Whence cometh loyalty? For some reason this topic has come up a few times for me in the last week. Initially it was a conversation with a columnist at the Orlando Sentinel who was doing a story on whether or not young workers lack “professionalism.” Since then I’ve seen stories in the media about what new grads will need to do to maximize their success in a slowly improving job market (be professional, communicate, network, etc.) and had a conversation with an employer about how he only wants “hungry” students willing to prove themselves (in an unpaid internship). Then about a week ago I was sitting in a focus group for a colleague and the conversation turned to skills needed by young workers. Most of the employers at the table were adamant that Gen Y lacks the professionalism and drive needed to be successful, and that colleges of business should be teaching classes to address this. It was the same, tired argument about a lack of enthusiasm, drive, ambition, and enterprise that generally emanates from well-seasoned groups like this. During the conversation, the talk turned to employee longevity and the loyalty that goes with that. The older employers at the table said that younger workers job hop too much and they wouldn’t interview anyone whose resume didn’t show longevity.

I couldn’t keep it in any longer… In 15 years of HR experience I have been part of the elimination of almost 3000 jobs. Some were through reductions in force, some were location closings. But all had the impact of eliminating jobs and putting people out of work through no fault of their own. All were economic decisions driven by company leadership as either part of a strategy for cost reduction or in response to reduced demand for products and services. Now before you start calling me some kind of pinko commie one-percenter, let me say that I totally get the need to reduce staffing when you don’t have anything for them to do. I’m not saying keep unneeded resources the way my nutty neighbor hoards old newspapers and empty prescription bottles. That’s just dumb, in BOTH cases!

Funny that I feel the need to head off that kind of argument before I’ve even made my point. Must be watching too much cable news….

Anyway, I told the collected employers that my experience in the people business has shown that most companies operate in order to make a profit for their shareholders and that means that, if necessary, they will eliminate jobs and shed the associated costs. It’s not a good or bad thing, it just is. People are a resource that cost money and depending on the company’s philosophy, sometimes you have to eliminate jobs to cut costs.

However, I entered the people business at the beginning of the late-80s recession and since then have been in it in one form or another. In that time, most of today’s young workers were born and grew up (gad, it pained me to say that!) So, if I’m busy laying their parents off and shutting down where they work and sending them home sometimes with no prior warning, how does that impact their views of “company loyalty”?

One of the employers said that his company provided outplacement services to laid off employees. That’s great, I responded. But that’s not always the case. Out of all the layoffs I participated in, we only did that once with a small pool of upper-level employees. In most other cases we laid people off that day with no warning whatsoever. We also brought in security and did other things to protect company property from the ravages of a rioting hoarde…a hoarde that never rose up. But didn’t it look comforting to have the Pinkertons at the ready just in case some ne’re-do-well decided to get out of line. Looked really good on the Channel 9 news.

How did it really look to the people impacted? On one of those occasions I ended my job by laying myself off. In that case I knew it was coming. In another case my boss let me go with no warning after I had let half of my team go. I got to go home and tell my kid that the good news is we’d have more time to hang together. The bad news is that was about all we’d be able to afford to do! In another case, I saw my Dad retire after more than 30 years with his employer. This, you’ll want to say was the pinnacle of traditional employer/employee loyalty, right? A young man joins a company at its lowest ranks and rises to become a senior executive before retiring. Great story. Except for one fact. My Dad accepted an early retirement package. That’s a nice way of laying off old people who have been there a while. Was he ready to retire? Probably, my mom was sick and he wanted to spend time with her. But was retiring his choice? Was his time as productive worker at an end? Probably not. Then again, some older workers haven’t had the option to “retire.” In many cases I just told them that what they were going to do was up to them, they just couldn’t do it here anymore.

Not to get off track, but come to think of it, what do these folks retire on? It’s certainly not a company paid pension in most cases. Those are as rare as an Edward Cullen steak. No, they have to retire on a 401K that they contributed to and hopefully managed well. Over the past 10 years many companies (again, in the spirit of cost savings) have cut their contributions to this benefit, or stopped contributing all together.

What has the collective impact of all this been on young people just entering the workforce? Well, I haven’t studied all the empirical evidence, but I have a hunch based on conversations and observations of this group. Their experience is that companies, in general, are not loyal to the employees who work for them. We have created an environment where, instead, employees look out for their own best interest. If that action benefits the company (and many times it does) then cool, but if not, so be it. And if it be, then I’ll take my ball (knowledge, skills, connections, program, Illudium Q-36 Explosive Space Modulator, etc.) and go play elsewhere.

This isn’t to say that layoffs and plant closings are the only factors contributing to a demise in perceived loyalty. It’s more the product of an increasingly self-absorbed society. Heck, if you want to be a sociologist about it, what impact has free agency in professional sports, musical frontmen “going solo,” and the inability of anyone who wins The Bachelor to get married and have a normal boring life had on society’s views of loyalty. Private equity firms rape and pillage the countryside! Sports teams pack up and leave town under the cover of darkness! Sammy Hagar replaces David Lee Roth only to have the Van Halens kick him out and bring Diamond Dave back! I’d say it’s anarchy, but it has become such the norm that it can’t be anarchistic.

Josiah Royce writes, “There is only one way to be an ethical individual. That is to choose your cause, and then to serve it, as the Samurai his feudal chief, as the ideal knight of romantic story his lady, — in the spirit of all the loyal.” To him, loyalty was the product of serving one’s cause, sometimes forgoing individual needs, and continuously honing in on one’s core mission until you surrounded yourself with people and resources that support that core mission. When you’ve reached a level of full commitment to the cause, you are loyal. Loyalty, then, is something directed to “things” more than it is to people. In today’s terms, young people are committed to causes more than they are to people. To them, people come and go, but the cause can remain constant. Through this we see a rise in social activism, possibly fueled by equal doses of naivety and enthusiasm, but the level of dedication is greater than seen in previous generations. We also see a rise in entrepreneurship, a desire to be in more control of one’s own destiny and less subject to the whims of leaders and strategies they don’t control.

So what happens when that cause is ill-defined? Take the rise in corporate gobbledygook known as “Mission Statements.” These useless code phrases dot the landscape like so many vacuous billboards. “We change people’s lives.” “Driven to be the best.” Give me a freaking break. In both cases the core mission of both enterprises was to deliver maximum return to shareholders. Period. Again, it’s not a bad thing, it’s just a thing. But because we muddy the water by believing our own bullshit and insisting that these half-baked catch phrases are really what we do, we cloud the true mission of the firm and, in Royce’s view, fail to clarify our cause. No cause = no loyalty.

What was interesting to me in that focus group was the reaction of one of the employers to my hypothesis. An older gentleman responded politely saying he heard what I was saying, but still wasn’t going to hire anyone who jumped around. That’s fine, I thought, most of the best ones are doing their own thing and won’t want to work for you anyway!

Learning to Fail

May 3, 2012

So, how many times have you screwed up? How many times have you misunderstood, misinterpreted, or just misjudged? How many times have you been wrong? How many times have you failed?

As they say in motorcycle racing, crashing sucks! And if you’ve seen the way they go down, you’d have to agree that wrecking while wrenching a 300 pound machine just inches from the ground at 120 miles per hour is pretty much the apogee of failure. Nothing like racing forward at full speed with your desired end result in mind, possibly even in sight, and having it all go to hell with one miscalculation. Most times it’s easier to handle, though more disappointing, when it’s your screw up. If it’s someone around you or even someone on your team, it can send you into freakout mode because their mistake caused you to fail.

Failure sucks for a bunch of reasons. Mostly it sucks because, well, you failed! You didn’t accomplish what you wanted. But it also sucks because there’s usually negative consequences associated with failure. The bridge falls, the car won’t start, dinner tastes like a wet sock, you lose money, your CUSTOMER loses money, your girlfriend splits with half your stuff…the list goes on. If it’s a work-related failure there’s usually a butt-chewing that follows. Might even be a documented butt-chewing. Might even be a FINAL documented butt-chewing. Might be a smile and a wave as you pack your box.

But failure teaches us so much. For starters, it teaches us what NOT to do. Ever stuck a penny in an electrical outlet? Ever did it again? I didn’t think so. I remember getting my first ten-speed bike (yea, I’m that old…). Grabbed a handful of front brake and went tumbling over the front wheel. Did it right in front of a pack of kids from school who thought it was so funny as I tumbled through the air and across the asphalt. My pride was bruised, my back and shoulder were scraped, but my brain was smarter. Note to self, don’t try to stop quickly using just the front brake…especially with people around!

Failure also teaches us how to fix stuff. As a manager, I don’t want people who can just come in and do stuff. I want people who can come in and do stuff BETTER. I want people who can look at what we’re doing and say, I have an idea on how to improve that. And then I want them to shut the hell up and do it! I want people who can take responsibility for something and make it awesome. I want people, who can fix things. And how do you learn to fix things? Well, most times you learn by having broken it at some point. My Dad told me this awesome story about when he was a teenager and learning to work on cars. He pulled the distributor out of my grandfather’s 1958 Chevy. His uncle looked at him and said, that’s nice. Put it back. So Dad did. And the car wouldn’t start! Seems you have to have the distributor lined up just right, you can’t just shove it back in. Took my Dad the rest of the day and most of the night to figure it out so my grandfather could go to work the next day. I can identify. As a new HR person I was given the task of planning an employee picnic. It was an unmitigated disaster. After that I knew everything I should do to make it better. Still can’t stand employee picnics, though…

But more importantly it teaches us that we are not infallible. In an era of participant ribbons and no scoreboards and over-complimentary parenting sometimes we have to learn that we aren’t as freaking wonderful as we think we are. Sometimes we do dumb stuff and when we do there’s a negative consequence. The truly brilliant man is not the one who can tell you everything he knows, it’s the one who realizes there’s so much more to learn! Sometimes it’s a skill we need to learn. Sometimes it’s the application of the skill that we need to learn. Sometimes we just need to stop believing our own bullshit. Most times we fail because we don’t know something about ourselves.

So what’s the difference between messing up and learning from one’s mistakes? Well, first is a level of awareness. You have to be able to recognize situations where your actions, or the actions of those around you, have lead to failure and be able to quickly dispense with the excuses and get to the mechanics. Many times getting past the excuse phase is hard because we want to focus on WHO failed rather than WHY we failed. And in most of these cases, everyone played a role in the failure. Healthy self-awareness is being able to admit our own role in the failure then quickly get past that and on to the repair.

So, next is the competence to fix whatever it is that contributed to the failure. This shouldn’t be mistaken for fixing it yourself. Going back to self-awareness it’s important that you know your limits and seek out expert advice. If I’m sick, I go to a doctor. I know people who like to self-medicate. They take herbs and roots and berries and all that stuff when what they need to do is go see a doctor. Call me when WebMD has taught you out how to carve out that brain tumor and I’ll say it’s a good idea. Until then, I know what I know and I know what I don’t know. I’m gonna get help with the stuff I don’t know.

Finally is the support structure that not only allows, but encourages periodic failure. I remember my son tooling off down the street on the little trail bike I bought him. I almost threw up….. I knew he was going to run into a car, or a tree, or a dog, or just fall and break some random body part (going back to the top, that’s why crashing sucks!). But, he wasn’t going to learn to ride unless I let him ride. He still rides today. Does pretty good. But I’ve also worked in HR long enough to know that everyone is just one screw up away from getting canned. With that in mind we sometimes work harder to cover our ass or set others up to take the fall for our mistake (for reference, see the lyrics to, “You’re Gonna Go Far, Kid”).

On that note, ever been stabbed in the back? It sucks worse than crashing, but it’s a special kind of failure. It’s a failure in trust and judgment. You put your trust in someone else, and they violate that trust for their own self-interest. I wrote about inconvenient truths a few blogs ago. Here’s another one. Some people are just assholes. Learn to deal with it.

To new grads I say, get out of your seat and go fail. To their future bosses I say, don’t be a jerk. Let them fail then man up and support them when they do. Failure doesn’t make either you weaker, it makes both of you stronger!

Shoot me a note at UCF_OCC@yahoo.com if you think I’ve failed in my reasoning. Send me a note if you think I’ve succeeded. Whatever the reason, get out there and talk to folks. Peace!

“Sales.” I said it. I said it loud enough for the sleepy young lady in the back row to be annoyed by my inflection. I smiled when I said it. And I watched their cherub-like exuberance slowly melt into an ashen repugnance. They were budding MBA graduates. A sales job is beneath them!

A month or so ago I wrote that in Orlando, “you either sell to those who serve, or serve those who sell.” It generated a LOT of discussion in various circles. Some thought I was castigating professional sales as a career path for new college grads (including those newly-minted MBAs) but I want to make it clear that nothing could be further from the truth. Sales, in fact, is an EXCELLENT way for new grads to gain entry into a firm.

Why? It’s the best way to show what you, individually, are capable of achieving. It’s also the most effective way to learn about the firm’s core product or service. Career-wise it’s a good move because companies will generally lay-off overhead and support positions before touching revenue generating positions. It’s also the best position to be in to interact with every operational unit at every level of the organization. From a control standpoint you generally enjoy a performance-based pay structure, are given a great deal of flexibility to self-manage, and initiate most of your interactions. Intrinsically you get to experience the highs and lows that come from setting and achieving goals along with helping your clients operate their businesses or live their lives better.

So why do students have an aversion to sales? Some claim they don’t like the reputation a “sales job” has. They immediately think of a used car huckster or other dishonest caricature. I know this picture well. I worked in the car business and there are a lot of folks whose actions keep that reputation alive. Slicksters, cheaters, sloths, and just outright crims dot the dealership landscape like so many potted plants. But it’s too easy to blame the profession for some bad seeds. I think that’s a convenient excuse for not really knowing all it takes to be a good sales professional.

Sales is hard. To be a good sales professional you have to be smart. You have to be able to retain tactile facts about the product or service you offer, you have to be able to communicate with and relate to your customer, you have to listen to their needs, and ultimately be able to apply what you know to create a solution for your customer. When I was teaching I used to say it’s one thing to barf up a list, it’s another thing to be able to pick through the chunks and identify what made you sick.

Sales takes discipline. Good sales people have to be smart enough to create a plan and have the discipline to stick to it. You have to manage your own activity, manage your time, and stay organized. It also takes interpersonal discipline. You’ll be challenged and questioned. You’ll be rejected. You’ll have to “suck it up” and make amends when your plan falls through or someone outside of your sphere of control fails to perform effectively. You create and maintain the image of the company you represent. Ask Charles Barkley, being a role model takes discipline.

Sales means you have to perform. In sales there is no cover. You either did it, or you didn’t. Your performance is out in the open and subject to evaluation. Some people are not comfortable being held accountable. In sales if you don’t perform you can expect corrective feedback. You have to be mature (and disciplined) enough to take the feedback and improve your performance. If you don’t improve your performance, you will eventually pay the ultimate price and be removed from your position.

Finally, sales is less about talking and more about relationships. In the days of sailing ships the British Navy would solicit new recruits by just cracking them over the head. You’d wake up miles out to sea with a knot on your head. Sales professionals understand that long-term success comes from building a relationship with their customers, not cracking them over the head. Only thing is, it takes time, effort and talent to build a relationship. I’ve heard people say, “So-and-so is a great talker, he should get into sales.” Wrong! The best sales professionals are the best LISTENERS, not talkers.

Regardless of the job you have, you need traits like these to be successful. Accountants have to interact, consultants have to influence their clients, analysts have to be capable of complex thought, HR generalists have to build relationships. All of these are critical competencies to a professional sales person in the same way that all of these are critical competencies for a professional business person.

I still feel Orlando needs a more diverse Entry-Level employment base if it’s going to retain the best and brightest local college graduates. Everyone can’t be expected to sell or work in the service sector waiting for their break. Especially if that break is just a higher level position in sales or service. The graduate talent pool is just too diverse. However, a lack of options, doesn’t mean those options are bad.