I Turned Off From E-mail for 8 Days. Here’s What Happened.

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I’ve been around long enough to have worked in the “pre e-mail” days – I remember vividly how excited my colleagues and I were when the company got a fax machine (“We won’t have to drive documents around to our clients anymore!”)

I clearly remember in 1997 sending my first e-mail.  Do you remember how excited we all were when we actually received an e-mail?  (“You’ve Got Mail!”).

But instead of increasing freedom, electronic communication has instead created a mentality of “I have to be connected at all times”.  Until the advent of e-mail, that didn’t happen.

In 1993, I took a one-month vacation by myself.  I flew to Chicago, then drove to Toronto, Montreal, and then spent time viewing fall foliage in New England, saw a few hockey games, drove back through Pennsylvania and Ohio, and flew home.  I didn’t have a cell phone; e-mail was several years away, and the internet was limited to a few college professors.  How did I ever survive taking a month off without checking in?

Today, I get about 750 e-mails each week.  Like you, I can become a slave to e-mail.  (A recent survey showed that the average employee spends about 25% of their time responding to and sending e-mails).

So in the course of a generation, we’ve gone from e-mail as a savior to e-mail as the bane of our existence.  In fact, it’s becoming somewhat of a status symbol to be able to walk away from Gmail or Outlook for a period of time.

Thus it’s a particular pleasure when I can untether for a week and not worry about them.  My wife and I recently took an 8 day trip to Italy, and I was determined not to check my e-mails.  But I knew I had to worry about client needs, employee issues, and the day-to-day detritus that’s part of being a business owner and entrepreneur.

What happened?

  1. I prepared.

Our trip was scheduled for October 12-20, 2019.  A week before vacation, I notified all of my key clients that I’d be out of the office for 8 days without access to e-mail.  This was their hint if they needed something from me, don’t wait for October 12 to inform me.  I also put the dates I’d be on vacation on my e-mail signature.

I met with each of my administrative team to review any outstanding issues they had, and built in time to meet with each of them after I returned.  My consulting team was handled the same way.

A couple of days before leaving, I talked with our receptionist to review “if this person calls, send them to this team member”.

Our Director of Operations has worked with me for nearly 10 years, and she has an excellent sense of what I need to know and what I don’t.  I was confident that if something really needed my attention, she’d let me know via text.

Note: having a reliable team is essential to success.  If you can’t trust your team when you’re gone, then you need a new team.

The final preparation? We decided to leave on a Saturday morning, which meant the first two days of vacation were days where there was little likelihood of having to worry about an urgent e-mail.

I didn’t trust myself.

Despite the preparations and my commitment, I didn’t completely trust myself.  So I had our IT expert completely disconnect my iPhone, iPad, and laptop from e-mail connectivity.  Even if I wanted to check, I couldn’t.  This might have been the scariest thing of all, but I was determined not to leave any excuse on the table.

I still went through withdrawals.

Despite the trust and preparation, I still worried.  We’re so conditioned to check e-mails so often that getting out of that routine isn’t easy.  I found myself wanting to check several times during the first few days.  But I couldn’t.  So I found myself focusing more on our vacation – where we were going and when we were there – getting more into the moment.

I returned on a Sunday and devoted some deep time to managing e-mail.

By previous arrangement, I arranged with our IT guru to ‘re-connect’ me on the Sunday we returned.  So we got home from the airport, unpacked, took a nap, then I took a very deep breath, and connected.

There were 670 emails in my in box. I ‘triaged’ them into 3 categories:

  • Newsletters & related e-mails. There were 78 of them.  It took me about 20 minutes to go through them.
  • “FYI” type e-mails – from my team, clients, business associates. There were 500 of them, and it took me another hour to review them.  Not one of them required a response or action from me.
  • Which left me with 38 “actionable” e-mails, which required a response or decision from me. 1 more hour.

I can’t emphasize how important this step is.  You need deep time – completely uninterrupted time – in order to clear your inbox.  If I had waited until Monday morning to do this, I’d still have a full inbox a month later, what with meetings, calls, interruptions, etc.  If you don’t have the ability to check your e-mails on weekends when returning from an email-less trip, then make sure to block the first 3 hours on the first day you return.

And…I was done.  That was it.  I went to work on Monday morning with an open and clear mind.  I survived without e-mail for 8 days.  It was a bit humbling (“I guess I’m not needed all of the time”) but ultimately freeing.

Did problems happen when I was gone?  Absolutely.  A brand new employee quit on her third day.  I didn’t find out until my return.  My Operations Director decided there was nothing I could do from Italy except stress out (and she was right).

Lessons?

  1. When you disconnect, your team will step up. (there’s a corollary with delegation).
  2. I’m not as essential to the every day operation as I thought I was.
  3. My clients, once they knew what I was doing, were completely supportive (and a little jealous). All it took was a bit of time to let them know what I was doing, and when.
  4. The feeling of going from stressful to freedom was really important, and created space in my brain to do what a vacation is intended to do – refresh and rejuvenate.
  5. I’ll be doing this on all our long vacations in the future.

To determine how important something is, walk away from it for 10 days.  Were you able to live without it?  Then it really wasn’t that important.

None of us are as important as we think we are.  The fact that we feel we have to check-in, check e-mails or texts just reinforces that ego.  Walking away is the component necessary to dissuade you of the “I’m indispensable” mode.

On Books: That Will Never Work

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“What If There Were No Late Fees?”

“What? You ask? Reed Hastings wasn’t the first CEO of Netflix?” (I didn’t know that either). It was the author, Marc Randolph. And his story of the birth of Netflix is interesting, compelling, and relatable even if you’re not interested in doing a start-up.
Lots of ups-and-downs from concept to execution which any entrepreneur understands; as a Workforce Strategist, of course I wanted to read much more about how Patty McCord impacted the company, but I can’t always get everything I want.
Yet there are lots of great stories and anecdotes.
Take the time Randoph and Hastings tried to sell Netflix to Blockbuster. They borrowed Vanna White’s jet (who knew) and offered Netflix for $50 million.
I wonder if Blockbuster might still be in business if they took the offer.

On Temperament as an Essential Characteristic of Leadership

I’ve always felt people (including me) want to work for people who are consistent in character and temperament.  Never too high or too low.  And, as I get older, working around people with “drama” is less and less enchanting.

Here’s my quick hit on temperament and leadership:

Swenson on Leadership

 

Book Review – She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement

Image result for She Said Book Cover“She Said,” by Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor, has deservedly received a lot of media attention.  Read the book (or, at least the first half).  It’s a page turner, with a step-by-step look at the reporters’ investigation of Harvey Weinstein.  It’s devastating.  Weinstein stands accused of being a monster, of course; what he did to women is significantly beyond any harassment investigations I’ve ever seen.  In fact, his actions are less sexual harassment and more sadistic pathological power trip.  Yet he’s not the only villain: Gloria Allred and Lisa Bloom, two ostensibly feminist attorneys, are described as complicit in the coverups.

But what is most significant, and what I learned more importantly, is why women are reluctant to come forward.  Major A-list actresses legitimately feared for their careers; other ‘less important’ figures either left the entertainment business entirely or were relegated to entertainment oblivion.  It won’t be as easy for people to say, “if it really happened, why didn’t they report it right away?” In future harassment situations.

The second half of the book evolves into a look at the Brett Kavanaugh nomination, largely from the side of his principal accuser, Christine Blasey Ford.  It candidly doesn’t pack the spellbinding tale nor the evil monster that the first half does.

Yet the perspective and importance of this book goes beyond a tale of Harvey.  There’s a lot to be learned about harassment other than that story.  For those of us who aren’t in the entertainment business, but are in the leadership business, here’s a money quote:

In each industry, harassment had its own particular sociology.  In restaurants, liquor was omnipresent at the workplace, eroding judgment and loosening inhibtions, and managers were often loath to confront customers who got out of line.  Silicon Valley was filled with young men who got rich overnight and felt accountable to no one.  In shipyards, construction sites, and other traditionally male workplaces, men sometimes tried to drive out women by putting them in physical danger.  Chris had head of one woman who had been left deep in a mine without any communication device, and another had been stranded atop a wind turbine.

This is very much like the harassment allegations we see in our practice at RSJ/Swenson.  Everyone is unique, yet each industry has similarities.

Don’t Celebrate Promotions

An all too common mistake businesses make when promoting employees is this:

Promotions are celebrated.

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Actually, a promotion should be the opposite; not a reward, but instead positioned as a massive challenge, opportunity, substantially increased responsibility and – consequently – a job with significantly higher expectations.

The fact is if you position a promotion as a reward without adding additional responsibility and expectations, then you’re just paying somebody more money without getting anything more in return. When you give, you must always ask for – and expect – more.

When I hear CEOs and business owners complain that their managers and executives aren’t giving them what they need, I tell them to look in the mirror. Did they clearly set out increased goals, objectives and expectations? Do these newly promoted employees understand their newly established responsibility for excellence?

If a promotion is merely a reward for a job well done, then we’ve defined insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

That’s why merely doing a great job is not reason enough for promotion. (It may be reason enough for a larger bonus, or a higher salary level next year, but not a promotion).

This is where selection of new employees and continual identification of high potentials becomes critical.  You’re not looking merely to promote a competent employee; you’re looking for the people with an aptitude and ability to lead and take everything they do to the next level.  There’s always a higher level of expectation and demand on management that’s simply not there for the average employee.

Those expectations and demands are why newly promoted employees get the fancy title and corner office.  And that’s why the expectations are higher and the consequences must be both substantial and immediate.

When you promote an employee, congratulate them and then remind them – it’s a new world of increased expectations.  What got that person to this point is not what will get them to the next.

So the correct attitude for businesses when promotion an employee is

Promotions are celebrated.

Promotions should be positioned as a challenge with increased expectations.

The Best Performance Review I’ve Ever Seen

Ditch the old way you’ve been doing things and get back to basics.  Performance metrics should set your standard, so people will do the things you actually want them to do.

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Boy, have I seen a lot of performance reviews.  They’re basically the same things over and over.  And we get an inordinate number of questions from clients asking for “a sample performance review template” they can emulate in their own business.  Many executives have always managed and evaluated this way, to say nothing of how we pay and promote.

Yet in the past few years away, there’s been a shift away from performance reviews, which is completely understandable.

Performance reviews don’t work because we don’t ask employees what they do to advance our organizational and managerial goals.  We’re not specific enough.  So maybe I should revise that comment accordingly: Performance reviews don’t work as they’re currently devised.

The Importance of Expectations

My experience is that most e­­mployees do pretty well at hitting objectives if they know the specifics that are expected of them.

But here’s the problem: Managers and executives do a lousy job of setting expectations.

Think about it: If employees are going to be evaluated based on attendance and productivity, they deserve to understand why.  “Why do I need to be on time?  I get my work done, so why does it matter?”

Businesses do a great job of creating volumes of requirements for employees; there’s seemingly a rule for everything.  But why?  How do those requirements help us reach our individual goals?

Subjective vs Objective

The CFOs of the world tell us that performance reviews are necessary because they’re objective. When we attribute numbers to the results, we objectively give raises and bonuses and measure performances.

This ideology buys into what I call The Myth of ObjectivityTM.  Of course, everyone (especially CFOs) would love to see performances broken down into averages, medians, and charts.  But that’s not objective.

When a manager reviews an employee’s performance, what really creates the difference between a 3.5 and a 4.0?

Answer: nothing.  Therefore, the rating system isn’t objective after all.  And since it’s subjective, it basically defeats the purpose of having a performance review to begin with.

(Yes, I know that ratings can effectively motivate salespeople and workers with repetitious jobs such as manufacturing, but the latter will disappear soon, due to AI and robotics.)

The Best of the Best

The CEO of at an insurance brokerage firm in Pasadena, CA, wrote the best performance review I’ve ever seen.  I was sitting in a meeting with the CEO and his executive assistant, and we were reviewing our punch list.  I could tell the CEO was getting a bit impatient, so I made this suggestion: “Let’s take a break. My team can finish everything on our own.”

Greg brightened up after I made my suggestion, and asked his assistant, “Remember what your performance is based on?”  She nodded.

Now he’d piqued my curiosity.  “What’s your performance based on?” I asked her.

“My performance and salary increase are based on the number of times Greg gets to golf every month,” she said.  “If he plays at least eight times a month, I get a good performance review and a 10% salary increase at the end of the year.”

Then it hit me.  It was the perfect performance review!  I know many HR veterans are undoubtedly recovering from their fainting spells, but hear me out:

  • The criteria were clear.

Melissa understood exactly what was expected of her, and she was easily able to repeat her goals.

  • The goal was measurable.

Eight rounds of golf per month (or 96 per year)

  • It advanced the executive’s goals and objectives.

Greg wanted to golf. It was a personal goal, and it was important to him.  [Pro Tip: If you want people to do something, incentivize them.]

  • It allowed a talented person to innovate and work autonomously.

For Greg, it didn’t matter how Melissa got him out on the golf course, just that she made  it happen.  So her performance wasn’t tied up in minutiae; it was solely focused on the end result. In other words, she had permission to do whatever she needed to do to get him golfing.

Melissa became a more effective assistant, because every interaction she had factored into that goal.  And she was a much more effective gatekeeper.  (“Does that person really need to have a meeting with Greg, or can I handle it?”)

Summary

Rethink your 15-page form for performance reviews.  What do you truly want that person to do?  What’s the end goal?  Can’t we simplify things, and make our objectives attainable, measurable, and real?  The answer: Yes, we can.  But then the question becomes, “Are we willing to break through the mentality that We’ve always Done It This Way?”

Over the next decade, businesses who are willing and able to change are going to become winners. Your formula for success doesn’t involve being stuck in the past.