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Archive for April, 2007

The backlash of saying “No”

Monday, April 30th, 2007

First some background: I’ve known Scott Allen for several years; a few of months ago I asked him if he would serve on my Board and he said yes. I was thrilled because we’re launching a new product Q3 and having formal access to Scott’s expertise would help assure its success. A couple of weeks later I received a very apologetic email from Scott explaining that, in fact, that he wouldn’t be able to serve; he was severely over-committed already and the situation was having serious effects on his health, as well as stressing out his family. I replied that I understood, that nothing was more important than his health and family, and that he should try my approach to saying no, because I knew that it worked.
Last week I ran into Scott (online) and asked him how it was going.

Scott said, “You need to do a follow-up to your “just say no” post about how to deal with the hurt feelings and your own guilt about all the people to whom you end up having to say no.”

It sounded like a good idea to me, and I asked Scott if I could reference him as my reason for the follow-up; I think his response provides an excellent description of what happens to most people who finally start saying, “no.”

Scott said, “Absolutely you can name me. I frequently talk about it as the biggest challenge I deal with; besides, it helps give some credibility to the fact that I really don’t just blow people off, which I know is what a lot of people think. They’re bitching about the fact that I’m not available on Skype or IMs, but I had to shut them off just to get some work done!”

What Scott’s facing as he learns to say no is the backlash that happens when you back off from what, in the corporate world, are known as extreme jobs. Defined by Sylvia Hewlett and Carolyn Luce, in a December 2006 Harvard Business Review article, (Extreme Jobs – The Dangerous Allure of the 70-Hour Workweek) they identified 10 common characteristics, the five worst being

  • unpredictable flow of work with constant interruptions and emergencies;
  • fast-paced multi-task work with tight deadlines;
  • frequent work-related events outside regular work hours;
  • availability to clients and customers 24/7; and a
  • large amount of travel.

But while the corporate world may reward extreme workers, individuals, consultants, contractors, and solopreneurs often work that way from sheer necessity—or so they tell themselves.

The fifth may not apply, but ask anyone who is self-employed if the first four do and you’ll hear a resounding, “Yes!” And, as Scott points out, stress usually increases when you finally start saying “no” and the expectations that you’ve fostered come back and bite you.

So, for Scott, and all of you struggling with the aftermath of no, I’m going to spend this week offering up short, useable ways to reduce the stress and disarm the reactions, in order to encourage you to start/continue saying, “No.”

Lessons in management

Friday, April 27th, 2007

I’ve always believed that a spoonful of laughter makes management precepts easier to swallow, as does KG Charles-Harris, CEO of Emanio and one of my favorite people. He recently sent some excellent management insights and I thought I’d share two of them today.

The first is the 3 Minute Management Course

Lesson One
An eagle was sitting on a tree resting, doing nothing.
A small rabbit saw the eagle and asked him, “Can I also sit like you and do nothing?”
The eagle answered: “Sure, why not.” So, the rabbit sat on the ground below the eagle and rested.
All of a sudden, a fox appeared, jumped on the rabbit, and ate it.

Management Lesson #1
To be sitting and doing nothing, you must be sitting very, very high up.

Lesson Two
A turkey was chatting with a bull. “I would love to be able to get to the top of that tree,” sighed the turkey, “but I haven’t got the energy.”
“Well, why don’t you nibble on some of my droppings?” replied the bull. “They’re packed with nutrients.”
The turkey pecked at a lump of dung, and found it actually gave him enough strength to reach the lowest branch of the tree. The next day, after eating some more dung, he reached the second branch.
Finally, after a fourth night, the turkey was proudly perched at the top of the tree. He was promptly spotted by a farmer, who shot him out of the tree.

Management Lesson #2
Bullshit might get you to the top, but it won’t keep you there.


Lesson Three
A little bird was flying south for the winter. It was so cold; the bird froze and fell to the ground into a large field. While he was lying there, a cow came by and dropped some dung on him.

As the frozen bird lay there in the pile of cow dung, he began to realize how warm he was. The dung was actually thawing him out! He lay there all warm and happy, and soon began to sing for joy. A passing cat heard the bird singing and came to investigate. Following the sound, the cat discovered the bird under the pile of cow dung, and promptly dug him out and ate him.

Management Lesson #3
(1) Not everyone who shits on you is your enemy.
(2) Not everyone who gets you out of shit is your friend.
(3) And when you’re in deep shit, it’s best to keep your mouth shut!

The final lesson in American Management should actually be named Solutions from Detroit.

A Japanese company and an American company decided to have a canoe race. Both teams practiced long and hard to reach their peak performance before the race. On the big day the Japanese won by a mile.

The American team became very discouraged and morally depressed. The American management decided that the reason for the crushing defeat had to be found. A “Measurement Team,” made up of senior management was formed. They would investigate and recommend appropriate action. Their conclusion was that the Japanese had 8 people rowing and 1 person steering, while the Americans had 1 person rowing and 8 people steering.

So American management hired a consulting company and paid them incredible amounts of money. They advised that too many people were steering the boat and not enough people were rowing. To prevent losing to the Japanese again next year, the rowing team’s management structure was totally reorganized to 4 steering supervisors, 3 area steering superintendents and 1 assistant superintendent steering manager. They also implemented a new performance system that would give the 1 person rowing the boat greater incentive to work harder. It was called the “Rowing Team Quality First Program,” with meetings, dinners, and free pens for the rower: “We must give the rower empowerment and enrichment through this quality program.”

The next year the Japanese won by 2 miles.

Humiliated, the American management laid off the rower for poor performance, halted development of a new canoe, sold the paddles, and canceled all capital investments for new equipment. Then they gave a High Performance Award to the steering managers and distributed the money saved as bonuses to the senior executives.

Have a wonderful weekend—I’m planning to!

Cultural teeth

Thursday, April 26th, 2007

I read a good article on the importance of taking the time to consciously build your corporate culture, since it will happen regardless.

Rather than rehash or elaborate on what was written, I’m going to move the conversation to the next level—recognizing that your structure won’t stand long without some very pragmatic infrastructure.

In other words, culture needs to have teeth.

If you’re counting on an honor system where nothing happens to those who violate the culture then, over time, it will erode. Not because you hire “bad” people, but because you hire humans and humans often tend to do what is convenient, instead of what they should do. They also tend to follow a “monkey see/monkey do” pattern, so if a new hire sees an old hand cut a tiny corner here and skirt a little something there and nothing happens, then he will think it’s OK.

Teeth aren’t about bureaucracy they’re about the obvious repercussions that happen when the culture is violated. They aren’t sneaky or hidden; they don’t demean or embarrass.

Above all, teeth don’t bite selectively; they apply equally to everybody—which is why they work.

Their purpose is to strengthen your culture, not undermine it, which is what happens the moment someone becomes exempt.

As CEO, you set the culture and determine the teeth, whether actively or passively and, as usual, it’s your choice.

The accent challenge

Wednesday, April 25th, 2007

The ability to communicate successfully, in both directions, is the mark of a great manager, as is building and managing a powerful and innovative organization.

Accomplishing this mandates a willingness to hire the best available people.

But what do you do when the best can’t be easily understood?

Accents, whether from overseas or US regional, are a major turnoff to many people. Reactions range from idiotic assumptions of incompetence (essentially subconscious prejudice) to annoyance for having to exert effort listening (sheer laziness).

In a diverse world of shrinking talent pools, where English is a second language for many, it’s bad business to pass on those candidates, but it’s also ridiculous to believe that the problem will fix itself or just fade away if you ignore it.

I’m not talking about the need for flawless English, but about recognizing what happens if they aren’t understood.

What can you, as a manager, do?

If the challenge is accent (whether from India, China, New York, Liverpool, Mississippi, etc.), rather than comprehension or language knowledge, that could minimize their contribution or effectiveness, what do you do?

The same solution you use for any good candidate who is lacking a particular skill, you offer training. In this case, accent reduction training.

Again, not to force them to sound like you, but to improve their speech enough to ensure a reasonable level of understanding.

Yes, the discussion and offer needs to be handled with sensitivity, but people aren’t stupid and they know the things that put them at a disadvantage in the workplace. What you are offering to do is pay for training that will give them a boost throughout their career, not just at your company.

The cost isn’t that great, either, the company profiled in the article charges around $1000 per person. In comparison to the cost-per-day of continuing the search, $1000 doesn’t even qualify as a peanut.

Plus, there is additional ROI to you, individually, and to your company.

  • You acquire top talent with a high degree of loyalty, while building a reputation as a creative manager, who knows how to successfully staff outside the box, is willing to invest in people, and has the vision to see beyond the obvious.
  • Your company strengthens its diversity, which typically improves innovation, while your management achievements have an external halo effect on the company.

Clarifying your communications

Tuesday, April 24th, 2007

The other day I asked an executive I work with to clarify what he had just said to me. He said he would put it in writing, since he wasn’t sure why I didn’t understand what he said (he was a bit annoyed).

He sent me three paragraphs, which were clear as mud, as I told him when he called back.

By now, very annoyed, he asked exactly what I meant by “clarifying.”

I explained that, to me, clarity meant using the fewest words to present the most complex information in the most understandable way. Further, whether written or verbal, it meant always avoiding jargon and using the listeners’ language, i.e., using the words that were part of their normal vocabulary, as much as possible.

He said that was very difficult to do and took too much time.

I told him that reminded me of an old line I’d heard years ago, “I/we don’t have time to do it right, but I/we have time to do it over.”

(Mean coach that I am I also reminded him of what his last “quick” communication had cost, which was why he was talking with me in the first place!)

For those of you with the same problem, here are some guidelines to help clarify your future communications.

  • strip the jargon (avoid it even in-house);
  • use one-syllable words whenever possible;
  • use simple sentences, subject and verb;
  • listen to yourself;
  • build your awareness;
  • practice until you do it on autopilot; and, above all,
  • avoid sounding like a lawyer!

Believe me, your customers, peers, and bosses will notice—and be very appreciative.

Assumptions and innovation

Monday, April 23rd, 2007

Following up on my previous post about how the assumption that performance was the most critical buying issue in cycling helped flatten an industry, comes yet another example of how assumptions lead astray.

The new generation of game consoles from Sony and Microsoft focused on the brilliant graphics demanded by game enthusiasts, but Nintendo is creaming its competitors by looking past graphics and focusing on fun. “Jesse Sutton, interim president and chief executive officer of Majesco, says Nintendo is targeting its hardware at the fastest growing audience in the games business — “casual” gamers who are more interested in fun, simple games rather than the deeply immersive titles that most hard-core gamers prefer.”

Hmm, sounds similar to the people who want to have fun riding bikes.

The car industry is learning the same thing. First, when Honda’s Element and Toyota’s Scion, designed as inexpensive first cars for teens and 20-somethings, got snapped up by their parents, who wanted inexpensive, fun transpiration, instead of performance and mind- and wallet-numbing electronics.

That challenge is being upped again by India’s Tata Motors, which plans to bring out a $2500 car in 2008. And this isn’t just about lower income, emerging markets. “To automakers’ astonishment, cheap cars are also proving to be just as popular in established markets as they are in the developing world…The new generation of cheap cars will be sturdy and reliable and will appeal to Western consumers who want to spend money on things other than transport… The shift to cut-rate wheels is jarring for an industry that has fixated for at least a decade on premium cars…”

The same awakenings have happened/are happening in consumer products, such as soup and cleaning products.

Other industries are climbing on the bandwagon. Even software companies are recognizing that most of their customers aren’t twenty-something programmers and that they don’t want to “work under the hood,” they just want to do whatever it is that they bought the program to do.

What these stories have in common are the assumptions that guided product development came from industry/product aficionados—hard-core devotees who designed products for people like themselves—and ignored the rest of us.

Finally, companies are figuring out just how large the so-called casual market is, how much money it has to spend, and that it’s a giant market anywhere you look for it.

For managers, the lesson is to avoid assumption-myopia by building a team with different backgrounds, varied experience from different industries, and a solid generational mix.

Do that and you’ll have a lot more innovation outside the box.

Assumptions are bad

Friday, April 20th, 2007

Assumptions. They’re bad for your health, wealth, business and all human interactions. I’ve previously written about how they influence the workplace, but I saw a story this morning that really tickled me as proof of how costly assumptions are to businesses and entire industries.

The article is about how the bike industry found a way to revitalize a falling market with bikes that automatically shift gears. Here’s what caught my eye, “Shimano spent several years figuring out why ridership has decreased, and realized people wanted to ride for fun…The company was shocked to realize its efforts at making newer, more high-performance bikes weren’t winning over new riders.”

“We come to find out these people not only don’t want high performance, they don’t even care about it.”

Notice the final words, “they don’t even care about it.”

The assumption that high performance was critical came from people in the industry—people most likely to be classed as avid cyclists and to whom performance was a key issue, and that assumption was generalized to the entire population.

It’s always that way. Every time someone finds that their belief/attitude/assumption isn’t held by everyone, or at least by the specific group they’re focused upon, they are amazed and even shocked.

How many times have you read an article, such as the one above, and your reaction was, “Well, duh!” That was my reaction to the amazement expressed when performance didn’t matter to the general public.

“Duh,” is my reaction to my own assumptions when they get in the way of my human interactions.

And “Duh,” is my very silent reaction to many of the assumption-based management quandaries I deal with every day—also the managers’ reaction, not silent, once they identify it.

By request—why and how to do successful performance reviews

Thursday, April 19th, 2007

All companies require performance reviews, yet rarely are people satisfied—even when they are positive. Properly done, a review is a source of satisfaction for both manager and subordinate: A record of growth and achievement, as well as a plan for future growth that inspires the person and the company to ever-greater success.

To achieve this, performance reviews must be thoughtfully and correctly prepared—which means that you must commit adequate time to do it right.

Performance reviews cover two separate areas:

  • A relatively straightforward analysis of an employee’s performance against specific objectives defined during the previous annual review; and
  • an analysis of the intangible performance covering things like communications skills, organization of work, attitude, balancing of priorities, etc.

These two types are combined in some ratio to create the total review. For example,

  • individual contributors, where personal interaction and exercise of management judgment is very slight, might have 90% of the review based on performance against objectives; whereas,
  • executives, whose exercise of management skill is very important, would have the proportion be more like 60%.

It’s difficult suggest the proper mix of objective and intangibles since even jobs at the same level can be vastly different in the needed mix of management and technical skills. However, the important thing is that the employee understands the ratio at the same time as she receives the objectives.

Companies frequently review employees on their anniversary dates, but for the purpose of calculating salary increases and stock options, people need to be compared against their peers to achieve a proper ranking.

Everyone looks great when viewed in isolation and most people achieve something during the review period; managers are human and want to be liked, so there is a tendency to view these too positively. It’s only when everyone’s achievements are viewed against each another that weak achievements are noticeable and extra effort is clearly seen.

Since employees are hired throughout the year, you need to plan to bring their reviews onto a calendar year basis with all other employees.

  • If an employee’s first review is on his anniversary date, his second review would be at the end of the year immediately following along with the other employees.
  • In most cases, people hired before June 30 have enough time to perform, show what they are capable of doing, and be reviewed at the end of the year with other employees. Salary, bonuses, and stock options are prorated to fit the actual period covered by the review.
  • The work of newly hired knowledge workers usually requires at least six months to evaluate properly, so a person hired after June 30 (for a calendar year company) should not be reviewed at year-end— instead, the first review should fall on her anniversary date. This is the sole exception to the rule that employees should all be reviewed at the end of a year.

Reviews are best linked to the company’s annual operating plan, budgets, and objectives (PBO) so that everyone’s individual goals and objectives for the coming year flow naturally from it. Since the budget also provides for salary increases, managers will have a specific raise budget target to meet as they complete their reviews.

The typical timetable for companies operating on a calendar year basis is:

  • the next year’s PBO is completed by mid-December;
  • reviews completed by mid-January for the previous calendar year;
  • salary increases and stock awarded shortly thereafter, but retroactive to the beginning of the year.


  • All employees should be reviewed at the same time;
  • goals and objectives tie directly to the PBO; and
  • salary increases, bonuses, and stock options awarded within 30 days after reviews are approved.

If the employee’s objectives have been generated and updated as described in the previous years PBO, it’s a simple matter for the manager to complete the portion of the review dealing with performance against objectives.

A negative review about the person’s shortcomings that is objective, fair and unemotional is usually received with full comprehension and is seldom resented.

In fact, it is entirely realistic to allow employees to review themselves. Most people are harder on themselves than their managers would be!

Too often, managers write a flowery, positive review of the employee, but give out a below average increase of salary, bonus, or stock. This is the action of a weak and underhanded manager.

In reality, the manager is critical of the employee’s performance, but is avoiding the face-to-face confrontation that would result from the discussion of an honestly written review; he’s also setting his company up for a possible lawsuit if the employee is terminated in the future.


  • There should be a perfect correlation between the review and any salary increase, bonus or stock award.

Many review forms have a section entitled “Goals for Next Review Period.” Without PBO, the manager has only the vaguest idea what projects the next year will bring—it’s like trying to tell a football player who to block before the play is selected.

This is one of the greatest causes of unhappiness with reviews, since the manager may later have to give an employee new goals that are contradictory to those previously discussed. This opens the door to disagreement as to whether the employee actually performed the assigned tasks.

Worse, without PBO-based goals, an employee can be left with an objective, but no budget, and so no way to achieve it.


  • If there is no overall goal setting procedure for the company, trying to specify an employee’s goals during a review is almost impossible.
  • Career development is often ignored during reviews, much to the detriment of the employee, manager, group and the company’s retention efforts.

Personal development is intricately tied with improving the company’s efficiency, achieving its goals, and reducing its turnover. Success depends on employees acquiring new skills and improving existing ones. For example, does a technician want to become an engineer? Or does she want to join field service? During the review, she and her manager should discuss and agree on her career direction since both need to take action to achieve it—the tech needs to take classes or other training recommended by her manager, while the manager can provide simple projects to help the tech develop her new skills.


  • Career goals, and the action items needed to achieve them, should be spelled out in the review and quantified for that year.
  • Managers at all levels are responsible for the company’s success.
  • The company’s success is dependent on its people and their ability to achieve their full potential.
  • Therefore, facilitating that development is a major managerial function, and performance reviews are a critical tool in that development.

You can protest and procrastinate—or use them wisely and well.

It’s your choice.

How to give a disciplinary performance review

Wednesday, April 18th, 2007

Developing the knowledge and skill to give a disciplinary performance review is an important part of being a good manager, although, hopefully, it will be the most infrequent skill you use.

A true disciplinary review should never come as a surprise to the employee; rather it’s the final chance to turn around performance/behavior issues that have been previously addressed at length in both informal and formal reviews.

For the best chance of success, you need to stay calm, unemotional, and very factual, while understanding that the recipient may become extremely emotional.

The entire disciplinary process must be in writing. Good sense, backed by employment law, requires that a written disciplinary notice must precede the dismissal of any employee for failure to perform their job after their initial probationary period has ended.

Write the review ahead of time with the same attention, and willingness to rewrite it, that you would accord a presentation to a major client. This is not something that you can dash off during your commute, or knock out five minutes before meeting with the employee.

The review has three main sections:

1. Why: The reasons for the disciplinary notice must be clearly stated, contain no ambiguity and have been previously been brought up in both written and oral form, so nothing comes as a surprise to the employee.

2. Mitigation: The requirements for correcting the problem(s) must also contain no ambiguity. Just as with any objective, there must be clearly measurable goals and a specific completion date. When dealing with performance deficiencies, it may be necessary for you to develop task(s) that will measure the employee’s ability to improve to the desired minimum performance level required and beyond.

People respond more positively to quantified objectives that they understand and are achievable. Setting the person up to fail with unreasonable objectives that are beyond, or different, from what other people in the group are asked to do, is not only a formula for employee failure, but also one that encourages lawsuits.

Just as important to the objective is time allowed for delivering change or accomplishing given tasks. Again, unreasonable time frames may encourage litigation. This interval is called the disciplinary period.

3. Consequences: What happens if the person fails to meet one or more objectives must be accurately spelled out in no uncertain terms. Consequences are the stick (since carrots haven’t worked), but you don’t necessarily want to use a bludgeon (termination), when it’s not warranted (and may not stand up in court). Here are several consequences that have been used successfully by other managers,

  • demoted with a reduction in salary;
  • suspended for two weeks without pay;
  • receive zero salary increase;

and the ultimate warning when it’s warranted

  • subject to disciplinary action up to and including termination.

When warranted, a disciplinary notice may state that no further warning is necessary and that committing a similar violation at any time in the future would be grounds for dismissal without additional notice.

This is important since, without such a clause, it could be argued that another disciplinary review and disciplinary period would follow a repetition of the offense.

In order create a stronger positive motivation, you can also provide a reward if the employee performs at a higher than expected level during the disciplinary period. For example, if failing to meet the objectives results in a zero salary increase, an employee who not only met, but also significantly exceeded, the objectives during the disciplinary period might actually receive a small increase.

Make no mistake; a true disciplinary performance review is a turning point for any individual. Clarity will avoid a lot of unpleasantness and maybe even a lawsuit. Although it’s very stressful on managers, handling performance deficiencies correctly often demonstrates to the employee the truth he has been hiding from himself and forces him to conclude that he cannot perform at the required level.

At that point, he will either resign or ask for reassignment and the company can avoid an awkward and unproductive disciplinary period.

Better yet, the kick in the pants given by a disciplinary notice may actually shock the person into turning his performance around and becoming highly productive.

At executive levels (Vice President and above), individuals may be disciplined for differences in policy with their superiors without any prior notice and written warnings about performance failings in job content frequently aren’t given, for example, a Vice President of Sales need not be warned in writing that he’s liable for dismissal if he continually fails to meet sales quotas. However, CEOs who don’t at least issue verbal content-failing warnings may quickly get a reputation for being arbitrary and unfair.

This is not true for overt actions. A Vice President of Sales making racial slurs, engaging in sexual harassment, or similar violations, should go through the same disciplinary process as any other employee.

Even at executive level, disciplinary reviews involve a defined process (see above) that protects everybody—the employee, the manager, and the company.

Performance reviews fuel growth and provide CYA

Tuesday, April 17th, 2007

BW has an excellent cover story on the difficulties of terminating employees in a litigious society. Let me say that neither the article nor I are referring to terminations for reasons other than real merit/performance issues.

The article also points out that “it’s often the supervisors themselves who bear much of the blame when HR says someone can’t be shown the door. That’s because most fail to give the kind of regular and candid evaluations that will allow a company to prove poor performance if a fired employee hauls them into court. Honest, if harsh, reviews not only offer legal cover, but they’re also critical for organizations intent on developing top talent… Frequently, the work that the manager suddenly claims is intolerable is accompanied by years of performance evaluations that say “meets expectations.””

To really work, performance reviews should not be a once a year occurrence, but rather, at all levels, an ongoing dialog of feedback from supervisor to worker, with more formal, written reviews quarterly.

Most importantly, they must be honest and candid. This isn’t just-in-case CYA, but the kind of feedback that encourages and motivates your people to grow, as well as pointing out unacceptable actions and performance issues that damage the individual, you and, especially, the group.

Suppose that you have an employee who isn’t performing at an acceptable level, or is behaving in an inappropriate or disruptive manner, but short of the actions that are grounds for immediate termination for cause (such as hitting someone). Let’s further suppose that, as a conscientious manager, you’ve been giving accurate verbal feedback and previous reviews have specified the unacceptable behavior and delineated your expectations of change.

Notice the adjectives in the above, they mean that you’ve constructively discussed exactly what the person is doing that’s unacceptable and exactly what you want them to do about it—specific, not general comments.

Although this isn’t the most fun part of your management responsibilities, it’s one of the most important. In case you need some mental spine-starch to persevere, remember that you owe it to your group, whether that’s a small team or the entire company. Poor performers who “get away with it” will quickly become a black hole that absorbs energy and productivity from everyone else.

So, what do you do when all this fails to turn the person around? You need to terminate, but are still worried about legal repercussions.

The next step is a written disciplinary notice and you’ll find that it’s easier, and will yield better results, when you’re calm, unemotional, and very factual about it.

There are no guarantees that prevent someone from suing, but managers who look to HR and lawyers to cover their own performance review inadequacies can (and should) expect a lower performance rating from their own boss!

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