WHAT WE'RE READING

AND WHAT WE THINK ABOUT IT

How flexible has Covid-19 made you?

It might seem obvious to speak about three women upon whom I am dependent for my body not seizing up on me from sitting for seven months—but it is not THAT stretching I am referring to.

One of the best business books I picked up in a long time is Stretch – Unlock the Power of Less – and Achieve More Than You Ever Imagined. One of the things most appreciated is that the author, an organizational development expert, provides research to back up many of my own theories from years of observing. A key theme in the book is resourcefulness—making do with what you have at hand versus waiting for the perfect desk, office, or moment.

In my own life, one of the best examples of the resourcefulness that I’ve experienced during this pandemic comes from three people who have spent the past several years teaching me how to stretch, literally. Using different modalities, Stephanie, Kathleen, and Sarah have stretched, and strengthened me, using different aspects of PT, Gyrotonic, and Pilates. In the midst of a national pandemic, I was not ready to give up my own stretching, especially as being confined to quarters made me feel like I was shrinking.

Exactly as Scott Sonenshein describes, these three women on whom I have come to rely on for my physical well-being, quickly figured out how their other clients and I could improvise without a studio and equipment. Anyone who is familiar with Pilates or Gyrotonic understands that they typically involve elaborate equipment, but I quickly sourced some additional foam rollers and my physical therapist sent out therapy bands to several of her clients. Being an early lover of Zoom, I was able to lend a hand in coordinating us all online. One day we decided that the screen definition was a little too good when one of the instructors could detect a muscle group that was not engaging!

All three of these lifesavers have invented new techniques, improvised equipment for clients who didn’t have weights at home (soup cans are just fine!) and focused on what was most important—the physical health and well-being of their clients.

Where are places that you have stretched?

You are braver than you believe

… smarter than you think. – A. A. Milne

But perhaps only if you work in the right environment?  

It is an environment in which the best leaders are going to foster, sustain, and reward innovation. 

Yet easier said than done for leaders for whom this is a whole new paradigm. So, imagine the thrill when the Harvard Business Review published a wonderful “how to” article this week. The article not only reinforced the theme of last week’s blog—but the author was clever enough to give seven concrete ways to create the kind of environment in which people are going to feel comfortable taking chances. Experimenting. Improvising. Innovating. Being Creative. All the things that the Autumn of Covid requires.  

The author, Timothy R. Clark, announces at the outset of his article that once you stop innovating, you die. He dubs the required culture one of Intellectual Bravery, a superb concept and phrase. Who is responsible for creating, cultivating, and sustaining this culture? The leader.

All seven of the techniques or behaviors he points out are wonderful, but if you could only do four, CHRC prioritizes these:

  • Take your finger off the fear button – credit once again to John Cleese; sorry, Machiavelli
  • Assign dissent – rotate the role of Devil’s advocate
  • Model vulnerability – if a leader cannot do this after the last seven months … question his humanity
  • Weigh in last – Probably the most valuable tactic of all. As consultants we have watched an entire day’s worth of desperately needed information and input get instantly silenced by a leader who airs his opinions first.   

History rewards the brave, and apparently, so does innovation.

And now for something completely different …

The Larch

No—but a laugh. And some humor. And why should that be so completely different at work?

A recent article in The Economist focused on the importance of humor in the office. Your first response: 

What is funny right now? 

and 

No one is IN the office!

But it took me back to an article that must be well over 30 years old. It was an interview with John Cleese about management. John Cleese, who I associate with Monty Python and providing the serious segues between silly segments, made two points that have stayed with me three decades later:

  1. Don’t create a culture where people are so scared to make a mistake, that when you ask them what time it is, they will say between 1:00 and 2:00 rather than tell you it is 1:10 for fear it might really be 1:15.  He asked:  one is a right answer, one is a wrong answer, but which answer is of more use to you?
  2. Humor is a useful tool because when people laugh, you know that they understand. 

Humor is essential if you are going to build a creative environment, because for that sort of environment to thrive, people have to take chances and yes—make mistakes.  When mistakes are made, chuckles, not chastising, are required. 

As we begin whatever phase we are entering in this Autumn of Covid, creativity will be required. Again. Just when everyone feels like they have used up every ounce of the creative juices they have, taking chances, making mistakes, improvising … is all going to be required of everyone. The best leaders are going to have to know how to foster it, sustain it, and reward it. 

Yes, Zooming makes office humor a bit more complicated. Nuance and timing are definitely more challenging. But you can find ways to send reminders of past office hilarity—be it a physical gift or a meme that summarizes something unique about your workplace, or what you enjoy about working with your colleagues. 

These unpredictable times call for out of the box solutions and the ability to improvise. It calls for wrong answers and exercising new muscles. Have you set up your organization to do any of this? Or laughed at yourself when you get it wrong.

And now back to our regularly scheduled program(ming)

It’s mid-September, when people should be getting:

  • Back from vacations
  • Back to school
  • Back to work

Except 

  • Vacations? Very few people took those, certainly not the ones they had anticipated
  • The whole school thing—depends 
  • Back to work … or back to Zoom?

Yet, there is a sense that people feel like they should be getting back into a routine, like there should be some sense of normal to return to … that normal most of us left in mid-March. 

We have been collecting articles and prophecies on the post-Covid world, especially the post-Covid workplace since April. Yet we are nowhere near that. Standing in line for an elevator the other day, I was speculating that perhaps printers of large, durable floor stickers are the winners in this Covid-economy. 

So how do those at the helm of businesses, be they large or small, attempt to strategize for this new world? You need to have a monocle on one eye and a telescope on the other. Even to survive in the medium term will require innovation, and that requires your best people.  

Right now, all your folks are stretched and stressed, so assume your best folks are as well. Your best folks might be the most stressed and stretched because they are probably conscientious at everything they do. So, value those capable of driving the innovation, and be aware of what will make them productive right now. You might never know about the immuno-suppressed partner or parent that prevents that healthy looking employee from coming to work each day. Your employee may have successfully hidden an auto-immune issue for years and does not want to disclose it now. Innovate your management style and develop new management skills in order to retain your key talent. 

Really think through who must return to your physical office despite the September instinct we all have. Would you rather Zoom with a trusted, vital resource, or have to start recruiting for their replacement? Read More Here 

It wasn’t all hot air

A deflated basketball sat on Coach’s desk to remind every player that basketball glory could be fleeting; they were one injury away from having to pivot from the sport. If they had nothing else, then what? 

When I started college, I couldn’t have imagined that one of the greatest teachers would be a professor I never had, nor a subject I never studied. It is easy to forget that in 1982, college basketball was still a local sport. No ESPN, no CBS Sports. All I knew was that Georgetown had a basketball team, and I heard that they had a strong coach. 

No talented young man was going to go play for Big John unless they were willing to play by his rules. They were going to be a student-athlete, emphasis on the student. They sat in the front row in class; not always convenient for the rest of us. They didn’t miss class; not unless they wanted a 5:00 am practice the next day! Study hall and tutors were not optional. The discipline he expected off the court could be summed up by why he never wanted his Freshman talking to the press: “[these are] dumb college kids.” Not pejorative, but realistic. In the early to mid-1980s, many outside of the Georgetown community were skeptical of Thompson’s tactics, but Coach Thompson had a longer-term strategy; he was building a culture.

“I don’t coach their team,” Mr. Thompson famously declared, “They play on my team.” 

After a sports injury, I saw this culture first-hand in the training rooms of Georgetown Athletics.  I observed many examples of how Coach’s expectations of his players meant that they treated others with dignity and respect. One example especially stands out:  One day postseason, I witnessed a 7 foot player cower when the 5’ 7” female trainer told him he wasn’t working hard enough. He respected her authority and expertise–and got back to work. 

In 1994, Jim Collins and Jerry Porras wrote a book called Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies. One aspect that the authors highlighted was that organizations with strong corporate cultures had higher returns.  I have seen this time and time again in business, and one of the first places I had seen it work well was with John Thompson’s Hoyas. The management term for this is self-selection. When you create, build, and sustain a strong culture, you typically only attract those that want to be a part of that culture. In turn, they succeed in that culture; and therefore, continue to sustain it. 

Coach Thompson built that culture and success followed. Georgetown won an NCAA championship under Big John. While some players made it to the NBA, others went on to successful non-sports related careers and lives. That’s because Coach understood that playing basketball was part of the journey, not always the destination. His job was to accompany the young men along this journey and create success not just on the court, but for the rest of their lives. 

In college, I never imagined a career path in Management or Human Resources. I had no idea that these players and coaches I watched would become powerful examples of good leadership. This week, I have been stunned by all the articles and commentary about Coach; it is amazing to see how far and wide his influence stretched. While others continue to herald all that John Thompson, Jr. did for the game, the players, and the hearts (and heart attacks!) of fans, I will personally always hold the coach in high esteem for the management lessons he was teaching me—without me even realizing it. 

After all, I was just a dumb college kid, what did I know?  Read More Here

Finding a way out of the childcare desert

Everyone predicted it back in the spring. We even addressed some of the childcare issues that concerned people back in May on our blog.

But, we’re still here. Summer is ending, some schools have started (even if only virtually), and the picture isn’t any prettier. Are you willing to lose one of your best workers over two hours a day? Have you ever had someone resign when their mother died? Well, get ready…

An executive was stunned by the number of times that female employees resigned when their mother died. He couldn’t figure it out. Fortunately, other females connected the dots for him:  their mothers had provided essential childcare; without mom/grandma, they could no longer work. This executive then connected other dots too. Leaving children at home, with no way to get to and from school, or no way to get to after school activities, was worth losing income and childcare.  

And all of this was Pre-Covid.

This article from HR Executive provides some ways to start thinking differently, so that you and your company might be able to be as prepared as possible, and put all those agile thinking skills to use when your star performer comes in ready to quit. Read More Here

Summer Rerun: Geographic Differentials

Back in May when we first warned of the quicksand that awaited employers flirting with basing pay on where people lived, we approached it from a technical compensation perspective.  When I came across this article last night, I knew we had to revisit the topic from the right point of view—corporate strategy.

I had never heard of this CEO or company before, but looked up both after reading this article.  Ian White has many quote-worthy quips in this article, but up front he reminds ALL employers that:

Companies have a responsibility to pay their employees fairly and on time, but that’s where their control ends.  The manager who chooses to move into an expensive high-rise downtown doesn’t deserve to make more money than their peers who choose to buy a modest home in the suburbs or live with their parents to save on rent.

He echoes many of the sentiments we made back in May, but most importantly he reminds all of something that we often stress—don’t copy a practice that another company is doing if it doesn’t fit with your culture. Read More Here

Base on Balls

Maybe it’s my mom’s fault. When I was only six months old, she discovered that watching the Detroit Tigers on TV captivated me and gave her time to get things done. Then again, maybe it’s my dad’s fault because when he took me to games, he taught me how to keep score, the old-fashioned way, the way that you can go back and check which field a batter hit a pop fly in the third inning. (Foreshadowing my work with performance management tools?)

All blame aside, I love baseball. I still keep score whenever I’m lucky enough to go to a game; mocked until the seventh inning when someone does want to know what that guy did in the previous at-bats. So perhaps it was because I cannot go see a game in person this summer, that over the weekend I picked up Moneyball by Michael Lewis. I loved the movie when it came out and couldn’t imagine enjoying the book even more. But, I did.

It is so amazing to read how recruiters (scouts) with so many statistics at their fingertips, even before the advent of personal computers, still relied on gut and feel instead of cold, hard math. Getting on base and scoring runs wins games. Looking good in the uniform and having “the face” does not. I absolutely love Billy Beane’s line: “Are you selling jeans?” 

The biases in business do not differ very much from those exposed in professional baseball. I have been lucky enough to work with the sort of organizational development professionals that design robust competency-based selection tools, yet managers still need to be coached around their empty biases about how a candidate “seems” and “he’s got that look” like he would do well here. 

Even though Michael Lewis’s book is now seventeen years old, it really is a great summer read—especially this summer of fan-less baseball. While remote working has eliminated some of baseless management habits that sluggish managers have relied on for decades, if not centuries, if not millennia, there is plenty of work still to do. Perhaps diving into the lessons in this book will remind us to eschew bad old habits, and develop good new ones, grounded in stats, like your coaches used to drill you on every summer. 

Jeremey Stenuit
Jeremey Stenuit

Summer Reruns

Photo Credit: ©Jeremy Stenuit

For those of us old enough to remember when there were just three networks, summer TV meant reruns. If you had missed an episode, or had a favorite one, you didn’t mind reruns. 

In the case of our blog, we are rerunning one from January 22. We are not sure if you missed it or it was a favorite; but in retrospect, it is downright eerie. When I composed the first paragraph, it was merely an intro to an interesting article we had seen about how to make the workplace healthier and more immune from the common winter cold. We could not have imagined how life would change here in Chicago a mere seven weeks later. Now, walking around Chicago, I see more masks than I ever did when living in Tokyo.

In the early 1990s, I lived in Japan, and was taken aback the first few times I saw people get on the subway, and go about their daily business wearing surgical-type masks whenever they were sick. Over time, I started to realize what a smart practice this was. This time of year, I wish my fellow Americans would put medical masks on as they sneeze and cough spreading their germs all around. Read More Here

Third Rail of American Capitalism

“All I Want Is What’s Coming to Me.” – Sally Brown, Peanuts

A few weeks ago, an article in The Economist touched the third rail of American capitalism: it stated that CEO pay in America was “out of whack.” It even justified its headline by starting off with a quote by the current patron saint of American Capitalism—Warren Buffett.

Of course The Economist backed up this blasphemous claim with several quantitative studies. This compensation consultant had to swallow extra hard because the article not only featured compensation consultants, but found compensation consultants from some of the largest firms that admitted to their culpability in the exorbitant rise of CEO pay.

But, after 25 years in compensation consulting, I knew these inequities of pay did not just happen. I knew of missing variables that influenced the regression line that these authors were desperately trying to draw. 

We must go back in time. In one of my first labor economic courses, the professor drew a diagram on the board. The graph and the curves represented a person’s productivity curve intersecting with their compensation curve over time. This graph demonstrated a key concept in labor economics: the back loading of wages. Longevity with a firm was commonplace, and pensions were the reward for such service. Executives were rewarded on the way out with the gold watch, and a lifetime of some earnings held back and now delivered in the form of a defined benefit plan, aka a pension. 

Then, almost 30 years ago, pensions began to disappear. The key retention tool for CEOs became Long-Term Incentives (LTIs). But “long term” was a relative term, and generally such incentives were only held back three to five years. Like a 401(k), these “long term” rewards were portable once exercised. The retention value was limited. 

So not only was lifetime employment gone, so was the incentives for it. How would companies recruit and retain top executives? The competition for top talent became more intense, higher wages were demanded. The quarterly call for greater shareholder value shortened the execution runway for executives, further pressing wage demands higher. Do better; earn more. However, the data shows the correlation between pay and performance is weak, if non-existent.

Companies need to acknowledge that the long journey from the days of back-loaded wages to today’s “obscene” incentive packages for executives has had little influence on company performance. Perhaps that guy down the hall with the 30 year pin was the missing variable all along. Read More Here