Philadelphia’s leadership needs to adopt a culture of continuous improvement

Article originally published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on August 19, 2019

The Philadelphia Inquirer published an article on August 12 by columnist Pranshu
Verma headlined, “Each night, Philly jails release scores of inmates without
returning their IDs, cash or phones.” Verma shows the statistics that in the year
ending April 15, 2018, 16,800 inmates – 73% of the total released from the six
Philadelphia prisons, were during the hours that the prison cashier’s office was
closed, delaying inmate’s access to their personal possessions.

Identification, cash and cell phones are critical enablers to these released inmates
to allow them to successfully reenter the community. Verma’s article quotes Tom
Innes, director of prison services for the Defender Association of Philadelphia,
saying, “You’re almost begging them to get into some kind of trouble.” Ann Jacobs,
the director of the Prisoner Reentry Institute at the John Jay College of Criminal
Justice said, “This is a humanitarian disaster. You’re screaming to them they don’t
matter, you don’t care, and you just expect to have them come back anyway.” According to Shawn Hawes of the Philadelphia Department of Prisons,
“We cannot legally hold anyone beyond a court-ordered release.”

The obvious solution is to keep the cashier’s office open 24 hours a day as is done at
Rikers Island prison in New York City.

So, why has no one who works within the Philadelphia prison system suggested this
intuitively obvious solution? Why does it take a newspaper article to effect change?
After the Inquirer article was published, the bureau of prisons announced that it
would extend the hours of the cashier’s office until 7 pm. This would only make a
negligible improvement.

Companies would not remain in business very long if its leadership and employees
didn’t exercise common sense and good critical judgment and embrace continuous
improvement. Why is this so rare within segments of the public sector? In many
cases, it just is not part of their mind-set or organizational culture. Public sector
organizations face no competition, so earning a return on investment or survival of
the organization is not a driving force.

Many public employees go to work each day with the mentality to do the best job
they can do. Unfortunately, in too many cases, public sector managers and
employees are not held accountable for continuous improvement.

Philadelphia’s leadership needs to use the example of the prison system failing the
needs of released inmates to initiate a change in mentality. The incentive to
continuously improve and establish a culture where management welcomes
improvement initiatives should be driven by an innate personal desire to do so, and
the personal satisfaction one receives from making life better for Philadelphia’s

Anything less, the taxpayers of Philadelphia and those receiving services from the
city get short-changed.

Stan Silverman is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership. He is a speaker,
advisor and nationally syndicated columnist on leadership, entrepreneurship and
corporate governance. Silverman earned a Bachelor of Science degree in
chemical engineering and an MBA degree from Drexel University. He is also an
alumnus of the Advanced Management Program at the Harvard Business School.
He can be reached at Follow Silverman on
LinkedIn here and on Twitter, @StanSilverman.

Always Hire People with Good Critical Judgment and Who Will Do the Right Thing

Article originally published in the American City Business Journals on November 20, 2018

Steve Jobs, the late founder, chairman and CEO of Apple, is quoted as saying: “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do. We hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”

I would add: You should hire smart people of high emotional intelligence with common sense and good critical judgment who will do the right thing, recognize the brutal facts of reality, are committed to delivering a great customer experience, and will lead with the right tone at the top.

Many mission-critical decisions surrounding the Flint, Michigan, water crisis in 2015 were poorly made and serve as lessons for leaders of all organizations, as outlined in the updated excerpts of a January 2016 article I wrote on the crisis that follow.

To reduce costs, in March 2013, Flint’s mayor and its city council made the decision to switch the long-term source of Flint water from the Detroit water system to the Karegnondi Water Authority, which would construct a pipeline to transport water from Lake Huron to Flint. In April 2014, to save $5 million during the remaining two-year period until the construction was complete, Flint switched from Detroit to the Flint River as an interim source of city water.

The water from the Flint River has a high salt content and therefore is very corrosive, causing lead and other heavy metals to leach out of aging pipes delivering water to homes. The addition of an anti-corrosion agent to high salt content water is a well-established and common practice to reduce heavy metal leaching from water system pipes. The cost would have only been $100 per day, but it was not done.

More than half of the population of Flint is African-American, and nearly half of the city’s population lives below the poverty line. Were the demographics of Flint a factor in the decision to switch to untreated Flint River water, as some individuals suggested? If these government and environmental officials experienced the same type of water coming from the faucets in their homes, corrective action would have been demanded and immediately implemented.

The lead levels in water sourced from the Flint River within some homes were found to be several orders of magnitude higher than what was considered acceptable. It was estimated that as many as 12,000 residents of Flint had elevated levels of lead in their bodies. Many of these were children, who could suffer developmental issues and a range of other health problems.

In a January 2016 Washington Post article headlined, “The poisoning of Flint,” columnist Katrina vanden Heuvel wrote, “When complaints persisted, officials assured residents that the water was safe to drink, repeatedly disregarding clear evidence that it wasn’t. But when elevated levels of lead showed up in children’s blood this past fall, the government was forced to admit there was a problem.

“[Michigan Governor Rick] Snyder’s then chief of staff, Dennis Muchmore, acknowledged the [Snyder] administration’s deplorable response in a July 2015 email, writing, ‘These folks are scared and worried about the health impacts and they are basically getting blown off by us (as a state, we’re just not sympathizing with their plight).’”

Snyder declared a state of emergency in Flint on Jan. 5, 2016. He has also acknowledged his role in this crisis. “Accountability” and “austerity” has been Snyder’s political narrative.

Was austerity partly to blame for the Flint water crisis? Due to the weak financial condition of the city, Snyder had appointed a series of emergency managers to oversee the finances of Flint, and it was one of these emergency financial managers that signed off on the switch to Flint River water. What was he thinking?

The Flint Advisory Task Force appointed by Snyder to investigate the crisis has stated, “The Flint water crisis is a story of government failure, intransigence, unpreparedness, delay, inaction, and environmental injustice. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) failed in its fundamental responsibility to effectively enforce drinking water regulations. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) failed to adequately and promptly act to protect public health.”

What is the current status of the water crisis in Flint? Testing has indicated that lead levels in Flint water have now dropped below federal standards, so bottled drinking water is no longer being distributed. Those responsible for the crisis are still being brought to justice.

Tone at the top and institutional culture play a critical role in the success of any organization. Michigan government and regulatory leaders were horribly lacking in both. They did not fulfill their responsibility — protecting the people of their state.

Whether a government or regulatory leader, the CEO of a company or head of a nonprofit organization, these leaders’ constituents — the public, employees customers or stockholders, are counting on them to do the right thing. The Flint water crisis is a lesson in how not to act as a leader.

Stan Silverman is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership. He is a speaker, advisor and nationally syndicated writer on leadership, entrepreneurship and corporate governance. Silverman earned a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering and an MBA degree from Drexel University. He is also an alumnus of the Advanced Management Program at the Harvard Business School. He can be reached at Follow Silverman on LinkedIn here and on Twitter, @StanSilverman.

School Administrators Need to Use Common Sense & Good Critical Judgment

Article originally published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on October 9, 2018

All too often, we roll our eyes in disbelief when bureaucrats don’t use common sense and good critical judgment when making a decision on a nuanced issue. Instead, they “follow policy” without making an exception or asking someone with higher authority in the organization to grant a variance.

In the Washington Post article headlined, “Homeless D.C. high school football player kept off field amid questions over eligibility,” columnist Samantha Pell writes about Jamal Speaks, who was ruled ineligible to play football because he did not have a permanent residence.

Due to family issues, Speaks was staying at the various homes of his friends while maintaining a solid grade point average and holding down a part-time job.

According to Pell’s article, due to the lack of a permanent residence, the principal of his school threatened to fire the coach if he let Speaks play.

After receiving support from fellow students, teammates, coaches and fans, Speaks was ultimately allowed to play after a favorable ruling by one of the two governing bodies on athletics within the D.C. school district.

In May 2016, I wrote an article headlined, “What has happened to the use of common sense and good critical judgment by school officials?” What follows is an update of that article.

Often, a school infraction is nuanced, and the prescribed punishment does not fit the infraction. In a May 2005 article in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Bill Torpy reported on the suspension of a Muscogee County, Georgia high school student who violated school policy by speaking on his cellphone with his mother, who was deployed in Iraq. The student’s father had passed away many years ago, so he was living with another military family while his mother was on active duty.

The student had not been able to speak with his mother for a month because she had been on a mission, and when the student saw that it was his mother who was calling him, he answered his phone. The student’s guardian said, “It’s difficult for families kept apart by the war. There should be an exception [when a parent calls their kid while on active duty]. Moms at war getting shot at want to talk to their kids.”

Did this infraction justify suspension, a punishment that would appear on the student’s transcript and potentially have an adverse impact on future college and employment opportunities, or was an exception warranted?

Torpy wrote, “Wendell Turner, an assistant principal, said the student was ‘very defiant. He didn’t want to listen to what the rules are, like the rules didn’t apply to him.’ Students are allowed to bring cellphones to school, but they must be turned off during school hours.” Perhaps the student was “very defiant” because he was speaking with his mother who was in a war zone. School officials should have handled this situation with sensitivity and common sense.

After the school received a huge amount of criticism from the public, the school board reduced the 10-day suspension to three days. Even the school board doesn’t get it. No suspension should have been given to the student.

After receiving the negative feedback, Torpy quoted Turner as making the obligatory apology, stating that “… many students … have parents serving overseas. We are the school that serves Fort Benning. We’re well aware of students with parents overseas. Some will just call the school if they want to talk to their sons or daughters. We’ll gladly get the kid out of class.” Too bad the school didn’t consider this and use some common sense when this incident occurred.

Schools should learn a lesson from what happened here and examine their own decision-making processes. When the punishment does not fit the infraction, school administrators lose the respect of their students.

How many of us have been stopped by a police officer for speeding or some other traffic law infraction, and only been given a warning? The officer is using his discretion. School principals should also use their discretion in applying school policy, and of course be able to justify their decision so as not to set a precedent for a similar situation in the future.

In organizations where the leaders are ultimately accountable to the public (schools and the local, state and federal government), is there a fear that they will be second-guessed and criticized for using discretion by their bosses, the news media or political opponents? In this environment, before leaders can make the right decision, does there need to be significant public criticism of the original by-the-book decision? Does the right decision need to be approved by an organization’s outside attorney, in order to provide cover for the leader?

These are questions that only leaders who work in these types of organizations can provide. What we do know is that we need to hear less obligatory apologies by school officials for decisions that fly in the face of common sense.

Stan Silverman is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership. He is a speaker, advisor and nationally syndicated writer on leadership, entrepreneurship and corporate governance. Silverman earned a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering and an MBA degree from Drexel University. He is also an alumnus of the Advanced Management Program at the Harvard Business School. He can be reached at Follow Silverman on LinkedIn here and on Twitter, @StanSilverman.

Be Aware of the Unintended Consequences of Your Decisions

Article originally published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on July 30, 2018

Nearly all of us have heard the term “unintended consequences,” but we may not be aware of how to avoid them. In February 2018, in the publication The Library of Economics and Liberty, Robert Norton wrote, “The law of unintended consequences, often cited but rarely defined, is that actions of people – and especially of government – always have effects that are unanticipated or unintended.”

When the unintended consequence of a decision is favorable, there is never an issue. The favorable outcome is considered a bonus. When the unintended consequence is adverse, depending on its impact, the decision-making process is questioned, as is the leader who made the decision.

In his article, Norton wrote about sociologist Robert Merton, who in 1935 identified the causes of unintended consequences – three of which are in the control of the decision maker. I would like to focus on these three causes: ignorance, error and immediacy of interest.

Ignorance and error

In both of these cases, leaders make decisions on issues without considering the unintended consequences, or before needed information is obtained. These are decisions that are not well thought out nor operationalized.

During my tenure as the CEO of our company, I sat through meetings at which the management of a business unit presented their plan to enter a new market without any consideration of the unintended consequence of a competitive response and how it would impact our company’s market entry.

I would ask, is the market growing at a sufficient rate to absorb a new supplier without a competitive response? Will competitors respond by price cutting, or in a different way? What differentiates our product in the marketplace to limit a competitive response? Why would customers switch buying from their incumbent supplier and decide to buy from our company?

How competitors might respond to a new market entry is unknown. A leader will often need to make a decision, but the information desired to make a fully informed decision is not available. Before making that decision, effective leaders listen to the opinions of their experts and they fall back on their own experience, common sense and good critical judgment. This is how they de-risk a decision and minimize the chance of unintended consequences.

Immediacy of interest

Merton describes the type of decision where “someone wants the intended consequence of an action so much that he purposefully chooses to ignore any unintended effects,” to the peril of the decision maker and the organization.

NASA’s decision to launch the space shuttle Challenger on Jan. 28, 1986 against the advice of the Thiokol engineers is an example of a decision driven by immediacy of interest. NASA had promised Congress a too aggressive and unrealistic launch frequency. The pressure to meet this schedule resulted in a catastrophic decision to launch the Challenger in adverse temperature conditions, well below the ambient temperature for which the solid rocket booster O-rings were designed.

Upon hearing Thiokol’s recommendation to delay the launch due to risks to the astronauts and the shuttle, one of the NASA officials stated, “I am appalled by your recommendation.” Another NASA official stated, “My God, Thiokol, when do you want me to launch – next April?” NASA launched Challenger, and shortly after the launch the O-rings failed, resulting in an explosion and the catastrophic deaths of seven astronauts and loss of the shuttle.

What is the cause of immediacy of interest type decisions? Certainly, hubris is one cause. defines hubris as “excessive pride or self-confidence, arrogance. Arrogant leaders are rarely if ever successful over the long term.

Another cause of immediacy of interest decisions is the pressure to act, which in and of itself is a way of achieving results. However, at what risk and at what cost? How many times do we read in the press about unethical or illegal acts that were committed due to the pressure to get something done? These situations eventually almost always become public, adversely impacting the reputations of the individuals and organizations involved. The reputations of organizations recover over time. Those of the individuals never do.

How do you avoid immediacy of interest decisions? If you are the boss, set high expectations for achieving great results, but make it clear to the organization that it must be done in an honest and ethical manner. No other way is acceptable.

Surround yourself with people who will tell you what they think, not what you want to hear. Listen to your experts. They know more about the unintended consequences than you do. And remember, what you do reflects not only on you, but on your organization and your colleagues as well. Don’t let them down.

Silverman is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership. He is a speaker, advisor and nationally syndicated writer on leadership, entrepreneurship and corporate governance. Silverman earned a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering and an MBA degree from Drexel University. He is also an alumnus of the Advanced Management Program at the Harvard Business School. He can be reached at 

At Starbucks, Where Was the Common Sense and Good Critical Judgment?

Article originally published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on April 23, 2018

An April 12 incident at a Starbucks in Philadelphia has led to a public relations crisis for the company. Two African American men were arrested for not making a purchase within minutes after their arrival.

Shortly after Donte Robinson and Rashon Nelson arrived at Starbucks, they were asked if they would like to make a purchase. They responded that they were waiting for a business colleague. They were then asked to leave the café but refused.

The café manager called 911 and told the police dispatcher, “I have two gentlemen in my café that are refusing to make a purchase or leave.” The police responded, and after a conversation with Robinson and Nelson, arrested them.

Why did the café manager ask Robinson and Nelson to leave, and then call 911 when they refused to do so? If they were disruptive, the manager would have said so in her call to 911. How are other people who don’t make a purchase soon after arriving treated? Did the café manger fail to use common sense and good critical judgment, or was her decision to call 911 a reflection of racial bias?

Starbucks promotes its cafés as a comfortable and inviting place to meet friends, hang out, enjoy coffee, food and conversation and use its wi-fi service. This is their business model. It is not unusual for people to arrive and not make a purchase until their friends or colleagues arrive.

Quoting from the Starbucks Values Statement, “With our partners, our coffee and our customers at our core, we live these values … creating a culture of warmth and belonging, where everyone is welcome.” Perhaps not so for everyone at this Starbucks that day.

To say that the arrest of these two individuals caused an uproar and accusations of bias and discrimination against black customers is an understatement. The incident went viral, and smartphone videos of the arrests have been viewed around the world millions of times. There has even been a call to boycott Starbucks.

Immediately after the incident, Philadelphia police commissioner Richard Ross, who is African American, defended the actions of the police officers. On April 19, he changed his position and apologized to Robinson and Nelson.

In a public statement, Ross said, “… It is no excuse … [that] my lack of awareness of the Starbucks business model played a role in my message. While … [it] is apparently a well-known fact with Starbucks customers, not everyone is aware that people spend long hours in Starbucks and aren’t necessarily expected to make a purchase. … It is also reasonable to believe that the officers [who responded to the 911 call] didn’t know it either.”

In response to this incident, Starbucks has announced that on the afternoon of May 29, the company will close all its 8,000 U.S. based cafés for racial bias training.

The company’s CEO Kevin Johnson arrived in Philadelphia to apologize to Robinson and Nelson and express his regret that this situation occurred. In his statement about the incident, Johnson called it a reprehensible outcome.

This is not the first time that Starbucks has seen its reputation damaged due to a lack of common sense and good critical judgment by an employee. In November 2014 at a Phoenix, Arizona Starbucks, a pregnant woman was denied the use of the restroom even after her husband offered to make a purchase.

In September 2015 at another Philadelphia Starbucks, a police officer was refused the use of the restroom. In this and the Phoenix incident, Starbucks offered the obligatory apology, but there was no public announcement about specific actions to avoid these types of events in the future.

What do all three Starbucks incidents have in common? The employee in each incident didn’t use common sense and good critical judgement.

For Starbucks to deliver on its Values Statement, it needs to review its pre-employment screening procedures, its policies and procedures as well as conduct ongoing training of its employees. Racial bias training is a good start.

Lack of common sense and good critical judgment in employees is a risk factor, like many others, that can damage a company. It needs to be treated as such by management. This is a lesson for all companies.

Stan Silverman is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership. He is a speaker, advisor and nationally syndicated writer on leadership, entrepreneurship and corporate governance. Silverman earned a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering and an MBA degree from Drexel University. He is also an alumnus of the Advanced Management Program at the Harvard Business School.