Is That a Fact?  Part 2 (5/31/17)

Molly was chomping at the bit.  She had just finished a day of training with her team and was especially irritated with Anita, a team member who according to Molly, has been disengaged for pretty much the entire training session.  At the end of the day, Molly confronted Anita (in front of the entire team) and told her that since she obviously didn’t want to be there, it would not be necessary for her to return the next day.  At this point, Anita angrily said “How do you know what I want?”, burst into tears and ran from the room.  Molly took this as a further sign of Anita’s disregard for authority (there had been some relational challenges in the past) and felt it was grounds for immediate termination.

I voiced my opinion that Anita’s lack of engagement during the training was not at all like her, as she was usually an eager learner and a strong contributor to group discussions.  Molly agreed, but said that for some reason Anita didn’t want to be there this time.  I asked if Anita had actually said that she didn’t want to be there, and Molly acknowledged that she had not.  I then asked Molly exactly what Anita had said, and she admitted that she hadn’t even spoken directly with Anita about her behavior.  At that point, I advised Molly to approach Anita in a non-threatening manner and ask her if everything is okay, which could then lead to a discussion in which Anita’s motive and feelings could be accurately determined.  I then suggested that Molly call me back once she had connected with Anita so that she could share with me what she had learned, then making it possible for us to formulate a plan of action.

As I stated in my previous blog, leaders taking corrective action against an employee before knowing all of the facts is a bad practice and an all too common one.  What I find especially troubling is that rather than asking the employee for an explanation of the questionable job performance or behavior, leaders will often assume a motive.  This is very easy to spot when I ask what the employee’s motive was, and the response I get is something to the effect of “It’s obvious that…” or “Well I think we all know why…”  Often when I have pushed back on this approach, I have been asked what difference it makes.  After all, if we’re to focus on the facts, isn’t the employee’s motive irrelevant?  I am suggesting that the ‘why’ behind the questionable job performance or behavior is factual information, and that a lot can be learned in the process when the employee is given the opportunity to explain their motive.

For example, in some cases the inquiry will reveal that the leader has a disengaged employee on their team.  Depending on why the employee is disengaged, there may still be a possibility of turning things around, which can actually require much less effort and be more cost efficient than replacing the employee.  In other situations, the leader will learn that the employee was simply doing their job as instructed, as was the case with Jennifer in my previous post.  This revelation will hopefully result in fair treatment of the employee, as well as bring to light a possible need to make procedural or training changes.

I have also experienced situations in which it is revealed that questionable behavior was in response to abusive behavior on the part of a supervisor or co-worker.  Unfortunately, this has sometimes come to light during a wrongful termination action, in which case it does not bode well for the employer.  Finally, in determining the ‘why’, a leader will sometimes learn that the employee is dealing with personal issues that could derail even the most exemplary worker, as was the case with Anita (another true story).

Upon taking my advice to talk with Anita, Molly learned that she had recently been evicted from her apartment due to skyrocketing rent costs.  Anita had been unable to secure stable housing, and the sad truth is that she was now living out of her car.  Worse yet, the previous evening a shooting had occurred in the parking lot where Anita had been parking her car at night.  Needless to say, she had not been sleeping well for several weeks and was terrified of what the future held for her.  Molly told me that she felt like an absolute jerk for how she initially responded to Anita, and I told her that admitting your shortcomings is the first step in growth as leader.  I also encouraged her to learn from this experience and to let it be a motivator to do better, just as I chose to do when I made the same horrible mistake early on in my leadership experience.

So to wrap this up, determining all of the facts (especially the ‘why’) prior to taking corrective action with an employee has numerous advantages.  It will help to limit potential liability, and you may even learn ways in which your organization can operate more efficiently.  It will also help to create and foster a healthy workplace culture, making it possible to better attract and retain the kind of employees who will go the extra mile in helping your organization succeed.  Finally, for those of us leaders who operate from a faith-based perspective, slowing down and learning all of the facts before taking action will enable us to be obedient to the teachings found in scripture (James 1:19 and Ephesians 6:9 quickly come to mind).  Just something to think about.

Is That a Fact?  Part 1 (5/22/17)

Jennifer was at a loss.  Earlier in the day, she had sent an email to the leadership team at her company, notifying them of a potential regulatory change that could impact the way they do business.  She let her colleagues know that she would keep them posted as more information became available, and several had responded by thanking her for the heads up.  Any initial satisfaction she felt as a result of their praise was now gone, as she had just received a scathing email from Mitch, a Senior-level VP who wasted no time in chastising her for sending the email without prior executive review or approval.

The truth of the matter was that Jennifer sent the email at the prompting of her supervisor, who was a member of the executive team.  Furthermore, her supervisor had reviewed the content of the email prior to publication and was very pleased with how well-written it was.   Jennifer took no comfort in these facts however.  She knew that even after the truth became known, she should not expect an apology from Mitch, as he was not one to admit when he was wrong.  Worse yet, it was a standard and accepted practice for leaders (especially executives) at her company to take corrective action without knowing all of the facts.  This was ingrained in their company culture and Jennifer knew that she could expect more of the same treatment for herself and her co-workers in the future.

I wish I could say that this is a fictional story, but other than changing the names to protect the innocent (and guilty), it happened exactly as written.  This was indeed a common practice at that company, and I’m saddened to say I have observed this troubling behavior with other employers I have advised over the years, in some cases those employers who would classify themselves as operating from a faith-based perspective.  I could take the time to speculate as to why employers seem to be okay with this practice, but that would require assuming motives, which can easily lead to impugning motives, and that’s simply not how I choose to operate.  Instead, I’d like to take a quick look at three pitfalls associated with taking corrective action before knowing all of the facts.

First, making corrective action decisions based on uninformed conclusions is a sloppy way of operating, and I doubt that most people would accept this type of behavior from their employees.  Second, taking corrective action with an employee without knowing all of the facts is patently unfair.  Third, when corrective action decisions are not based on complete factual information, it creates a potential legal liability for the employer and can be troublesome in the event of a wrongful termination claim.  Even if an employer comes to the legal proceedings armed with a preponderance of the evidence, the fact that they took corrective action prior to conducting their due diligence constitutes a denial of due process.

As I mentioned before, I have come across this bad practice numerous times, and I must to admit that I was guilty of this on occasion early on in my career. One common denominator in these situations was a failure on the part of the leader to actually speak with the employee whose job performance or behavior was in question.  When this happened, it prevented the leader from truly understanding the ‘who-what-when-where-how’ facts of the situation prior to making a decision regarding corrective action.  Furthermore, it prevented the leader from gaining an understanding of the equally important ‘why’ of the situation, which I will address in my next blog post.   Stay tuned for more.

Guess Again (5/11/17)

A large portion of my time recently has been devoted to assisting a client with staffing for an inside sales position, with my role being to conduct the phone screenings and provide an assessment regarding each candidate.  Due to the nature of the position, each applicant happened to be part of the ‘Millennial’ generation, those born between 1982-2002.  Given much of what has been said about Millennials, one might expect that this would have been a frustrating process.  After all, if what we have been told is true, it would be a safe guess that many of the candidates would not be willing to schedule a phone screening before noon, much less be reachable and prepared to talk at the scheduled time.  Guess again.

This was without a doubt the most engaged, enthusiastic, and articulate group of candidates I have encountered in a long time.  Each person was focused and well-prepared to talk at the scheduled time, and I finished each interview feeling energized and excited about what the future held for these young adults.  So what gives?  Why is this group so different from the lazy and unmotivated generation that we hear so much about?  One possibility is that I refused to see them through the filter of a negative stereotype, and they refused to reinforce it.  Instead, I chose to approach the process with high expectations, and they exceeded those expectations.

I realize that stereotypes often have some basis to them, and I also understand how shared experiences can largely shape the values of a generation.  However, for every narcissistic and entitlement-minded Millennial you show me, I can show you a Gen-Xer or Baby Boomer with the same selfish values and poor work ethic.  And while it is helpful to recognize the values generally common to each generation and to understand how those values drive behavior, at the same time it is unfair and counter-productive to expect everyone within a generation to fit into a particular mold.

So with a workforce consisting of four generations, and members of five generations who are available and eager to serve as volunteers, we as leaders have a choice to make.  We can choose to understand, embrace, and benefit from the generational differences, and be genuinely mindful of how we engineer our work, volunteer, and worship experiences.  We can also choose to be resistant to, and resentful of those differences, showing favoritism to the generations that ‘matter’ and being neglectful of the others.  A third option would be to pretend that the whole idea of generational similarities, differences and conflicts is just a myth.

So, which are you going to choose?  I for one choose the first path because I am passionate (some would say fanatical) in my belief that this approach creates the best opportunity for inter-generational cooperation, collaboration, and effectiveness.  Just something to think about.

Churchill Was Right (4/19/17)

I was recently reminded of a graduation speech that Sir Winston Churchill is said to have delivered at Harrow, a boarding school which he attended (and nearly flunked out of) in his boyhood years. Various accounts place the event either during World War II or more toward the end of his life in the mid 1960’s. In any case, legend has it that Churchill walked up to the podium, uttered the words Young men, never give up. Never give up! Never give up!! Never, never, never-never-never-never!”, and sat back down.

Being someone with a thirst for knowledge (and a general skepticism regarding attributed quotes), I researched this one to determine its veracity. What I found is that while Churchill’s comments were indeed made at Harrow toward the beginning of World War II, the legend does bear some correction. For one, what is usually quoted varies slightly from what was actually spoken. In addition, the brevity of the speech itself is highly exaggerated, with the comments in question being found in the middle of a speech that was nearly two pages long. That being said, the actual words spoken by Churchill were “…never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never-in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.” Click here to read Pastor Lee Eclov’s account of this event and the text of the speech in its entirety.

I believe that it is important to quote Churchill’s words accurately, as well as to look at them within the context of the speech itself and the circumstances of the time. Upon reading Churchill’s entire speech (which I highly recommend), one will see that his remarks were typical of his continuous optimism regarding the ability to resist Hitler’s march across Europe. However, this was much more than just a petition for tenacity. Indeed, his speech was a call to look beyond the immediate struggles of the day. His remarks served as a reminder that by persevering in the face of seemingly imminent defeat, the days they were living in would be among Britain’s greatest. This is relevant because Churchill’s speech was delivered at a time when Britain had gone through an incredibly trying time during which it often appeared that all was lost. His reminder of how far they had come since the first days of the war were strong medicine for a country that had chosen to stand firm and resolute in the face of tremendous adversity.

So, in addition to this being an interesting history lesson (I hope), what is the application for us today? The overall lesson that I draw from Churchill’s speech is similar to the admonition given by the Apostle Paul in 2 Thessalonians 3:13, which is to never grow tired of doing what is right. This is important to recognize here in the United States, as we are experiencing a degree of division and apprehension that threatens to tear our country even farther apart than it already is. To bring things closer to home, maybe your church or a non-profit that you’re involved with is going through a difficult season. Even though your organization has a good mission and is being true to that mission, difficult times may have you questioning whether to continue.

To make it even more personal, you may be struggling as a business owner and have reached a point where you are tempted to close up shop. I have certainly been there on several occasions, and know firsthand the excitement and struggle of launching and operating a business. I have experienced the ups and downs of revenue flowing in one month, only to have to choose the next month between re-ordering business cards or putting gas in the car. The cycle of setbacks and successes can be as dizzying as an extreme roller coaster ride, with a mixture of affirmation and rejection that causes your emotions to be yanked all over the place. You may currently find yourself at a crossroads where you have to make a clear choice between staying the course or calling it quits.

Before making such a decision, I would encourage you to take a step back and consider the bigger picture of what you are hoping to accomplish. Is your objective ethical and of benefit to your customers or those whom you are seeking to serve? Are your motives pure, and can your mission still be accomplished within the framework of your core values? For those of you coming from a faith-based perspective, have you received affirmation from like-minded people, and are you faithful in doing the most recent thing God called you to do? If the answer to all of the above is ‘yes’, your mission is to keep on and not give up in the face of defeat!

If you’re discouraged and questioning whether there is value in what you have to offer, consider asking some of the clients who have valued your services to write a testimonial about their positive experience. Not only is this a good marketing tool to have in your portfolio, but reading these testimonials can be a great morale booster. If what you’re doing now is no longer producing positive results, it may be time to change things up and find a better way. Learn to appreciate this ‘dry’ spell as an opportunity to take the time to expand knowledge of your tradecraft and polish up your marketing materials.

Seek out the advice of those who are successful and willing to teach you what worked for them. Surround yourself with people whom you can trust to be both encouraging and honest, and walk away from the naysayers and those who cannot be relied upon to tell you what you need to hear. Network with other people who are going through similar challenges, but not with the purpose of proving that misery loves company. Instead, be an encouragement to each other and draw strength from the comradery that can result from shared struggles.

If you are a person of faith, cling to the assurance that God would not place a passion and calling on your heart, only to then forsake you in the end. Commit everything you do to God and build a network of friends and family who will support you by consistently lifting you up in prayer. Rejoice in your circumstances and remember that persevering through trying times is useful for building strength and character. Try not to lose sight of the fact that this current struggle will leave you better positioned for coping with the next challenge when it comes. When you do finally exit the valley and once again taste the sweetness of success, don’t neglect those who are still having a rough time. Be sure to thank the people who supported you with their guidance, encouragement and prayers, and look for opportunities to help others succeed.

So for those of you who are discouraged over your present situation, my sincere hope and prayer is for all of your needs to be met, and for you to have the strength and resolve to endure. Take heart, for this is only a season. You can get through this and in choosing to follow the advice of Sir Winston Churchill, you will come out the other end a better person, a better business owner, a better leader.

Loyal Love (4/7/17)

Today I’m taking a departure from my usual leadership and HR posts in order to share some thoughts on in-law relationships.

One of my favorite stories in the Bible is that of Ruth, a young widow who chooses to leave the land of her people and settle in Israel with Naomi, her mother-in-law and also a widow.  One Hebrew word used throughout this book is Chesed, commonly translated as ‘loyal love’.  One of the reasons I so appreciate the story of Ruth is because her loyal love reminds me of an event which occurred in my own life.

Back in October of 2002, my mother was lying in a hospital bed in Southern California, having recently been diagnosed with Stage IV ovarian cancer.  My wife Tricia and I flew down to see Mom and since we didn’t bring our two young daughters with us, we were able to be at the hospital when she woke up each morning and to remain until she went to sleep for the night.

My family was truly hopeful that with surgery and follow-up treatment, this woman who had endured so much hardship over the years could now beat the cancer that was threatening to end her life.  All the while I suspected that the disease was just too advanced and indeed, the Lord would take Mom home just one week after she was admitted to the hospital.  So how does this connect to the story of Ruth?

While we were there with Mom during her final days, Tricia and I (especially Tricia) did whatever we could to meet Mom’s basic needs like brushing her hair and teeth, feeding her ice chips and helping her try to keep some nourishment down.  Tricia even went so far as to have the nurse show her how to massage the sores that Mom was developing from being in a hospital bed 24/7.

At first I was too caught up in everything to fully recognize what was happening, but one time when I stepped back into the hospital room after returning a phone call from work it suddenly hit me.  The way Tricia was caring for Mom was a perfect reflection of the selfless and compassionate loyal love that Ruth had shown to Naomi.  Even though Tricia has an incredibly selfless nature as it is, she made a conscientious decision to go far beyond what anyone would expect of her, and it had a major impact in a number of ways.

First is that Tricia set an excellent example for Rebekah and Mary (our daughters) in how they are to treat their in-laws.  Even though they were not there I have shared this story with them.  Second, is that Tricia’s treatment of Mom was regularly witnessed by the nurses at the hospital, who naturally were touched to see what they thought was a daughter taking care of her own mother.  Once the nurses realized that Tricia was instead the daughter-in-law, they were truly amazed.

Third, in doing so much to meet Mom’s needs, Tricia freed me up to conference with the doctors and social worker regarding Mom’s planned treatment and to work at getting her transferred to a hospital better equipped for treating cancer patients.  Fourth, is that Mom was deeply touched by how Tricia attended to her physical, emotional and spiritual needs.  Finally, watching Tricia treat Mom with such compassion ministered to my hurting heart as well.

These days it is common, and in the opinion of some perfectly acceptable, to show our own parents a greater degree of respect and courtesy than what is shown to our in-laws.  I for one am suggesting that a paradigm shift is in order, especially for those of us who adhere to the truths of scripture and therefore are called to exercise humility, patience and forbearance in our relationships with others (see Romans 14:19 and Ephesians 4:2-3).

Please understand that I realize just how challenging in-law relationships can be.  Mom, and in some cases Tricia’s grandparents, could be a pill at times.  However, one must admit that parents (all of us for that matter) can be just as difficult to deal with, and so it hardly seems fair to give more leeway to our blood relatives than we do to members of the family that we have married into.

Tricia and I have been married for almost 27 years now, and over time we have taken the steps to remove any such distinctions and to be intentional about having the best in-law relationships possible.  The result is that in addition to Tricia and I becoming better people, our relationships with parents, in-laws and grandparents have become more fulfilling and our marriage has continually grown stronger.

What I have ultimately learned from all of this is that we have a choice to be either a blessing or a bane to our in-laws.  In making that choice, we should keep in mind that we are also choosing whether to show loyal love to our spouse.  Just something to think about.

There Is No “Fun in Dysfunction (4/3/17)

In today’s fast paced culture, it’s all too common for leaders to make the erroneous assumption that as long as they have a team and processes in place and everyone knows their job, a high degree of functionality will automatically follow. However, we learn in Patrick Lencioni’s timeless classic “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” that while things may appear stable on the surface, there are dysfunctional behaviors which remain hidden, chipping away at the foundation of a team. These behaviors will cause employees and volunteers to struggle, and will impede them from operating as a highly effective, cohesive and collaborative team.

Lencioni makes it clear that the process of developing a highly-functional team is difficult, requiring a significant amount of determination and focus as well as the ability recognize each of the five dysfunctions as they manifest themselves: (1) Absence of Trust, (2) Fear of Conflict, (3) Lack of Commitment, (4) Avoidance of Accountability and (5) Inattention to Results

Many people, myself included, appreciate Lencioni’s use of fables (aka parables) to teach sound leadership principles. This story-telling approach goes a long way in making the concepts easy to understand, increasing the likelihood of the reader retaining the information and more importantly, understanding and applying the principles being taught. Personally, I consider “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” a must-read for anyone who wants to lead effectively, so much so that it is required pre-reading for the There Is No “Fun” In Dysfunction workshop that I make available to leaders and their team members.

So are you satisfied with the functionality of your team, and if “yes”, what indicators and measures of success are you using to arrive at that conclusion? If “no”, are you willing to put forth the high degree of effort needed to guide your team to a state of functionality?

The journey toward becoming a highly-functioning team can certainly be a challenging one, but those leaders who have chosen to do so will tell you that the hard work is well worth the effort, producing long-term dividends. Just something to think about.

Talkin’ ‘Bout My Generation (3/27/17)

“People try to put us down, just because we get around.   Things they do look awful cold, I hope I die before I get old…“My Generation” by The Who, 1965

Even though the words to that song were penned over 50 years ago, they are still effective in conveying the message that a generation gap exists in society.  This is especially true in the case of ‘Millennials’, those persons born between 1982 and 2002 and who tend to view things through a different lens than that of the older generations.  Given that Millennials currently represent 35% of the available work force in this country and 31% of the available volunteer pool, their unique perspective and approach to life can easily result in a frustrating work or volunteer experience for many.

Add to that the generational differences between Gen X-ers, Baby Boomers and those of the ‘Veteran’ and ‘Mature’ Generations (born between 1902-1942), and many leaders are left to wonder if it’s even remotely possible to get the various generations to cooperate with each other, much less be highly effective.  As our society continues to age, the challenges that come with the evolving age demographics will continue to increase, and it comes as no surprise to me that my educational seminar on how to connect the various generations is the one that by far generates the most audience emotion and feedback.

The good news is that members of the various generations can learn to get along well and gain a better understanding and appreciation of each other.  More than that, their differences can be leveraged in a way that will enable them to be highly effective in how they work and serve together.  For this to happen, leaders first need to develop a thorough understanding of each generation’s values, concerns, desires and strengths, and how some of these are shaped even during the young, formative years of life.

For example, the way in which Millennials were raised has had a significant impact on the work ethic of many in that generation.  While growing up, they were often told that winning or succeeding is not all that important.  Instead, you simply needed to show up and put forth some effort, and everyone who did so would be equally rewarded.  Now this approach may have been helpful for their self-esteem, but it did not prepare them for life in the adult world. After all, imagine playing in a sports league as a kid in which no one kept score and everyone got the same trophy, only to discover in the workplace that poor attendance and job performance will get in the way of a pay increase and worse yet, could result in a loss of employment.

Fortunately, it is possible to help Millennials recognize the distinction between success and effort, and to realize that the success of an individual is vital to the success of a team and of the larger organization.  Once this proverbial ‘light-bulb’ turns on and the person grasps that their success on an individual and team level will be rewarded, their motivation level will often grow exponentially.

This is just one example of why it is critical for leaders to have a thorough understanding of each generation.  More than that, the work and volunteer landscape calls for leaders who are highly flexible, eager to connect with the various members of their multi-generational team and willing to put forth the effort to achieve success in this area.  The payoff is Multi-Generation Magic, a term I use to describe a highly collaborative and diverse work and volunteer experience in which the talents, experience and interests of each generation are maximized to broaden the appeal and impact of the organization.  Just something to think about.

Take 10 (3/21/17)

I’m a bit perplexed when a hiring manager isn’t willing to take the time to thoroughly review an applicant’s resume and employment application.  After all, it only takes about 10 minutes to make an initial assessment of whether an applicant has the required experience and education, and there is so much that can be gleaned from this process when it is done well.
Considering that the average replacement cost for an employee is equivalent to the annual salary of the vacant position, you would think every hiring manager would want to invest those 10 minutes at the front end of the process.  The harsh reality is that the pressure to fill an open position as quickly as possible turns the hiring process into a mad dash.  When the tyranny of the urgent rules the day and the assessment process is done sloppily or is skipped altogether, the result often is a hiring manager who is frustrated after interviewing (worse yet, hiring) the wrong person.
Note: I confess that in my 30+ years of leadership I have often found myself needing to fill a critical position as quickly as possible, so I get it. Admittedly, I sometimes have moved quicker than what was prudent, only to regret my haste later on. All that to say, this isn’t merely untested HR theory, but rather I am a card-carrying member of the ‘been there – done that’ club.

So, assuming you want to avoid the same mistakes, what should you be looking for when conducting your assessment?

Discrepancies – Minor/minimal discrepancies between the employment application and resume are not necessarily troublesome (depending on the degree of accuracy required for the job), but ones of a more significant or frequent nature should be cause for concern.  It may be a simple case of the candidate’s forgetfulness or failure to update a resume, but there could also be an integrity issue at play here.  Fortunately, by taking the time to reach out to the candidate for clarification, you can learn a lot about the person’s character, sooner rather than later.

Sloppiness/Lack of Attention to Detail – The employment application/resume is the most common pathway to securing a job interview, and yet many applicants don’t bother to write legibly, or they fail to check for spelling and grammar errors. Given that (a) the best predictor of future performance and behavior is past and present performance and behavior and (b) every job requires a certain degree of attention to detail, it’s reasonable to anticipate that someone who doesn’t bother with the details during the application process will likely demonstrate this same poor work ethic on the job.

Lack of Completion – A well-drafted employment application clearly states that all questions are to be answered and all sections thoroughly completed.  Going back to the best predictor principle, the person who repeatedly writes “see resume” on the application is sending a clear message about their probability of cutting corners on the job.  This behavior also demonstrates a lack of consideration toward the hiring manager, who is already busy reviewing multiple applications.  Someone who is unwilling to take the time to complete the application will be just as likely to demonstrate the same inconsideration after being hired.  Down the road when this person (now your employee) cuts corners, it will generate extra work and frustration for you as well as your team members and customers.

As someone who has hired numerous quality candidates over the years (as well as few clunkers), I can assure you that investing a few minutes of quality time at the front end of the selection process will pay great future dividends.  Just something to think about.

Playing with Trains (3/16/17)

This past weekend, my wife Tricia had extended nanny duties with Kalynne (the 4-year old that Tricia takes care during the week), as her parents were attending a ministry conference down in Portland.  Schedule-wise it worked out best for us to spend the weekend with Tricia’s folks, who live in the Portland area and who have essentially become surrogate great-grandparents to Kalynne.

On Friday, we spent a good portion of the day at the Gilbert House Children’s Museum, a must-see if you have kids or grandkids and are ever in the Salem area.  One of the highlights of the day was seeing the model train exhibit.  In addition to being the inventor of the erector set, A.C. Gilbert manufactured the American Flyer brand and invented the “S” gauge type of model train.  While Kalynne certainly enjoyed watching the trains, she was a bit frustrated that they were within a protective glass case and that she could not operate them.  Fortunately, my father-in-law is a bit of a model train aficionado, and we promised Kalynne that she would get a closer look and an opportunity for a hands-on experience back at the house.

Dad’s model train setup is quite elaborate, enough so that his brief explanation of the multiple track and switching mechanisms caused my ADD brain to go into lockdown mode.  Nevertheless, I stepped out of my comfort zone (I’m more of a slot-car racing guy) and operated the trains for a few minutes, even being daring enough to do some track changes with the trains still in motion.  A somewhat sobering aspect of that brief experience was the realization that even though Tricia and I have been married for nearly 27 years, this is the first time I can recall having seen Dad’s trains in action, much less operated them.

Not to say that I was oblivious to his passion for trains.  To the contrary, I have been with him on numerous visits to model train stores and have made an effort to learn a few things about his fascinating hobby over the years.  I have also helped move the giant train table on which the tracks, trestle and landscape are mounted more times than I would like to remember (it’s a heavy bugger).  Unfortunately, floor space at my in-law’s house is at a premium and Dad has not been able to have the train table set up for use.  However, within the past year he installed an impressive pulley system by which the table and trains can be lowered from the garage ceiling, and then raised back up and out of the way when not in use.

What hit me is that me is that even though we have visited my in-law’s numerous times within the past year since Dad installed the pulley system, I had never once during that time asked to see his trains or even the operation of the pulley system.  Now I could make the excuse that we have always been so busy that I forget to ask.  The more believable explanation is that I get so wrapped in ‘whatever’ that I neglect to show an interest in something that someone else enjoys, and it took the curiosity of a 4-year to wake me up to that sad fact.

It also caused me to recall a wise piece of advice given to me by Mr. Donald Outland (my high school Psychology teacher) and Dr. Gary Bonner (my college choir director).  They reminded me that we only have a finite time on this earth to get to know those whom we love, to hear their stories, to learn about their interests.  Once they are gone, we’ll have a thousand questions that can never be answered, at least not from that person’s unique perspective.  Fortunately, for the most part I have taken that advice to heart and have benefited greatly from things I have learned before it was too late.  The stories that I heard (and sometimes re-heard) will be with me for as long as my memory remains intact, and I am a richer person because of it.

Unfortunately, my adherence to this advice was obviously not the case as far as Dad’s trains are concerned.  Now whether that’s due to the busy-ness of our visits or my own narcissism (most likely some of each), it’s an embarrassment.  Having acknowledged and confessed this, my objective moving forward is to set aside some time on each visit for us to go out into the garage and play with the trains.  Doing this will allow me to learn some complex processes, something I usually avoid like the plague.  More importantly, it will give me the opportunity to spend more quality time with someone whom I love dearly, and who will not be around forever.  Note: I realize that referring to this as ‘playing’ may offend some model train enthusiasts, get over it.

So, is there someone in your life with whom you need to spend more quality time, to hear their stories and learn their interests?  As you consider this, don’t just limit the possibilities to older people.  This past Sunday was the anniversary of the sudden death of my 16-year old nephew, and it served as a stark reminder that we have no guarantees as to how long our loved ones will be with us.  My advice then, is to take the opportunity while it is still there because once someone is gone, they’re gone.  Just something to think about.

Proceed With Caution (3/8/17)

On occasion, I have seen employers use terminology that may seem harmless on the surface, but in reality can create significant employment liabilities further down the road. This is especially true in the case of making a job offer, regardless of whether the offer is made verbally or in writing (I recommend both, by the way). While there are a number of things that can be incorrectly worded in the official job offer, I’d like to focus on what I refer to as the Three P’s.

Use of the Word Permanent
There used to be a time when an employer could refer to a job as being “permanent” and this was understood to simply mean non-temporary. Unfortunately, those days are long behind us and even if you didn’t intend to offer a job for a lifetime, the candidate could still interpret it differently. This is especially the case when dealing with an unemployment claim or wrongful termination action, as administrative law judges and plaintiff’s attorneys tend to regard “permanent” as meaning that the employee was offered a job for life.

Use of the Word Probation
I’m of the strong belief that an employee’s first 90 – 180 days on the job (whether as a as a new hire or in a new position) should be a period during which both the employer and employee are deciding whether the job is a good job fit. This should be stated clearly in the offer letter and include language regarding the employment status, both during and after this period. It is equally important that this first 90 – 180 days be referred to as an “Introductory Period”, rather than a “Probationary Period.”

I realize this may seem like a simple matter of semantics, but administrative law judges and plaintiff’s attorneys often interpret “probation” as meaning (a) the employee must be allowed to complete the introductory period before a final decision can be made and/or (b) once the employee successfully completes this period, they are protected and the “at-will” employment status goes away.
Note: The same would be true of an employee who is undergoing a corrective action process, in which case the term “Assessment Period” should be used, along with the appropriate clarifying language regarding employment status.

Making Promises
Employers sometimes like to address the possibility of future pay increase and/or bonuses. If this is done, it needs to be stated as something that may happen, dependent on certain contingencies (i.e. satisfactory job performance) being met. Making an advance commitment to increase an employee’s pay may seem like a noble thing to do and/or help to close the deal, but you eventually could find yourself backed into a corner if the pay increase is not justifiable or financially feasible.

The same would be true of promises regarding paid time off, eligibility for medical benefits, etc. It’s easy for a hiring manager to promise something that would constitute a discriminatory hiring practice or violate the employer’s benefits plan eligibility rules, placing the plan’s tax-exempt status (in the case of a Section 125 plan) in jeopardy. During my HR career, I’ve usually managed to catch these unsanctioned promises in time to make a correction before the employee’s start date. However, it was always necessary for the hiring manager to go back to the job candidate and explain that they could not deliver what was promised. This is never a good way to start an employment relationship as it erodes trust and in some unfortunate cases, the candidate will decline the job offer.

So regardless of whether you are the sole individual making employment offers or the responsibility is distributed among several leaders at your organization, there are a few simple protocols that if followed, will help ensure that the Three P’s are avoided.
1. Offers of employment should be drafted and approved by the HR Manager (or business owner in a smaller organization) prior to the offer being made.
2. When making the verbal offer, the hiring manager needs to stick to the script and read verbatim from the offer letter.
3. If a specific question is asked and cannot be answered using the wording of the letter, the hiring manager should tell the candidate that they will need to get some clarification. When this happens, it is important to promptly (same day if possible) follow up with a response and if necessary, an amended offer letter.

On a final note, the Three P’s can be equally troublesome when used in the performance management process, as well the Employee Handbook or any other documentation. This is just one more reason why it is a wise investment for employers to have all documentation reviewed by a certified HR practitioner or employment law attorney on an annual basis.

Did You Forget About Me? (3/3/17)

I’m a firm believer that going through a season of employment-seeking (whether by choice or due to an involuntary termination) presents an excellent growth opportunity for any leader.  I know that the times I have spent in the job market, especially when I was not selected for a position, have enabled me to gain a better understanding of the common fears and frustrations of a job seeker.  What’s more, these experiences have shaped the recruitment practices that I have implemented as an HR Manager or recommended as a consultant, especially those pertaining to keeping applicants and candidates apprised of the process. Note: I define a “candidate” as someone who makes it past the initial application phase.

As a result of my experiences, whenever possible I ensure that every job applicant receives a letter, postcard or e-mail thanking them for applying and letting them know that they will be contacted if there is interest in scheduling an interview.  Second, any candidate who is interviewed (whether by phone or in person) receives a letter indicating that they were not selected, thanking them for participating in the process and encouraging them to consider applying for other positions in the future.  Third, any job candidate who was given at least a second interview receives a phone call (followed up by a letter) notifying them that they were not selected.

Yes, I realize that the written notification process can be a cumbersome one, but there are applicant tracking systems available that can go a long way in streamlining this process.  I also understand that the notification phone call can be an awkward and uncomfortable one, but who ever said that functioning in a leadership capacity is easy?  There is also the risk of saying something during the notification phone call that will cause the candidate to suspect that some unlawful discrimination has occurred.  That is why it is so important to develop a script that has been vetted by an attorney or certified HR professional, and then to stick to the script when making the call.

So what does an employer stand to gain by extending these basic professional courtesies to a job candidate?  It all comes down to thinking of the job applicant or candidate in terms of various “potentials”:

  1. You should regard the person as a potential litigant, keeping in mind that someone who is kept apprised of the process and ultimately provided with closure is less likely to make a claim of employment discrimination.
  2. You should regard the person as a potential employment candidate in the future. I have seen numerous times when a candidate was not selected for a position, but applied for other positions and was eventually hired for what was found to be an excellent fit.  A common thread in these instances is that the employee said they kept coming back because they kept getting treated right.  On the flip side an employer who shows a lack of consideration to a job candidate does not instill a sense of confidence regarding how they would treat that person as an employee.
  3. For those of you involved in the non-profit sector, you should also regard the person as a potential volunteer or donor for your organization. There have been a few cases in which I was a job candidate with a non-profit employer and was kept in the dark, never receiving closure even after multiple interviews had taken place.  I can tell you that regardless of how much I believe in an organization’s mission (otherwise I would not have applied to work there), I will not give of my time or resources to an employer who is so sloppy and inconsiderate.

The bottom line here is that the effort required to ensure a job candidate that you haven’t forgotten about them is far outweighed by the potential future ramifications.  Just something to think about.

It’s Tougher Than It Sounds – Part 6 (2/27/17)

Note: This is the final installment of a six-part series in which I have offered an HR professional’s perspective on the numerous obstacles encountered by a homeless person who is seeking employment.

Part 6 – A Call to Action
Question of the day: Considering all of the challenges I have highlighted over the past five days, should we then conclude that the odds against a homeless person securing employment are so great that we may as well accept that their predicament is insurmountable? My answer to that is an emphatic “No!” I for one am not ready to throw in the towel. Given access to the right resources, many homeless individuals have succeeded in transitioning into stable housing and re-assimilating themselves into mainstream society and a productive, fulfilling life. These people are a testimony to the fact that amazing things happen when those who are more fortunate choose to give of their time and resources to support those in need.

So where does a homeless person go to gain access to these resources? Much practical assistance is provided through what are known as Rescue Missions. Many of these organizations have career support services through which a homeless person can receive assistance with job searching, resume development, job skills training, and even obtaining clothing to wear to a job interview. A few (very few, unfortunately) even provide legal assistance with things like replacing lost ID and getting court records updated to reflect that all court mandates have been met, further increasing the job searcher’s chances of obtaining gainful employment. In addition, a number of churches are offering direct support to these organizations and in many cases picking up the baton themselves when there is no Rescue Mission in the area.

My hope is that over the past six days you have acquired a better understanding of the challenges facing a homeless person who genuinely wants to find a job. This is important because as understanding increases, the likelihood of being judgmental toward homeless people declines. Awareness, however, is only the first step, and I would also encourage you to explore assisting your local Rescue Mission (or church) through the giving of your money and/or time as a volunteer.

Despite being financed primarily through donations and operating on a limited budget, these non-profit organizations are still having an incredible street-level impact on the homeless situation in this country, and they can certainly use our help. I recommend visiting the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions (www.agrm.org) website to learn more about Rescue Mission work or to find a location near you.

It’s Tougher Than It Sounds – Part 5 (2/25/17)

Note: This is the fifth installment in a six-part series in which I am offering an HR professional’s perspective on the numerous obstacles encountered by a homeless person who is seeking employment.

Part 5 – Employment Eligibility

Question of the day: What happens the first day on the job for a new employee, regardless of the job type or location? It is the I-9 verification process, in which a new employee is required to produce photo identification (and in some cases additional documentation) verifying eligibility to work in the U.S.
Note: All employers are required to begin this process on an employee’s first day of employment, and to finish within three business days. An employer who fails to comply risks fines (minimum of $2,500 per employee) and possible jail time.

What about the new employee who also happens to be homeless and who’s photo ID has been lost or stolen (a very common problem). If I lose my driver license I can simply take my birth certificate down to the local DMV and get a replacement. Not so easy for the homeless person who does not necessarily have the access to transportation, nor the funds to get a replacement ID, much less have a copy of their birth certificate or passport handy.

For an unscrupulous employer, doing the I-9 process by the book is not a concern, but most employers do want to comply with the law. So, what would you do as the employer? Even if you believe a homeless person’s story about losing their ID and felt compassion for the person, would you be willing to jeopardize your business and your personal freedom to help someone you feel sorry for?

This is just one of five major hurdles that can make the employment processing a daunting one. I could probably go on for several more days, but I think I’ve made my point. In tomorrow’s post I will offer some solutions, so be sure to tune in for what will be the final installment in this blog series.

It’s Tougher Than It Sounds – Part 4 (2/24/17)

Note: This is the fourth installment in a six-part series in which I am offering an HR professional’s perspective on the numerous obstacles encountered by a homeless person who is seeking employment.

Part 4 – Drug and Background Screenings
Question of the day: What do you think might happen once an employer is ready to make a job offer and the candidate is required to undergo drug and background screenings? Talk to anyone who is involved in addressing homeless issues and they will confirm the sad fact that substance abuse is very common among the homeless population. Even for the individual who simply smokes marijuana (which I am not attempting to trivialize) that person could fail a drug screening if the usage occurred within the previous 30 days. Although many states have legalized marijuana usage, it remains illegal under Federal law and the courts have repeatedly reaffirmed the employer’s right to reject an applicant who tests positive for marijuana use.

What about the homeless person who has a criminal history, even for a misdemeanor offense such as vagrancy? Fortunately, several states and municipalities have enacted laws barring employers from rejecting an applicant simply because that person has a criminal record. However, once the applicant becomes a candidate (someone actually being considered for the position) the employer has more freedom. With that being the case, if the background screening indicates a criminal history the employer will often rescind the job offer. Never mind the fact that an employer is only supposed to reject a candidate if there is a clear connection between the criminal record and the job requirements. The reality is that many employers are simply not going to take the chance of hiring someone with a criminal record.

Okay, enough pessimism for one day. Let’s assume the homeless person makes it this far and is actually offered a job. We still have one more hurdle to address tomorrow, the new hire paperwork.

It’s Tougher Than It Sounds – Part 3 (2/23/17)

Note: This is the third installment in a six-part blog series, in which I am offering an HR professional’s perspective on the numerous obstacles encountered by a homeless person who is seeking employment.

Part 3 – The Job Interview
Question for the day: If as a homeless person you were actually able to secure a job interview, how would you go about making yourself presentable? I’m not saying that a three-piece suit is necessary, but the clothes do need to at least be clean and appropriate for the level of position applied for. A job candidate certainly cannot look or smell like they’ve been sleeping in a cardboard box or in the back seat of their car. How would you achieve a professional appearance with no access to a shower and a clean set of clothes?

Job interview success also requires the ability to communicate well and maintain focus. What are the chances that a homeless person will be able to do this? I’m not suggesting that this is due to some character flaw. Rather, it is a recognition that it’s nearly impossible to be at the top of your game when you do not consistently get a good night’s rest and are sleeping in an uncomfortable (and quite possibly unstable) environment. Furthermore, homeless people often subconsciously turn inward as a defense mechanism and are so focused on survival that healthy communication skills may have fallen to the wayside.

There is also the issue of the homeless person who struggles with alcohol or substance abuse, mental illness or a combination of mental illness and addiction (known as a co-occurring condition). Let me just say that in my opinion, the immediate solution for these unfortunate individuals is treatment, not employment.

Tomorrow’s discussion topic will be the pre-employment screening processes, see you then.

It’s Tougher Than It Sounds – Part 2 (2/22/17)

Note: This is the second installment in a six-part blog series in which I offer an HR Manager’s perspective on the numerous obstacles facing a homeless person seeking employment.

Part 2 – The Employment Application
Question for the day: Have you applied for a job lately, either online or via paper application? If so, you know that after ‘name’, the application typically asks for a home address. As a homeless person, how would you respond to this question? “Underneath the I-5 overpass” or “Wherever I’m able to park my car” is probably not the kind of answer that would help your chances of landing an interview. The applicant could be dishonest and list what appears to be a legitimate residence address, but the truth will likely come out during the background screening process.

The application also requires information regarding past employment, including dates worked at each job, the employer’s address and phone number, pay rate, name of supervisor, etc. Do you think a homeless person would have all of this information written down somewhere or committed to memory?

I could go on addressing other challenges related to the application process, but instead I’ll consider the possibility that there could be a homeless person who is able to satisfactorily complete the employment application. If the application is submitted electronically we may be okay, but what if it’s a paper application? What do you think is going to happen when someone with filthy clothes and who hasn’t showered for weeks walks into the local WalMart or McDonald’s and hands in their application? Maybe I’m just too cynical, but I seriously doubt that their application is going to get fast-tracked to the HR Department.

Enough on this topic, tomorrow we will talk about the job interview.

It’s Tougher Than It Sounds (2/21/17)

“Here is what we seek; a compassion that can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it.” – Father Greg Boyle

“Get a job!” How often have you heard someone say this (or wanted to say it yourself) to someone who is panhandling for money at a freeway off-ramp or hanging around outside a homeless shelter? On the surface it seems quite simple. If the person would simply get a job, they could afford a place to live and get off the street. On a basic level, this viewpoint is correct in the sense that steady employment can go a long way in helping a homeless person obtain stable housing.

However, I’m sure that any of you who’ve ever found yourself among the ranks of the unemployed would agree that finding a job can be difficult even for someone who has stable housing. The numerous obstacles a homeless person may encounter when seeking employment can be overwhelming, and if you will indulge me I’d like to address these challenges from the viewpoint of a Human Resource Manager. Looking at it from that angle, I am convinced that you will see that for a homeless person, getting a job is not as simple as it sounds.

Starting today and over the course of the following five days I will address these challenges via a series of practical questions. As I do, I would encourage you to put yourself in the position a homeless person and think about how you would respond to these challenges. So let’s get started.

Part 1 – The Job Search
Question for the day: If you were homeless, how would you go about searching for a job? Many homeless people have no access to a newspaper or the internet, and going to the public library isn’t necessarily an option because of proximity. It’s not just a matter of being willing or able to walk or take a bus to the nearest public library. The farther a homeless person wanders away from their stashed belongings, the greater the chance something will be missing when they come back. Another issue is the resistance on the part of some library employees and patrons to have a homeless person in their facility. Adding to the challenge is the difficulty of searching for a job online when you don’t understand the process, as well as the inability to create and print out a resume, something many employers are requiring these days.

Maybe you could overcome all of this when you’re at the top of your game, but would it be the same if you spent every night sleeping on the street (or occasionally in a shelter if you’re fortunate enough), sometimes going for days without food, water and more than a few hours rest at a time. These challenges by themselves can be overwhelming, and this is just the beginning of the homeless person’s job search dilemma.

Check back tomorrow as we talk about some of the challenges associated with submitting an employment application.

The Art of the Apology (2/13/17)

In the 30 years that I have been serving in leadership positions, I have participated in numerous conflict resolution discussions, not only as a mediator but also as the one who was offended or who is offering an apology. I have learned that the apology is a critical step in the resolution process. This is why in my “A Better Way” seminar on conflict resolution, we address how a poorly worded or half-hearted apology can derail the resolution process quicker than almost anything else. While on the surface it would seem that apologizing is such a simple task, the reality is that apologies are often tainted by unnecessary words that actually result in a step backward rather than forward. There are several ways in which this typically happens:

Lack of Ownership
I’ve often heard the person who is supposed to be apologizing say something like “I’m sorry that you got your feelings hurt” or “I’m sorry that you are overly sensitive.” No surprise that when this happens, the offended party is left with the impression that they should be taking the blame. That isn’t an apology, but rather a deflection of responsibility and an invalidation of the person’s pain.

Use of the Word “If”
How many times have you heard an apology along the lines of “I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings”? This doesn’t work either as the “if” also conveys invalidation of the person’s pain and a lack of sincerity on the part of the offender, who doesn’t seem to be willing to acknowledge the offense in the first place.

Using “But” as a Qualifier
Telling someone that you’re sorry and then qualifying it with “But what about you?” only serves to nullify the impact of the apology and conveys a ‘two-wrongs make a right’ mentality. Although it may be necessary at some point to address the other person’s wrongdoing, coupling that with the apology never works.

A Better Way
So now that we’ve addressed some of the pitfalls to avoid, let’s talk about what does work.
1. Recognizing that intent is trumped by impact. In other words, if I give my wife a playful nudge and she falls down and gets hurt, it doesn’t matter what my intent was, she’s still in pain. While an explanation of intent may be valuable at some point, best to leave it out of the apology.
2. Owning the offense. Using the nudge analogy again, how ridiculous would it be if I hurt my wife and then blamed her for being too sensitive? The better approach is to own the fact that I hurt her and offer a sincere apology (and of course not nudge her again).
3. Putting the “F” word at the end of the apology. No, I’m not talking about swearing, although for some this step seems just as distasteful. What I’m suggesting is making the apology and then immediately asking for forgiveness. This additional step is a tough one to take, but can go such a long way in helping to resolve the conflict and move toward reconciliation.

I fully realize that the approach I’m suggesting here is a bit radical in today’s cutthroat environment, and my recommended path is not an easy one to take. After all, apologizing ‘well’ requires humility and a willingness to (a) place a high value on relationships and (b) surrender the need to be right and to have our actions justified. However, in my experience the payoff, in terms of a healthier and more effective culture, makes it well worth the effort. Just something to think about.

The Kleenex Isn’t for You  (2/5/17)

When coaching leaders on how to have difficult discussions with their employees, I mention the importance of keeping a box of tissue handy for the meeting. Let’s face it, when the discussion topic is something unpleasant such as disciplinary action or a layoff, there is a good chance that some tears will be shed. When that happens, you don’t want to have to leave the meeting to fetch a box of tissue, if for no other reason the that you might be tempted to not return!

However, you also need to keep in mind that the box of tissue isn’t for you. In what can already be a stressful situation, you must be able to remain objective and not be overtaken by the emotion of the moment. On several occasions, I’ve sat in on such a meeting when everything was going fine until the supervisor started crying right along with the employee, at which point any semblance of professionalism was lost. Now I’m not suggesting that you be an automaton. To the contrary, showing some compassion for the employee is fine, so long as it does not hinder your ability to effectively communicate what the path moving forward is going to look like.

On the other hand, when discussing a painful personal situation that an employee is going through, matching their emotion to some degree may be entirely appropriate. This was certainly the case for me when a member of my team was losing her mother to cancer, and I felt it appropriate to share with her what I had experienced with my mother’s death from that same dreaded disease. Later, the employee remarked that being able to having a good cry with her boss helped her through that stage of the grief process.

Let me also clarify that there is an appropriate time and place for you to eventually release your emotions. There have been times over the years when I had the task of notifying an employee of a layoff or termination, and having experienced that myself more than once I could feel their pain, regardless of how valid and rational the decision was. I have also had those situations where I needed to remain even keel when helping a surviving family member navigate life insurance claims process and other aspects of the post-death process, all the while personally grieving the loss of the employee.  In each case I knew that once the meeting was over and I was alone, it was important to turn the emotional light switch back to the ‘On’ position, otherwise I ran the risk of becoming callous.

So remember, one of the most important traits for you to develop as a leader is the ability to recognize the difference between when the time is appropriate to shed a few tears with an employee, versus when it’s time to remember that the Kleenex isn’t for you.

Carrot, Stick, or Something Else?  (1/28/17)

Over the years, people have often asked me the question, “Do you think it’s best to lead people with a carrot, or a stick?”  Just to clarify, the “carrot” leadership style is centered around offering incentives or rewards for good performance, and then delivering on that promise when the performance warrants it.  On the other hand, the “stick” leadership style proposes negative incentives and discipline for performing poorly, doling out punishment when necessary.

The challenge of leading with a carrot is that you always need to be offering another, otherwise the horse (or donkey, depending on how you look at it) may slow down a bit, or worse yet bite the hand that feeds it.  I can honestly say that except for early on in my career, I have rarely chosen to employ the stick method (despite the occasional temptation).  I have on occasion found myself at the bad end of the stick approach (you always work for somebody), and I can assure you that it’s only a matter of time before the horse either fights back or runs away.

Throughout most of my leadership experience (which stretches back over 30 years), I was a sound proponent and practitioner of the carrot approach.  However, as my understanding of human behavior and servant leadership have evolved over the last 10 years, I have come to favor what is known as the “rope” leadership style.  At this point you either have visions in your mind of a leash or noose (and wonder what kind of brute force I’m advocating) or I’ve piqued your curiosity; hopefully it’s the latter and not the former.

Rather than thinking of a rope being used to drag someone along, I would invite you to picture it as a mechanism for a team-oriented approach.  You have one person at the front end of the rope (usually the team lead) who is guiding the group and setting the pace, with additional team members stationed at various points along the rope.  With this approach, the team lead is better equipped to position and re-position team members in the appropriate position, depending on each person’s giftedness, readiness level and the overall needs of the team.

Also, if everyone is paying attention, the rope approach provides each team member with an awareness of how the person on either side is doing and when it’s time to recommend a change.  Of course, a good team lead will occasionally have a member of the team take the lead position for a while (again depending on readiness level).  In doing this, the team lead can provide each person with the opportunity to learn and grow in their leadership ability and readiness.

Now while this may all sound simple, it certainly is not as easy as I’m making it sound.  Leading successfully with a rope requires a high degree of collaboration so that each team member knows their role and where the team is headed, and understands their obligation to ask for help when it is needed.

Leading successfully with a rope requires a high degree of proactive communication and trust, so that every member of the team feels comfortable with asking for help, knowing that they will not be found at fault for being authentic.

Leading successfully with a rope requires team members who want to pick up the rope and hold on to it.  In other words, people who have a passion for the process and for the success of the team.  I could go on, but hopefully you get the picture that leading with a rope is hard work for the entire team.  It requires a team leader and team members who are authentic, servant-hearted, and willing to take up whatever position and pace is best for the success of the group.  Two final thoughts on this topic:

1. When one team member is slowing the rest of the group down, the best “new” position for that person may very well be at the front end of the rope. Yes, you read that correctly.  Place that person at the back end without changing the pace, and they will likely fall down and drag things to a halt.  Place them in the middle and they will eventually fall and cause the person on either side to come down as well.  By placing that team member at the front of the group and allowing them to set a new pace (for at least a time), you will allow for the entire team to keep moving while strength is renewed, and you will send a clear message about the value of each team member.

2. The experience is a bit different when there are only two of you holding the rope, such as in a mentoring relationship. When this is the case, the effects of the mentor or the the one being mentored pulling too hard will be felt much quicker.  If the relationship is healthy and the lines of communication are kept open, the need for change is quickly recognized and adjustments are made.  However, there are times when one party simply refuses to lead or follow at a pace that is healthy for the relationship.  When this happens, it’s time to let go of the rope.  That’s right, let it drop to the ground and see what happens.

Hopefully the other person will ask for a do-over and if that happens, you need to be be gracious, pick up the rope and give it another try.  If the other party demands that you pick the rope back up or the person proceeds to walk away, expecting you to run after them, it’s time for you to go find another rope.  Co-dependency and manipulation simply have no place in the rope leadership approach.

One more final thought (the last one, I promise).  If it ever turns out that you are the source of the rope struggle, for the sake of the relationship swallow your pride, acknowledge your shortcomings, ask for forgiveness and make the change.  This will not cause people to lose respect for you; to the contrary it will increase your credibility and trustworthiness (especially if you’re the leader) and you’ll be a better person for it.

Say “Yes”to the Breath Mint (1/21/17)

A colleague of mine had just offered a stick of chewing gum to several of us (she happens to be a dentist) and one of the people in the group turned her down.  She then proceeded to enlighten us that people sometimes fail to understand that when someone offers them some gum or a breath mint, it’s because they need it.  The further irony is that the people who are quickest at turning down the offer are usually the ones who need it the most.  This brought to mind some of the employers I have encountered over the years, and one leader in particular who stands out.

I was doing some volunteer work for a non-profit organization and along with two other volunteers, had the task of grilling burgers and hot dogs for over 500 people.  We were under a deadline to get the job done within a 30-minute window, and time was running short.  We noticed that the smoke from our grills was drifting into the outdoor eating area, but were not overly concerned as we knew that the instant we were done the breeze would quickly clear the air in the eating area long before anyone arrived for lunch.

We were pleased to be nearing the end of our pressing task when a member of the leadership team suddenly walked up and started complaining about the smoke, and ordered us to shut everything down immediately.  He then stormed off before we could explain that we were almost done and that the smoke would clear well before lunch was served.  I asked my fellow volunteers if this was common and they confirmed that it was his standard tactic and were it not for their dedication to the organization, they would have walked a long time ago.

Later that day, the leader in question approached me to apologize for his actions, saying that while shutting us down was the right thing to do, there was no need for him to have been so intense.  My response was to thank him for his apology for being so “bossy”, but to say that there was a bigger issue at hand.  I went on to explain that by micro-managing the situation, he almost kept us from being able to feed hundreds of hungry guests.  Worse yet, he robbed his Food Services Manager and her team of the opportunity to collaboratively address the problem.

I wanted to tell him that his management style was counterproductive and was having a demoralizing effect on numerous.  Instead I said that later in the week when things weren’t quite so hectic, I would enjoy the opportunity to share some of my observations as a volunteer at his organization from the perspective of an HR Manager.

He laughed and said that he had over 25 years of management experience and didn’t need my advice as his people skills were very good.  Rather than correct him and point out that his people skills nearly cost him three high-impact volunteers, I simply let it go.  To put it bluntly, his management ‘breath’ reeked and though he desperately needed the help that was being offered to him, he was simply not willing to take it. I was saddened by the thought of what was to come, as I had seen it many times before when a leader (and in this case I use the term loosely) is not willing to acknowledge that despite all of their experience, they can still learn something.

So regardless of whether you are in a position of leading people, you will have opportunities in which you are offered guidance from someone who is in a position to teach you.  What will your response be?  Will you humbly accept the gift that is being offered, or will you allow pride and arrogance to get in the way?  My own successes and failures (more of the latter unfortunately) have taught me to say “Yes” to the breath mint.