Battling Goblin Mode

Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year – goblin mode – captures the dumpster fire of 2022 by labeling the pandemic spawn of people “indulging in their laziest and most selfish habits”. 

It is impossible for most CEOs to openly engage this villain of productivity lurking beneath the more benign label of “hybrid work”. The Economist is more PC and chose that one for its annual winner. Employee motivation and morale, aka “engagement”, is easier to measure than to manage and any challenge to the new WFH option is a potent third rail for executives hoping to restore “accountability”. 

Workforce motivation is one of five complex issues we see in the face of company leadership as we enter a new year of growing economic uncertainty. No matter the size of your org, you have to find the balance – for the good of the firm, your employees and your clients. There will be winners – and losers. And that’s why not everyone is cut out to be the boss.

#1 – Out the Goblin

There are people who work and people who seek the reward of a vocation. End the fantasy that everyone will find deep meaning and fulfillment on the job – some jobs just don’t reward a high level of engagement. 

  • First choose growth – openly and with energy. If your company is all about growing you are just a bad fit for anyone who doesn’t embrace personal growth. 
  • Not all jobs are cool – know the difference between jobs and rewarding jobs – make the right jobs rewarding and accept single contributors in the others. 
  • Growing workers are your leaders – they set the tone for the org and they are the path to others like them. Celebrate them openly and actively. 

#2 – Hybrid Work Is Either Hybrid – or Work

The key to solving any problem – especially people problems – is to first correctly frame the issue by defining it with the agreement of all parties. Good luck with “hybrid work”. I worked at a really big company where we asked every year what single change employees would make to their jobs. “Working one day per week at home” was the runaway winner every year. 

  • WFH is now reality. But it is not three days, and probably isn’t two for most jobs. The productivity lift is multiplied by collaboration and the joint accountability of team members. 
  • New employees willing to give up career growth for home time need to be guided to jobs more appropriate for individual contributors – and compensated accordingly. Make hybrid truly hybrid and stop the madness of pretending that all work and workers are the same.

#3 – Restoring Accountability

An old saw of the brokerage industry goes, “Nothing restores accountability like a bear market”. A recession and continued market volatility will bail out some management teams unwilling or unable to confront the obvious challenges. But even if you are ahead of this curve, you should consider a few environmental reality checks before you start down the “rationalization” path. 

  • New experiences – most employees have never experienced or do not remember bear markets, inflation, or high interest rates. Your ability to frame the company’s current condition is dependent on your ability to explain the macro reality. Avoid the temptation to use confrontational adjectives like “unprecedented”. 
  • Define “performance”? How many of your employees know your success metrics? What evidence do they have of performance – or underperformance? Is weakness or failure their fault or yours? Ponder again Southwest Airlines.
  • New people – pandemic hires cannot be fully integrated into your culture, your systems, or your working language. They have no frame of reference, few company relationships and probably lack a real manager. Your communication cannot rely on the chain of command. Speak from the top to everyone until you are certain those connections have been established. And that won’t be in 2023.
  • Make a plan, share the plan – please, please, please game out your next couple of years before you let middle managers start swinging at the marginal hires. Have the courage to accept at least the intermediate future reality and discard businesses or locations before you start picking off individuals. Think like a buyer of distressed assets and package your lower priority, lower return efforts for another owner. That approach is consistent with “accountability” and your leadership ability will be confirmed.

#4 – Make 2023 the Year YOU Connect the Dots

The eco-system rules. Everything, everyone, every process and application must be related formally to each other capability in plain sight for the entire leadership team. You need to know how this stuff works, but more so how this stuff works TOGETHER. The silo’s last stand is on a farm filled with grain. 

  • The CEO must be able to narrate your org’s eco-system of development and delivery – and how it works. Learn the lesson of Southwest Airlines.
  • Embrace facts you are paying to gather – you cannot fear being dependent on data for corporate decision-making. 
  • Automation is crucial – humans are not available or capable as the primary delivery mechanism for your client/customer experiences. 
  • Beyond “alignment” – the integration of data, technology and human empathy is table stakes but those capabilities are seldom formally linked beyond a temporary “task force”. CONNECT the dots – don’t just “align” them – and give everyone the SAME goals, not “aligned” objectives. 

#5 – Promote the Client to CEO and Enjoy the Freedom

Leadership’s most reliable ally is the consumer. Consumers and clients provide a steady stream of feedback in real time to everything your company does, including the actions of every single employee. You must actively and consistently seek this information – and that is a lot of work. You also have to organize the information and be able to read it accurately. And then there is the all important need to embrace with humility the results of an accurate read. And all of this effort has to be led directly by you. Again, this is why you get the big bucks.

  • Partner with the consumer – the best CEOs make the consumer/client a partner, not a research object. 
  • Make your clients real to everyone – well researched personification is an internal communications winner. Humanize and personalize your target clients. At Fidelity, we got to know Sally and Harry and Suzie along with their dramatically different interests, concerns and objectives. Today the Alliance for Lifetime Income has six well researched personas that are among the best clients you could ever hope for – but are hiding from most advisors. 
  • Let the clients do the selling – it’s a lot easier to advocate for the needs of another person than it is to promote your own opinion. Good employees listen carefully to The Boss. Great employees help The Boss understand what the clients want and how to win their loyalty. 

Take Your Foot off the Dock and Get on YOUR Boat

Commitment matters. These are complex transitions for most organizations, with significant barriers to execution, even alignment. The times are weird and unpredictable. The CEO must clearly communicate the company’s forward path and how that path achieves success. That’s the ship – make it a good ride for both associates and clients and you will earn more of both. But they have to know what’s important to you and how you win together. There is no conveniently manageable timeframe for the next chapter of our economy. Plan to keep navigating. 

Do your worst, 2023 – we’re ready for you.

Related: Your Retirement’s Been Cancelled but There’s a Bus Leaving Tomorrow