Friday, October 30, 2015

Decisions, Decisions

Most people, I can safely say, are not stupid. The choices they make reflect their decisions based on what seems most logical to them at the moment.

I've never suffered from a delusion of knowing everything, yet I've had moments when I thought there would be no more surprises. 

I now stand corrected.

Checking into the local monthly meeting of NYC-DEMA this week, I honestly wasn't too excited about the presentation - that from a vendor of personal estate planning, i.e., writing wills, health care directives, and the family meetings needed to pull it all together and get everyone on the same page and such - because, as like with many people, I fall into that category of believing that if I just don't think about my pending mortality, these items, somehow, magically, will not be needed.

And therein came the surprise, as I realized this is the same approach many estate owners and estate managers take - of just not thinking of the inevitable of operational outcomes and the pending consequences for not taking any action.

And then came the second surprise, which I can only describe as an epiphany: that any action taken (or not) is not the result of not thinking "about these things," yet is a conscious decision to not take action based upon the consequences which are most desirable at the moment.

I realized this when reading the section of the vendor handout which, shockingly at the time, advised some reasons why family meetings should not be held. Shock is perhaps too mild a word, as not communicating with others goes against the grain of all I've preached on this blog for five years. How could avoiding communication among people who need to complete a mission ever be a good thing?!  I was soon to discover, and soon to have my epiphany pop right up in front of me:


Experience shows that, just as there are some frequently cited reasons for having family meetings, there are some common (mostly unspoken) reasons to avoid one:
  • I don't want my children to know about my financial wealth. It will ruin them.
  • I've sacrificed and worked hard for my wealth and I want to enjoy it. I don't want to be judged and told my my children to practice what I preach.
  • I have trouble balancing my desire for discretion and privacy with the need to teach my heirs about money.
  • I don't want to raise issues between my children and my new spouse.
  • It's too much work.

Well, the above are all very real reasons why making an estate plan (i.e., thinking about what happens to your wealth after you are, um, dead) is avoided. 

Most people, I can safely say, are not stupid. The choices they make - whether wealthy, middle class, or impoverished - reflect their decisions based on what seems most logical to them at the moment. As the vendor would confirm for you:  people with substantial worth of millions of dollars frequently die with no will, no directives, and with no family meeting ever having been held. This is not because they don't believe such preparations are important, yet because they have weighed the consequences of having a family meeting over the consequences of dying without having had one, and have decided the most desirable (or, the least horrible) experience is the most logical one:  to simply slip away quietly from their earthly shell without having to deal with all the drama surrounding the family issues.

My epiphany, contrasting what I've been proselytizing for years, is that many estate owners and estate managers will, similarly, not have staff meetings and make preparations for a successful outcome of service through a structured performance management system. This does not imply, I was to be enlightened, of stupidity on the part of either estate owner or estate manager, yet that the consequences of having a well laid out plan for performance management can create problems of their own - problems which some estate owners and their managers deem simply too horrible to face up to.

Let's now look at some of those reasons:

It's a lot of work.  Just like the family meeting, domestic estate staff meetings where very specific outcomes are established and all members agree to accountability for their jobs - jobs which must first be well-defined - are a lot of work. There's just no getting around it. 

Lots of work - is a universal truth. Do you want six-pack abs? Because if you do, then you know what must be done. And if you want them but don't have them, you have weighed the consequences of spending that time at the gym vs. doing other things which are more desirable to you (like a few hours on the couch watching TV while eating an entire large bag of potato chips) - and you are willing to trade that delicious benefit for the benefit of those abs. 

Do you want a staff that knows what they're doing and are engaged in their work? To accomplish that, you know what must be done. You have either made the choice to follow through and do it, or to spend that time doing something else because for any number of reasons it's just too horrible to proceed.

I'm sure that most people working in domestic service or hotel hospitality know that at Four Seasons, the reason their staff works to such a high level of proficiency is that they train to their standards, every week, for several hours. The managers at the Four Seasons do not simply ship their staff off to an afternoon seminar once a year; what they do is ensure their staff recommit to accountability of their jobs during interactive training sessions, for several hours. On site. Every week. To perfect their well-established standards. A lot of work! 

Interestingly, McDonald's takes their performance standards just as seriously and it's how they stay on top of their game, as well. 

Is the owner of your estate up to the challenge of supporting the concerted work required for developing a high performance staff... as much as the workers at Four Seasons - and even McDonald's? 

Or will they take the short-term easy way out and just ignore the issue altogether?

It will change relationships from familiar to formal.  Anyone who's worked in private homes for more than just a few minutes and on their very first day will discover there is often one domestic staff member, or perhaps even more, on each estate who are classified as hands-off:  the rules don't apply. This is because within the environment of private estate domestic service - inside of a home - long-term or otherwise personally-favored staff members are frequently given status over time by the estate owners as de-facto family members. This is not always a bad thing, but it is what it is, and it needs to be recognized and discussed openly

To now have staff meetings, training, and performance management requirements where accountability is established and jobs are defined - this would indeed change the nature of the relationship between those staff members and the estate owners and, in turn, their estate managers. Most estate owners are not willing to approach the terribly awkward task of changing the relationship with these staff members from familiar/privileged  to formal/accountable. For them, it would be the same as disinheriting a child. 

The least painful course of action (just like staying on the couch with those potato chips) on these estates, therefore, is to curtail overall accountability for the staff, negate or even ridicule any management authority of the household or estate "manager," not allow definition of staff members' jobs or responsibilities, discourage staff meetings, and let happen what happens, with the unfortunate disengagement and even sabotage from co-workers who become resentful of not enjoying the same privileged sacred cow status. 

Just like the avoidance of personal estate planning - this avoidance of addressing the consequences of hands-off staff members is a conscious decision and, although at first glance seems unwise due to the enormous damage which may ensue, it must be respected if made by the estate owners. As they say, blood is thicker than water, and familiar relationships are thicker than the requirements for running an effective service organization. Besides, we're talking Lay's potato chips here - BBQ flavor. 'Nuff said!

It will change the environment from casual to professional. Some people, some estates, their owners, and even some domestic staff - are actually entertained by chaos. To have staff who know their roles precisely and have agreed to be accountable and top it off with a highly effective presentation almost certainly reduces the dramatic effect which is seen as entertaining and provides an outlet for some people to vent. And such venting may have little to do with the actions of the domestic staff, yet their actions act as a catalyst and portal though which the employer can off-gas their perceived frustrations of the day. 

Yet with this portal removed via systems from an estate manager which has changed the staff environment to that of professional, the staff thus eliminates one of its functions which the estate owner may find value with - as gruesome as that may seem. 

I'll never forget one particular employer I worked for many years ago, whereupon the family business manager consoled me after one particularly explosive hand grenade tossed in my direction by the principal: "Well, just be glad she feels comfortable to scream at you; it's a sign that she really likes having you around."  

As a good butler would, of course, I quickly bowed and expressed my honor for having been of service, yet also knowing this violent behavior would never have been directed toward service providers the employer had considered "professional" - such as attorneys, physicians, or poodle groomers.


Decisions, decisions. There are no bad ones, as each is made with the most effective outcomes in mind, using information we don't always see is available to those needing to make them. 

But they do. 

Realizing that each decision in our lives - and on our estates - has its own set of consequences, good or bad, we can take comfort in knowing that each person does the best with what they have, at their own time and place - when making them.

So all I can do is to wish for each of you domestic staff citizens the courage to make good decisions - yet more importantly - to realize good outcomes - and just as you will define the value of those outcomes... yourselves.

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