Stuck in The Middle – Change Management

We spend a great deal of time preparing management for the challenges and opportunities that occur during significant change. As a consultant, I’m guilty of occasionally forgetting the difficult position of the “middle,” so my presentation today was a good reminder of the challenging tasks we ask other people to do. Pity the middle manager – we are a boss and we have a boss. When change hits, we are placed right in the mosh pit.

Let’s use an organizational “re-design” as an example ~ an automatic reaction by most people is to push the “OH SH*T” button, circle the wagons, and store up on non-perishables. That reaction includes managers, who are then asked to lead their subordinates through the change process. Not an easy task, but an absolutely critical responsibility if change is to be successfully implemented. You are sometimes asked to do this with limited information, limited resources, and little in the way of job security – change is impacting you as well.

"Ain't this a peach?"
“Ain’t this a peach?”

Without diving into too much of the modeling aspect of change, here are some helpful things for managers to remember, compliments of the Pritchett model of “Change Essentials“:

  • It’s okay ~ You’re allowed to freak out; as a matter of fact, it’s not a bad idea to go ahead and get that out of your system early on. People who blindly accept that “all change is good” are usually blowing smoke up your chimney. It’s not necessarily “good,” it’s just a reality.
  • We’re not asked to vote, just to implement ~ Let’s assume you had the previously mentioned “episode.” Now, it’s time to get to work – as much as we would like to give our input and/or opinion on the change, we weren’t really part of the decision process. The job at hand is to lead your people through the change, and doing so without doubting the wisdom of those who did make the change.
  • Fake it until you get there ~ Yes, the dreaded “company man;” might be the toughest part of leadership, finding that line between corporate shill and self-respect. You have a choice to make – if the change is so fundamentally against your personal grain, it might be time for you to take the high (and exiting) road.
  • Use resistance as an energy boost ~ For your direct reports, encourage and promote questions. As a direct report, find ways to bring concerns up the corporate ladder to your own boss. Resistance does not necessarily mean “defiance,” it could be an indication of a hole in the communication.
  • Keep ’em close ~ Make sure you know who the indispensables are on your team. Dr. Pritchett uses a quote, “Strong swimmers are the first to jump overboard.” Sums it up pretty well…don’t be left with deck chairs and the orchestra.

Change is unsettling, uncomfortable, and sometimes quite painful. As a leader of people, you have the unique privilege of catching this confusion up and down the corporate chain. Your ability to successfully deal with and capitalize upon times of change is what will separate you from the pack.

Now go have that freak out, I’ll give you five…

John “Whit” Whitaker is Founder of the HR Hardball™ Straight talk, no-nonsense approach to workplace issues. 

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Road Warrior Blues – Human Resources

Proposed Air Marshal Uniform
Proposed Air Marshal Uniform

The novelty of business travel tends to wear off very quickly; while I can’t hold a candle to some true Road Warriors, I’ve traveled enough to know that “too much” travel comes at a price. But…if you spend too much time on the tarmac, there are plenty of random sights, sounds, and smells that can amuse you ~ just so you know you’re not the only one in the world who thinks these things, here are a few of my more humorous observations of the business traveler.

  • Bathrooms ~ Let’s get this out on the table right now….I would rather have fish-hooks pull up my eyelids than I would use an airport terminal bathroom. The gag reflex is overwhelming when I get within 5 yards of the entrance, the floors are way too slippery (and it ain’t wax), flushing has apparently reached an “optional” status, and the smell….sweet Moses, the smell!(*gag*). If the thought of a public toilet wasn’t repulsive enough, somehow the thought of a Globally Public toilet sends me right to the hand sanitizer.
  • Priority Access” ~ Such the oxymoron. As a “Priority” member, I’m allowed to board after First Class, Executive Platinum, Executive Gold, Military Personnel, domestic livestock, senior citizens, Freemasons, and families with small children. Somehow, I’m just not feeling the love. And, while we’re on the subject, take a few steps back Group 2 and quit “creep-boarding.”
  • Security Checks ~ Business travelers are unbelievably synchronized in security procedures – by the time we reach the “bins,” road warriors are shoeless, belt-less, empty-pocketed minimalists at the ready with an assortment of 3.4 oz liquids. This preparation is why we all fume when the family traveling to Orlando is stuck in front of us…it doesn’t matter how many times you’ve traveled, the minute you make the trip with your family, it’s as if the security requirements were invented the night before.
  • Rental Cars ~ God forbid your reservation was somehow lost (insert classic Seinfeldian dialogue at this point); the lines are too long, the representatives are shamelessly up-selling you the entire time you sign your life away, and you are invariably stuck with a car that has 5 station pre-sets for Tejano music. I’m also convinced of a conspiracy that prevents gas stations from being anywhere near a rental car return; I swear I’ve earned stock in Avis from the $9 per gallon gasoline they lay on me when I’m in a rush.

How long could this list go on? My guess is each of us have a few peccadillos based on our traveling experience, whether it be the obvious (the dude next to you who took a garbage bath) or the subtle…this might make a nice monthly installment. For the most part, business travel in doses can be pretty enjoyable, (except in Human Resources, when you are the visiting Reaper) assuming your expectations are level-set. You will probably have a delay. You will almost certainly not have an open seat next to you. The drink cart may very well dislocate your elbow should you breach the aisle perimeter. These are the risks we take….but don’t get me started on the bathrooms.

John “Whit” Whitaker is Founder of the HR Hardball™; Straight talk, no-nonsense approach to workplace issues whimsical musings regarding work and life.

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Don’t Let the Door Hit You…

I can still remember the first time I was asked to do an Exit Interview. I was pretty green, so the thought of speaking to someone who was leaving the company was actually an exciting prospect.

Then I conducted the Exit Interview.

From that point on, only when ordered to do so would I participate in an Exit Interview (from either side of the desk, mind you). There are people I know who will passionately debate the wealth of information gained from an Exit Interview; there are companies that exist strictly on the premise of this information holding the key to controlling turnover. I expect these folks have had a much different experience than the average corporate HR Generalist, lest they realize the futility of this dog & pony show.

It’s not a cut & dry issue, you may very well hit a gusher if you drill enough holes, but it’s an expensive and often hopeless venture. Why waste time on this stuff?

  • The “losing” manager already knows why the employee left. The only ones we really care to know more about are the good ones. The good ones aren’t about to burn a bridge on the way out the door. I think a more productive exercise would be to interview the manager and their manager whenever an employee resigns. Let’s get it out there on the table, have some fun with it.
  • It’s stupid. Yep, stupid. Quitting a job is not an easy choice ~ playing Q&A with an ex-employee on their way out the door is an awkward, sometimes painful process.
  • It’s ceremonial. If Human Resources is conducting the Exit Interview (a stupid choice within a stupid process), what exactly are we saying to the ex-employee? “Good luck, and please don’t sue us?”  or, “Remember me? I’m the first person you met 8 years ago?”
  • Closing the barn door… The only thing sillier that an Exit Interview is a counter-offer; an employee who has resigned/quit has made a leap in their mind & heart. Elvis has left the building. It’s too late, don’t make it harder than it has to be, tip your waitress, good night.
  • It’s deceptive ~ The information you get is either diluted, “scrubbed,” or biased. Seriously, what are you going to do with the information? How relevant is the information when it comes from someone on the way out?
“Color me gone, chief.”

I really don’t think this is a Human Resources issue, it’s a “way things are” issue. You know the common theme “People don’t quit companies, they quit managers,”????? That must have been an HR person quoted after listening to 1,000 Exit Interviews where every employee gripes about their horrible manager. People absolutely leave companies – they may actually stay because of a manager in spite of the company; we people are wired to be loyal to other people we respect and/or like. I’m not saying it never happens, just that we’ve become way too comfortable with a mantra that makes little sense. The Exit Interview simply perpetuates the myth that managers cause employees to leave, and by God we’re going to find out who & why that is!

I’ve seen a lot of people leave companies, many of whom (me included) simply deduced that the company would shut down operations to accommodate the loss. Alas, no one is irreplaceable. If the data received from employees leaving is the catalyst for a change in the company, the issues are much deeper than the loss of one employee.



4 Trade Show Observations…

After 15 years of trade show celibacy [despite my efforts to be critically ill or otherwise occupied,] I helped man a booth at a vendor trade show. While I can’t speak to all industry segments, my background in Human Resources and Organizational Development has in many ways numbed me to the trade show experience. This week has done nothing to alleviate that feeling.

The American Society of Training & Development (ASTD) started a 4-day trade show at the Dallas Convention Center. Logically, I know the importance of keeping your brand in front of your customer, but mostly what I think is “my feet are killing me.” There are, however, some common themes and characteristics that are at least entertaining:

“we know, we know…”
  1. Three words; peoplelovecrap. The tchotchke business is alive & well; if you’re in the market for stress balls, troll pens, mints in a tin, or magnetized chip-clips, this is the place for you…count on multiple “Wheel of Fortune” attractions; even in an age where laser shows are relatively rote, we still have a spinning wheel to pick “big winners.”
  2. Some bastardization of the words “synergy,” “strategy,” “learning” or “leader” will appear in 50% of the vendor names. It must be impossible to find an available domain name with any combination of those words included. There’s also a growing population of company names substituting the number for the word, i.e. “Learnergy4Leaders“. Don’t laugh, somebody will take that name, just watch.
  3. The people making the big money at these events are the facilities that are hosting the event. It’s shameful – the Dallas Convention Center charges you per electrical outlet, per chair, per plug, and $79 for daily wi-fi access. Price gouging at its finest. Oh, and if you want a QR reader to scan attendee badges, that’ll run you $450. The same technology that costs me .99¢ to scan any other QR code on Earth now costs me $450. Hmmmmm, no thanks.
  4. The attendees ~ Three profiles you can pick out pretty easily: the “poacher [here to steal ideas,] the “moocher [here to engage in a personal eating challenge] and the “tire-kicker.” The latter is the most frustrating, as they will usually spend an inordinate amount of your time leading you to believe there is a potential for significant business partnership, but the true motivation is to score whatever goodies you have under the table.

It’s a strange environment when you think about it…you have exhibits that are nicer than my first apartment, and dozens of direct competitors scoping out the “other guys.” There are hundreds of professional adults walking around with shopping bags teeming with items that will soon be in the local landfill, and an absolute cattle call when lunch is announced.

I’m still not convinced of the direct correlation between trade show and “billable hours,” but I’d sure love to hear successes from others ~ surely there’s more than snarky observations to be gained? Anyone?

John “Whit” Whitaker is Founder and OH (Original Hardballer); like this post? Try this one, this one, or even this one….go ahead, don’t be a weenie.


Little League & The Small Things….

Fridays are great days for humanizing the ol’ blog post. Appropriately qualified, I still won’t bore you with a hokey message about the lessons I learn in Little League each and every season & how they apply to life in general. You know those blogs? They are so freaking sappy, drives me crazy; stuff like:

  • Gradual improvement marked by occasional “Quantum Leaps” when you decide to trust your abilities and do things a little bit differently.
  • Using “fun” and humor instead of threats and demands, after all, it’s just baseball(work/school/money/life).
  • The power of encouragement and specific praise, and the impact of timely & challenging feedback. Don’t spread peanut-butter compliments, and don’t let unacceptable behavior go unnoticed. Pat ’em on the butt, sit ’em on the bench, both work.
  • Attitude does count…a LOT. Give me a team of little scrappers who come off the field every inning with more dirt on their uniform than the inning before – give me THAT team any day.
  • Getting a trophy is about the coolest thing in the world. Getting a trophy on the field in front of everyone is THE coolest thing in the world. You better recognize, and not always in private.
  • It’s important to realize, even as a kid, that EVERYONE makes mistakes, even the Coach. Even your parents. Even YOU.
  • Kids (people) do rise to the occasion. We see plays in the field every week during a game that we NEVER saw during practice – people will amaze you. They will also drive you to drink, but still…..

So, “Hardball“, Shmardball, I’m a big softie at heart. Like most of us, when we strip away all the noise in our life, it comes down to the small things. And for me, looking at this picture, those are smiles from two sincerely happy people.

Father’s Day comes in May

btw, we LOST this game.

John “Whit” Whitaker is Founder of the HR Hardball™ and proud coach of the 2nd Place Reds. 

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Preferred on-boarding.

I love terms like “on-boarding;” you know, those words that we in the business refer to as a “Sasquatch” idea [as in, a lot of people believe in it, but nobody’s actually seen it.] Used to be a novel concept, and/or one reserved for executive hires ~ great efforts were made to make the incoming employee comfortable (and the spouse, don’t forget the spouse), to feel welcome, and to be shepherded through the internal morass for several months after Day 1 of their employment.

The bigger, more comprehensive concept of (all) employee on-boarding programs has really caught fire in the last decade. Sometimes, that’s a fancy word for “new hire orientation,” sometimes it’s part of the sales job given by Staffing (“What???? The hell you say?”,) and sometimes it’s just lip service. But what makes on-boarding an effective initiative as it relates to the key objective, i.e. make the employee more productive, more quickly?

I can offer an opinion on a few ways to enhance your current program, or if you’d like to take the bull by the horns and start your own version of on-boarding:

  • Self Awareness ~ Spend some quality “me time,” assuming that the “me” in this scenario is the company. What is the company really all about? Don’t sell what you ain’t.
  • Prioritize ~ You’ll find 100 things to define your company, your culture, your SOP’s; narrow the focus to the top 10 “non-negotiables.” The things that are critical to existence in this environment, and are in no way going to change any time soon.
  • Delegate ~  HR usually finds the On-boarding process dumped in their lap; that’s not necessarily a bad thing if it comes with the authority to share the load – and that includes the inbound employee. A new hire shares responsibility in his or her assimilation; don’t hesitate to engage them in preliminary work needed to hit the ground running. Imagine the time & money you would save the company by identifying a lack of engagement before the employee sets foot on-site?!

One final note about taking ownership of this initiative; a true, robust On-boarding “program” is a pretty intensive and comprehensive piece of work. It may not be something that can be implemented in a short time, nor will it happen without significant push from leadership in Human Resources. The three bullets I provided can be assumed by the individual, any individual, who has an interest in the successful hiring, performance, and retention of new employees. The time is well spent, the employee and the company benefit immensely from the effort, you just might earn yourself (and Human Resources) further involvement in the strategic direction of the business.

John “Whit” Whitaker is Founder of the HR Hardball™ Straight talk, no-nonsense approach to workplace issues. 

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Scared Straight – Fear of the Unknown

Seem to have a struck a nerve with a previous post on a specific human condition, namely our unique ability to fear the unknown even more than we may dislike our current situation ~ even if it means suffering through a miserable existence. I spoke with several friends and colleagues about the topic, whether it be our professional or personal lives, we have all endured a period where we chose to “hang in there” b/c of our fear of the unknown.


“Seriously, what is there to fear?”

So, we asked the obvious question…what is it that we’re so scared of? Comes down to normal primal feelings:

  • Fear of loneliness – We all know the guy/girl who stays with the human albatross to satisfy their need to be with somebody.
  • Fear of poverty – Hey  man, you try to find a job in this market.
  • Insecurity – What if we’re really not as good/smart as we think we are?
  • Fear of the wife – “Dude, she’ll KILL me if I leave a job without another one on tap.”

These are all easy anxieties to understand – no one wants to live on the street, friendless and starving, especially not if you have the added responsibilities of being a family provider. But seriously, how many of us would face that particular fate if we left a source of unhappiness? If you dig a little deeper, you find that some (most? all?) of these fears are smoke-screens for a couple decidedly less “primal” fears:

  • Fear of regret – “What if I’m wrong? What if I look stupid?” For the same reasons a purchasing decision has a layer of “buyer’s remorse” attached, no one wants to make a decision & then live to regret it.
  • Fear of being “new” –  We may not be “happy” at our current position, but we know where the cafeteria is, we know when our boss leaves the office early, and it’s at least a comfortable misery. Being the new guy or girl is damn scary for a lot of people.
  • Fear of being a “failure” – This is for all of those entrepreneur-to-be’s that sit idly by with business plans, possible company names, and countless hours of dreaming big. The one missing piece of the plan? Pulling the trigger. It’s a fear of being labeled a “failure” more than the act of failing [that makes perfect sense in my head.] Pride, embarrassment, ego – no one wants to feel like a loser.

I think the piece of the puzzle that can’t be replicated is the ability of the human spirit to rise to the occasion. If you have aspirations and dreams, then you’re surely smart enough to know they come when paired with inspiration. We are often shackled by our comfort (again, even when miserable) to the point that our inspiration is muted. We need to do something to be inspired; “So what do we do? Anything. Something. So long as we don’t just sit there. If we screw it up, start over. If we wait until we’ve satisfied all the uncertainties, it may be too late.” (Lee Iacocca)

What are you scared of?

John “Whit” Whitaker is Founder of the HR Hardball™ Straight talk, no-nonsense approach to workplace issues. 

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Ridiculously Good-Looking

Inspired again by my friends on LinkedIn, there’s quite a hub-bub circulating about comments made in an interview with Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries. In the interview (given in 2006, but now re-surfaced), Jeffries flatly associates his company’s brand with the “good-looking & thin” rather than the “fat & ugly.” Articles like this one, or this one, clearly indicate a sampling of the response this interview is garnering Mr. Jeffries. One of the great things about journalists is their ability to capture the emotion and umbrage of those afflicted by unfairness…one of the lessor great things about journalists is their ability to inadvertently promote what they seek to diminish.

If you’re not familiar with the A&F store, picture Studio 54 for Ashton Kutcher wanna-be’s…the store is engineered to be Kryptonite for anyone with ear drums over the age of 30, but let us not think that is accidental. The chain is interchangeable with AeroPostale, Gap, and American Eagle with one basic difference – attitude. You see, Mr. Jeffries has made it clear that the cool kids are wearing his brand, obviously inferring that the uncool wear the brand of his competitors.

Abercrombie & Fitch Franchise Owner

There is a predictable uproar in defense of the fat/ugly/uncool, but I’m not sure it’s going to have the desired impact. It’s a ridiculously offensive, arrogant, hypocritical (have you seen Mike Jeffries?), series of statements, on top of being bad business practice. Unless it isn’t. What if this is a ridiculously calculated marketing strategy by Jeffries and his fellow pinheads? Can’t you see it playing out in the boardroom? “We aren’t taking advantage of the huge idiocracy movement in America. What if, instead of making our brand MORE inclusive, we decided to refuse service to 90% of the consumer base?” 

Think about the math – if 90% of us don’t fit the poster-image (have you seen the ads?) Jeffries comments would be the equivalent of corporate suicide. But – out of that 90%, half will still see themselves as part of the “beautiful people” & will certainly want to announce this distinction with their choice of clothing.  It certainly doesn’t seem to have curbed lycra sales, yeesh.

[In related news, A&F stock is up over 8% since the article was “leaked.”]

Jeffries may be a snake, but he may just be a really clever snake.


Follow the Money

Here’s an interesting tidbit of information…according to a recent survey conducted by Ernst & Young (thankfully, or else I would have to do it), there may reason to believe growth strategies for major companies will rely less on acquisition & more on internal investment. The survey population – 1,600 Executives, 50 countries, the great majority from companies exceeding $500M. That’s a nice slice of data (and money) by any measure; so, it should be meaningful (to those with an interest) that despite a doubling in economy confidence levels from 2012, only 29% of those surveyed expected to make a “deal” this year (AP, Yahoo Finance; Pan Pylas.)

You could look at this a few different ways:

  • Exactly ~ Fool me once shame on you….
  • “Ernst?” What kind of name is “Ernst”???? Can I buy a vowel?
  • No more excuses for slashing the training budget, right boss?


“Do I look scared?”

The smart “buyers” will keep buying. This news is inconsequential to their buying habits – the “deal” is only half of the value. The real upside is seen after the close when the value clock starts ticking. “Day Zero” planning, trained and prepared leaders ready to integrate new people and processes, high-touch retention programs targeted at the key performers in the company, timely/transparent/consistent communication.

No doubt there are skittish deal-makers, just as there are skittish home-buyers, lenders, job seekers, etc. ~ that’s what an economic scorching will do to you. In times of recovery, the wise investor doesn’t stop investing, he/she makes smarter investments & takes advantage of the other dummies.

Deals can be made; the successful ones will make the integration phase tighter, quicker, more engaging, and do so with a plan. 

John “Whit” Whitaker is Founder of the HR Hardball™ Straight talk, no-nonsense approach to workplace issues. 

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Misery ain’t so Bad

That should be the bumper sticker for 90% of the people I know working in Corporate America (I reserve the right to exaggerate for poetic license.) These are the people who earwig you constantly about the “idiots” who run their company, the ridiculous bureaucracy, the bleak prospects for a happy future, the unfair or even abusive conditions they face every day; yet they stay. Pourquoi?

Why would people stay in a situation they dislike or even hate? Simple – misery is more comfortable than uncertainty.

This, my friends, is what’s known as the folly of fools. The “stories” we would never sell to others, we then find very easy to accept ourselves. We cannot tolerate the unknown, so we default to that which we have grown accustomed, as if we are “controlling” our place in life. That mindset is why people are caught completely blindsided by a layoff, job elimination, re-shuffling of responsibility, etc. We live in a false sense of certainty, when in fact we have no idea what is to come despite our best efforts to control outcomes. These are not the corporate caregivers our parents enjoyed; at the very least, it might be a good idea to have an updated resume on hand, right?

I have a friend who sits in a fairly comfortable corporate gig (nothing inherently wrong with corporate gigs, I’m just providing detail.) He hates it. Has hated it for years. On the other hand, he’s paid handsomely for this job he hates, so the proverbial “golden handcuffs” keep him attached to this position. He’s turned down several opportunities to leave over the years, mainly because there are no guarantees he would not regret his decision. Do any of us still believe there are “guarantees” for anything? So, he sits and waits for a miraculous change of heart, or, more likely a forced decision – i.e., maybe he’ll be lucky enough to be laid off & get on with his life.

“Heads I stay, tails…ah, screw it.”

I get it, I’ve been there m’self. Paychecks and benefits are good stuff. But they also contribute to the illusion of “certainty.” With the volatile and unpredictable nature of the job market today, it’s more & more likely that everyone will face at least the threat of displacement ~ change your outlook and realize it may not be a threat after all. Life’s too short to be miserable, even if it means forsaking great dental benefits.

“The defining nature of uncertainty is its very unmanageability. Seeking to control it is like trying to rearrange fog.” (Pritchett, Hacking Uncertainty)

John “Whit” Whitaker is Founder of the HR Hardball™ Straight talk, no-nonsense approach to workplace issues. 

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