One of my favorite things to do on Sunday morning is read the "Corner Office" feature in the Business section of The New York Times. Every week, a different corporate leader is asked a series of questions relating to her or his management philosophy. The responses are insightful and well-considered, and with rare exception, the executives cite personal work experiences which have informed their points of view.
I'm a better behind-the-scenes person than a leader myself, but having spent 26 years with the postal service under managers ranging from A+ to Abysmal on the effectiveness scale, I've given a lot of thought to what qualities make a good workplace leader. "Corner Office" has offered me some new perspectives. But it also could be that I'm so enthusiastic about the feature because so many of the great ideas I read there reinforce and validate my own opinions about what it takes to be a successful manager.
So, Sunday after Sunday, Owners and Presidents and CEOs sit with me at my dining room table and tell me about how they run their worlds. These are the exceptional parents of their industries, paying keen attention to their employees' needs, listening to their concerns, encouraging openness in the sharing and discussion of ideas. Theirs is a position of command, tempered by reason and fairness and compassion. These are the leaders who will be shaping corporate culture for years to come.
Or it would seem. With all this love drizzling down from the top, are the workers at the bottom of the cake feeling content? A while back, one of my physicians, whose practice consists entirely of women, told me that she routinely asks her patients how their worklives are going. My doctor told me that in the prior 2 1/2 years, only one of her patients had responded favorably to the query. And that was a woman in her early twenties who worked primarily with young children. Of course this was definitely a most unscientific survey. But it had me wondering, so I poked around a bit to see what workers are thinking about their jobs these days. A recent CareerBuilder survey has 67% of transportation and utility workers expressing satisfaction with their jobs. The number drops to 48% for retail employees. If you're a half-full kind a person, perhaps 1-in-2 or 2-in-3 are comely figures. But I'd give my nod to half-emptiness on this one. If a half or even two-thirds of workers are content, that still leaves a large percentage of employees feeling out on the edge.
I'm not naïve. The jewel of happiness contains many facets, and I'm not here to discuss all the cuts and bevels. But I'm thinking of these leaders whose words I've read, their top hats a-sparkle with good ideas. If those ideas were implemented from top to bottom, I believe they'd go a long way toward increasing employee satisfaction. There appears to be a gap between upper management's ideals and how those ideals translate to the workers in the field. So where's the disconnect? A clue comes to me from my mother, her ghost-words tagging after me all these years. I always thought the buck stopped with her, but perhaps she was merely a middle-manager herself, forever negotiating the distance between the realities of the larger world and the imperatives of bringing up children within it. I can still hear her voice today: Don't do as I do, just do as I say.