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Showing posts from 2009

Turn the Cell Phone Industry Upside Down

This a rare, off-topic non-workplace post but I'm on vacation this week and thinking about other things. While shopping for Christmas presents I briefly considered and then dismissed buying an iPhone or Blackberry for my wife. Our daughter has an iPhone and loves it; I have a company-issued Blackberry and find it handy at times. The purchase price of these devices is $450 - $500 unless you renew your cell phone contract, and then they are anywhere from $49 - $99. But that's where they lost me. I went to my local AT&T store and found out that we don't have a line on our family share plan that is up for renewal until February. I pushed back some with the nice young man behind the counter; after all, I send enough money each month to AT&T for my home phone, Internet access and three cell phones to supply a third world city with food for a year. What's eight weeks if you're making a long-time and very good customer happy. Nothin' doin'! I'm

Things to Blow Up I: Performance Reviews

In an industrial era where supervisors were "bosses" rather than coaches, where jobs were relatively unskilled manipulating things vs. information, and where the talent needed for these jobs was in ample supply was born the performance appraisal. The purpose was two-fold: force the occasion at least annually for the boss to speak to the worker about their performance and how they could do their jobs better, and provide a documented history of the worker's performance. That history, housed usually in the Personnel department, was primarily used for (1) review of the worker's history for purposes of promotion or reassignment, and in later years after the development of discrimination laws (2) documentation for the company to support its termination decision and defend against lawsuits. W. Edwards Demming, the most progressive-minded and talented of all management gurus, advised American industry to end this practice in the 1950's. As is well-documented, his ideas

It's a New Year: Let's Blow Some Stuff Up

Okay so we've worked our way through the worst part of the worst recession in our lifetime. We've practiced a relentless focus on our business, watched our expenses, kept the company profitable through a variety of challenges from weak retail to financial backers who think a bible translation means English, Spanish or French. Everybody on the team deserves credit. While focus is a great thing that keeps us on-task and taking care of immediate business it should not be the enemy of innovation. God gave us two eyes, and I believe that gives us the ability to keep one on the task at hand while the other one looks to the future. Without taking our "eye" off our immediate needs, we need use the other one to take a fresh look at some worn-out assumptions, blow up some old programs, and continue to simplify our business. This is a well-run profitable company, but I believe there are places where we're expending energy for little return. Since we're all doing

Skip the Social Media Staff

In the past few weeks I'm hearing discussion in our company and elsewhere about the potential need for social media specialists of some sort. I believe we should heed the history of technological innovations, get ahead of the curve, and skip this expensive and soon to be outdated step. Social media is on its way to becoming a required and ubiquitous skill set in several job families, not a position or department. I see similarities between this technological development and two others I've experienced in my career; the use of interpreters and the adoption of the personal computer. In international business the model was often that people of different cultures transacted business in some neutral third language or utilized interpreters to facilitate communication. It may seem a quaint notion if you're under 50, but there was a time in business where executives working in foreign countries actually travelled with a person who was paid to help them communicate. Early in

Live Events Division Office On the Move?

It is highly likely that we will move the division headquarters of Thomas Nelson Live Events sometime this summer. While that's not guaranteed, that seems to be the direction in which we're heading. Some might wonder why, in the current economic climate, we would do such a thing. After all, isn't that inconsistent with our measures to cut costs and preserve cash? Here's what we're doing and why. Since the merger of the Facilities and HR departments I've been getting an education on commercial space. New space is often referred to as "Class A" space in that its new, well apportioned with a good location and solid management. Class B space is Class A space that has aged well, but no longer has the first class look of new top-quality space. Class C space is run down and tired, old and/or poorly maintained. The Live Events division space in Plano occupies offices that its been leasing for 9 1/2 years of a 10 year lease. That space was probably Class B wh

Listen to Your Uncle Julio

Earlier tonight at the recommendation of friend and colleague Lara Dulaney I stopped for dinner at Uncle Julio's in Allen, TX. Knowing that the rest of the Nashville contingent had gone home a day earlier, and that I was dining by myself, she told me that the food was good and that I could get a full meal at the bar. I thought that was a good idea because you're not so noticeable as "dinner for one" eating at a crowded bar. I drove the extra exit up from my hotel in Allen and found the place on an out-parcel in a shopping center that had TJ Maxx and Dick's Sporting Goods among other stores. It was mid-priced/low-upscale so nothing that felt like a waste of money. Unlike the eerily deserted restaurants I saw during lunch in the Plano area Uncle Julio's was busy at 8:00 p.m. and had the appearance of winding down from the dinner rush. So I sit at the bar and here is where the story really begins. One of the two bartenders stuck out his hand, said, "I'

While We're Reforming Healthcare Let's Talk About Doctors

I'm writing this over lunch having spent the better part of my morning going to and coming from an appointment at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center Hand Clinic. I never saw a doctor; I walked out after an hour and a half and I'll decide later if I go back. This morning reminds me of a study done in 2007 on the hidden cost of physician inefficiency. This study, available on economix.com studied Americans 15 and over during 2007 to see how much time is spent in physician waiting rooms. That number...and maybe you should sit down, is 847 million hours in one year. In 2007 the average wage for American workers was $17.43/hr, so the total cost to the economy was $240 billion. The average American that year spent the equivalent of 1.1 hours per week in a doctor's waiting room. So, take your average hourly wage x 52 weeks a year x 1.1 and see what you or your employer are spending each year. In all other commercial transactions in a capitalist system the person to w

Push Back When Medical Bills Seem High

One of my family members recently had an endoscopy procedure. It was recommended at this stage of life and was purely preventative. According to our UHC insurance that procedure is covered at 100% when its a preventative screening. After the test the physician met with us and told us the results were "unremarkable". Note my surprise, then, when I received and EOB for the procedure asking me for $800 as my portion of the expense. We called UHC who explained that physician's office had coded the procedure as "General Illness" and so our plan would only pay 80% after a $500 deductible. I tried to explain back to them that the procedure was covered at 100%, to which they replied that as long as the bill was coded anything other than "Preventative" there would be a deductible and co-insurance. Next I went to the physician's practice at Vanderbilt Clinic. After three phone calls over four weeks and ever-elevated blood pressure, I took an unusual

Education vs. Training

There are two thankless sub disciplines in HR and I've done both of them: Training and Executive Compensation. You can never satisfy the majority of your stakeholders and some days you don't feel that you satisfied any of them. I don't manage executive comp at Thomas Nelson (the Board does that) so I'm spared that cross to bear. With training I have indecision. On the one hand we need it and I am duty-bound to advocate for it, knowing that if I get a budget I'll have the thankless job of delivering a product that at best will get mixed reviews. It is my most severe instance of, "Lord, how do I pray?" at budget time. Part of our training regimen is that every three years we train or retrain all supervisors of two or more people. We use various forms of feedback to determine the content. We get requests of those who do the job and feel they need more training, requests of employees who say their supervisor needs certain training, and we observe prob

Williamson Medical Center and United Healthcare

Several of you have asked about the latest in Williamson Medical Center's dispute with United Healthcare. For those of you who don't know, UHC dropped WMC from its network effective October 2nd. We have monitored this situation and communicated clearly with UHC regarding our concerns. We also continue to recommend that patients of physicians practicing out of WMC call their doctors and/or WMC administrators and encourage them to come to terms with UHC. Network contract negotiations are not unusual, even though this type of hardball isn't common. This situation is the collision of two profit-minded monopolies. WMC is the only hospital or surgi center of any size in the Franklin/Cool Springs corridor. UHC is one of only five remaining multi-state health insurance conglomerates in the country. Both think the other needs them more and is waiting for the other guy to blink. My sources tell me that both sides are still talking. That's good as it would be a loss for

The Changing Nature of "Off-Hours Conduct" Policies

Most companies of any size (and any sense) have a policy against egregious off-hours and off-property employee conduct. Thomas Nelson is no exception. Unlike policies on specific workplace behaviors, these policies are intentionally vague and are intended to address a wide variety of non-work behaviors that reflect negatively on the employer's reputation. Such policies are rarely used today, but when used their very nature has changed significantly. Like so many traditional corporate workplace rules, the history of off-hours conduct policies goes back to the U.S. military. Aside from violations of military rules of conduct, for its officers the military used a catch-all rule against "Conduct Unbecoming and Officer" to address off-base conduct that besmirched the integrity of the military in general and its leadership (officers) in particular. Chief among these violations were public moral failings (drunkenness, carousing, etc...) especially while in uniform. In

Take a Big, Deep Breath...

I've been all over the corporate office building and burning up email in the last few days. My level of activity has apparently raised alarm in places because we've had several quietly asked questions lately along the lines of, "What's going on?" Here's the skinny. Amy in Benefits is out on maternity leave (expected back Monday) and HR Manager Jack is in-and-out on Jury Duty until October 8th (thanks a lot, Smyrna). The HR Department most days is Dawn, Elaine, and me. Factor in lunch hours, days off, sick kids, Elaine's new grand baby and Jack's anticipated grand babies (arriving Friday) and we're operating with two people a lot of the time. You're seeing me because you're most likely not seeing anyone else from HR. Mystery solved! To quote Chevy Chase, "Sometimes a banana is just a banana." Jim

401(k) Catch-Up Contributions

I learned something today that should be passed along to our Nelson team, especially those 55 and older or who will turn 55 in the near future. The IRS guidelines allow maximum contributions up to $16,500 per year. This "maximum contribution limit" changes almost every year and is a feature in the law that prevents 401(k) plans from becoming a wealth building tool for executives rather than a retirement plan for all employees. If you're 55 and over you can also make additional annual deferrals known as "catch-up contributions." This feature allows older workers who may be behind in their retirement savings to contribute up to an additional $6,000 per year. In our plan, and most plans, the methodology for maximizing your contributions was cumbersome. You had to separately elect catch-up contributions. Then as Plan Administrators we had to wait until you had contributed your $16,500 maximum before directing the Record Keeper to accept your additional payro

I'll Take Care of That For You

In an recent conversation, just as a throwaway comment, our Live Events COO Vance Lawson quoted Zig Ziglar (paraphrasing here) that, "The world still opens up for people who say, "I'll take care of that for you"." I hadn't heard that in awhile, but it precisely sums up what I'm seeing and experiencing in this economy. The rules have changed and your policies no longer matter. What matters in chasing the fewer consumer dollars out there is doing what it takes to be of service to the customer and your employer. Simultaneously I'm overseeing three departments and rebuilding two boats. I see every day at work those who struggle and those who succeed with the tougher work loads. Off work, I'm spending my own scarce capital in the final stages of these two projects the type of which I never thought I'd do. In both the corporate and personal situations the demarcation of success is not necessarily the number of hours being worked, but the att

Social Media Conflicts at Work

According to the number of seminar emails and fliers I'm receiving the new "hot topic" in employment law is how social media impacts the employee/employer relationship. I've begun to see this within our own walls. This truly is a new area where mistakes can be made and relationships can be damaged if everyone doesn't know and observe the appropriate social and legal boundaries. Most of the problems created by Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and LinkIn accounts revolve around two issues: employee criticism of employer and supervisor and the unwelcome reading of personally posted on-line material by supervisors and co-workers. For the employee there are risks from posted materials meeting the legal definitions of libel, slander, breaches of confidentiality with the employer's private information, and conduct that damages the employer's brand or other protectable interests. For the employer, especially supervisors, the risk is invasion of privacy and arbitrary or

All About Us

In its July 25/26 Weekend edition, the Wall Street Journal printed a fascinating article, "A Class of Generals" about the West Point class of 1976. From this class have come five Generals currently leading major military units in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is the first time in West Point's 207 year history that one class has produced generals commanding two wars simultaneously. What is fascinating about this story, for those of you too young to remember, is that the class of 1976 entered West Point in 1972, at the low point for prestige and morale in the U.S. military. This was the period immediately post-Vietnam and in the midst of Watergate. It was decidedly uncool to be in the military at all, much less pledging your life and career to lead its soldiers. Yet this one class has produced 33 active or retired generals from its 855 graduates. Not since the class of 1915, which produced Generals Dwight Eisenhower and Omar Bradley, who led the U.S. through World War II, h

Doing Good in 140 Characters or Less

Mother Teresa said, "There is more hunger for love and appreciation in the world than for bread." Kentucky historical figure and leader Henry Clay said, "Courtesies of a small and trivial character are the ones which strike deepest in the grateful and appreciating heart." In other words, showing appreciation for people has power and fills a need that transcends the workplace, building friendships and forging loyalties along the way. I've followed the development of social media with a suspicious eye and written about that on this blog. I unplugged my Facebook and MySpace accounts as huge time wasters, reinstated my Twitter account and maintained my blog. The purpose of so much social media is marketing, or purely personal use such as "friends and family" type communications. My world, on the other hand, is focused both professionally and personally on face-to-face communication and the keeping of confidences. There doesn't appear to be much use fo

Government Run Healthcare Makes Sense

As a young man I was a Reagan Republican raised in a family of Goldwater Republicans. My views have moderated significantly during the ensuing years but the one thing that hasn't is my belief that each individual is responsible for their own outcomes in life and should pursue them without outside interference or restriction. With this type of outlook it might then surprise you to know that I favor a national health care plan, either a public "option" or the conversion of the current system into a single payer program similar to the Canadian system. Why in the world would I feel that way? Simple ; for the last 20 years I have had the responsibility over group health plans and have had to deal with insurance carriers. In the last 10 years the health insurance industry has grown more profitable, has consolidated to just a handful of carriers, and makes literally life-and-death decisions about your health care based upon profit-and-loss considerations. In years past w

Back to Basics on Security

Last week we had a (thankfully) minor security breech that resulted in an a team member's cell phone being stolen off her desk. Someone from outside the company walked past the front desk like she knew where she was going and wandered the building for 12 minutes before leaving the way she came in. She then walked around the property for 8 more minutes trying doors (unsuccessfully) before leaving through the back field. By the time our staffer noticed the theft and reported it to her cell phone provider the thief had made 60 phone calls and sent 72 text messages, all to pre-paid phones. We identified one call recipient through a paid cell phone registry, pulled up her name in the local court website, and discovered a long history of petty theft and drug use. In other words, this was a professional job by professional petty criminals. In reviewing video and talking to our employees we've discovered how this happened, and it represents a breakdown in some fundamental disciplines

The Importance of Pushback

We're a relatively small company as corporations go. Aside of our core vendors, like printers, we're just large enough to need first-class service but too small to be a priority customer. To get first-class service you want vendors who also service large accounts like Coke and Google. The problem is that, by comparison, our business will almost never be such a vendor's priority. The common result is that you get second or third priority, your account gets served by trainees, and the service you receive suffers. Managing in a company like ours makes it more important than ever to master the skill of pushback. This month I've had issues at ADP, one sub-group at Vanguard, a confidential potential vendor whom we've asked to quote, one internal department, and (through my Homeowners Association) the Metropolitan Police. I'm just back off vacation and still in Margeritaville mode and just wanting to slide happily through the days; instead I'm having to periodica

The Fuss About the Employee Free Choice Act

Over the next few weeks we'll hear more in the press about this piece of legislation, called by some informally as the "Card Check Act", as it winds its way through Congress. Its a bad bill but it may pass anyway as the AFL-CIO has pumped a reported $500m in campaign contributions to both parties in what may be its last stand as an organized body. I say this bill is bad because it will make union campaigns more prevalent, more intimidating and more prone to employee-on-employee threats and violence. I'm not quoting the Chamber of Commerce line on this; I've seen it with my own eyes working on the company side in three Steelworker campaigns in Kentucky. To understand this bill we first have to visit the process of how a workplace becomes unionized, so I'll digress just briefly. Union elections are governed by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), a federal agency whose members are appointed by the President. Republican presidents tend to stack it wi

Finding Your Next Job

MORE magazine weighed in this month on the use of web technology in finding your next job. Their thesis was that the game has changed; nice resumes on Crane stationary with good cover letters have been replaced with social media, a personal web page about your professional abilities, and a web marketing strategy. In the last year I've probably gotten an equal number of unsolicited resumes and unsolicited social media contacts (from Facebook friend requests to LinkIn invitations). With a tough job market its an easy sell to say to a job seeker that they aren't getting results because they aren't using the right technology. Unfortunately that's not totally true. Technology is a work tool , much like in an earlier tech era your tools might have included a lathe or a hammer. Updating to more modern tools (let's just say a power lathe and a pneumatic hammer) may increase the speed of a process, but it doesn't change the basic process. You build a house from

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

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 professi

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 forme

So You Have a New Boss...

With the recent shakeup in executive leadership it seems like half the building has a different supervisor this week. With that comes the usual anxiety, plus a little additional angst given that its happening during a time of economic travail. I both have a new boss and picked up two departments that haven't reported to me before. While having a new supervisor can be a challenge at first, here's a few reasons not to jump off the roof. 1. Its not about you! Changes in the executive ranks ripple through an organization. You weren't assigned to a new supervisor to "straighten you out" because you're a screw-up. This has nothing to do with you so just roll with it. 2. There aren't many bad ones . The people to whom you could possibly report are whittled down to a handful of capable managers. If a manager is on our org chart they are seasoned and have a good heart. I can't think of many exceptions so whomever the "luck of the draw"

Work From Here

I've had a couple of questions lately about the future of Work From Home. To be completely transparent, we've fielded questions from Board members and executives alike on what this program is and does. Here's an update that might surprise you. WFH was a response to two pressing issues several months ago. Gas prices had gotten to around $4/gallon in Nashville, and with headcount reductions we were spending about $350k in rented office space charges for room we didn't need. We didn't have enough space in the Corporate Office building to close Lakeview Place. I became concerned that increased commuting cost would lead to a call for a cost of living increase that the company couldn't afford in an economy growing more unstable by the day. The answer, as my grandmother would have said, was as plain as the nose on your face. Develop the systems for remote work, require space sharing as a condition of working remotely, reduce commuting costs to their pre-gas-hi

On-Line Streamlining

On Friday of this week I will shut down both my Facebook and Twitter accounts. In place of communicating via those outlets I intend to be a more consistent and diligent blogger. There are several reasons for this move which I will explain just briefly. I usually check all these accounts after dinner. That process entails checking Nelson email, personal email, Twitter updates (both reading and writing), looking at who added or dropped me on Twitter, checking Facebook updates from my "friends", and leaving comments. I could set up a link that combines Facebook and Twitter updates into one process, but that only saves a few moments of what takes about 45 - 60 minutes. My other personal interests, be they gardening or guitar or a few home improvement projects slated for the spring, suffer from the time taken up with living in the on-line world. Every so often my wife would like for me to just sit down and watch TV with her and I rarely ever do. After slacking off for the wint