Category Archives: Leadership

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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The Myth of 100 Days, and the Reality


presidential sealMuch of the news for the past couple of weeks has revolved around how is President Trump doing in his first one hundred days in office. President Trump himself set high expectations before he was inaugurated, and recently he has been trying to tamp down the importance of the 100 day marker. He hit that marker this past Saturday.

One hundred days is an arbitrary period. It is less than a year, less than one-twelfth of a president’s term of office. Nevertheless, it is used as a milestone not only for new Presidents but also for new corporate executives.

I’ve read many articles outlining what a new CEO or CFO or head of Human Resources—or any other “chief” of a corporate function, for that matter—ought to accomplish when he or she takes office. Here are just a few articles telling new executives what to do in their first one hundred days:

Five Myths of a CEO’s First 100 Days, by Roselinde Torres and Peter Tollman, January 30, 2012, in Harvard Business Review

Your First 100 Days as CEO—Eight Must-Avoid Traps, by Scott Weighart, Bates Communications

An Action Plan for New CEOs During the First 100 Days, by M.S.Rao, October 8, 2014, on TrainingMag.com

Assuming Leadership: The First 100 Days, by Patrick Ducasse and Tom Lutz, The Boston Consulting Group

Rather than go through all the recommendations, which they are not entirely consistent, I want to focus on two topics: setting up for long-term success and strong communications. These, in my opinion, are critical marks of new leaders.

1. Long-Term Success

One area in which there is a difference of opinion among the experts is whether to strive for “quick wins” or whether to focus on setting up for success in the long term. The two aren’t mutually exclusive, and a few quick wins can win over supporters who will improve the chances of long-term success.

It all depends on whether the wins are what the organization needs or wants, or whether the new leader achieves them by running roughshod over the organization. If the early wins are gained at the expense of long-standing corporate culture, then the new executive will be seen as insensitive.

I believe that long-term success is more important than early victories. It is better for the new executive to be seen as listening to stakeholders than to introduce change without an understanding of the impact on the organization. Obviously, if there are some early wins that most stakeholders approve of, then the new CEO should undertake them immediately. But these actions will have the best impact if they are consistent with the CEO’s long-term strategic plan and vision.

2. Communications

Most commentators agree that it is critical for the new executive to take control of communications, but to balance listening with revealing his or her own vision and priorities. The executive must be seen as a leader, but also as someone who understands the organization’s needs. Particularly for executives hired from the outside, it is critical that the new leader not come across as arrogant and dismissive of the company’s past.

Building relationships with those in the organization is essential. That requires an open dialogue in which the new executive really listens to the stakeholders and also reveals his or her own intentions and beliefs. The incoming CEO will have his or her preferred communications style, but must also adapt to the needs of the organization. Also, it is important to set realistic expectations on what will and will not change and how fast change will come.

So, on these two points, how is President Trump doing?

Each of us will have our own answer to this question. In my opinion, President Trump gets decidedly mixed results.

He has had some short-term successes (the confirmation of Justice Gorsuch, the limited strike on Syria) and some failures (the travel ban, the failure of the House health care reform proposal). But I don’t believe he has defined his vision of long-term success clearly enough. We don’t yet know what he hopes to accomplish in four years, which campaign promises he means to keep and which he does not . . . and maybe also how he has changed since taking office. Without this clarity, it is hard to decide if he is focused on the long term.

On the communications front, his core audience still seems supportive of the President, but he does not appear to be expanding his reach beyond his base. People who didn’t like candidate Trump tweeting now find tweets by President Trump are even scarier. Maybe he doesn’t care about broadening his appeal, but I think it would be wise if he did. And to broaden his appeal, he will have to communicate in more than 140 characters. He will have to appear to listen as well as to speak and to speak at length and with heart.

As with any change, some people will show patience toward President Trump, others will have no patience. Some will be skeptical, but silent. Others will be vocally displeased. Much like what happens in any organization when a new executive enters the scene.

What do you think of President Trump’s first one hundred days?

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Apologize When You Make a Mistake


I’ve written on a couple of occasions about apologies (see here and here). In one post, I said that lawyers often don’t recommend apologies because of the potential legal risk.

But when you’re wrong, you’re wrong. Sometimes, an apology is the best solution.

United logoTwo situations have been in the news recently which have caused public relations disasters. In one, United Airlines bumped a man from his seat on a flight because the airline needed the seat to transport crew to another airport to fly another plane. The passenger refused to deplane, and he was injured when airport security physically removed him.

The United Airlines CEO apologized, but his apology was deemed insincere.

Sean_Spicer_(32293609264)_(cropped)

Press Secretary Sean Spicer. Photo by Gage Skidmore.

In the second situation, Sean Spicer, President Trump’s Press Secretary, compared Assad of Syria to Hitler, but said that while Assad had gassed his people, Hitler had not—obviously forgetting the millions of people Hitler had gassed in concentration camps.

Mr. Spicer apologized, but his apology was deemed insufficient.

Mr. Spicer’s error was a mistake of fact. He knows full well—and he should have remembered—that Hitler was responsible for the Holocaust. I’m not a Trump fan, nor a Spicer fan, and I cringed when I heard Mr. Spicer’s remark. But I assume his mind deserted him for a moment. Within hours he apologized for his mistake.

In my opinion, that should be the end of the story. But opponents of the Trump Administration do not seem willing to let it go. How can anyone forget the Holocaust? they ask. Well, people’s brains do stupid stuff sometimes. Hasn’t yours?

Shouldn’t we be forgiven our stupidity?

In my opinion, the United Airlines situation is the harder case. This was not a simple error of fact. It was a matter of corporate policy—United bumps passengers when their seats are needed for smooth operation of the airline. And airlines are permitted by law to physically remove passengers from airplanes when the passengers are argumentative or combative.

But somehow, humanity got lost in this situation. A doctor in his sixties, who said he needed to see patients the next day, who had paid for a ticket and had a valid boarding pass, and who was already seated in his assigned seat, was injured when he protested the airline’s random revocation of his seat assignment. (I’ve read conflicting reports on whether United had the right to bump someone who was not technically on an “overbooked” flight.)

Then the CEO said the airline would “re-accommodate” the passenger. This word choice was unfortunate—the man had not been accommodated in the first place, so how could he be re-accommodated? How would “re-accommodation” help his injuries? In addition, the initial corporate statement blamed the passenger for being disruptive.

I think back to the post I wrote about a 2012 post in Contented Cows, in which the author stated that when you need to take accountability for a mistake, you should

  • Apologize quickly and without excuses or weasel words, and
  • Clean up the mess you made.

In this case, Sean Spicer apologized directly, without much in the way of weasel words, though he perhaps tried to explain himself too much. He is trying to clean up the mess he made, and we should allow him to do so.

By contrast, United Airlines made excuses, used weasel words, and shifted the blame in its initial attempt to apologize. It will probably take them a long time to clean up the mess they made.

When have you had to apologize? How well do you think you handled it?

 

 

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Manage Yourself Before You Can Lead Others


executive-1668932_640I’ve been following the folks at Contented Cows for many years now. Bill Catlette and Richard Hadden call themselves employee engagement experts. The name of their business comes from their first book, Contented Cows Give Better Milk: The Plain Truth About Employee Relations and Your Bottom Line. Although they say they are employee engagement experts, their website states, “We develop leaders, period.” They write about employee engagement, but mostly in the context of how leaders create the kinds of focused and enthusiastic employees who give the “better milk” that all businesses want.

Recently, Bill Catlette wrote a post entitled “Leadership . . . It’s Not a Position,” which really struck home with me. I’ve read a lot about what a new leader needs to do in his or her first 100 days in the job. But in this post, Mr. Catlette goes beyond the “whats” of a new leader’s role to get at the “hows.” He says:

1. First, you manage yourself.
2. You lead others.
3. You manage the system.

If leaders reflected on these three points, I think they’d get to the “whats” of any new role a lot more easily—and to the “whats” of their existing roles also.

Manage Yourself. We have only to look at President Trump to understand the importance of managing yourself. Now, none of us can know how much President Trump manages himself, but from the outside his tweets seem undisciplined and contrary to the message of control and focus that most Americans want from their President.

As Mr. Catlette states,

“No one is going to follow you for very long or very far if you don’t have your own act together. You summon appropriate doses of optimism and humility, and keep your ego very much in check.”

This is the behavior of a leader. If this first step is not done well, then steps two and three may not get the job done.

Lead Others. Most leadership articles focus on this aspect of leadership. We are instructed that leaders should communicate the mission of the organization and how each individual’s work fits into it. They should listen with empathy to those they manage, as well as to their external stakeholders. They should encourage and persuade their followers toward a shared goal.

We’re all taught to do these things. Some of us do them better than others. But none of it matters if we—as leaders—do not model the behavior and performance needed from others in the organization.

Manage the System. Again, as leaders we are taught to examine the technology, decision rights, workflows, and other tools and processes that make up the organization we lead. We’re told to find the weak points and figure out how to improve them. We’re expected to shape the culture to get the job done—to create engaged employees.

But once more, we must recognize that we cannot shape the culture to something different than what we display ourselves.

The primary reason many leaders fail is because of cultural fit. These leaders often do not fit because they do not shape their behavior to the requirements of their role. I’m not arguing for a cookie-cutter look to all senior executives in an organization. But I am suggesting that leaders be conscious of how their behavior is viewed by those they lead and that they adapt themselves to their environment before they expect others to adapt to them.

When have you observed leaders who failed because they didn’t manage themselves first?

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When Your CEO Dies


man-76202_640I’ve been interested in succession planning since my early years in Human Resources—and particularly in succession planning at the top of the house. Perhaps that’s why my novel, Playing the Game, begins with a CEO near death and the impact that has on the corporation. So I read with interest a recent article that dealt with how to cope with the death of a key executive. Of course, the most important point is to be prepared.

“What Would Happen If Your CEO Died?”, by Branigan Robertson and Sean Reis, published on February 2, 2017, on the always excellent TLNT.com, asks what HR should do to minimize the impact of the death of a key executive.

Here are the recommendations the authors make, along with my commentary:

1. Purchasing life insurance on high-ranking managerial employees

For most companies, this is a matter of balancing cost against risk. In my opinion, insurance will only make sense for some companies—typically larger companies, or those in which an executive’s passing could end the organization’s existence. For other companies, particularly where a successor is in place, insurance may not be necessary.

2. Knowing who is next in command for each critical position, including the CEO, to fill immediate leadership gaps

This is critical. Everyone should have a back-up, just as stage actors have stand-ins. In some cases, this will be a deputy or assistant to the executive. In other cases, power will devolve up the corporate ladder, and the deceased executive’s boss may need to act in an emergency. In still other situations, a former executive might be called back into the role. And in the case of the CEO, a Board of Directors member may need to fill in, if there is no executive the Board trusts.

The important point is that stakeholders need to know immediately who acts in place of the deceased (or incapacitated or otherwise unavailable) executive.

3. Having access to all critical information

Arranging for ongoing access to critical information is part of any good crisis management plan—and the loss of a key executive is certainly a crisis. Part of the issue is making sure someone has access to corporate information, such as server passwords, financial records, tax returns and payments, bank account and payroll information, debt instruments, shareholder and Board member information, key contracts and insurance policies, critical vendor and consultant contact information—the list goes on.

And each business will also have critical systems of its own, and all of these need a crisis management plan. What systems in your organization have only one key person with access to the data?

In addition to critical corporate information and documents, it is important to know how to access contact information for employees’ family members—at least one next-of-kin or emergency contact for every employee.

4. Dealing with emotions

The loss of a key employee will impact the morale of the entire organization—the more respected and liked the individual, the more the rest of the employees will grieve. And the more critical the person was to the organization, the more employees will worry about their future.

Other leaders need to recognize, validate, and overcome employees’ sense of loss—often when these leaders knew the deceased the best and are most devastated by the death. It is probably a good idea to bring in grief counselors (usually from the company’s Employee Assistance Program, if one is in place), to help the organization mourn the loss and move on.

5. Having a succession plan in place to speed filling the position on a long-term basis

Beyond the immediate need to deal with the crisis and keep the business running, it is important to get back to “business as usual” as quickly as possible. The only way to do that is if the position is filled or the duties of the deceased executive are otherwise distributed. The more planning done in advance, the easier this will be.

Is your organization prepared to lose a top executive?

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Pay Transparency: Where Is Your Organization on the Spectrum?


In August 2015, I wrote a post that took a decidedly guarded position on the benefits of pay transparency. That post was written in the context of the SEC’s pay ratio disclosure rules, requiring the disclosure of executive pay as compared to the average worker’s pay. I’ve been mulling the topic of pay transparency ever since then, wondering if I was too conservative. I recently attended a webinar on pay transparency sponsored by PayScale and BambooHR which caused me to adjust my thinking. This post deals with the merits of pay transparency as a management philosophy, rather than as a response to a government mandate.

The thrust of the PayScale/BambooHR webinar was that pay transparency is really a continuum of pay strategies. Each organization must decide where on the continuum to place its pay philosophy, based on the organization’s goals and desired culture.

If an employer decides to migrate further along the pay transparency continuum, then management and Human Resources in that organization need to be more disciplined in setting pay and in discussing pay with employees. Making pay transparency work requires good market data and an understanding of what skills and performance the organization needs from its employees.

The PayScale Pay Transparency Spectrum

pay-transparency-spectrum

As depicted in the webinar, there are five stages on the “PayScale Pay Transparency Spectrum.” The remainder of this post describes the five steps as outlined by Payscale and Bamboo HR, but many of the attitudes expressed regarding the pros and cons of each step are my own, and not necessarily those of the presenters.

1. What — Employees understand what they get paid — how much, when pay day is, etc. This is a bare minimum, and certainly all employers should at least be willing to tell their employees this much.

Even conservatives like me would not object to this step on the spectrum. If this is part of pay transparency, then I can easily support any company getting to this first level.

2. How — Employees are told how the organization uses data to make pay decisions. If the employer uses market pay data, then employees are told how market studies are conducted, or at least which companies are considered comparable. If jobs are graded on a point factor system, then the factors are described.

Opening up pay calculations to this level on the spectrum can be a big step in helping employees accept the fairness of pay scales and understanding the value of their job versus working at another company. But employees will ask questions about how jobs are defined and whether the benchmark companies are good comparators, so managers and HR do need to be educated in how to respond to such questions.

Again, I can readily support this step on the continuum for most companies. Assuming that an employer does have a pay structure with job grades and salary benchmarking, then the employer should be able to explain to employees how that system works. Not all companies will choose to pay to market, but if they don’t, they should be able to explain why (“we choose to be an entry-level employer, and we understand turnover will be higher,” for example). By contrast, when a company wants to be an employer of choice and to pay at or above market, then they should be happy to explain that philosophy.

3. Where — The third step on the spectrum is explaining to individual employees where they fall in the pay range. This goes beyond explaining what the salary range for a position is (Step 2) and requires telling individuals how their individual pay was set and what their future salary expectations are.

For certain (typically non-exempt) positions, salary increases are based on seniority or time-in-grade or the achievement of specific skill sets. In those instances, where pay increases are based on objective factors, it only makes sense to tell employees about the factors. In addition, when a company wants to focus on employee development and career opportunities, reaching this step on the transparency continuum can enrich the career planning and performance discussions.

The more subjective the criteria for offering pay increases, however, the more managers and HR need to be trained in how to discuss pay with employees. I think this was my hesitancy when I addressed the topic before. I’ve seen too many instances when managers handled these conversations poorly.

4. Why — The fourth step on the spectrum is explaining to employees why the organization pays the way it does. This requires a good understanding of the desired workplace culture and how pay fits with that culture. At this step, employers not only tell employees how they can increase their individual pay within the pay grades and ranges, but the organization also explains what is important for the future success of the organization.

At this level, management training is even more important than at Step 3. The questions about paying to market or not must be answered to deal with pay transparency at this level. Not all managers are able to talk effectively about workplace culture and employee engagement and retention. Particularly when managers themselves are not satisfied with their pay—or don’t understand how their own pay is set—they will not be effective communicators.

The webinar presenters stated that this level might be a good goal to reach on pay transparency, although they did not advocate it for all employers. They did emphasize the need for management training. I am not sure that many employers are ready for this level. Certainly many that I have worked with would need significant improvement in their management ranks before reaching full transparency about the links between pay philosophy and culture. But organizations with professional employees and highly skilled managers might well have this level as a goal.

5. Whoa! — Yes, this was the fifth level on the pay transparency continuum. This is the level that is often discussed in the media—where there are open discussions about which employee makes what salary, and everyone knows what everyone else gets paid.

The presenters indicated that this level might not be desirable for many organizations. And this is certainly where I balked when I wrote about pay transparency before. I’ve worked in departments where everyone had access to what everyone else made, and it was a difficult environment in which to manage. That may be in part because we were not as data-driven as we purported to be—subjective factors such as performance and prior job history played a role on where employees ended up within their salary ranges.

I’m still of the opinion that most organizations are not ready for this level of pay transparency. Some might be, but they had better be ready for a lot of difficult discussions with employees.

How to Reach the Desired Level

The last aspect of the webinar I’ll mention was the emphasis by the presenters on the need for the organization’s leaders to determine their pay philosophy and set a target for where on the pay transparency spectrum they want to be to suit their culture.

It’s likely that the organization will have to evolve a step at a time. An organization that currently does not even discuss pay ranges with employees is not going to get even to Step 4 without a few years of transition.

And the more transparent a system company leaders want to have, the more they need to invest in management training. Not all managers, and not all employees, will make the transition easily. Some turnover of those whose philosophy does not align with the desired culture will happen.

The webinar was a huge help to me in defining my personal perspective. I’m somewhere between Step 3 and Step 4 in what I would personally recommend. But I can now better articulate to clients what their options are and how they could develop from where they are at present on the continuum and why they might want to change.

Where is your organization currently on the pay transparency continuum?

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The Gartner Hype Cycle


I recently learned of a concept called the Gartner Hype Cycle. I probably never ran into it before because it started as a technology concept, related to the impact of new technologies on an organization. The Hype Cycle is intended to explain the maturity, adoption and social application of new technology.

But it seems to be to be broadly applicable beyond technological issues. To me, it explains why a lot of new management programs and other ideas crash and burn. Or at least, why they do not result in as much success as originally envisioned.

559px-gartner_hype_cycle

There are five stages to the Hype Cycle. It starts with a “trigger” — a new idea or technology comes on the scene and moves the organization out of stasis. Immediately, the technology is perceived as the greatest thing since sliced bread, the solution to all woes. This is the “inflated expectations” stage.

Expectations rise to a peak, and then the “trough of disillusionment” sets in. The organization realizes that the new technology does not solve all problems, and, in fact, creates issues of its own. Reactions to the technology plummet to depths lower than the stasis before the technology came on the scene.

Finally, the organization is able to sift through the benefits and detriments of the new technology as it moves up the “slope of enlightenment.” Only then does the organization reach a “plateau of productivity,” a new stasis, which is hopefully higher than the original stasis. Thus, there is benefit to the new idea, but not as much as originally anticipated.

How many times have we been through this cycle in our own organizations?

It might not be a new technology or product or service. In my own case, I think of countless business redesigns. Each one was intended to increase productivity. Each one would be the most effective way to bring creative new products to market. Each one would minimize inefficiencies and increase profitability.

And each time, the results of the corporate redesign were less than staggering.

I won’t say the redesigns were failures, but they were not panaceas. They did not magically transform the organization into a model of productivity.

And yet every few years, we tried it again. With the same results.

What examples of the hype cycle have you experienced?

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