You Can’t Fix Morale

Here’s a phone call I sometimes receive, usually from someone senior in executive management or the investment team behind a once promising company:

Inquirer: Hey, we need your help with something. We have a situation and we’re not sure what to do about it.

Me: Sounds intriguing. What is the situation?

Inquirer: Well, we’re having… I’m not sure what you would call it exactly, I guess a problem with morale.

Me: What would you like me to do?

Inquirer: We would like you to help us fix morale.

Me: Oh, that. I’m sorry, I can’t help you.

Inquirer: We haven’t spoken two minutes and you already know that?

Me: Yes, I’m quite sure. I certainly would like to take your money because I’m sure you are willing to pay a lot to do something about this, but I only take on projects where I can actually help someone.

Inquirer: How can you be so sure?

Me: You can’t fix morale.

Inquirer: What do you mean? Morale gets fixed all the time.

Me: Yes, exactly. Morale gets fixed because whatever is causing it to deteriorate gets fixed, but that is where you need to look, at the disease, not a symptom.

Inquirer: Are you saying we need to fix something else in our company so that maybe it can have an impact on morale?

Me: Yes, that is what I am saying. In fact, you probably need to fix your company.

Inquirer: So a contract to fix morale is not big enough for you? You want a bigger contract to fix our company? But our company is not broken.

Me: Then you probably don’t have a morale problem and don’t need any help.

Inquirer: You’re not doing yourself any favors turning this down. It’s a big project. We have a sizeable budget for it.

Me: It’s tempting, but why don’t you have another look at the situation and maybe we can talk again.

The call usually ends there and we don’t talk again. Every once in a while we do talk again and then I tend to get involved in long stretches of dialogue with team members up and down the line. We talk about a lot of things: leadership talent, product quality, business model. We talk about creativity and innovation, passion for excellence, dedication to the customer experience. One of the things we never talk about is trying to fix morale.

Let me say it again: You can’t fix morale.

Bad morale is a byproduct, most often of poor direction, sometimes of impossible goals so ridiculous no one ever feels appreciated, other times of uneven credit and compensation in times of success. There are successful companies with good and bad morale, and struggling companies with good and bad morale. Good morale is also a byproduct — you achieve it by focusing on the right things.

I view morale as a result of process and outcomes. Process involves day-to-day workplace routines that reinforce or strip away employee engagement. Outcomes involve the continuity or deadend at the culmination of a milestone, the reward or repudiation for the commitment of time, expertise, or passion. If your process is bad, morale will be bad. If your outcomes are bad, morale will be bad.

Suppose your company wildly missed earnings targets three quarters in a row. You’ve seen your second round of layoffs in less than two years. More than half of your VPs were fired and hired in the past ten months. The CEO, also rumored to be teetering, has said repeatedly everyone needs to “work smarter, not harder,” but no one is sure which product in the pipeline is going to carry the day. Employee morale as you would expect is rotten all around you. Your colleagues are irritable and nasty. Every week someone you like leaves the company for another gig.

Let’s look at some options for addressing this:

  1. The company hires a consultant to run a survey on employee satisfaction and weeks after you fill out your survey they find out what everyone knew before the survey: Morale stinks like a decaying carcass. The CEO announces Fridays will be half days, the company will be publishing a weekly newsletter celebrating its best employees, and all VPs and above will be taking classes in how to write better reviews and talk nicely to their teams. Everyone is told he or she is appreciated and reminded to work smarter, not harder.
  2. The company holds an executive offsite where all the VPs get to articulate everything that is wrong with the company. The VPs report back to their teams that the CEO agrees, there are not enough resources in the company to go around, the timelines for deliverable are insane, and the competition has an edge on the industry that is daunting. Starting today you will have realistic goals, more resources, flexible timelines, and as long as everyone is doing their best, then management will back off and be satisfied.
  3. The CEO pulls together a half-dozen of the best minds in the company to conduct an honest post-mortem of why the company’s strategy is failing. That team then strips away all the derivative efforts that are draining resources from the company’s true mission and recommits to a narrowed product strategy that capitalizes on the company’s identified competitive advantage. The CEO then directs the executive team to align the best talent in the company with key roles on the narrowed agenda and hire new talent where mediocrity is being tolerated, then communicates the new plan to the full company in verbal and written detail, not just in an inspiring kickoff speech but in regular progress updates that are candid and coherent.

You might think the answer is obvious, but sadly it is not — especially to less experienced management teams where too many influential individuals have achieved authority through battlefield promotions. Here we are talking the bedrock of directing process and refocusing outcomes. Good process takes a lifetime to learn. Steering through outcomes whether planned or unplanned requires a deft touch. There are no shortcuts. If you don’t have the energy or commitment to take apart process and outcomes one building block at a time, you have little shot at repairing morale.

I often ask people to share with me whether they have had a single good manager in their careers. You would be surprised how many say no. In fact these days it is the rare exception of people who actually rave about a boss from the past and talk about how they are putting that learning to work. The ones who are tend to have fewer morale problems on their hands. Too many leaders’ lives are filled with morale problems because they haven’t learned how to steer past them.

Now think about all those unicorns out there — you know, the 150 or so privately funded startup companies currently valued at $1B or more. Those should be some of the happiest places in the world for people to work, big idea places filled with promise and hope for future riches. Go take a random walk through those gardens on Glassdoor. You might be surprised at what you find. They have a lot of problems. When the majority of them are unable to achieve liquidity for their option holders, they will have even more. With that will come a wave of demoralization sweeping through employee workstations. How would you go about fixing that?

You can fix a product. You can’t fix a byproduct. Fix what’s wrong in your company, not the normal human emotional reaction to what’s wrong in your company.

You certainly can fix engagement. You fix engagement through authentic vision, brilliant product design, and a rallying cry around consistent execution. Fix engagement and morale fixes itself.

Align the finest talent you can identify with challenging projects that allow them to do the best work of their careers. Keep an eye on process. Celebrate outcomes and share the wealth. Be generous with people who are meaningfully contributing to company success. Morale will be swell and you’ll have bragging rights to let everyone around you know what a great environment you’ve created for the next wave of outcomes.

____________

Image: Dilbert.com ©Scott Adams

Tell Me About Your Day

Here’s something people often say in companies when you ask them what they accomplished last week, last month, or last year:

“A lot of time is taken up by everyday stuff.”

Let’s talk about that. What is the everyday stuff? Is the work being produced commensurate with the expense?

A few years ago I wrote a post called Too Busy To Save Your Company. I refer to this post often when I am asked to look at a company and comment on why it is not as productive as it should be. It can be a consulting or investment meeting, but when I see lots of people running around or pounding on keyboards but an income statement in decline, I usually start by asking a few key people in the company to describe their days to me.

They often tell me that they spend a lot of time going to meetings and responding to email. When I remind them that meetings and email are not tasks, they are tools for accomplishing tasks, there is often an “Aha Moment.” That’s when I know we can make some progress.

You are wasting time. It is inevitable. How do I know? Because I waste time. Everyone does. No one is 100% efficient. The question is one of scope. Do you own your priorities or do distractions own you? When you start there, you begin to take control of your destiny.

Time management is neither a touchy-feely topic nor a chokehold on creativity. It is how you allocate your most precious and perishable resource, the ways you choose to spend your hours. The portion of your time that is discretionary and how you choose to utilize it is the difference between having a shot at winning and losing for sure. Note that I say it is a choice, because even if you don’t make active decisions about how you spend your hours, the choice to squander time remains a choice.

Try this exercise for a week: Write down hour by hour what you do on the job. If you spend an hour on researching the cost of something, write that down. Log each of your phone calls and meetings chronologically. More importantly, note what you were talking about and if any key decisions were made. Be as detailed as you can. If you read an article on the internet write that down, including what you learned or didn’t learn. If you shopped for yourself, chuckled through laugh-inducing videos, or commented passionately on Facebook, account for these by collecting them into small blocks of time. Don’t worry about the confession, you can delete the audit later. Be brutally honest and exceptionally thorough. This is solely for you.

Now go back and look at your goals for the year. If you don’t have any goals, that’s a much bigger problem which you need to solve before this post will be relevant to your progress. I’m going to assume you have 4 – 6 overarching annual goals agreed upon with the people who pay you or your partners, stuff like “increase sales 25%” or “decrease customer complaints 10%” or “launch 2 new apps per quarter” or “hire 15 regional salespeople.” You get the idea, stuff that matters, the stuff that keeps you from falling into the trap of being too busy to save your company.

Color code each item on your time accounting to match one of your goals. Try green for sales or blue for product improvements, soothing colors of accomplishment. If a block of time doesn’t match up with a goal, use a different color for DOES NOT APPLY TO A GOAL. A good color for this is red because it should be a warning color.

If you see very little red and an even distribution of the other colors against your 4 – 6 goals, you’re doing fine and can stop reading here. Congratulations, you are in perfect harmony and have a well-balanced calendar. As long as your company is growing and generating a healthy profit, this post is not for you.

On the other hand, if what you see is a disproportionate allocation of color — say, 80% blue but you have 4 other goals with minimal color showing— you are out of whack. If what you see is a sea of red, either quickly finish this post and get back to work or find another good post about writing a resume.

Now on a clean calendar, I want you to block your time as you should be spending it. If cold calls are 25% of what you should be doing, block 10 hours per week; it can be 2 hours each business day or 5 hours twice per week, whatever you fancy. I know, you work way more than 40 hours, but for budgeting purposes use that as a baseline.

Now compare the calendars. Want to know why you are not making a bigger dent in your goals? That’s why.

Time management is a subject I address regularly with colleagues as a proactive tool. Each time I assemble a new team, I have this talk with the senior people about their own time management and how seriously they take it, manage it, and monitor it. Leadership by example, right? The people who take it seriously are usually much more successful than the ones who blow it off. At its core, it is active versus passive resource management. Time lost is unrecoverable.

Oh, one more thing: Please don’t forget to set aside time for brainstorming and dreaming. Sometimes we call that shooting the sh*t. If it’s about stuff you think doesn’t matter, it might be wasteful. If it leads one big idea in a year, it can transform your business. Leave time to shoot the sh*t productively. The 5% to 10% of your time you leave for dreaming is where real change starts to happen and companies begin to reinvent themselves. If every minute of your day is consumed with scheduled or forgettable tasks, big ideas are going undiscovered.

Don’t leave all your time to everyday stuff. Do stuff that matters. Then dream on.

Godspeed, Barack Obama

obama-farewell

I found President Obama’s farewell speech magnificent. Maybe he did divide the nation. So did Abraham Lincoln. On matters of principle it’s necessary to force us to face our lesser selves. Social justice, inequality, racial bias, healthcare as a human right, healing our polluted planet, science and data as benchmarks, yeah, those are divisive issues that need to be in our faces.

Where he divided us on the what, he will be a historic figure in the continuum of our empathy — as he said, this is a process and we’re not where we need to be. Where he divided us on the how, I have empathy for the lines where we split — that is political and he is admittedly imperfect, driving us to carry the torch to fix the unsolved problems of implementation.

We should disagree, but not as much about the what as the how. It’s healthy to divide on the how until thesis and antithesis resolve in synthesis. Where we can disagree respectfully on matters of resource allocation, we can commit to working together toward compromise. Where we shouldn’t disagree on matters of fairness and sustainability, we must continue to grow as a nation and people.

Barack Obama leaves office loved by many not just within our borders, but in the global community where he is a welcomed traveler. That kind of passion is extraordinary. His style is content. He is embraced as an ambassador of authenticity, positive change, and achieving complex goals. He reminds us what we can be if we set the bar higher than we can ever imagine.

Among those of us who feel this sense of love, our admiration is heartfelt and has been earned. Love is about inspiration and aspiration. Love causes us to care more, work harder, and believe in a call to service. We know this because we have lived it together, guided by his leadership, knowing we are part of something that has mattered and will continue to matter.

On this Martin Luther King Day, a national holiday, it is my true joy to say the only words I know that express my pride, admiration, and humble gratitude to the outgoing President of the United States: Thank You. His courage, his life example, his visionary contribution to our world may not be repeated in my lifetime. To have shared these eight years with him from afar has reminded me that hope is possible, good deeds are possible, one person’s life can forever make a difference for the better in the legacy of selflessness.

I don’t think I have ever been more inspired to thought and action than I have by this man. He will forever be in my heart. He makes me want to spend my remaining years trying even harder to help lift humanity a tiny inch higher.

Yes, we can.

Wrestling with Wrong

trump-elected-2016I went to bed last night demoralized, my faith in democracy challenged in a way I never believed was possible.

It was late, after the acceptance speech by President-elect Donald Trump. I was exhausted. I slept very little.

I awoke this morning in a state of confusion, a daze that still lingers over me. My fear of half the nation’s voters, more than 50 million of my fellow citizens, brings grief and anxiety to my every thought. Can our ideas about what defines the United States of America be that different? Yes, they can.

I’ve worked a lot of campaigns as a volunteer. This one was different. This one was unprecedented in its vitriol and disgust. This one was personal. This one was moral. The fog of war created cover for absurdist antics and human abuse. This behavior was not taught as acceptable when I learned as a child to say the Pledge of Allegiance.

I have been physically threatened on multiple occasions for my writing about the election, almost entirely by anonymous sources online, for expressing my views, activating my right to free speech. I have experienced anti-Semitism. I have been asked to leave the nation to which my family immigrated generations ago. It is always strange to see words like this in print because I do not experience them at all in real world life, yet those words are always out there masked in cowardice. They never go away. Hate may sit in the background, but it is always with us.

I won’t stop writing. I won’t stop talking. You may have won an election but you haven’t won the bullying match. Don’t believe me, just watch.

I received an email early in the day from a dear friend asking for my advice on how to address his community this morning in the face of shock. I told him I was still forming my thoughts, but here was a start:

I would say human beings are fallible and the wrong answer has always been the risk of our democracy. Majority rule is by nature imperfect, but we haven’t identified a better system.

I would remind people we are now almost perfectly divided, that Trump prevailed by geography and demographics, not by intellectual mandate. Clinton won the popular vote, albeit by less than 1%, which tells us how few minds have to change for sanity to return.

I would make the point empirically that education is the basis of democracy, and while a precious few students enjoy the highest privilege on earth, that is not the norm in this nation by a long shot and if we don’t fix that divide we will destroy the American dream. With intelligence must come humility or Progressives will continue to be seen as elite and detached. Regardless and without apology, reading beats YouTube and a tweet is not a policy statement. Rigorous thought matters over the long haul, no matter how many trivialities consume our hours.

I would tell them to stand by their beliefs, that courage is only real when you oppose the tyranny of the majority and risk losing something for what others can have later. History is written in the future, not the present. Fight hate, fight oppression, have empathy for your opponent or you can’t win them over, have compassion for the hungry, never betray your morality for material gain, and prepare now to fix this error four years from now.

He’s the President, not the King. We bond together now to keep him from having more authority than our Constitution will allow. False prophets are always exposed. This one will betray his following like all others have and then our good work can continue.

Teach your children well.

Shortly after I sent that I watched the live concession speech of Hillary Clinton and felt pressure crushing my heart. Then I watched the live remarks of Barack Obama committing his team to the peaceful transition of power. Following that I spent a few hours reading numerous posts from friends, strangers, journalists, and pundits either trumpeting the success of their candidate or, like me, attempting to find a path to wrestling with wrong. Only now I am I beginning to come to a point of view on where to look next:

Clinton supporters vastly underestimated the power of disaffection and blame.

Trump supporters are even more vastly underestimating our commitment to our values and hard-won gains.

We are separated by the thinnest of all margins. We tip the scales by standing our ground. In the letdown of our opposition, which I believe is inevitable, a few will join us and then we’ll right the ship.

Don’t underestimate a committed cause. It cuts both ways, but reality will expose delusion.

Stand your ground, speak your voice, recommit to goodness.

I don’t have it all figured it out anymore than you do. There is still a brick on my heart and it won’t be lifted anytime soon. I will learn to live with that, and fight harder because I feel the perpetual discomfort. We will not teach the next generation that our ultimate experiment in democracy is won or lost on who is the most effective liar and stirrer of hate. That is too cynical a pill to swallow.

We also won’t cave under the auspices of, “It’s time to come together and heal.” I have no business with the alt-right. I have no interest in excusing racist, misogynist, bigoted hate speech. You want to build an idiotic wall? We will oppose it. You want to round-up millions of people you don’t want here? We will stand in front of their homes. You want to take away medical care from 20 million Americans? Not without the fight of your life.

Blind faith that your super-hero Trump can bring back jobs that are no longer economically viable is ill-founded. People who bet on a whim will discover that quickly. The notion that random change for the sake of change will improve lives is equally empty. People who embraced rhetoric absent a fact-based plan will also discover that quickly. It is illogical to reject globalization and automation. You don’t have to like it, but you can’t make it go away. If you try to put up walls, you will have wars, and they are way more costly. The change you think you want to embrace cannot occur without mass loss.

This reality will take place in record time. Remember some of the disillusionment that followed President Obama’s first few years in office? The exponential disillusionment coming your way will make that seem like a full slate of promises kept. If you were disaffected before, watch assets as they shift at lightning pace to the 1% when they go on sale. Then you will realize that you have been duped by a con man, and when a very few cross back over the line to sanity, we will get back to work moving forward.

We wrestle with wrong by exposing it. That path began this morning. The sooner we recommit to course correction, the sooner this injustice is corrected.

Yes, we can.

The Shame of Trump Soils Us All

trump-apologyIn this one man, Donald Trump, I see everything that is wrong with our nation and what some celebrate as success. This is not a man of substance. This is not a man of commendable accomplishment. This is not a complex thinker who can solve intricate global problems.

This is a self-serving egomaniac with a singular view of the world formed from his own narcissism. There is no “but Hillary” to offset his catalogue of maniacal life behaviors. He is beyond redemption and history will not be kind to his legacy. He brings shame on everyone who wants to believe in the pride of America.

Trump is so intellectually thin you wonder how he ever made a dime. Can you imagine working for this blowhard for a day? I can’t. All bluster and hyperbole. No substance of any kind. No humility. No manners. No humanity. Keep spewing, Donald. It shows us who you are. You are a nobody, which is your very worst fear. You are not important  sorry to confront you with the truth.

Every one of us is soiled by his sad, tragic, despicable, deplorable existence. He is not making America great again. He is single-handedly making a mockery of all we hold dear. He is taking us down. This is not who we are. He cannot be an emblem of anything but shame and humiliation.

It will take decades for our nation’s reputation to recover from this global embarrassment. If we want the healing to begin, we need to categorically distance ourselves from this useless monster. We can offer only a humble apology to the world for his tirades, explaining that this is an extreme of the democracy we embrace, not a reflection of the character to which we aspire.

The debates we have witnessed have not been comforting, but they have been revealing, mostly of character and preparedness. It was actually the final question of the vice-presidential debate between Tim Kaine and Mike Pence — asking how we as citizens enduring this noise can get past our immeasurable differences  that seemed to me the most telling. It is difficult to believe our nation will fully recover from the divisiveness of this campaign and the last twenty or so years of Congress in our lifetime. I don’t see big picture unity on the horizon no matter which party is in power.

Ultimately I think this bodes poorly for America a hundred or so years from now. Both sides are fully convinced the other has a catastrophic vision of the nation’s future. It is possible with that perpetual split both sides might be correct in their prediction. If we don’t fix that somehow, I wonder if it matters who holds power in the interim.

My own partisan leanings come not from a love of party but for a need for strength in numbers to stand up against oppression. I’m not a “joiner” by nature, but I am a minority and a product of immigrant culture. When I bond with others in a block vote it is to protect the social progressive agenda that I see as a moral imperative, despite the failings and manipulation of many on our side.

I don’t see Hillary Clinton as the lesser of two evils. I see her as a complex thinker who can lead no matter her flaws. I see Barack Obama as a hero who saved our nation from economic collapse and as an inspired legal scholar who thinks about justice and humanity with foresight and nuance. I am not a Democrat to be difficult. I am a Democrat because I have carefully taken stock of my values and need a voice much louder than my own to make the case for teaching tolerance and keeping hope alive.

In his own debate appearances and speaking engagements, Trump continues to demonstrate that he is largely incapable of expressing a single, coherent, on-point sentence. He rambles like a lazy school kid who won’t study before speech class. Imagine him in a cabinet meeting. Imagine him at a global summit. He is an emotional basket case, not a clear thinker. Take the word “disaster” out of his vocabulary and he becomes inarticulate. We see him pacing onstage with his back to the audience, looming like Frankenstein in a bad horror movie. We see him attack the debate moderators for doing their jobs. If this were a movie we’d have walked out on page 1 of the script.

Want to know what an unaccountable, menacing, totalitarian dictator looks and sounds like? Play back the second presidential debate and watch the man who seeks the United States presidency exhibit his version of democracy and visionary leadership.

I am ashamed that people abroad are seeing this. Will we ever regain their trust in our dream after we’ve shown them repeatedly that a signficant portion of our population considers Trump a viable commander-in-chief?

Vote in large numbers and send the global message that we abhor this lunatic.

_____

This article originally appeared on The Good Men Project.

Harnessing The Bern!

Dear Bernie,

You did a great job.

You galvanized a young generation of voters.

You helped change the dialogue to one of fairness.

You helped us to Think Different.

Now it’s time to be a mensch.

What’s at stake is everything.

We all have to row together in the same canoe.

I’m With Her are winning words.

Please be a mensch.

Love,

Those who need you.

bernie-sanders-hillary-clinton-democratic-debate

Author’s Postscript:

If we step out of campaign mode, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton really aren’t that far apart on the key issues that change our lives. They both share a core set of humanistic values and so do their constituents. Bringing us together will accomplish way more of the Progressive Agenda than an artificial wall.

We can continue to build upon the legacy of President Obama if we unite. Our commonality is way beyond our differences.

Bernie is going to join the Clinton campaign, I’m certain of that – the question is when and how ardently. None of his critical concerns will be ignored if he takes his seat at the table. He has earned that seat. It’s a good seat. He has to RSVP sooner rather than later because every minute counts now. He has to make that choice. I have faith he will do the right thing. Then Bernie can still be Bernie.

It begins. Onto November.

_____

Photo: DNC Presidential Debate, April 2016.

Conversations with Entrepreneurs

KG GMP DreamsLast month we launched a new web video series at The Good Men Project. We call it Good Men Project Dreams: Conversations with Entrepreneurs. I am honored to host the series, and tremendously enjoying the opportunity to delve into the minds of energetic business leaders who make the daunting choice to go out on their own.

I wanted to share the first three webisodes from the pilot. We recorded these initial segments on digital video at Cross Campus in Pasadena in front of a live audience, the weekly Meetup of Innovate Pasadena.

Here is the first segment with Yuval Selik, founder and CEO of Promomash:

Here is the second segment with Aurora Cady, founder and CEO or WaitNot:

Here is the third segment with Alan Mittelman, founder and CEO of Eagle Eyes:

Here is how we described the series on The Good Men Project when we launched it:

Our goal is to capture the heart of the entrepreneurial mission in a series of short interviews with local entrepreneurs who want to change the world. Our desire is to capture the spirit of the start-up mission among courageous, innovative business leaders who can’t see themselves doing anything else but their chosen enterprise. They see their businesses as more than economic engines. They see what they are doing as having critical impact on the world and opportunities for real progress.

Technology, business models, talent, and workplace culture are driving the light speed change in today’s world. Entrepreneurs like these are leading the way toward change and progress. These interviews seek to get at the passion of why people chose to build something new, no matter the hurdles, and why embracing a dream is a MUST among their life choices.

We hope you enjoy “GMP Dreams” and are inspired by these bright, brave, optimistic yet entrepreneurs. Their moxie is beautifully balanced by their pragmatism, and their focus is on doing some important with their lives much more than achieving personal wealth. They also are driven to create jobs and help drive our economy forward through innovation and creativity. Oh, and they also like to have fun!

Please let us know what you think as we are honing the series in preparation for the next round of interviews. Join us in helping to change the world!