Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Do you know anyone who has been laid off?

Hi everyone:

If you know anyone who has been laid off, they might like to know about a new blog I launched just yesterday. Please help me spread the word:


This blog will be a destination for people who are between jobs, and who need to feel less alone and more in control of their careers and destinies. I'll be adding lots of practical advice, as well as interviews with experts on career management, professional development, finding work, what to do in the meantime, and how to get their proverbial foot in the door. I will also include lots of stories of people who were laid off and who landed happily in their next jobs.

Please help me spread the word about this blog! And I'll do the rest!!

Happy New Year to everyone who follows HR Journeys!

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Rebound: Your Most Important New Year Resolution If You're Laid Off

(This is the first posting in a series based on everything I’ve been learning since I wrote Rebound: A Proven Plan for Starting Over After Job Loss, which will be published in February. But you can order it now on Amazon and get a special pre-pub price.)

If you’re one of the roughly bajillion people who have seen, read, bought The Secret, you know about the Law of Attraction. Personally I’ve got mixed feelings about the Law of Attraction (even though it did seem to work pretty well for Oprah…she made out okay). Apply just a little bit of pressure on me (like, say, a gun to my head, my hand on the Bible or my face on TV), and I just can’t step forward and say “thoughts become things.” Matching vibrational intention with the universe strikes me as being a healthy helping of what I uncharitably refer to as “oogy boogy,” an attitude that makes me pretty unpopular here in New Age Santa Fe. (My neighbor, just for an instance, buried a crystal in our dirt road to ward off the evil spirits emanating from the south – which is basically where you will find Albuquerque.)

All this being said, I have to cop to a confession: When I first saw The Secret, I immediately bought at least 10 copies and sent them to all my friends (well, most of them; there was one absolutely absurd segment about a woman laughing her way through breast cancer, and I just couldn’t send the dvd to my friend who survived breast cancer with the help of a knowledgeable oncologist, a scalpel and massive doses of radiation). Why? Because the film made me happy just to look at it. And I wanted to share that feel-good with the people I love. And on top of that, there’s a fantastic five-minute video available for free through their website that is designed specifically to help you start your day with a song in your heart and wings on your spirit. I watch it as often as I can – without wearing down its inspiring effects – and it gets me every time. Makes me so glad to be a human being on this wacky, rocky, wonderful, nerve-wracked planet.

And my starting the morning with an upbeat frame of mind just stacks the odds in my favor that I’m going to have a productive, creative, innovative day with at least one or two happy surprises by the time I turn off the light at night. It’s not a metaphysical thing. It takes no leap of faith or suspension of belief. It’s just the way things are.

It’s an actual scientific fact that people who are of a positive frame of mind are most likely to find creative solutions to thorny problems, bounce back from setbacks, appeal to other positive people who actually work for great companies that treat them well and that are hiring. This isn’t about the Law of Attraction, it’s about the fact that people who are happy are generally fun to be with. And people who are fun to be with attract other people who are fun and happy. You know, it’s a birds-of-a-feather kind of thing.

When you are happy, you’re more receptive to the idea of having fun (not to mention to fact that you’re more likely to be invited to do fun stuff with other fun people). And, a Harvard study actually proved that nose-to-the-grindstone types had more difficulty finding creative solutions to a work problem than people who reported having fun the day before.

So what’s the most essential resolution for you in 2009 if you were laid off in 2008 (or if you think that you might see the dreaded pink slip in 2009)? I will build my happiness muscle and protect it at all costs.

Ugh. How can anyone expect to be happy in these times, especially when they’re out of work? Reasonable question. But by giving into the assumption that happiness is more easily had in an environment of employment stability and financial security, you’re depriving yourself of what could be your most valuable tool for resilience, possibility and success that will see you toward a brighter, more fulfilling future.

In case you find yourself giving over to the dark side, here are a few notes on happiness that might help you stay committed to the brighter side:

Happiness is free. Yeah, yeah, I know. Cliché. But you know how clichés become clichés? Because they’re true.

Happy people attract happy people. And, as I’ve said before, lots of happy people have jobs and they’re happy to share inside info on what openings there might be. Happy people are more likely to share just about everything they’ve got – even if it’s their last packet of ramen noodles – because they’re pretty sure that a very cool surprise, or lucky break, is on its way to them. Any day now.

Happy people notice those lucky breaks and then take advantage of them. A few years ago Richard Wiseman wrote the book The Luck Factor, in which he outlines four “essential principles” for being lucky. Principle Three is “Expect Good Fortune.” Just knowing that it’s on its way can’t help but lift your spirits. And when it finally comes, guess what. You’ll notice it. And it will make you happy.

Hiring managers don’t offer jobs to people who bum them out. I was a very lucky girl the day I happened to turn on Oprah and she had Randy Pausch as her main guest. (If you know The Secret, you probably also know The Last Lecture. I vote for The Last Lecture.) In their interview he said that we have a choice in life: We can be the mopey, grumpy Eyore. Or we can be Tigger, who revels in all things and finds joy everywhere. (A friend of mine has a sign on her fridge, featuring Tigger, with the words, “no bouncing before breakfast.” Makes me smile every time I think about it.)

The thing is, said Pausch, people love to hang out with Tiggers. And that includes employers. If you insist on being an Eyore and you find someone to hire you because he or she just so relates to your many melancholy moods, run as fast as you can in the other direction. Better yet, bounce.

Happy people have great stories to tell. Have you ever noticed how unhappy people tell bummer stories? I noticed that about myself a few years ago when I was indulging in a bummer litany during my daily emails with my oldest friend across the country. I was complaining about this and that, thinking that each anecdote was riveting. After all, Nora Ephron’s mother said that anything bad that happens to a writer is just material. I discovered that I was really boring myself with this brand of material. And I resolved to stop gathering that brand of material. So the minute I realize that a relationship or circumstance is about to give me material, I get out of that situation pronto. (Except for customer-service horror stories; my friend and I still love to trade those hurts-so-good tales from our cross-country lives. Actually we love to wallow in them, like long hot baths, until we get all pruny.)

The resolution to sustain a happy outlook comes bundled with a whole new set of stories that will be made available to you. Your radar is adjusted, and you start picking up signals that you might otherwise be missing. Examples, for instance, of kind people doing good things for each other. Or great deus ex machina stories of people landing amazing jobs that are perfect for them. And, back to the attraction thing, as you start telling those stories more and more, a happier breed of person will be joining your audience – while the sad sacks slink out of your life.

You’ll be setting a good example to all those who take their clues about life by watching you. If you have kids, you’re teaching them how to relate to uncertainty. Uncertainty is part of their destiny – that’s one of the few things I can tell you right now with any certainty. Handling uncertainty with confidence and optimism is a skill set that they’re going to need more than any generation before them. It’s up to you to show them how it’s done. Do you tell the dread stories of woe, horror and outrage? Or do you focus on what’s good, hopeful, positive and happy-making? To borrow from David Bowie: Let’s bounce.

If you have to wait a while for your next job or lucky break to catch up with you, you might as well have fun doing it. Punishing yourself isn’t going to shorten your sentence of languishing between jobs. You don’t earn your chance at good luck by beating yourself up or denying yourself the pleasures of each day. The days are really all we have, as Pausch, I’m sure would tell you…if he could. So love each one and love your life within those hours.

Happy New Year. By which I mean, happy New Year.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Maybe We Should Stop Caring About What Other People Think

Well, I'm back. Didn't think I'd be posting twice in one day (especially after such a long silence) but reading today's Business section of the NY Times pulled me back to the computer.

Two items hit me between the eyes (I don't even want to talk about the articles about newspapers going down the tubes, that's too upsetting). The first item is actually a series of articles about the alleged Madoff Ponzi scheme, where investors are losing up to $50 billion (maybe even more) because they trusted someone who may not have been so trustworthy. What really stood out for me was not the truly tragic stories of super-annuated Palm Beach investors who lost millions. What stood out for me was the handful of individuals who chose not to invest their money with Madoff simply because they felt that he played too close to the vest regarding his investment strategies. Despite what other people thought, they chose to listen to themselves and honor their own judgment.

The other item was in the same section, describing an elaborate University of Alberta research project involving bookstores, pens and coupons. The results of that research project? If you stand *behind* someone who uses a low-value coupon to buy a pen, other people will think you're cheap.

To which I have only one thing to say: Who the hell cares?

Clearly, someone at the NY Times business section thinks it's important for you to know that standing even in the immediate vicinity of someone who is making a frugal purchase is damaging to your own reputation.

Could other people's opinion be so important that you're willing to change your behaviors to accommodate them. To this extent?

I'm reminded of the subscription renewal notices that I get from magazines, at least 6 months before my subscription is actually due to expire. Big type on the envelope screaming, FOURTH AND FINAL NOTICE! There's something inside my little reptilian brain that tells me "oh my gosh! People are thinking I'm a deadbeat!" The people inside the circulation department of the magazine? Maybe. The postal carrier? Maybe. But obviously SOMEONE must be thinking I'm a deadbeat...look at these envelopes! I can just smell the judgment! I just don't know where the stink is coming from.

Another article in the New York Times a few weeks ago also tried to impose other people's opinion on me regarding the so-called Interview Suit. The article was accompanied by a movie still from the 50s of Hope Lange enduring scathing judgment from prospective coworkers. Was her slip showing? No. She was wearing, gasp!, the DREADED WRONG OUTFIT!

The point of this article was that, according to the experts interviewed, if you're not wearing precisely the right outfit, in precisely this year's colors, accessorized with precisely the right shoes, with precisely the right heel, you might as well kiss that job opp goodbye. Several of my friends called my attention to the article, sharing the same opinion of "oh my gosh! it's really getting brutal out there!"

But looking closely at all the experts who were quoted, it was clear that every single "expert" had a stake in making you feel inadequate and a sudden urge to go shopping. For, coincidentally enough, an up-to-date interview suit.

Now I know there are tons of elegantly dressed HR professionals out there, but I would venture a guess that no one stops to see if you're wearing a 2005 Jimmy Choo or a 2008 Jimmy Choo. Personally, my philosophy is that if there are no holes in the soles, and the heels aren't worn down so much that they resemble a door wedge, I'm good to go.

Life is complicated these days, no doubt. And sometimes we need experts to help us understand what the best ways are to use our resources. But I think that one of the reasons why we're in such a mess economically is because a lot of us turned our backs on simple math and common sense, because we figured the next guy was smarter and more knowledgeable than we. We've been caught up in a machine that runs on using OPM -- other people's (read: ours) money. And we've allowed ourselves to exchange our common sense for OPO -- other people's opinions.

I think it's time for us to remember what is truly ours, and hold on tight to it (money and opinions)regardless of which way the crowd is going. And to anyone who wants to estrange us from either, we should be asking them: Okay, what are you really selling?

But that's just my opinion.

Sorry to have been away for so long!

Hello from a snowy Santa Fe!

I'm looking out my office window and am watching a Rocky Mountain snowfall that started as a rainstorm in LA.

This is just a quick posting to explain my silence for almost six weeks! I've been writing a new book! This one is on how to manage your life, finances and career if you're thinking a layoff is in your future.

The book is called Rebound: A Proven Plan for Starting Over After Job Loss. And it will be out in February!!

Click the link on the title above and read more about it on Amazon.com

Next up: Best Resolutions for HR in 2009 -- my annual posting of how to grow your HR career in 2009! Plus more exciting news about HR Journeys! So...come back next week! And I'll have more details!

Sunday, November 9, 2008

It's Good to Be Bad

Actually, until last week, I thought I had this “not knowing stuff” thing down cold. The bulk of my livelihood comes from my talking to content experts and then delivering their wisdom to the rest of the world in a way that ordinary folks (like me) can understand. So I’m pretty comfortable being in strange territory. I figure that all I have to do is come with an open mind, sincere curiosity and passionate desire to learn, and I’m 90% there. It’s my job and I love it. It’s great to be paid to learn, and then to turn around and pass that learning on.

So I have to live in a perpetual state of humility, almost always being the one who’s asking the questions. But until last week, I didn’t know what real humiliation is. You see, last week I was the rock-bottom performer in a four-day bootcamp class of all rank newbies -- 40 of them. I was so bad, in fact, that I couldn’t even work up a huffiness when one of my classmates said to me in the elevator at the end of the third day: “It’s funny…you really stand out in class. Maybe it’s because you’re just so bad at this.” The fact that he was absolutely, positively, objectively, inarguably correct took any wind out an indignant reaction that I might have been able to muster up.

It didn’t feel like he was trying to be mean. He was just thinking out loud. The only thing I could say in response was, “Yeah, you’re right.” Word to wise: This is why God made thoughts silent.

So why was I putting myself through such humiliation? Professional development. Here’s the short version of the story: A couple of months ago I was wallowing in my all-time favorite place on earth (my bed), idly clicking the channels, flipping primarily from the Food Network to the Travel Channel. A commercial on the Travel Channel broke through the fog enveloping my attention span, the basic message being: Learn to be a videographer the Travel Channel way! “Learn! Shoot! Earn!”

Well. I’d been thinking that it was long past time for me to learn how to use a video camera and post footage online (I mean, if beer-soaked doofuses can do it on Youtube….). Fortunately my laptop was within reach, under a pile of old newspapers and magazines, so I hopped online and checked it out. The promise: For a hefty chunk of cash (not counting travel, lodging, equipment rental), and the commitment of four days of paying really close attention, I too can learn everything I need to know about the wonderful world of professional videography! And guess what! The course is scheduled to be held in Santa Barbara the last week of October! (Other than the dog-friendly beach in Carmel, Santa Barbara is my second favorite place on the planet.) Sign me up! I’ll figure out the money thing later.

So I show up with the mature attitude that, “I’m here to learn.” I didn’t aspire to be a National Geographic documentarist or even a Travel Channel “preditor” (producer/editor). I don’t need to shoot footage of Andrew Zimmern burping up chocolate-covered scorpions. I just want to be able to record my wonderful interviews with workplace-world thought leaders, so the material looks more like Charlie Rose or Bill Moyers than footage of some unfortunate sun-addled weekend athlete who wrecks his chances of procreation with some ridiculous stunt with his above-ground pool. See? My aspirations weren’t entirely out of the realm of reasonableness.

So we had two assignments during those four days: to shoot two 1-minute videos. The videos that my fellow students came back with were amazing: Harbor cruises with seals basking on buoys, a guitar maker, a guy who keeps kids off the streets by introducing them to the world of skateboarding, an artist, parrots at the zoo, an alpaca farm, a cupcake baker, a haul of sea urchins and a guy eating one right there on the dock (can I just say: ick), a surf fisherman. Forty students (well, 39) each did two fantastic segments.

And now we shall compare and contrast: The first of my two videos was of a picture framer staring blankly into a wall while his computerized matte cutter went round and round. Riveting stuff. (Teacher’s assessment: “Only one way to go from here, and that’s up.”) My second video: A shopkeeper scratching her nose while trying to figure out how to operate a cell phone that a customer had left behind. (Teacher’s assessment: “Well, it’s an improvement.”)

I mean, I was really sweating that second video. And was actually very proud of it until I realized that everyone else in the class had also improved hugely. Damn! So now you know why I really couldn’t get my dander up by my classmate’s frank observation. Just can’t argue with the truth.

While I was driving back to Santa Fe from Santa Barbara (12 long hours with my thoughts, about three months’ worth of NPR’s Fresh Air loaded on my Ipod, and a healthy dose of rationalization), I started asking myself what wisdom I can bring back to you guys. Here’s what I came up with:

• To get good, you have to be willing to start out bad – and maybe even stay bad for a while.
• It’s not about the grades. Now that you’re an adult, it’s about taking onboard the skills you need to fulfill your dreams and potential.
• Now that you’re an adult, candid commentary from an expert isn’t the end of the world. It can actually be a sign of respect. Maybe even good for a laugh – even if it is at your expense.
• It’s okay for others to be better than you, as long as you’re getting what you want and need out of the experience.
• You may not be as smart (or as good, or even as quick a learner) as you thought you were. But as long as you’re learning what you came to learn, that’s what counts.
• To get smart, you have to be willing to be stupid – even, like, really stupid.
• Never think out loud. The person whose feelings you inadvertently hurt may be a popular blogger with a global reach of a quarter million readers. She just might be in the mood to name names...and then hyperlink your name to your email address.

But then probably not. That would be mean. I'm not mean, I'm just baaaaaad.

Would I do the course again? In a heartbeat. I loved it! Can’t wait to start practicing! I might even find my work on the Travel Channel one day. It would be nice to show the teacher that bad can eventually become good. With practice, of course.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Don't Be a Victim in the Recession

You know what really worries me about the hard economic times? Sure, the financials are scary enough. But as an expert in employee engagement who remembers the work world of the late 1970s/early 1980s, I’m afraid that the bully bosses are going to come out of the woodwork like cockroaches in the night. It’s been a couple of decades since I have heard that disgusting phrase: “Just be glad you have a job.” And I’m really hoping that all we’ve learned about the business value of employee engagement won’t just disappear in the face of some new version of the Dark Ages.

I’m afraid it’s already beginning to happen, though. The number of emails I’ve been getting from readers who are being belittled and abused at work is increasing exponentially. While I don’t give individual career advice, I would like to offer some ideas as to how to prevail – even thrive – careerwise and emotionally during these hard times. (Believe me, I know how it feels. That’s why I got into employee engagement in the first place.)

Cultivate your options. If you have a bully boss, he or she is going to go after the weak ones first. And that could be you. If you feel like your only option is this rotten job you have, you’re going to be at higher risk for broadcasting the vibe that says, “Oh my God, please don’t fire me!” That’s like catnip to the bully boss. You may think you don’t have any options going for you right now, but start shoving aces up your sleeve anyway. Just knowing that they’re there will silent that vibe.

Network your brains out. Attend professional chapter meetings. (If you’re in HR, you must be a member of SHRM and your local chapter. No excuses allowed.) Reach out to your counterparts in other companies in your community, ask them to join you for lunch, even if it’s just yogurt by the town fountain (no need to bust the budget, everyone is counting their pennies these days). Volunteer for as many professional association and community projects and causes as you can. Do everything you can to be at the right place at the right time.

Don’t be too eager to please. When you’re too eager to please, you’re not demonstrating your professional abilities and indispensability. You’re demonstrating the willingness to be a slave in return for a paycheck. A subservient posture isn’t going to guarantee job security, it’s going to guarantee further emotional abuse. Do your job well, go above and beyond the call of duty, but carry yourself with dignity and self-respect. That might infuriate your bully boss. Tough. Your self-esteem is precious. That’s your springboard to making positive changes for your future, so protect it at all costs. Even if the price is your job.

Make sure there’s something in your life that you’re excited about. What are you proud of? Your children? Your great grades at night school? Your professional course of study that’s going to take you out of the tar pits that you’re laboring in now? The people you love in your place of worship? Your book club? The fact that you rebuild used bikes for needy children? Drawing a blank? Do something about that. You can’t control your boss’s behavior, but you can control how you show up in the world and what kinds of stories you tell about your life.

Keep your resume in circulation. I don’t need to elaborate on that do I? I didn’t think so. Except that I have to say that when you take your next job, make sure your prospective boss meets your expectations – that person is courteous, respectful and actually likes people.

If you’ve got a certifiable maniac as a supervisor, document document document. You can take some satisfaction in the knowledge that other people probably know that this person is a monster. And they’re waiting for someone to take a stand. That could be you. But you’re not being paid to be a martyr. Keep good records of what happened, when, where, in front of whom, and what your part was in the incident. You never know where they could come in handy: Your HR office or your lawyer’s office.

Don’t put up with any crap. You may have a bully boss, but your bully boss doesn’t have you. Carry that thought in your heart no matter what happens. Looking at your boss in the eye isn’t a firing offense, so keep your spine straight, your chin up and your dignity intact. Easier said than done, I know. That’s why it’s so important to have other resources in your life and work that give you support and satisfaction.

I don’t mean to overstate the importance of taking care of yourself during these hard times, but I just can’t help myself: Victors of domestic violence will tell you that domestic violence almost always begins with emotional abuse. Little rudenesses almost imperceptibly escalate into true emotional brutality. The same people who will behave that way at home could very easily behave that way at work. Or they behave that way at work so they don’t behave that way at home. Either way, there’s every reason to expect controlling, belittling, emotionally abusive behaviors to show up in the workplace. If you find yourself the victim of demeaning, confusing, disrespectful treatment, keep two essential facts front and center in your mind: You don’t deserve it. And you always have options.

So, back to Point One: Cultivate those options.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

10 Ways HR Benefits Business

Hello from home base in Santa Fe! After three weeks on the road interviewing HR leaders at the top of their game for a new website I’m developing, I rolled into my driveway late last night with only one thing in mind: Spend Sunday in bed, catching up on three weeks worth of NY Times and cuddling with the cats. But then I found an email promoting another negative article about HR.

Do we really need another negative message to HR? I don’t think so. I think that charming little number that Fast Company magazine treated us to three years ago was quite sufficient, thank you very much. At the time, I wrote a response article entitled, “Why I Love HR.” (If you missed it, email me at Martha@marthafinney.com and I’ll send you a copy.) And so it seems that the time has come for me to contribute yet another positive article celebrating the potential of HR – if only to remind readers that HR is about so much more than just avoiding stupid mistakes.

So, here we go! 10 ways that HR uniquely benefits business:

HR brings humanity to enterprise: Being a people person is actually a good thing. Hold onto that thought, even as more experienced, “successful,” cynical people dismiss your passion for the peeps. Everyone around you may be chasing the numbers, so they may have recused themselves from any conversation regarding how people will benefit the business or how business decisions impact people. That’s okay, let other people do what they do best. Just remember that business is nowhere if it’s not being enlivened by the dedication, passion and talents of high-performing employees. That’s where you come in. Once you start getting cynical yourself about the people side of your business, it’s time to switch functions – if only long enough to discover afresh how much more fun the HR department is.

HR allows cooler heads to prevail. When it comes to high-emotion, high-tension situations between employees, business leaders have two choices: Ignore it and let the courts figure it out later – to great expense both financially or in the eyes of public opinion; or let HR investigate. My advice: Let HR investigate. Now.

HR touches the future. In my interviews with HR leaders over the last several weeks, I asked “Where is the true power of HR today?” One of my interviewees responded: “HR should be looking around the corner and anticipating the talent the business will be needing – not now but 2, 3, 5, 10 years down the road.” Talent management is not too different from inventory management to a visionary HR leader. When it comes to people, just-in-time inventory management is a loser’s game. And the loser will be the business that doesn’t have the necessary talent already in the pipeline (your competitors will, you can bet on that). No one else in your organization is going to be thinking about the people side of your future. That job is yours. Run your talent supply chain that can shift and change with an uncertain future and you just may be the one who saves your company.

HR is the moral compass of business. The moral compass? Bummer! “Who wants to be the scold? I want to be liked, to be respected, to belong. Who wants to be the one to tell leadership that they can’t do what they want? I didn’t sign up for that gig!” Well, actually, you did. Remember Enron? When everyone asked, “Where was HR when these decisions were being made?” That’s you! And sometimes you have to be the one to tell powerful people the truth: That big idea is just plain wrong, wrong, wrong. The right company – the one that’s worthy of stellar HR – is going to welcome your feedback.

HR saves families. Families are held together when someone is bringing home a paycheck. Families are saved when a stressed employee can turn to the EAP to come up with a plan of resolution and action. Battered women and their children save their own lives when Mom has a supportive and flexible employer who will give her what she needs to find safe harbor. Whenever I say to an HR professional, “Tell me of a time when you thought, ‘this is why I’m in HR,’” the answers I get invariably move one or both of us to tears. Why? Because the times always involve an opportunity for the person to use his or her HR resources, power and caring to ease the suffering or fears of an employee and the employee’s family.

HR brings hope to communities. We usually think of HR’s impact on communities when a major local employer announces that it’s shutting down operations. That much is definitely true, I get that. And we’re probably going to see more of that in upcoming years. Still, when a new business starts up successfully in a town, or region becomes known for being the cradle of great minds, communities spring up, thrive, open museums, hire great teachers, start symphonies, pave rails-to-trails paths, make the sidewalks safe to walk at night, and my personal favorite: sustain great bookstores. All these great things happen because money is being made. And money is being made because people have jobs. When businesses thrive, communities benefit. When communities thrive, businesses benefit.

HR saves careers. I recognize that as a group HR likes to perceive of its power as being something on the strategic level. That 35,000 feet point of view where one HR decision has a multi-million dollar impact. But sometimes it’s just a one-person-at-a-time proposition. HR is often in the best position of noticing a place where passion is bleeding out of the organization, often in the form of a single employee who is at risk. In one of my all-time favorite interviews of the summer, the regional HR manager of a major retailer (you’d recognize the name) told me of a cherished employee who was announcing that she was quitting to go to nursing school. Well, okay, education is a good thing, but something just wasn’t quite right. She loved working for this company, that much he knew. So why quit? Something else was going on. Sure enough. It wasn’t nursing school that she was running to. It was a reassignment that she was running from. Her manager had made the decision to move her away from a department she loved to a department that she had absolutely zero interest in. She opted not to protest because she really liked her manager and didn’t want to get him in trouble. So she opted to quit the whole shebang instead. My HR interviewee, luckily for everyone concerned, had the boots-to-ground point of view to recognize that there was more to this story than just a resignation announcement. Long story short: Happy ending all around. (And, I’m sure, that fresh nursing school opening was filled by a student who genuinely feels called to the healing sciences.)

HR promotes innovation. Those who dismiss HR as being the in-house compliance police have overlooked the immense amount of creativity required to run the people side of great business. I’ve heard people say that HR is the place where all dreams go to die. After a little digging I discover that their experience has been in fact where all stupid dreams go to die. Or all illegal dreams go to die. So in my speeches and workshops I always recommend to my HR listeners to make their offices “destination yes,” where leaders can come with half-baked (or half-something else) ideas and collaborate with HR to find a way to achieve the desired result in a way that doesn’t have the SEC or EEO come sniffing after them. When you hear of a company that has managed to survive a downshift in the economy without a single layoff, I promise you, HR is behind that story somewhere.

HR brings balance to the boardroom. Now, this may sound blasphemous to some people, I recognize that. But maybe there’s something to be said for leaving the numbers conversation to the numbers people. There’s only one person specifically charged with the responsibility of addressing the people ramifications of business decisions, and, again, that’s you. I also recognize that few HR folks are lucky enough to have CEOs who are so evolved as to say, “Please, I need the people side from you, stick with that.” But, in your attempts to achieve boardroom legitimacy – if not supremacy – don’t throw the people baby out with the bottom-line bathwater. You’re the People Guy…that’s a good gig. Don’t check it at the door when entering a business conversation. That’s the balance – the value – that you bring to the group. If anyone else at the table wanted that job, they would have competed with you for it long ago.

HR gives talent a home. I’m not so naïve as to believe – or try to make you believe – that companies can only be innovative when they have an empowered HR team. But I think I can say with great confidence that when you have an empowered HR team, you put yourself in a far better position of being able to attract and keep high-value talent that will pioneer new products and services for you on a daily basis. A company that cares enough about its people to cultivate a spectacular HR team cares enough about its people to inspire creativity, productivity and greatness throughout its org chart.

At this point you might be thinking to yourself, “Oh yeah? Well, you don’t have to collaborate with my senior counsel on the revised employee handbook.”

And I would have to say, “You’re right.” But then I would also have to add, “You don’t deserve to be treated with disrespect in HR.” I would also say that if your major concern is avoiding stupid HR mistakes (and getting counsel to actually listen to you), as opposed to achieving your full potential in one of the most significant roles in history, then you’re robbing yourself of the potential of a deeply rewarding career.

If you work for an organization where the leadership gets pleasure keeping you hunkered over transactional HR minutiae, and you don’t like that feeling, find a company where you will be happy and treated with respect. Sticking with a company that prides itself on demeaning its people…well, that would be the stupidest HR mistake of all.

You deserve better.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Just in case you might be thinking you can't make a difference

Hello from Los Angeles!

Am staying with the ultra-marvelous Libby Gill, who has an amazing way of coaching and getting right down to the a-ha that flings possibility doors wide open. (You should have seen her in action with me yesterday morning. In just five minutes, she led me off an analysis paralysis path, much to the delight of everyone working with me on getting Engagement Journeys finally on its feet (more on that in the fullness of time). ) If you're looking for a coach or an amazingly inspiring speaker on risk taking, leadership, or branding, she's the one you want. (And read her book, Traveling Hopefully.)

I've been in California for two weeks doing initial interviews for a blown-out web version of HR Journeys (more on that later as well). And I have to take this moment to thank my initial, brave, pioneering sponsor Tom Larkin, of The Larkin Company, who is helping me get this dream off the ground. My dream: To help high-potential HR professionals -- you know, the ones who feel called to the field -- gain a full understanding of the entire personal/professional journey that comes with signing onto this life's work.

So. In the two weeks I've been here, two items have hit the news, which creates today's subject: The difference that individuals can make in a twinkling. First the bummer difference: Tucked in among the headlines of Hurricane Ike, the stock market, Freddie and Fannie, AIG, and Where's Caylee? has been the terrible news of a commuter train crash here in LA. Over 130 people were hurt; 25 lost their lives. What was the engineer doing right before the accident? Text messaging. Investigators are still reluctant to point the finger at the engineer and texting before the full investigation is complete, but it's not looking good.

A few months ago CA passed legislation banning text messaging while driving. I was visiting friends here at that time and marveled at who would be stupid enough to text while driving. My friend looked at me sheepishly and said, "I do." She's a corporate executive. Uh oh, back pedal, I told myself. But I still didn't get it. Fast forward to this trip I'm on right now, I have gotten in the habit of checking my emails while waiting at traffic lights. And, if I'm in the middle of replying when the light turns green? Well, no biggee, what will it hurt if I just drive a little slowly for a few secs until I click send?

Yesterday I was so distracted by my emails while pulling out of a parking lot that I forgot to release the parking brake and drove 35 miles down the Pacific Coast highway with the brake on. What's that squealing of metal against metal I kept asking myself as I was thumbing my Ipod click-wheel in search of a specific song among 7,000. Those darn trucks, I continued contemptuously. Then I noticed the red light on my dashboard, and realized that I'd been watching that red light for miles. Duh.

Just a little text here and there won't hurt, right? After all, we're all just one individual. How much damage can one individual do? A burned out parking brake is nothing to the burnt wreckage of 25 lives and their families. So I guess I better take that parking brake as a gift.

So here's the more inspiring take on the difference one individual can make: You probably remember the story of the 13-year-old boy with autism who swam too far out off a Florida beach and got caught up in the currents. His father went after him, and before they both realized what was happening, they were swept out to sea. Two tiny specks of humanity dressed in nothing but sunny-day swim trunks bobbing in the waves for 15 hours. The sun went down, the moon and stars came out and they still treaded blackened water under the pin-prick bowl of constellations, galaxies and satellites. Even though the father couldn't see the son after a while, they kept in voice contact by trading favorite movie lines.

One of which was from Toy Story. The father would holler into the black night: "To infinity!" And somewhere embedded deep inside the pillowy waves, a little boy's voice would respond: "And beyond" And they did that all night long.

There are so many ways to tell this story, but here's the one that especially speaks to me. A decade ago there was a young story supervisor having a very good time at work at Pixar. In a moment of genius he came up with this fantastic line. At the time it was just a fun line in a way fun movie. And, as an upstart business, Pixar's prospects were looking pretty darn good with such delights that were springing from the minds of a bunch of wacky creative types.

I know the guy who headed Pixar's HR department at the time, and emailed him the story of the father and son. And then said, "Can you pass this story on to the guy who came up with the line?"

His response: "I think the gentleman who came up with that line was Joe Ranft, Story Supervisor on most of the early big hits of Pixar but we unfortunately lost him in a car accident just before I left Pixar. He was also the voice of Heimlich the caterpillar in A Bug's Life."

Once upon a time there was a guy sitting at a desk in California who came up with four simple words that would save two lives in Florida ten years later. And, even though he's gone, his story continues.

One person can make a huge difference, in a twinkling blink of an eye.

I'm reminded of the Jackson Browne song, For a Dancer, in which he is encouraging the listener to follow his/her heart because that will lead to destiny. The concluding lines are these:

Into a dancer you have grown...
From a seed somebody else has thrown.
Go on ahead and throw some seeds of your own.
And somewhere between the time you arrive
And the time you go
May lie a reason you were alive
But you'll never know.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

How Much Fun is Fun at Work Really?

It has become all the rage these days to have vision boards. Well, let me just say, I have a vision wall. It started out with just one picture, torn from an American Express magazine ad from a few years ago. Kate Winslet is prettily chewing on a fingernail and studying what can only be the script for her next movie. It was published about the same time I was single-mindedly focused on a book proposal. So I tore it out and taped it to the wall behind my desk chair. My hope was that it will remind me that it’s possible to be attractive while looking like hell, focused on work, sitting like a man, chawing down on an expensive manicure and surrounded by the tedious detritus of paperwork. You know, kind of like what my day is like, when I’m not on the road interviewing people who love their work.

That picture quickly began attracting company. Now I have pictures and headlines and inspirational words taped all over the place. Clippings have reached around corners, jumped the empty space where my door is always open, invaded the closet bi-fold doors, and threatened to knock over the 7 ft. tall twin bookshelves so they can have those bare walls as well. It’s a regular Stephen King novel of the invasion of inspirational magazine snippets. (If I’m ever tempted to sell in this down market, all I have to do is remember the clutter of clippings and what a drag it will be to take them down. That should snap me right out of any idea of selling low.)

Anyway, I’ve got a few clippings that I’m especially fond of. One I’ll tell you about because it just makes me smile. The other one I’ll tell you about because it’s actually pertinent to this blog posting. (I always take such a long time getting around to the core theme of my blog posts, don’t I?)

So, the clipping that makes me grin is a picture of a penguin leaping, vertical and stiff-legged into mid-air with his flippers flapping behind him like angel wings. I found a headline that reads “footloose and fancy free,” which I taped directly under his feet. I’ve found two clippings of the word “joy,” which I’ve taped around his head.

The other one is a headline I’ve pulled from some ad. I feel kind of badly that I don’t know who the sponsor of this particular inspiration was – that company deserves the credit (well, at least the copy writer does):

“When your life flashes before your eyes, make sure it’s fun to watch.”

Fun, huh? What a concept.

How many people can you think of (notice I didn’t say, “know”) who actually have fun at work? Here’s what I’ve come up with: Richard Branson and Samantha Brown. (And me, sometimes, which we’ll get to in a moment.) I would have said Anthony Bourdain, but I can’t imagine how eating still-beating cobra hearts would be anyone’s idea of a good time.

When was the last time you actually had fun at work? What were the elements involved? And what would you do to replicate those elements and ha, ha, ha, ha, do it again? It’s kind of hard to fold intentional fun into the strategic plan, isn’t it? Unless Necker Island figures in the scenario somehow, I just don’t see how you can go after fun without turning your workplace into a totalitarian romper room, where no one is having a good time really – although they’re expected to look like they are.

Companies that want to position themselves as a fun place to work may be barking up the wrong tree. Why? Fun means different things to different people. And how desperate does an employer look when they’re saying, “We’re fun! Really, we are!” Uh. Yeah.

Even seeing those words, “fun place to work,” makes me feel like a party pooper. Can I really, for instance, sustain all that dependable levity that Southwest Airlines is famous for? I just know that sometimes I would want to say, “Sit down, shut up, and fasten your seatbelts so we can get on with this stupid flight. OKAY?”

Well, I guess that’s why I don’t work for Southwest, although I do have plenty of heart.

Fun in the workplace is a scary notion. You can’t make fun, just like you can’t make romance. Sure, you can set up a certain, shall we say, environment, that is conducive to fun, but you can’t make your people have fun on the job.

And fun is a personal kind of thing (just like, well, romance is). What’s a barrel of monkeys for some people is about as fun as a death march for others. Say, for instance, that lovely tradition of the waitstaff gathering ‘round a cringing diner and singing Happy Birthday. Frankly, I’d rather have a tooth pulled.

To make matters worse, you may not be keeping up with your employees’ idea of what’s fun. I have one client that started life as a fun company, complete with margarita machine Friday, beer and pizza at the drop of the hat, and flip-flop wearing every day. That’s what it’s all about, man! The thing of it was, as the years passed extremely quickly (as they always do in the high-tech world), that founding group of employees grew up, got serious and got married. Suddenly they had to get home to the kids. “No time for the ‘rita, man, gotta split before day care closes.”

While doing culture audit for them a few months ago, I heard the management say, “We’re a fun company! We’ve got parties, and outings, and we get to wear flip flops.” But then I asked the rank-and-file what fun means to them, and they said, “The satisfaction of filling a busy day doing great work with really terrific people I can respect and count on.” Wow. Cool.

By setting up the wrong kind of fun, you’re also attracting the wrong kind of employee. As this company was discovering. It was still attracting candidates who liked the idea of ping pong tables. And it was really irritating that core group of original employees who couldn’t concentrate with all that pock-pock pock-pock pock-pock going on.

You want employees who get jazzed by booze? Set up those margarita machines and knock yourself out. Brag about the flip flops. Put that bennie front and center, and you’ll get candidates who think you’re a groovy place to work. But then don’t go asking yourself why there are Youtube video clips of them Xeroxing their butts.

You too can have fun at work! Find out what’s fun about the work you do, the people you serve, the people you work with, what gives you OTJ grins, and then go with that! You don’t have to try so hard to be merry, jolly, a good time. That’s about as authentic and attractive as an over-eager date.

Okay, so am I a sober-sides? Maybe. This is what’s fun for me: Interviewing people who are absolutely over-the-moon about the work they do. Meeting total strangers and then parting company a couple of hours later with a hug and a new, laughing, friendship. Loading my convertible for another roadtrip through America’s highways in search of ordinary folks who love their job. Hittin’ the highway with the top down and the tunes up. And then, back home in New Mexico, sitting at my desk in front of my vision wall, shoulder bopping to the Squirrel Nut Zippers on my I-pod, while typing away as thunderstorm rolls in over the Sangre De Cristo mountains right outside my window.

The fun comes in capturing the passion of others who believe in the work they do.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

What We Can Learn From the Burger King Bath Caper

Yesterday morning I woke up to my regular routine of CNN and coffee. I don’t know why I do this to myself, because I almost always see something I could have gone all day without exposing my tender little soul to. Yesterday’s Dread Treat o’ the Day was the YouTube film clip of the Burger King employee celebrating his birthday by taking a bath in the utility sink of a Xenia, OH, Burger King.

A tattooed guy sitting starkers in the suds just isn’t my idea of celebrating joy in the workplace. And it really bums me out. Why? Because, as a consultant specializing in employee engagement, all my work revolves around my core principle: The workplace is where excellent employers can partner with high-passion employees to save the world. It can be one vaccine at a time, or one Whopper at a time. When both sides of the employment equation (employers and employees) treat their shared enterprise with respect, amazing things can happen.

So when I see examples of low-passion people abusing the privilege of serving the world, I see evidence of people giving up on their dream – and, by extension, themselves. And that breaks my heart. By giving up on the dream of excellence for yourself, you’re wrecking it for everyone around you. Mediocrity is like food coloring. Just the tiniest drop in a glass of clear water stains the whole shebang.

My first assumption here is that when someone offered this guy a job, they gave up the dream right then and there. This morning, watching him interviewed post-ablution for what must have been a local tv news show, he’s wearing goth make-up, his hair bundled in a configuration of piglets, and on his hands are fingerless gloves with a skeleton design on them for a trompe l’oeils effect. I’m wondering to myself: Did he dress that way for the job interview as well? In which case, I’m wondering how he got the job to begin with. Or did he just slowly start assembling this new personality in hopes that no one will notice the gradual transformation? In which case, I’m wondering, how come no one pointed out that wearing goth makeup and little piglets might scare away the customers?

Employees who spit on the dream scare away more than just the customers. They disenfranchise the aforementioned high-passion employees. Can you imagine how demoralizing it must have been to work side-by-side with this guy, if you really care about your job and your customers? Can you imagine how demoralizing it must be right now to work at that particular store, knowing that his shift manager was also fired – perhaps unfairly – because she had to keep her eyes on the cash registers and serve the customers rather than stop this idiot from running amok in the back?

Who hired this guy anyway?

Every hiring manager who works in a company that deeply cares about its customers and its culture owes it to the current employees to continue hiring well and wisely. Even if that means holding out for just the right culture fit. As former Apple chief talent officer Dan Walker has been known to say, “I’d rather have a hole than an [well, I think you might be able to finish this sentence; if you’re struggling, email me and I’ll whisper it in your ear].”

And what about chasing away future high-passion employees? Can you imagine how ridiculous the company will look if it now has to include in its employee handbook, “There will be no taking of baths in Burger King utility sinks.” Just having such a policy (or something like it) would be demoralizing to quality employees and candidates who would be wondering, “Does this company hire the kinds of people who need to be told this? Maybe I’d better keep looking.”

By the way, just in case you’re stopped by the notion of Burger King actually saving the world, let me tell you a story. When I was a little girl (around 8), my mother was very, very sick from a disease she’d die from a few years later. And during this period she often was bedridden at suppertime. So my father would take me to a Miami-area Burger King where we would sit together, just the two of us, talking over the day’s trivia over a Whopper and a milkshake, trying to keep each other’s spirits up.

That was 40 years ago (more or less; well, okay, more) and now he is gone as well. But still to this day, every time I bite into a Whopper and fill my mouth with its distinct taste, I remember those nights when a young man and his little girl kept the fears and the loneliness at bay, sitting across the table from each other in the bright lights of a Burger King.

Burger King saved my world. And it deserves some respect. As do all the high-passion people who work there. You just never know who they’re serving. And why.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Do Your Metrics Manage Meaning?

Hello from Arizona! I’m here for two weeks, the guest of the marvelous Kathie Lingle, executive director of the Alliance for Work-Life Progress. It’s a sort of cowgirl’s holiday. While I’m thoroughly enjoying the change of scenery, I am here to work. My mission: to research a speech I’m giving to the Arizona SHRM state council's annual convention in September (you are coming, aren’t you?). My topic is one of my favorites -- Sustain Your Flame! Keep Alive the Mission and Meaning of Your HR Career. And I’m here to interview HR folks who love their work in Arizona. I hope to post their interviews and photos on a specially created website.

My plan has been to fill my days with interviews and between interviews take photos of typical Arizona scenes, like sunset vistas, dusty cowboy boots, bucking broncos and saguaro cacti. But you know what? At the risk of overstating the obvious, it’s just too darn hot to get out of the car. (At 111 degrees, it just stops being a novelty and starts getting really annoying, know what I mean?)

Okay, so this is the real reason why I’m writing today: On my cell phone’s call log this morning there are four entries of the same phone number that I tried calling just seconds apart from each other. No I’m not a stalker. This is the phone number to a way schmancy new cardiac hospital where one of my dearest friends had open-heart surgery late this past week. Why did I call this hospital four times this morning to find out how she’s doing? Well, actually, that’s exactly what I’d like to know. More specifically, what I’d like to know is why did I have to call this hospital four times?

Call #1:
After dutifully pressing 3 for patient update, and then dutifully waiting for my call to be taken in the order in which it was received, I heard the receiver pick up on their end and then get hung up.

Call #2:
I got through to an operator who heard that I wanted a patient update (that was Press 3 after all), transferred me with no fanfare to the cardiac unit, which rapidly launched an outgoing message saying that their office is closed for the weekend.

Call #3:
See call Call #1.

Call #4:
I got a different operator, explained to her that I wanted to get a patient update but when I was transferred to the cardiac unit, well, finish reading Call #2.

Operator: “Their office is closed on the weekends.” I could practically see her drowsily reaching for the transfer button so I responded quickly.

Me: “I just want to get a patient update. Isn’t this the right number for that information?”

Me in my head:
“Oh, I’m sorry, am I keeping you awake?”

(after hearing the patient’s name, my name, and my relationship with her): “She’s in ICU right now.”

Which is, actually, great news. That means things are going as they should be. (Whoever thought that hearing that a friend is in ICU would be good news? Well, it is.)

I thanked her for her information and she seemed oddly surprised and pleased that I would take that extra second to thank her. Which surprised but didn’t please me.

I get that working at anything based on repetition and anonymity can be a real drag. Throw in the fact that you’re timed for the average amount of time you take to push the customer along (which might account for the deliberate hang-ups), and the probability of joy in the workplace sinks even lower. And I suppose that it’s no picnic talking to callers who are on the verge of freaking out, worrying about their beloved. But I’m sure that holding in our hearts and minds the meaning behind the work we do has got to be inspiring at least a little bit.

You probably know the story of the bricklayer who knows the difference between building a wall and building a cathedral (if you don’t, Google it, it’s as common as the sand dollar story). So I won’t slow this blog down by retelling it.

But I would like to invite managers to take a fresh look at how they talk about the job expectations of their direct reports. If you’re measuring performance by accuracy, by speed, by completion of the encounter with the customer, you’re missing a huge piece of the story.

Are you also talking about the meaning behind every job that you’re in charge of? Do your people know how their job soothes the human condition? (Unless we’re talking paid assassins and drug dealers, there’s an essential human meaning behind every job – at least there can be.)

Do you even know what the meaning is behind the jobs that you’re responsible for?

This isn’t rocket science or calculus. There only three reasons why people enter into a transaction with each other:
  • To relieve pain
  • To restore hope
  • To bring beauty into the world
In my particular case, my need to transact with the call center this morning was to relieve pain – to be reassured that my dear friend what resting comfortably right where she should be. The pain was minor, to be sure, especially when compared with the anxious needs of other people calling that number this morning. I can only imagine what it must have been like to call inquiring about a loved one who had suffered a coronary, for instance, and have to call back three more times just to get basic information. That would be enough to turn me into Shirley MacLaine in Terms of Endearment.

But these people treated my call as though I was asking for data about my Social Security account on a Sunday morning.

Every job has its tedium, to be sure. But it’s never tedious for the customer – no matter whether we’re talking ICU status of a dear friend or calling our credit card company about frequent flier miles. There’s meaning in every transaction that we do.

If you have a cadre of sleepy looking customer service folks, it’s time to revisit with them the meaning behind the work they do. The ones who wake up and take personal responsibility for their customers are the ones you want to hang on to.

The ones who don’t? Well. Maybe it’s naptime.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Confidential to Management-Level Job Seekers: How to Join the 60% Club

Unless you’re one of those people who enjoy beating their heads against a wall, it’s rarely any fun to be in the job market. But if you’re looking for a job in the leadership levels, it’s even worse. Reason: Chances are almost 50/50 that you’ll be looking for another job before the year is out. For some reason, new hires in leadership roles have an abysmal success record. And, even though the cost of recruiting, hiring, losing people of your level – and starting the cycle all over again – is the most expensive of all the open positions, employers seem to take this hard knock as a cost of doing business.

What a terrible waste of money, resources, precious time for all concerned. Especially you, if you’re the one out on the street in a few months’ time. The good news is that the power is in your hands. You can say, “This cycle of frustration stops with me.” But that means that you have to take control of the interview (hey! Your first leadership assignment in this organization) and be willing to be the one to decide whether you might not be the best culture match (hey! Your second leadership assignment in this organization).

Here’s the problem: Even though companies are becoming increasingly aware of the real importance and impact their culture and values have on engaging the discretionary effort of all their employees, for most companies that awareness isn’t showing up in the kind of leaders they hire from the outside. When it comes to hiring people leaders, employers can be like fish. They’ll leap out of the water for anything bright and shiny, without first taking into very serious consideration what lurks between the feathers and twirly, swirly, glittering things. For fish, of course, the bad news is that there’s usually a sharp hook buried inside all that attraction. But for employers, they don’t discover that buried inside that bright and shiny resume is a set of behaviors that could destroy their carefully cultivated culture.

I’m not implying, of course, that you’ve got a sharp hook imbedded in your resume or personality, but let’s face it, we’ve all got hooks – a branded story of who we are, what we can offer the employer, our set of leadership beliefs, the market performance of our previous employer while we were at the helm. The problem is that if you are luring the wrong employers, there’s going to be a lot of pain, and actually you’re going to be among the 40%+ of new management candidates who lose their jobs before they’ve really had the chance to prove themselves.

I’m torturing this metaphor; I guess it’s time to get on with my point.

The more successful you were at your previous company or the greater the cachet of your company (especially as regards its reputation for an engaged culture), the greater the likelihood that you’re going to land in a new job that could make you miserable. Like it or not, your new employer isn’t just hiring you, they’re hiring where you’ve been. If you’ve been with a successful company that performed supremely in your marketplace and enjoyed a cadre of over-the-top dedicated employees, your new employer is going to want to have some of that mojo. And, because you’ve seen it first-hand and from within, they reason, you’re just the one to give it to them. They’re so invested in asking the questions that will result in a job offer and acceptance that they tend to avoid those questions that could reveal you to be a bad culture fit.

You’ve got to do that piece of the dirty work. Sorry to have to break it to you, but that’s just the way it is. The truth will come out eventually, and believe me, you’re being back out on the street is going to be a lot more painful for you than it will be for them.

During the job interview itself, go deep into questions about the company culture. This is the first place where a big mismatch can be revealed. For instance, it’s not enough to simply know what the company’s values are. (You can find them on their website and after a while they all look the same…integrity; service; servant leadership, performance; collegial; collaborative; people-first…they very quickly appear to be the workplace versions of personal ads. Replace them with “candlelight dinners,” “puppies,” “walks on the beach,” and you’ll see what I mean.)

The trick is to ask your interviews how those values have been demonstrated by decisions and choices in recent years. If the company really takes its values seriously, your interviewers will have plenty of stories at their fingertips. A few good questions to ask, for instance, are:

1.Can you tell me of a time when you hired a star candidate who turned out to be a culture mismatch (if you’re really brave, say, “toxic manager”)? How did you handle that situation?

2.Can you think of a time when you were able to save a new hire who got off on the wrong foot culturally? What happened with that person? Can I talk with him or her?

3. Do you have any mentorship or culturalization onboarding programs in place, so I can be sure to hit the ground running?

4. What exactly does servant leadership look like here in terms of behaviors and expectations? Could you introduce me to someone who is known to represent the best leadership qualities that work in this culture?

Sure. You’ll take your interviewers by surprise with these questions (unless they’ve read this blog as well…in which case they’ll recognize immediately how brilliant you are!). Most interviewers are accustomed to asking behavioral interview questions, not having to answer them. If they draw a blank on these questions, and can’t tell you stories to support their cultural ideals, that’s your first big sign that there could be a culture mismatch here. And that you would get zero support while trying to integrate yourself into your new team.

But others will be so relieved to discover that you recognize the importance of a culture fit for managers, that – assuming everything else is in place – they’ll be falling all over themselves to hand you the keys to the 60% Club. That’s the club you’ll want to join. There’s staying power there.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Tim Russert: A Blueprint for Boss Behavior

If you’ve been following the news over the weekend, you probably fall into one of two camps: Those who think the sad passing of Tim Russert was perhaps a wee bit over-covered (“Oh, you mean the pope?” asked a newspaper editor I had lunch with on Saturday, who clearly had had more than enough of the same looped footage broadcast from the newsroom televisions) and those who think the world can’t get enough exposure to the examples of what seems to have been a genuinely nice guy who was great at his work and who really shouldn’t have died at age 58. While I totally get my editor friend’s point, I would have to raise my hand and join the latter group.

For a while there I thought I knew the reason why I am riveted to this wall-to-wall eulogy of Russert. I sprang from the Washington world affairs scene, on both the journalism and the government side of things. However, my own foray into Washington journalism was destined to be short. Like another daughter of an undercover CIA operative whom I know – who also happened to get into journalism – we were raised to accept the first answer to our questions as the official response and to probe no further. Fora few years there, I thought my father was a television repairman. "What do you do for work Daddy?" "I work for Zenith." "Oh. Okay."

Had I been old enough to have covered Watergate, a certain press conference would have gone thusly:

“I am not a crook.”

“Oh. Okay.”

So when I graduated from J school (that’s, ahem, journalism), I already pretty much knew my limitations. And so I became a receptionist instead. Good career move, that.

But I still watch the goings on in Washington, especially Washington journalism, to run a gut check now and then to see if there is any lingering regret or homesickness, now that I’m exiled west of the Pecos in the land of coyotes, quail and Kokopelli. Happily, latest returns say no. Still good.

And I’m not alone among the Washington expats. Even Valerie Plame has chosen Santa Fe. I keep hoping to run into her at Whole Foods, catch her eye, and whisper some carefully chosen word that would tell her in an instant, “you and me, we have a lot in common. How’s about a cup of coffee?” But, in fact, we don’t have a lot in common, and if I were ever to run into her, I’d probably say, “Oh Mrs. Plame, I mean Miss Wilson, I mean Valerie, I mean, …you’re my biggest fan!”

So I’m living out my destiny as an employee engagement consultant, spending the weekend watching the Tim Russert coverage, flopped on my bed in the desert in mid-June, cooling off by eating Dreyer’s frozen fruit bars, with exactly 1,864.65 miles between my current life and my past more humid, but better air-conditioned life in the DC area, where Dreyer’s is sold as Edie’s.

I’ve already dismissed any romantic notion that maybe I should have been more energetic as a go-get-em cub reporter. So what’s this continuing fascination with the Tim Russert story? Eventually the truth makes its way to the front of my sugar-soaked brain: Yes we’re hearing all about what a great journalist he was. And most certainly we’re hearing all about what a wonderful son he was and, of course, what an inspiring father he was.

But we’re also hearing about what an amazing coworker and boss he was. Oh….now we’re talking my language! Without even having to sit up, I stretch my fingertips toward the legal pad on the bed next to me, draw it nigh, find a pen in the folds of the cotton sheets, pull the cap off with my teeth and start taking notes based on what I’m hearing.

And what I’m hearing is a blueprint for the kind of leadership attributes that will inspire people to follow your example long after you have moved on.

Cheerleader: Russert called his staff his “dream team.” He made his team “all proud” to be who they are, in the business that they are in, working hard for the cause of information and understanding.

Infectious enthusiasm for his work: In this case, one would say that Russert was enthusiastic about the nation, its political process, and the Fourth Estate, if treated respectfully and respectably, could continue to inform its citizens to make the best decisions for the country’s future. Russert got the calling of his profession.

Authentic: I’m a little worried that authenticity might be used so much now that the word itself might be losing its edge of authenticity. But in Russert’s case, everyone agrees that “what you saw was what you got.” He didn’t bother to hide his boyish enthusiasm for his work and his interviewees. He didn’t try to pretty up a face that was made for radio. I would bet he didn’t even bother reading books on how to have difficult conversations with his subordinates. He might never have given a coffee mug or a mylar balloon in his life as a thank you gift to a staffer. Maybe as a joke (he had been known to give a bobble-head or two) but certainly not because he read in a book somewhere that coffee mugs are a great way to retain talent.

Ambitious for his friends (including the people who worked for him; even his competition): He took the time to teach the people around him, celebrated their opportunities to grow, suggested questions for other reporters to use and claim credit for. His friends, colleagues and competitors universally reminisced this weekend that his generosity of time, insight, information and guidance made them all better and smarter.

Aggressive but civil: Every business is, in some way, a competitive one. And you must be willing to invest some spit and spine in your work to be your most effective. But Russert demonstrated that even in the most bull-dog of all businesses, most of the time you could leave your opponent exposed, but still standing and unbloodied.

Enduring faith in humanity: On Meet the Press this morning, Russert’s executive producer, who had been with him 17 years, since she was an intern, stoically remembered him as saying, “The best exercise for the human heart is to bend down and pick someone up.” Only an enduring faith in humanity would inspire someone to hold in his heart the belief that helping someone in need, in pain, or even in ambition would be worth the effort time and time again.

These are attributes that every people leader should hold in his or her own heart every day as they work with their team and their customers. To be a leader is to require that you must be a genuinely decent human being. Share the glory. Take time to teach. Take time to remind your team that they are players on your dream team – and if they truly aren’t, build a team that does represent your dreams for excellence. You would be making their dreams come true as well.

You may not be a reporter or a television personality. You may or may not be a parent. But if you’re a leader, you can draw from Tim Russert’s examples and enduring reputation to inspire a new level of performance in the way you treat your people, ignite their own passion for their work, and inspire generations to come.

And that would be very boss indeed.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Truth 50: How to Engage Hearts and Minds

So I’m meeting my good friend, Colleen Cayes, for breakfast this morning. She has to be one of the smartest people I know (she believes that my new book, The Truth About Getting the Best From People, should be in the hands of every people leader in the corporate world, so she has to be smart, right?). And our plan for breakfast today was to brainstorm ways that we can get the word out about the book and the one-day training program that goes along with it.

True to form, she’s there before me. And as I cross the parking lot, I see she’s already deep in conversation with the restaurant owner, standing in front patio. And I hear Colleen telling “Susan” all about the book. This is what “Susan” says in response:

“Oh! I could use that book! I need everything I can get to get the best from my people. See…I am really disappointed in the quality of my employees. It used to be that whenever I put up a help wanted sign, I’d have the most wonderful people lined up down the block applying for the job. Now, I can’t get anybody good. Now I consider myself lucky that I get people to even show up for work. Forget getting the best from them….” She went on for quite a while about how she’s constantly frustrated by the poor quality of her employees.

Okay, if that’s the way it is, fair enough. But can you guess what was wrong with this picture? Here it is: Standing right next to her was a member of her kitchen staff, standing silently watering her pots of geraniums under the morning sun. And taking in every single word. I wanted to catch his eye and smile, but he didn’t look up. Not once.

Colleen and I walked into the restaurant, exchanging mutterings about “can you believe what just happened?”, sat down and ordered a fabulous breakfast served by attentive and cheerful bus and waitstaff. Except for the interaction with the owner herself, it was a flawless dining experience.

So, of course, I’m thinking, what’s the lesson here? This is it: If you want to be an engaging people leader, respect your people’s feelings. What does that mean in terms of specific behaviors and interactions? I could go on for days, but here are a few ideas:

· Be careful of what you say about your people – especially when they’re standing right next to you.

· Never bad-mouth your people to the outside world – especially to your customers.

· Double-check your own beliefs about your people. Is it really true that you’re the captain of the Ship of Fools? Or is that just some belief that you picked up somewhere like stink on your shoe? Could one or two losers or weirdos on your staff have colored your perceptions of everyone? Could it be that what you think isn’t really what you think, when you think about it?

· Notice passion; notice brilliance; notice dedication. And then let your people know you notice. When I deliver my speech, “Sustain Your Flame!”, to groups of organizational leaders, I always open with this request: “If you love your work, raise your hand.” Hands shoot up wall to wall. Then I say, “If you can think of anyone at your workplace who loves their work, raise your hand” hardly any hands appear. If you’re a people leader and you can’t think of anyone who works for you and loves their work, that says more about you than your people.

· Get in the habit of noticing. We all know about that principle that just as you’re contemplating buying a certain make of car, you see that car everywhere you go on the road. When you get in the habit of noticing employees showing their passion for their work by the way to do their work, you’re going to see little sparkles of engagement everywhere in your company. Notice, celebrate, then repeat!

And then, maybe the next time you ‘re chatting with a customer you’ll have way more positive things to say about the people who work for you! And, believe me, the favor will be returned, and a whole new caliber of excellent candidates will start appearing with your next job openings. (You may not have noticed, but your people are talking too.)

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Confidential to Hiring Managers: Spank Alert!

Believe me, I totally get it. Being in the job market can be really unpleasant – especially for hiring managers. As much as job seekers are wondering if there is a place for them in the world, it’s no picnic being a hiring manager either. You have to interview a long line of candidates, most of whom fall on some point on the loser continuum. Perhaps you’ve heard your company’s leadership crow about “hiring for passion, training for skill” one too many times. You know the truth: If the candidate’s resume doesn’t connect the dots just so, you’ve got to spit that contender back out into the universe of yearning wannabes. It’s hard on them, it’s hard on you. It’s a big, fat drag.

Sorry, but that’s no excuse for some truly heartless behavior I’ve witnessed lately. Are we depressed? Too funky to function? Or have we just lost our Manual to Just Plain Common Decency?

The stories of rudeness – even downright cruelty – abound. For this particular posting, however, I want to focus on one specific behavior from hiring managers I’ve been seeing repeatedly: Insensitive lack of follow-up. To wit: The words, “I’ll call you.” Even worse, the words, “I’ll call you by the end of the week.” And then they don’t. Don’t they know how mean that is?

If you’re a regular Oprah (or Sex in the City) watcher like I am, you may remember the whole concept of “He’s Just Not That Into You.” Hearing the words “I’ll call you” at the end of a date may or may not mean that you’ll actually get called for a second date. So you shrug, think to yourself, “whatever,” and just get on with your life.

It’s an annoying, infantile behavior on the dating scene, but it’s positively unacceptable in the job market.

At the moment I have two friends in the job market, both talented, smart, passionate people knocking themselves out to find a great job that can make the best of their considerable skills. I’m proud to know them both, and any company who hires them will do themselves a big favor. But both have heard, “I’ll call you by….” And then…wait for it…nothing.

One friend never heard from that hiring manager at all, ever – even though the interviewer told her she was on the short list of candidates, and would call her “by Friday.”

The other friend, on an extremely short list for a high-level executive position, invested three solid days of her extremely valuable time in the interview process (not to mention a total of over 300 miles of driving distance – and we all know what that means in terms of a gas bill). She was told by her prospective boss, “I’ll call you Thursday or Friday with an answer.” Thursday and Friday came and went. So did the weekend. So did the following Monday – well most of it. At 4:20, the phone rang. It was the prospective boss saying, “Sorry I forgot to call you on Friday. We’ve decided to continue our search.”

The boss forgot?? How do you forget about a promise you made on something so important as a job the candidate is totally passionate about? You don’t forget. You keep your promise.

Just when I thought I’d heard it all, I heard a new riff on the similar theme. Yet another friend (I seem to have a lot of friends in the job market right now) was flown by the hiring company cross-country for a series of panel interviews. It was a lively, exhausting day. She left feeling cautiously optimistic (one of the panel members actually wanted the job in question…don’t get me started on panel interviews).

Weeks came and went. She heard nothing. Phone calls and emails went unreturned. And so she did what any sensible person would do: She shrugged, thought “whatever,” and went on with her life. Then one day, out of the blue, the hiring manager’s assistant called to request a phone appointment a few days hence. Hmm…maybe they’re interested after all.

So my friend waits with rising optimism. And then the conversation begins thusly:
“We have decided to continue our search. But I thought you would like to hear feedback from your interview.”

This is what I would call a one-two punch. To my friend’s credit, she heroically endured a half-hour’s worth of negative feedback. Thanked the hiring manager very much for her time and then called me. True…sensible job candidates are open to feedback on interviews but not like that. Don’t put candidates on a yo-yo of hope and despair and then wait until they’ve released all hope to then call them for one last parting roundhouse across the jaw.

Again, let me repeat: I know it’s hard to be you, if you’re a hiring manager. You have to interview a whole bunch of people – every single one of them – except one – will receive disappointing news. And that has to be hard on your own spirit.
But so is treating candidates callously. It’s tempting to put off making those difficult phone calls. But that helps no one. You’re prolonging your own agony as much as you’re prolonging theirs.

And you’re wrecking your company’s reputation when you behave that way. Remember my first friend in this article? As coincidence would have it, she’s been invited to apply for a job in the last company I mentioned. You can be very sure that I told her all about the third friend’s experience with them.

Is she going to go ahead with the interview? Sure. Will she go into the process whole-heartedly, passionately, and hopefully? Nope. She’ll be holding back – which is completely against her nature.

All over this country, we have a cadre of fabulously talented, but dispirited, candidates who have given up bit by bit. I gotta tell you: In a very large part, hiring managers have themselves to blame.

Be a mensch! Keep your promises! Make those calls!

Friday, May 9, 2008

Confidential to Job Seekers: Talk to Strangers!

Okay, I’ve got a very cool story to tell, but forewarning: It’s going to sound like I’m bragging. I swear I’m not. It’s just this is an amazing story and I just happen to be a player in it. Okay? Okay, here goes:

About a month ago, a brand new client of mine was flying me to their Connecticut HQ from Albuquerque. This part is noteworthy only in the sense that it was a rare opportunity for me to fly First Class (I didn’t ask for it, they just gave it to me). Only problem: It was stand-by First Class. So you can imagine what happened next: On the ABQ to DFW leg, I’m trudging down the aisle along with everyone else, trying to not shoot envious big-eyed orphan glances at those comfortably settled in the big leather seats up front, already happily grasping their drinks on their broad armrests.

As I’m consoling myself down the aisle, the little voice inside my head says, “Something really good is going to come out of this.” (I may be codependent but that’s nothing compared to the codependency of the little voice inside my head.)

I sit next a guy who is flipping through the pictures in his digital camera, and being a chatty kinda gal who also happens to live in one of the nation’s top vacation destinations, I ask him, “Going home after a vacation to Santa Fe?” Nope. Wrongo. Come to find out his wife and children live in Albuquerque but he works in Tennessee. “Oh? Doing what?” He gives me one of those highly technical, exotic foreign answers that would make anyone say blankly, “ohhhhh, how nice for you…say where is that beverage cart anyway?”

Turns out, it wasn’t so nice for him. Every time he went home for a visit, it meant that he would have to wrench himself away from his family, and his heart would be going crack, crack, crack, all the way back to his dismal bachelor life back in Tennessee. He was leaving Albuquerque this time freshly determined to find a job within a pillow’s throw of his cherished wife and two adoring sons. And so he told me all about it.

Now remember: His expertise is highly specialized, highly technical, and to make matters worse, highly manufacturing. The kind of job that would make elicit the response, “Well, good luck with that.” But not me. Oh no. I said, “Send me your resume and I’ll see what I can do.” Not like I know anything or anyone in manufacturing. But, hey, you never know, right?

Long to short: He starts his new job in Albuquerque tomorrow. And now his two sons quite rightly think: “Dad has the coolest job in town.” And he really does. And it’s in town!

Here’s a quick summary of what happened between then and tomorrow: That night I got to my hotel room in Stamford. And there was his resume emailed to me. I was a) tired; b) on major chocolate withdrawal and c) thinking, “what are the chances of anything coming this? What’s on tv?” But that darn inner voice chimed in, “Larry King can wait. You promised, now get cracking.”
Yeah, but I promised then. This is now. I’m tired. And besides what are the odds that anything could come of this?

Now there were only two companies that came to mind as possible employers for this guy. But really, what could possibly be the chances that they would have an opening that would exactly fit his skills? I looked up the first company, and discovered that they are hiring out of San Carlos, CA, and looking for a svp/hr. So I figured they probably wouldn’t be hiring someone like this guy right now. I totally didn’t even bother with them.

Then I looked at the other company, found the svp/hr, figured out what her email address would probably be, and sent her an email saying, “You don’t know me but there’s this guy I met on the plane today who….” I attached his resume, detaching myself from any residual interest in the outcome. And then went about scaring up some chocolate and finding CNN on the tube. I spent the next several days working with this new client and thinking about myself.

Back in New Mexico, this lovely svp/hr took the time to open an email from a stranger, opened the attachment, and discovered a possible match for a position long open and needing attention pretty darn quick. (I just love email, don’t you?)

Next thing I hear: The guy comes back to Albuquerque upon their invitation, surprises his sons by picking them up unexpectedly at school, goes to a series of interviews at this company the next day, is offered the job of his dreams before he even gets home. (I just love cell phones, don’t you?)

From my perspective – and from the perspective of anyone even remotely involved in HR – life is full of happenstance matches that make for happy career stories. So for me, it’s a nifty story that makes me smile.

But can you imagine what it must have been like for this guy? Of all the flights between ABQ and DFW, and of all the seats on the plane, he has to sit next to this chatty woman. And then guess what? She’s the opening conduit to a dream come true.

It is actually his doing that makes this a story with a happy ending. He was willing to talk to a stranger. So there’s a tip for you: Talk to strangers; tell anyone who will listen who you are and what you want.

It will improve the odds.

A special note from Martha: If you’re a manager, your company is counting on you to be an engaging leader. But what exactly does that mean? And how do you do engagement? Just because you’re brilliant at your technical skills, that doesn’t mean that you’re a natural at people skills. New managers need a book that can help them figure it out in simple, straightforward ideas.

What do you speak? Boo Hooo? or Woo HOOO!

I’ve been playing with the title of this posting over recent days. And to be honest with you, a couple of titles I have been especially fond of are as follows: “What Am I, Your Mommy?” And “No One Wants A Whiner.” But that would be mean-spirited, wouldn’t it? But I’ve got to tell you, based on, like, 85% of the emails I’ve been getting from job-seeking readers recently, I wouldn’t be hiring those people either! In fact, based on the boo hoo factor, I don’t even bother to respond to most of them (and you know who you are…that response email that you didn’t get? That’s me.).

Believe me, I’m not pointing the finger at anyone without pointing three back at myself. I know what it means to be completely at sea, not knowing where my place is in the world. I’ve even been accused of self-pity, but that was just because the accuser just like the rest of the world didn’t understand me – or appreciate me or hire me or get me or….. Get the idea?

You know those wonderful moments when the right words at the right time hit you right between the eyes? A subtle suggestion that you consider the same things but through a different light changes your perspective forever. That happened to me about 10 years ago when I was holed up in a borrowed house on Cape Cod in the depths of one of the snowiest, coldest winters on record. I was flat broke. The few people I knew in this small town shunned me like existential life confusion might be contagious. (One of the shunners is a writer too. And I found myself as an unpleasant character in one of her published short stories a few years later. She didn’t even bother changing my name. Now that was a bummer. I have the last laugh, though. My Amazon sales rankings are always much better than hers. Not that I’m holding a grudge or anything.)

The previous summer wasn’t much better either. I spent it on the basement sofa of a generous and way patient friend who took me in after I was stranded in Columbus, OH, after a client refused to pay me a desperately needed (and much earned fee) because I turned him down in regarding, shall we say, another matter. See? I can go there with the best of you!

Anyway, back to the Cape Cod house and those right words. It was definitely one of those times that Judy Collins calls the “fallow time.” But one weekend a friend of mine came up from New Haven to spend a few days on the blustery beaches. And in the evenings we’d sit wrapped in afghans, talking about life, and basically why I thought it, well, sucked. (Normally, I don’t like to use that expression, but in this case, it’s the only one that works.)

I whined (I mean, said): “I know I need a job, but I can’t bring myself to go around the Cape pleading with people to give me a chance to show what I can do.”

To which my friend, Patricia, said, “It’s not about what you need, it’s about what you can give.”

Thwack! Did you hear that? It’s the sound of an arrow of break-through brilliance leaving its bow and aiming straight between my eyes, which slowly crossed as I said, “ooooohhhhhh.” And suddenly, indulging in my mopes seemed actually selfish.

Did I happen to mention that Patricia is a coach? I think she’s one of the few true coaches who are actually born to the work. Just being around her makes you inspired to lose weight, do a The Firm dvd all the way through, and add another six digits to your annual salary.

Her right time/right words words changed my life (well at least my perspective – my The Firm dvds only get my attention when it’s time to dust. And often not even then).

And I suddenly started thinking of my search for meaningful (i.g., paying) work as being an intersection where I can introduce my passion and abilities with real market need out there. How selfish of me to keep holed up and scared in my (well, someone else’s) house when there are people out there who actually need what I can do. And what I can do would actually make them happy.

All of which is to say: It’s completely understandable how in your pain it’s easy to lose sight of who you really are, what gives you true joy and how you can benefit the planet. And suddenly you start talking about yourself in high, squeaky, whiney tones in terms of what you need and your long litany of frustrations. And my all-time favorite expression starts to surface in your mind and escape your lips: “Yeah but.”

Another arrow between the eyes happened last fall. I was Randy Pausch came on to deliver his now-famous Last Lecture on Oprah. If you haven’t seen it, where have you been? Do it now. No, really, stop reading and do it right this very minute. We'll wait for you.

You’ll see that among the many brilliant things he says, he says that we each have the choice to be Eyore or Tigger. TIgger spends his life bouncing for joy (a friend of mine has a Tigger cartoon on her fridge that says “no bouncing before breakfast.” Cracks me up every time). Eyore looks at life through one big self-pitying monocle of mope.

Now I ask you, which one would you like to hang out with? Which one would you prefer to hire? I’m guessing Tigger. Tigger speaks in Woo Hoo! And, not to rhyme or anything, but if it rhymes, you know it’s gotta be true: Tigger speaks in Woo Hoo, and so you should too!

Even if things are way crappy, there is always something to bounce about. Even that little smidgeon of joy is something you can give. And eventually you’ll be able to figure out a way to sell it, because people will want to have a piece of you and your passion.

(Here’s another link to lift your spirits…it comes from The Secret, and it’s a minute of amazing images to make you really glad to get up in the morning and be standing on this particular planet. )

And so in closing, allow me to just say: Woo HOOOOO! That is, as they say in the Hoky Pokey, "what it's all about."

A special note from Martha: If you’re a manager, your company is counting on you to be an engaging leader. But what exactly does that mean? And how do you do engagement? Just because you’re brilliant at your technical skills, that doesn’t mean that you’re a natural at people skills. New managers need a book that can help them figure it out in simple, straightforward ideas.

That’s why I wrote The Truth About Getting the Best From People. It’s a book made up of 49 short, simple truths designed to help new managers understand how their beliefs and behaviors directly impact their employees’ passion factor on the job.

Click on the title and check it out! I hope you’ll enjoy it!