Why Are Hiring Decisions More Important Than Training Programs?

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 was creating a better customer experience. Different presenters focused on different ways to achieve this improvement. 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.’ ‘Amit did more than solve my technical problem. His sense of humor helped me lose 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 others) 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.

As a leader, you can create a better customer experience by holding out until the right employees come along – employees with the right character traits to create that WOW experience for your customers.

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

Larry Sternberg

Who Should You Put In Your Training Program?

In 1979 I went to Atlantic City to serve on the opening team of the Playboy Hotel and Casino. It was a boom town, bustling with activity. Numerous casinos were under construction. The energy and excitement were palpable. It was a heady time. Atlantic City was being reborn.

In conversation with a long-time resident, I learned that in days gone by diving horses had been a major attraction along the once famous boardwalk. A horse and rider would walk up a long ramp to a high platform that extended over the ocean and  jump off. Voluntarily! Diving horse.

Immediately, I became intensely curious about how one trains a horse to do that. My acquaintance said, “Well the horse trainer still lives here, and he’s often at the Good Times bar at 5:30 on weekdays. You could just go over there and ask him.”

Unbelievable. Sometimes life just hands you something good.

I was soon sitting there with the trainer. I wish I could remember his name. This is what he told me:

I don’t actually train them. I find them. I take very young horses to the beach. Some of them just like going into the water. They just go in spontaneously and they like it. The horses that don’t go in, I eliminate. I take the ones who liked the water to a very low pier. Some jump in. The others I eliminate. I take the ones who jumped in to a slightly higher pier. Every once in a while I find a horse who likes jumping off the high platform. Of course at every stage there’s some coaxing, there’s some rewarding. But there’s never any coercion. That’s how it’s done. That’s my secret.”

Years later I was listening to a famous animal trainer who worked with lions and tigers. The interviewer asked how he trained those cats to perform the specific tricks. He replied, “I watch them when they’re very young – watch them when they’re just playing, doing whatever they want. Different cats like doing different things. If a particular cat likes to jump backward, I create a trick that requires him to jump backward. I build the tricks around what they naturally like to do.”

It’s the same with people. If you find out what a person does naturally and likes to do, training in those areas will likely result in rapid growth and increased engagement. If you’re training someone to do something for which he has no affinity (e.g., diving off a high platform or making sales calls) you can make some progress, but it won’t be rapid, it won’t be easy and it will plateau long before his performance could be called excellent. In addition, his engagement will likely go in the wrong direction.

There are plenty of situations in which a person has not tried something, so neither she nor anyone else knows whether she has an affinity for it. In that case, give it a try. But after a while, if progress is slow and labored, if she doesn’t enjoy it, continuing is not good for her or for the organization. Quit wasting your time, effort and money. Find something that’s a better fit for her.

Thanks to Elisa Hillman for suggesting this topic. And thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

Is Your Cure Worse Than The Disease?

I remember a situation where a department head in a luxury hotel really botched the employee roster, resulting in a lot of service defects, upset guests, upset employees and unnecessary costs. The department head’s supervisor (the Food and Beverage Director) was chewed out by the General Manager. The Food and Beverage Director’s response was to declare that henceforth she would review all rosters from all food and beverage departments before they became final.

Have you witnessed this type of over-response before? One person makes one mistake and the boss implements a new policy designed to ensure that that kind of mistake never happens again. This solution created a lot of extra work for the Food and Beverage Director, it slowed things down considerably, and it sent a clear message that the department heads were not trusted to make a proper roster.

Way too often a supervisor responds to a mistake by exercising more control, thus moving in the direction of micromanagement. If you do this too frequently, as time goes on you’ll become overwhelmed in your efforts to control everything – and mistakes will occur anyway.

Additional control mechanisms drive up costs and slow things down. If things are done right in the first place, control mechanisms add no value. When you’re thinking about implementing a new control mechanism in response to a mistake, consider the costs as well as the benefits. Take your emotion out of the equation. Consult with colleagues to get some outside perspective about whether it’s good business decision or an over-response.

People will make mistakes. That doesn’t mean that we should be complacent, but implementing additional control mechanisms is rarely the best answer. Don’t implement a cure that’s worse than the disease.

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

Larry Sternberg

 

Are You Tired Of Being A Defendant?

This post is for readers in the United States of America. As everyone knows, we’re a very litigious society, and litigation is not only expensive, but also it’s time consuming, and it fosters a great deal of negativity. You want to avoid it even when you can win. In my experience, much work-related litigation can be avoided. Here are some tips to help you do just that.

Do

  1. Build close, positive relationships with employees. This is the single most impactful thing you can do to avoid litigation. People who have close, positive relationships are likely to work through problems without resorting to legal remedies.
  2. Build trust with employees. As you know, trust is the cornerstone of every good relationship. But it’s important enough to merit a separate place on this list.
  3. Operate at a high level of transparency.
  4. Do what you believe to be morally and ethically right. Don’t make decisions or take actions unless you’d be pleased to defend them publicly.
  5. Faithfully enliven the standards you’ve established.
  6. If someone has been treated unfairly (it happens occasionally), own it, apologize, and fix it.

Don’t

Don’t try to get away with things. This is the number one reason employers become defendants. Some executive or department head wants to do something that’s not in accordance with established regulations or laws, or with a contract (union contract, employment contract – whatever), or with the articulated values of the organization.

You know what I’m talking about. Someone wants to ensure a male gets a certain job. Someone wants to fire an employee, but she hasn’t built the proper case. Someone wants to avoid honoring a commitment to an employee or to a customer. I’m sure you can add to this list.

Efforts to avoid litigation in these types of cases include hiding information, creating plausible – but untrue – explanations for actions, or relying on fear of retaliation.

The best way to avoid litigation is to honor your contractual obligations, honor your commitments, obey applicable laws, and enliven your organization’s values. It’s part of acting morally and ethically.

If you do the first item on the “Do” list and don’t do the only item on the “Don’t” list. You’ll reduce the number of times you wear the title, “Defendant”.

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

Larry Sternberg

How Can You Control Humor In The Workplace?

I recently encountered a person who’s researching policies to ensure that humor in the workplace remains civil. I’m a major proponent of humor in life, and there’s plenty of research verifying the health benefits of humor and laughter. It’s no surprise, then, that there are curmudgeons out there who want to control it. To read a Mayo Clinic article on the health benefits of humor click here. It’s a blessing to have people in the workplace who laugh easily and who like to make others laugh.

Of course we want workplaces where people treat each other in a civil manner. But the cultural value of treating each other civilly applies to all behavior, not just humor. An organization does not accomplish this by policies. Think about how you teach your children about civil behavior. What do you do when your child loudly proclaims, “Mommy! Look at how fat that man is!” You correct, you teach, and at times you punish.

Like many other cultural values, what’s considered “civil” varies from culture to culture, and that definition is constantly evolving. I remember when “Ms.” became the preferred form address for females in the USA. The old forms of address became uncivil — darned near overnight. No formal policy was enacted, but women made it clear, through relentless correction, that they found the old language offensive.

It seems to me that when problems of uncivil behavior persist it’s because the senior leaders in an organization condone or actively promote those behaviors. It’s commitment to the principle, not the written policy that matters. For instance, many organizations have written policies against sexual harassment, but tragically we see too often that senior leaders condone such behavior — in some cases even punishing the victim for reporting it!

If senior leadership sincerely wants to discourage uncivil behavior (whether or not it involves humor), they know very well how to do that. And so do you. You make it clear that behavior is unacceptable. You correct, you teach. You insist an apology is in order. You implement appropriate discipline if the person repeats that kind of behavior.

On this issue we need more leadership, not more policies.

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

Larry Sternberg

Can We Bring Back Good Faith Collaboration?

As I write this post on July 9, 2016, the USA is in the midst of bitter, extreme political partisanship. Our society at this moment is polarized. This post is not about that, but what’s going on in businesses and other organizations, it seems to me, reflects this larger societal trend. “Compromise” has become a dirty word. There are too many “us and them” mentalities, too many fear-based behaviors, too much demonizing of “them”, or him, or her, and too many adversarial relationships. It’s unhealthy and it’s very costly. People are out of focus. They’re diverting a huge amount of productive time to unproductive behaviors.

As usual, I don’t think I have the answer, but this is a classic situation in which the struggle to find answers — the struggle itself — creates immense value. We must not shrink from this challenge. Without the struggle, answers will not emerge.

I also believe that despite this general trend, there exist positive deviants – situations in which leaders have found a way to move beyond these unhealthy trends. Identifying and studying what they’re doing will help others find solutions that work for them. I hope readers post some best practices that could be helpful to others.

One typical manifestation of this adversarial, “us and them” mentality is the point of view that I’m right and they’re wrong. It’s up to them to change. Let’s let that thinking go. Start from the premise that you can make changes in your behavior that will improve the situation. As a leader, demonstrate the courage to take the first step.

The results you’re getting now are based on the ways you’re doing things now. If you want about the same results going forward, keep doing things the same way. If you want significantly better results, ask, “What can I do differently to improve this situation?”

Here are a few recommendations for your consideration.

As Steven R. Covey taught:

  • First listen to understand. Then be understood.
  • Find a win/win solution. Win/win or no deal.

If you begin by truly understanding someone else’s perspective and motives, it becomes easier to find a win/win solution. Even so, a solution might not come easily. But stay committed to that outcome.

Win/win requires good faith collaboration. Good faith collaboration requires a mindset that some of “their” ideas are better than mine.

Why not start with the intent to find what you can appreciate about “their” ideas? Why not show “them” true respect by soliciting their input about your ideas?

It’s entirely possible to engage in passionate debate without demonizing the other person. One can engage in passionate debate while still acknowledging that the other person has some good ideas. If your intent is win/win, and if you engage in good faith collaboration, passionate debate can lead to superior decisions.

Begin with your own intent and your own behavior. Influence others in your organization through your example.

Thanks for reading. As usual, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg