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Peggy SmithA seasoned journalist once noted “The words 'information' and 'communication' are often used interchangeably, but they signify quite different things. Information is giving out; communication is getting through.” In her wordsmithing blog - posted every two weeks - Worldwide ERC® CEO Peggy Smith is getting through to readers with her thoughts on workforce mobility and business issues… and sometimes a personal perspective or two!

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Not-so-trivial Pursuits

Section of the Berlin wall
For a few hours last Friday, our staff hiked all over Washington, DC, looking for the answers to such clues as: "Harry S. Truman called it 'the greatest monstrosity in America.'" (Answer: the Old Executive Office Building); or "Here you can find the largest display of sections of the Berlin Wall outside of Germany." (Answer: Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center); and "Do your best impression of Charlie's Angels in front of this creation of the Malrite Company." (Answer: The Spy Museum). A scaled-down version of "The Amazing Race" was developed and managed as a team-building exercise by several of our new professionals (who did a spectacular job), and our staff was divided into four groups, which were pitted against each other in friendly competition. We exercised our wits, our individual skills and ourselves, and we arrived back at the office in time for lunch, tired and hungry and ready to celebrate the winners and each other.

There's something great that happens when we experience a challenge together. I well remember the closeness we all felt at the Worldwide ERC® fall meeting directly following 9/11 – as if we were long-lost relatives finding each other at last. And I see it each time our industry makes it through hard times, as we have through the recession and the resulting "aftershocks," or how we pull together to help a region come back from a disaster. It's all about having each other's backs, about your teammate knowing that no matter what, you're there for them, and that the collective creativity and intelligence of the entire group can do what one person alone cannot. That's always an amazing race… and the finish line is pretty special.

Global mobility musings... Part 1

Global mobility is on most companies’ minds these days, so I thought I'd share what we're hearing at Worldwide ERC® from members, at our recent Global Workforce Symposium and through other channels...

What is the biggest global mobility issue for companies today?
In the U.S., when we talk about real estate, we say the most important things are location, location, location. In global mobility, the three most important things are compliance, compliance, compliance. What if the assignee is out of immigration status, and has to return home before the assignment is complete? What if proper tax reporting and practices have not been adhered to... and both the company and employee could face significant penalties? Cross-border compliance issues are numerous, and require the best efforts of corporate mobility and service professionals working in tandem to address.

In the field of managing talent, what practices are disappearing, and which are emerging?
We’re seeing far fewer discretionary assignments; for example, it’s not very likely these days you’ll see an employee sent to a new region for a narrow business reason. Also waning: trying to fit a range of different assignees with standard mobility packages—there’s more flexibility these days in the amount of benefits and the way they are administered. What we see coming into play more often is that companies are mapping out a career track for high potentials while they are relatively new in the company; and making decisions based on skills, experience and maturity.
Our Global Advisory Council says that developing countries are asking for financial and talent development, yet there are obstacles to entry... what’s happening on that level?
This is an interesting (and frustrating!) dilemma. It sends a mixed message when assignees and employees find acquiring a visa or work permit both expensive and problematic to obtain in a timely manner, but countries continue to say, “We are poised to develop industry—we need talent, and we want your business to come here.” It’s really an economics equation, and one that, over time, will be solved as countries recognize the benefit of embracing employee and business movement, and implement policies to more easily allow such migration.
A Culture of Confidence

I was listening to some business pundits discuss the “crisis of confidence” locally and in our global economy this week. Obviously, confidence tumbles after national and global events, whether from disasters or stock market drops. It’s something we measure from a number of angles to see how we’re doing; we eagerly await the results of numerous consumer confidence and CEO confidence indices to gauge whether people are spending money to boost the economy, or whether our business leaders are optimistic (or not) about their company’s futures. When the numbers are good, we feel good – and we look for signs of profitability and healing. It started me thinking about how critical an abiding sense of confidence is to the performance of a project team or an entire company.

I am a student of the systems that surround high performers, and I have witnessed some exceptional settings during my career. I see how confidence plays a starring role in companies, particularly when the going gets a little rougher. And a lot of it has to do with preparation: it’s easier to take a challenge in stride when you make a habit of developing plans for all contingencies; of practicing for all outcomes; and of using constructive Monday-morning quarterbacking to see where one play was masterful, but another could have been tweaked to yield a better result. The best organizations stress accountability, personally and collectively; live and breathe the mission statement and the company’s common goals; rely on collaboration and support their team members… and look for ways to “talent manage” everyone in the company so that the entire staff develops not just their own capabilities, but each other’s.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a professor at Harvard Business School and the author of the books Confidence and SuperCorp, notes that “Even for the best companies and most-accomplished professionals, long track records of success are punctuated by slips, slides, and mini-turnarounds. In sports, the team that wins the game might make mistakes, fumble, and lag behind for part of it. That’s why the ability to recover quickly and get back on course is so important. Nothing succeeds for long without considerable effort and constant vigilance. Winning streaks end for predictable reasons: Strategies run their course. New competition emerges to take on the industry leader. Ideas get dusty. Technology marches on. Complacency sets in; making people feel entitled to success rather than motivated to work for it.

“The lesson for leaders is clear: Build the cornerstones of confidence—accountability, collaboration, and initiative—when times are good and achievement comes easily. Maintain a culture of confidence as insurance against the inevitable downturns. Resilience is not simply an individual characteristic or a psychological phenomenon. It is helped or hindered by the surrounding system. Teams that are immersed in a culture of accountability, collaboration, and initiative are more likely to believe that they can weather any storm. Self-confidence, combined with confidence in one another and in the organization, motivates winners to make the extra push that can provide the margin of victory.”

Celebrated football coach Vince Lombardi once observed, “Confidence is contagious. So is a lack of confidence.” Can you train confidence into people, into players, into organizations? Of course – we’ve all seen it happen. According to Tony Schwartz, the president and CEO of The Energy Project and the author of Be Excellent at Anything: The Four Keys to Transforming the Way We Work and Live, it’s a pretty simple recipe to move from confidence to stellar results : "Confidence equals security equals positive emotion equals better performance." Whether we’re talking about sports, business, countries, economies or ourselves, confidence is a valuable commodity with a built-in advantage. And getting to that “margin of victory” comes much easier if we’re working from a natural culture of confidence.

Reprinted from the September 2011 issue of Mobility magazine.

From a Wheelhouse to a Ballpark

Originally a nautical expression, the “wheelhouse” is the control center from which the boat or ship is steered; where the captain is master of his or her domain. From there, the term has shifted to baseball, and is synonymous with a player’s sweet spot: if a pitch is right in someone’s wheelhouse, that’s the place with the optimal chance for a great hit. And in business, when a project or a need for a skill or product is right in our wheelhouse, we – or our companies – are the best ones for the job.

Do you know what’s in your wheelhouse? We all think we do, but bringing a little focus to where we truly shine is a defining exercise. Our staff recently took the StrengthsFinder assessment. The online test, a well-designed diagnostic and coaching/talent management approach from the Gallup organization, can be used to help individuals and teams increase their success, by more strategically employing people’s strengths (after learning which five of the 34 StrengthsFinder themes are most prevalent in each team member). What we found: as a crew, we have lots of strengths that lead to strong people skills (like Relator and Harmony and Includer), and that are reflective of powerful strategic thinking (like Ideation and Futuristic), and that influence and execute (like Activator, Command, Achiever, and Restorative).
One of the outcomes of this exercise that I found most rewarding – and that our staff values highly – is the focus on their special personal strengths. Imagine the pride in being a “Maximizer,” when you understand that you are driven to take a good thing and make it better. Or that your “Individualization” means you have a gift for bringing disparate individuals together to work productively, or your “Analytical” leaning gives you the ability to think about all of the factors that affect a situation. There’s a different flavor to our discussions now, based on this new information about ourselves, and a greater emphasis on learning how to connect with other team members to use our complementary skills for the best outcome. It’s a new sweet spot that we’ve found, knowing that if we join together with the best parts of all of us, that we can raise our batting average, and regularly hit that pitch clear out of the ballpark.
Compassionate Commuting

Consider an individual who lives and works in the UK, but has learned her mother is terminally ill in Norway. She asks for—and is granted—a “relocation” of sorts so that she can work remotely and live in Norway to be near her parents. And what about the employee who was able to work in the company’s facility in Greece to be near his military wife, but then she is transferred to another location where the company has no offices? He makes the case to move his job to the new location, and receives some assistance to do so.

And so we have another theme for global workforce professionals to master: “compassionate commuting.” It’s what happens when an employee has a personal need for a certain location, and the company wants to help them get there. And it’s another way for us to see how mobility issues are woven into the fabric of our nation’s workforce.

Said one corporate HR manager: “In some cases where the family might otherwise move with the employee to a location with low infrastructure and poor housing and schooling, it’s best for the family to stay in the old location and have the employee move permanently to the job, but travel (or commute) home periodically, perhaps on a four-months-on, two-weeks-off schedule. In that case, it’s critical to seek a tax experts’ counsel to figure out the tax issues, to offer preparation and counseling, and to determine how long it is advisable to extend this kind of an arrangement—there may be enough of a savings in the long run to cover the tax implication.” Worldwide ERC® Tax Counsel Pete Scott notes that, “Taxable commuting— when the value of the commuting will be imputed as income to the commuter for tax purposes—is difficult to separate from regular business travel. Providing the opportunity to commute back from one’s job for personal reasons means the employee is not really on business. Country, state, and regional laws must be considered—this can be tricky to manage from a cost and a compliance perspective.”

And what about in the U.S.? Combine a troubled global economy and an uncertain job market with aging baby boomers and sandwich-generation families, and what might emerge? A slight twist on “compassionate commuting” with other kinds of employee-requested moves. In the U.S. domestic arena, some companies have seen an increase in the number of employees interested in a commuter arrangement—with good reason in our shaky employment and housing markets. As one of our members remarked, “If you don’t know what kind of situation you’ll be in tomorrow, then holding onto your house in a familiar location can make more sense to you than uprooting your family and trying to sell your house in a lethargic market. For the employer, there’s a lot of risk inherent in an arrangement like this. For example, I’ve heard of a situation where an employee negotiated extremely extended temporary living for just himself in hopes that the housing market would improve, and then refused to complete the move when the market dropped even lower. We need to be careful about just putting a band-aid on a problem, because at the end of the day the picture can look even bleaker… and then money and time has been consumed with no talent in place at the other end.”

“This really started in our U.S. domestic division, and then some of our international assignees felt they wanted to leave their family in one place, but take the assignment for a few years,” said another member. “Sometimes we post internal jobs with or without relocation, and don’t offer assistance unless the hiring manager wants to provide it… and then we have a minimum package that comes into play.” In one manager’s words, “It’s a great retention tool if the only alternative for the employee is to leave the company, as long as it is defensible to our executive staff from a cost and productivity standpoint.”

Uncle Joe and the Crawl

Most of us have been on a good old-fashioned pub crawl at some point in our lives. You know, where you start off having an adult beverage with friends in one spot, and you proceed en masse to another establishment, and then another, and… you get the idea. Oftentimes these crawls focus on the social aspect of meeting new friends and checking out a different venue that everyone's been talking about.

I went on a crawl of sorts this summer: a cemetery crawl! I have some childhood roots in the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania suburbs, and one weekend I found myself footloose and fancy free. So I called my relatives on the Martinelli side of the family and invited myself up for a visit. (Yes, I know – "Martinelli" is a far cry from "Smith." I'm part Italian, for those of you who have seen me use my hands when words just aren't strong enough to make my point!)
My cousin Linda and my Uncle Joe were happy to host me for my trip, and I got to talking about our relatives, and asking for history and family stories to fill in some of the gaps I have about my ancestors, one of whom I am named for – Mary Margaret Martinelli, or "Baby Margie," who passed away at three months. Uncle Joe offered to be my guide for this trip back in time, so we headed off, and it was a beautiful day for a cemetery crawl! Over a couple of days, we meandered around some cemetery grounds to our family's dearly departed, with Uncle Joe providing commentary about each person when we paused at a headstone. We also visited a surprising number of homes where Uncle Joe and other family members had lived for periods of time, passed by schools he had attended, and walked the roads that generations of Martinellis had wandered. Thank goodness for Uncle Joe's memory, because some of this information would surely have been lost if he weren't here to pass it on. Each person, and each place, had a story and a personality that added another scrap of color to the patchwork that is our family.
This was a weekend that I had definitely unplugged from all things work-related, but I couldn't help it: my "work brain" kicked in, and pointed something out to me about the mobility of my own forebears, even way back then. My great-grandmother was an immigrant, taking a chance on a new country as countless others have done before and since, and as so many do today for a job and life that holds promise and adventure – and an acceptable amount of risk. And my other family members were remarkably mobile, too. Though they may only have moved a few miles from one home to another, they moved – some of them several times! – for their jobs, or a different house or neighborhood, or a better school, or to be near other family members. Whatever the reason, they were compelled to change their lives and homes in some way, and did so with flexibility and practicality and a sense of exploration.
Just the approach we hope our transferees and assignees will have when they get the call for an opportunity across the state, or the country, or the world. Not so much has changed after all. Right, Uncle Joe?
Developing A Finer Sense of Dutch

Over dinner with some of our Dutch colleagues during our recent EMEA Global Summit in Amsterdam, the conversation turned to our respective cultures, and how we greet each other. One of the observations about Americans that came to light was this one: When we say, “How was your day?” or “How are you doing?” it feels invasive.

And really - what if someone did respond to “How was your day?” with a lengthy diatribe about a traffic jam on the highway, a boring meeting at work, an interaction with a difficult employee, and a tussle with their kid over doing homework? Most of us (American or not!) would roll our eyes and wish we weren’t so solicitous.

I had another personal revelation in Amsterdam, too. If you know my personality and speaking style, you are aware that I have a rapid delivery and a penchant for connecting with the audience… in fact, as I speak, I often seek their input by saying things like, “Are you with me on this?” or “Sound good?” Well… I was looking for things like verbal responses and facial cues that usually tell me when I’m connecting with an audience – and I am frequently able to use that tool with U.S. audiences. But in this very special part of the world, I was like a painter using a familiar brush to create a picture when another one would have been better. I realized that I was putting my lens on the audience’s reaction – I was missing the nuances of a different culture that could tell me the same thing about our EMEA colleagues, if I knew what to look for.

A good lesson for me, and one that makes me even more aware and more sensitive to our growing and wonderfully diverse community – and hopefully, one that will result in better experiences for the audiences I address. (You’ll have to let me know how I do with this!) I’m grateful to our dinner colleagues and our delegates, because true to their no-nonsense, straightforward cultures, they have deepened my multicultural education… and given me a finer sense of Dutch.

Customization: The New Watchword

Customization is all around us. Nike has made a science of “one size fits one” customer engagement and marketing, with its encouragement to “custom build” our own shoes, clothes and gear. Nike’s timing is perfect, because it reflects a growing proclivity for individualized products; recognition that our lifestyles, needs and taste are our own; and an understanding that we like to have a hand in designing for an outcome that suits us well.

In an environment like ours, where it makes good business sense to use resources in the most precise manner possible, customization of mobility policies is cropping up more and more frequently in corporate discussions. About a month ago, there was a flurry of activity on our corporate HR Policy and Program Benchmarking Forum. The topic? Flexible policies, under a range of monikers like “menu-driven,” “tiered,” and “flex-core.” There was high interest and equally high concern that should one institute flexible policy, it be administered fairly and consistently.

Out of this interest came the concept for a series of webinars I am moderating for our corporate HR members on policy strategy and development. Earlier this spring, in the first of those, “How Flexible Is Your Policy?,” Carol Filippi, Manager, Mobility Services at The Linde Group, took us through the reasons her company finds customized policies so critical. “Anytime a company is facing major economic challenges - as we had through the recession - or is working under a new business structure, there is an opportunity to evaluate more customized policy. Other reasons for customization include different levels of cutbacks in business divisions; parts of the business expressing different relocation needs or profiles; an increasing number of requests from managers for a lesser amount of assistance; discovery of moves occurring late - or after the process has been completed; and overall planned strategy and management of the mobility process, rather than a micro/localized perspective. The relocation process should not become a bureaucratic roadblock – it should be a business facilitator.”

Filippi noted that customization is “mobility friendly” in a range of situations, “through up or down real estate markets, in robust or distressed economic environments, and across job levels and geographies…and makes it possible to address a range of business and budget needs.”

A more customizable policy platform brings some decided advantages. When hiring managers are well educated, relocation issues can be recognized earlier in the process. More options for those managing mobility translates into less frequent revisions and updates to policy, enlists hiring managers to take more ownership of the assistance offered to new hires and current employees, and ultimately, gives mobility a much more strategic business purpose and place in the company.

Of course, there are plenty of challenges, like developing policy materials to fit the diversity of assistance, consistency of policy application, keeping the customization to a manageable amount of policy options, and working with service providers to fine-tune the reporting, managing and metrics.

There’s much more going on here than the way we used to talk about tailoring policy to the needs of transferees and assignees. Policy flexibility and customization allows employees’ individual and highest‐priority needs to be met within a budget management can support. With most companies going through policy redress in recent years, one of the biggest issues emerging is the need for effective policy customization. As the recovery continues, and hiring ramps up, more organizations will take a strong look at the possibility of complete customization. At least one company I know is on the leading edge of delivering their mobility policy through a point system, shifting the cash aspect of assistance to one where the employee is supplied with a number of points based on his/her career level and path, to use for the services that fit the needs. It will be interesting to see how this new chapter in policy development will evolve. (In the meantime, I’m off to my laptop to customize my new workout gear!)

If you are a corporate HR member who is interested in our policy webinar series, email meetings@worldwideerc.org for more information.

Free Agent Translation: New Workforce, New Workers

Drew Brees did it. So did Derek Jeter and LeBron James. They were “free agents” –  part of the cadre of football, baseball, basketball, hockey and soccer players who make themselves available to other teams at the end of their contractual obligations - open to new income opportunities, a change of management and a different place to use their talents.

And it’s not just for the sports environment anymore – in fact, free agency crept into the traditional workplace decades ago, and continues to gain focus and purpose. Back in 2001 renowned business guru Peter Drucker said “The corporation as we know it, which is now 120 years old, is not likely to survive the next 25 years.  Legally and financially, yes, but not structurally and economically.”  That same year, Daniel Pink debuted his book “Free Agent Nation” and tied the bow on this concept, by corralling some of the ways and reasons our workplace was quickly becoming more open to hiring different kinds of workers, including those who move from project to project; sometimes for months, sometimes for days.  

Since the first farmers brought in their crops, relying on extra workers during seasonal or cyclical peaks, the concept of “on demand” workers made good sense. Many companies are shifting to a more flexible workforce to augment their traditional one, more frequently using temps, contingent employees, consultants, contractors, part-timers, and freelancers; bringing the percentage of independent workers in the US to 30%, according to The Freelancers Union. And on the global front, business is vigorous at Manpower, which supplies temporary workers to companies worldwide.  Says Juan Carlos Cruz, Manpower's director of communications: "Economic uncertainty remains and…companies are focused on maintaining financial flexibility and, therefore, more flexibility in their workforce."  

The trend is relaxing the connection between businesses and employees, as it bypasses the provision of benefits like unemployment and insurance. Some workers were delivered into free agency after the recession changed or eliminated their jobs, and they found that they could stitch together the work and income they needed with more than one employer. Others actively seek the flexibility, and even security, in such arrangements, adopting a free-agent approach because they don’t want to rely on just one company’s economic health for their futures.  And there’s another group, too – that some workforce experts term the “eccentrics, geniuses, upstarts and rebels” – the talented types who don’t thrive within a traditional organization, but can start and run their own companies or align with a traditional company for a project or two, adding valuable skills and perspective without  impacting the internal environment.  

Free agency adds up to a lot of creativity for workers and corporations. Consider the company that hires employees for three-year stints with limited benefits, or the call center that lets work-at-home operators choose their time slots according to projected volumes, or the ad firm that draws most of its workforce from freelancers around the world. With a portion of your staffing needs met by free agents, what should your rewards and comp/benefit programs look like? And what does contingent staffing mean to the mobility industry? 

For organizations – and for workers - the message is clear. It’s a new day out there, with a range of combinations and possibilities to build the workforce that best fits our companies … and as individuals, the career that best fits our skills and needs.

Move over, Drew, Derek and LeBron:  make room on the free agent circuit for the new workforce!

Make Just One Resolution: Stop Starting, Start Finishing

Yes, I know… resolutions are SO yesterday, aren’t they? Most of the people I know don’t make them anymore, or they choose things they are doing anyway, like “exercise twice a week” instead of saying they’re going to start the new year with a five-mile run every single day.

But there’s one great resolution that makes an incredible difference in our lives: “Stop starting, and start finishing.” Some trace this concept back to the Toyota Production System (TPS), which was established to eliminate waste (in the form of superfluous inventory and inefficient processes) in key areas. TPS looks for every opportunity to tweak tactics, remove unnecessary actions and add efficiency and value during development, production and distribution of the product.  

What has occurred to me often in my own journey through a variety of workplaces, and having had the opportunity to view others’ companies up close, is that much of this efficiency and value boomerangs back to a commitment to stop starting, and start finishing. The tech experts I know say often that with software development projects, too much work-in-progress is a liability. They note that as a developer, if you are working on more than two projects at once, productivity can take a dive. In essence, the more tasks that are in play at any given time… the more tasks that are not completed.

Maybe you remember that famous “I Love Lucy” scene, where Lucy and Ethel go to work in the chocolate factory, and because they are able to handle the production line at a moderate speed, their supervisor speeds up the belt, faster and faster, until they are stuffing confections in their mouths and hats to appear as if they are keeping up with the work flow. The chocolates aren’t being packaged properly – and some not at all – even though, for a time, it might appear that the production line was in full swing. In the sitcom environment, that’s great fun - and we don’t give a thought to the wasted product and workplace issues. In the real world, it squanders time and money and skews results – and the best solution is to find the right pace, and even if we can’t limit the amount of work, to rank the work we have before us to address it in the most intelligent manner. Recognizing the different levels of urgency that each task holds - and learning to prioritize with surgical precision - will clear the path to completion.

We are in an environment where it’s not always possible to be choiceful about the tasks we have in play at one time… and we can’t always sidestep work overload. In fact, it’s often hard to recognize it until we’re right in the middle of it. But we gain control by completing one task before making it harder or adding in other variables. Making this one promise to ourselves – to stop starting, and start finishing - rather than compromising our productivity by “eating” our unsuccessful efforts or unfinished tasks (which rarely are as tasty as chocolates!) is a great way to begin a shiny new year.

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