“Put Me in Coach!”: Creating a Game at Work Invites Engagement


Sometimes when I have used the term “game” in the same sentence with business the response I have gotten from my audience goes something like this, “ You can’t make a game out of business; business is serious.” After we talk about it for a while many in the audience usually recognize that my idea of business being a game does make some sense. Business is a game grown ups play for real money, there’s winning, losing, prizes and surprises just like any good game would have.

So if business is a game, albeit a serious one, why don’t we do more to bring out the game-like qualities in the workplace? After all most of us do enjoy playing games of many types and we can get pretty invested while we are playing.

Keep that question in mind while you ponder the reality that the average North American workplace is currently operating with somewhere around 30% of the workforce reporting being fully engaged; hardly what you’d expect from a great game.

Last week I had an opportunity to visit a medical device manufacturing facility located in my area. A good friend has recently taken on the position of Chief Operating Officer there and he wanted me to see the work he had been doing with the workforce to reduce the errors being made in the production of the custom devices this installation make and sells. He’d sort of been bugging me about it and even though my primary interest lie more with employee engagement I decided that maybe I had something to learn from his quality initiatives.

I have to admit, I had not made a connection between quality initiatives and employee engagement. As it turned out…silly me! When I arrived he took me out on the production floor to watch the process had been using for about four months. I mentioned earlier that this company produces custom products and they are complex and expensive for both manufacturer and end users. Because of the complexity, much of which arises in the customization process, the opportunities for error are many. Errors are costly both in terms of costs and time to delivery and historically errors at this company had taken a toll on their competitiveness in an industry that like many others that has become global.

Out on the production floor I saw charts indicating that significant progress had been made in error reduction even in the short time my friend had been there. The statistics were certainly impressive but my educational experience began with the next step.

A few years back Mike Rother, working out of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor translated the legendary Toyota manufacturing process into language and concepts that can be applied to virtually any industry and any type of workforce. Rother has a book of course but he also operates the Toyota Kata Website, which I would encourage you to visit. My friend has become well acquainted with the methods developed by Rother and his primary attraction to the approach is the impact it has on employee engagement.

After our review of the charts we next visited the actual Kata process. As you probably have guessed the term Kata is Japanese and means “form.” In practice then it is the study of the movements, or form of producing anything.  From what I witnessed I’d say the real meaning is Eureka!

What I got to see was production workers from a variety of backgrounds, Vietnamese, South American, Russian as well as American working together in an atmosphere of mutual respect to bring about improvements in the various stages of the production process. To say the least it was exciting. These were folks with a variety of educational, language and cultural differences who were coming together in an atmosphere of mutual respect to work collaboratively on what they had in common, the day to day working experience.

Within moments of the Kata process getting underway it was obvious, these people were playing a game! They were involved, they were passionate; they exhibited initiative and creativity, all why listening intently to what their colleagues had to share. What I found so attractive about the process was that it gave these production workers the chance to solve their own problems. This aspect of the work has historically been reserved for engineers and supervisors and the workers merely reported the problems and then stood back. Beyond the involvement the people in the Kata process were encouraged to experiment and when there experiments didn’t work out they were applauded for what they had learned. Imagine, employees encouraged to take risks?

Of course after such a short period the process is not without flaws. There is still a lot of learning going on but the level of enthusiasm for playing the game was undeniable. Was there 100% engagement, no, but there was a heck of a lot more than 30%.




What is the Sound of Engagement? A Manager Needs to Know

Engagement-Inside-Job* If you are not a manager just read this with any situation in mind where you are counting on the collaboration of others.

Probably the most common mistake I watch managers make daily in the workplace is addressing their direct reports as though they are both fully engaged and ready to go. Maybe yes, maybe no and not knowing is a risky proposition. Just because you have one of your employees nodding their head doesn’t mean anything except they are nodding their heads!

A worse mistake of course is not being aware that an employee’s state of engagement even matters!

You may have never thought about it but as a manager you need to be aware that engagement has its’ own “Voice”, as does compliance and resistance, which are other frames of mind your employees can be in

  • depending on the day
  • the conversation topic
  • what happened to them last night at home or this morning
  • what they were doing or
  • who they were talking to just before they came to your meeting
  • and, and, and …or, or, or…life will not leave us alone.

So now, what do I mean when I refer to “frames of mind?”  Frame, like window frame, the place we are looking at the world from at any moment is more kaleidoscopic than fixed. (“What you said to me yesterday was fine and welcome, say the same thing today after I have just had a tough conversation with a peer in another department and I may ‘jump down your throat.”) … much to your surprise and dismay! We are always giving “voice” to our frame of mind if others would just listen and watch.

Engaged, associated by choice, is a condition of being, and there are both ultimate and interim conditions of being engaged to consider.

  • Ultimate engagement arises from the choice to honor your commitments.
  • Interim engagement is subject to the slings and arrows of everyday/every moment life and is constantly in flux.

Ultimately, I am completely committed to the success of my marriage; in the interim, my wife has asked me to check under the house for a water leak! Given my aversion to both maintenance and the underside of the house about the best I can muster up for this one is an “Okey Doke honey!” and grudgingly crawl under after just about anything else I can think of that just “has to be done” before checking for the leak. As it turns out my wife knows that my ultimate commitment to the marriage always wins out over my weasel mind and she will get her report on the alleged leak sooner rather than later, so she doesn’t try to handle my dawdling.

What is this “Voice” thing?

Voice of Engagement- “I am on it honey thanks for letting me know there may be a problem”, followed by action.

Voice of Compliance- As above, “Okey Doke honey”, followed by going to the refrigerator, making a sandwich, watching some of the ballgame and then crawling under the house.

Voice of Resistance- “It rained last week and I don’t want to get muddy so I’ll get to it next week, its probably nothing.”, followed by no action until asked again.

I hope that you can translate these personal examples into your own when addressing your team or another co-worker while setting the stage to get something done.

If you don’t check in with people you run the risk of talking to employees and assuming that head nods, Okey Dokes and even “You got it boss” means that something is going to happen and you can count on it. Maybe you’ve just been talking to yourself!

So, do you know your reports as well as my wife knows me?

  • How many times have you been burned by talking with your folks as though they are right there with you?
  • How many times have you known they were not right there with you and you went right on talking as though you could talk them into it?
  • How many times have you taken their silence to mean assent and walked away hoping you were going to get what you asked for?

Is this too basic? I wish it were and I don’t by any means want to insult anyone, unless it will help get this clear, when you are not winning as a manager start with where people are at. Address them where they are, not where you wish they were. Be curious, find out why they may not be engaged, ask what you can offer to address misunderstandings or fears directly. In the interim getting in communication is the result to be produced; ultimately it will get you where you want to go.







Want Higher Profits…Reduce Management, Not Employees


OverheadDid you ever wonder, when you hear stories about workforce reductions followed shortly thereafter by record earnings and generous management bonuses why some people get rewarded for failing and stay employed and others seemingly get penalized for doing exactly what was expected of them? Me too!

Did you ever wonder why you couldn’t make a decision to spend $500 of company money without getting a manager’s approval but you can apply for a mortgage without asking anybody? Me Too!

Did you ever wonder why we give managers an office with a door, maybe even a window and everyone reporting to them sits in an eight by eight sound muffling half-walled enclosure? Me too!

Did you ever wonder whether management necessarily means managers? Me Too!

I was once again reminded of all these questions, and more, when I made a visit to a small business in Bellingham where one of my friends is helping the owners establish work practices…that don’t require managers!

Fortunately for me when I was a business owner, and our other employees, I was able to arrange to bring a top-notch manager in as a partner and he took care of all our management needs. One thing I had been clear about from my time as an employee was that I preferred as much autonomy as possible while pursuing my objectives so I sought to attract employees who liked operating in the same fashion. In fact I told several of them on more than one occasion that if they needed to be managed they were not the kind of people we were looking for. I would much prefer paying them more to manage themselves.

As for my friend and her employers, since her arrival she has reduced labor costs by around $20,000 per month. That’s a tidy sum that drops right to the bottom line for the owners and it has been achieved while improving service overall and reducing errors. Her first recommendation, eliminate one of the management positions and begin to allow the employees to step up to greater levels of freedom and responsibility. What quickly followed was the recognition that there we too many employees for the work that needed to be done. Too many employees meant people with time on their hands; idle hands are the devil’s workshop, etc., etc. Within a short time after eliminating the manager the “keepers” made themselves known and those who needed to be managed moved on.

Over the years a great deal has been written about the need for more leadership, engagement and innovation in the workplace. Only recently have management experts begun to recognize that some of the greatest barriers to these capabilities developing naturally are manager’s needs to have something or somebody to manage. The purpose of the business is to create a customer and generate a profit. While that may seem obvious to the casual observer of many businesses what is often found in practice are managers who work hard to create a reason to be part of the business. Keep in mind, these are not bad folks just folks who recognize that without something of value to do they show up as excess baggage and become expendable.

In the mind of at least one prominent management thinker, Gary Hamel, too many managers is emblematic of too much bureaucracy and too much bureaucracy creates a tax on the future of an organization.

In an article earlier this year Hamel cited the following examples of bureaucratic taxation…

  • Adds overhead—by creating multi-tiered structures where hundreds of managers spend their time managing other managers.
  • Creates friction—by forcing new ideas to run a multi-level gauntlet of approval that creates significant lag between “sense” and “respond.”
  • Distorts decisions—by giving too much power to managers who often have much of their emotional equity invested in the past.
  • Misallocates power—by rewarding those who are the most politically adept rather than those who are the most capable leaders.
  • Discourages dissent—by creating asymmetric power relationships that make it difficult for subordinates to speak up.
  • Misdirects competition—by encouraging individuals to compete for promotion and political advantage.
  • Thwarts innovation—by over-weighting experience and under-weighting unconventional thinking.
  • Hobbles initiative—by throwing up barriers to risk-taking.
  • Obliterates nuance—by centralizing too many decisions and demanding compliance with uniform rules and procedures.

It isn’t that Hamel believes that all management is bad; he’s out to reduce the “management for the sake of management” that has characterized bureaucracies for many years.

Don’t think you have any bureaucracy? How much company money can an employee spend before coming to you? If an expenditure of any amount must be approved you are paying a pretty high management tax.




Some Managers Get it …and Many Don’t

Scratching Head“My strong belief, after a couple decades of effort in this arena, is that by and large, people don’t hate their work at all. In fact, most of us rather like our work. Some of us even love it. What we dislike, and what we have difficulty ‘engaging’ with is our jobs, that broader context within which our work resides…”

Bill Catlette, Contented Cows Partners

Bill Catlette is one of the wisest men I know when it comes to creating working environments that encourage both engagement and high levels of performance. He and his partner, Richard Hadden have built a thriving practice over the past two decades, writing three books, delivering keynote speeches and workshops, providing engagement analysis and making recommendations to leaders in a variety of businesses about how they can go about improving the quality of their workplace and thereby their profitability.

When I read the monthly “Fresh Milk” newsletter last week I was struck by two things; the first, Bill referenced the by now almost universally recognized, measured, validated, quoted, re-quoted, cross referenced and beaten like a dead horse statistic for employee engagement across the economy. According to every possible source available this number, appalling as it is, was about 30% when it was first measured twenty-five years ago and remains at 30% today. This despite years of consultant interventions, surveys, recognition systems, books, videos, audios and even TED talks for goodness sakes. (In 2012 employers spent just north of $750M on employee engagement, projections indicate a spend of $1.5B within five years)

The second thing I noticed is that Bill and I presume Richard as well are not sucked into the traditional mode of writing like employee engagement is 100% the responsibility of management or the employer. Quite honestly it seems that this attitude may well have been developed by consultants who clearly recognize where the money is!

Bill in his newsletter sticks to somewhat safe suggestions like …

  • Becoming more intentional and selective in hiring…always a good idea and frequently violated by hiring managers who offer that it is just too hard to find good people ß While true at times this does not justify a subpar employment decision.
  • Getting serious about learning and development…you’d probably think it was not even necessary to mention this but it is since lazy management approves development like it is a discretionary expense then cuts the same expense when push comes to shove with the numbers. Consider this, rather than cut the training and development budget of people who are getting the work done cut the salary of managers who don’t perform on their objectives. That would very likely boost engagement numbers and save money and reduce turnover.
  • Don’t mess with what’s working…again, at the risk of offending some newly promoted manager or some “know it all” employer…it is not necessary to put your personal mark on your territory like you are some dog who has just moved into a new neighborhood. Respect the contribution of your employees; allow them to solve problems as often as possible. If things are working leave them be.

What I’d like to see, along with these fairly traditional ideas,and what seems to not be in fashion, is to look to employees to be more responsible for their own engagement. That’s right, I said it! Employees need to be responsible, at least in equal measure with the employer for their own level of engagement.

It may well be asked why this is not a more frequent topic since in virtually any other type of relationship we’d be quick to hold both parties responsible. As I said earlier, follow the money. Consultants know it is far more likely they will be able to collect significant fees from employers than it is to address individual employees and ask for by comparison, small change.

Some managers already get this; it is time for many more to do the same. And this is not an either or conversation or a “who is to blame” issue either. Employee engagement levels, if they are meaningful, and that is a legitimate question, indicate that whatever we’ve been doing isn’t working.

The time has arrived, actually well passed, when it is necessary to approach the topic of employee engagement from the standpoint that employees have a responsibility to advocate for themselves around issues that they feel adversely affect their mood in the workplace. No one ever gets everything their way in life but certainly grown ups know this. And…maybe this is the real issue, if managers/employers begin to treat employees as grown ups, who knows what havoc may be unleashed in the workplace?

But as was said earlier, many managers get this, many still are fearful of treating employees as grown ups.

Leading for Engagement: Tickle Their Fancy

TicklishA short time ago while leading a workshop I was asked the following question by someone who sounded like an experienced manager. “What do I do with an obviously talented report who just doesn’t seem committed to the work he has been assigned?” Following the question the manager and I engaged in a brief dialogue to establish the “signs” that the employee was not committed. What we rapidly determined was both enlightening yet not all that surprising; the manager was not necessarily reporting on the results the employee produced, she was reporting on her observations of the mannerisms of the employee. (She didn’t like his attitude!) The results were fine, though not exceptional and the employee was often overheard discussing matters related to Fantasy Football with colleagues in the break room or when time could be used for additional production.

I am in and around a lot of managers and supervisors in any given year. It is not uncommon for me to hear similar concerns expressed by many who have management responsibility about what they perceive as the insufficient level of engagement on the part of their employees. And of course all the relevant studies would agree with them, employees across occupations and positions are not engaged at high levels. What the studies don’t tell you is why the engagement level is low.

For my part, I’ll be the first one to say that I believe employee engagement is the responsibility of the employee…when I am talking to employees…and when talking with managers I’ll be the first one to tell them that employee’s engagement is their responsibility. From my perspective the conversation depends on where you are in the relationship and make no mistake about it, engagement is a matter of relationship. Like any other relationship worth being involved with, there is no simply doing your part; you are either in for the whole thing or not at all.

As the conversation continued with this particular manager I asked an intentionally provocative question. “Have you ever asked this employee what he finds so engaging about Fantasy Football?” The manager came back quickly with, “Why should I have to do that?” The point of the question was to establish where the manager stood with regards any responsibility for this employee’s level of engagement. I inferred from her quick response that she felt her responsibility was limited.

I went on to ask whether she understood that Fantasy Football was a fairly complex topic requiring considerable research and attention to detail and nuance. Yes, it was a game that concerned a sport but the skills involved in gaining proficiency called for dedication and study to statistics and a commitment to keeping up to date with an ever-changing landscape of information. What if she sat down with this employee and explored his interest in depth, strictly for the purpose of understanding what it was about this game that the employee was so passionate about? Might an exploration like this allow her to understand what it was about the game that captured this employee’s interest and warranted such freely given dedication? Perhaps then she might be able to consider structuring the employee’s work to take advantage of his natural interests and get more of the “attitude” she was looking for as well as more productivity.

FrownShe didn’t buy it! And so it goes.

By now you are probably thinking that this encounter I have described is an exception and managers who follow a compliance-based approach to managing productivity and overall performance are the exception. I beg to differ and I beg you to consider that to the degree you don’t recognize your own or know your manager’s basic attitudes about employee engagement your employee base, your organization’s working capital, is at risk.

Intuitively I have suspected that engagement, productivity, retention and profitability are intertwined like the links of the DNA helix. Mainly I came to this belief this by observing myself in relationship to whatever work was required of me. But now, with all the research, we can go beyond just belief or intuition and I think we owe it to ourselves as business owners and managers to do just that. Thanks to a timely tweet from an associate a while back I received a “heads up” on a posting from Bret Simmons titled appropriately enough, Employee Engagement and Performance: Finally some Credible Evidence. You might well heed Bret’s closing words to his post, “If you find yourself lamenting that your employees don’t appear engaged, you are going to have to do something different.”

The corollary to this is of course is that if you are not willing to do anything different you can reduce your suffering by not expecting anything to change!




Responsibility and Compliance: Two Sides of Different Coins


For many years I have begun all my management development initiatives with the admonition to anyone in the room that their success as a manager would have an upper limit. That limit would be determined by the cumulative emotional intelligence of whatever group of employees they were charged with leading.

But I am not writing about emotional intelligence today, I want to talk about responsibility. But… responsibility is much harder to practice than it is to talk about; especially without setting up the right conditions, and this is where emotional intelligence does come in. If you cannot handle a grown up relationship with your employees or they with you… you’ve got very big problems.

When attempting to establish working relationships grounded in responsibility it is best to step back and determine whether the group involved in the conversation has a shared understanding of the concept. Historically employers have assumed compliance from employees and called it responsibility. Moreover, and as an extension of the desirability of compliance we have after all done a pretty good job of tying the concept directly to character and thereby locked it into the good/bad context that surrounds many of the ideas that have been turned into commodities.

What is needed now, when many of the workplace problems are complex and do not yield to simple compliant behavior, is a new way of being related, a new way for employers to relate to employees and a new way for employers to determine whether the people they employ are sufficiently grown up to provide the performance they require.

If, from the employee’s perspective, we consider responsibility as more a matter of individual initiative, they are or are not responsible as a matter of choice rather than history or upbringing, we get into the arena of gifts and gifts cannot be assumed. If, from the employer’s perspective we consider responsibility to be more of an offer than a right, we get into the arena of tools and tools have their uses, in the proper circumstances.

Try this on; you are responsible if you say so and not if you don’t. Now of course I am speaking in terms of the workplace. Society at large has this “in the eyes of the law” notion, where responsibility is assigned. In the workplace this concept has been interpreted as “in the eyes of the employer” and most often looked upon as the right of employers to assign responsibility. From the employer’s perspective employees are responsible if the employer says so. OK, but is there any power in that?

Consider this, if the game is rigged so the employer always wins, so the employer has the say so and employees get only to respond Okey Dokey to all demands, then where is there any responsibility; if by responsibility we mean a willingness to respond when the going gets tough, or even simply when the boss is not around? Seems to me that there is mainly duty in this condition. And therein lies the problem. Where is the room for initiative, passion or creativity in that sort of relationship? Can all parties involved be counted on to stand for what was agreed to when the poop hits the cowcatcher? This is a very different relationship from the one that many still assume, whether employer or employee.

A manager somewhat long in the tooth recently approached me a question. He asked, “Can you tell me what to do about these younger employees, they don’t always do what I tell them to ?” I asked in response, “Do they say they are going to do what you told them to?” He was at first silent then spoke, “Do they need to? I always just did whatever my boss asked me to do.” So I went on, “ This is not your father’s workforce or workplace any longer. The newer generation of workers is no less energetic than you were they just have different conditions under which they are willing to work. You need to get to know them at a more intimate level. They do not want their responsibility to be assumed, they want to be asked, they want to be given a choice, at least much of the time. If you don’t do that for them I bet you will continue to be disappointed in the sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t performance.” This was a shocking shift in reality for this manager, but he made the change and later reported that his employees had “gotten a lot better” once he began the practice of letting them know what he wanted them to do and then confirming their willingness to do it. In my view what happened was he brought his management style up to speed with the people he had reporting to him.















Is your company designed to support its employees’ development?


DeliberateWhat about it… is your company designed to support its employees’ development? Before you answer the question let me guess… your answer is going to be some variation on one of the following two themes; “Of course it is!” Or, “What the heck are you talking about? This is a business, not a summer camp, we are designed to make a profit.”

OK, so maybe you might not have used those exact words but before we get an argument started take a look at the following, excerpted from an extended white paper titled ‘The Deliberatively Developmental Organization’ authored by Robert Kegan, Lisa Lahey and others…

“If we walked up to a random member of your organization—whether a leader, a manager, a support-staff member—would he or she say, “yes” to any of the following questions?

  • Does your organization help you identify a personal challenge that you can work on in order to grow?
  • Are there others who are aware of this “growing edge,” and who care that you transcend it?
  • Are you given supports to overcome your limitations?
  • Do you experience yourself actively working on transcending this growing edge on a daily or at least weekly basis?
  • More particularly, after you perform the essence of your work—whether running a meeting, securing a set of buildings during your shift, or landing a big client account— is there any process in place by which you are helped to see how you could have done any of these things better?”

From reading this maybe you can see that there is a gap between the way you answered the original question and what the authors of this paper seem to be pointing to, and you would be correct.

If there is truly any connection between the Kegan et al’s assertion that employees have a strong desire to grow and the current levels of engaged employees in any workplace, currently hovering around 30% nationally, maybe there is something to consider here.

What do you think most employees’ experience with development is? For that matter what has your own been?

Does any of this sound familiar?

  • moments outside the flow of day-to-day work, an hour here and there
  • stand- apart trainings
  • high-potential leadership- development programs
  • executive coaching
  • corporate universities
  • once-a-year retreats

This of course includes that the training or programming available has likely been cancelled at least once for budgetary reasons without any commitment to reschedule.

Yikes! Development as a discretionary expense, that sounds strategic. No it doesn’t; and that’s because the prevailing mindset in most organizations is that employees are both expense and expendable. We want the best from our employees but we see “their best” more as a matter of natural talent, effort and the right incentives, rather than development.

Most business owners would not think of sending new employees out on any job requiring knowledge proficiency without some form of competency testing or skill training. This is not just a good idea, it is a practical imperative. Customers would not stand for cable installers who could not install or plumbers who could not plumb. Employers need programmers who can program. That kind of training makes sense to us, it is tactical, practical and necessary. As business owners we accept this type of training or purchase of skills as a cost of doing business. But this type of expenditure does not convey to the employee any sense of caring about them. They know this type of training is in the best interest of the business.

Think about this. How might you be different, as a manager or a business owner, if someone had shown an interest in you developing to the fullest extent of your capabilities? How would your working career have been different both in terms of outcomes and experience? Do you think your attitude towards your reports or employees might be different in some way?

Here’s what there is for you to know, contrary to the mythology of many a work place, very few employees are interested in competing with each other. They are looking for an opportunity to do good work and develop to their full capability. Let that sink in. Let it sink all the way in to your own experience and notice how you feel? Isn’t there somewhere in there a sense of an old desire to belong someplace, to do work that is worth your life with people you both appreciate and are appreciated by?

Responding to this deep desire that I think truly does reside inside many of us is what heading in the direction of being deliberatively developmental is all about. Maybe you don’t go as far as the organizations in the article but surely there is room for movement from where your organization is now. Why would you wait?


Change Agents Take Heart…the Era of the Mindful Leader Has Begun

For years practitioners in the development field have fought for a transformation in the Thoughtful Warriormindset of business leadership. Agents of change have known that when the challenges they faced were technical in nature solutions were possible. However, when the problems they were charged with solving were leader induced or at least affected by leadership behavior in some way the probability of success would plummet. The tip off of course was when they were asked by leadership to “fix them”, meaning others, and report back. “Them” of course being the employees who were seen as failing to perform to expectations.

Having leaders be unwilling, much less able to see themselves in any way part of or the source of the problem in organizations has led to literally millions of dollars being spent for limited or no benefit.

If this sounds like business leaders have had an attitude problem when it comes to their own responsibility for issues in their organizations then that would be an incorrect interpretation. Yes, maybe some leaders display hubris to a great extent, maybe most display hubris at least some of the time. That, however, is not a shortcoming of leaders, it is a limitation of being human. In the simplest of terms…it is nearly impossible to see your own point of view, not merely your opinions, but “the point” or origin of your opinions. Moreover it is as difficult to see how this fact of human life impacts the actions we take. When things aren’t going well, or the way we had intended it is unnatural to look at yourself first as the source of the problem. Even when we suspect that we might be in part responsible for a problem we are facing it is equally difficult to see our own perspective without the aid of an outside source.

Years ago, early in his practice Dr. Edwards Deming offered his observations that a system simply cannot objectively observe itself. And so it has gone for nearly fifty years since he began, business leaders wanting the results practitioners like Deming claimed were possible yet unable to see how their behavior and perspective were limiting the return on the investments they were making. Meanwhile many around them helplessly knew the truth was not possible to expose. Painful, expensive and true as anyone in the field of organizational development will admit. Yet, persistence is paying off to some degree.

It seems the time for an idea’s time to come never really happens all at once, rather it is a gradual process of endorsement by sources respected by the audience at large as “credible.” With the appearance of the article ‘Change leader,change thyself’ in the McKinsey Quarterly in March it might be time to declare that the work of organizational,leadership and management development have entered a new era. Business change professionals get a real boost from this article regarding the value of their work, especially as it relates to the need to understand the perspective of the actors in the business environment.It is not so much that the content is new, the most remarkable feature of the piece is how familiar its message is beginning to sound and the source of the message. Here are a few excerpts…

 “Taking accountability as a leader today includes understanding your motivations and other inner drives.”

“Simply put, change efforts often falter because individuals overlook the need to make fundamental changes in themselves.”

“A new strategy will fall short of its potential if it fails to address the underlying mind-sets and capabilities of the people who will execute it.”

…and I would add…Duh!

But here’s the thing and what is so exciting about seeing this written about in a McKinsey publication, which I might also add uses several references to work being done at Harvard! See, that sells it, McKinsey and Harvard in the same sentence, instant credibility.

But I digress…what is so exciting, if you have hung in there with any attempt to change a business leaders mind about anything or to have them SEE what they cannot see…you can now share the article with that very same business leader and now have an increased possibility to have them recognize themselves in the mirror it provides. At the very least you can use the article as an excuse to have a conversation with others about the concepts discussed and whether anyone can see themselves reflected in the message.

…With the efficacy of reflective thinking going mainstream does that mean there will be no more obstinate business leaders or an end to the need for change agents;hardly. There are always going to be plenty of problems to solve. What may be different is that they can be approached with the optimism that real solutions rather than bandages can now be achieved.

Don’t Let “finding good people is hard” Be an Excuse to Keep the Wrong People

Last summer my son and his wife took on a major addition/renovation project at theirRegret home in Portland. I had observed the progress of the project from afar here in Anacortes, getting weekly progress reports, photos and so forth as events unfolded. The project was pretty large, involving the entire second floor of their home. They even made arrangements to live elsewhere for a period of time for the work to get done quicker. In all the process was supposed to take about four months from beginning to end so when they began in early July all expectations were that the job would be complete by the end of October. Well the end of that month came and went and soon it was January, then February and finally around the first of March they declared everything complete. The progress reports and photos had stopped coming in early October having been replaced by lengthy complaints about the contractor which continued from then until Late January when they finally dismissed the original contractor. They made that decision when they realized the job might never be finished without drastic action. They then found someone who agreed to finish the job and six weeks later everything was wrapped up.

This past week my son and his daughters came to visit during the school break in Portland and I had an opportunity to spend some time with him and get some of the details I had missed during that October to March window.

My first question to him was “So when did you suspect you might be in trouble with this contractor?” His answer was one I have heard from many employers when talking about employees they held onto for far too long. He said, “When we were supposed to move back into the house at the beginning of September I could see the process was well behind where we had expected it to be and we began getting a steady stream of excuses instead of results around the same time.”

You can probably anticipate my next question. “So why did you keep him on so long?” I asked. His response again echoed those of employers I have worked with that when asked to explain their failure to take action with under performing employees when they first became aware that there was a problem… “Well I was hoping he could get it together and work things out. I wanted to give him a chance to make good on his promises.”

At this point I decided to press my son a bit since I know that as a construction architect he runs big jobs for his employers where millions of dollars are involved and I knew he would not be this tolerant with his employer’s reputation at stake. “So really, why were you so patient with this guy?” My son bristled a bit then shot back, “Do you know how hard it is to find good contractors?”

So there it was, the classics reason I have heard time and again from employers when confronted about keeping under performing employees, “Do you know how hard it is to find good people?”

So I continued with my son, “Aren’t you really telling me that you know you made a poor choice with that contractor and now you were questioning your own ability to make another similar decision?”  He thought about it for a moment then admitted that he was more disappointed in himself than the contractor. He knew for a while that the contractor wasn’t going to work out but simply had a hard time facing the mistake he had made ; such a hard time that he caused his family undue hardship while they lived through the mess until the right contractor was found. Not knowing if he could correct his mistake made things that much worse.

How many times as employers have we made this same mistake? Are we living with our mistakes right now rather than facing up to what needs to be done? Here’s a 10 second test that I got from reading an article by James Raybould, Senior Director of Marketing at LinkedIn. Go through your employees one by one and ask yourself if you’d regret any of them departing. Raybould says this quick test will give you varied outcomes and courses of action and questions you’ll need to answer

  • If you’d find a departure devastating, are you investing enough to ensure your star is fully motivated, with a clear and compelling career path ahead?
  • And if you’d find a departure desirable, are you on the road to fast improvement or do you need to move more quickly to consider alternative options?

Are you imposing on employees you’d regret losing by keeping ones that you wouldn’t? Take 10 seconds per employee to ask this question today.






Is There Hope for Capitalism? Maybe…If We are Willing to Say No to Greed.

“If you want me to do things only for ROI reasons, you should get out of this stock.”

Tim Cook, Apple CEO, responding to a challenge from a shareholder at Apple’s annual shareholder meeting     pogo_3


OK, this is going to be something of a rant so hang in there.

I left my position in corporate life just over thirty five years ago. One of the reasons I left was for what at the time I perceived as a basic conflict between my understanding of capitalism, more accurately “for-profit” pursuits and what I saw in practice. It seemed to me that the short term, quarterly targets, stock price etc. frequently trumped the long term interests, especially those of employees, and often shareholders if they were in for the longer term investment. Somewhere behind the short term moves it was always possible to find a small group of employees, usually senior managers, who benefitted disproportionately from the impact of short term maneuvering.

A second fundamental reason for my leaving was related to the first and it was the apparent inability of many people in power positions, usually managers, to operate consistently with common moral standards when they appeared to be in conflict with the priorities of a for profit enterprise. I saw far too many instances of profit being chosen over principle and it was not possible for me to look at it any other way.

I left with this question; are basic capitalistic principles at odds with the concept of right livelihood and the notion that I should consider my neighbors interest in all my actions? I have been working to resolve this perceived paradox since that time with varying degrees of satisfaction. Most importantly for me, I have turned the question into a declaration of possibility…The basic principles of capitalism, when viewed as guidelines and not rules, are not in conflict with the concepts of right livelihood, standards of human decency, and a world that can work for everyone. What has unfolded in the years following my departure from the corporate position has been my life with its ups and downs. On balance I think that greed is winning but now and again, as I have witnessed recently I see a glimmer of recognition that there are business leaders who do not see always compromise in favor of profit.

I regularly read in a variety of sources about the news in the business world. Quite frankly it is often hard to think that there is any news that is in some way not a reflection of the business world, or at least driven by the background of capitalism that motivates much of human action. But is it capitalism, a system of ideas, or something more basically human, say greed for example that often gives us pause when we think. “What the hell is going on here really?”

On a day in and day out basis is it an adherence to capitalism that has us choose to ignore basic human decency and respect for the other, or greed? For instance when a business is not meeting its objectives and yet employees are doing everything they’ve been instructed to do and maybe more; why is it they who get laid off and senior leaders then collect a bonus for what only appear to be good management? Why isn’t it common practice for management who sits at the controls of business to suffer greater pain in times of decline than front line employees do? That would seem more like capitalism to me.

I am not for anybody necessarily losing their job but often times across the board pay cuts, starting with management, would send a message that we are all in this together. But the message from the greedy seems to be that, “No we are not all in this together and by the way, see you in church sucker, just make sure you sit in the back!”

When I saw the story about Tim Cook taking on a baiting shareholder at Apple’s recent annual shareholder meeting I actually got tears in my eyes. It had been a while since anything in the news from business had been anything but merely interesting. This story came across to me as inspiring. Apple under Steve Jobs, for all his genius, was not the best corporate citizen. I don’t know that in the long run whether Apple under Tim Cook has now assumed a new kind of leadership role, time will tell.

What I do know is that for one moment as Tim Cook addressed his audience I saw a glimpse of a future that calls to me, for the sake of my grandchildren; a future where morality and capitalism co-exist as partners in a world that can work for everyone.

The enemy of the welfare of our future is not capitalism, it is us.