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Sunday, March 16, 2008

Meet the Demographic Future of Nashville

On the matter of the national and local immigration debate, I have often said that Nashville today reminds me of South Texas when I was a student in the 80's. In those days Anglos (which is the Tex-Mex label for white folks) were uneasy with how Hispanic culture was invading their area, but powerless to do anything but watch it happen. Economic dependence on Hispanic labor, and being eclipsed by that group's birth rate vs. the natives, all anyone could do was utter a racism slur or two and watch as Texas became, well, more uniquely Texas. It wasn't Mexico; there was too much native Texas history for that; but it sure was different with everyone's maid and landscaper being Hispanic. Over time, however, people got used to it, got over it, and race relations have been mostly peaceful and in some areas downright warm. Speed forward 24 years since my leaving College Station and I present to you, in the upper right hand corner of this page, Dr. Elsa Mureno, recently installed as the 23rd President of Texas A&M University. Dr. Mureno is Cuban, and she is the first minority and the first woman to hold the Presidency of one of the 10 largest universities in the country, and one of the 25 largest in the world.

What does this have to do with Nashville, and with a workplace blog? Plenty. The Hispanitization (I just made that word up) of Middle Tennessee is as inevitable and natural as it was in South Texas during the 80's. What will emerge from that process will not be "little Mexico" or any nonsense like that; it will be uniquely Nashville and with better food.

There's enough half-racism nonsense espoused on talk radio and in the Metro Counsel to make you think there's a crisis going on. The Big Thoughts on this issue are simple: look at San Antonio or Austin today, and see where Nashville will be in 20 years. Also, be kind to the Hispanic population in your company and in our community. First of all, they're not all maids and landscapers; some are Publishers, Editors, Publicists, etc... More importantly, one of their daughters will be President of Vanderbilt in your lifetime.

Friday, March 14, 2008

What I Learned from the Homeowners Associaition

Last night I chaired the annual meeting of the Merritt Downs Homeowners' Association. I am blown away by how well that meeting went, capping a year-long turnaround effort by the two of us who comprise the HOA Board of Directors. Now some of you who know me know that I'm a start-up and turnaround junkie; a fact that has a lot to do with my coming to Nelson seven years ago. Having done so many of these I thought I had a good handle on how its done. The feedback from the homeowners last night, however, gave me some new insight on what people look for in leadership. Here's where we've been and what I've learned.

Context
This week last year Dalton Masson and I came to the annual meeting to see what in the world was going on. We'd had two Boards in the three years that the community had existed (being a former cattle field in Old Hickory). One Board resigned amid scandal, the second resigned in disgust. There were only a hand full of people at the meeting, and the spirit was evil and accusatory, with only negative energy in the room.

Being new to these types of associations and meetings, before we knew it we had been nominated and elected as only two people on what is supposed to be a three-person Board. We couldn't get a third person to accept a position. For those of you unfamiliar with HOA boards, its a volunteer position and there's absolutely nothing in it for the members but grief. Still, the junkie in me smelled a mess and there's nothing more appealing than the opportunity to make right something that's in the ditch. Dalton survived a terrible stroke several years ago and then lost his beloved New Orleans home in Katrina. He sits at home all day on disability, having had to retire physically but still having his financial wizard mind in tact. We took the job.

Although we were charged by charter with finding a third member, Dalton and I established a great working relationship and decided early on that the two of us could agree on most anything, so we bucked the covenants and became a Board of two. Also, the covenants require that there be a President, Vice President, and Treasurer. We similarly ignored that requirement and both of us are Directors; no other title, no rank, no pecking order. We then made another critical decision to focus on the fundamentals; all the block parties in the world won't save us if the grass is high and the pool has a green wall. Finally, we set out to vet all the service providers to the community to find out why nobody liked the property management company and why simple maintenance couldn't get done. We ended up not renewing any contracts with any vendors and spent the year selecting a whole new team for this upcoming year.

Last night we reviewed the year, the finances, our priorities, and introduced the new team to a group about double in size to the previous year. It is terribly early in Year Two of our two-year term, so there really haven't been any significant results from the turnaround yet. Still, there was applause in the room at various times for the changes and the spirit was entirely different.

Lessons

1. Keep it simple, and harmonious - By flattening out the Board in terms of numbers we kept the number of opinions to a minimum, thus fostering agreement. I've seen so many managers in business who want to cover themselves by bringing everybody into the conversation. That's fine at some level, but at the top get a small group that can get along and get things done. Last night the harmony between the Board members and new vendors set the mood and the homeowners picked up on it instantly.

2. Focus on the basics - When your organization, or department or division or company, is dysfunctional your Step 1 is to stop doing anything that's sexy, fun, done just to please a strong-willed personality on your team, etc... These are distractions and the core cause of organizational dysfunction is almost always found in the core of your business. Get rid of the distractions and focus on getting your core business right. Last night we didn't get a single question on block parties or community cookouts; we fielded a dozen on the landscaping, the pool, and the balance sheet. People you lead know when you're full of fluff and when you know your business, and there's nothing sexier to your people than getting a bonus check.

3. Get over yourself (and get rid of people who can't get over themselves) - One of our themes in talking to homeowners in the community has been, "We have no agenda other than to get it right; we know there's no Ferrari at the end of our term". Last night one of the kindest comments we heard was, "I just want you to know how comforting it is for me to know that the organization is being run by people who really didn't want it". As an employee, isn't it a different experience when you work for a leader focused on their profession vs. being led by someone whose in it for the ego, or just the money? Some of the worst leaders I know are in it for the gated community, the trophy spouse, and building their empire within the company for all to see and worship. Their judgment is clouded by self-interest, and their people don't trust them.

4. Attitude is everything - We've never been on a Board or lived in a community with an HOA before. We're right up front that all suggestions are welcome and please call us on our mistakes so that eventually we'll get it right. Last night a small Indian man on the front row, in broken English, said to us, "I'll take the right attitude over the right answer".

People are feeling good about the overall direction; now if we can just get the pool opened by Memorial Day all is well. Which really is Point 5; it feels good to accomplish a turnaround, or any accomplishment. And we get to enjoy it for about five minutes before its time to go back to work...

Jim

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Ahead of Your Boss? What An Opportunity!

Hiring and promotion decision-making is not an exact science. Its highly subjective and often you won't agree that the person to whom you now report was really that good of an idea. You may feel that you're more qualified, and you sometimes may feel that you're just plain smarter than the person you report to. When I've dealt with these complaints from an HR perspective I've generally found them to fall into three categories: the new boss is from another discipline (but quite capable), the new boss has traits you haven't seen or appreciated yet, or the new boss is a Pretender. Let's briefly discuss each.

Another Discipline - Often a promotion decision is made based upon general leadership or managerial skills identified in one discipline, but the next promotional opportunity is in another. Supervisors in this situation will get off to a slow start because they have to remediate in the new discipline first. Over time, however, their gifts show through once they understand their new areas of responsibility. Over time, you'll see them shine.

Unrecognized Traits - Sometimes we're just wrong about the new boss. I have been, and probably will be again. Regardless of first impressions, hold out the possibility that you might have missed something.

This leaves us with The Pretender and sadly every organization has them. Their traits are universal across any employer with which I've ever dealt and include:
  • the ability to marvelously manage up and hide their lack of cooperation or even abusive behavior to peers and subordinates
  • super political power based upon equity they build in the managing-up process
  • an almost preternatural ability to take credit for other people's work (at staff level) and other people's financial performance (at the leadership level).
  • an insistence that you help them immediately (which you must do due to their up-chain political equity) and at the expense of your other duties if they need help, but...
  • an absolute refusal to reciprocate (and what are you going to do about it?)
Now, every executive uses the labor of their staff to get things done, builds equity with their peers and boss, and can lose touch with the day-to-day details of how things get done due to the breadth of their responsibilities. What distinguishes The Pretender from the typical leader is the intentional failure to credit their staff for the work done, the fact that they couldn't do the actual work if they had to, and a win-lose rather than win-win attitude toward others.

Sounds bad, huh? Well, actually my point here is that regardless of which of these three bosses you have, you have more power than most people imagine. Rather than develop a victim mentality you can seize this as a major opportunity. You just have to realize two truths about this situation: (1) all three types need your help and (2) Pretenders always implode in time.

Resistance is Futile, So Be Helpful! All three types of "underpowered" bosses share the same trait in that they have super credibility with the leadership that put them there. You can spend your own credibility and break your career by seeming to undercut any of these, and in the first two cases you'll be wrong. Instead, come alongside them and help show them the ropes. Don't, as one respondent to my blog (in a government job) recently did, by saying to her boss that she "didn't know anything so why didn't she listen". That just throws up defensive barriers and relationships go south from there. Genuinely offer suggestions in a supportive, non-threatening manner and make yourself the staff member that on-boards the new boss. I've seen this pay dividends countless times both personally and in observing others.

Patience with The Pretender! One of the benefits of doing this job in three industries over 25 years is that I've seen a lot of these and can usually spot them quickly. I've also seen enough to know that a Pretender's self-destruction is inevitable. In a managerial position it usually takes 2 but no more than 3 years. Initially they'll get grace from the leadership team that put them in the new position, and in the intermediate term they'll blame everyone around them for their shaky start: the current staff can't do the work and the numbers are the poor leadership of their predecessor. However, about two business cycles out enough good people have walked away from them and enough peers have complained that doubts start to form in the minds of senior leadership. Then the bad financial results come in that are completely from their watch. At that point their demise is sometimes stunningly sudden. Ride out The Pretender if you're not the target of their blame-share strategy, and transfer out quickly if you are so you can watch their implosion from a distance.

Speaking about the illusion of death and the truth of the Resurrection, Martin Luther King once said that, "Easter comes around every year to remind us that no lie can live forever". So too does the business cycle come along to remind us who performs and who doesn't. So be patient and supportive with that boss who you think is under-qualified or even just not-that-smart. Year-end financials will prove that either you missed their talent at first impression, or the situation will take care of itself because, in the business cycle as in life, no lie can live forever.