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Leadership thoughts from PeopleFirst HR

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Leave procrastination behind you in 2011

As we start the New Year on Saturday leave procrastination behind by trying these no-nonsense, research-tested suggestions by Joseph Ferrari. Joseph R. Ferrari has spent his professional life studying procrastination. In 1985 as a student at Adelphi University in Garden City, NJ he took a class called “Self-defeating Behaviors.” He asked his teacher if procrastination had ever been studied in-depth, and she said she thought so, but wasn’t sure. He investigated and discovered that no one had taken a serious, thorough look at the subject, so he decided to tackle it himself.

Twenty-five years later, a Ph.D. in experimental psychology and dozens of academic studies and articles behind him, Ferrari is a psychology professor at DePaul University in Chicago, and has published a book titled Still Procrastinating? The No-Regrets Guide to Getting It Done.

Ferrari says everybody procrastinates, but not everyone is a procrastinator. “A procrastinator is someone who habitually and consistently delays tasks,” he explains. That’s about 20% of the population. He recommends that hardcore procrastinators read his book and get some help.

But, for the rest of us, who engage in occasional delaying tactics, lateness or putting off until tomorrow what we know we should do today, Ferrari suggests the following: keep a to-do list, and update it often. Set your priorities, and tackle the most urgent matters first. After the most pressing tasks, do the worst jobs next. Putting them off will just make your whole workload seem more impossible. Also, set realistic goals and deadlines.

Ferrari does not buy into the notion that computers and cell phones make it harder for us to get work done. I happen to agree. We just need to manage our technological distractions. Check your e-mail once an hour only. Don’t follow-up or answer an e-mail unless it’s necessary. Don’t open one when you don’t have time to read it. Quickly delete messages to get them out of your inbox.

At work figure out who your most productive colleagues are, and team up with them. “Work in teams,” he advises. “Surround yourself with non-procrastinators.” Try modeling yourself after a colleague who gets a lot done. Ferrari points out that everyone loves flattery. Pull your highest-producing colleague aside and ask if you might shadow her for a time. She’ll probably say yes.

Do stay on task. If you return from a meeting to an inbox full of requests, get done what you already needed to get done before dealing with all those new assignments.

When asked to elaborate on his ‘Get a life, Move it, philosophy he said his Italian grandmother had a saying: ‘Some people, they won’t get off the beach until their behind gets wet.'” He says that line is even better in Italian. But his final word is this: “Let procrastinators bottom out. Let them fail. Then they’ll have the conversion experience.”


Seeing hope through tragedy

It is sometimes in the midst of  tragedy that we see hope.  Hope, that someday we will live in a world where people don’t judge each other by the color of their skin, their religious beliefs or our cultural differences.  As Christmas was drawing near, everyone was rushing around trying to finish last-minute tasks for the holiday or to get ready for the New Year.  This year, I found myself totally distracted.  Not because of the last-minute things I had to do, but because this past week, dear friends of our family suffered the death of their 2-year-old son in a horrific accident.  When something like this happens, it’s hard to make sense of it.  Personally, I found it difficult to focus so I could gain the strength to help provide support through this terrible tragedy. 

As I stood there, somehow trying to offer comfort where there was no comfort to be found, I recognized that I was surrounded by individuals of  various ethnic, religious, political, and social backgrounds.   Each was sharing comfort and strength in their own individual and unique way.   All of these people were united without thought, without question.  If there were differences, biases, or misunderstandings, they lacked any importance because the priority was this hurting family.

The sadness continues, but through this, I find renewed hope for our world.  I am reminded as 2011 draws near that it is through our own uniqueness and our individual gifts of talent and purpose that we have the power to make a positive difference in our world.

I would like to thank my friend and colleague Melissa Beasley for helping me bring my feelings together to write this post.

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Can you recognize leadership potential?

Recognizing leadership potential, in others, is critical for each of us, but especially for those in senior management roles.

I once hired a young engineer who from every visible angle looked like a kid who was out to have fun. He wore torn jeans and sneakers to work, partied like nobody’s business, stumbled in around mid-morning and he was definitely not going to work all hours of the day and night to get a product out the door. The most important thing to him was for the company to have a Foosball table in the break room. But, if you looked beyond all that, you could tell he had a certain quality that most people don’t possess.

Today – maybe 6 years later – he owns his own business, is totally focused on quality and building relationships that build his business. Did he really change, or just go through a more or less inevitable transition somewhat akin to “growing up?”

I can share so many examples similar to this, but they all lead to the same answers: Yes, it is possible to recognize leadership potential, but it’s not always obvious or easy to do. While certain related traits are indeed inherited, leadership potential is largely developed as you grow up. That doesn’t mean it’s a foregone conclusion that everyone will reach their leadership potential. It really depends on the decisions you make and the behaviors you demonstrate throughout your career, not to mention a host of external factors, including luck.

And it’s OK if you don’t have leadership qualities; it can be just as rewarding to be a follower. In fact without good followers, leaders can’t lead. There is a crucial interrelationship critical to successful organizations. Followers may not be able to paint the business world with their very own colors, but they can have great, rewarding careers and make lots of money in the process.

If you had a choice, to have leadership potential and never know it, or to not have it and know it, which would you choose? I’d choose the latter. At least then, I could focus on being and giving the best of me.

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Leadership Roles

I recently attended a conference and several managers were discussing their jobs. They all agreed that the biggest frustration was dealing with the people issues.  One individual stated “Wouldn’t the job be great if we did not have to handle all these people issues?”

Several others agreed and many laughed.  However, one manager stood out and stated, “You know ladies and gentlemen, if we didn’t have the employees, we wouldn’t have a job.”  It was interesting to observe the expressions on several faces in the group.  He went on to say that although sometimes extremely challenging (and we all know that) it is what makes the job so great, he lightened the mood by saying “and that’s also why we get paid the big bucks.” 

But seriously speaking as a leader of employees, we must assume different roles at different times in our interaction with our employees. These roles are coach, mentor, trainer and supervisor. The difference between the successful and the less successful leader is the amount of time spent in each role.

A successful leader will spend 80 percent of his or her time as a coach and/or a mentor while the less successful leader spends 80 percent of his time in supervision and training. As a leader, we understand each employee goes through these four roles with us.

When an employee is new, our role is typically more as a trainer. We have to teach them how to perform the job, what the company policies are, and what our and the company’s expectations are of them.

Once the employee understands the job, our initial training is completed. We then move into supervision to ensure the employee knows and understands his or her job. Based on this supervision, we may have to back up into the training role again to correct weaknesses.

But after a period, as the employee grows, we then become a coach; our final role is mentor, showing the way. As a coach, we are motivating them and helping with the big picture. Finally, as a mentor, we are establishing the path for them to follow.

The successful leader understands these roles and how each employee goes through them. They understand they have to adapt and change roles based on each individual employee they manage.  They may be coaching one employee only to turn around and spend 15 minutes training the next and then become a mentor to a third.  But what a great feeling it is to see someone you trained, coached and mentored move up the ranks and make it in their own right.  That is what makes the job so great!

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Managing the holiday rush

The holiday season can be tough when managing your business and your employee needs.  Some businesses may slow down until after the New Year. However, others pick up because as year-end approaches there are numerous internal tasks that need to be completed and the clock’s ticking. It can make even the calmest of managers a little crazy.

It starts around Thanksgiving and goes for the next 6 weeks give or take a few days.  Assorted parties, kid’s pageants and other school festivities, shopping, and other family commitments can make it hard to maintain a level of staffing and service that your customers expect. How do you keep your employees happy and still get everything done?

When I managed a very busy call center, I asked my managers to do certain things to make things a little less hectic during this time as well as allow them to truly take their time off when they were not in the office.  It takes some discipline, but it does work.  Here are some tips for maintaining productivity and focus when the holiday season is in full swing.

  • Alternate vacations and time off so everyone has an opportunity to have a holiday off.  This is especially important when you have a 24 hour operation.  A manager typically needs to be on call, if not in the office and it helps to have different people take the responsibility.
  • Let people announce their personal schedules in a central place, and make sure everyone can access it.
  • People should be clear about when they’ll be available for contact, when they’ll be away, and vitally important is how to best reach them if it’s critical.
  • Make sure everyone has a back up in the event one manager can’t be reached there is a back-up.  It’s really frustrating for those that must be at work not to have someone to contact in an emergency.
  • Everyone needs to be clear about what has to be accomplished by which deadlines. When they get done early and you have the flexibility allow people to leave early. It’s a small gift of time that is appreciated.
  • Let everyone know what the official holiday office schedule is and who to contact if a particular office is closed. This is especially important when you have employees in different locations, with different time zones.  If an employee is trying to manage a difficult situation, they need to know who they can call for help.

For some people this time of year is a time to relax, enjoy themselves and recharge their batteries. For others it’s stressful and hard to be productive. It’s up to the leader to set the goals, set the tone and help people be their best.

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Recruiting Experience

I was reminded today of the importance of how we treat people during the recruitment process. I ran into a friend who is searching for a job.  He shared his interview experiences with me.  What stood out was how well he spoke of those companies that although did not make him an offer, took the time to contact him, explain their decision and respond to his questions about what if anything could he have done differently.  It can be really frustrating and somewhat mystifying for a candidate who really thought the interviews and process went well only to be told they did not get the job. 

The way you handle a candidate who didn’t get the job can be just as important as the offer you made to another.  That candidate will remember the experience and probably communicate it with others, so you want it to be a positive interaction, regardless of the final outcome.

Below are some tips for making the recruitment process a positive experience for all candidates.

  • Be responsive. Respond to all inquiries promptly.
  • Share information. Let candidates know where you are in the progress and explain delays.
  • Contact every candidate that was interviewed to provide closure. When you inform a candidate that someone else has been selected, describe the successful candidate’s unique qualifications. Provide thoughtful feedback to any candidate that requests it.
  • Be respectful. Realize that unsuccessful candidates are likely to be embarrassed and disappointed.
  • Stay in touch. If you think a candidate is a good fit for your company and your culture, encourage them to apply for other vacancies as they arise.
  • Remember how you would want to be treated if the tables were turned.

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Boost your bottom line…Invest in your people

As the economy slowly recovers, it’s no secret that companies would like to boost productivity and profits. Many think the best way to do so is to slash costs.  Well Joan Blades co-author of The Custom-Fit Workplace: Choose When, Where, and How to Work and Boost Your Bottom Line, thinks otherwise.   She suggests paying your employees more.

In her article she writes of the growing body of evidence that shows that companies that pay fair wages, and offer flexibility and training to entry-level and lower-skilled employees, do better than those that don’t. A vast number of businesses mistakenly assume that their lowest-wage workers are easily replaced or not worth investing in, but those that do the right thing soon find that they’re doing the right thing for their bottom lines. It’s time that this becomes a business norm.

Certainly, in tough times, higher wages, profit-sharing and training seem like optional perks. But here’s the other side of the story: When you invest in people, they respond by performing well. In her rigorously researched book, Profit at the Bottom of the Ladder, Jody Heymann presents a well-documented lineup of businesses that have flourished in large part because their management practices include respecting and empowering their lowest-paid workers. Jenkins Brick, a major U.S. brick manufacturer in Alabama, credits higher wages and profit-sharing with increased productivity and quality, as well as reduced turnover and lowered accident rates. Dancing Deer, a Boston-based high-end baked goods company, opens the financial books, and makes training and stock options available to all employees because they are convinced that this gives the firm a competitive advantage. Specifically, management credits these practices with improving sales, boosting productivity and helping them attract talent.

Perhaps a more well-known example is Costco. The company pays more for an entry-level position than Sam’s Club (Wal-Mart‘s wholesale branch), gives even part-time workers at least a week’s notice about their schedules and offers all employees the option of getting on the management track. Costco also makes thousands of dollars more per employee than Sam’s Club, which suggests their investment pays off. Costco is so convinced that its policy is sound that it has kept paying better wages than rivals, even as Wall Street has pressured the company to conform to industry standards. Trader Joe‘s is another large company known for paying its entry-level workers well and benefiting as a result.

Yet despite the strong evidence we have that an employee who is paid fairly and treated respectfully will significantly outperform an employee who is underpaid and ordered around like a child, too many employers are unable to resist the apparent bargain of paying less per hour or buck the traditions of an authoritarian work culture. They tell themselves that standing at a cash register, working in an assembly line, or answering phones is so simple that anyone can do it — that workers doing these jobs can easily be replaced. And this shortsighted approach costs them. Simple math does not capture the human dynamics.

As an employer, I can personally bear witness to both the quantifiable and the more subtle benefits of treating everyone in the workplace with respect and dignity. The people who answered the phone and greeted visitors at our front desk at Berkeley Systems, the software company I co-founded, were at the bottom of our pay scale, but we knew that they also created people’s first impressions of our organization. If they felt downtrodden, the first impression of our business was likely to be merely adequate. We needed the first face of our business to be enthusiastic and helpful.

At, an advocacy group working for greater economic security for families, we offer flexible work hours, ask each member of our team to contribute to our decision-making processes, and look for pathways for our entry-level positions to grow into roles with more responsibility.

It’s time for employers to see the big picture and embrace the benefits of creating a great workplace for all of their employees. They will be rewarded with a happier, more productive and robust workforce, a better bottom line and the satisfaction of participating in the transformation of modern work culture to a culture of dignity.