Stay Cool Everybody

As our new hires wrapped up their training, I asked what was the thing they would most remember about their experience after we flew them back to their home markets.

“Everybody in the company is just so cool…” was their biggest take-away.

As a company, you can offer a lot of things to lure talented workers… money, benefits, job perks, starting bonuses, etc. The catch with that is there will always be a company that can offer more of those.

The thing no other company can offer is your culture. When employees know they are working with a purpose, surrounded by other motivated, friendly people who are there to support them, those other things melt away.

Every company has a culture and a subtext to the culture. The subtext lives in the parentheticals, fleshing out the full culture. It looks like this:

Our company culture is based on  Teamwork (but not across teams, only with the few coworkers in your trusted circle), Empowerment (but we do not actually trust you or want you to make decisions), and Integrity (but we have never looked that word up in a dictionary or defined what it means, specifically, to our company–it just sounds like a good, important thing to have).

Lofty words sound nice. As a new employee, I would assume the company I chose to work for believes in things like Honesty, Transparency, and Trust–but just because it is in the Mission Statement does not mean it is in the culture.

Creating a powerful company culture is a modern complexity and many (indeed, most) companies struggle with it, but it is super simple. Culture starts at the top, with the examples set by the company leaders.

Leaders lead.

If they live the culture they want others to follow, what fills the parentheses will take care of itself. In other words, a duplicitous leader creates a duplicitous culture. Leaders who show Teamwork, grant Empowerment and Trust before those things are begged for, define Integrity and demonstrate it, are Transparent about the what and why of decisions, and hold Honesty as high a value as proper hygiene… well, those leaders have employees who leave the corporate office saying, “Everybody in the company is just so cool!”

Be calm and stay cool, leaders.

 

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Shoot And Ask Questions Later

I make it a point to learn a life lesson every day. I share those lessons on this blog. Here is today’s…

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I had a “tough” conversation with an employee who strayed from our company culture (through no fault of her own). Managing independent remote workers presents unique challenges, such as how to handle lost or stolen equipment.

In this case, the employee replaced a fairly expensive item out of her own pocket before telling us it had been stolen. She tried to do the right thing, figuring it was her equipment, her fault, and it should be her loss, not our responsibility to pay for her mistake.

That says something to me about the team member’s commitment to the organization, but it was the wrong course of action to take. I should note the reason I think she is committed to our team is because we do things differently, including handling situations like this.

I applauded her effort to make amends on her own, but explained we do not do things that way here. We do not expect employees to pay for lost or stolen items (unless there is a pattern building or clear malintent). Plus, having an employee replace an item means they may choose something different from the tools we specifically provided based on form, function, and safety. Through their good intentions, they may open us up to unnecessary liability.

I thanked the employee for dipping into her pocket to save us money but we decided to reimburse her expense, and going forward she needs to be upfront and inform us right away of any missing or stolen item. When you have a team of independent remote workers, honest and open timely communication is a necessity.

She said, “Wow, thank you. I guess I am not used to this type of culture. Anywhere I have worked before, I would have been fired for losing something so expensive. I don’t know what to say. This is a great place to work and I apologize for jeopardizing that if I did. Thank you again!”

Now here is the real win. Rather than punishing and making an example of this employee, we chose to correct the behavior, set new expectations, and thanked her for trying to do the right thing. We started the call explaining our intent was to help her succeed here and ended the call asking if she needed anything else to help her be successful.

Instead of losing our investment in this employee (and our equipment) by letting her go or punishing her for her mistake, I suspect we doubled her investment in the company. My guess is she will do better work than ever and set the standard of integrity for other team members. We will gain a lot more than we lost in the long run.

Punishment is effective the way a bullet is effective. It stops whatever it hits and kills it. Respectful acknowledgment, correction, and reward is effective the way a good book is effective. It takes a little time to get through but at the end it expands knowledge, generates emotional attachment, and improves one’s character.

Books over bullets works for me.

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Culture of Incompetence

Today’s Lesson: Be excellent to each other.”

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Nicole asked me if we should call the SUP shop to make sure our Stand-Up Paddleboards were ready for pick-up (we were waiting on some parts to arrive). I said, “Yes, at least that way they will remember to order the parts that should have already been there.”

Sure enough, when she called, our parts had not arrived and had not been ordered. She was frustrated and asked since I knew they were going to screw up, why didn’t I call earlier in the week? That’s easy. I said, “Because then they would have screwed something else up, probably something more important.” It seems cynical, but I expect (and often plan for) incompetence because it is everywhere.

Unfortunately (for all of us) we have created a thriving culture of incompetence.

There is no short-term cure, no remedy. We all contribute to it and accept it because we all think we are part of the solution, not part of the problem. It is probably more like a sliding scale, though, with most of us further along one side (utter incompetence) than the other (perfect competency), and probably no one at either end.

I plan my life around it–I expect traffic jams so I leave early due to incompetent traffic management and incompetent drivers. I expect my order to be screwed up when we go out to eat so I try to keep the order simple. At Subway, almost every single time, I have this conversation:

Me: “Hi, I would like a six-inch Veggie on Italian, not toasted, no cheese… please.”

Sandwich Artist: “What type of cheese would you like?”

Me: “None.”

Sandwich Artist: “Did you want that toasted?”

Me: “Not toasted, no cheese, please.”

Sandwich Artist: “What would you like on it?”

Me: “All the veggies and peppers, please.”

Sandwich Artist: “Would you like spinach on it?”

I am not kidding–this is nearly verbatim 6 out of 10 times. I know my part. I have timed how long it takes to say it. The person behind the counter has to listen for exactly 4 seconds. Go ahead, time it. Hi, I would like a six-inch Veggie on Italian, not toasted, no cheese.

I am picking on Subway, and the SUP shop, and whoever does such a deplorable job engineering traffic flow in Tampa, but there are low-hanging examples in every direction you look. How does it go so wrong, so often, in so many places? I think it is due to at least 3 reasons…

1. Employers seek to pay the lowest amount in salary and benefits to achieve results. Most of society is driven by business and most businesses start by seeking the most competent of the Incompetent applicant pool to help the economy move forward. What if, for every position hired for, companies started from, “What is the best we can afford to offer?” instead of “What is the lowest we can get away with?”, and transparently advertised for that? Growth would be slower (or perhaps not) but every person on the team would be known for their excellence and competence and ability to achieve. Sure, I recognize that is, on its surface, far too Pollyanna of a solution, but it is a place to start the conversation.

2. Companies try to insulate against incompetence with automation. The reason my Subway conversation happens over and over is because the Subway employees are taught to have the same conversation over and over. They are on auto-pilot, not even hearing the nuances of my order. What if, instead of training automation to reduce incompetence, we taught listening skills, communication, financial prowess, and leadership to maximize competence?

Imagine a team of professional listeners, who have their personal finances in order, and operate like a team of Tony Robbins behind the Subway counter! That is an experience you would never forget, every visit.

3. We celebrate incompetence. The irony is, if I showed an attitude with a Subway employee every time they struggled through my 4-second order, I would be the bad guy. I would be the pompous jerk berating the minimum wage worker for having an off-moment. Not only that, but consider some of the other factors that contribute to incompetence (assuming education has occurred), such as stress.

When you share with me that you haven’t been getting enough sleep, or that you are stressed, struggling financially, or irritated about something… instead of taking it as a catastrophic problem, I accept it as a challenge! I must then share with you how stressed I am and how I have been getting even less sleep than you, etc. We wear the worst overworked, stressful bits of our lives like badges and share them like victories. What if, instead, we considered “competence killers” like stress, boredom, and over-working as seriously as having heard terrible news about an accident in someone’s family? What if, instead of trying to one-up each other, we asked what we could do to help and tossed out goofy cultural stigmata like “napping at work is a sign of laziness, favoritism, or non-production”?

 

It is, of course, easier for us to continue down the path of incompetence. As long as everyone is not raising the bar, then most of us can continue hiding in the masses–we are just about as good or bad as everyone else and people who point to our flaws are jerks. That, plus the power of inertia–from a society already on a trajectory of continued cultural incompetence–makes it hard to transform into a culture that, on the whole, acknowledges and celebrates the rise of humanity rather than the fall of society. (Also, we all think we are competent and therefore not part of the problem. It must be the rest of the world…)

All I can offer for a bandage in the interim is a recommendation to celebrate competence when you see it. When the restaurant server produces a pad and pen to take your order instead impressing you with their lackluster mnemonic skills, thank them gracefully. When the employee at Subway actually hears your order rather than hears you order, let them know you are grateful. When someone tells you they are going to call you by a certain date or time, and they do, acknowledge their professionalism. Find competence and point to it, and talk about it.

Indeed, competence may be endangered but it still exists. When you find it, appreciate it, and help it grow!

 

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When Do You Call Off?

Because employees have such little control over their schedule, there seems to be an epidemic of people who never call off when they are sick. They save their “sick days” to add-on to vacations or use as mental-break days, etc.

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Maybe it is the vegan diet or the fact that I have no children or just plain good-eating and regular activity, but I do not feel sick often. When I get sick, it is usually because I have been exposed to someone else who should have called off but did not want to use their paid time off to rest and recuperate. Of course, this practically ensures the entire team becomes sick, production slows, moods deteriorate, and the work suffers.

I have to tip my hat to many progressive companies that either do not have a Paid Time Off policy (no one is counting the days or hours you spend in the office–they are only counting your deadlines missed or results achieved). I have seen some companies also toss sick days versus vacation days versus holidays out the window and instead offer a bucket of 27 days off to be taken at the employee’s discretion, no questions asked (as long as scheduling allows).

Either way, the way we deal with health and wellness at work is broken. Today, I am feeling ill and outside of this post, I have spent most of the day sleeping and I am looking forward to hopping back in bed.

I look forward to feeling rested and having most of my energy back tomorrow rather than dragging my illness out all week, putting in less than stellar performances.

 

Today’s Lesson: Sometimes it is fine to take a sick day. 

 

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It’s a Small and Large World After All

The world is growing bigger and smaller at the same time.

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Our world is both growing and shrinking. It seems like a paradox but think about it. As population increases and more infrastructure is built, we take up more space in our own lives, cover more territory around the globe, and consume more of our finite goods and fuel. The cost to travel the country by gasoline-powered cars is much higher than it used to be. There is less open land and renewable resources now than there was just 100 years ago.

The world is clearly getting smaller (and more expensive!).

At the same time, the world is becoming ever more connected. With the advent of the internet and all that it brings (email, social media, video calling, online purchasing, global collaboration, etc.), we have greater access to the rest of the world than we have in all of history. We have 3-D maps of the earth and we can fly anywhere on the planet for less than $5,000–a feat that was unimaginable just two or three generations ago. We can reach out, research, and explore further now than we have been able to in all of history.

The world is clearly growing larger (and cheaper!).

It is a crazy, fascinating, and strange time to live. Technology, and both the optimism and fear paired with it, is reshaping our planet and our place on it, making the impossible seem plausible and living with paradoxes and parallelisms feel downright ordinary.

Today’s Lesson: The world is just damn weird.

 

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Today’s Lesson: Name Your Poison [140916]

Names are powerful. I know because my mother would never let someone call me “Mike” instead of “Michael”. She would correct them before I could say it was okay and now I have the same habit ingrained in me. Almost everyone knows me as Michael (my brothers will sometimes call me “Mikey”) and most people can not fathom relating to me as a “Mike”.

 

We name everything, of course. As a society, we love labels and breaking things into categories, perhaps to a fault. When we name something or someone, we are in essence, assigning it to a specific class or category. We are saying this thing, which we all agree to call “car” is somehow intrinsically different from those things, which we call “trees”, “roads”, and “signs”.

 

In other words, This is not like those.

 

My two younger brothers (notice the labels “my”, “younger”, and “brothers”) and I share the same father but they have a different birth-mother from me, which means we are technically half-brothers (more labels: “father, mother, brother, half-brother”).

 

The funny thing is, we never learned the distinction of being half-brothers until I was well into my thirties and someone explained it to me by chance. We always just called ourselves “brothers” and did not know there was such a thing as only having half a brother or that it mattered if you only share one parent. A brother is a brother to us. I believe this is why we are so close and why we love each other like… well, like brothers.

 

By acknowledging a distinction called “half-sibling”, I wonder if we alter the family relationship between two people, instructing them that they are somehow different from a “real” sibling.

 

Think about how these labels play out in other areas. Before you have a name for something, how is your world different? Think about babies who bump into things, get up, and move on until they learn how to name their pain, “Owie!” All of a sudden, life becomes much more dramatic.

 

Or consider the labels, “USA”, “China” and “Atlantic Ocean”. They are just arbitrarily created names but we give them tremendous significance. We believe this is different from that as if the world’s geography actually worked like it does on a map with great big, bold lines magically dividing our country from the ocean and other parts of the world. Of course, when you walk to the ocean, there is no giant bold-faced wall where the land ends and the water begins. They flow into each other seamlessly because the Earth itself does not recognize the distinction of the labels. They are the same.

 

So today’s lesson is something for us all to think about: What if we did not have so many labels? What if we simply never acknowledged the difference of a “dark-skinned” man versus a “light-skinned” one? Does Racism exist only because we give it a name? Will it only exist as long as we acknowledge it does? What if we simply did not have labels for Black, White, Straight, Gay, Male, Female, etc.? What if we only grew up knowing we are all human? What if “human” was not a label we created? What would the world look like then? Would we treat other animals and the environment differently if we never decided there was a difference between (us and) them?

 

What names are you willing to give up today?

 

 

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