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You Are Not Your Position

April 13, 2014

338px-Jacques-Louis_David_-_The_Emperor_Napoleon_in_His_Study_at_the_Tuileries_-_Google_Art_Project If you know everything there is to know then you can take a pass on this post and move on to something else.

You’re still here–thought so.

We live in a society of experts, pseudo experts and wannabe experts. Although I’ve been in the leadership space for some 25 years, encompassing a Masters in the field, a wide variety of project-based leadership work, community service and five years of blogging on the topic, I see myself as a student of leadership. Nothing irritates me more when I hear people refer to themselves as “experts.”

Not that long ago when I was being interviewed on the phone for a contract involving writing for a leadership website, the woman on the other end of the phone referred to herself as a leadership expert. “Hmmmm,” I thought. It seems, I later reflected, that what we had here was a case of Peter Senge’s Fifth Discipline 7 Learning Disabilities, specifically the one that states, “I am my position.”

When we assume the stance that our self-worth and self-perceived status is tied to our position, regardless of organizational hierarchy, we’ve encountered a very slippery slope. To begin with, it places our credibility in a vulnerable position. There are too many examples to enumerate, but a good place to look at is the business sector, where highly paid CEOs totally blew it back in 2008 when colliding events almost took down the international financial system.

100_5986 The former head of the U.S. Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan is an excellent example of someone who was (and still is) so completely enthralled with his self-perceived brilliance and the unqualified adulation of the media and who served as the chief architect of the 2008-09 financial meltdown. And he still doesn’t get it, based on several recent interviews with him that I’ve watched.

I am my position.

What does it mean to you?

If you can detach yourself from this learning disability you will be in a vastly stronger space with which to tackle turbulent change. You won’t be shackled with the notion that your organizational position defines who you are, or that you are somehow a superior being who possesses extra-terrestrial knowledge and foresight.

I’m reminded of when I worked in the public sector back when I was a neophyte manager in my mid-thirties. I was at a managers’ conference at a retreat. The guest speaker for the first evening was the Deputy Minister (CEO equivalent) who had flown down from the nation’s capital. As much as he gave a very interesting speech, subsequently deftly handing a slew of questions from my peers, years later I reflected on that specific experience. Yes, this guy was very smart and had a ton of experience in the public sector. But he was a mere mortal, and didn’t possess a crystal ball with which to predict the future.

He was a pretty modest, low-key guy. However, he still engaged in trying to read the tea leaves of change. Twenty three years later, in retrospect, he missed a lot. And that’s not his fault, nor a reason to condemn him. But what it does reinforce is the idea that no one on this planet has any capacity to forecast what’s to come. And the same applies to those who want to wear the emperor’s clothes of “I am my position.”

Always be humble. Say “I don’t know” when you don’t know. This is very important for those in formal leadership positions. Your followers will actually respect you more. And at the same time make a point to engage them in trying to find solutions to problems.

Share the leadership and power.

Genuine inquiry starts when people ask questions to which they do not have an answer.

– Peter Senge

Portrait: Napoleon

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The Art (NOT Science) of Management–and its Cousin Leadership

April 7, 2014

Drucker It seems that a number of people want to be scientists, or at least in the sense of ostensibly adding credibility to their respective field of work. Economists (of which I’ve been a practitioner since 1982) and those in the leadership field (yours truly since the early nineties) covet the science moniker. Adding the word “science” adds a certain cachet to one’s profession.

The purpose of this post is to demonstrate the intertwined relationship between management and leadership, and in doing so help shed the notion that management is some form of science. Let’s take a quick tour of what some of the top gurus have had to say on the topic.

John Kotter sees leadership and management as “…two distinctive and complementary systems of action.” While each field has its own unique characteristics and functions, both are essential for managers if they’re to operate successfully in complex organizations that are subject to constant change. Focusing on leadership development may produce strong leaders, but the consequence will be weak management. And the converse is true. How to combine strong leadership and strong management, so that there is balance, is the real challenge. As Kotter says: “…Smart companies…rightly ignore the literature that says people cannot manage and lead.”

The late Peter Drucker, the 20th Century’s pre-eminent management thinker, understood the interrelationship between management and leadership. He didn’t believe that management and leadership could be separated, stating it’s “…nonsense*as much nonsense as separating management from entrepreneurship. Those are part and parcel of the same job. They are different to be sure, but only as different as the right hand from the left or the nose from the mouth. They belong to the same body.”

A third perspective comes from Chris Hodgkinson, who presents a similar view on ‘administration’ (his term for management) and leadership. “Administration is leadership. Leadership is administration.” He states that the word leadership is used loosely and not well understood. It is “…as if it were a sort of increment to the administrative-management process which might or might not be present.” He believes that leadership extends throughout an organization. Leadership and management go together. The individual cannot avoid one without avoiding the other. Hodgkinson sees leadership as “…the effecting of policy, values, philosophy through collective organizational action.”

All of this might leave you a bit numb or yawning. However, when one considers the vast volume of leadership writing which tends towards a vanilla-skewed portrait of what is in fact a dynamic field, interwoven with a management dimension, then it’s worthwhile to pursue this line of inquiry.

That’s code for let’s stop the BS on management is a science while leadership is some form of extra-terrestrial higher form of being. The two, indeed, form together the left and right sides of the face, the yin and the yang, or whatever metaphor turns you on.

thumbnail Let’s move on to one fellow who really gets it, who happens to be a Canadian, and one of the most respected management-leadership teachers and practitioners on the planet. Meet Henry Mintzberg of McGill University in Montreal.

Mintzberg is one of the few leadership gurus who has done solid empirical research into the actual work of middle managers and senior organizational leaders. His early work dates back to the seventies, to be buttressed three decades later through additional empirical study. Mintzberg is a realist when it comes to how those in official (appointed) management positions must lead their subordinates. As he stated in a 1999 radio interview with the CBC: “Managers sit between their organizations and the outside world….they manage information in order to encourage people to take action.”

He refers to the “myths” of managers planning, organizing, coordinating and controlling, noting that when one observes managers at work, it’s difficult to determine if they’re actually engaging in these activities. Managers get interrupted continually, and spend a lot more time talking to people than reading. They develop and maintain large people networks through what he calls lateral managerial relationships

So where does Mintzberg stand on the issue of leadership? As he puts it bluntly: “…Superman’s abilities are modest in comparison. We list everything imaginable.” For Mintzberg, good leaders are candid, open, honest, and share information with people. The issue of truth is fundamental to Mintzberg’s stand on leadership. “People have agendas,” he notes, and consequently they hoard information and do not disclose their true feelings. The work of senior leaders becomes more difficult because they are often unable (or do not wish) to find out what is really going on in their organizations.

If you’re more confused now about the distinction and complementarity between leadership and management, that’s good. You’re on a learning journey, one that doesn’t have easy and clear answers. There are no experts, just students of leadership.

Take a moment to check out this superb interview with Mintzberg shortly after his book Managing was released in 2009.

And finally, here are three questions for you to reflect upon:

1) Do you believe that line and operational managers should only focus on the short-term?

2) Do you believe that an executive’s job is primarily to concentrate on the long-term?

3) What leadership role do you believe non-managerial employees should play within their organizations?

Start a conversation in your workplace on these and other questions to which you seek answers.

Continuous change is comfortable change. The past is then the guide to the future.

Charles Handy

Photos: Peter Drucker and Henry Mintzberg

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Six Enablers to Building Organizational Change Adaptability

March 30, 2014

Desert Have you had enough?

Of change that is.

As 86 year-old American poet and author Maya Angelou once said, “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.”

That concisely sums up this post, where I’ll suggest six enablers to help those working within organizations navigate the unrelenting onslaught of new events that hit us each and every day. But you don’t have to work in an organization to get something out of this post. It’s also relevant to personal change adaptability. Indeed, it was Russian writer Leo Tolstoy who said, “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”

It brings to mind the notion that we have little or no control over the vast majority of events that we face in our lifetimes. But what we do have control over is how we respond to them.

At an organizational level, however, the dynamics of how humans, as a collective, address change can be very challenging. This, in turn, places extraordinary demands on leadership, whether you’re a big shot CEO of a large company, senior bureaucrat, or the owner of a small enterprise. There are some practical ways to position how your organization, large or small, can not only weather change but actually prepare itself to deal effectively with whatever comes your way.

Enabler #1: It’s About Interdependence of Effort
One of the cornerstones of strong teamwork is interdependency among the team’s members. Without it, it’s impossible to have a team. Interdependency of effort is a necessary condition.

You may work in a call center, where you’re required frequently to hand off a customer caller to a co-worker who has either more detailed information or knowledge (perhaps technical knowledge) on a specific issue. To ensure that each and every customer who calls is fully served and leaves the call feeling happy about his or her experience requires everyone at the call center needs to pull their weight and to stay focused on why the organization exists.

Or you may work in healthcare. Maybe you’re a nurse, lab technician or administrator. The same applies as in the above call center example: you work towards the hospital’s vision (should it have a clearly articulated one) through the daily practice of focusing on patient needs through.

Enabler #2: Reward the Integrators
In any organization undergoing upheaval, whether due to a merger, layoffs or a new major competitor, managers often become pre-occupied with dealing with the negative. This can be employees who are bucking the changes, others who aren’t pulling their weight or some who want life to be as it was–viewing change in the rearview mirror. These employees are morale killers, helping to suck productivity out of the organization.

When it comes to change, one chunk of an organization’s employee complement resists change. Another is sitting on the fence, watching carefully with a moistened finger in the air to assess the organization’s direction. A third group are the change agents who get it, seeing and understanding where senior management wants to lead the organization. This group needs not only to be appreciated by management but also employed effectively to help bring their co-workers over the fence.

Along a similar track, every organization has employees who thrive on linking people together and who strive to connect the dots when it comes to what may appear as disconnected work functions but which in reality form a coherent puzzle when integrated. Again, management’s role is to identify these individuals who too often toil away daily but who have not been fully used for their skills.

Take time to identify, recognize and fully employ these employees.

Workpplace Surveys Enabler #3: Share Power–Responsibly
U.S. President Abraham Lincoln said, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” Of course, in a modern context that message applies to women as well.

One of the misconceptions about leadership and management is that leaders are appointed to their position. In reality, managers are appointed; leadership must be earned. You may be a vice president, assistant deputy minister or general manager, with all the authorities that accompany the role. However, you’re not necessarily a leader. You must earn that on a daily basis, responsibly exercising your authorities and delegated responsibilities, building a sustained followership through a shared vision where each and every employee under you clearly understands where they fit in the organization and how their work contributes to its mission and priorities.

And so, too, does the method with which you share power with your team: being clear in your expectations, recognizing those are seen as leaders among their peers and immediately correcting situations where power is abused.

Power is a double-edged axe. It can be extremely effectively at achieving results quickly and eliminating obstacles so that new opportunities present themselves. Yet it can be devastating to an organization when used irresponsibly. It takes time to build one’s following through the responsible use of power; a leader’s following can be wiped out overnight by a poorly thought out decision. As the late management guru Peter Drucker put it: “Management is doing things right. Leadership is doing the right things.”

Work daily on your leadership muscle.

Enabler #4: Help Employees Understand Why Change is Essential
This Enabler is closely intertwined with #2 and #3. Too often, we see change efforts imposed top-down on confused and fearful employees. The steadily changing nature of the workplace, driven by intense global competition, government deficits (prompted in part by rapidly growing unfunded pension liabilities) and technology is only adding to this pressure.

A critical role of management, from the CEO to frontline manager, is to ensure that every employee in the organization is clear on why change is happening. And the only way to do this is to communicate regularly; daily if need be, during periods of particular turmoil. Management must never assume that employees understand why things are changing and why they must enroll in the change effort.

Take the time to communicate through a variety of media. Ensure that frontline and operational managers are especially clear on what is taking place, since they are an employee’s first point of contact.

PVM Enabler #5: Eliminate Obstacles to Collaboration
Red tape is a productivity killer and will strangle your business, especially in the brutally competitive street-fight for the consumer’s wallet. Red tape makes your business lazy, unfocused and indifferent to the needs and wants of customers and clients.

Reduce excessive management layers to improve your organization’s responsiveness to changing events, including anticipated ones. Better yet, do it because it’s the right thing to do in a turbulent economy. And this includes nuking duplication of effort, one of the worst morale sappers and productivity killers of all time.

Leave red tape and its poisonous cousin–duplication–to the public sector.

Okay, public servants! I throw this down as a challenge to you.

Enabler #6: Get the CEO Out of the Ivory Tower
If you don’t have an ivory tower where top management hides out in all its splendid glory, you still need to get out of your office and regularly meet customers, clients, suppliers, vendors, and all the people on whom your business depends. It will revitalize you and ensure that both your feet remain on the ground.

Do you have a 7th Enabler?

It’s not what we don’t know that hurts, it’s what we know that ain’t so.

Will Rogers

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Are You Tone Deaf to Your Constituents?

March 23, 2014

Jim-Max Showshoeing Each of us likes to be heard.

Whether we’re part of a community effort to improve street safety or a member of a workplace team, when we offer an opinion on an issue or make a contribution to an initiative underway, we want to be heard, to feel valued and respected as human beings. That desire to be heard amplifies when we are explicitly invited to contribute. It could be part of a corporate employee survey, focus group, or town hall meeting; or perhaps a community meeting organized by city hall staff and your municipal councilor.

I’ve been around the block a number of times when it comes to corporate initiatives; fortunately I’m out of that space now after three decades. However, a more recent experience has been in community service, specifically urban development. And it’s been an eye-opening experience when it comes to a lack of transparency, ethics and leadership by elected officials and municipal civil servants.

The irony behind this is that municipal governance is supposed to be where citizens are most connected to government and politicians. Yet that is not always the case in Canada and the United States. Let’s look at some personal examples.

Over a year ago my municipal councilor asked me at a community forum to create an action group that would provide input to a large development adjacent to where I live in a suburb in Ottawa’s west-end. Spanning many hectares, the development is half privately owned and half city owned, the latter being heavily forested with numerous rocky outcrops (part of the Canadian Shield). While the private land is under development currently, the city land is still going through design consultations.

Of significance to this story is that I live in Ottawa, Canada’s capital. One would hope, and think, that a nation’s capital would strive to show leadership in urban development as a model to the rest of the country. Such is not the case in Ottawa, a rapidly growing city with a population of 900,000 and an urban area of 1.2 million.

The action group I formed was representative of the community in the vicinity of the development, and contains intelligent people with diverse experiences. The consultation process has proven to be constructive with the company (Urbandale Corporation) that has been selling parcels of their land. Where the frustration grew was meeting with municipal planning staff, which tended to provide lip service, empty promises and at times an attitude of condescension.

While this project is still in progress, and will be for the next several years, it has been revealing at how citizens have been invited to participate in a major development yet have not been completely heard. Numerous other urban projects around Ottawa have faced the same situation; indeed, many projects involve high-rise condo constructions, which have produced a high degree of bitterness among residents.

DSCN0048 The City of Ottawa’s principal leader–the mayor–has proven to be a dismal failure when it comes to ensuring that citizens are actually heard. It took a consultant’s report, released in early December 2013, that took the City to task for its lack of transparency and abject failure to properly consult and hear the concerns of citizens, and to act on this input.

Is Ottawa City Hall getting the message?

Perhaps not, because in early 2014 the Ontario Municipal Board, a provincial crown corporation perceived as being developer-friendly, reversed a decision by Ottawa City Council regarding a development. The OMB castigated City Council for not listening to citizens. Consequently, it’s going to take time to see if citizens’ contributions are indeed integrated into final development plans. Bad habits and obstinate bureaucracy is hard to break. The proof will be in the eating of the pudding.

This recent community work reminds me of my project management work in large organizations over many years. From organizing and leading project teams on downsizing and merger initiatives to corporate learning to leadership development to employee surveys, I had a variety of experiences, some negative, some very positive. Those experiences that produced effective outcomes had one common trait: employees were heard. Their views and suggestions were actively sought by senior management.

The most powerful change initiative I was involved in dates back to the mid-nineties, and was also the largest one I managed. The power behind this project was that it not only consisted of a representative employee committee, but the head of the union was invited to be a member. To that point the union had frequently tried to sandbag corporate initiatives. However, with this project they were part of the process from the start. It seems like common sense to invite all stakeholders to participate, yet how often is organized labor left on the sidelines, leaving it to wave red caution flags and to engage in a chorus of boos.

If you’re part of a process to solicit input from employees or citizens, ensure that people are heard and respected. If you’re on the other side, then it’s your responsibility to assert yourself to make yourself heard. Each context–work or community–is unique, so there’s no cookie cutter recipe on being heard. But taking a principle-centered approach to how you engage with others will help you stay on the correct path, especially during rocky times.

We must use time wisely and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right.

– Nelson Mandela

Photo #1: Jim and Max snowshoeing on City of Ottawa land slated for development. Gorgeous, rocky terrain consisting of diverse trees.

Photo #2: Winter scene of the land to be developed by the City of Ottawa across from where Jim lives.

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It’s About Power With…Not Power Over

March 16, 2014

Tennessee2Jim Prince, a Tennessee businessman, succumbed to cancer in November 1998. As he fought the cancer over the course of many years, he came to realize that he “…had never done anything to benefit future generations.” He eventually decided to leave 513 acres of prime hiking land to outdoor enthusiasts, keeping it out of the hands of land developers. Broke from his soaring medical bills, he mortgaged his house and borrowed the money to purchase the land.

After six months of lobbying with the support of outdoor associations, Prince persuaded the State of Tennessee to purchase the 513 acres and turn it into a recreational park. Soon after, he lost his voice to throat surgery, and not long after that Prince died. His spirit, however, lives on. He is quoted as once saying: “There’s no limit to what you can do as long as you don’t worry about who gets the credit.” (As told by Russell Gerbman in Backpacker, June 1999).

This story speaks to the need for organizational leaders to work in the spirit of what is best for their customers, stakeholders and co-workers. The same applies to leaders at all levels. It’s about collaboration and focusing on the organization’s mission, supported by its values.

This is a dramatic change of reference from the traditional practice of top-down decision-making. It’s about power with, not power over.

Think about a situation where your manager gave the credit and glory to you and your co-workers. How did you feel? Think of a situation where your manager retained the praise and credit for himself or herself? How did you feel?

The concept of collaboration based on power with brings to mind my volunteer experience with the Canadian Red Cross in the nineties. In the spring of 1999 I assisted with the arrival of Kosovar refugees at Canadian Forces Base Gagetown in New Brunswick. It was a powerful experience.

What was intriguing at CFB Gagetown, and other military bases where the refugees were housed, was the sense of community that quickly developed. The refugee groups at each base formed informal councils where issues were discussed (e.g., language training, schooling for the children, cultural needs and recreation). Spokespeople were identified so their concerns could be brought to the appropriate agency on the base. Despite what these people had gone through in Kosovo, they recognized the need to form a community in a strange land.

SocialCapital What I found so compelling about this experience is that it speaks to the concept of power with. Although the Kosovars on the military bases had certain rules to follow, they took the initiative to share power so that they maintained some sense of dignity and control over their lives.

The same can be said for organizations. It’s not just an issue for senior management to relinquish control and to share power with employees. Employees must also demand it. They must take that first stepthat leap of faithtowards assuming more responsibility in the decision-making process. But with that increased power comes accountability.

The issue of sharing power and empowerment has an inherent dilemma. Managers talk of empowering their people yet cling to power. People want to play a greater part in making decisions and assuming more responsibility, but they often resist the accountability that accompanies this. While these are generalizations, they do speak to the opposing tension that’s prevalent in the debate on empowerment.

During the same period I was doing volunteer work with the Red Cross, along with working for the federal government, I was also doing a Masters degree in leadership and organizational learning at Royal Roads University in British Columbia. It was in my second summer residency that I met a profound Canadian leader. Dr. Alfred Taiaiake (author of Peace, Power, Righteousness and Director of the Indigenous Governance program at the University of Victoria in British Columbia) spoke to my peers on the need for First Nations communities to take charge of their destinies. As he writes in his book:

Leadership is exercised by persuading individuals to pool their self-power in the interest of the collective good. By contrast, in the European tradition power is surrendered to the representatives of the majority, whose decisions on what they think is the collective good are then imposed on all citizens….The indigenous tradition is profoundly egalitarian; it does not put any substantial distance between leaders and other people, let alone allow for the exercise of coercive authority….The lesson of the past is that indigenous people have less to fear by moving away from colonialism than by remaining bound by it; in their resistance, they demonstrate an inner strength greater than that of the nations that would dominate them.

What can we learn from Dr. Alfred’s comments?

How can we inspire employees so that they make the decision to empower themselves?

As leadership practitioner Harrison Owen has stated: “If I empower you to some extent you are still within my power.”

Raindrops The word “empowerment” has been badly abused for decades, both in the literature and in organizations. When I worked post-retirement part-time for a large US-based home improvement chain the word “empowerment” was tossed around like candy at employee town halls and in corporate training. It was horribly abused by the federal government where I worked for three decades.

So how do we come to grips with empowerment and learn how to share power?

It begins with stepping back and allowing ourselves to align what we say with what we actually do.

Max DePree in his second book Leadership Jazz recounts the powerful learning experience he went through with the birth of his granddaughter, Zoe. She was a premature baby, weighing one pound, seven ounces. Zoe was so tiny that DePree could slide his wedding ring up to her shoulder. Because DePree’s daughter had been abandoned by Zoe’s biological father, the neonatal nurse, Ruth, asked Depree to take on a special role. Whenever he visited Zoe, he was to rub her little body with the tip of his finger and tell her how much he loved her. It was important, Ruth told him, that Zoe be able to connect DePree’s voice with his touch.

DePree notes: “Ruth was doing exactly the right thing on Zoe’s behalf (and of course, on my behalf as well), and without realizing it she was giving me one of the best possible descriptions of the work of a leader. At the core of becoming a leader is the need always to connect one’s voice and one’s touch.”

Take a moment to reflect on this powerful story shared by DePree.

Do you as a leader, in whatever formal or informal role you hold, connect your voice with your touch?

Letting go and learning how to share power doesn’t come easily to many of us. What IS important is that we take that first tentative step towards Power With.

Let’s get started.

The more power you give away, the more you have.

Frances Hesselbein

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Introduce the Right Hand to the Left: 10 Lessons in Customer Service

March 9, 2014

Hands shakingI decided it was time to get a new smart phone. My three year-old HTC Evo, while a solid device, was getting increasingly slow, neurotic at times and heavy to carry. After researching which phone would best suit my needs I decided on a Blackberry Z10, manufactured by Canada’s former Research in Motion and simplified last year to Blackberry. Actually the word “phone” is totally inappropriate since these types of devices pack more computing power than not just the computers that powered the 1960s Apollo missions but the PCs of the 1990s.

Being a Rogers customer for over 10 years, with four bundled services, I thought I would first talk to their customer relations department to review my services and to see what they could offer in the way of a new smart phone, and hopefully at a great price.

I spoke to Maria, who turned out to be wonderful, a 10-out-of-10 in terms of customer service. I was on the phone for over half an hour but she was incredibly helpful, listened to me attentively and was very patient. She offered what I considered an excellent package for a new smart phone. I sat on that idea for a couple of days before finally acting.

So off I went down the street to my local Rogers store where I explained what I was seeking to one of the young fellows. He quickly set me up, and to my surprise and pleasure he offered me an even better deal than Maria. Yes!!

The entire process was done quickly and efficiently, reflecting this store’s extremely high rating in customer service with Rogers across Canada (the Signature Centre Kanata location, to give these folks a plug). And then it was home to do some learning on a new device using a different operating system.

And that’s where the problems began.

cranky-dude My issue, and hence the reason for this post on customer service, is not that things didn’t go as expected with this new smart phone. Technology is technology. It could be a new car, computer or wireless sound system–things don’t always work out at first as expected. Over the course of two days I spent a few hours on the phone with Rogers tech support, including a feeble attempt at an online live chat which ended quickly when I realized the “technician” didn’t have a clue what he was talking about. My phone conversations involved me being transferred back and forth between tech teams, and at one point I ended the call when I was asked to do something I considered insanely stupid given that the phone was new.

Fortunately I live five minutes from my Rogers store. I was able to scoot down to it three times over two days to have the young fellows there fix the specific problems in a matter of minutes.

Adam, the store manager, a youngest fellow, was stellar, especially considering he could see that I was pretty pissed off with how I was being treated with the Rogers phone tech support. I work retail, now that I’m retired from the public sector, and when I worked at The Home Depot I dealt with plenty of uppity customers, especially older guys my age. What’s with us old Baby Boomers?

But Adam and his miraculous team who are not required, I should add, to fix technical problems, were patient with me and extremely helpful. And these technical problems were not with the device but rather Rogers’ network.

A day later I attempted to provide feedback to Rogers Customer Relations department in the hope of a) some measure of compensation for the inordinate amount of time I had spent on the phone and the inconvenience, and b) to help Rogers learn how to improve its customer service experience, given the criticism it has received in the Canadian business community. By way of contrast, Telus over the past five years has dramatically pulled up its socks in how it interacts with customers. Indeed, Rogers’ tone deafness to customer complaints has produced various Facebook sites such as this one.

My phone call was escalated to Charlene, a manager in customer relations. She offered some tepid form of compensation, but refused my request to share my experience with the President’s office, which has its own customer service process for unsolved issues. I’ve dealt with the President’s office in the past. Charlene said she’d pass on my feedback. Big mistake, Charlene. Never brush off a customer.

Call Center So folks, this is but one lesson in connecting the right hand with the left hand when customers have a problem and must deal with faceless call center employees but who have access to employees working in a bricks and mortar retail store. While management might like to believe that a faceless existence can pretend to be customer focused (to use but one overused contemporary expression) when you have to look into a customer’s eyes it’s a totally different experience.

It reminds me of my experiences over the years with Canadian Blood Services (CBS), which operates as a not-for-profit entity Canada’s blood donation program. A donor of 40 donations, I’ve enjoyed each time my encounter with the frontline staff. I especially like the blood mobile and the intimate environment which is highly conducive to jokes and camaraderie among the staff. They’re terrific folks. However, dealing with the call center is another experience. It’s not that they’re rude, just disengaged from the donor.

Given that Canada’s blood supply sometimes goes into shortage situations, depending on the time of year, it’s imperative that CBS employees at the call center who field calls from donors make every effort to maximize the chances for a donation.

It got to the point a year ago that I emailed CBS’s head office with some feedback in how CBS could improve its call center interaction with donors. To my astonishment I received shortly afterwards an email from the Chief Operating Office who not only thanked me but asked if my email could be shared with CBS employees for training purposes. That’s corporate leadership!
The COO didn’t try to make excuses or slide around my comments but rather owned his organization’s actions and attempted to correct it.

How many senior people in organizations, whether business, government or not-for-profit do this?

In my Rogers case I was never satisfied with how its call center customer relations people addressed my complaint. But I can tell you that Adam and his Rogers Signature Centre store totally rock.

Thanks guys!!

Man serving woman Before I sign off this post, let’s consider 10 key rules on how to connect the right hand with the left hand. It reminds me of the late Peter Drucker who once commented on the management-leadership debate on whether they’re distinct entities. Drucker said that the two could not be detached any more than one’s nose could be removed from one’s face. The same applies to customer service in the context of frontline service and remote call centers. They’re essentially one in the same, with the key distinction that frontline staff are the face of the company and, hence, are the ones to take the kicking from unhappy customers.

Ten Customer Service Rules by Which to Lead:
1. Customer service is an integrated experience and is not the sole responsibility of frontline employees.
2. Each and every employee must take personal responsibility for the level of service that he or she provides.
3. Speak truth to power when it comes to ways on how to improve your company’s service.
4. If management doesn’t get it on customer service, look for a company that does; don’t play with losers.
5. Management must model the necessary behavior it espouses each and every day.
6. If an employee screws up, stop, pause and analyze what went wrong. Don’t immediately finger point.
7. Train, train, train…and then train some more.
8. If you’re doing your job well and you get an uppity customer, place yourself in his or her shoes; it makes a world of difference.
9. If you have a thin skin, either learn how to thicken it or find another vocation.
10. Take pride in your work as a customer service provider.

There you have it folks. Take some time to reflect on this post, especially the 10 rules, both as a customer and as a service provider. Feel free to share your thoughts and experiences.

There are no traffic jams along the extra mile.

– Roger Staubach (former U.S. Navy officer, Dallas Cowboys quarterback and Superbowl VI MVP, Businessman)

Workforce of the Future Footer CoverClick here to download my complimentary e-book Workforce of the Future: Building Change Adaptability, 2nd Edition.

Visit my e-Books, Resources and Services pages.

Jim TaggartTake a moment to meet Jim.

The Anti-Minimum Wage Con Job Argument

March 3, 2014

Fast Food Worker This is not a post about leadership, or at least directly. It’s about people who work their butts off but who have become the disenfranchised, the contemporary version of 19th Century France when abused workers revolted.

I’ve been a loyal reader of The Economist for three decades. The oldest newspaper in the world (magazine format for some time, along with an excellent online web site), its analysis, prose and subtle humor make for very worthwhile reading. However, as a retired labor economist, who spent 30 years in the public sector in Canada and who also worked on science, technology and innovation issues, I have a bone to pick with The Economist, and more broadly the neo-right wing of unenlightened commentators.

What’s my beef? The minimum wage as it’s currently administered in the United States and, in my own country, Canada.

Plenty has been written on the need for economics to get with it, to drag itself out of the 1800s into the 21st Century. The models and concepts articulated at the time by progressive thinkers such as David Ricardo (the opportunity cost of free trade, or what most incorrectly call comparative advantage) were wonderful in an age of much greater simplicity, in terms of the later politicization of international trade.

The topic of the minimum wage, notably in America, was on the front burner for much of 2013. Fast food workers launched a series of protests that captured the media’s attention, and undoubtedly however fleetingly, the hearts of middle class Americans. And being a Canadian, we, too, got caught up in the emotion, given our proximity to the United States.

In its December 14 issue, The Economist ran a few articles on the minimum wage, noting that in a number of Western countries the minimum wage is set based on a percentage of a country’s median income. For example, in the U.S. it’s 38% of median income; in contrast, it’s 47% in Great Britain and just over 60% in France. Since 2009, the federal minimum wage in the U.S. is a whopping $7.25 per hour. In contrast, in typical fashion in Canada where the 10 provincial governments have specified constitutional powers there is no precise federal minimum wage. Each province, similar to the 50 states, has its own minimum wage. For nationally regulated companies in Canada, workers must be paid no lower than the minimum wage in a certain province.

I digress.

To return to the calculation of minimum wages across countries, there’s the proverbial BUT.

While France has a very high minimum wage, it also has very high youth unemployment.

And so goes the argument against raising the minimum wage. The conventional argument has been that it’s youth, who are still in school, who have no dependents and who are much less productive, who deserve a low wage.

Here’s the second BUT.

Bull Thanks to globalization and technology, along with other factors such as demographics, more older people are working in what I’ll call the minimum wage ghetto. Yours truly has been in that space for the past two years on a part-time basis. Granted, I’m retired from the federal government and pick up some contract writing work; however, I’m not alone. Current and former minimum wage co-workers include retired high-tech managers, administrators and police officers. We, as ageing Baby Boomers, want to be kept busy and generate some added income.

So the dynamics of the minimum wage sector has changed dramatically. The Economist and others have yet to catch up.

The truly pressing dimension is working poor parents who put in 40-plus hours a week at fast food restaurants, retail stores or grocery stores listening to whiney Gen X and Baby Boomer customers. The disconnect is palpable.

Yes, the minimum wage at both the U.S. federal and provincial/state levels should increase. It’s the right thing to do from an economic aggregate demand perspective (consumer spending drives over 65% of America’s economy, and similarly for Canada) and from an ethical viewpoint.

President Obama’s suggestion that $10.10 per hour is the desired federal minimum wage jives more or less with what many labor economists agree. However, economists, in usual form, disagree on the effects of a significant rise in the minimum wage. The Congressional Budget Office produced a study in early 2014 which stated that up to half a million jobs would be lost. However, it would also lift 900,000 Americans out of poverty.

A study done at the University of California at Berkley, along with other studies such as at the London School of Economics, found that raising the minimum had no negative effect on employment. Indeed, one can argue that it spurs aggregate demand, the driver of any economy.

Here’s the third BUT.

Fast Food I’ve always been somewhat surprised that in North America the restaurant industry has not been more aggressive in introducing automation, especially in fast food establishments. My heart and mind goes out to those fast food workers who protested valiantly in New York City and beyond for a $15 per hour wage. Yes, you deserve that. No question in my mind. However, understand that any significant increase in the minimum wage will likely prove to be the catalyst to not just the paring of labor costs (aka laying off employees) but the introduction of automation.

If you don’t believe me, check out what’s been taking place in Europe and Japan.

The subject of what should be the minimum wage is not a political one, as The Economist correctly observes. However, it’s not just one based on mechanical derivations of what should be its relationship to a country’s or state’s/province’s median income. This is a very difficult issue, with plenty of blow-back on workers if it is not done correctly.

For example in the Province of Ontario, where I live, the provincial government recently lifted the 2010 imposed minimum wage freeze. On June 1, the minimum wages rises from $10.25 to $11.00 per hour. The increase was based on the average inflation rate since 2010 (which ranged from 0.9 to 2.9%). This was the intelligent way to determine where to set the rate. Take the politics out of the minimum wage. Henceforth, the minimum wage in Ontario will increase each year based on the inflation rate. Employers will be given a four months heads-up notification. This is a smart approach.

Lastly, I’ll note that if the $15 per hour wage were ever to materialize for American fast food workers, as expressed during the demonstrations in late 2013, it would amount to only 50% of the country’s median income.

We’ll hear a lot more about the minimum wage issue in the months ahead. And economists will continue their polarized debate.

To be conscious that you are ignorant of the facts is a great step to knowledge.
Benjamin Disraeli

Workforce of the Future Footer CoverClick here to download my complimentary e-book Workforce of the Future: Building Change Adaptability, 2nd Edition.

Visit my e-Books, Resources and Services pages.

Jim TaggartTake a moment to meet Jim.


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