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Posts from the ‘Organizations’ Category

Meritocracy: The Lie

I’ve never been comfortable with this whole meritocracy in the workplace thing. Not when I was a corporate cog, not when I was in charge of HR, not when I consult with organizations, not when I read about and observe the world past and present. I have finally put my finger on why I can’t stand the whole concept. It’s a lie.

In theory, people advance in companies (or society) because they score well on specific business metrics. Targets that are exceeded can earn you a promotion or a raise. Not meeting your goals can cause your career to stall or get you fired. As I said, that’s the theory. In reality, elaborate systems are put in place to measure all sorts of things and individual performance is plugged into the formula and, voila, it doesn’t matter in the end. That person’s fate will have little to do with how they scored. That’s the dirty secret that happens in performance management review sessions. But companies feel virtuous in public that they are a meritocracy.

I’ll give you two true stories from my HR days.

Chris was a talented and smart VP who was handed a failing part of the business. The executive thinking was: it’s so far in the red, we’ll give this pile of crap to someone we aren’t sure of in the first place, if they fail we’ll close that business down and Chris will be gone. Within 18 months the business was in the black and growing. Staff from around the building were putting in transfers in hopes of working for Chris. By every measure, Chris had not only exceeded all expectations but surprised the executives.

In a true meritocracy, Chris would have been promoted or given a huge bonus. Instead, Chris was let go in the midst of a business downturn. Hmmm, wouldn’t you want people who had a track record of pulling the business out of the jaws of defeat? No matter how hard I advocated to keep Chris, nothing worked.

Oh, did I mention that Chris is a woman? Oh, and she’s African American. Might that have mattered? You betcha. What happened to all the stellar metrics?

Pat was revered around the company as the go-to person in the finance department. As the number two person to the CFO, Pat was more accessible and helpful to everyone, including the CEO. During succession planning discussions, Pat was “ready now” to replace the CFO when the opportunity came around. All the boxes had been checked, all the metrics were perfect. When the CFO slot opened up, Pat was not selected. Instead, someone who was politically tight with the CEO with much less relevant experience was put into the role. Pat immediately began job hunting and quickly landed the number one position at a different company. What happened to meritocracy in this case?

Oh, I forgot to mention that Pat is a gay man. The new CFO resembles the CEO; a white straight man. Work hard and you will be rewarded? I think not.

Even in cases where sexual orientation, gender or race were not factors, I heard a million excuses why someone who had proven their merit did not ascend into the role they were being groomed for. Too quiet. Not aggressive enough. I just don’t get them. I like this other person better. Tenure needs to be rewarded. They’ll leave if we don’t promote them. Ostensibly, a meritocracy with clear measures will motivate people to do their best and earn new roles. In reality, people knock themselves out to excel and, in the end, the reasons why someone succeeds or not are as arbitrary as ever.

We would be better off not pretending. Companies should declare the truth: We do need to measure performance in lots of ways and there are other factors that go into advancement. This is not an objective exercise. Subjectivity still reigns and it is often unfair. Just like real life.

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Celebrating the Nonprofit Difference

(I share authorship with Gavin Fenn-Smith on this one. A shout out to all the wonderful nonprofit leaders.)

For the past decade, there has been a push to get nonprofit organizations to look and operate more like for-profit corporations.  The reasoning goes something like this.  Nonprofits are underperforming due to notoriously lax management practices, undisciplined decision making, overly emotional responses to challenges, idiosyncratic organizational structures, inadequate operational oversight…and the list goes on.  You get the point.  That is not to say that nonprofits are summarily trashed on all counts.  But as the trend towards greater accountability and measurable outcomes has risen, so too has the insistence that leaders demonstrate more effective management (sic. corporate) capabilities.

At the same time, many talented for-profit leaders who are looking for more meaningful work have flocked to nonprofits to offer their more traditional styles and skills into these organizations.  They, and the nonprofits that hire them, have high hopes that their discipline and experience will bring order to the chaos.  And in some cases, that is exactly what happens.  But the research suggests that at least half the time that dream is never realized.  Corporate types fail to convert a critical mass and leave everyone frustrated and mistrustful…most of all themselves.

This raises an obvious question.  Why do for-profit managers fail so frequently when they enter the nonprofit environment?  But we think the more intriguing question is why do these organizations resist being molded into a corporate image?

We believe the underlying premise is flawed.  The view of nonprofits as deficient is wrong.  We believe that nonprofits are fundamentally different than for-profits and those distinctions need to be understood and celebrated.  To superimpose corporate models and practices onto nonprofits simply does not fit.

Understanding the differences

 Let’s flip the usual equation of forcing corporate disciplines onto nonprofits and imagine instead a for-profit organization shaped to comply with nonprofit operating norms.  To make this a valid comparison, think of organizations with more than 50 people but less than 500.  (In the for-profit world, this includes companies that have moved past the initial startup phase but are smaller than those listed on the Fortune 1000.  For nonprofits, this includes a vast number of organizations.)

Walk into an all-staff meeting and the culture is on full display.  The leaders are not seated in a row looking out at the group but interspersed throughout.  Staff members design and run a good portion of the meeting.  There is an expectation of discussion and challenge on many of the agenda items.  For topics that require decision-making there is an invitation for lively input and a tendency towards consensus.  There are moments to share anecdotes that reinforce the mission or highlight a new idea or learning.  Nearly everyone has protected this time in their schedules so they can be engaged in the conversation.  People want to be with each other, get the scoop, acknowledge achievements and influence the thinking and decision-making.

On any given day, the Executive Director may be called upon to meet with donors, approve grant proposals, attend community meetings with key collaborators, facilitate the staff to reach consensus on a major initiative, solve problems with a field office manager and attend a policy session with the mayor.  These responsibilities are rarely delegated because this is the job description and there are a limited number of functional managers to hand off these duties.  The core skills the ED must demonstrate are passion for the mission, acute and agile interpersonal and communication skills, consensus and coalition building, persuasion and flexibility.

Organization charts are simple and used primarily to identify roles and supervisory responsibilities.  But if you observe daily work-in-action you see people at all levels doing whatever is necessary to get the work done.  There are few hard lines drawn between staff roles and activities.  At the macro level, everyone shares responsibility for achieving the mission so the norm is to pitch in if you are needed.

Some processes and systems are well developed especially if there are government compliance requirements.  But internal work processes are created only when necessary and are generally followed.  There is more attention given to the exceptions rather than the rules when it comes to abiding by routine protocols.  The filter for this is “what is best for this particular client or project”.

The physical office space is adequate and designed to be comfortable for client visitors more so than for the staff.  There are few corner offices, the conference rooms are used for meetings with external partners, visitors frequent the kitchen and there are couches everywhere.

Imagine a for-profit enterprise where the CEO bounces from one discipline to another without functional specialists to delegate the work to.  Imagine a group of employees who wouldn’t dream of missing a staff meeting because of the opportunity to meaningfully engage with colleagues.  Imagine large groups of people coming together to hash out decisions until they arrive at a consensus.  Imagine sharing heartfelt stories about the positive impact on the people you serve.  Imagine fluid and flexible roles with limited concerns about stepping on each other’s toes or stealing the spotlight.  Imagine the energetic focus being on achieving the mission rather than on profits or personal gain.  Imagine an ethos where doing the right thing is more important than following the rules.  Imagine an office space that is designed for outsiders rather than for a hierarchy of leaders and staff.

The research is quite clear.  Many for-profit managers who transition to a nonprofit encounter these norms and want to hit their heads against the wall…even when they have been forewarned.  This environment is not for everyone.  But that doesn’t mean that nonprofits should conform to a set of standards that are counter to their DNA.

 How did we get here?

Why aren’t nonprofit practices viewed as the role model and adopted by for-profits?  Why aren’t these differences seen more positively?  Why is there so much emphasis on nonprofits being run more like businesses?

This whole thrust came about as nonprofits were asked to measure and demonstrate the results of their work.  This unearthed a deficit in many organizations.  They didn’t know how to track, measure and analyze their activities so they needed to learn a whole new set of skills.  As it happens, those skills are deeply instilled in many corporate settings.  Looking more closely, nonprofit leaders appeared to be lacking a host of other accepted management practices.  Decision-making seemed cumbersome and overly consensus-based, roles were unclear and overlapping, systems and processes were loose and idiosyncratic.  In short, nonprofits were seen as lacking basic management practices and many nonprofit leaders were shipped off to classes or received mentoring to develop more “businesslike” disciplines.

That’s all fine and good.  We agree that many of these leaders need to manage their organizations more proficiently and some of the missing pieces are these very skill sets.  But we believe this movement has been overly zealous and may be throwing the baby out with the bath water.  There has been precious little conversation about the more unique requirements for successfully leading a nonprofit.

By imposing traditional (albeit effective) corporate structures and management norms on nonprofits, well-intentioned interventions run the risk of missing the mark. Applying standard practices without an appreciation for the inherent complexity of leading these organizations is short sighted and incomplete.

A third way

Let’s reframe the dialogue.  Rather than retrofitting nonprofits to look and operate more like for-profits, let’s appreciate the distinctive leadership requirements.  Once that is understood then it is clear which corporate management habits fit, and which do not.

Understanding the context of a nonprofit is essential.  The mission is to create social change through services, research or advocacy.  The nature of the work is more “on the front lines”, connected to many constituents, focused on change, embedded in a network of interested parties and emotionally charged.  The leadership responsibilities and challenges unfold within this complex web of relationships, politics, partnerships and ever-changing landscape.  These leaders spend more time out of the office engaging others in the cause than they do inside managing the staff and operations.  For them, the organization is the springboard for impact, not the end result.

In this environment, these leaders must exhibit exceptional emotional intelligence, finely tuned relationship skills, a propensity towards collaboration and consensus building, a high tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty, an understanding of how all the disparate parts interconnect, an ability to cross multiple boundaries and the flexibility to shape-shift continuously to take care of whatever is needed.  Nonprofit leaders are in the business of change and the instincts and capabilities they bring to their causes are of a different nature.

To be clear, you won’t find most of these competencies and skills listed on a traditional leadership model or on a professional development course curriculum.  This constellation of requirements is unique to the nonprofit reality and critical to their success.  Let’s feature these.  Let’s provide learning experiences to enhance or teach these.  Let’s encourage for-profit folks to take a lesson or two, exporting some fresh ideas into the corporate arena.

Similarly, the internal structures, roles and operations of nonprofits create a different type of culture that also factor into their success.  Here again there is more fluidity, less formality and more attunement to emotions and relationships.  There is greater emphasis on robust discussions, shared decision-making, collaboration and nurturing an esprit de corps.  Although you might witness some of these behaviors in for-profit settings it would be more anecdotal rather than the predominant culture.

We agree that nonprofits would operate more smoothly if the leaders were proficient in standard management practices.  Disciplined standardization of systems and processes, improved monitoring of progress and results and sharpened clarity around roles and responsibilities would have a positive impact on productivity.  That said, it would still play out differently than you see in a typical for-profit organization because of the cultural differences.

Rather than viewing these nonprofit leadership and management behaviors as problematic we see these as strengths.  In fact, many for-profits have spent thousands of dollars on fancy programs trying to create some of these very habits in their staffs with mixed and limited results.  So maybe there is a great deal to value here.

If you blend these unique and admirable skills, behaviors and norms with some well-honed management practices then you have a dynamic and winning combination.  More routine operations can free staff up to focus more intently on the work and bring simplicity into the leader’s day.

Where do we go from here?

Over the coming decade, we will need tens of thousands of new and well prepared nonprofit executives.  The operative word being prepared.  This suggests an imperative for a vigorous focus on talent development in terms of financial backing and creating the most effective learning experiences.

Capital aggregation holds some promise for a more sustainable and strategic funding approach.  A group of funders pool their resources to target a larger group of grantees over a longer period.  Progress is monitored and the expectation is that outcomes and impact will improve without the constant worry about money.  It is too soon to know if this is working but we suspect it will.  Why not target these investments on talent development?

Partnerships and coalitions need to be forged to build the nonprofit talent pipeline much like these funding associations.  We suggest investing in leadership aggregation where one or more significant donors target their grants on a group of leaders within a specific sector or region or community.  The concentrated resources over several years would develop a cadre of prepared leaders to fill the gaps.  If you pull together both financial and talent assets this could go a long way in closing the widening nonprofit leadership gap.

If the funding and commitment were resolved that still leaves the challenge of creating more effective learning experiences that honors the unique circumstances of nonprofits.  New programs and models need to emerge that more accurately reflect the competencies of a successful nonprofit leader.  This needs to be significantly more effective than the ordinary fare that is currently available.  Methods and approaches need to match what is known about high impact adult learning experiences.  They must be experiential, grounded in the participant’s reality, immediately applicable, few classroom style lectures and supplemented by personal reflection and peer support and guided by knowledgeable experts.

We celebrate the strengths of nonprofits and their leaders.  We don’t believe they need to change their spots and become something they are not.  But we do believe they need more appropriate and effective development experiences to improve their own impact and to build the talent of those who are on the rise.  The combination of appreciating the hybrid that they are, more sustainable funding and a new set of learning experiences will go a long way to ensure the future of these organizations.

 

Leading During Non-Ordinary Times

Leading under ordinary circumstances is a challenge. Leading during crazy times presses us into unknown and uncomfortable territory. As leaders, we don’t usually worry about the mental health of our staff, how to take an appropriate ethical position on events of the day, whether or not to shift policies on political talk at the office, how to sort out shifting government positions that impact our businesses, how to keep staff focused in times of overwhelming uncertainty and the list goes on.

Should leaders even be concerned about any of this? Is there a distinct line that can be drawn between what happens within the business environment and the rest of what is going on in the world? Should organizations focus more keenly on the distress of their people?

There is no right answer. But consider this: employees are showing up for work with unusual energy that is effecting how well they can perform. Some people feel depleted and disheartened by the events of the day. Some feel ready for battle about world issues with adrenaline pumping. Some feel invisible or judged because of their personal views. It is no longer clear cut what is acceptable language or behavior in the workplace and many are on edge and shutting down. Others feel less censored and get a thrill when testing the limits of the new norms.

So, how can we lead effectively during these roller coaster times where decorum has broken down and stability is a thing of the past? How can leaders provide some sanity?

State the obvious. Whether you use internal communication boards or all staff meetings to deliver key messages, leaders can acknowledge this moment of confusion and distress. “We are in the midst of extraordinary times when our leaders/country/world are challenging our institutions, the world order and civil discourse. Most of our reactions happen outside of work but it is unrealistic to think that we leave our emotions at the door before we walk in here every day. I appreciate the challenge of managing this stress. As much as possible, let’s try to be our best selves with our co-workers.”

Exhibit your own humanity and compassion. Leading by example has never been more necessary. If you model compassion and understanding, others will follow. If you listen and take genuine interest in others, you set the standard. If you show heart and concern for others, the mood can permeate. If your normal style is one of command and control, being fully in charge of most things and leaving others to be in the role of adherents, now may be a good time to develop beyond that stance. Fewer employees are receptive to this autocratic style these days.

Deliver a message of connection and collective efforts. Reiterate the importance of teamwork, hold face to face meetings, encourage asking for help, reward collaborations, train people in more sophisticated methods of respectfully disagreeing to achieve a shared objective and support efforts for community volunteering. The human to human connection is the most powerful antidote to today’s insanity.

Remind people to take good care of themselves. Companies do not need to bend over backwards to provide extraordinary resources for self care or stress relief. But they can communicate the value of practicing healthy habits. Employee Assistance Programs, on site yoga classes, nutrition workshops or a good referral network for other services are helpful to have on hand. Human Resources can facilitate this without making it their core function.

Determine if or how your organization wants to respond publicly. Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce, has taken very public stances on critical social and policy issues. Other CEOs have followed. Sometimes the staff is pushing for a CEO to take a public position. Sometimes employees have left companies that didn’t align with their values. You need to decide where you and your organization stand on various issues. Again, there is no right answer.

Corporate and nonprofit leaders have a rich history of leading the way on critical issues of the day. (Think: some diversity efforts, charitable foundations, opposing specific policies.) They can shape the culture and force government entities to shift directions. (Think: gay and transgender rights.) Employees are looking for sanity and humanity in their leaders today. Be that person!

Making Sense of #MeToo in the Work Place

Like you, I have been reading, listening and thinking about this #MeToo moment. I feel an urgency to bring clarity to a discussion that veers all over the map. Speaking as a former therapist who specialized in sexual abuse, a former head of HR and a consultant focused on leadership and culture, I have had more than my share of exposure to the issues of sexual misconduct and power dynamics. In recent months, I have been listening to other HR folks, leaders and feminists. I’m certain that my thinking will continue to evolve. But for now, this is where I am.

(Note: My focus here is white collar work. I am loathe to use the term “sexual harassment” because it is too imprecise and inaccurate for the range of mistreatment of women.)

White men have always been in power and that’s the way they like it. Women are relative newcomers to professional schools and jobs. The 60’s was the beginning of women entering college in larger numbers. By the mid-70’s the number of men and women in college was about equal. The numbers have steadily increased over the decades where women now outnumber men. Today, 52% of the white collar work force is female while only 14% of the CEOs are women.

We are nearly sixty years into this second wave of feminism yet work place equality and civility are in short supply. There are scores of reasons for this but I think it comes down to the basics. If you have always enjoyed the privileges and entitlements that come with power, you don’t want to share it or give it up. White men have resisted and will resist relaxing their grip on power and control. They prefer an all boys club that doesn’t have to watch their language or hands to make accommodations for women. The idea of a more heterogenous environment that assumes people of color and women are equal to men is confusing and requires a mindset shift that many men simply did not grow up with.

White men felt their work space had been invaded and for many decades they went about their business much as they always had. Occasionally there were lawsuits or investigations but mostly there weren’t any consequences to men behaving badly. Women and people of color have always understood this dynamic. This power differential is the primary reason they haven’t spoken up en masse until recently. Not from fears of retribution but because of real retribution towards the victims, not the offenders.

Not all behaviors are created equal. Because women have not had a voice until recently, all misconduct is being lumped together. We need to make distinctions immediately. Forget the employee handbooks. Here is a continuum to consider.

  • Dismissive. Ignoring input and contributions, talking over women, rendering women invisible.
  • Disrespectful. Demeaning or lewd comments, treating women as less than men, objectification.
  • Aggressive/Intrusive. Unwanted touching, verbal threats, asserting physical or positional power, no regard for physical boundaries, bullying.
  • Abuse of Power/Position. When a woman reports mistreatment she is passed over for promotions, fired from a job, becomes a pariah, blackballed, slandered.
  • Violence. Rape, physical abuse, forced sexual contact.

To be clear, victims of any of these actions can be traumatized. Consequences of verbal misconduct are not as severe as physical or violent ones. I say this from years of contact with survivors. But the only person to assess the damage is the recipient. Not the offender, not HR, not the society.

As we try to figure out what to do with all these stories, I believe two things. We must honor everyone who speaks up. And we must work towards eradicating all of these behaviors in the work place. Each of these categories contributes to an environment where women are not valued.

How should we mete out consequences? I don’t believe our corporate policies and legal system have caught up to the reality of the mistreatment of women and minorities in the work place. If not all behavior is a nail, then we should figure out what tools to build other than hammers.

We need third party specialists that are contracted by companies but do not work for the company to address employee complaints. Take these discussions out of HR or the legal department. This third party entity is staffed with experts who can conduct thorough interviews and investigations, provide legal guidance and/or referrals, offer counseling assistance or referrals and be the victim’s advocate with the corporation. It would gather ongoing data about individuals to discover repeat offenders and guide the discussions about potential solutions. This organization would oversee the process from start to resolution.

With a safer process in place, victims are more likely to come forward in a timely fashion. The criteria for punishment are determined by criminal guidelines, HR policies and patterns of behavior. For example, three women report that a VP constantly comments on their physical appearance in ways that feel uncomfortable. The VP’s boss and the third party professional meet with this man, tell him what the investigation revealed, offer him assistance in changing his behavior within two months and then reassess. If there are no further complaints for 12 months, there will be no additional consequence. If he does not comply, he will be fired. If the offense is more physically or verbally damaging, then firing immediately is reasonable.

If the process is a cleaner one, the punishments can fit the crimes. Right now it is a mess.

What about incidents that happened years ago? Legally, not much can happen. It is more fruitful to look for long term patterns of behavior that may still be taking place. If someone comes forward to describe that Mr. D cornered her in the copy room repeatedly a decade ago, ask her if this is still going on today. Ask her if she knows if others have been treated the same way. Ask her how Mr. D treats her today. Ask her what impact this had on her performance. Direct her to lodge a complaint with the outside third party so they can gather relevant data. It may turn out that Mr. D’s behavior has changed for the better in the past 10 years. Or it may turn out that other women have come forward more recently. Or it may be that he no longer corners women but constantly asks them to go out for drinks after work. If Mr. D still behaves badly, then an investigation proceeds. If there is not other evidence, the company can let the woman know that the policies and processes have been revised and she needs to come forward if anything happens again and it will be dealt with differently.

We can’t apply today’s responses to yesterday’s behaviors. If we could, then there are a few lawsuits I’d like to initiate!

Where do we go from here? I read so much about the need for a culture change. I’ve spent half of my career immersed in this topic. I just don’t hold out hope that a) culture change is possible and b) it will solve the problem. I’m not even sure I know what people mean by culture change in this context. Culture change occurs very slowly over time by willing participants. I just don’t see the necessary willingness to move mountains to make women equal in the work place (let alone society).

Ultimately, this is a man’s problem to solve. Women and people of color are the victims. We can’t keep stating the obvious about what is wrong. We can’t be the ones to keep twisting ourselves into pretzels to accommodate the white male power needs. We can keep telling our stories. We can band together. We can lead differently when we get those opportunities.

We need CEOs with a flawless moral compass who don’t stand for the mistreatment or inequality of women. When the men who run our companies promote women and people of color and set a high bar for civil behavior, others will follow.

Sexual Misconduct in the Workplace

“He’s our rainmaker.” “He’s the guy that knows the industry inside out.” “He might leave and go to a competitor.” “I’m certain this is an isolated incident.” “His classes are still the most over enrolled on campus.””He doesn’t mean anything by it.” “Hey, it happened at the holiday party and everyone was drinking.” “He’s the CEO. Our hands are tied.”

This is just a short list of remarks made to me when I raised questions about a male employee harassing, molesting or abusing women. No surprises here. Ask any woman and you will hear multiple stories about painful encounters in the workplace. I’ve got quite a few doozies myself. With all the revelations in the past couple weeks, I am disheartened that there are so few solutions being offered. I sense a combination of: it’s always been this way and nothing will change the situation and until men start to act more civilized we can expect more of the same. In my darkest moments, I believe all of the above.

But then I began to think about all the incidents where the right thing happened. As a woman in a position of power as a consultant and a corporate executive, I actually have some good stories to tell. Just like averted terrorist threats, the public doesn’t know about the proper removal of bad actors. The CIA and HR can’t speak openly about what didn’t happen. In hopes that you well intentioned folks reading this blog are looking for some sane guidance, here are some powerful examples of things gone right.

A senior leader turned to me in confidence to reveal that she was being stalked by a male peer. As a consultant, I was a safe and private outside resource. This man was married, she was not. She had willingly entered a brief affair with him but then chose to end it. For six months this man threatened and followed her, making her constantly fearful and anxious. She was seeking therapy and medication to cope. She was reluctant to go to HR because a) she had previously been in a consensual relationship with this man and b) the HR executive was a weak player and unlikely to do anything about it. Both the man and woman were highly respected and valuable to the company. After several conversations with this woman, she agreed to let me speak to the CEO who we both trusted a great deal.

I called the CEO and told him very directly what was happening. Without hesitation, he called in the HR exec and told him to remove the man from the company immediately. There was some strongly worded language about potential criminal charges if he ever bothered this woman again. The man left (with some self righteous indignation) and the woman remained safe thereafter. Her career continued to thrive at the company.

Some time later I asked the CEO why he spun into action so immediately and definitively. “Because it was the right thing to do,” was all he offered. He didn’t doubt the woman’s story and he felt no moral dilemma or squishiness. He did add, “Even though this guy was leading the charge to bring the company into groundbreaking territory, I won’t have someone with such flawed character in this company.”

As the head of HR, a senior leader spoke with me about one of his managers. The manager had come to my colleague to request an office change. Long story short, it was because an affair with his direct report had ended and they shared an office; it was just too uncomfortable for him. (I know, the guy is an idiot as well as a sleaze!) I was legally bound to investigate and participate in several conversations. The one I had with the manager and his boss made me wonder if I was hearing his story right. Yes, he was married. Yes, they had sex in the office. Yes, they had ended the affair. Yes, he believed she still wanted him even though he could not describe any actions or words to back that up. Yes, he wanted to move his office because it was just so very distressing for him.

I did my best to play it straight, ask all the questions I was supposed to, took my notes and thanked him for his candor. When I asked him if he understood that he could be fired for engaging in a sexual relationship with a subordinate he said, “That’s what my wife told me when I mentioned I told my boss about this.” (Seriously, that’s what he said.)

When I spoke with the company attorney about firing this guy, she reminded me that I had the power to just reprimand him without going so far as to let him go. She mentioned the consensual relationship, he came forward, the relationship was over, yadda yadda. I couldn’t believe how much gray area she was painting. I was only focused on protecting the woman in this story. She did not have the power. My duty was to protect her from this man regardless of what had happened in the past. With the complete support of my (male) boss, I fired the guy.

This young up and comer had a reputation in the company of being a bit of a dog. Married with two kids, he was flirtatious with the young women in the company. I didn’t know the specifics but there were lots of rumors. Shortly after his divorce (no surprises there), he was more diligently focused on his work and was in the running for a significant promotion. After much back and forth with my colleagues, it was determined that he was worthy of the new position but he needed to get his inappropriate behavior in line. Just after he was given the new job I called him into my office.

“With this promotion there are some new expectations that I want to make clear to you. You are now representing the company inside and outside of these walls. I suggest you go out and buy a couple nice suits and start to look the part.” He was taken aback but was also aware that I was deadly serious so he suppressed his smirk. “It is an open secret that you have engaged in multiple inappropriate relationships or behaviors with women in this company. That is never going to happen again. You put the company at tremendous risk if you do. Not to mention the harm you impose on these women and the unsafe work environment it creates. If you so much as look improperly at any woman, you will be out of here faster than you can imagine. Are we clear?” His face was red, his jaw slacked open and all his bluster was deflated. He said he understood the gravity of the situation and would abide by the rules. And he did.

What all these incidents have in common are:

  • Unequivocal moral leadership. There is no waffling about right or wrong. A man in a more senior position made advances or threatened women in lesser roles. This is unethical and illegal. Period.
  • The woman is the victim. Even in the case of previously consensual relationships, once the woman ended it she was still in danger. Once it was “no”, she had a right and expectation of safety.
  • Male and female bosses can do the right thing. Sure, it would be great if there were more women leaders who we assume would do a better job of protecting the well being of female employees. I have no idea if that assumption is true. Most bosses are still men and they are capable of being stand up guys.
  • Speaking up goes a long way in effecting change. Without knowing the particulars, when the staff sees a male leader suddenly exit, they understand that this company takes a hard line. This reinforces a culture of greater respect and safety.
  • The bad penny only gets so many chances. I know what happened to all these men (and so many others) when they were called out on their shit and removed from their companies. Some were hired someplace else in spite of some sketchy recommendations. In a short period of time, these men acted badly at the new place and were removed quickly. Even without disclosure up front, these men showed up as exactly who they were. For all their rising stars, they all went down in flames.

Those of us in leadership roles have a duty to listen, believe and take appropriate action. To look askance for the sake of the business or for what harm will come to some predatory man or because boys will be boys…only demonstrates how unfit we are to be in a position of power.

As I was concluding a long term coaching engagement with an executive who was hired away to a new company, we were reflecting on his development journey. He is one of the good guys and I thoroughly enjoyed our work together. In parting he shared this: “When we began, I was a mess. I was in a world of hurt from my divorce, angry at the world and behaving so erratically. I didn’t like who I had become. When I told you that I was ready to date again, you reminded me that I was a man with immense power in the organization and that, under no circumstances, should I date anyone in the company. I don’t think I would have understood that so clearly if you hadn’t said it.”

Again, this is one of the good guys who had successfully groomed his female successor. Speaking up to prevent anything from happening once or again goes a long way towards change.

The Value of a Number Two Person

Current thinking suggests that a Chief Operating Officer or a Chief of Staff or an SVP of Corporate Strategy are all roles that are expensive, create an unnecessary layer at the top and not obviously valuable to the CEO or organization. What are the other executives to make of such a role? A gatekeeper, no line responsibility, no accountability to the bottom line, a cost center? In all the ways that an organization is measured, how can you quantify the outputs of any of these right hand roles? When budgets are tight and there is slashing afoot, these are some of the first people on the firing line. I think that is horribly shortsighted.

Few executive roles have a broad view of the organization. Finance, HR, communications and strategy do but there is very specific functional expertise attached to those jobs. Although they may serve the whole system, they don’t necessarily have deep knowledge of the day in-day out work. CEOs reach out to the functional heads to get answers but who helps weave all the parts together? Sometimes the CEO can do that but his/her attention is diluted because of all the external responsibilities. Also, s/he may not get the most unvarnished data upon which to draw conclusions because of the status differential between the CEO and those on the ground.

How can the CEO know: if the strategy is being well implemented, if the critical priorities are on track, if various departments are operating productively, if the latest change initiative is taking hold, if there are pockets of resistance or rebellion, if there are under utilized superstars or if there are projects that should be ended? Back in the day, a Number Two person had the scoop. Since the early 2000’s those roles have been disappearing because consultants were claiming it was just an expensive extra layer with no obvious value.

I propose that it is time for the pendulum to swing back in favor of a right hand wo/man. Here’s why.

  • Organizations need connective tissue. Try as they might, breaking down silos is still a big problem for organizations. Few leadership teams achieve a holistic, systemic approach to how they operate on a day to day basis. I’m not talking about those annual budget and strategy meetings; I mean getting the work done. Whatever collective agreements get made, everyone goes off into their own world to manage their slice. A great Number Two person sees across all these functions and helps create internal partnerships that aren’t obvious, knows who needs extra support and how to get those resources, steps in where necessary to keep things moving forward and tinkers around the edges. S/he has the broadest and deepest knowledge of the operations and people and can stitch pieces together to get the right things done.
  • Individuals need a sounding board. There needs to be a safe place/person where people can vent, problem solve out loud and be less censored. This person keeps the confidences, is highly respected and trusted, tries to get people to work out issues and then sends them away to go forth and be productive. HR can be used this way but a Number Two is more immersed in the business and is granted more credibility.
  • Someone needs to understand the politics without playing politics. Organizational dynamics can be infuriating, a time suck and unproductive. Someone who is perceived as neutral (the “ollie ollie oxen free” zone) can make useful suggestions to people about navigating the shark infested waters or how to steer clear of them. S/he can help individuals avoid career limiting moves or redirect attention to the important stuff. Best case scenario, Number Two can reach out to political animals and counsel them on how disruptive their behavior is and what to do instead.
  • The CEO needs a close advisor who has the true pulse of the place. If there is a Number Two, it is safe to say that the CEO has selected the person because they can work well together. S/he trusts this person to speak up when it is important, address annoying but critical issues away from the CEO, push back and challenge him/her, serve the whole organization rather than a small fiefdom, be a sounding board, offer early warning signs of trouble, share insights about morale and tell the truth always.
  • Without having a horse in the game, the Number Two serves the organization. Rather than bringing in the quarterly sales numbers or successfully launching a new product or orienting 35 new employees, there are no specific numbers this person must hit. Instead, s/he is helping others achieve their numbers. While divisional heads may use this as a way to dismiss the value of a Number Two, the organization at large is well supported by this person. In other words, everyone wins.

Can all this value be quantified? Nope. Do organizations know what they are missing without this person? Not particularly except for those mythic stories that float around the building about that long gone Chief of Staff who made the place hum. Do organizations understand what they are getting when they have a Number Two? Sometimes. Sort of. So if you can’t quite name it or measure it, how can you assign value to this role?

Have we really arrived at a place where only those things or people that have a numerical value are prized? Have we reduced the world of work to all numbers? Have we become so robotic that if someone isn’t directly contributing to the bottom line then they are fluff or overhead? I call bullshit. One of the greatest things a strong Number Two does for an organization is connection. Connection between people, projects, teams, functions, goals, opportunities, overlapping strategies and initiatives. Connection that closes the gaps between competing priorities and scarce resources. Connection to bring a wide swath of people together to solve extremely difficult problems. Connection between levels and across departments. Connection between people or activities that seem diametrically opposed. Connection to make the right stuff happen throughout the organization.

So before you consider eliminating a Number Two role in your organization because you can’t exactly define what this person does and what numerical value to assign, please stop. This may just be one of those positions that is not a commodity but can be Priceless.

Is It Caution, Resistance or Differences? Reactions to Change

Why does one person rejoice and another one feel dread when change is afoot? Why does a leader drag his heels while the staff is pushing for change? Why does a team stage a revolt when a new leader comes on board? Why do some people just sit back and hope to wait out the latest initiative?

Few things will evoke more “stupid human tricks” than responding to change efforts. Most of us are wired to feel cozy with homeostasis; it mirrors our biological imperative. Our companies, however, have a knack for upsetting that balance. That sets off our own idiosyncratic reactions. Understanding some typical patterns in ourselves and those we lead can help us figure out how to interpret and manage the dynamics.

Which category do you fit in? What about your staff?

  • “The CEO just doesn’t understand.” These people have usually been around for awhile and have done a thorough factor analysis to point out that a) this is not cost effective or b) it will damage the business or c) people will get hurt or confused or disengaged or a whole host of other terrible things. If only the leader had consulted more people (sic. ME) then s/he would clearly understand that this is a very bad idea.
  • “I respectfully disagree.” A variation on the first group, these are objective thinkers with low ego needs. They have studied the situation and simply have a different opinion about the best course forward. They may actually welcome some parts of the change but their problem solving brains lead down different tributaries and they believe their analysis is a stronger one.
  • “We’re fine as we are.” Leaders and/or staff exclaim that there is nothing to see here, everything is going fantastically well and no change is necessary. These are people who struggle to absorb the facts on the ground; poor earnings, market loss, dissatisfied customers and other relevant metrics. Like an ostrich, they prefer their heads in the sand.
  • “You’ve got to be friggin’ kidding!!” Open hostility with a tinge of self righteousness and arrogance; always a fun crowd to deal with. This is not the same as push back, which is more polite and rational. These folks get nasty and make this personal although it is often hard to know exactly why that is. Where does that rage come from?
  • “Yippee! This will be so fun.” Thank the heavens for those who truly enjoy changing things up. They often see the benefit of doing things differently, like learning new stuff and have a view that if you aren’t changing then you aren’t keeping ahead of the pack. They are not just early adopters; they are flexible, open minded and adventurous.
  • “My mouth says yes but the rest of me says no way.” Most people fit into this category. They want to be good sports and have some appreciation for the rationale for change but they struggle mightily to get comfortable with it. They would rather stay in their comfort zones and don’t like the unsteadiness that comes with doing new things. They take one step forward and two steps back as they slowly inch themselves towards inevitable disruption.
  • “Please leave me alone.” If I just ignore this, maybe it will go away. These are often more introverted folks who focus on self mastery. Imposed changes upset their ecosystems and they can become semi-paralyzed. They keep doing their work but resist the change until they realize there is no choice.

As you can see, some people are more cautious or uncomfortable with change. Others can’t get enough of it while some prefer to ignore it altogether. Some people have a different rational opinion while others are just emotional spewers. As leaders, we are quick to lump everyone together and label it resistance but that isn’t accurate. Simpler, yes, but not correct.

If we see everyone as resistant, we will just use the hammer. But we can’t take out 20 different tools so we don’t just see all those nails. I suggest that leaders do three things across the board that will address the needs of this cast of characters.

  • Acknowledge differences right up front. You are launching a new organization structure. In your initial communications (and for the first few months of implementation) speak about the range of reactions you expect from enthusiasm to skepticism to complete disagreement. Tell the staff there is room for all these emotions because each person has a unique way of integrating new behaviors and arrangements. That’s okay. You want people to remain professional and civil so any venting or feedback needs to be delivered with positive intentions of supporting the movement forward. We humans want to know that we are not invisible; that our thoughts or feelings are heard. Signal that you do and you will hear them.
  • Explain the Why repeatedly. Most leaders breeze over this in favor of getting into the What details. Sure, each of us wants to know What is changing for me. But we are more likely to withstand the discomfort of change if we have a clear understanding about Why we are being asked to do this. (“Because I said so” does not work well with adults.) If the leader lays out what threats or challenges or opportunities are at the door and Why we need to act now, most people will agree even if they might disagree on this specific plan.
  • Don’t tolerate saboteurs. There will always be a small group of people who will act badly to undermine the success of the change effort. It might look passive aggressive or overt. It might be an individual or an angry cabal. We all know who those folks are and we have difficulty gauging how much real power they have to tear things apart. But we know we can’t stand being in the same room with them. As leaders, we must cut these people off. They need to know they must play nice or else. And you need to follow through on the “or else”. This is when a hammer is appropriate.

We can’t be all things to all people in our organizations. But we can give voice to the normal, human responses to change. It doesn’t matter if I’m slow as molasses and grumpy and you are quick and happy about it. In the end, the change will take place. It’s just that some of us will get there sooner and with less commotion than the rest of us.

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