Helping the Chronically Overworked Find Life Balance

Don’t Let Perception Overshadow Your Productivity

Chapter 9: Paint Your Environment Part 12

My last company had a thing about slackers.  In a performance review, I was told that my career could be slowed because I was perceived as a 9 to 5er.  Five minutes earlier, my manager told me that I got more done than anyone he had ever met.

This was a cultural issue – there was a regular review process that evaluated people in two dimensions – the quality of work and suitability for promotion.  In practice, the second dimension was a proxy for who showed up the most. Yes, I left at 5:30, but why did that matter when I was getting so much done?

In hindsight, I made too big a deal out of my life outside of work.  For example, I always told my manager whatever kid activity I had done the previous weekend, and let him know that I would be leaving work early once a week to coach soccer at 3:30.  He told me that I had trained him not to expect an answer to his Saturday emails until Monday morning; he admitted that he was surprised that he was ok with that.  Yet in spite of my productivity, the company had me in the “not committed” column.

My only regret is what I said, not what I did. My highest priority was time outside of work, and I had as much as I needed.  But, I should have talked less about the kids and more about what interested my manager – how hard I was working to make the numbers.

As we saw in the last post about ROWE, revenue at Suntell went up 185% in the two years after employees were given the freedom to decide when to come to the office.  And while my company was very unROWE, the flexibility that I took for myself helped make me the most productive person there.

In the next post, I’ll tell you how to do it.

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Should Success Be Based On Results or Politics?

Chapter 9: Paint Your Environment Part 11

It really isn’t the same everywhere.
For example, some company cultures tend to drive people towards unethical decisions[i] (More here).  In an analogous way, some company cultures drive people more towards corporate idolatry. Employees are expected to “do what it takes” to meet deadlines, and to sacrifice their personal time if the boss asks. I believe that a company with a Results Oriented Work Environment (ROWE) has a lower risk for corporate idolatry.

The philosophy behind ROWE is simple. Employees are responsible for results. How they get there is up to them, completely.  Employees are given the freedom to decide when to come into the office, and how best to meet their objectives.  Daniel Pink argues that ROWE is effective because it provides employees autonomy, i.e. control over their environment, which is intrinsically motivating.[ii] This testimonial from an employee at the GAP, a ROWE company, seems to support that notion.

ROWE has been such a huge support and peace of mind. It allows me to not feel guilty when I need to take care of personal issues. I always meet my deadlines and find alternate time to complete my work.”[iii]

ROWE was developed by Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson when they were in the HR department at Best Buy.  Now, they are consultants and speakers, helping to bring change to hundreds of companies.  I am skeptical about an individual’s ability to change a company culture.  But Ressler and Thompson present a way to make it possible, with a website filled with business cases and slide decks to help you justify a radical change to the way your company operates.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_DhIVfpfimY&noredirect=1

In one example, Suntell, a company that sells loan risk management software adopted a ROWE strategy.  They implemented a VOIP system that allows employees to work from anywhere, which saved the company 7% in phone expenses.  Many employees decided to work from home, which allowed the company to save 30% on rent by moving a smaller office .[iv]

ROWE is generally structured for departments or companies to adopt, but there are principles that can help individuals regain control of their time as well.

[i] Bad Apples, Bad Cases, and Bad Barrels: Meta-Analytic Evidence About Sources of Unethical Decisions at Work.  Kish-Gephart JJ, Harrison DA, Treviño LK. . J Appl Psychol. 2010 Jan;95(1):21

[ii] Drive by Daniel Pink.  Riverhead Book (2009) P 84-85.

[iii] Results Only Work Environment Case Study: GAP

[iv] Results Only Work Environment Case Study: Suntell

How To Redefine “What Is Best For The Company.”

“Office Space” Movie Night Party via Bashionista.com

Chapter 9: Part 10

Ever hear the phrase “we need to do what is best for the company?”  What was the context?

Was it someone explaining to you your basic job responsibilities, or was it someone justifying an unpalatable decision?

I asked the people I interviewed about the phrase “the good of the company.” Hare are answers from two leaders I respect and introduced to you earlier in the book.

Remember Harry T Lobo, the Wolf CEO from Chapter 4, who struggled in a toxic environment in Chapter 6?  Harry feels that it is his job to do what is best for the company BUT  he focuses on what is best in the long term.

Harry told me that one of the things he found difficult in his time at the toxic culture was the incredible pressure at the end of the quarter, when  “60 percent of revenue came in the last 48 hours.”  The sales team was incentivized to do crazy deals to pull business forward, which in the short run helped maintain the stock price. In Harry’s opinion, this built a “house of cards” because it was that much harder to make the number the following quarter.

Another admirable leader we met was Janet “power mom” Wolf in Chapter 7.  Janet told me of a situation where site closures were explained to the remaining employees as a positive step because they brought various product development teams together in house. Closer coordination would get products to market more quickly, and thus better serve customers.  Janet  had visibility to the decision making process of those senior to her, and thought the layoff was more about cost savings, combined with an arrogance that the other sites, brought in by acquisition, were not as good.  Janet told me that executives made comments like “what do those people do all day?”

Janet did not think the loss of the personnel and expertise would  benefit the company in the long run.  The company did not offer any relocation packages, which in Janet’s opinion “spoke volumes” about what the executives thought of the people.

The lesson here is that even in a toxic culture, there are leaders who define “the good of the company” in terms of the long term interest and who value people.  The trick is to find these leaders, and the pockets of relative calm and sanity they can provide.  For example, Janet  talked about how she tried to shield her team from the buffeting from the top.

When I was caught up in my corporate idolatry, I would never have considered certain positions because the products were not cool or important enough.  But as work because less important to me, I became more open minded, and was delighted to get a job out of the limelight.  There was less stress, and I had the bandwidth to focus on health and family.

Who are the leaders in your company who seem to focus on the long term?  Have you ever considered working for them?  Is there a department that in the past seemed too boring that is work considering?

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Are B Corporations The Answer To Corporate Idolatry?

B Corps are certified by the nonprofit B Lab to meet rigorous standards of social performance, accountability, & transparency

Chapter 9: Paint Your Environment Part 9

The last few posts have explained how a “numbers first” corporate culture is more likely to lead to corporate idolatry.  There are also corporate cultures that are less likely to contribute to corporate idolatry.  One of them derives from a fundamental way that a corporation is structured.

Remember from Chapter 3 that corporations are established by law?  Under the standard legal framework, company officers and employees have a fiduciary duty to maximize shareholder value, and may actually be prohibited from taking wider social concerns into account when making decisions if shareholder value is negatively impacted.

For example, it is widely perceived that the formerly socially progressive Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream Company was forced to sell to Unilever, a large multi-national company because it was in the best interest of shareholders. A close review of this decision debunks the myth that the company was legally required to sell to the highest bidder even though the founders did not want to sell.[i]  But whatever the actual legal status, this perceived fiduciary duty is an argument that can thwart attempt to “do the right thing.”

The Benefit Corporation (B Corporation.) is a new type of corporation designed to get around this issue. According to Bcorporation.net, “Current corporate law makes it difficult for businesses to take employee, community, and environmental interests into consideration when making decisions.”  The B Corporation provides a legal framework to allow the creation of an organization that has a wider social mission beyond profit alone.  In other words, the founding charter of a B Corporation includes a material benefit to society as one of it’s goals.

According to Andrew Kassoy, one of the leaders of the B Corporation movement, “Increasingly there are businesses that want to create value for all their stakeholders, not just their shareholders.” [ii] So by it’s very nature, a B Corporation, will tend to attract people who care more about than just the bottom line.  This type of environment is much more likely to be friendly to a balanced lifestyle.  For example, Patagonia, a B Corporation, is highly rated on Glassdoor.com, both overall and for work/life balance.

Will a legal structure solve the problem of corporate idolatry?  Not completely, but a B Corporation could be part of your answer, because it removes an obstacle to people-first values in the workplace.

What do you think?

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[i] Freezing Out Ben & Jerry: Corporate Law and the Sale Of a Social Enterprise Icon By Antony Page & Robert A. Katz. Stanford Social Innovation Review Fall 2012, retrieved January 21, 2013 http://www.ssireview.org/articles/entry/the_truth_about_ben_and_jerrys

[ii] Socially Conscious Companies Have a New Yardstick By Hilary Howard. New York Times. Published: November 8, 2012, retrieved January 21, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/09/giving/a-new-yardstick-for-socially-conscious-companies.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

Image courtesy of B lab.

What You Can Learn From Black Swans, Forecasting, and Idolatry

Chapter 9 Paint Your Environment Part 8

In this chapter I’ve told several stories about forecasting, because so many dysfunctional companies live and die by the forecast because they can’t seem to agree on anything else they stand for.  I am drawn to the topic because it reminds me of an extensive commentary by the medival Jewish philosopher known at the Rambam which is shorthand for Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, (AKA) Maimonides.

The Rambam argued that soothsaying, fortune telling, divining and related “black arts” are forms of idolatry perpetuated by unscrupulous leaders as a means to control other people by fear. The Rambam said that “It is not fitting for the Jews who are wise sages to be drawn into such emptiness. ”[i]  To put it in a more kindly and general context, he was saying that educated people should know better.

In a similar way, I think that people in the business world should know better than to blindly follow forecasts or other business means of predicting the future, which is exactly what Professor and former hedge fund manager Nassim Nicholas Taleb argues in his book The Black Swan.  Taleb, like the Rambam, marvels that people seem to ignore the terrible track record of those who routinely predict the future and get it wrong.

Taleb uses the example of the black swan as a metaphor.  For hundreds of years, bird experts said that Black Swans do not exist, because one had never been seen. Which was true until Europeans reached Australia, and found them in plenty.  Taleb shows that financial analysts have a terrible track record at predicting the future – they are no better than someone who looks just at the last quarter’s data and extrapolates.  In fact, the analysts tend to follow the herd, and are unlikely to make predictions that are outliers.[ii]  But the biggest events that change history, like September 11 or the Arab Spring are almost never predicted.

If the wall street experts can’t get it right, what chance has the average forecast in an average company?

You might be wondering what this has to do with your quest for a more balanced life. There is a right and wrong way to use forecasts.  Taleb suggests that forecasts are a good way of charting possible outcomes, what is a potential large seller, but the actual outcome can’t be predicted, which is why every company should have a diversified portfolio of high risk and safer projects.  (And why a one-trick pony startup is inherently risky.)  But many companies, (like Sabina’s),  even if they have the proper portfolio mix, act as if the forecast is a real prediction of the future.

Companies with too much emphasis on forecasting and making the numbers have a higher risk of an idolatry prone culture, that devalues people as individuals. And Sabina allowed forecasting to have too large an impact on her self-esteem.

Someone looking for balance in a numbers first environment has a few options.  1. Play the politics to gain the power to set your own boundaries.  2. Take a lower profile product or project that will bring lower stress.  3. Become an expert at sandbagging the forecast.

Another option, which I will explore in the next post, is to find another company with a different, longer term and more flexible approach to doing business.

What is your experience with forecasts and numbers-first cultures?

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[i] Mishneh Torah Volume 3: Hilchot Avodat Kochavim. By MaimonidesEdited by Rabbi Eliyahu Touger.  Moznaim, (1990) P.212-213

[ii] The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Random House (2007) p 148-150.