8 minute read

Share Value, Hire Well, Be Excellent

In the past month, I’ve been busy. Between actively interviewing a few highly qualified companies, running people around to various summer programs, lots of gardening (6-8am), keeping up on some volunteer organizing logistics, and of course helping to write another normative standard such as ISO/IEC 32675 but this time on observability, it’s been…fun!

Between all these things, I regularly capture my thoughts, many private on post-its for my eyes only, but just as Hemmingway wrote lots of things and published the best, there are a few new thoughts worth putting out into the metaverse:

“The value we share is the value we deserve.”

A standard phrase in English business is ‘you get what you pay for’, alluding to the trade-offs between price/cost and value/quality of a thing that as a consumer you purchase. If you pay nothing, you’re probably getting nothing, or worse, “you are the content” as free social media platforms have made all of us. However, with many affectations, this is not always the case; I pay for not only the cost of the thing, but the whole lifecycle. The manufacturing, the shipping, the storage, the picking and packing, the distribution, the timeliness, and eventually the disposal…are all parts of physical item cost that only in small part is about the quality of the actual thing. Especially with practically infinite layers of global profiteering, it’s rare that you aren’t being up-charged at every possible opportunity. So you could pay a lot for very little.

But what if we tweak this phrase: “You Get What You’re Paid For”. For a moment, let’s turn it around to consider from the provider’s (or employee’s) perspective, the lifecycle of exchanging money for goods and services. When you get paid for something, someone pays you for it, unless you are offering a free service such as volunteering, the calculus of which comes in a later paragraph. Employees get paid to work at a particular company, navigating the ‘culture’ (or lack thereof) there, in order to both perform their responsibilities and continue to do so day in and day out. If you settle for substandard responsibilities or work culture, you get what you’re paid for. If you do your best, better than the rest, and it is consistently dismissed, you get what you’re paid for. If you settle for poor leadership or supervisory, you get what you’re paid for. See what I mean?

Conversely, in volunteer (unpaid) work, there is a similar correlation but the calculus is different without the primary incentive of monetary compensation. Management structures that work when there’s a threat of layoffs or terminations such as command-and-control aren’t compatible with people groups that voluntarily donate their time (and/or resources) to a common cause. For each volunteer, there is always a primary incentive, but it is often different per person. Organizers of organizers need to know not only their own personal drivers, but also that of their fellow (not subordinate) organizers. In ‘people groups’ dedicated to a ‘common cause’, it matters how you treat and care for those around you, not just that you do your individual responsibilities well. You must do both to a sufficient degree (a.k.a. “the water line”), otherwise neither are satisfactory. Volunteering is also important (at least in my own life) to balancing how much of myself I spend on a paid job vs. how much I am giving of myself to others, which in my case brings me joy even if it is hard or not ‘resting’.

This is another way that phrases like “you get what you pay for” and “you get what you’re paid for” break down. They are very ‘you’ centric, whereas I find that maintaining a balance of give and get (in that order) to all areas of my life is stronger glue than looking for opportunities to maximize what I receive out of my time and effort. When we are together, I am doing ‘you time’.

In short, a better mantra might be “the value we share is the value we deserve”, which applies both to paid and unpaid work. It also firmly re-roots give and get semantics in a group dynamic rather than leaving it in myopic terms. Another way of saying it is: “we all win when we all win.” It’s not naive, I’ve seen it work with many companies, communities, and individuals. It’s just a matter of finding ones that espouse the same or similar mantra and operationalize around it.

“If you’re not hiring, you are the staff”

This comes from both my past professional experiences as well as many small-business listening sessions I do on a regular basis. In short, if you don’t have enough hands to do all the things you need to do to capture the opportunity at hand, you are leaving money on the table in order to not spend money, which is oxymoronic.

An example is that of a startup in my town. There was a business plan, complete with graphs and charts, projections of fair and reasonable expectations. Thus a lot of capital was invested, but the thinking behind it was flawed. The time it takes to get known can’t simply be short-cut by social media posts or subscription spiffs or gimmicks. You can try to buy your way into the community, but it’s all so transparent and one-shot that leads to delays and deferrals of operating cash. Thus, while building your initial network of trustworthy staff, you now find that you can’t pay them. They don’t like this, so they walk. Now you have a big expensive thing that no one knows about and only yourself to cover shifts. You are not hiring, and thus, you are the staff. Service quality suffers unless you’re very on top of speed and attention to detail for specific persona when they walk in the door. It’s a lot to handle without the right people.

In terms of corporate business, at the time of my writing this, it’s been over three years since the COVID pandemic happened, tearing through our work life norms, logistics, and economics. Since then, and speaking strictly about the technology sector, additional factors such as the ‘Zero Interest Rate Phenomenon’ (ZIRP) which allowed flagrant and incompetent investment decisions to be made regularly, are no longer there to support these prior norms. Unfortunately, it’s far easier for powers that be to fall back on prior methods for dealing with industry squeeze, even when they are insufficient and dysfunctional to modern realities. Forced Return-to-Office (RTO) policies, employee surveillance which is digital now and doesn’t need a ‘manager looking over your physical shoulder’, rounds of layoffs (more on this in a second), unresponsive decision chains despite invoking function, and replacing proven contributors with past colleagues…these are, sadly, common place behaviors of ‘old boy’ executive business management. They are cullings of good staff due to a combination of promise-keeping, improper planning, and short-term equity.

Small or large, if a business is not hiring, it means they have hit a ceiling of one type or another. Either the demand isn’t enough to justify additional talent, the thing being done isn’t getting what is needed to grow demand, or (at their very worst) both are results of inept executive function.

For the small town business, they need to really understand (all of) their (key and potential) consumers so that they can craft very focused and effective marketing campaigns. They also need to be honest with themselves about how they arrived at the place where there is challenge and not over-rotate on messaging about being ‘benevolent community members’ simply because it’s convenient to do so in the short-term.

The above also applies to big business tactically. Strategically, corporations need to invest in better executives. Employees are not off the hook either; we need to unsubscribe from poor leadership and really forage for companies, managers, and other colleagues who demonstrate honesty, proper planning, appropriate adjustment, and commitment to each other…because while it’s bad to not be hiring, it’s so very much worse to not retain and hire right material.

“Be excellent at work. Be grateful in life.”

I have many things to be grateful for. Despite my own interesting internal machinations, the byproducts of over a decade of a heavy-commit career to get to a sustainable place at work and at home, are usual suspects. I stress bite my nails in private. I have a beer at the end of the day. I sometimes seem distracted at a party, even if it’s of my own making. I drive too much. My ‘flywheel’ is always spinning about something because I was always that kind of kid.

I’m not a kid anymore and personal tokens collected along the way such as ‘close well’, ‘make tomorrow better’, and ‘appreciate others more’ make up some of my foundation. They are the respect I pay for a life that I am grateful for. A flywheel doesn’t work if it’s not properly anchored or balanced. My anchor is my family. My balance is my own. If things don’t go as planned at work, I don’t take that home with me. If things are tough (especially with t[w]eenagers) in the home, I don’t take that to work with me. It’s not always easy to cut over from one to the other, but it’s a fulcrum to the balance needed to be grateful (and excellent) at both.

At work, it’s not enough to just be good. Sometimes ‘good enough’ is all that we can do, in a deal or in an on-site or conducting training. I can’t always expect better from others, but I can control when and how much better from myself. And I do better, as anyone who’s ever worked with me will attest. Sometimes it’s a minor curse inside to be compelled to improve, but it always has seemed to help me to be excellent at work. Nothing is ever better without effort.

Whether my work is for money, at home, or volunteering, finding ways to be excellent and grateful works. As a strategy, it supports the goal. The Goal in my case, like Dr. Goldratt properly first published in 1984 about all organizations small or large, profit or non-profit, “is to make money”. I do this via creating value, as Tim O’Reilly articulated in “What’s the Future”, specifically for others…for my family, for companies, for causes, and then for plants in all the gardens I keep.