High Performance Company

#boldHR at #HRevolution

boldHRevolution is this weekend. Saturday, November 8th, near Dallas. If you’re in human resources, you’re going, right? It’s not too late.

I attended two years ago in Chicago and it changed my life. That’s a strong statement, but not hype. In so many ways, I can trace where I am now back to that event, the people I met, and the opportunities that began opening up because of it. It was pivotal for me.

It was the first HR conference I’d attended since the 1998 SHRM National conference while I was in grad school. That conference left me painfully disillusioned about the field of HR. I’d gone, figured school would lag the industry and anything I had learned was already common place status quo. Instead, the things being discussed in whispered tones as bleeding edge at the conference were all things I’d already read about in textbooks. I discovered there was a huge gap between what excited me about HR and what I thought the field could be versus where it actually was.

I first started reading blogs in 2009 and discovered people who also thought bigger about HR, people who approached it from different angles, people who had the same vision of the field as mine. I heard about HRevolution after the fact and kicked myself for somehow missing the first couple.

In 2012, three of my biggest heroes were leading sessions and there were many other people whose names I recognized presenting and attending. All at small conference intended to give the field a shove beyond its comfort zones. How could I miss?

I bought a plane ticket with my own money and went, staying in some wretched hotel far beyond the expensive hotels near the conference center. The next morning, the sleepy cab driver almost hit several other cars as he struggled to stay between the white lines and then missed the exit.

Happy and thankful to arrive, I wandered through the massive conference center to find the three or four rooms being used for HRevolution. And was welcomed by people I’d never met as though I were a friend. The whole day was a blur of amazing people, great ideas, and better discussions.

It feels silly to acknowledge it, but I have a strong emotional connection to that event. I met my heroes, made friends, greatly expanded the depth of my network, and launched my career forward. I left inspired, encouraged, and challenged to play bigger professionally.

Two years ago I awkwardly volunteered to participate in a session called “HR Improv”. This year I’m leading a session called “Bold HR”. There are also sessions by Franny Oxford, Bill Boorman, Lois Melbourne, Jason Seiden, Frank Zupan and Tammy Colson, Ravi Mikkelsen, and William Tincup and Matthew Stollak. Plus, many of the attendees are folks you’d normally see keynoting conferences attending as participants just because it’s a fantastic event.

Rather than the “sage on the stage” approach at so many conferences, everyone at HRevolution is down to earth, friendly, and completely accessible. So many great people to meet, share ideas with, and help raise the game.

This year, I’m very excited to meet new friends, see old ones, and learn from everyone. You’re running out of time, but if you’re at all on the fence about attending, there are still a few tickets left and I hope to see you there. Please find me and say hi.

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“that’s the way we’ve always done it” isn’t a strategy

dragging timeBusiness is at a cross-roads. Business gets done for, through, and by people. Unfortunately, the human side of business has not evolved at the pace of technology, has not kept up with changing expectations, and is anchoring business in the past.

Leadership is at a cross-roads. The dictatorial command and control philosophy so repugnant in government yet so warmly embraced by business is losing effectiveness by the day. The world is changing too fast to leave all the decision making, planning, and creativity to only a few. A pyramid shaped hierarchy simply can’t keep up, can’t respond fast enough, and is too exposed to mistakes caused by the biases of its top leaders.

Organizational and work design is at a cross-roads. Trying to do 21st Century work with models and designs developed for the 20th, 19th, and 18th centuries has its limitations.

Human Resources is at a cross-roads. Changes in technology, business philosophy, and HR’s role in the organization mean it can play an increasingly important role or be so redefined that it essentially fades away, replaced by technology and outsourcing.

People know things are changing and need to change more. If you go to conferences that have “Reinvent,” “Future,” “Evolve,” “Change,” etc. in the name you quickly find that most of the attendees are already on the same page. Even at less future-oriented presentations, I’m finding large numbers of people embracing the idea of what their field could be, of how it could create more value or better results, of the need to leave the past behind and the opportunity to redefine the future.

There are people and companies leading the way, some for decades now, showing us how the future of work could be. Showing us how today could be. But they get dismissed as a novelty (not REAL business), of having unique circumstances that couldn’t possibly work in other businesses, of being faddish. Even though real life examples abound, it’s easier to dismiss new ideas than to invest in the effort to adapt them to our own circumstances. Easier to assume that what seemed to work well enough in the past is what will work best in the future.

Would anyone ever consider “but that’s the way we’ve always done it” a legitimate reason for continuing an outdated policy? No. So why is it so easily accepted as justification for clinging to antiquated business strategies, org design, or leadership? Why is it an easy excuse for sinking into the past as competition (and the world) passes by?

We know better, don’t we?

[Photo Credit: h.koppdelaney via Compfight cc]

what have you done to kill innovation today?

No InnovationPeople are naturally creative and inventive. Most of it has been squeezed out of a person by the time they enter the workforce, but a little always remains. Creativity and innovation are the bane of exacting accuracy and efficiency. Trying something new or different slows things down and introduces errors and variability into processes. It flies against the virtues of the status quo and state of the art best practices.

Yet, no matter how much you insist on ruthless adherence to rules, policy, and precedent, there will always be people in your organization who find new paths. Here are a few thoughts for preventing them from disrupting your business:

Who you hire is crucial to the company’s future. If there is a preferred “type” for your organization, hire those people. Sometimes it’s pretty obvious – ethnicity and gender are easy to play to and that’s really an amateur move. A pro knows that sometimes you have to dig a bit to find what your company really values. Maybe it’s only hiring people from one or two preferred colleges. Maybe it’s a preference for a specific major or having worked for a certain competitor. Maybe it’s seeking people from a specific church or with particular social interests. Maybe it’s fashion sense or a certain hairstyle. Maybe it’s living in a certain suburb or neighborhood. Whatever it is, you’re wanting to make sure everyone is as similar as possible. Remember: any diversity (including backgrounds, thoughts, experiences, perspectives, etc.) goes hand in hand with creativity and innovation. The more that people in the organization resemble each other in every aspect, the less disruption there will be.

Foster an environment where being (or at least appearing) busy is paramount. There’s no time for thinking because thinking doesn’t look busy. If people have time to think, they don’t have enough to do.

Put policy above common sense, business sense, human decency, or anything else really. Policy exists for a reason.

Never introduce variety into the day. Even go as far as keeping the same meetings at the same times in the same locations. Every time. Don’t be tempted to skip a meeting if there’s nothing pressing and never hold it in a different location. Variety sparks creativity. Let a philosophy of sameness guide your leadership.

Questions only lead to ideas. If you do have to ask a question make sure is a yes/no question. Never ask an open ended question unless you already know the answer and it’s still best to make it an obviously leading question. Remember, you don’t actually want new answers or ideas, you only want to reinforce the ideas you already have.

Even though you never want to ask a real question, a great technique for eliminating new ideas is asking for people’s ideas and then never, ever do anything with them. This does two things: 1) it identifies your trouble makers; and 2) it subtly helps people figure out their ideas aren’t wanted and they’ll soon stop making any suggestions for improvement.

If someone has a new idea, never ever seek to understand. Obviously you don’t want new ideas – that means change and doing things in new way – so why waste time learning about something you’re never going to do? Better to show strong leadership and gently ridicule the idea. Be condescending and have pity for any person dumb enough to suggest such a thing. Then move on.

If a new idea somehow gains traction always insist that it be fully developed and perfected before being put into action. Never allow people to pilot an idea with a small group in a low risk way. Never allow an idea to be launched and improved through rapid iteration. Always insist on it being perfect from the start. If the idea somehow ever gets put into use, be sure to react strongly to any stumble and use that as a reason to neuter the idea or shut it down completely.

Benchmark your competition to make sure you are doing everything exactly the same. Obviously, the only way to get ahead of your competition is to do everything just like them. This is called “best practices” and can be used to justify any failure. As long as you fail just like everyone else, no one can ever criticize you (but fail in a different way and you’ll become everyone’s whipping boy – that’s why you don’t want to be different).

Reward tenure above all else. Even new hires will quickly understand that advancement comes from keeping your head down and agreeing with upper management. Those who do enter the company with any ambition or creativity will become immediately frustrated and soon leave. Problem solved.

Oddly, even though you obviously want unchanging status quo and unvarying efficiency, it’s trendy to talk about the importance of innovation. All businesses have to do it so they look modern. Don’t worry, it’s just lip service. Just tell your employees things like: I want you to take chances on new ideas, but you better not fail. You can espouse the need for creativity and innovation and, as long as you make it clear that it’s better to fail by doing nothing that it is to fail by doing different, nothing will ever change.

There you are. It’s not an exhaustive list, just some ideas to get you started on eliminating creativity and innovation from your team or even organization. Again, people are naturally creative so you’ll have to be persistent to create and continually reinforce a culture of consistent sameness. Good luck.

do you prevent great talent from applying?

road closedThere is so much being said about the “war for talent” right now. So much new technology. So many vendors out there ready to help. Plenty of snazzy tech solutions to automate much of the hiring process. Unfortunately, we often forget that even the best technology is a tool, not a solution. And like all tools, it can be used poorly.

The other day I spoke to a human resources professional who was “in transition” and looking for work without much luck. It wasn’t the difficulty getting a job that had her most frustrated; she was surprised and appalled at how badly candidates were treated by companies. She’s not alone.

I’m amazed there are so many companies that simply don’t comprehend: 1) there is a huge advantage from a great candidate experience; and 2) you build a great candidate experience the same way you create a great customer experience – by thinking about it from their point of view and making it as simple and painless as possible. It’s as though they have a 21 Century mindset for competing for customers and a 1930s belief that employees are completely interchangeable cogs and should be grateful the company would consider hiring them.

Great talent has more options. They generally don’t have to put up with a poor candidate experience. AND that candidate experience is their first look at what it’s like to work for the company. Difficult, arcane, indifferent, condescending, black holes? Cyabye!

I am a big fan of rigorous selection systems. I believe companies should hire as though their future success or failure depends on the people in the organization and their decisions and actions (hint: it does). Technology (theoretically) enables us to automate much of the drudgery and makes it easier to connect with candidates, simplify the application and selection process, and make communication a breeze.

Or, technology can be used indifferently to automate the wrong parts of the process, make applying complicated and difficult, and turn communication into a meaningless checkbox activity. Some examples:

  • The careers section of the company website is difficult to find, confusing, or has contradictory information about how to apply.
  • The position description is vague, confusing, or doesn’t provide enough information. This isn’t a fault of the technology, but can lead to other problems when the technology makes it difficult/impossible to learn more.
  • Expressing interest in a position and trying to find out more requires setting up an online account (because we all need another password to remember) and going through the entire application process. Which requires providing sensitive personal information. The potential applicant has to reveal birth date and social security number just to find out if the job is actually something they are interested in. No. Major fail. Great talent will simply move on and continue looking elsewhere.
  • If a computer glitch happens, there is no way to contact a human to get it sorted out. Locked out of your application? Too bad.
  • Otherwise qualified candidates are automatically screened out by the system because they don’t meet a rather arbitrary set of qualifications. Too often, the nice-to-have qualifications are turned into must-haves that reject otherwise outstanding candidates.
  • Otherwise qualified candidates are automatically screened out because their resume doesn’t have enough of the specific key words the system is looking for.
  • Generic communication is sent out in batches. This is a time saver. It’s also a great way to send rejection letters to candidates with an offer in hand or reject someone who bowed out of the hiring process a full month ago.

What else? What other candidate experience failures are out there? Failures that would be soooo easy to correct if someone thought about the process from the candidates’ point of view?

It’s easy to think this doesn’t matter because there are plenty of applicants. But, are they the right applicants? Is technology making it easier for great people to apply or is it driving them away? Fortunately, if you have a lousy hiring process and a miserable candidate experience, you’re not alone. So many companies fail at this that many just consider it normal. That’s a low bar and an easy one to hurdle.

The nice thing about so many companies being so bad is that it’s really easy to stand out.

[Photo Credit: Sarah Korf via Compfight]

would you get inked for your company?

128px-NicksGunSo much of what is on the cutting edge of building employee engagement is really just applying well known customer service principles with employees instead of customers. Most of it is just about creating human connections and treating others at least as well as we’d want to be treated (wait, you say that’s not a new idea?).

There’s a next level though. A level of engagement where people are happy to accept less-than-the-best pay; where people would eagerly move across the country for the opportunity to be an employee; where it’s not unusual for employees to enthusiastically get tattoos of the company’s logo.

Think long and hard about that. What would it take for you to identify with your employer so strongly that you’d get inked? Heck, what would it take for you to proudly wear clothes with the company’s logo when you weren’t working (and still had clean laundry)? What are these companies doing that is so different?

I have some thoughts, but they come with the caveat that it’s just my thoughts and observations, not the results of a scientific study. I’d love to hear from people who actually work at a company that creates such an intense connection. [Two quick thoughts about the tattoos: 1) I’m just using them as a dramatic example, but there are other ways people demonstrate a strong personal connection with their employer; and 2) at least one company out there gives employees a raise if they get a logo tattoo – that’s not an example of love for the company, that’s a business transaction – and it doesn’t count.]

Creating Next Level Engagement

How could we attempt to create the kind of loyalty and love that has employees wearing their heart on their sleeve? What is so different?

Establishing Identity / Culture. These companies have a very strong identity that’s echoed throughout their culture. They don’t try to please everyone by offending no one. Rather they have a strong flavor that probably isn’t for everyone, but is loved by a few. Think “death by chocolate” ice cream to the typical corporate plain vanilla.

Valuing Individuality and Diversity. Employees are free(er) to express themselves through their clothes, appearance, desk decorations, etc. No one feels they have to conceal or downplay non-mainstream interests. No need to leave important parts of themselves at home or strap on the identity straightjacket when they come in to work.

Getting Selection Right. They use their strong identity as a first line of selection by turning off those who wouldn’t be a good fit and creating a strong attraction for those already in tune with the culture. Then they make hiring the right people a top priority instead of an afterthought and take a rigorous approach to selection.

Creating Internal Communities. Employees have fun together and intentionally build internal communities that create strong connections between employees based on common interests, company sports teams, charity work, fun runs, etc. They might also strongly encourage cross-departmental collaboration, both formal and informal such as mixed or open workspaces, eating lunch together, etc.

Encouraging Championing. This isn’t the right name, but I don’t know what else to call it. These companies want their employees on social media and vocal in the community. They are more concerned about people not sharing their passion for the company and its mission than they are about people saying the wrong thing. Yet, how many more typical companies actively smother any love their employees have for them by not trusting and discouraging/preventing people from speaking up, speaking out, and sharing their love?

Shedding Blood. People support those who support them, sacrifice for those who sacrifice for them, and shed blood for those who shed blood for them. Few things build loyalty faster than knowing the company is unquestioningly behind them when things get tough.

Celebrating the Love. These companies proudly show off their employee’s love. They have pictures of the tattoos, custom or homemade t-shirts, or whatever on the website and actively use that love to further build the brand identity and culture. Contrast that with companies that would cite the logo tattoo as being against dress code and a violation of the company’s trademark (“Did you get use of the logo approved by marketing and compliance?”)

What do you think?

I’d love to hear your ideas or examples of what these rare companies do that’s so special.

[Photo Credit: By THOR via Wikimedia Commons]

what if it’s not about employee engagement?

Work SucksEmployee engagement is a HUGE issue. But… maybe the problem is we’re focused on the wrong thing. Maybe disengagement is a symptom and we keep trying to fix people rather than addressing the underlying causes. Maybe it’s not as hard as we think. Maybe it’s not even really about engagement.

What if it’s about the employee experience?

Computer programmers place a big emphasis on creating a great user experience. They call it UX and know if the user experience is poor, people will stop being users and go find better software. Marketing and sales folks spend time fretting over the customer experience (aka CX). They know that customers will stop being customers if the experience is too difficult. UX and CX are huge issues and are given considerable attention.

Companies are slowly (oh, so slowly) catching on to the idea that they are competing for candidates. Talented candidates have options and if the application process is too painful, they’ll immediately go somewhere else. So, we’re hearing more and more about the candidate experience.

But we don’t hear much being said about the employee experience (call it EX). EX is made up of all the things that help or get in the way of employees getting their work done: management, their supervisor, rules and policies, work processes, work environment, culture, co-workers, etc. Does their daily work experience make them feel frustrated, angry, defeated, or hopeless? Or do they feel empowered, responsible, supported, and valued?

This is not just a human issue, not just an engagement issue, this is a business issue. Business gets done for, through, and by people and it’s been said that the customer experience never exceeds the employee experience. It’s a simple formula: CX<EX. How a company thinks about and treats its employees has a direct impact on how employees think about and treat customers which has a direct impact on how customers thing about and treat the company which has a direct impact on business results. In short:

Employee Experience >>> Customer Experience >>> Customer Behavior >>> $ (or not)

If you were going to improve the employee experience, what would you do? Here are a few ideas:

1. Start where you are with what you have (and stop digging). It’s easy to think of engagement as being too complicated or someone else’s problem. It’s easy to think it’s only for the VP of HR to worry about or that you can’t do anything because you’re not Zappos or Google. But the truth is, we can all make a difference in whatever organization we’re in.

Think about it this way: Are there things that you personally could do right-now-today that you know are 100% guaranteed to cause a terrible employee experience or spread disengagement throughout the company? (Yes!) If you have the power to have a negative impact, you also have the ability to have a positive impact. And if you know the things that make it worse the obvious strategy is: Don’t do that.

There’s an old saying: when you find yourself in a hole, stop digging. If you’re fighting against disengagement, creating an award winning workplace is a fantastic goal, but the first step is to simply stop doing things that create a terrible employee experience and cause disengagement. Don’t worry about making it better (yet), just quit making it worse.

2. Recruit and hire like it matters. If you want engaged employees – people who give a damn about results – start by hiring engaged people. Recruit, select, and hire people as though the future success of the company depends on it (hint: it does).

The software company Valve is a great example of an organization that truly understands the importance that hiring the right people has on business results. From their employee handbook: Hiring well is the most important thing in the universe. Nothing else comes close. It’s more important than breathing. So when you’re working on hiring… everything else you could be doing is stupid and should be ignored!

3. Invest time, money, and resources into developing people. This is kind of a big deal. People who care about their results tend to enjoy new challenges and hate stagnating. They want to learn, grow, develop and won’t stand for watching life pass them by or resigning themselves to a career where every day is the same. You hired great people, help them continue to be great. Oh, and the world is changing quickly. If your people aren’t developing new knowledge and skills every year, your company is sinking into the past.

4. Pay attention to culture. We’ve been told, “Culture eats strategy for lunch.” and that sounds really impressive, but what is culture? The best definition is comes fromTerry Deal and Allan Kennedy: culture is the way things get done around here. Beliefs, policies, values, rules, unspoken norms, etc. all manifest in how things get done. So when it’s said that culture eats strategy, it doesn’t mean strategy is unimportant, it means that how you do things (the culture) must be in line with and support what you want to do (the strategy).

Likewise engagement efforts can be completely supported – or devoured – by culture. Do you have the culture you want? Does how you do things support people being fully engaged and at their best or does it shut people down?

5. Get rid of stupid policies. Speaking of how we do things around here… Stupid policies prevent people from doing good work, degrade the employee experience, and get in the way of results. They are generally the result of two situations: 1) someone did something dumb once and a policy was created rather than dealing with the situation and treating it like the anomaly it was; or 2) a policy was created to address a once valid situation that is no longer important, relevant, or valid.

Do something radical. Find out which policies are causing frustration and preventing people from getting their work done, then change or destroy those policies.

[Check out the book Kill the Company by Lisa Bodell for more thoughts on eliminating stupid policies.]

6. Provide employees with good managers. It’s said that people leave managers, not companies. Managers make or break the employee experience by making people feel supported and valued, bringing out their best and challenging them to be even better. Or NOT. Leading is a tough job most managers simply haven’t been prepared to do.

People usually get promoted into management because they’re good at the technical parts of their job and then are suddenly expected to be able to lead people. And it’s just not that easy. Leading is a distinct and completely separate skillset and like all skills it has to be fostered and developed.

If engagement and the employee experience is important and if managers can destroy them, then it makes sense to intentionally develop great managers and provide the support they need to make good decisions and do great work. Actually, if you did nothing else, having managers who don’t destroy engagement daily will provide tons of bang for the buck (bonus if they can actually build engagement).

7. Value people. This is at the heart of everything we’re discussing. This doesn’t mean everyone gets a trophy and it doesn’t mean coddling poor performance. And it REALLY doesn’t mean hollow, insincere lip service to “our employees are our greatest asset.” But it might mean believing and acting as though people matter. It might mean a bit of gratitude, a touch of understanding, a tiny amount of empathy, and the sense that the company cares about the individual. All employees will have joyous, painful, exhilarating, scary, and very human moments both at work and home. How the company, team, and leaders react tells people all they need to know about how they are valued. Few things will cause a person to disengage quicker than realizing no one cares.

So what’s it all mean?

Ultimately, improving engagement and the employee experience isn’t about improving a survey score, it’s not magic, it’s not a program, and it’s much bigger than HR. It’s about doing things that support your employees and managers at being their best and eliminating the things that cause them to stop caring.

Sounds easy. Sounds simple. Yet very, very few companies have it figured out.

[Photo credit: michelhrv via Compfight]

six myths of employee engagement

Slipshod assistance, foolish inattention, dowdy indifference, and half-hearted work seem the rule; and no man succeeds, unless by hook or crook or threat he forces or bribes other men to assist him.” ~ Elbert Hubbard, A Message to Garcia, 1899

Much gets said about employee engagement and little changes. Headlines shout that only 30% of employees are engaged and then try to connect that number to the economy, terrorism, climate change, Millennials, or whatever the fear of the moment is. Except that engagement, as measured by Gallup, has held very steady between 26% and 30% since they started measuring it in 2000 (Gallup). Lots of concern and money thrown at the issue and there’s very little change.

Maybe part of the problem is all the myth and hype that’s built up around it. As I look around, there are six prevalent engagement myths I routinely come across (though surely there are more).

Myth 1: Everyone knows the definition of engagement. There seem to be as many definitions as people discussing engagement and trying to find the best one is a challenge. For example, there is a 2006 SHRM (Society for Human Resource Management) publication titled “Employee Engagement and Commitment” that includes an entire page of definitions from 10 different companies. Every vendor seems to use a different definition and the average person usually thinks of engagement as synonymous with happiness, fulfillment, or job satisfaction. Some definitions are very academic, but I like simple. For me, the most useful definitions focus on a person’s discretionary effort and my own personal definition of engagement is “giving a damn”. It lacks nuance and precision but it’s stone simple and immediately understandable.

Myth 2: Engagement is about making everyone happy. Although I’m all for everyone being happy, there seems to be – at best – a loose connection between engagement and happiness. I suspect engaged people tend to be happier on the whole because they feel like their efforts matter, but I’m very skeptical of the suggestion that happiness creates engagement. People who give a damn about doing their jobs well are often irritated with anything that prevents them from being at their best. They’re mad because they care and that’s very different than being happily indifferent.

Myth 3: Work ethic is dead (kids these days). There are a lot of fingers being pointed at the Millennial generation and a lot of talk about how different they are. It’s easy to talk about how things were when we were young and lament the death of the old fashioned work ethic. Consider the possibility that the “old fashioned” work ethic we romanticize and get all misty-eyed nostalgic over never existed. For a bit of perspective, read A Message to Garcia, written in 1899 to see what the author thought of the work ethic back then (spoiler: it was pretty bad). Or just think about it this way: if we have a five generation workforce and 70% of the workforce is disengaged and that holds steady over time since before Gen Y was a strong presence in the workforce, it can’t be about generation.

Myth 4: $$$ = Engagement. I hear managers complain that they can’t motivate or get their employees engaged because they don’t control wages. It does seem like increasing pay would increase engagement, but the research of Fredrick Herzberg and others suggests otherwise. Money creates lots of things but it doesn’t seem to cause people to give a damn over the long haul. Yes, being underpaid is demotivating and disengagning, but being overpaid doesn’t fuel superengagment.

Consider yourself as an example. I’m going to assume that if you’re reading this post you’re a pretty engaged person and you care about the results you’re creating in your life and at your job. Do you give your all right now? Do you do an honest day’s work? Are you consistently considered a high performer? (Yes!) If your company doubled your pay could you create double the results you do now? Would you do twice as honest of a day’s work? Would you give your all twice as much? No, it’s not possible.

Flip this around and think about that actively disengaged toxic co-worker dragging the team down (you know who I’m talking about). Would paying them more change their personality, work ethic, or the amount they cared about the results they are creating? Exactly. [NOTE: I’m not saying people shouldn’t be paid more, I’m saying that increasing wages above market rate won’t magically cure disengagement.]

Myth 5: Engagement is a survey, program, or initiative. Lots of times HR or management focuses on measuring engagement with surveys or doing a program to increase engagement. That’s fine as long as everyone remembers that engagement is NOT a number from a survey and doing a program doesn’t necessarily equal engaged employees.

Engagement isn’t posters, slogans, training, or perks.  All those things have their place but all the dry cleaning, free soda, and foosball tables in the world won’t make people care more about their jobs. And, hopefully it’s not a surprise, but different people are, well, different. There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to engagement. Oh, and people sometimes put their happy face on when taking surveys and don’t respond with their true thoughts and feelings (shocker!).

MYTH 6: Engagement is only an HR issue. This ties back to the myth that engagement is a survey or program. Disengagement is branded a “people problem” and handed to HR as though engagement is a thing that is separate from the business.  Engagement is not something that can be delegated to a specific department. It’s not something we can purchase. Engagement is not separate from the business and it’s not separate from the people. Business gets done for, through, and by people so engagement is a BUSINESS issue through and through. People touch every aspect of business so people problems affect business results.

What if the whole idea of engagement is simply a well-meaning red herring? What if it’s not the real problem at all? What if it’s an indication of something bigger and we’ve been treating symptoms rather than the real issue?

Stay tuned for more on this. Next time we’ll look at some things we can do and something that might be more useful to focus on than engagement. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts and experience in the comments.

[NOTE: this post is based on part of my presentation What if Employee Engagement Actually Mattered?]

whose policy is it, anyway?

Had a great conversation the other night with a friend about making organizations flatter and removing the barriers to people doing great work. It’s easy for me to get pretty excited and idealistic about the shift I see happening in companies and the future of work. I was brought down to earth with the memory of a silly process that stayed in place because it existed but no one knew who was responsible for it.

Several years ago a CFO complained about a form used by his accounting department to track training expenses. It was intended to make sure that employees weren’t going on some sort of training spending spree (does that happen?) by requiring several levels of approval before they were able to attend the training.

The reality was NO ONE filled it out in advance. They only completed it when accounting started calling well after the fact and insisting on it to justify the expenses. Plus, it applied equally to all “training” from attending a lunch at a professional organization to a multiple day program across the country. And, many of the people who had to fill it out had company credit cards and discretionary funds – I suspect they simply got around completing the form by not calling it “training”.

So here was the CFO griping that he had to complete a form that he thought was ridiculous and stupid. Although it was a training form, it never passed through anyone responsible for training so it was a form that only his department used. Think about that again. His department’s form. He thinks it’s stupid. He could kill it on the spot. But rather than risk eliminating it (who would protest?), he complained and let it continue. I’ve no doubt he is still complaining about it today.

Stories like that make me think the organization of the future is just a little bit further away than I want to imagine.

What thinks you?

creating a more human business (book review of “the happy manifesto”)

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I marked a few important pages…

Like it or not, the future of work is here

The future of work excites me, fascinates me, and frustrates me. Work as we know it isn’t really working anymore. Work is designed as though people are interchangeable machines instead of being designed to help people be at their absolute best. It’s designed around outdated ideas on when and where and how work MUST be done. It’s based on the (profoundly, incredibly stupid) idea that the boss is the supreme expert in all things work getting things done through apathetic, incompetent minions. We’re doing 21st century work based on ideas developed in the industrial revolution.

People aren’t cogs, people are the point. Business gets done for, through, and by people. I can’t say it enough. It’s common sense obvious. Employees are people, customers are people, vendors are people, managers are people, CEOs are people. Yet, the simple idea that designing business for people (humanizing business) leads to better results is somehow radical. Those too-crazy-for-business-school ideas exist and thrive in organizations that let them.

The thing is, we know better and it’s changing. The future of work is here, examples exist now. Companies like Zappos get attention and flak for challenging the status quo, doing things their own way, and building the company around customers and employees. So many pundits and analysts dismiss the challenges to business school models as trendy fads or unworkable if you aren’t Google, ignoring the under-the-radar examples that have been too busy succeeding for decades to be bothered to care what critics think.

One of those businesses is Happy Ltd., an IT training and e-learning company repeatedly recognized as one of the 20 best places to work in the UK, with accolades and awards from Management Today, Financial Times, and the Great Place to Work Institute. How? Henry Stewart (@happyhenry), the company’s founder, shares his not-so-secret secrets in: the happy manifesto: Make your organization a great workplace (available in free and discounted versions through Henry’s website or at amazon.com).

 

Answers right in front of me

In so many ways it’s the type of book I’ve been looking for and it has been sitting on my bookshelf for at least a year and a half. The publisher had originally asked if I’d like them to send me their catalog to see if there were any titles I’d like to read and review Of course, there’s only one answer to that question and I quickly read and enjoyed Marianne Cantwell’s Be a Free Range Human but the happy manifesto sat unread. I enjoyed and got so much out of this book that it hurts I ignored it for so long. Sigh.

“That is what this book is about. Its aim is to help you, throughout your organization, to put in place the structure to make that freedom and trust possible.” ~ Henry Stewart

The book based on the author’s 20+ years of experience running his own company based on the principles described. He writes in a clear, straightforward way and provides real-life examples. The author shows what worked, what didn’t, asks some painfully thought provoking questions, and replaces conventional business methods with approaches so radically common sense they seem counterintuitive. I’ll highlight a few here.

 

Get out of the way

Many people have observed that the best thing leaders can do to enable people to work at their best is to set clear expectations and then get out of the way. Easier said than done for most leaders. How far out of the way? How about “pre-approving” ideas by giving the team full permission to implement their proposals without the leader reviewing it? How about the leader completely removing themselves from the approval process and ensuring they don’t see (and interfere) with new ideas until they are well established? How about removing blame and creating structures that encourage innovation? How about encouraging disobedience?

“Generally I try to avoid telling people what to do but, if I do, I know there is a fair chance the member of staff will do something completely different anyway, if it seems a better way to help the customer or achieve the result that is needed.” ~ Henry Stewart

 

Create ways for employees to say “yes”

People need to know what is expected and where the boundaries are yet rules often turn into all the reasons an employee can’t help a customer or get things done. Using systems based on principles versus unyielding rules and policies can give people the freedom to solve problems and move things forward. How often do we see rules are put into place to prevent problems caused by a small percentage of people instead of helping the vast majority be at their best? On the flip side, how often do we trust expect the people doing the work to find the best ways to get the job done?

“A rule has to be obeyed. In response to a rule you are expected to suspend your judgement. A system is the best way we have found so far to do something. If any member of staff can think of a better way in the situation they are in, they are encouraged and expected to adapt the system.” ~ Henry Stewart

 

Get rid of the things getting in the way of great work

Research shows (again and again) that organizations which are great workplaces are more financially successful. Interesting then that creating a great workplace isn’t a priority and expectation for maximizing shareholder value. I’m a firm believer that the customer experience will never exceed the employee experience (I wish I knew who first said that). It makes sense yet organizations rarely focus on the employee experience.

The author shares an interesting twist on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs he refers to as “a management hierarchy of needs”. Among all the needs Workplace Safety and Comfort is at the bottom with Freedom at the top. What stands out to me is how little effort we make in organizations to meet all the levels of this hierarchy. It’s as though we meet the most basic of needs and declare it a job well done (and wonder why engagement levels are so painfully low).  AND just as Self-Actualization is unsustainable and meaningless if our basic physical needs aren’t met, trying to create Freedom at work without meeting all the other needs first is unrealistic and primed to fail.

First, are your people’s basic needs being met? Have you asked them what gets in the way of doing their job well? Second, what are you doing to engage people’s higher motivations?” ~ Henry Stewart

 

Seeing clearly

Transparency is becoming a bit of a buzzword, but how many take it to heart? How many organizations make everything available to everyone? Company financials? What would happen if everyone suddenly had the information they need to make decisions, understood why and how financial decisions are made, and those decisions were transparently exposed to all?

What about [gasp, shudder] salaries? Are your salary decisions fair, unbiased, unprejudiced, and reflective of the value a person creates for the organization? If the answer is “no” you have bigger problems than people simply knowing each other’s salaries.

 

How important is hiring at your company?

Your company has probably stated that “people are our most important asset” or some such. Sounds good, but… How big of a stand is your company willing to take on that principle? The software company Valve famously made this statement in their employee handbook: Hiring well is the most important thing in the universe. Nothing else comes close. It’s more important than breathing. So when you’re working on hiring – participating in an interview loop or innovating in the general area of recruiting – everything else you could be doing is stupid and should be ignored!

How important are people to your company’s success? How important is hiring on future results? What’s the cost of a bad hire? How much effort is put into training hiring managers and selection teams? It seems like so many companies are happy to have warm bodies OR hold out for perfection based on a wish list of “requirements” that is largely irrelevant to a person’s ability to do the job (e.g., requiring a degree, any degree). From my observation, few give hiring the emphasis it deserves.

Are you able to prove they have the skills and ability to do the job or does your selection process only highlight their ability to interview well? There’s a big difference between being able to talk a good game about doing the job and actually delivering. Are you able to determine how well they will enhance and support those around them?

Do you have an easy way to reach out to the most interested people whenever you have an opening (hint: a post and pray approach doesn’t count)? Do you have a ready list of people interested in working for you as soon as a position comes open or do you make everyone apply even when there isn’t a job so “they’ll be in the system”? Are you surprised when they don’t?

 

“Profits are important and necessary but not sufficient.”

He’s preaching to the choir here (What’s the Purpose of a Business?) How differently would business be organized and conducted if it were based on the idea that profits are a means, not an end? How much better would organizations be at creating profits if they had all their employees fully behind the meaning and purpose of the work they were doing?

“I’m in business to make a profit. Of course I am. But I’m also in business to make a difference. Otherwise what is the point?” ~ Henry Stewart

 

Leaders should be good at leading (for a change)

Promoting the most technically skilled people into management roles and expecting them to be immediately and naturally good at leading would be a completely unbelievable and ludicrous idea, except it’s pretty much a given. Everywhere. It’s patently ridiculous yet is The Way Things Are Done.

Running counter to this, the author’s company divides management into two functions: 1) strategy and decision making which is handled by elected department heads; and 2) supporting, challenging, and coaching which is done by coordinators. These may be the same people or may be different and employees have a say in who their leader is. It sounds weird and it completely flies in the face of the more traditional “promote the most skilled and who cares if they can manage others” approach, yet it seems to work for them.

 

And that’s really it, isn’t it?

We can argue Happy Ltd.’s approaches, ridicule them for being unfamiliar or seeming unrealistically idealistic, yet… it works for them. That doesn’t mean it will work for everyone in every situation, but I get excited because it if works in one place, it just might work in others.

So the question isn’t, Does this approach work? The question is How can I put his approach to work in my team / department / organization?