Anamcgary's Blog

Leadership thoughts from PeopleFirst HR


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What does poor communication cost businesses?

Between reduced productivity, lost talent and other direct and indirect losses, a recent Unify survey indicates lackluster communication can cost businesses up to $5,000 per employee each year. Communication isn’t rocket science, but it does require thought and care.

A cornerstone of business communication is the feedback system, whether formal – by way of performance reviews, or informal – addressing an employee’s performance (good or bad) and outlining potential course corrections.

Feedback, especially among a leadership team, is critical to a business leader’s growth and decision-making. Frequently, however, the idea of feedback – what it really means – gets misconstrued. Sometimes those in leadership positions think they are providing proper feedback when they simply reprimand an employee as a result of a mistake or error.  And while it is important to address mistakes and errors, as C-Level leaders, feedback is often inefficient because there’s no plan in place for these types of communications. “Gotcha” leadership is no leadership at all.

Some of the common feedback mistakes include examples like an executive giving his/her opinion instead of stating facts, another making sarcastic and/or disparaging remarks about an employee’s error, and still another would be to berate an employee in such a way that it changes the very subject of the conversation – the employee’s performance, and shifted it to “what the heck did I do to deserve this?” then subsequently having a discussion that yields no positive outcome regarding individual growth.

In order to correct (or sustain) performance, we need to engage employees and improve the business enterprise, proper feedback needs to be helpful (first and foremost), as well as relevant and timely.

To be clear: feedback is information provided to another person to help him or her grow and improve. If a leader isn’t trying to help someone grow/improve, he or she isn’t providing feedback. Criticism, more than likely, but not feedback. A true leader finds ways to sincerely help subordinates, not use veiled criticism or overt tongue-lashings. Face it; it doesn’t take much skill to be a jerk.

In addition to being helpful to an individual employee, feedback in business should be helpful to the enterprise as a whole. Leaders must think beyond performance reviews and reactive feedback necessitated by a mistake or problem. Take a proactive approach to feedback by identifying and focusing on the desirable behaviors and making corrections as needed, but in a thoughtful manner. Feedback is most effective when leaders take the time and attention to outline a proactive communication plan, instead of relying on performance reviews during which the manager will feel obligated to restate old one-liners and stock company blurbs. Or worse, a software solution that fills in the wording automatically.

If feedback isn’t relevant and engaging, leaders are wasting their time. Non-specific feedback, at best, leaves the employee wondering how he or she can improve or avoid making the same error(s) in the future; at worst, non-specific feedback leaves the employee totally confused and unmotivated to improve performance. Vague communication at performance reviews leads to misunderstanding and often future meetings to better clarify the feedback given.

Relevant, engaging feedback is personal and tailored to ensure the employee can actually comprehend the message. Before a leader begins the dialog, he or she needs to begin with the end in mind. Determine if the goal is to simply win an argument, or if the goal is to act as a change agent for an employee (trying to change behavior). Hopefully, the desired outcome is to improve the employee’s performance, and the leader can dedicate a little time and heartfelt effort to preparing for the communication, to decrease the likelihood that the topic of the feedback will be subject matter next time around.

Leaders should also give feedback in a way and at a time that can be best received by the employee. Let’s say a marketing executive makes a boneheaded snafu in a press release by mistakenly using 2013 sales data instead of intended data from 2014 – the latter of which provides a year-to-year profit bump of 20 percent. If the CEO would rather string the EVP of Marketing up outside the window than speak in a helpful and relevant manner, then perhaps the CEO should wait a bit before talking with the marketing chief. That’s not to say that a reprimand be avoided, but only that feedback should be practical to the event, behavior or action that necessitated the discussion and provided at a time when its relevance can be best understood.

Certainly, threat of a severe reprimand may help prevent such an error from occurring in the future, but does it improve the EVP of Marketing? Does it benefit the whole enterprise, or merely lend credence to the longstanding belief that the head honcho tolerates no mistakes and, thus, can be impossible to work for? Timely, responsive feedback fosters awareness and understanding, creating an environment focused on personal and professional growth; growth that positively impacts the entire enterprise. The sooner employees recognize that and truly believe that is the environment in which they work, the better the organization will be.

Leadership success is established and developed through helpful, relevant and timely feedback. Feedback fosters trust, and trust is the currency of leadership. The more employees believe in their leaders, the more comfortable they will be providing feedback and helpful insight to their managers. Proper feedback – provided, accepted and acted upon – creates a system of learning after every mistake, making them, therefore, easier to swallow. Employees crave feedback that improves them professionally, and perhaps personally as well. Without it, leaders may only get what they pay for and not an ounce of effort more.  And perhaps as damaging – the organization may have a very difficult time retaining talent.

As the old saying goes, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

And in this case, an ounce of prevention may be worth $5,000 per employee per year.

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Trust Gap

Despite the fact that employees who trust the decisions of their boss are more loyal and engaged, leaders often fail to cultivate employee trust. A recent survey found we have a deep trust gap: while 90 percent of leaders and employees say that it’s important for employees to trust their leaders, 65 percent of employees rate their level of trust in their leaders as moderate; 37 percent of employees say that they trust leaders less today; and 47 percent of leaders say that their employees trust them less. Only 8 percent of employees say they trust their leaders to a great extent.

Leaders should place a premium on trust since we see a strong correlation between trust in leaders and employee engagement. Employees with a low-level of trust are not nearly as engaged as those with high trust in their leaders.

What erodes trust? Bosses not owning up to their mistakes is a huge factor: 89 percent of leaders say that they either always or often apologize for their mistakes, but only 19 percent of employees agree.

43 percent of employees surveyed say that their leaders rarely or never apologize for their errors. The main reason that bosses don’t apologize is that they’re afraid of looking weak and incompetent, but fear of tarnishing their image sacrifices employee trust and loyalty. Employees also named other boss behaviors that erode trust, including:

  • lying,
  • taking credit for others’ ideas,
  • blaming employees unfairly,
  • gossiping, lack of clarity,
  • poor communication.

 Trust is bolstered (and the trust gap narrowed) when leaders take these four steps:

  1. listening to employees and understanding their concerns;
  2. walking the talk—leaders doing as they say;
  3. following through on commitments;
  4. encouraging employees to offers ideas and suggestions and then LISTENING and TAKING ACTION!

Often leaders ask for ideas, suggestions and feedback, but then don’t take any action or even acknowledge the information.  This is worse than not asking at all.  So if you ask, listen and acknowledge, even if the suggestion is not one you can use, take the time to explain why.


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Guiding Principles

So you have created a great company. You have the talent, you have the vision, you have the infrastructure, you know where you want to take the business in the coming years, but how do you take everything and allow it to become a self-sustaining machine that will allow your company to grow?

Developing core values can become the philosophical pillars upon which your company is built, but that won’t happen unless senior leaders set the example for everyone else in the company. It’s extremely important for a company’s leaders to “live it” when it comes to the guiding principles of your business.

The key to it is communicating what you are, what you’re doing and where you’re going.  This is a big challenge, no doubt about it.  You have to maintain a link to employees to make sure they’re aware of what is going on.  Just about everyone performs better if they know why they are being asked to perform a task, and that’s what makes communication so important.

If your business is to flourish, your job as a leader is to work tirelessly to communicate with your employees in many different forms.

Every successful leader I speak with understands the power of communication in an organization.  They understand that when employees identify with the core values and why business decisions are made, they feel part of the team and want to take the organization to the next level.

Creating a sense of belonging for employees is about more than just including them in the communication pipeline. Once employees feel involved, you need to take them to the next level, where they feel like they’re actually helping to steer the company.

Not only does it take living your core values each day, but finding different and creative ways to communicate them.  I don’t think e-mail is a preferred way of communicating, but because of the speed at which we e-mail, it is a tool.  Your values need to include how you communicate within that tool.  But remember without voice inflection or listening to how people respond, you might not pick up on whether they have an issue with something.

Company wide meetings with question-and-answer sessions are another good option.  Staying vigilant with regard to communicating your core values might seem like a lot of work with little immediate reward. But while you could be spending that time landing a major account or inventing the product that will put your business on the map, if you don’t pay attention to the basics, your company will begin to fall victim to an ambiguous sense of direction, and your growth could stall.


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Showing Others How To Lead

When you move on to your next opportunity, who will you leave in your place? Will it be one successor who has been carefully groomed to fill your specific job title? Or will you depart having developed the capabilities of as many people as possible?

One definition of leading is “to show the way to by going in advance.” When you use this definition of leadership, you’ll see all sorts of opportunities to develop people, and far beyond just promoting them to a management title.

At some point in their lives, everyone has the chance to “show the way.” When you provide your team members with an opportunity to exercise their leadership muscles, you’re giving them a tremendous gift.

Leadership development is not just for those who aspire to an official job title. And, you don’t need to spend large amounts of money. The key is seeing leadership development opportunity in everyday situations.

Common workplace scenarios where development opportunities lie in wait:

Setbacks. Character is the foundation of leadership and nothing builds character like a project that fails. If you as the leader frame the failure as a learning opportunity, you will set in motion a powerful motivator to grow. I once led a high-visibility project that fell short of expectations. My leader adopted an approach of “get back up on that horse.” She expressed confidence that I could learn from my mistakes and that I would be a better leader on the next go-round. And I was.

Transition. Any time there is an imminent change, you have a prime opportunity to coach people to lean into leadership, either formally or informally. Possible opportunities: promotions, appointment to project leadership, department restructuring or procedural changes. Look for any situation that requires that others be “brought along” into a new territory. Then, identify someone on your team who has both the competence and enthusiasm about the change to act as a lead.

Technical expertise. Do you have a highly skilled “technician” on your staff — someone who excels in a particular skill that others would benefit learning about? Work with that individual to help him craft a series of “lunch and learns” for your team. You can also look for ways you can showcase your team members’ talents beyond your department — send them in your place to meetings or have them make presentations at all-company meetings.

Differing opinions. In the workplace, there’s an abundance of opinions. When those viewpoints clash, your team needs leadership to help bring the group to consensus. That person doesn’t always need to be you. When you help others in your team develop the skill of facilitating dialogue, there are multiple paybacks. Not only do your discussion leaders gain key business skills, but your team works together more smoothly.

Tom Peters has said, “Leaders don’t create followers; they create more leaders.” There are ample chances to grow leaders each and every day. When you know where to look, it’s surprising just how many “leadership development” opportunities there really are.

 


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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.


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Criticism without Solutions Simply Doesn’t Work

As leaders, we are often in a position where our opinions and criticism carry great weight and those perspectives can positively and negatively affect the lives of those around us. Unfortunately we’re not always careful with our criticism nor are we mindful of the corresponding responsibilities that go along with our words.
In an age where we can all be critics, whether it’s in blog post comments, on our own websites, on twitter, Facebook, or anywhere else we can share our ideas and opinions, the importance of understanding our responsibility as a critic is great. Yet we often ignore this responsibility and blast away at the object of our derision with little thought for the implications of our actions. Well allow me to offer a challenge for all of us to aspire to be something more than a simple critic

As a leader, it’s easy for you to rain down criticism upon the work of others. You don’t do the work – you simply set the direction for the work to be done, define the performance standards, and judge the quality of the work after it is completed. Like it or not, you’re a professional critic.
What you must understand is your criticism carries weight. It impacts the performance reviews of your people. It determines whether a supplier wins a contract or gets booted. It shapes the perspective on whether someone gets promoted or not. You get the picture – your words change lives.

I invite you to go a step beyond simple criticism. Help build something beyond your words. Instead of simply designating something as inadequate, offer constructive thoughts on how to improve it. Give people the coaching, feedback, and resources to improve their product, service, performance. Identify opportunities to connect ideas and people so they can build something greater. Be part of the solution rather than simply pointing out the problem.

Better yet, change your mindset from one of critic to one of architect. Instead of looking at your job responsibilities as only setting direction and judging the work of others, spend time with your team creating new ideas. Roll up your sleeves, make your own contributions to that idea, and be open to your work being judged by others. It’s risky. Our insecurities hold us back and relegate us to the safe world of the critic rather than allowing us to take the chance of creating “oh my! Something let’s say Average”.

If you’re not up for being an architect, at least be willing to put yourself out there to support and defend new ideas. Don’t simply follow the crowd and their opinion of something. Form your own independent thoughts and stand behind those beliefs. Don’t bow to the criticism of other critics who might criticize you (wow… stop and think that one through). It’s hard enough to create something new for those poor souls who subject themselves to the criticism of the world. I’m sure they would welcome your support, encouragement, and suggestions.   Another issue with being critical of the efforts of others without being having input on a solution is that you risk becoming irrelevant to the people you lead. It is very important to take a step back and think about what you are doing and how things might be improved before opening your mouth in judgment.

For an example, consider the following: a few years ago, an executive in a company I work for visited a customer site where things had gone very poorly during a recent project. This person scheduled an urgent conference call in which he spent 15 minutes lambasting the entire field team based on what he heard from one customer, then ended the call. No suggestions for improvement, no consideration of all of the customers who were extremely satisfied with the work – nothing about correcting the situation at all. I can certainly believe he was very upset at the time and demonstrated poor judgment in doing what he did, but there was no apology and no real change of behavior in subsequent calls.  The unintended consequence of such behavior is that many of the staff formed their own judgment – that the opinion of that person was not useful in the mission of having excellent customer relationships, so why waste time paying attention to them?

Leadership is about being out in front and taking others to new places. You can’t lead if you simply follow the conventional wisdom because it’s safe. So the next time you consider dropping a criticism bomb on the work of another, I invite you to consider the feelings of that individual, the effort they put into creating that work, the risk they’re taking in subjecting it to judgment, and the hopes and dreams they have tied up in the idea. After you’ve considered those things, then render your criticism appropriately and try to go beyond just the judgment.


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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.