Management's Move.

February, 2012


I recently celebrated my 25th wedding anniversary and it got me thinking. That's a very long time to be committed to any one person. I've lived in this house for more than 15 years. I've been driving the old Crown Vic for more than 10 years. I have a pair of blue jeans that are at least 5 years old. I worked for two different companies for 10 years. The house and the old Crown Vic are just things; I'm not so sure those represent true commitment. And to be honest, the jeans don't fit anymore.

For me, one is not so much committed to a thing, but to a relationship, an idea, or value, or set of mores. Sadly, I think commitment means a lot less these days than it used to. We hear a lot about how casual relationships can be among the younger set. And people seem to be generally less committed to ideas and values. I'm talking about standing for something; believing in something and then vigorously promoting it, defending it, or leading your life by it. Yes, there are people who claim to be conservative or liberal or pro-choice or pro-life. But how many do you know that are passionate about an idea, dedicate their life to a concept, or live their life by a code? Okay, so where am I going with all this?

I think this general lack of commitment, this inability to be true to a cause, is a societal shift that affects how we do business. It has become increasingly rare for people to work for a single company for their entire career. There was a time when we thought of the word career and associated it with a single company tenure. These days, it's very much the norm that careers are made up of a set of short-term jobs. Interestingly, hiring managers still tend to derogatorily view candidates whose resumes reflect this as "job hoppers", and view their inability to stay in one place with skepticism. Is this warranted? Is this a good thing and just a result of an ever increasingly competitive labor market? Or is it a bad thing that employees don't remain in one place long enough to embrace and commit to a grand idea? And who, if anyone, is at fault? Maybe this is just a natural culture change.

Perhaps I'm a bit old fashioned, but I don't think this a good thing. Some years ago, I was recruited by a large and very old company to reinvent a badly broken call center. The operation had been long neglected, with outdated processes and technologies. I started by getting performance requirements from Management, and then conducted an Erlang analysis. The result was obvious, but I needed the analysis to justify my plan. Clearly my first order of business was to add people; a lot of people. Management gave me the requisitions I needed and after a few short months we were fully staffed. Then something interesting happened.

When some of the newer people became comfortable enough to request unscheduled time off or call in sick, we were of course forced to make adjustments to the work schedule. As anyone who has managed a contact center can tell you, maintaining this schedule (whether or not you have a workforce management tool) is a complex, time consuming, and labor intensive enterprise that requires flexibility from both management and employee. Management has those performance metrics (most notably average speed of answer), but people have kids, orthodontist appointments, soccer games, and piano lessons. Many of the newer people I had recruited were single moms. A spirit of volunteerism is almost essential to making it work.

The interesting thing happened when the supervisors and I began to ask for volunteers to cover a shift. You see, there were basically two demographics of employees in the call center. The largely single mom new hires, and a handful of company veterans; most with 20-plus years of service. When I asked the newbies, they almost always found a reason to politely decline. It was VERY rare that one agreed to to take a shift; at least without giving one up. The veterans however, rarely needed to even be asked. They stepped forward and took extra shifts willingly, and without the slightest hesitation. Also, they absolutely never missed a shift. They were never late-- ever. If some system was down, they stayed late to answer the phones until they calmed down, while the newbies got up and split when their bell rung. It was this blatant dichotomy that became fascinating to me.

At first I thought it was work ethic. The veterans were children of the sixties and seventies and perhaps some of that post-war, good-old-fashioned American work ethic had rubbed off from their parents. Whereas the newbies tended to be in their 20s with one or two in their very early 30s. So I asked the veterans, and I got answers like, "That's just the way we do it here." They were absolutely miffed why I even asked; they expected me as their leader to understand it. Perhaps some of it was indeed a old-fashioned, superior work ethic, but there was something else at work here. A culture of commitment.

These folks believed, and I mean strongly, that the company's success was the most important, first priority-- period. It came before their sinus infections; it came before their families; it came before everything, every single time. They came during ice storms, amidst civil unrest (literally), on September 11th, and they never gave it a second thought. There was a sense of loyalty, a culture of dedication to the company welfare, a real commitment. It was so strong and unusual, it took me several years before I came to understand it completely, and how powerful it was. If you never worked there, I doubt you could appreciate it.

Where did it come from? Almost all of these folks had worked for the company since they were 18 years old. Some were as young as 16. Many of their parents worked for the company their entire careers, and in more than a few cases their grandparents worked there. Indeed the company had been a part of their lives for as long as they could remember. To them, there was simply no other way. When they were needed, they were there. Whatever needed to be done, they did it. And they never balked or complained. No matter what.

The company had successfully fomented and nourished this culture for decades. Why? Because they knew that the culture of a committed work force was good business. Absenteeism costs real money. The spirit of getting the job done at nearly any cost (unless it was unsafe, illegal, or unethical) was a real and tangible asset to the company. And executive leadership knew it. So how did they do it?

This company has never had a layoff. If they found themselves with a labor shortage, they temporarily offered retirement incentives by increasing eligibility. No one, except under the most extreme circumstances, had to worry if they were going to have a job tomorrow. As long as they upheld their end of the bargain and maintained that exceptional commitment, there was an unwritten rule that you had a job for life. If someone underperformed in a given position, management took responsibility and reassigned them to a more suitable role. All of this was done intentionally, although it may not have been a formal, written policy.

Committment can be a valuable, even measurable business asset. Management is responsible for creating and fostering the culture in which it flourishes. It isn't difficult. It is leadership.