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Leadership thoughts from PeopleFirst HR

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Are you the leader you think you are?

“You don’t lead by hitting people over the head—that’s assault, not leadership.” – Dwight Eisenhower

So you’ve been extremely successful for a while now.  Do you ever think luck had something to do with it, since your leadership style wasn’t.  Let me explain.  I worked with and executive who we’ll call Tom who at the age of 36, (20 years ago) was pursuing his career with a vengeance. It was all about him – about making a name for himself, being recognized, and making an impact. He had the highest standards of performance for himself and his team.

They were in fact very successful. More successful than any of them had imagined would be possible, given where they started and the barriers they faced. Everyone on the team was smart, dedicated, hardworking, and committed to the common goals. Tom was proud of himself and his team.

He decided to go into an intense leadership development program where he took a battery of personality tests and a leadership 360 where he solicited feedback from peers, direct reports, his boss and his clients. Upon receiving the feedback, he was pleased – that is until he saw the results from his boss. On a scale from minus 10 to plus ten, he rated Tom in the minus range on a large number of people-related behaviors. Tom was convinced he had just made a mistake – these results couldn’t be right.

He asked for a meeting with his boss and during the meeting Tom pulled out his feedback report, proudly showing him the ratings from his peers, clients and direct reports. And then Tom showed him his ratings, asking him why he had given him such low scores.  He was shocked by what he heard:

His boss said “Tom, you have amazing skill, drive and talent and you have been extremely successful. We are all grateful for what you have been able to accomplish. But to get that success, you are beating up your team. You make them feel like they are never good enough. You constantly look for someone to blame when things don’t go right and never put blame on yourself.  You intimidate them into working long, grueling hours – and they are afraid to tell you any of this for fear of your reaction.”

Tom was stunned, but he still held out hope that his boss had it all wrong. However, he bravely decided to speak with him team members one-on-one.  He asked them to be truthful and assured them there would be no reprisal.  After talking to his team, they confirmed what his boss had told him was true. Tom was crushed as he thought he was a great compassionate leader.

The feedback came as an affront to his own identity and his conception of himself as generous, caring, and nurturing leader.  He was, quite simply, embarrassed. Tom told his team members he was ashamed by his behavior. He then pledged to change his approach.  So with the help of his boss and his team’s coaching and support, he began to work on creating positive, rather than negative relationships with each person on his team. Part of it was purely personal, so he could feel good about myself again. The second reason was performance-related: leaders who form positive relationships enable higher levels of collective performance.

Talking with his boss and his team members about the situation was the first step in a long journey to turn his negative, overly critical style into a leadership approach that would continue to pursue the highest standards of performance – without beating his team up.

How did it turn out……I’ll let you know next time.

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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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Employee Engagement Blunders

According to Gallup an alarming 70% of American employees aren’t working to their full potential, and they’re slowing economic growth.

The term Employee Engagement is attracting a lot of attention but employee engagement is something well beyond motivation. Everyone is motivated in one way or another but engagement implies a strong link between the organization’s objectives and an employee’s behavior. An engaged employee understands his or her role in the organization and how it’s integrated into the successful accomplishment of the organization’s vision and mission. Engaged employees are true ambassadors of the business for customers and coworkers because they have a grasp of the entire picture of the organization’s mission and are able to focus on their function as it relates to others in the organization.

Even when employers have a great leadership team and develop comprehensive communication strategies that provide employees with regular information, they still make careless mistakes that lower employee engagement.

One of the more common oversights I see is creating an employee announcement and not distributing it effectively.  So as the employer you take great pains to draft an announcement of some change. The announcement is legally-approved, factual, clear, and detailed. It’s then sent to all employees. Good right?

Wrong! Unfortunately, you neglect to first provide the announcement to the first-line leadership for their understanding and acceptance. When employees receive the announcement, their first point of contact will be the supervisor for explanation and reaction. If the supervisor is not aware and is ill-prepared to facilitate those conversations, the employer will face a high risk that employees will resist the change and their level of engagement will decrease.

Another common mistake is when leaders believe they are visible and accessible because they conduct “walks” through the organization. Visibility and relationship-building demand more than an occasional walk-around, peering over an employee’s shoulder, calling out a greeting, etc. They require creating meaningful opportunities for exchange such as roundtable lunches with random groups of employees, planned attendance to departmental meetings, or a dedicated schedule of departmental visits.

Employee engagement does not consist of a single event; in fact one-time events can be worse than having no event at all, because they raise employee expectations and don’t follow through, which damages morale. To be effective, events or programs must be on-going.

And finally too many organizations look at employee engagement as a reactive process.  Find the problem and fix it so we can move on.  But it’s usually not that simple. Trying to fix a problem often creates a new one or may even reinforce the original one. Try to analyze the problem, understand where it started, and why it grew over time. You may find out that you have something entirely different to work on.


Corporate Culture – It’s Worth Measuring

Corporate culture is often thought of as that touchy-feely stuff that is difficult to define and should be left up to Human Resources to manage. The reality is that culture is a business issue that has significant impact on a Company’s ability to generate a return on investment and should be prioritized and measured just like other business objectives such as financial growth, product development, sales, marketing and the like. Culture is defined as the identity and personality of an organization. It consists of the shared thoughts, assumptions, behaviors, and values of the employees and stakeholders. Culture is dynamic, ever-changing, and evolves with time and new experiences. Many factors help drive and define the culture, including leadership styles, policies and procedures (or sometimes lack thereof), titles, hierarchy, as well as the overall demographics and workspace. Culture exists in every organization, whether it is by design or by default.

An organization’s culture may be one of its strongest assets or it can be its biggest liability. The reason culture is so important is that its impact goes far beyond the talent in the organization; it has significant influence on the organization’s goals. Culture drives or impedes the success of an organization. With culture impacting the talent, the product, the clients as well as the revenue, why would a company not measure review and intentionally nurture something so important and critical to its success? For many companies, the elements of their culture originated with the founder or other leaders who were instrumental in the early stages of the organization. Sometimes that culture developed through default, while in other companies there was intentional execution to drive and promote the culture. As new leaders come into an organization they often are encouraged to adopt and follow existing practices.  Cultures are perpetuated as stories of people and events illustrating the company’s core values are retold and celebrated. The benefits of a strong culture can be endless. A strong and thriving culture will:

  •  Establish a foundation for success
  • Attract and retain top talent for the organization
  • Promote the brand of an organization
  • Increase employee engagement
  • Drive productivity
  • Distinguish a company from competitors

The organization’s culture is the foundation that can promote growth and hinder complacency. For start-up companies, driving the culture in the early stages is important. One of the easiest places to do this is in the hiring practices. Cultural fit has been known to be the biggest reason around employee turnover and management distraction. If an organization hires talent to fit the culture and the desired company values then it has a win-win situation for both the employee and the organization. You can’t change who people are at their core. Of course, skills are important; however, if necessary, skill gaps can be closed through training and development.  Hiring decisions are one of the most important decisions that managers are going to make for the organization. For new companies, there is often an absence of a hiring process and skills.  It is critical that managers receive the appropriate training on interviewing and hiring techniques that will that will improve their opportunity for success. Additionally, a consistent hiring process partnered with trained managers will minimize the organization’s risk as well as help drive the culture. A strong hiring practice will also help in retaining the top talent in the organization.  So, how are you developing or retaining your corporate culture for success.

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Criticism: Use it Sparingly

We’ve all been there, either directly or indirectly experienced a leader who was or is extremely critical. These leaders like to pull things apart, critique, and figure out what can and did go wrong. Even when things go well, they constantly nitpick, finding the errors and fixing, or anticipating fixing things. Criticism can help in that it’s how we learn and do better the next time.

It’s unfortunate that sometimes the things we want to fix can’t actually be fixed, especially when it comes to the people who report to us and surround us at work. A common refrain is (often said with sarcasm) “Work would be great if it weren’t for the people”.

I think in many cases leaders mean well and they want things to go well and be successful including their people.  But when was the last time you changed when you received a criticism? It’s generally not a great strategy to help others improve without some attention to what’s going right.

One of the most common things I hear from a leader’s staff is that they don’t feel the leader is giving enough praise and encouragement. It’s time to balance your criticisms with some positivity.

Notice: Your critical demeanor may have clouded you from seeing what’s good. I believe you can “practice” and train yourself to look for things that are going right by the people around you. It isn’t easy, but it can be done. And it can make a world of difference to your ability to lead others to do the “right things”. Start today. What if you spent the entire day looking for what’s right?

Let them know you’ve noticed: No matter how small the “right” thing you’ve noticed is, say it out loud to the person you’ve seen doing it. Put yourself in their shoes. A little bit of noticing and letting them know what you observe can go a long way, especially if you have a habit of being critical.

Don’t forget to give credit where credit is due, especially for the big triumphs. Make sure that those who matter (the rest of the team, the “higher ups”, your peers) know that you are cognizant of the fact that you can’t lead alone. It takes followers who are doing the right things for a leader to be successful. Call out these “right things” by name to others, and be specific.

Find ways to celebrate. We are all too serious and professional for celebration – or are we? What keeps you from having a little fun in honor of the right things? Most people enjoy recognition, and celebration is a great way to do so. Ask the people who are doing the “right things” what celebration might mean to them (within appropriate boundaries) ok that’s my HR background stepping in☺.

Even those with critical tendencies can find things that are going well with others so take a few moments to notice and compliment them out loud.

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True Value in Effective Feedback

If you don’t give your employees feedback on their performance—whether on a daily basis or, at least, at performance reviews—they’ll never improve. Then why do so many entrepreneurs do such a horrible job of providing feedback?

Many of us aren’t “people persons” and it simply doesn’t occur to us to tell people how they’re doing. Often, entrepreneurs are take-charge types who, if something isn’t done the way they like it, grab the reins and do it themselves, not giving their employees a chance to improve. Finally, some of us want to give feedback, but fear coming off too harsh with negative criticism.

How can you get over these hurdles to provide feedback that will help your employees learn, grow and improve their job performance? Here are some tips all leaders can use.

  • Set a goal.      Consider what you want the feedback to achieve for your business. Don’t      criticize someone simply to vent your frustration; always have a larger      goal such as helping the person to improve, preventing customer issues, or      increasing sales. By showing the employee that you have a larger goal in      mind, feedback will seem less of a personal criticism.
  • Begin with the good stuff. Try to find something positive about the way an      employee handled a task or situation. This will put them in a receptive      frame of mind. After they have absorbed the positive praise, bring up any      negative criticism. (Keep in mind, not every instance of feedback has to      involve negativity. Rewarding employees with positive feedback for a job      done well has a strong reinforcement effect.)
  • Provide detail.      Give specifics as to what was done right or wrong and why this was helpful      or hurtful. (“You answered the phone on the first ring, which conveys a      positive impression to our customers. Great job!”) If you want the      employee to change how he or she is doing something, be specific about      what they should do and why.
  • Allow questions.      Always make sure the employee feels comfortable asking for clarification      on your feedback. You can ask them, “Does that make sense to you?” or “Do      you have any questions about that?” to confirm that they’ve understood      what you said.
  • Follow up.      If you ask an employee to do something differently, pay attention to see      whether they learn from the feedback. If so, comment positively on the      progress. If not, continue to provide feedback until they get it right.

You’ll be surprised how much feedback can improve your business when it’s used correctly.


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Successful Mergers Part I of II

So, What makes a Successful MergerHaving been through many successful and a few not so great mergers and acquisitions, I gathered some of the most important aspects to share with you.  Today it’s about people!

Statistics indicate that approximately half of all mergers are successful, but why not the rest? The process starts with detailed analysis and valuation of the acquired organization(s) and high expectations of increased productivity, share value, profit, and eliminating potentially redundant tasks.

One reason for failure can be that people working in the merged organizations who must implement the planned changes are normally disregarded during the pre-deal stage.

However, once the integration starts people begin to play crucial roles in the execution of the plan. Managers should not underestimate the people issues that might arise during this period.

Communication through the company can create either an effective or discouraging working environment. It is a difficult task to keep people motivated and engage people in the business particularly when those people are at risk of losing their jobs. It may be that individuals least well equipped to contribute in the new organization will be released whilst holding on to the best people. Apparently ‘the best’ are evaluated as having the best fit to the needs of the new organizations.

A solution to keep the best in the company is to be honest to the people and remember that we all appreciate frankness. People may not like to discover that their job no longer exists, but they would rather know it up front than to receive limited notice to leave the company. Mergers need good people to accomplish their goals. Consider specific communication for key talent.

Identify as many obstacles to success.  This will reduce the wasted time in later stages. Being frank to people and involving them in the brain storming sessions and gathering true and frank feedback from employees can increase the effectiveness of the process. Management should allow staff to express their worries, fears and anxieties about the merger, as well as their ideas, suggestions and possible roles that they may be interested in assuming. This helps people to be motivated and encourage commitment to the process.


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It’s simple, why don’t they get it…Maybe it’s you.

Whenever managers talk to me about work issues, the conversation inevitably turns to employees seeming to “not listen.”   Evidence…..Work is not getting done according to plan. Work is not meeting requirements or it’s not on time, or not getting done at all. I often hear some form of the frustrated plea, “I don’t know how else to get this through to them, they just need to understand …”

Can you relate, for the sake of argument let’s presuppose that your employees are reasonably smart people and not making your life miserable on purpose. Let’s take the focus off of why they don’t get it and instead focus on what you can do to change things.

Check your assumptions. You know an assumption is going on when you find yourself thinking, “You’d think (fill in the blank),” as in:

  • You’d think they would know that’s a high priority.
  • You’d think they would realize since I asked for it, I actually need it.
  • You’d think it would be easier to ask for help than cause a delay because he didn’t know the answer.

When I find myself saying “You’d think …” it’s now a trigger for me to “think again.”

Even the best of us can get caught with this. We communicate the way we’ve always done. It mostly works, and then with one person it doesn’t. But, you’d think they would get it. I mean, everyone else has always gotten it before. There are some more assumptions: thinking all people think alike or worse, think like you.

When you get stuck and find yourself thinking, “You’d think,” ASK yourself if they really do know the priority, how much you need whatever or the impact of a delay. What could be standing in the way of that? And then …

Really check for understanding. We think we’re reasonable communicators, presumably speaking the same language. We don’t think too hard about checking for understanding. At most, it’s “Do you understand?”

If you do ask, even if your employee responds with a “yes,” you still really don’t know whether they understand, do you? He might really believe he understands. Or he might be placating you. With most people, this might be all you need to do. And yet, with one employee, you may find yourself frustrated because what ends up being delivered is not what you thought you communicated.

When thinking about what else to try, if you find yourself thinking, “I just need to get them to understand XXXXXXXXXX,” slow down for a moment. You’ve already been trying to “get them to understand.” It’s not working. Try something like this instead: “Just so we’re on the same page, what do you understand we just agreed to?”

Don’t get hung up on the wording. Do check your attitude. The point is to get their thinking out on the table so you can both see it and work with it.

If you find yourself resisting this …

Check yourself. At this point, you might find yourself thinking one of two things, “I don’t want them to think I’m a micro-manager” or “I shouldn’t have to do this for them, they should know better.”

Get over it. A huge part of your job is to facilitate people getting things done. You don’t have to be a control freak, a nursemaid or a bully about it. Challenge yourself to take your ability to lead to another level. In those situations when “doing what you’ve always done” is not working — they aren’t going to change with hoping, wishing or judging that it just shouldn’t be that way. Take their performance, and yours, to the next level by examining your own assumptions, and finding a way to advance understanding and determine how you need to make changes to your style to make it happen.


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Cultivate Empathy: It’s Important

Empathy is the ability to read a person’s responses by visualizing yourself in his or her place.

Exceptional communicators and leaders have the ability to sense what others are thinking.  They don’t always have a quick answer or suggestion.  When you are listening to someone, turn on your intuition. Use your imagination and past experience in similar situations to give you some indications as to what the other person is feeling. Forget about yourself and what you want to say next. Instead, imagine that you are the other person, even if just for a minute.

When people tell you about something that’s bothering them, they often talk around a subject instead of getting to the point.

Here are four questions that may help you get more insight and be more helpful:

•    “What do you consider to be the fundamental issue underneath all of this?”

•    “”If you had the choice, what would you most like to have happen now given the situation?”

•    “Can you give me three specific things that concern you about this issue?”

•    “What other issues are also bothering you about this situation?”

When people are facing a problem and come to you for help, they want to know that you are listening and in tune with their feelings. Asking questions will help them see their situation more clearly and help you understand the real underlying concerns.  Sometimes just listening to your questions, people can think through the issue more clearly and resolve their own problem.

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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.