Very early on in my career, I went a bit overboard trying to fit in with the guys. I’ve routinely been the only, or one of the only, women among men. In an effort to look “strong” or conversely and worse, to not look “weak”, I would follow the lead of the most Alpha Dog in the group until I could become the Alpha Dog – it was my form of survival. Looking back, I thought it was survival. Instead, it was a direct result of immaturity and a lack of professional experience. Also, I pride myself quite a bit on being an Alpha. I’m comfortable there.

The story I’m about to tell clearly outlines the pitfalls of following a dangerous lead rather than doing what you think is right. I was so concerned with being taken seriously and being seen as “tough” that I completely lost sight of the impact of my words and actions on another human being.  So here goes.

I was the Executive Officer of a Headquarters company. This company housed soldiers of all stripes, from cooks to supplies to intelligence to parachute riggers.  Well, one of my parachute riggers went AWOL. For several days, we contacted military police, local police, next of kin, emergency contacts and many, many hospitals.  We simply could not find the missing soldier. Four days later, the soldier returned to our unit, head down, tail between his legs, and begged for forgiveness. You see, his girlfriend broke up with him and he didn’t know how to handle the heartbreak, so he disappeared for a few days, mostly in a drunken stupor.

I handled this young man exactly as I believed I should, based upon what I thought I had been taught, certainly what I had witnessed over the past few years. I shouted and swore until the roof nearly came off of the building. I later heard that others could hear me at both ends of the building, and everyone just stood in stunned silence while I gave this young, 19 year old man the reaming of his life. I was so fueled with righteous indignation that I paid his physical and emotional reaction absolutely no notice, that is, until he threw up on the floor at my feet. The vomit ALMOST hit my newly spit shined boots. That set off another round of scolding. This young soldier was shaking, crying and covered in vomit when he left my office. The entire episode lasted less than 5 minutes.

I was shaking with rage when he left. How DARE he leave his unit in the lurch like that! Making us worry!  Making us work over time to meet his quota of parachutes packed so the infantry could continue jumping! Who the hell did he think he was?

Thankfully, I had a fantastic First Sergeant. The TOP enlisted man in the unit. He pulled me aside and asked if I felt good about what I just did? I said, absolutely. I genuinely thought I had handled this exactly as I should have, as a man would have. He shook his head and looked me right in the eye and asked me a pivotal question: Don’t you have a son?  Yes.  How old is he?  He’s two years old.  How would you react if someone spoke to your son the way you just spoke to YOUR soldier? I died a little inside. This screaming, raving maniac was not ME – not really…Inside, I believed that when you start screaming, you’ve already lost the argument – that was my actual belief, but I’d been trained to scream.

I spent the next few days speaking to all of my soldiers to get a real read on their perceptions of me.  They were equally horrendous. They all respected my work ethic and the fact that it seemed like there was nothing I couldn’t do, but I had not earned their personal respect. I was a tyrant, a terrorist within the ranks. I had to really think: why would I do something like that?  and, Is this who I really wanted to be?

I’m lucky that I learned this lesson early on and I’m grateful for that First Sergeant who took the time to call me to task and open my eyes in a way that would make me not only listen, but HEAR what he was saying. This man knew how to read people and how to make a real impact.

Why is it so easy for us to follow others when we know, deep down, that what we’re doing is at odds with our personal values? Maybe we crave acceptance and maybe that inflates our self-worth. I don’t really have that answer, but I have a different thought, one that passed down to me by my grandfather: trust your gut and surround yourself with only the very best people (however you define that). I define that as ones who share similar values but who will test you, who will lift you and who will help you be the very best version of yourself. In turn, you must offer the same of yourself, to them.

It’s been my experience that field and operations managers (the money makers – producers and sellers of goods and services) and staff and support managers (necessary evil and dead expense) often find themselves at odds (OR, if you flip the perspective, the prima donnas vs. the folks that keep the prima donnas honest and out of jail). No one, in my experience, is more at odds than basically any operational manager and their friendly neighborhood human resources teams and their close cousins, the accountants! Say it isn’t so!! Aren’t we all on the same team? Isn’t it in all of our best interests to be both wildly productive AND compliant? I know, sales and productivity are sexier than “according to xyz regulation”, but can’t we all just get along?

So, why don’t we all just get along better? I propose there are two main reasons:

1) Our goals are seemingly, fundamentally at odds with each other. You’d think that because we’re all on the same team and running in the same direction, this would not be the case, but it’s absolutely true!  Most of the time, HR and Accounting are the folks that follow ALL the rules and hold everyone accountable for doing the same, then become incredibly frustrated when the field fails to do as we expect them to! This causes boundless friction because the field is usually testing the envelope while HR and accounting are trying hard to close it!  The field managers are like running backs. They catch the ball, or fumble, flip and then catch the ball, and run like hell while we’re running alongside of them blocking all the problems they may face and trying to keep them in bounds!  Then they’re like, “what an awesome run!  Did you see? I had the tips of my toes inbound right when I caught the ball, so it’s all good, right?  As we fall forward, exhausted and catching our breath while they tiptoe on the boundary holding a victory dance!

2) We simply don’t speak the same language. I was fortunate to learn this lesson very early on as a young Army officer. I was the top logistician for a Division Artillery. During an extended field exercise, I was charged with giving my commander updates every 12 hours. I proudly stood up in front of the whole staff and recited statistics off of my whiz bang excel spreadsheet. For those of you that are much younger than me, this was way back very near the launch of Excel. Aside from my fellow logisticians, no one else in the room used Excel or understood what it did! I would talk about caches of 5 short tons of fuzes and 3 short tons of “Willie Pete” (white phosphorous ammunition) and would walk away feeling like I was on top of my game. No one does whiz bang like me! But after one update, when I was feeling especially tired, I watched my Colonel’s reaction. He was nearly asleep!!  How could he sleep when I’d just given the mother of all updates?

Well – he couldn’t translate my updates into anything useful. What does an Artillery Colonel know about short tons? So I spoke to the Fire Direction Officer before the next update and discussed the unit’s overall plan. He helped me translate my supplies report into an artillery report. Rather than reading stats off of a spreadsheet, I grabber a pointer (yes, that’s how far back I’m going!) and began pointing to the map and our area of operations. I walked the team through their attack missions for the next 12 hours showing them exactly where their munitions were stored, where the convoys lanes were, how long it would take to resupply and confidently let them know that their plans were a “GO” because we had pre-positioned their supplies hours ahead of time. The Colonel not only stayed awake, he leaned forward and asked follow up questions like, with all that ammunition, can we schedule another destruction mission over there? No Sir, however with the type of ammo we do have, we can blind and suppress the enemy for a period of time while another unit moves into place over here. That day, I was promoted from “an evil necessity” to a full team member.

The same holds true in all companies. As support staff, it’s our job, for better or worse, to speak the language of the ops folks and translate our abilities to support them into language they can understand without using the word NO all the time. We need to use their language to further our objectives!  As the sales folks learn how to overcome objections, we need to do the same when we’re faced with theirs to help keep them inside the lines as much as possible while maintaining our sanity!

Ever feel like you’re being pounded on by the “Policy Police”? I never do! OK, sometimes I do, but that’s because many times, I’ve been considered to be one of those “pounders”. Every company needs a series of watch dogs in different disciplines to ensure that operations are moving along seamlessly and complying in accordance with local, state and federal regulations. Let’s be honest, this is neither the most fun nor most glamorous part of any job (unless you think compliance and policies are sexy, then that’s another blog for another time – and probably another blogger!)

So, what’s happening when you feel the dreaded pounding coming? And for those of us wielding the hammer, what’s really going on?

If there is much to do about policies, then, generally speaking, the policies are misaligned in some way. Let’s establish a baseline that policies exist for a valid reason. I’ve never met a compliance officer that loves to make up policies for the sake of making up policies – well maybe a few did when SOX was originally passed – what a freakin’ debacle, but I’ll try not to get sidetracked.

When a policy is in place but is violated over and over again, we need to take a step back and determine if the violations are happening for otherwise valid reasons.  Rather than looking to hold steadfast to a policy that everyone ignores without repercussion, reconsider the issues from a broader perspective.  What was the original purpose of the policy? What problem was it established to solve? For all those violating the policy, what problem are they trying to solve that the policy doesn’t allow? Then determine if the policy still makes sense in the current operational context.  Maybe the policy needs tweaking OR maybe we’ve been too lenient and allowed operations to go a bit too far away from our policy. Like any good sports team or athlete, when something isn’t working well, we always go back to the basics, re-establish our foundation and move on from there. So, set the baseline again and figure out what you actually do need to do and move forward.

Additionally, as corporate managers, we need to shift away from policy pounding as much as possible.  We need to pick and choose our battles and determine where we do have leverage, where we can offer leniency or bend, and where our policies are outright archaic.

 

“Yogurt has more culture than your company.” I can’t remember where I heard this line but I absolutely love it!  Think about this for a moment: When someone talks about “culture” they’re usually discussing something benevolent or rich. Someone who is described as “cultured” is thought to be refined. A company with a great culture or a rich culture is one that people want to work for that honors traditions or honors risk taking or change, which treats people with dignity and respect and follows up their culture with meaningful policies, procedures and behaviors that underscore its values. The truth is that every single organization, friendship and family has “culture”, but many times, the culture just sucks.

I think about all the organizations for which I’ve worked. I’m typically a “culture” person. That is, a big part of my job is helping establish a culture or reinforce a culture if needed. I like to say that not only am I a reflection of my company but my company is a reflection of me – that goes for work and personal relationships. I find it interesting that when it comes to personal relationships and extracurricular activities, most people are much more finicky about their choices. If the club, organization, group of friends, etc. doesn’t make you happy or bring you joy, you exit quickly. I have actually said of different groups which I have belonged, “I’m spending my hard earned money to be part of this!  If I don’t like it, I’m not wasting my money.” Why don’t we think/do the same thing with our jobs?

It’s hard. I get it! That job that’s an endless suck fest pays the bills. You develop a weird loyalty to a company that brings you absolutely no joy but helps put food on the table. You put up with sour yogurt because, really, what else can you do? Well, rather than gulping curdled cream, why not get involved in trying to change the culture? If not in the entire company, then work on your department or division. You can be that luscious fruit at the bottom of the cup – terrible analogy – float that fruit to the top!

So what makes for crappy culture? We all know it when we feel it, but this is what I’ve noticed over a few decades in the workforce.

1) Lack of empowerment: employees are told they are empowered to make decisions but actually face reprisal when they do so. As Teddy Roosevelt said “The best executive is the one who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done, and self-restraint enough to keep from meddling with them while they do it.” If you can’t trust your employees to do a good job, then you’ve hired the wrong people.

2) Culture dictates risk aversion: you don’t grow unless you take risks and who really wants to work with a group of folks that only do exactly what you tell them to, no more and no less? That’s a big yawner. Insert robot workforce and call it a day. As we used to say in the Army, grass doesn’t grow under still feet!

3) You say one thing and do another: not only is this harmful to culture, it’s downright confusing for your employees. Remember, the lowest or least behavior or performance you accept sets your new standard regardless of what you might say.

If you’re living in a crappy culture at work and you’re not ready to beat feet, grab a big ‘ole spoon and be prepared to eat. Hopefully you’ll take some positive steps to improve it before that spoon hits your mouth!

Someone told me years ago that Management takes PRACTICE and that clicked with me in a very unique way. I began thinking about Law FIRMS vs. Medical PRACTICES.  Why do those two well respected fields use such different words to describe what they do and how they operate (no pun intended!)? Lawyers must stand firm and uphold the law but they aren’t necessarily rigid in their approach or they’d have no clients! Physicians try several different things (practice) to determine which protocols work best for each of their patients while also following strict regulations. There are clear advantages to both approaches. In a management setting, I lean more toward PRACTICE than FIRM.  Here’s why.

Have you ever encountered a brand new manager who knows all the rules but doesn’t really know how to apply them in a meaningful, operational way or that long term manager who is so black and white that no one wants to work with him? Is it possible that you may be this manager and have a huge blind spot that is limiting your forward or upward progression in your workplace? A critical weakness I find among many newly promoted managers and seasoned professionals who are stuck is that they’re either so inflexible and unyielding that they become ineffective as colleagues avoid them or they’re so loose they can’t get anything done.

The mark of a great leader, in my opinion, is the ability to connect regulations and company policies with real business needs and understand when they need to (and can afford to) bend those rules vs. when they need to stand firm. In a prior blog, I discussed ways to earn a seat at the table. A real reason that some may not be invited is because their favorite word is NO!  You have so much more value and leeway when you are able to reframe that NO to gain greater credibility with the executive team as a team member rather than a policy pounder.  You also need to practice communicating with executives by translating your issues and initiatives into business speak that is understood and embraced by operations professionals. It’s no longer NO PERIOD.  Maybe it’s Yes, but also… OR I understand what you’re trying to do, can we look at it from another perspective…OR finally, when you’re mind is screaming NO, you sit silently for a few beats and think, what are they actually trying to do and can I help them get there in a conversation later?

We need to understand that while what we’re all doing is incredibly important, and that the policies exist for a reason, we are often times our own worst enemies. In our striving to be perfect and follow all policies to the letter, we are alienating our workforce and our operational leaders. The only way to earn a seat at the table is to meet them where they are and offer suggestions that help them achieve their goals while also following policies and to make them unwitting (or witting) participants in Organizational and Cultural Design!

 

Throughout our history, man has endeavored to explain the many facets of human social behavior and interaction not only in the family medium but at work as well.  Through the research and the ensuing explanations, it may appear that man has developed a keen sense of awareness of the human condition.  Unfortunately, it seems that for all of man’s research, deliberation, and frustration, we, as a race, have not progressed very far.  In each era our forefathers have developed a type of theory to govern all people by; yet each following era brings about change to the past ways in an effort to improve human relations.

The old adage states that history continues to repeat itself.  If this adage is indeed true, it follows that there will always be people on every side of the fence in regards to any change in social or structural paradigm.  It’s almost human nature to disagree with each other based upon our personal beliefs of truth.  Because there is not a global definition truth, it seems to logically follow that personal value and beliefs will never align on the basis of any single ideology.  The good news, or maybe not so good news, is that it also seems that as much as things change, they seem to stay the same.

Therefore if history repeats itself and changes come full circle, then our society is right on track with all of its arguments and speculation and the fact that we can only agree to disagree on many items.  With that being said, we should always expect to have many people with many varying views during each and every era in our history.

A major point of discussion seems to follow that if we do not express our revelations with the written word, and verbal communication is also subject to interpretation, how can we ever conceivably transmit our ideas to each other?  Although any type of communication can send the receiver off on a wrong course, the communication itself is important.  As for trying to convince others to understand and interpret ideas in the specific way that we as authors or lecturers want them to, that idea is completely ridiculous.

To a certain extent, people will follow along with anything an author publishes, but there always comes a time when the words are misinterpreted and develop whole new meanings that the transmitter never intended.  If that written word is coupled with the spoken voice of society, and further expounded upon by every biological and cultural entity which serves to nurture us, then cultural change is sure to meet us at every turn.  But the written word, by itself, can do no such thing.

As an example, let us examine a widely popular and very well known book, sometimes referred to as the Good Book.  This book contains words on many pages.  The book itself does nothing, as is evidenced by the vast array of non-believers.  Now couple that book with a preacher who wholeheartedly believes everything written within and add a few parents who devotedly attend scheduled ritual services with their children to further understand the words.  Layer this with a predominantly Christian society that imposes, for the most part, Christian morality upon its citizens, and voila, you now see the power of the written word!

It’s imperative that we remember that our writings, in any format, can easily be treated as being congruent with our thoughts and beliefs during one specific moment in time.  At certain times, it may be manifested through current learning or understanding.  At other times, it may be a reflection of preconceived notions and ideals.  It’s important to realize that these writings and their perceived and interpreted meanings may change in form and substance in the future. Through the use of the written word, understanding that these are our ideas at a specific point in time, we can share ideas with each other, which may, in all likelihood, expand the overall value of our social, cultural and educational experiences.

 

“Earning a seat at the table”.  These are some of the most overused words in business lexicon, but we keep talking about it so we must still need to learn this lesson. Some people simply want to be awarded the “seat” but don’t understand the responsibility once seated! Others beg for the seat but aren’t willing to do the work to earn the seat and finally others think they’re running in the right direction to earn a seat but find out they’ve been running in the wrong direction.

How do you set yourself to be noticed and to eventually, FINALLY, earn that coveted seat? I have a few ideas:

1) Think STRATEGICALLY. Please note, before you can be strategic, you must has proven your ability to handle day-to-day, week-to-week and month-to-month tasks. You must be a subject matter expert in your chosen field. Once you’ve established your competence, you will be taken seriously as you delve into strategy. When thinking strategically, I’m not talking about what should happen in the next quarter or even in the next year, I’m thinking 3,5 and 10 years out. If you understand the day-to-day mundane events in your specialty, you likely have a solid foundation upon which to build operational strategy in the long term.

2) Take on projects that move the business forward. Do not volunteer for every assignment that comes down the pike. Determine which ones are need to have vs. nice to have. Work on the need to have projects. They will be much tougher and may not always be the most fun or most glamorous projects. You may not even receive recognition for successful completion, but if they have real business impact, they’re absolutely worth your time.

3) Do the hard work. Literally, WORK HARD. Do more than what is expected. Meet or beat every deadline. Never give anyone any reason to believe you aren’t the most reliable person in the company. Worth ethic matters! It matters more than intelligence and innate skill! Outwork everyone else. I don’t mean that you should work yourself into the ground. I mean become so good that when you’re having an “off day”, others believe you’re still producing more than the average employee. Be efficient, use tools available to you, and improve processes. Also, while it’s nice to make friends at work, you’re not there to make friends. Please note I’m not advocating not being friendly, rather, I’m advocating getting to the business of work while at work. Several years ago, I was hosting a management training seminar and said “Follow me to the board room, not the break room!” I do want to be friendly with my co-workers, but if I have more value around the water cooler than in a conference room, I’m never getting my own seat.

4) Lead By Example, always and every day. If not for the employees, no foundational work would actually get done. What are you doing to provide the purpose, direction and motivation they need?  Are you providing the appropriate resources, attention and feedback? This does not need to be limited to your department or area. Lead everywhere you go. Lead by example, offer help, and recognize excellence in others inside and outside your area.

5) Walk and Talk like the leaders. Pick someone who has a seat at the table and emulate their behaviors. Find out what’s most important to them to concentrate on in the business and learn as much as you can about that area. In fact, assuming you are a subject matter expert in your area, tackle challenges outside of your comfort zone to learn more about the business. Being able to speak cross-functionally gives you at a distinct advantage!

Good luck finding and earning your own seat! If you have a seat, please let us know your tips to earning and KEEPING that seat!