When You Undervalue HR, You Undercut Your Managers’ Effectiveness

02/24/2014

desperationOne of the fastest ways to sabotage your business results is to hire the cheapest HR professionals you can find. When you saddle your executive team with under-staffed (or under-skilled) HR support, you hobble their performance. Here’s why:

  • More than any other person in an organization except for the CEO, the top HR executive impacts how much courage managers will show in hiring and performance management.
  • HR has an enormous impact on your budget. In many organizations, the lion’s share of the annual budget is spent on salary and benefits, and HR typically determines how strategically that money is allocated. (Good luck attracting great people when you offer lousy benefits and no clear way of measuring or rewarding performance).
  • HR has a huge impact on results. HR maps out the strategies that attract, retain, and inspire the staff to help you achieve your mission. (Good luck trying to achieve great things without great people. Even if you hired some great people, ineffective or bad HR strategies could end up demoralizing them just before you need their best work).
  • And when things really go sideways, HR helps you evaluate the legal risk of ushering your hiring mistakes out the door, before they cause even more damage. (Or do you enjoy making chit-chat with your former employees’ lawyers?)

But it’s a precarious business to be an effective senior HR executive. In a cruel twist of fate, doing the HR job well requires putting their own job at risk repeatedly, because it’s often their responsibility to speak the uncomfortable truths to power. Great HR people make the CEO less comfortable, not more comfortable. Consider how:

  • When you feel like your organization is already spending too much on salary and benefits, a top HR executive will tell you that your compensation still isn’t competitive, and you need to spend more if you want to hire and retain the best people.
  • When you think you’ve communicated enough about your performance expectations, great HR tells you the team is still fuzzy on the details and you need to do more for them to understand you clearly.
  • When you would rather dodge addressing a situation with a problem employee, great HR won’t let you shirk your responsibility, and keeps the issue on your agenda until you resolve it.
  • When you want to blow up in righteous indignation at someone’s failure, great HR instead cools you down and points out that there are environmental factors that set them up to fail.
  • When you make the workplace less productive by occasionally micromanaging, undercutting your executives, or not acknowledging high performance, great HR points out where and how you could improve.

Good ol’ HR, always the life of the party. (Mommas don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys HR pros.)

If you are a CEO and your top HR pro does not make you uncomfortable, consider that you might have the wrong person for the job. Or consider that you may actually have the right person. But instead of letting them speak truth to power, you instead make it abundantly clear that they shouldn’t bring you tough information. Either way has the potential to put everything you worked for at risk; your pay practices, performance management, and maybe even legal compliance could be sorely lacking. You need to encourage HR to bring you the bad news. Take a Dramamine if you need to, because it will rock the boat.

But if you ever want to hear the truth, don’t make it your policy to shoot the messenger.


Chronic Employee Turnover Is Almost Never About the Employees

01/22/2014

bad-adsSenior executives often call me when they are at their wits end with people on their team:

  • “I’ve tried to make things work, but my VP of HR is just not delivering the results I need.”
  • “My Communications Manager just won’t step up to the plate. We seem to only react to things without any strategy.”
  • “The world changed around us, but Finance is doing the same things we did ten years ago. I’m getting no useful information and feel like I am constantly dragged into the weeds. We need to rethink what we are currently doing, but frankly I’m more worried about all the problems we are not even thinking about yet.”
  • “Our IT department is a real bottle neck. We want and need streamlined processes, better information sharing, and improved productivity. But all we get are surprise expenses, empty promises, and long delays. Even simple requests seem to get buried in obfuscation and complexity.”
  • “Our Chief Marketing Officer is not doing anything that drives revenue. We’ve spent money to upgrade our social media presence, revamp our website, and conduct extensive customer surveys. But our revenue is still flat-lined.”

Some of these concerns might sound like people problems. But twenty years of experience as an executive recruiter has taught me that what looks like a people problem is often a situation problem. An occasional bad hire is nearly unavoidable. But if you churn through executives every few years, your chronic turnover almost certainly runs deeper than just one bad egg. When your department or executive team has a pattern of failure, it’s likely that your work environment sets people up for failure (however unintentionally).

The First Law of Holes is, “If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.” In the face of chronic turnover, don’t hire anyone new until you fix the underlying issues. Chronic turnover problems won’t be solved by blaming individual employees and then going out to immediately hire more. As Einstein noted, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Instead, chronic turnover is best solved by looking beyond the individual people and exploring any issues in the work environment. Before you move forward with another round of hiring, step back and look at your own role in these seven common causes of employee failure.

1)      Are you using an outdated business strategy? Maybe the way you’ve always done things no longer works. Nothing runs on autopilot forever. If it’s the wrong task for the times, it won’t matter who you assign to do it — they will fail. The skills required for success ten years ago are not nearly enough to achieve success today. Almost every job has an increased demand for results, coupled with dramatically higher complexity and ambiguity in the work. You can’t just use old job descriptions and salary budgets to hire new people … but many people still try to.

2)      Maybe the best people are just not that into you. Do you have trouble attracting great people to your open jobs? Or do you interview great people, only to see many of them withdraw from a second or third interview? That’s a signal that you, your job, your organization, or your industry are just not that attractive to the people you want to hire. No one stands in line for an iPhone 3G anymore, even though they did a few years ago. Have you considered that the job market might have changed around you and the best people have better options elsewhere? When was the last time you benchmarked your salaries against the competition? Do you really understand who is available in your job market and who you are competing with to hire them? (Almost nobody does this kind of market research when hiring.)

3)      Are you still placing .22 caliber people in a .357 Magnum job? Growing organizations outgrow people. Your internal positions inevitably become more complex as you grow. So your next HR Manager will face dramatically different challenges than your last one. Just because the last HR Manager was willing to work for $90k does not mean you can use the same salary budget to replace her. When you hire, you need to think about the future, not the past. And if you need a new business strategy (see #1), are you ready to pay a salary premium to hire someone with those skills? Strategy never comes cheap, but far too many managers hope (in vain) to find it in inexpensive candidates.

4)      Are you disappointed with everyone you interview? Perhaps your recruiting team is only considering the people who fit your salary budget, or perhaps your recruiting strategy only reaches the people who respond to job advertising (only about 18% of the total candidate pool responds to recruitment advertising). If you want different recruiting results, you need to align your HR practices with your business strategy.

5)      Do you hire new people to shake things up, only to be disappointed after you hire them? Do you find that your people will not step up to the plate? Do you give new people big audacious goals, then disappear while they get stuck in the thicket of executing? Do you hover at the big picture level, never getting in the weeds with them, making them feel like they are going it alone? Do you ask new people to build consensus with your overworked, understaffed current team, or do you help pave the way? And when it comes to conflict — be honest with yourself — do you reward your team for encouraging healthy debate, or reward them for getting along and not rocking the boat? Change agents need more support than senior leadership usually provides them, and they always cause more chaos than their managers prefer. You can’t say you want to hire change agents and creative thinkers and then not facilitate their ability to foment change.

6)      Do your new employees charge ahead, or freeze like a deer in the headlights? There’s an old saying, “The fish stinks from the head.” Do you share the credit and take the blame? Or vice versa? If your new hires know that they will be blamed for every error, how many risks do you think they will take? Do you swiftly make gutsy judgment calls in the face of uncertainty, or do you expect your subordinates to take those risks instead? If you are always traveling or behind closed doors, is your team forced to guess at what you are thinking? Do new employees have to figure out their mistakes from group emails or other employees? Or do they get honest, direct, and regular feedback?

7)      Do you have a rule for everything? Are your employees trusted to exercise good judgment or do you have a thick set of policies for everyone to follow? Maybe your HR policies were initially designed to mitigate your legal risk, but after years of adding small edicts to your employee handbook, your office now exudes the depressing atmosphere of a police state, repelling the very people you want to attract. Police states are rarely nimble or fun. (And in a sad bit of irony, some employment attorneys suggest that all those oppressive policies might actually increase your legal risk.)

If you find yourself blaming the person who failed in a job, you’re probably looking in the wrong place. You’ll almost never find the solution there.

Before you look at new people, look at yourself. Chronic turnover problems are best solved by looking long and hard at how you might be contributing to the very problem you are asking someone else to solve.


5 Steps To Build A More Innovative Organization

11/20/2013

business strategy Are you struggling to get your new initiatives off the ground? Do you wish your organization was more nimble and entrepreneurial? Do you yearn to build a team of people who don’t need a rule-book … people who can handle ambiguity? Do you daydream about having a team of fearless innovators who bring you great ideas, and then leap into action to make their ideas a reality?

OK, fine, it’s good to have goals.

But if you don’t work in that kind of environment right now, are you sure you know what innovation really looks like … up close and personal? And when you interview an innovator, just what exactly should you look for? And after you hire them, will your office be like the set of Mad Men?   

If you’re looking for someone with a history of serendipitous moments, where the innovation muse whispers brilliance into their ear, the cosmos align, the sun bursts through the fog and birds start chirping, you will be looking for a very long time. As children we all heard the tale of the apple falling on Sir Isaac Newton’s head, causing a supposedly sudden insight into his theory of gravity. But few of us heard what Mr. Newton was doing prior to that famous moment. So does innovation look like blindingly brilliant moments of fruit-inspired inspiration? Or does it look more like the part of the story that happened before the apple fell?

Sorry kids, strokes of genius are really tiny–more like pointillist painting than the broad-brush conversational style used in most executive suites. If you want to hire an innovator, don’t look for a fast-talker with grandiose ideas, they will not go the distance. As Harvard professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter put it, “Everything looks like a failure in the middle. Everyone loves inspiring beginnings and happy endings; it is just the middles that involve hard work.”

Instead of hiring a big talker, seek out someone who can methodically and painstakingly take tiny, unconnected painted dots (ideas) and form them into a bigger (and more interesting) picture. Scott Berkun, author of The Myths of Innovation, calls this the “Myth of Epiphany.” As he puts it, “Epiphany stories project illusions of certainty since they’re always about successful ideas. Epiphanies are a consequence of effort, not just the inspiration for it.

Other researchers have also concluded that innovation is a far more arduous process than most of us are led to believe. Keith Sawyer describes how one researcher set out to chronicle Eureka! moments only to find that good ideas are actually built upon bit-by-bit.  Peter Sims studied Pixar and the creative process used by world-class architects and comedians. Here is what he said:

“It may take Chris Rock six months to a year to develop one hour of comedy, and he does it by just scribbling ideas down on sheets of paper, going into these clubs unannounced and sitting down in a very relaxed, casual way with the audience, so that they know that, “Hey, this is not Chris Rock in prime time. This is Chris Rock in development mode.” He’ll just start riffing with the audience and he’ll bomb. It will be awkward at times. But what he’s doing is he’s looking for just a little hint as to where a hidden joke might be, and, once he finds that, then he keeps on that idea and keeps iterating, keeps improving, tweaking, until it becomes more and more a joke that he can use in his routine.”

Chris Rock knows many of his joke ideas will bomb. More importantly, he knows that’s completely OK. He revises and edits his material until he arrives at the tightly crafted sets we see on HBO. Breakthrough ideas and innovations are built on foundations of mistakes and dead ends. Innovation is surprisingly methodical, as it emerges over time out of “peripheral” knowledge, or out of seemingly irrelevant ideas.

Even on TV, innovation does not look so easy:

What appears to be an effortless flash of brilliance in this clip did not come out of nowhere (though the timing is fortunate). Prior to the dramatic scene, Don Draper had spent the entire episode scribbling countless pitch ideas onto napkins, only to decide they were all terrible.

So how do you build a more innovative organization? 

Read the rest of this entry »


The Pitfalls of Hiring: Judging Performance Without Context

08/09/2013

Humanity has always relied on our ability to make snap judgments of strangers so we could survive, otherwise there was always the chance of being caught unawares by a dangerous rival warrior masquerading as a peaceful trader. I haven’t heard of any recent Maryland tribal wars, but in hiring, we’re still stuck with the need to make snap judgments about people we don’t know particularly well. People-evaluation is a task prone to pitfalls. We trust our instant assessments of candidates, yet research shows we are too often prone to error. And it’s far too easy to fall into crocodile-infested waters by making the wrong judgment call.

When interviewing, hiring executives usually place huge emphasis on a candidate’s track record of achievement. But they often overlook the context of that achievement. In Why Unqualified Candidates Get Hired Anyway, article writer Anna Secino paints a picture of “businesses repeatedly promoting or hiring less-qualified managers who benefit simply by being associated with a high-growth group.” A Harvard Business School study looks into whether hiring managers are just as prone to what psychologists call the “fundamental attribution error” – our tendency to attribute an individual’s success or failure solely to their inherent personal qualities, without considering the context in which they succeeded or failed.

The results of the HBS study suggest that “experts take high performance as evidence of high ability and do not sufficiently discount it by the ease with which that performance was achieved.” If someone works in a highly successful, well operated company, and is highly successful as a result, we attribute their success to their innate ability. But if the exact same person works in a less successful company, fraught with employee tension and communication issues, and they failed at their task, we still attribute their failure to their innate ability to perform their job responsibilities effectively. We’ve discussed this dilemma before, and still love this quote from W. Edwards Deming:  ”A bad system will beat a good person every time.” Or as Warren Buffet put it, “When a manager with a reputation for brilliance tackles a business with a reputation for poor fundamental economics, it is the reputation of the business that remains intact.”

Understanding the environment that helped shape a candidate’s success or failure is one of the most important lessons to learn in hiring. So if you’re trying to hire someone, it’s a terrible idea to focus on their successes and assume that they will be equally successful in your environment. Consider the cautionary tale of Ron Johnson, who took over as CEO of J.C. Penney after huge successes with Target and Apple. He “helped make Target hip, pioneering partnerships with big-name designers like Michael Graves, and had then moved to Apple, where he orchestrated the creation of the Apple Store.” But fourteen months after the takeover:

J. C. Penney is America’s favorite cautionary tale. Customers have abandoned the store en masse: over the past year, revenues have fallen by twenty-five per cent, and Penney lost almost a billion dollars, half a billion of it in the final quarter alone. The company’s stock price, which jumped twenty-four per cent after Johnson announced his plans, has since fallen almost sixty per cent. Twenty-one thousand employees have lost their jobs. And Johnson has become the target of unrelenting criticism.

He was fired not long after. Of course, the criticism of Johnson focused on flaws that everyone seems to have considered in hindsight – he lacked CEO experience, never managed a turnaround, lacked middle-market management experience, etc. And not surprisingly, given the prevalence of the fundamental attribution error in human behavior, his failure was chalked up as a personal one, rather than one seen in the context of J.C. Penney’s difficulties. After all, “one study found that efforts at merely getting a money-losing retailer back to profitability succeed only thirty per cent of the time.” It’s extraordinarily difficult for people to separate the context from the performance – a phenomenon Phil Rozenzweig calls “The Halo Effect.”

Fortunately, if you’re concerned that you’re making these snap judgements, you may just need to take a step back, and realize that the first impression isn’t necessarily the best one. We’ve discussed this before, and suggest making sure when you’re hiring an executive, you ask plenty of follow-up questions. As we wrote in Interviewing: Are They an Effective Executive or an Empty Suit?:

Anyone can answer “Tell me about your greatest achievement.” But the gold is how you follow up on their answer.  ”How did you achieve that? What roadblocks did you overcome? Who else was on your team? What was your role on the team? What decisions did you make in the face of uncertainty? What mistakes did you make? What did you learn from your mistakes? How did you measure your success?”  That’s where the juice is. You will immediately see that the Effective Executive is much more concrete and tangible in their answers. More thoughtful. Their heads are full of metrics that they use to measure their own progress. They give ample credit to other people on their team, and often sound quite humble about their own role.


Imagine Your Ideal Salesperson. Turns Out Your Mental Picture is Probably Wrong.

08/08/2013

Pushy SalesmanIf you’re looking for an employee on the front lines of your business (salespeople, customer service, etc), you might have this image of an outgoing, gregarious individual. Or maybe you picture the aggressive (pushy?) self-confident types, who relentlessly drive sales results.

Well, I hate to break it to you, but you (and pop culture) are wrong – these types are actually the worst choices for your front lines. So if you’re targeting only these types during your hiring process, odds are you’re only hurting your sales success. Here’s why.

study from the Harvard Business Review found that effective salespeople do not necessarily exhibit a particular personality type – extroverted, introverted, etc. The study focuses instead on seven “skills related to sales success.” For example, “The Socializer,” the outgoing type most people think makes for an effective salesperson, is “the worst-performing when it comes to making the sale.” How can this be? Because “Socializers tend to chit-chat at the expense of actually making the sales pitch.” Similarly, “Storytellers” focus on “how other clients used the product or solved the problem,” but taken to extremes their stories are “counterproductive…The danger for storytellers is they pay too much attention to these past customers, and not enough on those sitting in front of them.” Makes sense to me. Time is valuable and these types use too much of it by not getting to the point. I avoid the incessantly chatty cashier at my supermarket – and she’s always the only cashier without a line, so I don’t think I’m alone there.

Another HBR study found that “contrary to conventional stereotypes that successful salespeople are pushy and egotistical, 91 percent of top salespeople had medium to high scores of modesty and humility.” Likewise, it was actually a lack of gregariousness (a preference for being with people and friendliness) that resulted in higher performance – “top performers averaged 30 percent lower gregariousness than below average performers.” As the researchers conclude, “ostentatious salespeople who are full of bravado alienate far more customers than they win over.” In other words, for fans of The Office, would you rather deal with Dwight, or Jim?

You may be thinking, “Wow, now I’m not sure who to hire!” If we’ve torn down everything you thought was true, and your mental picture of a good salesperson is now just a formless wraith, don’t worry. We can rebuild it – we have the technology.

If you want the best sales profile possible, ideally you should seek out an ambivert (a mostly equal mixture of introverted and extroverted traits). A study by Adam Grant at U Penn’s Wharton School found that “In a three-month period, [ambiverts] made 24% more in sales revenue than introverts, and 32% more in revenue than extroverts.” No, that’s not backwards. Not only did the ambiverts outperform extroverts, but the gregarious extroverts were actually the worst performing for total revenues earned, of all three personality types. And introverts and extroverts both “pulled in roughly the same percentage of sales.” Why are ambiverts so much more effective? As Grant puts it, “The ambivert advantage stems from the tendency to be assertive and enthusiastic enough to persuade and close, but at the same time, listening carefully to customers and avoiding the appearance of being overly confident or excited.” Ironically for those hiring managers that try to whittle down their applicant pool by focusing only on the extreme extroverts, and then wonder why finding a great candidate is so difficult, most people are ambiverts, so the most effective salespeople were ruled out before you even hired them. You might have even ruled out the ambiverts on your own staff in favor of the boasting, gregarious candidates, when the perfect person to do the job is right down the hall.

Think about the last time you were hiring someone for a sales or customer service role. First impressions matter, right? During the interview, you were probably laser-focused on whether the candidate had that gregarious and outgoing personality. So when the candidate was nervous and didn’t effectively sell themselves exactly like you imagined, you ruled them out. They were nervous the first time they met you, so how are they supposed to make a great first impression and effectively sell your product or service to customers? But we’ve written before about the differences between interview skills and working skills. Turns out that candidate who nailed the interview, and made that phenomenal first impression? He might only be great at interviewing because he’s pretty lousy at doing the actual job. In fact, the study we referenced found “the contributions of extroverts were not as good as expected and the introvert performed beyond expectations in a team environment.” Are we saying to take an extroverted candidate out of consideration, solely because of their personality? Of course not. Just include the introverts and ambiverts in the mix as well. Studies show they’ll surprise you. And if you need more interview advice, we’ve written before about how to get beyond the superficial showmanship of an interview.


What Everyone Overlooked in Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In”

07/22/2013

200158983-001Amazingly, we still read whole books here at Staffing Advisors. Recently, we discussed Lean In, the bestseller from Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, which is largely about how to improve women’s position in the modern workplace. The book got us thinking. The buzz and drama in the blogosphere is about her main point – that women, who are now 60% of college graduates, should be as ambitious as men and ultimately strive to make up a much larger proportion of the executive workforce than they currently hold. That’s important, but equally important (and we think overlooked) was her approach to leadership, and the role effective communication has played in her career.

Openness to new ideas seems to be a central tenet of Sandberg’s philosophy. It provides a constant stream of new ways to look at problems, and grants the ability to rapidly and nimbly adapt to a constantly shifting corporate landscape. The teachings of Fred Kofman, author of Conscious Business, “changed [her] career and [her] life.”  She focuses on the Kofman idea that “great leadership is ‘conscious’ leadership,” and that “effective communication starts with the understanding that there is my point of view (my truth) and someone else’s point of view (his truth). Rarely is there one absolute truth, so people who believe that they speak the truth are very silencing of others.”

Rather than being single-minded and focused on only her vision, Sandberg is humble and works hard to gather honest and open feedback from everyone around her, noting that “the ability to listen is as important as the ability to speak.”  Even if you’re the highest executive in the room, she aptly says it is nearly impossible to know what other people are thinking without asking. She recounts an experience where she was being interviewed by Tom Brokaw. She felt like she stumbled through some answers, so after the interview, she asked him for feedback, and he “seemed surprised by [her] question…so [she] asked again…He then told [her] that in his entire career, [she] was only the second person to ask him for feedback.”  To us, that seems like a risk few executives would take, which takes real humility, self-awareness, and emotional intelligence.

Sandberg’s message is not the standard “communication is good” so frequently advised. Her message is an example of how hard executives truly need to work in order to create an open and strong work environment – one that does not silence the vital voices needed for change and growth, so that you can grow a small start-up like Facebook into a profitable company.  If you’re seeking agility or innovation in your workplace, but the feedback you typically receive is just strangely wrapped in consequence-averse corporate speak, we would recommend that you promote a culture of openness (though not necessarily an open floor-plan office, they might not be the best idea).


Years of Experience or Accumulated Wisdom?

09/12/2011

“We want someone with at least 5 years of industry experience.”

New clients invariably mention some variation of this requirement at the start of every search we conduct. It’s the accepted practice–so automatic, reflexive, and commonplace that is has to be … wrong.

I suggest we replace this lazy-excuse-for-not-thinking with a more rigorous standard. As Maxwell Wessel outlines in a brilliant post on the HBR Blog Network:

“… it is more effective to evaluate managers by looking at the situations they have been in than their track record of success. By looking at past success without considering the situation in which the manager was successful, we neglect to account for the wisdom accrued over time when a manager faces a specific set of problems.”

Not only does this approach look beyond years and instead look at the actual management challenge faced, it also looks beyond success/failure and looks at what was learned. Success can be the result of timing, luck and structural and environmental factors the candidate had no part in creating. On the other hand, wisdom comes from tackling tough challenges, whether they were ultimately successful or not. Two years ago (as we entered the economic downturn) I wrote that failure can be a great teacher … or not. It all depends on the student.


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