A path lit by words

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Characters and Convertibles

First posted as a guest blogger for The Quotable Literary Magazine.


From time to time, a frustrated writer asks me where inspiration comes from.  I tell them anywhere and everywhere.  One of my favorite examples is a great character I discovered in an unlikely place—the Saturday “Wheels” section of The Island Packet, the local newspaper here on Hilton Head Island.

In a column by the Car Talk brothers, a 93-year-old woman sought advice about buying a convertible. She’s driven cross-country twice, and just last year she traveled 3,000 miles through the Southwest in her 2000 Subaru. The trip raised fond memories of her Dodge Dart convertible, stolen years ago from a Detroit service station where she had left it to have the top replaced. Now she wants “one more crack at a convertible.”

Her letter is wonderful because, in barely 100 words, I know who she is. She may not call herself a writer, but she follows the essential rule: She shows me. She doesn’t tell me. She doesn’t say, “I’m a feisty nonagenarian with a sense of adventure who refuses to let age get in the way.” She doesn’t boast that she’s healthy and that she watches her weight and her cholesterol. She doesn’t whine that owning a convertible is one of the few items left on her Bucket List and she’s running out of time. This woman is focused on living her life and to do that, she needs a car that’s “moderately priced, safe, serviceable, and FUN.”

I can’t stop myself from filling in the blanks to create her back-story—how she grew up in a small town in Ohio that she left at age eighteen to join a pre-World War II peace organization. She traveled through Europe and eventually made her home in San Francisco. She’s a retired educator, an administrator or a professor of languages who never married. Her name is Rita, her convertible is a yellow Mustang, and she’s driving home for the first time since her mother’s 1988 funeral, to mend fences with her younger brother.

Or her name is Josephine Hollister Rice and she’s the wealthy matriarch of a family from Boston’s Back Bay. She toed the line all her life, but lately she’s become a loose cannon. In fact, the Daughters of the American Revolution have banned her from meetings because she revealed a local Senator’s extramarital affairs. Only her first great-grandchild, born to her eldest granddaughter when she was just sixteen, thinks Grandmother—he calls her Jo—is the cat’s meow. They run away together in her brand-new red Porsche, in search of Jo’s first love, the black sheep she was forbidden to marry back in 1942.

Or she might be Clara, the wife of an Iowa farmer who died before he could fulfill his dream of driving a restored ’57 Chevy convertible east to see the ocean. Or … or…or…You see what I mean.

Where does inspiration come from? Anywhere and everywhere. All it takes is sharp eyes, an open mind, and the willingness to follow your imagination wherever it takes you.

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What I Learned about Engagement While I Sculpted My Seat


Yes, that seat—my butt, my posterior, my derriere. “Lift, Tone, and Burn” is the mantra of Pure Barre, a high-intensity, low-impact, whole-body workout that has won rave reviews across the United States and Canada. But this article isn’t about exercise. It is about the power of engagement.

I’m not an exercise junkie. I’m health-conscious and more than a little vain, but like the late, great John Pinette  (“I don’t do ups”), I’ve been able to quit this gym stuff any time—until I found Pure Barre. The workout was hard. My muscles ached. Yet I kept going back—500 times. I have the shirt to prove it.

My engagement epiphany came a few weeks into membership, when I was in the middle of crunches and my abs were on fire. I was a second away from collapsing on the carpet when the voice on the mike said, “You’ve got it, Jean. You’re stronger than you think.” I groaned, but I kept going, and as I lay there on the floor, I realized, “This is what good managers do for their employees.”

Engagement is a hot topic in business as leaders discover the positive changes that happen when their customers and workers feel genuine excitement and commitment. Engaged employees are invested emotionally and intellectually in their employer and in their work. Engaged customers, according to Gallup, “love your company …and say that they ‘can’t live without it.’ They recognize that their strategies and your strategies are aligned.”

Almost every Human Resources consulting firm has an employee engagement model; virtually all agree on one thing: the importance of managers and the work environment they create. Although employees perform best when their companies have a compelling vision, a culture of inclusion, and inspirational, trustworthy leadership, the first-line manager has the greatest influence on an employee’s career as well as  his or her satisfaction—or discontent—with day-to-day work life. Good managers set clear expectations and goals, communicate openly and honestly, give frequent feedback and praise, and provide the tools and support employees need to do their jobs. Good managers care.

Granted that Pure Barre isn’t my employer, here are eight ways they practice engagement.

They start with a vision. Clients know what Pure Barre stands for. It’s a place where  “women share a sense of community, in which they are inspired and empowered by each others’ fitness and lifestyle goals.” This kind of transparency attracts and retains the right people—in this case, people who care about their health and about each other’s well-being. They respect each other, thrive on challenge, and cheer each other on while they work toward a common goal.

Their people are authentic. Pure Barre owners and instructors embody the values. They are fit, friendly, and caring. When they aren’t teaching, they often are beside clients at the barre, groaning, shaking, and rolling their eyes. The message is clear: They are there for you and in it with you. They are better at “walking the talk” than any group I’ve had the pleasure to work with.

They train well and maintain standards. Instructors  are rigorously trained and operate as a close-knit team, not a stable of contractors who float from gym to gym, doing their own thing. Choreographed routines vary somewhat, but the core is the same, so that clients always know what to expect.  Classes start promptly and move quickly, with no delays or distractions. Each  is intense, well-organized and focused, showing respect for everyone’s time.

They use a common language. Pure Barre has a mantra and supporting terms: Lift, tuck, and burn. Burning is good, shaking is better. The smaller the move, the bigger the change. The size of the move? No more than an inch, the size of a paper clip. All instructors reinforce the same basic points using the same words, defining and demonstrating techniques and positions until they become second nature.

They provide personalized coaching and frequent praise.  Pure Barre instructors  concentrate on clients, moving from person to person while they call out cues. When they see a problem, they correct it in the moment–straightening a leg, adjusting a hip, or deepening a tuck–but they also love to catch clients doing something right. When your hamstring is cramping and you want to quit, a quick “Awesome focus, Jean” or “Perfect form, Kathy” keeps you going. Praise feels good and hearing others praised motivates everyone to work harder. Veterans appreciate it just as much as the greenest recruit.

They keep work(outs) fresh and fun. I’ve been a clock-watcher through running, step aerobics, spin, and yoga, yet a 50-minute workout flies by. A variety of instructors, upbeat music, challenging and changing moves, and new equipment keep clients interested and involved. We’ve had ’80s Day, when we dressed in Jane Fonda leotards and leg warmers; Diva Day when we piled on the bling; a costume contest on Halloween; and a wedding sendoff for our studio owner, when the whole class wore garters. We worked out just as hard, but we had more fun doing it.

They set—and celebrate—challenging goals. Every new Pure Barre client has a goal from the very first day—complete 100 classes.  Milestones matter, recognized by rituals like “signing the barre,” segments of ballet barre mounted on the lobby wall solely for that purpose. Clients can expect their photo on Facebook, a congratulatory message on the mirror in class, and a pair of sticky socks in Pure Barre red—the only color that must be earned. Similar celebrations mark 250, 500, and 1,000 classes. It may sound silly, but it works.

Although engagement has a reputation for being complicated and time-consuming, these techniques are simple and can be adapted to motivate any workforce. All you have to do is substitute “manager” for “instructor” and “employee” for “client” and then identify goals and activities that fit your environment.

A clearly communicated vision and challenging goals; standards, and values that show respect; and an approach that incorporates coaching, fun, and recognition have as much power in the workplace as an exercise studio. In fact, the next time you need an engagement refresher to “shape up” your managers, consider sending them to a Pure Barre class. They will experience first-hand the ways good managers build exemplary teams.

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Doodle your way to creativity

A recent LinkedIn post described how teachers are encouraging doodling in the classroom to increase information retention and recall, and to deepen comprehension. It reminded me of a blog I wrote some years ago, after the New York Times ran an article titled Hooked on Gadgets and Paying a Mental Price. Multiple studies quoted there suggested that juggling email, texts, phone calls, and all the other information that bombards us destroys our ability to concentrate and focus. Electronic multitasking, it said, “inflicts deep cuts on creativity and deep thought.” That is a problem not just for schoolchildren but also for executives and managers, since creativity has long been considered and remains a critical leadership competency.

Back then, I asked how we might reverse—or better yet, avoid—the damage and, in its place, foster creativity. One answer I found was surprising. Before we could text on our phones or check email (or our brackets during March Madness), when we were distracted or bored, we doodled. Doodling is good for us. It helps us remember things because it forces our brains to expend enough energy to stop us from daydreaming but not so much that we don’t pay attention.

Dashe & Thomson, purveyors of change management, training, and communication services, suggest that drawing has three benefits: It makes you a better thinker, as it aids recall while allowing you to see things from different perspectives; a better explainer, using pictures and stories to enhance communication; and a better information processor because drawing requires you to engage multiple senses.

Take that, electronic gadgets! Or not. Because if you look up doodling today, you will discover that the very instruments we demonized in 2010 have been put to use to help us doodle…electronically. There are stand-alone gadgets and many apps that work on your smart phone or tablet.

If doodling has changed, the importance of creativity has not. According to Joel Basgall in 5 Reasons Innovation is Crucial to Staying Ahead of the Competition, creativity is integral to innovation and innovation is what keeps a company competitive. As long ago as 2008, the Conference Board and the Americans for the Arts conducted a survey on workforce readiness called Ready to Innovate.  It asked three major questions:

  • Are U.S. businesses and K–12 school systems making the link between creative skill sets in the workforce and innovation?
  • Are businesses finding the creative talent they need to generate the innovative solutions and products demanded by the marketplace?
  • And what efforts are both of these groups making to train employees in the needed creative skills?

It concluded that educators and executives were not wholly aligned on the creative readiness of the U.S. workforce, based in large part on the limited availability of high school courses that help develop the creative skills employers seek: creative writing, music, dramatic arts, and studio arts. Most school districts offer them as electives, if at all.

Is it any wonder that reports in the intervening years indicate that creativity and innovation have not improved, or that businesses that seek creative talent are hard-pressed to find it? As funding for the arts diminishes ever more rapidly, shouldn’t we be worried that current and future employees will have no organized way to develop the creative skills that will keep our economy robust and our businesses successful?

Encouraging doodling in our schools is a meager solution, but soon it may be all we can afford. Fortunately, it doesn’t cost much to stimulate your brain the old-fashioned way: Pick up a pencil and doodle.

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Show Me the Money!

Previously posted for SteelBridge Solutions, Inc.

Back in the 1960s, Baby Boomers were famous for the mantra, “don’t trust anyone over 30.” Now Millennials are following their example. They don’t trust leaders, or politicians, or the companies they work for. As a result, they insist on transparency in all things.

According to generational experts, Millennials thrive on knowledge. They demand feedback, communication, and the truth about their employers. They also like to share, and that includes personal information, including their salaries, a topic that most of us consider taboo. That said, pay secrecy is a myth that needs to be busted.

In spite of popular belief, companies cannot forbid people to discuss their compensation. That right is protected by the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 and a 2014 Executive Order signed by President Obama extending the same protection to employees of Federal Contractors. There are a few exceptions: Employees who have access to company wage and salary information as part of their jobs cannot reveal it without the order of their employers or an investigating agency, and employees of municipal governments and religious schools aren’t covered by either the NRLA or the Executive Order.

Because discussing your compensation is a right, it has also been a personal choice. If colleagues tried to pry your salary out of you and you didn’t want to tell them, you just said no. (Although Whole Foods has been publishing an internal document that tells employees what everyone else is paid for 30 years). Recently, however, a growing number of companies have adopted a full disclosure environment. These companies point to full salary transparency as a hallmark of their culture, a demonstration of fairness and openness, and a boon to motivation and productivity. Others view transparency as an opportunity to have frank discussions about performance and pay, as well as a way to keep themselves honest when it comes to individual and gender equity. On the surface, it sounds admirable, but experience shows that full transparency has a downside.

The CEO of a well respected nonprofit determined that his organization had grown large enough to require formal salary administration. He hired a consulting firm to develop job descriptions, price the jobs in the market, develop salary ranges, evaluate the jobs, and assign them to salary grades. The CEO, COO, and CFO reviewed the results and revealed them in an all-employee meeting. Afterward, they posted the salary structure for all to see.

They were shocked by the fallout. Although leadership had worked very hard to build an environment based on trust and respect, they underestimated the impact of disclosure on high performers who set exacting standards for themselves. Professional and program staff  took pride in the organization’s accomplishments, but they were specialists who owned their program areas and worked primarily with external agencies, building their personal reputations. Not surprisingly, they scrutinized the grade assignments and pay ranges with the fierceness of competitors, and more than half requested private meetings to plead for higher grade assignments. Administrative staff grumbled among themselves, except for the receptionist. Finding herself in the lowest grade, in the “least valued” job in the organization, she burst into tears. Until then, she had been proud of her contribution as the face of the organization, the first point of contact with the public.

Which begs the question, is full salary transparency worth the disruption to employee relationships and morale? Sometimes knowledge leads to resentment and jealousy, or causes feelings of under-appreciation or discouragement. On the other hand, secrecy about pay may breed distrust. When a CEO says, “I don’t want to open that can of worms,” it’s a safe bet that his reluctance rests on either suspicion or certainty that salary inequities exist in his organization. He is probably right: Most companies have inequities and the majority are accidental, not intentional. Whatever the cause, ignoring the problem only makes it worse.

Fortunately, transparency doesn’t have to be all or nothing.  When Buffer, one of the pioneers of “full transparency”, first announced the change to its employees, the company discussed it as a continuum from “Mum’s the word” to “Everybody knows.”

Wherever you fall currently on the Transparency Spectrum, these steps will help you decide whether it is appropriate to change your approach, and by how much:

  • Begin by asking yourself what degree of transparency your company culture supports. Buffer, for example, is transparent about everything: Company revenues, the ownership and equity breakdown, salaries, and even pricing. They tell customers exactly what their money is used for. On the flip side, a few years ago a  Google engineer made waves  by creating a spreadsheet to expose unequal pay, and later left the company. The moral: Even companies whose cultures are thought to be open and trusting may find full salary transparency too much to handle. Most will fall somewhere in the middle.
  • Review individual salaries so that you have a clear picture of the nature and extent of inequities. Do not underestimate the time, effort, and thoroughness required to establish fair and reasonable adjustments and determine how much corrections will cost. When Salesforce announced that it would be assessing the compensation of its 17,000 employees, it disclosed that the process could take a year to complete.
  • Develop a plan to reach market and internal equity. A workable plan requires an iterative process influenced by strategy, financial realities, and culture. In addition, forecasting salary costs requires assumptions about market movement for key jobs, expected salary inflation, budget constraints, strategy changes, and other competitive and financial factors. Don’t be surprised if achieving equity takes more than one year.
  • Validate policies, structures, and guidelines. It makes no sense to adjust salaries without reviewing the infrastructure that resulted in inequities. Reconsider hiring guidelines and promotional increases, linkages to performance and tenure, and other factors that influence salaries so that systemic issues do not perpetuate existing inequities or create new ones.
  • Limit unintentional disparities by keeping salary structures up to date. Maintain a regular schedule to refresh market data, including assessing your competitive set in case it has changed. Update salary structures often enough and by amounts large enough to keep up with market pay rates. Even one year without a market review can cause rates to fall behind, especially for high-demand or critical jobs, making it necessary to pay new hires higher starting salaries than some long-term employees.
  • Train—and encourage—managers to have performance and salary discussions. Obviously, pay is personal and these conversations can be awkward, as well as open to challenge. Even if pay is fair by objective standards, it is human nature to lack objectivity about one’s performance and worth relative to others. Managers must be willing and able to explain how salary decisions are made and be clear with employees about the reasons for differences. Doing so on an ongoing basis avoids surprises when increases are given.
  • Involve managers in compensation policy decisions. Managers must take ownership of salary administration rather than blaming it on “the policy” or senior management. They must express their confidence in and support for the systems they use—as well as taking true inequities to whatever governing board reviews them.

While the onus for salary transparency is on the employer, all employees—not just Millennials—should take responsibility for their salaries and their progress. In Surprising Dangers of Talking Pay at Work, Stacy Carroll, pay expert for PayScale, suggests employees ask these questions:

  • Do we have a salary range for this position?
  • What is my maximum earning potential in this job?
  • How do people move through the salary range?
  • Is movement based on longevity or performance?
  • Are there certain skills or certifications I can earn that would help me earn more money?

These are reasonable questions no matter where an organization falls on the salary transparency continuum, and your employees should be asking them. Set a minimum standard of communicating the whys and hows of salary decisions, as well as telling employees how their roles help the company succeed. It may represent all the transparency you need.

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March Madness at SteelBridge: A Change Management “Dream Team”

Originally posted for SteelBridge BASKETBALLHOOPSolutions on April 6, 2016:

While the NCAA Basketball Playoffs were in full swing, the sound of referees’ whistles filled my house. I wasn’t the one glued to the TV until the wee hours of the morning, although I followed the brackets and even had the conference apps on my phone. The biggest influence March Madness had on me was that I thought a lot about what it takes to be a championship team.

You may remember when the NBA’s top players went to the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. Sports Illustrated dubbed them the “Dream Team”—every coach’s fantasy and every fan’s delight. Countless articles have analyzed the athleticism, skills, and competitive drive that made them so great. I don’t know the difference between a point guard and a power forward, but experience has shown me that, in general, the best teams have complementary skills, each member uses their strengths, and all have a deep desire to work together to win.

The change management teams SteelBridge works with on technology implementations like Workday are cross-functional—including HR, IT, and Finance, at minimum—so they represent different viewpoints and skills. When they operate as a team, implementations are more successful—deadlines are met, resources are shared, and the lines of communication are open. Often, however, the functions engage in turf battles or work at cross-purposes to get what they want out of the initiative. In the end, no one wins.

A complicating factor is that it takes more than day-to-day skills to manage change successfully. Call it an orientation: a mindset that puts the organization first, so that all parties cooperate to reach a solution that works for everyone; an appreciation for each other’s diversity, maintaining open dialogue and respect for each other’s point of view; and sharing best practices across silos to avoid duplication of effort and provide a fresh perspective.

With all that in mind, we at SteelBridge have assembled a wish list of characteristics for our Change Management Dream Team. They include:

  • The CEO’s competitive mindset: Thinking like a CEO means viewing change capability as a strategic advantage over less agile competitors. My Dream Team would understand the broader context in which change occurs and factor in the speed and scope of change—in social, political, and economic forces, in the advancement of technology, in the composition of the marketplace, and in the needs and demands of customers, shareholders, and the public. The result would be that every initiative would advance the organization’s mission, vision, and goals.
  • The Finance function’s ability to build a strong business case: Change management is often considered as a cost, because monies expended to plan for, communicate, train for, and implement change are easier to track than the benefits realized from it. For example, productivity, engagement, and retention are outcomes of good change management, but it is difficult to show a direct, causal effect. The rationale behind articles that urge Finance and HR to collaborate on predictive analytics makes sense for change, too: Using finance’s skills, the Dream Team could translate the language of people and change into the language of business, harness the data from HR and business systems, and develop appropriate, balanced measures to demonstrate the return on investments in change.
  • The Marketing function’s expertise in driving awareness and buy-in. Marketing’s value-add to change management goes well beyond the obvious communication and presentation skills, because the goal of change management—gaining user acceptance—is primarily a marketing exercise. Research and market analysis identify key “segments” of users with different needs and preferences. In change management, stakeholder assessments are one important research vehicle. They uncover types of users, what they want, which communication channels are most likely to reach them, and which forms of learning they prefer. Using marketing skills to tailor offerings to various groups would allow the change team to meet their needs more precisely, leading to a higher level of user adoption.
  • The CIO’s emphasis on portfolio management: IT’s evolution from a cost center to a strategic business unit has required greater control over IT project selection, execution, and status. To align IT with business goals, CIOs have learned to manage initiatives, projects, and upgrades as though they were a portfolio of investments. Given the potential for multiple initiatives and numerous process owners, taking a portfolio approach to change management ensures that initiatives work together to meet core business needs.
  • The HR function’s sensitivity to the factors that influence employee engagement and commitment: Recent studies have demonstrated the impact of an engaged workforce on productivity and profits. As we pointed out in an earlier blog, engaged employees are better at change. Their sense of commitment to their organizations and their jobs, their trust in honest, authentic leaders, and their expectations that they will get the tools, training, and resources they need to do their altered jobs are powerful forces. The factors that lead to engagement – culture, work environment, management and leadership style, challenging work, performance feedback, fair rewards, and growth opportunities—are largely considered HR’s domain. However, every line and staff function must consistently carry out the organization’s promises in order to get the most from their workforce.

That is the same message we want to convey with the structure of our Change Management Dream Team: Organizations that treat change management as an enterprise-wide initiative create an environment that views functional differences not as a deterrent but as an advantage. In that environment, HR can be the catalyst for encouraging all parties to learn from and adapt each other’s unique perspectives to reach creative solutions. When organizations leverage the wisdom gained from functional diversity, strong partnerships flourish and everyone wins.


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The manager’s dilemma: Is it good to be “nice?”

Originally posted for SteelBridge Solutions, Inc. on February 24, 2016.

An article in the Harvard Business Review pushed my buttons. The title was How nice bosses get ahead.

Nice is a wimpy word, an imprecise word. It pussyfoots. It equivocates. Nice is vanilla, neither a strong compliment nor a biting insult. We default to it when a person or situation is uninspiring or dull. “Nice” is how our teenage friends described a boy or girl who wasn’t smart or attractive, or a party that was just okay. It is the word we apply to a vacation that wasn’t memorable, a performance that was unremarkable, or a potential residence we didn’t connect with. “Nice” is often followed by “but.”

Citing research conducted by Wharton’s Adam Grant and others, the article portrays nice bosses as warm, kind, fair, and agreeable. It concludes that “creating a leadership model of trust and mutual cooperation might help create a culture that is happier, in which employees help each other, and (as a consequence) become more productive in the long run.”

That’s nice, but…

Gallup, in The State of the American Manager, is much more precise:

“Great managers possess a rare combination of five talents. They motivate their employees, assert themselves to overcome obstacles, create a culture of accountability, build trusting relationships and make informed, unbiased decisions for the good of their team and company.”

Most people, I believe, would choose a manager like that over a nice one. Regrettably, however, Gallup alleges that 82 percent of managers are “miscast.” Only one in ten people have the right combination of talents to be a manager. Another two in ten people have elements of managerial talent and can be developed into good managers.

That is sobering news, given that Gallup also tells us that at least 70% of the variance in employee engagement scores across business units is attributable to managers. Every year low engagement—around 30 percent for the past sixteen years—costs the U.S. $450 billion to $550 billion in lost productivity. That means poor managers are costing us more than $300 billion annually. We had better be concerned about more than how nice they are.

A better quality to demand of our managers would be “empathy,” the psychological identification with the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of others.” In a classic Harvard Business Review article, “What Makes a Leader?” Dr. Daniel Goleman identified empathy as one of the five essential qualities of emotional intelligence.

“… empathy means thoughtfully considering employees’ feelings—along with other factors—in the process of making intelligent decisions… Leaders with empathy do more than sympathize with people around them: they use their knowledge to improve their companies in subtle, but important ways.”


Goleman and others have tied emotionally intelligent decisions to high individual performance and measurable business outcomes, from reducing union grievances, to preventing turnover, to improving productivity and increasing sales.

Helping their organizations strengthen the managerial ranks is an ideal opportunity for Human Resources to add strategic value. Activities where HR should take the lead include:

  • Analyzing engagement survey reports to determine which managers turn in the best results. Dig deeper into the data and supplement it with interviews and focus groups, to understand exactly what managers with highly engaged subordinates do differently. Use the information to develop a manager profile that works in your company and actively recruit for critical attributes, internally and externally.
  • Assessing current managers against your manager profile. Determine who is a natural fit and who can be coached to become a high performer. Have honest discussions with managers, using specific examples that illustrate their performance, and work with them to determine if they are in the right job. Provide appropriate career options for those who don’t make the grade and those who opt out.


  • Taking a hard look at leadership development and manager training programs. Goleman says that people can learn empathy and the other elements of emotional intelligence, but not in the same way as hard skills, that is, not through logic or by reading a book. Soft skills take “motivation, extended practice, and feedback.” External programs or specialized consultants can help you upgrade or expand your current programs to work more effectively.


  • Leveraging good managers to help train the others. Enhance your training efforts by “seeding” the audience with good managers. Not only will all managers hear the same message, but the good managers will function as role models and advocates. Hearing from and observing peers who are already successful is a powerful way to help those who are less proficient recognize their shortcomings.


  • Augmenting the annual engagement survey with engagement efforts and metrics that are tracked on a continuing basis and can be communicated regularly. Show managers how they compare to their counterparts in other units. Encourage them to develop short-term and long-term plans to increase engagement, and include progress against plans as measures of their performance. Again, expect successful managers to share their knowledge and help others build strategies and plans.


  • Rewarding managers for the actions they take to increase engagement with both their subordinates and their peers. Build specific engagement results—not just overall scores—into managers’ performance goals and weight them significantly relative to other performance areas. Make it clear that engagement counts.


Finally, don’t assume that managers are engagement experts. Make sure they fully understand the factors of engagement and the significance of their influence on each of them. Among those defined by most experts are:

Culture and Values

  • A work environment based on honesty, authenticity, and integrity
  • An attitude that employees are valuable and deserve to be treated fairly
  • Trusting and supportive relationships with co-workers who are competent, collaborative, and friendly
  • Open communication, in good times and bad, so that employees feel involved and informed

Career and Professional Development

  • A clear line of sight to how the individual contributes to the organization’s mission, vision, and goals
  • Challenging and meaningful work that takes full advantage of employee strengths and skills
  • Access to the information, tools, and conditions employees need to be successful in their jobs
  • Opportunities for learning, growth, and development, as well as confidence in the fairness of advancement and promotion decisions

Performance and Rewards

  • Rewards that are perceived by employees as fair relative to the market and to others in the organization for the work they do
  • Clear performance expectations and a sense that rewards are performance based
  • Ongoing, real-time feedback that is two-way
  • Praise, recognition, and appreciation for their ideas and opinions

When all is said and done, technical skills and cognitive abilities have become threshold skills on the path to becoming a manager. Successful organizations insist on social awareness, the ability to sense people’s emotions, anticipate their reactions, interpret body language, and listen carefully for the message behind the words. Such managers are more effective at leading and motivating a wide variety of employees, a capability that leads to increased engagement, retention, productivity, and profits. When faced with that choice, merely “nice” managers will not make the cut.

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Six Tips for Becoming a Change Management Superhero

Originally posted for SteelBridge Solutions, Inc. on February 2, 2016.

It’s easy to recognize a new change manager. You can tell by the panic in their eyes, their trembling hands, and the beads of sweat on their brow. Believing themselves inadequate to drive the initiatives essential to business transformation, they might even be wailing, “I can’t do it! I don’t know anything about change!”

It’s no wonder change leaders are uneasy. Although all organizations face change, many are only beginning to realize that they can control it. As a result, it may not be obvious who is best suited to fill the challenging role of change manager. Hence, the senior team calls on the “usual suspects,” the same individuals they count on to lead special projects, task forces, and the like. That isn’t necessarily wrong, but change management requires much more than project management skills.

Individuals who have been tapped to lead change ask me, “What does it take to be a successful change manager?” Here are six tips.

Learn the fundamentals of change management. You have to start somewhere, and it only makes sense to school yourself in the philosophy, principles, models, and tools for change. These can be found in many excellent books, including Leading Change by John Kotter, Making Sense of Change Management by Esther Cameron and Mike Green, and Change Management: The People Side of Change by Jeffrey Hiatt and Timothy Creasey. Becoming familiar with the field will calm your fears, raise your confidence, and enhance your credibility as you promote change to others. While you’re studying, make sure you understand the basics of project management.

Get familiar with the current state of your business and industry, as well as the case for change. Make sure you understand your organization’s business strategy, its challenges, and its short-term and long-term goals. Pay particular attention to the business rationale for change. Determine which units and individuals will be impacted and how, and focus on those with the most to lose as well as the most to gain. Helping others see why change is an urgent business necessity and what the new, improved organization will look like post-change is one of a change manager’s most important roles.

Research your organization’s track record for change. If this is your organization’s first formal change initiative, or if other major initiatives happened before your time, you may not know how proficient your organization is at change. Find out who led earlier projects and take advantage of their experience to learn the how, who, when, and why of circumstances that threatened or thwarted change efforts. Does the C-suite present a united front publicly but sabotage efforts behind closed doors? Is your organization skilled at communicating but weak when it comes to training delivery? Simply asking past project leaders, “What would you have done differently?” can yield a wealth of valuable information.

Find out how senior leadership feels about the upcoming change. As the change management leader for your organization, you should have full access to the C-suite and their direct reports. Senior level support is mandatory for project success. However, it is rare to find full consensus, rarer still to identify the dissenters before all hell breaks loose. Proactively getting to know the executive team and where they stand on the initiative you are undertaking will help you identify—and possibly avoid—potential obstacles before they become divisive and disruptive. Building rapport with this group early on will serve you well, as you likely will need their advice and support throughout the project.

Get to know the project team and their consultants. Like senior leaders, individual members of the project team have opinions and agendas. As a possible outsider and often a late addition to the project team, it is important for the change manager to take time to meet with team members to learn their history with the organization, the jobs they have held, and their experience with systemic and strategic change. Their personalities and profiles, their fears, and their biases about the current initiative will affect the decisions they make. As the change manager, your awareness will allow you to discern conflicts and influence outcomes.

Assess how you stack up against the skills and competencies of a change manager. Some organizations name a change manager before they fully grasp the extent of the necessary skills and attributes. Others write a profile so unrealistic that John Kotter himself wouldn’t qualify.

Characteristics of a successful change manager include:

  • 360-degree influence—personal presence and the respect of superiors, peers, and subordinates
  • Strong communication skills—the ability to promote a clear vision to different audiences, altering one’s style, language, and approach
  • A “big-picture,” strategic mindset—knowledge of the business and its people, and the wherewithal to translate change into an organizational context
  • Conflict-resolution skills—tactics that may be applied to win over opponents, bring competing parties together, and craft a win-win agenda
  • Personal willingness and talent for change—to serve as a model of behavioral change, influencing others to pursue self-discovery and self-development
  • Passion for the current change—the best person to persuade others to support a change is an ardent champion of the effort

An honest assessment of your skills, conducted privately or with help from trusted colleagues, will give you a clear view of your areas of strength as well as your shortcomings. Take steps to shore up your weaknesses or enlist associates who have the skills you lack.

Keep your ear to the ground. It’s important to listen…to hall conversations, to rumors passed on by friends and colleagues, to managers complaining about disgruntled employees or ineffective training. Not only does listening provide early warnings about misconceptions and burgeoning issues, it will help you begin to identify allies and supporters who may join the change team as it expands. You may feel alone at the beginning, but ultimately the change team will grow to become an extended network that will participate in training and communication activities.

In a world where two out of three major change initiatives fail, one finding stands out: Organizations that consciously manage change, by activities like communicating, leading by example, and engaging employees, as much as double their chances for success. That is an astonishing statistic, and one that makes the role of change manager vital to business survival.

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Why your brain views change as a saber-tooth tiger


Copyright: 123rf.com

Originally posted for SteelBridge Solutions, Inc. on February 10, 2016

Change management articles and white papers warn us about the havoc change wreaks on employee engagement. Employee fear, resentment, and resistance during major modifications to strategy, structure, culture, systems, and processes are among the biggest obstacles to successful change. In healthcare, where new mandates like electronic records are cause for concern, report by Cornerstone on Demand calls change the number one threat to employee engagement. Fortunately, the experts conclude that sound change management principles can improve engagement.

What surprises me is that hardly anyone seems to notice that employee engagement can have a positive effect on change. Engaged employees are better at change. Their sense of commitment to their organizations and their jobs, their trust in honest, authentic leaders, and their expectations that they will get the tools, training, and resources they need to do their altered jobs are powerful forces. That’s why it doesn’t make sense for an organization to defer engagement work until it is in the middle of a change.

Insight about how people react to change comes from the field of neuroscience, the study of the human brain. In Neuroscience: Helping Employees Through Change, consultant and author Hillary Scarlett takes us back to prehistoric times, when humans had more to worry about than a new strategy or a different payroll system:

Back then, the brain had one key driver: survival. To do this it worked on the simple principle of avoiding threats and seeking out rewards. Of the two, avoiding threats, such as the saber-toothed tiger, was far more important to survival and so our brains developed five times more neural networks to look for danger than they have for reward. As a result, our brains today are still subconsciously looking out for threats, five times a second.

No wonder it is hard to be engaged in the face of change, especially when the feeling of threat is contagious. Seeing our organizations in upheaval and our leaders and colleagues worried and fearful makes us worried and fearful, too. We become more emotional, less able to focus, and less perceptive. In such situations, humans revert to a natural tendency to minimize threat and maximize rewards.

Neuroscientists speak of that response in terms of two states: “Toward,” the reward state that people flock to, and “Away,” the threat state that they flee. In the “Toward” state, they are positive, focused, and willing to collaborate with others. They are innovative, creative, and more resilient. In the “Away” state, they are distracted and anxious, resulting in cortisol and stress, and a weakened immune system. They think less clearly, have reduced memory, and perform poorly.

The factors that activate the brain’s circuitry to proceed in one direction or the other are known as “domains” of human social experience. David Rock’s SCARF model identifies five:

  • Status is about one’s importance relative to others.
  • Certainty concerns being able to predict the future.
  • Autonomy provides a sense of control over events.
  • Relatedness is a sense of safety with others, of friend rather than foe.
  • Fairness is a perception of fair exchanges between people.

The parallels to the drivers of employee engagement are striking enough to support the conclusion that engaging first and changing later is has considerable merit. In an organization with high engagement:

  • Employees would already understand and buy into their organization’s mission, vision, and strategy, so they would “get” why change is necessary.
  • Leaders wouldn’t have to scramble to build employee trust or to demonstrate their support for an initiative because that would be everyday behavior.
  • Change readiness wouldn’t be an issue because organizations with high engagement keep their fingers on the pulse of employee attitudes. They already have established channels for employees to express their concerns and opinions.
  • It wouldn’t be necessary to build a change network, because engaged employees do that themselves. The actively engaged aren’t just engaged with the organization or its leaders. They’re engaged with each other, and they take responsibility for bringing along the fearful, the skeptics, and the malcontents.

Given that change is a persistent condition of organizational life, shouldn’t we make it a priority to build a workforce of engaged employees who are confident in their ability to change? To date, we have pursued that result through repeated change management efforts, one initiative at a time. Neuroscience, with its insights into how our brains react to threats and rewards, offers an alternate approach: making our organizations change-capable through employee engagement.

Whichever route we choose, the goal is the same: An environment where change is an everyday practice and communication is easy—no warnings, no fear, simply, “This is the challenge we’ll be taking on next.”

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Is Employee Engagement Dead?

Originally posted for SteelBridge Solutions, Inc., on January 22, 2016

The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.

Mark Twain

Amid all the buzz about employee engagement programs, a growing contingent wants to throw them out. Rodd Wagner, in Forbes last year, predicted The End of Employee Engagement, calling it a “check the box exercise” at many firms. Josh Bersin, founder of Bersin by Deloitte, declares that engagement programs have failed us and it’s time for organizations to become “irresistible.” Both authors condemn annual engagement surveys. Wagner’s beef is that they aren’t confidential, executives and managers “game” them and employees are afraid to answer them honestly. Bersin says they lack “modern, actionable solutions.”

That’s a lot to expect of any survey, let alone one designed to be brief, so that employees will actually complete it. But what troubles me more is the feeling that we have been here before—ten years ago, when employee satisfaction was in the cross-hairs. The surveys were meaningless. “Satisfaction” and “happiness” were passé. Businesses needed employees who were committed, enthusiastic and passionate. The new goal was “engaged,” an elevated state of being that would propel organizations to unprecedented levels of performance.

Now engagement is under attack and a host of consultants and bloggers are rushing in to suggest alternatives, as if a different kind of survey or a new label for our “ideal” workforce will solve the problem. It won’t. Like the divorcee who blames her three ex-husbands, we fail to see that the problem is us—HR and the business leaders that allow HR to dither instead of acquiring vital skills. To quote Bersin again, HR still lacks people “who can translate a ‘finding’ into a program or solution that drives business change.”

That’s the point we are missing about engagement surveys: They are a source of findings and directional insights, not a comprehensive set of solutions. Gallup, the engagement pioneer, said early on that there were three keys to increasing engagement:

…measuring employee engagement, conducting impact planning based on the measurement results, and implementing changes based on the impact planning—then repeating the process to sustain or further increase engagement levels.

In other words, managers and employees were expected to work together to interpret survey results and develop plans to address deficiencies. They were meant to implement those plans and revisit them, until they got it right. Too often, we have skipped those steps. Why is that? At least part of the answer is that we haven’t developed the analytics skill set that Bersin describes as “business understanding, consulting skills, data visualization, data management, statistics, and executive presence.”

Case in point: A manufacturing client I met with last week blamed noncompetitive compensation for a turnover rate that has doubled in the past eighteen months. Knowing that turnover is never just about compensation, I shifted the conversation to the factors of engagement, but the VP of HR shut me down. A recent engagement survey showed that 90 percent of their employees were engaged and 85 percent intended to stay with the company for the next several years. Sensing my doubt, the VP sent me the survey report with a note that said, “See for yourself.”

On the surface, the results did look good. A page of summary statistics showed high engagement, year-to-year improvements and favorable comparisons to industry norms. However, in the charts that followed, by line of business, department and job group, other story lines emerged—if one knew what to look for. In addition, those “engaged” workers provided nearly 100 pages of write-in comments. They had a lot to say, and very little was about compensation. Their concerns involved management honesty and approachability, the “hostile” work environment, the lack of feedback and direction, a desire for job enrichment and flexible scheduling, and pleas for more staff, better equipment and improved technology.

It was true that the consultant’s report lacked specific insights or recommendations. However, it provided plenty of data. This organization just didn’t know what to do with it. Instead, they announced their lofty engagement rate with bold statements that their program was working, even though they—and their workforce—had to have known better.

All this to say, don’t blame engagement programs for the lack of improvement in worker attitudes around the globe. Clearly, annual surveys have their faults, but simply replacing them with real-time tools like pulse surveys won’t fix the problem, because it all boils down to data: Data that needs to be analyzed, interpreted and combined with other HR information such as onboarding and exit surveys, recruiting data, learning data and performance data—all of which needs to be integrated with customer, business and industry data, in order to uncover patterns, predict trends and solve business problems.

That’s a tall order, and so far, we haven’t had the heart for it, we haven’t had the skills for it, we haven’t made the time for it and we haven’t invested in it—either enough dollars or the right resources. In short, we have treated engagement like any other human resources program and that’s a mistake. It’s time to ante up, skill up and harness the potential of the biggest weapon we have in our strategic arsenal. Whether we label it satisfaction, engagement or irresistibility is beside the point, unless we call it what it is: a business priority.


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Taming the Change Management Monster

Originally posted for SteelBridge Solutions, Inc. October 20, 2015

“Abominable! Can you believe that? Do I look abominable to you? Why can’t they call me the Adorable Snowman or…or the Agreeable Snowman, for crying out loud? I’m a nice guy.”

The Yeti in the movie, Monsters, Inc.

As Halloween approaches, my thoughts keep turning not to ghosts and goblins, but to the big, hairy monster we know as Change. Lately it seems that all of my new clients have one thing in common: They view change management as huge, complex, and scary. One is so terrified of it that he won’t speak the words, referring to our work as “user adoption.” Another knows that change management is critical, but she frets that her company doesn’t know “how to do change.”

Change is rarely a walk in the park, but stark terror of change still surprises me, for one simple reason: Change is a daily occurrence in our personal lives. Whether it is a new haircut, a move to a strange city, a different job, marriage, or the birth of a child, we deal with change, sometimes happily, sometimes not, knowing it is part of life. So why is change a catastrophe when we encounter it in our organizations and our jobs?

The truth is, it can’t be. Change is how we do business. The days of five-year strategic plans are ancient history, replaced by agility and the need to turn on a dime. Agile organizations survive and thrive through the mantra, “Without change, we die,” yet many others seem to believe that “Change will kill you.” How did we arrive at this disturbing dichotomy?

I’ve concluded, regretfully, that I’m partly to blame—I and the other change management practitioners who have perpetuated the myth that change is abominable. If you don’t believe me, take a look at the way we present change to CEOs and change sponsors. First, we make calamitous pronouncements like “seventy percent of large-scale transformative initiatives fail”—a spine-chilling statistic whose legitimacy can’t be proven. We pile on jargon like stakeholder assessment, leadership alignment, and mitigation plans when we should be speaking plain English and asking simple questions. And we trot out tools like a “change curve” that is based on the five stages of grief and littered with terms like “fear of the unknown” and “the valley of despair.”

We must sound—to our clients—like prophets of doom. “People hate change,” we tell project teams. “Be prepared for resistance at every turn, from sluggishness to out-and-out sabotage.” As experts in change, it’s our duty to coach them, yet we end up scaring them out of their wits. The same can be true of employee communications. A statement like, “Change means new ways of doing things” is fraught with risk, prerequisite for failure.

Clearly, we need to reconsider the way we think about change. Remember the Abominable Snowman, that supposedly scary monster? It turned out that beneath that frightening exterior, he was a real softy, profoundly misunderstood—just like change. Change is innocuous. It means “to make the form, nature, content, future course, etc., of (something) different from what it is or from what it would be if left alone.” That’s hardly scary, especially when change in our context offers benefits such as cost savings, improved efficiency, enhanced quality, or an enriched customer experience.

Is change hard work? Most certainly. Can change be abominable? I have to say yes, because ill-conceived, badly executed, and poorly managed change is a monstrous betrayal of everyone it touches. Consider, for example:

  •  Knee-jerk Change—based on hasty decisions made without due diligence or sufficient input from affected parties
  • Cinderella Change—expecting to succeed without seeking out and addressing the reasons for the failure of previous initiatives; requires a Fairy Godmother
  • Do As I Say Change—when leadership teams speak the right words but do not demonstrate their commitment through actions
  • Yo-Yo Change—unpredictable, exemplified by ever-changing priorities, plans, and promises
  • Tightrope Change—when employees are asked to “work without a net” of education and training to perform their altered jobs
  • Dishonest Change—featuring communication that is unclear or glosses over expected negatives like possible job loss

Pitfalls like these can make Change a big, hairy monster, but when you get to know the beast, it can be a real pussycat. Organizations that commit to make change a strategic capability gain a powerful vehicle for learning and growth, for progress and renewal.

 “Terrifying Change! Can you believe that? Do I seem terrifying to you? Why can’t they call me Invigorating Change or Stimulating Change, for crying out loud? I’m not a monster! I’m a good thing!”