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Anton Franckeiss

ASK Europe

Managing Director

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Cultivating emotional intelligence: Lessons from two public resignations

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There was a time when the manner and timing of your arrival was the coup de grace moment.

But, if two recent articles that are getting considerable attention in online circles are anything to go by, the golden moment might now actually be the method of your departure.
 
It all began when Greg Smith published his ‘Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sachs’ article in the New York Times, but continued with fireworks from James Whittaker in his ‘Why I left Google’ blog.
 
While there’s definitely more than a whiff of ‘you’re just not the same girl/boy/multinational trading powerhouse I fell in love with” about both pieces, they also show us only one side of the story. 
 
Both men were substantial figures in their respective organisations who probably recognise that their future reputations depend on not ‘telling tales’. But, puzzlingly, there were few signs of any detectable effort from either of their employers to pro-actively try to prevent their respective departures.
 
Why would any company that has invested time, energy, money and faith in placing employees in senior positions just stand back and let them walk away, using the organisation’s reputation as a cape to drape over a muddy puddle on their way out?
 
Surely, something must have gone sadly awry long before? The two men in question have the benefit of hindsight to illuminate their arguments and, (gagging clauses aside), the liberty to speak about those they have jilted.
 
But there appear to be bigger tales hidden here.
 
Headlines are easier to generate where there is a whiff of scandal attached, and financial services firms are currently fair game. But the contrast with the lack of online buzz generated by Goldman Sachs’ response memo to staff, which was published in national newspapers within 24 hours of Smith’s article appearing, is instructive.
 
Recognising that the situation had, at least for the former employee, become overly personal, chief executive Lloyd Blankfein and president and chief operating office Gary Cohn pointed out:
 
Learning lessons
 
“It is unfortunate that an individual opinion about Goldman Sachs is amplified in a newspaper and speaks louder than the regular, detailed and intensive feedback you have provided the firm and independent, public surveys of workplace environments.”
 
Indeed their defence cited statistics, rankings and surveys of both staff and client opinions. They also made all of the right noises about their relationship with staff (and clients) as a body and asserted that sensible action was being taken.
 
The two men likewise pointed out that there were internal mechanisms for employees to voice their concerns, with options provided to remain anonymous if so desired. But, so far as they were unaware, Smith had not taken any of them up.
 
Nonetheless, as with the internal email audits that were rumoured to have taken place in order to discover who described their clients as "muppets", a larger truth may yet emerge.
 
But if there are any lessons to be learned here so far, it is about the necessity of taking note of possible unspoken concerns and being open enough in working relationships to ensure that they can be voiced and addressed.
 
It is also about being brave enough to acknowledge when the ‘love’ has died and to subsequently act in such a way as to prevent concerns from festering into grievances. The issue is that what remains unsaid can cause as many problems, if not more, as that which is spoken – even if the speaking takes place on an international platform.
 
Meanwhile, Google’s reaction to James Whittaker’s public sideswipe, which was more concerned with failures of strategy than culture, has, unless their search engine fails me, been gnomic.
 
In a letter published on his Google+ profile, returning chief executive Larry Page makes no explicit acknowledgement of Whittaker’s article. While he talks about the importance of strategic changes, it may have been best not to also write:
 
“People are a crucial part of Google’s long-term success, since companies are no greater than the efforts and ingenuity of their employees. Our goal is to hire the best at every level and keep them. In our experience your working environment is enormously important because people want to feel part of a family in the office, just as they do at home.”
 
And I personally would have thought twice about publishing:
 
The human part of human resources
 
“We have always wanted Google to be a company that is deserving of great love. But we recognize this is an ambitious goal because most large companies are not well-loved, or even seemingly set up with that in mind.”
 
Given that both companies presumably valued the men who have so firmly put the ‘ex-‘ back into executive, was there no inkling that something was afoot and that constructive moves might have been made to retain the services of these valuable (and expensive) senior people?
 
If an HR function aims to build staff engagement and develop the world’s most alluring ‘employee value proposition’, but doesn’t take on board the inevitability that some employees will simply go off the idea, it fatally loses sight of the ‘human’ part of ‘human resources’.
 
You can promote values as vigorously as you wish, but it’s flesh and blood that you’ll promote into positions of responsibility. And keeping the latter in line with the former is always the best thing to do.
 
These are timeless truisms relating to the work environment and the complex and sensitive relationships that are created therein. All the beanbags and sofas in the world won’t change that.
 
Reading about these ‘resignations’, I was reminded of Professor Karl Pillemer’s book entitled ‘30 Lessons for Living’, where he distils his sources’ 50,000 years of collective work experience into five simple lessons:
 
  1. Choose a career for its intrinsic rather than its financial rewards
  2. Never give up on looking for a job that makes you happy
  3. Make the most of a bad job
  4. Emotional intelligence trumps every other kind
  5. Everyone needs autonomy.
 
Both Smith and Whittaker read as if they were following this advice (or their instincts) on points one, two and five, and – as long as they felt able – point three.
 
Faced with a similar situation, HR departments need to recognise such lessons and deliver on the organisation’s side of the psychological contract if they wish to keep valued personnel.
 
But isn’t the real lesson point four? These kinds of denunciations are not experiences that employers – or former executives – who have learnt it properly should find themselves involved in, either publicly or privately.
 
 
Anton Franckeiss is managing director of learning and development consultancy, ASK Europe.
 
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Anton Franckeiss

Managing Director

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