What if you lost 25% of your organization on one day?

When we talk about corporate culture today we talk about change. What would you do if you lost 25% of your population in one day? In three months you can expect replacements for the 25% to arrive at your doorstep. The only complication is that the newbies lack the experience of the folks who left. One more thing. An increasing number in this group will never visit a physical location of the organization, communicating solely online.

Shall we have a conversation about ‘disruption’? What resources would you require to manage the scale of change?

This is the continuous management challenge for colleges and universities. And yet, those on the corporate side often discount the ‘unreality’ of the campus workplace, while those working in academia are suspicious of those in ‘the real world’.

Today is a good day to imagine this scenario as thousands of freshman arrive on campus or sign in to their first online course.

It’s time for business schools to take a look at what’s happening on their campuses and take the lead to cross-pollinate the lessons learned across the great academic – corporate divide.

When we talk about the 25% we are talking students. It doesn’t include the annual turnover in faculty and staff.

How do you manage the expectations of this diverse group that the organization (college) is hesitant to refer to as customer, many of whom have a team of consultants (parents) directing every move? How do you create a culture that is sustained through significant population shifts?

Start with the leaders?

The academic career path that leads to the university ‘C Suite’ rarely includes leadership training. The more enlightened college presidents invite the feedback of consultants, but the majority rely on the belief that they have always been the smartest person in the room and lead accordingly.

The realities of economic viability challenge the most effective leader to balance donor pressures with cultural continuity.

The job description has changed. It’s not just faculty and students anymore. The leadership portfolio may include a multi-million dollar entertainment complex (football), a multi-billion dollar health care campus, major real estate redevelopment and significant political lobbying.

College presidents once occupied a place of influence in the national conversation. They have been replaced by political voices who view universities as the sanctuary of the elite.

University presidents are running cities within cities. They are the guarantors of our civic future with their link to generational and social change.

I have worked in both corporate and academic environments. I am aware of the wall of bias that separate the two worlds. No one benefits from this insularity. Each could gain from the leadership lessons of the other.

Should I stay or should I go? The impact of a 24×7 work culture

Late spring is a time of major career transition as interns arrive for summer assignments, college students begin their careers and the rest of the workforce assesses their place at work and considers next steps. Do I stay or should I go?

Three articles in the past three days develop an argument that we are long overdue for an accounting of the way work is structured, expectations set, and effort rewarded.

In the first article, psychologist Art Markham was asked the question, ‘Is it hurting my career to skip happy hour with co-workers?’ Here is a question that gets right to the issue of work/life balance. What activities in the workplace are optional?

He responded:

“Your question…brings two aspects of workplace happiness into conflict. On the one hand, research suggest that people who feel like they have good friends at work are happier than those who don’t. On the other hand, research also suggests that your long-term happiness at work requires that you feel like you can express your authentic self at work. If you don’t like to go out for drinks with a crowd, then forcing yourself to go is not an authentic expression of who you are.

The main principle here is that the social time with your colleagues is an important way to feel included in the community. You don’t have to become a party animal to make that happen, but you might have to put in some effort to create these social opportunities. Developing your relationships with your colleagues will help you feel closer to the group and will improve your overall satisfaction with your job.”

Nice idea, but here is the reality. You are on deadline to complete a project and at the same time you are watching the clock and trying to calculate how much time you have, building in a possible SIG alert, to get to the day care center before they turn the lights out and leave your children on the steps.

Which bring me to the second article, ‘The 24/7 Work Culture’s Toll on Families and Gender Equality’. It surveys a group of studies, the most recent being released by Harvard Business School as part of a gender initiative led by Professor Robin Ely.

Professor Ely and her colleagues studied “a global consulting firm, which was not named. The firm, where 90 percent of the partners were men, asked the professors what it could do to decrease the number of women who quit and increase the number who were promoted. In exchange, the academics could collect data for their research. The firm was typical in that employees averaged 60 to 65 hours of work a week.”

After conducting “.. in-depth interviews with 107 employees, men were at least as likely as women to say the long hours interfered with their family lives, and they quit at the same rate. One told the researchers: “Last year was hard with my 105 flights. I was feeling pretty fried. I’ve missed too much of my kids’ lives.”

The researchers said that when they told the consulting firm they had diagnosed a bigger problem than a lack of family-friendly policies for women — that long hours were taking a toll on both men and women — the firm rejected that conclusion. The firm’s representatives said the goal was to focus only on policies for women, and that men were largely immune to these issues.”

Which transitions to the final article, ‘Reflections on Stress and Long Hours on Wall Street’. In a previous life, I often advised students who were considering internships or full time positions with investment banks. The high paying starting salaries were difficult to ignore. For some, financial services was the perfect cultural fit, but for those whose only incentive was money, it was a quick calculation to determine the breakdown of the princely starting offer to the actual hourly wage.

In The New York Times article, Andrew Ross Sorkin reports on the stress on Wall Street and reflects on recent deaths that may be attributed to long hours and an out of balance work load.

“Studies have suggested that financial service employees are at higher risk than those in many other industries. According to the National Occupational Mortality Surveillance, individuals who work in financial services are 1.5 times more likely to commit suicide than the national average. The highest suicide rates in the United States are among doctors, dentists and veterinarians.”

Changes in policies have not worked, with those excused from Saturday work, showing up on Sunday and working late into the night.

“Some banks, like Goldman, are also taking new steps, like introducing more efficient software and technology to help young analysts do their work more quickly. And investment banks say they are hiring more analysts to help balance the workload.

That may help. But as long as young analysts are expected to work 80 to 100 hours a week, invariably some run the risk of finding themselves in a situation they cannot handle. With new classes of such analysts arriving each year, it is incumbent on the industry to make sure it is doing everything possible to make sure that no one is too overwhelmed.”

And this is where your value radar clicks on. Every career decision is a result of a series of tradeoffs. However, no client, no deal is worth sacrificing family, health and well-being. And if you are in a place that truly believes those are fair tradeoffs, it’s a no brainer… you should go.

The Saturday Read – Dominique Browning – ‘Slow Love, How I Lost My Job, Put on My Pajamas & Found Happiness’

At a time when the economy is improving, ‘disruption’ still causes businesses to fail and people lose their jobs. At our most confident pinnacle of success, we feel the shadow of ‘the next best thing’ that will replace the work we love. And yet, we typically ignore the signs that work is going away.

This week’s ‘Saturday Read’ is ‘Slow Love, How I Lost My Job, Put on My Pajamas and Found Happiness’ by Dominique Browning. It’s a meditation on success and what happens when work goes away.

Writing in The New York Times Book Review, Miranda Seymour provides the background for the narrative:

“In November 2007, House & Garden was abruptly closed down and its offices efficiently eviscerated, emptied of everything except the computers and some expensive bolts of fabric that management proved keen to retain. The change from busy, productive work space to security-guarded vacancy took just four days. The editor in chief of Architectural Digest, the tumbled magazine’s fiercest competitor within the Condé Nast empire, rubbed salt in the wound by publicly announcing that she intended to blacklist from her own pages all previous supporters of the fallen rival. “I felt,” Browning recalls, “as if I had walked into ‘Grimm’s Fairy Tales.’ ” 

The story of ‘Slow Love’ is about what happened after Ms. Browning lost her job. Prior to the memoir’s release in 2010, she wrote ‘Losing It’ for The New York Times Magazine.

“Work had become the scaffolding of my life. It was what I counted on. It held up the floor of my moods, kept the facade intact. I always worried that if I didn’t have work, I would sink into abject torpor.”

“I have always had a job. I have always supported myself. Everything I own I purchased with money that I earned. I worked hard. For the 35 years I’ve been an adult, I have had an office to go to and a time to show up there. I’ve always had a place to be, existential gravitas intended. Without work, who was I? I do not mean that my title defined me. What did define me was the simple act of working. The loss of my job triggered a cascade of self-doubt and depression. I felt like a failure. Not that the magazine had failed — that I had.”

How many of us are supported by the scaffolding of work? Are there termites chewing at the foundation?

Ms. Browning’s progress of triumph over adversity in a process she calls slow love, knowing what you’ve got before it’s gone.

“At the start of this journey, all I could think about was loss: lost work; my children who had left home; my house slipping from grasp; my parents slipping into their last years. Lost love, on top of it all, because I was finally forced to confront the failure of a relationship that had preoccupied me for seven years. Attachment, abandonment, misery – I was plagued, until, mysteriously, something in my brain shifted into a new gear, and I was no longer experiencing all the changes I was going through as the loss of everything I loved. Instead, I began feeling the value of change…and experience, events – yes, some of them calamitous – that have unexpectedly come to enhance the quality of my days.”

Visit Dominique Browning’s blog, ‘slow,love life’, to view her work today.

Finding a conversation about work in a post-apocalyptic novel

I’m reading National Book Award nominated ‘Station Eleven’ by Emily St. John Mandel. I’m about half way through this story of a post-apocalyptic world and in a ‘flash back’, we encounter a conversation about corporate life.

One of the characters, Clark, conducts 360 degree assessments with corporate leaders who are too valuable to an organization to lose. His job is to ‘fix’ them by providing feedback from co-workers. If you’ve spent any time in a corporate environment, you’ve either been the target or a participant in one of these exercises.

Clark (think George Clooney in ‘Up in the Air’, but everyone gets to keep their job) is meeting with Dahlia and the ‘target’ is Dan.

Dahlia starts with: “These people you coach, do they ever actually change? I mean in any kind of lasting notable way?”

Clark responds: “They change their behaviors…some of them..

A bit later Dahlia asserts: “Here’s the thing…I bet you can coach Dan, and he’ll probably exhibit a turnaround of sorts, he’ll improve in concrete areas, but he’ll still be a joyless bastard.”

She continues: “No, wait, don’t write that down. Let me rephrase that. Okay, let’s say he’ll change a little, probably if you coach him, but he’ll still be a successful-but-unhappy person who works until nine p.m. every night because he’s got a terrible marriage and doesn’t want to go home, and don’t ask how I know that, everyone knows when you’ve got a terrible marriage, it’s like having bad breath, you get close enough to a person and it’s obvious. And you know, I’m reaching here, but I’m talking about someone  who just seems like he wishes he’d done something different with his life, I mean really, actually almost anything – is this too much?”

The conversation goes on until Dahlia further illustrates her point: “I’m talking about those people who’ve ended up in one life instead of another and they are just so disappointed. Do you know what I mean? They’ve done what’s expected of them. They want to do something different but it’s impossible now, there’s a mortgage, kids, whatever, they’re trapped. Dan’s one of them.”

Clark: “You don’t think he likes his job then?”

“Correct,” she said, “but I don’t think he even realizes it. You probably encounter people like him all the time. High-functioning sleepwalkers, essentially.”

When he leaves the interview and walks out on the street, Clark realizes he has been one of those sleepwalkers himself. “…moving half-asleep through the motions of life for awhile now, years; not specifically unhappy, but when had he last found real joy in his work? When was the last time he’d been truly moved by anything? When had he last felt awe or inspiration?”

(This conversation takes place on pages 162-164 and we know that our characters are only three weeks away from the pandemic that will set off society’s collapse. The only thing we are missing is Clark passing the guy with the sandwich board and microphone in Times Square announcing “The end is near!”)

Here’s the thing. We read business books, professional journals. We attend conferences as we progress through our careers. But it’s on the weekend, on the beach, when we are reading a novel that we come upon a dialog that incorporates the key questions about our life at work.

This is why we read. At some point in the narrative, we enter the world the novelist creates and then she throws us a link to the world we live in and for a minute we are shocked by it’s relevance.

You may never read ‘Station Eleven’, although I recommend it – a great story. There may be another ‘great book’ on the shelf that resonates. In the end, to be our best at work, we need to be awake, not sleepwalking through our career.

Knowing when to leave…

One of the most difficult workplace decisions is choosing to leave a job you love.

This past week, Chris Borland, an American football player with the San Francisco 49ers announced his decision to leave the sport he loves after his first year in the NFL. This was probably the most public resignation from a dream job in recent memory. It reminds us that even if we love what we do, we need to constantly monitor workplace reality to maintain ownership of our career.

In an interview with CBS’s ‘Face the Nation’ program on Sunday, Mr. Borland said, “The decision was simple after I had done a lot of research and it was personal. I was concerned about neurological diseases down the road if I continued to play football, so I did a lot of research and gathered a lot of information and to me the decision made sense.”

For some of us, dangers in the workplace to both our health and our well being are the catalyst for change.

Former QVC host, Lisa Robertson, appearing on Good Morning America, shared her history at the shopping network and her decision to leave after 20 years. Her visibility and celebrity resulted in multiple stalkers threatening her life outside her workplace. “I would just lock myself in my house and then go to work.” There was no quality of life outside work.

For most of us, it starts as a doubt, an observation, a sense that something is not quite right.

Financial guru, Suze Orman in a Linkedin ‘Pulse’ interview described her decision:

“About a year ago, something started to change. I woke up one morning, and I knew that it was time to end the Suze Orman Show. There was no external trigger; just a feeling that I had shifted, not the workplace.

Could I have ignored that feeling and just keep on keeping on? Sure. But that would have been so disrespectful. To myself, and most of all to the viewers. I never wanted to give less than 100 percent. And let’s face it, if you stay on for the wrong reasons, your eventual exit will likely not be on your own terms. I wasn’t going to fall into that trap.”

Something had ‘shifted’. As we mature along our career paths, we are changing as the workplace changes. We revise our definition of success and dream fulfillment over time. If we are true to ourselves and ‘respect’ our calling, we have to know when to leave.

External realities can erode the dream until you arrive on a Monday and find you are living in a career nightmare. For Chris Borland and Lisa Robertson the consequences of pursuing their dream jobs far outweighed the benefits. For Ms. Orman, her experience reflects a process of transition that resonates with many. It was just time to go.

Her advice to trust your gut and let go offers the promise of transition.

“I can think of no more important career advice than to listen to your gut and to own the power to control your future.”

I am so excited to see what the future brings — I almost cannot wait to go to sleep at night just so I can wake up the next morning to see what gifts lie ahead.”

You may love your job. You may love what’s next even more.