Keeping it front and center

As some of you know I started back to the gym this year after a long absence with some legitimate excuses, I had a hernia that made exercise excruciating and that took a long time to fix while I waited for insurance to kick in and even longer to recover from, and some lame one’s, any other excuse I came up with for the past few years. In order to track progress I keep a calendar up front and center on my computer. It shows how much I weigh everyday and what amount of exercise I have done. I have a few set routines that work on cardio and strength development I picked up from my personal trainer I had in Shanghai and track how much I do each time go . Most importantly the calendar shows that I go. Showing up is really the key here, if I show up the exercise is easy.

So let’s just say the calendar is there de-bunk my own bullshit. I realized today that I hadn’t been to the gym in ten days. I was out of town for a few days, but the doesn’t justify missing ten days strung together. Sooo… either I go today or it adds up to eleven days. The calendar doesn’t lie. It’s incapable of lying it records data, so I will be going to the gym to fix the situation. Forget the excuses and just get the calendar back on track.

The other side to that is to examine my schedule and look where I can find time to squeeze in my gym time when things get busy. At some point I have to make those ten lost days come into focus as a chance to break what ever habits I let get between me and the gym. To me the whole reason of keeping track isn’t about seeing where I am going. I have a scale and a mirror for that. The calendar is for catching my own bs. It is for letting me know when I have used my normally best friend, my “bad-ass rational thinking,” and used it to substitute a reason to move off track. The thing is failing to hit the target or listen to my inner bs doesn’t make me “bad.” It shows me that I have the luxury to miss my target. I know have the luxury to figure out how to get on track. That’s worth celebrating.

Since I write this Blog about doing business in China unsurprisingly I can find a way link my own gym experience back to my work experience. The thing I find here coaching young leaders is that as their companies are find ways to better measure their out put and how they benchmark their KPI it is getting clearer. As a direct result it is getting harder for them to substitute BS and lay blame in other places for missing targets. As companies here learn how to keep it front and center it means that the young managers and leaders here have a tough evolutionary jump to make. At the same time older leaders are failing to make the jump to work in a results driven system.

This leads to a couple of serious issues for leaders both young, let’s say 35 and under, and old, let’s just say the folks managing the younger leaders since many of them are also under 35. Let’s start with the first common problem I see, demanding to just see the results. Strict adherence to results is great if you are landing on the Moon, for example, when you have no error for margin. You also have no way to exceed results either you land on the Moon perfectly or you fail and something goes wrong which can in fact be disastrous.

What happens when you miss the Moon and hit the stars...

One can in most business cases not only both fail to hit your targets but also exceed them. In my gym experience this would equate to going five time a week instead three or four. Yes, you sometimes hit your targets as well. By strictly demanding results you find a few things happen. The first is you make excuses impossible and by keeping metrics up front and center keep the pressure on to perform according to those metrics. In essence there is nothing wrong there since it eliminates passing blame and excuse making both of which are fairly common no matter where you are and create no useful results for anyone. The second is you stop serious recognition of what worked or what turned out to be a lucky break when you hit or exceed your target. Most seriously you turn off the ability to reflect on success or failure and learn from what works and what doesn’t. If your goal is to become results driven this means in the long run your drive to focus on results starts to kill excellence rather than drive it forward because you don’t learn how to replicate success or reduce factors that lead to failure.

On a more serious note I find more and more young leaders and specialists internalizing failed results as a sign that they are failures. From a measurable psychometric point of view we see this in increased emotional volatility, higher stress levels, and lower mental health. In other words when you turn results into a pure metric evaluation you not only turn off learning you injure the psychic fabric of the people you are responsible to develop and lead to greatness. Now that clear metric evaluation is starting to take hold here in China the next big challenge that those of us in the field of people development face is turning how we interpret those results into a meaningful action that both drives business but also keeps the younger and more emotionally vulnerable leaders moving forward rather than breaking down and burning out.

Since we can actually measure the damage done (and positive emotional support as well) to young leaders I suggest we turn this into part of the leadership metrics in China. I also suggest that we actually create dialogue among our people leaders as to what they are doing to damage their successors and high potentials or conversely what they are doing to foster greatness. Keeping this sort of discussion front and center with business results makes for a more empathic and healthier work experience.

Angry, Adjusting, or an Ass?

I have a hell of a temper. I am not sure if it is a Nature or Nurture issue. Am I pissed at the world because I got the genes from my father who in turn got them from his father or did I learn it from him and he from his father? One thing I have learned though being angry doesn’t make me genuine. Maybe I should say two things, the other being having easy access to one emotion doesn’t make me any more in touch with the situation just because I feel strongly one way or another.

Your Step Dad's not angry he is just adjusting...

I have been toying with this topic for a while because it isn’t an easy thing to write about. Let’s start from an example, to talk about it. A few years ago we helped a Taiwanese trading company run an organizational culture survey on the branches around China with their HQ in Dongguan. For whatever reason the data was calculated wrong in one sector (the question was something like, “we understand the vision for our company and have a clear direction of our future) the sales team was directly overseen by the GM and to him this group ought to be the most aware of the company’s future. In fact they had scored higher than any other group, but due to the error they had the lowest score.

To be fair we caught this mistake very quickly and before their scheduled date to share back with their employees. Their GM though, upon receiving the data, was caught up in the spirit of the moment and dragged his sales team into the meeting room and started a tirade about how they, better than anyone else should know their vision. Be rest assured that everyone heard him, but they all had to be wondering who hadn’t heard the GM’s message on vision before, since by and large they had all scored this area very well. The sales team was left with an impression that the company’s vision mattered a great deal to the GM, but also that they had received a verbal beat down unfairly and without having a chance to be understood. Needless to say this group was doubly suspicious of all future surveys and for some time walked very gently around the big boss.

I was in Shanghai a few years ago visiting my then HQ for an annual performance review. At that time one of my co-workers had decided to leave the company to go on to a more stable job, this was after all at a time when said company used to regularly miss our pay checks and issue half pay late and the other half even later. Given the size of our company the GM (see also CEO or big boss) was doing our performance evaluations. There were department and team leaders but they didn’t actually handle performance reviews except in the case of regional offices (mostly because it wasn’t financially feasible to bring people in, not because the GM wanted to decentralize authority) so we all had the perks of personal attention. Early on our colleague (let’s call him “Bob”) got his chance. What followed was, behind a thin glass door, a one way shouting match from an older experienced GM and his younger employee about how Bob leaving was personally disappointing to the GM because it put even more work on his shoulders and how Bob was letting us all down.

Here is the thing we all knew that the Boss cared about the company. We also knew Bob cared too and that leaving wasn’t easy for him. We all knew that the Boss felt like crap for missing payment and we knew that he felt we should feel like a family and a team. We knew he cared. We also felt at that moment that the Boss was full of conviction and passion. We also felt scared shitless of telling him how we felt. Who would dare go in there and say, “life is tough when I don’t get paid, it puts stress on my whole family” if we thought we would get blasted like that?

To my knowledge everyone in the office that day has since left that company. Very few of them after the incident with Bob sat down with the GM and said, “I am leaving soon” without some sort of fear of abuse or reprisal.

In both of these cases the leaders of their respective companies thought that showing their conviction through anger also showed their commitment. A few years ago I found myself in that same cycle with my own employees as a manager, because I had seen it so often in my education as a manager. “If you feel strongly blow up.” Not surprisingly every single time I lost it I had to work my way back from a deficit that I created in the trust in the office. People respect passion and conviction, but the distrust someone who can’t control their temper.

It’s a lesson that spills over into many parts of our lives. Want to be a better spouse? I am sure that people have said how we should show passion or show our convictions to make our relationships work, but don’t go off on our spouse. Somewhere there are battered spouses echoing, “he/she doesn’t mean to be abusive he just is full of passion.” The rest of us watching stand back and say, “nope he/she is just a jerk and it’s unfortunate that you feel you have to put up with it.”

In another role as parents we want to communicate the best way for our kids to act and it can be frustrating when they don’t listen, but being angry never gets the best results. Again having conviction and standing by your points as a parent is very necessary, having a three year old I know that if I bend on certain issues it can actually be dangerous, but being angry creates the least results or counter productive results.

So I still spend a lot of time figuring out the best way to not be so angry. I am less worried about the roots of the problem as I am about getting past those emotions and finding ways to show passion, conviction, and resolve without building distrust in my relationships. I regularly ask if it is worth getting angry about. In certain contexts I ask if I feel this way because I haven’t adjusted to the situation the way I need to to be at my best. Finally I ask if I might not just happen to be an ass. Going through the check list let’s me get objective and find a better solution than blowing up.

120% – working more or better?

Last week I stopped off at a company to do a half day workshop/presentation on employee engagement. It was a successful program, but I spent the better part of the week puzzling out why some people there took particular objection to my analogy that “being engaged is working at 120% rather than at 100%.” This sort of hyperbole usually gets people thinking constructively in a half day format, but a section of this management group loved the idea of being engaged but saw themselves as being frustrated, unhappy, overwhelmed, and unproductive at 120%.

At first I began to think that maybe it was something that I hadn’t experienced before as the workshop was relatively new. In all my past experiences I got very enthusiastic responses to the questions and very constructive discussion. I noticed that the same people who shut down during the 120% discussions could engage in active and often enlightening conversations on the simple topic of engagement. So what was happening here?

Looking back their company has a culture of working more not working better. Performing at 120% meant doing more work. In fact they have a strong complaint from managers and workers about mandatory Saturday work. To them 120% in now way correlates to working with focus and passion that lead to working better or smarter. Instead they see it is working more hours and more days or in the best case scenario working through the same workload faster so they finish on time.

How about you, what does the 120% sound like to you? Working more or working better? Do you think that your work culture has created a mind-set that the only way to improve things is to put in more hours or complete more tasks? Are the best people in your team measured qualitatively or quantitatively for their achievements? Is this a shared mindset among your team members and your organization as a whole?

The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way. The first step is to admit that something has gone wrong and the second step is start thinking like someone who wants to work better to get things done not work more to get caught up. Just ask yourself what you have to lose by thinking of your work in new terms.

The art of being a culture builder: Be Specific

I am off to Guangzhou tomorrow for a very brief session on “being specific.”  One of our friends and a client in in the Economic Development District has a very proactive set of leaders in their supply chain division who have identified three guiding principles.  The problem with guiding principles is that unless we are specific about them then it is as good as not having them at all.

In this case their team has identified three Accountability, Professionalism, and Execution.  For a small experiment take anyone of these three words and ask a group of 5 or more people to define it.  Then ask for them individually to write out three or four things people who display these kinds of principles do.

It won’t matter much if they have similar backgrounds, personality types, or even work together every day.  The reality is that, unless their is a pre-existing definition and accepted list of behavior traits that each person knows by heart, the results will be different… in some cases wildly different.

I once asked a group what kept them from being able to execute effectively.  We started by asking them to define execution.  From a group of 7 people all seven had different definitions.  For some people the idea of execution as they defined it was so unsavory they simply couldn’t buy into their Plant Managers mantra of “execute, execute, execute!”

So if you are a leader and you find that your message isn’t quite getting through maybe it is time to test if you and your counterparts are working from the same framework.  Maybe it is just time to stop being verbal and start getting specific.

A Flash of Inspiration

I am arriving to the party late, again.  Figuratively this time, as I have returned to blogging after nearly a 6 year hiatus that started with all of the difficulty using my livejournal account in China.

So what brought me back to this medium of communication?  I had accepted that it would be a smart brand building move for some time to write down my thinking on work for some time, but I had a certain inertia that I found difficult to overcome.  Then today I stumbled upon a link quiet accidentally on a google search request that took me to my former colleague Freeman’s blog.

In this particular post Freeman had copied and pasted an e-mail exchange between him and our former employer.  That was my flash of inspiration.  The gist of the e-mail was that our former “leader” wanted Freeman, who had quit some months before, to come back in and work for free since a problem was his “responsibility.”

As I read about the ludicrous request to have Freeman take the time to come back to  the office and reinstall windows XP on his former computer which Freeman had installed a now expired trial windows 7 on I was struck by similarities with my own experience.  Here was my former General Manager telling him how “you broke it, you need to fix it” and insinuating that if he didn’t take time out of his schedule to come across Shanghai to insert the CD to reinstall xp he would not be a positive reference for Freeman in the future.

I was instantly taken back in time to 2008 and my falling out with the same “leader.”  I was being told how I owed him and the company two case studies after I had left the company five months or he wouldn’t finish payment for the nearly 10,000 USD the company still owed me and hadn’t begun payment on 18 months after it was due.  He went on further to insinuate I was selfish and possible unethical to ask for the money owed to me by contract.

In no uncertain terms I told him where he could stick his money and his case studies.

As I started to re-center my work focus on employee engagement since my departure from that company in 2008 I began to focus particularly creating engaging cultures and leaders. I have often been tempted to anecdotally return to my previous employer.  Part of me though felt that my own e-mail dust up turned particularly ugly and shouldn’t be included in any civilized discussion on appropriate interpersonal behavior.

But here again in Freeman’s case I saw what I had come to identify with some of the inherent problems that beset the training and HR consulting industry in China.  That is when a senior established part of the community uses their power to profit from young talent, leverage work hours, and in some cases seek emotional dominance over younger employees rather than constructively coach and develop their subordinates.

This in turn got me anxious to write about what I was seeing and inspired to start this blog.

From a business point of view Freeman’s story echoes back to what I firmly believe, that the key to success in this industry (HR services) is by building empowered trainers and consultant who have their own brand worth in the market place.  I know that the counter argument is that these people will leave your company and start their own as soon as they feel they have their own clients and opportunity to jump ship.

There is something to this argument because history clearly sides with this case.  Just look at how many training companies have spun off from China market leaders such as IWNC, ALTEC, and recently ClarkMorgan and are attempting to simulate their material (going so far as in the case of TW Allison to directly put old CM content on new slide backgrounds) and make a profit.  To some degree you cannot control personal ego, if some people feel like they need to own their own company and be their own boss there is not much that can be done about it.  Other than not to give these people a leg to begin with I suppose.

My opinion though is that two things are happening to the majority of these disengaged HR services employees.  The first is that they don’t see a way for them to develop significantly with an ego-centric company that largely revolves and grows around the branding of a central figure(s) and rather than be paid less for work they have learned to do on their own is to “go rogue.” The other is that they have the freedom to deliver product and create their own materials but receive a fraction of the value for their work while the company shareholders take the lion’s share.  I think some guy named Marx wrote about the existential angst that comes from making peanuts while someone else laughs all the way to the bank.

Interestingly the HR industry is often working to create engagement, but suffers from some of the worst engagement I have observed.  So this incident dragged me out of my shell to write about some of my experiences as I try to create a new model for creating an engaged “community” of HR practitioners.  In a sense working to set up Sino Associates is a giant social experiment that appeals to the social scientist in me.

I will also chronicle some of my experiences with developing leaders in China and the barriers and opportunities the companies I work with are facing.  This year and next year I also promise a few stories about companies building engagement cultures as I work on corporate culture programs.  This year I am currently involved in two such projects and about to start a third.  Hopefully some of these stories will resonate with readers of this little blog.

Here is looking forward to an interesting future of stories and anecdotes from my work here in China!