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Going to the well once too often

Have you ever heard of the saying, “They went to the well once too often”? It is a 14th century saying that basically means that one shouldn’t repeat a risky action too often or push their luck too far. Unfortunately I have seen this expression play out when it comes to talent and performance management in the workplace. Organizations/managers tend to go to the well once too often with their best people.

Goint to the wellHere’s what I mean – in any given organization, somewhere between 10%-30% of your employees are your top performers or your “best.” The rest of your talent is somewhere between average to good with a small percentage of your staff that are “not quite cutting it.” Those are completely unscientific facts based simply on years of HR work experience; however, since this is my blog, I am allowed to make up stats! I do feel confident that most people would probably agree that if you were managing a department of 10 – 20 people, about 3-6 of them are your “go to” folks. So there you have it, the math works!

Here is the danger in what I have seen/dealt with in my experience. During tough times or boom times (the approach tends to be the same during both) organizations tend to over rely on their best people. Instead of “stretching” their average to good performers, or god forbid, culling and replacing their poor performers, they tend to heap more responsibilities on their best people. Companies and managers tend to continue to push and ask for more and more from their best folks. They take performance excellence for granted. Why do they do this? Because their best people continue to deliver!

You see, those elite folks that you have are driven by a desire to succeed. They never want to fail and they take great pride in their professional brand. However, this approach to mis-managing top talent this way comes with a cost. Sure, you will have a few of your best folks that will be vocal about things. They will be loud and clear about how unhappy they are with the current situation. Most will suffer in silence though. They will put on the brave face as they continue to work more and more hours. They might politely ask for help/more resources or they might possibly express some veiled concern about not being able to deliver. Most won’t say anything though. They will soldier on through. There might be more requests for vacation days and/or sick days as they try and recoup and recharge for the continued onslaught of demands. Most managers won’t clue into this though as they will be too busy continuing to add to the work demands and show their leaders that “they” can deliver.

Beware though – there is a tipping point. You can’t continue to go to the well time and time again with your best people. You see, your best people have options. They can get other jobs. They can and will leave. They don’t have to put up with the incessant demands and unrealistic expectations. Your poor to average performers – they will stay because they usually don’t have options or at least not as many options. If your best talent leaves, are you going to ask more of your poorer performing employees? I doubt it and if the answer was “yes,” then why aren’t you asking for more now instead of jeopardizing the retention of your best folks?

At the very least, in the short term, you had best be rewarding and compensating your best people for their ongoing extra efforts. You can rest assured, that if they have done all the heaving lifting for a 6-12 month stretch (or longer) and all that is in it for them is a 2.5% raise, then you won’t have them for much longer! Don’t go to that (top talent) well once too often. Recognize the warning signs, performance manage the low performers and “stretch” your average to good performers. Those that excel will become part of your elite talent group. As always, I welcome your comments and feedback.

Photo courtesy of Unsplash.com/Tom Sodoge

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Invest in those that invest in you…or something like that

I am not entirely sure this is the right title for this post, and this theme is a bit different than what I usually post, but here goes: It has been some time since I last posted on The Armchair HR Manager. I could come up with a ton of blogger excuses – work is too busy, too much stuff going on outside of work, it’s summer, etc., but most of that would be crap.

For those that know me well on a personal level, they know that I am a very private person, which I know is a bit strange considering my social media footprint. However, most of my social media time revolves around my professional brand, save for some fun I have on Instagram (check me out at hr_scottboulton). The real reason that I have been absent on the blogging front for the entire month of July is that I have been going through some challenges in my personal life. The beauty of these challenges is that it has opened my eyes to what is really important in life and what truly matters.

One of the things that has come to light during the past several months for me is the fabulous support network that I have. I mean, I always thought and felt I had great friends and family; however, the amount of support I have seen, felt and realized over the past few months has been overwhelming. I have always prided myself on building close, personal friendships over the years. While I have a large circle of ‘acquaintances’, I have maintained a smaller circle of close friends. In fact, many people I was friends with growing up, still remain some of my closest friends.

To that extent, I have always tried to “invest” in these friendships. This was done not with the intent of reaping some sort of benefit or anything from the friendship, but simply from a “give” perspective into the friendship so as to make it work. I feel you need to do that in order for a friendship to grow, develop and be maintained. Here is what I learned big time over the past few months – if you invest in those friendships, those true friends are there for you when you need them the most. The amount of support I have received from my “inner circle” over the past few months has been overwhelming to say the least. These are friends that have their own families and commitments but that make the time for you. These are friends that drop things on short notice to make you a priority and friends that shift their busy schedules and lives around on a moment’s notice to provide you the support you need…all without even being asked to do so.

I am sure I have neglected some of these friendships over the years. We all get busy in our lives and end up going separate ways; however this is an important life lesson for me. Keep investing in those friendships. Make time for each other. Don’t get too wrapped in your life and surviving the “daily grind.” Reach out to each other, check in and be present. Keep investing in those friendships and maintain your inner circle. If you are like me, those people are some of the most important humans in your life. As always, I welcome your comments.

Photo courtesy of Unsplash.com

 

 

Promises, Promises

Leadership is a risky proposition at the best of times. Those that “sign up” to be in leadership roles have agreed to take a lot on their backs and shoulders. Being a leader isn’t for everyone but if you have accepted the leadership challenge, then it is incumbent on you to embrace the role and be the best leader that you can be. Because I believe whole heartedly in developing and supporting leaders, a significant chunk of my blog is devoted to helping leaders become better at what they do. Often what I share is based on lessons learned in my job, my career, my experiences and discussions with others.

Broken Promises

One of the big pitfalls I have seen leaders fall into (often newer leaders, but not always) is that in their exuberance to want to “make a difference” they often over promise and under deliver. Now, my experience has been that that is done with the best of intentions. Meaning, in their role as a leader, they want to effect change, make their imprint on things and do things better for their team/department/organization. Often when they are new to their environment, their excitement and enthusiasm to “improve things” gets the better of them as they try and change everything in the near term.

The danger here is that these leaders bring a sense of great hope with them. For example, a department has been run for years by someone with a micromanaging style with no vision for the future and no focus on developing talent. This person is then replaced with a new leader, one who brings an exciting vision for the future and a renewed employee focus. The employees get excited, energized and (re) engaged. There is optimism and hope abound. The leader asks for their trust and faith to be placed in him/her as they change the way things were. Promises are made and expectations are set. Then…the bubble bursts.

Often these new team/departmental/organizational leaders do not have the actual autonomy and authority to make the promises (changes) that they have articulated to their staff. They had the best of intentions but ran into some form of bureaucracy, or senior management control. Worse yet, they have run into the oversight of a Board of Directors that refuses to take a hit (read: investment) to their near term cash flow in order to make the company even better longer term. The end result – the new leader is now compromised in their role after having rolled out a platform of hope.

Now, the struggle is that the employees are told formally or informally that all those promises that were made now need to be tempered. The danger is that this often results in cynicism at best, disengagement at worst. You can almost feel and hear the collective “here we go again” emanate from the staff.

So, my advice for new leaders in that type of situation is to make sure you have a clear understanding of your operating boundaries and parameters before you make promises to employees. Better yet, the old adage of control the controllable’s best applies when first starting out with a new team. That is, promises of things like, better communication, regular coaching, more rigor around quality control, etc. will get you more traction. Employees aren’t looking for the sun, the moon and the stars from you when you first come out of the gate as a new leader. BUT, if you promise that to them, you better be able to deliver. As always, I welcome your comments and feedback.

Picture courtesy of vimeo.com

 

Leadership Secret #9

I don’t know why I picked this as secret #9.  It was a completely arbitrary number but it is my blog so I can pick whatever number I want I guess!  As well, this really isn’t even a secret but more like a tip.  Stay tuned, but first a bit of preamble.

SecretIn my experience and role as an HR Pro I have been fortunate to have worked with some great leaders and managers and some not so great leaders and managers.  The great ones help you drive your organization forward and grow. The not so great ones, well, let’s just say I have learned a ton from them as I have built my experience as an HR Pro.

Often I am asked by managers and leaders (both within and external to organizations I have worked for) to provide tips, tricks, secrets on how to be a better manager or leader.  When I reflect on the good and not so good advice I have given over the years, one thing stands out.  That is, one of the key secrets to being a better manager is to TALK TO YOUR PEOPLE.  Yup, that is where it all starts.  There is no magic, no secret sauce.  It all starts with dialogue.  If you simply make time in your day to talk to your people – in the beginning it doesn’t even matter about what – you will be in the top 5% of all managers.  (In the spirit of Tim Sackett quantitative data science, I simply made that up).

It is UNBELIEVEABLE the number of managers who go day in and day out without talking to their employees.  They are too busy being in meetings, on the phone, or “producing ” something.  The other one I hear all the time is the concept of a “working manager.”  That is, when the manager is responsible for a threshold of billable hours – usually north of 50%.  Which means, at most, they spend half their time on their people…and we all know how that story ends.

So, if you want to get out of the blocks as a better manager, start to talk to your people.  Walk the shop floor at the beginning and end of the day.  Carve out 30 mins a day to spend 5-10 minutes with each of your folks.  Start by asking them what is happening that is impacting their ability to do their job effectively.  You would be amazed at what that little conversation starter can do!

Here is the thing – you need to be sincere.  You have to want to do this.  You need to care.  You need to want to help your employees be better and do better.  If you are not genuine in your approach, they will see right through this…and you probably shouldn’t be a manager to begin with. So, starting tomorrow, when you get to work, talk to your folks.  About anything.  Right away.  Right now.  No exceptions.  No excuses.  No pass throughs.  As well, this really isn’t a secret so feel free to pass this on to anyone.  Your employees will thank you for it.  As always, I welcome your comments and feedback.

Photo courtesy of Unsplash.com/London Scout

It All Takes Time

Inherently, I am not a patient person. My mother reminds me of this all the time. She thinks it has something to do with the fact that I was born premature and that I had some burning desire to get on with life at an early age! Regardless, it is a character flaw that I am aware of and have worked hard on, especially professionally, to improve.

When I first got into HR, I wanted to set the world on fire with all my new ideas that involved developing and/or implement cutting edge HR programs and initiatives. Pretty quickly you realize that the real world doesn’t work that way and in fact, most of your “great ideas” are actually pretty stupid. At least looking back on mine, I can say that they were!

Time WatchAs I matured in my career, I learned to take more time to think things through and develop/recommend “things” that would lead to longer term gains and sustainability for the organizations that I worked for. To this day though, I still find it hard to cultivate and “wait” for the fruits of mine/our labour. When we do something that is aimed at improving retention, dammit, I want to see the results like, now!

So, because I know I carry this flaw around with me, I constantly focus on trying to be patient with the “growth” of great HR initiatives, mostly so I am not too quick to judge them as being successes or failures! So having said that, I think I am now qualified to advise younger HR practitioners on how/why they need to be patient with things because it all takes time!

Case in point with my current organization, we had identified 2+ years ago that an area we needed to focus on was employee recognition. Our survey feedback, focus groups, stay interviews, exit interviews and casual conversations all “told” us that recognition was important to our staff and that we needed to make improvements in this area. So, we set about to improve all things related to recognition. Initially, we made the mistake coming out of the gate by tackling this as a “program” or initiative. While we made some short term gains by doing it this way, it became obvious that the sustainability factor just wasn’t going to be there.

So, we ended going back to the problem as redefined it as being a need to shift our culture and our way thinking. Simply put, we needed to instill a culture of recognition throughout our entire organization. Easier said than done! As with any culture shift, it takes time…far more than this impatient guy was ever used to! However, we had a dedicated core group of believers that knew this was the right way to go and were emotionally invested in making the shift happen. Yes, it involved the development of “materials” to support this; however, the real change came about working directly with managers, providing training, constant communication with all employees and above else, accountability. We were all accountable for making this culture shift happen.

What is the moral of the story? For us HR folks, it is all about recognizing the problem at hand. Typically, the solution is not a new HR program or initiative. Quite likely, it is about changing attitudes, behaviours and culture. Programs and initiatives are quick, short term hits/wins. They feel good in the moment, like we have done something tangible, but they often have little sustainability. Culture shifts take a lot longer to achieve but the payoff is huge. Over two years has passed since we truly set about trying to make this culture change and we can now see it paying dividends as the needle has finally moved. Recognition HAS become part of our culture. Our employee surveys and retention data show this to be true. Do we need to continue to improve, adapt, adopt, modify and get better? You bet we do…it just takes time. As always, I welcome your comments and feedback.

Photo courtesy of Niklas Rhose/Unsplash.com

Focus on your SOB’s!

This title may be a bit misleading but it is great for marketing purposes! Traditional thinking is that, as a manager, you need to shift your focus and spend more of your time and energy focusing on your best people, so I can see why you would be confused if I am now telling you to focus on your SOB’s! I know what you are thinking – “but Scott, that isn’t what I call my poor performers! I can’t say that, I will get in trouble with HR!” I am sure you have other code names for them…but I digress.

Angry ManNo, in this case the SOB’s I want you to focus on are Specific, Observable, Behaviours. One of the biggest management challenges I see is the lack of feedback and performance based discussions that take place between a manager and their employees. Far too many managers and employees are quick to complain about their organization’s performance management system (justifiably so in most cases) as the source of all evil, when in fact, because the front end coaching and communication between manager and employee is so non-existent, the root cause lies there.

We tend to not equip our managers with the proper tools to actually communicate with and coach employees. They get bogged down in process, forms, compliance, complicated goals and objectives and pie in the sky metrics. The reality is that everything starts with having a conversation with your employees. Simply put, employees want and need feedback on their performance and the easiest way to do this is to focus on what you are observing (good or bad) as far as their behaviours and outcomes go. This generates conversation which leads to a coaching opportunity.

I am a firm believer in focusing on HOW work is done more so then so then WHAT work is done. I believe that if you have employees with the right approach to completing their work, you can always train them on skills gaps. Alternatively, you may have someone who delivers work of the highest quality; however, they are a complete a**hole to deal with and leave a trail of bodies behind them every day. This type of person is toxic and should not be in your organization – but that is a post for another day.

For most of us, we deal with folks who are somewhere in between these two ends of the spectrum. Most of the time they display the right approach to work and most of the time they deliver. Focusing on the specific behaviours you want to see is how you get your people going in the right direction – all of the time. Talk to them about HOW their work (goals) gets done (completed). Identify WHAT you want to see from them. Communicate and coach them on these behaviours. Coach up when they are demonstrating things you do not want to see. Coach for reinforcement when they display what you want to see.

When coaching, give examples – be SPECIFIC. Employees need to know EXACTLY what they are doing well and where they need to improve. The key to this is to identify, in advance, what successes looks like for that employee in that role. That is, as the manager, you need to identify what behaviours you want to see and outline what that looks like (success) – this way, the employee has a clear idea as to what the expected outcomes are and there won’t be any surprises when they receive feedback from you. Essentially, the pre-determined behavioural outcomes become your anchoring statements every time you coach. That is, you are always referring back to these as the game plan and deviations from the game plan are rooted in the coaching conversations you have with your staff.

So, if you are looking to simplify your coaching conversations with your staff, remember to focus on the SOB’s – Specific Observable Behaviours. With an acronym like that, you won’t ever forget! As always, I welcome your comments and feedback. Best of luck dealing with your SOB’s!

Photo courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net/imagerymajestic

The Art of the Skip Level – Redux

The #1 most read post on The Armchair HR Manager is “The Art of the Skip Level” from July 2014. It has had over 10,000 views on my website along with almost 18,000 views on LinkedIn. For little old me, those are some pretty good numbers!

Skipping Businessman

The best part about the post is the amount of comments, interaction and engagement I have had with my readers. I truly enjoyed the exchange of questions and ideas. To that extent, I have had so many questions and comments that I figured a follow up post on the subject matter would be appropriate. So, what I am providing now are some other key points to consider before and after you conduct a skip level meeting:

  1. How do I get the manager who is being “skipped” onside with this? Conversation is critical here. It is important to set the proper tone and let the manager know in advance how information that is gleaned from the skip level will be shared (with them) and actioned (when/where appropriate.) Involve the manager in the process because if you alienate them, the trust will be eroded. This part is really tough – I am not going to lie! Be upfront with them about the “why’s” in terms of why you are doing the skip level. You need to talk to them well in advance of conducting the skip level meeting. Often you can position the skip levels with a continuous improvement and/or employee engagement approach in mind. As well, you need to let the manager know that the skip levels are NOT going to be performance impacting. They are to be used as information gathering that will help you as their manager do a better job of coaching, developing and supporting them.
  2. To share or not to share, that is the question: My readership has often asked me if they should share the questions in advance that they are going to ask at a skip level. There are several things to consider with this question, beginning with, should you share with the employees and should you share with the manager who is being “skipped.” First and foremost, if you do in fact have a planned series of questions you want to ask (always a good idea) you need to share these with the manager being skipped. This will help alleviate a lot of the stress and anxiety they will likely be feeling, especially the first time you conduct a skip level. As well, it will help build trust with them as they will clearly see that there is nothing being “hidden.” The next consideration is whether or not you should share in advance with the employees that will be attending. The answer, as with all things HR, is that “it depends.” If the questions are going to be time consuming to read/understand, then yes, give them time in advance to read and contemplate. If you want the session to be fairly formal, and typically larger groups need more structure and formality in order to keep on track, then you should share the questions in advance. However, if your group is smaller and will lend itself to be more conversational in nature, there really isn’t a need to share the questions in advance. What is most important is that you focus on the “pulse” of things and let the conversation be a bit fluid; remember, it is all about creating dialogue.
  3. What is the most important thing to consider with regards to the employees AFTER the skip level is done? The single most important consideration with the employees is that you need to follow up with them, in relatively short order, with regards to what you are going to do in response to the information you received during the skip level and/or follow up with what you are going to do differently as a result of the skip level. You can’t commit to responding to everything, but you have to follow up with something, otherwise they will feel they wasted their time talking to you. It could even be as simple as committing to providing the generalized feedback to the manager within 1 week of the skip level being completed and letting employees know you will use the information to work with the manager to help improve BLANK at the workplace. Get some quick, easy wins out of things first. This builds credibility.
  4. What is the most important thing to consider with regards to the manager being skipped after the skip level is done? With regards to the manager, you need to follow up with them re. how the meeting went. If you picked up on some general themes (positive or negative) you need to have a discussion with them soonest. You have to remember, all that your manager is going to be doing, until they hear from you about the meeting, is THINKING about what might have been said at the meeting. They will want to know what was said, discussed, committed to, etc. You owe it to the manager to NOT leave them hanging.
  5. How do I avoid having done a skip level meeting not look like a “witch hunt”? The easiest and most effective way to avoid this scenario is to make conducting skip levels a regular event. If you only do them when something appears to be wrong (i.e. complaint driven, bad employee survey, etc.) then the manager being skipped will always feel like you are out to get them and won’t trust the process. However, if you do them on a regular basis (and regular can be the last Friday of every 4th month), then employees and your manager(s) will come to expect them as part of your regular feedback and improvement process. In other words, it will just be part of a regular day at the office.

Armed with this information, along with the information from the original post, you should be in great shape, pre and post skip level meeting, to utilize skip levels as a communication and improvement tool . Be open, honest and candid with your manager(s) and their employees. If you aren’t, no one will trust you or the process. If they don’t trust, you are wasting your time. As always, I welcome your comments and feedback.

Image courtesy of ambro/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

 

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