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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Universal Healthcare Key to Virtual Workforce

In every era capitalist economies form systems to maximize efficiency. In past decades work had to be performed at a work site where processes took place that added value to physical materials. Retaining a healthy workforce over several years was necessary both to keep labor peace and also to maintain efficiency and quality through retention of company-trained employees in a generally uneducated workforce . Employees themselves sought the security of a job that lasted a lifetime.

Insurers could underwrite policies accurately and profitably, because it had the worker throughout his or her lifetime, collecting excess premiums in their youth and investing that money sufficiently enough to cover the expenses of current employees and fund the period of deficit premiums when that same worker became older. The typical retirement age was 65 and typical mortality was at age 69, so companies and insurers could profitably provide retiree medical benefits for a period of only 4 or 5 years in most cases. The country was young, riding the early phase of the two post-war baby booms, so the ratio of young workers with little healthcare spending overshadowed the premium deficits of older workers.

In the modern era almost all of this has changed. Increasingly, jobs in developed economies involve the processing of information, almost universally in electronic formats. The work can be done anywhere and almost everyone is educated enough to do it (your 14 year old is probably better at it than you are!). Career-long loyalty to an employer is a thing of the past, and employer loyalty to its workforce is similarly rare. The workforce is aging, making older high-healthcare-cost workers an increasingly large percentage of the total workforce, and insurers are becoming increasingly selective in whom they will insure, and increasingly creative in how they can carve-out higher-cost medical procedures. There simply are not enough young, healthy workers paying in excess premiums to cover the cost of older workers. In individual plans where there is no opportunity for an underwriter to spread risk, sick workers cannot get coverage from anywhere.

The only component of the turn-of-the-century economic model still in existence is the employer as health plan sponsor. Since group health plans are the only "guaranteed issue" vehicle left, i.e. the insurance carrier can't exclude an otherwise covered employee due to health issues, employees with health issues cling to corporate jobs as their only hope for health coverage. Employers can't legally terminate older workers in order to lower their healthcare costs, and insurance carriers won't extend individual coverage to workers with any significant health issues. The combination of these culpabilities results in an inertia that builds-in fixed costs for employers and robs employees of the ability to move rapidly through the economy to work assignments that they find favorable. Thus, lack of universal health coverage is the last, greatest inhibitor to the New Economy where all workforces are virtual and every knowledge worker works for themselves as an independent contractor free of corporate power and influence.

Think of what a powerful future this evokes for working people of all professions. It no longer would matter if you lost your job; you just take on additional work from your other customers (since you most likely work for multiple employers part-time rather than one all the time) and your health care would continue without regard to COBRA, health questionnaires, or eligibility for coverage. Imagine similarly a company that could assign work as-needed, where needed, with no long-term obligations to maintain a certain roster of people. Taxes would be higher to fund universal coverage, but carve-outs could be prohibited by law so benefits would be greater.

In this election year, for the first time in my adult life, I'm listening seriously to any candidate proposing universal healthcare. It is both a basic human right, and the one societal development with the potential to radically democratize corporate workplaces. It would free corporations of a huge and growing benefits predicament in the form of spiraling benefits costs, and the only losers would be insurance carriers. Having worked with these companies for several years as corporate health plan sponsors, I can tell you that alongside Big Oil and Big Tobacco, if there is an industry that deserves regulation its Big Insurance. Since the most expensive 2% of real estate worldwide is owned by the same companies that cap your kids braces at $1,500 per set or force your wife out of the hospital 24 hours after labor and delivery, if "The People in the Pyramid" become "The People in the Nice Office Park on the Outskirts of Town" so that everyone has access to healthcare, that'll do in my book.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

What Managers Can Learn from the Clintons

Let me first say that I am no fan of either Bill or Hillary Clinton. My idea of Hillary as Commander in Chief is this; imagine your wife in a terrible "I told you so" or "I know best" mood... for eight years... with Army Rangers to back her up. But again I could be wrong...

But this post isn't about politics other than using two amazing politicians as an example. The seldom-told secret of how either of these two made it to power really rests in a rare dynamic within their campaigns. It is something managers could do well to learn and replicate.

  1. They empower someone in their inner circle to tell them the brutal truth, no matter what the topic.
  2. They act immediately to counter or capitalize on that truth.
Here are some examples. During the first Bill Clinton campaign his staff planned contingencies around what his inner circle labeled "bimbo eruptions"; revelations from young women who might claim to have known him well. Each time a Jennifer Flowers or Paula Jones dropped out of the closet, the campaign immediately responded with supportive quotes from Hillary about the strength of their marriage followed by less than flattering information, pre-researched and pre-written, about the accuser. The end result was that the young women came across as looking for money and attention, and Bill became President.

After Barack Obama's upset win in Iowa, Hillary's staff told her she came across to voters and cold and aloof. A week later in New Hampshire...tears for the camera and a landslide win from higher voter turnout, especially from women. Several weeks later, beaten badly on Super Tuesday, the campaign again delivered the bad news that young women were voting overwhelmingly for Obama, who himself was running a weak campaign with white, working class, rust-belt voters. From that came the rebirth of Hillary as "Rosie the Riveter: Champion of the Working Class" and big wins in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Kentucky that have kept her campaign on life support.

These amazing feats, and "Clinton spin" cannot be described accurately as anything less than amazing, all started with brutal candor from supportive insiders. Imagine this was your job; you get to go to your boss and say, "Sir, we've heard that you've had several extramarital affairs. We need to know the details about these women so we can research them and respond to future rumors". Or, in the Hillary example, "Ma'am, the workforce feels that you're a cold, uncaring elitist. We need a strategy to warm your image up a bit".

How many of you in staff positions would have the backbone for that job? Conversely, how many of you who manage people have someone on staff to perform this same service for you? Make no mistake, this is a service and an important one.

If you want to manage your personal corporate image, or the rumor mill on any topic, you must have someone who can speak the brutal truth to you while still having your back. If you don't have someone like this already, find someone loyal and give them permission to be truthful; brutally truthful if necessary. If you're a staff member, work your way into this type of position with your boss, or find someone for whom you can work who will value this service.

I have two people like this on staff and I include them in those times when I count my blessings.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

I Kept My Promise; What's Next?

I can point to the spot in the street, 17 years ago, where I was walking with our then six-year-old daughter Rachel one night when she asked a question that literally changed my life. The family was young, money was tight, and she had just started 1st grade. The teachers were encouraging these new young students to do well in school so they could one day go to college. After dinner we were out for a walk when she looked up and asked me, "Will I get to go to college"? Without the slightest hesitation or idea how, I promised her she would. This past Saturday she changed her tassel from left to right, walked across the stage, shook President Gary Ransdell's hand, and my promise was kept.

After I made that promise, my work life became serious. Very serious. Serious to the point of often being unbalanced, unhealthy, and focused to the point of obsession. We lived in a small Kentucky town where jobs were scarce, and as my career progressed a good job like mine was rare. Because I had obligations that must be met no matter what, I developed and constantly maintained Plans B, C, D, E, and F to make sure that no matter what happened at work we had an income. I also learned to keep my ear to the ground and know how the political wind at my employer-at-the-time was blowing. This was my sole purpose, my only goal, and as of 3:45 last Saturday afternoon it was done.

Monday morning I woke up and realized that, from this point forward, I was working for something else. What that is, however, is less clear. Certainly I have a mild student loan hangover that will need to be eased; I had to pay off my own loans along with paying for a new baby, and I don't intend for Rachel to start off her adult life in debt. We also have some deferred bills from an expensive move to Nashville that we now can address. Still, this is all stuff and hardly the types of things from which purpose is found.

Turning points are part of any career; those times when you recalibrate who you are and what you're all about. I've seen people, particularly men, hit these mid-career turning points for years and now its my turn. The question of, "What's next?" won't be easily or quickly resolved but at least initially the prospect of major change feels exhilarating.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

The Importance of Getting Past It

Forget for the sake of this post that I have any managerial or leadership position with any company. I'm not serving as an apologist for anyone when I say to those of you seeking long-term corporate careers that getting past difficult decisions and people is an absolutely essential skill.

Now two-weeks past our staff reductions, I see and hear of a person here or there who is struggling to keep their chin up. Their best friend was let go, the person who hired them is retiring, someone they loved was laid off while someone they despise was kept. It is not at all unusual, and is actually fairly common, for personal loss to cause someone to change jobs. The idea that, "its just not the same around here anymore" can cause you to look for another job, or at least suffer a loss of commitment to the job you have. Its a form of grief not unlike the death of someone close to you.

I know this first hand. A few years back I knew I needed to leave Sumitomo Electric because I saw the handwriting on the wall. I was opening new plants in Mexico and performing compensation analysis on U.S. vs. Mexican operations, and saw that we were paying the same wages for a week in Juarez that we were paying for a day in Kentucky. I knew that one of these days my job would be in Mexico if I had one at all. I was sort of looking, sort of not... The day after New Years 2001 my best friend at work Mark Black collapsed outside the back door of our offices in Bowling Green and, despite being a healthy young man in his 30's, died in the hospital of meningitis a few weeks later. My wife and two of my co-workers later told me that they knew at his funeral mass that I was gone; three months later I was here at Thomas Nelson.

This was a good move for me, because there were other reasons to go and losing my closest personal connection at work just gave me the shove I needed. But sometimes people make bad, hasty moves out of emotion, and a poor job change can alter the trajectory of an entire career. As I've said before, emotion and business don't mix. Here are some tips for working through grief at work, whether caused by anything from a lost colleague to a bad decision.

1. Realize that you're grieving and treat it as such. If someone close to you died you wouldn't expect to be back to normal by the next Monday morning. Nothing is wrong with you, or your job, because you feel really down at the moment. Grief has stages that must run their course.

2. Reach out to your friend outside of work (and don't talk about work when you see them). Making your friendship transcend your work relationship will go a long way toward easing your grief. Or, if that relationship turns out to be only superficial and work-oriented (see my previous post), your grief will ease with this new perspective.

3. Remember that its only a job, not your whole life. You didn't expect to like everything and everybody when you applied, so get back to that perspective now. If you find that you've wrapped up too much of your personal and social life into your work, now is a good time to resolve to make friends outside of work.

When you remember that a job, even a good job with a good company, is just the career/financial component of your overall life then you begin to adjust the expectations you have for that job and that workplace. I've said this before and will repeat it as long as I have readers: if you rely on a job, any job, even a great job with a great company to provide happiness then the corporate life will be a miserable existence for you. If you treat it as an important component to a balanced life that includes family, church family, friends, recreation, personal interests, etc... then you give a good employer the chance to exceed your expectations. You'll also be in a better mood when you go home each night.