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“What UDL DOESN’T look like”

Updated: May 16, 2023

Recently, I laid out what UDL could look like, based on the premise of having firm, challenging, measurable goals while allowing for flexible means of demonstrating goal proficiency. This, week, I want to give you a non-example – what UDL absolutely does not look like.

In 2009, in a sunny suburb of Los Angeles, Janine had just finished graduate school with high hopes of becoming a school counselor. Unfortunately, this was just as the Great Recession was depleting the coffers of educational agencies across California. So, she had to look elsewhere for her first opportunity to help others become their best selves. Luckily, there were openings for “Enrollment Advisors” at a private online university with a corporate office nearby.

She was soon hired and hit the ground running, excited to help people find the best program to suit their aspirations. She quickly realized the position was primarily a sales job rather than a true counseling position; however, rather than quit, she decided to stay true to her strengths and approach her work like a counselor, not a salesperson.

Janine’s job worked like this: a person would request more information on the school’s programs by clicking an online ad, responding to an email or commercial, etc. Those enrollment leads would be distributed to the team of enrollment advisers. Most of her colleagues would focus on depleting the queue of potential students to call. They’d call a lead, quickly decide whether it was an easy sale, made or broke a connection, and then moved swiftly on to the next phone number. It was a strategy based on volume, not talk time.

Janine saw things differently. She wanted to call people, not numbers. And she didn’t just call people, she talked to them. And she listened. A lot. She called the fewest people, but she spent more time per call by a wide margin. She helped match people to programs that really fit their strengths and aspirations, and if she didn’t have a program for them, she encouraged them to look elsewhere. She acted in their best interest, treated them as individuals, and it worked. Janine was among the top performers in her office. She was excited about work and felt as though she was making a valuable contribution. In a word, she was engaged.

Janine was operating as an expert learner – she was purposeful and motivated to help both the organization and the customer. She was resourceful and knowledgeable, connecting customer aspirations to organizational offerings. She was strategic and goal directed, leveraging her soft skills to produce results that exceeded expectations. She knew she was using alternative methods to achieve the goal, but she had exceeded expectations and outperformed her peers. Surely that had to count for something.

Not so much.

The organization laid a new process that would guarantee success – sheer volume over talk time. That’s what the industry leader was using as a sales model at the time, and this university wanted to emulate their success. Managers were to enforce this policy without exceptions, regardless of performance.

Though she was generating revenue far above this anticipated baseline, Janine began receiving numerous emails and calls a day, asking why her call volume was so low. Her enthusiasm for her work plummeted. She didn’t want to be a robot – she wanted to help people. Her emotional and physical health suffered.

After several months of harassment and rebuke, it was time for the yearly awards ceremony. Janine, despite her low call volume, enrolled more students than anyone else and expected to be acknowledged for her efforts.

Shortly before the ceremony, her boss called her into her office.

“Janine, I’m sorry, but the executives from corporate are here, and I can’t give you the award in front of them. You’re not following the format that they put their names on and, frankly, they don’t want your results to cause the CEO to call their process into question. So. I’m giving it to the second-highest performer.”

Janine quit her job that same day. About a year later, she read an article about how the industry leader was shifting their sales strategy to focus on meaningful connection rather than sheer volume. Apparently, they discovered that there was more than one way of generating sales. I would love to have been a fly on the wall when Janine’s former employers found out her method was now being adopted by their biggest competitor, the leader they were trying to emulate.

..they took their highest performer, and the revenue she generated, and drove them both out the door.

Janine’s leaders set firm goals with no flexibility. In fact, it’s worse than that, because the means WAS the goal. It didn’t matter that she outperformed everyone AND made the customers happy in the process. This is an example of the environment that can negatively impact engagement and the folly of valuing process over performance. They systematically attacked her emotional commitment to her work. Ultimately, they took their highest performer, and the revenue she generated, and drove them both out the door.

There are lessons here. If we honor people’s individual knowledge and skills, provide guidance that fosters ingenuity instead of rigid compliance, and let them take real ownership of their work, we will see people who are engaged in their work. If we support people to be their best selves in their work, the individual and the organization can win. If we stay inflexible, demand one-right-way of operating, we sacrifice their ingenuity, their loyalty, and their ability to surpass expectations, all in an attempt to people-proof the work.

I remember the day that Janine called to tell me she quit.

Why’d she call me?

Because she’s my wife:)

A man holds a woman around the waist from behind - both look at the camera.

The author and his wife, Janine, in 2009

James McKenna

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Headshot for James McKenna

I'm James

I love to learn, and l love to help others do the same. I write, I appear on podcasts, and sometimes speak at conferences. I share content here and hope you'll find it helpful. 

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