Friday, August 24, 2007

Business tips from the movies: avoiding a knife in the back

I saw a great movie en route to Seoul last week - Breach. It’s the true story of Robert Hanssen, a FBI double agent. Hansen was responsible for the deaths of half a dozen American agents, and the cause of untold damage to America’s national security.

The movie has been shot by Billy Ray, almost as a documentary. Ray has described the movie as “a story about lying in the pursuit of truth”. The tension never ebbs and the cold, chilling sets and tone feel totally believable. Even though you know how the story ends, you can still feel yourself being clouded by confusion and doubt.

Anyone in business will recognize and feel for this real life drama where everyday institutional office pressures are overlaid on the stresses of a typical family life. The acting is brilliant. Two primary characters, Hanssen, and FBI rookie, Eric O’Neill, are intriguingly interlinked, taking turns at playing on the insecurities of one another. There is a universal truth that lies at the heart of this movie; people who want to make a difference, and want to be known for something, need to be appreciated. It’s a theme I hold dear, and we must never forget just how important responsibility, learning, recognition and joy are to everyone in the work place. Create this sort of environment in your business and you are unlikely to be betrayed.


Susan said...

"...need to be appreciated" And dare I add, need to be recognised for contribution and time.

Having entered a few freelance tasks in the past months and trying to get a foot in the door in certain domains, I have experienced a different slice of employee existence. As a freelancer you rarely receive any of the elements Kevin outlines. I always ask for feedback and provide it - rarely do I receive. I tend to know the party has been pleased with me when I receive a phone call from someone to whom I have been recommended. My bonus is generally being able to work from home. Big plus for me and I work longer hours than most because I do wind up working nights and weekends.

On the other hand, in trying to enter new fields like marketing I am often needing to prove myself or demonstrate that I can actually achieve in this field. I have no problem with that and accept that a task may be set for me. However, I do object when a major task is given to me - one you know is important to the company - and they take the material outcomes and run and cut contact. I have enough confidence to know when I perform well and I resent my time and my work being taken in this manner. What to do however when you are not known as such, you only received that opportunity based on recommendation - and as a new kid that is rare - and have to offer your time more freely than those with a reputation?

I have walked away from scenarios over the past months where requests are made or processes outlined which, in my mind, were completely unethical. If your prospective boss asks you to cheat and lie to people then how can one presume one will be treated as an employee - and can you offer loyalty in such a context?

I heard some years ago that various US corporations employed a person to simply create happiness etc in the workplace. Not a jester :) but someone who could talk to individuals about what they would like to have to feel 110% personally and in the workplace. Now, if one has truly open communication and staffing is relatively small then such a person is not required and I think, in the ideal, they are not required. At the same time, some workplaces are vast spaces where movement is frequent and people coming together is often very task related and infrequent time is allocated to hear other issues.

I posed here to a corporation that I be employed as a 'house writer' and have a totally open brief. I could have done everything from helping executives and staff with university work to giving guidance to their children on such matters and then doing in-house jobs as they arose. That sort of notion generally doesn't fall within budget descriptions and is considered whacky :)

I feel leading people to experience joy and recognition needs to happen from the cleaners and the garbage collectors through to the top brass. I think people can assume a CEO et al are rewarded enough via salary and don't need to hear genuine commentary of recognition. I'm not talking butt kissing by the way. I'm talking about showing people some warmth in unexpected ways at unexpected times.

And don't forget who cleans the toilets and empties your circular file.

I agree loyalty is an important value and I believe it is a two way street.

Susan said...

May I add the following. There is no point in an employer stroking you for your expertise, admitting you know more about a central topic than they do, and then resenting your input - and resenting it badly - particularly when there is no job description and you were led to believe your expertise was valuable and desired.

The lesson here is this. Employers are, in my view, obliged to create the atmosphere that Kevin outlined. It is both correct interpersonal treatment and professionally sound. However, they must know *what it is* they are seeking in creating a job description/role. This does not mean positions may not be tweaked to suit an individual or indeed a fresh position created to take advantage of an individual's particular traits and expertise.

But it does mean that before the person commences with you that you need to know what it is you are asking them to do. Are you asking for initiative or do you resent this. Are you seeking their expert opinion or resent and are resistant to this. Do you want production line outcomes only. Know what you want.

An employee deserves to know what your philosophical and business position is. Please don't ask them to adhere to something that you cannot articulate but seem to frame as you go along. In this light, people are not experiments. A position MAY be experimental but if it is, approach that professionally, have daily or very frequent contact and know when the experiment needs to pause. Don't blame if the experiment traces a path you don't like. You set up the experiment - be responsible for it. Don't sit back for days building a head of steam up about something you could have dealt with proactively ages ago. Realise when your personal feelings of ownership and territory are impacting on your judgment and have possibly affected issues of information sharing and fair play.

Saatchi coin 'team' and if everyone takes the view that all that is done is a team activity, truly a team activity that has team benefit (read personal benefit as a natural outcome), then there should be no motivation to see individuals flounder or to not establish schema either from the outset or co-operatively in situ. This to me is sustainable process.

From my life experience, the worth of a business is often better judged by the reactions to said business from casual staff. Certainly often true in academe at the initial grades of contract tutor/marker.

Kevin Roberts said...

Susan - re happiness in the workplace: Schools in the UK are doing this too - in fact my old school Lancaster Royal Grammar is one of the pioneers. Teaching Happiness + Well Being - Beautiful!!

Susan Plunkett said...

That is very innovative and progressive indeed Kevin. Great to hear. On a solemn note, we hear about way way too many suicides in youth (particularly males) and I'm very supportive of programs that set out to establish hope, coping strategies and positive views about self and community.