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Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Commercial Friendships

I have been in the corporate life long enough to have seen my early mentors retire or otherwise move on to their own businesses. Its been interesting to watch the social dynamic of people who are tight with one another on the job, and how that changes as people change jobs or retire. Some of the most hurt and disillusioned people I know are those who took to heart assurances of true friendship from people who were simply colleagues. One of the truest tests of the bonds between you and those who befriend you at work is what happens after you no longer work together.

I've seen this again recently through not only our staff reduction, but just the overall transition from the founding management team to the current Nelson leadership. We've had some turnover, particularly in Marketing and at Women of Faith, and of course at the CEO/Board level as we went private. I've seen evidence of true friendship that is lasting long after the commerce ended, and I've heard hurt feelings from people who can't get phone calls returned from their old gang.

So what's the critical learning here? First, its okay to be trusted and respected colleagues. Don't oversell yourself as a friend to someone who, were it not for the fact that you work in the same place, you'd never see and with whom you have nothing in common. Also, don't always believe it when you hear it from someone else about you. If you work enough years in corporations you'll learn that companies don't attend you father's funeral, or hold your head while you throw up, or share a cup of coffee and good advice when your kids are driving you crazy. People do those things, good friends do those things, and you should vet your friends with a simple test: would I want to be around them if we didn't work together, and do they feel the same way? If the answer is "no" to either, be a great colleague and don't oversell . I've seen too many people who use work as a surrogate for a true social and family life, and its a poor substitute.

Last Saturday our monthly Guitar Circle met at the home of Jerry and Julia Park, Jerry being a retired EVP from Nelson. Jerry also occasionally hosts a BOB luncheon (Boys of Bar-be-que) with several of his former staff members. Next Saturday Vonnie and I are going to an eary Cinco de Mayo party with our friends Rusty and Keith; Rusty being a former HR staff member in my first years at Nelson. These are the relationships that endure and mean so much years after the commerce between you ends. I hope you go and make new friendships this month with people who can't help you in any way. It may go well...

Sunday, April 27, 2008

"Christian" Competitive Spin

The Reduction in Force from last week has now been implemented, and most of those leaving the company are starting their outplacement. Some are trying to negotiate better exit packages, and the inevitable 2-6 legal disputes (I'm making an educated estimate based upon headcount leaving) are being formed. As of this reduction I've now passed the 1,100 mark in people I've helped terminate in my 25+ years in HR or operations. As reductions go (none of them are pleasant), this one seems to be heading in the right direction. People's spirits are good, and we're getting inquiries from companies wanting to hire some of them. We've had a resignation or two that will create openings for someone on the list, and we're generally getting high marks from our remaining staff as to how we implemented the reduction and are treating our people. Here at "ground zero" things are generally positive, which makes the spin on this from some agents and competitors comical, predictable, and disappointing given how this industry views itself.
This week we began hearing the spin through some authors, as relayed to them by this-or-that agent or competitor. According to the spin doctors, we're "imploding", there's mass exodus of the few remaining staff we didn't fire, our private equity owners are demanding more profit and may actually sell us off early in disgust, yadda, yadda, yadda. Said in Christian love I'm sure...
I sit in the Executive Leadership Team meetings, I've seen the preliminary financials, I was a contributor in the planning of the reduction, and sit in on the strategic planning meetings. In other words, I was there at the time and saw the numbers, heard the discussions, etc... The company is financially healthy, we've had two lower-level staff members resign for family or personal reasons since the announcement on Tuesday, the reduction was strategic and not reactionary, and the company's communications on this reduction have been absolutely authentic. Those are the facts, and I find fascinating the use of false information as a competitive tool in a Christian industry.
I love fair business competition. Going back to my Wal-Mart days when our rallying cry was, "Beat K-Mart" (then the big-boys on the block), its been one of the real pleasures of the business life to identify a competitor and beat them silly. One of the few philosophical disagreements I have with some of my brothers and sisters on our leadership team is their feeling that our industry does the Good Work of the gospel and that we should wish the best for all of our industry, including our competitors, so that the Good News gets out. I, on the other hand, am completely comfortable with, "We win, they lose". Its a character flaw I'm sure...
So while I love competition, the unfair, rumor-mill, press-leak, "we're holier than they are" competition that goes on in this industry falls way short of who we are or should be as people. As a businessman, I'm for a level playing field and whomever can work smartest and hardest and wins buys the loser a drink. As a Christian, I'm for everybody living up to their baptismal promises as they step into the arena of competition. Being a tough competitor, in other words, is not the same as being mean or hateful.
So to some of our agents and competitors (for surely we share this industry with some great people), and please feel free to send this link to them since I doubt they subscribe to an employment blog, I have an old message from our former CEO that I think is applicable. In my first year with the company we had a now-former executive who acted in a really mean-spirited way to one of his staff. I took this to Sam Moore to make sure we were aligned before I called the exec on his behavior. Sam thought for a moment, then looked up at me and said, "You go tell him I said to stop calling himself a Christian until he's willing to act like one".

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Employer Power and Personal Conduct

Its been quite a week, and its only Wednesday morning. A few months ago I was asked to co-present a seminar on hiring and selection at the Christian Leadership Conference going on right now in Dallas. The pre-conference session was Monday, and we were planning a reduction in force for Tuesday. We worked late Friday getting all the details together, I put my presentation together Saturday, flew out Sunday and met with my co-presenters Sunday night to put our respective pieces together, presented on Monday, and flew out that same night to execute the reduction in force Tuesday morning.

At the seminar I found myself annoyed and uneasy as to the nature of many of the questions from the audience. These were managers or HR administrators in non-profits and churches, and they were interested in Thomas Nelson's policies. I don't think half the crowd liked my answers any more than I liked their questions:

Q: Do you have to be a Christian to be hired at Thomas Nelson?
A: No

Q: Do you have a policy on chastity for unmarried staff?
A: No

Q: Do you fire Gays and Lesbians if they won't repent and convert?
A: No

Q: Do you fire co-habitating couples?
A: No

One attorney and HR VP for a major ministry said in an open-discussion segment near the end of the day, "our table doesn't like much of what we heard today". Well, ditto for the presenter dude.

I was waiting for my car when I ran into Greg Steilstra, former Nelson marketing VP and there to conduct his own seminar on pyro-marketing. I hadn't seen Greg in over a year, and we were on the same plane so I offered him a ride. I shared some of my concerns over what I'd heard, and over the next two hours we shared the ride, dinner and a couple of beers, and discussed grace-based vs. doctrinal theology, forgiveness vs. judgmental behavior, "Christian" as market segmentation for often inferior products, and caught up on our families. I really appreciated our time together and his intellect and it stood in stark contrast to the caliber of discussion in my seminar.

Once on the plane our seats were far apart, but it just so happens that I was seated next to and met Jonathan Pitts, Road Manager for Christian artist Anthony Evans who recently performed at our 3:16 event during the Women of Faith national conference in San Antonio. I never got my iPod-induced nap on the plane, because we spent the whole trip discussing the Christian music business, his desire to further his education (he's 28 and wants to pursue a Masters in Christian Counseling), 20-something workers and that generation's emphasis on tolerance, and again this was a stark contrast to the discourse in Dallas.

I've wondered, aside from our reduction in force, why its been difficult to sleep lately. Last night this post finally gelled for me: my uneasiness with the seminar questions came from the combination of legalism, judgmentalism, and the same myopic view of the world that we've seen in Christian publishing. In the non-profit Christian world, just like in many churches and parts of our industry, the price of admission is to look and think and agree with those in leadership. More to the point:

1. The questions I received were all about sex. There were no questions on our policy regarding gluttony or greed or envy; the only deadly sin that matters apparently is lust and the other six are acceptable human foibles.

2. The stories I heard in the seminar about people fired for violation of personal conduct policies were all young people, and the attendees were all boomers (like me) or older. This was, in essence, the abuse of the power to hire and fire as a means of controlling the off-hours sexual conduct of younger, lower-ranking staff members.

3. The position of these organizations is that organizations without similarly narrow views are un-Christian, soft on sin, not-as-holy, etc... Nelson's competitors have for years used as a competitive talking point that they were more holy. Said in Christian love I'm sure...

Yesterday I sat in on several termination conversations. In the first one the gentleman we terminated asked if he could lead those two of us firing him in prayer...for us and the hard work we had to do that day. Another man came to my office to ask a question about his package, but also to tell me that he'll be just fine, that "nothing passes into our lives that hasn't passed through God's hands". Overnight I've received about 30 emails from those leaving, and more than half are positive, encouraging me for what they feel must be a hard task for me; remember, these people just lost a job in a tough economy, and their worried about me?

So to our brothers and sister in non-profits, and to our competitors, let me say that our policy of not excluding people who are sinners (for to do so would leave us an empty building) has rendered a workforce with great heart, commitment to our mission, and who largely embody the ideals of what it means to live a Christian life. I don't anticipate our policies changing anytime soon.