Archive | July 2014

Organizations Rely On EVERYONE…managers included

Do you feel a larger purpose for, and transcendent meaning in, your work? Do you manage to focus on your work at least 20% of the time during the day? Do you get recharged by inspiration every so often, as opposed to surviving on caffeine? Do you regard your manager to be supportive and caring? Do you experience trust at work? These are the key questions to gauge how happy/unhappy people in the workforce feel about their work. Positive answers would mean a happier workforce, which in turn enables and drives better productivity. Managers who figure out these principles create a better work atmosphere not just for “their employees,” but also for themselves (who are also employees). But do managers follow these principles? I think you know the answers from your workplace better than anyone can tell you

According to 2013 Gallop poll, only about 30% of the workforce in the US felt “engaged in work,” compared to 13% worldwide (covering 142 countries). So, Americans do better on average than worldwide but not enough to pat ourselves on the back. “Engagement” alone wouldn’t mean much, except that it correlates to better productivity. In the NYTimes op-ed piece I cite above, the followup analysis is even more discouraging. Many managers know the answer to “If your employees feel more energized, valued, focused and purposeful, do they perform better?” (By the way, it’s “yes.”) However, managers generally don’t, or don’t know how to, provide an organizational infrastructure that promotes purposefulness for their employees. And, no, requiring employees to give 2-month notice for professional travel (and wait longer for approval for travel), filing multiple forms and hunting down even more signatures, and waiting for three months for results for almost anything, are not on the critical path to making an employee feel valued or engaged.

There is one cat under the towel.  She's happiest whenever she can burrow under anything.

There is one cat under the towel. She’s happiest whenever she can burrow under anything.

So, what’s an “engaged” employee? S/he would be “involved, committed, passionate, enthusiastic, focused and energetic.” How about taking a quick sample among your colleagues, say 10, and see how many feel engaged? The authors of the op-ed piece wrote that “investing in employees beyond paying a salary didn’t seem necessary till recently.” I am not so sure. I think in bygone eras, employers even in large organizations understood that paying attention to their employees’ “lives,” beyond the shop floor or office, would ultimately bring better work performance. It was not uniformly practiced then but there was genuine caring. There were studies demonstrating that giving employees interval coffee breaks would be beneficial for the companies. Somehow that got lost in the digital age. So, we are rediscovering these days that people who get a break every 90 minutes perform better.

The op-ed authors did a study with a control group to demonstrate that accountants who worked with flexibility, some degree of autonomy, and break periods, performed superior to the group without all these “perks.” The better-performing accountants worked shorter hours to accomplish the same tasks, had a lower turnover rate, and were in better spirits. But the company, that is the managers of the company, that provided the site for this study, still reverted to the old practice because “We just don’t know any other way to measure them [the accountants], except by their hours.” How sad.

When she's happy, her purr has a chirping rhythm.

When she’s happy, her purr has a chirping rhythm.

One glaring aspect of this op-ed is the focus on how “leaders or managers” experience high burnout. Granted that it usually takes high-level managers to institute major organizational change for everyone; however, ultimately it’s the “other” burnt-out employees that affect the companies’ performance. I am so tired of separating management from employees as if managers are not employees themselves.

As long as people in management keep thinking that they are not part of the employee pool, they treat “others” with suspicion (and vice versa). Thus, distrust is born. Even though studies have shown that when employees (including some managers, I am sure) have flexibility, and therefore autonomy, their productivity increases, managers and business owners cannot let go of the feeling that someone is cheating on them. Newsflash: Yes, someone is always trying to cheat the system; we have never had a 100% cheating-free society. The question is: Do we hold back the majority in order to, hopefully, stop or catch the few cheaters? Or, could we choose to release the majority’s enthusiasm and grow a bigger and richer opportunity space, and endure the few that would cheat no matter what? A trick question: Do managers cheat?

Managers are not leaders. However, if you are currently holding a managerial position and want to make some fundamental differences, here are a few things you can do/lead:

  • Ask some colleagues (by that I mean people of all ranks) to take a leisurely 20-minute stroll with you. Don’t talk about work.
  • Put on your calendar one hour every week (more if you can) to just chill and reflect.
  • Walk around and talk to people causally. This used to be called “management by wandering/walking around.” Google it and rediscover MBWA.
  • Write some notes of appreciation to individuals who report to you.
  • Bring some interesting and tasty food to the office every so often.

I have no doubt that you can come up with more ideas during that “hour” of reflection. If so, please share with us.

Snow in July would make me very happy...but rain works fine too.

Snow in July would make me very happy…but I’ll take the rain just as happily.

Enjoy your week at work. Till next time,


Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Spend On A Dress Or A Dresser? — A story of near-sighted and far-sighted

A decidedly unfashionable computer mouse prototype.

A decidedly unfashionable computer mouse prototype.

One man’s ego and antics are finally catching up with him and causing his own company to struggle and decline in a “complicated” industry. Another man’s strong will and principles are keeping his company afloat in a declining yet highly competitive industry.

It took more than a decade for the board of directors to take note of Dov Charney’s (founder and former CEO of American Apparel) misbehavior and mismanagement. In contrast, John Bassett III has spent more than a decade fighting for his company, Vaughan-Bassett Furniture, his workers, and his principles, and rallying a whole industry to take on the country of China. Alas, the jury is still out on the fate of Vaughan-Bassett’s furniture company. Vaughan-Bassett is a separate entity from the original Bassett furniture company, which has closed many factories and laid off thousands of employees, and is now only a shadow of itself in its glorious early days. The original company is publicly owned and has to answer to shareholders, while Vaughan-Bassett employs 700+ people and is privately held.

The US furniture-making industry has been declining since the beginning of globalization. We still need furniture, but few are willing to pay higher prices for American-made products; the price difference between imported and domestic furniture may be hundreds of dollars and more per item.   The price difference between imported and domestic items in the fashion industry is much less than in the furniture industry. Thus it is much tougher for owners or CEOs in the furniture industry to compete against imports than it is for the fashion industry. Both American Apparel and Vaughan-Bassett have been using strictly American produced materials, and both seem to care for their employees. Yet…

Mr. John Bassett III fought and won an unprecedented anti-dumping action against China for underpricing furniture. To file this complaint, he had to organize more than 51% of the US industry players — who were all being squeezed to narrow or nonexistent profit margins by competition from cheap imports — to speak with one voice and to share legal fees. In order to prove that China was stealing Vaughan-Bassett furniture designs and practicing dumping with state sponsorship, Mr. Bassett III and his son themselves did some undercover work in China. (He first sent his son on the mission to discover those factories responsible for the dumping, and his son wasn’t to return till he accomplished the mission. Then, Mr. Bassett himself went to China and had a “chilling” meeting with the culprit.) When the US furniture industry finally won the case, Vaughan-Bassett was awarded $46 million of which Mr. Bassett used the majority to provide workers with modern tools and resurrect an empty factory. The original Bassett company received $17.5 million dollars and used most of it to “buttress the retail expansion.”

For some background stories, you can find them here, here, and here. For interested readers, Beth Macy’s “Factory Man” was just released.

Switching to a different industry, and thanking Mr. Charney for generating controversial ads, juicy stories, and prime examples of “how not to run a big and growing company.” I have to admit that I only recently learned about the name “Dov Charney” from the New York Times article by Joe Norcera on Mr. Charney and his company. However, American Apparel’s board of directors has no such excuse; they have been intimately familiar with Mr. Charney’s bad-boy conduct. There have been several sexual harassment lawsuits against Mr. Charney, some of which were bogus but with two ending in out-of-court settlements. Charney has been known to personally choose his own employees for ads, and some were quite sexually charged. The images might offend some people, but more importantly, in such an atmosphere, how can we “expect the office to be run like a convent,” as Norcera aptly points out. Equally important is Mr. Charney’s horrible record of management. Like many entrepreneurs, Mr. Charney might have been talented in the startup phase; however, he has demonstrated neither knowledge nor talent, and definitely no humility, in managing a maturing company. Since American Apparel went public in 2007, Charney has gone through several “talented” executives. (Personally, I can’t believe all these executives were truly talented, but in the absence of long tenure, it’s easier to attribute talent to them.) As Norcera documents, “[Charney] told The Wall Street Journal that the man he hired [as the chief financial officer] was a ‘complete loser.’ Which of course caused the man to quit.”

Computer mouse prototype 2, still no sense of fashion.

Computer mouse prototype 2, still no sense of fashion.

Further, Mr. Charney committed the classic error of many entrepreneurs, expanding too fast. A 2009 immigration audit lead to the company’s laying off half of its factory work force, and resulted in “delayed shipment, and an expensive hiring and training program.” The company’s stock has been steadily declining since then. However, it still took the board till June of this year before finally forcing out Mr. Charney. Of course, the fight isn’t over.

The lesson I draw – and I am sure there are other lessons – is that, be they entrepreneurs or CEOs, manager-leaders need a healthy network of colleagues, associates, and friends to get things done, to grow, or to do anything. By “healthy” network I mean not just the size of the network but also the quality, especially in the diversity of thinking. The board of directors of American Apparel is not unlike most other boards, comprising mostly people who side with the CEO, people of like-mindedness. While Mr. Bassett sounds like a curmudgeon, or a benevolent despot, he has been more than willing to ask for help when he needs to, as in the anti-dumping case. Both Charney and Bassett III love the enterprises they built, but they took different paths to grow their businesses. It’ll be interesting to see which enterprise has more sustaining power.

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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From Hurricanes To Academics…I am not prejudiced, but others are

When it comes to prejudice, or discrimination, especially about race and gender, our heads spin and our emotions explode. It’s easier to spot outright discrimination, but the subtle types? It’s also much easier to assign prejudice in others, much less so in ourselves. What we do about it is another, vastly different — and difficult — topic.

Let’s start with some light-hearted quandaries. Q: Do you find a category 4 hurricane Cruella as scary as the same category hurricane named Voldemort? How about a category 3 Voldemort vs. category 4 Cruella? Or, a category 3 Bob (sorry, Bobs, I am sure some of you are quite fierce) vs. category 4 Mary (same apology to Mary).

An actual study found that people tend to take female-named hurricanes less seriously than hurricanes with male names. The researchers took out Katrina and Audrey from their statistical analysis because their extreme impact and accompanying extraordinary name recognition would skew the results. Otherwise, they found that there have been more deaths from female-named hurricanes (45 on average) than from male-named ones (23 on average), because people made fewer preparations, or, declined to take evacuation orders as seriously. The researchers interpret the reactions to hurricanes with female names not so much as discrimination against women as viewing women to be “warmer and less aggressive than men.” (Really?! What do they think “discrimination” means?) The researchers also backed up their findings by having people take a paper-and-pencil type of study and found similar reactions to hypothetical hurricane names. The news reports on this story I have read all emphasized — at the beginning of the reports — that this was a serious study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academic of Sciences, not an article from The Onion.

This study is fun for dinner conversation, not withstanding its lack of association with The Onion.


How about the academic world? Our stereotype for professors is that they are less prone to discrimination. So, three professors from the business schools of NYU, Wharton (University of Pennsylvania), and Columbia did a study to find out if professors are indeed much less likely to be discriminatory.

They made up 20 different names that would be “perceived” to be associated with white, black, Hispanics, Indian, and Chinese, and further split between male and female. For example, “Meredith Roberts, Lamar Washington, Juanita Martinez, Raj Singh and Chang Huang.” In the study, emails were sent to 6,500 professors, randomly selected from a wide range of disciplines among 259 universities. In the identical message, “written in impeccable English,” the fictitious student requested to meet with the recipient professor to discuss the professor’s PhD program and potential guidance.

The good news is that 67% of the professors responded; this is indeed an impressive response rate for a social study. Furthermore, 59% of these professors who responded actually consented to meet with the requesting student. The researchers promptly emailed back to cancel the appointment request.

Of course, you know there is bad news coming, and it’s pretty bad…not necessarily surprising to some of us.

Guess which group was the most discriminated against? Asian. Which was the most favored? White male…by far. It cuts across all universities and disciplines; however, the faculty members with higher salaries and from private universities were the worse offenders. Now the really bad news, and the least surprising, is that among these offenders, the worst came from business schools. This makes me wonder if the school environment reflects/parallels their counterparts in the larger society? And in anticipation of your question…no, the professors from the hard science fields – those fields that are much more objective – were just as human as the rest. In other words, prejudice does not recognize disciplines; it resides in all human beings.

eveing cloud

Diversity is not an end, and discrimination is not likely to be eradicated. Many have argued before, as have I, that diversity is process work; we work with it, we don’t work to just achieve it (that’d be like “bean counting”). These studies, serious or otherwise, poke at our collective sore spot. We should take social sciences messages as seriously as we treat hurricanes. I, for one, feel the need to take a little more dosage of humility in my morning tea.

Wishing you and all of us a relatively calm summer, free of hurricanes and wildfires. Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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