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Archive for October, 2006

Management bedrock

Tuesday, October 17th, 2006

I received an email this morning that I thought I’d share, because the situation, and the solution, is applicable to all managers.

Here’s the email:
Miki, Six months ago I joined a terrific company in a senior role and have recently been promoted to management. My problem is that none of the managers I’ve been around ever seemed to be great, they weren’t bad, but I don’t want to follow in what I consider mediocre footsteps. Are there some basic principles I can build great management skills around? Jessie C, Washington DC

And my response:
Dear Jessie, First, congratulations on your promotion and on your insight and desire to be a great, not just OK, manager. Next, I can offer you both a basic premise (how to think) and it’s corollary (what to do), because they are not only the basis for all good MAP, but also for RampUp, itself.

Premise: People are intelligent, motivated and want to help their company/manager succeed.

Corollary: It’s management’s responsibility to provide them with all the information needed to understand how to perform their work as correctly, completely and efficiently as possible.

Like any relationship, it’s about open communications. Sharing information is a sign of trust and encourages people to become more involved. When people know about their job/company/industry and how they all interact, they will perform their own duties better and more productively because they understand what’s going on, are encouraged to take more ownership, and they care.

Valuing people and open communications are the bedrock of a great manager. Claiming to value people is easy, but it has no meaning unless the manager follows through with proof—and that proof starts with open, honest, complete communications.

Asking = valuing

Monday, October 16th, 2006

A survey done by ICR for executive coaching firm CO2 Partners yielded interesting, but certainly not surprising, results.

The survey asked the question, “How often does your boss ask for your advice on solving a problem at work?” The result? Those at lower levels were asked substantially less.

Heck, that wouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s had the experience of watching their management bring in high-priced consultants who end up telling them the same thing their own workers had been saying knows the frustration. It’s been 25 years and I still remember an IT buddy from Bechtel saying that the only difference between the solutions his group presented to management and what the consultants presented was the quality of the report’s paper and the dog and pony show that went with it—oh, yeah, and the more than $100K that it cost.

But I understand. Can you imagine how embarrassing it is for a senior executive, or a Harvard/Sanford/etc. MBA, to have to ask questions of people who barely finished high school? After all, why ask the grunts who actually do the work when it’s much more pleasant to have lunch with someone on one’s own level to discuss the situation and brainstorm solutions in a civilized setting?

Of course, not every manager or MBA thinks that way, but enough do that, “…45.7% of employees earning less than $25,000 annually reported never or seldom being consulted, compared with just 24.7% of those earning more than $75,000.” (Makes me wonder what the 24% who don’t get asked did to alienate their bosses.) Interestingly, age has no effect on who’s asked.

It’s much easier for management to tell their investors and the media how much they value (asking = valuing to most employees) their people than to actually listen to them—that would mean walking their talk, and probably changing their MAP, and everybody knows that’s it’s far easier to talk, than it is to walk, let alone change.

Innovation—in both directions

Friday, October 13th, 2006

Good things and laughter have always come my way on Friday, the 13th, so I thought I’d send some your way on this one. And where better to find them than within the vagaries of the human race—especially when it is innovating.

One of my favorites is the Darin Awards—”We salute the improvement of the human genome by honoring those who remove themselves from it. Of necessity, this honor is generally bestowed posthumously.”

The unmitigated level of pure, unthinking stupidity displayed of the confirmed winners will take your breath away, consider the top vote-getter in 2005:

(19 March 2005, Michigan) “Unusual” and “complicated” is how the Missaukee County sheriff described the mysterious death of 19-year-old Christopher.

After an evening spent imbibing large quantities of alcohol, Christopher noticed a shortage in his liquor supply that could not be attributed to his own depredations. He concluded that his neighbor had stolen a bottle of booze! He menaced the neighbor with a knife, to no avail, whereupon he retired to his own apartment to brood about revenge.

Finally he figured out the perfect way to get back at that conniving bottle-thief: Christopher would stab himself and blame the neighbor!

A witness saw Christopher enter the bathroom as he called 911. He calmly informed the dispatcher that his neighbor had stabbed him. Witnesses said he looked fine when he emerged from the bathroom, but a moment later gouts of blood spewed from his chest. Suddenly he began screaming begging for help. The dispatcher heard a woman shout, “Why did you do this?” He collapsed at the door of his apartment.

Deputies arrived quickly, but Christopher had already bled to death from self-inflicted stab wounds to his chest. An autopsy determined that he had stabbed himself in the chest twice. The first wound apparently didn’t look dangerous enough, so he tried again. The second time, the knife plunged into his left ventricle. This wound was plenty dangerous: he had only two minutes to live.

Christopher died in vain. His deathbed accusation of his neighbor failed, as a witness confirmed that the neighbor was not in the apartment. All Christopher got for revenge was an accidental death sentence.

As I said, unmitigated stupidity:)

So imagine my delight when I read about the Ig Nobel Awards—”…the annual award given at Harvard University by Annals of Improbable Research magazine for weird, whacky and sometimes worthless scientific research.”

Here are brilliant minds doing what at first glance seems silly, but turns out to have fascinating, and often useful, results. My favorite, and the top winner, this year:

“Howard Stapleton…invented teenager repellent.
His device, called the Mosquito, emits a high frequency siren-like noise that is painful to the ears of teens and those in their early 20s, but inaudible to adults… Stapleton’s company, Compound Security Systems of Merthyr Tydfil, Wales, has sold hundreds of the units to retailers, local governments, police departments and homeowners all over the United Kingdom. The company is shipping its first Mosquito units for sale in the United States next week.”

That’s it for this beautiful (where I live) Friday, the 13th. If any of you know of other interesting awards, please let me know. Either post it as a comment or email me at miki@RampUpSolutions.com.

Enjoy your weekend!

Innovating alone

Thursday, October 12th, 2006

There are many times that we need to be creative and innovate, but, for one reason or another, there’s no one to brainstorm with and creating in a vacuum is really difficult! Obviously, it’s a problem for those people running independent businesses, but the same problem can arise even when surrounded by people.

Brainstorming is a way to get out of a rut; break free of conventional thinking; or find a solution that is truly unique. Sometimes we need to brainstorm just to have enough to bring to a discussion.

We’ve all been faced with this in one form or another, and I, for one, hadn’t found a good solution until I read the September issue of In, the internal (not a stand alone publication) innovation magazine from Business Week.

In it David Kelley, founder of IDEO, explains exactly how he brainstorms on his own. His explanation is short, easy to understand, and he illustrates it with great graphic (click David Kelley’s Mind Map to the right of the article) so you can see exactly how it works.

Try it , it really works! Then, once you get the hang of it, share it with your colleagues, friends, and teach your kids. Being able to brainstorm anywhere, under any circumstances, is a skill that will make everything that Life throws at them easier.

Corante’s innovation hub

Wednesday, October 11th, 2006

Speaking of innovation (as I was yesterday), here’s a great resource. Corante, who runs blog hubs in marketing, media, and the web, has added a hub for innovation.

The post that caught my eye today was, “Can you train someone to be innovative” by Jeffrey Phillips. Jeff points out that no matter how much companies spend in money and effort to teach people how to innovate, i.e., think outside the box, the culture needs to support them when they begin to do it.

Right on, Jeff. If the culture doesn’t celebrate failure, as opposed to tolerating it or, as many do, penalizing it, why should anyone gamble their future by innovating? As I wrote last July in “Don’t kill the messenger” and “How to kill the fear” if you want to innovate, give people a culture in which they feel safe enough to do so.

Doing that often requires a paradigm shift in the CEO’s MAP, because culture, and the accountability required to make it real, all stem from the top.

No innovation without world-class culture

Tuesday, October 10th, 2006

Innovation is the hottest discussion topic and I love it. Not because I coach innovation, but because innovation is so tightly tied to company culture, and that is my thing!

One industry that is constantly in the news for innovation, or the lack of it, is the auto industry.

So, here’s the question: Which car company has

  • a culture that not only encourages input from all levels, but uses it;
  • actually forces its management to build multidirectional networks and learn from subordinates and peers;
  • has a completely flexible workforce and a strong union;
  • receives 200,000 applications for work annually, hiring 12,000 of them since 2000 (106,000 total employees);
  • considers brainstorming a constant function and built a new plant to facilitate it; and
  • is superbly profitable?

How many senior managers have you heard say anything similar to “The difference [here] is that [managers] don’t think we have all the right answers… Our job is to ask the right questions.”

How many companies design new facilities, especially production facilities, where “The combination of togetherness and openness sparks impromptu encounters among line workers, logistics engineers, and quality experts. “They meet simply because their paths cross naturally, and they say, ‘Ah, glad I ran into you, I have an idea.'”

Need still another hint? It learned from a near-death experience in 1959 and still indoctrinates all new workers with the story.

The answer: BMW

And they did it all in a country with a work culture and unions infamous for their rigidity—so why isn’t it happening here?

By request: checking references

Monday, October 9th, 2006

I received a number of calls after my selective hearing post Friday. (I think they were surprised to reach me on the weekend:) They wondered why I think that

  • managers should do their own reference checking;
  • what kind of information should they be after;
  • should they check even if the referring party (search firms, HR) said they had checked;
  • who were the best references; to check; and
  • how to get info from them.

There were enough calls that I thought it was worth a post and that I’d include a couple of war stories with the names changed to protect me.

The best use of reference checking is to confirm the team’s interviewing opinions and impressions as well as to protect the company from potential liability. References are not a substitute for skilled interviewing.

Smart managers check most references themselves. This is especially true in fields where there is specialized knowledge such as engineering, software, IT, biotechnical, finance, marketing, technical and other sales, etc. It’s practically impossible for HR or a headhunter to perform a technical reference check requiring technical knowledge of the company’s needs. Even when the recruiter is also technical in that field, there is no way that their knowledge is the equal of the manager, plus, every human has preferences and you don’t want to hire someone else’s!

You may think that when you are absolutely positive about the person’s technical skills, and are checking only to confirm character and general work habits, that a nontechnical outsider can stand in for you, however, there is no way that an outsider is able to evaluate the candidate’s fit from a cultural and chemistry perspective.

Strangely, the lower the position, the more carefully the references are checked. Frequently, as positions move up the ladder, the reference checks move to a higher plane also, and basic skills and competency aren’t even questioned. This often gets much worse on the executive level, after all, if the person has been a VP, CFO or CEO before then they must know what they are doing, right?

Likewise, just because a candidate comes from a headhunter, or even a retained search firm, it’s not wise to assume the references have been checked as thoroughly as needed.

Carol was a Board member, and on the selection committee, of Immersion, Inc. The company had retained a well-known search firm to find a new CEO. Christine, the candidate they sent, seemed perfect—she had excellent credentials and enormous charm, but Carol was unsure. Although she knew nothing definite, she just wasn’t comfortable with some of Christine’s answers, so she decided do some checking herself. It didn’t take long and what she learned was appalling.


Christine claimed to have been responsible for the sale of one of her previous employers. It had been sold, all right—by the Court’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings. Worse yet, there were two class-action lawsuits against two other ex-employers charging stock manipulation—one of which charged Christine personally with breach of fiduciary responsibility!


All of this was public knowledge, but Carol got an additional earful from the people she talked to. Christine had a reputation of being arrogant, unwilling to listen to anybody else, a micromanager, manipulator, and a de-motivator.

Carol shared her information with the rest of the Selection Committee and they asked for an explanation from the search firm. After sorting through the umms, ahhs, and various excuses, it became apparent that the firm had only talked to Christine’s carefully chosen references and and run a quick Net search (the legal problems predated the Net), but had not checked her out beyond that.

How do you get “real” references in today’s reference-shy world? First, a manager can usually get more information than can an “outsider”—especially when talking to another manager, a rapport of trust can be developed fairly quickly. No matter the company policy, on a person-to-person basis people will talk.

Ask your candidate for three each of the following references, if possible:

  • Supervisors
  • Peers
  • Subordinates (if applicable)

Call at least two of each, including at least one “set,” i.e., supervisor and peer from the same company, if possible; this is valuable because it gives you the opportunity to compare specific knowledge and comments and get a more well-rounded picture of the person.

In many cases, you will be given people who have also changed employment. That’s a positive because they are much more likely to open up with you. References should be current, within the last several years of employment. If you are not given a current supervisor or there are no references of any type from a particular company, ask why.

Some of the best references you get are from the candidate’s peers and subordinates. First, they are frequently more willing to talk. More importantly, they are in a position to know the person’s actual work more intimately than many managers. Even if the first person you talk to is negative, call all the references. This is important because the other references will round out your view of the candidate and often offset the negative one.

Ian, VP of engineering, wanted to hire an engineer whose old boss called him a trouble-maker and terminated him. That situation didn’t agree with the impressions formed by the interviewing team so Ian started checking peer references. They confirmed the comment and the termination but added the reason. The engineer had refused to sign off on a flawed design that his boss wanted to send on to manufacturing in order to meet a deadline.


Ian hired him because he saw that attitude as a positive, not a negative.

Reference checks should be approached in the same way as phone interviews By asking well-phrased, open-ended questions and turning the call into a conversation, you can learn a tremendous amount. It’s easiest if you have a written form to follow (included at end) and think through any specific information you’re after. This allows you to work it into the conversation in a non threatening way that is more likely to yield results—a stream-of-consciousness as opposed to Q&A. As with interviewing, what is not said is as important as what is said, so listen carefully to the pauses, hesitations and silences.

All information you get in the reference check is confidential—even when it’s positive don’t discuss it with your candidate. If you don’t hire after checking references you must have a plausible reason, one that won’t backfire sometime in the future, but under no circumstances pass on negative information or even indicate that that’s why you aren’t making an offer.

It’s difficult to back-pedal once you start checking references. That’s another reason to check all the references, since, if you don’t hire, it’s nearly impossible to pinpoint the sources of the negative reference. Sure, when you turn down a candidate after checking, the candidate may assume that something was negative, but assumptions don’t mean anything. The problem comes only if you let the candidate stampede you into sharing reference information.

You already know it’s unlikely that you’ll be given the names of people who will say negative things, so it’s up to you, through skillful, relaxed interviewing, to elicit the information you need.

As with any other management function, all it takes is the right mindset and a bit of practice to get the results you want.

Finally, here’s the reference checking form mentioned earlier.

Reference Check

Date: _________________________Date of Interview:____________________________

Candidate: ________________________________________________________________

Position: __________________________________________________________________

General, open-ended questions to get the conversation going:

Specific technical things to check on:

Specific human things to check on:

Person’s greatest strength and why:

** Area for improvement (you may need to reassure the reference—everybody needs to
improve something) and why:

Would you like to work with this person again in the future?

Additional comments:

** One of the best approaches to this area is as follows: If you were advising this person, what would be the single most significant advice you could give him on what behavior to modify (or ability to enhance) to improve himself?

Reference checks and selective hearing

Friday, October 6th, 2006

We’re all subject to selective hearing at times, i.e., hearing that which confirms what we already think and ignoring anything that upsets our subject-view. It happens frequently in the business world and, almost inevitably, causes problems.

It’s especially common during reference checks.

Back in the dark ages, when I was first a headhunter and references were in written form, a letter making the rounds of headhunters really drove this point home. Because I love to play with language, I saved it as a shining example of wordsmithing; here is a much shortened version of it:

To whom it may concern:

I am writing to confirm Joe Doaks’ employment from 1/5/75 to 8/12/76 with Endure Inc.

Words can not describe our feelings when Joe told us he was leaving. The reaction of his department, in fact, the entire company, cannot easily be written. Joe brought many unique skills to Endure Inc. and his extraordinary efforts and interactions with our customers will long be remembered. We would like to take this opportunity to wish both Joe and his new employer the best of luck.

Yours truly,
Robert Thornton
Vice President

Today, it’s difficult to get any real information when checking references. Many companies will only confirm dates of employment, salary, and eligibility for rehire—if that—so managers often call directly to their peers.

This works well, except when the manager and team really like the person. When that happens, all the red flags will be ignored, the reference will be distorted and the manager will hear what he wants to hear.

The following conversation was sent to me by “Ed,” a client who’s an engineering VP, who thought I needed a good laugh. It relates the conversation between him and “Todd,” a VP who had called for a reference on “Wendell,” a senior-level engineer. Ed told me that he was amazed his name had been given as a reference, since he had terminated Wendell. Ed, who is usually voluble, assures me that this is practically a verbatim report:

Todd: We understand Wendell worked for you for seven years.

Ed: Yes.

Todd: And led a team in the advanced architecture of a new product.

Ed: Yes, he was in that position.

Todd: And that the product is selling well!

Ed: Yes, in spite of being 11 months late to market.

Todd: It [the product] is considered highly reliable and has great manufacturability.

Ed: Yes, we have a superb manufacturing department and world-class quality people.

Todd: Great, we are very excited about Wendell bringing those skills to us. Thanks for your time.

When talking to a peer, Ed will offer many opportunities for the calling VP to follow up for additional information. If asked, he will be completely honest, but he doesn’t volunteer information.

In this instance, Ed said that he was relieved when the call ended, since he was having trouble controlling his laughter.

Ed’s not prone to selective hearing at work and never quite believed the stories I’ve told him, saying that people who reached senior management roles had to have overcome the inclination or they wouldn’t be there. However, since that call, he’s not nearly as prone to making such assumptions.

Retention: Payoff or No Payoff

Thursday, October 5th, 2006

A post I read this morning by Alice Snell in Taleo’s Talent Management blog pointed me to PricewaterhouseCoopers’ “Trendsetter Barometer” survey. I really appreciated it since it’s always great to start the day with a good laugh and the CEO survey gave me just that.

Do take a moment to read the whole study (it’s not that long), but in the mean time, here’s a sampling of levity-producing findings:

  • “…nearly half the CEOs surveyed (49 percent) are concerned that a shortage of qualified workers could limit the growth of their company in the year ahead.”
  • “…only 60 percent of surveyed CEOs include the costs of retention and turnover in their company’s estimate of workforce expense.”
  • “…43 percent [of “Trendsetter” CEOs] believe it [retention of key employees] would have very little or no impact.”
  • “Sharply improved retention of key employees was judged to improve company profits by a median of only five percent among the 52 percent of CEOs who believe it would be beneficial.”

Enough, you get the idea. In short, it goes like this: There’s a shortage of qualified workers that could limit our growth, but keeping the people we have yields no real benefits and retention has no real payoff, plus, the cost of turnover has nothing to do with our workforce expense.

So, how far off base are these CEOs and all the others who think the same way?

  • According to Frederick Reichheld, who has been researching and studying the loyalty (AKA retention) of investors, customers and employees for over a decade, in Loyalty Rules! (2001), a 5% improvement in employee retention translates to a 25%-100% gain in earnings.
  • “David A. Brandon, CEO of Domino’s Pizza says, ’You can’t overcome a bad culture by paying people a few bucks more.’ He believes the way to attack turnover is by focusing on store managers—hiring more selectively, coaching them on how to create better workplaces and motivating them with the promise of stock options and promotions.” (Wall Street Journal, 2.17.05)
  • “The SAS culture keeps employees content and keeps them from leaving. On average, software companies turn over more than 20% of their employees each year. AT SAS, it’s around 3%. And according to Stanford University business Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer, that 17% difference conservatively saves SAS 70-80 million dollars in recruiting and training costs each year.” (60 Minutes, 10.13.02)

It’s almost impossible today to read/watch anything business-related—magazine, newspaper, blog, TV program—and not hear about the importance of retention, but, obviously, that information certainly isn’t having the desired effect.

You bet I found it funny—and very, very sad.

Do benefits cost or pay off?

Wednesday, October 4th, 2006

Scott Allen, The Guide for the Entrepreneurs section of About.com responded to a reader’s question about benefits for part time workers, explaining that in the US benefits aren’t required by law for any worker, full or part-time.

So why should companies have benefits? Just think about how much better their bottom line would be without them. Wow!

Then think about how demotivated, unproductive and disinterested their employees would be. Double wow!

The smartest employers offer all the benefits they’re able to offer to the people who work for them, even part-timers. Sure, they’re limited by financial consideration, but they do as much as they can.

  • A startup CEO told me that he had insisted on good insurance coverage in spite of his investors’ gripes. Why? Because, he said, his people were more willing to put in 80 hour weeks when they didn’t have to worry about their families. Interestingly enough, his company also offered slightly below market pay and far more modest stock options and still filled their openings with top talent (this was during a boom period, too).
  • Another small biz owner I know offers Aflac, exceptional working flexibility and just added a 401K, although many similar-sized companies just moan about how they can’t afford anything.
  • My friend, who owns a tiny, neighborhood restaurant, gives her waiters their birthday off with pay—and has almost no turnover.

Part of the problem in large companies is that Wall Street penalizes companies that do take care of their people (Costco) and lauds those that use every trick to avoid spending that money (Wal-Mart).

But make no mistake—taking the best care possible of your people will yield a high return in the form of lower turnover and higher productivity.

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