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.