Is your career being put at risk by a toxic employer?

By Neil Patrick

Picking up my emails and messages today, I was struck by three in particular. Three very different stories, but one common aspect - a toxic employment situation.

A toxic employer

The first was a Twitter message in which a friend described talking to a senior manager. This boss was adamant that the way to ensure his team remained effective was to fire or demote his managers regularly. Promote 'fresh blood', squeeze them dry over a few years and then rehire newer, younger people whose eagerness and enthusiasm would inject new vigor into his operations. Ah yes. Burn and churn is alive and well...

A toxic industry

The second email which resonated was from a young man (well about 30) whom I’ve known since his youth. He was always smart and perceptive when we discussed business matters as we did many times. He is now a successful senior manager in the oil and gas industry. He asked me what he should be doing to develop his career in the future as the recent events in the oil market were causing him to worry about his long term career prospects..

A toxic boss

The third was a good friend in the legal profession who along with his colleagues has been so harangued and bullied by their control obsessed boss that several have quit and others are undergoing stress counselling.

Why these situations are career threatening

The first story above highlights the Attila the Hun approach to people management. Some organisations not only tolerate this, they demand it. If the culture is primitive, ie all we want is your maximum possible activity, then this type of behaviour is a fit with that ethos.

It’s often found in industries which require person to person contact and rapid and frequent interactions. In these businesses, it’s not quality of work that is paramount, it’s quantity and frequency of effort. Examples include call centres, contract catering, sales canvassing.

The oil and gas industries are on a slow but steady path to extinction as remaining fossil fuel reserves are consumed and renewable energies take their place (at least hopefully they will, or it’s curtains for the whole human race). Burning old brontosaurus skeletons is the way of the past not the future.

In the case of my lawyer friend, it was clear that the seniority of his bullying boss has provided her with an untouchable status within the organisation. Despite her behavior, the organisation is clearly not doing much to deal with it. Ironically, she's probably headed towards legal action against her from at least some of the people she has pushed over the edge.

In every case the solution is the same

So three very different cases, but for all of them, I think the answer is the same. It necessitates a planned approach to navigating your way from where you are today not just to your next job, but the job beyond that one.

The default for most people is to try and cling on as long possible to what we have. All the while hoping that somehow things will improve.

We all have power over our own actions, but little power to change the nature of our industry, employer or boss. So in this situation, all we can do is get away from the harmful environment we find ourselves in.

And this means accepting the reality and taking positive steps to  get ourselves to safety as soon as we can. Ultimately this means finding another job in a non-toxic environment even if it takes more than one job change to do it.

And the point at which you start this planning process to transition yourself into in a healthy environment should be now, not several months or years from now, when you have been completely poisoned and are at your lowest ebb.

The first step for all these situations is acknowledging the reality that the situation you face will not change. The industry, employer or boss is not going to suddenly stop being toxic. So you must remove yourself. But do this in a planned way not a knee-jerk complaining resignation tantrum.

The second step is identifying your pathway away from the danger. It may be sideways or even a little downwards, but getting yourself away from the poison has to be the priority.

And the third step is making it happen. Not next month or next week. But starting right now.

Before it’s too late.

The new C-suite titles – stop sniggering at the back!

By Neil Patrick

Over the last few years, there have been lots of stories about a spate of new senior job titles, which evoked great mirth or at least a little derision.

Last week I was discussing this trend with my good friend, Marcia LaReau, President of Forward Motion Careers. We both felt that the sniping was wide of the mark and obscured the reality of what's really happening.

In a Forbes article in 2012, C Is For Silly: The New C-Suite Titles, Jeanne Goudreau noted that many large organizations have adopted new and often amusing titles at the top executive level. A quick search revealed the following firms and titles:

Kodak and Dell — Chief Listener
Facebook — Chief Privacy Officer
Microsoft — Chief People Officer
AOL - Digital Prophet
Zappos - Chief Happiness Officer

Nearly every department head has been knighted with new, inventive ‘chief’ titles likely dreamt up by the marketing team in collusion with HR.

The detractors were quick to criticize. “It is all corporate Kindergarten playtime title-making,” said Mark Stevens, author of Your Marketing Sucks. “It’s a puppet show. These people have absolutely no power. Most of these vanity titles don’t even report to the CEO.”

Mark felt  this trend was “too much idle time and interest in making the company sound “cool.”

Peter Cappelli, management professor at the University of Pennsylvania, commented that the new titles are meant to signal—internally, to customers or to governments—that a particular function or task is important and that the people at the top are listening. They may also be a form of ego appeasing and identifying who the important senior people are. Peter said, “The main question is whether there’s any real substance behind them.”

All this misses the point

I’m not entirely in agreement with these commentators. Yes some of these titles sound a bit odd after decades of us being used to senior job titles changing very little. And yes they may not always carry the power that the title infers. We all knew what was what and who was who in the ‘old’ hierarchy. It was easy to understand.

The reason I think these comments are missing the mark is that they assume it’s simply vanity and corporate posturing at work. Sure, there is always some of this going on, but this isn't what’s really at the root of these changes.

What is really happening is that the most developed organisations have recognized that in the new era of super-connected consumers and business, the old hierarchies which reflected the analogue world are no longer very helpful in addressing the challenges of the digital economy.

IBM carried out 17 studies over ten years, and conducted 23,000 face-to-face executive interviews to obtain insights into how private and public sector leaders think. They explored how the C-suite is evolving in the digital era and how they are working together in support of the enterprise.

Collaboration trumps competition in the digital age

Whereas competition, power struggles and silos were characteristics of the analogue world, the digital world demands cross-functional collaboration. Many of today’s most senior people climbed their career ladders when competition and winning at all costs was the name of the game. But today, sophisticated employers recognize that silos, power struggles and internal rivalries destroy value and sap the strength of the organisation. Leaders that cannot easily foster collaboration across the disciplines face a rapid decline to obsolescence.

The IBM study reported:

“ The most collaborative leaders are self-aware, emotionally intelligent, good at listening and building relationships. They lead by inspiring others. But as everyone knows, we get the behavior we reward. And the qualities for which business executives are usually rewarded – ambition, assertiveness, a goal-orientated attitude and so forth – aren't directly associated with the ability to collaborate.”

What you call something or somebody is important. It sets expectations for both the job holder and those around them about what they are there to do. This is a further reason why the adoption of new senior job titles is helpful to everyone and not just a vanity play or attempt to appear ‘cool’.

Ann Morton, chief operating officer of Maine-based advertising firm The VIA Agency said, “We adopted Chief Knowledge Officer because we feel it’s a better representation of what’s really needed to be an effective advertising agency today. It’s about bringing wisdom to our clients, not just information.” 

The agency’s “CKO” oversees strategy, planning, analytics and research capabilities. She conceded, however, that as more unique titles crop up, leaders should be careful that the title reflects the job and the person’s experience. Using the word “ninja” in a job title isn't big or clever…

Whilst important sounding titles proliferate, in reality, the C-suite is shrinking

Just as technology is stripping out jobs at all levels of the organisation, the C-suite is being impacted too.

This evolution of structures is leading to the blurring or even merging of senior leadership roles. In the analogue world, the Marketing Director headed up all the activities delivering customers to the business, identifying and satisfying his or her needs. Their key skills base was around things like market research, product development, packaging, promotion, media planning, and customer retention. Data and insights were slow in coming and often expensive to obtain. But today, a marketing director obtains immediate and actionable insights from a flood of digital data.

This might be electronic point of sale information, social media reactions, website traffic tracking, or any other number of digital information streams. And because most marketing directors earned their spurs in the analogue age, many are feeling a tad uncomfortable as their world has undergone such a rapid and radical transformation.

One outcome is that some organisations are merging the CMO and CIO role or at least requiring that the Marketing Chief knows as much about IT and digital as they do about the more traditional marketing skills sets. Suddenly being just a marketing or just an IT expert is no longer enough.

You can enjoy the joke by all means, but it’s not corporate vanity or silliness that is behind what’s happening. It’s a very real attempt to adapt to the nature of a digital economy.

The jobless recovery continues

If redundancies are slowing and hiring is rising, how come no-one feels much better about the outlook?

There are confusing signals coming out right now around the supposed economic recovery. We know that hiring rates are rising. Incomes and spending are on the up too. We also know that workers are increasingly feeling confident enough to quit jobs they don’t like. This fact alone pushes up the volume of hiring activity. So this part of the situation can be at least partially explained.

An oft-quoted opinion about the persistence of unemployment is that workers don’t have the right skills. If this were true, then we’d expect to see that in some sectors, the numbers of unemployed workers would be dwarfed by the numbers of job openings. Employers would have no choice but to settle for less than ideal candidates and many vacancies would remain unfilled.

So is this the case?

Here’s the breakdown for Feb 2015 by industry sector in the US:

What we can see here is that with just one exception, namely Healthcare and Social Assistance, the number of unemployed workers still massively exceeds the number of job openings.

For example, in construction, the number of unemployed workers exceeds the number of job openings by five and a half times. In the enormous sector of retail, unemployed retail workers exceed job openings by around two to one.

This is a jobless recovery. And the lack of any significant recovery in the US labor participation rate confirms this:

So what is going on? Here’s my hypothesis.

First there is a flight to technology investment over investment in human capital. In the seven or so years since the onset of the Great Recession, technology has made huge strides. The result is that most organisations can today accomplish the same or a greater amount of work with a smaller workforce than they did even just a few years ago.

Second, the globalization of workforces means that many jobs which used to stay firmly in the domestic market are now spreading around the world. And it’s not just a cheap labor argument. I recently had lunch with an entrepreneur friend who told me that almost his entire workforce was now composed of freelancers based the Philippines. Yes it was cheaper than a UK workforce (by about 75%), but critically this wasn’t his main reason for the choice. He was in the business of web content production and he had found that his overseas workers were more diligent, more proactive and had better written English than the people he used to employ in the UK.

Thirdly, endlessly falling marginal costs of production mean that revenues and inflation are acting as a brake on spending levels and wage growth. Both have a negative impact on incomes, spending and government tax receipts.

The forty-thousand dollar question is will business growth and continued recovery result in more jobs for humans being created or will the robots steal them?