Jan 24, 2013

How much is enough?

Yesterday Apple posted some of the best numbers in their history: $54.5 billion in revenue and $13.1 billion in profit. That's more than 25% profit. They had a higher revenue in one quarter than the entire value of Chevron, the second largest oil company. Nevertheless, Apple's stock has been hammered on the stock exchange and has lost more than 12% of its value.

Why? Because analysts say they should have made more money, and sold more iPhones. 

Apple's numbers are healthy, by any stretch of the imagination. Yes, there is increased competition, so fewer people are buying iPhones. Furthermore, the lifecycle of Apple products is getting smaller and smaller every year. It used to be that an Apple product lasted 18 months before an upgrade. Now, we are down to nine months and it might become shorter still. Apple may, in fact, be cannibalizing itself so there is reason to question their strategy. But to shave more than $50 billion from one of the premier technology companies in the world? That may be premature.

Are analysts' expectations realistic? What are their metrics? How are they determining that Apple should have sold more phones? Would any other compnay have done as well or better than Apple in the current marketplace?

As an IT professional, I see that same behaviour often: Mangers feel that the programmers, for example, should be able to deliver a certain project, with a given scope, in a pre-determined time interval. Yet, as many researchers have found, in IT this rarely happens. Projects underdeliver, don't meet quality standards, or exceed budgets more often than not. In the meantime, programmers have burnt out, project managers have resigned, and the results are still not there.

This scenario is repeated over and over in large and small companies. We ask too much of people, because we want to "stretch" them. That's fine, and I believe stretch goals are important to avoid complacency. But in order for stretching to be successful, it must be progressive, and the person must be given time to adjust to his or her new condition. Otherwise, eventually they will rip at the seams.

Crowds may have loved this in Rome, when it happened to slaves being stretched by horses. But today, such a spectacle would be, rightfully, considered as barbaric.

Is it much different when we do it virtually?

Nov 29, 2011

Employee Loyalty, a Thing of the Past?

Jessie has had a bad year. Between health issues, family issues and work-related issues, she's feeling out of her element. The work she used to be able to do regularly now seems like a giant mountain. She gets no joy and no fulfilment from it anymore. She also feels as though she is no longer performing as well as she used to. She decides to discuss it with her boss.


"I saw on the job board that another department needs to fill a position that I have the skills to do, and I think that it's a job I could do well and that I would enjoy."


"But," says her boss, "I can't let you go to that department. You are needed here and we're already understaffed. I really need all the people I have."


"All right," replies Jessie. "May I have some unpaid leave, then? I need a break to get my energy back, get my head straight in order to contribute."


"As I said Jessie, we really need everyone on board. I can't give you any more time off, I'm sorry."


"So am I," concluded Jessie. "I quit."


This vignette is based on a true story-well, more than one true story actually. It's not an uncommon situation by any stretch of the imagination. I regularly hear from people who are ready to leave their company as soon as they find something better. In many cases, the bosses' saving grace is that the law of inertia works in their favour: employees are so entrenched in their ways that it takes more effort for them to walk away than to just stay where they are and complain.


However, some employees-usually the best ones-will make that effort and walk away without looking back. Once they've made up their mind, there usually isn't anything their bosses can do to make them change their minds. These bosses then face a more difficult situation than they did before. What are the chances that you, as the superior of an employee, are inadvertently pushing them to the door? Answering a few questions may give you an idea.


Do you know your employees' medium- and long-term goals?


Do your employees have a future in your company?


Do they know what that future can look like?


Do you discuss your employees' future within the company?


Do you discuss it with your superiors?


Do you discuss it with the employee?


Do you establish career plans with your employees?


Do you feel it is primarily your responsibility, rather than HR's?


Do you have a formal training plan to get the employee from where they are to  where they want to be?


Do you have measures and incentives in place to keep the best employees happy and willing to stay with the company to build their future?


I think many employers have given up on building long term career plans with employees, because they feel that loyalty is on the decline. That may be the case, but I think it's mainly a by-product of savage downsizing in the past. Many employees may now feel that jumping from one company to another is better for their career than staying in a single company. I think the opposite is true: when employees are happy and fulfilled in the workplace, they perform better and are unwilling to go through the travails of searching for a new position elsewhere. However, this happens only if the employer clearly demonstrates to the employees, through word and deed, that they value each employee's unique individual contribution to the company's success.


All good employees have a desire to feel needed and appreciated for the work they do. It's just human nature.


I think Jessie was a good employee, but her boss didn't seem to think so. Now he's lost her and he may be worse off than before. As for Jessie, she's getting a head start on a passion that she had planned to pursue only ten to fifteen years from now.


If you had been Jessie's boss, would she still be working for you?

Nov 24, 2011

Employees Are Our Most Important Asset?

Everyone is replaceable, but nobody is disposable. It's the difference between having employees and having resources. To be replaceable means that should an employee leave or be fired, it is possible to find a replacement. Typically, finding such a replacement requires an investment. As a leader, you've invested time, money, and emotion into building a team. When team members leave, in order to replace them you need to find the right balance of skills and attitude, so that the new hire fits.


When an employee is disposable, it means that they are of limited use and that once their expiry date has passed, you just discard them with no further thought. That's fine for a tin can but doesn't work for people. Employees feel it when a person in a position of authority thinks little of them. When they do, of course, they rebel. They won't go down in the streets and protest as they are currently doing in Greece or on Wall Street, but their actions will show it. They will work more slowly; they will be sick more often; they will find more problems with the work they need to do; it might even go as far as sabotaging projects, just to make the leader look bad.


Ask any leader in any company, and chances are, at some point you will hear that famous phrase: "Our people are our most important asset." Yet when you dig a little deeper, you find that it is just lip service. It can take on many forms:

  • managers who don't speak to their subordinates face to face, but prefer to do it by email;

  • there are those who don't reply to messages or to requests unless they are repeated more than once;

  • some accept meetings, show up late, yet ask to be brought up to speed while everyone else waits;

  • some schedule meetings and show up late to their own meetings, or are unprepared for their meetings;

  • employees are forced to work with suboptimal tools, even though those tools are essential to their productivity;

  • employees are not made aware of important information which may affect their work;

  • changes are planned with no input, and often no backing, by the employees, which just makes it more difficult for the changes to be implemented.

These are just some situations which can adversely affect employee morale, and can  undermine a manager's leadership.


If people were to step walk into your office, how could they tell that employees are not disposable? How would they really see that people are your most important asset?

Nov 15, 2011

Give Your 110%

"I want you to give your 110% to this effort!" How many times have you heard this? How many times have you said this?  


Let's put aside the fact that you can't give 110%, and that you can't give 100% all the time or else you'll burn out. After all, if humans could give 100% all the time, Usain Bolt would run the marathon in about 67 minutes, which is about half as much as the current world record. As a leader, you really just want your employees to give the maximum effort as often as possible. No matter what you try, it will never be 100%.


Employees aren't robots, they're people and people get tired, they get distracted, they get sick, and so on. Each of these factors takes away from the 100% and there's nothing you can do about it. However, there are many other factors that take away from that effort which can be controlled.

  • Social interaction: Social interaction is an important part of the work. People who work together often eventually start sharing information about each other, they laugh together, they develop friendships, and so on. It's an important part of creating a team mentality. However, it can get out of hand when all people do is joke around and do very little work (think of the comedy ":The Office").
  • Not having the right tools: Technology in all fields is progressing at breakneck speed. It's nearly impossible to keep up. If we take computer programs, for example. Many companies wait before upgrading the software they use. However, when tools are five or six years behind current versions, employees may be wasting time doing things that more recent versions can do more effectively.
  • Skills deficiency: Does John have the proper skills to do his work, or is he putting twice the effort to do the same work that others in his team are doing? Is his supervisor aware of John's predicament? What help is available for John to get up to speed?
  • Micro-management: Is Sally putting more work into reaching her goals or into reporting what she is doing? When are the scheduled milestones where Sally must report progress or warn about possible issues? Is there enough trust between her and her supervisor to let her be as effective as possible, while the supervisor is not concerned that she is not doing her work properly?
  • Negative atmosphere: This can take on many forms, from gossiping, to outright conflicts, to overt politicking, the the threat of pending layoffs. When the atmosphere is overly negative, employees put more effort into protecting themselves and trying to work around the landmines than they do on getting the work done.

Of course, there can be many other types of distractions or issues that affect the effective output of an employee. Some are under the leader's control (ineffective business processes, too many mandatory meetings) while some aren't (personal issues, sickness). This is illustrated in the following diagram:



No matter what you do, employees cannot give 100% everyday, all day. However, if as a leader you can find the reasons that affect this output, and you can effectively address them, then you might just get 80% all day. That's much better than average.

Nov 11, 2011

Facebook baiting

There's a trend in Facebook that I find somewhat disturbing. People post movies on their walls or send movies to you and encourage you to click the movie. When you do, the first thing you see is a message that sayss "You must share/like this before seeing it." This begs the question: What, exactly, am I sharing? What, exactly, am I liking?

Maybe somebody can light my candle, here, but I don't understand why you would need to force people to share things or commit to saying they like it, if they haven't seen it yet. My first reaction—well, my only reaction, really—is to ignore such movies, even if the title is enticing. So if the idea is to get more people talking about it, or sharing it, isn't that a counter productive approach? Let people view the movie and let them decide after the fact whether it's worth sharing or not. Otherwise, the message you are really sending is "Send this along before you realize that it's really not that good."

Nov 8, 2011

Employees Are People Too

As a leader, how do you see your employees? What do they represent? Are they your most important asset? Are they a never ending source of problems? Do they represent a bigger budget and more responsibilities? Or are they something else completely? It's a simple question, really, when you think about it. Fortunately, it also has a simple answer: Employees are people. That's it. They're people.


Now, they may be people that have been hired to do a certain task; they may be people who help achieve goals; they may be people who represent assets-and expenditures-on the balance sheet, but first and foremost, they are people. Why is this important? Because sometimes leaders get so caught up in the tasks, the goals, the budgets and the other "stuff" that is important to get their job done, that they forget that the only way do succeed at these things is to deal with people first. Not numbers, not the top line and the bottom line, but individuals. These individuals are not just a means to an end: They are the only means to your end. Without them, there are no results, there is no top line, and the bottom falls out.   


If leaders forget that they are dealing with individuals first, it can cause all sorts of problems, sometimes in the short term, sometimes over the long term. But the results are the same: more effort is needed to get the work done, there are more problems to manage, and the atmosphere in the workplace becomes more noxious. Eventually, it catches up to the leader: missed deadlines, cost overruns, and of course, more stress which can lead to health issues.   


Over the next few weeks, I will be covering various aspects of this human side of leadership. As always, I welcome comments, questions, and suggestions.  


No matter what the title on the business card, leaders cannot exist unless people accept to follow their lead. Nobody is anointed a leader, people decide to grant them that distinction. They can be bosses or supervisors by decree, but they are leaders by consensus. By underestimating this human aspect of leadership, leaders seriously undermine their effectiveness.

Nov 1, 2011

Stepping up to the challenge

Steve Jobs redefined the digital landscape. Linus Torvalds galvanized a movement which enables much of the Internet to exist. Terry Fox attempted to cross Canada on one leg. How can you rise to such a challenge?


Have a powerful "Why." If you read about people who have accomplished great feats, when they were not forced to do it, it always boils down to the reason. Whether it be Terry Fox, Steve Jobs, Linus Torvalds, or someone trying to stop smoking or to lose weight. All have a powerful reason to accomplish what they set out to do. Without a powerful reason, the challenge will best you.


Plan and prepare. If you are going to run a marathon, you can't simply show up on the finish line and hope to finish. You must prepare in advance, whether it be running longer distances than usual, changing your diet or getting the proper running gear.


Start. It's fine to get ready and to plan, but if you don't actually start, nothing will happen. The first step is often the most difficult. You can either start slow and pick up speed as you go along or start with a bang and ride the momentum. The latter is best because once you get a good start, it becomes harder to simply give up since you've done so much in so little time.


Measure. How will you know close you are to your goal? If you can't measure your progress, it is difficult to know if your are moving in the right direction. Eventually this can become disheartening and can cause you to simply give up.


Have a support system. The harder the task, the more you need one or more people to support you along the way. Let them know how you are progressing. That person (or those people) must be people who believe in you and will encourage you when you face the inevitable roadblocks. Stay away for people who live to criticize and put people down.


Celebrate. The end goal shouldn't be the only thing to celebrate along the way. There should be various milestones to celebrate. Celebrations make the entire process more enjoyable and increase the chances of success. Beating yourself over the head won't have nearly the same effect. Celebrate, have fun, and enjoy the ride.


Back in May, I decided that I wanted to participate in this year's National Novel Writing Month. The challenge is to complete a 50,000 word novel in one month. That's an average of almost 1,700 words per day. To put it in perspective, if you type 30 words per minute, which is not that fast, you have to type without interruption for one hour every day for the entire month. My average, so far, is about 500 words per day. Completing the novel will be quite a challenge!


I'll let you know how it went in December.