Saturday, July 4, 2009

"Independence is a precious thing indeed."

The quote above, which was tweeted this morning by the fabulous, witty and brilliant Amber Naslund (you Twitter types will know her as @AmberCadabra) of Altitude Branding and Radian6, who I've had the good fortune of meeting and getting to know in the last couple of months, seemed simple enough at first read. But then it inspired me to sit down and hammer out a few thoughts today, Independence Day 2009.

Interestingly, Independence Day comes just a few days after I began my third month of unemployment.

In many meaningful ways, this summer has been the most independent period of my life. For the first time in a long time, I don't answer to an alarm clock; a dress code; bosses; a monstrous, color-coded to-do list; or anything else. I answer to myself, and to the people with whom I choose to associate at this point in time.

Despite the lack of people and things to which to answer, a strange thing is happening: I'm getting up earlier than I ever did when I had to set an alarm, I'm being productive, I'm learning skills that will make me more attractive to prospective employers and I'm getting things done without needing a to-do list.

And even though I'm living on far less money than I'm accustomed to, I feel like I have such a rich life right now. I've had more time to spend with friends and family, so many of whom have reached out generously to be sure I'm taken care of and enjoying myself; I've gotten to travel out of state three times in the last two months (on the cheap every time, thanks to banking-points freebies, an eye for bargains and a skill set that provides me with fodder for bartering) for a combination of business and pleasure each time; I've attended three -- yes, three -- professional conferences (as compared to the one I attended in nearly seven years in my previous job); and I've learned the joys and benefits of sale ads, coupons, stock-up sales, the "scanner law" and even polite haggling.

Yes, that's right. What could have been the most oppressive, distressing, financially dismal, personally and professionally unproductive, and downright crummy time of my life has instead turned out to perhaps be the best thing that's ever happened to me. So, while today is officially Independence Day for our nation, I suppose I've been celebrating "Independence Days" of my own since May 1.

What independence are you celebrating?

Friday, July 3, 2009

Organizational culture often needs a good Zap(po)

If you've ever worked for an organization that you thought could use a shot of culture (and not of the "let's all go to the theatre" variety), you're probably beyond envious when you hear the true stories of the incredible corporate culture and resulting positive morale at Zappos.

Currently unemployed following a reorganization that led to my position and two others in my office being eliminated, I've had time to reflect on the importance of organizational culture and identify some desirable qualities for the culture of my next employer. (Perhaps this is just as ridiculous as those lists of "must-have attributes" that people often make when thinking about their future mate, but I can live with that).

My list of organizational desirables, which is inspired by Zappos, by my life experiences and by wise words from friends and family:

Empowerment. How many times has a manager told you to "innovate" but then slapped you on the wrist for "experimenting" with new techniques or technologies? Or asked you to complete a project but then looked over your shoulder the entire time as if you were not bright enough to handle it (and perhaps even changing his or her mind about what was desired in the first place once you've gotten the whole thing done)? Or asked you to prepare a report for the company's executives but not given you the opportunity to present that work (and maybe taking credit for it him/herself in the process)? If you're like most people, you probably read those questions and thought, "Geez ... more times than I can even count!" A culture of empowerment is, for all intents and purposes, the exact opposite of the scenarios I just described.

Just last night, I had a conversation with my friend Tim, a high-level executive at a major telecommunications company, about his management style. In a nutshell, Tim is every employee's dream manager and, undoubtedly, has made immeasurably positive contributions to the culture of his company. The abridged version of his strategy: To surround himself with the right team of bright, capable people ("probably even smarter than I am!" he says); to identify team members' strengths and play to those strengths when assigning responsibilities; to trust that his team members know how to do what they need to do (but supportively and non-condescendingly address their questions and concerns when they arise); and to allow the members of his team to present their own work, even if it means putting them in front of a panel of his fellow executives. In other words, the members of Tim's team know they are trusted and valued members of the organization ... and they feel empowered to do their jobs without fear, to make decisions as appropriate, and even to take some calculated risks and try some new strategies.

Collaboration. How can you feel like you're part of a team if no one ever brings you in on the "game plan?" When an organization operates in a top-down fashion 100 percent of the time, it's hard for employees to feel like they have any stake in the organization, as everything feels like an order rather than something they helped create. Certainly, there are many occasions when a top-down approach is warranted (especially when you're talking about personnel decisions, the specifics of budgets, etc.), but it's not always the best way, especially when you're talking about setting goals, defining values, planning projects and other initiatives in which success depends almost entirely on employee enthusiasm and buy-in.

Direction. A mission. A vision. Core values. Clear expectations. Positive reinforcement when warranted. Corrective action at the first sign of a problem (rather than letting mistakes add up and then blindsiding an employee with a slew of negative feedback). A leader who gets to know the organization and its employees and guides the organization based on what s/he recognizes as needs of the organization and its constituents and based on an understanding of what each employee brings to the table. Managers who ask for what they actually want and are there to assist employees through the process as needed without anyone ever having to feel foolish for asking for clarification.

I look at it this way: You wouldn't hop in the car and head to a new destination without looking at a map and/or programming your GPS. Who knows where you'd end up?! Working for an organization with good direction is like driving a car with a good GPS unit -- and with your "side destinations" along the way mapped out before you hit the road. If you go off course, the GPS will immediately (and quite politely!) put you back on the right path before you go too far astray. And you never have to feel foolish for programming that GPS to get you where you need to go or asking it to reprogram if you want to make an unplanned pit stop.

Flexibility. The reality of being a salaried employee just about anywhere is that there's no longer any such thing as an 8-to-5 workday. We're on call or "on duty" much of the time, due in large part to cell phones, laptop computers, etc. We're coming into work early and staying late, sometimes having only a couple hours of down time at home before it's time to go to bed to rest up for the next day. We're traveling for work, returning home at 2 a.m. and then being expected to be in bright and early (and productive and useful!) the next morning. People feel less able to take vacation time, even when they've earned it; the thought of trying to prepare yourself and your colleagues for any sort of extended absence is daunting, as is the dreaded feeling of returning to literally hundreds of e-mails and a pile of new projects when you return. Oh, and you have to be dressed up while doing all of this.

But what if your supervisor told you to take the morning off after a long business trip -- without having to use up vacation time to do it? Or if you were at the office until after dark and your supervisor encourages you to head out a couple hours early the next day? Or if you had a "casual Friday" program in which employees could pay a couple of dollars for the opportunity to dress down on Fridays, and all of the money went to a charitable organization? Sounds nice, doesn't it?! And with employees working at all hours, some flexibility in scheduling, dress code, etc. could make the all-important work/life balance a bit more achievable.

Commitment and ownership. It is amazing how quickly you can tell whether an organization has a strong sense of employee commitment and ownership (two things that often are a byproduct of empowerment, collaboration, direction and flexibility, I'd argue). It can be found in the sincerity of a response when you ask someone how they like working at his or her job ... or the things s/he chooses to highlight when you ask what s/he likes about the job ... or in the morale (or lack thereof) you sense if you visit the workplace ... or in the tweets or Facebook status updates of the employees. I feel like I've developed a "sixth sense" about this as of late, and I definitely know what to look for in a potential future employer.

One of the things on which I prided myself most in my last job was my commitment to what I was doing. I often was the first one in and the last one out. People said I was crazy, but I kept my eyes on the difference that my contributions made to the clients I was serving, to the institution I was serving and to the institution's various constituents. Can you imagine an organizational culture in which everyone was like that (instead of your enthusiasm for your work making you "weird" or someone who "tries too hard")?

(And before accusing me of being out of touch, being too idealistic, speaking with a sense of entitlement, etc., please realize that I write from the "in a perfect world ..." perspective based on eight years in the workforce ... and based on what I know an organization's culture can be, what its employees can strive for, and what kind of impact a solid organizational culture can have on customers'/constituents' experiences and satisfaction).


So, how can I really, truly figure all of this out, learn how to identify it and make it work ... both for me and for my next employer?

What I'm hoping for -- and the impetus for this blog entry -- is to earn a scholarship to Zappos Insights LIVE, a two-day company-culture boot camp at Zappos HQ. It is a nearly $5K opportunity, and Zappos will accept only a 22 people into the program, including two individuals on full scholarships. What can I promise if I am selected:

• A promise to myself and to those I love that I will use this opportunity to ponder and refine my list of "must haves" based on what is and, perhaps, isn't practical in a corporate culture. Is there really a better way to do this than by learning from the leaders of a company known far and wide for its culture and core values (and the outstanding customer service that can surely be attributed to Zappos' approach)?

• A promise to myself and my future employer that I will learn from the Zappos experience and the experiences of my past and will combine them to implement a "taste of Zappos" wherever I may work. That is, if I'm fortunate to work somewhere with a strong corporate culture (which is likely, given my list!), I'll find ways to leverage the existing culture and enhance it, no matter where I rank within the organization ... and if I end up somewhere that doesn't have the strongest organizational culture, employee morale, etc., I will take what I've learned and do everything in my power to improve it and inspire change from within the organization ... even working from the ground up if need be.

Simply put, applying for this Zappos Insights LIVE experience is a commitment to excellence on my part -- a commitment that, I hope, will turn any organization in which I work into one known for its outstanding customer service and for being a most desirable place to work. (And don't worry, Zappos ... I promise I won't go into the shoe biz!).