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Thursday, April 23, 2009

Valuing Diversity Includes Language

For about eight years of my career I worked off-and-on along the Mexican border. My employer at the time had 9 manufacturing plants on a corridor from Juarez through Chihuahua City to Torreon. On the border about half the people with whom I worked spoke English. The further I got into the interior the fewer people spoke any English at all. I spent one whole week in Torreon by myself and encountered no one who spoke a word of English.

Imagine for a moment being in meetings for hours at a time where not a word of what was said was understandable to you. Think for a moment about the concentration that it takes to look interested and be polite while not having the slightest idea what's going on...for hours at a time.

That, friends and neighbors, is what its like for some of our non-English speaking warehouse staff to attend our all-employee quarterly meetings.

In order to bring our 40 or so non-English speakers into the conversations about our business we made sure they were invited to these meetings. Some who spoke good English would interpret for the others in Vietnamese or Spanish (as the case may be). After each meeting we would receiving complaints from Anglos (as my Mexican friends call us white boys and girls) about how distracting it was to have "those people" talking all through the meeting.

So next we began renting headsets so that one interpreter in each language could broadcast one interpretation to the employees rather than having multiple conversations. The result... complaints about the interpreters being a distraction.

In a few hours we will have our next All Employee Meeting. We are trying a different room layout and placement of the interpreters to minimize the distraction to everyone else. However, some distraction is unavoidable. The alternative to interpreters is to have separate meetings for these groups (segregation by national origin? I don't think so...) rent expensive Plexiglas interpretation booths to soundproof the interpreters from the rest of the group, or discontinue the service altogether. The last option would involve either making these meetings optional for non-English speakers or asking them to sit through long meetings with no idea of what's happening.

Or there is another option. We can be tolerant of the distraction and know that its worth the trouble. The statement that this service makes about the value of each employee regardless of their ethnicity or national origin is worth the distraction. The statement this makes about the value of everyone no matter what their role in the company is worth the distraction. The statement about the rest of us, that we're willing to tolerate the distraction, is important. Basically we can't say with a straight face that we value a diverse workforce...just so long as everyone speaks English.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Life Less On-Line

Its been two weeks since I deleted my Facebook and Twitter accounts. There have been a couple of times that I've thought, "I'll write a quick tweet on that" but couldn't. Otherwise its been a good move to make my life less virtual and more temporal. Since social media is all the rage and Twitter is gaining popularity by leaps and bounds why is swimming against the tide working for me? Here's my critical learning at this point.

1. Social Media is best suited for promotional communications. As such, promoting yourself, your products, your services, or some political or social agenda is the sweet spot for this media. Communications that are critical or negative are ill suited for social media audiences; the posts don't read as well, the wording has to be more carefully crafted so as to be diplomatic, and you lose the spontaneity of the tweet or FB update.

2. Related to point #1, social media is best suited for sole proprietors, independent professionals, or heads of organizations. Posts discussing positions, directions, and opinions are more positive by nature coming from these individuals. Those working within organizations, however, are more prone to censor communications giving their point of view from the middle. For example, I know of a staff member who tweeted about a "dumb, boring" meeting and the meeting organizer was one of their followers. The higher up the food chain you are, including being the sole proprietor of your own food chain, the more likely you are to be candid. The further down you are, the more likely that you'll stay with personal interests and news and avoid posting about what's going on at work.

3. Social Media is ill suited for confidential information, and those whose careers deal in confidences. You can imagine the problems it would create if I were to tweet, "About to terminate a 25 year employee and I'm bummed" or, "Counseling an employee in a physically abusive relationship." If your job doesn't communicate outwardly, but instead protects confidential information (HR, Accounting, Law Enforcement, etc...) social media posts are problematic.

4. Social Media updates clog your inbox. I had about 40 FB friends and an equal number of Twitter followers. I averaged 21 email messages a day telling me that I had received a message from one or the other of these accounts.

5. Social Media keeps you in touch with people. Since deleting my accounts I am not as in tune with the 80 individuals with whom I was connected. Restoring that connectedness without the downsides (above) appears improbable.

6. That assumes that you want to stay connected. My job brings me in close and sometimes intense contact with people. I love the people with whom I work, but off-hours I'm not always interested in seeing or hearing from anyone. The Twitter and Facebook communications aren't always welcomed intrusions into my home office.

7. You need a hand-held device. Waiting until you get home to tweet or update misses a lot of the point. I was at a large Catholic wedding in Louisville last weekend, and if you've been to one you know that its an organized drinking event that starts with vows. There were so many funny observations and pictures I could have shared had I had an account and a web-enabled phone. If you're going to network through social media, buy the hardware.

I am toying with the idea of getting back onto Twitter, but just toying. I have flowers to buy and plant, three difficult guitar pieces to master, and there's so much about my work life right now that I can't say to anybody much less to the whole world. I'm getting so much more done in the temporal that I'm not interested in getting much more virtual than I am already. Its an evolving conversation I'm having with myself and there may be more to come as I work through all this.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Why I'm Optimistic

"Are things ever going to get better?" That's a question I've heard several times this week and here's why I think the answer is, emphatically, "Yes."

In the midst of a tough economy, and after an exceptionally hard year I see signs that make me feel like the worst is behind us. Externally there are signs of life in the general economy. First time home buyer activity is higher than expected, and manufacturing activity (while depressed overall) beat analysts expectations this week. These developments helped bolster the stock market and as it improves we should start to gain back some of our depressed 401(k) values. The market analysts with which I've spoken tell me that the stock market typically leads employment gains by about six months coming out of a recession.

Remember that six month number because you'll see it again below.

Internally we now have a single operational executive running Sales, Marketing, and Publishing. These formerly separate divisions now can't help but coordinate their activities and work together, and that's huge.

We now have our best marketer and product developer (our CEO) developing product and strategizing with our Publishers. In our business new product from inception to market is about 200 days, but product currently in the pipeline can be improved or marketed more effectively in about half that time. Look for the impact of Mike Hyatt's influence on products to show up in about 4 - 6 months.

There's that number again.

During this past year our sales began to falter as retail activity dried up, beginning somewhat around July but taking a big hit in October. Since that time we've reduced our overhead significantly with painful staff reductions but also in other more positive moves such as consolidating all offices into the Corporate Office Building (except for the Live Events division in Texas). Our overhead expenses are the lowest that anyone with less than 10 - 15 years service can remember.

When we start to annualize 2008 sales (our FY '09) we'll be against weak numbers with extremely low overhead, and that's a recipe for sales increases and profitability. Combined that with what I hear is a very reasonable sales budget, and we have a recipe to beat expectations in the last half of FY '10 or in about six months.

There it is again.

With the executive reorganization also comes the ripple effect of management realignment throughout the company. With new managers over different areas comes a different perspective on each business unit. That generally leads to fresh ideas and an uptick in efficiency. For example, Vance Lawson will be making some HR decisions at Live Events in his new role there, and I picked up his Travel and Facilities departments. Neither one of us may be a better or worse manager than the other, but all three areas will benefit from a fresh perspective.

The Executive Leadership Team is pared-down and making faster decisions. Rather than a group of 10 that often lumbered through decisions the ELT is now three people (CEO, COO, and CFO) who go into a room and make a decision. That will make the whole company more nimble and able to respond quickly to changing business conditions.

Our core sales channel, Christian Retail Sales, was our strongest FY '09 performer. That tells me that our core business is healthy and that the weakness in the business is mostly the external economy and in non-core products.

I'm not saying that all the bad stuff is over. I think we're in for about 4 - 5 more tough months but with our situation improving after that. If we will all stay focused on executing our roles, serving our core customers, putting great core products out into our core markets, and constantly looking for dumb stuff to stop doing (every business has these) then we're going to be fine.