What I learned during COVID-19: The Law of Diminishing Returns

I used to think that providing for my family meant working as much as possible. The COVID-19 quarantine allowed me to revisit that notion.

Article via LinkedIn

The Law of Diminishing Returns is something that anyone learns in an introductory economics course. The law is used to refer to a point at which the level of profits or benefits gained is less than the amount of money or energy invested. This is an easily grasped concept for people because it is evident in so many real-world situations. Of course, if a factory employs workers to manufacture its products, and is operating at an optimal level, then with other production factors constant, adding additional workers beyond this optimal level will result in less efficient operations.

The Law of Diminishing Returns also hits us in more human ways. Like last weekend when I was cooking dinner for my family. This was a particularly fun dinner to cook because I got to pull out my sous vide equipment and use it on some delicious rib-eyes from Gloria Starling at Capital Grille. The great thing about sous vide is that you really can’t screw it up; you get perfect steaks every time. And these steaks exceeded all expectations. The first bite was everything you’d want in a high-dollar steakhouse experience – delicious and full of flavor. By the end of my 24-oz. steak, the last bite was still good, but as incredible as the first? No. There was definitely a point during this meal where I should have called it quits and avoided feeling almost painfully full.

Besides cooking more for my family, the recent COVID-19 quarantine has changed my daily routine immensely and made my work life and my home life inextricably linked. Before quarantine, I usually got up 30 minutes to an hour before everyone else to catch up on emails, helped get kids ready for school, worked at my office from 8:30am to around 6:30pm, spent an hour or so with the kids, finally got some quiet time to eat dinner with my fabulous wife, Laurie, and then spent another 2-3 hours working in bed. We’ve been talking about work-life balance for over a decade now, but many people (including me) are not very good at it. I had become almost resigned to the fact that running my business the way I thought it needed to operate meant being apart from my family.

In quarantine, specifically during Fort Worth’s stay-at-home order which lasted until April 30th, the core of my work didn’t change much at all. I continued to work hard and deliver for my clients, but I was also able to go bike riding with my six-year-old, Harrison. I finished building a treehouse for my kids and started on a massive restoration project of an old 1969 Airstream trailer. Was forgoing these activities to get a final few hours in at work actually worth it all this time? Of course not. And then again, the Law of Diminishing Return rears its head in the form of some sobering perspective. While in quarantine I have found more time with the kids for baseball and the like, but I also found more energy, compassion, peace, and I am sleeping better than I have in years. I have found an amazing blessing during this time: balance.

And science actually backs this up. 55 hours per week is considered a hard ceiling on productivity. In a 2014 study from Stanford University, economics professor John Pencavel found that productivity per hour declines sharply when a person works more than 50 hours a week. After 55 hours, productivity drops so much that putting in any more hours would be pointless. And, those who work up to 70 hours a week are only getting the same amount of work done as those who put in the 55 hours. Pencavel’s research also points to the increased accidents and mistakes that occur when working excessively. Yet despite so many good reasons, including health benefits, to find a work-life balance, the idea that the hours you work are directly related to the value you bring to your company is still so pervasive.

We just experienced a downshift in conventional work. Work did not stop, but it took on a different form, and many of us had to get creative to keep our businesses moving forward or staying afloat. So, as we begin to return to the traditional ways of working, why don’t we try to not revert back to exactly what we were doing before? If we start to see our work through the lens of the Law of Diminishing Returns, maybe we will realize that sometimes the 11pm email might be better, more contextual, and more useful the next morning. Work-life balance shouldn’t just feel like a buzzword. It is a true possibility with real rewards.

The big lesson of COVID, for me? Work is powerful and purposeful, but there’s beauty in evening baseball and Airstream trailers too.

Does Culture Really Matter?

“…if business leaders knew how important culture is to financial returns, they would certainly be doing a lot more to develop a strong culture in the workplace.”

Does Culture Really Matter via LinkedIn

We talk a lot about “culture” in business these days. What is it? Think for a moment on what your definition of “culture” in a business-setting would be. Where did you come up with this definition? In a book or from a presentation? In truth, you probably reflected on your own work experiences, good and bad, and you said what you felt. Most people would do the same, and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Loose definitions of culture can still be helpful if you can find common threads that run through each person’s perceptions. If you were to walk into Schaefer Advertising Company in Fort Worth, Texas (one of our consulting clients) and ask each employee about their company’s culture, you will probably get a slightly different answer from each person on what the culture means to them, but you would almost always hear about how much the employees genuinely care for one another. They all know that culture is their secret sauce.

Still, we in the talent world have been talking about “culture” more and more in the last half-decade. This is a complicated discussion, and true, hardcore businesspeople – who live in the numbers and the financials – don’t always understand it, or they think about it through a different lens than a rank-and-file manager might. On top of this, the people whom we might think would be most responsible for creating culture in our workplaces – HR professionals – often don’t have a seat at the table to make culture a priority. And that is why a consistent definition of what “culture” is and does for a business is so crucial. It unites people around common goals and helps us all see the road ahead of us.

A great way to think about culture in business (and the way we think about it for my business) is the definition first created by MIT Professor Edgar Schein: culture consists of three distinct levels:

  •  Artifacts,
  • Espoused Values, and
  • Basic Underlying Assumptions.


Artifacts are what we, and really anyone, can see with a quick tour of a business. Are the desks open-concept or in closed-off offices? Do employees eat lunch together? What is the dress code? Artifacts can also be memorable events like how a company celebrates birthdays. All artifacts send a statement out to your employees and the public; they show what you value and how you do business.

Espoused Values

Espoused values are the stated values and standards of an organization. These values are often reflected in your mission and vision statements, but they are also what your employees are inferring about the culture from working in their environment. When there are large disparities between what leadership says and employees actually experience, it can be very frustrating and confusing. For example, if your organization has no maternity leave policy and a very rigid schedule, it won’t matter that leadership talks about work-life balance, employees will feel they are being discouraged from starting or being too involved in their families. Management should actively seek to eliminate gaps between espoused values and enacted policies.

Basic Underlying Assumptions

Underlying assumptions are the belief systems behind why a company runs the way it does. Are the obnoxious coworkers who undercut their teammates always getting the promotions? That may be because leadership believes that the ultimate goal of their company is profit above all else and therefore want to reward employees who are equally ruthless. These assumptions create the values and environment of an organization. The levels layer on top of one another to create a company’s culture.

Now, all this said, the point of a for-profit business isn’t to make all employees feel like they are at summer camp every day. The point is to make money. And if business leaders knew how important culture is to financial returns, they would certainly be doing a lot more to develop a strong culture in the workplace.

The Fiscal Tie to Culture

According to Harvard Professor Emeritus James L. Heskett: Half the difference in operating profits between organizations can be tied to culture. Heskett argues an effective culture helps keep people and valuable knowledge in-house. This means processes will run smoother over time and will be easier to scale. And with scale comes revenue growth. Lower recruiting, hiring, and training costs are going to benefit bottom-line metrics too. Conversely, research done by Michigan State University estimates that workplace incivility has an average annual impact on companies of $14,000 per employee due to loss of productivity and work time. The professional coaching company, Bravely, has also done research that showed “lack of alignment within a team” is the leading reason cited by 97% of employees for why work stalls or projects don’t happen or revenue dries up.

When a team member doesn’t pull their own weight, good employees get burnt out making up for it. When bad behavior is ignored or even rewarded, those habits can intensify or spread to other employees. There are countless more anecdotal ties and stories that cannot be instantly analyzed on a row of a balance sheet, but they matter. And many of us inherently realize they matter, but have a hard time prioritizing them week-to-week because of other concerns that are much easier to track or see losses from.

On the flip side, our clients like Schaefer Ad Co. have grown significantly by specifically focusing on culture. We work with their employees to have more transparent conversations and provide meaningful talent development to every employee. When everyone feels invested in, it becomes a powerful force for productivity and growth.

The Importance of Culture at the Upper Levels

In many ways, finding a cultural fit is most important at the upper levels. When looking at executive placements, the aptitude and competence are usually already there – the person has proven success in that industry, similar roles, etc. – and with proper vetting, you can confirm those expectations. But the cultural fit is unique in each case, and the stakes are higher.

Throughout my twenty plus years of working in consulting and executive search, I have seen many fantastic leaders in one role who were complete failures after they moved to a different organization. That doesn’t mean they weren’t an ‘A Player’ to begin with, but it does illustrate just how integral culture is to success in a role and in a business. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard “they were talented, but really not a great fit.”

If you bring in the wrong cultural fit for an upper-level position, it can affect multiple teams within that executive’s span of control, which can affect a large portion of an organization even when it isn’t directly under their control. It’s vital that any new senior leader coming in is aligned with and bought into the concepts that define your culture.

So, how can we get better cultures?

One thing that’s come up in recent years is replacing “cultural fit” with this idea of “enculturability.” What does that mean? Here’s how the researchers who first worked on the concept explain it:

While an employee’s cultural fit at the time of entry was loosely connected with outcomes — those who fit well from the outset tended to perform well — a much more powerful predictor of success was an employee’s ability to recognize and internalize standards. “We find that what predicts who will stay, who will leave, and who will be fired is not so much initial level of cultural fit as much as their trajectory, the degree to which they adapt,” Goldberg says. “There are important differences between individuals insofar as they are capable of reading cultural code and shifting behaviors accordingly.” The authors refer to this malleability as “enculturability.”

In short: you want someone who can recognize the pre-existing standards in your organization and rise to meet them. That’s essentially what “cultural fit” is. Here’s the problem – not everyone can cut through their own individual perceptions to see what kind of culture they are really a part of. We get blinded by our own biases or caught up in external perceptions while attempting to hire for culture. Those are both recipes for bad hires. We have all seen the organization that has all the ‘right’ employment branding but doesn’t truly espouse those values in reality. In truth, what many organizations need is a fresh set of eyes.

That’s where the third-party, external consultant model fits in. At Mackenzie Eason, we offer an unbiased assessment of your company’s culture through interviews, observations, and the utilization of Talent Metrics, a one-of-a-kind, data-driven assessment that measures an organization’s culture as well as the various subcultures that exist. Additionally, we help build stronger cultures by pointing out the areas that aren’t congruent with the direction you want to go and then helping put systems into place to get you on the right track. And when you have a strong internal culture and employment brand, you are then able to attract and find more of the right people as your organization grows.

Finding employees that fit into your business’s culture doesn’t mean that all of those employees are alike. Schaefer touts a diverse staff of creatives and analytical thinkers, veterans and mothers, and millennials and boomers. What they all have in common is a relentless commitment to the values of Schaefer. That is what we should all strive for – an organization full of employees who are ready, willing, and able to get in the boat, grab a paddle, and all steer in the same direction.

Mackenzie Eason is a client-centered Executive Search and Talent Management firm bringing modern search and leadership practices to our clients. We don’t believe in clichés. We believe in actual work, processes, and utilizing the latest research. We would love to work with you to create the kind of culture that will make your business thrive because no matter if it’s hiring, growing, or developing employees… People are the biggest factor in every organization’s success. Our consulting and executive search processes are driven by science and data. Because of what we do, our clients outperform in the market.

Join Darien on October 7, 2020, at the  HR Southwest Conference for his presentation on “How to effectively align your HR strategy with the Organization’s Goals and Strategy.” The HR Southwest Conference is one of the largest human resources events in the nation, delivering educational sessions on the most current, relevant HR topics.

Search firm brings larger pool of candidates

Library leadership: Search firm brings city larger pool of candidates
Rick Mauch FWBP Correspondent
Sep 8, 2017

Everyone knows the popular saying about the third time and charm, and Fort Worth officials are confident they are an example of the aphorism in hiring the city’s new director of libraries, thanks to an adjustment in their search methods.

“We had been disappointed with the results of two previous library director searches,” Assistant City Manager Fernando Costa said. “We had a highly attractive job to offer, but the number and caliber of our candidates hadn’t been commensurate with that opportunity.”

After the previous searches proved disappointing, city officials turned to the firm of Mackenzie Eason & Associates. The city had previously used it in the search for some assistant positions, and now it was time to work with the firm to find the right department head. The result was the hiring of Manya Shorr. Coming from an assistant director’s position in the Washington, D.C., public library system, she succeeded Gleniece Robinson, who retired after leading the Fort Worth Public Library system since 1999.

“Manya Shorr enjoys the respect and admiration of her peers in the library profession who consider her to be among the country’s most thoughtful and innovative library leaders,” Costa said. “She’s a sound manager, a critical thinker and an excellent communicator who will be able to engage our diverse community in creative and effective ways.

“The library world will be changing rapidly in the years ahead, and we believe that Manya is the right person to lead our library system into that future.”

Shorr was the choice out of 148 candidates in a search that covered 89 days. The list was narrowed to 10 finalists and four were interviewed before Shorr was hired.

Darien George, managing partner with Mackenzie Eason, recalled the first time his firm worked with the city.

“Our first search with the city was assistant director of HR [human resources] over talent acquisition and HRIS [human resources information system]. This was an extremely difficult search and we brought a diverse national set of candidates,” George said. That led the city to hire the firm to find candidates for senior accountant positions that had been open for almost two years.

“We filled those so quickly that we then received a MSA [master services agreement] to handle all their executive search. We’ve also done two assistant director of transportation and public works searches, an assistant director of water search, the library director, and we are currently working on the water director search.”

With the library director, a position as a department head, he said some adjustments in the recruiting process were needed. These included

moving the city from a passive approach to actively recruiting candidates, revamping its interviewing and hiring techniques, using new technology in an applicant tracking system, and using assessments on all final candidates.

They also developed a new interview process that featured a one-panel interview, evaluated candidates on an equal playing field to reduce bias, added other interviewing techniques to see a candidate’s potential in the actual job, developed interview questions based on a candidate’s assessments and potential weaknesses, and developed both behavioral and situational questions.

“Mackenzie Eason’s approach was proactive, thorough and thoughtful,” Costa said. “They reached out to prospects who were successful and happy in their jobs, and who weren’t necessarily interested in moving, and persuaded them to consider the possibility of coming to Fort Worth. They conducted detailed interviews and extensive background research for each of the top candidates, and they thoughtfully considered how each candidate’s qualifications might meet our needs.

“Furthermore, knowing that Fort Worth has a distinct culture, they carefully considered how each candidate might fit into our community.”

George said the new approach was “incredibly innovative,” especially for a city government.

“When we first started working with the city, they used the same hiring process that all other municipalities utilize, as well as most private sector companies outside of Fortune 500. The change in hiring process was moving from a passive approach to an active engagement approach,” he said. “Instead of just sending out emails and newsletters and posting positions, we research the top candidates across the nation in both private sector and government, then actively reach out to each and every one of them to pitch the city and the community.

“This new approach has resulted in a much higher level of talent, diversity and new ideas and candidates from the private sector.”

George said businesses can easily apply the same approach when looking for candidates. He said all it takes is an understanding of the implementation of the techniques, which are simple.

“We base all our consulting off our scientifically proven techniques and best practices. We suggest [that] organizations look at implementing these techniques as we’ve seen the talent pool and the perception of the city of Fort Worth increase significantly,” he said.

George said the candidates who weren’t chosen for the library directorship were so impressed with the hiring and interviewing process that they’ve continued to express interest in relocating and working with the city.

“The city of Fort Worth has now positioned itself as an innovative municipality compared to both government and private sector organizations,” he said.

Meanwhile, Costa stressed that the city is happy with both the process and the end result, finding the right candidate, whom he hopes will be around for a long time.

“Fort Worth has been fortunate to have had Dr. Gleniece Robinson as our library director for the past 19 years, and we’re fortunate to have found a successor whom Dr. Robinson enthusiastically endorses,” he said. Shorr was to begin work in Fort Worth in early September.

In Pursuit of Profession: The road to the C-suite

Managing Partner Darien George was recently interviewed by Mark Fadden in the Star-Telegram newspaper.