Thursday, September 22, 2016

Speaking as a Woman

Recently a male colleague became quite animated and raised his voice in a discussion...and he was thanked for his "passion" on the topic by our male peers.

A few weeks later, in a meeting, I was stressing a voice was not raised, but after being talked over by two of the men I work with, I held my ground and there was no doubt that I was serious.  And, rather than being thanked for my concerns, I was told to "calm down, calm down," by one of my male peers. He meant no harm, he is a great guy. But, he did not realize he was treating me differently than our male colleague had been treated.

Of course I have experience with this reaction, as I have had an identical situation with every management team meeting, board meeting, and family dinner with my brothers for over 60 years.

Let's face it, it is just not the same for women.  When we become animated, men do not hear "passion" they hear "reprimand."  So, as women, we must try at all times to keep our emotions and voice in check; limit our hand gestures; don't sound "shrill." Be careful about how you phrase your arguments.  As my mother would say, "Don't scare the boys."

So, I adapted.

And, therefore, like Hillary Clinton, I too can be perceived as cold. I have been accused of not having any feelings. I have been accused of callousness and horrible motivations because I have to control my emotions with such vigilance.

The truth is that it is exhausting to be so constrained when my male counter-parts never have to consider such things. If you are a female it makes your workday so much more taxing when you cannot "come out" as women in the workplace, but instead must keep these boundaries in mind in every conversation or be subjected to the "tsk-tsk" of judgment about your reflexive responses, when men are praised for their commitment.

I have controlled my emotions for so long that appropriate displays of emotion, those others expect and accept in themselves, have become moments of fear and humiliation for me.  I am always worried that if I show any feelings I will be perceived as weak, puny, unreliable, girly, lacking in gravitas.

The suppression has fulfilled the prophesy.  I struggle to access when I do, you best believe it is serious...that I am serious.  I am not indulging something trivial when I am adamant and animated; no, I am massively moved. And that alone, given my level of experience, should be reason to stop and listen. But, I know that I will have to lower my voice, speak slowly, wait for the men to stop speaking and sometimes wait for one of them to repeat my idea before it will be heard.  I know I cannot speak loudly, I cannot use energy and conviction, I cannot show my hand.  I cannot scare the boys.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

"Misogyny in the Valley"

The following was first published in "Model View Culture" in June 2014.  You should subscribe.

Misogyny in the Valley
by Nancy Householder Hauge 
(with contributions made by Henry Higgins and Lean In)

“Why Can’t a Woman be More Like a Man?”

30 years ago, when I first joined a rapidly-growing-Silicon-Valley start-up-soon-to-be-very-successful-company, a young female engineer, named Katie, came to me for some help. She told me she felt uncomfortable with a situation, but she did not know what to do or say about it.

“Have you noticed that all the servers have been given girls’ names?”  she asked me. “Why do you think that is?” 

“I assumed it was like planes, ships and cars. Guys always refer to that stuff with girls names,” I replied.

“Maybe,” she went on. “But did you know that the protocol for starting up a server is called ‘mounting’? 

“No, I’ve never heard that,” I said, looking at my watch, wondering when she would come to the point. I can be slow.

“Well, every morning I have to listen to my male colleagues yelling down the hallways, ‘I am mounting Cathy now!’ or ‘I mounted Judy a few minutes ago and she is purring!’ or ‘Jenny is being a tease and will not let me mount her!’ or maybe the worst, ‘Katie can I watch while you mount Joan?’”

Oh. Now I saw what she was talking about. 

I pictured the group she was talking about. A cluster of offices ran down two sides of a long hallway, near a big cold room with a raised floor, as server-rooms had to be in those days. 

Each office was occupied by two or three of the nerdiest-nerds you have ever met. These were engineers who demanded that they control the servers on which their work resided, not trusting them to the IT department’s care. These very smart boys were the most important brains in the company. Recruited from the top three engineering schools in the nation, their hair was long and unkempt and they wore jeans, T-shirts and sandals to work in 1984, but when they went to college in the 70s their pants were too short, they wore pocket-protectors and they knew how to use slide-rules.

Many of them never had a date in high school or college. Many worked so many hours they often slept under their desks at work, did not shower and smelled pretty ripe on a Friday… and it was pretty clear they still had limited contact with girls. They were arrogant, contemptuous of anyone without a technical MS, know-it-alls. Some were geniuses. All were socially inept. 

So, as I sat there picturing these horny, smelly nerds and juxtaposing Katie’s story of them bragging about “mounting” their high-tech girlfriends, I did what anyone in my position in 1984 would do. 

I laughed out loud. 

I told Katie I would look into it, but I advised Katie to develop a sense of humor. 

In truth, on that day in 1984 I saw no harm in what was going on.  I thought Katie was just being uptight, a whiner…she was looking for things to complain about and did not understand how to get along with boys. I assumed she was not as good an engineer as the boys. I assumed she was one of those malcontent-girl-engineers with dirty hair and too much political correctness to ever have fun. 

Why were those girl engineers so whiny and malcontent anyway?

Well, in retrospect, it might have been because of people like me.

People like me, who did not see much harm….no, it was worse than that… people like me, who saw charm in the misogynistic hijinks of young men.

Inspired by George Bernard Shaw’s poster boy for chauvinism, Henry Higgins, I wondered, “Why can’t these girls be more like the boys?”

Why can’t they nut-up, develop a thicker skin and a cooler sense of humor? Why do they look for mistreatment everywhere? The boys are just having fun. Get along, do your job. We need to keep those boys happy, ya’ know.  We need to do anything we can to keep the nerdy-brain-trust-happy. And if I confront them, they might bolt over to another company where the culture is still cool and not full of rules about behavior. So, Katie, can you just take a chill-pill and get with the program a bit?

What a dumb-ass I was.

I am so sorry, Katie. I was a wrong-headed young woman, raised with four brothers, living in the male-dominated high-tech world and addicted to trying to make the boys like and accept me. Could someone reach back 30 years and put a sock in my mouth, please?

Luckily things, and I, have really changed over the past 30 years, right? Isn’t that a relief? At least we don’t have those boys clubs of the 1980s to contend with anymore! 

What do you mean you “have a sock for me to taste?”

The 21st Century
In 2011 I was consulting to a Silicon Valley start-up seeking a bunch of Ruby on Rails developers. The CTO was panicked about finding the right team. I understood his concerns, although I had never seen so many qualifiers attached to screening candidates. As the recruiting team and I tried to fill a pipeline with qualified developers, we had to submit the names to the entire engineering team so they could check out the candidates’ GitHub accounts. 

The engineers called it “GetHumped.” Over and over we submitted woman engineers, and over and over they were rejected, supposedly based upon the “quality” of their code submitted to GitHub. Or, they didn’t have code posted on GitHub at all. But what I would hear the engineers say is, “Can’t ‘get humped’, can’t get hired.” 

Welcome to the 21st century version of “mounting Cathy.”

When I confronted the CTO with the remarkable rejection rate of women, he said, “I can tell you this because you are a consultant and not really ‘HR,’ but… I have a cool team with a good culture and I just do not see woman on that team, ok? None of the women I went to school with were enough like the guys to fit in.”

I was a bit stunned that one of the millennial generation could be so 1984 in his attitude. But, I was paid to advise, not preach.  So, I sat the CTO and his CEO co-founder down and said, “Boys, let me tell you how the deposition that is in your future is going to go.”

I explained that the consistent elimination of female candidates was going to come back to bite them. I explained that their product was used by women 95% of the time and a few women on the product team would be a good thing.

They thought about my “advice.” Then they agreed among themselves that they could not tamper with the chemistry of the current team, that female engineers would make the boys uncomfortable, that women just wouldn’t fit in. They were disappointed that I did not “get it.” They expected more of me because I was part of the culture of Silicon Valley in the 1980s, where we did not have so many “PC” rules.

Well, the desperate-for-male-approval-Nancy of 1984 would have fit in fine, but apparently Nancy in 2014 no longer fit in…. they ended my contract.

But there it was, 30 years later the lament: “Why Can’t a Woman be More Like a Man?”

“Why Can’t a Woman be More Like a Woman?”
Early in Sheryl Sandberg’s disappointing book, Lean In, she recounts speaking to a group of graduate students. She was impressed by the “thoughtful” questions the male students asked. The men were focused on business model and operational questions. They asked questions about how to run a company.

She was less impressed by the questions from the young women, questions such as; “Did you feel guilty leaving Google?” “Were you concerned about going to your company’s biggest competitor?” “Did you think about commitments you had to the people you left behind?”

Sheryl was disappointed in the lack of “thoughtfulness” and focus in the women’s questions. She wondered why they did not ask the same valuable questions as the men. 

But Sheryl totally missed the point of the women’s questions. The men asked “how to” questions, because Sheryl’s level of professional and financial success gives her gravitas and credibility in their minds. The women asked values and relationship-based questions, trying to determine if Sheryl shared their values and ethics before they would take her advice. Because, regardless of her financial success, Sheryl would not have gravitas until she scaled those hurdles among women. In my experience, young women are no less interested in the “hows” of learning, but they are far more rigorous in qualifying the “who,” before taking advice.

“Successful” behaviors in corporate America were set by men, based upon how men use their brains and how they interact. Women do not readily fit into the corporate culture created by men, which values only the standards set by them. Alternate models of workplace skills are not yet understood and appreciated. Prevailing thought has always assumed that stereotypical male work behaviors are empirically proven to be winning behaviors.  

Sandberg perpetuates that antiquated myth throughout her entire tiresome book. She holds men up as her only model for success and continuously compares any differing behavior from women as “heartbreaking.” Sheryl is so enamored of the male behavior she indulges in a book-long version of what the character, Jenna Maroney of “30 Rock” calls “back door bragging:”  

Jenna:  “Backdoor bragging is sneaking something wonderful about yourself in everyday conversation. Like when I tell people it's hard for me to watch American Idol ‘cause I have perfect pitch.”  

Sheryl continually explains that she went through life embarrassed by her “bossiness,” when in fact, she is back-door bragging. And we are all supposed to think, “Wow, she ‘takes charge’ just like a man! Isn’t it just awful she had to be embarrassed about being so great?”

Men in tech often “take charge” in a competition of dominance. They rush to see who can solve the problem fastest and then rush to see who can find the flaws in that solution fastest. Often, when men in a tech workplace are in an animated discussion, one of them is likely to stand up in an unconscious attempt to physically dominate. After the first one stands, they will all stand in order to avoid looking up at any other male in the room.  Soon the whole meeting is taking place at six feet in the air. That makes it pretty tough for a five-foot-tall woman to participate without standing on a chair.

It must also be hard to thoroughly think through a problem when you are so intent on maintaining dominance.

But how about “taking charge” like a woman?

Ten years ago I was part of Ruckus, a social media company whose value proposition was downloading music and movies legally into dorm rooms. During the summer of 2005 we had 18 college interns working with us. We had a variety of projects for them to do, most of which were focused on making the site sticky and expanding the subscriber rate.

For one project, we decided to split them up by gender and asked both the boys and the girls to solve the same problem: How to get more students to subscribe. We gave them two hours to brainstorm and then present their ideas.

The boys solved the issue in about 10 minutes. They placed a flip chart outside of their conference room that read:  “Invest more in on-campus marketing. Invest more in branding.”

Then the boys went to shoot hoops for the next 110 minutes. The boys’ answer was focused on exactly what the senior team had concluded and we were pretty pleased with what we had taught these guys over the summer.

The girls took the entire two hours and then asked to see me privately.  I went to the conference room where they had been working. The white boards and flip charts were covered in ideas with cross-outs and edits in every color pen. It was clear that this had been an unfocused session.

Two girls were at the front of the room and they seemed a bit nervous. I understood why - it was clear they had been all over the place in their ideas. I was feeling pretty sorry for the girls and their lack of clear understanding compared to the boys…. when one of the girls said, “Nancy, we know why the site is failing. But we are not sure management will be willing to solve the problem.”

“Try me,” I said, a little put off.

“The site needs erotica,” one said.

“The site just does not have enough sex on it,” said another.

Now, part of our commitment to the schools we sold to was that we would not serve up porn. I was disappointed that the girls did not remember that and was sad they had wasted 2 hours. But they went on: “We don’t mean porn. We mean erotica. For example, European movies have much more sex in the context of the stories they tell. European content would be attractive to educators. And girls like sex in movies.  Management has to secure a volume of erotica that appeals to young women and market it appropriately.”

I sat there a bit astonished. I looked around the room and now saw the covered white boards and flip charts in a different light.

The boys had served up the answer that would please management and they took pride in their expedience. The girls worked long, quietly and hard on something that would not just validate management but also actually solve the problem. And they took huge risk of self-exposure by talking about how girls like explicit sex in movies.

The Temple of Male Behavior
Without credible workplace role models for behavior other than the male behaviors Sheryl proselytizes, women are left trying to emulate them, and risk abandoning some of the best parts of themselves when they leave for work in the morning.

The young women interns at Ruckus worked in a very different way. As I explored their notes, I noticed that ideas were expanded upon, not abandoned. Challenges were identified, but the male language so often heard in Silicon Valley conference rooms - “Well, let me tell you what the problem with that idea is….” - was not in the room.  These young women, without men to define the “appropriate business behavior,” used different behaviors and came up with a startling and valuable solution. They showed many of the values that exist outside of dominance-based leadership: strategic thinking, intuition, nurturing and relationship building, values-based decision-making and acceptance of other’s input.

Women need space to be themselves at work. Until people who have created their success by worshipping at the temple of male behavior, like Sheryl Sandberg, learn to value alternate behaviors, the working world will remain a foreign and hostile culture to women. And if we do not continuously work to build corporate cultures where there is room for other behaviors, women will be cast from or abandoned in a world not of our making, where we continuously “just do not fit in,” but where we still must go to earn our livings.

I laughed out loud in 1984.  30 years later I am not laughing so much.

Sunday, March 23, 2014


I met two young women this month that took my breath away. 

Amelia Greenhall and Shanley Kane schlepped down the peninsula to meet for lunch after they had republished one of my blog pieces about women CEO's on their magazine, Model View Culture . I arrived at Joanie's in Palo Alto, smug, ready to be the estrogen-depleted-aged-sage, prepared to be the experienced crone-with-cahones, who had survived the sexism and misogyny of the  '70's, 80's, '90's & '00's and lived to tell the professional tale.  My "Queen of France" voice was warmed up to pontificate about my experience...oh, the wisdom I would impart...the pearls of philosophy and humor I would leave them with.........and 90 seconds in I discovered that I was outclassed, out-shone and out-thunk at every turn.  These girls were serious about this stuff....and not likely to be impressed with the lame-humor-facile-observations which are my raison d'ĂȘtre. 

First, they are full grown adults who were born about the time I learned to drop the F-bomb....(and although I was a late entrant to the game of obscenity, I had apparently not fully comprehended that my vocabulary enlarged to include that word about half my lifetime ago.)  So, while “young” they are grown-ups….not really looking for a teacher.

Second, these young women have about 6 degrees between them, each with both technology (yes, real technology, one has a EE) and liberal arts....and an MA in Public Health thrown in for good measure. As they went through their short-but-impressive verbal resumes, they casually mentioned Vanderbilt, Carnegie-Mellon and the University of Chicago.  So, even if they were looking for some sort of teacher/mentor…they have standards that I could never live up to.

After finishing a serious commitment to higher Ed, they each started careers in Silicon Valley, succeeded in their endeavors, bounced their beautiful craniums against the glass ceiling a couple of times, and then did something pretty wonderful.  They said, "Screw this!" and started their own company. A technology driven media company about technology, media, culture and the human experience in 2014. 

These girls are scary smart.  They are also thoughtful, articulate, ambitious, creative and honest.  They are part of the top 1% of intellect and capability.  And as I sat there listening to them, laughing with them, admiring them, wishing they were my daughters, I had to wonder…..What the f*ck is wrong with Silicon Valley?  How did these two remarkable women get pushed out of corporate America so early?  Has there really been so little change to the unthinking misogyny I encountered in the 1980’s?
I would be ashamed, and I would expect to be fired if I let talent of this caliber slip away from my company.  But some HR wonk like me did let them slip away.  And I worry I have cavalierly let young woman slip away….especially when they were daunted by the obstacles and obtuseness of a world that claims to only value break-through-thinking, but gives you demerits for breasts attached to brains.
So, I sat there and realized that I have let my position in life allow me to become complacent about the plight of young women in the workplace.  At my age and position in the world, I do not encounter the same kind of sexism I used to deal with every day…partly because I am really old, and there are no longer any hormonal “tensions” with my colleagues….and my professional status (achieved via tenacity over merit, trust me) demands a bit of respect.  Do I still find sexist behaviors? Sure I do…sometimes men ignore or talk over me (interestingly it is most often my beloved former Sun Microsystems colleagues who subject me to this rude practice).  But at this point in life I can tease them, threaten to kick their butts around the parking lot and shock them out of ignoring me.  I have tools available to me at 60 that a girl in her 20’s just cannot access.  
In the end the only tools these girls have available to them is their astounding intellects and a pen.  In this day and age we call it “technology driven media” but let’s be clear, it is smaller than a penis, but still mightier than the sword.

So, I am rooting for Model View Culture (they had to explain the name to me...a riff on some programming protocol...see, smart cookies), and not just because they had the good taste to use my words.  And not just because it is founded by two young women.  No, I root for MVC because, as I have said before, I am in love with smart, young entrepreneurs...and Amelia Greenhall and Shanley Kane are all of that, indeed.  And Silicon Valley better watch out, ‘cause these girls have brains and focus and rigor….and they also have the pen in their hand, now…..

So, I am rooting for Model View Culture (they had to explain the name to me...a riff on some programming protocol...see, smart cookies), and not just because they had the good taste to use my words.  And not just because it is founded by two young women.  No, I root for MVC because, as I have said before, I am in love with smart, young entrepreneurs...and Amelia Greenhall and Shanley Kane are all of that, indeed.  And Silicon Valley better watch out, ‘cause these girls have brains and focus and rigor….and they also have the pen in their hand, now…..

The gravitas of my age and experience apparently also has brought blindness to the ongoing frustrations of the women who have followed me into the workforce.  It is easy for me to think, "what are you whining about...I was once told that I earned plenty for 'a mom'".   But that attitude from me has made me stupid about what young woman still face every day...even in the ultimate meritocracy that is Silicon Valley.

As these two shockingly talented women recounted the frustrations of their high-tech experience (from constant concern about how to dress for work without either denying who they are or inviting unwanted attention…to despair over watching less capable male colleagues be embraced and promoted….to anger over the lack of female support systems), I felt my heart break.  How had I become so arrogant?  How had I not noticed that so little had changed?  How am I going to fix this?

Monday, March 25, 2013

Why Founding CEO's Fail Redux

A friend asked me to repost this old piece about Founding CEO's. I am obliging because I have made the acquaintance of a slew of new young CEO's...and I am a sucker for flattery.
They start out with a great idea. They don’t sleep. They invest everything they have in the idea. They have no other life. They build the idea into a great opportunity. They entice investors to fund the idea. They invite their most trusted friends to join them. They cultivate customers. They share the potential of the idea. They nurture the idea into a budding brand. They start to generate revenue based on their idea. They can see the break-even moment. They know how they will invest the profits in new ideas. They can smell the IPO or the world dominance of their idea.
And then one afternoon, after an executive session of their Board, they are told that it is time to bring in “experienced, professional management.”
And suddenly the “Founder and CEO” has only “Founder” on their business card.
And they wonder WTF?
They did so much so right…what could they possibly have done wrong?
It is hard to ride the wave of success if you are a Founding CEO. Not many do so. And those that do stay upright have a lot of help.
Those that end up in the surf of superfluous staff positions, in their own companies, usually have wiped-out based on one or more of the following reasons. Easy to avoid…but hard to see when you are trying to ride the wave.

1. Not hiring well enough. Hiring their sister in-law, college roommate and two favorite lab partners is fine at the very beginning, but not upgrading the team is a fatal flaw. It is a serious red flag to investors that the Founding CEO has limitations if they cannot or will not attract real talent to the enterprise.

2. Not trusting those they hire. Bringing in the much-needed talent and then not using it is another red flag. If a Founding CEO is still making every decision and never schedules their team present to the Board, watch out. The Board will figure out that the Founder CEO has security issues or control needs that will eventually be a gate-to-growth.

3. Not expanding their skills beyond pitching their idea. It was their primary skill set for so long that it is hard to determine when it has become obsolete. But, if the only thing the Founder CEO can do is pitch their initial idea it is another gate. It may take a while for the Board to realize that the Founder CEO is a one-note-samba, but they will.
4. Not managing the basics. Compared to the heady first phase of a company, it can be boring in the second stage of growth when on a day-to-day basis you have to show up and manage cash, stick to product schedules, understand costs, hire and train people, find customers, serve customers and communicate with the Board. But it must be done. A Founder CEO who does not master these basics will not hold on to the CEO part of their title for long.

5. Not stretching their comfort zone. Don’t confuse culture with comfort. Founder CEO’s who define the culture of their company, as the method by which they are most comfortable doing business, will fail to build a sustainable model. Comfort and success have very little in common. If the Founding CEO is not outside of their comfort-zone every day they are not competing for their own job.

6. Not outsourcing. Thinking you can do it all, invent it better than everyone else and subscribing to the “not invented here” mentality, is hubris that wastes money and time. Building partnerships is one of the most commonly requested skills in the specifications for the “experienced, professional management” that replaces Founding CEO’s.

7. Not managing the BOD. If you do not talk to them, they will talk about you. And they will talk about you without all the facts. The investors can intimidate founding CEO’s. Being intimidated is a serious mistake. You are accountable to the BOD, but you have to ask as much of your BOD as they ask of you. No board meeting should end without the CEO placing that quarter’s demands on the BOD. And a good CEO follows up all quarter, working with the BOD members and encouraging them to invest more than money. A good relationship with the BOD offers many currencies to a company. A good BOD can offer introductions, talent, partnerships, competitive insight, financial modeling, operational advice etc. And a good CEO takes advantage of the offerings and builds the BOD’s investment in time, attention and loyalty. It is hard to vote to fire a guy who regularly solicits and follows your advice.

All of these are avoidable pit-falls and it is easy to see who is going to wipe out and end up a Founder without portfolio in their own company.
It is the Founder who never asks for help.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Junk Food RePost. Because someone out there needs this.

This post is several years old, but I feel the need to re-post as recently I have watched as several start-ups cut their kitchen budgets and then wonder where all the engineers were at lunchtime.  People, people...what are you thinking?  If you are considering cutting a food, coffee, beer, soft drink or potato chip perk at your start this and then............DON'T DO IT!!!
In an eye-opening survey conducted several months ago by the Boston Consulting Group, a leading business think tank, three out of four top executives from 68 countries said they planned to increase research and development spending this year. Fewer than half of the 940 respondents, however, thought the increases would produce the necessary profit or competitive advantage to justify the expenditures.
Why such a disconnect? Perhaps it’s because they’re spending too much of their money on the wrong things: technology, rather than Twinkies.
My experience tells me that the rapidity with which an enterprise creates value is directly related to how well it stocks the company kitchen. The lower the nutritional value of the food choices, the greater the intellectual property produced.
I have spent time in a variety of industries: software, hardware, compression technology, storage technology, outsourced manufacturing and digital media. What they all have in common is this: They all run on junk food. 
During my career, I have spent hundreds of all-night sessions alongside my entrepreneurial colleagues as we prepared for market launches, product launches, term sheets, due diligence reviews, tape outs, quarterly results, auditors and IPOs. I don’t remember ever ordering in anything nutritious when the heat was on.
When engineers, scientists and technologists have to stay up all night, they don’t reach for No-Doz they reach for Cheetos.
It’s always a sign of decline when a company slows down on junk food purchases.  Many CEOs and CFOs deny the value of the kitchen. It is an easy expense to control or cut when money gets tight. It seems like no big deal. People can bring food in or buy their drinks from a vending machine. They will understand that investors don’t want the company “wasting” its limited resources buying snacks for the staff. 
But the purpose of junk food is not just to give the team a little blood sugar bump at 3:00 pm. When you stop supplying fun food, morale and productivity decline. 
As soon as your supply of Twizzlers and Diet Coke runs out, so do your people. They leave the office to go home or go out to eat. And when people leave, even for a short lunch break, you can lose the rhythm … the hum of execution … to say nothing of that esprit d’corps that comes with foraging for Pop Tarts at 2:00 am or the creativity that accompanies your third Red Bull and fourth bag of Nacho flavored Doritos in an hour. 
I once worked for a start-up computing company that grew to $7 billion in annual revenue during my stint. In the early years we brought in doughnuts every morning. As time went on the doughnut bill got to be pretty outrageous. So we cut back to doughnuts only on Wednesday mornings. Funny thing, our product launches began to stretch out. We were not moving as fast as we once had. 
When I asked the vice president of engineering what had happened, he said, “You cut back the doughnuts! My guys used to get in here by 8:00 am every day to get their favorite doughnut before it was gone. Now they come in around 9:00. I have 600 engineers in this organization and I lost about 600 man hours per day because you stopped the doughnuts!” 
Why should junk food have this effect? Can a doughnut really motivate folks to come to work earlier? Sure. It’s simple: People eat stuff at work they would never be caught dead buying and never allow themselves at home. It is compensation for long hours. And wholesome food really doesn’t cut it. 
No one goes to the community kitchen to fix themselves a salad and then go back to work. People do not bond over broccoli spears and cottage cheese. When you go to the kitchen at work it’s to find something fat or fun or naughty and a colleague to share it with. Forget fresh fruit; it is the forbidden fruit that cranks up the volume among entrepreneurial enterprises.
Junk food in the kitchen is designed to keep your most important asset at work.
Do I really promote enticing employees to spend too many hours at work and eat junk food to boot? You bet. Junk food is the enabler of an unbalanced lifestyle and an unbalanced lifestyle is crucial to success, especially at start-up companies. 
Maybe we can seek balance and nutrition after the company starts producing $500 million in annual revenues. Until then, pass the Pork Rinds and Beef Jerky (I’m on Atkins).

Monday, February 13, 2012

A Millennial State of Mind

I have always pitied anyone who tried too hard to relate to youth, so these results are a bit startling.  I do not really have much in common with Millennials (other than a delight in Lady GaGa), but I strive to understand them.  A few years ago I realized that in the United States we demonize youth.  That seemed like a certain path to unhappiness for me.  How would I be happy in the last third of my life if I had no respect for the kids who were stepping into the shoes I left behind?  So, I try to approach this complex generation (which is defined for me as the first generation in our culture to have clocked more years of their life with the US engaged with overt enemies than any other since the Revolution) with understanding, affection and humor.  Really, they are the future, what other choice is there but to embrace them? 

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Ready, Aim, Fire!

Recently my son saw the movie, "Up in the Air" and commented, "Oh, my God, Mom, they made a movie about your life, I mean, you are George Clooney.  Ya' know without the upgrades or the affair with the hot chick." 

Yep, that about sums up my career, serial terminator without the perks. 

I did not choose to be a professional terminator (or as some of my colleagues have taken to call me "The Haugennator").  It just turns out that I am good at delivering hard messages.

To be fair, I do not deliver hard messages much these days.  My consulting business has moved me from delivering the message, to preparing others to deliver the message.  Sometimes I am called in to prepare folks to receive the message and often I am asked to stick around and help them process the message.  My work can be complicated. 

This is not a bad business.  Helping people do the hard stuff well is a fine way to make a living.  And it is a skill that is in demand.  As a matter of fact, it never ceases to amaze me how remarkably bad most executives are at firing employees.  Again, in fairness, it is not their fault.  No one teaches this stuff.  You have to learn by trial and error.  I have had my trials and made my errors, so my clients call me in to help them avoid the big messy mistakes.

The biggest mistake an executive ever makes is to lose sight of dignity...that of the person they have to let go... and their own.

Here are my rules for firing someone with dignity:

1.   Understand your role.  Your job is not just to end someone’s employment.  Your job is to sever the employment relationship in a way that reflects well upon the brand of your company.  (It never reflects well on the brand when people are clumsily treated during a termination.)  Your job is to deliver the message and help this person start the process of moving away from the relationship without regretting the relationship.

2.   Get to the damn point.  You do not have to channel Donald Trump, but please do not beat around the bush thinking that small talk will soften the blow.  Do not delay the inevitable.  I have seen managers trump up conversation for 45 minutes before they dropped the hammer.  It is a very tough segue from hearing about their spouses torn rotator cuff, their daughter's ballet triumph or how their son is screwing up their freshman year in college, to a termination conversation.  Nut-up and start the conversation immediately.  Delaying is both disrespectful and excruciating.  It is best to jump in, "Hi, Fred, I am sorry, but this is a bad day, I have to end your employment with XYZ Inc."

3.   Do not go into a long list of the reasons or their failures.  I mean really, they just lost their job.  Spending 25 minutes in a self-justifying litany of where they screwed up doesn't help anyone.  And it might be logical that their job was eliminated due to budget cuts, but as one person told me, “that makes it even more humiliating, you know, to discover just how little value I was.”  So, save the big explanations. They cannot hear it anyway...they are already thinking of other things, they are dreading telling their significant other, they are calculating how long their savings will last and they are trying to remember if they have a full bottle of vodka at home.  How they screwed up is not significant today.  Even if they ask, don't go there.  Explain that the decision has been made and rehashing the past won't undo it.  I know, I know, some state laws or company policies require that every reason for a termination is documented up the wazoo and so you will have to go through that process.  My rule still holds up.  Go over the reasons in summary and stay focused on the fact that the decision is made and is final.  Your job is to get this person to accept the reality so they can start moving on with their life.

4.   This is not about you.  No one cares how hard this is for you, how tough your job is or how much you will miss this person.  The focus is on the person who has just lost their job.  Stay focused on them.  When you get home tonight you can whine and lament about your tough day to those that love you.  But for now, remember that you are doing your job... and from the fired employee's perspective; the job you are lucky to have.

5.   Don't offer help you cannot follow through on or make promises you will not keep.  If you could not imagine recommending this person to another employer, do not offer to do so.  Do not suggest that this person call you "If they need anything”.  Do not ever give this person a false hope of help that will not be forthcoming.  False promises will screw up the real plans they need to make to move forward and they will make you look like an insensitive ass. If you think that you know where this person should go next, if you have introductions you would be willing to make, if you would like to personally recommend this person to your prepared with all of this information going in.  Have a list prepared, or offer to add them to your LinkedIn network or offer them a selection of times that you would be willing to meet with them off-site to discuss the help you are willing to provide.  Make it specific and time bound.

6.   Be prepared before the conversation.   Unless you are terminating someone for bringing a weapon to work, you have the time to prepare.  If you are offering a package, have it with you.  Don’t ask them to wait until next week for details, or come back in a few days to discuss it. When they get home their family is going to ask questions and they will need answers.  For heaven’s sake, do your homework!

7.   If the person gets emotional, let them.  One of the worst mistakes you can make is not letting the person express their emotions.  If you appear too cool or too distanced it will just make them more upset.  So, let them be upset.  You need to be empathetic, but don’t ever say, “I know how you feel.”  Say, “I know this is upsetting, take the time you need to compose yourself.”  Stop talking and sit quietly. Have tissues nearby (yes, even if you are delivering this message to a man).  Understand that no one wants to be emotional, it is probably not in his or her immediate control, and it will pass in a few minutes.  Sometimes people express the emotions they are feeling as anger.  That, too, will pass if you wait a few minutes.  Don't match anger with anger.  When the volume gets turned up, match it with compassion at the same pitch.

8.   Imagine you had to rely on this person for a reference based on this experience together.  If you keep in mind that all fortunes can change and you never know in what capacity you might run into this person again, it will go a long way toward keeping you focused on maintaining everyone’s dignity.

There are all sorts of other HR rules and regulations that you will think about.  Every company had it’s own rules on references, for example.  There are forms and releases and all of that good garbage you will have to address.  But you will have an easier time getting to all of that “administrivia” if you remember the key points above.  Do your homework, get to the point, be brief, stay focused on them, only offer help if you mean it, let them be upset and remember that they might show up in your life again.