The One Thing

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“The one thing” was popularized in the Billy Crystal movie City Slickers back in a day when ‘dress for success’ was the calling card of the right wing future business leading alzheimerians of the morning in America crowd queued up daily for brand name tee shirts on their way to living the dream. And it was in this mob milieu that I came of age professionally as a so-called compensation expert. People lined up at my door everyday for help with their compensation problems. They didn’t actually know that pay was the problem, but that’s what the sign on my door read, so why the surprise?

Seriously, there were lines and I even had a secretary and a few clerks to keep track of all the compensation, and all the compensation problems. Of course I had competition. There were lines at a few of the other doors as well. Some people thought the problem was safety and working conditions. Others thought it was benefits. Training always had a crowd. Way before Janice went all touchy feely in the Sopranos, the confetti fluffy feels good feels emanating from the likes of Kirkpatrick and Kerr and even Ativan were sedating; essentially the reality that training had a learning curve and an entertainment quotient was self-reinforcing to an overloaded pipeline of the confused. And then there was the OD crowd, a solitary cabal of anarchists posing as obsequious savants to the insecurities of the growing mass of ever-servile swooning CEOs. These would be the “I did my research in first class” bloodless bosses many of us would come to apologize for to employees everywhere. And don’t even get me started on the work life door. Behind this door corporate misfits flopped in conference gatherings with their beads and post-its and leadership séances. Oh my god.

And that’s the way it was and I’m betting is the way it has always been. Organizations diagnose, 3 syllables can be off-putting to some, their issues through either the neglected desperation of the scattered amateurs bossing the trenches each left alone to guess the source of their obvious problems – turnover, bad morale, poor quality, rumors, skill deficits, and generally ineffective work programs and on and on and on. Or organizations can rely dependably on a quick diagnosis from a blind CEO, and let’s agree most are, with a gift for the instant panacea. Imagine “I heard it on a jet plane” to the catchy funk of ‘heard it through the grapevine’ and you are closer than you know to the reality of many a corporate hangover that has lasted for decades, kind of like Guantanamo.

Two examples that defy explanation, and there is not a wit of exaggeration here, but you can be forgiven for suspending belief. These creatures actually were conceived and perpetrated on helpless employees and shareholders in Fortune 50 companies! First Medtronic, a corporation self-renowned for the brightest people on the planet with the righteous dream of restoring people to full life, spent nearly two years herding leaders around the world into days long conferences to discuss confidence. Pretty sure Rosabeth Moss Kanter did not have this in mind with her book, unless as a footnote to caution. The objective might have been to inspire, but the reality of a crowd of 500 people flown in from around the world tasked with academically breaking down the ingredients of confidence under the watchful malpractice of hired facilitators is a horror story that still keeps me up sometimes. Like alchemists of old, they wanted the recipe. Yes, breakout groups, silly stories from listless lifers, Napoleonic decrees from some little guy who couldn’t see over the microphone without the considerable assist of lifts and phone books, all aimed at restoring leaders to full confidence on top of the puffy psyches of leaders who had never led. My boss was called out for confusing a scrotum with a sternum, which worked wonders on his confidence. Balls you say? You would be quite accurate. This was all done with the ever so serious objective of restoring confidence to an organization that had not been led in years. I so want to punctuate this paragraph with a question mark, but you can use your imagination.

Or there was the Motorola. Yes there was the Motorola. It is no more. This former behemoth of bewilderment spent years pedaling a CEO-inspired vision, marketed with characteristic incompetence, with the meaningless yet paradoxically confusing name ‘Individual Dignity Entitlement’, or IDE. In fact, it was simply an early predecessor of Medtronic’s Confidence initiative, except IDE was inspired to bring confidence to the workers. IDE was a top down CEO infected idea requiring each department and division to keep statistics on every employee’s answers to 5 variations on the “do you love me?” template. No poetry, just bureacratic pablum shoved down the throats of 60,000 employees around the world. With statistics reported in pretty colors on whole forests of still-smelling shitty wood pulp.

Given its egalitarian intent it was superior to the Medtronic years lost in the forest of no confidence, but not so much as to make it viable or even remotely connected to corporate success. Imagine your best boss or bosses through your career? What if they had been required, mandated to talk with you on a quarterly basis just to inquire on your self-esteem as it relates to feeling loved? This is exactly what this crying baby of an idea was. Rolled out shortly after drug-testing was implemented, one has to wonder about the timing. I mean how long do those bad drugs stay in your system? Chris is the Chad of terr, but worse because he is in charge. As it turns out, and no surprise it lasted only barely long enough for the ‘for sale’ signs to be posted. Motorola should have focused on a nepotism initiative with a coup détat chaser. Motorola lost its motor and is no more. Corporate dignity rusts now mixing with the tears of employee dignity it crushed. Some say it may be glimpsed still, on stormy days as her wreckage lies sunk in the depths of Lake Michigan. It should be a Superfund Site.

All of which is neither rambling nor exaggeration as the preamble to the answer to the ever-real question, existential really — ‘What is the One Thing’ organizations should do to engage the talent they are so desperate to harness? The answer is perversely two things, money and leaders. You can quit reading now, as I’m pretty sure you have a meaningless meeting on your calendar to talk at your employees. And if your organization is not in possession of leadership, money is a useless condiment anyway. So if you want to continue pushing the rock up the hill log off and get to the meeting and talk down per your agenda. If you want to know what employees really want, which translates to what should organizations should do to engage talent, which is all about the elegance of knowing the provenance of success, then abracadabra voilà.

It was Jack Palance who played the wiry old cowboy in possession of this golden clue in that City Slickers movie. Palance had played the role of Paladin in an earlier era. My boss was of this era, and she was one of the rare ones who got it. I mean she understood the corporate world for what it was better than most of us ever would. She used her knowledge for herself and made better than most. She is one of the few that would sift through all the silly ideas, and filter them for reality, a little like a Mrs. Miyagi.

Since that golden age of random enlightenment all manner of culture surveys, conjoint analyses, houses of quality and various other uber sophisticated, not to be confused with apt, tools have been issued. Naturally a whole rabble of consultants were conceived and knighted as expert in their application. Such erudition, the product of all this expertise and these magical tools, was truly prodigious. Give a compliment where it is deserved. The motivation of billing rates and billable hours is staggering to behold. And when the bills arrive, you are the one staggering if you are allowed by your CFO to stand at all.

Which gets directly to the point. The one thing is money! It is money, it is money, it is money. Go to the board Lisa and write this 500 times. Bart already knows it so he gets a pass. I have read countless conjoint analysis studies, more than a few executive compensation analyses, dozens of sales assessments, and corporate goal packages out the kazoo, and most of them are filled with filler. Filler is all the stuff that is not money in the pockets of your employees. That’s the only thing they want. The only thing is money. Nothing else matters. Employees do not want or need filler. Simple enough, show me the money is not just a thing for Jerry Maguire.

So what about work life programs, fancy benefits adders, more paid time off, improved vesting schedules, training initiatives, customer or quality jags, etc.? I heard you. You were asking if all of these things are of no value. Of course they have value. Just don’t substitute them for money. Don’t tell me you are paying at market so no raises, oh but look over here, we have a new vacation vesting program, a new nursing mothers’ room, and on and on the drivel goes. Put it into cash that goes in your employees’ pockets. That is all.

Of course it is not that simple. It is however, the conclusion Google reached a few years back after conducting a customarily rigorous conjoint analysis. It is the same result I have observed myself with organizations as disparate as global high tech organizations and non-governmental organizations, NGO’s, and their governmental counterparts as well. I have even seen similar conclusions in my church. Money is the one thing. And frankly if you can’t show your people how your basic infrastructure programs easily translate into money in their pocket, you are missing the point and soon you will be missing employees.

So it’s money, agreed? OK, it’s more complicated you’re right. There is this thing called the trinity. It is true. In the name of money, and in the spirit of silenced employees through history, the first line leader completes the trinity, the three in one of the enlightened organization.

Paladin and Palance and Curly too, each character knew this intuitively. Billy Crystal finally figured it out when he got in trouble. They each knew in their respective characters that there is always a pivotal personality involved in any success. And in the modern organization, this is the first line leader. The first line leader is the holy grail of any organization. Perhaps it is divinely inspired reciprocity that the first line leader is also the holy grail to the employee.

Of course employees want nothing more than a first rate first line leader. Really this is the only thing people really want in any relationship, work and otherwise. The idea of associating with someone who cares about you and has your back is fundamental to every rung on Maslow’s hierarchy. If there is any doubt in an employee’s mind about the character and trustworthiness of their boss, they will always be looking for the better opportunity. Sure the next organization may be no better, having regressed to the corporate mean like all the others, but employees will always seek exactly these qualities. Organizations that do not invest in the quality of their leaders will never achieve a stable and engaged workforce, no matter what else they are wasting their money on.

Fundamentally employees will always seek a leader that cares and one they can trust absolutely. Many organizations understand it as well. But few organizations act with the necessary due diligence and execution to ensure their leadership ranks are staffed well. The military gets this in pockets. Jack Welch exploited it. Calloway’s Pepsi did back in the day. Organizations that evaluate leadership in an atmosphere of truth get this and they act on it. But many sadly do not. And the result is a chaos of sycophants wreaking havoc on vulnerable workforces everywhere. Turnover is high. Performance is mailed in. And various options of suboptimal performance will be the default. The country club, the bureaucracy, the meritocracy, tribal, dictatorial, pick your poison. They are slow-acting, but guaranteed to kill success. See my last employer for a picture of what a mess is made from getting it all wrong.

So what am I saying? Simply this. If you are evaluating next year’s budget and plan to increase payroll spend, invest in leadership and invest in employee pay. Simple as that. Cut your spend on fluffy initiatives by your human resource ditherers. Cut consultants who are not working on same. Kick off the new era by telling your leadership what you expect from them, that they are under the gun to nurture, train, grow and motivate their people. Little else is of any consequence and they are solely accountable for employee satisfaction, retention, capability and engagement. Admit you have been distracted in the past by shiny objects with no real value. In future things are going to be different. You will focus your spend on employee pay and on holding leaders accountable for developing employees consistent with a renewed emphasis on the idea that employees are the firm’s most valuable resource.

Clear the senses as with smelling salts with this message of renewal. The idea that leaders are accountable for workforce effectiveness is the holy ghost of the trinity. Sure pay is important. But effective leaders will find a way to succeed no matter what the challenge. Assess your leaders and put a team together that you can depend on to be accountable. The distractions of the so-called Total Rewards model will melt away revealing the true bones of the organization. They may be spindly and unstable at first, but give your leaders your full vote of confidence and let them lead. You will be amazed by the result.

The elegant truth of this proposal is in its simplicity. The idea that if you only have money to spend on one thing, that one thing is pay and leadership. Magical like the trinity, cloaked in mystery and paradox, the artistic truth is that leaders are a force multiplier. Keep the faith with your leadership. Rely on them. Value and listen to them.They will save you every time, even raise you from the dead. Dismiss the Vegas charlatans preaching exotic bells and whistles, consultants hawking wares of boring slide decks, and all the games players and deflection artists. Keep your head down, get your leadership right and pay your people. The games will stop and then your organization can begin to achieve its potential. I wonder?

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