Sunday, April 27, 2008

Should You Take a Job With a Company That's Laying People Off?

I have to hand it to my dad. By and large he gave me some very good advice over the years – much of which I resolutely ignored. Among his favorite topics: Stop thinking about boys, start paying attention to the headlines. Learn how to touch type. Don’t write things out first, get in the habit of composing as you type (which I’m doing this very minute, thanks Dad). Don’t smoke (check). Don’t eat at your desk, you don’t want to develop that hand-to-mouth creativity crutch (sorry, Dad, I goofed on that one). “At your age the men you should be looking for are….” Funny how the phrase “at your age” totally changes its meaning over the years, replacing one category of guy with another. Unfortunately, according to him, we’re now down to widowers who really loved their dearly departeds v1.0. Sheesh.

(Pretty good advice though; I just need a little time to warm up to that one.)

Another piece of advice unfortunately backfired on him. “Get a job that’s recession-proof,” he advised in the late 70s, which rang like a living death knell to my writer’s ears. If we were living in Southern California, like The Graduate, that would have spelled P-L-A-S-T-I-C-S. But we were living in Washington DC and so his advice spelled G-O-V-E-R-N-M-E-N-T. Just like the career path he chose. The government gig was one of those secure-for-life deals. The Feds never lay people off, or so the thinking was in those days.

Now my dad loved his work. No…he craved his work. And I couldn’t complain, his job took him all over the world, and most of the time we got to go with him – Berlin, Munich, Vienna, Madrid, Brussels, Miami (if you paid attention in history class, you’ll get the drift of what he did for a living. Hint: Matt Damon). But we weren’t with him in the fall 1977, when he was in Mexico City giving a lecture to a classroom of students, and a rap on the glass panel of the classroom door netted an unceremoniously delivered pink slip. Adios,muchacho, or Mr. Feingold, as he was cooperatively called by his students, who pretty much knew otherwise.

All of which is to say that you can be really smart about your career path, totally dedicated to your work, get knock-out performance ratings (you can even save the planet from instant, nuclear annihilation), and still get the dreaded pink slip. You can even think you’re making a savvy choice based on all the prognosticating reports in the weekly newsmagazines about what the hot careers will be in the near future. And still find yourself out on your, well, laptop.

So how smart is it to take a job with a company that’s laying people off? Could be very smart, depending on what you want, who you are, where you are in your career, and whether the company knows what it’s doing. It seems counterintuitive to see job listings placed by companies who have announced massive layoffs. I mean, why would anyone want to take a job there? Here are some things to consider:

Good reasons to take the job:

You’re just starting your career and the company is filling its new-hire pipeline with high potential newbies. Some companies have the foresight to know that their future depends on grooming a wealth of early careerists who might be around for a while. You know that this company at least has the long-term perspective to believe that it will survive the current crisis and will need people just like you in the long run. There’s at least some kind of talent management plan in place. It might not be so apparent to the people boxing up the contents of their desks, but at least you can get started in your career there. Even if you do get laid off three years down the road (remember, no promises), three years at that company are better than three years saving yourself for a non-existent promise and killing afternoons watching Dr. Phil.

The company is changing strategy and the job you’re applying for directly serves that strategy. No matter what kind of work you want to pursue in the corporate world, you can find a company that regards your interests and skills as an essential piece of their revenue-generating machine. “How does this position fit your strategy moving forward?” would be a very smart question to ask the interview. A clear response will tell you that, for the time being, your job is relatively secure.

The company would look great on your resume. So what if it turns out you’re only there for a couple of years? If the company is top notch, the training, exposure, insights you get could be like an MBA course in a A Player graduate school.

You need the skills and experience that this job will give you. Certain career paths require certain tickets to be punched. And depending on where you are in your life and career, your career path ticket may be more important than job security or the prospect of having to explain to people why you’re in the job market again a few years down the road.

Signs that the job might not be the best choice:

The hiring manager sends off angry or distracted vibes. Listen to your instincts. In a company that’s laying off dozens, hundreds or thousands of people, you’re going to be walking past empty desks and bummed out people. That’s natural. Tragic, but to be expected. However, if the person interviewing you for the job – especially if the person would be your supervisor – is giving you the impression that “this place is a pit,” go with that. There are way too many stories of people quitting perfectly good jobs to take on a better-paying position elsewhere, only to find themselves canned along with the rest of their new department before they have even received their new business cards.

Your interviewer can’t clearly paint the picture for you as to how this position directly serves the company strategy. Can you understand and explain in one simple, easy sentence how this job is essential to the company’s direction? No? Call it a day.

The job isn’t exactly a new one and the person you’re replacing isn’t exactly a young one. Take a look around the prospective new department or company. Anyone over the age of, say, 45? No? Better find out why not. If the company itself is young or in a cutting edge business, like fashion or video games, perhaps there’s a good reason why all the employees are young. Or perhaps the downsizing company handed out absolutely irresistible early (and totally voluntary) early retirement packages. Check it out before making any assumptions – or talking yourself out of an instinctual gut feeling. A company without laugh lines could be a company without integrity.

You need some sign of stability on your resume. This isn’t about the company, it’s about you. If you are a job hopper, and you have a track record of being in one job for only a year or so, you might want to mix it up a little bit and find a company where you can be reasonably sure that you’ll be staying for a while. Happily, job-hopping doesn’t have the stigma it used to have, as long as you can clearly tell a story of how each position has built your skills, knowledge, growth and maturity – all of which tells an employer good things about you. But, even in fast-moving economic times, it’s smart to pepper your resume with a little longevity every now and then. If this is the time to do that, make very sure that this employer won’t be taking the hatchet to your department or position any time soon.

So that’s my advice, for what it’s worth. And just think: I wrote the whole thing without going to the kitchen once. Thanks, Dad.

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!

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

How to Land the Leadership Job of Your Dreams

With the jobs picture swinging away from your favor, we know that there are more qualified and talented people competing for fewer jobs. So once you and your fellow candidates are matched for skills and number of years of experience, you have to find other ways to set yourself apart and shine brighter than your competition. You can compete by being the cheapest to hire – but that would be a bummer. (And who wants to work for a cheapskate company anyway?)

Here’s a better way to stand out and get paid what you deserve: Show your interviewer that you have the heart and smarts to hire, inspire, lead and keep great people.

Regardless of what the economy is doing, first-rate companies haven’t forgotten that creating and sustaining an engaged workforce continues to be the secret to their competitive edge. And they want managers who will help them make that happen.

Engagement continues to be where it’s at: Top-drawer employees throughout the ranks are expensive to hire. And they’re expensive to lose, and even more expensive to replace. Passionate people volunteer their discretionary efforts and genius above and beyond the call of duty. They say good things about their company and the company’s products. They recommend their company as a great place to work. And they’re more likely to stick around, even if someone else offers them brand, spanking new jobs at better pay.

Who makes these golden employees feel all these warm and fuzzy feelings? Why, their bosses do, of course. And that would mean you.

So, while all those other candidates are yammering on and on and on (and, by the way, on) about their technical skills and years of experience, set yourself apart by talking a little bit about your journey to becoming an amazing manager.

Here are some of the questions you should be prepared to answer:

* What would you say are the characteristics of leader who keeps his/her team motivated and focused on the goal?
* As a manager, what do you consider to be your primary responsibility?
* Tell me about a time when you led your team through an extraordinary project or accomplishment.
* If you’ve been a manager before, talk about a time when you saved an otherwise great employee who was in danger of losing his/her job?
* What characteristics do you look for when interviewing people for jobs?
* What do you do when you see a high-potential employee’s performance begin to fail?
* What are your opinions about annual performance reviews?
* Let’s say you have to implement a major change inside your department. What steps would you take to get your team to help you make that change?
* Tell me about a time when you learned something about yourself when dealing with a challenging employee situation.
* Who was your most influential boss so far and what did you learn from that person?
* How did you grow as a result of your last job?

As a seasoned manager, or someone who is ready for that next step, you should be ready to have answers to these questions. Even if you haven’t been a manager yet, you should be thinking about these things now.

Here’s another tip: Don’t wait to be asked those questions…it could be that your interviewer may not be savvy enough to ask. But, if you volunteer a few well-thought out comments that demonstrate that you’re a sensitive, thoughtful, wise people leader – one who is also humble enough to know you have lots to learn from your own direct reports – you will send the hiring company the signal that there’s just something about you that they must have on their team.

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!

Sunday, April 6, 2008

What We Can Learn From Wal*Mart

Don't you just hate it when the "right thing to do" isn't necessarily the right thing to do? I especially hate it when there are so many facets to a tragic issue that when you take the time to disassemble the problem, the people who seem to be *most* in the right may actually be, after all, the Big Bad Meanie. Generally speaking, I'm thinking about life. Specifically speaking, I'm thinking about Wal*Mart and the tragic Shanks.

In case you were in Panama City on Spring Break this past week, I'll summarize for you: Debbie Shank, an employee of Wal*Mart, was in a catastrophic car wreck a few years ago leaving her permanently brain-damaged. Wal*Mart's health plan covered the initial round of medical care and her husband sued the trucking company that was party to the accident and won. After the lawyers took their share, the Shenks were left with, about $400,000. Here's the problem, the Wal*Mart health care contract that Debbie signed, when she was hale, hearty and hopeful, stipulates that the health care plan is reimbursed their funds with any money that is recovered from a legal settlement. So Wal*Mart, playing the role of Big Bad Meanie, sued the Shanks for their money and it went all the way to the Supreme Court, with Wal*Mart prevailing.

Well, they didn't actually prevail because the court of public opinion turned on Wal*Mart big-time. The Shanks' story has all the elements in it that would make Oliver Stone himself write a big, fat option check to the Shanks for the thrill and privilege of telling their story on the silver screen. The system working against the little guy. The divorce forced upon the Shanks so Debbie can qualify for public assistance. Her husband's two jobs just to make ends meet. And then the real gut-puncher, the death of their son in Iraq. To make matters worse, Debbie's short-term memory is kaput, so every time she hears that her son was killed it's as if she hears it for the first time. How do I know this? CNN filmed the moment when their other son tells her. (A nasty bit of cinema-verite if you ask me; the way I figure it is that they should just stop telling her. Especially while the cameras are rolling.)

Public opinion weighed in and after going through all that trouble -- and dragging the Shanks through all that heart-ache, Wal*Mart backed down and said they could keep the money. Okay fine. I'm sure that Wal*Mart spent massive amounts of cash in legal fees (even if they could get their lawyers at low low prices) and public relations expenses (ditto with the prices). The Shanks were dragged through the heart-ache mud. The only people who come out winning here are lawyers, who, I'm sure, earned every single penny.

Another loser here, it should be remembered, is Wal*Mart's health plan. Now it's liable to another appeal from an equally tragic, needy family for whom poverty is just one car wreck away.

So over this weekend I started wondering if there couldn't be a better way. And I think I've found one that would work at least in some cases: Tap into the individual's need to make a difference.

Let me back up just a little bit: I'm working with a client right now who wants to know what makes its culture so special and why do people love working there. This is a high customer-service client, so it's imperative that the passion volume is turned up to high almost all the time. So what keeps everyone so passionate about their jobs and the organization itself? Their answer is the same: "I can make a difference here."

Then the stories begin to unfold: One employee's wife was dying of cancer right after giving birth to their third son. Naturally the employee had to spend the entire time at home -- a precious year that he will never get back. But the problem was that the company's disability policy at the time only covered the employees themselves, not their family members. So what did the employees do? They all gave their paid time off to the guy so he would still be paid but stay at home with his beloveds.

This culture of making a difference happens in small ways, like coworkers showing up to help someone move over the weekend -- unrequested, unannounced, they're there. The HR manager took it upon herself to help an employee make all the funeral arrangement for his dad because he was too much at a loss as to where to even begin. And then she showed up at the funeral herself. When Katrina blew a lot of people out of their homes, these employees volunteered their time and smarts to build a state-of-the-art shelter from an abandoned Montgomery Ward building, throwing in all their off-duty hours and energy to relieve the suffering of others. While I wasn't there, I don't believe there was any talk of, "gee, would this set a precedent?" I think it conversation was mainly around, "What can I do now?"

So let's go back to our friends at Wal*Mart. It employs 1.3 million people in the United States, all of whom are very busy individuals, with their own families and, perhaps, stretch bank accounts. And Wal*Mart has a very active charitable giving program, as demonstrated on their website, giving much more money to many more causes that are much more distant than the wrenching suffering of one family on the brink of catastrophe. The Clinton Global Initiative University is richer by $500,000. But its health care plan is now poorer by $200,000 give take. And that happy face is wearing a bit of a black eye. That's a fact.

But wouldn't it have been so much better if the Wal*Mart culture as a whole prompted its 1.3 million people (or at least the ones who want to) to pull a couple of bucks out of their wallets to donate to the Shanks relief fund? Not everyone can spare a dollar or two when budgeting their lives on a salesclerk's salary, granted. But surely, a culture of voluntary giving, especially to one of their own, would certainly have raised far more than $200,000. Depending on how they structured the voluntary giving effort, the Shanks could either have kept the $200,000 without the heartache and sleepless nights. Or maybe they could actually have received as much as $3 million from their Wal*Mart family members.

I don't know this for a fact but I would be very surprised if Wal*Mart doesn't invite its employees to donate to such community groups as United Way. No complaints about United Way, but a bloodless pledge on a sheet of paper to an organization that has no immediate relationship to each individual doesn't really help with that powerful, rewarding feeling of making a difference.

But donating money, even if it's a dollar, or loose change in the bottom of our purse, could have made a huge difference. To the Shanks. To Wal*Mart. But mainly to the people who work for Wal*Mart who are looking for a sense of community, a sense of belonging, a sense of the *power* to really make a difference to someone close to them.

It's about the culture of giving, of voluntary effort, of family, of belonging. Companies are really keen these days on corporate social responsibility. But charity really does begin at home. And from an employer's point of view, that could conceivably be the most powerful stay factor you could ever dream of.

And get this: It's free!