Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Frustration with a small "f"

When you see screaming headlines "I'M OUTTA HERE!" -- all in bold red, no less -- it is pretty hard to ignore. Even a casual subscriber to BusinessWeek could not have missed this article, subtitled Why Microsoft is Losing some Key Talent, on the cover of the Sept. 26th issue. Once you got past the MS-bashing slant of the story, which may or may not be deserved for all I know, I thought I sensed something else that was a broader message than just that people were bailing out of MS at a rate that made one think that maybe Redmond, WA was about to become a ghost town.

It isn't only BW that has been doing stories where the common thread from headline to headline is RETENTION. We have been reading about it ever since the McKinsey white paper on the War for Talent. Those who are seeking executive jobs are coming off the sidelines and getting back into the game.

In our own survey feedback, we see the "itch" manifesting itself in a different way as survey respondents talk about the degree to which they are unhappy campers and the degree to which they plan to do something about it sooner, rather than later.

As I read this cover story in BusinessWeek I wondered if in the years ahead we would be looking back on it as the same sort of "benchmark" that seemed to happen back in '92 when IBM announced to the world that it too was going to have layoffs. Hence, we all finally woke up to the fact that there never was anything "real" about the Puritan Work Ethic and "lifetime employment" in return for individual "loyalty" to the corporation was pure fiction.

The whole thing got me to wondering where the "breaking point" happens. What is it that causes people to "act" rather than simply complain when they feel that not everything is going their way? I have never met anyone in my life, myself included for sure, who arrived at work every morning or left it every night feeling like if the world needed a model for the most utopian organization on the planet, they need look no further. Just run us through the organizational Xerox machine and your troubles are over.

There is an old saying that goes something like: "There are two things that cause people to act: Inspiration and desperation." Maybe it ought to be re-worded to say "inspiration and big time frustration." The BW story outlined the reasons that many of the talented people at MS said they were jumping ship, and the common thread I saw was "frustration." Frustration at the change in culture that seems to happen as organizations move from the fluidity of start-up to one of becoming part of the "establishment." The change that seems to happen to so many companies when it goes from "us against the world" to "the world against us."

I think every company, big or small, sees this sort of thing going on. It certainly is nothing new, and they all are trying -- to varying degrees -- to avoid the consequences of a cultural change that turns "inspiration and dedication" into "frustration and desperation."

We are also all looking for answers. We are looking for the "universal solvent" for retention, especially in the age of the war for talent.

I not only know I don't have the answer, I sometimes wonder if I even have a "clue." As we and other companies struggle with this issue on a daily basis, I just keep coming back two words: Communications and Collaboration.

If you can create and maintain an environment where you are willing to constantly and consistently share information with everyone, coupled with a problem-solving process where people feel that it is about consultative collaboration, you at least stand a decent chance at retaining those people who can and will get "frustrated" but over the long haul it will hopefully be with a small "f" not a big "F." Even in those instances where a decision may not go their way or they might have felt if they were "king" they would do it differently, they will still go home at night and after a glass of wine will say to anyone who'll listen, "Yeah, they aren't perfect by a long shot, but the dumb bastards’ hearts are in the right place. At least they are trying."

People can be pretty understanding if they see effort.

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