2017 has been a tumultuous year for many of us. As it ends, take a moment to breathe deeply. Savor and celebrate your accomplishments and joys.
2017 has been a tumultuous year for many of us. As it ends, take a moment to breathe deeply. Savor and celebrate your accomplishments and joys.
Because this blog was on hiatus all summer, I didn’t comment on the political stalemates and morasses during those months. And I’m not going to comment directly on the ongoing issues today. But what I saw over the summer—and what I continue to see this fall—reminds me of a situation I encountered many years ago involving “alpha dogs” in a corporate setting.
My work group attended a gender diversity program sometime in the mid-1990s. I was not in management at the time; I was one of several individual contributors who ranged widely in seniority. I was in the middle of the pack at the time.
One of the comments about gender differences that the facilitator made during this gender diversity session was that men often try to be the “alpha dog” in a meeting by one-upping the other men in the room. Women, on the other hand, care less if they are seen as the highest power in the room. (Keep in mind that this program took place decades before Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” philosophy became vogue.)
I might have forgotten this “alpha dog” comment, except that a few days after the diversity program, I was talking about it with a male colleague, one of the more senior employees in our group. He freely admitted, “That’s why I have problems with [our male boss]. He and I both want to be the alpha dog.”
I thought about it. He was right—these two men did both try to be top dog. And trying to be the alpha dog wasn’t working for my colleague, because he didn’t have the corporate authority to pull it off. He wasn’t the boss, but he often tried to be.
I made a deliberate decision. As a fairly young and introverted female, seeking to be the alpha dog wasn’t going to work for me either. Therefore, I would consciously act like I was NOT the alpha dog. I would not overtly try to one-up other people I encountered in the workplace. I would defer to others intentionally. I would seek to provide good service to my colleagues and clients, rather than to command them. That didn’t mean letting others step all over me, but it did mean not being arrogant or seeking top billing on projects.
I’ve written before about “servant leadership,” a philosophy that advocates leading by serving others. I didn’t hear of that concept until ten or more years after the 1990s gender diversity program, but it resonated with me when I learned about it.
How did servant leadership work for me?
Generally, it worked well, at least through the middle years in my career. Over time, there were more and more times when I had to take command and make decisions. And occasionally, I didn’t get as much credit for my work as I thought I should have. But those times were less frequent than one might expect.
However, there were times after I moved into senior corporate roles when more of a command approach might have worked better. There were definitely people—mostly men, but a few women—who took advantage of my understated approach or who thought me weak. I could usually deflect them by being the best prepared person in the room, but there were a few jerks who only understood power, who only thought highly of other “alpha dogs” and sought to be the “alpha dog” with everyone except the CEO. They were never my favorite people, but sometimes I did have to flex my style to deal with them effectively.
Unfortunately, many of today’s leaders—particularly the partisans on both sides of the aisle in Washington—seem to be of the “alpha dog” mentality. One-up-man-ship is all they understand. And so our nation has become increasingly polarized. If more of them would exercise servant leadership, we would all be better off.
What leadership style have you generally used? When have you had to flex your style?
Like 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.
I 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?
This 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?
Because 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?
The best manager I ever had passed away recently. I’ve mentioned him a couple of times in earlier posts—he was the man who told me that “time is your friend” (to which I added the codicil, “except when it isn’t”).
Among the other wise things he taught me were:
1. You can never have an hour long conversation with someone in less than an hour.
That statement of his taught me that you can never rush through listening to someone with a problem or a complaint. People need the time to tell their stories, and no matter how efficient you can be in the rest of what you do, listening takes time.
He had prior experience in Human Resources and a long history as a manager of large groups. He’d spent many hours listening to people’s grievances.
2. The way to solve a problem is to throw good people at it.
My manager did this many times—he took the best people he had in his division and put them on projects or in roles where important changes were needed. The projects where he set up task forces of strong contributors included productivity challenges, quality improvement teams, and staffing and reorganization issues.
In every situation, the good people he assigned found solutions, most of which worked. And even when success wasn’t immediately forthcoming, he—and we—knew we’d given it our best shot.
3. Even if you can do something better or faster than your staff, you need to delegate.
The only way that people grow is by giving them work that enables them to learn. In my prior roles, I had been an individual contributor, even when I had project management responsibility. My manager taught me that in my new position with direct and indirect supervisory authority, I needed to give my staff the opportunity to do things their own way, even if I was faster, even if it took me time to delegate and supervise, even if I could do it better.
Just as he had given me the opportunity to expand my role, and then patiently coached me, I had to do the same for my staff.
Besides, no one can do everything, and we all need to choose priorities. So for the development of my staff, for my own sake, and for the good of the organization, delegation was important.
4. You’re not a risk.
One time this manager told me that when he named me to my new position, he’d been cautioned that he was taking a risk on an unknown quantity. He told me he’d never believed that. “You weren’t a risk,” he said. “You’d done a good job in your prior role, and I had every expectation you’d succeed again.” Perhaps this is a corollary to his advice that the best way to solve a problem is to throw good people at it. He was telling me I was one of the “good people.”
That was the best compliment any manager ever gave me. I have tried to give similar compliments to people who work for me over the years.
And I will carry all these lessons with me for the rest of my life. I am only sorry this manager will no longer be coaching others in this world. He will be missed.
What’s the best lesson you ever learned from one of your managers?
Well, the election last Tuesday didn’t produce gridlock, as I had hoped for two weeks ago. Frankly, when I wrote that post about gridlock, I fully anticipated a Clinton victory. I wasn’t eagerly awaiting that outcome, but that was what I thought would happen. I hoped for gridlock to contain the continued Democratic excesses I think have occurred in the last eight years.
Now that the President-elect is Donald Trump, do I still hope for gridlock? No. I am no more of a fan of Donald Trump’s than I was before the election, but I now hope for reconciliation.
I hope Republicans can develop a reasonable agenda. Not an agenda that pushes too far right. Not a wacky foreign policy that abandons our nation’s position in the world. But an agenda that earnestly works to improve the economic standing of all Americans.
I hope Republicans preserve the freedoms they value—religious freedom, gun rights, and a broad interpretation of the First Amendment—while also preserving freedoms for Americans who do not typically vote Republican—Muslim Americans, African Americans, Hispanics, non-Christian minorities, the LGBT community, and others who feel marginalized by the election results.
I also hope the Republican majorities in Congress will reach across the aisle to pull in Democrats’ ideas on solutions to the thorny problems facing our nation. Many Trump supporters only have to remember how they felt after the excesses of the Obama Administration to understand how Clinton supporters feel now. I hope Republicans learned a lesson from how they felt in 2008-2010, when a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate permitted Democrats to enact laws (including Obamacare) without any input from Republicans.
“Turn about is fair play” is not a good governing strategy for Republicans now.
I’m not optimistic. Not about the Republicans’ ability to work together within their party, nor about their ability to compromise with Democrats. I still would not be surprised to see gridlock. Perhaps not in the traditional sense of placing the Presidency and Congress in the hands of different parties. But Democrats in the Senate are likely to use filibusters and other procedural rules to retain a minority check on Republicans. And the Republicans will probably have difficulty uniting around an agenda. Gridlock is still quite possible.
Still, I hope I’m as wrong in my pessimism as I was about Hillary Clinton becoming the 45th President.
What is your hope for our nation in the next four years?
In some states, voting has been underway for weeks. For the rest of us, we have to endure this presidential election campaign for another eight days. A truly ghoulish proposition this Halloween.
For almost all of us, it has been a miserable year. We have two of the least liked candidates for President in our nation’s history. Both have flaws as candidates, with the flaws evident in their personal traits, in their histories in public life, and in their positions on issues. New evidence of their flaws surfaces almost daily, with the latest being the FBI’s announcement on October 28 of its renewed investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails.
I’ve written before about the difficulty of choosing between two bad options. I keep remembering the quote from Thomas Merton I included in that earlier post: “an evil choice can never have wholly good consequences.”
The more we have learned about Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump over the last year, the more difficult the choice has become. I’ve made my decision. I’ve considered the four candidates on every state’s ballot. I’ve considered not voting in the presidential race (but I’ve rejected not voting at all, for reasons described below). I’m not going to disclose here how I’ll cast my vote in the presidential race, because this year in particular there is no good decision, and I do not fault anyone for reaching a different conclusion than I do.
Instead, the purpose of this post is to urge voters to make independent and thoughtful decisions when they select their choices for all races on the ballot. This is not a year to blindly vote a straight party ticket to avoid making choices in down-ballot races. Whatever the reasons a voter has for choosing a presidential candidate—or for not choosing anyone in that race—there are separate reasons to consider Congressional, state and local races.
Our Constitution deliberately sets up checks and balances on each branch of the federal government. The framers must have considered the potential for unsavory candidates for President. Frankly, having Congress and the Supreme Court as checks on the presidential candidates we have before us this year sounds like a good plan to me.
We’ve had gridlock in Washington for the past six years since Republicans gained the majority in the House of Representatives in 2010. The split deepened in 2014 when Republicans took control of the Senate as well. And it hasn’t been all bad. A lot of people fume about nothing getting done in Washington. But getting nothing done is certainly better than getting the wrong things done. Witness the problems with Obamacare and Dodd-Frank after unfettered Democratic actions between 2008 and 2010.
Those of us who were extremely frustrated at the lack of any effective conservative voice in opposition to President Obama between 2008 and 2010 were happy to see gridlock for the remainder of his presidency. Yes, there are important issues that have been kicked down the road for future leaders. That isn’t good, but again, it is better than resolving these issues in the wrong way.
At this point, the best outcome I see for the next four years is continued gridlock. Because I do not trust either of the individuals likely to be our next President to act wisely (meaning, usually in accordance with my beliefs), I hope that Congress and the Supreme Court will continue to check actions that do not appeal to the majority of our nation or that go beyond the Constitutional powers granted to the President.
I might hope for compromise between divided branches of government, and perhaps that is possible. But I would be satisfied with gridlock, given the alternative.
So choose your candidates for the House and Senate with care. If you don’t have a good option for President, perhaps you have reasonable men and women to vote for in these other federal races. And choose your candidates for state and local races thoughtfully also—these elected officials have a tremendous impact on your daily life, and we can hope that the best of them will be our next national leaders as well. Choose people who will represent you better than the presidential candidates we have.
Whatever you believe, vote on or before November 8. Make your choices thoughtfully and deliberately in every race on the ballot.