Category Archives: Personal Leadership

Top Five Regrets at the End of Life


I know.  This is a topic that makes many of us uncomfortable.   Yet it is really important to challenge ourselves to think about what matters in our lives, NOT when the end is in view, but when we are young, vibrant and still have ample time to impact our behaviors.

We teach a class at the Xavier Leadership Center on personal leadership.  A portion of our program tries to get people to reflect on their own life goals and consider the value of creating an action plan aimed at helping to achieve them.   One part of our assessment is to get people to define how they think of themselves as leaders.  Then we seek input on how our colleagues see us.  (Often there are substantial differences).   Next we ask people to consider various dimensions of their personal and professional lives (like financial, health, personal achievement, personal relationships, family, etc.) measuring our own satisfaction with each component.   Mostly, we see that people have some significant areas where there lives are “out of balance.”   Finally, we try to get them to consider items that really matter.   What do you want your life to account for?   How do you want the world to be different as a consequence of your existence?

If you have tried to do this kind of self-assessment before, then you know how difficult it can be.  We seldom take the time to stand back as individuals, as married couples, or as a family to talk about what matters in our life, and how we want to be deliberate about living our lives in accordance with those things.

It is interesting to me that we don’t take the time to think about this topic, and yet according to one study by the Corporate Executive Board, fewer than one in three of us feel we are achieving a good balance between our professional and personal lives.  Moreover,  the Hudson Research Institute reported in one of their surveys that “work-life balance is, along with flexibility, the most important factor in considering job offers. Compensation still matters, the survey found, but it finished second (23 percent) behind lifestyle when workers were asked to name the primary reason they accepted their current positions.”

So if it is so important to us and evidence suggests that the overwhelming majority of us live in an out-of-balance condition, why then are we so afraid to do something about it?

Well, here is another piece I want to bring to your attention that may (I hope) help tip the scales in your case.  Who else has a better perspective on the question of life meaning and purpose than people who are facing the end of life?   An absolutely fascinating article appeared in the British paper The Guardian, describing the work of a hospice nurse who began interviewing her patients, and recording their responses. Bronnie Ware is an Australian palliative care provider who recorded their dying epiphanies in a blog called Inspiration and Chai, which gathered so much attention that she put her observations into a book called The Top Five Regrets of the Dying.  (Check out the blog when you are in the mood for some “heavy reading.”)

So what did her patients conclude?  Here are the five top regrets (from people on the way out.)

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

We all feel duty bound to fulfill the expectations that other people have of us … parents, family, bosses or neighbors.   How sad is it to get the end and look back with regret about  all the things you didn’t pursue, never had time for, or were simply too afraid to go after.   Kind of makes me think about Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman in the acclaimed film The Bucket List about two geezers with terminal cancer who decide to hit some of their wish list items before they “kicked the bucket.”

2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.

Bronnie reports that this one came from virtually every male patient she nursed.   They missed so many important events in the lives of their kids or spouse.  In the end, the rewards from all the hard work seemed not to stack up very favorably with the experiences that were missed.

3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.

We succumb too easily to societal pressure to be polite, avoid confrontation and be positive.  So we let a lot slide.  In the end we recognize all that “water under the bridge” was not good for us, or even those people to whom we were never honest.

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

You get a phone call to learn that someone you knew well (in college perhaps) has just died.  When you reflect on it you remember how important and valued a part of your life they once were, and ask yourself why you never made the effort to stay connected.  Everyone misses their friends when they are dying.    In the past 5 years, a group of my old college buddies and their spouses and I have been making the effort to get together a couple of times per year.   We sometimes rent a big house (like in the movie The Big Chill).   I can tell you that this has been an extremely rewarding experience, and when we are together, it feels just like it was back in the day.  How great it is to have them again a part of my life.  (We just got back from an Alaskan cruise).  I deeply wish we started doing this 10 years earlier.

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

According to nurse Ware, “many [of her patients] did not realize until the end that happiness is a choice.”   We often allow such little things to get under our skin, and then to fester, until massive amounts of time have been wasted, and our emotional state hovers in the zone of unhappiness.  We all long to laugh, be silly, and feel good.

So there it is.   Will you wait until you are facing the Grim Reaper before you take stock, look back and tabulate your regrets?  If so, what an unfortunate choice that would be.   Take the time to ask yourself the deep questions not about the meaning of life, but about the meaning of YOUR life.   Start by writing your own obituary (as you would like it to read).  This is not an easy assignment.

I am reminded of another of my favorite movie classics featuring Joe Pesci as Simon Wilder.   It was called With Honors.   At the end of the movie Simon is dying of asbestos poisoning and he writes his own obituary shortly before he dies at the movie’s climax.

Simon B. Wilder bit it on Wednesday.  He saw the world out of the porthole of a leaky freighter, was a collector of memories, and interrupted a lecture at Harvard. In 50 years on earth he did only one thing he regretted. He is survived by his family: Jeff Hawks, who always remembers to flush; Everett Calloway, who knows how to use words; Courtney Blumenthal, who is strong, and also knows how to love; and by Montgomery Kessler, who will graduate life with honor, and without regret.”

What would you write about your life?  How would that differ from the version those you leave behind will write?

Other Resources

Achieving Balance in Your Life: A Blueprint for a Strong Foundation,by Erica Orloff and Kathy Levinson

Top Five Regrets of the Dying, by Susie Steiner, The Guardian

The Increasing Call for Work-Life Balance, by the staff of the Corporate Executive Board, Bloomberg BusinessWeek

Work-Life Balance: A key to Job Acceptance, the Hudson Institute

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Gentle Leadership


In my recent article Breakthrough Innovation, No More Mr. Nice Guy, I was intrigued by an article in an HBR blog by Simon Rucker asserting that achieving breakthrough innovations requires an aggressive, driven, assertive and even sometimes harsh personality – like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Henry Ford or Thomas Edison.  This article argued that “nice” doesn’t work.   You have to be tough, unrelenting and visionary.  This made me start thinking more about this question.

Yes, we live in a world where we all value power and all it encompasses. It implies things like strength, forcefulness, decisiveness and boldness.  These are things we always associate these with success.  Most of us would describe these attributes as being desirable in our leaders.  Strong. Fearless. Unwavering.  Isn’t that what we want in our leaders?

This is especially true when we think of leaders in times of stress.  John Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Winston Churchill in wartime London or J. Edgar Hoover standing up against ruthless mobsters demonstrated these traits.  These are the heroic figures we admire, write about and elevate in our films.

So maybe Mr. Rucker is right.

But what about the possibility of the opposite leadership mode, one based on GENTLENESS rather than power?   If I described “gentle leadership” as when a person treads lightly, listens carefully, looks tenderly and touches with respect – would you admire such a leader, or see them as a kind of “wuss”?

If I think about it someone who is gentle in the way outlined above, I must consider the possibility that such a person may in fact be just as courageous, strong and driven as any of the figures I mentioned above.  They just demonstrate it differently.   Which takes more strength, reacting angrily to a situation that bothers you, or demonstrating self-control – keeping your mouth closed while you reflect on your best response, then giving it in a calm and measured way?    Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, the Dalai Lama and Franklin Roosevelt strike me as people who operated more from this model.

When I think about my dad, I can tell you that on occasion he would holler at me (though only when I really deserved it).   However, I remember some occasions when I messed up as a youth, and instead of yelling at me, he would shake his head, and in a very calm voice, tell me how much I had disappointed him.  I can still see him shaking his head, sighing and gazing at me with a hurt look in his eyes.   I can tell you that those episodes stung me far more than any angry outburst he occasionally delivered.   Those gentle moments had far more impact.

Gentle Leadership is not the exercise of power and authority, but rather the exertion of influence over the feelings, thoughts and actions of others.

By this definition, it calls on very special attributes and behaviors.

Attributes of Gentle Leaders

From the article by M.S. Rao (see reference below), I found this list of gentle leadership traits.  (The explanations are mine.)

  • Character (They stand for something noble, that the rest of us view as worthy.  They behave in a consistent, transparent and authentic ways.)
  • Charisma (They evoke a sympathetic understanding, which builds rapport with others almost instantly.  They are externally, not self-focused.)
  • Conscience (They have an inner sense of what is right and wrong, and seem to act in accordance with their own internal moral compass.)
  • Conviction (They are driven by determination and passion.)
  • Courage (This is not the absence of fear; it is the ability to act in spite of it – compelled by one’s convictions).
  • Communication (They can find ways to express themselves in powerful and personal ways that make listeners feel the gentle leader  “gets them” and is speaking directly to their core.)
  • Compassion (They act with an intense sensitivity and empathy toward others along with a strong desire to alleviate the pain, suffering or sorrow they see).
  • Commitment (Their unfailing energy to carry through no matter how steep the hill in front.)
  • Consistency (They act from a core set of values that is predictable by others and breeds trust.)
  • Consideration (They always weigh their words and actions from the vantage point of those around them, offering respect.)
  • Contribution (They have an orientation toward service to others, to make a difference in the world.  They leave deep footprints.)

If you think about the people in your life that had that greatest impact on you, I wonder if you see many of the above listed attributes in them.   I know I do.

In addition to my dad, I also think about my aunt Sylvia, a Roman Catholic nun, who was the embodiment of selflessness, patience and compassion for the benefit of all of us in her life.  She was a gentle persuader, and had the persistence to keep applying her force of goodness to you, even when you weren’t interested.  She could wear you down with the power of her virtuous arguments, appealing to the goodness she knew was inside you . . . no matter how deeply buried.   While I don’t think I ever saw her pound the table or raise her voice, she was one of the strongest people I have ever encountered, in the face of some great and painful personal challenges.   By any definition, I would have to classify her as a great leader even though she didn’t command an army, and had little formal authority over anyone.

Is there a business case to be made for Gentle Leadership?

I looked for some tangible evidence of this, and found a study conducted by Professor Bård Kuvaas and Associate Professor Anders Dysvik at the Norwegian Business School.  Their team surveyed 550 employees in 75 different service stations across the country, asking them about the level of caring interest and attention their managers demonstrated toward the employees.   The findings were that the top quartile of caring managers ran stations that had 38 percent higher profits than the stations with managers in the bottom 25 percent.

So, for those of you who need empirical data this should be at least, an interesting result.

But the biggest argument I can make about Gentle Leadership, is that it enriches both the colleagues we influence and us as leaders.  I acknowledge that not everyone out there is ready to take the pledge, but I hope that you at least consider the possibility that a softer style might serve you and your organization well.

I shared with you a couple of personal examples.  Now it is your turn. Think about that person in your own life who made the largest difference in your evolution as a person.  Who was the individual who believed in you before you did, challenged you to try when you lacked confidence, helped get you up when you stumbled, and who set by their own example a standard of behavior so high you couldn’t imagine matching it?   Was it one of your parents, a sibling or a grandparent perhaps?  Maybe it was a coach, teacher or (dare I say) professor?   And it could even have been one of your bosses.   Whoever it was for you, think about how they impacted your life . . .

Now think about the people you are leading.  Consider those you are influencing in your work, your personal and your home life.   Close your eyes.  Think of them.  See their faces.  Can you picture them?

Now imagine that they were asked the same question as I just asked you.   We asked them to consider the people who made the largest difference in their lives.   Now keep your eyes closed, and imagine they are thinking the same kind of thoughts you just were . . . about YOU!

Who have you influenced today?

Other Resources:

Is America Ready for Gentleness?,  by Julie Redstone

Soft Leadership Skills Make For Hard Figures by the Norwegian Business School

Soft leadership, by Qin Tang

Soft leadership: Make others feel more important,  by M. S. Rao

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Please Don’t Soften the Truth: Leading from Authenticity



“An honest answer is the sign of true friendship.” -Proverb

I was having a conversation with a class of people attending XLC’s Corporate University Leadership Foundations Certificate program.   They had just received their feedback from our Leadership Circle Profile (a kind of 360 feedback tool).  The survey compared how they saw themselves along various dimensions of our leadership model against how their colleagues saw them.  As you might imagine, there were many cases where wide gaps existed.

The natural first reaction to this (after the stunned silence), is to reject the data.   Sure, we can all accept the notion that we don’t always see ourselves objectively.  And, most of us believe if our employees saw us in a negative way, they would tell us.   That is not usually the case.

The root cause of this is perhaps the largest trap we all (especially managers) fall into.

It stems from a fundamental need we all have to be liked by others.    In addition, most of us do not feel we want to intentionally cause discomfort or inflict pain (emotional) on others.   While these are both fine instincts, the consequence is often that we do not speak truth to others.   We hold back, or soften our words — often to the point that our true message or feelings do not get conveyed.

A common place for this problem to manifest is during performance appraisals.   Even when we have an employee with substantial developmental needs, we don’t want to crush their spirit.  So when we make a list of 5 “weaknesses” we generally feel obliged to follow-up with a list of 5 “strengths.”  While we may think we are being “balanced” in our comments, any high school chemistry student can tell you that 5 positives plus 5 negatives = neutral.   So this balancing effort causes the employee to hear a message that is neutral or “average,” rather than “here are some important areas in which you need to improve.”

I have even seen instances where a manager had the courage to WRITE down on paper critical comments that were pretty true to his feelings, but when he sat down with the employee in a face-to-face meeting, spent most of the time telling the employee a string of complimentary things that led to confusion about the true nature of the message.

So in the short run, we think we are acting in the best interest of the employee, with compassion and sensitivity, but in the long run our lack of courage results in a grave disservice to them.   Think about it.   Some substandard employees end up spending their entire careers being reassigned, passed over for promotions and excluded from crucial project teams, all the while performing mediocre work and never told the truth about how others feel about them and their performance.   How does this lack of honesty help them?

The next problem for you is this: All your other employees know you held back with the problem employee and failed to confront their lacking performance.   You have just signaled your willingness to look the other way, to tolerate mediocrity, and possibly to create a double standard of performance expectations.  That leads to resentment, morale problems and sagging productivity.  In this case, your lack of honesty (even though motivated by the best of intentions) is effectively creating a culture of softening the truth.   We all start to value politeness and congeniality over truth.    And why would you expect them to be more honest with you, than you are with them?  You are the cap in their level of behavior!

Two Basic Philosophies

Most of us see this question of honesty in one of two ways:

1)      Pleasing is the goal.  My premise above is based on this perspective.  We instinctively try to project what we feel the listener wants to hear, as this is the way we think we gain their appreciation and approval.

2)      Truth is the goal.  This perspective is driven from the concepts of authenticity and integrity.  People  who  adopt this philosophy believe the best gift they can give is total honesty, based on all the facts at their disposal EVEN WHEN THE TRUTH MIGHT BE SEEN AS “BRUTAL.”

You can tell my bias is that the second philosophy is far better for leaders.   Our goal is not necessarily to be liked, but rather to be RESPECTED.   As long as your delivery of truth is not based in anger, cruelty, vindictiveness or any  other purpose than what is in the best interest of the individual before you, people will see this as your being authentic, rather than cruel.  (I have attached some links below on the topic of authentic leadership).

If your delivery of truth is motivated by your focus on mission objectives, on team effectiveness and the good of the whole organization, I believe people will come to accept it even if they would prefer not to hear it.  Isn’t that a better gift to them than something that makes them feel good?

Related Resources

People Skills and the Philosophy of Honesty

Being Honest addressing the idea that honesty in your personal life CAN come from a place of love.

Discovering Your Authentic Leadership, by Bill George

What is Authentic Leadership, by Andrew Cohen

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Eat Your Frogs Early: Overcoming the Need to Procrastinate


All jobs have some tasks associated with them that we would consider unpleasant or “not fun.”   (The same holds true in our personal lives as well.) It might be working on a budget, preparing monthly performance reports, doing performance appraisals or maybe it’s getting up each morning and heading to the gym.   We all have things that we would sometimes like to put off.

American writer and philosopher Mark Twain  is one of my favorite observers of the human condition.  He once offered this bit of wisdom as a cure for our common procrastination conundrum:  “If your job is to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning.  And, if your job is to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.”

So there’s a metaphor for you, eating frogs (yuck!) representing those dreaded life assignments.   Isn’t it better to get our unpleasant tasks out of the way?

In an article from Psychology Today called “Why Do We Procrastinate,” author Hara Estroff-Marano cites one study suggesting that a full 20 percent of us are “chronic procrastinators.”  That means that it is so ingrained in our nature that putting off doing things has become a matter of lifestyle.

From what I have been reading, procrastination is a learned behavior not something inherent in our makeup.    The reasons  are psychological or emotional.  One researcher found a correlation between people who grew up in homes with controlling parents and becoming procrastinators as adults.  The idea is that we all need self-discipline and self-regulation skills.  If we grew up in a home where our lives were micro-managed, then we are less likely to learn these skills on our own.

There is also evidence that procrastinators are also prone to over consumption of alcohol or food.  This tends to reinforce the notion that it has to do with an underdeveloped ability to self-regulate.

How serious can this affliction become?   Another study suggests that serious procrastinators may also experience detrimental health consequences.  Looking at a population of college students, the ones who habitually put things off experienced more frequent and prolonged episodes of colds and flu, more insomnia and more cases of gastrointestinal ailments.  I am not sure I understand the causal links here but the findings seem pretty interesting.

Dr. Joseph Ferrarri, author of the book  Still Procrastinating: The No Regrets Guide to Getting It Done believes there are three main categories of procrastinators:

  • Thrill-seekers who wait to the last-minute for the euphoric rush.
  • Avoiders who maybe fearful of failure or even of success.  These people are very concerned with what others think of them; they would rather have others think they lack effort than ability.
  • Decisionals who cannot make a decision because not making one absolves them of responsibility for the outcome of events.

Are you a procrastinator?  Here is a test from Dr. Pamela Weigartz, from her article “In the Age of Anxiety” from Psychology Today.  Please answer the following questions:

1.    When faced with a task, do you think of all the ways it could go wrong?
2.    Do you picture how important people in your life might react if you failed?
3.    Do you believe it’s better to not try at all than to try your best and fail?
4.    Are you overwhelmed by the possibility of new responsibilities if you are successful?
5.    Do you subscribe to the idea “If I do well, then others will expect more of me”?
6.    Do you feel your success will lead to other people finding out the “real you”?
7.    Do you believe that if you’re going to do something, you should try to do it perfectly?
8.    Do you find it difficult to persist when things aren’t going just right?
9.    Would you rather avoid doing something than do it imperfectly?

What kind of procrastinator are you?  According to Weigartz, if you answered “Yes” to questions 1-3, you may have a fear of failure.   The thought of attacking some tasks causes anxiety about the possible outcome so you put them off.

If you answered “Yes” to questions 4-6, this  might suggest a fear of success.   If you were successful, you might be assigned more work or people would begin to hold you to a higher standard.   So you would like to postpone these tasks too.

If your answered “Yes”  to questions 7-9, then you may be fearful of achieving the incredibly high standards you set for yourself.   Perfectionism may be what plagues you.

So if you wish to manage your procrastinating tendencies, start with self-awareness and self-reflection based on some of your underlying causes.   Then, you need to decide that it is time to do something about it–mainly  exert a higher level of self-control.

So eat your frogs . . . earlier and more often.   Develop your self-regulation muscles.

Related Articles

Can Procrastination Ever Be a Good Thing?

Procrastination: Feeling Overwhelmed, Helpless and Ready to Run Away

Living Well & Dying Well: Some Reflections on Regret, Grief and Procrastination

Procrastination: Ten Things To Know

Mindfulness and Task Persistence: Not All Self-awareness Is a Good Thing

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Making Work-Life Balance Work . . . at Work


I have written before about the changing complexion of work, and the need to adapt corporate environments to be more “millennial friendly.”   Failing to do so may put you at a disadvantage when it comes to attracting and retaining the best talent.

Among the issues we have considered is the vexing question of work-life balance.

This topic really came to the forefront with Anne-Marie Slaughters incredible piece in Atlantic Magazine (see Can Women Have it All?).  While Ms. Slaughter discusses the specific challenges related to balancing work and children this spans a much broader set of questions.

With all of us being tethered to our smart phones, and accessible 24-7  for a myriad of work issues, both males and females are impacted.  While most of us don’t mind attending to a few emails or handling a crisis call from time to time  a growing number of workers feel that in return, employers should grant flexibility when they may need to leave early to take the kids to doctor’s appointment or pick them up at school.

With so many dual income households today, and child care duties being shared, this is an issue impacting both male and female workers everywhere.

It seems that more and more progressive organizations are working to adapt their work rules to permit more flexibility.   It is not always as easy as one might think.  Hannah Seligson just published an interesting piece in the New York Times addressing the backlash from coworkers who feel they are the ones being victimized when co workers bail early, sometimes leaving them to clean up after.

One employee interviewed by Seligson put it this way — “Parents are a special class, and they get special treatment.”   She went on to complain that while she was covering for her former colleagues who were attending to child rearing duties, she sometimes sacrificed her own obligation to take care of her ailing grandparents.

This raises two interesting questions:

What does pursuing work-life balance mean to all of us?  There is an interesting equity question.   While many agree that we should make reasonable allowances to working parents with kids who feel it vital that they be a physical presence in their daily lives, what allowances should we offer empty nesters who might like to take off early to spend a weekend with their kids or sandwich generation families who have serious health issues to face with aging parents?

What happens to office productivity?  So if this is a slippery slope, and everyone gets to balance their work and personal life to according to their own preferences, do we all end up like France, where the normal work week is 35 hours with 8 weeks of vacation?  Sure, many feel that the US is a nation of workaholics (which I am not advocating either). But, what is the right balance?

Is it a zero-sum game at work? At a more tactical level this issue can be an intensely personal one.  If someone on your team takes personal time off in the midst of a crucial project, does it regularly put the remaining team members at a disadvantage?  Yes, some things can be made up later, but missing meetings, client appointments, or simply being gone when the “do-do” hits the fan some afternoon, can be a source of growing frustration and resentment for coworkers.

So there are many HR officers working overtime trying to figure out the broader policy questions. We perhaps we need a new set of standards for personal behavior  (a new way of being polite) in the world of increasingly flexible work hours.

So here are some suggestions:

Avoid Justifications.  It doesn’t really matter at work when you feel you have to justify your impending absence.  We get it, your son has a fever and needs to see the doctor.   When you feel you have to make your excuse seem more important than all the rest of ours, we can resent it.   We all have things we could be doing that are potentially important.  It only builds resentment when your reason trumps all others – especially if we suspect that your excuse is exaggerated or fabricated.   The fact that you need the time off should be enough.  If you are a professional, who respects the rest of the team, there should be no reason to explain further.   All of us face situations that we must prioritize over work.    The issue is not the worthiness of it, but the equity.

Focus on the Work.  You need to leave work for some reason.  Fair enough.   Instead of having the conversation about why, what if instead we talked about what’s happening at work right now, what will be the impact on the team if I leave, and what accommodations can be made to insure all the work gets done?  If people see you care about not leaving others in the lurch, my guess is that most people will be more than accommodating.

Resolve at the team level.  I understand the need to have some corporate guidelines and policies – I suppose. But isn’t this really a question to be solved at a work team level?  Every team is different, and so too is every situation.  There may be times when we can afford to be unusually flexible, so long as when there is a crisis and we need  “all hands on deck,” we can count on each other.  It is hard for me to imagine how one set of corporate guidelines can provide the kind of versatility needed.   At Google, they have a great team orientation.   At team meetings they can discuss all sorts of issues related to team performance and behavior norms.   Some people may want to wear their slippers and PJ’s at work, and some may want to bring their dog to work.   At Google, as long as the team agrees they can do almost anything that they collectively feel makes sense, and is consistent with their goals and mission.

Respect your team colleagues (not just your boss).   This goes along with the previous point.   In some work places, we are conditioned to ask our bosses for permission to depart the office.   In my experience, many bosses don’t want a reputation as a curmudgeon, so they may be inclined to say yes, and without consultation with others.  Here again, we need to respect the team and work out the accommodations in a way that is equitable.   If some team members need time off for attending to personal matters, we also need to consider the needs of the ones who never miss a day and are seldom tardy.  Maybe we sometimes should just let them off early some time with the rest of us covering for them once in a while.

I’m sure there are some positions where having this flexibility is very difficult to accommodate (like if you are in the customer service department, and call volumes are not likely to abate when we need time off).  However, allowing each team to define its own norms seems a reasonable approach.   We need to be capable of having an honest conversation, we need to be flexible, and we need to respect the needs of the team and its mission.  Let us use our own creativity to figure out the best ways to flex.

I’d be curious to hear how some of our reader’s organizations approach this question.   Let us know.

Related Resources

When the Work-Life Scales Are Unequal, by Hannah Seligson, NY Times

Motherlode Blog: In Flexible-Work Debates, Parents Have Unique Position 

Why Women Still Can’t Have it All, Anne-Marie Slaughter, The Atlantic

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Building Your 21st Century Workplace


I have written before about the need to understand the millennial generation (the largest work group today), and making our organizations “millennial friendly” as we compete for the best and brightest talent from this generation.   The reasons should be fairly obvious – There are 80 million millennials and only 76 million boomers in the US today (and I assume the statistics must be comparable in most countries that experienced a post World War II “baby boom.”)  About half of the millennials are already in the workforce, and millions more are arriving each year.  (see The Millennials Speak-Up, The Millennials are Coming and What Workers Want in 2012).

Whether we are ready or not, Gen Y is here and are a force we should be paying attention to.

I know of some very successful companies who have established policies that run strongly in the face of what the research says are the expressed preferences of this important new worker group.   What’s on the list of items you might want to reconsider?

  • Dress codes that many young people find irrelevant and needlessly restrictive
  • Work hours and rules that are inflexible (not allowing for remote workers and forcing people to an arbitrary time schedule)
  • Restricted access to social media sites like Facebook and Twitter (while at work)
  • Non-compatible technology (not smart-phone friendly)

. . . to mention a few.

The more your organization aligns with “boomer” era values and practices, the more unattractive you will appear to a growing number of candidates.   Sure, the economy is weak now, but as it strengthens over time and you are seeking new hires again – you may leave yourself at a distinct disadvantage.

We have talked enough (I think) about some of the more obvious dos and don’ts in my preceding posts.   So what do you do with your new employees once they are on board?   What are the emerging new realities of the 21st century workplace?

Here are my thoughts on 5 New Rules of the Workplace.  The list, came from a blog by Dan Schwabel, but the explanations are mine – perhaps from a decidedly Boomer perspective.

  1. Everyone should be a free agent.   We all have unique talents that can be applied to a wide variety of problems across the enterprise.   The historical notion based on silos we arbitrarily create and the way we assign costs to different budgets makes less sense.   From a millennial perspective, they want to learn, and grow professionally as well as personally.  If organizational boundaries get in the way, this is a problem.  We must stress to our managers that they cannot be unduly territorial or protective, but looking out instead for the best way to understand what their employees seek, and find the opportunities that make the most sense.   Millennials will deliver great effort when they feel appreciated and cultivated. It is in the best interests of the enterprise to release their talents.
  2. You’re only as good as your last project.   Not many of us appreciate the possibility that we have to keep proving ourselves.   But it is important to create an understanding that YOU will be evaluated (and your value to the organization is) based on how well you face the FUTURE challenges (not the ones already passed).   The world is a changing place and every employee is responsible to adapt to it by learning new skills, technologies and behaviors along the way.   Those who adapt and grow SHOULD be the ones we reward, appreciate and give new opportunities.  If your business is expanding overseas, you’ll need to learn Chinese or Spanish, etc.  If technology changes, stay current! Better still, read and educate yourself enough so that you might actually stay out in front of it.   Learn to draw satisfaction by successfully facing and surmounting new and unexpected challenges.
  3. Work is not confined to 9 to 5. Technology has made the traditional 9-to-5 model obsolete — for all workers, of all generations. (Unless you are marooned on a desert island), no one is ever out of touch or off the clock.   When workers go home, they’re still working because who they are personally and professionally have become one and the same.   For employees, we need to consider be conscious about how we balance our personal and work selves. WE need to manage this, not our boss.   For employers we need to be cognizant of both the benefits and drawbacks of round-the clock connectivity.   Bosses need to be hyper-respectful of their workers and conscious of not taking advantage of them.   This is a main reason why flexible work hours and work venues make so much sense for working millennials. Most of us don’t mind answering an email or taking a call at home, so long as when we need some extra time off to take our kid to the doctor, we have the flexibility to do so.  It all balances out.
  4. Make change or be affected by it.  When I talk with senior executives, a common theme I hear is “I wish my people would take more initiative.  I feel like I have to drive everything.”  Oddly, when you speak to middle managers or lower level employees IN THE SAME COMPANY, they often say they feel unable to take initiative for any number of reasons that seem rational to them.   How can this dichotomy exist?     The less innovation that comes from below forces the execs to drive more from the top, which makes lower employees feel they are not involved or in control of their destinies.  It is a sort of vicious circle.   We need to spend less time listing the reasons why not and more time figuring out how to.   So be willing to take the initiative.  If your boss is threatened by it, or doesn’t appreciate it — you have a bigger problem to solve (finding a boss who is excited about your ability to think and innovate – – see item #5 below).
  5. You are accountable for your own career.  This goes along with item number 2 above.  No matter what assistance your HR department offers with career planning. Shame on you if you do not take responsibility for your own career trajectory!   Start by figuring out what your professional and life goals are.  Think through which aspects relate to your work and start planning.   You can ask your boss to help you get the kind of assignments you feel will stretch you.   You can network with others, looking for areas where you might want to work next.   You can do your own skills gap analysis and take steps to get that degree, training or certification that addresses the holes.  You can ask for a transfer, and you can start a job search outside your current employer.   I have known some people in the auto industry who spent their entire career at one company.  Now at age 50, they are in dead-end jobs with no transferable skills.

Google is one interesting company that has created a formal system to permit pretty amazing agility.   They allow all employees to, at their own discretion, work on any project or activity they feel would benefit the company.  For some they will spend their 20 percent of their time working on a project with another departmental team (if it interests them).  This places a premium on internal networking, communicating your own skill sets to friends and colleagues, and in thinking about what you might be doing above-and-beyond your day job that can enrich both yourself and your organization.

Other Resources

Millennials vs. Baby Boomers: Who Would You Rather Hire?, by Dan Schwabel, from TIME Magazine

The Beginning of the End of the 9-to-5 Workday?, by Dan Schwabel, from TIME Magazine

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What Workers Want in 2012!


Employee engagement is a pretty hot topic these days among HR professionals.  It should be.   More and more young people (Gen Y workers) are aware of how some of the more innovative companies like Google, Zappos, Netflix, IDEO and others treat their employees, not only with perks, but more flexibility, more empowerment, more trust, and more of a chance to have an impact on something big.

Even if the job seekers you are recruiting to your business know your company isn’t Google, when the gap between your organizational environment and the ones millennials idolize becomes too large, you are at a disadvantage when seeking to attract the best possible talent.

More and more companies are starting to realize this.  Studies have tied employee engagement to both satisfaction and productivity and companies realize that keeping employees satisfied is a key to high performance.  Employers eagerly pursue making one of the coveted “100 best places to work” lists, and today, more than 25 percent of Fortune 200 companies have dedicated budget to maintain their rank on such lists.  (See other related references below).

If you aren’t already working on this, you may be falling farther behind.

I came across this report from an organization called netimpact, called What Workers Want in 2012.    The study reveals a number of important factors that Boomers (or even many Gen X-ers) may not be too aware of or focused on.   What is interesting about this study is that they interviewed two groups – people who were already employed, and students just leaving college entering the workforce.   When you see significant differences between these two groups, then one might conclude there is a generational shift about to occur.   As employers shouldn’t we be designing our organizations around these emerging workers?  In just the blink of an eye, they will be swelling our employee ranks – and also becoming our customers.

Anyway, here are some interesting points you may not have on your radar screen:

  •  People Want Their Job to Make a Difference Many people are saying now that having a job that makes an impact on the world is an important life goal. In fact, graduating students say it is more important than having children, a prestigious career, wealth, or a leadership position — ranking only below financial security and marriage!

Interestingly, in spite of the current weak economy, students remain somewhat idealistic and optimistic.  When asked the question “Do you believe you will be able to make a difference through your job? 38 percent said emphatically YES within 5 years, and another 28 percent said YES in 6 years or longer.  (Wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t disappoint them?)

It might be time to look at your company brand and mission statement.  Do they evoke a call to action around some noble purpose?   Wal-mart’s mission talks about “helping people save money – SO THEY CAN LIVE BETTER LIVES.”   Disney calls upon its people to “Design and deliver the Disney experience CREATING HAPPINESS FOR FAMILIES EVERYWHERE,” and Pharma company AMGEN says they are in the business of “CURING CANCER.”   How does yours stack-up?

And What’s More . . .

  •  Money is far less important for this emerging group of workers.   When asked the question “All other things being equal, I would take a 15% pay cut . . .”   45% said they would…for a job that makes a social or environmental impact; and 58% said they would…to work for an organization with values like my own.   It is interesting to reflect on how we might help prospective employees understand our own company values, and it may make a big impact if they felt you were asking them during interviews about THEIR values.   (If this were done with sincerity, it just might give you an advantage. . .)
  • There is a gender difference in how people see the importance of having job with high impact.  Women consistently express a stronger desire for jobs with impact than men:  Sixty percent of employed women say that working for a company that prioritizes social and environmental responsibility is very important to them, compared to 38 percent of men.  Thirty percent of working women say they would take a pay cut for a job that makes an impact, compared to 19 percent of men. Female students are more likely to want a job with a company that prioritizes corporate responsibility than male students (60 percent and 40 percent, respectively).

There are clearly other factors that define millennials, and the kind of workplace they seek to have.  (See The Millennials Speak Up, and  The Millennials are Coming.)  But, today’s discussion about connecting work to life purpose is an interesting one worth careful consideration.

So where do you start?  Well, one suggestion is that you KNOW your company values (not just the ones on the website, but the ones your people feel really characterize how we behave at work).   Think about how to communicate, celebrate and reinforce them.   Incorporate this into your interview process.   Next, think about how to re-frame your corporate mission (sense of purpose) in a way that more positively makes a connection between what you do and why it matters.   How do you communicate this and connect people’s day jobs to it?

Here is an example of a short video clip that tries to do this for employees of Google.

Other Related References

Towers Watson, “The Power of Three: Taking Engagement to New Heights.”

John Sullivan, “Assess Your Employment Brand Using an Audit Checklist.”

Corporate Leadership Council, “Driving Performance and Retention Through Employee Engagement.”

KPMG International Survey of Corporate Responsibility Reporting 2011.

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