Press Enterprise Columns

From My Column: Leave Your Problems at the Door

Originally published by The Press Enterprise in 2010 (so it refers to my experience at my previous organization – but still super relevant!)

In the past two years, I have watched members of my staff go through tremendous personal hardships: life-threatening health crises, divorces, home foreclosures, layoffs of spouses, financial hardships, and horrible relationships. The quantity and severity of these challenges seems greater than anything I had previously witnessed in my seven years of managing employees. Driven by a tough economy and unforgiving housing market, many people are truly at their breaking point.

The reality is, however, that many of our employees were often quietly at their breaking points in the past. It’s not as if employees went from having no problems whatsoever to having suitcases full of challenges they lug with them everywhere. The bad economy has made things worse and impacted more people, but it does not account in totality for the tremendous increase in challenges I have witnessed.

What accounts for the rest of the increase? The fact that we dramatically changed our organizational culture for the better and that I know and understand more now about our staff as complete people with lives and families and challenges outside of work then I ever did before. In my early days of being in the workforce, I was taught that it was expected that when you arrived at work, you parked whatever personal baggage you brought with you at the door. You just found out that you are getting divorced? That’s nice. Leave that issue outside of the office. You just found out that your house is being repossessed and you have to move in three days? That’s too bad, but leave that problem at the door.

I understand where that concept of keeping life challenges away from work may have originated. It is important for all of us to be able to compartmentalize some our challenges so that we can continue to move through life and get done the things that must be done – doing our jobs, taking care of our kids, getting dinner on the table. We can not afford to let ourselves wallow day in and day out in a pool of our problems. In many cases though, that concept of setting your problems aside to get work done has been taken to the extreme and it has turned into an expectation that we all have a super-human ability to not let our personal challenges creep into our work.

When the culture of our organization started to change a couple of years ago, we built those changes on a foundation of trusting our employees. From that trust stemmed much closer relationships between coworkers. Instead of feeling like people we just happened to work with, our coworkers started to feel like friends and family. When a coworker truly becomes your friend or feels like a family member, you tend to share much more of your life with them, both the good stuff and the bad stuff.

I personally know much more now about my employee’ health issues, relationship challenges, and financial problems than I ever did in the past. Some people might say that is not a good thing, that it muddies the waters and makes it difficult to manage because there might always be an excuse to not hold someone accountable for their work. I guess I just see my role a little bit differently.

I absolutely believe in holding people accountable for their work, but I also believe that there are times when employees need help and support and an open ear more than they need a slap on the wrist for not performing up to their usual standards. If I can help someone talk through a challenge or give them a place to vent, then I have helped them as a person, not just as an employee. That person will go back out into the world – whether they are sitting at their cubicle or playing with their kids – and hopefully be in a better place than they were before they talked to me.

Press Enterprise Columns

From My Column: Getting Past Your Worst Fear

Originally published by The Press Enterprise in 2010

It is often reported that our number one fear is not death, but public speaking. I still remember in sixth grade having to stand up in front of my class and give a presentation about Eskimos. I knew my information: I had done research, wrote a report, and had my notes right in front of me – but as I stood in front of the class, I was overwhelmed by fear. Determined to make that awful feeling go away as soon as possible, I raced through the presentation at a mile-a-minute pace and was incredibly thankful to be done – that is until my teacher told me that I needed to repeat the presentation because I had talked so fast that no one had understood a word I had said.

My fear and loathing of public speaking grew from there. I can remember the awful introductory remarks I gave at a high school event and all of the times I tried to avoid speaking in class or avoid even taking classes that required me to speak at all. As I entered the working world, I realized that I could not hide in the back of the classroom anymore – if I wanted to be successful, I had to figure out how to speak in public without feeling like I was going to die.

My journey to better public speaking has been a string of experiments. First, I tried writing out everything I wanted to say in long form, printing it in size 14 or 16 font, and holding on to the paper for dear life as I stood in front of a group to speak. That technique did not work for me for three reasons: first, having to read off of a sheet of paper meant that I was not looking at the people I was talking to; second, if I ever lost my place I would get totally flustered, turn red, and fumble my words; and third, I sounded like a robot.

On to the next experiment: someone had suggested that instead of writing out my entire speech, I should write it in outline form just to keep myself on track and make sure I did not forget my keep points. When I used that technique, I still ran into the same problems: I could not help but look down at the paper and I would get flustered if I missed something.

Then one day, I had the ah-ha moment I had been waiting for: there is no such thing as public speaking. The only thing that exists is conversation. You can have a conversation with one person, or five people, or five hundred people, or five thousand people, but it is still a conversation. When we have conversations one-on-one, we usually do not stand there with a written-out script or an outline of our talking points. We just talk. When we forget what we wanted to say, we do not tell the person we are talking to “hold on a minute, I missed something. I forgot what I was going to say. Let me look a my notes.” Instead, we ad-lib and we continue on until we find our footing again. Why would “public speaking” be any different?

My big discovery made speaking in public more approachable to me. It made it less something reserved for the great orators of the world and more something that we are all capable of doing. Changing the way I see public speaking does not mean that I never get nervous. It just means that underneath that healthy level of nervousness about the speech or presentation I am about to give, there is a sense of calm and joy in knowing that I am preparing to have a fabulous conversation about a subject that I am interested in and care about. What great conversation are you going to have today?

Press Enterprise Columns

From My Column: Death By Meetings

Special Note: As I am getting close to writing my 200th weekly business column for The Press Enterprise, a daily newspaper in Southern California, I’ve looked back and realized that all that I’ve written probably should have a home here as well. So every few days I’ll post a new (old) column. Hope you enjoy! 

Death By Meetings

Originally published by The Press Enterprise in 2010

Meeting. The mere mention of the word can illicit a sense of loathing in anyone who has ever worked in an office. Companies have gone overboard with meetings – scheduling meetings to plan a meeting about a meeting. Meetings are often too long and can feel absolutely pointless. That being said, meetings are not wholly unnecessary: meetings bring employees together for important conversations and allow multiple people to bring their perspectives to the table at one time. If meetings are necessary, how then do we prevent death by meetings?

First, you have to fully understand how much your meetings are costing you. An employee’s time is a limited resource. Just like making strategic decisions about how to use its financial resources, a company also has to make strategic decisions about how it uses an employee’s time. When a company has a habit of scheduling meeting after meeting without a strong purpose, or inviting people to meetings who do not really need to be there, it is wasting its own resources (and concurrently driving employees nuts). How much are meetings truly costing you? Use the Meeting Cost Clock available from EffectiveMeetings.com to give you a clear picture of the price tag attached to each meeting. Simply input the number of participants and their average hourly wage and start the clock. Project the Meeting Cost Clock on the wall for a few meetings, and you will most likely be appalled at how fast the costs add up.

After you have a clear picture of how much meetings are costing you, stop yourself before sending out your next meeting invitation. Before the invitations to a meeting even go out, time should be spent thinking about whether the meeting needs to be held at all. Could you share the information via e-mail and be just as effective? If you truly need to have a meeting, think about who actually needs to be there. Invitations to meetings are often treated like invitations to weddings – you feel like you have to invite everyone so that no one feels snubbed. Instead, think about what the goal of the meeting is and what attendees need to be there to ensure that goal is met. While there are some meetings with a level of importance that could make an uninvited employee feel left out, most of the time employees will not be insulted if you tell them they do not have to add yet another meeting to their schedule.

Another problem with meetings is that they often turn into run away trains – running way behind schedule and going off topic. To tackle this problem, ideally a meeting request should never be sent without a clear agenda and a specific amount of time allotted for each agenda item. During each meeting someone should be assigned to keep track of time or you can use a giant timer that is visible to everyone so that attendees get used to staying on track. You can also employ some more radical tactics to keep meetings short: Seth Godin suggests holding meetings without chairs – when everyone is standing up, they tend to get to the point faster.

To keep side tracking in meetings to a minimum, you can designate a place on the wall or use a flip chart as a “parking lot” and provide everyone with sticky notes to keep track of ideas, discussions items, and questions that are triggered by the meeting but are not related to the subject being discussed. These sticky notes are posted in the “parking lot” and can be covered at the very end of the meeting or in follow-up emails.

And finally, do what you can to help people think in meetings and make meetings fun, especially for the long ones. Feed people. Give them something to drink. And if the meetings are largely focused on generating ideas, give them tools – like playdough, markers, and sketchpads, to help them do that.

If the purpose of a meeting is to actually get something done, to move an organization forward, then the effort should be aligned around making that happen…or no meeting should be taking place at all.

Press Enterprise Columns

From My Column: What Did You Love?

Special Note: As I am getting close to writing my 200th weekly business column for The Press Enterprise, a daily newspaper in Southern California, I’ve looked back and realized that all that I’ve written probably should have a home here as well. So every few days I’ll post a new (old) column. Hope you enjoy! 

What Did You Love?

Originally published by The Press Enterprise in 2010

What did you most love doing when you were a kid? I had only thought about the answer to that question in bits and pieces. I also had never realized the importance of answering that question in the framework of the rest of my life and work. When I was very young, what I most loved doing was creating things. With my brother, the two boys who lived next door, and the kids up the street, we created everything from plays and musicals, to dance routines and ice capade shows. We built forts in the woods and dams in the stream behind our houses. As I grew up, that focus on creating things became more formalized as I became passionate about taking ballet classes almost every day of the week.

Somehow, after I graduated from high school and moved on to college, I started to forget how much the art of creation added to my life. Society started to train me on how the cogs in the wheel of a business are supposed to act – show up on time, follow the rules, do not question why things are done. While I may not have followed all of those rules, even in my relatively short time in the business world, I internalized the rules so much, that I often times did not even realize that I was following them.

Why does all of this matter in the business world? What does having a love for creating dance routines as a kid have to do with performing well as a business leader? It matters because when we forget what our strengths are, we do not bring our best selves to our work. What I loved doing as a kid was a natural indication of who I am as person and what makes life most meaningful to me. If you come to the conference table understanding what you are best at, what you can contribute, and what you are most passionate about, you will begin to add more value than you ever thought possible.

It was when I became a CEO at the Girl Scouts in Southern California a few years ago that I truly started to create art through my work again. I could see that our organization needed some dramatic changes and I started to realize that staying within the confines of the business rules I had internalized would not lead to the solutions we needed. I started creating things again – creating a new physical atmosphere in which our girls, volunteers and staff could experience Girl Scouting; creating a hand-drawn stick figure cartoon (Sally the Girl Scout) to explain some of the changes our organization was going through; creating videos for our organization’s YouTube channel. After I started that process of creating things again, I continued to grow into it and embrace it, and truly feel more engaged in my work than ever before. It means that my organization is getting the best of me it possibly can.

My art may not be fine art – I can not paint, I can not play an instrument, I can not even sing. My art is about finding ways to make the world around me better through the things I create. I give people a new way to look at things. I try to add value to what already exists by shedding new light on things and putting them in a new context. Your art may come in a different format, but whatever art you bring to your work can change the game for your business.

Sometimes as kids, when we do not yet know what society expects of us, we actually have more clarity around what our strengths are and what we are truly passionate about. For me, the act of creating is where my strengths and passion come together – my sweet spot. It took the act of thinking about what I loved as an 8 year-old to remember that. What did you love doing as a kid? What is your art? Where is your sweet spot?

 

Press Enterprise Columns

From My Column: Wasting Time on Excuses

Special Note: As I am getting close to writing my 200th weekly business column for The Press Enterprise, a daily newspaper in Southern California, I’ve looked back and realized that all that I’ve written probably should have a home here as well. So every few days I’ll post a new (old) column. Hope you enjoy! 

Wasting Time on Excuses

Originally published by The Press Enterprise in late fall 2009. 

Every weekday morning, hundreds of thousands of people around the country are doing the same thing. As they sit in their cars, running thirty minutes late for work because their five year-old threw up on their shoes five minutes before they left, they start thinking. Not thinking about what they have to do that day or what they hope to accomplish over the next few months at work, but about what excuse they are going to give their boss for being thirty minutes late.

The story about their kid throwing up on their shoes does not seem acceptable. They run down the list of socially acceptable excuses. Flat tire? No, they used that excuse last week. Accident on the freeway? No, the boss drives the same route and is obsessed with traffic reports. Stayed up until three o’clock in the morning working on a great new idea for growing sales by 50%? No, that does not work either. The boss only cares about whether you are on time or not. The fact that you stayed up until three am working is your problem.

What a great way to run a business. Force grown-up employees waste hours of time coming up with “dog ate my homework” type excuses because corporate America can not figure out a better way to measure an individual’s contributions to the company beyond how many hours their butts are in their seats.

The fact that wasting time creating acceptable excuses is okay but being thirty minutes late is not says something about what a company values. Forcing employees to create excuses also does not make any sense as a business practice. It wastes time. All that time spent in the car coming up with the right excuse could have been spent thinking about something important.

Excuse creation also happens to create tremendous stress. First coming up with an excuse, then worrying about whether you are actually going to need it or not, then spending the whole day wondering whether your boss actually bought the excuse, then wondering if when you boss gives you a particularly tough assignment whether it is punishment for your lateness that in the end was ineffectively covered up by a poorly chosen excuse that your boss did not buy. We waste time and energy with all of that (instead of actually getting work done) just because society has decided to collectively pretend that during working hours no one has any family drama, no personal crises, and no kids throwing up on their shoes.

You might be thinking to yourself: “but there are lots of jobs where being on time matters.” You are right.  If you are an airline pilot, the passengers would likely get upset if you did not show up until an hour after their flight was supposed to leave. If a worker on an assembly line is running thirty minutes behind, it can cause problems while the manager scrambles to find someone to fill in while they wait. The same issues are not there however for a significant percentage jobs. Most of the time nothing horrible is going to happen if you are late. If the only thing that is expecting you is your cubicle, then what is the rush?

Instead of punishing employees for having their personal lives creep into their work lives, companies should find ways to make it easier for employees to manage life and work in one seamless stream. Even in the cases of the assembly line worker or the airline pilot, what if companies figured out how to help their employees handle life’s challenges, instead making them feel guilty and stressed?

This is not about disrespecting other people’s time by never showing up when you are supposed to. It is about changing the structure of work from a focus on time as the most significant measure of an employee’s contribution, to a focus on what actually matters: whether an employee is contributing to the success of the business through the results they deliver. It is about “my kid threw up on my shoes” no longer being needed as an excuse because no one cares if you are 30 minutes late as long as you are still getting your work done. It is time for a paradigm shift away from employees being forced to waste time on excuses. Don’t they have more important things to do?

Press Enterprise Columns

From My Column: The Lowest Common Denominator

Special Note: As I am getting close to writing my 200th weekly business column for The Press Enterprise, a daily newspaper in Southern California, I’ve looked back and realized that all that I’ve written probably should have a home here as well. So every few days I’ll post a new (old) column. Hope you enjoy! 

The Lowest Common Denominator

Originally published in The Press Enterprise in Fall 2009. 

Everyday, companies around the country fall into a trap. Instead of setting policies and procedures that reflect a high level of trust in their employees, they settle for something less. Policies and procedures are built around the minority of employees who can not be trusted, instead of being built around the majority of employees who can. This is the phenomenon of the lowest common denominator.

All companies at some point fall prey to the lowest common denominator trap: A handful of employees dress inappropriately, so a strict dress code is put in place. One employee takes advantage of a liberal paid time off policy, so the policy is made more restrictive. One incident of a soda being spilled on a computer keyboard, and now all food and beverages are banned from all workstations. One person sends an inappropriate e-mail to a group of customers, and now no one is allowed to send e-mails to customers without approval from the communications department or the CEO first.

Companies fall into the trap of the lowest common denominator because it is the easy way out. Making policies more strict and procedures less flexible makes the people in charge feel better because something concrete has been done and they’ve freed themselves from any potential blame in future incidents.  This is a good thing when you are talking about something like preventing another Enron.  Most of the time though, the issues are not on the scale of Enron and the impact of catering to the lowest common denominator has a significantly more negative effect than if nothing were done at all.

Why is the lowest common denominator trap bad for companies? Because it kills everything vital to keeping a company alive: employee engagement, empowerment, creativity, innovation, motivation, and happiness. If employees know that a failure is likely to lead to reprimand and a more restrictive policy, then they will not take any risks. If an employee knows that being creative comes with a high likelihood of losing all opportunities to be creative in the future, then innovation will not even be attempted. If a company forces its best employees to follow policies and procedures geared toward its worst employees, the great employees will either come down to the level of policy that has been created or simply leave.

Companies who avoid the lowest common denominator trap end up on lists of the best companies to work for and are some of the most successful companies in the world. Google actively encourages its engineers to spend twenty percent of their time experimenting with company-related projects that intrigue them, even if they are outside of their normal scope of work.  Gmail, Google News, and a number of other innovations at Google were born out of that “twenty percent time”.

Zappos.com, another company on Fortune’s  “100 Best Companies to Work For 2009” list, empowers their customer service representatives by allowing them to manage calls from customers without scripts or maximum call times. The representatives can also make decisions about upgrading to overnight shipping, matching a competitors’ price, or even sending flowers to a customer who just lost a loved one without running it by their supervisors first. The amazing level of employee empowerment at Zappos.com does make a difference. With Zappos.com achieving over one billion dollars in annual sales (and having seen it for myself at Zappos.com headquarters in Las Vegas), it is clear how trusting employees creates a more engaged, happy, and effective workforce.

The next time you find yourself teetering on the edge, ready to fall into the lowest common denominator trap, stop. Instead of lowering the bar, raise it. Treat employees as trustworthy, hardworking, intelligent human beings and they will more often then not live up to your expectations. Those who don’t are probably not the type of people you want working at your company anyway.

Press Enterprise Columns

From My Column: Who Do You Trust?

Special Note: As I am getting close to writing my 200th weekly business column for The Press Enterprise, a daily newspaper in Southern California, I’ve looked back and realized that all that I’ve written probably should have a home here as well. So every few days I’ll post a new (old) column. Hope you enjoy! 

Who Do You Trust?

Originally published by The Press Enterprise, fall 2009. 

Businesses are havens for abstract rules of trust: Only select employees get keys to the front door. Only employees of a certain rank are given the option of having a laptop so that they can work from home. These rules tell an employee everything they need to know about who a company trusts and who it doesn’t. All too often the line that divides the two groups cuts across the pay scale, with the employees on the higher end of the scale being trusted more than those on the lower end. Wherever that unofficial line of trust is, employees can see it and feel it as if it were a bright red line painted straight through the office.

When we organization first looked at creating a work environment that is anchored by trust, we had no idea how much we would need to change. Prior to starting our current Results-Only Work Environment, we had created a telecommuting policy that we were extremely proud of. For the first time in our organization’s history, we were going to allow employees to work from home. Employees were required to submit a form asking for permission to work from home on a certain day and had to sign off that they understood the rules: they couldn’t work from home more than one day per week; if they missed their telecommuting day for any reason they had to get special permission to make it up on a different day; and they were only permitted to telecommute if they were at a certain level or in a certain type of position. Instead of showing our employees that we trusted them, our attempt at adding flexibility to the work environment only served to highlight our glaring lack of trust. When you create a benefit, the people who notice it the most are the ones who don’t have it.

It was one our non-exempt employees who dramatically changed our organizational perspective on trust. She questioned our telecommuting policy, wondering why the highest paid employees had the option to telecommute and thus save money on gas (which at the time was getting close to five dollars a gallon), while the lowest paid employees were not given any option to work from home. This insightful observation led us to ask ourselves two key questions: was our level of trust in our employees directly connected to how much an employee was paid and what title they had? If so, what reasoning did we use to justify that disparity in trust? The brutal truth was that we did have unfair lines drawn, dividing those we trusted from those we didn’t. And the justification? We had none. The only explanation that could be found was that we had always done it that way.

Why does it matter whether or not companies trust their employees? Employees who are not trusted are less engaged and are more likely to be cynical about everything from organizational change to how much they can trust the leaders of the organization themselves. Employees who are not trusted are less likely to take appropriate risks, test out new ideas, and put themselves on the line to help their company thrive. With survival in business hinging on innovation and an ability to change, creating an environment where employees only feel safe coloring inside the lines can lead to disaster. As William L. McKnight, former CEO of 3M said: “If you put fences around people, you get sheep. Give people the room they need.”

Our turning point was implementing a Results-Only Work Environment. The fences came down and the abstract dividing lines between who was trusted and who was not were erased. All of our employees are now trusted to make decisions about when and where they need to work in order to best achieve their results. They are trusted to take as much vacation time as they need, when they need it. They are trusted to make good decisions about how they manage their time, what meetings they attend, and how often they need to communicate with their colleagues. This level of trust has led to more engaged, passionate, innovative employees who are proud of their role in fulfilling our organization’s mission. You can improve your entire organization simply by trusting your employees. The world has enough sheep. What fences are you going to take down?