Listen Up!

earphonesWe all know people who like to talk.  Talk, talk, talk. And then talk some more. Even the most eloquent orators are best advised to shut up and listen once in awhile. Sometimes silence really can be golden.

Opening Remarks

Listening can be hard work, so it’s no surprise that so few people choose to engage in this challenging behavior. It really does take practice, and after all, who has time these days to do anything but say what they need to say and then move on to the next task or one-sided discussion?

We just have too much going on to care about what someone else is saying. Unfortunately, all too many people see listening as a non-productive use of their time.  When organizational leaders feel this way, sub-optimization cannot be too far behind.

Soliloquy & Segue

Ask any good musician what it takes to be successful. One of the tips they almost always give is that the best musicians listen to what others are playing. That’s how the great bands become more than just the sum of their parts.  Sure it’s always about having the chops necessary to play one’s parts; however, an unwillingness to listen – by even the most naturally gifted and talented player in the band – will keep the overall unit from reaching its potential.

Corporations, small businesses, governments, and non-profits alike, as well as the organizations within them, all work the same way in this regard. The bully pulpit that often attaches to leadership positions and subject matter expertise is a bit like Eve and that apple. Tempting as it may be to push the agenda forward as quickly as possible, those who keep talking and don’t listen run the risk of missing things. Sometimes the devil really is in the details…details which only become known by listening to what someone else has to say.

Rambling On

The lost art of  listening can lead to better solutions to every day business problems.  In many professions, it’s not unusual to get caught in the middle between functional and business leaders. There seems to really be no shortage of those situations that put proverbial body parts of employees within the tight grips of proverbial vises.  Not a fun place to be, but hardly unusual or unique.

Both protagonists and antagonists of high rank often tend to be quite good at making the meek, humble, and occupationally-dependent feel overwhelming and unhealthy senses of personal responsibility/accountability for whatever the problem is in a particular situation. Usually the “science” of the competing arguments is clear and at least somewhat justified. However, it’s the lost “art” of listening that is a lot less obvious in its potential to help everyone move past apparent impasse and productivity loss.

Closing Arguments

In arguing its case through you, does each side make its point in a way that considers that there is an opposing view that could have some merit? Are they stopping to get your opinion or just telling you how it is and how it’s going to be? Is self-promotion and/or self-preservation behavior evident? Do tone and word selection convey emotion?

Depending on the answers to these questions,  there’s probably not much to be gained at any level from matching word count, volume, or apparent strength of conviction. Sometimes it’s best to just let it all go down and be the sponge. Soak it all in. Walk away. Think. Let things chill a bit – especially if there’s been a precipitating event that touched things off.

Now just might be the time for everyone to ‘Listen Up!‘.

Build Something!

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Why not build something?  Something that will last.

Out there in the streets of corporate America, life seems to be getting tougher with each passing day. The pressure to achieve short-term results has never been greater. In fact, this pressure seems to be increasing exponentially.  Perhaps it is an idealistic delusion that tells us that by now we should be much further beyond where we are in this regard.  The good news is that each and every day places us at a series of crossroads. This is precisely where we can make choices about how we go about doing what it is we do.

While top-level objectives, especially earnings targets in public companies, are best and more safely viewed as fixed, there is probably greater latitude to build something that will last than first seems apparent.  There often exists some amount of room for artistic freedom, individual conscience, and long-term thinking in how we choose to go about meeting the top-level requirements.

Build products

Not everyone gets to play in the product sandbox every day when they go to work. However, those who do are in a great position to literally build something that will last rather than just build something that gets out the door quickly, works for a while, and then falls apart or stops working altogether. Engineers, brand managers, and ultimately production organizations collectively decide how long a tangible product that we as consumers buy will last.

Even with cost and go-to-market constraints, the decisions these folks make determine how long your car, refrigerator, or cell phone will last. Not that everything can or should last forever.  But building something that will last is ultimately good for a company and its stakeholders.

Build experiences

On the service side, sales representation, delivery, technical support, and customer service go together to define what is commonly called “customer experience”.  Depending on the business, billing, credit, and collections are financial areas that enter into the experiential realm.  And these days, who can deny the role of web sites and other IT services in building experience?

Building customer experience is not a slam dunk. It’s hard work and involves many pieces and parts of an organization. Applied to tangible product or services, for-profit and non-profit, building customer experiences that will last leads to market differentiation which ultimately builds brand equity. Building customer experiences that last is ultimately good for a company and all its stakeholders.

Build processes

Processes are the support systems that hold together entire product and service experience structures. Arguably the first two “builds” above are not likely to happen without first building processes that last. This is an areas where organizations who choose the easy short-term answers get burnt in the long-run. It is easy to build a process “house of cards”. It takes less time and costs less. Is it any great wonder that they fall apart just as easily?

Processes involve many people and departments throughout an organization.  As a result, they are very vulnerable to short-term cost pressures. Downsizing, reorganization, and ill-advised tinkering works against strength in process. When processes fail, entire companies, or at least businesses and individuals within them, fail because customers, products, and services are impacted. Building processes that last is ultimately good for a company and its stakeholders.

Build bridges

Regardless of what job we hold in our organizations, we all have the opportunity to build relationships that last. Always important but often overlooked as aspect of organizational life, this “build” becomes even more critical as our work forces take on greater cultural, generational, and geographic diversity. Acute short-term pressure for results in our Darwin meets Dilbert organizational lives makes this at the same time both more challenging and more important. In the end, it is people who make the product, experience, and process “builds” possible.

Building relationships that last is not about co-workers and colleagues wanting to become life-long friends. Some of that happens, but by odds and necessity, it will always be the exception rather than the rule. What this “build” is really about is having more people within the workplace actively trying to find the spans of understanding that add up to a better set of sustainable working relationships with which to accomplish the organization’s work. Building relationship bridges that last is ultimately good for a company and its stakeholders.

Build futures

Mentoring and helping others to become better future contributors to building things that last may indeed be reaching lost art status in today’s workplace and maybe even the greater world at large.  It is highly likely that the whole short-term pressure thing is causing this organizational casualty. Overwhelmed people in overwhelmed organizations find it next to impossible to take the time to develop people. Everyone is fully occupied trying to manage their own short-term issues in order to meet their own short-term requirements and needs. Who has time to worry about building others beyond the short-term need?

From a broad organizational sense, this has significantly weakened bench strength everywhere and has led to increased hiring from the outside when positions requiring experiences not found internally do open up. While it may be too soon to know the long-term impacts of all this, it seems likely that it will become even harder to build products, experiences, processes, and bridges that last. Building futures that last is ultimately good for the organization and its stakeholders.

Build something that will last

The good news is that it is definitely not too late.  Everyone just needs to become a bit more of a builder by trying to do just a little more with this one each and everyday. Even with today’s mountain of short-term pressures, individuals making the right choices collectively can build something. We can build something that lasts.

014“You may say I’m a dreamer. 

But I’m not the only one.” 

-John Lennon

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mission Accomplished

 

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Do organizations still revisit their mission statements as often as they used to? It doesn’t seem that way to me.

Were mission statements somehow downsized during our last recession? Perhaps business leaders increasingly saw talking about them as unproductive dalliance. Or maybe doing so just became corporately uncool for some other reason. Any of these explanations would do fine by me, but it can’t be that simple. Can it?

Frustrations & Qualifications

Some of the most frustrating experiences I have endured in life have occurred during mission statement discussions. These discussions occurred in a variety of organization settings. Large and small, for-profit and non-profit, it didn’t seem to matter. It seemed that no organization with which I was associated could resist the temptation to revisit its reason for being. With calendars blocked, the offsites were scheduled. Consultants were hired, and off we went…sometimes literally into the wilderness or out into those wide open spaces.

Then it seemed to stop. At least for me, it did.  Probably a career-saving kind of thing, as I ponder this welcome and productive development…savoring the moment for just a second or two.

So you can clearly see by now that I feel as if I have studied a lifetime in order to amass what it takes to respectfully address this vaunted topic. I have received passing grades at undergrad and graduate levels in the requisite subject matter. I have been trained by the masters and facilitated by the experts.  I have participated in mission statement discussions at just about every possible corporate level and also in non-profits as a volunteer.  One might go so far as to say that I have been repeatedly summoned to the mission to worship at its altar.

When We Need ‘Em Most

Picture yourself sitting in a room of smart talented individuals with a big pile of money on the table. Further envision that no one really knows for sure where the money came from or what it’s for. However, everyone in the room sees the seed money as some sort of a divine calling of capitalist intervention.

“What should we do with the money?” “Let’s invest it and the plow the dividends back in nanomaterial futures.” “No, we really should make a product.” “OK, I hear you, but how ’bout a service instead?” Energy and ideas fill the room. All that remains is to narrow the field, select a winner, and then write it down in as few words as possible in the form of a mission statement. Destination nirvana, utopia or some other similar realm of free enterprise!

(Note – it’s often the selection and placement of such key words such as “a”, “an” and “the” that takes the most time in mission statement discussions. You may also it find it useful to know that “in a way that”, “in order to” and “so that” are key linking phrases with which to show your mastery of mission.)

Reality Interlude

While a completely blank slate like the one above rarely becomes our reality, most would agree that such a case is definitely worthy of some good old-fashioned mission statement discussion. In fact, let’s go ahead and admit it right here.  It sounds like a lot of fun and would be a great problem to have!

Slightly further along our continuum of reality exists a collection of considerably more believable situations where necessity becomes the impetus for mission statement tweaks. When faced with market, regulatory, or technological disruptors, validating “what it is we that we do, why we do it, and for whom we do it” seems to make good sense as a necessary first step to articulating new identity aspirations and/or changes in direction.

Likewise, significant shifts in ownership, funding, or both should set even the most mission statement discussion-adverse folks like me running toward our multi-colored marker sets, flipcharts and powerpoints.

When We Need ‘Em Not So Much

However most mission statement discussions lack this degree of necessity.  In fact, many that I have seen proved to be completely unnecessary exercises that simply reaffirmed the obvious or were in the end very ineffectual discussions at best. At their worst, they were confusing, dividing, and borderline absurd. I have even seen people cry at these things. I guess discussing the obvious can become hugely emotional for some.

Despite the consumption of expensive resources, an annual reaffirmation of the current mission can make a few top people feel good about current direction and leadership. Obviously this would justify the cost. In one company, this ritual of inconsequential discussion featured idyllic, disconnected, and delusional generation of alternatives while the key issues that would ultimately cause the company significant pain remained off-limits and out of focus. Rome was burning, or at least the fire-starting sparks were assembling while we endlessly and inanely debated the unimportant.

So, it seems to me that having a good sense of corporate self-identity goes a long way to keeping the lines and arrows aligned along the right path. Organizations who do not understand their own DNA are likely to spend more time discussing it. A well run company has a way of letting its own results clarify its mission without wasting a whole lot of time and resources on defining it. I happen to work for one of these companies. We know what we do, why we do it, and for whom we do it.  Mission accomplished!

Got Feel?

Are you just going through the motions in your job?  Or do you feel it…you know, really feel it?

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Mixed Bag of Feel

Many people go to jobs each day that they outright hate or at least really don’t enjoy very much. Some people awake daily in pre-dawn hours and commute great distances for what – to basically be unhappy for eight hours plus. Each and every day. For various reasons, they do it – day after day, week after week, year after year.  Before they know it, they are locked into a seemingly unbreakable routine for their entire careers. Yes, doing jobs they don’t really like. For a lifetime. What gives?

Fortunately the opposite is also true. And quite often.  Real life people, with whom you come in contact and who seem to really enjoy what they’re doing, really do exist. Think about the guy takes your favorite deli sandwich to the next level.  What about the yoga studio owner who seems totally on this earth to be doing exactly what she’s doing? Then there’s that starving artist-type musician who effortless conveys  a sweet vibe of contentment with his or her art form.  Yes, these people are really out there.

And do you know what?  These people all have something in common. They got feel.

First Level of Feel

And what is this feel that these people got?  Well, for one thing – it is in knowing in their hearts and minds that they’ve picked the right trade, profession, or career.  Square pegs don’t fit in round holes, and when they do, we can see right through it.  As difficult as it was to say, I once counseled an exiting employee not to seek employment in another financial position.  Sometimes disconnects really are that fundamental and irreparable.  Fulfilling this first fundamental of feel requires having the natural talents or acquired learning to even get on the map of occupational or professional competency.

You won’t see this type of feel in a customer service representative who doesn’t enjoy helping people. You won’t see it in a sales person who doesn’t enjoy the challenge of overcoming objections and providing customers with solutions. You won’t see it an engineer who doesn’t have a natural inclination and facility around math and the applied sciences. And you won’t see it an accountant who isn’t good with numbers, the litigator who doesn’t enjoy persuasive debate, a veterinarian who doesn’t like animals, or the actress who shuns the camera.  You get the idea.

Second & Third Tier Feel

A second distinguishing characteristic of those who got feel is that they have a real connection to what they’re doing.  They aren’t just going through the motions.  It’s not just one size fits all, parts is parts, and doesn’t matter to me whether I’m selling refrigerators, automobiles, or timeshares kind of thing.  Ironically this lack of feel has a certain transparency about it that allows us to see right through it.

Some might refer to the feel of connection as passion, but it doesn’t even necessarily have to go that far.  That word can be a little strong at times and is often overused. The feel of connection can be as simple as a natural affinity for a particular industry or product group. For example, a high school drummer friend of mine has made what appears to be a pretty good career working for a cymbal company.  From his Facebook posts featuring outright stars of percussion and his product informational videos, you can tell he’s got feel.

Feel can also derive from cultivated interest or appreciation in what’s going on around you.  In other words, the attributes or foundational characteristics of those around you in the workplace or the business at hand can lead one to feel it.  Maybe your workplace is a non-profit that really makes a positive difference in people’s lives.  Or maybe your business provides a life-sustaining product or does research that ultimately increases our quality of life.   Perhaps you work for architectural firm that specializes in commercially unique design.  Even if your job is not directly involved in product or service delivery in one of these situations, you can still feel it. If you do, you got feel.

Do I got feel?

So, do I got feel?  Yeah, I got feel.  First off I picked one of the professions to which my natural aptitudes and abilities were well-suited.  You see, generically speaking, I am an accountant. There I’ve said it –  an accountant. You know, those folks who are routinely accused of not feeling anything let alone feeling it.  Those born without emotion, compassion, or ability to feel close to anything or anyone.  But it’s not that simple ever, is it?

Signing on to an accounting career pretty much involves agreeing that you will never be the star of the show. If you do become a star of your employer’s show, you either work in public accounting or your company has big problems.  Accordingly you agree to serve in a support role to the primary activities of your employer.  For me, it’s been a career that’s consisted of strong, relatively long runs with only three different employers.

The Wheel of Feel

So let’s spin the big wheel of feel, and we’re only going to need to spin it three times. But nonetheless, around and around she goes, where she stops, nobody knows…..

On our first wheel stop, feel came for me from the perfect corporate culture at the perfect time within which I very naturally cozied up to the company’s noble calling of digging limestone out of the ground, mixing it with specialty polymers, and creating the stunning visuals of resilient vinyl flooring.  Strange as it sounds, my feel for this particular business came from knowing that chemists, engineers, production crews, and product stylists knew how to generate market-leading floors that consumers really wanted to buy.  At least part of this theme would reprise.

Next stop for the wheel would be a marketing services fulfillment business where I never fully connected with the culture.  Because I was Controller and then CFO, there was a certain built-in professional feel for me because I was for the first time in my career able to call most of my own shots in a financial sense.  That part was a lot of fun.  So there was some feel in this respect, but the pick, pack, and ship mantra of the fulfillment industry left me less than fulfilled.  Ultimately in this case, feel and fulfillment did not go together in the final analysis.

As the third wheel stop clicks into place, my connection of feel emanates from an association with an electronics business whose stars are smart in ways that I am clearly not and never will be. To me, it’s hugely impressive (in similar fashion to the aforementioned vinyl mine) that electrical engineers, product managers, and sales/marketing folks can go from design to build to market with solutions that are truly cutting edge from a technology point of view.  To these stars, the products and their own accomplishments are not necessarily anything more than “what it is that we do”, but to me and to others in our larger corporate family, what these people do has a certain geek is chic mystique to it. And it is very impressive.

Huge non-financial dividends of feel exist for those in support positions such as mine who go beyond the sea of mind-numbing part numbers to really feel what is all around us.  On the functional side of the organization, there’s the additional feel kicker of being part of a very highly accomplished and skilled corporate finance team that keeps me on my toes and engaged.

So oh yeah baby, I got feel. Do you?

Can’t Refuse

When Don Corleone is talking to you, sometimes what follows is an offer that you just can’t refuse.  Often the smart money says to take it. Otherwise you could end up like Luca Brasi. You know, swimming with the fishes! 

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Opportunity Knocks

This is true even in Corporate America.  A Godfather-like opportunity came my way about a year and a half ago.  It was truly an offer I couldn’t refuse. Fortunately it was in a corporate setting and didn’t carry with it the full and final existential impact of a mafia movie plot.  It was much more subtle, but a top company official took the time to call me several times to provide counsel and input on a job opportunity that had rather suddenly come my way within the company.

It was clear that I should take the job, but it wasn’t very clear as to why I should take it or what would happen if I didn’t.  Despite rumors, rumblings, and other innuendo on the corporate street corners, information was sketchy out there in the land of organizational ambiguity. Clearly others knew more about the situation than I did, but perhaps an organizational omerta kept them from talking.

After I had accepted the new job and after the passage of some time with little to no action to fill my prior position, I realized that I had indeed accepted one of those offers you really just can’t refuse.  Rather suddenly or so it seemed, I now had two jobs!

Two Jobs & Quick Math

When confronted with confusion, chaos, and/or crisis, most people naturally revert back to their innate strengths.  For me – a guy who has demonstrated some facility with numbers over the years – this meant that situational clarity would be attained via some quick math.  As it turned out, I didn’t really need excel to perform the arithmetic functions to yield the result that having two jobs was considerably better than having no job.

You see… sometimes out there in Corporate America, top executives see opportunities for cost savings. Often the people who get to be high-ranking corporate executives are really good at this.   It’s almost like a golfer who can hit a wedge that lends on the green and backspins to the hole not taking that club out of the bag when they need a good shot to keep pace or exceed the competition.  It’s an everyday go-to must-do can’t-pass it by kind of thing.

So by now we all should see it very clearly.  Having two jobs really was an opportunity.  The organization and its leaders had expressed considerable confidence in me or had concluded that the downside risks were manageable.  You know, how much damage could this guy with two jobs do in a year’s time?  So, it was with great enthusiasm and gusto that I moved forward with this new dual role gig.

First Responders & Roadside Assistance

Because people not positions make up organizations, boxes on an organizational chart are simply empty shapes until someone breathes life into them.  Enter the human and organizational aspects that became so much a part of what developed into a great learning experience. The dual role assignment became nothing short of a fantastic vantage point in the human behavior laboratory.  As is the case at most accident scenes, first responders are the ones who get there first. Unlike most accident scenes, first responders in Corporate America aren’t necessarily there to provide roadside assistance.

“Boy, you really got screwed.”, was the commentary vocalized by several first responders. Interestingly, several of these folks later (through no action of mine) became cost savings. Others said, “Wow, how are you going to do all that work?”… “You’re going to have to sleep here.”…  Also interrogatively whispered from the shadows on more than one occasion was, “Now, what are you going to do?”.

Get the picture? It was definitely a “good luck with that, buddy” kind of vibe.

Rugged Individualism is Human Nature

True to human nature and the rugged individualism that often governs survival in Corporate America, not offering to help is actually not about wishing ill will on a colleague.  It is also a huge difference from people who thrive on throwing others under buses.  Not offering to help is about self-interest . From a very early age, people are conditioned to take care of number one because no one else will.  This starts as children. Children eventually grow up to become coworkers.  It’s life’s natural order.

No one really ever assigned me hero status or knighted me for agreeing to take on the dual role challenge.  Nor were they willing to cut the guy with two jobs any slack. It really was at times very cold and thankless. Not to mention lonely when the building routinely cleared out at night and was otherwise empty on weekends.  Everyone still expected all of the previous deliverables from both positions even though it was now only one person fulfilling them.

I’m sure someone somewhere wanted to me fail or at least struggle mightily, but I must say indifference and/or self-absorption were the most prevalent themes. There are a lot worse parts of human nature that could have surfaced but didn’t. For this, we give thanks.

Opportunities & Rewards

The dual role situation became an excellent opportunity to improve processes.  Necessity became of the mother of invention. Financial positions offer very little latitude on meeting deadlines.  You either meet them, or you’re gone.  Controllers keep the trains running on time and get their passengers from point A to point B in the most efficient way possible.  To do this in dual role mode required new approaches and fresh thinking.  And not just on my part.

This again brings us back to that inescapable factor in organizations -people.  The dual role situation required that people change what they were doing if the collective was to succeed.  This may not have been initially comfortable for all. However, embracing new ways of doing things and actually doing more and different things became SOP within the work group. Moving beyond comfort zones brought with it accelerated employee development.

In the final analysis, my single biggest reward from the dual assignment was seeing an employee who knew they would be exiting the company through related organizational change get a very good next position with a new employer. Accountant II easily moves to Accounting Manager in new position – in good part the result of experience gained from….well….an offer I just couldn’t refuse.

Sometimes when you pick up the phone it just may be an offer you just can’t refuse.  You don’t ever really know, do you?

 

Opportunity Knocks

“Well you can judge the whole world on the sparkle that you think it lacks.  Yes, you can stare into the abyss, but it’s starin’ right back.”– Dawes (When My Time Comes)

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Starin’ Straight Back (Photo by TWS)

Yep, so it’s starin’ straight back alright. The next move is yours.  What will it be?

 

The Abyss

Like any art form, song lyrics are interpretive.  And any art that evokes response must then really be art.  Laughing, crying, reminiscing, or simply experiencing art as the narrative to everyday situations are all legitimate responses to art.  Yes, even applying art to one’s business challenges and to corporate life falls well within scope.

While no doubt far from the intention of its authors, the above Dawes lyric struck a chord with me the very first time I heard it. Part of its impact is inextricably tied to the the word itself. Abyss.  Even just to say it seems cool.  This near-onomatopoeiaic word conjures imagery. The Dawes lyric’s personification of the word is irresistible to me as metaphor for corporate life.

When Your Time Comes

Sure, corporate life is about survival, but it also should be about leaving the corporate world a better place than it was when you first arrived there.  Or at least it should be. It’s just that basic, and it is hugely essential to health and vitality – both individually and corporately.  Opportunity knocks each and everyday. It’s what we do with it individually and collectively that counts.

If  your immediate field of work life vision triggers keyword =abyss, then you really do have some options. One option is to run. Move as quickly as you can in the opposite direction. Actually, this may really sometimes be the best option. Another is to blend in with your surroundings or hide. You can elect to seek cover. Wait it out.  Don’t do anything that calls attention to yourself.  Beware- as you may find crowds in these shadows feeding organizational entropy.

Or get this one.  You can make a conscious choice to add and/or otherwise transfer positive energy via collaborative interchange. Be bold, but in a good way. Build momentum toward a better tomorrow.  Do things that benefit the collective and not just yourself. Make that corporate world a better place – yes, one conference call, email, or spreadsheet a time. Can you imagine what impact this could have if everyone consistently did this?

Return to Reality

In Corporate America, idealism yields to practicality each and every day.  There can be no other way.  It must be this way in order maintain the general order of the corporate form that is required to achieve business objectives.   Like most things though, this is true only up to a point.  At some point, contemporary business realities may go too far. If so, how and when did we reach this point?

Yes, hang around long enough and you think you’ve seen just about everything.  Until you see the next thing. We all know what it looks like. On a daily basis, we may very seriously contemplate what we can do that could actually make a difference. Even the best of the idyllic lot need to pick their spots as they endeavor to fix what’s broken. One can’t fight every battle and expect to remain standing at the end of every day.  So how then should we go about making things better?

The answer is all about touch points, footholds, and easier-said-than-done….not expending too much energy in the wrong places. Building positive coalitions of competent like-minded people at the level of the work itself is a good way to go.  Employing Golden Rule behaviors and treating people at all levels of the organization in the way in which you would want to be treated is always a worthwhile investment to make.  You can then see who responds in with like-kind ROI.  And who doesn’t.

Building trust among those of the like-kind ROI persuasion encourages shared responsibility and greater safety for taking risks that promote beneficial process change.

The Abyssus Colossus

Within organizations, there often exists a critical mass, who through a combination of action and inaction, are the custodians of the abyssus colossus. They’re the ones that are “starin’ right back” – at those who seek to affect positive change.  With street level facades that more than often look appealing in especially upward organizational directions, these folks seek to maintain the status quo. Seemingly at all costs. Acting in ways that shut down change-oriented behavior.  For some, this becomes a full-time job and a career epitaph.

Of course, you’ll need to be realistic about how much change you can affect and over what period of time.  For example, large public corporations tend to be more dynamic than smaller family owned businesses but are sometimes every bit as hard to influence. Cultural change may require turnover in key positions before processes and people can flourish.  In private companies, thinking you can outlast an owner, family member, or other high ranking official who has all but surgically attached their head, nose, and/or face to the posterior of ownership is probably a fool’s bet.

Above all, it’s important to always keep in mind that ultimately an organization is the summation of its processes and people.  This is where change begins or ends, so if you’re starin’ into an abyss, well….. the next move really is yours. It really is.

abyss

noun \ə-ˈbis, a- also ˈa-(ˌ)bis\

: a hole so deep or a space so great that it cannot be measured

 1
:  the bottomless gulf, pit, or chaos of the old cosmogonies
2
a :  an immeasurably deep gulf or great space

 

b :  intellectual or moral depths

 

 

Even HR

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Short-term pressure for financial results is intense. Companies turn to outsourcing as they try even harder to hit their numbers.  All company functions and departments have fallen under increased scrutiny – even HR.

First Friend

A recent WSJ article (“Companies Say No to Having an HR Department”) highlights this point by providing a few examples of where centralized Human Resources departments have been eliminated (link). Part of the article’s appeal no doubt lies in implied irony and the fact that the mere mention of HR has broad appeal to anyone who has ever had a job.

In most cases, HR is the first line of contact for a job candidate.  In this sense, HR at least temporarily becomes the face of the company. Once a new employee is hired, HR maintains a daily presence in the employee’s life by shepherding the on boarding and orientation. Be it benefits enrollment, relocation assistance, or clarification of work rules and policies, most employees quickly come to view HR as their first friend in a new neighborhood.

Outsourcing Candidate

The varied nature of HR activities makes it a very interesting candidate for outsourcing. Under the outsourceable category, there exists a transactional piece of HR that can be serviced via self-service employee portals. Employees get used to, and may actually in many cases prefer, having their benefits and other employee data impersonally reside somewhere out “in the cloud”. So far so good, but this was the easy part. The rest of the picture is not as clear. In fact, far from it.

One of the justifications cited in the article for outsourcing HR is the concept of moving HR responsibility closer to the action by decentralizing it geographically and organizationally to become an increasingly on site activity performed by departmental managers and supervisors. In my view, this flies in the face of the primary value-adds of an effective HR organization. These are consistency and structure.  As organizations grow, consistency and structure become obvious imperatives to support operations and protect the company.

Putting functions like compensation, hiring and firing, organizational development, performance appraisals, regulatory compliance, and benefits administration into the hands of line management pretty much guarantees that things very quickly turn into amateur hour with little hope for consistency and structure.  It becomes a very hard to control free for all, Wild West-like, swashbuckling, Darwinesque and Dilbert-like compilation of HR practices that can put the company and its assets at risk when placed in the wrong hands.

So, the answer to today’s question as to whether I think companies should outsource, eliminate, or decentralize their HR departments is a resounding no.  Good HR people add value and help businesses.  I have seen it first hand, so I know it’s true!

Bread and Butter

Now here’s where employees who view HR in a certain way walk right into a good old-fashioned haymaker about to be thrown by yours truly.  While appearing to be right-handed and thrown from over the top, this punch really comes from some down and dirty, out in the streets, Golden Gloves corporate experiences with HR.

“Some workers say they feel the absence of an in-house HR staff acutely, especially when it comes to bread-and-butter HR responsibilities such as mediating employee disputes and resolving pay problems.”

Bread and butter – really? Well, no – not really. In fact, stop and get a hold of yourself if you agree with that statement.

Because HR is that first friend, many employees mistakenly believe that the primary function of an HR department is to help them.  While this may be part of the service HR provides to employees who look to HR for such support, it is not from my experience the primary reason HR exists.  What many employees fail to realize is that a large part of what HR is there to do is to protect the company, its owners, and its assets.  It is certainly not the only thing HR does; however, it is arguably one of the most important.

Protectors & Informers

A great example of HR as protector can be seen by those expecting HR to prevent bullying and legal harassment.  HR is likely to address injurious behavior targeting a member of protected class because this constitutes illegal harassment.  By addressing it, HR protects the company from lawsuits, fines, and potentially costly settlements.  Absent HR perception of a legal or regulatory threat, a lot of questionable behavior goes unaddressed. Phone it in – it’s just real life in the trenches.

Enter HR as informer. Assuming confidentiality while venting to or kibitzing with HR can be risky business because at some point your information and views may be interpreted by HR as constituting part of its protective duty.  While not necessarily recognized at the time by HR or employee to have much significance, sometimes these conversations later become increasingly relevant in HR’s view of its duty to protect.

Yes, when I finally write my first best-selling business book, all major corporate functions and their associated heroes, villains, triumphs, and tragedies will be there with us -even HR.

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