Thursday, February 19, 2015

Noticing Essentials



I love to read articles in LinkedIn, with special interest in learning new and interesting details.  It occurred to me this morning, however, that we sometimes need to focus on basics, and make sure we cover the essentials of a plan before we move on to details.

Early in my career, I was a manager for a movie theater chain.  Our little chain was acquired by a huge international corporation, which then set out on an ambitious expansion plan.  Accordingly, the company built a new flagship theater, spending millions of dollars on a location which, over the next decade, lost millions of dollars.  Managers had tried to warn the head office that the location chosen was not suited to an upscale location, but we were ignored.  No demographic studies were done to confirm assumptions regarding market share or growth potential.  The new location was beautiful and impressive, but was also built in a declining neighborhood where crime was becoming a problem and away from most of the people who would be interested in a new movie theater.  The new location also failed to offer any of the amenities that Houstonians wanted in their movie experience.  The location started with limited customer interest and declined from there.

The same chain opened another location, which I managed, also a flagship project.  This one was much more successful, since it was near upscale shopping and close to Westheimer, one of Houston’s busiest roads.  We were profitable from day one, with large crowds and lots of support even in the slow months.  But the chain made mistakes again, starting with a corporate decision to replace senior managers with younger, cheaper managers.  This led to mistakes by inexperienced managers who did not know how to prepare for crisis or plan beyond the immediate future.  Simple projection of concession stock to avoid running out or losing stock to spoilage was not done, because the old managers were replaced before they could train the new managers in even these simple practices, which damaged customer satisfaction and chased away patrons. 

And then there was the foundation problem.  To save money, the chain had refused to use a Houston architect, choosing instead to use the same guys who designed their Canada locations.  Unfortunately, the ground in Houston is very different from the ground in, say, Toronto, and weight load distribution and weathering were not properly considered.  This led to immediate problems with basement flooding, and eventually resulted in the building failure as the foundation cracked along the east wall … all the way from the front to the back.   The foundation problem was first denied, then ignored, then forced the building to be condemned.

I can’t say how much the failure to plan for these two locations had to do with the eventual collapse of the business, but I can say that from my vantage point I observed that the company put a lot of effort into details while ignoring basic, fundamental needs and priorities.  Those years taught me about the critical importance of making sure I start with what I need, only adding extra expense and complexity where it helps my team be more effective and achieve our goals.


It’s easy to read articles like this and tell yourself you won’t make those foolish assumptions and focus on image rather than substance.  But what started me thinking about the need to watch out for glitter and gloss, was the fact that so many of the photos that show up in The Pulse, show attractive models more than real employees, and ideals more than the nitty-gritty of real-world work.  That’s why I have a photo of a pair of sensible shoes.  No one gets excited over a pair of plain work shoes, but it’s very important to make sure you have a good solid grip on things.  It may not wow anyone that you first pay attention to stability and good sense, but it may well prevent you having to explain a fall from wearing something silly.  In the same way, no one is likely to hand out awards for testing assumptions and making sure you cover the essentials first and surest … but you are performing a vital service to your company by doing that work.

Monday, February 16, 2015

How to Kill Your Company: Peavey’s Appalling Performance on National TV


My wife is a big fan of the TV show ‘Undercover Boss’.  This is because the show generally portrays the human side of executives, who work in disguise alongside regular employees and later praise and reward their people with bonuses, promotions, and process improvements.  Sometimes the show strains to present the business in a favorable light, but at least the owners and bosses understand that the show is a great opportunity to build the brand and improve the health of their company culture.

Until last night.

Last night’s episode focused on Courtland Gray, Chief Operating Officer and heir-to-the-throne of Peavey Electronics.   It started off with the nominal premise – Courtland was being groomed to take over the top job from Hartley Peavey, who planned to retire, and he wanted to get a sense of how things were really going in his company.  Courtland put on a disguise and took a fake name, and visited several locations to check his employees’ work quality and morale.

There were warning signs early on, that Courtland was not the right guy for the job.  Courtland enjoys hobbies in his free time which include beekeeping.  This was telling, since Courtland remarked to the crew filming him how much better he thought things would be, if his company ran like a beehive, not realizing the elitist and condescending arrogance his comment displayed.  Sadly, by the time the show ended that remark would be reinforced by Courtland’s other statements and actions.   He really is that arrogant.

At Courtland’s first stop, he discovered that Peavey equipment – pretty much all of it – had quality issues.  He was offended by the crowd’s consensus that Peavey products were shoddy, but he made no note to establish better Quality Control.  Since the introduction noted that Peavey was suffering in the market, the discovery of his brand’s unpopularity could have been an opportunity to regain market share and customer support by focusing on better quality, but Courtland paid no attention at all to this possibility.  He focused only on marketing the brand, not improving the product.
At his next stop, Teresa - a veteran employee with over two decades with excellent skills and whose work is praised by Courtland - complained about worries about job security and the fact that she had not received a raise in eight years.   Michael, another employee whose work Courtland praised noted that he had turned in two-week notice because he had received a better offer – he loved working at Peavey but needed more money to take care of his family.  Courtland made sympathetic noises to the employees, but to the camera complained that the employees ‘did not see the big picture’.  It should also be noted that manufacturing resources and processes were far behind the times and insufficient to the targeted goals.  Even a casual observation showed that Peavey was not providing the necessary tools and resources for employees to accomplish the work targets set for them.  Even in 2015, Peavey had employees hand-soldering circuit boards and manually building boxes made from cheap particle board.  

There is a point in every episode of ‘Undercover Boss’, where the boss reveals his identity to the employees and rewards the good guys.  Courtland certainly goes through the motions, promising raises and money to help the family and vacation time.  But CBS revealed that this episode was different.  In the follow-up section, the show notes that Courtland is ‘trying’ to get the bonuses and rewards he promised … meaning he has not kept his promise for four months and may never come through on his word.  Worse, more layoffs have been made, including Teresa and Michael.   Courtland actually smiles about giving 60 days to the employees, as if he had not assured the employees that this would not happen.  Teresa coldly observes that when the layoff notices came, Courtland and Hartley were nowhere to be found – it was just someone sent down from HR.  While layoffs are a sad fact of life in the modern world, the manner and timing of this one suggests that the executives at Peavey have no real sympathy for the pain caused by their decision, and what’s more they are too cowardly to at least deliver that bad news in person.  The episode reeked of executive arrogance, incompetence, cowardice, and greed, especially since Hartley’s comments and appearances indicated he fully supported Courtland’s behavior. 
     
Any one element of this episode would have been bad enough.   But the total episode was practically a guide of things to avoid in running a business:

  •         Executives had no interest in improving quality issues;
  •         Executives did not value the individual skills and experience of their employees;
  •         Executives would not provide adequate resources, even when doing so would increase both productivity and morale;
  •         Executives made promises they did not keep;
  •         Executives made assurances knowing layoffs were coming;
  •         Executives went into hiding when bad news was delivered; and
  •         Executives displayed all of these faults on national television.


There were, I suspect, some people who greatly enjoyed this episode of ‘Undercover Boss’.  Namely, the competitors of Peavey Electronics, who should expect a benefit as potential customers flee the disgraced Peavey name.  Skimming through the Internet this morning, I found several forums where outrage among guitar, microphone, and electronic accessories users is already strong.  It almost seems as if Courtland was trying to tank the company, since every statement and behavior seemed to be the worst choice when selling the brand.  Sadly, I believe he was simply that far from reality.  

There is a grim lesson there for any boss who believes he or she knows everything necessary to make their company succeed, and it starts with the need to be humble and respect the people who make the actual product.  One final comment I have about Courtland, is that he showed no aptitude whatsoever in actually making the product.  He can’t make the product, he can’t improve the product, and he can’t take care of the people who do make and improve the product.  Courtland Gray is worse than useless, and we should all seek to avoid that fate by making sure we learn from, listen to, and respect the people in our teams. 

Saturday, October 04, 2014

The Need for Critical Thought




We live in an age of social media.  Literally hundreds of millions of people read and share thoughts in a myriad ocean of online communities.  To a degree, that's great; information is a resource which can be multiplied and built into greater concepts, but there is a problem - too many people take statements at face value and trust outright lies.  This dilutes the information's value and effectiveness, and can cause conversations to collapse into useless bickering.  What's missing, I submit, is the ability for readers to critically evaluate claims and statements, to remove the dross and make sure they accept only valid assertions.

Critical thinking is not simple pessimism, or a cynical attitude.  You need to be able to know that your information is reliable and trustworthy.  You need to know that your conclusions are more than assumptions which sound good to you.  After all, your own reputation wil rise or fall on the value of information you pass along as your own claims.

When you read something online, consider whether it is an assumption by the author, compare it to your own knowledge and experience, and test it with logic.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Thirteen Years Later




The dead are mourned still by many, but forgotten by many more.  We have all read or heard or seen stories this week about the 9/11 attacks, but in the context of a news story, a passing spectacle.   Some people still try to work up anger and rage for some political enemy or some cultural villain, but in the end the hardest, coldest truth is the pain and loss from that day.

There is evil in the world, and everywhere.  It attacked us before, and it will attack us again.  The survivors will mourn the dead, do what is necessary to repel the attack, they will heal and they will rebuild.

This is not a day of politics, nor to demand revenge.  This is a day where we count our loss and remember those gone from us, and we commit to love and cherish our families and communities for better and for good.

Saturday, August 02, 2014

Authority


We live in a world of noise.   I don’t just mean the machinery and traffic we endure every day, but the incessant demand for our attention from pretty much everyone.  Our family needs our attention, our work demands it, advertisers try every trick to grab it, and even when we want to relax, once again from commercials to features, someone’s right there grabbing at our attention.

OK, fine.  To a degree we learn how to cope with a noisy world.  But there is also a point beyond which someone ceases to offer value, and becomes just an annoyance.   One of these is what I call the fake expert.  I like to read ‘The Pulse” on LinkedIn, and the site loads up that section with articles from what they call ‘Influencers’ - celebrities, business leaders, and some folks with no obvious reason to be highlighted. Full disclosure – I have never been invited to post as an ‘Influencer’, and my lack of political correctness means I should never expect such an honor, which may play a small part in my opinion of LI’s ‘Influencers’, but my real complaint is the trend of articles on subjects where the author can claim no expertise.    

A sad example would from Frank Wu, the Chancellor & Dean of AC Hastings College of the Law, who wrote a little ditty he called “Your Boss Is No Better Than You” 


My first problem starts with the subject. When I read the article, Mister Wu was plainly addressing the business environment, and the matter of competency among different ranks.  The problem is Mister Wu’s credentials to speak as an expert.  His profile is pure academia:  Law Clerk after college, associate of a law firm, then teaching at law school, then writing, law work, and teaching law up to today.  What’s missing?  Unless you are na├»ve enough to imagine that a law firm can reasonably be compared to a corporation, start-up, retail or other genuine business that actually sells to the public, Mister Wu has less experience in business roles than a middle school student.   I have no complaint if Mister Wu wants to discuss some case in the news, or discuss liability for a business.  Unfortunately, however, Mister Wu posted his article on his opinion of business roles and ranks, on absolutely nothing more than what he has read in magazines and online.  To make matters worse, Mister Wu never even mentions the authors or studies he found so compelling.

Why should that be rebuked?  Three reasons, I think.  First, Mister Wu’s article took the place of a different article, and if a real manager or executive or long-time employee had written their account, the article would have been far more authentic.  Second, there are so many articles cluttering the web about business that it makes no sense to post where you have no applicable knowledge.  I do not, after all, post articles in law reviews about my opinion of the latest SCOTUS ruling, so there is no reason why some law professor bored with his profession should troll into a place where his opinion has no more weight than that of his readers.  If he wants to blog it on his own blog, fine, but a business site should seek out business people, not lawyers, on the subject of work roles.

And third – time wasted on Wu’s opinion devalues the site.  I am just a little less interested in LinkedIn’s “Pulse” articles, having learned that authors may troll in print for no better purpose than the editors at LinkedIn forgot their own core competency.

There is more, of course. Some of Mister Wu’s claims are not merely not completely true, but also can be dangerously false.   For example, in his first paragraph, Mister Wu wrote the following: 
any good supervisor should realize her direct reports are by and large more capable in their jobs than she herself could be if she replaced them.

So what’s wrong with that statement?  The problem is that a supervisor exists to direct and guide his or her employees, not to do their work.  A coach of a football team is not the coach because he throws the ball better than the Quarterback or tackles better than their starting Linebacker, but because he is the best coach.   Mister Wu’s inability to understand this distinction undercuts everything he says in the article.   

A good manager has to have specific skills, and that's where Mister Wu makes his second mistake - he assumes that degrees are irrelevant, and that is usually just not true. Someone can get a degree and never learn the skills they need, sure, but that's not usually case; the majority of people who earn management degrees do so to gain depth and learn how to be effective in leading their team. Mister Wu is correct to the point that managers must respect the work of their people, but he is completely wrong to insult and disrespect the talent and experience of managers and bosses. He does not begin to understand what a good manager does, or why it matters to the team.

Mister Wu doubles down on that ignorance, saying “An executive who is in charge of a project is not necessarily capable of fulfilling the specialized responsibilities of the people whom she oversees” .   There are several reasons why this is so wrong.  First, as I noted, a manager is not made a manager to do the same work as his employees.  A manager has his job to accomplish three missions:

  • A manager is given specific projects and assignments by the executives/directors.  He is paid to make sure these assignments are completed and well done; 
  • A manager exists to protect the company’s stability, financial health and prospects for growth, and
  • A manager exists to take care of his team, to direct them, provide resources and discipline or reward according to the worth of their work.
These are all important, and to the point, very distinct from the job description for regular staff.  Never forget that managers are paid more because they are responsible for results in a way that regular employees never have to worry about. 

Mister Wu is not done insulting professionals in roles he does not understand, saying “people who are quick studies suppose that a cursory review of a subject enables them to substitute their spontaneous judgment for reasoned recommendations made by others”.   Note that Mister Wu assumes that people with advanced degrees and professional certifications only make ‘a cursory review of a subject’.  He does not stop to consider that his logic suggests his own credentials would disqualify him to teach his own classes.   After all, by his argument Mister Wu does not really know the law better than his clerks, assistants, or students – an advanced degree equals a ‘cursory review’.   Mister Wu clearly does not examine his own claims in anything like an objective manner.

Mister Wu has a law degree, and a lot of experience in academia. He does not have a single day of work in any real business enterprise.  Mister Wu has never worked retail, manufacturing, or in any environment where he can speak with experience about how corporations evaluate and promote talent.  He has never had to work with a business plan, had to evaluate a staff for bonuses and promotions, never evaluated an employee to determine if they need additional training or resources.  Mister Wu, in other words, has absolutely no credentials to speak on any business operations topic.

None.

The damage done by Mister Wu may not be apparent, but his arrogance and contempt for the value of managers and bosses undermines the effectiveness of companies and teams.  Managers can be good or bad, more the former than the latter, and assuming that because someone is the boss that they are actually less competent than their staff is both undeserved and malicious in character.

Every business that runs with a focus on customer service depends on good managers.  Every business that builds on a solid business plan depends on good managers.  Every business that plans to be around a decade from now will depend on good managers.  In my three decades as a manager, I have worked for rotten bosses and great bosses and learned from all of them.  I learned how to evaluate performance, how to determine necessary training for employees, how to choose candidates for promotion, how to protect good employees from layoffs and from being passed over for promotion, how to discipline employees and to create genuine improvement processes.  I am far from the only boss to learn all these things, but a good boss must be respected in order to be able to do his job, and that means employees cannot trash bosses with false claims and insults, just because they do not understand their boss’ duties and responsibilities.  Business structures change over time, and all kinds of ideas get tossed around to create innovation and growth.  The boss, however, is a necessary role in any business and it is vital to understand the role, not attack the boss out of ignorance. 

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Obstacle or Resource? Think About Your Situation



Back when I was a young man, I found myself unable to get a job.  A friend of mine was the City Manager for Plitt Theaters in Waco, so I asked him for a favor and got hired as a doorman at the cinema.  Over time, I was promoted to Assistant Manager at a 2-screen cinema, then Assistant Manager at the City office (under a new City Manager), then Manager of a 2-screen cinema, then Manager of a 6-screen cinema, then opening manager of a new flagship cinema near the Galleria in Houston.   Along the way, I learned from my superiors and colleagues, and over time I saw their fallibility as well as their skills.  When I worked in Houston, which was the Gulf Coast Regional Office for Cineplex-Odeon (which bought out Plitt Theaters in 1986), I happened to work under a particularly cruel and vicious Vice-President of Operations, a man who seemed to take great pleasure in causing stress and trouble for managers in town.  Nothing we did was ever good enough, and if we made even a minor mistake (or if one of our staff made a mistake), we were punished severely for the offense.  For example, in 1990 I won an award as the Outstanding Manager in the Gulf Coast region.  At the ceremony, this VP took me aside and bluntly told me I did not deserve the award – he simply had to give it to someone and I had “screwed up the least”.  I beat profit and attendance expectations four years straight at the Spectrum Cinema, but received no praise for it.  I trained employees well enough that the same VP who regularly yelled at me for minor and sometimes imaginary mistakes found my staff competent enough to make managers of three other theaters.  I could have topped that, except that this VP was so boorish and vile that he fired or chased off at least a dozen great managers who had worked for me – one the VP drove off because he was gay, another was bullied because she wore a pantsuit on a weekend instead of a dress, still another was told he would be fired unless he wore a silk tie with his suit.  Charming fellow, that executive.

And yet, years later in a different industry, I was able to apply lessons learned from this executive to help me in my own career.  I did not, of course, copy his behavior but looked for his opposite.  Where this executive would steal credit for work done by others, I made sure my bosses heard when one of my people had a great idea or did something great.  The funny thing is, that didn’t hurt me a bit.  Where the VP would yell and scream at managers in front of staff and customers, I made sure praise was always out in the open, while criticism – if needed – was delivered in private and always with the idea of finding solutions to problems, not attacking the person.  I worked hard to respect my colleagues and to see their point of view, and in so doing established myself as a team player and a good fit in any project.  From my return to school, where I used these skills in team-building, to working with customers and colleagues, I found constructive lessons even from painful experiences.

You never know how you may make use of something, even if it seems bad at first.  If someone drops a ton of bricks on you, maybe you can build a house.


Good luck.     

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Avoiding Unhappy Endings



It's always nice to get invitations, especially when someone calls and says you'd be a great addition to their team.  In my experience, pretty much no one thinks their job is perfect, even when they get good pay or enjoy a solid reputation and can boast a healthy tenure.  There's always the question about the future - Could I make more in a new job?  Where is my present job going?  Everyone says you should have options, so what are my options?


So anyway, I love my job and the people I work with.  I like the drive to work, I like the pay and benefits and the industry is growing.   But there have been changes at my company and like anyone else, I believe I have to consider options if and when they become available.  So I was happy when I received not one, but two inquiries from recruiters on companies they said would be happy to have me.   I had pleasant conversations with each of the recruiters, and phone interviews were scheduled.  I sent my most recent resume to both, and then did some homework to learn about both companies. 


You may have read articles about how businesses use social media and the Internet to learn details about the people who apply for jobs.  It happens that the same tools are available for ordinary people, to find out about the companies they are considering for application.   For example, I was interested in the growth potential at each company, both for my role and also for the company health in each case - there would be no purpose in taking a job at a company which folds or needs to lay off employees a couple years later.   Also, there are a number of web sites which offer employee reviews of their jobs at companies, covering things like salaries, job satisfaction, company officers, Glassdoor.com and Indeed.com are two very convenient examples.  Search engines can also provide information in changes in ownership or leadership, lawsuits, new products and other important events in the company history or plans.   


In the course of doing my homework, I learned that both of the companies were relatively new businesses; that is, they were part of larger, established companies but were starting new projects that had a certain amount of risk.  Employees from both companies expressed doubt about their employers’ business plan and leadership, and morale at both companies was low, as grievances apparently had been ignored by senior leadership, either because they were unaware of the concerns or because they do not consider employee satisfaction a high priority.  In both companies a majority of employees answering surveys said there was no sense that a career path was viable for them.  


These discoveries created problems for me.  I find it unwise to take any claim at face value, and I am aware that people are more likely to complain than to praise a large company/employer.  But when making a career decision, I realized that only two offers could be seriously considered – one with significantly better long-term career prospects, or one with considerably better immediate pay and title.  Since both of the offers were for essentially the same rank/role with only marginally better pay, and in both cases the drive to work would be much longer, with computer systems different from the SAP I know and proprietary system I work with now, the results of my personal risk/benefit analysis dictated staying at my current position.


After reviewing and checking my work and results, I contacted both companies and declined the offers.   In both cases the recruiter was very courteous and professional, which is one reason I have not identified the companies; someone else in a different place in life may find their decision different for very good reasons.  But I do believe that my decision examined and weighed valid risk factors, both in staying at my current job and in taking a role at a different company.  I wrote this article in hopes you may find it helpful in some of your own career decisions.

Good luck.