Tag Archives: management

Recapturing community and security

The vast Roebling Mill, near Trenton, New Jersey, produced thousands of miles of steel cable for huge public-works projects like the George Washington and Golden Gate Bridges. At its peak, around World War II, it employed 5,000 people.

Most of those employees lived in a planned community, also called Roebling, in red-brick houses that had been constructed by the Roebling family expressly for their workers to live in.

The loyalty was palpable

When you were part of Roebling, you walked to work beside your neighbors along the leafy streets, through the gate house and down the hill to the factory site. Afterward you walked back together. Perhaps you stopped at the (subsidized) general store or at one of the taverns before going home to your family.

You were part of a community in every sense of the word.

roebling-aerial2.png

The town of Roebling (foreground) and the steel mill in their heyday (Source: Hagley Digital Archives)

Today the mill buildings are gone, although the town with its brick houses and leafy streets remains. The stories of the mill and its people are told in the Roebling Museum, located in the old gate house.

The stories describe a remarkable esprit de corps, a strong bond between co-workers and neighbors who took great pride in their work, whose families gathered together on front porches, whose children competed together on the town’s sports teams.

When you were part of Roebling, the loyalty — yours to the company, and the company’s to you — was palpable.

Nothing lasts forever

When I visited the Roebling Museum earlier this month, those stories reminded me of my first few years at IBM. There I was steeped in a corporate culture that emphasized longevity and two-way loyalty. I never sang songs from the IBM hymn book, but some of my older colleagues had.

On the annual opinion survey, we were asked whether we agreed with a series of statements — one of which was I am confident that, as long as I do a good job, there will be a place for me at IBM. The hoped-for result was that all of us would mark Strongly Agree.

After a while they quietly took that statement out of the survey. After another while, for many of us, the statement proved to be false.

Nothing lasts forever. The Roebling Mill closed for good in 1974 after years of decline. IBM’s first layoffs (sorry, resource actions) took place in 1993. My pink slip came in 2002.

Trying to recapture a little of the old

I’m not suggesting that we can, or even should, return to those days of unswerving loyalty, of living in the safety of the corporate cocoon.

Still, the pendulum seems to have swung too far in the other direction.

Do you work in a place where you feel really connected with your co-workers, with a shared sense of mission and a shared pride in what you do?

Some of you do work in a place like that. But many of you don’t. Perhaps some of you have never experienced what it’s like.

Do you work in a place where you know that your employer has your back, that they care about you as a person and as a professional?

Again, while some of you do, I’ll wager that many more of you don’t.

Community and security

While it’s foolish and naive for workers to believe that the company will always take care of them, there’s value in identifying yourself with a company and in bonding with co-workers.

And while there are no guarantees, there’s also value in knowing that as long as you do a good job, the company will do its best to ensure that it has a place for you.

Community and security. I’ve worked in situations (like those early days at IBM) where I’ve felt like I had a lot of both. I’ve also worked in situations where I had essentially none.

I can tell you which one is better.

So, as managers and leaders, how can we give our workers a healthy, realistic sense of community and security?

Here are a few ideas. I hope you’ll add more ideas in the comments.

  • Let your people know that you value them for the people they are, not just for the work they do. Recognize that some of them might be hurting, having been betrayed by a previous employer they thought they could trust.
  • Invest in your people’s professional development. When you pay for someone to attend a training course, you’re saying that you can see them contributing in the long term, not just on the present project.
  • Let your people have fun together. Even if their families don’t gather on front porches, you can help create an environment where they feel connected by things other than their day-to-day work.

As workers, how can we increase our sense of community and security when there seems to be too little of both? Perhaps that’s a topic for another blog post.

I’d love to hear your story of community and security: how you’ve coped with losing them, or maybe how you’ve lost them and managed to regain them.

In praise of the ebullient worker

1985-ozzie-smith

Ozzie Smith doing his thing at the 1985 World Series (source: Sports Illustrated)

Have you ever worked with someone like Ozzie Smith?

Before really big games, the Hall of Fame shortstop delighted his fans and teammates by doing backflips on the field. In every game he played, his gestures and body language made it clear that he was enjoying himself. His joy spread to everyone who watched him — except, maybe, fans of the opposing team.

Have you ever worked with someone who delights in their work and spreads joy through the workplace? If so, you’re lucky. There are far too few people like that. I call them the ebullient workers.

Just to be clear, I’m not talking about:

  • The clowns, who love jokes and pranks but never take anything seriously and can’t be counted on to pull their weight. A clown’s act might be appealing at first, but before long it becomes stale — no matter how good the jokes are.
  • The showoffs, who take delight in their work but at the expense of rival workers or even teammates. The showoff’s delight isn’t really in their work — it’s in proving that they’re better than everyone else. Instead of sowing unity, showoffs sow division.

If you’re an ebullient worker

Good for you. Keep it up. You might ask “Keep what up?” because your ebullience just comes naturally. You have a rare gift of bringing light and life to the workplace. Don’t let anybody or anything — frowning colleagues, disapproving bosses, a stifling corporate culture — extinguish it.

Sometimes, unfortunately, that means that you’ll need to find another place to work. That’s a steep price to pay, but it beats losing the passion you bring to your job every day. Continue reading

Seeing the deep-space view

Do you recognize the bright stars in this scene? You’ve almost certainly seen them: they’re the 3 stars of Orion’s belt. But I’ll bet you’ve never seen them like this.

The photo, featured last week as NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day, is a composite of several long-exposure images taken from a remote location in the Canary Islands.

In this deep-space view you can see the 3 familiar stars along with hundreds of fainter stars and other structures like the Orion Nebula and (near the leftmost of the 3 stars) the Horsehead Nebula and the Flame Nebula.

If you go outside right now and look at Orion’s belt, whether or not you can see anything besides the 3 stars, all of that other stuff is there too. It’s always there, even though it might be hidden from the observer.

The deep-space view

I’ve found that the professional world is the same way. Whenever I look at a situation involving people and projects on the job, I can be sure there’s more than what I can see at first glance.

Here’s an example: In a former job I chatted with a manager who’d recently been hired to run one of my company’s branch offices. She was glad to be there, she said, and anxious to start improving processes and efficiency. She was already sure that the writing team at that location would need training in the tools and processes. Continue reading

Think you’re smarter than your boss?

Awhile back, Amy Gallo wrote in the Harvard Business Review about What to Do If You’re Smarter than Your Boss. I recommend Amy’s article because it’s really about what to do if you think you’re smarter than your boss.

There were two instances in which I thought I was smarter than my boss. Both times, it turned out I was wrong.

Walt: the rustic

Walt (not his real name) was a born-and-bred Southerner, with an easygoing style a and an accent straight out of Mayberry. Still in my twenties, having just moved to North Carolina from “up north,” I quickly pegged him as a rustic.

Walt managed another team at first, but in time I was moved over to his team. I actually thought that while he was nominally the boss, I could pretty much handle things as I saw fit and he’d never be the wiser. (I was a cocky young pup, wasn’t I?)

Once I began working for Walt, and I was able to see him close-up, things changed. Continue reading

When a good worker struggles

This one’s personal. It’s the story of one of the biggest leadership challenges I’ve ever faced: a good employee whose performance declined but who didn’t (or couldn’t) admit that she had a problem.

Broken pencilsJenny (not her real name) was one of the best pure writers who ever worked for me. She came to me highly recommended, with a history of success both at work and outside of work. When she joined our project, her subject-matter experts quickly came to love her: she was congenial, she asked good questions, and she respected their time. She showed enthusiasm and a positive, can-do attitude.

Soon after we began working together, Jenny told me that she was going through a difficult divorce and adjusting to life as a single mom. She needed a flexible schedule, to accommodate the kids’ activities. We agreed that she could do much of her work at home and in the evenings. I avoided scheduling meetings and important calls in mid-afternoon when she picked up the kids at school. The arrangement suited everyone, at least for a while.

Then she started missing deadlines. She’d assure me that a chapter would be finished by Friday. Then on Friday she’d ask if it could wait until Monday, promising to work over the weekend.

I asked her if things were OK, if she could use some help. The answer was always the same: I’ve got this. I can handle it.

But she wasn’t handling it. Continue reading

Corporate culture: Finding your way

Oriole Park at Camden Yards

Oriole Park at Camden Yards (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Break out the Champagne! My favorite team, the Baltimore Orioles, just clinched the championship of the American League East Division for the first time in 17 years.

This team is a pleasure to watch because it reminds me of the successful Oriole teams of my childhood. For those teams, the watchword was the Oriole Way. At a time when the phrase corporate culture probably hadn’t been invented, the Orioles had a corporate culture — and it was encapsulated in the Oriole Way.

The Oriole Way can simply be defined as playing baseball the right way. The classic Oriole teams were built on stout pitching and strong defense. But mostly, they rarely beat themselves by making mistakes. Continue reading

Career Tips from the Old Ballpark

This weekend marks the anniversary of the best baseball game I ever saw in person, at Baltimore’s old Memorial Stadium. It taught me some lessons about handling tough situations on the job.

Baseball card of Lenn SakataAfter rallying to tie the score in the ninth inning, the Orioles had no one left to play catcher. So in the top of the tenth, they put utility infielder Lenn Sakata into the game at catcher — a position he’d never before played in the major leagues.

That’s Lesson 1: Be flexible. You never know what need might arise. When it does arise, strap on the catcher’s gear and perform with as much grace as you can muster. Who knows? It might turn out OK. Even if it doesn’t, you’ll know that gave it your best shot.

Toronto Blue Jays’ batter Barry Bonnell reached first base and, no doubt thinking it would be easy to steal second with the inexperienced Sakata behind the plate, took a big lead. Pitcher Tippy Martinez picked him off.

The next batter, Dave Collins, walked. He took a big lead off first base, and Martinez picked him off too.

Then Willie Upshaw singled. As he took his lead off first base the fans began chanting “pick him off.”

Which brings us to Lesson 2: Don’t be overconfident. Having seen two of his teammates get picked off and hearing the crowd chanting, why did Upshaw wander so far off first base? He must’ve been thinking It can’t happen to me.

Baseball card of Tippy MartinezIt did happen to him.

A successful pickoff in baseball is fairly rare. Picking off three in one inning, as Martinez did, is extraordinary. And of course it’s a record that’ll never be broken.

In the bottom of the tenth, Sakata came to bat with two outs and two men on base. You can guess what happened. Sakata, who weighed 160 pounds soaking wet and who’d hit just one home run all season, hit a three-run homer to win the game.

I was already a baseball fan for life. That night, watching from the upper deck in Memorial Stadium, I became an Orioles fan for life.

And so Lesson 3: You never know who might be watching. The Orioles gained a fan that night. Your handling of a tough situation might gain you the respect and even the admiration of a client or colleague — which will pay off later on.

Use the comments area to tell me you might’ve learned from this story. Or just tell me about a good ballgame you’ve seen.

Originally published, with slightly different content, on the SDI blog, 24 August 2010

When Your People Go their Own Way

There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.

– Attributed to Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin

"Make way for Ducklings" statue showing ducks in a rowYou’re a good leader. You can explain how to get things done. You can persuade when necessary. Above all, you excel at leading by example.

So everyone on the team is in lock-step, working in perfect harmony and at maximum efficiency, doing things exactly as you envision them being done. Right?

Wrong. It doesn’t always go that way. If you’re like me, it hardly ever goes that way.

People have the darnedest habit of doing things their way instead of your way. It’s not because they can’t take direction or because they won’t take direction. It’s because they’re people.

So what does it mean when your people go their own way? Continue reading

Ripples in a pond: short-term savings, far-reaching results

ImageMy colleague Kai Weber penned a cautionary tale about what happens when a company regards technical communication as a task rather than as a profession.

In Kai’s tale, programmers and testers are brought in from other parts of the company to help update a software product — and then they’re called on to write the documentation as well. The quality of the doc suffers, and customers complain that much of the doc focuses on features and reference information rather than on how to use the product.

Having given in to the “seduction” of reducing costs in the short term, management now finds that the product’s documentation is hard to use and impossible to maintain.

Kai’s story is all too true. I’ve seen it happen. Allow me now to write the next chapter.

Continue reading

Keeping things dangerous

We project managers tend to think in absolutes. There are two ways to do something: the right way, and all the other wrong ways. So, for example, software has to be released according to a carefully crafted schedule. The schedule has to include time for rigorous QA testing. And so forth. That’s the right way, and all the other ways are wrong.

Or are they? Continue reading