12 Rules for Managing Your Employees As Real People

Vintage tin toy robot

 

Think your people are your greatest asset?

Do you survey your employees but ask the wrong questions?

Is corporate engagement one of your goals?

 

Widgets, FTE’s and Assets

What I think I love most about Rodd Wagner’s new book WIDGETS: The 12 New Rules for Managing Your Employees As If They’re Real People is his clear, unambiguous writing that calls it like he sees it. He upends common practices and wisdom, throwing out what you know and replacing it with what just makes sense. Our conversation is likely to change your position on a few subjects and have you rethink your practices. It did for me.

Why did you call the book “Widgets”?

If you spend enough time at enough companies, the bad terms used to refer to people start to accumulate. “Human capital.” “Full-time equivalents” or “FTEs.” “Headcount.” “Aprons” at a home improvement store. “Blue shirts” at Best Buy. I could barely contain my shock when leaders for one temporary staffing firm referred to the people they place as “inventory.” And the department responsible for people? In most companies, it’s called “Human Resources.” At one company, a mass layoff is called a “resource action.”

These are euphemisms, and euphemisms are most dangerous when used to refer to people, because they make it easier to disregard that we are talking about someone’s son or daughter, brother or sister, and they deserve the respect and dignity of being referred to as people. I used the title “Widgets” to take a hard whack at these bad habits and all the dehumanizing practices that flow from that perspective.

 

“Your people are not your greatest asset. They’re not yours, and they’re not assets.” –Rodd Wagner

 

Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

What is wrong with many employee engagement efforts today?

Employee engagement is in a rut. It’s become hackneyed. It’s routinized.

Commission a survey. Beg people to participate. Get the results back. Distribute scorecards. Train some trainers; unleash them on the company. Cajole the CEO into using the word “engagement” in his next speech. Ask managers to do some team sessions, which maybe half will do before tucking the forms in a desk drawer. Leave the way managers are selected, coached, supported, and held accountable untouched. Let the executives feel good that they checked the employee engagement box. Go quiet for 9 or 10 months until it’s time to start the Sisyphean cycle all over again. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

JacketBut the most pernicious problem with engagement initiatives today is the way some consultancies and companies talk about the people who are neglected and, when the survey comes around, tell the truth. So-called “disengaged” employees are vilified, their motivations and character questioned. They’re said to be “more or less out to damage their company” or trying to undo what the more “engaged” accomplish. Our research contradicts these assertions that those who are most frustrated are some kind of “cancer” inside the organization.

Of course, recognizing that they will be suspect if they give low marks to their company, many employees have realized it’s career suicide to tell the truth. So they don’t. Who would under those circumstances? “Just mark five to survive,” one admin advised her colleagues. In many places, it’s now difficult if not impossible to even get a true measure of engagement. That’s the mark of a fundamentally flawed and broken system.

 

If an employee does not give high marks on a survey, look first at the manager, not the employee.

 

Inside the Head

Getting inside their heads is your first rule. It’s individual; it’s unique; it takes up significant time. And yet, it’s the most important of all. Would you share why this rule is the first?

I’ve been fielding and analyzing employee surveys and other data from more than a decade-and-a-half. Every time I plot the numbers on a new study, the first thing that strikes me is the massive range in individual responses. You simply cannot predict how a person will feel about his or her job based on generation, age, gender, race, tenure, industry, company, or any of the other group statistics that are used so often to stereotype employees.

Engagement is an individual phenomenon. Everything – how much money people want, what they consider a cool place to work, how they like to be recognized, what they envision for their future – is unique to that person. Therefore, applying all of the other New Rules depends on first understanding that one person and responding to his or her personality and ambitions. This is the reason that every good piece of research on employee engagement finds that a person’s direct supervisor is one of the key players. That manager is in a unique position to know the employee well and match him or her with the resources and opportunities inside the company.

 

“When recognition is common, employees develop resilience against adversity.” –Rodd Wagner

 

Best Friends at Work

Having a best friend at work appears in most surveys, and we repeatedly hear that it is critically important. You argue otherwise. Help us understand.

First, asking about friendships – particularly sticking your nose in an employee’s “best” friendships – is quite intrusive when the relationship between company and worker is increasingly transactional. One week you’re asking about their best friends, the next week you’re sending a few thousand of them home with severance packages. So if they either had best friends at work or were the best friends of someone still there, you’ve opened yourself to some well-founded criticism that you abused their trust.

More important, in the studies my teams and I have conducted, the “best friend” concept does not hold up well in driving results compared with more

business-related questions such as trust in leadership, perceived future of the company, and collaboration. Asking about those is your business and is better connected to your results than asking what The Washington Post once called a “high school” popularity question.

 

“Transparency tells people you trust them and you can be trusted.” –Rodd Wagner

 

What can a professor teaching more on the left side of the classroom teach us about motivating teams?

Why the Best Innovators Are Unreasonable

New Idea

The World’s Most Creative

  • What does it take to make it into the history books as one of the world’s greatest innovators?
  • Do creative geniuses have any unique characteristics?

Rowan Gibson, one of the world’s foremost thought leaders on business innovation, previously shared some of his thinking about his new book, The 4 Lenses of Innovation: A Power Tool for Creative Thinking.  Part of what makes his research unique is that he studied innovators throughout history to understand their thinking, their characteristics, and their methodology.  What he shared with me about history’s greatest innovators may influence the way you manage, the way you look at your boss, or the way you look at others we label as stubborn.  Because, as we will see, the best innovators are often the most unreasonable people.

 

Why the Best Innovators Are Unreasonable

Rowan, throughout your new book, you give examples ranging from da Vinci to Richard Branson. By studying these innovators, you developed a unique perspective. What does one need to possess or do to get mentioned in the history books?

I think those that make it into the history books are to some extent unreasonable people. George Bernard Shaw put it best when he argued that, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” Innovators like the ones I just mentioned – Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk –these are not reasonable people. They don’t just accept that the world is the way it is. They have this deep, insatiable urge to improve it or radically change it to fit their own vision of how things should be.

 

“You can’t harvest big ideas unless you sow the right seeds.” -Rowan Gibson

 

Unreasonable Innovator: Leonardo da Vinci

Take da Vinci. Was he a reasonable person? Here’s a man who filled 13,000 pages of notebooks with scribbles, drawings, scientific diagrams, and designs—everything from human anatomy and facial expressions to animals, birds, plants, rocks, water, chemistry, optics, painting, astronomy, architecture, and engineering. He once coated the wings of a fly with honey just to see if it would change the sound of the fly’s buzzing noise in flight. Why would anyone do that? Da Vinci did it to establish that the pitch of a musical note is connected with the speed of the percussive movement of the air. In this case the fly’s wings became heavier due to the honey, so they couldn’t beat as fast, resulting in a lower-pitched buzzing sound–which of course might be interesting at some level, but reasonable people don’t do things like that.

 

Unreasonable Innovator: Richard Branson

Let’s say you opened a little record store in London, UK. That’s nothing out of the ordinary. But would you call it “Virgin”? And would you then create your own record label and start backing unknown musicians like Mike Oldfield or controversial bands like the Sex Pistols? Would you try to grow your one little record store into a national chain of media hypermarkets? I mean, if you did all of that, it would be quite remarkable. But would you then decide to start your own transatlantic airline and go up against British Airways on their own turf? Would you try to build your own mobile phone business from scratch and then your own bank or take a big risk by investing in a space tourism company? These are not reasonable things to do. So clearly Richard Branson is not a reasonable man.

 

Unreasonable Innovator: Elon Musk

Leadership Vertigo: How the Best Leaders Go Off Course

falling and screaming businessman in formal wear over white back

What To Do When You Are Off Course

Do you know a leader who insists everything is fine when everyone else knows trouble is ahead?

Have you watched someone so oblivious to signs and signals that employees are not engaged?

How do leaders accurately assess and view how they are perceived in an organization?

 

My friend Tanveer Naseer recently co-authored Leadership Vertigo: Why Even the Best Leaders Go Off Course and How They Can Get Back On Track.  It’s a thoughtful read designed to help leaders accurately diagnose and solve problems with culture and leadership.  I recently spoke with Tanveer about his book. Tanveer leads his own leadership consulting company and is an award-winning leadership blogger.

 

False Signals and Leadership Danger Ahead

What is leadership vertigo?

Let me first start off by explaining what vertigo is. For most of us, the word vertigo brings to mind the famous scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s film where we see the lead character looking down a staircase and seeing the floor below suddenly pushing off into the distance.

In reality, vertigo refers to a perceptual phenomenon where our brain sends us false signals about our motion, which we believe to be true. The best known example of this is the crash of John F. Kennedy’s Jr.’s plane in the Atlantic Ocean, where his brain was convincing him that he was flying his plane level, even though the gauges on his instrument panel were telling him that he was in fact heading on a downward angle towards the ocean surface.

 

“Leadership vertigo is the gap between how we view our leadership and how others experience it.” –Tanveer Naseer

 

So with this understanding of what vertigo is, leadership vertigo basically refers to the gap between how we view our leadership and how those we lead experience it. It refers to those moments where we’re convinced our actions and words are creating the right conditions for our employees to succeed, and yet that’s not what our employees are getting from us.

This is exactly what we see in all the studies of the past few years that show that despite the growing knowledge base on how to engage and empower our employees, most leaders are still not connecting their message with their employees. It’s because they’re convinced that they are being the kind of leader their organization needs, despite all the evidence around them pointing out the contrary.

 

4 Key Leadership Principles

Briefly walk us through the 4 Leadership Principles of Leadership Vertigo.

1. Build community.

The first Leadership Principle, “Build Community,” refers to recognizing that in order for us to better understand the realities our employees face, we have to consistently demonstrate our respect for them as individuals; that they’re not simply there to do a job, but they’re there to help us collectively succeed because they see and understand the value of our shared purpose. And we can engender this feeling by recognizing the value of their contributions to that shared purpose, as well as promoting a culture of shared accountability to encourage equal and fair participation.

 

Leadership tip: Respect employees as individuals who contribute to a shared purpose.

 

2. Develop competence.

Leadership Vertigo Book CoverThe second Leadership Principle, “Develop Competence” refers to how we show up for those daily interactions with those we lead. Are we going into those meetings and those conversations with a genuine interest to learn and understand what our employees have to say? Research has shown that emotions are very contagious and that our brains are hard-wired to pick up the non-verbal cues we give off before we even say a word.

So the minute you walk into that meeting room, your team members have already read those non-verbal cues you’re giving off, and everything you say and do is going to be filtered through that initial perception they got about your emotional state.

3. Earn credibility.

The third Leadership Principle, “Earn Credibility,” looks at something that we’re seeing more and more in discussions about leadership today. Specifically, how do we go about increasing our awareness, both of our own mental state as well as the realities of those around us? What’s critical to this principle is being open with our employees that we don’t have all the answers because only then can we free ourselves to be genuine about what it is we’re after, what it is we need, and what we can give them to be successful in their efforts.

4. Cultivate compassion. 

Power Your Creative Thinking With the 4 Lenses of Innovation

Copyright Rowan Gibson; Used by Permission

Copyright Rowan Gibson; Used by Permission

  • Do you want to create a culture of innovation in your business?
  • Do you want to tap into your inner creative voice?
  • Do you want to power your creative thinking?

Power Your Creative Thinking

I love reading about the world’s greatest innovators. Whether it’s an innovative individual or a company, I am fascinated with the stories behind history’s greatest breakthroughs and inventions. Recently, a terrific new book on the subject crossed my desk and captured my attention. After reading it, I had the opportunity to converse with the author. The insights in this book can help any company improve its innovative culture and any individual become more creative.

That author, speaker, and consultant is Rowan Gibson. Rowan is one of the world’s foremost thought leaders on business innovation. He is the internationally bestselling author of three books on business strategy and innovation – Rethinking The Future, Innovation to the Core, and his latest, The 4 Lenses of Innovation: A Power Tool for Creative Thinking.

 

4 LENSES OF INNOVATION

Challenging Orthodoxies

You share four lenses or perspectives on innovation. The first is challenging orthodoxies. There are many examples of people who stand up and say there is a better way. Perhaps that child with a rebellious streak may have a great future?

Almost by definition, innovators tend to be contrarians and nonconformists. As Steve Jobs put it, they “think different.”

 

“Almost by definition, innovators tend to be contrarians and nonconformists.” –Rowan Gibson

 

I just saw the movie “The Imitation Game” about the work of Alan Turing during the Second World War. This guy was obviously a genius, and a pioneer in the field of digital computing. He almost single-handedly built a machine that broke the German Enigma code, which undoubtedly helped the allies win the war. But Turing had no regard for prevailing wisdom, or for military authority, or for anyone else’s way of doing things. He believed only in his own revolutionary ideas.

Copyright Rowan Gibson; Used by Permission Copyright Rowan Gibson; Used by Permission

So, yes, maybe that rebellious school child has a great future. Turing’s headmaster told his parents he was wasting his time at school because he wasn’t willing to be educated in classical thinking. Einstein was so rebellious he was actually expelled from school. But it was that rebelliousness toward authority that led him to question Newton’s seemingly unassailable laws of motion. Richard Branson was another rebel at school and eventually dropped out at age 16—going on to create Virgin Records.

If you recall some of the other famous individuals who were featured in Apple’s “Think Different” ads, such as Martin Luther King, John Lennon, Thomas Edison, Mahatma Gandhi, Amelia Earhart, Martha Graham, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Pablo Picasso, they were all misfits and rebels. The saw things differently from others. They wanted to challenge and change the status quo.

There are just so many examples of companies that have innovated very successfully by challenging deep-seated orthodoxies: Swatch in the watch industry Dell in the computer industry, Southwest in the airline industry, IKEA in the furniture industry, Enterprise in the car rental business, Zara in the fashion industry, Chipotle in fast food, IT’SUGAR in candy retail, and the list goes on.

A recent example is Beats by Dre. They asked themselves why every other field of consumer electronics—TVs, laptops, smartphones—was being dramatically improved, while people were still listening to music with cheap, low-performance earbuds. What if there was a market for premium headphones, costing hundreds of dollars, that would reproduce music the way artists wanted their songs to be heard? And what if those headphones could be marketed as a fashion statement, not just as an audio accessory? Luke Wood, CEO of Beats by Dre, told the press, “People thought we were crazy. They said the marketplace would never support a $300 headphone.” Well, once again, here’s to the crazy ones. Today, premium headphones are one of the fastest-growing categories in the consumer electronics industry, making up over 40 percent of all headphone sales, and Beats owns over 60 percent of that market. Last year, Apple acquired Beats Electronics for $3 billion.

Copyright Rowan Gibson; Used by Permission Copyright Rowan Gibson; Used by Permission

 

2. Harnessing Trends

The second lens or perspective is harnessing trends. How do you spot the trend in time to ride a new wave?

Well, you have to be very sensitive to what is changing in the world. It’s not about having a crystal ball and trying to predict the future. It’s more about having a wide-angled lens that allows you pick up important trends and then exploit them in some way.

Tough Man, Tender Chicken: Lessons from Frank Perdue

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A Visionary Leader

He entered many of our homes via television, winning our hearts with his clever ads about his chicken.  Appearing in hundreds of ads, Frank Perdue turned Perdue chicken into a national brand.  “It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken,” the ads touted.

Frank Perdue was a visionary business leader.  He focused on culture, leadership development, packaging, promotion, and operational excellence perhaps years before others.

Frank and Mitzi Perdue, Used by Permission Frank and Mitzi Perdue, Used by Permission

Recently, his wife, Mitzi Perdue, wrote a biography Tough Man, Tender Chicken: Business and Life Lessons from Frank Perdue.  The book paints the picture of the man, allowing us glimpses into his personal life, but also is full of business and leadership advice.

Mitzi herself holds a BA in government from Harvard, a masters in public administration from George Washington and was for years a syndicated columnist for Capitol News then Scripps Howard.

I recently had the opportunity to talk with her about her late husband.

 

“Find out what the customer wants and then make it better.” –Frank Perdue

 

Take Care of the Customer

There are so many business and life lessons in this book.  Let me just ask about a few areas.

One story you tell was about packaging.  It grabbed my attention because he wanted better packaging, but his team said no.  They said it was too expensive.  I know he was frugal, so his commitment to make it happen speaks volumes.  That little story says so much about his style and determination. Would you help us understand why this was so important to him?

Funny you picked on that story because it happens that I’m (I think) unusually qualified to comment on it.  My master’s thesis from George Washington University was on the importance of packaging.  I felt that the packaging of an idea or a product wasn’t as important as the content, but it was way up high as a consideration.  Frank intuitively understood this concept without having to get a master’s degree!  In the cases of the cartons that chicken was delivered in back in the late 1960s, it was pretty much industry standard to have flimsy boxes that might leave someone’s processing plant looking fine, but by the time they arrived at the distributor’s loading dock in a big city, the box might be crushed and leaking.  Crushed and leaking boxes were a mega-headache for the distributor because it’s hard to handle them on a forklift, and it’s unsanitary.  Frank realized that if he could create boxes that wouldn’t crush or leak, he’d be solving one of the distributors’ major problems.  His attitude was that as long as his goal was to be the best, the price almost didn’t matter, he had to fix the fragile boxes because, “We can’t afford not to.”  It fit in with his motto of, “Take care of the customer,” and the result was that when a distributor wanted chicken, he probably had Perdue on his speed dial. Packaging was an extraordinary competitive edge for us.

Mitzi Perdue, Used by Permission Mitzi Perdue, Used by Permission

“A business that doesn’t change is a business that is going to die.” –Frank Perdue

 

Build A Culture of Disagreement

Take us into the culture of the company.  It tolerated disagreement and strong opinions.  As you say it tolerated “really forceful disagreement.”  How did Frank encourage this?  When did he, as a leader, stop the argument and unify the team?