ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

Online Edition - June 2000

Issue Highlight - Safe Return Doubtful
--- Much of the attention in human resources seems to be about how to recruit and retain good people. The conventional wisdom is to offer people the possibility of big benefits and instant wealth.

In This Issue...
The Real World At MTV
A New American Revolution
Basic Training
Bringing Values To Life

Peter Block Column
Views for a Change

Sites Unseen
Diary of a Shutdown

The Real World At MTV
Traditional Human Resource Systems Help MTV Rule the Road

--"Real World," "Road Rules," and "Total Request Live" are shows most commonly associated with MTV. In fact, MTV is one small part of the MTV Networks which owns and operates numerous cable television programming services. MTV itself is the world's most widely distributed television network reaching 350 million homes in 83 territories. Other services include MTV2, VH1, Nickelodeon, Nick at Nite, TV Land and the The Digital Suite. In addition, MTV Networks operates MTV Networks online, a portfolio of leading internet properties, and is currently building the ultimate online destination for kids and music fans.

--One would hazard a guess that their "people" practices are equally innovative. And to some extent they are. But the world of auditing, control and performance appraisals does exist. After all, as Maude DiVittis, vice president of education and training tells it, "We are still a business." And a successful one at that. But for an organization where it appears everyone under 30 with a good idea wants to work, the challenges are unique and demanding. With everything from state-of-the-art mentoring programs to a unique tuition reimbursement program, innovative and colorful use of space,and open pantries with free food and beverages, MTV doesn't necessarily stand for a Managed Traditionally Venue.

--DiVittis joined MTV as director of sales training. In her role she meets practically every employee, since the first day at MTV is spent with her education and training office's "Ignition", the company's weekly orientation program. DiVittis recently talked with News for a Change Editor Bill Brewer about life in the fast lane at MTV, creating and maintaining a culture that recognizes smart people and good ideas from that can come from everyone and what keeps her up at night.

NFC:: What were some of the issues you dealt with when you were at Nickelodeon in terms of organizational development?
DiVittis: The goal was to increase the overall organizational effectiveness. I did this by encouraging individuals who were responsible for managing others to demonstrate really sound business and management practices so they were effective in running their departments. A manager is going to influence the work climate, the work environment. They're going to influence an employee's chance for success. They need to set up employees for success. It had a lot to do with managing expectations, communicating job expectations, assuring that there was ongoing feedback.

NFC: So the manager is responsible for the workers, for ensuring their success, instead of the workers being responsible for their own success? Or, as opposed to a manager being clear about the work, making sure you have the tools that you have the training, and facilitating for your success, but your success is not my responsibility.
DiVittis: One challenge we often face in our organization is when a manager gets promoted, and has the new responsibility of managing another person. They may have had no experience in doing that and when they get promoted, they are promoted based on one skill set. Then they're put into a new role, where they may not have necessarily developed a skill to effectively manage another person. So I think that it's the responsibility of our organization to provide the manager with the tools and the support to be successful in managing another person. I think that a critical success factor is to have a supportive boss; communicating job expectations and giving feedback. But, ultimately it's in the hands of the employee to navigate their way through. I am in full agreement that it is the workers' responsibility.

NFC: And how might these managers give feedback?
DiVittis: We have a performance review process that happens on July 1.

NFC: So the month of June you have a lot of high performers-right?
DiVittis: Even though the formal review happens on July 1 there should be no surprises. Giving feedback should happen on a day-to-day basis, day in and day out. People should recognize where they stand and where their strength is and where their areas of development are. So by the time July 1 comes around again, there are no surprises. It just happens to be the more formal process in the organization to do the formal review, but reviewing really happens day in, day out. For instance, we are currently doing this whole initiative with one of our largest functions and our goal is to promote healthy dialogue. We need to give people the tools, understanding and awareness around what that looks like. So it takes on the form of sensitivity training. It talks about promoting good listening skills, encouraging awareness and understanding, seeking first to understand where that person is coming from. It's not about you telling them what your point of view is.

NFC: MTV is leading-edge, creative, outside-the-box thinking. But what I'm hearing is a very traditional structure. Aren't creative cultures difficult to manage?
DiVittis: Oftentimes people will look at a creative company, and say, "Oh it's really different." But we are a business. All functions are represented. Yes, we have accounts payable. We have a payroll department, human resources, research, law and business affairs. We are a business that needs to have some sort of architecture. We have an incredibly fun and creative work environment. And our culture is probably our greatest asset. People want to work here because of the environment. If you look at the physical space and how things are laid out, if you look at the type of work that's being done-people love it. People go, "Wow, that's great."

NFC: What's different about the physical environment?
DiVittis: For example, Nickelodeon's floor space is designed in a way that's relevant to its audience. You walk through the halls and you'll see giant, inflated, orange beach balls. You'll see our on-air product, the channel itself. So you'll see televisions situated in every hallway and every crevice continuously playing our product. You'll see large chalkboards from floor to ceiling, where people can just scribe whatever they want. You'll see a meeting space that is fun, based on its colors. It's creative, based on its layout. It's open. It encourages divergent thinking. I think that your environment impacts how you think. I think your environment impacts how you approach your business environment. It impacts how you approach your problem solving. We have open pantries, which provide free beverages, coffee and food. All of these things create a really worker-friendly environment. It encourages interaction and dialogue.

NFC: Getting free beverages and having a brightly colored office might be great for six months-but in terms of long-term commitment and doing great work-there has to be something else there?
DiVittis: You're right, the physical space or the free beverages are very surface. The depth, what keeps our employees there, what keeps them rooted, I think is their relationships, their ability to learn from others. We started a formal mentoring program that has been very effective for us. We provide them with ongoing professional development and training. We do that through classroom work and coaching. We do that through supporting their career development. They may come through the door and be very successful in one area, but then want a new challenge and growth opportunity and we're able to support that as well. We have a whole internal job posting process. Every Tuesday, jobs are posted both online and physically placed on each floor's reception area. People can pick up a stack of the job postings. We assure that every job is posted prior to looking externally. Internal communication is key. One thing that's pretty commonplace is what we call "town hall" meetings. Functional area leaders and channel presidents run the meeting and publicly review work of on air promotions and new programming and creative work that's been completed. This forum also allows for department heads to speak and publicly recognize individuals. It's also a forum where they introduce new people to the organization. It's very effective and keeps folks connected.

NFC: What you've described is like a pep-rally. And we know the excitement generated by pep rallies lasts for about 30 minutes, or if you're lucky, until the next morning. But the name "town hall" implies that if there are issues to discuss this a forum to bring them out. What kinds of empowerment principles are present in your organization?
DiVittis: I think our employees are very empowered. There are forums for sharing ideas, if someone wants to pitch a new idea or they have an idea for development. We have so many success stories. One of our biggest successes right now is "Blues Clues." It's a phenomenon. It's been existent for four years. It was created internally by a coordinator. She is the co-creator. People will knock down our doors to come work at Nickelodeon. They know that it's a culture that recognizes smart people and encourages good ideas.

NFC: And how do they do that? If I come to work there and I have a great idea for a new program...
DiVittis: You can go and pitch the head of development and there is a forum to do that. So at certain times of the year you can do a formal pitch and say, "Here's my idea. Here's what I want to do."

NFC: What's the greatest challenge you face today in your job?
DiVittis: The biggest challenge that I face, I can tell you quite honestly, is not being a victim of our own success. We've had a lot of successful programs; there is a lot of need to support training and education in our organization. Just being able to meet those needs.

Our challenge as an organization has to be around retention because it is such a competitive marketplace which heightens the importance of human resources all the more. The United States and New York City have the lowest unemployment rates since 1970. So the biggest challenge that we face as an organization is the retention of a talented and diverse workforce.

NFC: And what's your strategy for that?
DiVittis: Our strategy is to provide all of these support programs that encourage retention.When people talk about what makes them stay or attracts them to a workplace, and we hear them say, "It's having a manager that's effective, having a manager that can teach me something," that means providing training to new supervisors. That means having mentoring programs. That means having opportunities to learn and grow, whether it be through internal workshops or supporting their external education.

We have a terrific reimbursement educational systems program unlike any other organization. We provide the money up-front. We have a very young population and they want to earn their undergraduate degrees. Taking an undergraduate class at NYU costs $684 per credit hour. What 24-year-old can afford $2,100 up-front? Our organization affords them the opportunity to take up to six credits a semester and we'll pay for it up-front. Then the employee closes out the loan by providing the organization the passing grade. That to me is being flexible.

That to me is providing a benefit that meets the needs of our population. So when we talk about attracting and retaining diverse talent, it is understanding and addressing the needs of our employees.

NFC: One last question: What keeps you up at night?
DiVittis: Unfortunately, human resources is not exactly a destination job for business leaders, and HR's offer of top talent remains uncompetitive. It keeps me up at night because here I am, I've made a conscious choice to work in human resources and have a passion for my work. I come to the table with a solid business background, experience in sales and marketing and an MBA from Columbia University. Oftentimes, I look in the function and realize that we need to shift our thinking. We need to shift human resources from being transactional to focusing more on strategic business leaders and partnering with the business.

The good news is that our organization places high value on the function of HR. We must be able to deliver to the business. I feel that our organization's greatest investment is in it's human capital. I think business leaders are now recognizing the importance of human resources. I believe that we're now on the radar screen, and the issues that business leaders are most concerned with, a majority of those issues are now around human resource capability. Human resources needs to adopt more strategic skills and emerge as a business leader, not as transactional. To be more consultative. So we need to attract really top people into the human resources function and make it a destination job.

NFC: What motivates you?
DiVittis: At work, it is having a great boss who is supportive, respected and can teach me something. I currently have an incredible boss who is the consummate HR professional. This is what keeps me motivated and provides me great job satisfaction.

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