Thursday, June 11, 2015

Stinky Cheese

This is a workplace fable - any resemblance to actual individuals is coincidental

The new boss sent out an email to staff.  "Hopefully, most of you have had the opportunity to read the Who Moved My Cheese book. If not, I have two copies in my office available and strongly recommend everyone read it. I think we can all identify with the characters in one way or another. Some questions to ponder:
  1. Which of the characters do you best identify with?
  2. What is your "cheese"?
  3. Do you think Hem ever changed and found new cheese?
  4. How will you view change after reading the book?
  5. If you have not read the book....Why?
  6. Where do you find yourself in regards to the change of re-shaping [our division]? "

Between 1999 and 2004, I worked at a university Performing Arts Center that had just undergone a big staff turnover. The place had been known for lackluster programming, budget woes, and poor customer service. Morale had been bad, and many positions were vacant. The new director - let's call him Lester -  had a reputation as the kind of guy who could turn troubled organizations around. He was charismatic, funny, and he inspired loyalty in the team he put together, especially the "inner circle" of next-level management - which I was part of.

I felt I was truly lucky to be hired by him. He pushed me to do hard things, he gave me lots of professional development opportunities, and I know that working for him helped me grow professionally.

But... there's always a "but," isn't there?

Lester was best when there was a tough problem to solve. Perhaps the ticket office manager was resistant to computerization. Or the university's parking office didn't understand our needs. The backstage staff was running up too much overtime, or the front-of-house staff was unreliable and rude.

Lester would put together strict work-plans for poorly performing employees, and they were closely supervised and judged on whether they met their goals. He'd call meetings with the recalcitrant departments; send people to training and seminars; demand improvement.

In some cases, staff moved on, but in many cases, this actually worked, surprisingly. Things improved. We were a success.

But this was a problem for Lester. If everything was going well, what was there left for him to practice his fixer-upper skills on?

So he began to break what he had fixed. He turned staff against one another. He picked, in turn, each one of his middle managers. First it was Beth, the marketing director. Suddenly, nothing she did was right. He'd exclude her from important meetings, and when he did include her, he'd interrupt and put down her ideas. She applied for outside jobs and internal transfers, and soon she was gone. Then it was Sue, the development director.

I was too stupid to see it coming when it was my turn. Like my colleagues before me, I started a job search, and, like them, I parachuted out of the plane.

Lester was big on motivational training. I'd get mailers for seminars, and he sent me to any one I wanted to go to. They all had names like "Creative Leadership Skills for Today's Manager," and "Building Performance and Productivity Through Employee Engagement."

I don't really remember much about the seminar where I read "Who Moved My Cheese?", but, like all of them, it was held in a hotel meeting room somewhere in Orange County or downtown Long Beach or near LAX; I'd wear my professional black skirt-suit, silk shirt, hose and heels. I can still taste the hotel coffee, slightly bitter from being held in a carafe, and feel the heft of the china cup I'd place carefully on my seminar table.

My classmates were other young managers-in-training, and we'd exchange business cards, or tap our Palm Pilots together for phone numbers, eat lunch together in the hotel café, and wish one another well at the end of the day. I don't think I ever saw any of those people again.

"Who Moved My Cheese?" was published in 1998, and went on to become a best-seller, with 27 million copies sold. Even today, it's one of the best-selling business books.

The book is a short parable about four characters trapped in a maze. Each day they have to find their Cheese. Eventually, they become complacent, cheese-eating slobs. One day the cheese disappears. The four characters have to cope. Two immediately go look for cheese. One is in denial. The fourth conquers his fear and doubt and eventually succeeds. He comes up with a list of simple truths that the author shares with readers.

The new boss included these in the email he sent to staff:

"Who Moved My Cheese?" has become such a ubiquitous tool for managing re-organization, that it almost seems to be counterproductive. A little online research will tell you that it's not uncommon for managers to distribute copies of the book en-mass to employees, telegraphing them directly that Something's Up.

I think this is the new boss's problem. He's doing this ass-backward. The first thing he did was to announce, "Change is coming!" without hinting what change might look like. Then he says, "I know some people are afraid of change," which telegraphs that whatever change he's contemplating, it's probably going to be bad.

If staff weren't already scared of change, now they are.

"Change management" is such a mild, neutral phrase for something that's most commonly used to describe the process where people lose their jobs, businesses fold, or dreams are dashed.


Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

If everything was going well, what was there left for him to practice his fixer-upper skills on?

So he began to break what he had fixed.

Couldn't he have used his fixer-upper skills on volunteer work? It's crazy that generally competent people can engage in sabotage like this.

Gary's third pottery blog said...

OH GOSH smell the cheese indeed....guy sounds like a d!ck....