Management Lessons Learned from a Dog

I don’t know what had me in such a reflective mood last week when I was gathering things for a sojourn to coastal North Carolina. Maybe it was the fact that my own dog had become the survivor of a second mini-stroke two weeks ago that compelled me to pack — for airline reading — a just-released 128-page book that came to me here at work, All I Know About Management I Learned from my Dog

Or maybe it was the reason for my trip — my mother’s current stay in a hospital (also with stroke-like symptoms) — that had me in the mood for some no-fringe, no-fluff philosophy.

All I can say is I was in the right mind-set for this little gem by Martin P. Levin, a longtime top executive in the publishing world who, after attending law school at night, was admitted to the New York Bar at age 65. He’s currently 92. I believe this is his first book.

His treatise on management — as learned through the trials and tribulations of becoming the owner of Angel, a 14-year-old, now-slightly-overweight golden retriever adopted after the death of his wife — is a droll, yet poignant look at what he considers the four bare-bones (pun intended) “golden rules of management”: trust and leadership, communication, problem solving and decision making, and perseverance and success.

It’s sprinkled with hilarious anecdotes that dog lovers will appreciate, tied to real-world experiences of business and political leaders that help drive home his points. For example, his description of Angel’s step-by-step perseverance in tackling “bones with meat clinging to them” is followed by this definition of perseverance in terms of human leadership:

“– There  was a man who, from age 31 until age 60, had

— Failed business twice,

— Was defeated in legislative races twice,

— Suffered the death of his sweetheart,

— Suffered a nervous breakdown,

— Lost two senatorial races,

— Lost one vice-presidential race,

— And finally was elected president of the United States at age 60.

That man was Abraham Lincoln. Most challenges are not as great as those faced by Lincoln. Nevertheless, there are those who feel that, once rebuffed, trying again is not an option. To Lincoln, failure was not an option. The nation and its values have survived, thanks to his service and perseverance.”

The book meanders a bit from vignette to vignette, but each one reflects Levin’s wealth of knowledge and experience as a successful business leader and his great sense of humor in the lessons learned with Angel. It’s hard to put into words just what works in his (some might say “strange”) literary approach, but it does — work.

See for yourself. The best I can offer is the publisher’s website description. 

A Double Whammy

Usually, job creation and job destruction go in opposite directions during business downturns, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2009 Business Dynamics Statistics report (PDF).

And that was certainly the case in 2009, when there was “a very large decline in gross job creation from existing firms as well as startups in the recession,” according to the Census Bureau.

At the same time, the U.S. economy lost 5.7 million jobs between March 2008 and March 2009, according to Census figures.

So, job destruction increased while job creation in the private sector decreased. And bad times were had by all …

The Census figures also show job creation peaked in 2006, “even though the … official dating of the recession began in December 2007” — and that both job creation and destruction “exhibit a downard trend over the past few decades.”

The data from 1980-1989, 1990-1999 and 2000-2009 show that ongoing negative trend, with only 0.9 percent net job growth in the most recent decade, compared to 2.0 percent in the 1980s and 1.9 percent in the 1990s.

In the period between 2006 and 2009, the country experienced the lowest rates of job creation by established or startups in the past three decades. 

Even if the unemployment rate continues to decline, which it has started to do, albeit at a glacial rate, these Census figures don’t seem to offer much reason for optimism.

IBM Settles SEC Case Alleging Bribes in Korea, China

This one came as a surprise. For those of you with subscriptions to the Wall Street Journal, here’s that paper’s recent story on IBM’s reported $10 million settlement with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission following the Armonk, N.Y.-based technology giant’s alleged decade-long campaign of bribery in China and Korea.

In its complaint, filed Friday, March 18, the SEC claims IBM employees gave shopping bags stuffed with cash to accomplices in South Korea and arranged junkets for government officials in China in exchange for millions of dollars worth of contracts for computer gear. The “widespread” payment of bribes, it says, involved more than 100 employees of IBM subsidiaries and occurred between 1998 and 2009.

The WSJ reported the settlement on March 19, the day after it was filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. “IBM, which neither admitted nor denied the charges,” the story reads, “said it holds employees to high ethical standards and has taken ‘appropriate remedial action’ to address the issues raised by the U.S. government, though it wouldn’t be more specific.”

This isn’t the first case to come across HRE‘s radar screen suggesting an increasing crackdown by the federal government against corporations and executives accused of violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act — as U.S.-based multinationals continue to grow rapidly abroad.

But it certainly is a big one, as most stories involving IBM are. The company’s immediate settlement is also worth a raised eyebrow or two.

Let Us Now Praise Progress

As news headlines continue to track the strife and struggle across the Middle East on an hourly basis, let us now take a moment to welcome the end of a hiring rule that once embodied a centuries-long struggle between two warring parties.

According to the Associated Press:

The British government says Northern Ireland’s police force will stop being required to hire a certain number of Catholics over Protestants following a decade of swift social change.

Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson says the affirmative action policy in force since 2001 can no longer be justified because today’s Police Service of Northern Ireland is nearly 30 percent Catholic.

Reform of Northern Ireland’s overwhelmingly Protestant police force was a central goal of the 1998 Good Friday peace accord that ended decades of sectarian violence. Only 8 percent of police at that time were Catholic.

For the past decade, recruiters have been legally obliged to ensure that at least 50 percent of job-winning applicants were Catholic. Paterson said Tuesday that law will lapse March 28.

So, while it may be difficult for American employers to even ponder the concept of hiring policies based on religion, and the debate over the merits of affirmative action rages on, we can at least all agree that it’s a grand and glorious day when such considerations are no longer necessary.

Conaty’s Closing Keynote … With Feeling

For all the logic he offered — and there was a lot — on best ways to become a master of talent, it was the emotion referenced quite often by Bill Conaty that resonated most in his closing keynote at the Human Resource Executive Forum® on Wednesday.

Conaty, the recently retired senior vice president of human resources for General Electric Co., who spent 40 years at the company and was instrumental in creating its reputation as a talent-building giant, used words like “obsession,” “intimacy,” “passion” and “compassion” as he laid out his blueprint for “Becoming a Talent Master: Why Smart Leaders Make People Their Top Priority.”

In fact, item No. 1 on his tips to talent mastery — the subject of his new book co-authored with fellow talent guru Ram Charan, entitled The Talent Masters: Why Smart Leaders Put People Before Numbers — was to “make talent development your obsession.”

There were myriad other sage pointers from Conaty’s proven track record, such as making leaders accountable for talent development, giving frequent and honest feedback, integrating business plans and people reviews, and — as he put it — “drilling down on talent like you drill down on financials.”

But the punch lines of all his lists for success all had to do with authenticity and “balancing passion with compassion” and “having that personal touch and intimacy with your top talent,” as he put it.

Whether working in tandem with former GE CEO Jack Welch or current CEO Jeffrey Immelt, Conaty said, “we would always spend time with our high-potentials on site visits to find out who they really were and how they thought, so there would be no surprises.”

His formula for championing talent to the office of the CEO was equally straightforward and heartfelt. “Courage of conviction, candor and trust” were mentioned in that equation. So were “solving problems instead of just identifying them.”

“The real point,” he said, “is you should use your persuasion and intelligence to convince your CEO” of the value of the HR function. “No talent, no numbers.”

“Change that environment,” he said. “Convince that CEO that you’re really going to give him a business advantage. HR’s got the opportunity here to really make a difference, but it really needs to step up.”


Life in a ‘Fish Bowl’

Panelists at a Human Resource Executive Forum® session entitled “Managing the Employer Brand: Are You Doing All You Can to Promote and Protect It” earlier today seemed to agree that the success of any employer-branding initiative depends on getting senior leaders to understand why it matters.

Leadership needs to grasp how a strong employer brand affects their ability to attract and retain talent, explained Kristen Weirick, North American talent recruiting leader for Cargill. “They need to understand that we’re not doing this because it feels good, but because it leads to business results,” she said.

Today, companies live in a “fish bowl,” explained moderator Libby Sartain, an author and consultant who previously the CHRO at Southwest Airlines and Yahoo!

That was all too apparent, Sartain said, when one Yahoo! employee tweeted their entire layoff experience.

One of the companies represented on the panel, Humana, has come a long way in a short period of time as far as social media is concerned.

Two-and-a-half years ago, people at Humana weren’t allowed to text message, recalled Carleen Haas, vice president of talent strategies for the healthcare concern. But now, she said, they have access to a social-media tool called Buzz, where employees can easily connect with one another.

If someone says something controversial today,” she explained, “we don’t get involved. Instead, we let it stand [and watch] it play itself out.”

Considering 61 percent of Humana’s employee population are Gen Xers and Yers, Haas said, the reality begun to sink in that employees were going to find a way to use social media to comment on the company, whether the company wanted them to or not.

Accepted that reality, Haas said, Humana began to take significant steps to educate its senior leadership about the use of social media. (Its leaders tended to be men over the age of 40 who were social-media neophytes.)

One of those steps included bringing in thought leaders and reverse mentors to educate top leaders about tools such as Facebook and Twitter, Haas said. “We had to get these executives to begin to see the possibilities.”

What’s Working in Wellness

Monday’s Benefits Panel at the Human Resource Executive Forum® — “Is Wellness Worth It? Pursuing a Real ROI for Wellness” — went well beyond questions of investment returns and lower healthcare costs. The heart of that session’s message was more about the people: making them better, and making wellness work, by recognizing their needs.

Panelist William D. Katz, vice president of human resources for AmeriGas Propane Inc., shared his experience of coming to grips with the nature of his workforce — and getting top managers’ attentions about that too — before a real commitment could be made and real results could come in.

“Understanding wellness means understanding human nature,” said Katz. “In our workforce, there are a lot of truck drivers, and a lot of them are heavy smokers. We also have lots of obesity. We’ve had lots of results pointing to what we need to do.”

But it wasn’t until Katz took that data and compared it to his company’s life insurance data over three years that the population statistics could really made a statement — to him and the C-suite as well.

“We saw three times as many [AmeriGas employees] were dying compared to the general population,” Katz said.

Now in the company’s third year of the wellness program he was able to convincingly argue for, “our premature death rate has improved by 40 percent,” he said.

Panelist Mark Bukowski, senior health and clinical consultant for Aon Hewitt, agreed it “all comes down to letting the data help you make your wellness decisions,” not just seeking the data to prove wellness’ worth.

At Aon Hewitt, he said, “we custom-design wellness programs for each company, each location … that’s where all this is going.”

Even securing buy-in from a CEO is sometimes more effective and successful, panelists agreed, when applying a human touch.

“We find CEOs are actually more enthused by the anecdotal proof [of a wellness program’s success] from employees who’ve been through it than the hard data,” said panelist Jennifer Benz, chief strategist and founder of Benz Communications.

The group — led by moderator Michael Miele, president of healthcare analytics group for Gallagher Business Services — seemed to agree that the data going in can be more effective than the data coming out.

“We’re all seeing the power of trend data,” said Benz, “how your workforce data compares to all the other workforce data [in specific regions and otherwise].”

Hold Your Fire

In a keynote speech entitled “Tackling Performance Issues in a Post-Recession Workforce” delivered earlier today, Wharton Professor Peter Cappelli shared new research that suggested a hole in the argument for forced rankings.

Cappelli referenced a recent study that examined the performance-appraisal scores at one large employer from year to year over a 10-year period to determine how well last year’s scores predicted this year’s scores. 

What percentage of the performance appraisals were the same? No, not 75 percent. No, not 50 percent. Rather, just 25 percent.

“It changes many of the fundamental ways companies think about performance,” Cappelli told attendees. “There may be some good people in your organization [you’ll want to keep] and some very bad people in your organization who you may want to get rid of,” he explained, but this research suggests companies might want to rethink the notion of forced rankings because there’s actually “a lot of variation in how people perform year after year.”

Putting Your Data to Use

Today’s “Leveraging New HR Technologies to Thrive in a New Reality” session at Human Resource Executive Forum® seemed to pick up where the conference’s Monday bonus session on analytics left off.

Steve Boese, HR technology instructor at the Rochester Institute of Technology, pointed out that far too often companies collect some great information and then just let it sit there.

“One of the more exciting things we’re seeing today is companies beginning to take the more insightful information further down in the organization,” Boese said. “So if you’re a manager involved in [considering] a salary increase, information about that employee’s past performance … is there to inform [his or her] decision-making right at the decision point.”

Companies also need to be more selective in the data they focus their attention on, added Josh Bersin, CEO of Bersin & Associates. “In most companies,” he said, “there’s way too much data. Figure out what’s the 80 percent you don’t need and what’s the 20 percent you do need … and focus on the 20 percent, analyzing and producing it in a way that managers can act upon.”

Part of the problem involves terminology, explained Steve Mirante, senior vice president of HR specialty services at CBS. At CBS, he said, “we have 16 different definitions of part-time.

To ensure the integrity of what’s being measured, he said, HR leaders need to establish parameters.

Bersin noted that some companies are using Wikis to address this issue during the session, which was moderated by Patricia Milligan, president of human capital for Mercer.

Bettina Kelly, senior vice president of talent strategies group at Chubb & Son, pointed out that employees no longer view their managers as their “agents and sponsors” when it comes to their careers. In the past, she said, they would figure out what the best next step would be for you, but that’s no longer the case because opportunities are much fewer today.

In response to far fewer promotion opportunities, Chubb is moving away from a ladder approach to careers to a lattice approach. “We want to make the lateral moves more attractive,” Kelly said.

In assisting employees in their career moves, Chubb’s system now shows employees “two jumps above where they are, one jump below where they are and multiple jobs that are lateral,” she said. “We want to get employees to begin to think about their careers in a different way.”

Grappling with HR’s Role in Innovation and Growth

Four top leaders of the HR profession took to the stage Monday in the opening session of the Human Resource Executive  Forum® to share their respective challenges and solutions when it comes to igniting — or at least mining — innovation in the workplace.

The general consensus of the session seemed to be that some senior HR leaders are tackling the challenges pretty well — including panelists J. Randy MacDonald, senior vice president of human resources for IBM; Mirian Graddick-Weir, executive vice president of human resources for Merck & Co. Inc.; Richard Floersch, executive vice president and CHRO for McDonald’s Corp.; and Daniel Sullivan, executive vice president of human resources for Qualcomm Inc. — while most HR leaders still, and sadly, are not.

Leading off the Senior Executive Roundtable, subtitled HR’s Role in Driving Innovation and Growth, moderator Susan Meisinger, author, speaker and former president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, presented findings from a recent Human Resource Executive® poll suggesting all is not well in the land of HR and corporate innovation.

Citing first an IBM survey showing global HR leaders in agreement that driving creativity and innovation is their No. 1 business challenge, Meisinger went on to present some of the HRE innovation survey results, showing virtually half of the HR executives polled not doing anything about it. Though a majority, 70 percent, said HR plays a significant or somewhat significant role in fostering innovation at their organizations, a whopping 71 percent said they don’t use any screening tools designed to bring in creative and innovative candidates, 53 percent don’t tie performance-management systems to driving it and 53 percent don’t even have a formalized suggestion system in place.

“The takeaway for me in all this,” Meisinger said , “is we all think these things matter, but most of us are not doing something about it.” Second takeaway, she added, “it’s difficult; if it were easy, we’d all be doing it.”

Interestingly, and almost as a juxtaposition to it’s being difficult, one of the strongest admonishments of HR’s failure to drive innovation and growth came from MacDonald: “Five years ago, we launched something called IBM Think Place,” he said. “We burdened this thing with so much bureaucracy and so many policies [something HR is all too prone to apply], that we blew it up. In many ways, the informal system is the best one for generating ideas.”

MacDonald and the others also shared their successes in this quest for creativity. Some included: IBM’s Think Future, which recently let employees engage in real-time expertise-sharing to arrive at five new ideas for the company’s future workforce; Qualcomm’s Innovation Network, which allows employees to submit ideas to peers for instant collaboration and communication, regardless of who gets there first; Merck’s program that sends teams of HR practitioners to nonprofit companies where they collaborate to help them build new HR processes; and McDonald’s innovation center, a mock store where managers can brainstorm applications for their markets.

So what’s slowing most of HR down in this arena? Meisinger asked. Fear of failure? The notion that risk equals failure?

“Let’s face it,” said MacDonald. “I’ve never been to a party to celebrate a failure, but bottom line, there’s a lesson learned in every one. There’s also merit in perseverance.” Some of the strongest innovations at IBM, he added, were achieved because HR got its policies out of the way and those with good ideas “kept going in the face of all odds.”