Category Archives: Workplace

Five-Minute Meetings—I Wish!


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Last week I read an article by Sue Shellenbarger in The Wall Street Journal entitled “Can You Keep Your Meeting to Five Minutes?”

All I could say to myself was, “I wish!” My corporate life involved days full of hour-long meetings. Almost every meeting, it seemed, was scheduled for an hour.

In a matrix organization, this means a lot of meetings, just to keep up with one’s bosses, staff, and peers. A direct supervisor. A dotted-line supervisor. Six peers in the line organization I supported, as well as six Human Resources peers. Six direct reports. (Those last three categories varied, but six is about average.) That’s 20 hour-long meetings a month.

Then there were the group staff meetings, which were usually two hours long—one for the line organization, one for the HR organization, my own group staff. That’s three more monthly meetings.

There were also periodic all-day meetings with one group or another. Each of those meetings had agenda items that were one hour long—six or seven meetings packed into a single day.

And none of the meetings were real work. Most of them were just to keep tabs on what’s going on. So add in the project team meetings, the crisis meetings (when an employee needed serious discipline or firing, or an employee complained to HR), and the meetings with outside consultants.

Sometimes decisions were made, but often the meetings were status reports. I can read a status report. I can ask questions in a phone call or email or text message.

It wasn’t that the meetings were completely wasted time. They did insure that people were on the same page. They did build relationships among people whose jobs often took them in different directions working with different parts of the organization.

But for every meeting to default to an hour? Probably too long.

I typically had five or six hours of meetings booked on my calendar before I walked in the door each morning. I instructed my administrative assistant to keep two hours free on my calendar every day. She could move the time around to fit in meetings, but I wanted the two hours to get some actual work done. Some days she couldn’t do it.

I got more done in half a day on the weekend than I did in a full day during the week. Because on Saturday and Sunday there were no meetings.

So a five-minute meeting? Even if there were three times as many meetings, I would have come out ahead. Or a default of 30 minutes for a meeting would have improved my time management ability.

I remember one presentation I was scheduled to give to the company’s executive committee. My hour-long slot got pushed back until I only had fifteen minutes. My topic was admittedly a longer-term priority than some of the day’s other agenda items, so I understood why I was the presentation that got squished.

I had a sixteen-slide deck to present. I could hear the sigh of relief when I asked the executives to turn to Slide 13. The earlier slides were data, which I wanted to be sure they saw. But what was important for the time I had left was the decision they needed to make. That discussion started on Slide 13. We reached a decision in the 15 minutes of time that remained. We didn’t have as rich a discussion as I had wanted. But we moved my project forward.

I know I’m whining in this post, about too much time in meetings, about the wrong types of topics discussed in meetings, about having my own meeting time cut. But the bottom line is true—organizations spend too much time meeting and not enough time doing.

For more on holding more productive meetings, see “How to Improve the ROI of Your Staff Meetings,” by Dianna Booher, posted November 9, 2017, on TLNT.com. As Ms. Booher points out, meetings cost time—do you know how much your meetings cost your organization?

What meetings do you attend that could be shortened, delegated, or eliminated?

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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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Filed under Diversity, Leadership, Management, Philosophy, Politics, Workplace

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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Filed under Human Resources, Management, Philosophy, Workplace

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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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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Lessons Learned in Office Remodels and Relocations


beige-316396_640Over the years, I’ve been involved in two corporate department remodels, once as one of the primary designers of the new office space, and the other time as a department chair when members of my staff worked on the layout and logistics. Neither was an enjoyable experience, but I learned important lessons along the way. Here are my primary takeaways:

1. Have size and space guidelines, but don’t be rigid

One of the remodels involved attorneys, who insisted they needed private offices because of attorney/client privilege issues. But some of the lawyers were not high enough in the corporate hierarchy to warrant private offices in the corporate guidelines. The attorneys won that argument.

In the other remodel, some Human Resources managers received private offices and others at the same pay grade did not. The decisions rested on who spent significant time counseling employees. Those who did not get private offices had access to small conference room near their cubicles.

The biggest issues actually involved administrative personnel, some of whom dealt with significant amounts of paper and needed more space than the guidelines permitted. In retrospect, more individuality would have been a good thing.

With today’s move away from cubicles to more open space environments, these issues may become even more significant. Have a philosophy, but allow for exceptions when warranted.

2. Keep technology needs in mind

The legal office redesign I worked on came at a time when personal computers were just beginning to be used. Some lawyers were technologically adept, and others had never used a PC. But we mandated space, equipment, and Ethernet connectivity for everyone.

In both of the remodels I was involved with, file storage was a critical need. Over time, the move to paperless work environments are likely to accelerate. These days, large monitors, wi-fi access, or portable tablets may be the critical features necessary for efficiency.

But what will the technology of the future require? Involve your IT personnel in anticipating what your office will need in the next five years at least . . . the next decade if you can see that far into the future.

3. Natural light is important for morale

One of my departments moved to space that was underground. We did everything we could with pale colored walls and good lighting, but we couldn’t avoid the feeling that we worked in a cave.

The other department moved from underground space to space with windows. The temptation was to put managerial offices against the windows, but we avoided that. We kept the windows open to all, which made our support personnel feel much more valued. Those managers who had enclosed offices had to step outside to get a view (which was only of a parking garage anyway), which helped keep them less isolated from their staff.

4. Give your planning team leeway to make decisions

There are a myriad of daily decisions involved in relocating a department. How to lay out the space, what color paint, fabrics for the furniture, just to name a few. The planning team should be empowered to make most of these decisions—or at least to narrow the options. That’s why they’re on the team.

If the department head reserves all decisions for himself or herself, the planning team will end up demoralized, management time will be wasted, and the plan will be idiosyncratic and unlikely to stand the test of time.

5. Involve all employees in the process

Just because there is a planning team doesn’t mean that other employees should have no say in the process. Hold a kick-off meeting where everyone can voice opinions. It will help the remodel team to know which issues are emotional for employees.

And have a few milestone meetings or send out periodic updates to the whole department. Keep people informed on the progress and timeline and what decisions have been made to date.

beige-316395_6406. Make it fun

One of the planning teams in our remodel called themselves the “MOO-ve” team. They adopted a cow logo which they included on all their communications. At least we had something to laugh about as we sorted through forty-plus years of files before the department relocated.

Those are six lessons I learned during my work on office relocations. Here’s an article with another list of lessons learned. And for articles on the nitty-gritty of planning an office remodel, see here and here.

What have you learned when relocating an office?

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