Saturday, July 18, 2009

A Not-So-Inconvenient Renewal, Episode III: 1000 Managers

It looks like my last post has upset or turned off quite a few people. It is quite evident that to some readers, I'm coming across as a frustrated and arrogant little "Joe-know-it-all". It's not unusual for me to get that, and honestly, it is partly true(!).

What is also true is that the majority of my readership doesn't know me personally and therefore is not in the best position to fully appreciate where I'm coming from when I write some of my posts.

The discussion that followed the post (which by the way is the most interaction I've seen on my blog since I created it three and a half years ago) made me reflect on why am I the way that I am, why am I so passionate about good people management, and why I will sometime go overboard to push for my agenda.

I could trace the roots all the way back to high school, to a number of very formative experiences I've had in the numerous jobs that I have held, and to a series of specific incidents that I have been involved in since I joined the public service. To make a long story short, there's some history there, and it's only the kind of stuff that I share intimately with friends after a few glasses of wine. The take-away is that life shapes you as a person, as an employee... and as a blogger.

Don't worry, I will spare you the details before this post turns into a soap opera, but I will say that relatively few people are aware of the details of my journey in the public service. Those who are familiar with the stories are typically in disbelief when they find out about some of the situations I have experienced (and still am going through), and consequently have a different perspective when they later read my blog posts (not that they necessarily condone what I say).

Regardless, in my last post I breached to various degrees the three guidelines I had set for myself and tried my best to apply when I started blogging:
  1. Depersonalize the issues as much as possible. It's about ideas, not people.
  2. Be constructive rather than adversarial.
  3. Trade cynical comments for arguments that support what a lot of people are thinking quietly.
As a blogger, this is what I can (and should) be providing: a storyline, a rationale, a logical argument that most people are unable to express or unwilling to express publicly - much less in writing or on a blog.

I still have a lot to learn, but those are the general guidelines I normally use when I submit my post. In the case of "Revenge of the Contrarian Thinker", I will admit that I have failed my own censorship.

What is done is done, and as one of my readers wrote to me: "Don't apologize for feeling the way you felt when you wrote your post." If however my post has offended you or turned you off, I want to let you know that I am sorry.

Now on to better things...

I don't pretend to have invented renewal - I haven't. In fact, I never used the word "renewal" until PS Renewal was launched, and I was actually fairly critical of the choice of words in the introduction of "An Inconvenient Renewal".

So when I joined my current organization, saw the poor state it was in, and found a director who shared similar views about how he wanted to change it, we set out not to "renew" the organization, but simply treat employees the way we would like to be treated as employees. The PSES results may not be empirical evidence of renewal, but I like to think (perhaps naively) that it is currently the best (and only?) means available to measure the link between leadership, personal ownership, action, and results, as seen by employees. This is the reason why I tend to give so much weight to the PSES as an indicator of our efforts: the measures are consistent with the approach we took to renewal in our organization.

The so-called "renewal" experienced in my organization is not a new idea, nor is it innovative. What distinguishes our organization from others is that we have actually translated the ideas into actions, relentlessly pursued them, and made sure they reached every employee in every corner of the organization. As I keep repeating in my presentations and articles, there's absolutely nothing novel, complex or complicated in what we have done; the hard part is actually doing it, because you have to do it every single day.

You must be open to new and challenging ideas. You must be willing to have difficult conversations with employees. You must practice truth-telling. You must make unpopular decisions. You must welcome criticism. And you must apologize to employees and be held accountable for your missteps. I know few people willing to do all of this, and even fewer organizations where this is commonplace.

Managers must also believe that by putting people first, they will be in a better position to address the demands and pressures of their jobs. This, however, requires a significant investment upfront before seeing and appreciating the payoff.

So if it is true that most managers care for people management, then why are the people who find out about my organization's renewal story so inspired and hopeful for the future? Rather than risking to draw more criticism upon myself, I will leave it up to you, the readers of this blog, to propose your own explanation as to what the gap or problem is. I already have my own theory.

There is hope. My organization is a fairly small one: about 200 employees. In other words, we represent less than one thousandth (1/1000) of the federal public service. This also means that if 1000 managers who are each in charge of approximately 200 employees would take a similar approach to people management as we have done, the entire public service could undergo a pretty radical change.

1000 managers. Think of it. It is really not that many. The big question is: Who will those 1000 managers be?

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

A Not-So-Inconvenient Renewal, Episode II: Revenge of the Contrarian Thinker

Well, the last few weeks have been… hum… interesting to say the least. Indeed, I’ve met more challenges than what I expected with regards to release of the results of the Public Service Employee Survey (PSES) for my organization.

The first challenge came immediately after I circulated a preliminary analysis of the PSES where I compared the performance of my organization from 2005 to 2008. Very quickly, voices in my Department started to claim that "we can’t compare the results of the 2005 and 2008 surveys". So much in fact, that the direction provided to the managers was just short of instructing them not to compare the results. I found this most unfortunate, because the PSES provided a pretty detailed picture of the progress made by my organization and all the work that went into it, and now, some people almost seemed eager to sweep it all under the rug, as if it never happened. So much for performance management and the need to set measurable benchmarks!

The second challenge I faced was when I approached the Communications branch of my Department to find ways of sharing the story of the renewal experienced in my organization, thinking that it may be inspiring for managers to know that renewal is possible, and putting people first actually makes a big difference. Let’s just say that I didn’t exactly find the support I was hoping for, and I was literally stunned by the reasons I was given:
  • A link can be made with PS Renewal, and the Department is not the authority for PS Renewal and the PSES – the Clerk and the Chief HR Officer are. (Therefore the Department won’t authorize me to speak about our results on the PSES and our renewal story.)
  • We don’t want to draw any attention to any organization in particular. (So much for striving for excellence in the public service – instead, one should always try to reach for the lowest common denominator!)
  • The 2005 PSES results for my organization were so poor, that it may look bad on the Department. (But if we need to “renew”, isn’t it to change to something “better”? Because if that’s the case and if we end up with something “better”, we must at one point have started with something that was “worse” than what we have now…)
The third challenge came in the form of four requests I received to be removed from my mailing list in the days after I released “A Not-So-Inconvenient Renewal: What Happens When Managers Change the Way They Manage”. In itself, I have no problem with people asking me to be removed from my mailing list. But in this specific case, all four requests came from Executives of the public service. If anyone needs to pay a little attention to PS Renewal and the PSES, and how we can create better organization through improved people management, I would think it should be the 4000+ executives of the PS. Now I don’t have 4000 executives on my mailing list, but nevertheless, I thought four of them asking to be removed after receiving my document was four too many.

But before jumping to conclusions, I assumed for a moment that maybe their organizations were so well-run that they didn’t have anything to learn from our experience. So I tried to track down the PSES results for those four organizations and compare their numbers to ours. I could only identify one organization with certainty and get its PSES results for both 2005 and 2008, but happily it was also the organization for which the person who had written to me asking to be removed from my mailing list was the highest-ranking of the group: a CEO/President of a public service agency, who I assume is probably an EX-4, and most importantly, the person responsible for the entire organization!
The comparison is available here. Using the same methodology as I did in my previous analysis, I compiled the data in two tables:
  1. The 2005 and 2008 PSES results for my organization and this “undisclosed” organization.
  2. A direct comparison of the 2008 results between the two organizations.
Have a look at the numbers, and draw your own conclusions. Once again, the results speak for themselves. However, I will draw your attention to two questions in particular:
  • Q. 55. I believe that senior management has made progress toward resolving the issues raised in the 2005 Public Service Employee Survey.
  • Q. 54. I believe that senior management will try to resolve concerns raised in this survey.
It seems to me that these two all-encompassing questions provide a pretty good clue as to the kind of leadership we are likely to find in an organization, and should therefore be the first two questions managers consider if they take PS Renewal and the PSES seriously. So I invite you to do the same, and find out what are the PSES results to these two questions for your organization, and how it has progressed from 2005 to 2008.

By the way, if you happen to be the Clerk or the Chief HR Officer, and want to know who the four executives who asked to be removed from my mailing list are, feel free to give me a ring! ;-)