AA doesn’t get an A

August 3, 2009

A lot of people blame bad design and bad customer service in big organizations on the fact that they are big organizations. This is what Mr. X did. But that’s a cop-out. The reason large companies with bad design are the way they are is because they are run poorly from the top, with philosophies that force the entire company to behave like its lowest common denominator.
 
— User interface/experience designer Dustin Curtis

A while ago, I came across this Open Letter to American Airlines from user interface and experience designer Dustin Curtis, who was so exasperated by his experience on AA’s website that he wrote to tell them that their site abused and alienated customers. Then he took a couple hours out of his life and redesigned it for them.

I cheered. I hate that website with a passion, and in fact will pay Expedia.com potentially ridiculous fees to make my reservations so that I don’t have to deal with AA. They aren’t alone — many companies that depend on revenue from customer loyalty and margins from lower-cost online operations shoot themselves in their incorporated feet by providing an online experience that feels like a visit to a special circle of hell.

And then Curtis got this heartbreaking response from an anonymous user experience architect at AA. It turns out that the problem is not the capabilities of the folks working on the site — it’s the corporate culture that makes it nigh on impossible for capable people to do a good job.

That’s #managementfail on a grand scale. This is the 21st century. Every company needs to embrace the fact that you are defined as much by your online presence as your in-person customer interactions. Pixels don’t hide poor management: in fact, sometimes the flaws show even more.

What shall we do with the young people?

July 20, 2009

The radically changing workforce demographic can be a source of stress for any organization. It’s more than just an “age difference” — it’s the meeting (sometimes the collision) of widely different worldviews, values, technological experience and expectations of what “work” should be and how it should feel.

Differences can’t be executive-memo’ed or or human-resourced away: they have to be engaged, explored, and integrated into your workplace process if you want your workplace to be effective.

Here’s one organization that’s doing just that — read this long and thoughtful article about the strategies Swedish Hospital is using to integrate and engage younger workers.

It means that when 25-year-old ICU nurse Talina Silbernagel comes to work at 7 p.m. for a 12-hour shift three nights a week, she has lots of duties but also a support network to keep her from slipping through the cracks or feeling helpless when things get rough.
 
For her, “What do you need?” is about the best question her bosses can ask.
 
— from “Seattle hospital thinks young for its workers” by Tyrone Beason

You’ll find much more good advice in the article.

Audit your secrets

March 12, 2009

Allison O’Neill, author of The Boss Benchmark, joins me today as a guest blogger with a very timely article on keeping secrets at work.

Allison is an expert on bosses. She is the New Zealand-based author of The Boss Benchmark – a book about how to be an amazing boss, endorsed by high profile worldwide CEO’s. You can download the first few chapters free (and purchase a hardcopy or e-version) at her website.

Allison blogs regularly on the topic of being a boss and would love to hear any questions, ideas or feedback you have about this article. Start a conversation here, or email Allison.


Why you should audit the secrets you keep from your staff

In the past when there were stiff hierarchies there were probably lots of things management knew that staff did not. Perhaps management thought staff were not important enough to be told many things. The futuristic workplace though, has an ‘all in’ attitude — anything management knows staff should too. Such open attitudes are positively overhauling our workplace cultures. It shows staff they are respected and trusted and it increases engagement. Most places want to do away with the ‘them vs. us’ of management and staff. It is not a helpful vibe, and should have been given the boot a long time ago.

Some bosses use secrets simply to make themselves feel awesome. Anyone who keeps secrets purely to make themselves feel superior is pathetic — but they do exist. It is impossible for a team to unite and truly function as a ‘team’ under those conditions. I knew of a boss that wanted to show his team he had ‘the power’ so staged fake job interviews to frighten the staff that were on thin ice. Its like he was trying to scare them into performing better — or they’d be replaced. Mind games like this should have absolutely no place at work. Its not healthy — the boss is unfit to be a boss and it makes the staff live in fear. What a gross environment!

‘Secrets’ you shouldn’t share

If a staff member shares things with you in confidence they should of course be kept private. There are many instances where an employee needs to inform a boss about something happening in their lives that may affect their work, but that does not mean everyone else should know too. Some examples:

  • They have a health problem they are managing privately.
  • They are separating from their partner and wish it to be private.
  • They need time off for a mental health issue.

Also, in businesses where husband and wife owners work together, should they have marriage problems it can affect the entire business and team. Personal problems should be kept out of work –- if not, you will really impact your staff members and their work (often even if you think you aren’t). If it has affected the team already, apologize and inform them you will be keeping work and private lives separate from now on. If you do end up separating, draw up some rules to help you manage your work relationship and be open about what is going on with the team. Don’t leave them to guess, wonder or gossip.

‘Secrets’ you should share

I know a boss that made a huge mistake by listing the business for sale without telling the staff. The staff saw the ad when reading the paper on Saturday morning. They were very annoyed that the boss had been feeding them lies about “everything being fine”. Instead of feeling embarrassed about having to sell up, the boss should have been open and included the staff in this process honestly. Instead the culture was tense and disconnected while the sale went through. The boss didn’t regain the trust or respect of the team.

In the past a lot of businesses kept financial details secret from staff –- as if it was none of their business or they didn’t need to know. Businesses that do share such information are often better off. One great reason to share is the clarification about how much profit the owners really do pocket each year. Some staff believe it to be gazillions, which is why they get so annoyed at their wage which they may feel is miserable. Often when all the financial details are on the table they see they are paid very fairly and the boss doesn’t take home four million each week!

You should share things like:

  • If there is a drop in sales tell the team -– don’t just keep it within the boardroom.
  • Tell everyone what the high margin products are so they can focus on selling those items.
  • If there are financial difficulties discuss it with everyone and pen a survival plan together — especially since staff know the customers much better than management does. Their contribution will be very valuable.

It is important to tell staff margin details because if they are earning commissions on each item, they can sometimes assume you are pocketing a lot more from their great sales work than the miserable commission you are paying.

Audit your secrets

  1. Ponder everything management knows but the staff do not.
  2. Figure out why these things are not public knowledge amongst the team.
  3. Identify at what cost the secrets are being kept.
  4. List the pros and cons of staff knowing (more often than not, the honesty is of higher value than any negative that may come from sharing).
  5. Come clean with your secrets and tell the team that management intend on being more open about such things in the future.

Involving staff in these kind of ‘secrets’ is not rocket science –- they are stakeholders, after all. Gone are the days when the boss knew lots of inside secrets and the staff were clueless — often wandering aimlessly around scratching their heads. The workplace of the future is without old-fashioned hierarchies and is full of openness, honesty and much bigger success.

What is recognition?

January 27, 2009

Some companies, and some managers, don’t embrace the idea of “recognition” — they find it artificial, or expensive, or it just takes too much time. Some companies treat recognition as if it were a maintenance chore like filling up the copy machine with paper, or changing the bottle at the water dispenser — something you do to keep things working.

Some companies think that a coffee cup or a t-shirt from the company store is “recognition.” Yep, just what your folks need to make them feel valued: a coffee cup that’s all about the company. No, no — recognition is never about the company: it’s about the people and the work they do. And so for recognition to be effective, it has to be real, and it has to be personal. Cookie cutter approaches and company swag do not send a personal message.

What does? A handwritten note that spells out what the person did and why it matters. A gift certificate to their favorite restaurant. A contribution to the charity that they volunteer for on the weekends. Buying them a cup of coffee at the latte stand and staying to chat while you both get caffeinated. The gift of your personal effort, your time, your attention to the details that make them an individual — that make them, in fact, the individual who just went above and beyond for your team and your business.

It’s not always convenient, but it is always worth it.

If you want to see the power of personal recognition in action, read about what it can mean when someone cheers you on at work — even if your work for the day is to throw passes or play defense in a high school football game.

I love this story. It makes me misty every time I read it. The power of human beings to make each other feel special… imagine how these kids felt on that bus trip home. We don’t have to be on the football field to do this for each other. We can do it in our offices and cubicles, on our factory floors, just by taking the time to recognize not only the work, but the humans behind it. You may be responding because of the work someone did — but when you respond, do so as one human being to another. And then imagine how they might feel on their bus trip home.

Money matters

December 15, 2008

Do you talk openly about salary with your team?

Money is a sensitive topic in US work culture (I don’t know if it is in other countries, perhaps someone will enlighten me). But “sensitive” doesn’t have to mean “taboo” — and if you’re promoting transparency as a management value, you need to consider being open about how your company manages salaries.

I never talked about money with anyone at work except in the context of negotiating a job offer, or having my boss tell me what kind of a raise I was getting. Except for the year when I got a 2.5% raise (when others around me were getting 5% – 10%) — that year, my boss let me find out the good news when I got my paycheck and did the math.

I was devastated. I thought I was on the fast track to getting fired. I went home feeling sick. And when I finally gathered my courage to approach my boss, he told me that no, I was so close the top of my pay grade that 2.5% was as much as he could give me, but he was working on ideas about promotion for me.

Imagine how much better my day would have been if he’d just told me up front? But he was embarrassed about the raise and “didn’t know how to disappoint me.”

I was lucky: I could at least find a way to start the conversation with him. Many people are much more wary of approaching their managers, especially in times when everyone’s job is less secure.

When I managed my own large team, I sat with everyone during their performance review and showed them the company’s salary range chart. I showed them what salary grade they were in, and explained that everyone at their job level was somewhere in that grade. We talked together about how they could get an increase (performance goals), or get to a higher grade (promotion). And I found out that no one had ever shared any of this information with them before. They didn’t even know for sure that the people in the same jobs were in the same pay grade.

People won’t always be happy with their annual increases or their bonuses. But when you share information, you make it easier for people to let go of suspicion or dread, and instead to focus on how they and their team can go farther. When you share information, you make money less personal. You show that it’s a process, not simply a crap shoot or a favor-based system.

And if you can’t share information because you know that salaries are unfair? Well, I guarantee that your people already know that too.

Have any salary stories or ideas to share? I’d love to hear them.

A different kind of business capital

December 3, 2008

This interview with economist John Helliwell in Rotman Magazine (the Rotman School of Management) reaffirms for me why it’s important that companies take a clear look at how they’re managing people, not just business:

The higher the degree of trust and willingness to share in a human-as-well-as-material respect across the organization, the better an enterprise will perform.
 
— Economist John Helliwell, speaking on the value of social capital in the workplace

If you’re a new manager, don’t be put off by the term social capital or the fact that the conversation ranges far beyond “strictly business” — read the interview for Helliwell’s insights into the direct connection between engaging with others (even when it takes work to bridge our differences) and positive impact on quality of life and business. What he’s talking about is the power of engaged relationships with the people around us: family, neighbors, and colleagues. When we connect in relationships that are based on helping, as opposed to controlling, each other, guess what? The community — whether it’s your village or your company — works better.

Managing is at its essence a network of individual relationships. Whether we manage well or poorly is a product of how we behave in those relationships. Every skill in the Humans At Work program is a behavior designed to help all your relationships at work be as clear, honest and productive as they can be: to build bridges across our differences so that we can all work together to achieve our common goals. That’s the essential definition of community, and these ideas of social capital as a driver of community success are important to every one of us.

So please, after you’ve read the interview, take some time to read more about Humans At Work. Download session details and find an idea that can help you at work, whether you’re a manager or not. These ideas are for everyone. Our workplace communities need managers — but the community is not for the manager, it’s for all of us. We can all benefit by making it stronger.

Diversity means difference

December 1, 2008

Does the idea of working with the people in this video scare you?

Maybe you’re thinking that Goth music and people with dark makeup or full-sleeve tattoos don’t belong in a professional work environment. Maybe you assume that “people like this” don’t have the same idea of business you do, and they wouldn’t fit into your company. Or maybe, like me, you’ve worked in environments where diversity was more than just a training topic.

One of the great joys for me at Wizards of the Coast was that I came on board during the company’s enormous business growth and great cultural flowering. At least 30% of the workforce was openly gay or bisexual, and the company offered insurance benefits to domestic partners beginning in the mid-90’s. All throughout the 90’s, people in suits and Rolex watches rubbed elbows with people in full Goth gear or with multiple visible piercings. Men with great hair and tasteful makeup served as admin assistants to women executives in silk and Armani. We were a company full of different people discovering how to reach a common goal.

Wizards’ culture was no secret — apart from anything else, it was one of our most effective marketing messages. Our customers loved the idea that the people creating their games were like them, whether they were mathematicians or metalheads. But every once in a while I would have a conversation with someone from a more traditional company who ask some (usually polite) version of, “What the hell are you people doing here?” in the tone that meant Why are you letting these people turn your company into a circus?

And I’d answer with some (usually polite) version of “Well, we’re a little too busy growing 100% annually the last few years to worry so much about dress codes. Why, what are you guys up to?”

I’ve been thinking about diversity, although my HR friends tell me that the new word these days is “inclusion.” That’s a fine word, and I do believe, for example, that people should be included in the decision-making process for decisions that affect them. But it doesn’t express the truth of the matter: there’s a difference between “including all points of view” and actively welcoming — and managing — the differences that we all bring to the table. The kind of difference that makes one person feel most alive and engaged when she’s wearing a long black dress and lace gloves, while another gets that feeling from her sharpest suit and leather briefcase.

I offer the Wizards’ story not as an example of why Dress Codes Are Bad (I don’t think they are), but rather as an example of a company that understood that clothing is just a symbol, and that the way to keep their workforce engaged in the chaos of triple-digit growth was to respect differences in whatever way made the particular people involved feel they could bring their whole self to the game.

It worked at Wizards. We all looked very different. We came to the job every day from very different worlds. And we put all that energy and vitality to work in service of a common goal. We all felt respected, and so we did a better job of respecting each other, of realizing that how we worked together was a lot more important than what we looked like while we were doing it.

We argued. We disagreed. We couldn’t always understand how someone could have their opinion — what are they, stupid? Ignorant? Willfully obstructive? Well, no, of course not — as is the case with much business conflict, they simply had a different perspective. The nice thing about all of us looking so different was that it was much easier to understand how we could think differently. That we could be different and still be together.

Get connected

November 24, 2008

I recently got my virtual hands on a copy of “The Connection Culture”, a manifesto by Michael Lee Stallard proposing that fostering a sense of connection among people at work has a direct impact on employee engagement, productivity, and business success.

One measure of connection is Gallup’s Q12 survey that asks questions such as whether people care about you at work, encourage your development, and seek and consider your opinion. …[T]he research showed that business units with higher Q12 scores — in other words, higher connection — experienced higher productivity, higher profitability, and higher customer satisfaction as well as lower employee turnover and fewer accidents.
 
— from The Connection Culture by Michael Lee Stallard

The connections Stallard describes have a powerful and profound impact on people and companies because they are how people behave with each other in ways that get the job done better. Management is behavior: all the good intentions or business acumen in the world won’t make a speck of difference in your company if people don’t behave in ways that help everyone work more effectively towards common goals. Managing humans well makes them feel more connected to their job, their team, their company and to themselves. That’s when you get people’s best ideas, best effort, and their most consistent results.

For those who are suspicious of “fuzzy stuff” at work, let me point out that Stallard is not advocating (as an HR friend of mine says wryly) “linking pinkies and singing Kumbaya.” You don’t have to sing, I promise. As a manager, what you have to do is make it possible for people to engage — with the work they do, and the people they do it with — in ways that keep everyone focused, effective and productive even in chaotic and frightening times.

In fact, I submit that it’s in such times — like now — that we most need to be engaged, to be connected with each other and our common goals rather than hunkered down in defensive silos. It’s by working together that we’ll find ways to move our businesses down this stretch of very rough road.