I visited with a friend from college several weeks ago. He works in operations in the software services division for a major publicly owned corporation and was in Chicago for a tradeshow. It's a good gig for a good guy who can handle personal relationships like a three-card monte dealer can handle playing cards easy and effortless.
We chatted about old times, caught up on current affairs, and talked about the future. The current economy has weighed on him like a lot of people I know, and his job has become more stressful with the slowdown.
During this conversation, he shared a story with me that made me think. He was chatting with counterparts at a corporate get-together when they asked my friend how a guy from Louisiana, with an English literature degree no less, climbed the ladder to attain the position he had. My friend responded it was about communication and maintaining relationships with the customers. He added that the best way to keep those relationships solid was to do everything he could to support the people working for him.
A peer replied: "I would never say that. It's all about rewarding the shareholders."
Oops. The secret is out.
Obviously, my friend's counterpart at the same corporation has his eyes set on an office in the corporate suite. For him, his point of view is the truth. That doesn't mean it settles well with me.
I can't tell you the number of times I hear, "Our people are our greatest resource." I think I hear that more than "Hello. How are you?"
At many of the smaller companies I visit, I truly believe company management believes it. I can see it in their eyes when they talk about recent layoffs during this recession and hear it in their voice with the somewhat awkward pauses after they explain their last-ditch HR moves. More than likely, those companies held on as long as they could before making cuts, but even they had to take steps to ensure they might be in a position to bring some of those people back when business increases.
Of course, that doesn't cover all companies. Just walk through a shop with a manager and see how the shop floor guys react to him. Does he know their names? Do they care to pick up and recognize the company leader and his guest with the ill-fitting The FABRICATOR polo shirt? Does he have those silly motivational posters that are meant to inspire, but really represent the flat attempts he has made to connect with his work force? Perhap motivational posters like this and this would be more appropriate.
I don't mean this to be an indictment of business owners and management. Consider it a friendly warning. All people are replaceable, I know, but it may take years to replace key members of a team.
So how well does your management team know the work force? The young lady who cuts my hair set up on her own several months ago. She and four co-workers submitted their resignations simultaneously from the salon which they were employed simultaneously because they thought the owner didn't value what they brought to the salon. Today their former employer has closed up shop and is looking to merge with another salon owner, who lost four stylists around the same time after they decided to walk.
The manufacturing community is especially susceptible to unhappy workers. A recent poll, the Gallup-Heathways Well-Being Index, found that those in manufacturing are the least satisfied workers in the U.S. The polling organization constructed the "well-being" survey based on questions about how people feel and what is happening in people's work lives; their physical health; their emotional satisfaction; and their access to basic necessities such as food, shelter, and health care. The survey included more than 100,000 people employed in 11 different industry segments.
Sitting on top of the poll were business owners, followed closely by professionals and managers/executives. I'm betting their "people" made that possible.
That's the circle of capitalism in the U.S. A lot of people think the free enterprise system is based on aspiring to the American dream or is related to the Puritan work ethic. I disagree. It's fueled by the ability of crappy managers to piss off enough workers, forcing them to embrace entrepreneurialism and start up their own businesses.
In the end, it really is about an organization's work force, or potential competition, depending on the organization's managerial competence.