Monthly Archives: November 2013

Thanksgiving, a Matter of Selective Reflection. Read this Story to Learn More

Back when I was serving as VP of Resources for Living, the employee assistance program for Wal-Mart, Kroger, Bridgestone, and other Fortune 500 companies, a young African American woman(I knew this because she told me so) called called our service and I happened to be available to take her call.  She was terribly distraught.  She was crying uncontrollably for the first few minutes of the call.  When she was finally able to talk she told me that she was considering taking her own life.  She said that her mother had kicked her out of her house and that she was now living with a relative.  She said she did not know why her mother was so angry or what to do to rebuild this relationship, because her mother refused to speak with her.  She simply felt helpless and hopeless.

As a counselor, I wanted to know about her resources and support system, so I began to ask questions that would give me insight into these things that I knew would be essential to her future well-being.  I affirmed her relationship with her aunt and she agreed by indicating that they had a loving relationship, and had been told that she could stay as long as necessary.  When I asked about her job she said she had a good job, enjoyed her work and had a lot of good friends there.  This led me to believe she probably had completed high school so I asked about her school experience and about friends that she may have carried over from highschool. She said that most of her friends in high school took a different path than she, became pregnant, were on welfare or involved in drugs.  I commended her for completing high school and asked her what motivated her to take a different path..  She said she completed school with good grades in order to compete as an athlete in track & field.  She said she still keeps up with her fitness by running three miles every day.  I commended her and told her that this really is unique compared to most people her age.

She turned the conversation back to her accomplishments at school.  She said that the athletic competition motivated her to stay focused academically since good grades were required to compete.  I asked how well she did in her track experience.  She said she had won several competitions and had actually been offered a full scholarship to a nearby college.  I again commended her with an amazement at her accomplishments and asked if she planned to attend college.  She said she was not sure, but, now that it was on her mind, she would consider checking into it further.

After about a half hour into our conversation, she stopped me and said she had to go get a pen and paper, and quickly dropped the phone and then returned.  I asked what that was all about.  She said that the felt better than she had in weeks.  I could tell that her mood had changed significantly from the beginning of the conversation.  She said that she was so THANKFUL for our conversation, and went on to say that no one had ever told her all the things that I had told her and that she wanted to write them all down.  I responded by informing her that I had told her nothing, but that it was she that had told of all her accomplishments, and of all the positive things in her life.  All I did was ask a few questions.  She excitedly agreed.  She said that she really wanted to keep these things in the forefront of her thinking and said she was going to list these on a piece of paper and tape it to her bathroom mirror so she could read them every day before she left her house.  She said she wanted to be reminded that she is worthwhile, unique, quite talented, and has so much to live for and to be THANKFUL for.  Think about it.  She had:
  • A loving and supportive relationship with her aunt
  • A good job which provided resources to provide for herself
  • She had good support from friends at work as well
  • She had achieve significant success where others of her peers had not
  • She had completed high school where others had dropped out
  • She had achieve success in track and field
  • She had opportuities waiting for her in the form of a scholarship
  • She was capable of making great choices and overcoming personal challenges
Since we had not talked much about her mother, I asked again about it.  She said that she still did not have a good answer for that, but that she was certain that she would be okay even if things did not get better between them.  I suggested she call again to discover some ways she could try to work things out with her mother.   I also asked about her suicidal thoughts and she said that she no longer felt badly enough to harm herself.  in fact, she said she felt quite hopeful about her life and her future. 

Three weeks passed before I heard from her again.  She said that she was doing really well.  She said she still lived with her aunt, and that her relationship with her mother was slowly improving.   She said she still sees the list every morning and is reminded that even when a few things are not going well, that there are a lot of other good things about her life that she can be THANKFUL for and on which she can focus.

This person has been an inspiration to me since that call.  You see, THANKFULNESS is simply a matter of selective reflection.  What she had chosen to reflect on before our call had overwhelmed her.  Was it a problem?  Certainly.  But it can only overshadow the strengths and resources she had if she allowed it to.  She shifted her focus to her strengths and resources and used those to give her the strength to handle the challenges she faced.  Now that is a skill she can use for a lifetime.

No one’s life is a rose garden.  Use this holiday season to take some time to reflect on the things you CAN be thankful, and use those resources to tackle the challenges that life throws at you.

Happy Thanksgiving.


Obamacare and Unintended Consequences

Is it too far-fetched to believe that this new Obamacare law could have unintended consequences?  People don’t like being forced to spend their hard earned money, especially on things they don’t want.  And they hate it even more when it results in a reduction in lifestyle or status.   Read on.

I have been a workplace violence prevention consultant since 1992.  When I was Vice President of Resources for Living, I worked closely with Wal-Mart to develop their workplace violence prevention strategy in the 90s and trained their (and other Fortune 500) Loss Prevention team to manage threats.   For several years I was on call at the home office in Bentonville to collaborate with a multi-disciplinary team to develop effective responses to incidents that were considered threatening.   The company I worked for was an Counseling Service that was the brainchild of Sam Walton and one of my graduate school professors.  We had a bank of professional counselors who took calls from Associates and their families to help them with any personal issue they had.  We provide over 40,000 counseling sessions each year, free of charge to these employees.

We also created a manager’s hotline to help managers support their Associates who frequently approached them with a personal need which they were not equipped to handle.  Sometime we would coach the manager.  Sometime the manager asked us to offer support directly to the Associate. 

From time to time managers found themselves facing unusually challenging personnel issues.   These were situations that had the potential to result in violence, such as when they became aware of an associate who was the victim of domestic violence and it threatened to come into the stroe, or when an associate demonstrated behaviors that were way out of the norm or appeared to be more threatening to others.

This was in the mid to late 90s and a time when workplace violence was synonymous with “going postal”, due to the rash of workplace violence outbreaks experienced by the U.S. Postal Service around that time.  What was interesting to me was that the two entities were about the same size, around 800,000 employees.  Yet they were so different.  Wal-Mart had never experienced a disgruntled employee committing violence in the workplace.  I was curious as to what made the difference, and continued to open my training with Managers, Executives and Loss Prevention Associates with this discussion.  

The obvious things were also what you might read in most workplace violence prevention literature.  Things such as the culture of respect for the individual that was foundational to Wal-Mart, versus, the hierarchical, “us-versus-them” culture that permeated the unionized Post Office.  The direct and respectful communications, and Open Door culture that were apparent at Wal-Mart, versus the “tell it to your union steward” mentality that frequently reflected the level of concern that many post office managers demonstrated to their employees.

The one thing that I had never read in the literature or heard from the “experts” in this field became apparent to me during this time.  The people who worked in both organizations on the front line were comparable, meaning that they came from similar socioeconomic and educational backgrounds.  One primary differentiator at the time was that the Post Office paid a much higher wage and had much richer benefits than Wal-Mart.  A person with a high school education working at the post office could pull in considerably more money than a similarly qualified person workng at Wal-Mart.  Now don’t feel sorry for the Wal-Mart employee.  They were being paid competitively to jobs similar to theirs in similar locations.   If a Wal-Mart employee lost their job for any number of reasons, they could easily walk across the street to another retailer or similar establishment and get a job at a similar pay rate.  This was simply not the case for the post office employee.  When this person’s job was threatened and they begin to look around to find a job with their experience and education level, the could find nothing.  They were looking at jobs with half the pay or less.  When their jobs were threatened by their managers, or when they were feeling as if they were not being heard or respected, they had few alternatives for employment where they could maintain their lifestyle.  It’s no wonder that the place erupted in so many explosive episodes.  Now, to the credit of the post office, after experiencing several of these types of incidents, they began to change the culture and work more closely with the union to build a more respectful environment.  They trained their managers and changed out the ones who could not make the adjustment.

You are probably asking, what does this have to do with Obamacare?  The imposition of an unwanted tax that impacts a person’s lifestyle or family’s financial well-being frequently triggers irrational responses from people, as they try to regain control or make a statement about the unfairness of a situation.  While there have certainly been problems with the health insurance exchange website, I believe that one of the reasons that the enrollment figures are currently so low, is that people go on line and see what the costs will be and simply refuse to participate, in defiance of the law.  (I mean, if the president can do it, why can’t they?) So far, no one has yet been forced to pay up.  When that finally happens (either due to an illness without insurance, or fines for non-participation) people’s lifestyle will be impacted.  They will have to make choices between protecting their family with healthcare insurance, or feeding, clothing, or providing transportation for them.  When these essentials of life are threatened, people don’t always behave rationally.  They frequently look for people to blame.  When their voice is not heard and they don’t know what else to do, they begin to look for justice, or for ways to regain control.  That’s when there is escalating potential for greater irrationality.  That is when their is greater likelihood for the story to change.

When people in the media investigate incidents of violence, they and the friends and neighbors of the perpetrator often claim that “he just snapped”.   Those of us who do this type of consulting know that people don’t snap.  There are always signs that lead to the violence, or triggers that become the final straw that leaves them resorting to violence as their method of resolution. 

I will never forget the time I was flying with one of my colleagues into Tampa, Florida.  When we landed, the news was reporting an incident of violence in which a beach maintenance worker, who had been terminated a couple years prior, returned to his work station and killed three or four of his former co-workers.  As I read heard the news, I recall commenting to my colleague, “I wonder what the trigger was that set him off today?”  The following day’s news report described the gentleman who had been terminated.  They mentioned that he had been having difficulty finding another “good” job.  Then they mentioned that they had learned from people they interviewed that the day before the incident of violence, his hot water heater and gone out, and he was distraught because didn’t have the money to replace it.  I told my colleague, “That was the trigger.”  Even two years after his termination, he blamed his treatment by these colleagues and the people who terminated him for his current situation.  He had held it together for several years, until it seemed as if it was out of his control.  Irrational?  Yes.  Unjustifiable?  Definitely.  Tragic?  Yes.

This kind of irrationality is just one of the reasons companies offer severances and outplacement services to people they terminate.  It gives them a softer landing and a focus on a better future.  Unfortunately, the option of personalized outplacement is being traded for sterile online interactions with little resemblence to the support that is needed for effective outplacement.  I am not seeing the soft landing for those impacted by the skyrocketing cost associated with Obamacare.   I believe the outrage by the American people is what is causing the regular delays of the implementation of the law.  The question that must be answered is, Is it possible that we may see more irrational responses as the reality of this new law is felt, if it is ever fully implemented?

People seldom leave companies. They leave managers

The exit interview says they left for another position, yet that is seldom the full story.

The statement, “People seldom leave companies.  They leave managers” was confirmed by Gallup research several years ago and popularized in the book, First Break All the Rules, by Buckingham and Coffman.  We have all worked for someone who called themselves leaders, but demonstrated few of the qualities and characteristics necessary to engage their people, and draw out the best from them.

Do any of these managers sound familiar:  How about the leader who relies on one successful business venture as sufficient credibility that should cause employees in the new company they lead to overlook their over-controlling behavior?  Or the leader who stays riveted to the scoreboard and never inquisitively engages his customers or his employees?  Or the leader who is so introverted and conflict avoidant that they never have direct performance management conversations with their direct reports, then, without warning they simply terminate them and  declare their presence in a “right to work” state as justification for their poor leadership?  Or how about the leader who is so insecure that they frequently tell you they are threatened by your presence, competence, gender, and the confidence that senior leadership in the organization has in your skills and abilities?     Or how about the senior executive who believes she has an open door, but never ask department employees how they are doing, or how effective her leaders are.  (Check out my January 2013 posts regarding the Open Door)?  Or the leader who has a 50% turnover rate in their department and never addresses it? Or how about the leader that makes it clear that you “should” join him in his after-hours frivolities that run counter to your values? Or how about the leader who yells, screams, cusses, and swears out of one side of his mouth, while preaching the company’s core values of respect for others out the other?  These are just a few stories I have heard in my years  coaching.  I am sure you can add to this list of leadership horror stories. 

People who work for these leaders will generally give their best out of their own integrity while trying to survive in these dysfunctional environments.  But they know they have so much more to give.   The leader’s track record of success or promotion leaves little incentive to change their management style, leaving employees with limited choices.  Knowing they will not thrive or reach their potential in such an environment, the bail at the first opportunity. 

It is worthwhile noting that as we move into 2014, job satisfaction rates are back at pre-recession levels.  People are no longer simply satisfied to have a job.  They are actively looking again.  On top of this, it is predicted that the availability of Obamacare will finally provide many with the freedom to launch out on that entrepreneurial venture they have dreamed about. 

When this happens these same leaders will blame employees for their lack of engagement, decry their high turnover, as if they had nothing to do with it, squall about the 50-60% “derailment” rate of the leaders they lead, and refuse to look in the mirror, to take responsibility, and recognize that they are what’s really broken in their organization. 

Other organizations, recognizing that leadership is totally responsible for engagement, satisfaction and turnover will bring in new leaders to right the ship.  We see it everyday.  Great leaders take underperforming teams, even those that have been labeled as a problems (by one of the leaders described above), and turn it around to achieve stellar results.  The organizations that take up this leadership challenge and correct or eliminate the dysfunction, and develop leaders with the skills, values, desire and accountability for leading and developing people for stellar results; these are the organizations that will come out on top when the talent churn begins.  They will be talent magnets.  They will outperform their competition at every level, and they will have a culture where employees want to work and where customers want to spend their time and money.
How are your leaders doing?  Don’t be deceived.  Ask their employees.

Leadership and The Art of the Question

I was asked to coach an individual who had recently completed his master’s degree and had been in a development position for high potential leaders in his company for about two years.   He was becoming a bit frustrated, because he believed he was ready to lead an operating unit of the organization which the position was preparing him for.  However, from the perspective of the company leadership, he was far from ready for the promotion.  While he knew more than most about the technical side of the business, and was filled with all sorts of ideas for improving operations, they knew he would have been a disaster to the organization, would alienate people who would see him as arrogant and condescending, and would ultimately fail and leave the organization, probably involuntarily.  Their hope was that executive coaching would help him address his interpersonal challenges and learn to lead in a new way. 

I made it clear to the organization that they would have to help him understand that his job was on the line and that termination was likely to be his only option if these changes were not made.  After they made these things clear he and I entered a year long coaching engagement.  Though the message was difficult for him to hear, it was evident that he wanted to stay the course and turn things around.  It became apparent that no one before these leaders (including his parents) had taken the time to confront him about his arrogance (which was a blind spot to him), or cared enough to invest in efforts to help him change. 

The first “aha” came when I told him that the people he would be charged with leading had been in the organization for many years and had seen lots of leaders, just like him, come and go.  Some they loved and some they hated.  Many they tolerated, but spewed out as quickly as possible (which organizations frequently do).  Only a few got results.  I helped him understand that , while, the goal was not so much to be loved as it was to get results, I also helped him understand that his future depended greatly on getting results that would last beyond him, and that this could only come when he helped the people he led to begin to think differently about their work. 

The turnaround in his leadership style came when he began to understand the value of asking good questions, and the art of doing so effectively.  He learned that it is much easier to have good ideas and simply announce them to people and have them implement them (positional authority), than it is to help them discover the ideas for themselves and change their behavior because they believe in the change rather than because “the boss said so” (personal authority).  Through the coaching process he learned to ask questions in a way that was truly inquisitive rather than condescending.  He learned to ask questions that would get people to think about their business as they never had before.  He learned to give them the responsibility and accountability for presenting good ideas, and to ask questions that help shape their thinking rather than criticize an idea that had not yet taken everything he knew into account.    In the midst of it all he learned that helping people discover their competency and capability was more energizing for him and for the people he led.  He also heard a lot of people say that “No one ever taught me as much as you have.”  To which he responded, “I was simply asking questions. You were the one who had the answers all along.” 

Today, he is having a blast leading in his organization in a new way, one that blends the value of respecting others with the belief that capable people can achieve far more than they dreamed possible, when they have the right kind of leadership. 

On a side note, let me be sure to clarify that I understand the value of positional authority, but as an old friend of mine use to tell his managers, “Everyone knows you have a badge and a gun.  Don’t show them unless you are ready to use them.  And that should be rarely.”