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Bill Kalmar

Quality Insider

Survivor: United States of America Workplace

If only TV shows and books worked in real life!

Published: Monday, April 6, 2009 - 13:04

Since the year 2000, we have either been mesmerized, entertained, or in my case, irritated by a TV program called “Survivor.” Contestants on this show are isolated in the wilderness and compete against each other for cash and other prizes. The program utilizes a progressive elimination gimmick, allowing the contestants to vote off a member until only one contestant remains and is thus crowned the sole survivor.

Some of the places where brave contestants vie to be the survivor are Fiji, Borneo, and Guatemala. It becomes a war of wills and strength, as some contestants are granted immunity for winning an event while others are jettisoned from the island by a vote of their peers. If this sounds a bit like the current workplace in our nation, welcome to “Survivor: The American Workplace.”

In our new workplace environment, people are “voted off” the payroll every week because of declining sales, relocation to cheaper producing nations, or an incompetent management team. With a 12-percent unemployment rate here in Michigan, the outlook continues to be grim for survival. Unabashedly, I attribute most of the problems to management—a senior management team without a clear understanding of the market, a team steeped in old habits without the ability to change, and a team that is more concerned about protecting themselves than looking out for their staff.

On the other hand, there are numerous companies that are excelling in this new economic environment. Look no further than Fortune magazine's list of the “100 Best Companies To Work For” and “Most Admired Companies” and the list of Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award recipients. The common ingredient is a strong management team.

My 30 years at a major Michigan bank followed by 10 years as the director of the Michigan Quality Council, a state award program patterned after the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award Program, gave me the unique opportunity to witness a wide array of management styles. Of course, during that time there were countless people who witnessed my management style or lack thereof. Now that I’m happily and enthusiastically retired, I can pause and look back on those years and compare my experiences with the current state of affairs in managing.

This will no doubt generate a lot of guffaws and critiques, but I’m convinced that most downfalls at companies are the direct result of a faulty management system, including a flawed strategic plan. In many cases, there’s no strategic plan, ergo, no measuring techniques, a lack of employee recognition and thus no way to stimulate and energize the staff.

You would think that what with the glut of management books and articles, companies would be led by a group of learned, well-honed management teams. But that often isn’t the case. If management books are best sellers and if people take at least a modicum of information from these “how to” treatises, then why do so many companies fail?

Perhaps it has nothing to do with the books and articles, but maybe these same management aids are just a bunch of hokum and nothing else. A recent trip to my neighborhood Borders book store revealed that there are hundreds of books that beg to lure us into the world of management techniques. But how many of them are helpful and which ones are harmful remains the question.

Some of the titles just jump off the shelf and I suspect that many of the techniques are of some value. Some of the titles probably provide more information than what is actually in the book. Many of us may just purchase the title and discover later that it contained nothing of value.

Here are some titles that caught my attention:

  • The Bald Truth—Secrets of Success From Locker Room to Board Room (Pocket, 2009). As you would expect, there’s a picture of the author on the cover and he is bald. Don’t know what his “secret” is but maybe it’s how to score a three-point play while tossing paper into the boardroom basket. We all like sports analogies, as they relate to the workplace but how many of them are applicable is a mystery to me.

  • Team Building That Gets Results: Essential Plans and Activities for Creating Effective Teams (Sourcebooks Inc., 2007). This conjures up the idea that perhaps other team-building exercises weren’t successful. I can personally attest to a gimmick called “The Grid” that we were once exposed to while I was in the corporate world. It was one week at an off sight location where we participated in analyzing, critiquing, and destroying our fellow workers and those in other departments. It was brutal and accomplished nothing. After a week of determining whether we were equally focused on work and staff, all of us returned to the office and assumed our normal disjointed strategies.

  • Results That Last: Hardwiring Behaviors That Will Take Your Company to the Top (Wiley, 2007). Perhaps this was written by someone who read the previous book and decided that everyone likes results, but this author has devised a way to make them actually stick. We should have invited him to our “Grid Training” and then his title would be Results That Last Until The Workshop Is Over.

  • Do It Right the Second Time: Benchmarking Best Practices in the Quality Change Process (Productivity Press, 1997). I hope we're getting closer to the second time. I can only imagine what the first time might have resulted in!

  • The One Minute Manager (Berkley Trade, 1983). This book by Kenneth Blanchard, Ph.D., has been on the best-selling list for years followed by Who Moved My Cheese (G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1998) and a whole host of others designed to improve our management style. I’m sure some of my previous supervisors, and perhaps some of yours, read this book because they were able to manage for exactly one minute every other month.

  • Perfect Phrases for Managers and Supervisors: Hundreds of Ready-to-Use Phrases for Any Management Situation (McGraw-Hill, 2004). This book has scripts for various workplace situations, because I suspect that most managers have difficulty being assertive, sympathetic, understanding, and knowledgeable. So this book provides the correct phraseology. Here’s one of my favorites from the book spoken by a staff member to his or her boss: “If experience comes from mistakes, I just gained a huge amount of experience.” How insightful. Why not just say “I screwed up.”

  • Perfect Phrases for Building a Strong Team: Hundreds of Ready-to-Use Phrases for Fostering Collaboration, Encouraging Communication, and Growing a Winning Team (McGraw-Hill, 2007). If the previous book didn't work, then here’s one just for your team. My favorite from the book: I am committed to your success.” Now say that without laughing. How about just using a phrase from Green Bay Packer’s coach, Vince Lombardi: Winning isn’t everything— it’s the only thing.”

  • E-Business 2.0: Roadmap for Success (Addison-Wesley Professional, 2000) Everyone takes a different road to get there. For me? I’ll just use my OnStar system.

  • You Can’t Order Change: Lessons from Jim McNerney's Turnaround at Boeing (Portfolio Hardcover, 2008). No need to read the book, because this premise is true. If changes are to be made in a company, the management team needs to explain why it’s necessary and how it will have a positive effect on the employees and its customers. The inability to demonstrate this means the change isn’t necessary.

  • Change or Die: The Three Keys to Change at Work and in Life (Collins Business, 2007). Coming on the heals of the previous book, but by a different author is a title that really should be subtitled, “The Master of the Obvious.”

  • Death by Meeting: A Leadership Fable...About Solving the Most Painful Problem in Business (Jossey-Bass, 2004). How true. I read recently that many companies are conducting stand-up meetings, which obviously limits the time one is engaged in meaningless gatherings. Since retiring in 2003, I have yet to experience withdrawal pains from not being at a meeting.

 

My point in listing these books and obviously throwing some darts, is to illustrate that despite the number of “how-to” management books on the market, we continue to have failed companies and management teams that are clueless. What is the answer?

If you are a manager, supervisor, or company owner, your greatest source of input are your employees and customers. Meet with them on a regular basis. Determine their needs, wants, and expectations and then make sure that your strategic plan coincides with those expectations. This isn’t brain surgery. Another quote from Vince Lombardi is most appropriate here: "A leader must identify himself with the group, must back up the group, even at the risk of displeasing superiors. He must believe that the group wants from him a sense of approval. If this feeling prevails, production, discipline, morale will be high, and in return, you can demand the cooperation to promote the goals of the company."

Management should benchmark their practices against other companies that are renowned in the workplace for having financial success and those that have reputations for low employee turnover.

Frankly, it isn’t more complicated than that. Trying to implement some new philosophy or perhaps a whole new Zen method is a waste of time. Why make it complicated? As an employee, if you are at a company that has a weak management team or if you find yourself in an environment where you can’t be yourself, it’s time to leave. Sure that sounds foolhardy, but why trek to work everyday to a situation where you aren’t appreciated and where you have to change your work style to mesh with some archaic work standards. I found myself to be most successful when I was able to be myself. Trying to adapt to a culture where you have to make dramatic changes to your work style and your personality is like putting on a Halloween mask—you are someone at work and then someone else at home and that isn’t a comfortable situation. Move on.

David Letterman recently had a top-10 list of signs you work for a bad company. Two signs that stuck out were: "Only office perk is the free oxygen" and "Instead of raises, everyone is given raisins."

And now some closing comments about other topics that have been bubbling up in my mind recently:

There has been a lot of information about people “doctoring up” their resume by listing degrees and accomplishments that are bogus. I wrote about this in a previous column some time ago. I have no patience with people who lie on their resume and they should be fired. But now comes another side to this whole resume discussion: In this new economic environment, there are thousands of people out of work with very impressive credentials and as a result there are companies who are reluctant to hire an MBA for a job that may only require an undergraduate degree.

The solution according to some resume gurus is to water down your resume, get the job, then work hard for recognition. Once you are a solid member of the company disclose your real credentials. Any thoughts on this? For me, it would be like hiring Bruce Wayne only to discover later on that he is in fact Batman. Of course, he wouldn’t remain on the payroll for long, since his unexpected absences responding to the Bat signal would adversely effect his work. The same with Mr. Resume Retractor: I would not be pleased with someone who fudged his or her credentials and they would have to leave.

Also, there’s a new industry springing up of consultants who come into a company and console workers who weren’t axed. These workers evidently feel a sense of regret and depression that their cohorts were let go, so the consultants provide assistance in coping with the loss. Yeah right. If I’m not on the “hit list” and still have a job, please don’t think for a moment I will be depressed.

Finally, have you noticed the new packaging for Tropicana Orange Juice? All the cartons are the same except for a description of the product in small print such as “With Calcium,” “No Pulp,” “Country Style,” etc. I contacted the company and stated that it was most confusing and guess what? Here is the response:

“We appreciate your comments about Tropicana's new packaging design and have good news for you.

“Many Tropicana consumers like yourself told us that they missed ‘their’ Tropicana packaging. Therefore we've decided to return to the iconic original packaging featuring the orange and straw. When you speak, we listen!

“We appreciate the passion you have for both Tropicana Pure Premium orange juice and for the package it comes in, William. Consumers are the lifeblood of our company. Thank you for choosing Tropicana.”

Evidently customers were complaining in droves. And it demonstrates something I mentioned earlier: That good companies listen and respond to the expectations of their customers. Hats off to Tropicana. I think I’ll now go and have a glass of sunshine. Until the new packaging emerges, I hope I choose the correct carton.

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About The Author

Bill Kalmar’s picture

Bill Kalmar

William J. Kalmar has extensive business experience, including service with a Fortune 500 bank and the Michigan Quality Council, of which he served as director from 1993 through 2003. He served on the Board of Overseers of the Baldrige Performance Excellence Program and has been a Baldrige examiner. He was also named quality professional of the year by the ASQ Detroit chapter. Now semi-retired, Kalmar does freelance writing for several publications. He is a member of the USA Today Vacation Panel, a mystery shopper for several companies, and a frequent presenter and lecturer.