When I need a Kick in the Pants: An Interview with Former Managing Director of HR for FedEx, Bill Catlette


Recently I have not been feeling very positive about the HR profession. If I was really being specific I wasn’t feeling good about a couple of interactions I had with HR managers that I thought were shortsighted. Well, really I thought the interactions reflected an unnecessarily biased perspective towards management’s interest. OK, so I didn’t get what I wanted! Are you happy now?

I suppose we all have ideals and one of mine as a former HR practitioner is that the Human Resource profession would act as honest and objective brokers, looking at every employee affecting issue from the perspective that all interests should be served by any decision or policy formation. This is of course an ideal that is highly subjective in its measurement and like any idealist (with a heart as pure as the driven snow) when I don’t agree with a policy or practice I see put in place I tend to get myself wrapped around the proverbial axle, tweaked, my nose out of joint, etc.

When such an occasion does arise and I find myself “screwed into the ceiling” I often turn to cooler heads to provide me a new perspective and allow me the opportunity to come down from my high horse. One person I always feel confident can talk me off the ledge is my long time associate, former Managing Director of HR at Federal Express, Bill Catlette.

Unlike me Bill is one of those people who suffer from perpetual “level headedness”, a trait I can honestly say I only aspire to. My hope would be that whether you are an HR professional or a manager in some line function that you have someone like Bill that you can turn to when you can’t get out of your own way.

That’s where I was a couple of weeks back and I was embarrassed about it. I like to think I am above taking things too personally, it is “just business” after all but I know I will on occasion get “hooked” so when I contacted Bill my face was still red and I had to sort of sneak up on my agenda by asking him about his recently published book, ‘Rebooting Leadership’. I knew he’d be ready to talk about that and once we got started I could launch into my true purpose. What transpired was an exchange that became an interview and I am pleased to share it with you here, a conversation with a true leader in the HR profession.

Here goes

MFC: Bill, along with your longtime partner Richard Hadden and Meredith Kimbell you have recently written and released a new book, ‘Rebooting Leadership’ that is targeted at front line managers and their managers, my favorite place in the management structure. I say favorite because this is where I believe authentic employee engagement is encouraged or damaged. Why did you feel this was the time for a book directed at this segment of the management hierarchy?

BC: Thanks, Mike, for giving me the opportunity to talk with you about what has become our favorite topic, too.We wrote Rebooting Leadership for exactly one reason:

For us, the topic – trying to do something to help front-line managers, was like a blinking red light with a wailing siren attached to it. Even on the best of days, front-line leaders have the toughest jobs in any organization, with increasing performance pressure, very little support, and no place to hide. Add to that an increasingly dispirited and disengaged workforce, the complete cratering of trust in the workspace, having precious little training for going on 4 years, and their jobs are made near impossible. Think about it, before they even show up for work in the morning, a glance at their email in-basket forewarns them of intense data water-boarding for the first couple of hours. And unlike a lot of others, they have real work to get done. In short, most of them are stuck in a real hard spot.

We committed to doing a book that offers the front-line leader the practical benefit that a stuck computer gets from pressing Control+Alt+Delete… a fresh start, using a time honored operating system, yet applicable to today’s challenges. Practical advice like, how to build your own high performance team (aka Friending), how to survive a failed project or bad decision (Failing), and how to get people engaged (Getting Sticky).

Early reports suggest that we may have struck a chord with it. I got a note just the other day from a business school professor at Butler University, advising that the book is required reading for his fall term graduate class on leadership.

MFC: You have a deep background in Human Resource management; you played a key role in that function at Federal Express, among other places. Your first two books ‘Contented Cows Give Better Milk: The Plain Truth About Employee Relations and Your Bottom Line’ and the more recent ‘Contented Cows Move Faster: How Good Leaders Get People to Put More OOMPH! Into Their Work seemed to appeal more to the rational side of managers and leaders; this new book seems to be almost an impassioned plea to supervisors and managers. Can you comment on this or is this simply my interpretation? If I am in sync with you here can you also comment on this shift into another gear?

BC: Each of those books, and thank you for remembering them, was written for a specific purpose and audience. The first, ‘Contented Cows Give Better Milk’, was written as the capstone to our research that showed quite conclusively, for the first time, those organizations that treat people right, and are legitimate employers of choice, grow faster, are more productive, make more money, and create more wealth for shareholders. We made the business case, not with faith, but facts. In essence, it validated the hard work of good leaders and hard working HR professionals. Game, set, match.

The second book, ‘Contented Cows MOOve Faster’, did a deep dive on the whole notion of Discretionary Effort, that extra morsel of effort, the turbocharger that each of us can turn on if, but only if we want to. It is somewhat more prescriptive than the first book, and is intended for leaders at every level. It shows them how to tap into that extra 30 – 40% of capacity that our people choose daily to either expend in the workplace, or take home at days end unspent.

 Written for Level 1 and 2 leaders and the people who coach and direct them, ‘Rebooting Leadership’ is nothing but prescriptive content (do THIS, stop doing THAT). It’s what your own boss would be teaching you if they had the time, and over 75 years of leadership experience (and the scars to prove it). We actually tried to condense it to a series of 140 character Tweets, but couldn’t quite pull it off. Our publisher, David Cottrell of Cornerstone Leadership so bought in to this concept that he allowed us only 112 pages, on the premise that our intended audience has neither the time nor inclination to read a book any bigger than that. Besides, as Mark Twain put it, long books/letters are what you write “when you don’t have time to write a short one.”

(to be continued) Coming up next,Part Two:Bill Catlette answers my question, “Has HR come to mean Human Regulation?”

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