Tootin’ your own horn

Do you toot your own horn? Maybe you should.

We’re taught early in life to not brag or boast about ourselves. And in general, that is excellent advice. Tootin’ our own horn – telling folks about our accomplishments – is bragging, no doubt about it. It turns others off and makes us look self-serving.

Sometimes though, it is entirely appropriate.  In the work environment, it is not only appropriate, but necessary.  As the old saying goes, “If you don’t tell them, who will?”

Why toot your own horn in the work environment?

Let’s start by defining today’s workplace. It’s different from the industrial environment where work was clearly measured by output and time. In today’s knowledge and service environment, much work goes unobserved. We work independently, and chances are the only time our boss hears anything about us is when we mess up.

And we will mess up – that’s how we learn. But it becomes only one half of the equation. Who is going to balance the equation with all of the great stuff accomplished?

That’s where tootin’ your own horn comes in.

Let’s be very clear. This is not about bragging. Bragging is self-serving without a greater purpose.

I’m talking about qualitative data, the kind that contributes to an overall awareness of what is being worked on, how the work is progressing, and the results that have been achieved. It isn’t about finding superlatives to describe how great you did. Instead it is about being factual and adding to the knowledge and awareness of those in decision-making roles, e.g., your boss or other decision-makers.

There are three important steps in tootin’ your own horn. They can be boiled down to 1.) tell ‘em what you’re going to do, 2.) do it, 3.) tell ‘em what you did. And do it all factually and clearly linked to a business result.

Tell ‘em

Those of us in professional positions make decisions every day about what we will work on. Sure, there are goals and objectives, but we spend time (probably a lot of time) on setting the stage for goal accomplishment. That could be reinventing a streamlined process, building a relationship across business unit lines, talking to employees about what they need to succeed.

This is important work, but no one may know what really went into achieving that goal unless you tell them.

I don’t mean a formal presentation. It can be as simple as this:

“My department and the [X] department are having a small conflict over [X] process. I don’t want you to do anything, I just wanted to let you know that I am working with the department manager to resolve. I’ll keep you posted.”

This does three things. First, it brings the topic into awareness, so that your boss can provide any additional information you might need to resolve the issue.  Second, it demonstrates that you are a problem solver, and that you value business relationships.

Additionally, it forces you to clearly understand and articulate the work to be done, as well as the expected result.

Do it

Execute on your plan, whatever it might be.

Tell ‘em what you did

Circle back and let your boss know that you have resolved the situation you spoke with her about.  Your result may be a better working relationship, a collaboration that resulted in a better process, or an improvement you made to your team’s process that they requested, and how it will improve productivity.

The point here is that, any of these things are almost routine and rarely rise to visibility. That said, they are also a large part of the work you do.

If you don’t highlight your work, it will probably go unnoticed.

That’s probably not something you should leave to chance.

Being factual and clear that your update is simply FYI will go a long way toward creating the aura of your professional work ethic.

Thanks to my business partner for this lesson.

Training Day @ Starbucks

Wasn’t there a movie called Training Day? Well, we could make another one today as Starbucks closes 8,000 stores to “train” employees in unconscious bias.

The article on MSN quoted the consultant who developed and will deliver the training as saying “the real work is for employees to apply what they learn in their everyday lives. She likened it to exercising a muscle.” I’m glad at least the consultant understands that one half day of “training” will not necessarily change behavior.

What about the leadership? Do they recognize that the cultural infrastructure also must change? What about the employees hired tomorrow and beyond? Will the urgency of the Philadelphia situation fade over time, and everything go back to “normal?”

What about a different approach?

What about developing the skill of leadership to hire, observe, coach and, if necessary, counsel their employees about appropriate behavior in front of customers. After all, every situation is different, and every situation has the chance of going south as the unfortunate situation in Philadelphia went south.

Behemoth companies use massive solutions to address problems that no one really knows are organization-wide. They have to; stakeholders and the media demand quick and public flogging. But the variables that may trigger a poor decision on the part of an employee are complex and varied. The one-size-fits-all training may help for a short time; or it may not.

A localized solution

Local problems need local solutions and the best way to deliver localized solutions is through leadership. Consider a neighborhood coffee shop. The owner is present and visible. She sets the tone and culture through her system of values. She hires workers who demonstrate understanding of those values and sets up store processes accordingly. The teaches those processes within the context of the values to her employees. She intervenes personally if a situation arises. She deals promptly when the values are maligned. She owns the problem and the solution. She has to. Her livelihood depends on it.

How could a behemoth company localize their solutions?

It’s all about leadership and infrastructure. Here are ways to work through leadership and infrastructure to create localized solutions for local problems.

Values. Be clear about the organization’s values and the behaviors to be exhibited. Go beyond the marketing buzz to really understand how the values must be exhibited in each and every encounter with customers. Bring them to life.

Leadership. Hire, develop and hold leaders accountable for leading in alignment with the values. Look for critical thinking and judgment rather than compliance. Help them understand how their local culture can and should fit within the organizational culture, and where they have wiggle room.  Teach them to look at their local store critically within the context of the values.

Engage local leadership in setting organization-wide policy. Only those on the front lines know if the policy can realistically survive.

Hold leaders accountable. Tell leaders what is expected of them and provide the tools to execute. Create an infrastructure of local ownership; being held accountable as a local business owner would be for revenue and expenses, planned and unforeseen. Perhaps if the Philadelphia store manager recognized that she was responsible for employee behavior and local policies that matched Starbuck’s values, she might have observed with a different lens. Perhaps she was working the counter and didn’t have the opportunity to observe because she was short-staffed? Should that not be her decision as well, rather than a staffing model from Seattle?

Hindsight is great, isn’t it? It would be interesting to take the expense of the training program – the lost revenue, pay for training time, consultant expenses – and invest it in developing leaders who can run their business like it was the best local coffee shop in the nation.

Even if the unconscious bias is uncovered and acknowledged, Starbucks still doesn’t have leaders who can take overall accountability for running their store in alignment with their values.


“Sex, Lies and Human Resources*”

*Note: Not my title. This is a quoted title of an article on page 240 of the March 2018 edition of Marie Claire. Featured on the front page, no less.

When I first started in HR, no one knew who we were. Heck, we weren’t even HR back then. In 2005, popular business magazine Fast Company brought HR into the spotlight, in a not-so-gracious way, with a cover story stating “Why We Hate HR.” One of the more pithy comments was:

”The human-resources trade long ago proved itself, at best, a necessary evil — and at worst, a dark bureaucratic force that blindly enforces nonsensical rules resists creativity, and impedes constructive change.”

Some may chastise me for a 13-years-old reference, however, ten year later Harvard Business Review again spotlighted all that is wrong with HR, dedicating a whole volume to their perception that “It’s Time To Blow Up HR.” It doesn’t take much time to see that the complaints are pretty similar to those made in Fast Company in 2005.

I’ve talked about the indictment of HR frequently, including a chapter in my 2018 book “Leading an HR Transformation.” I’ve gotten feedback from some prominent HR theorists that HR has come a long way, and we are no longer the necessary evil.

Okey dokey.

So why does the March 2018 joint article in Marie Claire and Esquire read, “Sex, Lies and Human Resources?”

Interestingly, the article barely mentions HR. It advises to let HR know in writing if you are a victim of harassment. That’s it. Quite appropriate. But I’m left to wonder why HR gets star billing on Marie Claire.

Here is my theory. HR, me included, has allowed our profession to let executive leadership delegate responsibility for employees’ (and leaders’) behavior to us. We have not pushed back. We have sponsored all sort of performance management, leadership development, and culture change programs to arm-wrestle leaders into leading appropriately, and so have earned the responsibility for behavior. They said, “you want it; you got it!” And ever since we have been playing the role of trying to get leaders to lead.

The risk associated with inappropriate or illegal behavior has been our “ticket to influence,” and we’ve ridden the wave. We have used compliance as our hammer, and it has not served us well. The risk was elusive; it was too easy to say, “It isn’t happening here.”

Heck, popular fashion magazines like Marie Claire even think HR has the responsibility, and therefore can fix the problem.

I made the statement in an earlier post that we have to give this responsibility back to its rightful owner – the leadership of the organization…ultimately, the CEO. With today’s #metoo climate, we have some wind beneath our sails, and this is the time to give it back.


Here are three things HR can do to get moving ahead with giving it back.

Be Knowledgeable

Learn everything you need to know about the governance of your organization. Boards of Directors’ antenna are up and should be. A Board of Director assumes fiduciary responsibility for the organization. This means that they are accountable for identifying risk areas and overseeing risk management. In a publicly traded company, they must inform shareholders of all information that is relevant to the evaluation of the company. In a non-profit organization, Board members are the fiduciaries who steer the organization towards a sustainable future by adopting sound, ethical, and legal governance and financial management policies, as well as by making sure the nonprofit has adequate resources to advance its mission.

The CEO and executive team report to the Board, and unless they have had their head in the sand for several months, recognize the behavior of leadership as a possible risk. Understand that risk, and frame it as such. You can’t do that without clearly understanding the governance structure of your organization. Follow your Board members and know their leanings. Then speak from the knowledge that you understand the risk and want to make sure that your executive team does, as well.

Be confident and unemotional

The topic of inappropriate behavior may provoke emotion, but that will not serve HR well. Bottom line – this is a business issue and should be treated as such.

Emotionalism scares the heck out of executive leadership, and it is easy to write it off as “a bee in someone’s bonnet.” Talking to executive leadership about a risk having to do with inappropriate behavior deserves the same research, rehearsal and presentation skill as presenting a change in benefits’ vendor.

Do good research and separate fact from hearsay. Hearsay may be important, particularly if it is frequently similar, but make sure you represent it as hearsay. Provide the resources for your research if not obvious.

Prepare the CEO or executive team; don’t spring an important business discussion on them without warning. Let them know that you have a serious issue to discuss and that you need their undivided attention. Treat a behavioral situation as it should be treated. Seriously.

Give the responsibility for the risk back

This will take some preparation if your executive leadership thinks that HR is responsible for behavior, and it may take time. Start by identifying their interest, whether financial, reputation, career…what is important to them? As leaders of the organization, what is their desired outcome for the organization? Ask them, or read the Annual Report – their interest and their desired outcome is typically part of the CEO’s introductory letter.

Talk with them about what HR can reasonably do to help them achieve the desired outcome. Provide some examples of risks that may influence the outcome and ask what they believe HR’s role should be. If the response is that HR should talk to the offending individual, ask how well they would receive someone outside their direct line giving that feedback. Once they accept that they need to handle a specific incident, offer to help them prepare.

When they agree that they need to take the lead in a more systemic action, offer to provide a proposed approach. Then keep the dialogue open.

Don’t give up

By approaching this with confidence and facts, HR has a solid chance of giving back to executive leadership the responsibility for inappropriate behavior. Even if they agree that they should take responsibility, it may take a while for their actions to take hold.
If you forget to follow up, they may forget to take action.

Organizational misbehavior is in the spotlight, and this is the time to raise consciousness on the part of the executive team, and help them to identify and mitigate any risk. It is a business issue, not a soft or fluffy issue. The consequences have suddenly become real.