Sunday, October 31, 2010

Don't Phone in Your Performance

NPR's termination of their correspondent Juan Williams via a phone call after his questionable comments on the Fox Network has grabbed headlines over the last week.

Williams' termination has a number of fascinating facets to consider, and I'd like to focus on how he was terminated by NPR:  via a phone call.  Look how it has bruised NPR's reputation. 

Specifically, terminating an employee by phone (or email, or text message, or by any other electronic or non-electronic means, such as the U.S. Mail) who is not a danger to themselves or others is inauthentic, disrespectful and just not good business. Videoconferencing is even a stretch. 

In the case of terminations for cause, e.g. theft, progressively documented poor performance, failure to adhere to company policies, failure to work scheduled hours, etc., when documented accurately and communicated consistently, the face-to-face discussions are actually brief and to the point.  No surprises.  The employee has effectively terminated themselves.  And they usually feel bad and take responsibility during the discussion, and occasionally apologize.  That's what happens when you conduct the disciplinary / termination process authentically, and consistently, without making exceptions, particularly potentially discriminatory exceptions. 

When you operate from a premise of truth and you have prepared in terms of documentation, procedure and contingency, the face-to-face discussion, and your potential discomfort in the anticipation thereof, take care of themselves.

Several good reasons which support the good old-fashioned face-to-face method, and your courage to take that route.

I am also a strong advocate of having the supervisor drive the termination discussion. After all, they are the organization's management representative with the best first-hand knowledge of the employee's performance, in continued support of authenticity.  As the HR subject-matter expert, of course I don't mind sitting in on termination discussions to support the supervisor and provide the recommended witness to such discussions.  If a supervisor is inexperienced and asks for help, I will drive the discussion for them as a coaching moment to train the supervisor in order to prepare them to drive their next termination discussion.

Delegating a termination discussion to HR "because they're the experts" deprives both the employee and the supervisor of dignity and closure.

I've experienced very few exceptions where termination by phone or mail make sense.  One memorable example is the employee who was constructing weapons and storing them at their work station.  Upon discovery of their cache, I walked them out of the building and subsequently mailed their termination letter to them, return receipt requested. I was spared the potential safety issue of being in the same room with them thereafter when they dropped their unemployment insurance claim after I included a picture of their weapons in the employer's document challenging their claim.

In Williams' case, there doesn't appear to be any safety issues:  he just shot off his mouth and subsequently shot himself in the foot:  metaphorically speaking, of course.

Another example is acting as a witness by phone to a manager in a remote location while he terminated his employee in person.

In our roles as managers and leaders (and in general), unquestionably, both difficult and good news is best delivered face-to-face.  In the case of Juan Williams, I would have advised the decision-maker to first take a step back and quickly plan the most authentic course of action to best support the needs and esteem of all parties involved.  Terminating Williams by a phone call would not have been one of my recommendations.

In support of your success:  don't phone in your performance.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Decide to Ask Forgiveness

At the beginning of my HR career, I practiced dithering.  It was totally driven by fear:  fear that I would make the wrong decision and create unimaginable legal exposure (and costs) to my company.  And lose my job.  And be branded with the HR version of the Scarlett Letter, a big red "H" on my forehead.  And never be hired again.

Yikes, I'm annoying myself just conjuring up that state of mind for your reading pleasure.

You see, I liked being right.  Come on, part of me still does, ask anyone who knows and loves me:  thankfully, the volume of being right all of the time has been turned down to a manageable whisper.  And the practice of HR compliance in particular often lends itself to being vocationally right while concurrently justifying a drive for perfection.  Hi, my name is Deb and I'm one of the recovering righteous.

As a method of getting my work done despite my dithering, I would run to my supervisor Nicola to reality-check every move I made, from completing paperwork to conducting an investigation.  I was almost always correct in my decisions, however I wasn't comfortable making a move without Nicola's blessing.

Wisely, Nicola nipped this behavior in the bud.  "It's for your own good," Nicola said.  "You're not allowed to ask me questions between the hours of 8 AM and 5 PM.  You'll be fine, I trust you."  Patently unfair.  Back then, I was not an early riser and the thought of making a decision without consulting Nicola during the course of the workday was extremely uncomfortable.  But Nicola always had my back, and I trusted her decision to cut me loose.  Her faith in me reinforced my faith in my own good instincts, training and intellect.  Thanks, Nic.

So began my journey into leadership decision-making:  asking forgiveness rather than permission, and making (as is always my hope and goal) a decision in a timeframe that moves the work of my organization forward to best support everyone's success.

Don't get me wrong:  while at this point in my vocational journey I have almost no problem making timely and informed decisions, embracing the learnings from the mistakes that result from making the wrong decision are still much harder than just letting my inner perfectionist kick my ass for a good long while.  But I strive for the learnings nonetheless, especially the self-forgiveness that lets me off the hook long enough to learn to do it better the next time.

Doing the right thing to support organizational success more often than not involves taking a stand and making a timely decision, which is not the same, by the way, as always being right.

There is always the risk that the decision you make for your organization may be the wrong one.  However, no decision at all is not only failure, but abdication of leadership and responsibility.

Submitted for your consideration:  the decision to ask forgiveness, of each other and ourselves, is an act of creative risk fraught with infinite possibilities of success.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Best Practice: Leading with an Attitude of Gratitude and Appreciation

Last week, I was privileged to bear witness to an amazing recognition experience.

Like many of us who volunteer our time and talent, I am a professional volunteer mediator for Mediation Matters in the Albany, NY area.   The life-long learning experiences of co-mediating employment, family and small-claims court disputes and the companion basic and advanced in-service trainings have been and are thanks enough for me; they had me at hello.

A definite bonus was the annual volunteer recognition dinner held at Longfellows in Saratoga Springs, NY last week and underwritten by one of Mediation Matters' donors.  Great food by Longfellows as usual.  Several of the judges whose courts are supported by the alternative dispute resolution services offered by the organization expressed their gratitude for the work of the volunteers; wonderful to hear as well.

Clearly, the icing on the cake was when Sarah, the Deputy Executive Director, stepped up to the podium to recognize us volunteers.  Before one of her colleagues handed each of us a recognition certificate, Sarah proceeded to recognize each and every volunteer and staff member (including her boss, Peter, the Executive Director) with a heart-felt and authentic description of the unique talents and contributions each of us - at least 5 - 6 minutes for each volunteer and staff member, nearly 40 of us in the room - had brought to support the good work of Mediation Matters in the past year.  I was completely blown away by the time and care Sarah had taken to lift each of us up publicly.

Of course, Peter, her boss, completed the process by lifting up Sarah's wonderful contribution as well.

I don't quite remember exactly what Sarah said when she spoke about me (I was misty-eyed and realizing in the moment why Sarah had urged me to attend the dinner), however I do remember her saying that I brought hope to my mediations with my positive energy.

In return, Sarah reinforced my hope and optimism for how leadership can not only engage, but literally transform organizations.  What gifts would we all, as leaders, engender in our organizations if we were to all authentically recognize the true gifts of each member of our organization, one by one, publicly, privately and consistently?

It is Appreciative Inquiry in action:  that we will only as individuals and organizations (and athletes and sports teams, by the way) accelerate success to the level of transformation we all seek by focusing on recruiting, placing and developing strengths, not weaknesses.

As mediators, we are taught the simple but powerful tenet that the source of all human conflict comes down to needs met and unmet.

And that mediation is hosting the conversation between two parties in conflict, so they can together create a new solution that meets the needs of all.  It is tranformative justice on the micro level.  It is the same process used to negotiate peace in international conflicts

How will you use your leadership role to transform the path of success by leveraging the strengths of all to meet the needs of both the organization and the individuals who comprise it?

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Chicken Soup and Change Management

The impact of change on the people in an organization is like turning on the burner under a pot of uncooked chicken soup.

As the water around the components - the chicken parts, the vegetables and the spices - heats up and begins to boil, detritus floats to the top, foamy, fatty and dirty, which should be skimmed off several times during the cooking process to optimize the chicken soup product.

In other words, the heat makes the crap float to the top.

Every time you make chicken soup, it's the same reliable routine.

The female relative who taught me to make chicken soup strains everything out of the soup once it's cooked.  She saves the boiled chicken and serves it for dinner, and throws away all the vegetables.  The remaining broth is populated with bland thin noodles.  "Why don't you keep the vegetables and the chicken in the soup?" I once asked.  "Because my mother taught me how to make soup that way," was the answer.

With the availability of fresh chicken broth in local grocery stores, these bland machinations have made less sense over the years.

When I'm at the stove, I leave the vegetables in the soup, add a bit more onion and get daring with garlic, and cut up the chicken in the soup.  Tastes better and it's great when you have a cold; I've never received a complaint.

Now, we've all heard the change metaphor about the frog in the pot.  As you gradually turn up the heat on the pot, the frog gets so used to the heat that it cooks rather than jumps.  Yuck.

I relate more to chicken soup as a change metaphor, for several reasons:
  • Without heat (change), you get a cold, inedible and dangerous pot of potentially salmonella-tainted raw chicken and vegetable slop;
  • If you do heat up and cook the pot of chicken soup but you don't skim off the crap that initially and subsequently floats to the top, it's still edible but you can't tell from the looks of it, so you probably won't eat it, wasting the effort and negating its impact;
  • Chicken soup can be processed antiseptically, or with love; you can tell the difference in the quality and the taste;
  • Chicken soup is the cultural manna of my tribe; 
  • Cooking a live frog is disgusting and will invariably piss PETA off.
I recently worked with a client, the President of a growing company going through tremendous change.  He hired me to develop and implement the change management plan, which involved among other activities, organizing an event to interview a large group of candidates for potential new jobs.

Everything went well and as planned, actually better than I expected.  As I multi-tasked between interviewing, candidate coordination and paper-shuffling, I went out to the lobby to fetch the next scheduled candidate.  I discovered the President sitting with the group of remaining candidates, shooting the breeze with the group as if they were gathered after work to watch the game.  They were all laughing and having a good time.  That wasn't in the project plan.

"Sorry to interrupt," I interjected, pleased but not surprised, knowing the President.  "I need Jack for his interview."  Jack rose and shook the President's hand.  "Nice to spend time with you," Jack said to the President.  "Good luck, Jack!" the President responded.  Jack walked down the hall to the interview room with me, still smiling.  "What a great guy," he said.  "I wasn't expecting him to sit down and talk to us."

Or help cook and serve the chicken soup, clearly made with (organizational) love.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Taking a Stand Against Bullying is Good Business

At the end of the last school year, with a substitute teacher at the helm of the class, my son's best friend punched him in the stomach.  Noah, with the intent of being helpful, pointed out a misspelling on the project his friend had slaved over and was about to submit.  Noah's friend, whose forte is not spelling, lashed out at Noah in frustration.  The punch surprised and hurt both of them.  They were both sent to the principal's office, and Noah's friend spent the whole school day there.

I saw the friend's mother that night at a school event that Noah's friend could not attend as punishment for the punch.  The look on her face was difficult for both of us.  "It's okay," I said.  "It sounds like the school took care of it."  Noah's school, like many progressive schools, has instituted anti-harassment and anti-bullying policies, and more importantly, follow through in their enforcement.

She brightened.  "Yes.  I think they went a bit overboard - I mean, it was just rough-housing.  But they can't act that way at school."

"No," I responded kindly but clearly.   "We don't hit in our house.  And it was a violation of school rules."

"Yes," she said, and we parted the awkward company.

Noah also thought his friend's punishment was a bit extreme.  "I'm not upset anymore,"  Noah reported.  "Why did he have to stay in the principal's office all day?"

I thought for a moment, and spoke out of my own experience.  "Because, honey:  if he doesn't learn to control himself and act respectfully now in school, he'll be fired from his job when he's an adult for that type of behavior.  It's for his own good."  Noah's eyes widened, and he nodded.  He's 9 years old, and he gets it.  Mom has fired adults for hitting and bullying each other.

Taking a stand against bullying, regardless of age or organization, is taking a stand for inclusiveness, which in turn, is good business.

How is it good business?  Banishing bullying from your organization will help minimize the chance that your customers will be treated badly by your employees.  Simple as that.  The internal organizational behavioral norms and values absolutely dictate how your employees interact with your customers.

Without that integrity between internal and external behaviors and values, your customers -- and your business -- are at risk.  It is a paradigm bereft of all authenticity.  And your customers crave authentic interactions.

Taking a stand against bullying also minimizes the needs for third-party involvement, e.g. proposed and current anti-bullying legislation and regulations.  If you're keeping the house of your organization clean, what impact will such mandates really have on your organization?  This stand also minimizes the risk of violating other current harassment and other laws and regulations protecting employees.

An anti-bullying stance is also an educational stand.  Not only only is risk minimized, but the potential for enlightenment and re-direction is possible even for adult learners:  a manifestation for my continual hope for resurrection on the human level.  If not:  then organization bullies need to be made available to industry, as they say.

Noah and his friend remain pals.