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Cutting Back on Training and Development April 21, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Organizational dynamics.
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A lot of organizations have been cutting back on employee training and development programs, especially since the start of the recession in 2008-09. I remember my early days at HP in the 1980s when the company supported a wide curriculum of internally-developed courses, and later contracted with professional trainers to deliver specialized material. Those days are long gone. I’m not convinced that the cost savings are really that significant, but this seems to be an easy target during times of expense reductions. The ROI on employee development has always been hard to estimate with any confidence, and “we’re doing OK” with the people and skills we already have. “We don’t need more skills and training, we just need to apply the skills we already have.”

It’s ironic that many of these same organizations continue to invest in their physical assets through maintenance and upgrades but seem reluctant to do the same with their human resources. After all, equipment and facilities can’t leave on their own accord after you’ve improved them, while your trained employees can walk out and maybe join your competitor tomorrow (or, at least that’s the fear). Professional development has largely become the responsibility of the individual employee, and companies implicitly assume they’ll be able to replace anyone who doesn’t like that arrangement.

While there are lot of people available on the job market who can provide needed skills, this is a short-sighted decision that is likely to cost more in the long-term (turnover costs), inhibit opportunities for growth through innovation, and reduce overall performance because of lower morale. However, this is another example of saving hard dollars today in exchange for uncertain benefits in the future, and therefore I don’t see any significant change in the future.

Many employees will continue to take charge of their career growth, and many managers will help them by assigning “development opportunities” and special projects within the constraints of the current business priorities and budget. Some leaders and managers may take the initiative and organize informal brown-bag presentations to share knowledge and experience. I’m encouraged by local partnerships between some companies and local colleges and universities. Students, faculty. and the company can all benefit from summer internships and joint research projects, and employees can be encouraged to enroll in targeted degree or certificate programs with tuition that is at least partially-reimbursed.

The desire to develop and improve skills doesn’t go away just because companies don’t want to spend the money. Companies that find ways to invest in their employees and value their professional growth will surely benefit in ways that they may never be able to measure.

A Humble Appeal For Better Staff Meetings March 6, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Organizational dynamics.
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See if this sound familiar. Your manager requires the staff to attend a weekly meeting. Every meeting is the same: after a few announcements and “pass-downs” from senior leadership your manager goes around the table for what is essentially a series of 1-on-1 conversations with each member of the staff. Everyone waits their turn, perhaps mildly interested in what’s happening elsewhere in the group, but usually checking their own e-mail and messages and counting the minutes until the ordeal is over.

This may be a great meeting for the manager, but a terrible use of time for everyone else. Staff meetings are no different than any other meeting. There’s an opportunity cost when you drag people away from their desks or workstations and expect them sit still and pay attention. There must be sufficient value in the meeting to make it worth that cost.

To me, the value of any meeting comes from the real-time interactions and collaboration between the participants. Otherwise, just send an e-mail. If there’s a topic that needs to be discussed, but it’s not of general interest, or amenable to collaboration, then everyone else should be excused. A staff meeting agenda should be constructed to maximize the opportunity to engage the brains of everyone present. The person leading the meeting should actively solicit everyone’s ideas. If no one else can reasonably add value to the discussion, then it’s probably not a good topic for a staff meeting.

Meeting participants have a responsibility here, too. “Decisions are made by those who show up,” and that doesn’t mean sitting quietly and depriving the team of your inputs.

We’ve all got work to do. If we’re going to have a meeting, let’s make it worth our time.

Four Reasons for a Performance Review February 27, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership.
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Lately I’ve been involved in some discussions on LinkedIn about performance reviews, what’s wrong with the process, and whether it can be improved. I’ve written about this topic before (see In Defense of the Performance Review), but at the risk of repeating myself, I’m going to briefly re-visit this topic.

I see four important reasons for a business to have some kind of regular process to meet with an employee and discuss their performance:

1. Review the employee’s performance for the previous period. If nothing else, this is just good management practice. It’s an opportunity to directly reinforce what the business values (and wants to see more of) and what the business does not value. If specific tasks or performance targets were previously assigned to the employee, this is a formal discussion of what was accomplished and what was not.

2. Set the terms for the next period’s assignment. Looking ahead, what are the objectives that the employee is expected to achieve? Ideally, this should be expressed in concrete terms with measurable outcomes (the old SMART acronym applies here). Business priorities may change, requiring an update to these objectives, but there should be no confusion about what was expected.

3. Discuss a development plan for personal growth. There are two ways to look at this. From a “strictly business” standpoint, the employee is an asset that will lose value over time without regular maintenance and improvement. From a more enlightened standpoint, employees perform better when their personal objectives are aligned with the business’s objectives.

4. Finally, link performance to increased compensation or other rewards. There should be some connection between the two. I’m not advocating a strict bell-curve approach to performance ranking and salary administration, but it seems clear that higher performing employees should receive a larger share of the company’s financial gains that they helped to achieve.

The details will vary, but those are the essential elements.

What Happened to HR? February 19, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Organizational dynamics.
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In 1996 I started a new job at Hewlett-Packard’s facility in Vancouver, Washington. The site at that time was supported by a large HR organization that had about 10-15 full-time staff. In 2001 I transferred to a different HP location with slightly fewer employees, but only about 4 HR professionals. In the years that followed the HR function was transformed from a locally-based, hands-on organization to a self-help model with a handful of regional support staff.

I suspect that most large corporations went through a similar transition in the first decade of the century. Today’s HR organizations seem to be focused on recruiting, hiring and on-boarding; benefits administration; supporting downsizing and other termination events; and generally keeping the company out of legal trouble. It’s becoming hard to remember, but HR used to be a lot more than that, at least at those companies who considered their human resources to be a source of strategic advantage.

Obviously a lot of money was saved by reducing the size of the HR organization, and I’m sure it was assumed that line managers and web-based training could meet the needs of the business, and some things were given  up because they weren’t considered to be all that important. I understand that it’s unlikely that we will ever return to the old days of large HR organizations, but if we expect managers and leaders to pick up the slack, then we should remember what HR used to do and ask whether those things still have value.

I’ve been thinking about all this after finding my notes and readings from a class that I took in HR during my MBA program in the late 1990s. In those days HR was described as a key partner, working side by side with other functional leaders to ensure that policies matched the strategic needs of the business. HR professionals led programs in organizational design and improvement, change management, and competitive benchmarking. They worked with line managers to identify future leaders, and design career development opportunities and succession plans. New managers were provided extra training and support for their transition. Staffing plans were based on a long-term view that considered the specific skills and intellectual capital that the company needed, and the company-wide perspective of HR helped ensure that new initiatives were not starved for resources.

I realize that few companies can afford to keep full-time HR personnel to do all those things. My point is that if we don’t, then either we’re saying that we don’t care about those things, or we expect somebody else to do them. If human resources are important to the company, then line managers and other leaders will have to step up and assume the responsibilities of a virtual HR organization.

The Value of Not Knowing What You’re Doing February 4, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Communication, Management & leadership, Organizational dynamics.
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Occasionally someone will ask me about managing or working with younger people. I’m not sure if they’re wondering how I will relate to people under a certain age, or if I have some stereotypical bias regarding Gen X, or Millennials, or any other generation. My answer has always been that everyone is different and unique, and I don’t consciously make any assumption based on a person’s generation, gender, race, nationality, or any other “classification.” A fair manager treats everyone differently based on their individual skills, talents, needs, and background.

The one thing I can say with confidence about younger people is that they have less experience, simply owing to the fact that they’ve spent less time on Earth. The common wisdom is that these folks benefit from the guidance of a more-experienced manager or colleague who knows what not to do because it’s been tried before. “Don’t waste your time, that doesn’t work.”

Experience certainly has value, but I’m always energized when I work with people who don’t know that “it doesn’t work,” and aren’t constrained by their experiences. Our assumptions should be challenged periodically, and each situation should be analyzed objectively. I don’t want my experience to prevent me from considering alternatives that might be exactly the right thing under these unique circumstances. I want to be open-minded to inputs from people who’ve never been there before and don’t know what they’re doing.

 

Focus on Projects, Not Jobs January 24, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in job search, Organizational dynamics, Project management.
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I’ve been doing a lot of professional networking these last few months, particularly since my most-recent transition from the corporate world. I’ve met a lot of new people, and re-connected with many former colleagues. Everyone wants to know how the job search is going, and what I’m looking for in my next job. The more I think about those questions, the more I wonder whether I’m really looking for a “job.”

Yes, I do want to be compensated for my work, and I prefer having some degree of stability and continuity in my work life, and (like most folks, I suspect) I have associated those things with a full-time position that doesn’t have a pre-determined end date. In other words, a job.

Lately, however, I’m starting to believe that there’s really no such thing as job security, at least in the traditional sense of staying with a single employer for an extended period of time. At-will employment seems to be the norm these days as companies emphasize staffing flexibility over long-term commitments. Those who have been laid off complain that there’s no loyalty any more, but I think that cuts both ways. More employees seem to be accepting this new reality, and getting laid off doesn’t have the same stigma that it did before.

If there’s little assurance of a long-term relationship with a single employer, any security is derived from the varying market demand for your skills and experiences. A career is a series of jobs, or maybe even just a series of projects. The company has a need, you’re hired because you’re the right fit for that need, you work until the company doesn’t have that need any more, and then you’re available for the next opportunity (which might be at the same company, but more likely, not). If your skills and experiences are in-demand, you won’t have to spend much time “in transition,” although you may have to be willing to relocate.

Look, everyone is different and has different needs. I enjoy learning new things, and I like the feeling of accomplishment that comes from solving problems that need solving. I just need to learn how to be better at the transitions.

Can Managers Make Innovation Happen? February 12, 2013

Posted by Tim Rodgers in International management, Management & leadership, strategy.
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I’m hearing a lot about innovation these days. It seems that everyone is looking for new breakthrough ideas in products and services in order to grow revenue, differentiate from competition, and establish sustainable profitability. However, waiting for a flash of inspiration or “Eureka” moment is too random and unpredictable for most businesses. They would like to actively innovate, or at least provide an environment where productive innovation is more likely to happen.

What role do managers play in an organization that’s looking for innovation? What can managers do to inspire or foster innovation? I’ve always operated under the assumption that innovation is a creative, “out of box,” right-brain activity that can’t be managed with performance objectives and a schedule. I’m not convinced that you can innovate on-demand. I can’t recall ever attending a scheduled group brainstorming session that led to breakthrough ideas.

Some years ago I visited a peer manager at a different HP site to do some internal benchmarking and look for some best practices that I could bring back to my team. On a monthly dashboard of department metrics this manager included a bar chart showing the number of patent applications proposed by the team. I was astonished that this group of about 30 engineers and managers were averaging 30-40 applications every month. I was especially curious because this was a software quality team, and it wasn’t clear to me what part of our work could be patentable.

It turned out that the patent applications up to that time had nothing to do with software quality, or software testing, or anything remotely related to the products we were working on. Most of them seemed to be new applications of existing HP products. There may have been some occasional good ideas for new products in there somewhere, but I can almost guarantee that none of those patent applications were new, or unique, or valuable enough to be actually filed by the HP legal staff.

At the time I wasn’t eager to challenge the HP manager who was hosting my visit, but I still wonder what they were trying to do. The energy put into patent proposals didn’t seem to provide any direct contribution to the department’s objectives. I suppose it’s possible that the team brought more creativity and innovation to their work in software quality as a result of their patent efforts, but I couldn’t tell how that positively affected their other performance measures. I don’t think this was a good example of inspiring innovation.

I’m still not sure what managers can do to make innovation happen, but I think managers have a lot of influence over the work environment, and that can create conditions where innovation is more likely to happen:

1. Managers can communicate the business’s strategic interest in innovation, and help channel the team’s creativity to address specific needs (e.g., new products, new processes to reduce cost or improve quality).

2. Managers can identify those people in the team who are inherently creative and encourage them. Good ideas can certainly come from anywhere, but the fact is that some people are better able to think outside the box and make unexpected connections.

3. Managers can keep an open mind about new ideas and provide sufficient time and resources to evaluate them. This can be hard when resources are limited and the innovation is unfamiliar and risky. On the other hand, you shouldn’t expect the team to be innovative when there’s no chance their ideas will be given an opportunity to prove themselves.

I don’t think of myself as an innovative person who can generate creative ideas. I do think of myself as someone who understands the value of innovation to the business, and I want to do what I can to enable others to innovate effectively.

It’s Business, Not Personal January 8, 2013

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership.
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The line is from the movie “The Godfather.” Al Pacino as Michael Corleone insists that his plan to murder a New York City police captain and a rival mobster who tried to assassinate Michael’s father is motivated by business considerations, not revenge. As we watch Michael’s rise to power and systematic elimination of his enemies it becomes hard to see any difference between what is personal and what is business, and it hardly seems to matter anyway. But, at least in the beginning, the implication is that “making it personal” is a bad thing, leading to cloudy judgment and decisions that are not in the best long-term interest of the enterprise.

In the world of organizations not characterized as organized crime, “making it personal” is not necessarily a bad thing. When employees feel a passionate and visceral connection to the success or failure of the business, they are far more likely to give their best effort, particularly when they perceive alignment between business goals and values, and career goals and personal values. This linkage is even stronger when personal rewards (salary, bonus, stock, options, other perks) are tied to some measure of business performance.

Of course the wrong choice of performance measures can lead to decisions that are good for individual but bad for the organization, for example bonuses tied to sales and revenue targets that ignore the profitability of the new business. This is why we have laws and regulations governing insider trading.

Unfortunately there are many other potential conflicts of interest. When the reward pie is fixed in size, people will compete, sometimes in unethical or even dishonest ways. I’ve worked at companies where CEOs made strategic decisions that have been attributed to personal motives and perceived threats, although a CEO’s emotions are theoretically supposed to be held in check by the board of directors and major shareholders.

A manager’s job is generally easier when the team is energized, each person for their own reasons. The challenge for the manager is finding a way to “make it personal” without unwittingly undermining the business’s strategic objectives, by rewarding the wrong behaviors, or allowing personal achievement to become more important than business success.

Leaders and the Illusion of Control December 20, 2012

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Organizational dynamics.
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I’ve just finished Anne Applebaum’s excellent book Iron Curtain about the systematic efforts by Soviet-sponsored communist governments in the post-WWII period in Germany, Poland, and Hungary to eliminate opposition, collectivize the economy, and generally create a new society. The local leaders of these countries were guided by their interpretation of Marxist-Leninist principles and the contemporary model provided by the USSR, with guidance and direct orders from Moscow, often approved personally by Stalin (at least up until his death in 1953).

Despite each government’s aggressive efforts to stamp out all institutions and businesses that were not approved by the state, the people of these countries retained a strong desire to assert themselves economically, spiritually, and socially. The communist party leadership believed they could raise the awareness of the working class and mold the young minds of the next generation, but ultimately all of these regimes collapsed in the late 1980s.

I think there’s a lesson here for business managers and leaders. Certainly few modern managers think of themselves as totalitarian dictators, but to some degree we all try to exert some kind of control over our teams. On a group level we guide the team toward a business objective, and on an individual level we try to modify or influence the behavior of subordinates. But, how much control do we really have? Can we really move people to a place where they don’t want to go?

Leaders need to take the time to understand the motives and interests of the individuals they’re trying to lead, and use those as an energy source to keep things moving in the desired direction. People are much more likely to support change and achieve organizational objectives when they perceive some alignment with their own personal values and goals. If that alignment is missing, then your ability to control outcomes is limited and illusory, regardless of your positional power.

The Work Team That Fights Over Who Gets Credit October 31, 2012

Posted by Tim Rodgers in International management, Management & leadership, Organizational dynamics.
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Apparently there are companies that have structured their salary administration systems to emphasize and reward overall team performance instead of individual performance. I admire the effort. Collaboration and teamwork are obviously things we should encourage. I can’t imagine a business environment where some degree of cooperation isn’t necessary.

However, it’s been my experience that people are inherently competitive. Regardless of how well or how willingly they cooperate, people compare their performance to others in the team, and they hope (and expect?) to receive recognition and rewards consistent with their perceived performance. When those rewards come from a pool that’s fixed in size, that leads to in-fighting: de-valuing the work of others, claiming credit for the team’s successes, and finding scapegoats for the problems and failures.

What can managers do to minimize the toxicity of competitiveness within the organization?

1. Performance appraisal systems typically require managers to differentiate and value the specific contributions of each person. That means each person’s objectives should be written in a way that enables both the manager and the employee to evaluate the employee’s performance independently from the rest of the team.

2. Managers have to be actively engaged with the team to know what’s really going on, who’s doing what work, and who’s enabling team success. You can’t expect everyone in the team to be a reliable reporter of events, and you can’t wait until the annual appraisal to figure out what happened.

3. Managers need to reinforce the message that a mix of individual and collaborative work is required for team success, and therefore teamwork will be one of the performance characteristics that will be evaluated for each person. If it’s possible within the constraints of the organization’s compensation system, each person’s salary increase and/or annual bonus should be partially contingent on the team’s performance (i.e., achieving some goal).

Note that it’s still possible that a team will fail despite the selfless efforts of some or all of the individuals in the team. The seriousness of the team failure and impact to the business will determine whether rewards based on the collaborative effort still make sense.

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