Tag Archives: management

Giving in to health: In support of taking sick days

sickdayI took a sick day for the first time in a while last week, and although being sick is never fun, it was one of the better decisions I’ve made made lately.

Many people refuse to take sick days, even when they’re entitled to them — and I’m usually one of them. But it’s foolish to go to work sick, underperform and just trudge home even sicker. But why do we do this to ourselves?

We hate to admit weakness. Our popular culture, especially sports, build up an image of strength in working through pain or illness. Michael Jordan’s legend includes gutting through the flu to score 38 points and lead his Bulls to a 1997 comeback playoff win. Or a limping Kirk Gibson coming off the bench to hit a winning homer for the L.A. Dodgers in the 1988 World Series. We are shown moments of ailing athletes and other coming through and our pride takes over. But perhaps one of our greatest weaknesses is not admitting to weakness.

The pursuit of productivity. I’ll admit membership in the cult of productivity, a need to keep things moving, meet goals, always feel like I’m accomplishing something. But you can’t be very productive when you’re sick, no matter how you try to block it out, so sometimes taking a break to recover and recharge is what produces real productivity.

We like to feel irreplaceable. Chances are we’re good at something we do and feel we can do it better than anybody else. We fall into the delusion that things can’t get done without us, which is simply poor management on our parts. We should all have other people who can do tasks when we’re not around. Because, let’s face it, history shows all human beings get replaced eventually.

And so we soldier on, through coughing and running noses and headaches and fevers and chills, not only exposing those around us to our germs but preventing us from getting better. But we need to swallow our pride, and our medicine and vitamins and tea and chicken soup and whatever, and take that sick day.

Here’s why:

Our bodies need it. The idea of getting better by working through, by showing our “strength,” is simply bunk. There’s a reason doctors have prescribed bed rest and fluids for the most basic maladies for millennia. If you keep trying to work through sickness, you prolong your illness, wear yourself down even more and even make yourself prone to additional ailments.

Our minds need it. When you’re sick and tired of being sick and tired, your decision-making suffers. One of most valuable skills in the workplace is the ability to make good decisions — it suffuses everything we do — and trying to power through sickness detracts from this vital tool.

Our organizations need it. When you come to work sick and refuse to give up control of anything, the unwritten message is that you don’t trust your coworkers. True leaders instead take time to help others learn, groom them for increased responsibility and then give them opportunities to shine. If these opportunities come because you’re home in bed, then they are blessings in disguise.

>> I’m usually that stubborn guy who tries to muddle through the aches and pains, the sneezing, wheezing and coughing, but after trying to stave off something for days, last Wednesday after teaching evening class I came home and collapsed into bed. I realized the best solution was to give in and take care of my health. Taking Thursday off to recover and recharge made me ready to go and productive again on Friday. And since I’m incapable of being idle, I did spend part of my day off doing chores I normally have to shoehorn into whatever free out-of-work hours I can, which eventually relaxed me even more.

Admittedly, taking sick days off can be complicated by staffing, deadlines, projects and other life priorities. I know that for self-employed people a day without work is a day without income — but if you press pause so you can recover and return to do your best work, then you can look at it as an investment.

Every musical composition contains beats and rests. You can’t compose a symphony on all beats and no rests — the rests emphasize the beats — and you can’t live a fruitful life that way either. So when you’re tempted to work through a sick day even when you’re drained, think about taking a rest instead. The beat will go on.

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Living in silos: Blindness, elephants and higher ed customer service.

Few poems or fables seem to describe higher ed dysfunction better than “Blind Men and the Elephant,” best known via John Godfrey Saxe’s 19th-century translation of a story from the Indian subcontinent about intolerance. Yet the tale in which six sightless men encounter different parts of the pachyderm and make assumptions about what it is (a wall, a spear, a snake, a tree, a fan, a rope) also aptly describes one of the biggest elephants in the room hurting higher ed customer service.

Around the time Saxe was penning poems (and even stopping in Oswego long enough to marvel over the public library being built), educators like Edward Austin Sheldon were looking to fix education via radical methods that fused ideas based in science, experimentation and hands-on learning. In founding the Oswego Primary Teachers’ Training School in 1861 (the forerunner of SUNY Oswego), Sheldon saw transmitting the best techniques and content as the key to success — training teachers even as they took active roles leading classrooms of young students in the then-booming city of Oswego. The passing of knowledge was active on-the-job work that aimed for a seamless experience. Of course, he didn’t have big admissions, student affairs, alumni relations or other staffs … in part because the first training school class only had nine students, who took their pedagogy lessons in a cloakroom.

Jimmy Moreland teaching freshman English, 1949. Courtesy of SUNY Oswego's Penfield Library Special Collections

Jimmy Moreland teaching freshman English, 1949. Courtesy of SUNY Oswego’s Penfield Library Special Collections

But the development of specialty roles and the profusion of offices didn’t occur until much later in the 20th century. I’ve mentioned before the remembrances of Oswego legend Jimmy Moreland, who passed away in 1950. Jimmy — and that’s what he asked students to call him even in the more formal time — was a man of many talents for the school:

He was a revered English professor, a chief recruiter, advisor for 300 to 400 freshmen, and even director of public relations. In his spare time, he advised the fledgling Hillel club and volunteered in the Oswego community. … Jimmy wore a lot of hats well, and he never looked at his watch and declared his day done, knowing any time he saw a student provided an opportunity to connect. He recruited students, advised them, taught them, excelling in all areas. There were no silos, cubicles or boundaries to what we would, and could, do to serve students.

Flash forward 60+ years, and I cringe at the runaround students receive today — passed from one office to another when no one has an answer or because another office needs to approve something that should be common sense. Of course, colleges and their populations are much bigger, regulations more complex, services required and requested more extensive, technology constantly evolving and structures so different than the 1950s or the 1860s.

But if different offices can’t find a way to work together to help students, we’re not doing our jobs. Period. An army of specialists who can do one or two tasks but cannot help a student with the big picture — of college, and of life — does students a disservice. Higher ed is not an assembly line; it should be more like a community barn-raising where everybody does whatever necessary for success. The Admissions Office isn’t the English department which isn’t Career Services … I get that. But when a student has to run several obstacle courses just to register, pay their bill and deal with the hurdles we throw up as organizations — and anyone can only help with one piece of the puzzle — then a bigger army really isn’t better.

Moreover, do employees think of themselves as supplying customer service or just another cog in the machine? This is a management issue and an attitude more than a staffing issue. If a freshman at your college has a bad experience, rest assured hundreds of other colleges would happily take her on as a customer. Portability is an increasingly popular feature of the college experience — especially with educational disruptions where students can learn anytime, anywhere from any institution — so for any college to think they are the entity in the control, as opposed to students controlling their own destinies in increasing ways, is an arrogant and archaic attitude.

Another problem is see is in the array of software “solutions” students have to conquer like levels on a video game. Colleges use an array of “solutions” to create separate communities or systems for potential students, freshmen, registration and academic progress, student organizations, internships, career plans, alumni activities and myriad other pieces. With the number of software programs they’re asked to learn, accounts they’re asked to create and communities they’re impelled to join, it’s like we make them change planes seven times to get from Syracuse to Schenectady. All these “solutions” tackle various specialties and tasks, some better than others, but it’s miles away from even approaching a seamless, customer-friendly system.

The answers don’t need to be rocket science: Cross-training more employees. Collaborating. Communicating. Solutions (true solutions, not software “solutions”) could offer many benefits. If offices get together to create that online community or install that software package that solves problems across many areas, functions and student tasks — instead of everybody running out to buy their own niche “solution” — not only will they save money and increase efficiency, but they can provide a better student experience.

But more than anything, it’s a mindset. An attitude. A willingness to work with others to truly put students first. Jimmy Moreland figured out how to do that more than 60 years ago without consultants, vendor pitches or sophisticated software. What I wrote after reading about his amazing life speaks toward how his positive, people-based attitude transcended the system we’ve set up in the decades since, yet could guide us in our future plans:

I can’t see Jimmy poring through the pages upon pages of policies, procedures and precedents we’ve foisted upon higher education governance. If he had a mission statement, it would likely simply read: Do the right thing. Maybe we’ve made this business a lot more difficult than it should be. You see how one man, one incredible man like Jimmy Moreland could follow his head and his heart and serve as educator, inspiration and friend to thousands of students, and you wonder.

You wonder indeed how we’ve made something simple as good customer service so complex. We can’t see the elephant in the room unless we think as a team.

Next time: Higher ed getting iTuned, and the role of customer service


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management by wandering around, revisited.

“You are out of tune with the times if you are in the office more than one-third of the time.” — Tom Peters, “Thriving on Chaos”

One could wonder if Peters’ 1987 quote no longer applies now that we can connect with the world via email, social media and countless new channels without leaving our offices. I would argue his point is more valid than ever.

I’m bad at this. I spend way too much time in front of my computer in my office. There was a running gag where our web/new media coordinator, who reports to me, and I would say “good morning” to each other face-to-face for the first time in the afternoon. But this is marginal management on my part, so I’ve made a point to try to check in with her early in the day, every day.

Moreover, working on a college campus, it’s really hard to get a picture for what’s happening from the island of our offices. Getting out and around helps immensely.

Peters had a term for this: Management by wandering around. It’s not complicated. Just by walking around your area, talking to your employees, co-workers, bosses and the like (in our case, students!), you not only maintain a good line of communication but can improve how everyone does their job.

I notice this most when I get out of my building and go through places like our Campus Center. In buildings teeming with offices, casual spaces and interesting people, I often find myself in conversations that solve some kind of problem for one or both of us, move a project along or spark a whole new collaboration. Sitting down to lunch or talking over a cup of coffee provides a much richer, deeper and more fruitful conversation than text messages or email, Facebook or Twitter ever could.

This is not to discount online communication. I’ve worked on good projects and formed great friendships with people before meeting them in person. But meeting them face to face — interacting in three dimensions in real time — makes the relationship so much richer. The same goes for your bosses or employees, your colleagues and your students. Social media can facilitate connections and communication, but it can never replace in-person interaction.

So … if you’re reading this in your office, I offer this simple challenge: Get out from behind that desk and wander around to talk face-to-face with at least three people you don’t normally speak with over the course of today. It could prove much more fruitful than you imagined!


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2011 goal: become a better five-tool player

In baseball parlance, a five-tool player is one who does many things well (batting average, power, speed, fielding, throwing). In today’s workplace, where we need to perform many, many different tasks  — how many folks get to specialize any more? — flexibility and improving several skills is at a premium.

In that way, I’m studying my major skillsets, or desired skillsets, to examine where I want to grow and improve:

1. Writing. This has been my bread and butter. I started writing poetry when I was 4 (didn’t say “good poetry”) and have been paid to write since I was 20. But improvement is always possible. The character constraints of Twitter (and to a lesser extent Facebook) reinforce the most important writing tip ever, Strunk and White’s “Omit needless words.” I think sometimes, with my general writing, I’m too satisfied with a first or second draft when I really need to keep trying to make it better.

2. Web communication. This could represent several tools in itself, but for the sake of keeping it to five, I’ll consider this a mashup of social media, analytics and website management. This is an area I’ve had to learn on the fly, but often with the help of reading and expert advice — much of it free from colleagues. Analytics, which I just started getting into after last year’s SIMTech Conference, represents countless opportunities for improving our web presence. Not included in this list but related is …

3. Content strategy. Thanks to the awesome book Content Strategy for the Web by Kristina Halvorson (a later blog post), I gained more of a handle on, and case for, better institutional content strategy. This has resembled the Wild West in our decentralized web presence, but combining analytics with rolling content audits and content strategies could work wonders. Or so I hope …

4. Video. My communication degree had a broadcast concentration, so I know the basics. And they sat dormant for many, many years until I had to start supplying more video content a few months ago. I started using iMovie — so much easier than the analog editing I learned on ginormous machines — and now look to improve my camera work, which requires better equipment as much as anything. But I know that, underlying it all, sits a basic desire for storytelling that I cherish.

5. Management. I’ve read books, had training, but what does it mean in the real world? I supervise two full-time workers (who I view as colleagues, never subordinates), a small student social-media team (interns and volunteers) and student bloggers. I’m trying to track, prioritize and document things better, but don’t want to make it a chore. As a discipline of the Tom Peters empowerment strategy, I sometimes wonder if I’m too permissive … but my hope, especially with students, is to put them in position and with the tools and opportunities to succeed.

So, what about you? What skills would you like to gain or improve?


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‘in defense of food’ and lessons for the workplace.

Just finished reading Michael Pollan’s enlightening In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, which will definitely influence what enters my kitchen and my body. But, as an information omnivore, I couldn’t help but notice some of its lessons also could feed our workplace management and communication habits.

Briefly, Pollan argues that the rise of processed foods, our fast-food mentality and nutritionism — the science of breaking food down into its smallest components and drawing isolated conclusions — have had disastrous effects on our national diet. He champions a simple philosophy — Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. — supporting real food, measured portions and healthy options. It’s a great place to start … and it parallels good advice for other parts of our lives:

Tradition is better than fad. There’s a reason, Pollan argues, that cultures can eat the same food for generations, centuries really, and suffer few adverse effects. Switch a nation to fast food and dubious quick-fix diets and health chaos ensues. Not a coincidence. As for traditional wisdom on interpersonal communication, I’ve been subjected to countless management treatises, tomes and texts, but the best advice continues to come from Dale Carnegie’s 1937 book How To Win Friends and Influence People. Advice like: Smile. Be courteous. Treat others the way you’d like to be treated. How much better would the business world be if we followed such simple rules?

Goals and guidelines are better than rules. Pollan offers general guideposts starting with his refrain: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. He adds other suggestions such as not eating anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognize, avoiding food with unpronounceable ingredients and cooking instead of buying pre-packaged meals. Nothing earth-shattering or diet-dictatorial, but easy-to-remember algorithms. It’s common sense for a purpose, the kind of thing that should govern day-to-day business instead of 27-page memos with bulletpoints and sub-sub-subchapters.

Trust your gut. Is eating a fatty grease-laden meal healthy as long as you leave out the carbs, as Atkins Diet cultists claimed? Unlikely. As are any quick-fix claims telling you to merely avoid one thing or another. Similarly, pitches from vendors promising products or services that seem too good to be true usually are. For millenia, we humans survived on logic and gut instinct. With good reason.

Go local. Pollan suggests buying from farmers’ markets or farms as much as possible, or to consider granting a garden. Given the boom in location-based social media (geosocial), we see that our online behaviors increasingly favor the hyperlocal and instantaneous interaction with our local environment. In both cases, the benefits are fresh and immediate.

Enjoy what you do/enjoy what you eat. A central theme is the French Paradox, or how the French traditionally eat foods that would make nutritionists wince, aided by wine, yet remain healthy. But note they also enjoy actual meals — real food, consumed leisurely, with friends … knowing when they are full and not just cramming down super-sized fries in their car. Consider the psychological advantage of enjoying what you eat as an experience, as opposed to spending all your time fretting over every little thing or pursuing fad diets. Which sounds more mentally healthy? But this also should suffuse our lives: When we enjoy what we do, and what we eat, life is so much better.


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is ‘stuck in the office’ stuck in the office?

“You are out of tune with the times if you are in the office more than one-third of the time.” — Tom Peters, Thriving on Chaos, 1987

When it comes to being in touch with workers and customers alike, the words of Peters, the management guru, ring true more than two decades later. But the world has changed too. With the rise of the Internet and, more recently, social media, we can have instant or quick feedback from co-workers, peers and clients at any time. The amount of work and connections achievable with an iPhone transcends anything imagined in the 1980s. So does his analysis still seem valid?

For years, I’ve viewed e-mail as one of the best things that ever happened to my line of work. But now I’ve learned that it’s almost always easier to reach students via Facebook than email. My intern and I communicate via Twitter, and through tweets I’ve virtually attended great conferences or shared information from my conferences. Via various social-media methods, I can take care of so much business without leaving my desk and the MacBook Pro that is my window on the world.

But can even real-time electronic communication replace face-to-face communication? I would argue it can’t. Whenever I walk through our Campus Center, I almost always seem to run into people and conduct business. Whether it’s someone pitching me a story, an idea to start a new project or a conversation that replaces an unreturned phone call or email, a few random encounters can achieve more than a raft of calls, e-mails or messages via social media.

So does stuck in the office still mean stuck in the office? What do you think?


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hockey lessons for winning work.

Game on!

Game on!

Maybe I read too much about management, but I couldn’t help but look for lessons this weekend while on the road with the Oswego State women’s ice hockey team (I’m a faculty mentor). Sports is a zero-sum game — if we win, it means you lose — while higher ed is (ideally) about fashioning win-win opportunities. Nonetheless, here are some thoughts.

Hierarchy. We have a head coach, assistant coach, three co-captains and 25 players. Chances are the head coach communicates directly with any individual player. Mistakes are ironed out quickly through direct interaction. No memo from the president to the provost to the dean to the department chair to the faculty. There are drawbacks to a 1:25 supervisor ratio, especially in terms of individualized attention, but communication is clean, clear, results-oriented.

Resource management: The coach has to field a starting goalie, two defenders and three forwards. Rotation is four lines of forwards, three lines of defenders and you hope you can keep your two backup goalies on the bench. You may have a speed line, a big line, or mix and match, plus penalty-kill lines and power-play lines. Staffing is flexible and sometimes lineups (project teams) vary; if you’re a player down due to penalty, you’ll want to put out your best defensive forwards and may have to mix up the pairings. Everyone brings different skills to the mix, and determining successful chemistry of various lines is a difficult art.

Motivation: One game this weekend saw the backup goalie get a start to stay fresh and one forward kept out of the lineup to send a message. Sometimes such positive and negative reinforcements can bite you if all your players don’t respond the way you’d like. But then doesn’t this happen with office project teams?

Reacting/responding: The two games were against Chatham University, and Oswego dominated Saturday’s contest in a 5-1 win. But the home team came out hungry and energized on Sunday, traded blows and capitalized on enough Laker mistakes to win a 4-3 overtime thriller (well, the Chatham fans were thrilled anyway). The Lakers didn’t assume the win — and played better overall (51-25 shot advantage) — but Chatham responded and took advantage of chances. Like in the business world, games are sometimes about how you capitalize on opportunities. Now it’s up to Oswego to respond this week in practice and try to win a two-game series hosting Cortland this weekend to stay in the playoff chase.

Certainly there’s plenty to take away here. The more hierarchy in an organization, the slower and more muddled the communication. As we all try to do more with less, resource management — figuring out the strengths of members of work teams, and how to maximize skills — becomes increasingly important. It’s paramount to find the right motivation to keep workers moving forward in these challenging times. And with the speed of technology, reacting/responding decisively and quickly can be the difference between failure and success.

There are many other life lessons one learns while traveling with 25 female student-athletes, but that would make for a really long blog entry.

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