Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Don't Fear the Beefer

There's this guy I know who had what can only be best described as a Jerry Maguire moment. In a fit of pique he unburdened himself about his job in a blog (but had the presence of mind to show it to his wife first for some serious vetting). I wasn't there myself, mind you, but I've heard from several reliable sources that people actually stood up at their cubes the next morning and applauded. Sounds a little Hollywood to me, maybe it happened. Maybe it didn't. But it definitely seemed to have happened in everyone's hearts. Because the story prevails.

This is a company that has blogs galore, but everyone knows what you mean when you're talking about this guy's posting. You kind of say "the blog" in a lower, more momentous voice, like you would say, "the blob."

What makes this guy a little different than Jerry Maguire, besides, well, the obvious, is that he still has his job. Which isn't to say that there wasn't a certain amount of anxiety at first (I have a feeling that his wife's taste and restraint probably had something to do with it, which is a good thing because thanks to the fact that they just adopted two children RIGHT before they discovered they're pregnant, they have an instant family. So a paycheck now and then comes in handy).

But the fact that he still has his job does speak volumes about the company -- that the founders and the leaders can take it on the chin, even rend their hair and tear their clothing just a tad -- and still be glad to see this guy in the morning. This guy is a genius, a valuable employee who has been with the company for-like-ever. And while maybe the blog might not have been the best space to have aired his grievances, there it was. So there you have it.

What this guy really did -- besides poke the leadership in the eye -- was put the company's culture to the test. The leaders have said that they want a company where all employees are free to speak their mind; that they will be listened to; and that the dream is to have a company fueled by passion.

You know...there's a problem with the whole passion notion. When employees get passionate, it's not always a happy passion. And when you have gone public with the ideal that what you want is a culture that thrives on open communication, that kind of negative vibe can be a real bummer. But there are two things that are even worse.

One is publicly declaring commitment to open communication and receptivity to all emotions and opinions, and then quashing any dissidence like Putin on a Chinese vacation.

The other is not hearing any complaints at all.

There's something about someone who is so worked up about something going on in the company that he is willing to put his job on the line. It's deeply caring about where the company is going and whether it's keeping its promises to all its stakeholders.

This guy might have been a pain in the proverbial patootie precisely *because* he's passionate about the prospects of the enterprise. The ones who don't really give a darn...well, those are the ones who are just good employees. But they're awfully quiet. It's quite possible that they're passively disengaged. And that's just one step away from being *actively* disengaged. And that's where you'll begin to have real problems.

Let the complainer have his say. He knows what's really going on in your company. And he's got valuable information and insights for you that you might not get anywhere else.

Public embarrassment of the blog kind is really too bad -- maybe even horrifying, depending on the content and the timing. But don't be afraid of the truth. Even when it's the hard truth. Just know that it will come with a side of beef.

Friday, February 22, 2008

How to Make Your People Cry

If I could do only one thing for the rest of my career it would be this: Interview ordinary people who love their work and discover their secrets to worklife passion. That is my calling, mission and passion of my tenure here on earth. More than just a nifty thing to do, understanding what brings passion to the hearts of everyday working people is the key to understanding what makes any company outstanding – in its community, in its industry, in the hearts of its customers and among its competitors. The voice of everyday employees who love their work is truly the anthem to a personal greatness that is within our grasp, no matter who we are.

Over the years I’ve interviewed a Columbus, OH, bank CEO who survived the WWII fire bombing in Dresden, an animal shelter worker in Asheville who discovered her life’s calling in giving a moment’s love to unwanted animals, a Chicago public relations professional who arrived at his own moment of truth when he came upon a group of crying clowns, a couple who have found their heart’s work on the small island of Tybee, GA. I interviewed a Portuguese fisherman in Provincetown who was outraged at seeing his livelihood slip through his fingers with the disappearance of fish stocks off the Grand Banks. Some of these stories you will find on my website Working From the HeartLand. And I’ll be adding more over the next several months, as soon as I update my website and find a webmaster who will help me with the technological side. (

There’s a reason why I’m writing about this topic this week. Rackspace, a fast-growing web hosting company in San Antonio, has asked me to spend two weeks interviewing its employees who deeply love their work. I’ve just about finished the engagement and am sitting in my 18th floor hotel room off of I-10, waiting for the day to warm up so I can be a tourist on the Riverwalk for the afternoon.

And so I’m using the time to transcribe the interviews of the past two weeks. I think about whom I’ve met so far and the moments that moved us all. From the CEO through all the levels to the admins, the deeply felt commitment to the company, and its people and its customers has revealed a profound sense of caring that can best be expressed in tears.

I asked the CEO to tell me about a time when he felt especially proud of his people. It was during an emergency last year when, he said, everything they worked for over the previous nine years as “on the razor’s edge.” A truck crashed into their data center, causing a disaster to the physical plant that’s too complicated to explain here (plus I don’t quite understand the whole thing myself). Let’s just say it was a really bad thing.

As these things typically happen, it was at night. But it was "all hands on deck" for everyone, and the parking lot was as full at 2 am as it would be at 2 pm. Inside the building, everyone was there, with their sleepy children in PJs in tow. “I didn’t ask them to come,” he said, with his eyes moistening. “Word got out and everyone was there, on the phones, taking very difficult calls from upset customers, doing what they had to do to keep us up and running.” Because they cared.

Another long-time employee talked about how that caring is extended to the customers. During one of the recent hurricane seasons, a Florida-based customer with an extensive web presence had to be evacuated; putting its own on-site servers at risk. My client company duplicated those servers, adding them to servers already operational in San Antonio. And then told their customer to forward all their phone calls to San Antonio, so that their customers would never know the difference. Then my client company cleared out a few cubicles in San Antonio so that their Florida customer could relocate some people and keep their business up and running while the wind blew. And the wind did blow, destroying the Florida building. But the business prevailed. Because of caring.

Another hurricane, by the name of Katrina, brought thousands of survivors into San Antonio. Graham Weston, the chairman, donated a vacant department store property he owned, to be used as a shelter for the incoming. In a matter of just a few hours, Rackers (Rackspace call themselves Rackers) cleaned out the building, which had been empty for many years, set up 2,500 cots, a cafeteria, mens and womens showers, even a beauty parlor. But that's not all...they also set up computer stations and cable televisions (it pays to have at least one techie in the family, doesn't it?) so that the survivors could keep up with the news and reach out to friends and family. But that's not all...Rackers also devised a badging system based on their own employee badging system. When busloads of survivors came in, they could be registered and matched with their families as more and more people arrived. That badging system was so air-tight that even the local banks honored the Rackspace badge as proof that individuals were eligible for money and services set up for them. (One Racker said, "Remember, these people came with nothing but the clothes on their backs -- no documentation, no drivers licenses, certainly no Social Security card.") A Racker I interviewed yesterday said that after he spent hours helping set up the shelter, he was ready to go home and get cleaned up for work the next day. But the minute the first bus pulled up, the first person to get off was a lady who just broke down into tears. And the human aspect of what he was doing went straight to his heart, and he put his own belongings down, and three days later finally went home for a little shut-eye. Because of caring.

Heroic caring can also be expressed in terms of everyday consistency. While talking with an executive admin, I asked her what is special about working for her boss. It wasn’t the money. It wasn’t the cool factor of working for the head cheese of company that’s 32 on Fortune's Best Companies To Work For lists. It wasn’t the array of Beemers, Mercedes, and Land Rovers in the parking lot – and the prosperity possibilities that those cars represent. It was her children.

“He always remembers my children,” she said through a tightening voice of emotion. “He never forgets their birthdays and Christmases. Never.”

Evidently he doesn’t forget Valentine’s Day either. At 9:30 last Thursday night, my cell phone rang in my 18th floor hotel room overlooking I-10. It was the chairman of the company.

“I just wanted to wish you a happy Valentine’s Day,” he said. “I know that you’re away from your friends and family today and so I wanted you to know we really appreciate what you’re doing.”

Well. That did it for me. It’s quite possible that I’m the only consultant on this planet who received a Happy Valentine’s Day call from the company chairman on Thursday night.

What makes this community of dedicated people proud to belong to Rackspace? It’s different for everyone but it all spells pretty much the same thing: Caring about something larger than themselves. And knowing that that caring is returned – in kind. And that everyone's efforts truly make a difference, to each other, to the community and to their customers.

It’s enough to move people to more than just action. It’s enough to move them to tears.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Playing Hard to Get? You May Be Letting the Best Get Away

I have friend who is a genius at sales. And a well-respected HR services company in her adopted home town just missed out on being able to recruit her. The reason? They played hard to get. So she got away. Even though she is one of the highest producers in her city, her recruiters bogged down the interview process with so much emphasis on process and track record that she finally just got disgusted and withdrew her candidacy. It wasn't that she wasn't game to talk turkey in terms of her past successes, it's just that this hiring company wanted her successes to have been measured precisely in the ways *they* measure successes (which means she would have had to convert her track record of the last four years into *their* terms...and they were never really clear about what those terms are).

This ridiculous, unimaginative way to dealing with her taught her an essential truth about this company: They were more interested in processes than in relationship building (which is her personal secret to her amazing success). And that would be a definite cultural mismatch. So she said "buh bye." And so this company flung her back into the hiring ocean, perhaps to be caught by one of their competitors. Not good.

It's popular today to say, "We hire for passion, train for skills." Sounds good, but do you really? Or is this just something you'd like to *think* you do? Over recent years I've seen example after example of companies allowing true stars to slip through their fingers. Why? Because their hiring managers are dispirited doofusses who have no nose for sniffing out passionate talent -- or talented passion, whichever you prefer. They're so focused on checklists, track records and certifications, that they're looking down at their clipboard and not bothering to glance up to catch the sparkle of enthusiasm in the eyes of the candidates.

Your best candidates aren't ever going to have a resume that looks like a coffee drinker's frequent customer's card. All the holes won't necessarily be punched precisely the way you want them to be. And there's no way you can anticipate precisely every single little credential and ability that your company will need in the immediate, middle or distant future. So throw the clipboard away!

What you can be absolutely certain of is this: Your company is going to need employees who love their work so much that they are constantly learning and creatively putting together experiences, relationships and skills that will help them ask all the necessary questions whose answers will help your company grow.

If you're having trouble finding and recruiting passionate people who will give their all to your company, take a good look at your hiring managers and recruiters. How passionate are *they* about your company and its critical mission? Are they hiring to make the world a better place? Or are they hiring to fill their quotas? Do they know how essential passion is to your company's particular mojo? Or are they just checking the boxes? Are they inspired and excited about your company's mission? Or is their resume in circulation as well?

There are two sayings I want to introduce here: It takes one to know one. If that's the case, make sure that the people who are in charge of sifting through the candidates (from writing job descriptions all the way through the processes to the person making the final offer) love their work and are over the moon about their jobs and your company!

The other saying I'm fond of, especially after speaking to my friend this morning. It comes from a friend of hers who gave her this advice during their dating years: "If you play too hard to get, you won't get got."

Get it?

Thursday, February 7, 2008

If You Aspire to be a Great Place to Work, You've Set the Bar Too Low

As I write this piece, this is the close of a big week for me. This was the week when the much-anticipated annual Best Companies to Work For edition of Fortune magazine arrived in my mailbox. For an engagement geek like me, I suppose the excitement is parallel to, uhm, sports enthusiasts receiving their annual swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated. With, what I can only presume to be the same focus and determination, I immediately go straight to the gate-fold, centerfold to look at the yummy table to see who is Number One, to see where my clients and friends have landed on the list, and to see who’s off this year.

But it’s the far-right column that has always held my attention longest – what I fondly call the doodads column, which lists the accoutrements of best companies to work for. These typically span the selection from the essential, like worklife/balance policies; health coverage; stock options; and tuition reimbursement to the frivolous, like the parties and the toys. I have to say, though, that this year everything seems to be shopworn and tired. Where once this column was the domain of the toys, special excursions to exotic lands, permission to bring one’s pooch, this year the column is listing things that people should be expecting anyway, for instance Number 22, American Century Investment claims bragging rights over the fact they give a rousing welcome to new employees.

The doodads have lost their va-voom. A sign of the times, I suppose.

But I think it’s also a sign that perhaps it’s time for the entire employee engagement conversation to undergo a 2.0 overhaul. We’ve done the doodads accounting for over 10 years now, and now we need to transform the topic of what makes a great place to work to what makes a culture where great people want to come to work.

This is not in any way meant to disparage The Great Places to Work Institute or call into question the authenticity of its intent and the quality of any individual company that competes to make the list. However, like any movement that starts out true and good and is fighting hard to keep its integrity, its core concept has also been high-jacked by those who want to feed of the original vision, those who just want to win – or companies and consultants that want to make money helping employers make the list. With the emphasis focused on making the list rather than truly creating a place where people voluntarily contribute their absolute greatness – what William Blake called the divine spark – we have shifted our attention to the finger pointing at the moon rather than the moon itself.

We’ve gotten too fancy. As a result companies have become slave to the methodology rather than the mission. The elaborateness of survey instruments, indexes, even the doodads dangled in front of employees like bait reveal a fundamental disconnect that persists: Employees – one by one -- are looking for a job (or life’s work) that they can truly pour their hearts into. The result? The company has an extensive, Byzantine metrics system set up to gauge how engaging its managers are. And it has a doodads list long enough to encircle the globe. But there is absolutely no understanding of what passions truly burn in the hearts of its employees. One very common tell-tale sign: The company has a web-enabled careers tab that may be state-of-the-art technology-wise, but it has the inspiring welcome of a flounder flat and dead on a platter.

Instead of aiming to be a so-called great place to work, employers should shift their emphasis to becoming the place where great employees know they can wisely invest their passion, creativity, hearts and smarts. Let’s take a look at what a great employee is.

Great employees passionately identify with the company’s mission and they’ll go to extremes to help the organization achieve its goals. Great employees don’t care about arcade games and free coffee; they care about customer service, innovation and making the world a better place as a general result from their daily efforts. Great employees can get very angry when they see evidence of their company’s purpose sliding off the rails; so in this sense they can be very uncomfortable to be around at times. Great employees love to close a sale, please a customer, find the solution, find an even better solution, and do all these things with coworkers who are as passionate about their work as they are.

This is what great employees want: They want to believe in the company’s mission. They want a clear line of site between their efforts and the company’s most essential goals. They want to know that trust and respect flow both ways between themselves and their managers – and among their coworkers, for that matter. They want to know that they’re heard and believed and acknowledged – not as aggregated statistics but as individuals with original, epic points of view of their own. They want to keep pushing the boundaries of their potential. They want to know that their tenure with their employer is an essential part of their own life’s saga. There has to be meaning in their efforts on a daily basis, but more than that, they want to be able to look back on their life’s career journey and see, “Ah, yes, I see exactly the reason why I was there at that time.”

To borrow a phrase from our metaphysical friends: Employees aren’t merely human beings having a corporate experience. They are individuals using their careers as one way to express the fullness of who they are in this life on this planet.

There’s that joke you’ve probably heard before: The narcissist says, “Well, enough about me, let’s talk about you. How do you feel about me?” That has been the essential driver of most of the conversations around best places to work. Tedious survey questions asking employees how they feel about the company. The company that truly attracts and keeps the great employees will find its own greatness as an employer when it stops to ask of its employees, “Who are you in your heart, mind and dreams? How can we help you make those dreams come true? Come. Sit. Tell us all about it.”

Shift your focus from becoming a great place to attracting great employees. And they’ll give you the moon.