Sunday, March 15, 2009

March 15, 2009


Hello everybody.

"And the beat goes on..................."


Fortune Magazine has just released their annual list of the best companies to work for in the U.S. As companies listed nominate themselves, the ranking is, of course, dubious at best. And the criteria used to determine the rankings specifically excludes compensation and benefits - which everybody knows are critically important in recruitment and retention of employees. Still, it's an interesting exercise because it highlights the things that are important to employees (the main methodology apparently used to compile the rankings is an Employee Satisfaction Survey - and wouldn't it be interesting to do something similar in our own nonprofit arts sector?).

The new number one ranked Best Company to work for is NetApp down in Silicon Valley - replacing long time champ Google. According to media coverage of the rankings, what makes NetApp number one is that the company places a high premium on according their workers more than just a modicum of lip-service respect; indeed, their whole philosophical approach to employees is apparently to emphasize a "team" approach over the celebration of prima donnas. They attempt (as do all the high ranked companies) to center the focus of work on the ultimate goals and aspirations of the company, and then try to manage employee relations in terms of those goals - involving everyone, at every level, in as much of the innovation and decision making processes as possible. They delegate real decision making authority, seek out employee advice and opinions, try to give everyone a sense of the big picture and what all the other departments are doing, and actively encourage new ideas.

The companies on the list try to accomplish these objectives in different ways and on different levels, but it all boils down to three simple precepts really:

First, hire the very best people you can;

Second, once hired, give them as much leeway and control to do their jobs unfettered as you possibly can (trust them); and

Three - make working at the place enjoyable and fun.

This approach confirms what I discovered in the Hewlett Foundation Youth in the Arts Project Focus Group study (soon to be published - really! - and echoed apparently in work done by the Doris Duke Foundation reported here recently) that if we are to attract the best and brightest of the younger generation(s) to join and stay in the arts sector, we will have to learn quickly how to delegate more authority and change dramatically the way we have previously conducted business in our field in terms of power sharing.

I wonder which of our organizations, employees would rank high as desirable places to work? Would your organization be near the top? Do your employees think your organization is a great place to work? Would they tell that to their peers looking for a job? I wonder what a full survey of our field would show in terms of what our employees value the most (outside of pay and perks). Of course, the biggest attraction to working in the arts is that the work involves "the arts" and "creativity", but if you factor that out too, what tangible or intangible things make for a workplace that employees highly value? Do you know? Is it important that you know?

We need to pay more attention to this I think.


An article in the current issue of Blue Avocado -- (a newsletter of good ideas for nonprofits published by former Compasspoint CEO - Jan Masaoka)suggests appointing someone on the Board to play the role of "Devil's Advocate" to critically challenge new ideas the Board is considering passing so as to fully vet them and avoid mistakes and disasters by too much like minded thinking among Board members.

According to the article: (

"Wouldn't it be wonderful if boards could foresee the obstacles ahead - in time to make the right decisions?

Absent a few sprinkles of fairy dust, using the devil's advocate technique might assist you in identifying such obstacles. A devil's advocate (DA) is someone who takes an opposing view to test an idea or project the board is considering. The DA's job is to ask questions and make the best case possible against the proposal. By responding to the questions and challenges, the board is forced into healthy debate as it considers arguments it might never have thought of had it not been someone's specific task to challenge the board's thinking.

Here's how it works. Select one board member and place an index card marked DA or devil's advocate in front of that person. Throughout the meeting, this person should ask questions to test the soundness of the decisions the organization is considering."

I think that's a good idea. Along the same lines, in terms of making our organizations more attractive places to work, I think it might be a good idea if there was someone on the Board of Directors (a revolving job perhaps) whose job was to act as the "Devil's Advocate" or "Ombudsman" for the organization's employees -- to make sure that critical Board decisions were made taking into consideration how those decision would impact employees - workplace satisfaction and the ability of the organization (on an ongoing basis) to successfully attract and retain new talent.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit!