It Takes Some of Us a Long Time to Learn

Jun 02, 1997

In spite of my repeated attempts to educate our readers about some of the crazy things they are doing, it takes some people a long time to catch on. Here are few examples of what I’m talking about: Phone answering: I called the CEO of a 460-person firm this very day. The switchboard operator answered with the company’s name, very matter-of-factly. I asked for the CEO by name. She said, “Just a minute,” and then came back on to tell me she “can’t find his secretary.” My response was, “I’m not looking to talk to his secretary— if I was, I would have asked for her. I want to talk with him.” Her next response was, “Well, he’s out of town.” I asked, “Why didn’t you tell me that when I asked for him?” Her response was, “I’ll connect you to his voice mail.” Goofy! Human resources: Hiring or appointing a human resources manager can’t solve all of your people problems. Here’s a typical scenario: Firm, which is essentially family-owned (father, brother, son, son’s wife, son-in-law, grandma, uncle, all work there), has terrible morale problem. Staff turnover rate is in excess of 38%. When you get these people by themselves, they inevitably make some reference to “the help,” as if their employees are some kind of second-class indentured servants. As it’s costly to continuously replace employees who have quit, they then decide, in their wisdom, to get a “human relations” person. The secretary who “likes people” is put in the job. She spends the next year going to seminars on how to do performance appraisals, how to deal with the physically disabled worker, and so forth. Her door is open to anyone who wants to complain. And as soon as she hears about someone who’s unhappy, she runs right to her boss to tattle on them. The next year, turnover has risen to 40%, and the president declares that “human resources management doesn’t work.” Natural light: Studies have proved that people work better when they get natural light. They’re more energetic and more creative. They feel better. Yet, recently I went to a firm that was in the middle of building their new office space, and you know what the plan was? You guessed it— all the principals and managers are sitting around the perimeter space, hogging the windows, with big, thick doors and full height interior walls, and the rest of the “salt miners” are in the dark, center spaces. I went to another firm where no one had any natural light— and the owners had actually covered up windows in the building!! Bonuses: Suggest coming up with a formula to distribute the spoils of success, and many times you’ll hear, “We like the ability to decide who gets what bonus, to reward our performers. I don’t know any better way than to sit at the table at the end of the year, talk about it, and make the decisions.” These people don’t know any better way because they haven’t tried anything else! Besides that, I have better ways to spend my time. I’d rather be doing something billable, be home, or be figuring out how we’re going to grow the business. Sitting at a big table in a big conference or meeting room somewhere, talking about people, the bulk of whom I wouldn’t recognize if I ran into them on the street, poring over utilization and sick leave reports, only to give everyone pretty much what they got last year (adjusted up or down for the firm’s profits that year) is not my idea of “management.” Open book management: This is the buzzterm for sharing financial data with everyone, and in spite of all kinds of anecdotal evidence that it motivates employees and increases their performance, many firms are still fighting it. I went in one firm recently that doesn’t even give all the poop to their shareholders. When I ask these people, “What’s the deal here?” I usually get some lame response about how their employees don’t understand this stuff, or that they don’t want competitors getting a hold of their numbers. These are the same firms that complain to me about their employee’s work ethic, financial management aptitude, and concern for the bottom line. It’s especially eye-opening when one of these “mushrooms” that has been kept in the dark (i.e., an employee) ends up as a principal or board member, and gets their first dose of how well or poorly the firm is actually doing. It could almost be funny if it weren’t so sad. Sometimes, I want to shake the management and say “Can’t you see where the problem is???” Generation X: I’ve been guilty myself— among my other sins— of Gen X bashing. But I have learned that these people will work their tails off, just like anyone else. They just want to be treated decently, with respect; rewarded well when they perform; and given something beyond just menial work to do. Who doesn’t, in any age category? All of us, if we have been even halfway successful, think we have the magic formula. We don’t really want to listen to anyone else. But we shouldn’t be that way. Ignorance is not bliss. It’s bad business. Originally published 6/2/1997

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