It’s Really “All About the Money”

Wells Fargo Newsletter
Wells Fargo Newsletter

I’m a happy Wells Fargo customer. And they send me an interesting email every now and then called their “Small Business Roundup®”. It’s not a bad email newsletter, as these things go, so I generally give it a scan when it shows up. This week was no exception.

The subject line was “It’s All About The People”. Well, given my passion for the people side of the business world, I was eager to see what they had to say on the subject.

Perhaps there would be some words of wisdom about hiring and firing. Maybe a nugget or two about managing teams. Who knows, there might be a pearl or two about motivating your superstars. The possibilites were endless.

Imagine my disappointment when the topics included:

  • Feature Article: Outsourcing for Greater Efficiency
  • Feature Article: Take Advantage of the Research Tax Credit
  • Business Intelligence: Tapping Temps for Help
  • Solutions: Turning to Interns for Low-cost Help
  • Solutions: Bookkeeping and Accounting Outsourcing
  • Work/Life Balance: The Benefits of Basic Savings Accounts

Wow. I was dumbstruck. Four of the six articles are about how to NOT use your employees, and one is about how to get a tax write-off when you do. My favorite, however, is the one that somehow tries to equate savings accounts (that earn less than a two percent interest rate) to “work/life balance”. This is the definition of self-serving useless advice.

Four of the six articles are about how to NOT use your employees

Now, yes, I understand it’s a bank, not an HR consultancy. And I admit perhaps I was hoping for too much. But come on, a newsletter entitled “it’s all about the people” that is almost entirely focused on ways to avoid building and managing a quality team of people? Even the most jaded person has to admit that’s beyond the pale.

Actions Speak Louder than Signs

Macy's Logo

I found that I had to buy a mattress today. What fun. After a wonderful shopping experience at a number of discount places that didn’t have what I wanted, but whose employees sure had plenty of attitude, I ended up back where I started: Macy*s — part of the Federated stores.

Buying a mattress is not a difficult task, but apparently selling me one is. Especially if you want one right away.

Yes, I really want it today. I’m driving a truck, and I need the mattress now, so, yes, I want one that’s in stock, and yes, I’ll drive to wherever your warehouse is to get it. I know that’s not what you normally do, but I’m sure it’s a reasonable request.

You’re going to charge me $20 to pick it up?  Please, I understand delivery charges, but I have to pay you to let me drive to the middle of nowhere, deal with your surly warehouse person, and load it into my own truck while he stands and watches? Oh… my… god…

But that’s not really the point. As I went to buy the mattress, I needed to use the restroom, which is conveniently next to the employee break room. I love these places. There is no better place to understand a company’s culture than the break room. Not only do you get to see employees when they are not “on stage”, but you also get to see all the silly things companies post for their employees’ eyes only. Some day I’m going to do a book of photo essays on break rooms…

There is no better place to understand a company’s culture than the break room.

Macy*s break room did not disappoint. Like many big company break rooms there is a bulletin board with all kinds of things posted: the obligatory EEOC and other government notices, tired handwritten signs about not leaving food around, and notices about company meetings that happened two months ago. There were also very high quality signs from HR that advertised 800-numbers to call for issues or questions, and a number of employee signs selling various household items. Nothing special here.

Best of all, however, were two huge (1′ by 3′) signs high on the walls, in bright Macy*s red and black. One said “TEAM WINS”, a sentiment that I found later was plastered all over the warehouse as well. I’m not sure if that means “let’s rack up some wins as a team” or “being a team is a winning strategy”. I’m sure someone knows, but not many care.

The other huge sign said “YOU COUNT”. Beyond the wishful thinking of the HR person who created that sign, I’m not sure at all what this one meant. Yes, I know what it means: you are valuable, you make a difference. But I’m not sure if that means anything to anyone at Macy*s. The employees surely decide whether they count more by the company’s actions than by a big sign in the break room.

The employees surely decide whether they count.

I went back to finalize the purchase, and found two people huddled around a computer terminal, trying in vain to get the system to complete the sale. My zip code was recently changed, and the system kept telling them “cannot deliver to that zip code”. But remember, I was picking it up, no delivery was involved. Doesn’t matter… the system wouldn’t complete the sale with that zip code. And it wouldn’t accept my old zip code, because that didn’t match the city anymore. After 15 minutes, and two more people offering advice, they finally ended up moving me to the address of the warehouse, and were able to complete the sale. Let’s just hope the mattress doesn’t get recalled and they send the notice to their warehouse.

I’m sure the employees struggling with the ancient computer system would much rather have had the company focus on new computers than on signs for the break room. And I know that, as the team of them struggled to conquer the lame system, not one of them felt like they “counted” to Federated. I’m confident they were frustrated and dreaming of greener pastures elsewhere. So much for fancy signs in the break room…

Union Symbolism Gone Wild

Right to the head of my observations on the importance of symbols to an organization marches the International Association of Machinists, District 751. I’m not sure I could ever find a more perfect symbol of union’s gone wild than this one.

IAM Website
IAM Website

The IAM is the union that represents the bulk of the line labor at Boeing’s aircraft assembly plants. This union is a key reason why Boeing’s employment see-saws from year to year, and was probably a key cause of the infamous billboards that read: “will the last one who leaves Seattle please turn out the lights” in the 1970’s. This union is famous for its hardcore stances, and its strikes at the expense of everyone involved, including their members.

Their website is symbolism enough, with the top “Job Info” links on the page being about what to do if you’re the “victim” of a job action or being warned of a layoff. No, not about job training, or even joining the union, but rather “how did the company screw you today?” Yes, that’s pretty good symbolism in itself.

IAM Sculpture
IAM Sculpture

However, I had heard about the monuments in front of District 751 headquarters in Seattle for some time. I just had to check them out for myself. What I found was amazing. Yes, they have a sculpture garden in front of the headquarters (where are your union dues today?). And yes, one of them is of people actually working on an airplane. Even better, it’s a man and a woman working — probably a nod to Rosie the Riviter of WWII fame. Homage to a proud heritage of building some of the most amazing and world-changing machines to be sure.

IAM Monument
IAM Monument

But the union saves their biggest and most elaborate monument to show their true colors. The main monument on the site, the one with the American, state, and union flagpoles, and the one at center stage, it the most stunning. This monument is not an homage to the workers and the incredible machines they build. No, it is an homage to the striker.

The picture is hard to see, so let me guide you through the panels. At the center is a pair of large “751” symbols, above is a winged logo of the IAM, and behind are the three aforementioned flagpoles. This is all good.

IAM Monument Panel
Mounument Panel

No, it’s the four panels on either side that are the clearest symbols (although not the best of photographs here). The panels depict strikers carrying picket signs and gathered around a burn barrel. For example, the leftmost panel (shown) has people carrying signs that read: “COLA”, “Paid Holidays”, “Seniority”, and “Union Shop”. The second panel’s striker’s sign says “Hold the line 89”. It is the panel to the far right that has the group gathered around the burn barrel.

What does it say about this organization when the most important monument is dedicated not to the good things that they do, not to the hard work of their thousands of members, and not to a spirit of cooperation and working together, but rather to how defiant they can be? It’s like an homage to a six-year-old’s temper tantrum in the grocery store.

It’s like an homage to a six-year-old’s temper tantrum

What it really speaks to is the mind set of the leaders of the union. Here is a group of people who truly believe their finest hours have been not wins, but rather impasses. They get their strength not as a group of leaders but rather as a mob. Their top priorities are not really the welfare of their members as people, but maintenace of their union as a group.

I have strong opinions about unions, and I will say a great deal more about them in the future. But I’m not sure I’ll ever say it as clearly as the IAM says it themself with this astounding monument.

Meaningless Vision Does More Harm Than Good

I had the wonderful fortune to drive from Seattle to L.A. and back a couple of weeks ago. You see a lot of nothing and do a lot of thinking in those 40 hours. Spotted on a truck was this statement:

Providing customer solutions through trust and innovation.

Truck on Highway

OK, so now the quiz: what does this company do? The answer is at the end (no peeking). Your choices:

  • Computer systems integration
  • General freight handling
  • Food services distribution
  • Electrical contractor supply

I’m a huge believer in visions. I think every organization and every project needs one. You simply can’t have too much focus on a team — people really need to know what they are doing and why. It’s not optional. It’s so important the better part of a chapter of my upcoming book is devoted to it.

But quality is at least as important as quantity. Just opening the corporate buzzword dictionary and choosing at random doesn’t work. Take this example. Please.

There just is nothing there. What the heck does this mean? How does this inspire? What is a “customer solution”? How does this help me do my job? Can I make any decisions based on it? What would I choose to do or not do based on this statement? I have a lot more to say about visions, why they are important, and how to develop and use them. But let’s just make one thing clear, this statement is worse than nothing.

The CEO and his team spent months and thousands of consultant dollars to come up with this?

If you are an employee at this company, this statement is painful. Not only does it not mean anything, you can be sure it was rolled out with fanfare and lots of sincerity. You probably sat there at the announcement and went “huh?” You couldn’t believe what you were hearing. You thought: “the CEO and his team spent months and how many thousands of consultant dollars to come up with this? What a waste.” You wondered why they didn’t put the energy into fixing the stupid products we sell, or the health care plan, or the silly payroll glitches, or heck, even the toilet in the bathroom. You are deeply depressed.

This vision is worse than no vision. At least with no vision, the employees don’t know the management team is a bunch of idiots. As the old saying goes: better to say nothing and be thought a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.

Much more on visions to follow. But in the mean time, your answer: it was a food services company. They move boxes of Cheetohs from the warehouse to the grocery store. Where are the “customer solutions” there? What “innovation”? Sheesh…

Going Postal


I needed some stamps and stopped into the post office today. Miracle of miracles, there was no line. At the counter she tells me “these new stamps have the ’39 cents’ on them now.” OK, I admit, I’m not strong enough to let that one pass: “well that ought to be good for a few weeks,” I said. Those were the last words I got out in the next five minutes.

She gave me a history of stamp price increases in the last five years, a diatribe on GWBush’s stance on postal pensions, and a prediction on the future of the postal service’s finances. The line behind me began to form; I simply wanted to buy two rolls of stamps. It became increasingly uncomfortable.

Most companies don’t think enough about the messages their people are giving to their customers.

Of course, the post office is where the term “going postal” originated, and like most stereotypes, it’s based in some elements of truth. No, I didn’t expect her to whip out an uzi and start sawing us down, but it got me thinking about the messages all team members send to the outside world.

Most companies don’t think enough about the subtle (or even blatant, as above) messages their front-line people are giving to their customers. Do the people touching their customers understand the vision for the company? Do they agree with it? Do they actively support it and work toward it?

Five uncomfortable minutes in the post office had me wondering what life was like well behind the counter, and in the lunch room. From this quick encounter, I know I wouldn’t want to work there, and if given the choice, I wouldn’t shop there. Are your people having the same effect?

Swearing to Tell the Truth

For crying out loud, it is one of the most touchy yet most important elements of organizational culture. I mean, holy f%&*ing christ, few things draw such a clear line between those that do, and those that don’t. Of course, dumbs*&t, I mean cursing in the workplace

Yelling Man

With the simultaneous resurgence of religous zealotry and the decrease in workplace formality, a conflict was inevitable. Some workplaces are church-like in their genteel nature, and others sound like army bases or truck stops. What’s a person to do?

Well, as in most things, there are a number of perspectives to consider. Do you swear or not? Does the workplace swear or not? Should you try to change it (or you) one way or the other? It’s really not that simple, is it?

And perhaps I’m not the most objective observer. I’ve grown up in workplaces where cursing was not only acceptable, it seemed a badge of honor. So I have a potty-mouth. As you can guess, my wife loves it… [not]. But I have learned, over the years to be a cursing chameleon, and I think that works.

I’ve learned over the years to be a cursing chameleon

My rule of thumb is not to let the first one slip, until I hear someone else offer it up. Then I just try to tune my mouth to the surroundings. If everyone uses profanity with every breath, I increase to about 50% of that level. If the place is a church, I’ll be right there with them (unless I get my hand smacked by a stapler… then all bets are off). This seems to work, and doesn’t make me appear too much of an outsider.

But what if you don’t swear, think others shouldn’t either, and yet work where they do? Should you try to change your little corner of the world? Well, sure, if that’s your calling. But prepared to be disappointed, ridiculed, and even ostracised for your efforts.

If you decide to take on the challenge of a curse-free workplace, you’re in for a tough job. It is a deep part of culture and habit, and the mission won’t be easy. Take it slow, make sure you’re on good solid footing otherwise, and quietly eat the elephant one bite at a time.

Pick a likely target and privately, quitely have go at the “you know, it wouldn’t hurt if you toned it down a bit” conversation. Be sensible, be reasonable, and set your sights low. Don’t make it a key issue, don’t wave your opinon in peoples’ faces, but over time just let everyone know you’d prefer a different style of speech.

And don’t be surprised if you get told how effing silly you’re being.