causes benefit from a more understanding workforce. These tend to be companies who value employees more in the first place.

Yet, employees see how others were treated. When they see a pretty darn good employee get walked out the door, they have three reactions. One, they are sorry for the person. Two, they feel the company should not treat the terminated employee like that after twenty years of service. Third, they think that they could be next. Then, they put their resumes together and get their financial house in order. They start networking more, little by little. They have officially begun the disengagement process, whether they end up leaving or not.

Having to make cuts is one thing. But, doing it in the manner it has been done by so many, is poor form.  One of the more depressing movies I have ever seen is “Up in the Air” with George Clooney. In essence, he worked for an outsourced firm who fired people for the company. In other words, the company needing to downsize hired another firm to fire its people. As a HR professional and consultant, this movie offended me. These are human beings for Christ sake.

So, this will be the year of retention. HR will be looked at to solve the puzzle. Why are they leaving and what can we do about it? Well, for starters you can reread the last line of the preceding paragraph. How you treat people matters. And, for the most part, employers have treated their employees with less dignity and respect. The employers have broken the loyalty of their people. Your employees see this and they remember.

Tribute to a Great Boss

It is my fervent wish for people to be exposed to having a great boss at least once in their lives. I have been fortunate to have two over the years and am working with a great one now. Yet, I went to a retirement party for my best boss last night. I have not worked for him in  over four years, but people came out of the woodwork to attend his farewell party. It was a memorable, joyous and melancholy event.

You see this boss was beloved by many and everyone had their favorite stories and quotes he used over time, many which cannot be repeated in open forum. His gift was giving you the liberty to function in your job. He had a simple philosophy about what makes success in a professional services firm – “hire good people and have them go see your clients,” he would say. He would share with you the goals, make sure you had the resources and coach only when needed or requested. And, his coaching was not overt. He might say, “you might want to consider touching base….”

He gave people opportunity and then got out of the way. That is what we all want. Let us give it a shot. He would also cover your back if needed. I used to tell people he would put up a big umbrella to keep the corporate bullshit from raining down on us, so that we could do our job. The only price he would ask is if he came to us with one of those infernal corporate requests, we needed to respond, because his umbrella could catch only so many shitstorms.

Yet, his greatest gift was he made our job fun. We had many quarterly meetings where the dinner socialization should not be missed. Our group which extended across fourteen states was about as close to family in business as you can get. Last night, we caught up on children, spouses and personal health with our old guard. To hear our laughter rekindled is a high tribute to him.

And, did I say he was colorful? Let me leave you with a few quotes, with some context. There are many, many more of these burned in our memories.

– When turning down a job candidate that others wanted, he said he did not think the candidate was that smart. He said “Everyday, smart people try to pull something over on me; stupid ones don’t stand a chance.”

– When someone was promoted beyond their capability in our firm he said, “When a monkey climbs higher in the tree, it exposes more of its ass.”

– When we merged with a firm that paid its people well and he looked at the comparable data he said, “We are peeing in the tall grass with the big dogs now.”

– On treating people with respect, but not letting them treat you poorly, he said “my daddy told me never to pee down another man’s leg, but don’t let him pee down yours either.”

– On being skeptical, he said “my daddy used to say believe half of what you read and nothing of what you hear.”

I wish for everyone to be so lucky. His retirement is the end of an era. He noted that he was convinced that by socializing with each other, we were even more productive. As proof, his unit was routinely the highest performing unit amongst his peer groups year in and year out. He seemed to know a little about helping people achieve success. Let me close with a quote from an unknown author. A great leader will deflect credit to his people. A bad leader will look to take the credit. He was definitely in the former, even last night as he said working with us was his greatest joy outside of his family.

Happy trails Larry. You are the best.