Holiday Lay-Offs, How to do the Unthinkable

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The holiday season’s focus is dominated by positive distractions, but once in a while you may find yourself grappling with the crushing reality of corporate layoffs at the end of the calendar year. If you care about your organization and employees, even when layoffs are the right or only thing to do, we hear our inner voices asking ethical and operational questions. The experienced manager will handle “poorly timed” layoffs with the mature calm of a professional voice-over actor describing the hunt of a leopard chasing down a deer. For the less experienced, they will feel like a deer wearing a leopard costume. Here’s my “How To” guide for making a tough situation a teaching moment, a barometer for talent, and less painful for all involved.

Team Alignment

Our careers take us down all sorts of unexpected paths, and it’s common to have managers in the world of business who have degrees in Art, History, and Sports Therapy. These talents have never had the themes of “Shareholder Wealth” pounded into their thought process and might struggle with strategy and tactics designed for this role. As their leader, this is your responsibility to make sure they understand this bedrock of corporate management. Additionally, if we can directly connect layoffs to the benefits of customers, we should do that too. Either way these conversations need to be had behind closed doors while in front of the team. Get everyone’s fears and misconceptions out in the open. Once everyone is on the same page they will be mentally ready to digest the next steps.

Practice the Conversation

How do you breakup with someone who loves you? You interviewed them, hired them, trained them, they stayed late for you, and they helped you achieve personal and professional goals. You like their personality. Crap. YOU REALLY CARE ABOUT THEM! Dare I say, love them? These conversations need to be practiced with a script of bullet points explaining “Why” this is happening and “What” is happening next. The conversation, as painful as it can be (sometimes), must be professionally respectful and brief. Work with leadership or a human resources teammate to develop talking points, but practice delivering the news out loud. Your shaky voice will benefit from saying the words and getting more comfortable with this new reality.

Team Support

You should be able to gauge where managers stand on the spectrum of comfort during the prior two steps. Once you have identified the managers who are really affected by having to deliver this news, support them by conducting a few of these conversations along-side them. Intuitively decide how much of the dialogue should be shared based on physical cues (damp eyes, twitching hands, pale face, etc.). Take control of the conversation if it goes off the rails. Afterwards, take a moment to review what just happened; identify how the manager feels, calm them down, and ask them how they could have improved. Praise their efforts and gently make suggestions to help the receiver of the message. This is actually a very calming exercise that refocuses both of you for the next conversation.

Team Review

A day of this can be emotionally draining. It’s not rare for the remaining employees to go grab a drink at a nearby bar with those same victims of the circle of business. Sometimes managers will slink away from their desk to have a private moment in their car. Before everyone goes in separate directions it’s important to collectively depressurize by reviewing what just happened. In a team review you should ask out loud:

  • How did it go?
  • What conversations were hardest?
  • How are you all feeling?
  • Leader: Express your gratitude
  • Does anyone need to talk one-on-one after this?

These questions will most likely sterilize the raw emotion of the moment, and allow people to find a healthy perspective to grieve towards (including leveraging internal resources for help).

Guilt Management

In this digital age résumés share the spotlight with LinkedIn endorsements and public recommendations. If you really do care about these people there are more options than ever to help them find the next opportunity or connect with people who can do likewise. Although some companies have strict human resources policies regarding employment verification processes that ask about employee performance, you still have a right to do what’s best for yourself. Just like a company.

P.S. – I’ve had my fair share of corporate Holiday lows. This scene always makes me laugh. No matter what side of the conversation you’re on, hang in there! There’s a lot of opportunity out there for you in this amazing country.

How to Grow a Third Arm

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How much more productive would you be with a third arm? I have a formula for one! Fear not, it doesn’t involve psychedelic mushrooms and vodka (a disappointment for some). It involves tactful trust and developmental delegation.

This could be you! Well, sorta.

This could be you! Well, sorta.

Investing in others is a scary thing, especially when you are trusting them to handle something precious to you. But think about making your life and job EASIER and all of the benefits that come with MORE TIME. Before you can develop anyone you need to develop yourself. Start thinking positively about the benefits of teaching someone to do the more basic tasks within your scope of responsibility.

Simply put, attempt to categorize all tasks into two columns: “No Mistakes Allowed” & “Mistakes Tolerated.” The first column must stay within your direct control as we cannot afford a problem there. The second column is where we start considering which tasks could be shared as a learning experience with an emerging talent. Maybe it’s 1 task, possibly 3? Choose a total that offers a meaningful return on your investment in terms of time. Identify the skill needed for the task and then seek out your third arm.

  • Manage Payroll – Detail Oriented, Accounting Skills, Time Management
  • Organize Meetings  – Communicator, Collaborative Personality, Tech Savvy
  • Attend Meetings for You – Professional, Listener, Understands Inter-Office Politics
  • Project Management – All of the above!

Scan your roster of dedicated teammates and find the match between skill and ability. The most important step in this process is to directly ask your targeted teammate if they are eager to “learn more about the environment” or “learn more about the next level of management?” It’s critical to capture the right attitude, and this starts with an up front commitment between both of you to teach and learn with the proper spirit. Even when you find the right attitude you still might not know if you’ve matched the right person to the right task, but this is part of the cost to growing extra extremities. You WILL MAKE MISTAKES, as will the teammate you choose. But that’s OK! You gave them tasks that can be corrected if mismanaged. When mistakes are made, you will flip the “Teacher” switch and live up to your end of the bargain (developing your talented third arm).

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Let’s review the benefits of pushing through this initial investment of time to delegate and develop. You are rewarding an eager teammate with the chance to enhance their contribution to an environment they care about. The reward of mentorship is gratifying, appreciated, and has no hard cost. These efforts are often public and the entire team sees your efforts to reward talent with attention, a leader’s greatest currency. Finally, look at all the time you stand to gain (or invest elsewhere)? Let’s assume that managing payroll takes 3 hours a month, organizing meetings takes 2 hours a month, attending meetings in your place takes 8 hours a month, and managing projects takes 10 hours a month. You stand to get 3 to 23 hours a month to reposition within your job scope.

What would you do with 23 freed up hours given your current workload? What would you do with your third arm? How about a “High-15?” Slap-Slap-Slap!

Pre-Mutiny – A Young Managers Greatest Challenge

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You’ve been watching that young superstar’s performance and your keen sense of talent development makes you confident that they’ve got the leadership skills to move the performance needle in a management role. Before you reward them with a promotion, be sure to acknowledge “Pre-Mutiny” and build a strategy around it! Otherwise, you’ll be feeding your protégé to the wolves of jealousy. This happened to me as a fresh faced 24-year-old in his first corporate management gig, and I would have never survived without my mentor (Nate Mathes)!

What is Pre-Mutiny? It all starts with the team or departmental dynamics and the roster of candidates who WILL NOT be getting that management opportunity. The assumption here is that your future star will be managing these competing peers turned employees. Ageism is in play here, as your young superstar is facing a challenge that requires thick skin, courage, open support, and strong mentoring. Pre-Mutiny is when a young manager is rendered ineffective because the team won’t respond appropriately to their attempt to lead and support. Most of the time it is a collective boycott of cooperation as a unified statement of “no confidence” inspired by ignorance, jealousy, and negative leadership.

As a senior manager, what do you do to protect your prized prospect as they get called up to “The Show”? Here are some tips:

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1 – Identify Potential Threats – If you have good political acumen you might be able to anticipate which employees would have a problem with your decision.  If you don’t know who the threat could be, put your ear to the street to tap into the corporate grapevine or leverage existing managers’ knowledge of staff to determine which personnel to worry about. My mentor (Nate) knew exactly who to be worried about and he was very right.

2 – Cut the Head Off – Each example of Pre-Mutiny has one or two dominant personalities that have real leadership skills, but they use them for evil rather than good. These negative leaders know how to recruit support and influence team attitudes. Kept unchecked, they will round up the posse and both quietly and openly work to discredit your young manager’s credibility and impact. My mentor openly challenged a negative leader to support my efforts, instead of attempting to stunt my progress.

3 – Present a United Front – As a senior manager you must cash in some of your corporate capital as a respected leader to convey an overwhelming amount of support for the new manager towards others. You must plan to literally (physically) stand by your youthful managerial selection to drive home the point that they are the selection and nothing is changing that. In other words, “Like it or not, this is your reality. Deal with it, adjust, and work as a team.” One way to present a united front is to be a part of the formal transition or introductory meeting, as well as attending some future team meetings so your presence is felt while your candidate builds trust, credibility, and establishes their management style. My mentor took a chance and trusted I would evolve despite a major lack of experience, and he did so folding his arms behind me as I ran through the meeting agenda (he is an imposing figure, picture Apollo Creed).

Build your plan to proactively address Pre-Mutiny and preserve your young manager’s early success. If they are as talented as you think, they will learn to use the same courage and persistence that my mentor taught me.

 

Managing Rumors – 101

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One of the hardest things for managers to do is manage rumors. When was the last time someone approached you to share a rumor that made you feel uncomfortable and threatened the ebb and flow of your business? Even if you are a member of a strong corporate culture where health and wellness is advocated and supported, concerning rumors will pop up randomly to test your managerial acumen. What do you do as a manager when someone brings a rumor to your attention? Below is my 4-Step method of managing rumors.

“I heard that Melissa was hung over at yesterday’s meeting.”

“I think Jennifer is using funds from the incentive plan to buy gifts for herself.”

“Someone said Ted smelled like weed when he got to work.”

1 – Listen

This seems obvious, but what isn’t so obvious is the idea that listening involves patience. Patience is key when presented with a rumor, as the application of patience can negate the temptation to overreact. The worst thing you can do is take action in the form of a knee-jerk reaction. Sometimes the rumor will elicit an emotional reaction from oneself. Who wouldn’t feel a sense of anger if you felt like an employee or teammate you trusted violated that trust and placed your team or department in a compromising position with your internal and external clients? When someone brings a rumor to your desk, ask questions to learn as much as you can about the situation. Specifically:

  • Who is the source of the rumor, and is the source/messenger credible?
  • What could that source’s political/personal agenda be?
  • Are there clear details around this rumor, or witnesses to the behavior?
  • Set the expectation that you will address it, and gain a commitment to keep it private.

“The Office” captures rumors at their worst!

2 – Investigate

Once you have the rumor reported and you have had the opportunity to ask questions about the source, potential agendas, and meaningful details you must gently and quietly validate or invalidate the rumor. A tactful approach is key as the simple mentioning of a rumor, true or not, can fan the flames and unintentionally validate it without evidence within the environment. Try to steer your investigation towards peers that you can trust to “discuss and forget.” What you want to do is find answers to the following concerns:

  • Is there enough information to act on the rumor?
  • Does the available information allow you to effectively discuss it with the subject?
  • Is there enough information and/or witnesses documented to take employment action (termination, counseling, etc.)?
  • If true, does the subject’s action put anyone’s safety at risk or compromise the pursuit of individual and team goals?
  • Review the subject’s individual performance to find any correlation with the timing of the report and results, and seek out erratic fluctuations with results or behaviors (attendance, etc.).
  • What does the source of the rumor have to gain, if anything, from the mere existence of the rumor?

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3 – Communicate

If you are able to collect a lot of data and there are enough witnesses to determine that specifically clear policies have been broken and the organization’s safety has been placed at risk, “Step-4” (below) doesn’t matter because you have the ability to terminate. But rumors don’t often come with the luxury of validation. We seek high and low for more information, often in vein. Hence the essence of a rumor. Most of the time you won’t be able to collect any additional information about the rumor during phase 1 and 2 of my 4-step process.

What do we do? The healthiest relationships revolve around honesty and communication. If there were a potentially damaging rumor about YOU, wouldn’t you want a trusted peer to share its existence with you? I would. Find a private place to sit down and introduce the concern by preceding that “I don’t see any evidence to suggest that what I have heard is true, but I want to be fair and communicate what I heard the other day. Someone approached me and shared a rumor that you…” The goal of this interaction is:

  • Provide an opportunity for the subject to explain, if necessary or possible, the existence of the rumor. This interaction could prompt a confession (which is healthy for everyone), or it could provoke a sense of rage and discrimination (which we cannot prevent, but we must accept the task of managing this as part of our role as leaders). Be prepared.
  • Open the door for future communication.
  • Present the situation honestly by admitting you investigated and found no evidence, or share the evidence you have found for open discussion.
  • Remind everyone of the policies in place to govern safety and performance.
  • Privately log the communication.
  • Scare someone straight, in case the rumor is true but cannot be proved.

4 – Observe

We have planted the seed that something might or might not be happening, and now we sit back and observe behaviors. The examples of rumors I provided above (theft, alcohol abuse, drug abuse) are behaviors that typically don’t occur once and then go away. These behaviors are often exhibited consistently over time, and you should expect to see evidence to validate the rumors if they were in fact true but difficult to corroborate. When these rumors become reality down the road you will have already documented an interaction regarding awareness of the potential issue, and you will have already set the expectation that the behavior described in rumor, true or not, is undesired.

If the rumors were ultimately unfounded you will have to gauge what impact has developed as a byproduct of sharing the rumor with the subject. Is the subject resentful? Is there a cloud of mistrust hovering over their desk? Have they changed the way they interact with teammates and clients? Some people will understand that you are doing your job as a manager and you have to address discerning reports. Others will hold a grudge and assume you are “out to get them.” You cannot control how people feel. You can only influence those feelings to varying degrees. Accept that once you have put your best foot forward, if they still hold resentment, then the subject must develop the ability to understand roles and perspectives outside of their own scope of view. This is difficult to do, and some people really struggle to do it. Maybe that will be my next blog subject?

Free Miracles! No Money Required!

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Living in one of the most blessed and wealthy countries on the globe comes with a lot of “pros” and a few “cons.” One con of being submerged in a capitalist society is the jaded sense of what the modern definition of a “miracle” is.

Some of the most popular television shows of the past 5 years have revolved around miracles that are simply lump sums of money gifted to people in need, typically from a wealthy business or business person. “Undercover Boss” and “Extreme Home Makeover” are a few of the better-known examples of this. When my wife watches these shows, she wells up with tears when a check swoops in to wash away someone’s troubles. I respect the generosity of philanthropists, and I acknowledge that I have personally benefitted from such giving. I am not attacking the concept of philanthropy.

I fear that Americans watch these shows and think, “Someday, I hope to be wealthy enough to help someone with a big check.” The truth is that miracles can happen every day, without large checks. There are meaningful ways within the world of business, and within our personal lives to make a miracle happen. Don’t underestimate the small miracles that mean so much more to their potential recipients.

If you are reading this you are probably wealthy with thoughtfulness, courage, and talent! This means you are already capable of making a miracle happen. Are you an expert in an industry or a successful businessperson? You could mentor a young professional who lacks some of the gifts you possess. Have you heard a rumor about a co-worker and thought to treat it as fact? Ignore it, and give that person a chance to invalidate those stories. You never know what emotional or intellectual need you could appropriately and generously fulfill for someone unless you have your ears and eyes open, instead of your checkbook.

I challenge you to look for those “Free Miracles” that actually cost the most precious commodity we have: TIME. Take a little time to create a miracle for someone and YOU will feel wealthy beyond the shallowness of currency. I guarantee it!