Sunday, September 6, 2015

Whatever happened to Labor Day Weekend!

It’s Labor Day Weekend: time to get ready to go to school next week! Oh Wait, school has been in session for two weeks already.

It’s Labor Day Weekend: time to put all the white outfits up for the winter! Oh Wait, here in the south, we wear white until it gets cooler in the middle of October. That goes for straw hats and seersucker too.

It’s Labor Day Weekend: time to celebrate the working American. One for three ain’t bad!

I’ve always been one of those people who wasn’t happy unless he was streaking across the sky at 500 miles per hour with his hair on fire. So it is not surprising to see that despite the fact that most of my high school classmates are retired that I’m still consulting part time three days a week and volunteering a fourth day doing a radio show at the station where I got my career started over 50 years ago. I get asked all the time when will I finally quit work altogether and completely retire. My response is not too soon. I am in the sweet spot of my career doing what I want to do and for the most part doing it on my own terms.

For me, the folks I worked with were more important than the work we did. From this vantage point I can look back over my career and see the high points and the low points. I can clearly see those who took me under their wing and those who threw me under the bus. Fortunately there were not too many of those. Even SOME of those who I thought were winding up to pitch me under the front tires were really dragging me along to get with the program. There were a couple who had no redeeming values but most everyone else had good hearts. No matter how hard the work was and no matter what the pressure was, it was my co-worker that made it all worth it. There is nothing like the camaraderie of working for a common goal.

Sadly, I am not optimistic that the millennials just entering the work force are going to have as good a career experience as I did. These days, in all work sectors, decisions that significantly affect the general worker and their supervisors are made by far away faceless bosses who are focused on the quarterly bottom line and not on making the lives of those who work for them better.

This is not a condemnation of “Corporate America.” Indeed large corporations have done a lot to elevate the standard of living in this country. Some of these big corporations have developed policies that promote the welfare of the people that make their corporate engines run. When they do, you see them paraded in the newspaper with the wonderful things they do. The best balance their employees with the bottom line and are generally rewarded with market growth and upwardly mobile stock values.

During my career I’ve worked for “mom and pop” businesses with as few as a dozen workers and giant corporations with over 100,000 employees. Part of that time, I was a leader of a team that was imbedded in the headquarters of some Fortune 100 companies. Most of the “employee centric” work experiences that I’ve had were in small businesses where there is daily direct contact between the line worker and the president or owner. In these cases, work is personal; the boss can directly see the effects of his decisions on his employees. One of the things that giant corporations have to be on the guard for is the tendency of middle management to deliver only positive information upwards. This is especially dangerous when a decision from on high generates a negative reaction from the workers on bottom of the pyramid that is hidden from the decision makers by middle managers. Having been a middle manager myself, I think this is one of the hardest roles in the corporate structure. It takes courage to buck the trend of delivering only good news to corporate leadership for fear of reprisals. The result of this is a cancer of discontent hidden in the bowels of the company that eventually displays itself and can be dealt with only by traumatic measures.

I have long been a student of leadership, having the opportunity to view it in both the public and private sectors. Over time it seemed that the most successful of leadership teams have both visionary leaders and operational leaders. The visionary says “we need to go there” and the operational leader says “this is how we do that.” Now, it seems to me that there is a third leg to the stool; the people person who says, “And this is how we build the team to get us there.”

Whenever it has been my pleasure to work with this “three legged stool” (one of the most used analogies in Corporate America), we worked long and hard, got the most done and had the most fun doing it. Happy Labor Day, everyone. Oh MY!

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