Thursday, October 15, 2020

Fostering diversity in the workplace


In response to social unrest taking place across the country, countless corporations issued statements citing the need for change, whether in society or within their domain. Much of that was little more than marketing, playing to the masses to look good and gain favor.


But, many organizations, especially small businesses because of their more direct and real connection to people, have legitimately become focused on improving the diversity of their employees and customers in an effort to be better corporate and individual citizens.


To those actually attempting to change and do good, it can seem like a daunting task: How do you efficiently and effectively change the culture in your company, community and country?


It’s a question that’s been posed to me often. Whenever we give group tours at the plant – whether it’s Leadership Niagara, college classes, or homeschoolers – the debriefing at the end usually features attendees mentioning how different our workplace looks. My team is 40% diverse in a city that’s 4% diverse, a county that’s 14%. There are 7 countries of birth here as well as 5 religions, multiple ethnicities, and 180 men and women working together. It’s a melting pot.


When I respond to them about how we do it and how it works, it’s best identified by what we might call the Four Es of Diversity: Education, enlightenment, engagement, and empowerment.


In any organization, it all starts at the top. Leaders have to know their people, their consumers, and their communities. You have to educate yourself on the world around you whether directly (personal inquiry of marginalized populations and/or volunteer service in the trenches) or indirectly (consuming and thoughtfully analyzing local, national and global news). You have to understand the nuances of humanity, the background of each person and the world from which they came. Leaders – and their organizations – are well served by inquisitiveness and a hunger for knowledge.


Once those in leadership possess the understanding, it must be shared. Enlighten others. When we began to have Burmese refugees working at the plant I educated my entire workforce on where they came from and the incredible atrocities they faced in Myanmar. That served to inspire others to help our new friends pursue the American Dream. And, in those earlier-mentioned plant tours, I often speak of the woes faced by men of color who came from prison and need employment and deserve a second chance at life typically not or slowly provided by society. Mentioning how many former convicts are at the plant and how they’ve risen above their pasts shows other employers that they, too, can “ban the box” on their application forms. 


This all leads to engagement. Once people have even a rudimentary understanding of who other people really are and where they came from, you can foster teamwork. You want people from different populations working and interacting together, rather than seeking their comfort level and assembling only in the social groups that they know and understand outside of work. In many workplaces, employees naturally gravitate towards inter-racial, intercultural comradery in order to address the tasks at hand. If not, it’s up to the employer to create environments in which there is such collaboration. One recent moment at the plant reassured the value of engagement to me: 4 of my coworkers were working together on a machine, 4 different native tongues, all speaking perfect or broken English, laughing together and working hard – it showed perfectly why we do what we do.


With all of the other Es under your belt you then have an environment that can encourage empowerment. For many, having a secure job with benefits is empowerment enough. Others hunger for more, and just as you would based on anyone else’s merit and drive, you should provide that opportunity. In my workplace we have a Korean-American plant manager, Black men in plant floor management and support, and minorities working in our skilled trades. They are in those roles for the same reason someone with my skin color would be: They proved their worth, their mettle and their value to the team.


You’ll notice that I don’t believe in a fifth E as a tool, one that other leaders dig: Enumeration. Many organizations will set quotas and goals for hiring and advancement. We don’t. It’s dehumanizing, treating a person as a number and not as an individual. It’s disingenuous and contrived, pushing idealism to meet a statistical goal rather than creating interactive diversity because it’s the right thing to do, the normal thing to do. Let diversity grow naturally by focusing on the other Es and you’ll be surprised at what can be achieved when you’re being genuine and not chasing numbers. 


2020 has served as a wake-up call for many people and companies when it comes to social justice, diversity and inclusion. There’s work to be done and it’s good work -- and it can improve how you work. Consider these 4 Es and how they can be implemented in your workplace to make it -- and our world – a better place.



From the 19 October 2020 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Governor Cuomo needs to show his hand


The best and brightest leaders of organizations such as small businesses, non-profits and local governments are those who can navigate the complexities of the world by understanding and preparing for unknowns.


Despite being classified as unknowns, the nuances of what organizations do and can deal with are almost always known in some way. If you are truly focused on your marketplace, socioeconomic environments, and clientele you’re keenly aware of the how and why of potential change and that all contributing factors to your day-to-day and year-to-year operations are, in their own ways, fickle.


Good leaders aren’t caught off guard by gradual or even immediate change. But, they can be when it’s brought on by government.


Government intervention is a different breed of animal. While market, social or natural factors can change the face of the game they don’t make a wholesale change to it; it’s still there in an altered form. Government, on the other hand, can dramatically change the rules of the game and that can be done at the whim of an individual or a governing body, often with immediacy and without forethought.


When times are normal it happens often and it’s frustrating enough – the government will impose mandates and changes to wages, health care, how services are delivered and how things are produced. But, when times are abnormal, as they have been for over seven months now, that frustration is compounded by severe government reaction -- and overreaction – to the issue at hand, actions which can forever change the world in which we live, work and serve.


I’ve told many people this year that COVID is unpredictable, but government is even more so.


I can plan for COVID in my workplace -- we instituted protocols in advance of government direction; we have a full-time COVID Administrator; and we are constantly monitoring and refining our processes and people in response to the latest science and ideas.


I can’t plan for government or, more specifically, Governor Cuomo’s government in my workplace. What will the rest of this year look like? What will next year look like? What happens if the state’s or region’s COVID numbers increase?


I definitely couldn’t properly plan for it this spring -- and I was being proactive about it. People thought I was crazy when I preemptively announced that we’d be closing down the factory as the state battled the worst of the virus, they thought there was no way that Cuomo would shutdown the economy. But he did and he went far beyond what I had expected: I thought we’d be closed for 2 to 4 weeks and would be returning by Easter Monday; instead, most of our operations were shutdown by state edict for almost 10 weeks and we went finally back to being whole at the end of May.


While we’re at full strength and then some now, most businesses, social service organizations, and local governments haven’t been so lucky. The Governor has kept their capacities low, harmed their ability to properly sell or serve, and, in some cases, hasn’t even allowed them to re-open. They have no idea when the reins will be loosened.  


They need answers. Their personal livelihoods and they very existence of their enterprises depend on it. The first shutdown and ongoing restrictions have crippled them…a second lockdown or longer-lasting rules could signal their death.


I need answers, too. I need to know what controls could possibly be implemented against producers in the future – if they are extravagant it may force my hand to have some products made in other states by companies that are normally in some way my competitors. Who in their right mind wants to do that?


We’re all guaranteed that the playbook going forward looks nothing like the state’s playbook since March. You know that the rules will be changed – there will be different statistical triggers, capacities, essential designations, regional controls, and other orders.


You also know that the Cuomo Administration already knows what it’s going to do, it won’t be off-the-cuff adjustments as it had been during the first 4 months of the crisis. This virus has been here since the first week of March and it’s been a thing globally since last fall. They now know a lot about the virus. They’ve (hopefully) learned from their mistakes and the best practices of others.


Cuomo has to show his hand, now. Holding all the cards and showing a poker face does absolutely nothing positive for New Yorkers. It’s bad leadership. Tell us what could happen, how it will happen, and when it would happen. Don’t wait until it happens to let us know. That’s how organizations – and people – suffer.


It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about factories like mine, movie theaters, the diner in your neighborhood, the YMCA, the local hardware store, your county government, this very newspaper…we need to be able to understand what the future could look like so we can prepare accordingly, be it with Plans B and C, rain day funds, or, God forbid, an exit strategy.


Let us know what are to us the unknowns which aren’t unknowns to those in the know.


Lead, so we can lead.



From the 12 October 2020 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

In defense of the uneducated


Over the course of this year, just as with the 2016 election cycle, it seems that the national press, pollsters, and pundits has taken too much delight in classifying certain sectors of our population as “non-college educated” or “uneducated”.


Rather than being used, and only sparingly, as a demographic category, it instead has become a common and dismissive qualifier, a way of looking at the 60 percent of all Americans who don’t hold a college degree.


You could read between the lines – that is, if you weren’t smacked in the face by the outright accusations – that the uneducated were dupes and rubes and, because they lacked a diploma, were unable to make sound decisions about who should represent them in Washington.


Well, I hate to break it to those who think 4 years in a university grants them unprecedented knowledge and understanding, but those who don’t have a degree can be, in many, cases smarter, better off and better people than those who do.


I can say this unequivocally because almost all of the people in my life are “uneducated”.


I work at a business of 180 people where maybe a half-dozen of us graduated from college. Yet, somehow, despite being an “uneducated” environment, the company and those families are succeeding. That’s because our ranks are filled by men and women who understand the physical and mental work and ingenuity needed to make the things that consumers desire. They do magic, using science, technology, skill, brain and brawns to transform plastic into products. We have general laborers, technical personnel and tradesmen here whose breadth of knowledge, intelligence and critical thinking skills would shame most people with degrees.


I am friends with electricians, plumbers, repairmen and first responders who never went to college but still possess incredible amounts of skills  -- whether learned by experience or via certificate programs (which the elite still consider to show a lack of education). They bring much-need and complex services and safety to those who hold doctorates yet can’t repair a faucet, replace an outlet, or change their oil save their lives.   


I live in a community the economy of which is driven by agriculture. Most of the farmers don’t have degrees, but like my guys and gals at the plant, they have a Renaissance Man’s understanding – they have incredible depth of knowledge of a variety of topics, from equipment to plant science to animal husbandry to marketing and economics. They know what it takes to transform seeds into a healthy harvest, or how to grow calves into living, breathing milk machines, and, they know how to get them to market and balance their books. They are working 24/7, in the barn, in the tractor, and in the office, lovingly running their farms better than most people run their businesses and lives. 


My extended family, for the most part, don’t have or didn’t have college degrees. Somehow, those “uneducated” mothers, grandparents, aunts and uncles raised wonderful high-character families, held excellent jobs, and made an impact in their communities. I am who I am because of who they are and I’m grateful for that and how I’ve turned out.


So, remember, dear media folk and political observers, before going off blasting the “uneducated”, throw away your vicious, ugly, stereotyping and consider who they are. They are your families, friends, neighbors and coworkers, people who despite their alleged lack of knowledge have the brains that we as an advanced society need to put food in our markets, produce the goods we want and need, fix and build our homes and cars, save our lives, raise our families and serve our communities.


The “educated” sure could learn a lot from them.  



From the 06 October 2020 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News