Wow! You’re Saying That Was Wrong?

In the United States we’re experiencing a dramatic shift in our values. As numerous commentators have observed, sexual harassment that has been tolerated for many, many years is no longer being tolerated. Consequently, for very good reasons numerous organizations are implementing training programs about sexual harassment. The subject of the post is: Do we really think that the root cause of sexual harassment is lack of education about what harassment is or whether it’s acceptable behavior?

Sexual harassment is a specific instance of someone misusing his power to mistreat another individual simply because he can get away with it. When a man invites a women to his hotel room to discuss business and then parades around the room naked and demands sex – do we really believe that he mistakenly thinks this is morally acceptable behavior?

The men accused of sexual harassment often deny they did it. But they never defend themselves with the following type of response: (Slaps his forehead)“I didn’t know that forcing a woman to have sex against her will was wrong!” Or, “Wow! You’re telling me that exposing myself is wrong? Who knew?!”

Of course they know it’s wrong. That’s why they go to great lengths to cover it up.

The education people need in this area must begin with toddlers. Don’t hit. Don’t bite. Don’t mistreat others because you’re bigger and stronger than they are.

The men who do this know it’s wrong. There will always be people who think they can get away with it. The education they need is that women are now more likely to speak out. And organizations are less likely to tolerate it. The risk of being punished has just gone up dramatically. I’m hopeful that the deterrent effect of probable punishment will reduce the frequency of sexual harassment.

This is a lesson that’s more likely to be learned the hard way, rather than from a seminar.

Thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

 

Larry Sternberg

This Year, Give The Gift of Gratitude

I’m re-posting this article I wrote several years ago. I hope it adds meaning to your holiday season.

This post will be merely interesting if you don’t act on these suggestions. It will be immensely rewarding if you do.

Think about the people whose influence helped you become who you are today, people who have made a significant, positive and lasting difference in your life.

Now take a few moments and make a list of their names. No matter your age, the list is not long. Just take a few moments and write their names.

Chances are you haven’t thought about some of these people in a while. Some might have passed away.

Visualize each person, one-by-one.

Think about what each one did that influenced you in such a powerful, lasting way.

Now, answer this question: Do they know what a huge difference they made in your life? I submit that unless you have told them, they do not know.

Here comes the immensely rewarding part: tell them. Tell them in person, or tell them in a hand-written letter. Tell them openly, sincerely, authentically from your heart. Do it before you lose the opportunity. They won’t be here forever.

If you’re visualizing actually doing this, you might be uncomfortable or even apprehensive. That’s normal. This sort of profoundly personal, emotional disclosure is rare in our society. Do it anyway.

I promise. Those of you who do this will find it enormously gratifying. For each person you tell, it will be the most meaningful gift that person has received in a very long time.

I’d love to hear accounts from those who try this.

Larry Sternberg

Where Work/Life Balance Meets the Ebb and Flow of Relationships

This post is written jointly by me and Dr. Kim Turnage, my friend and co-author of the book, “Managing to Make a Difference”.

Justin*, a CEO of a small business, recently shared his frustration about the reduced availability of operations manager, Marian,* who had just given birth to a child. Justin routinely works long hours in a 24/7 business, and, until now, he has enjoyed partnering with someone who runs as hard and fast as he does. For nearly a decade, Marian has been that business partner for Justin, and she has performed with excellence in her role. She loves her work and is committed to maintaining her high level of performance. The recent birth of Marian’s child (for which Justin is very happy, by the way) changes not only Marian’s life, but Justin’s as well.

*These are not their real names.

Kim happened to be talking with Marian and Justin together when this topic came up. It clearly touched a nerve for both of them. Justin was half apologetic, half frustrated in his description of the situation. As Kim asked a few clarifying questions, Marian was harder to read. Initially stoic, she was smiling through tears by the time Kim finished advising them on this matter. It went something like this:

It’s important for both of you to keep in mind that what you’re experiencing now is 100% temporary. Caring for an infant is time consuming and physically demanding right now for Marian. Justin, she has been an exceptional partner to you for many years, and you need the expertise she brings to your business. She loves her work, and she needs you to work with her to accommodate her needs temporarily. Are there other people in the organization who can backfill for some of her responsibilities for a time? What other accommodations can you make temporarily?

For how long?

Well, in just a few months, she’s going to be more well-rested because this baby will be sleeping through the night and she will too. Within less than a year, she will have achieved her breastfeeding goal and won’t need to take breaks at work to pump anymore. Within 5 years, this child will be in school. Five years is only half the time the two of you have been working together so far! This is really temporary.

You can both achieve your goals if you can keep communicating and working together on how to get both of your needs met. You have a solid relationship to build from, and both of you love working together. Marian’s need for extra time will certainly ebb and flow, but much of her flexibility can return. The two of you have an excellent partnership, and surely you’re smart enough to figure out how that partnership can continue to thrive, even though Marian’s life circumstances are changing.

In any close relationship, professional or personal, major life events in one person’s life affect the other person as well. Issues of work/life balance intersect with relationship issues quite conspicuously when it comes to parenting, and this is an area where embracing the ebb and flow of relationships becomes mandatory. But too often, people focus on formal, contractual elements instead of treating this as a relationship issue.

The reality is that women often pay higher penalties than men do for parenting. Despite the advances our society has made in equity for men and women in the workplace, the U.S is one of the only countries in the industrialized world that does not have laws requiring employers to provide paid maternity leave. As much as women and men may strive to parent equally, the reality is that if any paid leave is afforded by company policies, it is generally afforded to mothers and not to fathers. Mothers are typically the ones who take a “time out” to care for newborns. (That ‘typically’ turns to ‘always’ for single mothers.) And those time outs are almost never free. Even when they are allowed by company policy, they can detract from a woman’s ability to advance in her career. And women who choose to take leave or adjust work commitments in order to accommodate childbearing and child rearing are often penalized and judged harshly – sometimes most harshly by other women who have made different choices.

Can’t you just hear the “contract” language in that section you just read? Words like equity, penalty, laws, requiring, policy. Work/life issues often raise questions about whether people are getting what they deserve. They can quickly devolve into tit for tat, quid pro quo kinds of analysis. There’s an assumption that the way things are “now” is the way they will always be, and there’s a tendency to take a black and white, all or none position. But those are fallacies that don’t serve anyone well.

Let’s go back to Justin and Marian for a moment. Let’s say Justin decides he just won’t make any compromises. So he lets Marian go and hires someone new. How long will it take before that person gets up to speed? Remember he’s been working with Marian for almost a decade. Also, how can he be sure he’ll find someone who will be as good as or better than Marian? Given that her situation is temporary and that she’s still highly committed to her job, isn’t it worth making some accommodations and waiting for her to come fully back online?

Every relationship has an ebb and flow. Work relationships are no exception. At times more is asked from one person than from the other. Honoring the relationship sometimes involves accepting an additional burden with an open heart. But any additional burden is likely to be only temporary because that’s how ‘ebb and flow’ works. And when relationships are strong, partners should make the assumption that the accommodations will be worth the cost.

How Much Can Training Accomplish?

I was invited to give a presentation for a very large, prominent software company at a conference of help desk managers from all over the world, and the topic of the conference was, “Creating a Better Customer Experience”. Different presenters focused on different ways to achieve this important outcome. Some, for instance, focused on how to reduce wait time by optimizing certain processes. The focus of my presentation was the impact of hiring the right kind of people.

The organizer of this conference had verbatim feedback from satisfied customers displayed around the room on large posters. Every participant could read several of these comments from wherever they sat. I read these posters as I prepared to deliver my remarks, and something struck me. Every single positive customer comment emphasized character traits. For instance, “Jorge was so patient in walking me through what I needed to do.” “Shirley really knows her stuff. But more importantly she was kind and understanding. She didn’t talk down to me.” “Amith did more than solve my technical problem. His sense of humor helped me get rid of my frustration. It was actually a fun conversation.”

You can give the exact same musical score to ten different singers. Some will deliver a simply dreadful experience. Some will do okay. But maybe one will create a performance so beautiful it brings tears to your eyes. The score alone cannot create an excellent experience for the listener. It depends on who’s singing. Talent matters.

When it comes to customer-facing employees, you can give them all the same training, the same information and the same support systems. But it’s character traits like empathy, patience, positivity and compassion that create an excellent experience for the customer. You can teach people to use your computer system, but you cannot teach them to be patient or positive. Those traits (and the others I mentioned) you must hire.

Would you like to verify this from your own experience? Think of the best customer-facing employee you’ve ever worked with. What made them so good? Take a couple of minutes and jot down a brief list of reasons why they were so good. When you’re done, read on.

Is your list mostly made up of things like positive attitude, good work ethic, good team player, liked to learn, etc.? You didn’t train those into the person. They were that way when you hired them. That’s what I’m talking about.

If you want to create a better customer experience, hire better people.

Thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

Are You Thinking About Boomeranging?

Boomerang employees are people who have left an organization and then been rehired at a later date. It used to be taboo. In fact, about 50% of HR professionals surveyed say their organizations had policies that prohibited rehiring former employees in the past. But over 75% of those same HR professionals say their companies are more willing to rehire boomerang employees now than ever before.

Should you consider returning to a former employer? And if you do, what can you expect? Talent Plus (the company I work for) actively recruits boomerangs. We know that talented people sometimes have opportunities for growth elsewhere that they just can’t – and shouldn’t — pass up. And when their circumstances (and ours) change, we actively recruit them back.

Kim Turnage is my co-author of the book, Managing to Make a Difference (Wiley), and she is a Talent Plus boomerang. In this post, she shares her insights on this type of career decision.

How did you decide to return to the company?

I got a call from our recruiter, Kyle Bruss, asking me if I would consider coming back. The timing and the opportunity were both right. I knew the company culture and values. Many of the same leaders were still there even though I had been away for about five years. I believed in the company’s mission and believed I could add value by coming back in a different role than the one I had left five years earlier. I consulted some people I trusted who were still working with the company and decided to make the leap. It was a great decision!

Did you try to pick up where you left off? 

I did not. I approached the role with humility and a commitment to learning. I had done some parts of the job before, but I needed a refresher. And a lot had changed, too. I assumed nothing and asked a lot of questions.

I also invested in strengthening relationships with people I knew from before and cultivating new relationships with people who had joined the company in my absence. I considered myself a newbie with some background knowledge and tried to remember that what I thought I knew from the past might not be applicable in the present.

What did you say when people asked questions about why you left and why you came back?

If anyone asked (and even sometimes when I could tell people were curious but too polite to ask) I told the truth.

  • Why I left: I had worked for the company full-time for four years then moved to working part-time from home for an additional three years after my second child was born. Some other opportunities highly aligned with my interests became available during that time, and I made the choice to leave the company in order to pursue those opportunities.
  • Why I came back: My family had moved to another city, and I was in the process of deciding what to do next when our recruiter, Kyle, called and offered me an opportunity to work remotely. This opportunity fit very well with my talents, served the needs of the company, and allowed me to do work that contributes to a greater good. It was an easy decision to come back.

How did you re-establish yourself within the company? 

I acted like I would at any new job. I did my job well and raised my hand for special projects where I could make positive contributions. I worked on establishing trust-based relationships with my manager and the members of my team. Working remotely, hundreds of miles from our company headquarters, made that process a little slower and more complicated, but my colleagues were equally committed to building those relationships. One of the key ways I built trust was by looking for opportunities help other people achieve their goals.

Was it harder or easier than you expected?

Yes. Some parts were easier and some were harder.

I knew the culture and knew some current employees who helped accelerate my ability to establish new connections with new people. I was open to learning, and several leaders invested the time to help me connect what I knew before to what I needed to know in the present to succeed.

The hardest part was less about coming back and more about the fact that I was coming back as a (really) remote worker. I had worked from home before, but in the same city as the company’s headquarters. When I boomeranged, my home was hundreds of miles away from the office and my family commitments made travel very difficult and infrequent. That distance was the source of most of the difficulties I encountered, but I was working with a company who had extensive experience with people working remotely…and with people boomeranging…and we worked through issues effectively, primarily because we started from a foundation of trust.

What advice do you have for people thinking about boomeranging?

  • First of all, consider how and why you left the company. Were you on good terms? Can you tell a true, positive story about why you left and why you want to come back?
  • Make sure you have an accurate picture of the organization as it is today. What are you hearing from the people who are recruiting you or who would make the decision about whether to run with your desire to return to the company? Have you maintained positive relationships with some other people in the company whose insights you can trust? What can they tell you about how things have changed, and how consistent are those changes with your goals and the way you want your next role to look?
  • Consider the role you’ll be coming back to. How is it similar to and different from the one you left? What knowledge and experience have you gained in your absence that will add unique value? What has changed in the interim that you will need to learn about or retool for?

Thanks for reading, and thanks to Kim Turnage for her worthwhile advice about boomeranging. As always, I’m interested to hear your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

What If Your Boss Does Not Invest Time Mentoring You?

If your boss does not invest time in mentoring you, you must take charge of your own success and development. Begin by articulating a vision for your future. Be clear about your values, commitments, passions, goals and aspirations. Don’t merely think about these things. Write them down. The discipline of expressing these ideas in writing is challenging, and it can be frustrating, but it leads to clarity. That foundation then acts as your true north, providing you with a basis for making sound decisions and having high quality conversations with people who can contribute to your success.

Once you have this foundation, use it to seek input from others. If your boss is unavailable, identify other people whose advice might be helpful. Start by asking them for a brief meeting to get their input, perhaps at a nearby coffee shop. Give them your foundation document, and come prepared with a few questions. For instance, ask them what books they’d recommend. Take notes on what they say. Write a brief thank you note, mentioning at least one specific piece of advice.

Depending on your learning style, identify courses, seminars or books that can help you add to your professional knowledge. Join at least one professional association relevant to your career goals. Subscribe to a couple of publications relevant to your career.

Even if your boss is not going to be your mentor, you want to have a great relationship with him and you want his support. Make sure you know what your boss’s goals are, then make your boss’s priorities your own. Clarify his expectations of you and make sure you exceed those expectations.

Finally, I recognize that reporting to a boss who makes time to mentor you might be very important for you. If so, and if you’re not getting this from your boss, you should consider finding a new boss. This might involve seeking a transfer within your current organization, or it might require you to move to a new organization.

The proactive steps mentioned above will empower you to take charge of your own success and development.

Thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

How Do You Cultivate a People-First Culture?

The decision to cultivate a people-first culture is a strategic decision rather than a project. Because it is not a project, you will never be done. You will always improve and refine the way you implement your people-first culture. If you’re thinking about embarking on this journey, I hope you’ll find this post helpful.

Phase One – Articulate your vision

First, let’s recognize that there is not one correct definition of what it means to be a “people-first” culture. Therefore each organization must define what it means for that organization. If you don’t start there, how will you and your employees know what you’re building toward? Second, let’s recognize that having a people-first culture is not an either/or situation. It’s a matter of degree. A culture can become more and more people-first over time.

Here are some questions that will help you decide what “people-first” means to your organization:

  1. Who are the people you’re thinking about? Employees? Customers? Suppliers? Job applicants? Community members? All of these groups?
  2. For each of the groups you care to include in your thinking, what would their experience with your organization be like? What would be happening and not happening? For instance, what would it be like to be an employee? Or what would it be like to be a customer?
  3. If your culture were becoming more and more of a people-first culture (as you visualize it in your business), how would you know it? What benefits do you expect to see? How will you measure or assess your progress?
  4. Are there some areas in which our organization already takes a people-first approach? What are they? What are the benefits for your organization? What has enabled the people-first approach in those areas? What can you learn from those successes about how to expand this to other areas?

Answering those questions is not easy, and therefore might well take some time. But if you’re thinking about becoming a more people-first culture, the time invested here will pay dividends for years to come. If you do not invest the time required for phase one, you are unlikely to succeed.

Phase Two – Identify areas of focus and action steps

  1. Once you’ve articulated your people-first vision, ask, “What are one or two areas of low-hanging fruit, areas in which we can create some quick progress?” Then create action plans for each identified area.
  2. Benchmark other organizations to discover people-first practices you can bring into your culture.

Phase Three – Institutionalize people-first

  1. Include people-first as the most important element in your management performance evaluations and compensation reviews (otherwise, it’s not… um, first).
  2. Collect and share stories about successes and high points related to your people-first strategy.
  3. Recognize and reward all employees who contribute to making continuous progress on the people-first initiative.
  4. Over time (possibly a lot of time), review all policies, procedures and practices to ensure they exemplify your people-first culture. You don’t have to eat this elephant in one bite. Just continue to make steady progress.
  5. Implement a selection process that helps you identify candidates who are a natural fit for your people-first culture.
  6. Part company with employees who are not a fit for your new culture, most particularly leaders and managers who do not fit.

The amount of time it takes to make substantial progress will vary greatly depending on a company’s size, the state of its current culture, and other factors. The journey will be different for every organization. As I said at the beginning of this post, cultivating a people-first culture is a strategic decision rather than a project. It’s a fundamental stance, based on your value system. If you make this part of your “true north”, I believe you will make your organization healthier and healthier over time.

Thanks for reading. I’d love to hear your thoughts or experience with building a people-first culture.

Larry Sternberg