Anamcgary's Blog

Leadership thoughts from PeopleFirst HR

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If you’re not helping people develop, you’re not management material

Skilled managers have never been more critical to a company’s success as they are today.  Not because employees can’t function without direction, but because managers play a vital role in talent management. Gone are the comprehensive career management systems and expectations of long-term employment that once functioned as the glue in the employer-employee relationship.  In their place, the manager-employee dyad is the new building block of learning and development in many organizations.

Good managers attract candidates, drive performance, engagement and retention, and play a key role in maximizing employees’ contribution to the company. Poor managers, by contrast, are a drag on all of the above.  They cost your company a ton of money in turnover costs and missed opportunities for employee contributions, and they do more damage than you realize.

Job seekers from entry-level to executives are more concerned with opportunities for learning and development than any other aspect of a prospective job.  This makes perfect sense, since continuous learning is a key strategy for crafting a sustainable career.  The vast majority (some sources say as much as 90%) of learning and development takes place not in formal training programs, but rather on the job—through new challenges and developmental assignments, developmental feedback, conversations and mentoring.  Thus, employees’ direct managers are often their most important developers.  Consequently, job candidates’ top criterion is to work with people they respect and can learn from. From the candidate’s viewpoint, his or her prospective boss is the single most important individual in the company.

Managers also have a big impact on turnover and retention. The number one reason employees quit their jobs is because of a poor quality relationship with their direct manager.  No one wants to work for a boss who doesn’t take an interest in their development, doesn’t help them deepen their skills and learn new ones, and doesn’t validate their contributions.

This isn’t what departing employees tell HR during their exit interviews, of course.  After all, who wants to burn a bridge to a previous employer?

Instead, they say they’re leaving because of a better opportunity elsewhere.  And so what happens is that organizations remain in the dark regarding how much damage their inept managers are doing.

Regardless of what else you expect from your managers, facilitating employee learning and development should be a non-negotiable competency.  Becoming a great developer of employees requires managers to expand their focus from “How can I get excellent performance out of my team members?” to “How can I get excellent performance out of my team members while helping them grow?”  Savvy managers know that doing well on the second part of the last question helps to answer the first.

The best managers ask, “How can we harness employee strengths, interests and passions to create greater value for the firm?”  Systematically linking organizational performance and individual development goals in the search for learning opportunities and better ways to work is a hallmark of organizations where sustainable careers flourish.


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Leaders should be willing to hear

For company leaders to make the right decisions about strategy, people, execution, and money, they need to understand what their customers and employees really think.  Asking the right questions … and fostering a candid conversation about where the company stands today is paramount to a company’s ability to reach and exceed their revenue and profitability objectives.

Customers see the company for who it is today, and that is not always where the company wants to be. Hearing customer perspectives on the sales experience, the on boarding process, use of products or services, support, and even billing can be an eye-opening experience for some leaders. Gathering in-depth feedback on all aspects of each customer’s experience is essential to executive leadership as it can highlight where you need to really focus or make changes to achieve the company’s growth objectives.  Companies who embrace the concept of truly understanding market perception always win.  My recommendation is to use a third-party to conduct a survey.  They know what questions to ask and how to ask them to get you the information you really need to make the right decisions.  Last but not least is what you do with the outcome of your survey. Only collecting the data is not enough. If you are not willing to change your strategy, or any other thing that might be affecting the standard of your business, then don’t bother doing the survey. The only reason why you collect customer feedback is to ensure the customer loyalty to your brand or service and how you are viewed in the market. It’s done only when you realize the importance of feedback in order to improve your business.

Employees at every company can be the source of countless ideas that will effectively cut costs, streamline operations and/or grow revenue. From the corporate office, to the call center floor, to out in the field, each employee brings a unique perspective based on their role and responsibilities, and many great ideas can be uncovered just by asking.  Beyond the employee suggestion box, encouraging innovation can take the form of putting together small teams to brainstorm new ideas, allocating and encouraging a certain amount of time each month dedicated to idea creation, or implementing an online solution focused on sharing ideas, which often leads to further innovation.  Just as critical as creating an environment that encourages innovation, is having a plan in place to implement the most promising idea(s). This requires true support from management as it entails allocating resources and dollars that could be used elsewhere to further develop each idea and determine its long-term viability. While not every project will turn out as planned, they may turn out even better and have a substantial impact on the company.  But as with customer feedback, if you are not willing to change your strategy, or make suggested changes don’t bother asking.

Top performing CEOs aren’t afraid to ask the tough questions – they will provide critical data that can be leveraged to create a cohesive strategy involving people, execution, and money, all of which is essential to exceed revenue and profitability goals.

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While people drive the culture, the culture drives the brand…or is it that brand drives the culture? The truth is they are too intimately tied together to discern which comes first. Great companies leverage their culture to promote their brand. Companies such as Zappo’s, Dream Works and Google take pride in their culture and use it to promote who they are as an organization. Every interaction with an employee, a client, or a stakeholder is an opportunity to brand the organization. These very interactions are the ones that over time define and reinforce the organization and the culture that permeates it.

Culture has a tangible impact on employee engagement. Employee engagement is a measure of an employee’s commitment to his or her job, team, manager and organization, which results in increased discretionary effort or willingness to go “above and beyond” normal job responsibilities. This level of commitment is critical in the success of early stage companies and also results in the employee’s intent to stay with the organization. The primary factor that seems to separate an engaged employee from just a satisfied employee is that the engaged worker consciously puts forth additional effort in a manner that promotes the organization’s best interests. Not only does engagement have the potential to significantly affect employee retention, productivity and loyalty, it is also a key link to customer satisfaction, company reputation and overall stakeholder value. Employee engagement drives workforce productivity.  Multiple studies demonstrate how a strong and thriving culture with high employee engagement leads to greater employee productivity. Innovation and creativity are often key to the growth of early stage companies. In a great culture where new ideas are respected, and mistakes are viewed as opportunities for learning, employees can actually enjoy their work and be energized by the environment around them. They are naturally more productive because they are eager to be part of a company where they feel valued and their contribution matters. It is a simple concept, but happy employees make for happy, successful companies.

Company culture is unique and provides arguably the most sustainable competitive advantage an organization can have in the marketplace for distinguishing itself against the competition.  Competitors may attempt to poach employees, steal customers and duplicate the product or service an organization has worked hard to develop. Culture, like the brand, becomes the fabric of an organization. The stronger the culture and the brand, the more difficult it is for competitors to pose a threat to the organization.

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Start-up CEO vs. Expansion CEO

Most company founders embark on a start-up journey with aspirations to see the company through to greatness while maintaining the role of the CEO.  However, the role of startup CEO and expansion-stage CEO differ greatly.  They require completely different skill sets, and it’s extremely rare for a founder to have both start-up and growth-stage skills.  A majority of founders end up recruiting replacements to take over the companies they created.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. It is a common reality that accompanies the shift from searching for a business model to executing and scaling it effectively.

A founding CEO must be tactical, hands-on, gets stuff done, where a professional manager CEO focuses on the vision/strategy, building a senior team, and guiding the senior team to execution.

Navigating a company through the expansion stage takes operational expertise. You have to know how to recruit senior managers who have specific functional expertise, and you must be able to establish an operating rhythm that gets your growing team working toward the right goals. As your company transitions to the next stage, you must transition with it, and as you do you are faced with three paths.

1) Adapt to the New Reality

If you are dead set on remaining CEO, then you need to pick up the new skills needed to address the blind spots and manage your company’s expansion. That means you have to augment those skills that got you where you are now: your audacity to do something new, your passion to inspire others to take risks, and the tenacity to create and disrupt markets. In addition, you need to focus on managing through others (this one can be the biggest challenge) and developing a rhythm for your team.

It’s extremely rare for a founder to have both start-up and growth-stage skills, and it’s even less likely that you can pick them up as you go. So, consider whether you’d hire yourself to run your company now that you are expanding — chances are, the honest answer is no.

2) Assemble a Skilled Team

Another option is to surround yourself with an executive team that brings the growth-stage experience and expertise your company needs.  For most companies entering the expansion stage, a sales and marketing-focused COO is the right choice.  However, if you need more cover on overall operations, financial forecasting, and legal matters, then a CFO makes sense.

When it comes down to it, companies aren’t run by highly effective individuals; they’re run by highly effective teams. Most successful CEO’s will tell you to surround yourself with the best people possible who are experts in the areas you are weak in.  This will allow you to focus on your strengths.

3) Transition into a New Role

The majority of start-up CEOs recruit their replacements as the company grows beyond $15 million in revenue. It’s that simple, and it’s usually the right choice. Work with your board to bring on a new CEO and transition into a new role. Don’t let your ego drive an emotional reaction. Put the company first, just as you always have, and you will come to the conclusion that it’s the right decision.

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Employee Engagement, It doesn’t have to be that hard!

I just read survey of nearly 800 Human Resources executives, 74% said their job stress level has skyrocketed in the past 18 months due to several key concerns
including retaining top talent, developing leaders and controlling health care costs.  But above all else, keeping employees engaged and productive was rated the biggest workplace challenge by those surveyed. That’s a repeat performance, as 2010 survey results had employee engagement in the top spot as well. The survey, titled “What’s Keeping HR Leaders Up at Night,” is conducted by Human Resources Executive, a leading publication in the HR arena.

Employee engagement is a huge issue at companies—big and small, but the good news is, it doesn’t have to be.  Just to give you a little perspective, I worked with a company whose employee meetings were poorly viewed, poorly attended and overall not very engaging.  While trying to uncover the root cause, several facts came to the surface. First, meetings were stuck in one-way, transmit mode, which made employees feel like they were attending a lecture. Second, hefty PowerPoint presentations dominated the 60-minute sessions. The text-heavy charts laden with buzzwords and acronyms in 12-point font did more to tune out
than tune in. And third, no conclusions and action ever resulted after the meetings.

So I challenge you to try a new approach to employee meetings, designed to create more collaboration and interest—and ultimately, engagement. When employees engage and actively participle in meetings, they learn a lot more about business goals and performance and their piece in the big picture.

How do you get started?

No. 1: Break the mold. If “that’s the way we always do it” is a mantra at your company, then silence it. Whether the challenge is company meetings or customer greetings, accept the fact that you can and should improve.  Continual improvement is vital for success.

No. 2: Form a diverse steering committee. This group will help champion the change! Draft talent from the front-line workforce, supervisors and middle managers to take the helm, which is what happened with my customer. From a pool of volunteers, four employees were selected to an action team, which partnered with senior leaders to improve company meetings. The group had responsibility for identify relevant, timely topics for the agenda, recruiting the right speakers to discuss them, and coaching speakers on their presentation material as well as how to interact with meeting attendees. Team members actively sourced live questions for the actual meeting and helped to create a safe-to-speak-up atmosphere.

No. 3: Mix it up. More often than not at company meetings I see members of the senior leadership team sitting together in the front row of the meeting room. It’s a polarizing visual. If meetings occur in a face-to-face format, leaders should mix and mingle with attendees. They should arrive 10 minutes early and make small talk with employees as they are getting seated. Another powerful technique that I’ve used with clients is to station leaders at exit doors and have them shake hands and say “thanks for being part of today’s meeting” to employees as they leave the room. Small talk and sincere appreciation build better relationships—and that goes a long way to engaging employees’ attitudes and actions.

No. 4: Measure effectiveness. Meetings suck up overhead budgets. Ensure that they deliver the return on the investment being made. Conduct short “pulse checks” immediately after each meeting and canvas feedback about what went well and what didn’t. By asking people to give their direct comments, you are engaging them on another level in the meeting process.

No. 5: Listen, learn and act on feedback. Use results of the meeting effectiveness poll to learn what matters to employees, and make adjustments accordingly. As with external customers, listening to and acting on feedback demonstrates respect. It signals that “we value you.” If employees feel that way, they will contribute more during company meetings and all aspects of their job. At our client, results of post-meeting polls were quickly shared through various company communications with employees along with a few corrective actions to be made in the next meeting. Messages shared results—good and bad. Transparency is ultra-important today to get people to believe in you and your company.

Although this is targeted for company meetings, these tips are readily transferable to other workplace practices—such as introducing a new software system or revising a vacation policy. Invite employees to help design, deliver and manage the initiative. By giving employees some skin in the game, you demonstrate trust, acknowledge their collective know-how and respect their contributions.

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Trust in Leadership declines

The shaky economic and employment climate in the U.S. continues to make headlines.  In a recent poll of 1,857 U.S.-based employees identified another issue for employers to worry about: a lack of employee trust in management.

Among the findings:

Only 14 percent of respondents said they believe that their company’s leaders are ethical and honest.

Just 12 percent believe their employer genuinely listens to and cares about its employees.

A small 10 percent of employees said they trust management to make the right decision in times of uncertainty.

And just 7 percent said that senior management’s actions are consistent with their words.

Poor communication, lack of perceived caring, inconsistent behavior and perceptions of favoritism were cited by respondents as the largest contributors to their lack of trust in senior leaders.

It seems that a strong indicator of management mistrust is lack of shared values.  If a company truly wants to engage its workforce, drive trust and gain loyalty, it must implement a culture that recognizes individual behaviors that contribute to the company’s values and goals, and sadly, this isn’t common practice. … Only 8 percent of employees say they are frequently recognized for demonstrating behavior consistent with their company’s stated values.  And I hate to add that simple Thank You’s and other types of simple acknowledgement of employee efforts is sorely lacking in todays workforce.  Are we all so busy we forgot the fundamentals?



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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.