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Notes from the Corporate Underground
Volume II: Work for a Jerk and Love It!
By Stan Sewitch
Trafford PublishingCopyright © 201 Stan Sewitch
All rights reserved.
As a teenager I aspired to be a journalist, and was able to fulfill that early dream through becoming an editor for the Teen Page of the Vallejo Times Herald, where I went to high school.
I changed my major from journalism to psychology but never lost my desire to write, to offer new or different perspectives that might be of use to others somehow. The editors and staff of the San Diego Daily Transcript gave me that opportunity in 2003 when they invited me to write a weekly column on, well, anything I wanted to write about.
Those of you who write for a living know just how precious it is to have that literary freedom. And you also know how valuable editorial advice and guidance is to making a writer better.
So this book is dedicated to my three editors and the many staff members who helped me continually challenge myself to get better at authorship, but who never constrained my range of topics.
Thank you, San Diego Daily Transcript, for your gift to me and to our community. It is sad and yet a sign of the times that your 130 year old newspaper is no more. May all of the staff there go on to adventures and contributions at least equal to what you have done for the San Diego community, for so many yearsCHAPTER 2
An Exploration in Accountability
"What does 'accountability' mean to you?" the facilitator asked the group of earnest managers, gathered to hear about the subject and hopefully apply it in daily work life.
One brave soul offered, "Being responsible."
Another spoke up, "Saying what you mean."
A third contributed, "It's really being the person that receives the consequences when something goes wrong."
"Accountability is the act of owning the results one is expected to contribute, no matter what may have affected his or her ability to accomplish those expectations," suggested someone else. Now we're getting to the kernel.
"Let's take a short quiz," the facilitator said. (Alright, I'll admit it. I said it.)
"You get a letter from your lender stating your mortgage check bounced. The lender is assessing a late fee and demanding payment. You are surprised since your checking account receives your pay as direct deposit and you wrote the lender's mortgage payment a week after payday. So you call the bank and discover that they had a software problem and your account balance was erroneously debited. They fixed the problem already.
"If you had to pick just one action out of the following three, what would it be:
You write another check to the lender explaining what happened, pay the late fee, and then ask your bank to reimburse you the fee.
You pay the mortgage amount only, sending an explanation to the lender as to why the check bounced.
You pay the mortgage amount, and write a letter asking the lender to reverse the fee and explain what happened."
Like all little quizzes of this sort, the purpose is to generate discussion and to explore the idea being presented. In this workshop, I offered five of these scenarios. This particular one seemed to get the folks riled up the most. Now that you've made your mental selection, I'll tell you that the most accountable response is number one. When told of this, the group was quite animated in its discussion, challenging the selection and debating what accountability truly is. I felt I had accomplished the goal, but I left that session wondering if my definition of accountability is really a common one. Perhaps I'm the oddball.
The group had several very intelligent, mature people in the room. All of them were hard-working professionals who had a fair degree of authority and responsibility in the client company. All were good people. But this particular multiple-choice question got them irate.
"It's the bank's fault, so they should contact the lender and take care of it!" said one manager.
"If you pay the late fee it affects your credit! You have to get the lender to remove the late status of the payment," said another manager. "It wasn't your fault, so how can you be responsible for it?" Clearly, these people had experienced many such insults in their lives and were freshly wounded. And then I realized what was going on.
The more misfortune we may suffer, the stronger is the temptation to blame factors outside of ourselves. And the less control we perceive to have over our own lives, the more afraid we become, the more resentful of others who negatively affect our lives. The fear and resentment can build until we develop a solid victim's attitude.
In business, the victim's attitude reveals itself when employees complain to each other rather than to the person who can actually do something about the problem. It is demonstrated when managers explain away their lack of results by identifying forces outside of their control, and then expect to receive the same rewards that would have been provided if they had achieved their goals. The victim's attitude shows itself when senior leaders complain about poorly performing people whom they've hired yet avoid a direct conversation about the problem.
The subject of accountability has gotten to be quite popular over the last several years. It naturally follows that in difficult economic times, struggling companies need higher performance out of people than in good times. And it's also common that people previously confused skill and luck to some degree when they were hitting the numbers during the good times, so they resist accepting the negative information in front of them, relating to their own performance.
I'll never forget the first time I saw accountability in action. I was in fifth grade and we were out on the ball field with the teacher. The class was split up into two teams. I was in right field, as usual. Suddenly, after many moments of boredom, a batter actually hit the ball hard enough to get into the outfield. It arced high and was curving into left field. Tom ran to get under the ball and the center fielder, Brian, yelled at him, "Come on! Catch it! Catch it!!" While Brian was yelling, a cloud slipped out from in front of the sun, which was directly behind the ball as it fell. Tom continued to run to the spot that would put him under the ball, his eyes up to the sky. Then Tom fell down. The ball bounced once and went over the back fence while the runner rounded third, heading for home. Brian was upset. "You lame-o! Tom, you could have gotten that!" Brian went on for a few more minutes. "Why didn't you catch it?!" he demanded.
"Because I missed it," Tom said, still on the ground. We went over to him and discovered he had stepped in a gopher hole. His ankle was severely sprained.
Tom had accepted the accountability for catching fly balls that entered left field. He had suffered distracting screams, blinding sun and a twisted foot from a hole hidden in the grass. He relied on none of these to mitigate the undeniable result of his effort: he had missed the ball. He didn't complain, excuse, get angry or withdraw in a sullen mood.
When we sign those mortgage papers, we are agreeing to be accountable for making the payments. Nowhere in the fine print does it say, "Payments will be made on time and in any event no later than 10 days after the due date, unless somebody else messes with your money, then we cut you some slack." We may not like the results, but no one else has accepted accountability for our mortgage payment. We can hold the bank accountable for their mistake, because they told us they would be trusted custodians of our money. But the lender has a right to expect that we'll make our payments on time. The lender has that right because we agreed to that condition when we accepted the money in the first place.
Accountability will continue to be a hot topic in business as the country strives to hopefully cure itself of the Enronitis that has pervaded American capitalism. Whenever I get confused about just what accountability is, I drift back to that ball field, and Tom's example.
That summer after school got out, I saw Tom playing baseball again. Before the game started, he was out in left field pacing the grass. Looking for gopher holes. Wearing sunglasses.CHAPTER 3
Be a Tall Poppy, Not a Black Hole
Rachelle, our Global Talent Acquisition leader, sat down at the conference table. We were meeting to discuss the drafting of career progressions for two of the functional groups that will experience significant growth over the next five to seven years. We're trying to get ahead of the form that will allow those functions to perform even as we double capacity demands upon them.
The topic of recruiting predictably arose, and we discussed Rachelle's two-year project to create a global candidate interface in the fourteen countries where we employ people. Rachelle broke into a chuckle as she remembered a recent candidate interaction from the website.
"The candidate sent a cover letter without the required resume!" Rachelle exclaimed. "His reason was that the interface only allowed him to send one document!
"Why didn't he simply copy and paste the cover letter in the same resume document, as the first couple of pages?"
"You clearly learn a great deal about a candidate through the application process, don't you?" I asked.
"More than candidates realize" she replied. "Candidates don't know how to differentiate themselves from the large number of applicants."
"Do you have any suggestions?" I asked.
"How much time have you got?" Rachelle laughed. "Sure. Let me give you some pretty important ones, and you'll be surprised to hear that at least half of the candidates do not do these things!"
I wouldn't necessarily be surprised, I thought. Half the population is below the median intelligence and skill level, after all.
Rachelle began her list.
"First, a candidate has to figure out a way to stand out among the many," Rachelle explained. "Anybody can apply online or send an email. That's not different. That approach has the same dismal percentage return on time investment as direct mail advertising. Less than two percent chance of a positive reaction.
"The candidate should do some homework before sending in an application of any sort. They should learn about the company to whom they are applying. What is that organization's business model or mission? How long have they been in business? What is the ownership structure? Are they growing? Why? Why not? In the age of the internet, there is no reason why a candidate cannot do some pretty extensive research on a company before applying.
"Next, they should approach the company in the way the company wants to be approached, at least initially if not continually. Follow the instructions. Take the steps outlined. Be accurate and complete.
"Then, it's a true differentiator to send a hand-written note. Even before the telephone interview, sending a note to thank the company for its consideration and to include a work sample that shows the candidate went out of their way to invest in the relationship personally is a dramatic way of showing that the candidate is serious and professional.
"You can call too much for follow-up purposes, and you can make the mistake of not calling at all. Always follow up at least once. Sales is about repetition without being obnoxious. Selling yourself as a candidate is no different.
"When the candidate communicates, it's critical to be genuine, authentic. Recruiters and experienced leaders can smell a snow job a long way off. The use of popular jargon that really has no meaning is a good way to turn decision makers off. If the term is a fad (like when dot com era companies replaced the word 'market' with the word 'space') then someone who speaks Fad will be seen as trivial, insubstantial.
"Wow!" I said. "You have quite a list!"
"And I'm not done yet!" Rachelle replied. "But here's a final recommendation to all your readers out there.
"All three of them?" I asked.
Rachelle smiled, "You have that many?" She then concluded, "If people want to ensure that they are excluded from consideration almost instantly, they should act as if they are owed.
"The best future employees don't behave like victims. They don't blame others. They don't expect anything but the results they get. They are grateful for opportunities and demonstrate it. We look for accountable people here: people who know there are lots of reasons and no excuses.CHAPTER 4
A Small Case With a Big Lesson for Management
Browsing the aisles at Trader Joe's, I looked for the free sample station usually found at the back of the store in Hillcrest. There it was, my treat awaiting. The young woman behind the stainless steel counter was making up small barbecued chicken sandwiches, cutting them into quarters and sliding each piece across the counter to the patiently waiting freeloaders like me. I stood to one side, however, and noticed that she continued to serve others who had arrived after I did. Perhaps she didn't realize I was similarly interested in the offering.
"I would like one, too, please" I said.
She didn't look up, slid another morsel to someone else and said, "You can come around to this side to get one." There was no discernible difference in distance between her fingers and me, versus the other direction she indicated.
"Can't you slide it this way ...?" I asked, innocently.
"No. I have to do it over here" she explained, which was no explanation.
"That's interesting" I said. "What is the reason for that?" "I don't know" she replied. "Maybe it has something to do with safety." I couldn't imagine how sliding a tiny sandwich in one direction or another, on the same stainless steel surface, could represent different levels of risk. But then she revealed the real reason. "I just don't want to get yelled at."
Satisfied that I had achieved at least some measure of truth, I said, "Well, that's reason enough, isn't it?"
In this vignette of organizational dysfunction in leadership, we find the same elements operating which can crater a larger company. First, we have an employee who seems to feel challenged below her abilities. I could hear her thinking to herself, "Damn. Here I am giving out food to shoppers who have no intention of buying the product. Why did I get that degree in marketing, if I'm just going to be a zookeeper?"
We can imagine what probably happened. The bright young college graduate, faced with this job as her only choice in the current economy, applies her brain to her work. She logically concludes that delivering small sandwiches to direction B is no different than to direction A, and results in a shorter line of hungry shoppers, with more efficient product delivery. Then her supervisor comes by and sees the infraction. He tells her, "Look, if I wanted you to deliver the sandwiches to direction B, I would have said that during your orientation. You have to get people to line up over to this side of the cart!" The young woman would likely not have asked for a reason, and the supervisor would likely not have thought it important to provide it. Herein lay the crux of this pitiful situation.
Most people have an inherent need to know the reasons for what they do. If we can ignore for the moment that the debate about causality in the universe is far from over, we must still admit that whether or not there is such a thing as cause and effect, humans look for correlations. We want to know why. Ask anyone fours years old and up.
The Chicken Sandwich Technician's supervisor doesn't realize how powerful providing reasons is in improving employee contributions, attitude and longevity. The supervisor perceives every question as a challenge to his authority and an impediment in getting his task list done. Nowhere on his priority checklist is "Ensure staff understands the rationale for directions, one hour per day," or "Then listen for better ideas from staff." But these two tasks should be the first items on every leader's list.
The result is that the young college graduate who took the initiative to improve the operational performance of her position was scolded for doing so, thus ensuring that she will not likely offer any future notions which could increase sales, customer satisfaction and company profitability. She'll end up leaving one day, giving little notice. The supervisor will huff about, thinking, "Why do I keep hiring these college grads?! They think they know it all and don't stick around!"
Spending time on educating and involving employees early in their relationship with you as their supervisor will result in great dividends in later months and years, which will actually make your job tremendously easier and your company more profitable. No position is so trivial that it could not greatly contribute to organizational success given more "why" to go along with the "what."
Excerpted from Notes from the Corporate Underground by Stan Sewitch. Copyright © 201 Stan Sewitch. Excerpted by permission of Trafford Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
My Thanks, 1,
An Exploration in Accountability, 2,
Be a Tall Poppy, Not a Black Hole, 7,
A Small Case With a Big Lesson for Management, 10,
Back on the Soapbox about Coaching, 13,
Black and Blue, Tried and True, 16,
CEOs Need Love Too, 19,
Company Culture is Found in the Kitchen, 22,
The Tragedy of Self-Pity, 25,
The Danger of Adjectives, 28,
The Myth of Self-directed Teams, 32,
Strategic Slothfulness, 37,
The Mystery of Choice, 41,
Employee Development Made Simple, 44,
Donkeys and Carrots, 48,
Dysfunction in the Ranks: Staff Officers vs. Line Officers, 53,
Principles are the Compass of Entrepreneurial Sailing, 56,
Group Grope, 59,
Just Try to Make a Habit of it, 63,
Can't Wait for Monday, 66,
Is Hierarchy the Only Choice?, 69,
Hiring Your Boss, 72,
"Human Capital Management" (Gag), 76,
Emotional Infection, 80,
Innovation Isn't a Water Faucet, 84,
A Friendly Wake-Up Call From Ben, 87,
It's a Matter of Choice, 90,
Give it to Them Straight, 94,
It's Not About Us, 98,
Become Yourself, 101,
Developing Leadership: A Matter of Programming?, 104,
Leadership on the Edge, 108,
Leadership is About Influence, 112,
"Breakthrough, transformative, dynamic states of the sixteen highly effective power secrets for integrated energy leadership", 116,
Not Your Average Business Book, 119,
The Census Doesn't Count Them, 122,
Millennials Schmillennials ..., 125,
The Myth of Growth, 128,
Personality Testing Fallacies, 131,
Performance Reviews Revisited, 135,
The Open and Shut Case of the "Open Book", 141,
Reductionist Organizational Development, 144,
Organizational Inflammation, 147,
The Paradox of Leadership, 151,
Passing the Baton, 154,
Gazing Past Apogee, 157,
The Power of the Holdout, 160,
The Price of Respect, 164,
Sage Advice for Sages, 170,
The Psychology of Inclusion, 174,
Just the Right Seasoning, 178,
Shipping Out Tomorrow, Ma, 182,
The Word Everyone Uses and Few Understand, 185,
Success Came When You Weren't Looking, 189,
Somebody Took the Responsibility, 192,
Team Building Doesn't Happen Offsite, 195,
The Old Gunfighter, 199,
The Owner's Attitude, 203,
The Truth about Coaching, 206,
Who's on Your Team?, 210,
Teamwork Erupts on Commuter Train No News Media Present to Record Event,
Conference Planners Dubious, 214,
The 83 Steps to Entrepreneurial Excellence, 218,
The Buddha Nature of Vietnam, 221,
You Get What You Measure, 224,
The Leader's Secret Weapon: Admitting Ignorance, 228,
The "What" and the "How", 231,
Throwing a Bell Curve, 235,
"Tough, not rough", 239,
Death by Triangulation, 242,
Unintended Consequences of Efficiency, 245,
Aretha Franklin Was Right, 248,
What Should I Pay For?, 251,
Why Do You Want to Lead?, 254,
Words of Wisdom, 257,
A Small Town Called Earth, 260,
Ya Just Gotta Care, 263,
Yet Another Course in Leadership, 267,
Why I'm At WD-40 Company, 270,
Work For a Jerk, and Love It, 273,
Leadership and Negative Emotions, 276,
Whose Decision Is It Anyway?, 279,
Leaders Look Ahead, 282,
The Goldfish Ponders its Existence, 285,
The Limits of Organizational Design, 288,
The Myth of Rewarding Employees, 291,
When to Shut Up, 294,
First You Learn How to Follow, 297,
"How do I earn an A+?", 300,
Leadership and Mental Illness, 303,
The Influence of Emotions in Decision-making, 306,
Why am I Talking?, 310,
Revisiting "Open Book" Management, 314,
The Romans Weren't Great at Everything, 317,
Quit Looking for the Perfect Fit, 320,
About the Author, 323,