Leadership and the Truth: Lessons from the Vietnam War


7UcgHxn-asset-mezzanine-16x9-mAfzizc.jpg.crop.480x270Like many Americans, I’ve been watching The Vietnam War, the documentary film series by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, which is currently available on PBS. I was a child during this era in history, and didn’t pay much attention to the news from the battlefields. I remember the protests in the U.S., and I remember the fall of Saigon, but I don’t remember much about the events leading up to the end of the war.

leadership sign 2I haven’t watched all the episodes in the series yet, but from the episodes I have seen, one of my prime take-aways is the importance of truth for leaders in any organization.

Avoiding the spread of Communism in Asia was an important objective for U.S. leaders in the early 1960s. We can argue today over how strategic Vietnam was, but the fact was that political and military leaders in many nations during that era were heavily influenced in their decision-making by the conversion of Eastern Europe into a Soviet bloc. Most of the populations in the U.S. and in Western Europe in these years supported their leaders’ goal of deterring Russian and Chinese expansion.

Despite the laudatory objective, the U.S. decisions in Vietnam went horribly wrong almost from the beginning. Failure of the political and military leaders to seek the truth and tell the truth were large factors in creating the fiasco that Vietnam became.

The need for truth flows in both directions in every organization. Leaders must seek the truth from as many sources as they can, and they must tell the truth in every word they utter. Truth-seeking and truth-telling apply to all interactions with subordinates, peers, superiors, customers, investors, and the public—in short, to every communication with internal and external stakeholders.

The Vietnam series is brutal in pointing out incidents where our military and political leaders did not seek out information from those with first-hand knowledge of conditions on the ground, where underlings feared to volunteer negative information that leaders didn’t want to hear, and where leaders lied or hid information from the public. As a result of these failures to seek truth and to tell truth, bad decisions were made for far too long, and these bad decisions were kept secret from the public who might have opposed the carnage sooner, had they known the facts.

There’s a saying about how generals tend to fight the last war. They learn lessons from that war, and use those lessons in the next conflict. But they might forget other lessons of history or they might see the current battle through the wrong lens because of their focus on the past. That was part of the problem in Vietnam.

Many corporations also fight the wrong problem because they do not see the current challenge clearly. They focus on the wrong competitor, the wrong customer, the wrong product or technology. Their vision is myopic, they don’t see the big picture.

Moreover, leaders in any organization sometimes forget the importance of truth. The reasons for not seeking or telling the truth might vary, but it seems to be part of the universal human condition to only hear what we want to hear and to only say what we wish was true. Part of the rationale is self-preservation, part is wishful thinking, part is a futile attempt to protect those who might be harmed by reality. In the end, however, the truth generally comes out.

Good leaders make an extra effort to seek and to tell the truth, even when it hurts. They look for multiple sources of input and they are candid and transparent in all communications. They realize that facing the truth sooner rather than later is usually best for the organization . . . and, in the long run, for their own reputations.

When have you seen avoidance of the truth cause problems in an organization?

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Is HR Still Relevant? Only If We Can Keep Up With the Speed of Change


HR wordleThis past summer, I read an article on TLNT.com asking “Is there still a need for HR?” Of course, as an Human Resources publication, TLNT.com answered yes.  And as a former HR executive, I think the answer is yes also.

Then I read another article on McKinsey.com on getting ready for the future of work. This article focused on the increase of artificial intelligence and what that will mean for organizations in the years ahead.  According to McKinsey, at least 30 percent of the activities associated with most occupations could be automated—including knowledge tasks.

It dawned on me that in my working career of thirty-some years, there have been two major shifts in what constitutes work for many people. The first shift arose with the computerization of what used to be manual tasks, vastly increasing the productivity of repetitive work. The second shift came with the speed of communications and data transfer, so that now many roles can be performed anywhere.

It could be that artificial intelligence will be a third momentous shift in work, if machines in the future will not only perform the processing tasks that humans now do, but also the thinking and conceptualizing roles that we have assumed differentiated human beings from non-human.

These huge changes in what constitutes work are significant because they have happened so rapidly. Shifts of this magnitude used to come only once in a century or every few centuries. Think of the Industrial Revolution, when machines started doing what human and animal labor had done before. Think of how locomotion shifted from wind or animal power to motorized power. We now move as fast as we can find power to move us—on land, water, air . . . and even space.

Why do I raise these subjects in a discussion about Human Resources?

HR signBecause to remain relevant in the future, HR must have ready the right talent the organization will need at the right time in the right place. We have barely dealt with the skill sets needed to handle digitization. We still don’t really have our arms around the globalization of the workforce permitting employees and those in the gig economy in disparate locations to form project teams that ebb and flow as the work requires. Yet we may soon be asked to manage the intersection between human and artificial intelligence, when most HR people have no understanding of the possibilities of AI.

And we need to help employees prepare themselves to adapt to changing and ever more complex roles. Job changes in the future will be less about moving from company to company in the same field and more about complete shifts in what work we do and how we do it.

Are HR’s abilities to predict the skill sets of the future sufficient to the task of helping employees keep up? I doubt it.

HR strategists today say that fostering organizational culture is one of the core strengths HR can bring to an organization. But are we prepared to develop a global culture that incorporates not only human capabilities but also includes AI in the work world of tomorrow? I doubt that also.

The McKinsey article argues that lifelong learning is the only way that humans will maintain their employability in the future. That goes for HR professionals as much as for any other worker.

As Jeff Dieffenbach, associate director, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Integrated Learning Initiative, is quoted as saying in the McKinsey article:

“While change is accelerating, one thing that is definitely not is the neuroplasticity of the brain. In other words, the rate of change in the world may have surpassed the speed at which the human mind can process those changes.”

That goes for HR brains as well as those of other workers. Frankly, I’m not sure HR will survive in a recognizable form. The machines may take over from us.

What do you see ahead for HR?

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Remembering September 11: Lessons in Crisis Management


National_Park_Service_9-11_Statue_of_Liberty_and_WTCI’ve written several posts about crisis management, so it surprised me to realize that in over five years of blogging, I’ve never written about my experience on September 11, 2011. I’ve barely mentioned that date at all, even though the heartbreaking day not only shook me personally but provided a huge opportunity for learning as an HR executive.

I lived and worked in the Central Time Zone at the time, an hour behind the East Coast. I was in an early meeting with other members of the Human Resources staff in my company that Tuesday morning. Shortly after we started the meeting, an administrative assistant came into the room to tell us that an airplane had struck the World Trade Center. We acknowledged the tragedy, but continued our meeting. Then a few minutes later, she reported that another plane had struck the other tower. At that point, it was clear that the collisions were intentional—the U.S. had been struck by terrorists. We stopped our meeting, and those of us on the company’s crisis management team, including myself, gathered to determine the impact on our company.

It might seem that a corporation a thousand miles away from the attacks should not have any issues, but our multinational company had locations around the U.S., including on the East Coast. We had employees traveling on business. We had thousands of employees throughout the nation concerned about family and friends near the affected sites. And everyone, of course, was fearful of another strike.

Through the course of that day, we worked on the following issues:

— We immediately began providing the best information we could to employees. For the first time ever, we allowed the intra-company communications monitors at each major location to broadcast national news, rather than static screens of company news. A few departments had televisions going all day long, but we wanted employees working in departments without televisions (i.e., most employees) to have ready access to information as well. Yes, productivity suffered, but it would have anyway, and making the information easily accessible was one way to show employees we cared about their concerns.

— Our Travel Department searched the travel records of all employees away on business and contacted them to determine if they were safe (they were). Because all flights in the U.S. were canceled for the next few days, we also started making alternative arrangements get those employees home. In many cases, we had to authorize one-way rental cars from the coasts to get people home. These were expensive trips, but we knew the most important thing was getting employees back to their families during this national crisis.

— We also assisted vendor and customer representatives on our sites to make arrangements to return to their homes also.

— We prepared a video message for our CEO to deliver to all employees. By midafternoon on September 11, our communications experts had recorded our CEO in a video that we put on our monitors and on the company intranet site. The CEO conveyed his sympathy to those inside and outside the company impacted by the catastrophe and said that he and other corporate officers were as devastated by the day’s events as everyone else. He also provided information on how we were handling the crisis — that the company had located all of our traveling employees and determined none had been on the downed planes and that we were working to bring the others home as quickly as possible.

— We brought in grief counselors to our major locations to conduct group sessions with employees who were emotionally distraught by the day’s news, and provided information on our Employee Assistance Program in case employees wanted more individualized counseling.

Our crisis management team continued these activities for several days, until the nation and its transportation system returned to normal. But, of course, nothing has been the same in the sixteen years since those awful events.

I learned that day the reality of the importance of communications during a crisis. It is one thing to read articles on crisis management, like this one. It is another thing to live it and to know that what you are doing is having an impact, for better or for worse, on the morale of your organization.

I learned it is important to not only communicate facts but empathy as well. Company leaders and managers must seek out and pass on accurate and timely information. But good leaders must also be emotionally congruent with others in their organization. This emotional support is critical, even though at the same time management is providing direction and channeling people’s energy toward productive activities. And leaders must recognize that sometimes the most important thing is to pause and acknowledge feelings before productive behaviors can resume.

A crisis can be an opportunity to bring an organization closer together, but only if it is managed well.

What lessons have you learned while handling a crisis?

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Labor Day and This Blog’s Future


HappyLaborDay-WeekendI put this blog on hiatus in early June and said I’d be back around Labor Day. Well, today is Labor Day.

A lot has happened this summer that has and will impact corporate life. I’ve missed writing about many issues, such as

For other examples of what I might have written about, take a look at my twitter feed, where I pass along the best articles I read.

In the months ahead, we could be looking at tax reform, infrastructure, immigration, and other significant policy issues. Those, too, will impact corporations, their leaders, and their workforces. And I will probably want to write about these matters.

Over the summer I’ve given a lot of thought to the role this blog plays in my life. I’ve discovered I miss writing it, even though the weekly commitment to post was a distraction from other projects and meeting other goals.

So I’m going to compromise. I will try posting twice a month, on the second and fourth Mondays of the month. Which means my first substantive post will be up next Monday.

For today, enjoy the end of summer and your Labor Day weekend. And take a moment to think about what Labor Day means as a holiday honoring the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.

Thanks for your patience this summer.

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Blog on Hiatus


Just last week I wrote how the pace in many businesses slows during the summer months. That is not proving true for me this year. In fact, a new project is consuming my time. Therefore, I am taking a break in writing this blog. I will be back around Labor Day.

In the meantime, here are links to some of my most popular posts:

And click here to see all my “Favorite Firing” posts.

Or here to find information about my novel, Playing the Game.

Hope your summer goes well.

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How to Avoid Burnout When There’s Always Too Much Work


work-2196609_640Memorial Day weekend is the traditional beginning of summer. In many workplaces the pace slows during the summer months—maybe it slows a little, maybe it slows a lot. For employees who are burned out, the more relaxed pace might help.

Still, in today’s 24/7 world, the slowdown of summer might not be enough. In fact, one of my most stressful times as an employee was one July and August when I was assigned to defend a major lawsuit. I had to take on this new work even though none of my existing work had gone away.

After a few weeks, I realized I couldn’t juggle the caseload I had. I was leaving the office completely frustrated every evening. Finally, I talked to my department head about how to reallocate the workload.

It was that or quit. I was that burned out.

A recent article in Fortune, “The Solution to Avoiding Burnout That Nobody Tells You,” by Laura Chambers, published May 10, 2017, tells of a time when the author’s supervisor told her she would have to learn to drop some balls to avoid burnout. This is counterintuitive for most high-performing employees.

Actually, author Laura Chambers describes a more nuanced approach to managing the workload than simply not doing projects. She describes two kinds of employees, the burnouts and the droppers, and says neither is ideal.

She says that when there’s too much work to accomplish, the best approach is to become a “communicating prioritizer.” She suggests identifying what you believe the top priorities to be, discussing them with your supervisor and team to be sure there is agreement on what the priorities are, then focusing on the highest priorities.

As a manager, Ms. Chambers says about her staff:

“When they communicate their priorities, it shows me that they’re on their game, they’re confident about where they’re headed, and I know I can count on them delivering with confidence. It also demonstrates that they’re managing their own work-life balance, rather than relying on someone else to manage it for them.”

Turns out, I didn’t do so badly in going to my manager to discuss what I could do and what I couldn’t. I was communicating, as Ms. Chambers recommends. However, in retrospect, I see that if I had offered more proactive suggestions myself on how to reallocate the work, I might have done better. My manager and I worked it out, but I put most of the burden of prioritizing on him.

And perhaps Ms. Chambers’s manager could have done better by helping her prioritize than by telling her to drop some balls.

How have you managed periods of burnout in your career?

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Employer Health Care Benefits — Preparing for 2018


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I last wrote about health care in late March, shortly after the House of Representatives failed to bring the American Health Care Act (AHCA) to a vote. Since then, after a few amendments, the House did pass the AHCA, but with all the other brouhahas in Washington over the last few weeks, it’s questionable whether the Senate will get to health care anytime soon.

There are some good provisions in the AHCA as passed by the House. Among other things, the AHCA makes the following changes to Obamacare:

  • The individual mandate was repealed, as was the employer mandate;
  • The 2.3% medical device tax was repealed;
  • The net investment tax was repealed, as was the .9% Medicare high earner tax;
  • The Cadillac tax for expensive plans was delayed (and will probably never be permitted to take effect, since neither Republicans nor Democrats like this provision); and
  • Health Savings Accounts were expanded, effective in 2018

All of these provisions provide less government control over the health care marketplace. In the long run, these changes would generally be helpful for employers.

Still, as most people recognize, without an individual mandate, some incentive is necessary to get healthy people to opt into health insurance before they get sick and to maintain that coverage. The AHCA continuous health insurance coverage incentive replaces the individual mandate penalty. This incentive operates much like HIPAA certificates of coverage. As long as they do not let their health insurance lapse for more than 63 days, individuals cannot be charged higher premiums because of preexisting conditions. Moreover, the premium penalty for the first plan year cannot exceed 30%.

There is an exception to this 30% limit, but the exception permits insurers to charge late enrollees with pre-existing condition higher premiums only if the state has waived the community rating rule and the state has established a high-risk pool to help people with preexisting conditions fund their coverage.

The AHCA is far from a perfect bill, and it is likely to face substantial amendments in the Senate before it comes to a vote in that chamber. And Congress has many other priorities this session as well. So what will happen with respect to health care legislation by the end of the year is anyone’s guess.

Nevertheless, we are at the time of year when many employers are examining their options for health plans for their employees for the year ahead. What should employers do in this time of uncertainty?

Obamacare, the Affordable Care Act, is still the law, so until Congress acts, employers must comply with the mandates and reporting requirements. With the individual mandate in place, employees will want to know their employer-provided health care options in a timely fashion.

Moreover, although the Cadillac tax has been kicked down the road and its ultimate implementation is uncertain, avoidance of the tax—or preparation for it—will take time to structure.

For 2018 at least, the current employer responsibilities are likely to remain in place. Employers must continue to manage their benefit plans, tweaking them as makes most sense for their workforce. There remain many reasons why employers should support their employees’ health and wellness if they want to be employers of choice.

Employers, what concerns you the most about health benefits in 2018?

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