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Leadership thoughts from PeopleFirst HR

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Communicating Change

Transactional Model of Communication

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Whether it’s telling employees that there will be no increases for the third year in a row or dare I say it health insurance changes are going to take place, there seems to be no break in the information that needs to be communicated to employees.

So, if employees expect constant change, why do they take it so hard? Because when it comes to communicating changes to employees, companies don’t do it very well.

It’s not that companies don’t care or don’t try; it’s just that when you are dealing with decisions that affect human value systems, emotions run high. In those situations, it’s hard to get the right message through. Good communication, then, becomes the dynamite that breaks down those barriers. And it’s what employees want most in times of change.

Employees want and need to trust the management of their organization. Work is still a place of structure for people, and when that reliability is shaken, when things change, there is a natural anxiety. Keeping workers in the loop is essential to keeping their trust.

If you know there are going to be a number of changes in the company, it’s much better to let employees know as much as you can as soon as you can. Prepare them. If you are going to be changing benefits, don’t just cut one, and then a few months later reduce another, and then a month later make changes to a third.

The slow drip approach tends to create more anxiety and a sense of mistrust in employees. So, what happens is, not only are you telling people they are losing a benefit they have come to expect, but you are also creating an expectation of ‘Oh, what’s next?’ It ends up building up levels of dissatisfaction that spill over into productivity.

Many times the organization doesn’t know all the details or have all the answers, but if communication has been up-front and honest, employees generally have more confidence in management’s ability to work through the change effectively.   It’s imperative, however, that you give them specific time frames for when and how they will receive more information.

Certainly, companies sometimes have excellent reasons for withholding information. For instance, public companies may be under specific disclosure requirements for announcements such as mergers or layoffs. The key is to let the information flow as soon as you can.

Another key to providing good communications, especially during times of transition or change is to develop a communication strategy before you need it.  A guideline for communicating different types of information with your employees. This reduces the anxiety of deciding how and what to communicate and allows you to focus on getting the right information out at the right time.  Remember, if you don’t provide a place for employees to get information, rumor mills will fill the void.

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Hard To Find Skills

I was at a leadership meeting recently and we were talking about recruiting issues. Some individuals were mentioning that despite unemployment numbers, they still had a hard time finding the right people for some critical positions that were open. And it wasn’t a question of technique, or pay or anything along those lines. It’s a situation where they just couldn’t find the right skill set. On the job training was certainly an option, but who has time for that anymore.  Workers in general do more with less these days and many managers have their own jobs to do in addition to managing, mentoring and retaining their existing employees.

So let’s say you’ve got one of these positions where there are a very limited number of people qualified for the role. You’re spending millions of recruiting dollars and you’re still falling short. What’s the solution?

Some recruiters would say devote more budget and more energy into recruiting.  At some point this can turn into diminishing returns.

How about looking at the broader picture? Maybe it is time to do a lock down on your retention efforts. Every person you lose not only means another search; it means a person with institutional knowledge leaving the workplace.

We all know in tough times training and education seem to be the first to go.  I am of the philosophy that in tough times training and education are essential in keeping employees engaged and motivated.  A little time out to learn or refine a skill and share experiences with peers is an effective way for a company to demonstrate that skills are important and they want to keep their employee skills strong.

All employers have people interested in moving into new roles but they may not have the skills they need. You can make it as easy for them move up by offering training classes, and education incentives.

Maybe it’s time for those companies that can’t recruit the skill set they’re looking for to consider: external programs; working with colleges, scholarships, adult educators.  Some of the positions and jobs that existed a decade ago don’t exist today and vice versa, so why not partner with a local technical college or a university to develop skills sets need in the employees you have or those that have the ability and want to learn. 

I can think of many success stories but would love to hear how others are developing and strengthening skill sets in their organizations.

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The Danger of Blind Spots

Feedback Marketing Directo e Interactivo

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Our greatest liability is the one we are unaware of.  You must first know the enemy before you can conquer it.  Regardless of how well we know ourselves, most of us have personal and professional blind spots.  Characteristics others see about us, but we do not see about ourselves.   A blind spot is any situation where our perception about ourselves is different from the reality.

For example, an individual who thinks he is a great listener, but everyone else knows he will not stop talking.  Another example may be a supervisor who feels her team is provides excellent customer service, but in reality other teams have created “work arounds” to avoid dealing with them.  The problems that arise from blind spots can be challenging for leaders and those around them and can lead to dysfunctional behaviors.

The higher a leader is in an organization, the more his/her information is filtered.  In other words, the higher the leader, the more organizational blind spots he/she is susceptible to.  As a result, leaders can mistakenly believe their teams possess the skills and competencies necessary to execute a particular plan, when in fact they do not.  Focus and passion will certainly take your team a long way, but competence is essential.

The best way to identify your blind spot is to ask for, and listen to feedback about you and your team.  Once you identify your blind spots you can begin to create processes, systems and measurements that enable your team to consistently perform well.

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Navigating through a new company

Getting ahead in your career isn’t just about understanding your business and mastering your daily tasks. You also need to learn your office’s informal networks, the personality clashes and synergies among your co-workers. How do you learn these things if they’re not in the orientation and new hire paperwork you received your first day? Through mentors, of course. To make the mentoring as painless as possible for office new hires, Tough Guide to Work recently offered three common mentoring pitfalls and how to avoid them. 

  • Searching for ‘the one’ Obi Wan. Gandalf. Dumbledore. Watching movies and reading fiction gives us the deep impression that we should be seeking some prodigious figure in our professional lives. Instead we end up having coffee with an exhausted executive who as it turns out has a couple of good ideas and a bunch of neuroses. We expect one person to embody everything we want to become, advise on all areas of our work and life and then it turns out instead we’ve been paired with a human being instead. How unfair. Instead of seeking one perfect mentor, I strongly advocate getting a “Board of Advisors”. Seek out a selection of mentors who can offer guidance on a specific topic. Want great advice on work-life balance, career goals, navigating politics, professional growth, building a network, influencing senior management? It’s unlikely that you will find one genius that gives you everything.
  • Needing to make it official: Senior executives I have spoken to say that they fear the junior employee who asks them to be their mentor. They worry that they don’t have the time, that it will involve having to go for long dinners in trendy places with loud music. They’d prefer to be playing tennis, or spending time with their friends and family. Some of the best mentoring I have had has been in the backs of taxis, during small talk at the end of work meetings and at friend’s weddings at drinks before the long dinner. The other person probably doesn’t see it as mentoring, just a friendly conversation with a younger person. The key here is to remember to ask for informal advice. Try this: “In your experience, what mistakes do you see people like me make?” or how about “What career advice would you have for someone like me?”.
  • Confusing mentors and sponsors. Mentors offer “psychosocial” support for personal and professional development, plus career help that includes advice and coaching. On the other hand, sponsors actively advocate for your advancement. They give protégés exposure to other executives, they make sure their people are considered for promising opportunities and challenging assignments.

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Attitude Impact

The first habit in Steven Covey’s book; The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is “Be Proactive”.  In his book Mr. Covey says that being proactive is about taking responsibility for your life. He writes that our life doesn’t just “happen;” that whether we know it or not, our lives are designed by none other than ourselves.  He goes on to say that we make our own choices.  We choose happiness. We choose sadness. We choose decisiveness. We choose ambivalence, courage, fear and numerous other things.  He tells us that we make new choices in every moment and every situation, and in doing so, we have an opportunity to do things differently to produce more positive results. 

I am reminded this week how this first habit can impact your life.  In seemingly the same situation those who made a conscious decision  to be happy and not feel angry or hurt any longer, seem to weather the storms in their lives so much better. 

For me it really comes to light when you interact with someone everyday and sometimes secretly wish you had their life, mostly because they are so happy and have no problem or a care in the world.  Life for them seems like a fairytale.  Come on admit it, you have dealt with this feeling at some point in your life.  More amazing is when you somehow learn this individual has had not one or two but several catastrophic events in their life, and some they are still dealing with.  Yet they never once gave you or anyone else around them an indication that they were upset or life wasn’t fair, etc.

We’ve all been there, a situation we didn’t expect that turns our world upside down.  And I for one wish I always reacted positively and constructively, afraid not, but trying. Yet when I witness individuals like this, I am inspired and I commend them for their sense of humility and courage, as well as their desire to be the creative force of their life rather than being the victim to current circumstances.    When we experience painful situations it’s hard to gain the self-awareness to choose to be positive.  But I will say it does give you a sense of freedom, rather than surrender.

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Avoiding Difficult Discussions

Monitoring and Control project activities

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How many of you haven’t been guilty from time to time of allowing problems to go on, hoping they would somehow fix themselves. 

I had a conversation with my friend Jim this past week.  Jim is a CEO for a midsize firm.  Jim told me he was really aggravated with his executive team.  He said it didn’t matter how many learning programs he and his HR staff introduced to the company, the results only lasted for a few months and then things were back to missed deadlines, sales not closing the way he expected, and staff just being complacent.  I asked Jim about the types of programs he had launched.  He explained one was a leadership program, another was a personality assessment that helped employees work better together, another was based on project management, and many more over a 4 year period.  I asked what made him select those programs and what goals he was hoping to achieve for the organization. He said accountability and follow-through. “I’m just tired of the lack of accountability”.  I asked Jim if he was referring to everyone on his team or just one or two individuals.  He said it started out as just one, but now it seemed to include a few more.  As we spoke Jim realized that he had never really addressed it one on one with the first employee.  His way of addressing it was during executive meetings, and most of those times he would just reprimand the entire team.    I told Jim that in my experience this happens a lot and as a general rule the path of least resistance is avoidance.  In this case Jim was looking to external training and peer pressure to fix the problem.

Having a tough discussion with one of your employees is one of the most daunting tasks that any manager faces.  In Jim’s case this particular employee had been with him a long time and was very loyal to Jim.  However, as Jim’s company grew, this employee didn’t.  It doesn’t make him bad; it just makes the needs of the organization different from the employee’s capability or even desire.  But by not taking action, Jim created a disconnect between what he was saying and his actions. 

Jim was frustrated with the lack of accountability, but he was essentially doing exactly the same thing by not addressing the issue specifically with those responsible.  His action sent a message to the entire team that nothing was going to change except maybe a new learning initiative.  Even the less senior staff began to minimize the value of training initiatives because they knew it would only last a short time.

Jim thought that by bringing in various training and educational initiatives, this employee would get the message.  However, when it didn’t, the cycle of no action repeated itself. 

My suggestion to Jim was to take the time and write down the specific concerns, behaviors, examples and timeline.  Developing an outline helps managers stay focused on the key issues or behaviors that need to be addressed, while also beginning the process of developing next steps.

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Acquiring Wisdom

Acquiring Wisdom from the Lessons of Life: The following post was written by Steve Weitzenkorn, Ph.D.  Steve is a learning innovator, organizational advisor, experienced facilitator, and lead author of Find-Fulfill-Flourish: Discover Your Purpose with LifePath GPS. 

 After reading Steve’s message I am reminded of how our experiences (bad and good) can grow us in our lives and in our careers.  And although we can sometimes try to guide others by sharing our experiences, it is really only through their own experiences that they really grow.  I hope you enjoy this as much as I did. 

Three weeks before she died and knew she did not have long to live, Lily Winner, my grandmother, wrote a very touching letter to my father who was attending college in a different city. This was in October, 1940. In passing along her parting thoughts to him, she wrote, “The most difficult thing for parents to learn is that they cannot pass along their wisdom, if they have acquired any, to their children. Experience has little reality unless it is your own.” I have learned the truth of these words though my own experiences as a parent.

So how do we acquire wisdom? Some writers and philosophers believe that study, reflection, and education are the keys. Others suggest having a great mentor or coach. Certainly these can help.

However, I know some well-educated and very smart people who also have very poor judgment and do not seem very wise to me. On the other hand, some of the wisest people I’ve met have ordinary jobs and relatively little education. What they have is a wealth of experience. They have learned from some of the hard lessons of life. Their wisdom evolved from their personal struggles, trial and error, setbacks and incremental successes. By taking action, solving problems, making mistakes, experimenting, and experiencing the consequences of their actions they learned many life lessons. They learned what works and what doesn’t, and how to avoid self-induced misfortune. Through the accumulation of these experiences, they grew, improved, and changed, developing wisdom in the process. I believe that is how all of us do, no matter how much formal education we may have. The key is to learn from experience and to apply those lessons to similar challenges.

If you have children I imagine you feel very blessed. You probably also feel their pain as they have their ups and downs, successes and setbacks, and make mistakes you know are easily avoidable. And if your experience is anything like mine, you know that much of the advice you offer seems to goes in one ear and out the other. Our children must learn though the realty of their own life experiences – both good and bad.

The good news is that most of them do learn. And most interestingly and thankfully, far more of what parents advise is actually absorbed than seems apparent at the time it’s offered. The internalization occurs when our children or students connect it with their own experiences and the real-life consequences of their actions — often well after guidance has been provided and they have tried things their own way. That’s when they recognize it as wisdom, even if they do not use that term.

How much they actually learn and internalize from the combination of personal experience and wise advice can be seen in how they handle new challenges and situations. That is the true test of whether they are developing their own wisdom. It’s is a life-long process for all of us.

Take a few moments to ponder the life lessons you have learned and how they made you wiser. How can that wisdom be exercised in valuable ways?

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Is Your Ship Adrift?

Paris Exposition: ship, Paris, France, 1900

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As a leader, your team sees you as the captain of the ship.  Your team needs you to provide focus, direction and clarity.   However, the pressures of daily demands can force you to switch between various strategies or look for quick fixes to problems.  Giving in to these pressures can diffuse your teams focus.

Leader’s’ inconsistency leaves team members questions who is piloting the ship and in which direction it is going.  Inconsistency is, in essence, the anti-focus.  Employees wonder “why should I put the effort into this when something else will be the priority next week?”  Inconsistent focus is one of the quickest ways to undermine your credibility with your team.

So, what’s the solution for improved adherence and higher achievement? 

  • As captain of your team, set your course and stick to it.  Your business goal may be providing defect-free products; providing the fast service available; developing leading edge products; or creating long-term lasting customer relationships, etc. It doesn’t matter what it is, but this focus should be the guide to all your decisions and actions. I am not saying that from time to time the plan doesn’t have to be slightly altered based on customer needs, economic changes and so on.  But clearly communicate your change of course to all.
  • Surround yourself with competent people who are not afraid to push back on you and ask tough questions.  People who are willing to risk an uncomfortable moment for the sake of the entire group’s success are invaluable to you as the leader. 
  • Don’t be tempted to take on the latest trend or respond to a perceived business need or threat without examining all the facts as well as the long-term impact of your ultimate business goal. 

One important way to demonstrate your direction with clarity is to say “no” to activities that do not support your ultimate goal.  When planning your organization or team activities, create a “Stop Doing List” in addition to all the new work you must perform to execute your plan.  Identify those activities, tasks, reports, and meetings etc. that do not support your goals.  If you can’t remember the goal of the task, it’s probably not that important.  Interestingly, your “Stop Doing List” may have a bigger impact on your teams’ ability to focus on the list of “To Do’s”. 

The ultimate competitive advantage, organizationally or personally, is being the very best at implementing a plan.  Your greatest challenge is not creating a new plan.  Your greatest challenge is adhering to your current plan.

“If you don’t know where you’re going you will probably end up somewhere else.” 

 Laurence J. Peter.