Mayor Wharton’s administration has been on quite a tear since taking office.  He has dealt with major problems at the animal shelter and in fleet services.  He has proposed restructuring departments because of budgetary constraints and for improved efficiency.  He has sought feedback from several committees and committed professionals alike on the problems of the day.

This is what the leader of a city is supposed to do.  However, I fear that we may soon be in for the inevitable introduction of a new and improved Personnel Policies and Procedures Manual… duhn, duhn, duhnnn.

I was contacted recently by an organization I have worked closely with asking me about policies.  They had a recent audit that criticized their lack of an available employee handbook.  I shared that yes, it is a good idea to have a general handbook of basic policies and procedures along with general descriptions of duties and perhaps some forms related to the 401(k) program and the like.

But I also cautioned that employees at many of the finest organizations in the world likely cannot locate their handbooks.  While the most bogged down bureaucratic agencies will inevitably have one on every desk.

In response to a department-gone-wild the first measure is almost always to write a tome that makes the bible look like Green Eggs and Ham.  It will be filled with all of the ways I can fire you and all of the ways you can avoid being fired.  It will spell out when you clock in, what you do for precisely 6.5 hours excluding designated breaks and when you will clock out.  It will have an annual performance review form with little checkboxes.  It will cover every conceived scenario.

This document will be useless for any practical purpose.  It will discourage innovation.  It will encourage behavior counterproductive to customer service.  And, it will force you to keep people you don’t want while making it impossible for strong people to move up the ladder.

So, as an organization leader, you will be forced to do one of two things.  Ignore the manual or embrace it.

Most people wind up just ignoring the handbook and treating people like adults.  This results in the inevitable problems that arise when you do something conflicting with a policy that seemed quite important before but now is impeding you from reprimanding the person who walked out of client presentation because he had a break scheduled at that time.

Or you hire a compliance manager who lives and dies by the manual and makes sure no one, at any time, takes any risk that might actually benefit your agency because everyone is terrified of the beat-down they will receive for violating policy.

So what is the answer?

Of course different organizations have different goals, need different levels of scrutiny and demand different models of operation.  But I always ask them to come back to my basic three policies.  If what your manual says accomplishes this, then you have what you need.  If the manual discourages this, then you and your employees will all be hampered.

Policy One:

Be where you are supposed to be when you are supposed to be there.  If you are doing this then feel free to move on to Policy Two.

Policy Two:

Do what you are supposed to do when you are supposed to do it.  When you are comfortable with this, then move on to Policy Three.

Policy Three:

Do not be afraid to be somewhere you are not supposed to be doing something you are not supposed to do.  This is where the opportunities are.

Every sales, management, operations or general business guru with a book-on-tape has more or less said the same thing.  Success comes from first showing up, second from delivering on promises and third looking for new business and better ways to deliver on Policy One and Policy Two.

Finally, remember that an Employee Handbook is not a replacement for employee hand-holding.  Policy is not management.

As much as we all want to be the One Minute Manger surrounded by brilliant, self-motivated superstars in the making… we live in the real world.  Some employees will try to do too much and need to be slowed down.  Some will do too little and need to be pushed.  One or two will surprise you with greatness if you just leave them alone.  Others will over achieve if you just check in with them more often.

A personnel policy and procedures manual has nothing to do with those things that are a good manager’s responsibility.  A good manager should know how to get the best out of the team.  The Handbook just shouldn’t get in the way of that responsibility.

I hope as we start thinking about how Memphis government is managed in the future we do not overcompensate for the bad behavior by stifling the performance of the truly innovative professionals in the system.  Mayor Wharton has spoken of leadership in other successful cities.  I would venture to guess that those cities are following less of a strict model of policies and procedures and more of a loose model of entrepreneurial expectations.