Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Speak Up

Part of being willing to participate in finding a solution (aka as Whining Avoidance, not to be confused with Whining Adherence Advocate or WAA!) means speaking up when you see something that isn't right. Shouting at somebody that they're a stupid moron (even if true) and venting to like-minded colleagues doesn't count; getting out on a limb and thoughtfully expressing your opinion does.

The first step is to position yourself well for a conversation on whatever it is you see that needs attention. If it's a workplace matter, know that things like good productivity and a history of working well with others give you more credibility to speak up about issues with people who might be higher up on the food chain than you are. If you don't have that kind of credibility to back you up, at least be up front about the things that might detract from your message.

Back in the dark ages when I was still a tech, there was a policy or some matter that I felt the VP of the department needed to know wasn't working. We were all talking about it amongst ourselves but when I really paid attention to what was happening, I was concerned to see that there were folks who wanted to use the bad policy as an excuse for poor work habits and others who had figured out ways to scam the system and weren't interested in making any waves. As a worker with a history of good performance, I figured that it was less likely (even if no guarantee) that speaking up about the issue with the VP would result in my butt out on the pavement.

With that thought, I summoned up the confidence to approach the VP and explained why I was coming forward with the information and what I hoped would happen and what I was willing to do to help. I don't recall that any miraculous changes occurred overnight but the people I spoke up to defend were appreciative and the management staff had the opportunity to see me as someone who was willing to speak up and to articulate well-reasoned arguments.

Let me forewarn you that this strategy is not entirely without risk. Few things that are truly worthwhile are risk-free and each person has to decide how strong their beliefs are and weigh them against the realistic risks and their own level of risk tolerance. The good news is that risks often have their rewards when they are taken in alignment with our beliefs and values. In my case, while I can think of at least one other job where this strategy did not work well for me, in this particular situation I believe it helped position me well for some of the promotions I received later where the ability to have a reasoned dialog on the issues was an important ingredient for success.

That brings me to the other important component in successfully speaking up. Speaking up means engaging in real dialog: back and forth communication where you listen to what the other person has to say and you give them a chance to hear what you have to say in non-offensive terms so that they don't feel backed into a corner. What do they think? Why do they think the way that they do? What kind of common ground can you find?

No matter how far apart you are, I can promise that sane, reasonable people can find something in common. This is not to say that at least one person is not sane or reasonable if common ground cannot be discovered; I would simply take it as a sign that not enough time and effort have yet been spent toward that end. When we really take the time to listen to what other people are thinking, we do find middle ground, that place where both sides have something in common. That area of commonality is important because it provides the foundation from which to start a real conversation... a real dialog as opposed to a shouting match.

This approach works well in politics too. In a country that has become more and more divided in recent years, we may find ourselves in more difficult straits if we don't find a way to remember how to have intelligent discourse on all sides of the issues. We can start by considering the possibility that instead of signifying an ever-worsening condition, the current problems and divisiveness are rather symptoms of a fever about to break. If that notion is more attractive than the continual frustration of wondering how in the world there can be idiots who persist in such wrong-headed thinking, you may be interested in a book called The Politics of Hope - Reviving the Dream of Democracy by Donna Zajonc, a Seattle-area coach who works in the political arena.

Even if you don't speak up about your political views in a public way, I do advocate voting as the quickest, easiest cure for WAA! (whining). If you're registered to vote, I hope that you have already voted in your Primary election today (Washington State) or are making plans to do so before the polls close this evening. Oh, and my personal recommendation is that you not bother with marking up your ballot all wrong just to prove a point that you hate the new primary system. Just do it the way they want you to - to do anything else would be like yelling at the high school burger flipper because the fast food joint you patronize doesn't use organic beef. Talking to someone who can actually do something about it would make more of a difference.

If you're not registered to vote yet, there is still time to register for the General Election. If you're a Washington State resident, you can get a registration form from the Washington State Secretary of State; just be sure you submit it by October 2, 2004. Absentee ballot requests have to be processed through your County Auditor and submitted by September 15, 2004 (in most states - check yours to be sure) for the 2004 General Election in November. If you're not a Washington State resident, chances are good that if you found this site, you're smart enough to do a Google search on voter registration for your state, find out where to get the right forms and figure out the deadlines that apply to you.

What are you saving your voice for?

Friday, September 10, 2004

Sick of Work

I asked a programmer once what his interests were outside of work. He looked at me like I was completely crazy. He had no other interests and spent nearly all of his waking hours at work. In his case, I think he's genuinely happy to have his life be that way. I'm not so sure it works as well for the rest of us.

During the tech boom, employees were happy devoting their lives to the cause of the corporation because there was something in it for them - the promise that if they worked hard enough and hung in there long enough for their options to vest, they'd be rich. Many did become millionaires (at least on paper), though most did not.

These days, hardly anyone expects to suddenly come into the big bucks simply by donating every waking hour to work, especially when the question for many is not how much their options will be worth when they're vested but rather, whether they'll have a chance to vest at all before more layoffs hit.

Some may think this is a particularly pessimistic view. I choose to think of it as an opportunity.

When the financial prospects were huge, the promise of money for many people drowned out every other thought about what else might be important. Now it's easier - and even more crucial - to pay attention to the other priorities in our lives because it's clearer that the money will never be enough to make up for what we lose by not pursuing what's most important to us.

As managers, it makes sense to promote that way of thinking because guess what - it costs an organization money to have employees who are stressed out. Stressed employees use employee assistance programs more and get sick more often. Taking the productivity hit and paying for health care, plus making other employees more stressed when they have to take up the slack, all come at a price. And don't think that firing all the stressed out folks will make the problem go away.

If you're a manager, you can help your company's bottom line by doing everything in your power to make or keep your organization a reasonable place to work. Sure, you have work that needs doing. Understand that forcefeeding to your staff isn't necessarily the most expedient or cost-effective way of getting it done. Make it possible for employees to set personal boundaries that work for themselves as well as for the company. Set a good example yourself by establishing your own healthy work/life balance.

If you're an employee, make it your own responsiblity to keep yourself healthy while doing the work that's expected of you. Manage up if necessary, to help this happen in a positive way; sometimes the person you report to simply doesn't understand all of the ramifications of a particular request. And if the company culture is so toxic that this isn't possible, go somewhere else and let somebody new be their cannon fodder.

Yeah, I realize all too well this is easier said than done. Frankly, figuring out the how of it & actually getting it done is part of what keeps me in business.

What workplace issues do you face and how are you addressing them? Send your thoughts to techsurvivor@soaringmountain.com - if you have new ideas, I'm interested in hearing your approach; if you're fresh out, maybe we can brainstorm together.

Pretending a problem doesn't exist doesn't make it any less real.

Thursday, September 09, 2004

Learning from Lance - Part Trois

The list of business-applicable lessons gained from watching Lance last summer kept on growing. Then I was busy celebrating the history-making Win #6. Then an armadillo ran across the road, sidetracking me for months. Really.

Are you ready for the rest of it? I hope so!

The thing that really pulls it all together is that Lance is a terrific all-around package. The rest of the list just goes to prove some of the ways that's true.

Why is this "total package" thing important? It's because riding well isn't the whole of it. Sure Lance can time trial well and ride up hills like a monster. More than that, though, he uses his head as well as his legs. Lance is a great interview and has the respect of highly rated riders. These qualities and others like them make Armstrong the one other great cyclists want to ride with and it earns him valuable sponsorships. When you are able to assemble a great team and get top of the line equipment and all the other kinds of support you need in a competition as fierce as the Tour de France, it's a tough combination to beat.

Lance uses who he in addition to how well he rides to attract the support he needs and a top-notch team that help him to be competitive. Here's some of the "who" and the "how":

  • Think strategically - Lance and his coach have a plan every day he goes out to ride. He knows where he wants to be in the pack, who to watch for and how he wants to finish.
  • Prepare, prepare, prepare - Sometimes it's simply a matter of preparing better than the next person. When you've done all your homework and prepared for everything you're likely to encounter, success is bound to be yours.
  • Execute well and be a strong tactician in the field - Executing a well-made plan is an important component. Not only does Lance execute well, he reads changes in the field like a master and adapts accordingly.
  • Be able to read your team and your adversaries - Lance gets the most out of his team that he can because he fully understands what they're capable of and how well they're doing. He's also reading the other cyclists, figuring out their strengths and weakness along the way so that he can pinpoint the moves he wants to make, when, and how.
  • Understand and plan for your adversaries' strengths and weaknesses - So many times during this Tour, I came away with the idea that Lance understands his rivals even better than many of them understood themselves and clearly he used that to his advantage whenever possible.
  • Work with your adversaries when it makes sense - When other riders refuse to join up and help each other out simply because they are rivals, no one gains. Lance seems to understand that lesson very well and always has been willing to work together when it furthered his own game plan.
  • Minimize your weaknesses and capitalize on your strengths - When Lance was so sick during the 2003 Tour, master that he was, he actually turned it into a strength, playing down his actual abilities even further and fooling rivals into believing that he'd be easier to beat. In 2004 (as in others) Lance concentrated primarily on the mountains and the time trials where he knew he could gain a time advantage, leaving the flats to the sprinters.
  • Try not to make enemies - As Filippo Simeoni discovered, making an enemy means there's now someone who's heart and soul is devoted to making sure that whoever wins, it won't be you. It's not a good place to be so do your best to avoid it. Rivals are good. Enemies aren't.
  • Don't let your enemies take advantage - Once you have an enemy, it's wise to not ever let them get the upper hand. There's a difference between being "easy to work with" and being a doormat.
  • Pay attention to the details - Even small things count. Lance works hard to make his riding stance the most aerodynamic possible. He sheds every ounce of unnecessary weight and nothing that can impact his ability to ride goes unaddressed.
  • Stay healthy - Simply put, you can't win if you can't play. All that preparation is meaningless if you overdo it during the training or during the real thing. Pacing yourself has to be as much a part of the formula as knowing when to dredge up that extra juice to make it more than 100% effort.
  • Stay with it and don't give up - Voeckler should have been handing over the yellow jersey much earlier than he did. Sheer will-power kept him in the game and now he's created a bit of history of his own. Who knows, perhaps when Lance is done taking home the yellow, we'll be cheering on Voeckler in future Tours.
  • Watch for the right time to make your move - Strike out on your own too early, and you run the risk of being reeled back in by the peloton... delay too long and you may miss your window of opportunity. Hopefully it's no surprise that market timing and understanding whether the conditions in the workplace are conducive to supporting a new initiative work the same way.
  • Sprint for the finish - Winning usually requires that you give it your all right through to the finish. Slacking off means running the risk that there will be someone else just behind you ready to beat you just at the end.
  • Be driven - Find out what drives you and use it to your advantage. For Lance, it was going for the yellow jersey and it wasn't just for the winning; the yellow jersey is what inspired him to go on living and so that proof of vitality is probably a big part of what yellow is all about.
So, did I leave anything out? If so, it's probably because you haven't yet contributed your thoughts on the matter to techsurvivor@soaringmountain.com - While I've got lots of other topics clamoring for space, it's not too late to add more to this one.

What drives you and how much is that helping you get what you want?