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Focus on individuals builds stronger work environment

Two years ago, Edward Parrone, executive vice president and CEO of engineering firm D.J. Parrone & Associates P.C., knew his company had some internal problems that needed to be addressed.
“I wanted to talk it through with these guys, away from the office,” Parrone says.
To that end, he took three department heads to lunch. But while they were at the restaurant, Parrone says, “it got volatile. They wanted to duke it out (with each other). I said, “Something is wrong with this picture.”’
Shortly after that unpleasant incident, Parrone contacted James Rammerman at Great Lakes Leadership Group Inc., one of the companies that specializes in helping companies and individuals find common ground in order to create and maintain a healthy work environment.
Great Lakes and other such consultants generally begin with the notion that organizations cannot grow unless the individuals involved first are allowed to develop personally as well as professionally. This often means frank questioning and open discussion at work–in the form of workshops, retreats and one-on-one interviews, for instance–in which employees are encouraged to express their feelings, goals and values.
“They came in and interviewed me, my dad (firm founder Dominic Parrone) and the department heads to see what was wrong with the company,” Parrone recalls.
Great Lakes found a serious lack of communication, resentment of Parrone family members by non-family-member employees, and egos out of control. In other words, a classic case of a company whose employees’ views and feelings were way out of sync with those of management.
Now, Parrone & Associates has become a “we” company instead of a “me” company, one whose 24 employees are encouraged to feel that they, as Parrone puts it, “are all in this together, … (are) part of this.” Now, Parrone says, the change in atmosphere is beginning to show up on the firm’s bottom line.
Parrone’s is a success story in an American work environment where managers and their employees often function in different worlds, without realizing that they share the same frustrations and feelings and the same need for support. Bringing together, at least philosophically, those who occupy the top and bottom rungs of the corporate ladder is vital to saving a company from itself.
Many agree there is a growing trend toward replacing the “I’m the boss and you’re not” approach with more of a “We’re family” concept–one in which personal goals and values are as important as those outlined in the corporate mission statement. It is a concept that some companies recognize and embrace, though others do not.
In the opinion of Dawn Gerlach, a team leader at Innovative Training Strategies Inc., “any manager that has a team of people reporting to him or her needs this process of design, development and delivery.”
Recognizing that need, however, is the rub, maintains Barry Keesan, president and CEO of Worksmart International Inc., a human-resource-development company. Typically, like someone who does not go to the dentist until the toothache becomes unbearable, companies rarely pursue preventive measures.
“Most companies won’t do anything until something is really bad,” Keesan says. “Or sometimes it’s, “We’re about to grow … and we know there’ll be a lot of interpersonal issues coming up.”’
The Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired/Goodwill Industries of Greater Rochester Inc. was an organization that needed help but not a major overhaul, relates Gidget Hopf, the association’s executive director for the past nine years.
“We had a group of talented people working as individuals,” Hopf says. “Meetings wouldn’t go anywhere, and I could tell people were getting frustrated.”
Under the guidance of Linda Hall–then an independent consultant and now with Worksmart–Hopf and her team of six managers examined their different management styles and determined how best to coordinate them for the sake of organizational unity.
The managers became a “well-oiled team,” Hopf says, adding: “I don’t think we were sick, but I thought we could do better.”
Whether the goal is to try and immunize the company against an internal virus or treat an existing ailment, experts agree that before exploring an organization’s problems there first must be a commitment from all parties involved.
“You have to be ready,” says John Engels, president of and partner in Great Lakes. “Some people are not ready because things are going well, or because they’re scared.”
And being ready, Engels says, is a tad more complicated than looking in the mirror and saying, “I’m ready.” In this case, being ready means being willing to accept the strokes with the pokes, and all the while recognizing that gain will follow the pain.
The process starts with open, honest communication and at the highest level.
“We insist on access to the CEO,” Engels says. “We will not work in a company where we can’t work with the president or CEO. Anyone who called me and said, “My middle managers need help but I’m OK,’ I’d say, “Find yourself another consultant.’ We believe the tone and effectiveness of any culture is set at the top.”
As such, each individual in an organization, from the top down, needs to be asked vital questions: What bothers you about yourself and the company? What is confusing, frustrating or suspicious? What are your hopes and dreams, and what have been your disappointments?
“People can’t be fooled,” Keesan says. “The culture is where it all plays out.”
However, the answers often have deep roots and can be difficult to reach. This is why recognizing personal development as a key component of professional growth is so important.
“Corporate America fundamentally took a wrong turn at some point,” Keesan says, “treating people like machines and devaluing them as individuals to the point where individuals stopped bringing their best selves to work.”
Engels says the problem is not that Americans work too hard.
“It’s that we never stop working,” he says. “People have lunch at their desks; people even work in the shower. The thinking process never stops.
“We are data junkies. And if the acquisition of data is the barometer of our success, we’ll constantly be seeing ourselves as failures because there’s no way to keep up (with all the data available).”
The result? A problem that feeds on itself and continues to compound.
“There’s not a lot of highly functional communication going on. People are not working together harmoniously, productively,” Keesan says of such organizations. “(It’s) not a happy place, and people are not feeling good about coming to work.”
Gerlach sees another problem.
“I believe that people have been taught for so long to leave their personal lives at home and spend time in the workplace. … (But) part of happiness says that you have a work life, you have a home life, you have a family life and you have hobbies, extracurricular activities.”
Once the situation has gone from bad to worse and beyond, the bottom line begins to suffer.
“That’s the kind of environment … where the people who are running the company are not feeling good about the work they’re doing,” Keesan says. “You don’t have the support you need, whether you’re at the top, the middle or the bottom.”
That is when the smoke alarms usually go off and, as in the case of Parrone & Associates, an outside agent may be needed to put out the fire and revive morale.
Yes, it will be uncomfortable, and no, there is no other way, says Engels. “Someone who is not interested in working with pain is really not interested in working with change,” he maintains. “I do not know a way of changing that doesn’t involve pain.”
A significant source of that pain, Engels says, is for a CEO or president or manager to bare his inner feelings to those under him, to tell them what is troubling him, what is on his mind.
But it is equally important that the boss listen to employees, says Keesan.
“A lot of companies don’t want to hear bad news,” he says. “But if you’re not getting bad news from customers, bad news from employees, … if you’re not hearing negatives, then you have a culture that only wants to pat itself on the back.
“Quality organizations depend on actively seeking out negative feedback.”


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