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July 2010

On Leadership: Gilbert's Letter to Lebron - Leader or Looney?

By now, you know Lebron James (NBA megastar in pro basketball) has left Cleveland for Miami. This post isn't about Lebron.

It's not about how a hometown boy (Lebron grew up in Cleveland) leaves his economically depressedDan-gilbert hometown city on the side of the road, like the carcass of a raccoon that made the wrong choice when it saw the headlights come around the corner and had to make a quick decision about which way to run.

It's not even about the fact that the star in question produced a media frenzy that culminated with product placement of Vitamin Water while he claimed to be doing a incredible favor for the Boys and Girls club of America (unbelievable).

Because, after all, we live in a free agent nation from an employment perspective.

I'm obviously not bitter.

This post is about leadership.  More to the point, this post is about what you do when stars leave and your organization seems like it's reeling with self-doubt and uncertainty.

Let's define the players in this retention/leadership morality play. Dan Gilbert, owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, is your CEO (or manager, however you want to term it).  Lebron is the star that just left.  The employee base left reeling in self doubt is the city of Cleveland.

Gilbert had three choices to reassure his base.  He could:

1. Ignore it and hope everyone would be OK;

2. Do some soft communications to his base designed to reassure, but scrubbed by PR (or the next level manager if you're thinking about this occuring in the trenches) to make sure he didn't screw up; or

3. He could turn that mother out and push the send button, telling everyone how he really felt without any kind of filter.  Transparency rules above and all else with this option.

Which option is the right one?  As with many things in life, it depends.


Dan Glibert chose option #3 as a leader in Cleveland.  The result was one of the most bombastic letters to an employee base (really fans, but work with me) in the history of man.  Go read the letter in it's entirety here. Go read it now.  It's that good. Or bad. I'll wait for you to come back.


You're back.  Wasn't that amazing?  Whatever your reaction, the letter has elements of a playbook for reassuring your base as a leader.  You just have to decide how far you want to go.  Here's a rundown of the elements that matter in the letter, and how you could use them to reassure a team, a company, or a city once a star has decided to leave:

1. Acknowledge the specific person who's left.  Gilbert did this through the quote below.  Now, you might not want to burn the former employee like Gilbert did, I get that.  But mention the person by name. You'll get credibility points for being direct and real and not talking a bunch of PR smack that doesn't matter.  You could also wish him well instead of being crazy aka Gilbert below.

How Gilbert acknowledged the specific person leaving:  "As you now know, our former hero, who grew up in the very region that he deserted this evening, is no longer a Cleveland Cavalier. This was announced with a several day, narcissistic, self-promotional build-up culminating with a national TV special of his "decision" unlike anything ever "witnessed" in the history of sports and probably the history of entertainment."


2. Tell your base what you think they deserve.  Doing this shows you give a damn and show's you're connected to how they feel.

How Gilbert told the fans what they deserve: "Tomorrow is a new and much brighter day.... I PROMISE you that our energy, focus, capital, knowledge and experience will be directed at one thing and one thing only:  DELIVERING YOU the championship you have long deserved and is long overdue..."


3. If you're feeling a bit chippy, and the star left to join a competitor, take a pot shot toward the competition.  Go ahead, it's good for morale.

How Gilbert acknowledged addressed the competitor: "The self-declared former "King" will be taking the "curse" with him down south. And until he does "right" by Cleveland and Ohio, James (and the town where he plays) will unfortunately own this dreaded spell and bad karma."

4. Close big with a statement that, regardless of the defection, you remain confident that your company is going to win, and that you'll do what it takes to provide the resources to win.

How Gilbert acknowledged the future of the company/team/fanbase: In the meantime, I want to make one statement to you tonight: "I PERSONALLY GUARANTEE THAT THE CLEVELAND CAVALIERS WILL WIN AN NBA CHAMPIONSHIP BEFORE THE SELF-TITLED FORMER 'KING' WINS ONE" (caps from the actual letter). You can take it to the bank."

Dan Gilbert was a leader in the face of one of the most visible employee retention issues ever.  Some of you read that letter and think Gilbert's crazy.  You might be right.  Don't forget that regardless if you think he went too far, he's a leader.

Cleveland as a city is an organization.  The employee base is down.  Gilbert took a shot at leading and went extreme. You may call him crazy.  I might agree with you. But he's a leader.  Who in Cleveland didn't on some level appreciate that Gilbert was standing up for them?


That's what leaders do.  They speak transparently from the gut and take chances.


PS - If you're really mad about something, write the Gilbert letter and then wait 24 hours.  If it still feels good after that delay, THEN you can push send... You're not a billionaire.  He is.

3 Questions an Investigating HR Pro Would Ask Al Gore...

I've got a saying in the employee relations side of the HR game - "allegations are free".  They don't cost anything, and someone can say pretty much anything they want about someone else.  That's one of the things that's a little screwed up in America now.  We've got free speech (nice!!), but we rarely punish those who are engaged in slander or other fancy words related to talking about someone else in ways that are untruthful.

So what do you do when someone makes a crazy allegation about a fine, upstanding citizen?  In the workplace, the HR pro is brought in for a game I like to call "find out the truth", or "who's lying".  The game is otherwise known as the Al_gore
"employee investigation."

Here's how it works - Employee A makes an outlandish allegation about Employee B ("he touched me"), and the call goes into HR.  The HR pro parachutes into the location and usually starts by interviewing the person who's making the allegation.  After interviewing that person, the HR pro will make an interview list and interview everyone who was involved - directly as well as those who were potential witnesses.  She'll also look for records, digital footprints, etc. - anything that can prove the location of people at specific times, etc.

The good HR pro can take that information, do a bunch of interviews and break down the situation and get as close to the truth as possible.  At that point, decisions get made regarding whether someone's going to get fired, how we're going to respond to the person making the allegations, etc.

For example, consider the allegations made against Al Gore by a Portland area massage therapist.  Here's a simple report of the allegations (which are free - did I mention that?):

"An Oregon masseuse filed a complaint last year accusing Al Gore of sexual abuse following a nearly three-hour massage session at an upscale Portland hotel in 2006, reports the Portland Oregonian.

The alleged incident took place at the Hotel Lucia Oct. 24, after the masseuse, 54, was called by the hotel to administer a late night massage to a "VIP" client, who was later identified as Gore, 62, the former U.S. Vice President, senator from Tennessee and Nobel Prize-winning advocate for the environment."

I have no clue on the true facts of this case.  I'm inclined to believe Al Gore before I believe the backrubber.  Call me crazy, former VP's get that nod from me.

However, I'm a career HR pro.  If I had to investigate it and determined initially that Al was denying anything happened, I'd look for a paper trail that the backrubber actually got dispatched to Gore's room.  Then I'd break down the following three questions before I even asked Al about the abuse allegations:

1. "Did you get a massage in your room on the night in question?"

2. "When you got the massage, were you alone in your room with the massage therapist who's making the allegation?"

3. "Did the massage last nearly three hours"

Here's what you get out of that line of questioning.  Question #1, I'm simply looking to establish the fact that a massage did occur.  Most people are going to be truthful on that point.  Question #2 establishes the scene that leads to a "he said, she said" situation, but also leads to a follow-up question along the lines of "with all your experience in the public arena, surely you've been coached that it's a bad idea for you to be alone in a silk robe with someone you don't know of the opposite sex in your hotel room".  Question #3 is an establishment of fact that leads to a "Tell me what you do in a 3 hour massage, because I've never been involved with that.  Isn't that longer than average by about, say, 2+ hours?

PS - you don't ask any follow-up questions until you move through the entire slate of questions #1-#3 above.  In a real investigation, I'd run through a list of 10-20 questions that I scripted before I'd do any follow-ups.  Follow-ups tip people off on the direction you're heading. The whole line of questioning in any employee relations interview is designed to establish facts, narrow wiggle room and probably most importantly, allow you to pose follow-up questions on judgment that might be important when it's all "he said, she said" and you're trying to figure out what you're going to do after the investigation is complete.

A good HR pro can get to the truth.  Even if they have to break down people like Al Gore in the interview room.

Why Actual HR Directors Don't Speak at the Annual SHRM Conference..

If you do the math, the vast majority of speakers at every SHRM National Conference are vendors and consultants, not practitioners.  Why is that?

The topic came up when I was reading a post yesterday by Tim Sackett over at Fistful of Talent on What I Wish I Learned at SHRM10.  Tim did a nice job of breaking the conference down and moaned a bit about the lack of practitioners presenting at SHRM.  I hit him up in the comments and asked him why he thought that was the case, year after year.  Here's what Tim pointed to regarding why there aren't any practitioners speaking at SHRM:

"1. Process to speak is a year in advance - most HR Pros are fighting fires daily and it just doesn't come to mind to fill out a form to speak a year from now. Plus they don't have the "past" experience necessary to make it thru the SHRMAudience vetting process. Maybe a good idea for SHRM would be to have Practitioner Track - where so many spots are only given to active HR Pros to speak - at least you'd know what you're getting.

2. Unless you're "in" the speaking circuit - you really don't know how to become involved. I didn't get started until someone invited me to speak - I thought that was how it worked - it doesn't.

3. The majority of HR Pros I know - great HR Practitioners - would be afraid to speak in front of a large audience - it's a very small percentage that would - then even a smaller percent that would actually have something wise to say and be entertaining. My guess is about .01% of HR Pros could be successful speaking - but that still leaves thousands that aren't putting in to speak.

4. There is a WIIFM issue - HR Pros struggle to see the greater value for them is engaging in their practice of HR and becoming more involved. The Speakers and HR Vendors who do speak clearly have the WIIFM answered - and it's why they come in droves to present.

5. The majority of people don't think what they have to say is important - that's just a fact - and it holds people back. Some of my best learning at conferences comes in one-off's with a fellow HR Pro who is very talented but would never put their ideas out to the masses.

6. No recruitment committee by SHRM to go out and get top HR Practitioners to speak. You and I both have been invited to speak at a number of events - and once invited, it's very hard to turn down."

Tim's right on all his points.  Still, there's a mixture of responsibility here.  SHRM can do more to seek practitioners out who would be effective, entertaining speakers, and this just in - HR practitioners have to be open to stretching themselves in this way, especially if they've got the credibility/communication skills to make it work.  Two way street - both SHRM and you (yes, I'm talking to you if you're reading this) can do more to step up.

Not many practitioners have the skills to speak at SHRM national - but some are. If you’re seeking credibility as an HR pro, you not only need to know more about the competencies of HR than that blowhard VP of engineering at your weekly meetings, but you also have to be willing to engage him in front of others when it comes to talent topics. Dave Ulrich calls this the "credible activist" competency, and it means you step forward and advocate for your position on any topic related to your function. You’re the expert, so talk! Engage! Fight!

Public speaking is a good way to do that.  Stretch yourself at least once in 2010 by speaking to a group outside your company. You may never present in the big room at SHRM - you might not be good enough. Who cares?  The Rotary Club is a great place to get your credible activist game on. 

Just do it. Small steps.

Become a Better Manager By Losing More Arguments...

It's pretty simple when you stop to think about it.

Want to be a great manager?  Your style doesn't matter.  You can be the a##hole, the nice boss, the loud gal, the meek mouse, whatever.  The secret is the same.

You have to be able to let a direct report win once in awhile when you disagree, even when you know you're right.

It starts by being willing to have a conversation with the folks you manage.  Not you talking or thinking about what you're going to say next while they're talking.  Actually listening to what they're saying.

When you see that they're really passionate about how they want to handle a situation, let them do it their way once in awhile. Especially if you've told them you recommend they do something else.

Why? A funny thing happens when the folks you manage see that you're OK with them doing something other than what you recommend. They feel more like a peer, which opens up a lot of doors. Most notably, they become more receptive to your feedback when you MUST have them do it your way. 

Stop thinking it has to be done your way every time. 

Advantage = You.

When Sh#t Happens - The Impact of Random Events on CEO Performance...

Truth - we've talked about performance so much in the human capital biz that there's a dark little secret that we don't want to acknowledge.

Sometimes, sh#t just happens.  When it happens, it has nothing to do with someone's skill level. Or maybe it does.  As it turns out, the secret to measuring performance in any job is probably understanding what that person could control, and allDrunkard things being equal, how that person reacted from a performance standpoint.

Why is this on my mind?  I was at the beach last week and one of the books I read was "The Drunkard's Walk": How Randomness Rules Our Lives". I've always been fascinated with the impact of probability and chance on world events and our personal lives, and as it turns out, random events and the science of probability is very much at play when you start comparing employee A vs. employee B when they're in the same job.

Prepare to be blown away if you open your mind just a little bit.  From "The Drunkard's Walk": How Randomness Rules Our Lives":

"Let's apply the idea of the Bernoulli process to an example I mentioned briefly in the another chapter - the situation in which two companies or employees compete head to head.  Think now of the CEO's of the Fortune 500 companies. Let's assume that, based on their knowledge and abilities, each CEO has a certain probability of success each year (however his or her company may define that).  And to make things simple, let's assume that for these CEOs successful years occur with the same frequency: 60% (Whether the true number is a little bit higher or a little lower doesn't affect the thrust of this argument).  Does that mean we should expect, in a given five-year period, that a CEO will have precisely three good years?

No. As the earlier analysis showed, even if the CEOs all have a nice cut and dried 60% success rate, the chances that in a given five-year period a particular CEO's performance will reflect that underlying rate are only 1 in 3!  Translated to the Fortune 500, that means that over the past five years about 333 of the CEOs would have exhibited performance that did not reflect their true ability.  Moreover, we should expect, by chance alone, about 1 in 10 of the CEOs to have five winning or losing years in a row. What does this tell us? It is more reliable to judge people by analyzing their abilities that by glancing at the scoreboard.  Or as Bernoulli (KD note - this is a forefather of the law of probability) put it, "One should not appraise human action on the basis of results."

Going against the grain in this way requires character.  For while anyone can sit back and point to the bottom line as justification, assessing instead a person's actual knowledge and ability takes confidence, thought, good judgment and well, guts.  You can't just stand up in a meeting and yell, "Don't fire her.  She was just on the wrong end of a Bernoulli series (i.e. small sample size). Nor is it likely to win you friends if you stand up and say of the fellow who just sold more Camry's than anyone in the history of the Toyota dealership, "It was just a random fluctuation."

Think about that for a second.  With all talent factors being equal, the law of probability shows that in the CEO example above, 1 of 10 CEOs will have 5 winning or losing years in a row.  Ugh.  That kind of makes the performance scene more convoluted than it already was.

It's easy to think about some random events that impacted CEO performance in the past.  Recessions, 9/11, etc.  What we tend to discount is that there are less global random events that impact the same set of CEOs every month.

If you have any interest in the odds of chance in various gambling games or want to intellectually think about performance issues including the lens outlined above, I highly recommend "The Drunkard's Walk"  It's a good read and Mlodinow does his best to keep it interesting, but be prepared for a thicker than normal grind in this read.  After all, it's about probability theory.

When you think about it, part of what HR pros do is elongate the performance process in bad situations to ensure a big enough sample size.  The next time you hear someone say, "HR just wants to slow me down and won't let me fire the dead weight", you say the following:

"I think they're just protecting you against the wrong end of a Bernoulli process".

Believe that...

China Gorman's First Blog Post... Customer Service: Arresting Your Customers or Delivering Happiness?

Capitalist Note: China Gorman is the former COO of SHRM and an absolute rockstar in the human capital game.  She's been an inspiration to many of us working in the trenches of HR, and her accessibility, candor, giving nature and leadership make me proud to be an HR pro.  She's so good at engaging those around her that she made me reconsider the role SHRM can play in my professional career, which is a feat on the scale of having the Sunnis and the Shites line up, hold hands and sing "we are the world" with George Bush, Dick Cheney and Hanson. 

China resigned from SHRM in May and is now considering her next move, which means she'll undoubtedly be managing a P&L bigger than the GNP of Mexico within the next three months - if that's what she wants to do. I consider China a friend, a role model and, as of today, a fellow HR, business and leadership blogger at chinagorman.wordpress.com (go subscribe now, people..). To help her launch her blog, I'm proud to make her the first guest blogger in the history of The HR Capitalist.  Take it away, China...

As business leaders and HR professionals, we all know about the close relationship between employee satisfaction and customer satisfaction.   I witnessed an amazing breach of this relationship recently on an airplane.  (Where else?)

I was returning home from a weekend in New York City and was a customer in the lab experiment we call theFlight_Attendants_From_The_Past_50_pics__64 airline industry.   It was Sunday night. The weather was pretty awful.  The plane was full of tired vacationers, uptight business travelers and more than one crying baby.  The flight crew was stressed and cranky.  Me?  I was just grateful for my upgraded seat in first class.  And, as I always do while flying, I was buried in my Kindle, reading.  This time I was reading Delivering Happiness by Zappos CEO, Tony Hsieh.

The weather was so bad that we were in a holding pattern over our intended destination for 2+ hours.  We ran low on fuel and had to divert to a close-by airport.  We pulled up to the gate and the pilot let us know that we could get off and get food and exercise if we wanted to, but to stay close to the gate; we’d leave as soon as we got clearance. 

If you’re a frequent traveler and have the ability to upgrade to first class, you often overhear the flight attendants talking in the galley.  While we were at the gate and the door was open, all 3 flight attendants were up there and not very quietly complaining about how this diversion was going to screw up their work week and .  They also had a few choice words for some of the passengers.  From time to time a passenger would walk up and ask for an update on the time of departure so they could call their family.  These requests were met with increasing levels of impatience. 

And then there’s me:  quietly reading Delivering Happiness while the drama unfolded.  Talk about irony!  Here’s the passage I was reading when the wheels came off of the customer service part of the passenger experience that day:  “…we decided a long time ago that we didn’t want our brand to be just about shoes, or clothing, or even online retailing.  We decided that we wanted to build our brand to be about the very best customer service and the very best customer experience.  We believe that customer service shouldn’t be just a department, it should be the entire company.”

The noise level back in coach was escalating so I turned around to see what the commotion was.  A customer was standing in the aisle and was being baited by the flight attendant:  “You really think we’re doing this on purpose? You really think we want to be stuck here with you? Now just sit down and shut up!”  This was said in a pretty menacing voice and with the congruent body language that was truly in his face.  The passenger snapped and pushed her away.  That was it.  The flight attendant started ranting “you can’t put your hands on me” as she stomped up the aisle to the galley, got on the phone and called the police.  Not airport security, the police!  And 5 minutes later two big police officers came on board and took the passenger and his wife and his baby off the plane.  Pretty stunning.  Even more stunning was the reaction of the flight attendants!  They high-fived each other (no kidding) and were all smiles.  And all I could think of was what I had just read:  “We believe that customer service shouldn’t be just a department, it should be the entire company.” 

Now, clearly, a passenger should never touch a flight attendant.  And so that needed to be dealt with.  But the flight attendant very clearly created that situation and that outcome.  And the glee with which she called the cops spoke volumes about a culture that just isn’t focused on the customer experience.   Actually, I’m not sure what that culture is focused on.  I just know it isn’t focused on great customer service.

So here’s the point:  when the customer and customer service employees are enemies, no good can come from that.  No good if you’re a passenger who yearns to be treated like a human and not like one of a herd and just wants to go home.  No good if you’re an employee who longs to be part of something bigger, better and more affirming.  No good if you’re a union bargaining for higher pay, less costly benefits and job security.  No good if you’re a money-losing company in a money-losing industry that competes hard for every customer and struggles with customer loyalty.  No good if you’re a shareholder of the company and are looking for a positive return on your investment.  And no good if you’re a cop who would really rather be fighting crime than mediating between a company and its customers.

The rest of the passengers became very quiet and subdued for the remainder of the flight.  But when we finally did reach our destination and the flight attendants were saying their buh-bys with their fake smiles, not one passenger smiled or spoke back to them.  I waited to be the last to deplane so I could see if the passengers made any connection with the flight attendants.  Not one of them did.  And guess what?  I didn’t either.

There are lots of questions here for all of us in leadership and HR positions.  The ones I keep asking myself are: 

· What messages are we sending our employees about how we care for them? 
· What messages are we sending to our employees about how we want them to care for our customers?

As someone who’s spent as much as 100% of my work life traveling, I’ve commented frequently that the traveling public’s expectations for airline travel are so low that we’re satisfied when just two things happen:  that we get to our destination on the day we expect and that our luggage arrives with us.  I have a third one now:  that the airline doesn’t call the cops on us when we complain!

As for Delivering Happiness, Zappos and Tony Hsieh, more on that in an upcoming post ON MY NEW BLOG!  Come visit me at http://chinagorman.wordpress.com.  I hope to have conversations on HR, leadership and business success – oh wait, that’s all the same thing!  So join me when you can.

And thanks to Kris Dunn, my favorite capitalist for hosting my maiden voyage on the blogging waters.  He is at the same time, my buddy, The Man and the best!

What Would an HR Capitalist Do? She'd Cut Through the BS by Asking For Forecasts and Probability...

Who are the HR Capitalists? They're a group of HR Pros who like free markets, pop culture, high performing talent and a business plan with upside. They look for the big win in every organization they serve, and if a big win isn't available or tolerated, they'll be gone in the next 180 days - even in a crappy economy.  They represent 9.2% of the entire HR population, and this series is designed to answer the question every HR Pro should ask when faced with a scenario that sucks and might threaten their career - what would an HR Capitalist do?


"Trust But Verify". Ronald Reagan

"I don't want you to be the guy in the PG-13 movie everyone's *really* hoping makes it happen.  I want you to be like the guy in the rated R movie, you know, the guy you're not sure whether or not you like yet. You're not sure where he's coming from.".  Vince Vaughn in "Swingers"


If quality conversations are the currency of any organization, than a lot of HR pros get IOUs instead of cash.  That sucks. You can't buy a new Camry or Madden 2011 with IOUs.  The morality play that occurs in any organization related to your role as a HR lead is as follows:

1. You're viewed as responsible for making sure "stuff related to people" goes Forecast_510 OK. (that's what's known as a trap where I'm from)

2. Even though you're responsible, you're usually not the one having the conversations with the aforementioned "people".  You provide oversight and counsel.  They have the direct reports and manage. It's kinda awkward for you to be in the room when conversations happen holding the equivalent of cue cards. The employee just ends up looking at you while the manager talks, even when you point to help them understand who to watch.  Bad mojo.

3. Since you can't be in the room, you coach your managers and your team on the situation at hand and tell them what you'd do/say. They take notes. Some write it down word for (freaking) word. Confidence on how it's going to go in your mind drops.

4. They go have the necessary conversation.  The office gets eerily quiet for a day.  Kind of like right before a big thunderstorm hits.

5. You follow up with your customer, the manager.  "How did it go?", you ask.  "It went great", the manager replies, adding, "She didn't even have any questions or talk any, so it was easy".

6. You take the response for what it is, saying, "OK - let me know if anything seems like it's changed".  Then you go back to your office and vomit and curse your lack of leverage in the situation.

What? You don't curse your lack of leverage in that situation? You should. You're not a player in the game if you don't care enough to do that.

The problem is you're expected to provide counsel, but have no authority to hold anyone truly accountable until it all goes to hell. So you need to create some authority where none exists.

That's why the next time you get to step #6 above, I don't want you to be the person in the PG-13 movie everyone's "really hoping makes it happen".  Like Vince Vaughn, I want you to be like the person in the rated R movie, you know, the one you're not sure whether or not you like yet. It's necessary.

You can be that person when you most need to by asking for a forecast or probability, which forces the person you're helping to take a position on how well the conversation really went.

Probability forecasts have been used for decades by sales executives to cut through the BS of fluffy sales estimates. Here's how it works for you:

-Go through steps 1-5 as outlined above.

-When you're having the follow-up conversation with the manager in question, ask for a probability estimate.  Something like, "what's the probability Cheryl's going to resign as a result of what you told her?".  On the recruiting front (especially if you're dealing with a too-frugal manager) you might use, "what's the probability Brad's going to accept the offer you have in mind?".  Then make the manager in question give you a percentage probability.

I know, I know. You're saying "Big deal, KD, so I made them give me a percentage.  So what?  They can still do whatever they want". 

Glad to see the cynic in you come out.  Well played, but you're not done with the concept of probability forecasts yet.  The final step is to share the probability with stakeholders who matter in your organization. Stakeholders like the department head to whom the manager in question reports.  You don't even have to be mean, just be factual.  Try sending that department head a complementary note along the lines of, "Seems like John did a nice job in that conversation with Cheryl.  Tough situation and he estimates that there's only a 10% chance Cheryl's going to leave as a result of the message he had to give her."

Make sure John knows you're sharing the probability.  Watch the focus and attention to detail sharpen in the future.  Watch the forecasted probability become more realistic over time.

Advantage: You.