I am writing to you as a newly minted rebel. My main purpose in life is to take your best, your brightest, most creative, hard-working and passionate employees and sneak them out the hallways of your large corporation so that they are free of the yoke of lethargy, oppression and resentment.
It hasn’t always been this way. I tried for many years as a consultant to YOU to explain the importance of treating your employees with dignity and respect. I encouraged you to speak clearly and to the point, to avoid endless hours of PowerPoint, buzzwords and meaningless jargon like “our employees are our most valuable asset.” I was sincere in my efforts as I coached your managers and explained the importance of providing objective, developmental feedback to employees that was based on observable behavior, not personal generalizations. I encouraged you to be open with your business strategy so that your employees could contribute ideas to grow your company.
After ten years, I give up. I was banging my head against the wall trying to find ethical, creative ways to train your employees on the merits of your forced ranking compensation plan. No amount of creativity could overcome the fact that it is a stupid idea and does nothing but create an environment of competition, politics and resentment. Whoever sold you on that idea was wrong.
So now I want to help your employees leave and start their own business. Regain control of their life. Feel blood pumping in their veins and excitement in their chest as they wake up each day. I honestly wish that it were possible for them to feel that inside your company. But things have gotten so convoluted that I honestly don’t think it is possible unless you take some drastic steps:
- Don’t spend millions of dollars to try and change your culture. Corporate culture is a natural thing that cannot be manufactured. No amount of posters, incentive programs, PowerPoint presentations or slogans on websites will affect the hearts and minds of your employees. If you want to see things change immediately, stop acting like an asshole. If you see one of your senior managers acting like an asshole, ask him to stop. If he doesn’t stop, fire him. You will be amazed at how fast the culture shifts.
- Stop running your company like the mafia. By now, we are all aware that no job in any industry is secure. They can be re-scoped, eliminated or outsourced at any time. And that is the way it should be – no organization can be static in today’s environment. But despite this common knowledge, many of your managers act betrayed when their employees tell them they want to leave the company. This is an absolute double standard and should be stopped immediately. If you help your employees grow and develop in their career even if they plan to leave the company, you will create an extremely loyal workforce. You never know where that employee who leaves will go next. They could become an incredibly valuable strategic partner. Their golfing buddy could turn out to be your next huge customer.
- Spend a moment walking around the halls of your company and look at your employees. I mean really look at them. Don’t just pat them on the back and pump their hand while looking over their head at the exit door. Look directly in their eyes. Imagine what their life is like. Who is waiting at home for them? What are the real consequences to their health, marriages and children when they have to work yet another 13 hour day? What kind of dreams do they have? What makes them really happy? What do their eyes tell you? Do they trust you? Resent you? Think you are full of it? I met precious few C-level executives in 10 years consulting that truly “saw” and cared about their employees. Those that did reaped gigantic mounds of good will and respect.
- Teach people how to get rich like you. I don’t think there is anything inherently evil with money. It would be kind of fun to have my own jet and be able to pick up and fly to New York to watch the opening of a Broadway play or zip to Mexico for a long weekend. But the kind of disparity that exists right now between your employees who do the work and you and your senior team who reap the benefits is not only absurd, it is obscene. I know you work very hard and carry a lot of responsibility for your company. Instead of hoarding your wealth, teach your employees how to make money. Show them how you negotiate large deals. Explain investment vehicles. Explain how your business works and why it is so exciting for you to run. Make them into better businesspeople so that they can grow their opportunities and net worth. And for God’s sake share the profits. It is insulting to tell your managers to look a hard-working employee in the eye and say they only get a 3% raise when you take home more in a quarterly bonus than they make in 10 years.
- Don’t ask for your employees’ input if you are not going to listen to it. I have facilitated offsite meetings that lasted for days where well-intentioned managers brainstormed and argued and edited and wrote flip charts until their hands turned blue. They sweated over creating something that was relevant and for a brief period of time actually were proud of what they accomplished. Until a month later when I heard that you scrapped the whole thing in favor of a plan cooked up by an outside consulting firm. This does not only completely waste smart people’s time, it guarantees that you will have hostility and resentment the next time you ask for creative input.
- Don’t train people until you know what problem you are solving. I would be rich if I took up all the offers I got to “design and teach a 5-day course on people skills for all of our managers worldwide.” Most often, I would get the call from a VP of Human Resources that received the request from their pissed off CEO. And what were the pressing business problems that caused the request? Often it was the threat of a lawsuit based on one manager’s egregious behavior. Take the time to analyze what is causing the problems in your business such as high turnover, plunging sales or a huge increase in employee complaints. Usually it is something that will not be resolved by training everyone. Most often it involves firing a person or two who are causing havoc in a department. If you really want your managers to learn how to manage people, put them in tough situations with great mentors near by. Keep an eye on them. Provide feedback and coaching exactly at the moment that they need it (like before they have to fire someone for the first time and are scared to death). There is a time and a place for training, but it should not be your first course of action.
- Ditch the PowerPoint when you have town hall meetings. No one is excited to see another boring graph or 20-part building slide that describes all the components of your new strategy. If they are interested, they can read the slides at their desk. Your employees want to hear your opinions on things that they think about all the time. Your PR team may have a heart attack, but invite tough questions about the things that you know are really on their mind. Are you going to take over another company? Outsource the Help Desk to the Philippines? Why did you get a huge bonus this quarter when the rest of the employees are on a salary freeze? Did the VP of Sales really get caught with his pants down at the the sales meeting in Vegas? Just because people ask the questions doesn’t mean you have to answer them all. Know what you can and can’t talk about and be direct about that (no, you can’t talk about the VP of Sales or you may get sued). You will do wonders for your credibility and I guarantee no one will be sleeping in the back of the room.
- Focus on the work people do, not how or when they do it. Some positions require people to be at their desk at an appointed hour to answer customer calls or to participate in live meetings. But others can do their work from home, early in the morning, late in the evening or dialing in from the local Starbucks. The turnover magnet you have for losing great employees is not the competitor down the street, it is the idea of freedom and flexibility for the self-employed. Your employees have different biorhythms and working styles and activities going on in their lives. If you provide flexible work options and don’t make people sit unnecessarily at their desk, you will keep some great employees who would otherwise leave. A manager who is afraid to offer telecommuting to her employees because she thinks they will slack off is just showing her own weakness. Great managers build accountability into flexible work plans and manage performance aggressively.
- Watch the burnout. Many companies measure an employee’s drive and dedication by the amount of hours they work each day. I have witnessed people playing video games at their desk until their manager leaves “just so they won’t think that I am slacker.” Huh? It is not a badge of honor to work 18 hours a day, it is a sure path to a heart attack or divorce. There are times when employees have to work around the clock to get critical projects done and that is part of doing business. But if they are working long hours just because “everyone does,” you are creating a culture of waste, inefficiency and ill health.
- Forbid people to work while they are on vacation. Of all the pet peeves that I have accumulated over the years, this is perhaps the biggest. Your employees work like pack mules all year long. They send messages via Blackberry during dinner, take work calls during their kid’s basketball games and forgo rolling in the sheets with their spouse to finish a PowerPoint presentation on Saturday morning. When they go on vacation, let them relax. The only way to get the health and stress-relieving benefits of a vacation is to completely unplug from work. As long as they are checking email each morning from the hotel lobby or fielding “urgent” calls in the evening, they might as well be in the office. The worst thing is seeing their kid’s eyes as they observe once more that Dad or Mom values work more than family, even on vacation. Shame on you for making this acceptable behavior.
I won’t entice anyone out your door that does not want to come willingly. Many people will choose to stay in the comfort of your oppressive predictability. But if you lose some smart, creative, entrepreneurial and positive minds, you can’t say I didn’t warn you.