Category Archives: Politics

Alpha Dogs and Leadership


dogs-1231010_1280Because 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.

dogs-1231008_640Unfortunately, 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?

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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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A Retrospective on Healthcare, and Where Do We Go from Here?


800px-Capitol_Building_Full_ViewRegular readers of this blog know that I am not a fan of Obamacare. It is overly prescriptive, too costly, and has been poorly implemented. Readers also know that I have said from the beginning that it needed corrections.

I have never been hung up on whether Congress called it repeal or replacement, as long as our healthcare system was fixed . . . or at least improved.

In November 2013, I recommended the following reforms:

  • Put all forms of health insurance (employer-based and other) on an equal footing
  • Permit a wide variety of insurance plans, from catastrophic plans to high-deductible plans to those with varying levels of coverage and exclusions
  • Provide direct subsidies to the poor and seriously ill so they can purchase healthcare coverage on the open market
  • Repeal the individual and employer mandates

I said,

“In short, the type of healthcare insurance to buy should become a decision that individuals make, not the government. Insurers should be free to design policies that consumers want, and to price them at levels that are profitable. We should abandon the notion that the federal government knows what one-size-fits-all insurance programs are ‘best’ for Americans.”

The Republican bill that Congress could not pass, the American Health Care Act (AHCA), was far from perfect in addressing my concerns, but it addressed some of them. I thought it was better than the Obamacare statute as it exists now. Frankly, the fact that no one liked it made me think the AHCA was as good as we were going to get.

But it went nowhere. Apparently, the split between the ultra-conservative and the establishment branches of the Republican Party is wider than 218 votes, and no bill could bridge the gap.

As the Wall Street Journal stated on March 24, 2017, in The ObamaCare Republicans:

“[The AHCA] worked off the reality that the U.S. health system has changed under ObamaCare and thus an orderly transition is necessary to get to a free-market system without throwing millions off insurance. The GOP also is a center-right coalition with competing views and priorities. The bill had flaws but was the largest entitlement reform and spending reduction in recent decades.”

So, given that Obamacare needs reform, where do we go from here?

I don’t know.

HHS sealHHS Secretary Tom Price can work on regulatory reforms, but only within the confines of the Obamacare language. Some of the most pressing issues are part of the statute and cannot be changed (though the Obama administration delayed some of them, or gave exceptions, and perhaps the Trump administration will do the same). Some of these issues include:

  • The tax on medical devices
  • The details of the mandated benefits (“essential health benefits”)
  • The Cadillac tax on employer healthcare plans, which, if implemented, will suck in more and more employers over time as the cost of mandated benefits rises

The fundamental problem with healthcare in the U.S. is that most Americans have not paid the full cost of their care since the 1930s, when employers began offering medical insurance as a benefit. As with all consumer goods and services, Americans want high quality, high quantity, and low prices on healthcare. Any economist can tell you that you can’t have all three—two of the three is the best you can hope for. The ideal system is often a compromise on all three. When healthcare prices are artificially lowered for the consumer, they make irrational decisions on quantity and quality—overusing the system and expecting Cadillac care for Fiat prices.

In my opinion, our healthcare system will not be fixed until employer-based plans are no longer the preferred way of covering the cost. Don’t get me wrong, many employers do an excellent job of managing their healthcare benefit plans. But the distortion in the market caused by these plans is increasing and is only made worse by Obamacare.

The different tax treatment of employer-based premiums and premiums for individual plans is unfair. The proposed AHCA would have helped in that regard, though it wouldn’t have fixed the problem entirely.

As the Wall Street Journal editorial said:

“An ideal free health-care market is never going to happen in one sweeping bill. The American political system is designed to make change slow and difficult, thank goodness. Republicans have to build their vision piece by piece, carefully gauging how to sustain their policy gains politically—the same way Democrats expanded the welfare and entitlement state over the last century.”

I suppose that’s where we go from here.

What do you think?

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Breaking Impasse: In Congress, in Mediation, and in Life


handshake-1830764_1280A few days ago I met with a small group of professional women I know. All of us had had successful corporate careers, though our lives are taking different turns at the moment. As in many group meetings these days, at some point the conversation turned to a discussion of politics. I am probably the most conservative member of this group. Others are moderate, and a couple are quite liberal, though we all are within what I would call the “mainstream,” or center, of our political spectrum today.

We started discussing when our political system got off track—when the Republican and Democrat parties quit compromising to get things done. Some blamed Republicans for their “never say yes” attitude during the Obama Administration. These women argued, “Well, of course, the Democrats have to behave the same way now.”

Others blamed past Democratic actions, going all the way back to Senator Ted Kennedy’s scorched-earth approach to stop the Robert Bork nomination to the Supreme Court—a legal scholar who was clearly as qualified as any candidate since for the Supreme Court. “Well, of course, the Republicans have to retaliate.”

And there are many other events we could point to that might have started—or escalated—the current impasse in our political system.

Impasse, I thought to myself. We are at impasse. What has my mediation training taught me about breaking impasse?

I’ve mentioned before a mediation training presentation I attended with Ken Cloke, of the Center for Dispute Resolution. One point Mr. Cloke made during the program was that when we are in conflict with others, we have choices to make. Some of the choices we must make are

  • Whether to engage in the conflict and behave badly, or calm down and try to discuss it.
  • Whether to acknowledge the other person’s truth or deny it, remain rooted in one’s own story, and slip into biased or delusional thinking.
  • Whether to experience intense negative emotions and feelings, or to repress and sublimate them.
  • Whether to experience one’s opponent as an equal human being entitled to respect, or to demonize him or her and victimize oneself.
  • Whether to aggressively assert and hold tight to one’s position, or to search for solutions that satisfy both sets of interests.
  • Whether to forgive, reconcile and re-integrate with one’s opponent, or remain isolated and wounded deep inside.

Now, I can hear most of us saying, “Yeah, but . . . “

Yeah, but she started it.

Yeah, but he is engaging in alternative facts; there is no truth on his side.

Yeah, but I cannot repress how I feel on this issue.

Yeah, but there is no way to reconcile our two positions.

Yeah, but . . . .

Yeah, but . . . What if you did?

What if you did calm down? What if you did at least ask why the other side feels the way they do? What if you did search for solutions with an open mind? What if you did try to reconcile or compromise?

What’s the worst that could happen if you did seek compromise? It’s unlikely to be worse than the status quo.

While I started this post describing the political differences we face in our nation today, I hope readers see that the questions I’ve asked apply to most situations where we need to negotiate with others. In the corporate world. In consumer and family situations. Wherever we are obliged to work with others, we should ask

What if we tried to understand the other party’s position?

What if we tried to compromise?

Would we be any worse off than if we did nothing?

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What Does the Trump Administration Mean for Human Resources?


human-1181577_1280The next several months—and likely the next few years—will be a roller coaster for Human Resources professionals. The differences between the Obama Administration and the Trump Administration are stark in many government arenas, but labor and employment is surely one of the areas where the differences are the most dramatic.

Here are some of the most likely changes that HR will have to address with their organization’s management in the short-term:

1. Immigration

Immigration practice is likely to change, with some changes coming quickly and others developing over the course of several months and years. In the short term, E-Verify will be expanded to check all new workers, and I-9 forms are likely to see increased audits. Industries that are dependent on immigrant workers—both high-tech companies needing H1-B visa holders and those like hospitality firms that need manual and service workers—are likely to see a slow-down in their ability to bring in foreign workers. HR will need to have compliance programs in place.

2. Overtime

The Department of Labor changes to the overtime exemption rule will likely be reversed. Business had objected strongly to raising the exempt salary threshold to $913 per week ($47,476 per year), though most organizations had begun—or even completed—their transition to this increased bright line between exempt and nonexempt positions. Currently, the rule is in limbo, as a federal court has enjoined its implementation, but how the court will rule finally is unknown and the timing uncertain. The new Department of Labor could decide to drop its defense and let the injunction become permanent. Or DOL could propose some modifications. HR will need to advise management on whether to retain changes that have already been implemented and communicated, whether to reverse them, whether to take a “wait and see” approach, or some combination of all of these.

3. Health Benefits

The Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) will change. But the scope and direction of the modifications and repair of this complex statute and its even more complex regulatory scheme have not yet been determined. At the moment, HR can’t do anything, but this is an area that will necessitate time and effort, no matter what happens.

4. Union Organizing

Many NLRB rulings are likely to be reversed. The timing of these changes will depend on when President Trump fills the vacant seats on the Board, but as soon as Republican appointees have a majority, it is likely that we will see a significant tilt toward management-favored positions. In the immediate future, some of the pro-union policies favored in the Obama Administration, such as “quickie elections” and the “persuader” rule (requiring attorneys and other consultants to disclose clients whom they advise on union organizing issues), should be axed. The broadening of the joint employer doctrine—which the Obama Administration had pushed—may also be rolled back.

5. Downsizing

Reductions in force in major employers are likely to receive increased public scrutiny. If jobs are moving overseas, employers need to be ready to justify their moves and to respond to possible Presidential attention.

And over the longer term, HR can add the following changes to its project list:

  • The Obamacare changes are a long-term issue. It is unlikely that employers will need to change anything for 2017, and even 2018 is uncertain.
  • State and local legislative developments will become a bigger area of concern. Issues such as minimum wage increases and paid family leave are likely to see more movement at the state and local levels than through Congress.
  • Diversity practices may get murkier. The mandate for affirmative action at federal contractors may be weakened or repealed, though Congress might push back on President Trump on this issue if he goes too far. HR will need to work with organizational leaders in determining the best diversity policies for their workplace.
  • Also on the diversity front, employees with strongly held religious beliefs may seek greater freedom to object to work assignments and/or to display signs of their beliefs in the workplace. With Christians feeling empowered and Muslims feeling threatened, greater religious tensions in some workplaces are possible. HR will have to assist managers in working through these conflicts.
  • Whether President Trump will support broader immigration reform and whether Congress can pass such legislation are unknowns at this time.

The Society for Human Resource Management has set up a page monitoring workforce developments under the new Trump Administration. It is worth following.

I’ll revisit these issues in a few months to see what changes have developed.

HR professionals, which issue do you most hope changes under the Trump Administration?

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Strategic Trolling: In the White House and in Business


donald-trump-2005343_1280We wondered whether Donald Trump would stop tweeting after the November 8 election. The answer was no. We wondered whether he would stop tweeting after the Inauguration. The answer is still no. And much of the nation does not know how to deal with a President who tweets and says anything and everything that enters his head.

We need to figure it out.

A few editorial pieces recently have begun talking about how to respond to the “alternative facts” and exaggerations and outright untruths that President Trump and his advisers have spoken or written. The partisans are trying to label everything as outrageous and respond to it all. The more thoughtful commentators are talking about the need to pick their battles.

On January 23, Russ Douthat wrote in an editorial titled “The Tempting of the Media,” in The Kansas City Star,

“. . . the press may be tempted toward—and richly rewarded for—a kind of hysterical oppositionalism, a mirroring of Trump’s own tabloid style and disregard for truth.”

The danger for the media, he wrote,

“is the same danger facing other institutions in our republic: that while believing themselves to be nobly resisting Trump, they end up imitating him.”

Only if the media, our politicians, and others who must deal with the new Administration keep our responses rational will we be able to influence the results effectively.

Also on January 23, Barton Swaim wrote for The Wall Street Journal, in “Trump, the Press and the Dictatorship of the Trolletariat,”

“few journalists have appreciated the degree to which Mr. Trump’s entire political and governing strategy depends on trolling them. They’ve mostly assumed his penchant for exaggeration and invention was the result of psychosis, or just ego. By now, though, it ought to be apparent that he’s doing it intentionally, and strategically.”

(“Trolling” he defined as “[deliberately kindling] acrimony by making outrageous, offensive or confusing remarks.”)

On the PBS NewsHour on January 27, David Brooks commented that President Trump’s style was unnerving business leaders, the political class, and mainstream Republicans. He said that there could be two explanations for the President’s behavior—either he is “an authoritarian figure who is twisting words in an Orwellian manner,” or “he a 5-year-old who has an ego that needs to be fed.” So Mr. Brooks uses labels similar to Mr. Swaim’s psychosis and ego.

Mr. Swaim suggested that we focus on what matters and ignore what does not.

How many people filled the National Mall during the Inauguration doesn’t matter. Calling the press dishonest human beings may rankle, but it doesn’t matter. Whether the CIA employees gave our new President a lengthy standing ovation doesn’t matter.

By contrast, the cost in dollars and international goodwill of building a wall along the Mexican border matters. How to revise and improve our health care system matters. How best to engage with the rest of the world on trade, on terrorism, and on many other topics, matters.

Mr. Brooks mentioned the civil servants in government and Congress as possible checks on the Administration’s proposals. As he said (in the most humorous line of the January 27 NewsHour broadcast), “civil servants have many ways to not do something.”

All this reminds me of a couple of high-level corporate executives I worked with, who also used “trolling” strategically, though we didn’t call it that then. Both of these individuals were masters at taking a meeting off on a tangent when they didn’t want to make a decision. They used offensive commentary about other employees, raised unimportant issues, and demanded answers on picayune points to derail the meeting.

But because they were usually the highest ranking employee in the room, calling them out on these tactics was difficult. Forcing a decision was practically impossible unless their boss was in the room, and even then could only be done by putting them on the spot, which usually wasn’t worth the later ramifications. The only way to deal with the situation was in another one-on-one meeting, where they didn’t feel put on the spot to decide and could debate the pros and cons without revealing ignorance or uncertainty.

Those around President Trump and those who need to confront him need to develop similar ways of responding to his trolling. He has a strategy that is working for him so far, and his opposition—as well as his friends—need to respond strategically also.

When have you had to deal with trolling executives?

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