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Leadership thoughts from PeopleFirst HR

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HR – Are you the Management Advisor or the Surrogate Manager?

A friend of mine who is the head HR for a multi-location 3,000+ employee company gave me some feedback on my July 14th blog concerning the power of knowledge as it relates to the Human Resources profession. She (I’ll call her Angie) explained how frustrated she felt as she read it. She described her day as having been particularly hectic and, at the end of the day sought out my blog for some inspiration and motivation, but that instead it frustrated her. As she read it, she couldn’t help thinking how hard it can be to even get to ‘the table’ much less find a seat, when you are consumed with extinguishing the fires created largely by those who are at the table. Having been there myself, I could certainly empathize with her. Too often HR serves as the surrogate manager – acting on behalf of the manager when the heat is on to make a tough, risky decision. There are lots of reasons this happens and occasionally they are legitimate. However, for the most part, HR acts for the manager because we think it will take too much time to teach and guide the manager through owning the resolution. Our intentions are always good – we usually move in to protect the company against a potentially serious and costly mistake. No doubt, our actions are driven in part by self-preservation, since HR will likely have to face bigger problems arising from a manager’s failure to completely and properly resolve the problem. Inevitably, however, doing the manager’s ‘dirty work’ simply results in HR doing more and more dirty work, while managers lose an important opportunity to grow and learn. And, of course, there’s that seat at the table….yours..the one that goes unfilled while you do someone else’s job. Angie’s company is growing rapidly – an enviable problem to have in this tough economic climate. The company has hired or promoted several new managers and directors. Angie has quickly gained the respect of her colleagues by her responsiveness and skill in dealing with tough issues quickly and effectively. However, some of her peers have begun to forfeit their management responsibility and by sending their employees directly to Angie when problems arise rather than dealing with the problems either directly or seeking out Angie’s advice on how to deal with the problem. When this cycle begins it’s usually not a big deal. In fact, if we’re honest with ourselves, sometimes it’s even flattering. But, with several new managers, limited training and a rapid rate of change and growth, it can quickly become a bad habit – one which we helped create and which we also must break. I suggested to Angie that she meet with her colleagues, explain her role and encourage them to tap into her expertise (knowledge) to help them increase their effectiveness as leaders. Importantly, she must also convince them that neither her value to the company nor their future growth potential is well served by her acting in their place. Rather, is her knowledge and ability to be a strong support partner combined with their courage in stepping up to the plate during tough times that will yield the greatest return for the company – and for their careers. So, if you find yourself frustrated and distressed at being left behind to do the manager’s job, ask yourself how much of the issue you are responsible for creating, and what can you do to change it? You’ve got the knowledge, and therefore the power to turn this situation around – and empower the managers to learn and grow.

I would love to hear from HR leaders who successfully turned this situation around in their organization.

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“Downsizing” Can it be done right?

“Downsizing” is a familiar term in many organizations today.  Regardless of the size of your organization or the impact to the number of employees, it generates fear and anxiety for not only those losing their jobs, but also those who remain.  So what sets some organizations apart?  Why do some employees who have lost their jobs during a downsizing event stay positive about the company who just let them go?  Why does another employee condemn their former company every chance they get. 

My experience has been that companies who take the crucial extra time to carefully consider their decision, thoughtfully plan out all the details of before, during and after and ensure skillful implementation can make a difference in how an affected employee reacts to the circumstances, but just as important how the remaining employees view the organization and perceive their future.

Let’s face it no formal business training really prepares managers for the task of terminating an employee. So as with all fears, once a decision is made we want to get it over with, so we can move on.  These are emotions we must move past to enable managers and other leaders to more effectively balance the human needs of the terminated individuals with the business needs of the company and remaining employees moving forward.

Every downsizing event has some predictable outcomes such as feelings of betrayal, loss of trust, turf battles, and cynicism about the corporation’s future.

But downsizing can also bring significant opportunities for leaders to create new energy and enthusiasm which often goes unrecognized.  If thought out and planned organizations can take the event to reaffirm its vision of the future.  To establish a revitalized culture which rewards individual and team initiatives and creates new alliances across departments and divisions.

Gaining the confidence of those that stay behind requires a sense of closure concerning any mistakes of the past. Management must identify any mistakes that could have increased the risk of a downsizing, take responsibility for them, and address them in a way which assures employees they will not happen again. This requires personal integrity as expressed through candor, honesty, and directness.

In downsizing, it is incumbent upon a corporation to affirm, in practice, the importance of its employees. This can be expressed through considerate treatment of those who are leaving and through a renewed commitment to the professional growth of those who remain.

I would really appreciate hearing your experiences of what companies could do to mitigate the negative effects of downsizing for those who remain.

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Emotional Intelligence – Does it mean grow up

Emotional intelligence (EI) is pretty popular these days.  It describes the ability, capacity, skill or, in the case of the trait EI model, a self-perceived grand ability to identify, assess, manage and control the emotions of one’s self, of others, and of groups.  There are many possible definitions of emotional intelligence, and many definitions can be found on the Internet.

My theory is when we start out as children we learn how to get attention, be cute, and cry when we’re hurt or hungry. The Teenage years are a little harder; not sure if for the kids or the parents, but that is a different discussion. As for becoming an adult, many of us work on it for decades and it can be a slow process. Everything gets harder as you get older, and becoming a good manager is no exception.

In fact, becoming a good manager is harder than all of those other phases combined. Why? Because, it not only depends on how much of an adult you’ve become, but here it comes, emotional intelligence plays a big part.  First as adults we need to understand our emotions and how we react, we then need to manage our emotions to make sure our thought process is clear and perceive emotions in others and why they react to things.  All pretty complicated.

So, for all you relatively new, aspiring managers, and for those supposedly seasoned veterans who are honest enough with themselves to admit that they’re still trying to figure it out, here are three relatively critical but not necessarily intuitive tips I’ve learned by trial and lots of blunders along the way.

Try to act like a mature adult. As I alluded to above, the best managers are those rare individuals who actually behave like mature adults. What does that mean? It means being as honest, comfortable, and empathetic with your own issues and shortcomings as you are with your strengths and skills. Only then can you do the same for others, and that’s what good managers do.

Do the work – hands on. Work your tail off learning the basics of your business and industry, whatever that is, while you still can – before you get promoted and lose the opportunity. Why? No matter how smart you are, that’s the only way to get hands-on experience that will bring about respect from employees and help you to make effective management decisions down the road.

Become adept at 5 things: business communication, negotiating, presenting, finance and selling.

Communicating. Great managers are also great communicators; it’s a critical success skill. Unfortunately, they don’t teach you about business communications in school.

Negotiating. Negotiation skills are critical to resolving conflicts, driving consensus among peers and other key constituents, and developing your own career.

Presenting. It’s hard to imagine your career going anywhere unless you can deliver an effective presentation. Unfortunately, most of us aren’t born with the presentation gene.

Finance. I don’t care if you manage engineering, HR, IT, sales, whatever, you need to learn about finance. Why? Because that’s how companies are run and how business works. Can’t argue here.

Selling. To sell your own programs internally you have to learn how to open doors, help constituents and peers to make informed decisions, and close deals.

I would really appreciate hearing your examples of how you’ve used the EI model in your organization or role.   What worked and what did not? Why?


Knowledge is Power

The origin of the quote “Knowledge is Power’ has been attributed, in various forms, to many powerful and wise people for centuries. It’s a quote with amazing staying power and for good reason …it’s true.  At least it’s true in the world of Human Resources.  In fact, in my opinion, knowledge is the key differentiator between those HR professionals who have a seat at the table and those who do not.   Not HR knowledge—we’re expected to have that.  Business knowledge  – that’s the currency HR people must have to earn the credibility to influence the direction of the company.

I have found that the most successful HR professionals gain the business knowledge and use that knowledge to benefit the organization.  They work with members of the leadership team to strategize on issues that impact an organization.  They absolutely can’t do this if they do not have the business knowledge.  Sometimes this involvement isn’t as welcome as one might think.  But good leadership involves responsibility to the welfare of the group, which means that some people may get uncomfortable if or when HR gets involved.  But if it’s part of the culture you help create because of the respect you’ve gained and the value you provide it becomes a given.  I find that typically those that are uncomfortable with the HR function fall into three categories.

1.      Those that don’t really know what HR you can do for them.

Well, it’s your job to demonstrate what you can do for them.  Share past experiences/successes. Schedule time to understand their business as well as their people struggles.  Offer to help them with an issue. Step out of the box.

2.      Those who lack confidence in their leadership ability, or just can’t lead….and it shows.

Every organization has one or more of these individuals.  However, HR’s responsibility is to the Company and its people, not just one manager.  If your standard operating procedure is understanding the business you support and its people, and your CEO recognizes that, this one is easy.  Do I hear bulldozer?

3.      Those that don’t respect the HR role because HR hasn’t demonstrated their business knowledge and value.

This one is our own fault.  As HR professionals we need to wake up to the harsh reality that while we are committed to people, we also need to be committed to the financial impact of those people.  In order to gain a voice and be respected as a peer, you must know all the aspects of the business.  This is up to you.  Sure it is going to take time, but think of the knowledge you’ll have gained in the process.  Think about it.  How can you gain respect from the CFO if you don’t know how to read a balance sheet or don’t understand how revenue recognition works.  Cost impact and return on investment are fundamentals to any successful conversation with your CFO, CEO or other competent executive.

Being around corporate executives longer than I wish to admit, I have found that even given a seat at the table some HR Professionals don’t use their voice wisely.  Yes, HR is about the people, but the people can’t be supported if the HR professional isn’t heard at the table.  Those HR Professionals that seem to be the right hand to the CEO are the ones that made it their business to know the business.

Your thoughts and comments are always welcome

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HR Integrate vs. Administrate

Back in January Charlie Judy, HRFishbowl, asked for posts for his blog, HR Trench entitled Integrate vs. Administrate.

Well I didn’t have my Blog back then, but was so impressed with the response provided by Steve Browne, Executive Director of Human Resources for LaRosa’s Pizza that I saved it.  I reviewed it again yesterday and still think Steve hits the nail on the head when differentiating being happy in your HR role or Not.

Steve wrote:  I know too many HR folks who are miserable in what they do as a profession.

In looking at this, I had to ask myself the question – “Why are they miserable and I’m not ??”

The answer was pretty clear only because of how I have been encouraged and “allowed” to perform at my Company.  About a year ago, my boss, the COO, asked me to draw a picture of what HR should be at our company.  I honestly was a little baffled because he literally wanted a picture of what I’d like HR to be.  After some deep reflection, and many cups of coffee, I came up with a picture and went back to present it to him.

I followed the “before and after” model that you see in those weight loss commercials because I wanted to express how HR was being utilized now and what it should be.  The “before” model showed every department as silos – including HR.  HR was only used if, and when, people needed it primarily for administrative tasks or employee relations problems that were now teetering on legal action.  In contrast, the “after” model took HR and spread it in a row that spanned all of the departments.  I explained that HR should be integrated throughout all departments and levels of the company because all of them have humans!!

Seems simple, but it worked.  He agreed that HR should be integrated vs. administrative.  Strategic on a regular basis vs. processing paperwork.

This frees me every day knowing that HR is expected to be integrated to move the Company forward.  I wish HR professionals everywhere would follow an “integrated” approach!!  If they did, they would see that the “trench” that we’re in is actually very cool and exciting!!

Thanks guy’s for reminding us we are in a great profession full of so much potential.

LaRosa’s has been in business for over 50 years, and has 63 locations in the Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana region.  Steve has the daunting task of building and maintaining an environment and career experience that keeps LaRosa’s employees engaged in this highly competitive multi-location business.  You can follow Steve on Twitter and follow Charlie Judy on 

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Coaching vs. Counseling

When you think about the word coach, many of us get the image of a sports coach leading a team to improve and win the game. This is not unlike how the term is used in the business world. A manager becomes a coach when they not only lead their team but provide an environment that supports constant learning, development, and performance improvement. A coach is interested in the performance of their business and understands that to continue to achieve great results, the development of his/her employees is key.  While a coach is always striving to obtain consistent performance improvement from each employee on their team, there are situations where coaching the right behaviors is not the right approach.  Not all employees are equally skilled or equally motivated. For those employees who choose not to perform a different approach is needed. The key word is choice, because these employees are making a choice not to perform within expectations, our approach also needs to be adjusted to target the behavior that is being seen. This situation is when a manager needs to change their approach from one of a coach to one of a counselor.

While a coach strives to provide tools and resources to help already motivated employees to improve upon their skills and achieve a performance improvement, when a manager must provide counseling there isn’t a skill issue but a will issue. Counseling an employee reflects that the employee is making a choice not to perform or to meet the set expectations and is a more directive conversation in regards to the immediate need for a course correction. In these performance Counseling discussions the manager doesn’t provide resources for the employee to focus on performance improvement, he/she outlines the issue and the expectation of immediate behavior change. For example:

The manager meets with a team member who just finished working on a presentation for a new customer.  Having met with this employee several times the manager recognizes the improvements made with each new presentation.  The manager acknowledges the hard work and improvements.  The manager also asks questions and/or provides thought-provoking comments and suggestions to continue to improve upon a good quality presentation, but also to continue coaching this employee becoming better each time. 

The manager meets with a team member who just finished working on a presentation for a new customer.  Having met with this employee several times the manager recognizes this employee uses the same template each time and during several past meetings the manager has had to address spelling errors and obvious customer related information not changed from the last presentation.  At this point it becomes a counseling session.  The manager must clearly define the expectations related to presentations going forward.  The manager must also detail what happens if the expectations are not met within a specific timeframe.

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It’s not what you say, but how you say it.

In the last two years I bet you have heard a manager (maybe yours) or another organizational leader make the statement, “You should feel lucky you have a Job”, especially in group meetings when an employee or group of employees is criticizing or protesting against a company change or event.  Maybe you’ve said it yourself out of frustration.  And although I believe that we all should be grateful when we have a good job and opportunities to grow in what we do every day.  This statement sends a very demeaning message to all who are present.  Instead of dealing with an employee concern a leader ignores the issue and extinguishes any remaining discussion by making a negative statement.

Unfortunately, some in leadership positions have never really been trained in dealing with the people side of the business, which is the most challenging I might add.  It’s much easier to avoid the issues and this example is a perfect avoidance technique.

What if the manager said something like:

You Know, I see your point, during these tough times we have to do things a little different and sometimes the logic isn’t clear to us.  I certainly feel good that I still have an opportunity to be employed and voice my opinion about work changes.  Let me get a little more background on this specific change so that I can better explain the reasoning behind it and we can explore how to make it work for us. 


You know times are tough right now and our company is doing everything possible to maintain a solid foundation for all of us.  That means we may have to do things differently from time to time.  If you have a specific idea or suggestion that may help us deal with this change lets discuss it after the meeting.

I guess this also goes back to “it’s not what you say, but how you say it”.

So the next time you have a meeting and someone challenges a change or brings up an issue, there are other ways to keep your meeting focused and still demonstrate respect for the person who was brave enough to voice an opinion.

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Good Communicator! Listening is a must!

We all know that competent skill sets and experience are always important when companies are making hiring or promotional decisions, However, having good communication skills can be the ultimate verdict in hiring and promoting someone.

In those instances where two or three individuals of similar skills interview for the same position, it’s been shown that the individual who is often extended the offer is the one who communicates the best. In fact, there are times that an individual with a lesser skill set will get the position simply because of his or her communication abilities.  So, how does one become a good communicator?  There are some key elements that go into being a good communicator.

First of all it takes time, effort and practice.  In today’s world where everyone is moving very quickly, an effective communicator needs to develop the quality of also being a good listener. 

You must take a sincere interest in what others have to say, regardless if you find the information boring or irrelevant. Unfortunately, what sometimes happens to all of us is that we anticipate what the other person is going to say and start working on our response early in a conversation.  Ironically, this action can sometimes precede a brilliant idea and yet it is completely lost during the conversation. 

Good communicators know taking the time to ask the right questions and really listen to the answers is never time wasted. Do you communicate more respectfully with top-level executives than you do your peers? Are your communication abilities influenced at all by whether or not the person you’re communicating with can help YOU? Are your motivations to communicate influenced by how much money a potential customer has to pay you? If so, it might be time to rethink your motivations.

Making others feel special is at the core of successful communication. When others feel validated and heard, they usually respond in kind. It’s the old reciprocity idea: If you treat me well, I’ll treat you well. Good communicators pick up on the little things that are important to others and remember important dates, events, and names.  It takes practice!

Good communicators take the time to take the time. Do you hurry others along when they speak because you have more important things to do? Do you stare at your computer screen or smart phone when others are talking to you, assuring the other person that you’re really listening? Studies have shown that if there’s a contradiction between one’s words and one’s actions, the truth is perceived to lie in the actions. Make sure your nonverbal communication isn’t contradicting your good verbal intentions.

Because work environments change on a regular basis, part of being a good communicator involves being flexible. Your ability to make decisions that are well thought out and based on fact, not simply speculation or emotion, will be recognized as a valuable asset. If you need more information before you can move forward, ask for it. If you’re confused by what you hear, ask for clarification. Make no assumption that asking for something makes you look foolish or stupid. Good communicators ask a lot of questions and then take action toward goals that will benefit both themselves and others. Remember: We are all works in progress. By taking incremental steps to improve your communication effectiveness, you’ll reap long-term professional and personal rewards.

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Creating a Culture of Engagement: The Human Resource Leader’s New Strategic Role

Tom Roth, President of Global Solutions Group, Wilson Learning, Edina, Minn. was the presenter at this year’s SHRM annual conference.  His session was titled Creating a Culture of Engagement: The Human Resources Leader’s New Strategic Role.   He focused on the intimate connection between employee satisfaction and engagement and customer satisfaction and retention.   For all Company’s and especially in tough times it’s critical to acquire new customers while keeping the old ones coming back. But to build loyalty, companies need to engage their customers with great experiences. This requires a high level of employee commitment to customers and the company.

 Quick hits from the session

  • There are five keys to employee engagement. They include the quality of the relationship with your manager, meaningful work, development opportunities, cooperation with coworkers, and the level of trust at work. Speaking of trust…
  • High levels of distrust are causing a rift between employer/employee. Mr. Roth quoted some research showing the high level of distrust/disconnect between employees and employers. The gist of it? A high percentage of people don’t think leaders laid off workers due to economy, but they did to it due to ulterior motives.
  • The real definition of culture. The stock definition of culture involves the shared beliefs and behaviors of a group. The business application of that is the set of behavioral patterns in the workplace that is encouraged by leadership. That gets us around to corporate values statements and places a strong responsibility on leaders to encourage the behaviors that support their value system.
  • What problems do executives see with engagement? Mr. Roth said that a major issue for the C-suite is the lack of consistency in how organizational leaders are approaching engagement. Another problem is that they want to work on engaging employees, but they don’t know how to make it happen.
  • Tell your own story. One of the exercises in the session required participants to think of the person in their lives who embodies the “ideal” leader. Participants shared some of the qualities about that person that makes them such a powerful figure to them.
  • What sort of culture do effective leaders create? Leaders establish a culture that places emphasis on the elements of opportunity, personal accountability, validation, inclusion, and community.

The Service Profit Chain is a simple proven philosophy that sets businesses apart.  If you take care of your employees they in turn will be good to your customers, which will drive customer satisfaction, retention and new business.