How Much Can Training Accomplish?

I was invited to give a presentation for a very large, prominent software company at a conference of help desk managers from all over the world, and the topic of the conference was, “Creating a Better Customer Experience”. Different presenters focused on different ways to achieve this important outcome. Some, for instance, focused on how to reduce wait time by optimizing certain processes. The focus of my presentation was the impact of hiring the right kind of people.

The organizer of this conference had verbatim feedback from satisfied customers displayed around the room on large posters. Every participant could read several of these comments from wherever they sat. I read these posters as I prepared to deliver my remarks, and something struck me. Every single positive customer comment emphasized character traits. For instance, “Jorge was so patient in walking me through what I needed to do.” “Shirley really knows her stuff. But more importantly she was kind and understanding. She didn’t talk down to me.” “Amith did more than solve my technical problem. His sense of humor helped me get rid of my frustration. It was actually a fun conversation.”

You can give the exact same musical score to ten different singers. Some will deliver a simply dreadful experience. Some will do okay. But maybe one will create a performance so beautiful it brings tears to your eyes. The score alone cannot create an excellent experience for the listener. It depends on who’s singing. Talent matters.

When it comes to customer-facing employees, you can give them all the same training, the same information and the same support systems. But it’s character traits like empathy, patience, positivity and compassion that create an excellent experience for the customer. You can teach people to use your computer system, but you cannot teach them to be patient or positive. Those traits (and the others I mentioned) you must hire.

Would you like to verify this from your own experience? Think of the best customer-facing employee you’ve ever worked with. What made them so good? Take a couple of minutes and jot down a brief list of reasons why they were so good. When you’re done, read on.

Is your list mostly made up of things like positive attitude, good work ethic, good team player, liked to learn, etc.? You didn’t train those into the person. They were that way when you hired them. That’s what I’m talking about.

If you want to create a better customer experience, hire better people.

Thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

Are You Thinking About Boomeranging?

Boomerang employees are people who have left an organization and then been rehired at a later date. It used to be taboo. In fact, about 50% of HR professionals surveyed say their organizations had policies that prohibited rehiring former employees in the past. But over 75% of those same HR professionals say their companies are more willing to rehire boomerang employees now than ever before.

Should you consider returning to a former employer? And if you do, what can you expect? Talent Plus (the company I work for) actively recruits boomerangs. We know that talented people sometimes have opportunities for growth elsewhere that they just can’t – and shouldn’t — pass up. And when their circumstances (and ours) change, we actively recruit them back.

Kim Turnage is my co-author of the book, Managing to Make a Difference (Wiley), and she is a Talent Plus boomerang. In this post, she shares her insights on this type of career decision.

How did you decide to return to the company?

I got a call from our recruiter, Kyle Bruss, asking me if I would consider coming back. The timing and the opportunity were both right. I knew the company culture and values. Many of the same leaders were still there even though I had been away for about five years. I believed in the company’s mission and believed I could add value by coming back in a different role than the one I had left five years earlier. I consulted some people I trusted who were still working with the company and decided to make the leap. It was a great decision!

Did you try to pick up where you left off? 

I did not. I approached the role with humility and a commitment to learning. I had done some parts of the job before, but I needed a refresher. And a lot had changed, too. I assumed nothing and asked a lot of questions.

I also invested in strengthening relationships with people I knew from before and cultivating new relationships with people who had joined the company in my absence. I considered myself a newbie with some background knowledge and tried to remember that what I thought I knew from the past might not be applicable in the present.

What did you say when people asked questions about why you left and why you came back?

If anyone asked (and even sometimes when I could tell people were curious but too polite to ask) I told the truth.

  • Why I left: I had worked for the company full-time for four years then moved to working part-time from home for an additional three years after my second child was born. Some other opportunities highly aligned with my interests became available during that time, and I made the choice to leave the company in order to pursue those opportunities.
  • Why I came back: My family had moved to another city, and I was in the process of deciding what to do next when our recruiter, Kyle, called and offered me an opportunity to work remotely. This opportunity fit very well with my talents, served the needs of the company, and allowed me to do work that contributes to a greater good. It was an easy decision to come back.

How did you re-establish yourself within the company? 

I acted like I would at any new job. I did my job well and raised my hand for special projects where I could make positive contributions. I worked on establishing trust-based relationships with my manager and the members of my team. Working remotely, hundreds of miles from our company headquarters, made that process a little slower and more complicated, but my colleagues were equally committed to building those relationships. One of the key ways I built trust was by looking for opportunities help other people achieve their goals.

Was it harder or easier than you expected?

Yes. Some parts were easier and some were harder.

I knew the culture and knew some current employees who helped accelerate my ability to establish new connections with new people. I was open to learning, and several leaders invested the time to help me connect what I knew before to what I needed to know in the present to succeed.

The hardest part was less about coming back and more about the fact that I was coming back as a (really) remote worker. I had worked from home before, but in the same city as the company’s headquarters. When I boomeranged, my home was hundreds of miles away from the office and my family commitments made travel very difficult and infrequent. That distance was the source of most of the difficulties I encountered, but I was working with a company who had extensive experience with people working remotely…and with people boomeranging…and we worked through issues effectively, primarily because we started from a foundation of trust.

What advice do you have for people thinking about boomeranging?

  • First of all, consider how and why you left the company. Were you on good terms? Can you tell a true, positive story about why you left and why you want to come back?
  • Make sure you have an accurate picture of the organization as it is today. What are you hearing from the people who are recruiting you or who would make the decision about whether to run with your desire to return to the company? Have you maintained positive relationships with some other people in the company whose insights you can trust? What can they tell you about how things have changed, and how consistent are those changes with your goals and the way you want your next role to look?
  • Consider the role you’ll be coming back to. How is it similar to and different from the one you left? What knowledge and experience have you gained in your absence that will add unique value? What has changed in the interim that you will need to learn about or retool for?

Thanks for reading, and thanks to Kim Turnage for her worthwhile advice about boomeranging. As always, I’m interested to hear your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

What If Your Boss Does Not Invest Time Mentoring You?

If your boss does not invest time in mentoring you, you must take charge of your own success and development. Begin by articulating a vision for your future. Be clear about your values, commitments, passions, goals and aspirations. Don’t merely think about these things. Write them down. The discipline of expressing these ideas in writing is challenging, and it can be frustrating, but it leads to clarity. That foundation then acts as your true north, providing you with a basis for making sound decisions and having high quality conversations with people who can contribute to your success.

Once you have this foundation, use it to seek input from others. If your boss is unavailable, identify other people whose advice might be helpful. Start by asking them for a brief meeting to get their input, perhaps at a nearby coffee shop. Give them your foundation document, and come prepared with a few questions. For instance, ask them what books they’d recommend. Take notes on what they say. Write a brief thank you note, mentioning at least one specific piece of advice.

Depending on your learning style, identify courses, seminars or books that can help you add to your professional knowledge. Join at least one professional association relevant to your career goals. Subscribe to a couple of publications relevant to your career.

Even if your boss is not going to be your mentor, you want to have a great relationship with him and you want his support. Make sure you know what your boss’s goals are, then make your boss’s priorities your own. Clarify his expectations of you and make sure you exceed those expectations.

Finally, I recognize that reporting to a boss who makes time to mentor you might be very important for you. If so, and if you’re not getting this from your boss, you should consider finding a new boss. This might involve seeking a transfer within your current organization, or it might require you to move to a new organization.

The proactive steps mentioned above will empower you to take charge of your own success and development.

Thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

How Do You Cultivate a People-First Culture?

The decision to cultivate a people-first culture is a strategic decision rather than a project. Because it is not a project, you will never be done. You will always improve and refine the way you implement your people-first culture. If you’re thinking about embarking on this journey, I hope you’ll find this post helpful.

Phase One – Articulate your vision

First, let’s recognize that there is not one correct definition of what it means to be a “people-first” culture. Therefore each organization must define what it means for that organization. If you don’t start there, how will you and your employees know what you’re building toward? Second, let’s recognize that having a people-first culture is not an either/or situation. It’s a matter of degree. A culture can become more and more people-first over time.

Here are some questions that will help you decide what “people-first” means to your organization:

  1. Who are the people you’re thinking about? Employees? Customers? Suppliers? Job applicants? Community members? All of these groups?
  2. For each of the groups you care to include in your thinking, what would their experience with your organization be like? What would be happening and not happening? For instance, what would it be like to be an employee? Or what would it be like to be a customer?
  3. If your culture were becoming more and more of a people-first culture (as you visualize it in your business), how would you know it? What benefits do you expect to see? How will you measure or assess your progress?
  4. Are there some areas in which our organization already takes a people-first approach? What are they? What are the benefits for your organization? What has enabled the people-first approach in those areas? What can you learn from those successes about how to expand this to other areas?

Answering those questions is not easy, and therefore might well take some time. But if you’re thinking about becoming a more people-first culture, the time invested here will pay dividends for years to come. If you do not invest the time required for phase one, you are unlikely to succeed.

Phase Two – Identify areas of focus and action steps

  1. Once you’ve articulated your people-first vision, ask, “What are one or two areas of low-hanging fruit, areas in which we can create some quick progress?” Then create action plans for each identified area.
  2. Benchmark other organizations to discover people-first practices you can bring into your culture.

Phase Three – Institutionalize people-first

  1. Include people-first as the most important element in your management performance evaluations and compensation reviews (otherwise, it’s not… um, first).
  2. Collect and share stories about successes and high points related to your people-first strategy.
  3. Recognize and reward all employees who contribute to making continuous progress on the people-first initiative.
  4. Over time (possibly a lot of time), review all policies, procedures and practices to ensure they exemplify your people-first culture. You don’t have to eat this elephant in one bite. Just continue to make steady progress.
  5. Implement a selection process that helps you identify candidates who are a natural fit for your people-first culture.
  6. Part company with employees who are not a fit for your new culture, most particularly leaders and managers who do not fit.

The amount of time it takes to make substantial progress will vary greatly depending on a company’s size, the state of its current culture, and other factors. The journey will be different for every organization. As I said at the beginning of this post, cultivating a people-first culture is a strategic decision rather than a project. It’s a fundamental stance, based on your value system. If you make this part of your “true north”, I believe you will make your organization healthier and healthier over time.

Thanks for reading. I’d love to hear your thoughts or experience with building a people-first culture.

Larry Sternberg

How Do You Adjust to a New Boss?

From time to time in your career you’ll confront the challenge of adjusting to a new boss. In many cases, this will be a situation you did not seek. Suddenly, you find yourself forced into a new relationship in which the other person (your new boss) has considerably more power than you do. Here are some tips for adjusting to a new boss.

  1. Don’t pre-judge.

Give this person a fair chance. That’s what you want, right? You don’t want your boss to prejudge you, so why should you prejudge her? Ignore whatever you might have heard and base your thinking on your own direct experience with her.

  1. Get to know each other.

Spend some time getting to know each other. An excellent way to get started is to use the Focus On You activity that you can download from the Website Managetomakedadifference.com

  1. Listen, listen and listen.

Seek to understand before you seek to be understood.

  1. Be positive.

This should go without saying, but sadly it does not. Demonstrate optimism about the future. Don’t focus on what’s wrong.

  1. Avoid gossip.

Don’t say negative things about others.

  1. Be supportive.

Make it clear that you are committed to helping your new boss be successful. She doesn’t know what she doesn’t know. You can help her avoid stepping on land mines, and you can share your inside knowledge to help her succeed.

  1. Make you boss’s priorities your own.

Find out what your boss’s expectations are, what her goals are and what she wants to focus on. Get on board with those priorities.

 

Thanks for reading. I’m sure you have additional tips to adjust to a new boss. I’d love to hear them.

Larry Sternberg

Managing Seasonal Employees

Many businesses experience extreme seasonality. Resorts, sports venues and retail businesses immediately come to mind. Every year they must staff up for the busy season, and lay off for the offseason. I have worked in several seasonal businesses, both as an employee and as a leader. The purpose of this post is to explore the question, in managing seasonal employees, what adjustments should managers make?

One important aspect of this situation is the mutual understanding that the job ends when the busy season ends. This forces both the employee and the employer to decide whether they want to work together again. If a seasonal employee did not have a great work experience, she will almost certainly look for a job with another employer next season. On the other side of the coin, if the employer was not satisfied with the employee’s performance, it simply won’t extend a job offer next season. No written warnings, no performance plan, no hassle.

Although there’s a built-in opportunity to part company forever, it’s also easier for both parties if the employee returns every season. For the employer, the costs of recruiting, hiring and training are reduced. And for the employee, he or she doesn’t have to invest any time applying for jobs with other employers. So there’s an incentive for both parties to make this an ongoing, though seasonal, relationship.

This incentive for a relationship that continues from one season to the next leads to an interesting conclusion. Managers should manage seasonal employees the same way they manage “permanent” employees. They should develop close relationships with their people, and they should foster close relationships among employees. They should make people’s jobs engaging and fun. They should make sure that each of their employees is in the right fit for his strengths. Most importantly, they should truly care about each and every person who reports to them.

One additional difference between a seasonal and a permanent job is the prospect for promotion. Seasonal employees might see opportunities to become supervisors, but that’s about it. Unless they become permanent employees, seasonal people are not going to become department heads or vice presidents. But a great manager can still help them learn and grow and prepare to advance in their chosen careers.

If a manager is willing to teach, any seasonal employee can learn a lot about being a great team player, solving problems, taking care of customers, demonstrating initiative, improving morale and being an informal leader. An exceptional manager can help each employee make individual learning and growth one of her goals for the season.

So, even though this is a seasonal job, a caring, committed manager can make a positive difference in her employee’s lives.

Thanks for reading, and thanks to Marilyn Buresh for suggesting this topic. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

How Important Is Moral Authority?

Moral authority is not discussed very frequently, but lately we’ve heard a lot of talk about it, particularly in relation to President Trump. Does he have it? Is he losing it? Does it even matter? This post, however, is not about Donald Trump. It is about why people want their leaders to have moral authority, and by extension, why you should strive to earn it.

Let’s start with some clarity about what I mean by the term “moral authority”. Moral authority is not about having the power to force people to follow one’s lead. It is the ability to influence people through the virtue of one’s character, the strength of one’s example, and the wisdom of one’s words.

We expect leaders to articulate a vision for the future. A vision statement inherently involves a moral stance because it’s always about the “ought”. Here are just a few examples: Ought we build an oil pipeline through sacred lands? Ought we legalize marijuana? Ought we remove statues of heroes of the Confederacy? The more I think about this topic, the more I’m inclined to believe that moral authority is the most important aspect of leadership.

Leaders who earn moral authority also gain legitimacy. People follow that leader because they want to, not because they are being coerced or threatened. People want a leader they can look up to. People want a leader whose principles are clear and who has the courage to act with integrity to those principles, even when doing so requires personal sacrifice. People want a leader who can explain events so they can understand what’s going on and what it means. People want a leader who will help them see what is the right thing to do and why it’s the right thing to do. People want a leader who puts the well-being of others ahead of the leader’s self-interests.

Leaders who gain moral authority exert enormous influence on others. They cause people to strive to be better. They tap in to each person’s reservoir of discretionary effort. They inspire hope. They give people the confidence that the team is striving for the right goals for the right reasons, and that they are pursuing those goals in a way they can be proud of.

Leaders who earn moral authority can make a huge difference in the lives of their people. I hope you choose to become one of those leaders.

Thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg