Archive for January, 2011

Remembering the Challenger

Friday, January 28th, 2011

Twenty-five years ago today, millions of lives were in changed in an instant when the U.S. space shuttle Challenger disintegrated moments after liftoff. The seven individuals who lost their lives aboard the spacecraft surely paid the heaviest price of all. The subsequent pain and suffering of their families, friends, and colleagues is unimaginable. Christa McAuliffe’s reported comment on the irony of a history teacher making history took on a totally different, and tragic, meaning than the one she had intended.

Disasters like the Challenger’s tend to be defining moments in our lives. Where we were and what we were doing at the moment we saw or heard the news become etched in our brains, seared in our consciousness, and often change our lives in some way. Today we are reminded of this moment and its aftermath as we hear from, and read about, those who have shared their personal stories about their Challenger-related defining moment. Here is mine.

We were sitting in my Director’s office in Memphis late in the morning, huddled around the speaker phone as we talked with our investment bankers in New York about the logistics of a bond issue that FedEx was about to take to market. The proceeds were to be used to fund the company’s new service called ZapMail, which was a sophisticated pre-cursor of today’s fax machines. Suddenly someone ran into the office and, in a shocked voice, announced, “The Challenger just blew up!” We bolted for the conference room, where our co-workers already were gathering in front of the television there. We stared in stunned disbelief as the TV station played the footage of the tragedy over and over and over again. In denial, I hoped that if we watched long enough, we finally would see a replay with a different, happy ending. There was none.

As fellow human beings and as U.S. citizens proud of our country’s space program, we were devastated by the loss of those seven lives and the impact it would have on people, programs, and things we couldn’t even begin to imagine just then. For my manager, the news was even more heartbreaking than for the rest of us: one of the astronauts on board the Challenger, Mission Specialist Ronald McNair, had been a fellow student at MIT.

As we tore ourselves away from the riveting scene that played out on a continuous loop on the TV screen, we knew one thing was clear: there would be no bond issue. FedEx had had a satellite on board the Challenger that was critical to the implementation of its new ZapMail service. When the spacecraft disintegrated, so too did our ability to provide this service.

Where were you on that fateful day? How, if at all, was the Challenger disaster a defining moment in your life? Whatever meaning it had for you, I hope that you take a few minutes to reflect on this event, and to resolve to do something to honor the Challenger crew, ensuring that their lives were not lost in vain.

 2011 Pat Lynch. All rights reserved.

Why City Governments Are Floundering

Sunday, January 23rd, 2011

Across the U.S., scores of municipalities technically are bankrupt, as their financial obligations far outstrip their ability to cover them. Some cities already have declared bankruptcy legally. Politicians nationwide desperately are seeking ways to stave off bankruptcy by stemming the flood of red ink that threatens imminent financial disaster. So far the red ink is winning.

What is preventing decision-makers from devising an effective process for allocating their cities’ scarce resources in ways that will allow them to re-group successfully in the aftermath of slashed budgets, plummeting revenues, forced furloughs, and layoffs?

A major impediment is the lack of a clearly articulated “big picture” – i.e., a city-wide mission statement or vision. A quick check of half a dozen large cities across the U.S. reveals no city-wide mission statements on their official web sites. Yet most of the departments in each of those cities do have mission statements prominently displayed. And therein lies the problem. Although having department-specific mission statements surely is desirable, the departments’ individual efforts must be directed toward the same collective end. Unless those diverse missions are aligned with the city’s mission, all you have is a set of competing and conflicting interests – hardly the basis for setting priorities effectively.

The importance of having an overall big picture has never been more critical for cities than it is now, when resources are exceptionally scarce. Given the need to change decades-old structures, programs, processes, systems, and regulations that no longer work, at the same time that demand for government services has skyrocketed, setting clear priorities to allocate scarce resources most effectively is key to a successful rebuilding effort. In order to set priorities, however, there must be a unifying frame of reference. Otherwise, how can decision-makers and stakeholders agree on what programs or services should take precedence over others? Some groups’ “must have” lists are viewed as “nice to have” or even “unnecessary” from others’ perspectives. Absent the touchstone of a clearly articulated overall mission or vision, who is to say which group is “correct?”

For example, in February 2010, the Los Angeles City Council was considering drastic actions such as laying off over 1,000 employees, eliminating departments, and cutting public safety budgets and staff in order to erase a $208 million shortfall. During discussions about how to close this gap, one City Council member went on record as saying that he wanted to do whatever was necessary to preserve the $1 million allocated to paying a handful of city employees who work as calligraphers – i.e., those who handcraft the ornate certificates of recognition that elected officials like to hand out to constituents and other supporters.

Who is to say that this council member’s priorities were misplaced? After all, while most Los Angeles departments have their own mission statements, the City itself has none. As a result, there is no definitive basis on which people can decide whether keeping calligraphers on the job is more or less important than providing adequate levels of public safety or keeping libraries open.

While there are no easy solutions to allocating scarce resources, you first must have an effective process to guide the tough decisions. Trying to set priorities without benefit of a city-wide big picture is akin to trying to put a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle together without knowing what the picture is supposed to look like – and while both hands are tied behind your back. When I advise clients how to prioritize their scarce resources, step one necessarily is articulating a clear, overall big picture. That picture becomes the touchstone by which all decisions are made, and by which priorities may be set.

What is your organization’s big picture? Making sure that you have one – and that all stakeholders know what it is – ensures that you have a solid foundation upon which to set organizational priorities.

© 2011 Pat Lynch. All rights reserved.

Are You Treating the Symptoms or the “Disease?”

Wednesday, January 19th, 2011

Yesterday a high school student in Gardena, CA brought a loaded gun to school in his backpack. During the third period class he dropped the backpack on a desk, causing the gun to discharge. Two 15-year-old students were wounded, one critically.

As the story unfolded, I listened to the commentary on NPR, where Patt Morrison was facilitating a conversation among her guest experts, a reporter on-site at the locked-down school, and listeners calling in with their opinions. The focus of the discussion was on the deficiencies of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s measures to keep weapons out of the schools, and on the question of whether the parents of students who take weapons to school should be held accountable for their children’s actions. In the midst of this raging debate, Ms. Morrison took a call from Daniel, a recent high school graduate, who changed the direction of the conversation completely. In essence he said, “Everyone is talking about keeping weapons out of the schools. How come no one is talking about why kids feel the need to bring them to school in the first place? Why did that kid feel he needed a gun to protect himself?” He then went on to talk about what it’s like to be a student who feels unsafe in his own school, day after day.

Daniel’s question was right on target. While others had been focusing on the symptoms highlighted by the unfolding incident, he went right to the heart of the matter, which was the “disease,” or the problem that gave rise to the symptoms. All the speakers to that point had been talking about contingent actions – i.e., how to address the aftermath of the problem – such as what to do when students take weapons to school, how thorough security screenings should be, and who is to blame if weapons get by those systems. Daniel, on the other hand, brought the attention to preventive actions – i.e., creating safe environments in schools so students don’t feel the need to bring weapons to protect themselves.

The nature of the conversation described here occurs far too often in organizations – and in our personal lives. That is, we tend to focus on symptoms instead of on the issues or problems that gave rise to them. Often it’s much easier to identify contingent actions to take when the symptoms pop up than it is to take the time and make the effort to delve into the issues so that we can develop effective preventive measures. The fact is that contingent actions are short-term solutions, and they come into play only after the damage has been done. Though preventive actions are more time consuming, in the long-run they mitigate or obviate the need for contingent actions – and, importantly, they remove obstacles to success.

Take a look at some of the issues you’re dealing with right now, personally or professionally. Then ask yourself whether you’re focusing on resolving those issues directly or merely addressing their symptoms.

© 2011 Pat Lynch. All rights reserved.

Guest Column: Top Ten Leadership Tips for Succeeding All Around

Tuesday, January 18th, 2011

If the past year didn’t work out exactly as planned, you’ll be happy to know that you can still make things right. Here are some tips to help you succeed all around.

    1. Move forward by looking backwards-Have you been successful because of your leadership or in spite of it? I’ve watched time and time again, companies and leaders succeed in spite of poor management skills. Now imagine the levels of success they could have achieved if those who were in charge had great leadership skills? Or even good leadership skills. Gather feedback about your management style and adjust accordingly.

    2. Lead by example-Behave, as you would want your employees to behave, but also understand that your role is different from that of your employees.

    3. Surround yourself with the right people-Hire for fit, train for skill and if the opportunity presents itself, hire people who are better than you. Be prepared for the arrival of new hires so they immediately feel connected to the organization.

    4. Stop the blame game-It’s always someone or something that is at fault. But in the end, the buck stops with you. Sure, you may not have inherited a stellar team, but that doesn’t mean you have to settle for mediocrity. You have the power to inspire people to exceed expectations. You also have the power to release people who aren’t making the grade. What you don’t get to do is blame everyone else for your team’s failure to perform.

    5. Cut your losses early-Mismatches happen, no matter how good you are at interviewing. Take action quickly to avoid having the rest of the team distracted by a poor hire.

    6. Invest in yourself and your people-Can you name one organization that has cut their way to exceptional customer service? I can’t. It’s time to put your money where your mouth is. If your firm prides itself on customer service then invest in more people to reduce the wait times, especially during peak calling hours. And while you are at it, give your employees the tools and training they need to provide exceptional service.

    7. Build on Strengths-Everyone focuses on improving weaknesses. You can distinguish yourself by paying particular attention to areas of strength, as this is where you’ll receive the most return for your investment.

    8. It’s better to be respected than loved
    -As human beings, we have a natural tendency to want to be loved. But what happens when your desire to be loved interferes with your ability to lead? Effective leaders recognize it is more important to be respected by their people than adored. They make the tough decisions that are needed to secure the future of those around them, including their direct reports.

    9. Your success depends on the success of others-To succeed as a manager, you will need to shift your focus from “me” to “we.” Going forward, your success will no longer be measured by your individual contribution. Instead, you will be evaluated on your ability to create and maintain a highly engaged team that is willing to give it their all.

    10. Find a coach or a mentor-You are ultimately responsible for your own success. If you are lucky, you may get approval to attend a training session this year. It’s a start, however training isn’t going to ultimately get you where you want to go. Find a coach or a mentor who can swiftly guide you through the landmines that exist in every organization.

© 2011 Human Resource Solutions. All rights reserved.

Roberta Chinsky Matuson is the President of Human Resource Solutions ( and author of the highly acclaimed book Suddenly in Charge: Managing Up, Managing Down, Succeeding All Around. Sign up to receive a complimentary subscription to Roberta’s monthly newsletter, HR Matters.

To Get Different Answers, Change the Question

Saturday, January 15th, 2011

Are you asking the wrong questions? As organizations grapple with regrouping in the aftermath of severe budget cuts, massive layoffs, and widespread furloughs, their leaders are searching for ways to thrive in an environment of constant change. Whether they need to re-visit the mission statement, re-organize the structure, re-deploy a decimated workforce, or scale back ambitious programs, leaders seek answers that will help them be successful. Yet many of them unknowingly are creating obstacles to their own success because they are asking the wrong questions. For example, I hear organizational leaders asking questions like these:

    “Can we launch these new programs in light of the economy?
    “Can we afford to keep the lights on this year?”
    “Instead of keeping program X and program Y, which one should we cut?”

These are the wrong questions because they evoke unproductive answers – i.e., those that do not serve the organization well and that create unnecessary barriers to success. They place constraints around the possible responses, and they limit creativity by requiring only yes/no or one-word answers.

In order for organizations to thrive, leaders need to change the questions they ask. In doing so, they will find much different answers – e.g., those that unleash creativity and encourage innovation. For example:

    “How can we launch these new programs?
    “How can we offer the best service possible?”
    “How can we keep both program X AND program Y?”

The new answers will enable leaders to examine their situations from a vastly different perspective, and to find the previously unexplored possibilities for success instead becoming resigned to going down the path of mediocrity (at best) or even of failure.

What questions do leaders in your organization ask?

© 2011 Pat Lynch. All rights reserved.

6 Strategies for Keeping Employees Engaged

Friday, January 14th, 2011

As the U.S. economy begins to recover and jobs become more widely available, workers can choose whether to remain with their current employers or to go elsewhere. In fact, leaders who are looking ahead to better economic days are worried about whether and how they can retain their key employees. Here are six strategies that will help organizations ensure their workers are engaged now and in the foreseeable future, along with the “why” and “how” of each strategy.

1. Make employees a high priority

Why: (a) Employees who are a high priority serve customers well, which means that everyone benefits; and (b) when employees feel that senior management really cares about them, their productivity, morale, and engagement increase.

How: Develop an employee-centered workplace®, which is an environment in which every person, program, process, and system is focused on helping employees be fully successful.

2. Embrace the concept of doing “LESS with less”

Why: (a) This approach recognizes the fallacy of doing “more with less,” and (b) because employees are more productive and less stressed, morale increases.

How: Prioritize by focusing relentlessly on the organization’s mission, then jettison everything that does not support the mission.

3. Ensure alignment with the “big picture”

Why: Employees who feel they are part of something bigger than themselves are more engaged and committed, and they have higher morale than those who feel no connection.

How: Ensure that each employee sees clearly (a) the organization’s “big picture” AND (b) the contribution he/she makes to achieving it.

4. Develop an appreciative culture

Why: (a) A positive environment encourages employee engagement, increases collaboration and morale, and decreases defensiveness; and (b) a little appreciation = a huge ROI.

How: Have leaders insist on, and model, positive language and behaviors.

5. Show employees they have choices

Why: When people feel they have more control, their focus, productivity, engagement, morale, and self-confidence tend to increase.

How: Teach employees how to develop framing skills and make healthy choices about how to manage their situations.

6. Incorporate procedural fairness into organizational decision-making

Why: (a) Employees will accept negative outcomes IF they believe the decision-making processes are fair; and (b) fair processes increase trust.

How: Ensure all processes incorporate the elements of procedural fairness.

Leaders who have implemented these six strategies should have a high level of confidence in their ability to retain key employees. Those who are missing some or all of the strategies are likely to see their turnover skyrocket as the recovery gains momentum – and it will be the good performers who leave in droves, not the mediocre or poor ones. Which outcome do you foresee for your organization? And if you don’t like the answer, what do you plan to do about it?

© 2011 Pat Lynch. All rights reserved.

Planning for Life’s Transitions

Sunday, January 2nd, 2011

It is said that there are only two certainties in this life: death and taxes. I would like to nominate a third possibility: life transitions. Human beings go through many transitions, beginning with the most basic one: our journey from baby to child to adult. Many life transitions can be anticipated, such as those from student to worker, from employee to entrepreneur, from one career to another, from childless individual to parent, or from worker to retiree. Then there are those changes that we often do not expect, such as transitions from worker to jobless individual, from married to single again, from “empty nester” to roommate of grown children, or from retiree to worker.

The question is, do you plan for life’s transitions, or are you more likely to wait and let them surprise you? I can make a strong case for the benefits of planning for change, whether or not we can foresee it. Especially since we live in an environment of permanent “white water” (i.e., a world in which figurative raging torrents, unstable currents, and hidden hazards are everyday occurrences), proactively planning for change can make the difference between being able to act opportunistically and having to react to whatever comes our way. Why not approach the inevitability of change as a source of opportunity, making the process of navigating it as easy and productive as possible?

One way to prepare for successfully seizing opportunities as they present themselves is to develop a personal plan similar to the succession planning process that an organization would implement to ensure smooth transitions. Below are some of the elements of such a process. If done on a regular basis, they can facilitate life’s transitions, both expected and unexpected:

    • A clearly articulated “big picture” that guides your career goals.
    • Strong commitment to the course of action you have selected.
    • Support of your goals by significant people in your life.
    • Identification of the specific competencies required for successful transition to your next position or career, or to retirement.
    • Periodic assessment of your existing knowledge, skills, abilities, and competencies.
    • Effective measures of progress and achievement of your goals.
    • Realistic assessment of your current performance.
    • Implementation of your on-going professional development plan.
    • Periodic re-assessment of your personal goals.
    • Mindset that is ready for change and the opportunities it presents.

Whether your life transitions are expected or come out of the blue, you can increase your odds of dealing with them successfully by spending some time developing an on-going, systematic process that is agile enough to help you thrive during turbulent times. Why not do everything you can to ensure you are as successful as possible in playing out whatever hand life deals you?

© 2011 Pat Lynch. All rights reserved.