what if people mattered?

Imagine with me for a moment…

What if people mattered to the success of a business?

What if people were a crucial part of delighting customers and ensuring return business?

What if people were necessary to create and invent and innovate?

What if people used their experience and judgment to make decisions that affect outcomes?

What if people each had their own strengths, weaknesses, goodness, and extremes?

What if people each had their own interests, dreams, desires, and constraints?

What if people weren’t all the same and couldn’t be removed and replaced like gears on a machine?

What if people were sometimes employees, sometimes shareholders, or sometimes customers? What if they were sometimes all three at once?

What if people were complex and unpredictable and that sometimes leads to brilliance?

What if people were complex and unpredictable and that sometimes leads to disaster?

What if people had their own lives going on and didn’t live or die for the organization?

What if people weren’t all like you?

What if people were different and that difference might create strife, conflict, chaos, energy, synergy, and great leaps forward?

What if people had uniqueness that was both their biggest strength and worst weakness?

What if people were necessary to get work done?

What if people need businesses less than businesses need people?

What if people were required to interpret data and make decisions and take actions based on sound judgment, intuition, and wild guesses?

What if people invented and built all the technology that changes business?

What if people wanted to feel safe, respected, liked, and valued?

What if people made decisions and took actions based on their feelings and emotions and only used logic and reasoning to justify their decisions and actions?

What if people didn’t always act in their own best interests?

What if people sometimes do stupid things?

What if people were more loyal to people than to the initials inc., llc., gmbh., or ltd.?

What if people and the relationships they have with other people generated more business than spreadsheets?

What if people were necessary to dream up, make, deliver, and improve the products and services your business sells?

What if people were a crucial part of creating compelling messages, attracting and assisting customers, and growing the business?

We’re still just imagining here… But what if some – any – of this were actually true? What if people, in all their complex, irrational, unpredictable, humanness, were actually crucial to business results?

Would that change the emphasis on how much effort you put into finding and hiring the right people?

Would you put a different level of priority on your efforts to develop and improve the people you invested in by hiring?

Would the employee experience become important?

Or, if you knew people were actually a prime competitive advantage, would you pretend they weren’t and spend your time, energy, and money on other things?

not another post on change

Change has been on my mind lately. Judging by recent posts from other bloggers, I’m not alone. Change is everywhere, every day, always happening, yet handling and managing change is a persistent issue.

Connie Podesta jokes that she has a four-word workshop to help people in organizations through periods of difficult change. Here it is in its entirety: “Change. Deal with it.” Funny and true in the sense that there will always be change so we might as well just get on with our lives.

Perhaps change isn’t the real issue, though. What if it’s the uncertainty of the situation? The Holmes-Rahe Scale rates life changes on a scale of 1 – 100 in terms of the amount of stress (or “life crisis units) caused. Interestingly, many of the events are differentiated based the size of change and not on whether it’s perceived as good or bad. That is, “major business readjustment” is the same amount of stress whether you’re benefiting or not. Same for “major change in responsibilities at work”. Same for “change in work hours or conditions”. Same for “major change in living conditions”. In fact, “taking on a significant mortgage” is listed as slightly more stressful than “foreclosure of mortgage or loan”. Good or bad doesn’t seem to enter into it as much as how significant the event is.

The more significant the event, the less certain we are about how it’s going to turn out, and the more we worry about the change. Changing offices is probably not a big deal. But a big promotion pushing us beyond our comfort zone really is. So is discovering you’re now in a completely different section of the org chart.

Consider this: the people initiating change have often been thinking and debating changes for weeks or months. They’ve processed the advantages and disadvantages and understand the whys and needs inside and out. Then it all too often gets foisted on the rest of the organization and everyone is expected to fully and immediately support the changes.

None of this is to say “don’t change”. Change needs to happen, but change is never without cost or challenges. Jon Bartlett urges us to consider the real human cost to change. People are not cogs or Lego blocks that can be removed, moved around, tossed aside, or recombined instantly and without effect. Even when change is good, even when necessary, us humans need time.

We talk about managing change, but how different would things be if leaders concentrated on managing uncertainty instead of change? The change would still be there, but I suspect we’d start focusing more on communication. We’d involve people sooner, explain the whys and hows, give them time to process and ask questions, and provide clear and consistent (and accurate and true) messages throughout. We’d make sure people knew where they stood and what to expect. We all know how important it is for US to know what’s going on, yet so often don’t do a good job of communicating to OTHERS. Robin Schooling recently explained this so well when she described the ONLY excuse for poor internal communication (hint: you don’t care about the impact).

Why does all this matter? Why can’t we simply expect employees to be adults and deal with change? One reason: the most talented people always have options. People with options don’t have to suffer poor treatment, half-thought through plans, or command and control temper tantrums. Whit at HR Hardball said it well: “Strong swimmers are the first to jump ship.


that’s why they pay you

You know the drill. Someone complains about how tough their job is or how much they dislike their work and the immediate response is: Duh! Of course it’s not fun. That’s why they pay you. They know you wouldn’t show up otherwise. We snicker and think: Yeah. Get back to work, slacker. You’re not paid to have fun. Suck it up and cash your check on payday.

What a load of bassackwards crap! (to use the technical term)

On the surface it sounds right and it’s kind of humorous and I’ve certainly bought into it before. Dig deeper and we see it’s a kneejerk response that gets everything backwards and wrong.

It is true that if we didn’t pay people they wouldn’t show up. But it’s not because we’re compensating them for the opportunity to inflict misery on them. It’s because of opportunity costs. People need to feed, clothe, shelter, and take care of themselves and their families and they have only so many hours in a day to do it. Waaaayyy back when, they did all this themselves through hunting, gathering, and whatnot. Today people provide specialized skills in exchange for money to trade with others for the goods and services they need. Even if they absolutely loved, loved, loved their jobs we’d still have to pay them. Otherwise, they’d have to: 1) learn to hunt and gather; 2) starve; or 3) find someone else who will pay them for their skills.

We don’t pay people to endure us, we pay people because they bring knowledge and skills that we can repackage and sell through the products they create or the services they provide. In effect, the company becomes the middle man between the employee and the consumer and hopefully adds some value along the way by combining the talents of the employees to produce more/better/faster than they could do on their own.

If it were true that we pay people because we knew they wouldn’t do the job otherwise then the most miserable jobs in the worst working conditions should (by this logic) earn the most money. So, people become fieldhands and work in slaughterhouses for the money??? Um, no. Conversely, how often have you heard of someone getting a cut in pay because they are too passionate about their work?

The idea that pay and misery are directly correlated makes no sense yet we cling to it. How many employees think that their mere presence is enough to justify a paycheck? How many managers think that their employees would be happier and more productive if they could only pay them more? How often do we justify subjecting employees to unnecessarily rigid work conditions, nanny policies, or toddler-tantrum leaders with a dismissive, “Well, they get paid…” At best, it’s a lousy excuse for pathetic, apathetic, lazy leadership and really bad business decisions.

And employee engagement is down? People are dreaming of working elsewhere? We’re afraid of what they might say about us on social media? Huh, weird. Probably just coincidence. I once heard someone say, “People don’t leave because it’s difficult. They leave because it’s not worth dealing with anymore.” Seems pretty true from my experience and observation.

People aren’t compensated for occupying desks, their difficulties, or as a license to abuse them. People are paid for the value they provide through the problems they solve and the results they create. That’s not revolutionary, just too often forgotten by both employees and the company.

So why do people keep showing up for work? Hopefully, they’re getting appropriately compensated for working on the problems and results they enjoy, find fulfilling, and inspire them to do their best. Ultimately, leaders need their employees more than employees need their leaders. Over time leadership gets the employees they deserve.

What thinks you?


helicopter human resources?

A weird question to start your week: Is it possible that a strong and effective Human Resources department or Learning & Development group could inadvertently reduce leadership effectiveness?

Both areas, when done right are a resource to help individuals and leaders improve performance and make better decisions. But is there ever a threshold point where that resource starts to function as a crutch or surrogate for leadership? Is there a point where managers start thinking, “It’s not my job to develop my people – that’s what the training department is for?” or “Don’t worry about the details, HR is great at cleaning up these sticky situations.”?

How do we provide great support and resources without crossing the line and becoming the helicopter parents of the organization?

What thinks you?

disengaging the engaged

Last post, I talked about the difficulty of creating employee engagement for “zombies” – people disengaged from their own lives and just going through the motions. If it’s highly unlikely to engage them, where does that leave us? Are engagement efforts all for naught? Not a bit, but I suggest looking at our efforts differently.

If engaging the disengaged is a wasted effort, consider the possibility that our real engagement risks are disengaging the engaged. “Fink” commented on the previous post:

Sometimes “giving a hoot” also includes wanting to change a process or start a conversation to take away a pain point in the workplace. Those pain points push me towards the “zombie state.”

This is a committed, passionate person – fully engaged – sharing a warning and putting us on notice. They aren’t asking for more “employee engagement programs”, they’re telling us to stop making it so difficult to do great work. (If it sounds like I’m overstating or reading too much into a simple comment, I’m not. I know this person and can say that you would move heaven and earth to have them on your team. It pains me to think there are idiots leaders idiots blocking them from doing the great work they love to do.)

I’m not convinced we can engage the disengaged, but am confident that we can destroy the engagement of the people we need most.

What if the easiest way to harm engagement is to treat it as a separate program – a Human Resources initiative – instead of being every leader’s responsibility? It almost seems that treating it as a program makes it someone else’s problem and excuses poor leadership. I can almost hear it, “Of course my people are disengaged, HR needs to create better engagement programs.”

But engagement is never a separate event or program, it’s how we do daily business. Engagement is very difficult to create, yet so easy to tear down and destroy.

Your thoughts?

control freakout

Times of great change (now), times of uncertainty (now), and times when yesterday’s formula for success is tomorrow’s expressway to failure (now) cause us humans to feel out of control, insecure, and stressed. It’s hard to know what to do next or move forward with certainty in a world where there aren’t templates and formulas; where you can’t get to where you want to go by just checking the boxes along the way; where the new maps haven’t been created yet.

Disruption is what is. The music, book publishing, and movie industries have changed in ways barely imaginable less than five years ago. Stable, conservative, aeon old industries with long histories are being taken to their foundations, blown up, and rebuilt in amazing ways – even if the practitioners don’t realize it yet. My humble, supersecret prediction is that the industries that have changed the least in the last 50 years will change the most in the next five. The FutureNow is here.

When your business is caught in the maelstrom of change you can choose one of three paths: 1) focus on what you can control; 2) focus on what you can influence; or 3) become the disruptor that creates the change others have to deal with.

The third path is really hard to do because there is a very, very fine line between being the company that goes against the grain and changes the industry and the company that goes against the grain and becomes irrelevant. I really want to focus on the first two choices.

In the past, industries drove change and the pace of change. Now, the ability to access and transmit information faster and faster and cheaper and cheaper means technology, customer demands, and off the radar upstarts are fueling change. There is less and less that we can actually control and more and more we can only influence. I assume it’s like sailing – we can’t control the waves or the wind, only anticipate and ride them. In fact, the more we try to control, the more out of control we get. Paradoxically, the more we go with the flow and focus on influence, the more control we actually have.

But us humans really like to feel in control. We like the feeling of security and certainty that control brings. If we can control it, we can prevent it from harming us. So, in a time of change (read as: time of FEAR) it’s tempting to concentrate on the unimportant things we can control instead of the big, important, and uncertain things we can only influence. Caught in the storm of change we seem to focus on polishing the ship’s brass and mopping the deck rather than anticipating the wind and the waves. Cleaning the ship is completely within our control and makes us feel successful right now, but the ship is adrift and about to sink. The painful paradox is that the more out of control we feel, the more we often try to control, which means we focus more and more on things that matter less and less. It’s an ugly downward spiral

Here are a  few simple questions to help determine whether your company is trying its hardest to influence a new path through the storm or headed for the rocks with the cleanest ship around:

Are you spending your time on principles and experimentation or policy and tradition?

Are you most concerned with finding ways to delight customers or ways to minimize change and disruption?

Are your most passionate and creative people at the helm, relishing the challenge or are they preparing their life rafts while you hand out mops and tins of polish?

There are no guarantees to success and every path is uncertain, but there are no awards for having the cleanest ship at the bottom of the ocean.

Your thoughts?


flashback friday: why hierarchies? the pizza and beer syndrome

[this was my most popular post of 2012. enjoy!]

Why do organizations look the way they do? Why are command and control hierarchies so popular? They seem like relics from days gone past. We spend a lot of time complaining about all their sins and proposing alternatives so why don’t we see flatter, collaborative, and self-directed organizations? They should be more adaptable, create more engagement, and be higher performing. Yet we keep perpetuating the command and control hierarchies that we spend so much time railing against. Why do we say we want one thing and make the choices and actions that lead to another?

Good questions and here’s the answer (you might want to write this down):pizza and beer.

No, really. Call it the “Pizza and Beer Syndrome” if you like. We can learn a lot about organizations by looking at human behavior. After all, organizations are a reflection of the philosophies, strategies, and approaches of individuals.

As much as we might wish otherwise, us humans are pretty good at choosing what’s easy and pleasurable over what’s best. Consider what most people choose when given the long-term, day after day after day choice between:

1. Eating super lean and healthy, drinking only water, exercising vigorously every day, having regular tests and check-ups at the doctor’s office, getting the proper amount of sleep, etc.


2. Staying up too late, sitting on the couch, watching movies, and eating pizza and drinking beer.

It doesn’t take a 10-year study or deep statistical analysis  to figure out what most people choose. Look around: people are getting heavier by the day. That’s the Pizza and Beer Syndrome: we know what we need to do to create the results we want yet we choose the opposite. When given the choice we tend to choose easy and good enough over best; the ok over the exceptional (Yes, there are exceptions. Yes, you’re a superstar. Keep it up. I’m talking about the other 95%.)

Oh man, that answer chafes. I hate that answer. But when it comes down to it, we can argue all day why open, flatter, collaborative, and self-directed approaches are better. We can loudly proclaim that we hate hierarchies and we want – must have – flat, collaborative, and self-directed organizations. Then we choose hierarchies. Perhaps because hierarchies are easy and good enough rather than the best. Consider:

1. Command and control hierarchies work ok across a wide range of situations.

2. Effectively creating open, flat, collaborative, and self-directed organizations is really, really hard.

3. Us humans like to stick with what we know works, even in situations when what we know doesn’t really work.

Wait a minute. Am I actually saying that command and control hierarchies are the best solution? Nope. I don’t think they are any more than I think pizza and beer are the cornerstone of a high performance diet. I’m saying that to most people, in most situations, hierarchies are good enough compared to the effort required to create and maintain a flatter organization. I personally prefer the open, self-directed organizations, but I get why companies are slow (resistant?) to adopt a different structure. Let’s take a look at these three reasons in a bit more detail.

1. Command and control hierarchies work ok across a wide range of situations.

We want and seek the one universally perfect solution, but it doesn’t exist. Different situations and problems call for different answers and solutions. All organizational structures have their advantages and disadvantages and, like it or not, hierarchies are a valid option. Hierarchies have limitations, yet can (and do) work.

Hierarchies have a built-in organization and structure that is easy to set up and understand: do what your boss says and tell your employees what to do. Simple. This simplicity makes hierarchical structures robust and durable in most situations. They may not always be the best answer, but tend to work good enough. Hierarchies are very tolerant of dysfunctional culture, poor leadership and disengaged employees (truly – just look around).

Also, I suspect that most of the complaints about hierarchies are more about lousy companies than the organizational structure. Quick question: when we look at the alternatives, would you rather work in a hierarchy with great leadership and top notch peers or a flat, collaborative organization with dysfunctional relationships, mutually exclusive and competing goals, no feedback, and no support? A poor idea done well is often superior to a great idea done poorly.


2. Effectively creating and maintaining an open, flat, collaborative, and self-directed organization is really, really hard.

Creating and maintaining open, self-directed organizations is difficult. Hierarchies are a known model. We know how they work and how to think about them. Effectively using alternative structures requires thinking about leadership, direction, structure, and work differently and playing by a different set of rules. That’s not a bad thing, but it is more challenging.

Whereas a hierarchy will survive dysfunction with little effort needed to maintain the structure an open organization requires much, much more of the leadership, people, culture. It also requires diligent and ongoing maintenance.

Valve is a software company that caught several bloggers attention when its employee handbook surfaced a little while back. I discussed it here, but the gist is that it is a completely flat and collaborative organization. How collaborative? Check out their current job openings and you’ll see one of the options is: “Have a better idea?” Asking candidates to suggest a new job doesn’t work in a check-the-box organization with a rigid structure and top-down-the-boss-is-always-right management. Read their employee handbook and you’ll either get excited by the possibilities it suggests or completely freak out and declare it an impossibility.

To go flat is hard because it creates ambiguity. It requires people who are self-managing and self-driven AND who are able to work with others, accepting of different perspectives and styles, and willing to design the future instead of waiting for the boss to define it for them. In my experience that’s a relatively scarce combination. There are a lot of exceptional people out there who would not do well in that kind of environment.

Also, I hate to say it, but I suspect that the average person would prefer a hierarchy if given the choice. Going flatter requires more individual responsibility and results focus while hierarchies often allow individuals to give up their personal responsibility and let others direct and control them. Many (most?) people don’t like or want responsibility, are not driven, and just want to do a consistent and certain job and then go home. They want to know EXACTLY what is expected, do it, and get on with their lives. They want a clear, visible career path and routine (mundane) expectations. It sounds like a private hell to me, BUT it is a common attitude. Flatten an organization containing a large number of those folks and you’ll see frustration, mayhem, and chaos. Or maybe just bewilderment and complete inaction as they sit down and wait for someone to tell them what to do.

Likewise, a flat organization creates places additional demands on leadership. It requires people who can lead but don’t want or need the glory, status, and control that is so natural in a hierarchy. It requires more influence and less command and control. Someone who can and wants to lead and influence others without making it about themselves is a rarity. Collaborative and self-directed requires giving up a lot of certainty and control for the possibilities that the group can create. That’s far beyond scary for many, many people. They’ll stick with the known, thank you very much.

Further, we just don’t do a good job training people to be collaborative and self-directed, to thrive in ambiguity, give and receive feedback, to be autonomous and self-directed, etc. We don’t yet develop the skills required to move away from hierarchies. That doesn’t mean we can’t, just that it’s one more step.

So a flat organization requires exceptional people, leaders who think bigger than themselves, and an organizational tolerance for ambiguity. We can forget bureaucratic box checking and that right there will prevent many HR groups from ever getting behind changing the organization. Easy and good enough trounces best. Known evil is welcomed over unfamiliar good.


3. Us humans like to stick with what we know works, even in situations when what we know doesn’t really work.

We have very few examples and role models of flat, collaborate, etc. organizations and there is tremendous comfort and safety in doing something the way everyone else does it – even when it’s not the best way. There’s the old trader’s saying: “No one ever got fired for buying IBM.” It may not be the best possible choice, but it gets the job done and no one will fault you for sticking with the tried and true even when it underperforms. They will, however, dismiss the unconventional success as a fluke and absolutely nail you to the wall for trying something unusual if it doesn’t work out. Better to fail with the known than risk success with the unknown.

Also, thinking back to pizza and beer, when faced with a change that requires effort, discipline, and a different way of doing things, we tend to quit when it gets difficult OR we go back to our old habits after initial success. For example, a new exercise and diet program is painful and we often give up before we start seeing results OR we lose some weight but then slack on the discipline and drift back toward our old habits.

*           *           *

In many ways, I think that the majority of folks ultimately want hierarchies. Sure, we say we don’t. We gripe and complain about them. But it’s like diet and exercise. We say we don’t want to be overweight and out of shape. We complain and talk about alternatives. But, we don’t make the choices and take the actions that would create a different outcome. Flatter orgs, like being in shape, appear to require higher levels of commitment, diligence, and discipline. AND, I suspect that, like being in shape, the perceived benefits far exceed the perceived cost of the effort required.

That said, the difficulty in getting it right leads me to believe that those organizations that do get it figured out have a distinct and difficult to copy advantage. If you truly want to win, if you’re willing to risk being different to be the best, take note. If you’re ok with the status quo then carry on.

The Pizza and Beer Syndrome. We know what we need to do to create the results we want yet we choose the opposite. Sure, I’ll exercise in the morning. Or maybe tomorrow afternoon. Wonder what’s on TV tonight?


descent // death spiral

Profit equals revenue minus expenses. To increase profits you can increase revenue, reduce expenses, or both. Any savvy business strives to be fiscally responsible and keep a close eye on expenses. However, it is possible to cut the wrong expenses and save money right into bankruptcy.

As a regular customer, I have a front row seat watching a formerly solid corner store / gas station implode under the management of new owners. It’s sad, but they are providing a nice case study on how to run a successful business right into the ground. Some things you might want to avoid doing in your own business:

Ask the long-time manager to take a 50% pay cut. Get a new manager willing to accept management responsibility for a shade over minimum wage.  Instead of paying staff well, “save” money by hiring and training new employees who lack the skills, experience, or options to command a living wage. Ignore the cost of excessively high turnover and horrendously poor customer service.

Assume employees are interchangeable and replaceable and treat them poorly. Refuse to realize that in a small community the your customers are friends and family of your employees. Don’t notice how a negative reputation is rapidly spreading throughout the area. Don’t keep shelves stocked, even when the items are clearly sitting in inventory in the back room.

Defer maintenance and repairs. Instead, just hang “out of order” signs on everything that doesn’t work.

Irritate your vendors by not paying them reliably and / or don’t restock key items to save a few dollars. For example: be the only gas station in the area going into the weekend without gas.

Create a noticeable drop in both the number of customers, the number of regular customers, and the sales per customer.

As sales and revenue drop at avalanche speed, accelerate your savings by cutting employee hours so you are perpetually understaffed, allowing more items to be out of stock, and perhaps becoming even slower to pay your vendors.

It’s a neat cycle: the more corners you cut to save money, the lower your customer service drops, the fewer the customers you have and the more corners you need to cut to save money. Repeat until annihilation.

Great Leaders Use What They Have to Their Advantage

In a perfect world every one of our employees would be great employees. They’d be committed, motivated, super skilled, etc., blah, blah, blah. In the real world, they are not. Every person, even the best of employees, has their strengths and weaknesses that they bring to the job.

Poor managers gripe about the weaknesses; great managers figure out how to realistically utilize each person in a way that plays to their strengths and minimizes their weakness. Everyone wants to be successful and a few are fortunate enough to have a leader that enables them to be their best.

One leader I know was working as an electrician, doing contract work for the maintenance department of a small manufacturing plant. The maintenance manager had an employee – Brian – that appeared to be all weakness. He was kind of spacy, a bit of a burnout, and consistently did mediocre work. Brian was one of those employees who just barely good enough to keep on the team, but was an ongoing headache. The maintenance manager took the opportunity to get Brian out of his hair for a while by assigning him to help the contract electrician.

Most in the electrician’s position would have been very frustrated to be “gifted” a problem employee, but he wasn’t. He took the approach of “I have him, so how can I use him to my advantage?” He looked (hard) for the strengths and discovered that Brian used to do electrical work on airplanes was extremely detail oriented and very good at following directions. In fact, given very clear instructions he was able to do meticulous, high quality work. (You see the problem, right? He was extremely literal and did what he was told. His manager did a poor job of giving well thought out directions so he was unable to do a good job. Garbage in, garbage out.)

Once the maintenance manager saw the quality of work that this problem employee was capable of, given proper guidance, he suddenly needed the employee and couldn’t spare him any longer.

When was the last time you sat down with your employees and asked them what they thought their greatest skills were, which tasks they enjoy the most, what skills they would like to use more on the job, or what skills they would like to develop? Who was their best boss or mentor and what did that person do different from all their other bosses?