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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Corporate Vision – Does your team need one?

The only things more painful to read than most corporate mission statements are corporate vision statements.  Many vision statements are written by committee.  They start out direct, clear and compelling but as everyone involved has their turn at contributing their input those visions lose their luster.  The direct parts of the vision get watered down as not to offend, exclude or intimidate people.  Also, things are added to the vision because people want to ensure that their pet function or goal is included in the vision statement and this lengthens the document and makes it more confusing.

Eventually some vision statements come to look more like a bill that has moved through Congress, where everyone involved has tacked on their personal amendment, than they do a compelling articulation of what the organization will be in the future.

Before you go skipping forward with the defense that you do not write vision statements at the corporate level, you must realize you are responsible for setting direction for your team.  You as a leader must create a vision statement for your team when your team is large enough to warrant having one.  Any team that is responsible for a discrete organizational function should have a vision.  It doesn’t matter if that team is as small as five people or as large as five thousand.  You can write a powerful vision statement as long as all members of that team are focused on delivering the same goals in the same functional area.

Whatever your situation or your title happens to be, the simple fact remains – you need to articulate a vision for the future state of your organization or team.  We usually leave this up to the C-suite but writing a vision statement at any level is a powerful exercise.  Your people want to be excited to come to work.  They want to be part of something bigger than they are.  If you can paint a compelling future picture for them, they will be more excited to follow you to that destination.  If you do not paint that picture, they are likely following you out of laziness or just morbid curiosity to see what is going to happen.  The earlier in your career you learn how to create vision statements the more successful you will be at writing them as your responsibilities expand.

Writing a vision statement requires a great deal of thought and an ability to step outside of your daily grind and into a time beyond the foreseeable future.  When you write it you need to make it concise and it must clearly explain how your organization creates value.  This value creation component is easier to articulate than you might think.  Ask yourself “what will the business outcomes and results be if I achieve this component of my vision?”  Your vision should include several key phrases and you should be able to link each phrase to a desired business outcome.

To create your vision, look five years into the future and ask yourself what your organization should look like.  Using a five-year planning window will generally help you balance between being achievable but not too ambiguous.  This is because it is a short enough time frame for you and your team to have a measurable impact and feel like you have made progress, but it is far enough in the future that you can be aspirational in how you describe that vision without protests of “we’ll never achieve that goal in that short an amount of time!”  Conversely, visions set beyond five years into the future can lead your team to feel like the world will change so much over that period that the vision will be neither achievable nor relevant.

Below are some thought starters to assist you with tackling this big question. Do your best to answer as many of them as you can even if at first glance the question does not apply.

– How big will your organization be?  How will you define its scope?
– What new skills will your team members have?
– What new capabilities will you build over this time period?
– How will the way you work with other groups change?
– What should your customers, both internal and external, expect from you?
– What will set your team apart and distinguish it when it is compared to other teams?
– What is your future vision for your team?
– Will they be excited by it?
– What aspects of it will they find inspiring?

Once you have drafted a preliminary set of answers to these questions look at all the answers as pieces of a bigger puzzle.  Create the most powerful elements into the simplest statement you can.  Write down the statement that captures what your team is all about.  That is your first rough draft of a vision.  As you evaluate the resulting vision ask yourself:

– Is my vision clear on how my organization creates value?
– Is the vision ambitious but realistically possible?
– Is the vision worth pursuing and does it win people’s commitment?
– Does the vision explain how we differentiate ourselves from competitors?
– Is the vision concise and does it consist of only a few critical words?

How does the first draft of your vision stack up against these questions?  If you are not happy with your vision relative to these questions, continue to revise it until you are.

 


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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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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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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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Key to keeping the “Best Employees”

Employees leave their current job for lots of reasons. I’ve seen people leave for fabulous opportunities elsewhere. But often times the reason are more half-hearted.  A friend of mine recently switched between very similar companies, in essence, because the second company gave slightly more vacation days than the first.

While congratulating her on her new opportunity, I couldn’t help thinking, what a missed opportunity for her current company. When you add up the lost productivity from her winding down her employment, how long it will take to find her replacement and how long it will take that replacement to achieve something approaching this woman’s expertise, you could have easily granted her an extra week of vacation. Or two. Why didn’t her employer do that?

My guess is that her manager didn’t want to set a precedent. (I use to be that way) If she got three weeks of vacation instead of two, everyone else would want three weeks. It’s understandable, but it’s also a very limited way of thinking. For starters, so what if everyone wanted three weeks? In a small department, turnover is a huge source of stress. Avoiding it is worth trying to treat employees better than the competition does. And second, people and their performance aren’t all the same.

While vacation days were her particular source of unhappiness, other people might have completely different problems that would make them walk out the door. Some examples:

A bad commute. Not your fault, to be sure, but something you could improve with a policy allowing people to work from home once or twice per week.

Inflexible hour. A meeting that starts every day at 8 a.m. might interfere with a parent from dropping his children off at school. Since he can’t do that, he winds up paying for more childcare than he’d need otherwise, and this financial stress leads him to look at other job opportunities. Why not let people call in, move the meeting later or get over the idea that you need a daily meeting to establish that people are still doing their jobs?

A bullying co-worker or worse Boss. Yes, companies are supposed to do something about employees who pick on others, but it’s easier not to — until one of your best people leaves over the situation. Addressing that problem would have let you keep your talent and make life better for everyone else, too.

These are all fairly easy addressed pain points. The problem for managers is that your people often won’t tell you their particular source of stress — until you get a LinkedIn message from a team member and realize that it’s because their updating her LinkedIn account as part of their job hunting.

So how to find out? You can always ask. How are things going? Is there anything that would boost your already great productivity? What would make this a better place to work? What would make your job more sustainable and enjoyable? A smart manager who takes even a little interest in his/her people would have discovered this employees desire for more vacation days and figured out a subtle way to grant her what she wanted. That would have kept the office running smoothly — far more so than letting her leave in the hopes of not setting a precedent.

As a manager, how do you keep your best employees?


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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.