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This past week my cousin was laid-off by a well-known ministry where she had served for 32 years. She was one of 31 individuals who lost their job in an afternoon purge. One of these staff members had worked for the ministry 38 years.

To function, survive, and thrive corporations and organizations must make periodic financial adjustments. When revenues are significantly down it’s almost impossible to make such financial adjustments without laying-off personnel, particularly since personnel costs generally represent about two-thirds of an organization’s budget.

So the issue is not that corporations and organizations are doing something morally suspect when they lay-off staff, it’s more about how they go about laying-off staff.

During my 20 plus years of administrative experience in Christian higher education I had to make lay-off decisions. Professionally speaking, this experience was without question the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. The university where I served as president went through a period of financial realignment in which we had to lay-off several staff members, friends and long-time associates. While I wouldn’t suggest our process couldn’t have been improved, I would say we worked hard to inform, walk carefully through a planned process, treat people with respect, and do what had to be done with as much concern for all involved as possible.

What my cousin experienced, however, defies explanation. The ministry did not give people any forewarning, told employees they had to clear out their desks and be gone by day’s end, including three-decade staff like my cousin. The ministry gave these people, again including longtime staff, no financial considerations, no extension of benefits, and in general no assistance. Basically, the ministry threw a good portion of its staff members into the street.

My guess is someone read a manual on how corporations lay-off employees and decided it had to be done in a sort of Friday Afternoon Massacre. Apparently, at least the ministry leadership thought it had to be done this way. But it doesn’t.

Years ago, one of our friends, a pastor, was surprised by his deacon board with the precipitous news his services were no longer required. The deacons informed this young pastor, a father of three, that he and his family would have to vacate the parsonage by the end of the month. Like the ministry I mentioned above, after that month this church provided no financial consideration for the pastor's family. In other words, they threw a family of five into the streets. In my estimation what these deacons did was immoral. The later chapter of this story is that God took care of this family. Our friend and his wife were approached by a few families and asked to start a church, which they did, and that church today runs more than 800 people on Sunday mornings. The church that tossed them aside languishes with four or five families.

Again, the issue is not that organizations are wrong to lay-off personnel. This will happen in the life of virtually any and all organizations. The issue is how it is done.

There is no pleasant or easy way to inform someone he or she has lost a job, and there is certainly no pleasant or easy way to hear this news. But the process can be constructed in a manner that treats people, understandably upset, with dignity. This requires as much lead-time as possible, information, explanation, clear statement of financial and benefit considerations, and outplacement assistance as desired.

What incenses me about my friend’s church long ago and about the ministry for which my cousin worked is that they evidenced little or no care for their people’s transition. They sent them away with nothing, so these organizations not only created short-term financial hurt but likely, with at least a few, long-term bitterness.

Leadership is another form of stewardship and in my estimation these Christian organizations did not act “Christianly,” nor did they demonstrate good stewardship of their people, their reputation, or their mission. In this approach everyone loses.

 

© Rex M. Rogers – All Rights Reserved, 2011

*This blog may be reproduced in whole or in part with a full attribution statement. Contact Rex or read more commentary on current issues and events at www.rexmrogers.com or follow him at www.twitter.com/RexMRogers.

International airlines, in my experience, continue to outdo airlines based in America in customer relations—and services.

I don’t mean you can’t find nice or professional American airline flight attendants or agents. Of course you can. What I mean is that overall, international lines work harder at the little things to make flying more pleasant, or at least make it less onerous.

Here are a few examples:

--International airlines serve better and more food, hands down, especially Air France.

--International airlines offer more choices of free newspapers.

--International airline staff, in my experience, less often invoke the trump word “security” to keep you from doing something they don’t want to deal with—like using a nearby restroom where no one is waiting as opposed to the restroom in your section where six are waiting.

This happened to me today on Delta. I’m a Platinum mileage traveler, was sitting 10 feet from a restroom between sections and the flight attendant jumped me with “Sir, where is your seat?” Never mind no one was waiting there while several waited for the “appropriate” restroom. She still said I couldn’t use the restroom in front of me: why? Because of “security.” Did you get that? If I'd used this restroom it would have constituted a security risk. Right.

--International airlines suffer these things too--but American airlines in particular charge exorbitant bag fees, set up innumerable disqualifiers to discourage people from redeeming earned miles, and present mileage clubs that really don’t offer much in the first place.

--The kicker for me was a 4.5-hour delay in Memphis last Saturday with Delta. OK, it happens. But for this one—no explanation, no apology, no amenities, nothing. Later this week I received an email apology and feedback form. Maybe I’ll send them this blog.

One last thing that doesn’t matter much in the scheme of things but it’s interesting. International airline staff members are better dressed, actually, often dressed-up with sport jackets, ties, and a polished attitude to go with it.

I think American airlines could learn a few things from their international peers.

 

© Rex M. Rogers – All Rights Reserved, 2011

*This blog may be reproduced in whole or in part with a full attribution statement. Contact Rex or read more commentary on current issues and events at www.rexmrogers.com or follow him at www.twitter.com/RexMRogers.

Big Blue celebrates its one hundredth anniversary this week, quite an accomplishment for any business, even more so one in technology. IBM’s four full pages in “The Wall Street Journal” acknowledged where the company made mistakes, what it learned, and how it tried to create a culture oriented to the long-term.

Out of 25 top United States corporations in 1900, only 2 continued in operation in 1960. Of the top 25 companies in 1961, only 6 still exist today. So IBM’s 100 years is indeed impressive.

What did IBM learn? “Not to confuse charisma with leadership,” “Leadership often requires shedding emotional attachment to (its) heritage,” and “Leaders must show up in defense of the future.” Notice all these points are about leadership. IBM learned and demonstrated that leadership that grows, that looks proactively forward, that acts with integrity reinforces a company’s potential for surviving and thriving.

Leadership is not the end of an organization, but it is most certainly one of the key and essential means to determining the end of the organization. Leaders must be future-oriented or by definition function behind the curve. On behalf of their organizations leaders must stir and stimulate their organizations even to the point of discomfort—that is, if they and others within truly want the organization to improve by competing with itself.

Thomas Watson, Sr and Thomas Watson, Jr set IBM on a path to greatness that faltered. Louis V. Gerstner, Jr rescued and resuscitated IBM, putting it back on track. Gerstner wrote about IBM’s radical self-induced culture change in one of the best leadership books I’ve ever read, Who Said Elephants Can’t Dance? Inside IBM’s Historic Turnaround.

Leadership involves more courage than most people think. It’s easy to slide, to duck, to wink at percolating problems. It takes courage to tackle them head on. IBM has been blessed with more such leaders than most organizations can claim. Consequently, it’s celebrating its one hundredth birthday.

 

© Rex M. Rogers – All Rights Reserved, 2011

*This blog may be reproduced in whole or in part with a full attribution statement. Contact Rex or read more commentary on current issues and events at www.rexmrogers.com or follow him at www.twitter.com/RexMRogers.

There was a time when one might say, “Steve Jobs’s Apple.” He co-founded Apple, Inc. April 1, 1976, with Steve Wojniak and Ronald Wayne, owned it, and operated it. Now, after he and others who joined him built a g lobal computer behemoth one might say, “Apple’s Steve Jobs.” He successfully built a company bigger than himself. Or did he?

In the wake of Jobs’s recent announcement that he’ll once again step away from Apple for an indeterminate time on medical leave, industry analysts are wondering aloud if Apple can withstand a long term or permanent Jobs departure. In other words, how important is Steve Jobs the persona to Apple’s success?

I don't know Steve Jobs but wish I did. I don't know his personality or character, but I'll root for him on his medical leave. His business, leadership, and marketing acumen are, if not unique, truly rare, and the impact his technological vision has made on America, mostly for the good, is phenomenal. I pray his cancer issues can be vanquished.

Other business leaders evidence exceptional talent for innovation, leadership, and marketing. Think Microsoft’s Bill Gates, Googles’ Sergey Brin and Larry Page, even Martha Stewart. But there’s not as many leaders like this as people think. Jobs stands apart from nearly all of them.

For Apple to continue to do well it will need to continue to develop creative new products like the iPhone, and iPad. But the real test of Steve Jobs’s legacy, which is to say if Apple thrives for years after he steps down permanently (and as I said, I hope that’s not now), will be his leadership skills. The question yet unanswered is how well will people he’s recruited and developed do in leadership after he’s gone?

In Jobs’s earlier medical absence, COO Tim Cook became the interim company top executive and company voice. He apparently handled this task with aplomb and was richly rewarded for it. He now steps in again.

A lot of leaders lead well, even exceptionally, during their run. But they fail to develop leaders around them for the time to come after their run. For the organization this can be a fatal mistake.

Preachers, I might add, are especially inclined to do this, too often leaving their church floundering once they move on—and everyone, eventually, moves on. Reassignment, Retirement, Illness, Death…every leader moves on.

So I will pray Steve Jobs returns to health and I’ll watch the company. The latter will offer many lessons in leadership.

 

© Rex M. Rogers – All Rights Reserved, 2011

*This blog may be reproduced in whole or in part with a full attribution statement. Contact Rex or read more commentary on current issues and events at www.rexmrogers.com or follow him at www.twitter.com/RexMRogers.

 

Tonight, five of us went to an Olive Garden in Temecula, California. Once we were seated, the wait for drinks and further service was interminable. We were given salads but no plates. One member of our group waited for his salad plate nearly ten minutes after the rest of us finally got ours. During the meal we asked for items, were promised, but only received after we’d asked twice again. We were told by our waitress the manager would bring salads; never happened. When the manager finally did get involved, at my request, she apologized several times, said she’d bring us more salad but never did. One member of our group had ordered a meal with clams and mollusks only to discover that most of her shells were just that, shells with no meat in them. She had to ask for the meat that was promised with the meal.

The end of this story is the manager eventually, via the waitress, absorbed the entire bill, apologizing again and charging us nothing for five meals, a tab that approached $100. This is nice, was appreciated, and rarely happens. We left the harried waitress an appropriate tip. And by the way, this is not my typical experience at Olive Garden.

As I said, I asked to speak to the manager because my friend was left sitting after we’d spoken twice to our inefficient waitress. I rarely do this. Though I experience my share of poor customer service I rarely challenge or even respond to it, primarily because I don’t want to create conflict or otherwise appear to be just another unpleasant customer. But I wonder, is this avoidance the best idea?

Last fall at Philadelphia International Airport I endured my worst ever experience with a clerk. I needed to change a train ticket into a plane ticket. But the young woman at Continental Airlines didn’t want to assist me or didn’t know how to do what I needed. In any event, she presented me with an extreme condescending attitude and brusqueness, all the while tossing her head, rolling her eyes, and shaking her body in ways that indicated she thought I was beneath her effort.

What had I done to deserve this? Nothing. What made it worse is that her manager eventually stood behind her, watched her treat me the way she did—even with a “Tsk” of disgust when her question elicited an answer from me that she didn’t like. Yet the manager said and did nothing to intervene—even looked me in the eye to see how I might react.

I didn’t challenge this extreme attitude that day, but sometimes I think I should have done so, if nothing else so the young clerk would at least have the experience of being held accountable whether or not she agreed. But I didn’t say anything, just absorbed the bad behavior because I didn’t want to escalate the attitude war.

What bothers me most, and maybe this is ego or pride, is when I follow instructions exactly as given to me by one clerk only to have another clerk act as if I’m dumb, don’t know what I’m talking about, or simply a bother. This happens to me a lot, at hotels, car rentals, and stores—yet almost always I eventually prove to be the one with correct information about their procedures.

This happened during Christmas week when I had to work with three Rogers and Holland jewelry stores to get them to add an accent diamond, which was missing at delivery from the new engagement ring I’d just purchased. I approached the Grand Rapids store staff and said to them what the Lansing store staff said I should say. For five minutes until they got their bearings, to hear them interpret it, I was the uninformed customer. Actually, they didn’t know what they were talking about and consequently were blowing smoke to placate me or to get me to go away. When I finally got in direct touch with the jeweler, a gentleman about my age, he bent over backwards to meet my needs during Christmas time, even gave me his cell phone number. And he eventually added the accent diamond. I salute him.

But this customer service breakdown had happened earlier at the Lansing store, too, where we’d ordered the ring, were told they’d call me, but they did not. So after the deadline I called them. The manager kept saying she was “Sorry for my confusion”—said it three times until I intervened and said I was not “confused” but her store had not done what it said it was going to do. At that she admitted I was right and from there we resolved the issue.

I’m at a point where I’m old enough, experienced enough, and weary enough that I don’t think I want to go on in silence anymore. Like Olive Garden tonight, I think I’ll speak up. But if I do this, it seems to me the primary concern or key for success is not so much what I say as how I say it. I am, after all, a Christian, so I don’t want to evidence a decided lack of the fruit of the Spirit.

I don’t want to convey anger or any other uncontrolled emotion. I don’t want to be pushy, grouchy, or unduly demanding. I don’t want to be unfair. I want to give people a break and not always jump on their miscues.

But I also want to say, “Hey, wait a minute,” to note unprofessional attitudes or poor service or products. As long as I respond winsomely I think I have every right as a paying customer to speak truth to shoddiness or incompetence. Me not speaking up is not doing them any good or doing any good for the next customer treated in a similar shabby manner.

I’m not quite ready to wear a shirt that says, “Don’t Tread On Me.” But I am ready to say, “You know, you’d have a better day if you respected your customers.”

 

© Rex M. Rogers – All Rights Reserved, 2011

*This blog may be reproduced in whole or in part with a full attribution statement. Contact Rex or read more commentary on current issues and events at www.rexmrogers.com or follow him at www.twitter.com/RexMRogers.

 

Am I the only one who gets the shivers when I open a box only to discover it’s full of polystyrene packing peanuts? If there’s one commercial product I cannot abide it is packing peanuts. And there’re a lot of good reasons for my mania.

Packing peanuts are those typically white, petroleum-based cushioning products patented by Dow Chemical Company in the mid-1960s. They’re used in boxes or other conveyances to protect the object being shipped. Dow Chemical calls their polystyrene product Styrofoam, a word that’s gone into everyday currency for any product that’s remotely similar, like the material in a coffee cup. Scary as it may seem, there’re now different kinds of packing peanuts.

I, for one, despise them all. Nothing is more challenging—or frustrating—than trying to unpack something covered with Styrofoam peanuts. First, they fall apart and small pieces scatter everywhere. Second, these small pieces as well as whole peanuts stick to everything: the product, clothes, hair, furniture, carpet, you name it, they stick, and the more you try to avoid them the more they spread. They get into cracks and crevices of the new product, stick to your couch, and turn up later between your toes. Packing peanuts are, in a word, diabolical.

Styrofoam packing peanuts are 95% air. Thus, they easily blow in the air and float on water, hence the nickname “White Pollution.” They’re reusable and in loose fill fashion, allow air to flow through packaging yet interlock under pressure.

Sound good? But: polystyrene peanuts are not biodegradable (unless you count gradual breakup over 500 years), are not water soluble, give off toxins when they do finally fall apart, and are highly static.

In the United States we throw away about 2 million tons of this stuff per year, most of it ending up accounting for 25-30% of the waste in landfills. It can kill birds or fish mistaking it for food.

Efforts have been made to find a biodegradable alternative to polystyrene packing peanuts. Starch and other food-based peanuts are now used by some companies. Usually they’re green to signify their recyclable, biodegradable qualities. They’re heavier, water soluble, non-toxic, and non-static, but more costly. Nordstrom, at least, is there, having switched all packing materials to biodegradable soy-based peanuts.

A new paper-based peanut called PaperNuts has also been developed. PaperNuts are not made from oil or food materials, aren’t static, toxic, or heavy. They’re made from recycled paper, and are recyclable, biodegradable, and compostable.

Styrofoam packing peanuts periodically steal into our home inside an opaque box, like Greeks hiding in the Trojan horse entering Troy. I consider them the enemy and while the Greeks defeated the Trojans I try to get the upper hand on packing peanuts.

Here’s the battle plan: Don’t touch the peanuts with your hands, use an old towel to wipe peanuts from the product, thus allowing inevitable static to stick peanuts to the towel. Clean the product of peanuts while it’s yet in the box. Do your level best not to let the Greeks, I mean the peanuts, into your house. Keep them inside the horse, er box. Get the box of peanuts outside your house as soon as possible, as in immediately. If you don’t, pieces of will travel and you’ll find bits of static poly for weeks to come.

I say, “Down with polystyrene packing peanuts. Up with paper peanuts.” And if this won’t work, drive to the nearest retail establishment and by your product, specifying no packing peanuts allowed.

 

© Rex M. Rogers – All Rights Reserved, 2010

*This blog may be reproduced in whole or in part with a full attribution statement. Contact Dr. Rogers or read more commentary on current issues and events at www.rexmrogers.com or follow Dr. Rogers at www.twitter.com/RexMRogers.