When The Canary Starts Singing Again

I remember the moment very clearly, one evening in early 2011 I was at a networking event in Saint Louis and I ended up in a conversation with an economist about the fiscal health of American businesses and the economy. I was arguing that things were on the mend, and we’d see a sunrise on improvement in the very near future, if it wasn’t already happening. He was arguing that things were not improving and we had a long way to go. He cited facts and reports from other economists and financial experts. He even tried to draw me a graph to show what he was talking about. I had one major indicator that I used, the canary in the coal-mine.


For those who don’t know where that old adage comes from, during the industrial age, coal miners would take a caged canary into the mines to protect them from the deadly methane and carbon monoxide that could build up deep underground. The bird would sing almost constantly, and if it ever went silent, then it was time to gather your gear and head to the surface to avoid the same fate of the–now silent–canary. Oddly enough, this method was so useful that miners in the UK kept using it until the mid-1980s.

So, what was my canary? The corporate HR department, but specifically the area that handles employee training. That’s the canary that sings the loudest and is the most sensitive to a corporation’s financial stability. That is, at some level every company believes that an HR department must exist. Firing, hiring, compensation, and benefits all have to take place, no matter how tight the budgets are. However, training is often seen as a luxury. When the dangers in the coal mine come calling, trainers and their training departments are slashed to the bone, if not eliminated altogether. When the dangers begin to recede, the canaries are brought back into the mine.

The Canary is Singing Again – If you’re shaking your head at me, like that economist back in 2011, take a look at a recent article by Josh Bersin from Deloitte about what is happening in the corporate training market today. While I’d argue some about what he cited as the three major forces that predict this trend, these numbers are hard to ignore.


The Canary Stopped Singing in 2008 – The reason that I’d argue the predictors is because of my metaphor about the ill-fated canary in the coal mine. Compare this chart of the economic decline with the one above from Bersin’s article. The canary stopped singing in 2008…right around the time that Lehman, AIG, and the banks started seeing serious problems. The economy was in dire straits before that, and that’s when companies began to cut off training departments.

RhinoStocks - 2009

Source: The Rhino Stock Report

The Song Starts Again – So, how did I know–around 2011–that the economy was starting to bounce back? At that point, I was working for Intulogy–a training consultancy–when we saw a huge influx of companies asking for training needs analyses. You can interpret that as; they suddenly realized that their workforce had dangerously atrophied because they had eliminated their training departments. So, even though they didn’t have workers skilled in training development and delivery, they were in dire need of a workforce trained to compete. So, they turned to consultants to fill the void. And the RFPs we saw at that point in time, told that story.


Sing, But Be Ready – As one final piece of evidence about the canary, the above is a screen capture from O*Net statistics about Training and Development Specialists. That position is predicted to grow at 20-28% during this decade. If you’re in training, you should be pretty excited, but you should also never forget that you’re the canary in the coal mine. If you’re an organization, you’re paying far more than you have to, because most organizations fail to think as strategically as they should. But, that’s for my next post.

However, I’ll leave you with this quote as a look forward to that one.

“Take away my people, but leave my factories, and soon grass will grow on the factory floors. Take away my factories, but leave my people, and soon we will have a new and better factory.” – Andrew Carnegie

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Do You Know What You’re Saying With Your Business Cards?

Recently, when I knew that I was going to begin a full-time job search, I knew that getting my personal website and branding back up and running was a top priority. Part of that branding involved getting some new business cards that would help me get a job as well as reactivate my network.

What is the goal of a business card?

Ultimately, it’s a piece of paper that has all of your contact information on it. So, you could say that one goal is to convince the other person to contact you. However, the business card swap has become such a rote piece of the business interaction to the point that there are comedy skits about it. Don’t think, though, that I’m suggesting you become so critical of business cards that you think about them like Patrick Bateman.

To explain what I’m talking about, I need to talk about a past interaction, during an organizational change project with DHL. I had a conversation with an executive from DHL surrounding a new program they’d recently implemented. That program had its own logo and branding, and this executive had decided to have that logo placed on the back of his business card. He also chose to hand his card to people with that logo face up as a symbol of his dedication to that program’s success. As he said, “When I hand my card to people like this, I’m saying, ‘this is who I am’.”

When that executive takes that action, he’s taking advantage of a valuable psychological process. Our minds love to classify things quickly and easily. When he does this, he’s causing his name to be labelled and categorized differently in the other person’s mind. He’s causing that person to have to be more connected to him because of his investment to the action.


Here are my new business cards. You can see that across the back of them, I’ve inscribed a question, “What is a cogniphany?” and below that is inscribed, “Discover.” That calls a person to action and just below that is an easy way to satisfy the answer to that question. While I may not cause someone to spend a great amount of time looking at my website, I’ve created a way for that person to more easily remember who I am, when next we meet.

Thus, that’s what I am saying. Look at your business cards and ask yourself, “What am I saying about who I am when I hand this to someone?” Are you just taking place in a rote business ritual that ends up being forgotten moments later? Or are you saying something critical and important about yourself and taking advantage of a rapid person-to-person interaction to grab his or her attention?

Posted in cognitive psychology, i-o psychology | 3 Comments

First Impressions

Imagine that you’ve been searching for a long time for a new job. While you’ve been hunting for weeks, your bills have been piling up, and you’ve been working hours on end doing nothing but filing resumes and networking, but you finally found something. New hire paperwork in hand, you head to your new job, and you’re excited to start working. But, When you get there, the receptionist points you to your desk. As you walk to the desk, you notice that there’s a computer monitor on it, but no keyboard or mouse. Stuck to the monitor, is a note…


How do you feel right now?
What would you do?

Have you ever heard the old adage, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression?” This adage is frequently used adage is most often applied to people who are hunting for jobs and interviewing. However, if you’ve put yourself in the shoes of the employee in this true story from a consulting engagement regarding employee on-boarding, you’ll realize that the organization failed at its chance to make a first impression.

The entire focus of employee on-boarding (or socialization) is to transform an employee from an outsider to an insider. While you might take an employee through a checklist of different things in your on-boarding program, a successful socialization experience involves an employee who answers the question, “Do you feel like you are a part of the organization?” with a resounding “yes!” When an employee can answer that way, research has found that he or she has more role clarity, job satisfaction, self-efficacy, intention to remain, and social acceptance. While an employee selection system can find the right employees for a job, if those employees have experiences like the one above, the organization may bleed its best talent before it ever has a chance to develop them and eventually face overwhelming dysfunctional turnover.

What can you do?

Here is a worksheet I developed from current research about the best employee on-boarding and socialization programs today. To understand it, you need to understand each of the factors represented on that sheet.

  1. Personalization – Do your employees have a collective–or common–on-boarding experience, or is it more individual or unique?
  2. Formality – Is there a formal sequence to how on-boarding occurs or are new employees just informally tossed into a new job?
  3. Sequencing – Is there a sequential, system process to new employee on-boarding or is is a random experience?
  4. Timeline – Do you know when the employee on-boarding process is complete? That is, is there a fixed timeline for when things take place, or is it variable?
  5. Role-Modeling – Are new employees supported by being given someone to go to when they’re first hired to help them socialize, or are they completely unsupported?
  6. Socialization Feedback – Do new employees have some way of understanding when they’ve succeeded at becoming an insider, instead of an outsider?

Fill this worksheet out for your organization. Just put a mark on the line about where you feel your org rates. Be honest. When you’re done, the more marks you have to the right-hand side of the sheet, the more you might want to consider some changes, and the marks on this sheet can be used in a solutions based conversation about how to beef up your employee socialization program.

Because, you never get a second chance to make a first impression.


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