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Hiring, Firing and Net Value February 24, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Organizational dynamics.
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In one of my recent positions my manager suggested that I “get rid of” an person in my team who wasn’t meeting expectations, at least in the opinion of my manager. I assumed he meant that I should fire them. I didn’t think that was a good idea, for several reasons. I felt that this person was being asked to do something that was a little outside their job description, and something that was also outside their natural comfort zone of skills and talents. Instead of continuing to force a square peg into a round hole, I re-assigned some responsibilities within the team so that this person could focus on what they did best.

Sure, I could have fired this person, but I prefer to look at these situations from a net value perspective. This person was making a positive contribution to the business. If I fired them, that contribution would be lost, at least until I replaced them with a new hire or transfer. Hiring requires recruiting and interviewing candidates, and then the new person typically goes through a learning curve. It could be months before the business realized a net gain to offset the switching costs, and even then the hiring process does not guarantee a better outcome.

The other consideration was how much of my time every day was spent managing this person, or compensating for their sub-standard performance. It’s certainly possible that what looks like a positive contribution to the business by one person is actually a net drain because of their impact on management and others, including the lost opportunity to spend your time in more productive ways.

In this case I was able to find a lower-cost way to increase this person’s long-term net value without incurring the switching costs. I’m not sure my manager agreed with my logic. I understand that sometimes you do have to “get rid of” someone who is under-performing, but that should be a carefully considered decision, not an emotional reaction to a situation that may not really that bad.

I see the same issues on the hiring side. Let’s assume that all job openings were justified to fill an urgent need for the business (although that’s apparently not always true). As long as that position remains unfilled, the business is suffering to some degree, otherwise why would the position be created in the first place? Of course the hiring manager should be trying to find the best person to fill the position, but the time it takes to find and on-board that person has to be balanced against the cost of not having any person in that position. Can the business afford to keep looking for a better candidate?

Of course this isn’t necessary a bad thing. As time goes by without hiring someone, the business will compensate and adjust for the missing resource, and it’s possible that may ultimately be a net gain. Or, not.

 

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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.

 

The Skills (Most) Engineers Don’t Learn in College January 9, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Process engineering, Quality.
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My friend and former colleague Happy Holden recently sent me his list of 25 “soft skills” that engineers don’t learn in college, but that every engineering manager needs to acquire to succeed. Engineers may graduate with a deep understanding of their selected discipline, however their future career path will depend on whether they acquire other critical skills on-the-job. Those that don’t may continue to be useful engineers when they’re given specific assignments, but they will require closer management (which will add cost to their organization), their contribution to business goals will be narrow, and their value will be limited, whether or not they become a manager.

Happy has 25 skills in his list, but I’ve chosen the following 10 as my favorites, in no particular order:

  1. Statistics, specifically inferential statistics. I’ve always been surprised at how few engineers understand the concepts of sample size and significance testing. Too many are willing to accept a single test result as proof.
  2. Problem solving. I’m talking about a systematic approach to problem solving, one that evaluates the current situation and considers more than one possible root cause and solution. In the end, your first instinct may still be the right one, but you should at least evaluate other possibilities.
  3. Technical writing. This is a bit of a lost skill with today’s greater emphasis on verbal communication, texting, and PowerPoint. However, regardless of the medium, understanding and decision making requires clear expression of technical concepts, especially to people who don’t have the same technical background that you do.
  4. Design for manufacturing. Here I’m talking to design engineers who may have a limited understanding of the capabilities of their supply chain, which includes manufacturing processes, variability, and tolerance stack-ups. The best design isn’t very useful until it can be built in the real world.
  5. Managing management time. OK, this is a little subtle. Your manager is busy juggling multiple issues. Exercise good judgment about taking their time, and focus your questions and reports. Even better, learn more about their strategic priorities and working environment, and anticipate what will be important to them.
  6. Project/program management. Obviously this is a required skill for engineers who aspire to become project managers, but all engineers who understand stakeholders, schedule, dependencies, resources, and risks will be able to work more independently, and effectively.
  7. Benchmarking. I’ve always been a fan of benchmarking as a way of identifying new ideas and accelerating their adoption. The part that often gets lost is how the results were achieved, not just the results themselves. Engineers should learn to appreciate and analyze different ways to build a mousetrap.
  8. Engineering economics. The “best” ideas and designs may not be adopted due to financial considerations such as return-on-investment and break-even time. If you can contribute to an evaluation of economic trade-offs, you’re more valuable to the process of decision-making.
  9. Recruiting and interviewing. At some point the organization is going to do some hiring. Those who can participate effectively in the process will have a significant influence on the future of the organization.
  10. Predictive engineering. It’s possible that this is actually taught somewhere, but it tends to be very specific to a product or industry. Building prototypes can be time consuming and expensive. It’s good to be able to assess performance and reliability without having to wait.
My number 11 would be lean manufacturing / JIT / TOC, although that’s a personal favorite that may be less important as firms use more contract manufacturing.

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.

Professionals and Workers August 22, 2012

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Organizational dynamics.
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I’ve been going through some old files now that I have some (unwelcome) time on my hands, and I found a Powerpoint presentation from 1997. I had just taken a new position, managing a software test team that was suffering from low morale. There was a widespread feeling that the work was unimportant and unappreciated by the rest of the organization. That could have been the beginning of a downward spiral, especially if higher-performers were able to find more rewarding jobs elsewhere.

I can’t remember where I first saw this contrast between those who are workers and those who are professionals, but it inspired the team and instilled a new sense of pride when I turned it into a presentation for an all-hands meeting:

A worker: A professional:
… is a robot, operated by a manager under remote control … is an independent human being
… is focused on boss, activity, and task … is focused on customer, result, and process
… performs tasks and follows instructions … is responsible for performing work and assuring its successful completion
… is characterized by obedience and predictability … is characterized by intelligence and autonomy
… is trained … learns
… has a job … has a career
… inhabits a precisely defined job and operates under close supervision … is constrained by neither

Also:

  • A professional sees themselves as responsible to the customer. Solve the problem and create value. If the problem is not solved or value is not created, the professional has not done their job.
  • Once provided with knowledge and a clear understanding of the goal, a professional can be expected to get there on their own.
  • A professional must be a problem solver able to cope with unanticipated and unusual situations without running to management for guidance.
  • Professionals ignore petty differences and distinctions within an organization. When we are all focused on results, the distinction between my work and your work becomes insignificant.
  • A professional career does not concentrate on position and power, but on knowledge, capability, and influence.
  • The professional’s career goal is to become a better professional and thereby reap the rewards of better performance.

Work-Life Balance, Revisted April 9, 2012

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership.
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Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, was quoted in a recent interview: “So there’s no such thing as work-life balance. There’s work, and there’s life, and there’s no balance.” She was specifically addressing the challenges of being a working mother trying to juggle family responsibilities with a fulfilling job that requires a high level of commitment. As enlightened managers in the 21st century we are often reminded of the importance of work-life balance to maintain high morale and generally improve job satisfaction.

I remember the first time I ever heard the phrase “work-life balance.” It was 1995 and I was standing in the company cafeteria listening to our group VP tell a story to illustrate how he was trying to model the behavior. Before leaving on his most-recent vacation with his family, he told his staff that he would not be checking e-mail or phone messages and generally would not be available for work-related issues. The VP paused for effect at the end of his story, I guess to impress upon all of us what a radical departure this was for him and his staff. My co-workers and I exchanged puzzled looks. We couldn’t imagine making ourselves available to discuss work issues during our time off.

Less than ten years later my wife and I were riding in a shuttle on the way to the airport for two weeks in the South Pacific to celebrate our wedding anniversary. We were about 15 minutes into the drive when my wife warned me that if I didn’t stop talking about work immediately she would turn around and return home as soon as we got to the airport. I could go on to Bora Bora and find someone there who would be willing to listen. I wised up right away and didn’t mention work again.

What changed? When the work is challenging and I feel a sense of personal commitment to the business and the team, I think about work all the time. I’ll wake up in the middle of the night thinking about strategy and priorities and resource allocation. In China I would check my Blackberry just before I went to bed, and check it again when I woke up the next morning. On the other hand, when I’m not stimulated by the job it’s very easy for me to stay emotionally detached.

Of course we would like our teams to be engaged and fulfilled by their work, but when we tell people to maintain work/life balance and discourage them from thinking about work away from the office, or checking their messages, are we really doing what’s best for the business or the employee? Like just about everything else with management, the answer depends on the person. There’s no question that managers need to be sensitive to the signs of overwork and stress and help people maintain some balance. I feel sorry for people who don’t have a life away from their job, something they can fall back on if they retire find themselves “between jobs.” However, if people are truly inspired to work long hours and derive some fulfillment as a result, isn’t that a good thing?

At one of the HP locations where I worked there was a small on-site store that sold candy and soft drinks. Later they expanded to greeting cards and small gifts, and then they provided laundry and dry cleaning services. This expansion seemed like a good idea at the time, a way to save people from having to go off-site for little errands. It also meant more time working on-site. I’m sure many people saw this as a convenience. Others might have wondered if some of their balance was lost.

Read This: “Bring Back the Organization Man” March 19, 2012

Posted by Tim Rodgers in baseball, job search, Management & leadership.
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Last week I discovered an excellent article by Peter Cappelli from the HBR Blog Network:

http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2012/03/bring_back_the_organization_ma.html?awid=5825209905911292232-3271

This is great stuff. I strongly encourage you to read this for yourself, but here’s what I got out of it:

1. Companies are tending to hire external candidates to fill positions, which takes less time than developing internal candidates and allows them to aggregate the specific skills and experiences needed at any given time (“plug ‘n play”), and replace workers and re-assemble a different team as business requirements change (“‘just-in-time’ workforce”). Unfortunately this kind of short-term thinking is leading to retention problems as employees realize they will have to leave the company in order to achieve their career goals. In response to the turnover, companies reduce their spending on training and development, which reinforces the cycle.

2. Hiring from the external pool is inherently unpredictable: “The supply of skills in specific areas is uncertain, so the quality and price jumps around a lot.” There’s also a question of whether an external candidate is a good fit for the company’s culture, something that can’t be easily assessed during an interview process.

3. Many employees fear losing their jobs to external candidates who have specialized skills that a company needs at a given point in time, and this fear leads to sub-optimal performance.

4. Mr. Cappelli suggests a return to the old “Organization Man” model where companies invested in the training and development of their employees. The internal pool of employees is a more reliable and predictable (and cheaper?) source of talent to meet the changing and unknowable future needs of the business. When employees see that the business is committed to retention and professional growth, their anxiety level is reduced and performance improves.

I agree, but I worry about how many companies are willing to make that investment, particularly if they are focused on short-term financial and performance goals.

There is a staffing model that assumes that a high-performing team can be assembled from available people, including current employees, external hires, temporary contractors, and outsource partners. I think of this as the “Hollywood model” where a team comes together to achieve a specific goal (make a movie), then disbands as a formal group when the goal is achieved. Some members of the team may re-aggregate in the future to make another movie, depending on their performance, availability and price tag.

This may sound attractive as a customized approach, matching the goal and the skills required to the team members, but it assumes that success is just a matter of assembling a bunch of specialists and mercenaries.The whole is not necessarily greater than or even equal to the sum of the parts, and may in fact be less. There are many possible reasons for this: no loyalty, poor interpersonal compatibility, no commitment to a “greater good,” no incentive to help teammates.

For another example, note how many Major League Baseball teams have achieved success on the field simply by acquiring expensive free agents instead of developing talent from within. Success in baseball more often comes when a team complements their home-grown players by selectively filling key positions with external hires who don’t disrupt the clubhouse culture.

Happy Not to Be a Manager February 5, 2012

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Organizational dynamics.
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A very dear friend of mine sent a message the other day after reading one of my posts, remembering with gratitude the hiring manager who didn’t choose him for a management position many years ago. Today my friend enjoys a successful and fulfilling career as an engineer, and I believe he’s very happy with how things turned out.

Management is not for everyone, and I have the highest respect for those who have the self-awareness and confidence — and, in some cases, courage — to choose a different path. Unfortunately I think there are a lot of people who become convinced that they are some kind of failure if they don’t eventually get themselves promoted to a management job, and a lot of those people end up miserable. I’ve said it before: management is a completely different job requiring a different skill set. The job description includes administrative, HR and fiscal responsibilities (many tedious or unpleasant) that leave little or no time for the hands-on work you enjoyed before you became a manager. You need a lot of patience to deal with the stream of daily issues that come from the folks who report to you. You’re accountable for the performance of the entire team, not just yourself, and there are days when that can be a tough burden to carry.

Nevertheless, it’s hard to resist. The money is usually better, despite the fact that many companies have some version of a dual ladder system with comparable pay ranges for non-managers at higher levels. Well-meaning family and friends may contribute to the general societal attitude that “moving up” is good and being left behind is bad. Eventually your immediate manager will be someone who is younger and possibly less-experienced than you are, and that may be hard to accept.

It’s one thing to stay out of management altogether, it’s another thing to give it up. I’ve had managers come to me after a couple of years and ask to be re-assigned to a non-manager job, and in each of these cases I was glad to accommodate in order to retain a valuable contributor with leadership experience. Managers are certainly not the only ones who can exert strategic influence, and I’ve seen many examples of non-managers providing greater value to the business by working more freely in the white space of the organization chart. The former manager still has all the skills that helped them to be promoted previously, and there’s every reason to believe those skills will be at least as valuable in their new role. (See Manager With a Small “m”).

According to WordPress this is my 100th post, and I suppose that’s a noteworthy milestone. It seems that I haven’t run out of topics yet. Every day I find something that inspires me to write, although it takes a few days for a flash of inspiration to coalesce into something coherent. There is a growing risk of repeating myself as the number of posts increases, but I will do my best to maintain a high ratio of original content. I’ve been able to avoid “vanity” posts with commentary about popular culture or sports or politics or what I had for dinner last night because frankly I can’t imagine why anyone would be interested. Thanks for indulging me.

When Is Job Hopping a Bad Thing? January 21, 2012

Posted by Tim Rodgers in job search, Management & leadership.
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I’ve got a couple of job openings in my team right now and I’ve been reading a lot of resumes. Most resumes these days are carefully-crafted. They’re edited and re-written, reviewed by friends and colleagues, and possibly even professionally assembled and formatted. The job titles and key words and phrases all start to look the same, turning resume reading into a forensic exercise, deciphering clues to figure out who this person is. Once we’re satisfied that a candidate has met the minimum requirements for the job we start looking for reasons to include or exclude them from further consideration. Overall it’s a highly-subjective process, but it’s easy to figure out how many companies this person has worked at, how much time they’ve spent in each job, and whether there are any unexplained gaps in the employment history.

Each transition or discontinuity reveals something about the candidate, but what? There’s a name for people who change jobs frequently: a job-hopper. Most hiring managers or interviewers seem to think that job-hopping is a bad thing, maybe a confused wanderer who lacks commitment or dedication or loyalty, or a poor performer or agitator who can’t hold a job because they’re fired or eased out after a brief probationary period. Of course in the current climate of privacy and confidentiality it’s impossible for a hiring manager to find out what happened from previous companies or managers (unless you have a trusted insider in your personal network who’s willing to blab), so all you can do is ask the candidate and believe or not believe their story.

Hiring managers seem to favor applicants who have worked long stretches at a few companies, or at least they’re less suspicious of those applicants. Why is that? I think it’s because we don’t want to hire someone who is likely to stay on the job for only a short time. It’s a fear of future turnover, with the corresponding transition costs and headaches.

On the other hand, how long do we really expect anyone to stay in their current job? When the job market is tight people tend to seek job security and stay longer, but as the economy improves mobility will surely increase, particularly for those who have attractive skills and are looking for new opportunities and career growth. Shouldn’t we give more consideration to what a person has accomplished during their time in each job, not just how much time they spent? Is the business better served by a strong performer who may leave in two years, or a less-strong performer who is more stable? I guess the answer depends on the business.

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