Thursday, May 27, 2010

Fire Those Fuckers!

Watching Rod Blagojevich's performance on Celebrity Apprentice I was struck by several things about him, and, curiously,  none of them was about the likelihood of his guilt or innocence in the charges over the misuse of his office as Illinois Governor which have been filed against him. He was pleasant, even charming in a snake-oil salesman sort of way and had courage to make such a public appearance.

The chief thing though that stood out, was how inept he was. Here was a man who had been the Governor of a major state and he had almost no management skills at all. It wasn't just that he could barely open a laptop or operate a cellular phone - business leaders are often behind the times at a personal level whilst managing to stay ahead of the game at a company level. My previous CEO used to have all his emails printed out and handed to him by his secretary so I can't really criticize Rod for that. However when Rod was put in charge of a task, as project manager, something at which you would expect him to excel, his failings became apparent. He could not get on top of a brief, having obvious difficulty comprehending information and remembering key facts. Nor could he direct a team, showing no aptitude for appropriate delegation and monitoring, or being able to inspire and motivate team members. These were I would have thought the basic skills of a manager and illustrated a problem I have perceived with modern corporate America.

Back in the country of my birth people generally had two, linked, perceptions of the USA, that it was a brutal uncaring place in terms of public welfare and support and that it was the home of ruthless corporate efficiency. America was the model which everyone else wanted to follow. They knew how to maximize profits and yet maintain quality providing for a happy consumer and a long term relationship with clients. Perhaps this was always illusionary, or maybe sometime in the last ten years the scales tipped, but it is certainly no longer the case. The capitalistic greed and ruthlessness is still there but the efficiency has long ago departed and left no forwarding address.

A tip should be an optional gratuity, a way to recognize and reward good service. America has however made it socially compulsory, a recognition of low wages - an inequality which it is your obligation to compensate for. Since the server is confident of this additional payment their only focus is on ingratiating themselves with the customer, smiling profusely, letting you know all about their one legged brother Timmy who needs a heart operation, rather than focusing on the customer's needs and quality of the product they bring. Last night my medium steak was visibly bloody and the waiter interpreted "no onions on anything" as "please put an onion ring the size of a basketball on my plate". Yet I am expected to reward this lack of attention. Yes I do have the option of modifying the tip amount, but only within a limited socially-acceptable range. The principle here is a key one, good work, initiative and attentiveness should be rewarded, the opposite should only ever be penalized.

Whilst I described the person who negligently attended to my needs as a "server" they were more probably a Food Transportation Manager these days. I have been struck how many jobs in the US now have "manager" within their title unnecessarily. To paraphrase the Incredibles, "when everyone is a manager, no one is". You do not magically become a manager simply because you are dealing with your normal daily workload. You are a manager because:

  • You take decisions daily that impact significantly on others within the company
  • You direct and monitor the work of others
  • Your role includes motivating and inspiring others to increase quality and/or productivity
  • You find solutions to problems which others bring you
  • You can dispassionately analyze a situation and determine the most appropriate course of action
  • You help develop and implement policies and procedures
  • Your advanced level of responsibility is recognized within your pay check

Someone who types and answers the phone is a secretary or administrator. They only become an Office Manager when other clerical staff report to them, when they distribute and delegate work, when they make not only order the stationery but have the authority to choose what to buy etc. I say this not to downplay the valuable role of administrators, I have served in those roles myself, but to highlight the differences that should exist between them and managers. People want the manager title but do not accept the responsibility which should come with it.

For any given problem, situation or crisis that can occur in the workplace there should be a person in a position to tackle it and that should be the manager. Even when a manager is not present, they should have made policies sufficiently clear to staff that they are able to act appropriately in their absence. All to often today it seems to me this is not the case. To take an example some months ago the wife and I visited the local Home Depot in order to buy a bulb for a lamp of hers. It was not a common size, so in order to be able to ensure she got the right one, she took the original bulb with her. Whilst we were looking at the display of bulbs another customer jostled us unexpectedly and she dropped the bulb onto the floor where it shattered. We reported this immediately to the nearest store employee and then to the front desk when they appeared to take limited interest. There was a potential risk of another customer injuring themselves on the broken glass and we didn't want to take that risk however no one in the store appeared to share our concerns. When we left the store some 30 minutes later no employee had been near the glass after the initial one verified it was there, no cones, rope or other warning had been placed around it, and it was still laying there on the floor.

Time was, when reporting something like that, someone would be dispatched immediately to sweep it up. Nowadays a full risk assessment by the Risk Manager, was probably required, and he may have not been there on Sunday, so no one had any idea what to do, and so decided doing nothing was best.

The old top-down hierarchical approach to management is probably a little outmoded today but it did have the benefit of clarity and responsibility. Today we have the absurd term "workplace family" and a million facilitators none of whom can make a decision. Facilitation is a valuable skill in the workplace but talk on its own is useless unless conclusions are reached and decisions are made. Managers want to be a friend of their employees but the very nature of their role rules this out. No one wants a friend who watches and assesses them. A friend should give you special treatment but no one can afford to play favorites in the workplace. Finally no one wants to be fired by a friend but every manager knows that may one day be their duty.

As a former trade union officer many will find it surprising that I support layoffs and firings as a legitimate management tool. Every dismissal is a personal tragedy for someone and that should never be minimized. Equally it is a failure of management, in not growing the company profits sufficiently to maintain the post or in not training and nurturing the employee to meet their potential or in not finding an alternative solution. A poorly performing employee is a problem not only for the company as a whole, but particularly for their co-workers, who will be forced to work harder in order to maintain acceptable levels of achievement. Equally sometimes in order to keep a company functioning it is necessary, but regrettable, to layoff some workers. However my concern is that this is now pretty much the only way it is considered possible to make efficiency gains.

There is a  lamentable lack of imagination on the part of many managers, who jump to the nuclear option of dismissals, without giving thought to the exploration of alternatives. The quotation from Rod Blagojevich which forms the title of this post represents the attitude of all too many managers, who then end up making those laid off the scapegoats for their own failings. To determine how to make improvements managers must be able to take a detached overall view, a skill which seems to be lacking.  Way too many managers seem only capable of reading one measure, usually the simplest, when looking at an employee or company profile. For example, I heard from a friend about the company where he works where a particular employee had been selected for particular praise and reward. This clerk in a shipping department had by far the highest daily rate of dispatches of anyone in his department. This is commendable however the manager failed to notice one thing. Said employee also had the by far the highest percentage rate of returns in the department. He achieved his great speed by cutting corners and inadequately packing goods. Looked at objectively this is not a good employee. He is costing the company considerable money in additional unnecessary shipping costs to replace damaged goods. He is also lowering the perception of the company among its customers. After multiple damaged orders many customers will look to competitors instead losing the company business permanently.

This has always been the underlying American philosophy, the marketplace will act as the final arbiter on quality. Bad stores and restaurants will not survive because people will go elsewhere. What do you do though when everywhere seems uniformly bad? The American car industry was once this country's pride and its sad decline is due to the fact it was producing products people didn't want. Across most of the rest of the world American cars began to be viewed as gas-guzzling monsters at a time when gas costs were rising. Even the most patriotic American began to have doubts about unnecessarily large, ugly looking machines which were going to cost them much more than cars from elsewhere and had quality-control issues. This should provide a valuable lesson and warning to the rest of American business. Lose the confidence and loyalty of your customers and you will suffer greatly. It is not too late to change, to return to valuing customers and employees and paying attention to their needs. Putting in place rigid systems of quality monitoring and control and managers with the ability to recognize when difficult decisions are required, and the confidence to make them. Equally customers must be willing to raise their voices and let companies know when levels of service are not acceptable. Unless we recognize and exalt those managers and companies which are innovative and attentive, we risk this country being swallowed by a morass of uniform mediocrity.

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