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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

How to Lose Your Job without Being Fired

I never expected an epiphany from an Englishman over pancakes in a central Pennsylvania diner.

My friend and I were meeting, as we did periodically, at our favorite restaurant -- appropriately named Brothers -- to laugh, gossip, and counsel each another. It was his turn to disentangle my life.

He said, “Your blessing and bane, Richard, is that you comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Whoa! He signaled the waitress for more coffee.

Being affirmed for comforting the afflicted was humbling. But the second comment about afflicting the comfortable got my brain cylinders firing. I realized that’s really what I do as a professional communicator and change instigator:
I craftily tell clients what I heard them tell me so they understand what will happen when they try to tell others.
The echo frees them, sometimes stuns them, occasionally saddens them, and either immediately or later drives them to fight or flight, usually the latter – though sometimes flight eventually turns to fight in subtle ways. Change is uncomfortable. I create discomfort to create change.

Are you also an afflicter? If yes, you’re probably not a whiner or a crusader; you’re just unsettled and unsettling. Fortunately, you are what entrenched organizations need, especially in tough times. Unfortunately, there are bosses and colleagues out there who don’t know what to do with you.

3 strange disrupters that could get you into trouble

1 Performance
This seems like an odd disrupter. Don’t we get rewarded for performance? You would think so. But some departments, even whole organizations, seem prone to generating more heat than light – that is, creating the appearance of progress without being accountable for tangible results.

Four hours of work gets inflated to eight hours, grumbling surfaces whenever a new assignment comes in, and problems consume more time than possibilities.

In such an environment, good performers disrupt mediocrity.
    If you inadvertently upstage members of the team by producing an outstanding piece of work, they will be impressed, envious, and won’t forget.
    If you diplomatically suggest at a staff meeting an idea you have about reprioritizing or restructuring for greater impact, your boss will appreciate your idea and feel slightly upstaged.
    And, silly as it sounds, even if you regularly meet deadlines, your boss may not have thought through the sequel to the assignments he gave you and now doesn’t know what to do with the results. He procrastinates, you wait, and when you ask for an update more than once, he gets testy because you’re … well, pushy.
You will get a merit increase for outstanding performance. However, you may have been moved one ring out from the center for the pain you imparted.

2 Reasonableness
What baffles you is that the ideas and changes you propose seem so obvious, so simple, and so doable and yet never gain any traction in the organization.

Take, for instance, your cost-saving, streamlining idea to move a particular administrative process online. Sounds reasonable. However, support staff worry about what they will now do, yet they don’t speak up. And your boss? She’s uneasy that the fat weekly report won’t show up in her in-box, regardless if she was reading it or not. But she can’t admit that. So, your suggestion goes to committee.

Then, one of your work buddies pulls you aside at lunch and suggests that, though folks admire you, you might want to stop trying to change everything and just focus on the work at hand. Don’t be getting people worried unnecessarily, he says.

Move back one more ring.

3 Professionalism
Sometime during the first year of your new job, you realize that the currency of your education and expertise, which landed you the position and, you thought, credibility and authority, didn’t end up buying you much.
  • As the communication director, maybe you turned the organization’s publications into a portal in a culture where publications are still sacred.
  • As the new lawyer, you closed loopholes to protect the organization only to hear that some in management considered you unrealistic and inflexible.
  • As a freshly-minted MBA in operations, you recommended a systems change to decrease inventory costs, and then saw the suspicious looks of veteran production managers.
Sure, you get nods for smarts, but you also get demerits for always taking the side road. You’re not considered a team player. You are now on the outside.

What often happens to most nice disrupters (a.k.a change agents) is that they get marginalized. No one can find – or admit -- fault, yet no one completely warms up to you. The boss likes your affability but not your subtle intimidation. He can’t fire you for cause and, besides, he doesn’t want to look like he made a mistake hiring you. He hopes you might consider leaving, though he can’t suggest that.

Sometimes this malaise lasts for years until, finally, some fortuitous opening occurs: you get squeezed by an inflated ethical issue; you get blamed for some executive gaffe, or a budget crunch hits. Then, you are likely to be reassigned or offered an attractive severance. In other words, you don’t get fired, you just lose your job.

I know this all sounds bleak, but it’s too real for too many talented individuals in the wrong place at the wrong time in their careers. If you’re caught in this vise, be encouraged.

5 Affirmations
  1. You are an instigator for change because you are wired to serve people not processes. Just be sure you check yourself regularly to prevent frustration from turning instigation into aggravation.
  2. Your colleagues do like you -- really. It’s just that you raise the questions they have tried to repress. With kids in college and fear of job loss, they worry more about security than options.
  3. You are in your current position to increase your professional value, which adds to the value of your employer whether or not some people see it that way.
  4. You wish the world acted reasonably, but you are a change instigator because you are intuitive. You perceive and understand what others cannot. It’s a gift. Treasure it.
  5. Your resume is your journal of growth. Add to it regularly.

Richard Skaare 02.25.09

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Rereading (and Rethinking) Your Organization’s Classics

When you last read your organization’s annual report ... oh, sorry, you never read it?

How about the annual business plan? The code of conduct?

Well, pull them out because I want to chat with you about them for a few minutes. What’s that, you don’t know where they are?

We’re talking about important documents. They must be because no money or time is spared benchmarking them, jawboning in committees about content, and pressing out the wrinkles in the language. Yet, ironically – I mean, strangely – the audiences for whom those documents are intended do not scurry to read them or spend much time applying the information. Some do, but certainly not in the numbers hoped for.

Why is it that much more attention is paid to the annual report, business plan, and code of conduct -- the “classics” of the organization -- before they are published than afterwards? And why hasn’t management done much over the years to change the situation?

3 Reasons the classics are overlooked

1 The classics are intended to be gates but end up as bulwarks
Undoubtedly, the CEO and his/her management team are proud and bullish about the organization’s financial and people resources, and especially their potential. Consequently, they want to:
  • parade that good-news story in the annual report;
  • embolden the team with the business plan; and
  • ensure that employees continue to act like the good people they are by crafting a code of conduct for them.
However, what comes next is the delegation of good intentions to group processing. Those chosen as captains of the report, plan, and code projects are typically finance and legal, inside-out thinkers, who view communication as what people need to hear. Outside-in thinkers, who start with the audiences’ interests and work backwards, are assigned to the outfield.

For the inside-out captains, the challenge is not too difficult initially: simply clone documents from previous years or borrow similar language and formats from similar documents from similar organizations.

Then, cracks appear.
  • Someone argues for using “optimistic but guarded” rather than “confident” in the shareholder letter of the annual report.
  • The head of a new product division wants to up the ante on sales projections in the business plan and “push people to deliver.”
  • Yet another executive describes the reality of kickbacks in some countries and suggests that the language in the code of conduct may be too legalistic.
You know what happens from here. Numerous meetings and numerous iterations (I once wrote 32 drafts of a corporate annual report!). Personalities clash, credentials get flashed, and, in the end, weariness gives in to compromise and vanilla language. The gates of communication close; the organization's defensive bulwarks are refortified

2 The audiences know what’s in the classics. No need to read them.
  • The annual report highlights what happened last year, which most folks already know. Too bad investors – the audience – want to hear what’s likely to happen next year and the expected rewards of being “well-positioned,” as the report says. Since there are no surprises in the report, no groundbreaking developments, and no invitations to join in the discussion, there is also no need to pay much attention.
  • The business plan often is overly ambitious and strongly suggests that success will be achieved only if employees work harder than they were told to work in last year’s business plan. There’s usually not much in there about innovation and collaboration -- or about accountability for last year’s failures.
  • Simply put, the code of conduct is written for the exceptions – the people who screw up and those who cut corners -- not for ethical folks, or so employees think. And the miscreants certainly won’t be reading the code.
    • 3 Management marches on
      Having worked for and with CEOs over the years, I sense they are resigned to the fact that whatever meaty content they start with for the report, plan, and code inevitably will be ground into hamburger by group-think. In part, they give up, and, in part, getting on with the business is much more important than upending organizational democracy. At least the CEO has documents he can refer to when talking with shareholders and the media.

      Besides, the audience doesn’t seem to be upset that the classics are not more communicative than they are.
      • I have rarely seen shareholders coming into an annual meeting holding the previous year’s annual report and quoting “you said” to the CEO.
      • Rarely have I known master business plans to work their way down into departmental plans of every functions, including support functions, or into individual performance plans where they might get traction.
      • And the code of conduct didn’t seem to matter much to executives who over-promised, under-delivered, enriched themselves, and are now sorting mail in prison.
      In other words, those documents are important, they just don’t matter that much.

      I happen to think the annual report, business plan, and code of conduct, among other organizational classics, do matter. That’s why I have five remedies for curing what ails them.

      5 Remedies
      1. Annual report: The CEO should thoroughly read three drafts of the annual report, make changes, and raise questions. His/her changes are irreversible, and each successive draft should resolve the issues raised by the CEO on the previous draft. The final version goes to the CEO for approval after the heads of investor relations and communication have agreed that it will communicate effectively.
      2. Business plan: The litmus test for whether the plan is viable or not should be its ability to be translated into departmental and individual performance objectives. No translation, no plan.
      3. Code of conduct: Integrate this document with a “values” statement, call the combined piece “What We Believe, How We Show It,” and survey employees after a year to determine if it is working at street level.
      4. The annual report, business plan, and code of conduct should not be approved until they are linked to comprehensive, workable communication strategies.
      5. Humanize the classics.

      Richard Skaare 02.17.09

      Photo credit: Cam Uhlig, Camagine

      Tuesday, February 10, 2009

      A Preposterously Sensible,Workable
      Reorganization of Communication

      Here’s an idea to stir your imagination and crack your categories: create the position of Chief Communication Officer reporting to the CEO and have marketing, legal, and human resources report to her or him.

      How’s that for an attention-getter? Stay with me: there’s a purpose in my apparent madness.

      … most executives admit that quality communication -- listening, sharing, trusting, etc. -- is one of the greatest needs of the organization, right up there with robust sales and happy shareholders;

        And if … communication is everyone’s responsibility;

        And if … many, if not most, executives view communication in their organizations as poor because no one is taking the lead in defining and fostering it;

          Then … a Chief Communication Officer reporting to the CEO and with strategic and broad managerial authority is needed.
      3 Scenarios
        1 Marketing reports to Communication
        It makes sense – at least to management – that communication should report to the head of marketing, not the other way around. The logic goes like this: if market penetration and expansion are critical to an organization, and communication is critical to marketing, then why not link the two?

        I agree, as long as the “communication” function is defined for what it is: information distribution and promotion, nothing more. Call it Marketing Communication if the function actually engages the market in an exchange that defines needs and adjusts products to meet those needs. Otherwise, call it Product Promotion. And don’t assign the organization’s communication team to the marketing department for convenience. The function will default to product not organizational needs.

        If Communication were to manage Marketing:
        • current and prospective customers would be viewed as a major organizational stakeholder/audience and yet balanced against the value of other stakeholders (employees, shareholders, even the public);
        • new markets and products would be weighed against job gains and losses, risk to shareholders, corporate responsibility, and long-term impact -- all communication and perception issues;
        • data-sharing (non-confidential) would be expanded, inter-departmental and inter-regional collaboration would be increased, and efficient digital communication tools (intranet, wickis, social media, etc.) would be required.

        2 Legal reports to Communication

        Granted, this one may strike you as puzzling. However, think of the main problem we non-lawyers have with lawyers: puzzling language. Legal writing is a genre that no one reads except lawyers.

        Under the current corporate structure, the legal department makes a courtesy call (sometimes) to the head of communication to inform him or her about a matter that has already occurred or a decision that has already been made, and the communicator is expected to explain it, if necessary, to affected audiences. That often puts communicators in the position of creative weasel-wording.

        I have to get this off my chest, once more. The ultimate example of this scenario for me was being told by my company’s corporate lawyers that they had copyrighted the annual report – yes, copyrighted! – because they felt that reporters had misinterpreted information from the previous year’s annual report. I headed Corporate Communication, and I cannot tell you the number of reporters to whom I had to peddle a thin justification.

        If Communication were to manage Legal:
        • For starters, all concerned parties would be briefed on the circumstances that led to the legal group being involved in various issues;
        • legal documents would be approved only if someone without a legal background could understand them and only if they could be digested in 15 minutes;
        • law department activities would be transparent;
        • lawyers would be respected for their expertise, collaboration, and humanness; and
        • all staff lawyers would be required to complete a core curriculum of communication courses, with a focus on communication concepts and plain-English writing.

        3 Human Resources reports to Communication
        “Human Resources” is certainly a much improved label over the long used “Personnel,” and yet the name still suggests that people are in the same category as raw materials, money, and other resources that are managed, manipulated, and planned.

        Unfortunately, HR staffs have been perceived – often unfairly -- as people processors, more intent on policy and procedures than on potential. In some organizations, HR has spawned human resources development functions to create programs for developing potential. But shouldn’t the development of people be a total organizational mindset that focuses more on people mostly self-developing than on signing up for programs?

        If Communication were to manage Human Resources:
        • Employees would be viewed as one large social network with many nodes linking human sub-networks;
        • the network would have access to or at least know where to find non-proprietary information that managers now hold tightly on hard drives or forget to share;
        • formal training programs would continue to be offered but the emphasis would shift to encouraging, engaging, and channeling people toward informal learning;
        • empowerment would mean employees empowering themselves to generate ideas that improve the efficiency of the organization; and
        • loyalty would not be presumed but would be contractual: “I, the employee, promise to work hard and smart and to expand my abilities continuously to improve the organization in return for the organization providing me with the tools and communication to achieve and find satisfaction in my work and job role.
      The preposterous idea becomes workable only if the Chief Communication Officer matches the following:

      5 Criteria

      1. Know as much about business as about communication.
      2. Know as much about human dynamics -- interpersonal and group dynamics -- as communication tactics.
      3. Know the gaps in the communication staff’s knowledge and skills regarding marketing, legal, and human resources, and fill those gaps.
      4. Know the difference between information and communication, between form and function, and between innovative ideas and time-wasters.
      5. Think strategically, talk authoritatively, write convincingly, and enable others.

      Richard Skaare 02.10.09

      Friday, February 06, 2009

      Helping Your Unemployed Friend

      Remember when you were unemployed? I was once. That never happened to you? Then, you’re one of the few and the fortunate. I’m glad you haven’t gone through the debilitating experience … yet. However, given the current economic turbulence, you might.

      To weather the possible storm, you can learn a lot from -- and give a lot to -- a friend or former colleague who is unemployed. This is an opportune time to do unto others as you might someday want others to do unto you.

      Based on the experience of watching myself and others suffer the ordeal, here are three suggestions about what not to say to someone who has lost his or her job and five guidelines on how to truly help.

      3 Suggestions

      1 Don’t be a constant reminder
      Joblessness, I found, totally defines you. Joblessness is a full-time job and constant obsession. Endless hours are spent on the tedious mechanics of unemployment:
      • revising your resume
      • following up on leads
      • reporting to the unemployment office; and
      • calculating what expenses to cut.
      Then there are the emotional obligations: reassuring a spouse, answering the kids’ questions, and staying confident and optimistic.

      Even when going to a movie as a break from the pressure, you run into friends who greet you with, “How’s the job search going?” The comment sounds innocent enough and reflects a degree of empathy. Unfortunately, the question forces a self-respecting, half-truth, stock answer: “Really good. I’ve got some things going, a possible interview or two.” Even if you want to talk more about your search, you know people really are not interested enough to spend time with the details and the struggles.

      Alternative: Start conversations with your unemployed friend as if she is employed like you are. If and when she brings up the unemployment issue, only then ask questions and show your support. But let her initiate it.

      2 Don’t promise what you can’t deliver
      Friends want to help unemployed friends by sharing contacts. Again, it’s a kind gesture, and expanding one’s network is always good, of course. However, giving out contact information takes little time; following up with those contacts can be very time-consuming and unproductive for the job seeker. The contact person inevitably promises to think about opportunities. However, that person is not apt to remember the promise after a few weeks, and rarely does an opportunity arise.

      Alternative: Carefully select only relevant contacts, write -- or better yet call -- and ask them to give your friend 30 minutes face-to-face. In most cases, the answer will be yes. As a result of the meeting, your unemployed friend now has someone who will remember her.

      3 Don’t pretend to have the answers
      A once unemployed person typically offers no quick-fix answers when talking with a currently unemployed person. That’s because he knows the search is more about hard work, emotional perseverance, and luck. You may not fully understand this as a never-been-unemployed person, so be careful not to offer up the five tips that you just read in a magazine.

      Alternative: Think about what would likely get your attention if you were hiring someone. Share that perspective anecdotally at the appropriate time with your unemployed friend.

      5 Ways to support your unemployed friend
      1. Be there. If you care about your friend’s situation – I mean really care, like you say you do – assume that you will spend two hours per week minimum with him or her, not talking necessarily about the job search but just having fun, jabbering about nothing, but most important being available. When someone doesn’t have a job to go to and no one to talk with all day, noise, laughter, and companionship are premiums.

      2. Listen closely. Your unemployed friend may be withdrawn during this rough time or chattier. Move with his emotional flow. Sit quietly when he is quiet; talk it up when he does. By doing that, you are reflecting what he cannot see without you: loneliness, confusion, and hope because you simply are hanging in there with him.

      3. Help with the truth. Your friend will initially communicate that a new job is only a matter of weeks. The denial stage of the death process has set in. Let her ramble. But at a comfortable point, ask what’s frustrating her most about the search. Let her show her fear. Listen, reassure, and allow her to find her own way back to reality, possibly with some gentle guidance by you.

      4. Be patient. Finding a job will actually take months. Make sure you are prepared to stick with your friend for the long haul. The worst time for the unemployed is three months after losing a job, when people from the office or factory don’t readily return calls, and life for everyone besides the unemployed goes on normally.

      5. Make a sacrifice. There are lots of ways to do something tangible to help, such as taking care of your friend's children so she can get a break or loaning her your extra car for awhile. Offering something tangible sounds patronizing -- and it can be. However, I remember fondly when I was unemployed and my good friend said kindly and reassuringly that he would float me a few thousand dollars at any time if I got stuck. Then, he said nothing else. He didn’t have to. If you can’t say it comfortably, maybe you shouldn’t, but don’t avoid it either.
      Richard Skaare 02.06.09
      Photo credit: Mahi Teshneh