Anamcgary's Blog

Leadership thoughts from PeopleFirst HR


HR’s true role

I’m always amazed by HR people who are not only great at what they do for organizations and employees, but what they do for the leadership as a whole.  In a recent article by Tim Sacket, he really puts the role of HR in perspective at least for me.  Tim is convinced that it is HR’s job to make sure all departments are working together for one overriding shared goal or sense of purpose. Well, plenty of HR professionals out there would tell you that is management’s role, not HR.   So, should we leave it to the other leaders in the organization?  The problem we face by demanding this of other leadership is they get lost in their own department or groups, individual goals, and have a hard time understanding, or even knowing, what the goals are of the other functional areas of your organization. Someone has to own it, to make it happen – that is where HR can be very valuable.

Malcolm Gladwell wrote an insightful article at the New Yorker called “Connecting the Dots” that looks at a number of historical scenarios in which could have been stopped or changed significantly, if someone would have connected the dots (think 9/11 type scenarios!). Gladwell doesn’t look to place blame, he looks to discover the truth and how, if we get another shot, is a better way to do it all over again. In his article he points out how competing interests, and in an organizations case, and competing groups can cause a failure in connecting the dots that could benefit everyone involved.

Think of a classic HR problem? Some senior leader comes down and is adamant on stopping Turnover (or some other metric they believe will solve all of problems.   Emergency HR meetings take place. SWOT teams are formed. Councils are created. There are No Sacred Cows. Change must happen. They want to see blood in the Hallways. Now.

So, we do stuff. We do stuff that will stop Turnover, or fill critical openings, etc., etc., etc. And it “fixes” the problem.  And, Leadership is Happy. That is until we see the fallout from the changes that were made – and there is always fallout.  It’s a tough organization problem to stop.  Why because it takes leadership that is not willing to go from one extreme to the other every time a problem pops up, and that has strong enough communication and foresight to understand that the dominos they tip over today, will knock over some more tomorrow. But it helps if there is a voice of reason yelling from the back row of the conference room (a brave voice – I might add!). It also helps, if we in HR can lead by example – and stop in our zeal to correct a problem, create more problems for the future.  HR owns the role of connecting the Dots for our organization. Someone has to do it – I pick us. We tend to be the voice of reason anyway, so it fits. But go into this role eyes-wide-open, it won’t make you popular – no one likes a voice of reason when there hell-bent on change, but eventually those will half a head on their shoulders will figure out your value, and that’s more important than popularity!


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The best way to motivate your team….

The simple answer to the age-old question of how to motivate depends on the organization’s culture, the leadership style of management and current circumstances, including the economic environment.

Does your company have a “take no prisoners” mentality when it comes to competition and winning? If so, the organization probably focuses more on the stick to motivate.  Typically, younger companies drive results this way because of the scarcity of money, the pressures on time, and the realization that mediocrity and too many misses can prove to be lethal.

In established organizations, a lighter collegial style is more common, as is the frequent use of the carrot. For example, call centers are noted for celebrating just about everything. A rep receives a relatively unremarkable compliment from a customer and bells go off and high fives fly. Everyone in this type of facility expects to get a carrot on a more regular basis. When infractions occur, the supervisor will have a conversation with the offender, though the talk will likely be punctuated with an abundance of positive reinforcement.

Many type-A personalities wouldn’t be productive nor enjoy a purely “carrot patch” workplace. Go-getters tend to get a high from the pressure always on them to produce. They covet the rush of the thrills and chills of getting the tough job done. Many do their best when they are under the gun, fearing that if they slip and fall they may not get up again. Fear of failure, is their hot button, as perverse as it may sound. Sure, the carrot does motivate, too, but it’s the challenge of the chase, having someone with a stick on their tail that pushes them into overdrive. Can a company thrive with only type-A employees? Absolutely not, because it’s probable that this would create a constant state of anarchy.

Every business needs plenty of the Steady Eddies who can be counted on to consistently do the job day in and day out. This type thrives on predictability and the gratification of periodic praise. If the boss was to approach him or her with a stick to make a point, it would scare the heck out of him or her.

In between the top and bottom rungs of your corporate ladder, there are dozens of iterations of what it takes to get people to do their best. The skill is in figuring out what size fits each individual category. Creating the appropriate environment for your type of business will set the tone as to how people will respond. A utopia for overachievers could become a living hell for those who prefer a setting in which they can do their jobs where the only excitement is watching paint dry and grass grow. It takes a variety of all types to build an organization, and when all are carefully mixed together in the proper proportions, the team will jell, and that’s what gives a company its unique personality that works.

As people grow and mature, what worked in the past may have to change and the formula may need to be reconfigured to fit a company’s evolving needs. Also, when economic circumstances outside of your personnel’s
control deteriorate, smart companies know it’s time to lighten up a bit and use more carrots, primarily because the stick can’t change the reality of a negative business environment. Much like beating that dead horse, it won’t do any good, and it will harm a company in the long run, as employees won’t forget how they were treated when the chips were down.

To most effectively craft your company’s motivation techniques, you must listen to what your employees are saying and then translate their words into what they really mean.  Learning when and with whom to dangle the carrot, use the stick, or add thrills and chills to the work environment will help drive your company’s sustained success.

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Build Relationships to Achieve Results

If you aren’t achieving results, your leadership won’t matter to your business. But it isn’t just about the “business”  it is about people. I’ve been at organizations where relationships didn’t matter, and those organizations are not successful in the long run.

Your job is to build the team and then emotionally invest in its members. Like any coach, you own the job of finding the talent and uniting the players. And once they are on your team — invest. It’s pretty scary to think that the perfect employee is out there and you just haven’t hired them yet. Embrace the 90 percent capability you see in their talent and use sincere truthfulness and coaching to get closer to the 100 percent.

Encourage vulnerability and avoid a culture of blame. Team players need to feel comfortable and confident in their competencies, but they also need to be self-aware. Create an environment where you assume good of each other, candidly declare the breakdowns and then arrive at a solution together.  This creates a culture where employees feel trust, acceptance and support.

The world is a place of abundance and someone doesn’t have to lose for you to win. It’s OK to benchmark against others, but only compete against yourself. Think this way and it will change how you lead and fundamentally how your teams interact with each other.

Focus on achievement — not status.

Stamp out bureaucracy. This is a tough one as many people live by titles and status. Always put the right talent on the proper challenges without regard to rank. When we are not trapped in “status” discussion, we are positioned to make the right decision for the business.

Create shared values. Establish metrics, measure your business, create alignment and then celebrate successes. You must have shared values to create shared success.

Speak in partnership language. Simply put — it is WE, not “me” or “I.”

And most importantly, learn from your experiences but keep moving forward.

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Company Culture always affects the bottom line

Zappos Chief Executive Tony Hsieh spoke at the annual Society for Human Resource Management conference this year.  He explained that before joining Zappos, he dreaded coming to work at his own company. It wasn’t fun to work there anymore
because the company culture went completely down the drain.

When he began his work at Zappos, he decided to make a change. Eventually, their company mission evolved from having the greatest selection of shoes online, to providing the best customer service, to having a dynamic and fulfilling company culture. Along the way he learned lessons to share with other organizations trying to do right by shareholders and employees at the same time.

“Our number one priority is company culture,” he explained. “If we get the company culture right, then . . .delivering great customers service or building a long-term brand or business will follow.”

Their culture begins with the hiring process. Potential candidates participate in two sets of interviews and they need to pass both in order to be hired. Often, they pass on very talented individuals that do not fit with their company culture.

The first set of interviews may inquire into the person’s experience and skills that would make them a good employee, while the second set determines whether they would be a good fit within the team. The second set includes questions concerning each of their core values.

Hsieh said at first, the company,  resisted drafting core values because it seemed very corporate and often they read like a press release. But, they asked the employees for their suggestions and a year later released the values.

To ensure that these values are taken seriously and integral in the company’s culture they must be committable core values. The company can fire people for not following the values, even if they are executing their traditional roles correctly.

For example, when interviewing, in order to determine whether one person would be able to thrive under these values, the company will try to determine whether they value honest relationships, transparency, embrace opportunity and are humble, among others.

Humility, the last value, is very difficult to determine, but after the interviews, HR will circle back with the shuttle driver who brought the applicant to the company offices and ask how they were treated. If they did not treat the driver with kindness and respect, then they won’t be hired, no matter how well they did on the actual interviews.

They also ask on a scale of 1 to 10 how lucky the potential hire is. Obviously, they don’t hire those with bad luck, he jokes. However, basing this exercise on a research study, after their answer they have them scan a fake newspaper for the number of photos. Within the newspaper is a headline that gives them the answer. According to research, those that answered that they were luckier found the headline. Luck is about
being open to opportunity, said Hsieh, an important value for the company and their employees.

“It actually doesn’t matter what your values are, what matters is that you have them and that you align your organization around them.  You may disagree with the values established by Zappos, but purposefully establishing a company culture works successfully
for many companies.

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Three things all line managers should master

We know senior leaders must demonstrate respect, trust and caring for the workforce they manage, but what about line managers?  Studies have repeatedly proven that employees are more likely to stay with a company even when things are bad, if they have a good supervisor.

So as you hire new supervisors, if nothing else teach them the following:


Line managers must be careful to remember that respect is a two-way street. If they want the respect of their direct reports, then managers must show respect for their direct reports as well.  “Respect is not something you only give away when it may serve your needs.” The same is true of employee recognition.  You don’t show your appreciation for your employee efforts only when those efforts directly work to your advantage. You should also be liberal with your thanks when your direct reports may have performed well in helping another manager, team or department.


Trust is often more easily gained by direct managers than senior leaders who are more removed from employees. But as with respect, trust is a two-way street.  You have to earn it by the way you behave toward them and those around them.  Your people need to believe that you are
competent and that you care.


One way to demonstrate to employees you care about them is by taking the time to talk with them, to clearly communicate what you need them to do, praise them when they’re doing it well, and offer constructive feedback when they need improvement. Harvard Business School research showed employees overwhelmingly prefer a manager who is likeable to a person is very skilled but terrible at communicating.


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Getting advice that’s really helpful

Consider Several Sources

Rarely does one person have the full story on anything. Even if that were so, finding the perfect advisor could be quite difficult and time  consuming. (Unless you pick me), almost kidding!

But seriously, think about what you want? You want some one who is interested but not biased; someone who shows concern but doesn’t become emotionally involved; someone who is knowledgeable but not overbearing. So, if you can’t find one person who fits the situation on all counts, ask for counsel from multiple sources. Then pay close attention to where they agree and disagree. See if you can account for their disagreement—what are their inclinations and levels of expertise? It can be quite useful to go back and have a second, brief conversation with each, sharing the differing information and asking for their take on it. (You don’t need to reveal the sources, just the distinctions).

Remember: Advice Comes from Values and Philosophy

Very little advice, aside from facts or situational observations, can be separated from one’s values and worldview. For example, which carries more weight when considering a job change: Increased responsibility? Better salary? Job security? Relocation? Don’t expect your  advisor to give you the bottom line on the issues you are discussing. She/he can help you view your options, not score them.

When you want to be a helpful advisor, focus on asking questions that will cause your friend or colleague to look at their situation more deeply, or from a different perspective. You’ll soon be experienced as someone who possesses wisdom, not quick solutions.   And, that’s not a bad reputation to cultivate.