Nov 26, 2008

Voluntary layoffs? Think real hard first

To piggy back on my earlier post on the subject, asking people to voluntarily leave their current job, in order to cut costs, can backfire:

The Globe and Mail: Voluntary layoffs seen backfiring

The problem with such an approach is that employers see employees as only a number on the balance sheet. And if they can set that number low enough to have a high number on the bottom line, they think they have won. Wrong on so many counts!

When laying off employees, you do much more than reduce your expenses:

  • You affect morale, especially if you do it over and over again. Cut once, cut deep.
  • You affect productivity, especially if you announce layoffs weeks ahead of the actual cut. By the time you actually make the cut, you may have more than expected because people will tend to focus on the expected bad news, prepare their resumes, and so on. When your focus is not on your job (for whatever reason), performance will almost always suffer;

  • With voluntary layoffs, you run the risk of losing even more if your best people decide that they want to leave. Your performance will automatically be reduced, because that star performer leaves not only with his her salary (a win on your balance sheet) but also with the accompanying results (a loss that will outweigh the win on the balance sheet).

Voluntary layoffs may seem like a good plan, that humanizes the layoff process, but you need to think of the company in the long term. Sometimes, saving money can cost much more than you expect.

Nov 24, 2008

Layoffs, hospitals and budgets

With rounds after rounds of layoffs expected in the coming months, this is a timely piece:

The Art of Laying People Off

I especially like Guy's #10: don't let people self-select themselves, because you will lose your best people.

In Quebec, the government did that a few years ago in the health sector. Nurses and doctors were offered early retirement and many of them jumped at the chance. On top of that, they limited the number of admissions in medical faculties. Net result? Today there is a severe shortage of medical staff, at a time where needs are constantly increasing. It will take another 7 years before things get back to normal.

The reasons for doing so were for budget-balancing purposes, which is highly laudable, but I think the government officials failed to look at the big picture. They failed to take into account that many in the health-care sector were fed up with the system and were only looking for a way out. They failed to see that needs for medical personnel would increase, not decrease over time. They failed to adequately project the effects of limiting the number of health-care professionals trained by the system.

How bad is it? There is a large shortfall of family doctors in Quebec, partly because of the decisions made in the '90s and partly because of the bad rap general practitioners (GPs) receive in medical schools. I was recently discussing this with a specialist, and as he explained it to me, most professors in medical universities are specialists. Hence, they will vow for their profession and will encourage students to follow in their footsteps. Few GPs teach in university, so there is no emotional appeal to incite students to become family doctors. In fact, according to an article in today's Journal de Montréal, in 2008 300 new GPs were added to the workforce, while there was a need for 346. The race is not lost, but it's going to be difficult to win.

The lesson, for any business, is that you should not let your best people go, just to save money. In the long run, the costs can greatly outweigh any savings you make on the balance sheet.

Your first performance review is approaching?

What should entry-level empoyees expect from their first performance review? See some answers (including mine) here:

Entry Level Careers Examiner: Surviving your first performance review (part 1): What to expect

Nov 19, 2008

Confronting issues

A quote from Alan Weiss:

Confront EVERY issue. Life is too short to be worried about what people think of you.

Too many communication issues are a result of our fear of confrontation, simply because we are afraid of what others will say about us. I count myself within that group, at times and with certain people. Identifying the times and the people who cause that reaction, is a good step toward overcoming that fear.

You gain respect when you confront people who are more successful, more powerful, or more confident than you are. Doing so, and doing it well, raises your profile in everyone's eyes, including your own. But that only happens when you are willing to step forward, and take a risk.

Nov 18, 2008

How to connect emotionally with an audience, in a few seconds, using PowerPoint (or Keynote, or OpenOffice Impress)

When you look at the following video, focus on your feelings; don't focus on the speaker. What emotions do you get from this presentation? And more importantly, why?

David Hoffman on losing everything | Video on TED.com

Nov 17, 2008

PowerPoint slides tips for presenters

At the Toastmasters District 61 conference this weekend, I presented a workshop entitled "Breathe New Life Into Your PowerPoint Slides." The goal of the workshop was to explain to the attendees how to avoid "Death By PowerPoint" simply by changing a few things about the way they created their slides.

I presented a lot of the concepts that Garr Reynolds discusses in his Presentation Zen blog. My PowerPoint slides have been greatly influenced by the information on his site. Judging from the reaction I received, I believe that many of the attendees will change their views about the function and the design of their slides as a result of attending this workshop.

A few of the elements I focused on:
  • Death by PowerPoint is never the fault of PowerPoint it's always the presenter's fault. Sorry.
  • Slides are there to aid the presentation, they are not the presentation. When building a PowerPoint "presentation" the slides are only part of the picture (no pun intended). The most important part of the presentation consists of the information you provide and the way you deliver it.
  • The slides are primarily for the benefit of the audience, not the speaker. Yet most of the time, they are built with the speaker in mind.
One thing I learned: you cannot over-check your technology. Before the start of the workshop, I checked everything inside and out, making sure it all worked. I did this because I don't begin by showing the title slide on the screen as people walk in. At the start of my presentation, the screen is blank because the first slide is designed to elicit laughter. Well, it did, but not the way I expected it.

For some reason, when I put up the very first slide, nothing was displayed on the screen. My first joke fell flat, and I had to fiddle with my computer to get it going again. It took about 10 seconds, but it was long enough for someone in the audience to say "It kills me when that happens." I'm not sure if the comment was directed at me, or if she was sharing her past experience...

I got things back on track quickly, although the image was only projected on the screen: my laptop's display was blank, which forced me to turn my head constantly to make sure the audience was looking at the right slide during the speech. Not as seamless as I wanted it to be, but it worked out very well in the end.

It's all about proper preparation, putting the audience first, and not depending on the tool to deliver your message.

Nov 16, 2008

District 61 Fall conference

As I am writing this, I am lying in bed, my lovely wife asleep by my side, in the lovely Manoir St-Sauveur, at the end of the second evening of the Toastmasters District 61 2008 Fall Conference. I've been to a few conferences and I can safely say that this has been one of the best experiences (if not the best) I've had at Toastmasters.

A few months ago, my friend LouLou called me and told me: "I'm organizing the district conference and I want you to be the master of ceremonies for the banquet. Would you do that?" LouLou is a big fan of mine. When I listen to her talk about me, sometimes I feel like I could walk on water.

I thought about it a bit. I hadn't been to a conference in a long time. Most of the time, when I attended, I did so as a competitor in one of the speech contests. Once, I had chaired a contest. But a banquet? I almost said no, but I decided to accept. She was thrilled! And I told her, "Well, since I'll be there anyway, put me down for a workshop." And so today, I had double duty as workshop leader and as banquet MC.

My workshop went very well, but I'll discuss it in a separate post.

MC'ing the evening's proceedings was even better. Honestly, I wasn't sure about the banquet. I wasn't sure my style of irreverence would go over well. And since I hadn't MC'd a formal banquet before, I wasn't sure how it would come off.

Well, if the standing ovation was any indication, it looks like I did a pretty good job. After the banquet, I received many compliments from people telling me how much they enjoyed themselves.

To me that's what it was all about: giving a bit back to the community and organization that helped me launch my speaking and training career. I'm not sure I took the time to thank them in my closing remarks, because I was too busy trying to get a few jokes in before the curtain went down. If I had to do it over again, I would focus my closing remarks more on expressing the gratitude I felt, rather than trying to be clever.

I've MC'd other events before, and looking back on my past successes, these are some of the things that stand out:
  • Although, as MC, I am the most visible person, I am not the star. The MC's role should be to let the guests shine, by not keeping the spotlight on him/her at all times. Billy Crystal was a great MC, because he took the spotlight only when needed but kept it on the actors, producers, directors most of the time. Other Oscar hosts were not as gracious.
  • The MC must be adaptable. Although you have a script, I have found that things rarely go as planned. This weekend, I had to adapt the ceremony to the meal service and other unexpected events that occurred. If I had decided that we absolutely, positively had to stick to the script, it would have been a disaster. One phrase will stick with me for a long time, I'm sure: remember the member. You don't want to know.
  • Making it personal will make it more memorable. Whenever I can, I try to make things somewhat personal. Last year at a wedding, I asked married members of the audience to share a story that would entertain us, but also would be helpful to the newlyweds as they began their life together. This weekend, the theme was "The Oscars" so I asked all the people I introduced about their favourite movie. In the process, we all learned a few great things about some of the leaders of District 61. It made them shine even more, and I was happy to contribute.
  • Use humour and be yourself: a few years ago, I attended a CAPS conference where the MC was side-splittingly (is that a word?) hilarious. The reason was simple: he was irreverent, he had no idea who were the sacred cows among the speakers, and he acted accordingly. His wit was quick, and anyone who tried to have the last word with him paid the price. He was invited to host the following year also. Boring galas, banquets, and other ceremonies are often caused by hosts who are afraid (or don't know how) to be funny.
Next weekend, I am slated to host a charity evening. I will see if the same rules can apply. It will be a first, once again.

This was a great weekend, I saw some old friends I had not seen in a long time, and it was great to be in such a festive and positive atmosphere.

I thank LouLou for asking me to host the banquet. It was an honour, and a privilege to serve the District. Hopefully, it contributed to making LouLou's conference a great success!


Nov 2, 2008

Voting with your funny bone

The past couple of weeks have seen Sarah Palin and John McCain show up on Saturday Night Live, letting the folks at SNL have a little fun at their expense.

Now, this is not an endorsement by any stretch of the imagination, but if I had to vote solely on the "fun factor", the McCain-Palin ticket would win, hands down.

Palin has appeared on Saturday Night Live while McCain has appeared on SNL and David Letterman. In both instances, the folks at SNL had a chance to poke fun at the candidates, although I thought McCain did better than Palin. As for his Letterman stint, McCain showed up even though Letterman had been picking on him the previous day because McCain had reneged on a promise to appear on "the big show", choosing instead to be interviewed by Katie Couric.

Barack Obama has also been on some shows, but nothing like Palin and especially McCain.

For those who don't know, Sarah Palin was spoofed by Tina Fey on Saturday Night Live's season opener. Fey did a nail-on impression of Palin that received rave reviews and was the talk of the water cooler for weeks. You can see it on Saturday Night Live's site. A few weeks later, Palin agreed to appear on SNL, and appeared in two sketches: The Palin Rap and the opening of the show.

As you can see, they didn't give Palin much to work with. But they gave McCain much better material and he delivered:  a QVC Opening (which included his wife) and Weekend Update. On The Late Show, he traded barbs with David Letterman, who kept on nagging him about skipping the show the previous day. McCain could easily have said "no" and skipped out completely. But he came on, faced the music, and gave a great show. There was even a tense moment where I felt Letterman was truly upset and agitated about the state of the economy and the country. McCain, to his credit, treated that part of the interview seriously and gave a decent answer to Letterman's questions. This occured only a few days after a debate with Obama. That two-minute segment had more emotion and grit than the entire 90 minutes he had spent "debating" with his adversary.

During the SNL skit, I discovered a side of McCain that I hadn't noticed in the debates: when he's at ease, he is actually a very funny guy. Notice in his skits that he pauses when the audience laughs, in order not to step on their laughter. He doesn't hesitate much and he doesn't have a fake, scary grin like he did at the Republican convention. He genuinely is enjoying himself. I feel like all his TV appearances are a testament to that.

As for the Obama-Biden ticket? Well, so far, they are no fun at all. They don't seem to be making the rounds of the comedy shows and Obama's few apparitions barely made me crack a smile. Obama is smooth, even, and unemotional in his appearances. Those are great traits for a president trying to be reassuring to a nation in distress. But together, they make for boring TV!

I don't know what's going to happen on November 4th. Will the so-called "Bradley effect" prevail? Or will Obama win, as all polls seem to indicate? Will the appearances on comedy shows make McCain appear like a lovable, funny human being? Or will it portray him as a goofball? I'll be watching closely to see.

I will say this in closing, though: if McCain does not win, I hope Saturday Night Live gives him a spot as a regular guest. He could become one of the most valuable members of the team.