Archive for November, 2009

Work+Life is Not About “Nice,” It’s About Long-term, Strategic, Global Competitiveness

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Okay, here’s the deal:  Work+Life is not about being nice.  Yes, it is lovely to be nice, and helping people manage their work and life is the right thing to do.   But developing and implementing work+life strategies is about the long-term global competitiveness of our people, our businesses and our country.

Unfortunately, most of us don’t see it that way, and until we do we’re not going to move the needle any further in terms of meaningful change:

  • Companies will not fundamentally rethink the way they operate to incorporate both formal and day-to-day flexibility into their business model.
  • Individual employees will not understand the role they play in partnering with their employer to manage their work+life fit, and
  • Public policymakers will not implement thoughtful regulations that support work+life fit, but don’t stifle the flexibility that makes it an adaptable win-win for people and business in an era of rapid change.

Why don’t we get it? Here’s a clue.

Today, the National Partnership for Women and Families announced findings from a study by researchers at Harvard and McGill University entitled, Raising the Global Floor: Dismantling the Myth the We Can’t Afford Good Working Conditions for Everyone (hat tip: Eve Tahmincioglu).

The study examined “policies, protections and supports in 190 of the world’s 192 United Nations countries,” and the working conditions faced by 55,000 households in seven countries on five continents.

According to the study’s co-author, Jody Heymann, “The world’s most successful and competitive nations are providing the supports (to varying degrees– guaranteed paid sick leave, paid leave for new mothers, paid leave for new fathers, paid time off to care for children’s health, guaranteed day of rest each week, wage premium for mandatory overtime) the United States lacks, without harming their competitiveness.  Globally, we found that none of these working conditions are linked with lower levels of economic competitiveness or employment…In fact, we found a number of these guarantees are associated with increased competitiveness.”

Important, impressive stuff, right?   For twenty years, researchers at many of the top academic institutions and think tanks that focus on work+life issues have proven over and over again variations on this same theme.  So why no change?  As much as I wish this were not true and as much as I don’t think it is right:

Reason #1: The groups that historically fund and announce these findings tend to be focused on families, women, children.  Unfortunately, this runs the risk of eliciting a “That would be nice,” response rather than an urgent “This is critical to long-term, global competitive sustainability for all of us. Let’s do something.”  Think about how different the reaction would be if the National Association of Manufacturers or the U.S. Chamber of Commerce had co-sponsored or also announced the findings above with a call to action for every business leader and politician?

Reason #2: The language in the call to action associated with much of the research tends to include words like, “humane,” “family-friendly,” “support,” “programs,” “protections.”  For business this translates into “Expensive, limiting regulation that I’d like to avoid even if it sounds like a nice, albeit optional, thing to do in a perfect world.”    What if, instead, we used language like:

“The research found that by implementing a broad range of work+life strategies individual employees managed their work+life fit more effectively. And businesses reduced costs associated with retention, safety issues, health care, as well as provided better customer service, improved employee engagement, etc.”

“Nice” is nowhere in that statement, even though one of the outcomes would be much needed support for families.

What do you think?  How can we make everyone understand that work+life strategies are mission critical for long-term value-creation and sustainability, not just “nice” theoretical concepts to study, talk about and ponder in a perfect world?

Note: I’m submitting this post to the Working Mom’s blog carnival, which is part of the Fem 2.0 campaign to highlight the workplace experiences of everyday Americans.

Fast Company: 2009 Encore Opportunity Award Winners…Retirement, Redefined

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There are four major work+life fit transitions that spark a fundamental rethinking of the way work fits into the rest of life: parenthood, illness, elder care, and retirement.  Historically, our response to each of these reset points has been very black and white:  I either work full-time, as I am now, or I don’t work at all. But that’s changing in the new work+life flex normal, especially as it relates to traditional “retirement.”  One of the groups creating a modern vision of a purpose-driven retirement is Civic Ventures with their Encore Careers, or “paid jobs that offer meaning and the chance to make a social impact.”

Today, the MetLife Foundation and Civic Ventures announced the 2009 Encore Opportunity Awards, honoring eight nonprofit and public sector organizations that helped workers over 50 “find, thrive in Encore Careers.”  As Civic Ventures CEO, Marc Freedman, explained in a recent BusinessWeek column “The Case Against Retirement,

“The road used to be much easier. For 50 years, the average fifty-something American was headed inexorably toward a clear-cut career and life transition: the transition to a leisure-based retirement.

The path was well-marked, with familiar rites like the retirement party and the gold watch. Employers offered enticements for early retirement, starting with pensions and health care. Policies like Social Security and Medicare were true safety nets.

Then the mad men of marketing went to work. On TV and in magazines, insurance firms trumpeted a shimmering vision of the good life. Whole communities with names like Leisure World were set up to cater to a full-throttled golden years’ lifestyle, filled with golf and shuffleboard.

Today an unprecedented number of Americans are coursing through their 50s, bound for a dramatically different destination. They’re headed not to the golf course but to a new stage of life that, for most, includes work…”

The 2009 Encore Opportunity Award winners tapped into this experienced, wise, passionate demographic to “protect public safety, build low-income housing, teach job skills, preserve the environment, even save dying Native American languages.”  Inspiring examples include (Click here for more)….

Fast Company: Dow 10,000 and 10% Unemployment: A Dangerous Reciprocity That Signals Need for Change

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Recently, both the Dow and the unemployment rate almost simultaneously broke historical milestones, one good (Dow 10,000) and one bad (unemployment 10%). The lock step ascent of these two metrics has continued since the beginning of the year:

Dow Jones Industrial Average


Unemployment Rate

(Source: BLS)

January, 2009 8,000 7.6
February, 2009 7,062 8.1
March, 2009 7,608 8.5
April, 2009 8,168 8.9
May, 2009 8,500 9.4
June, 2009 8,447 9.5
July, 2009 9,171 9.4
August, 2009 9,496 9.7
September, 2009 9,712 9.8
October, 2009 9,712 10.2
November, 2009 10,246 ?

How long can this reciprocal advance go on before it unleashes an “un”virtuous cycle of fear, decreased consumption, arrested innovation, less revenue, more cuts, more fear? A genie that, once set free, will be very hard to put back in the bottle.

Are We Falling Back on Out-dated Short-Term Strategies that Could Undermine the Fragile Recovery?

We are in the middle of the worst employment crisis in decades. Some economist are predicting that jobs won’t recover until 2013 and could climb as high as 12%-13%, and even 15%. I agree with former Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich, that “in the end, this is a self-defeating strategy.”

Early in the crisis, I started advocating a more flexible approach to cost-cutting that, wherever possible, minimizes the level of job cuts by finding alternative ways to manage labor and operating costs. A year later, a number of companies have incorporated many forms of flexibility in how, when and where work is done into their downsizing strategy.

Now they face new challenges in the gray post-recession/ pre-recovery zone. For the past three weeks, I’ve blogged about these new issues and how they can be addressed (here, here and here), but this time it’s different. There isn’t the same sense of urgency I felt at the height of the crisis around the subject of finding ways to keep as many people employed as possible.  This is unfortunate, because we are at a key point in the recovery where falling back on old, short-term ways of operating could undermine the fragile economic progress we’ve made.

But short-term thinking is deeply entrenched and rewarded by our system, so it’s not surprising that with the “crisis” over we’re falling back into old patterns. These patterns are reinforced by gatekeepers (e.g. leaders, analysts and investors) who favor quantitative metrics over qualitative “softer” levers like leadership, vision, employee engagement, discretionary effort, and innovation. Why? Drawing upon my years of experience as an analyst and as a graduate of a top MBA program, quantifiable outcomes are more easily understood, mastered and rewarded. The qualitative is tougher, and quite frankly, not well-understood or valued. Where’s the visible, predictable result? Where do “leadership” and “engagement” show up on the balance sheet or in the cash flow calculation?

It Began in Business School…

I was surprised to encounter this quant-primary focus first hand business school. After seven years of financial analysis as a banker, I went to business school to learn about the people-side of business. I naively assumed others shared my enthusiasm for the “harder” and “softer” aspects of management. I was thrilled when an Organizational Development/Leadership class was mixed in with the first year requirements of Finance, Marketing, and Cost Accounting. Let’s just say a number of my fellow classmates didn’t share my passion.

While I sat at the edge of my seat soaking in concepts of motivation, reward, and change management, others used the time to catch up on their work from other classes, read the newspaper, and good-naturedly rib me. They weren’t being disrespectful. They just didn’t think it was important. They were there to be brand managers, strategy consultants, stock analysts and investment bankers, and “HR will take care of the people stuff.”

I would politely push back, “Who do you think is going to help you execute your brand’s strategy, produce your stock analysis and close your deals? People. You have to understand how to lead and motivate them.” Response—smiles, shrugged shoulders, and a change of subject.

In fact, at one point during a case study about how to deal with striking workers, one of my classmates said at the beginning of the negotiation process, “We’re done negotiating. It’s a waste of time. Either go back to work or you’re fired.” I countered, “Okay, but how are you going to staff and train the replacement workers quickly enough to produce quality products to meet customer demand? What are you going to do to restore the lost goodwill and inspire the surviving employees to innovate, be creative, go the extra mile and dedicate themselves to making your company succeed?” Response—blank stare.

I don’t blame my classmates for their results-oriented, short-term focus. Employers weren’t looking for competencies in leadership, team development, employee engagement, vision creation, and motivation strategies. They wanted evidence of concrete results — the mastery of the Black-Scholes model, the development of a creative marketing plan, or the identification of an untapped market niche. The “soft stuff” wasn’t a part of the equation, most likely because, again, it’s too hard to measure and it takes too long to quantify.

The Aspen Institute Takes the Lead in the Shift to Long-Term Value Creation (Click here for more)