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

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

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

 

Why Should Employees Have To Pay Their Dues?

“Before he can become a [insert desired role here] he has to pay his dues, just like I did.” Have you heard this point of view? I’ve heard it my entire career. It’s high time to evolve our thinking, to leave this point of view behind.

The phraseology indicates that the dues-paying activities are a sort of penance — nothing more than a cost to the employee of pursuing a particular career goal. If a person isn’t willing to go through this experience they’re not worthy. They don’t want it enough. This reminds me of fraternity initiations.

Many valuable activities are unpleasant. When I was a law student, during class a professor would call on a student, who would stand to answer the professor’s questions. Trust me when I tell you this was no fun at all. It was a withering cross-examination. And I couldn’t see how it contributed to our learning. But it was universally accepted as a right of passage. So one day I asked Professor Gordon why he was doing this. He replied that judges would do this and worse in court, and our professors had three years to get us accustomed to performing with excellence when being treated this way in public.

That explanation made a lot of sense to me. There was a point to the activity. It wasn’t just a right of passage. We weren’t just learning the law; we were learning to be lawyers.

In many cases, a leader wants someone to pay their dues simply because the leader had to do that earlier in his career. That’s a terrible reason. If that’s your justification, break the cycle. Stop it.

If you’re requiring employees to pay their dues before progressing in their careers, I encourage you to answer the question, “Why is this a valuable investment of their time?” And please give a better answer than, “It builds character.” Life is full of character-building experiences. Nobody needs you to manufacture additional ones.

I’d like to distinguish mere “dues paying” activities from starting at the bottom and working one’s way up. Starting at the bottom can deliver great value in terms of learning, empathy and perspective. So I’m very much in favor of making people start at the bottom – if it’s for the right reasons.

If a required assignment is just a right of passage, get rid of it. Find a more valuable way to invest that person’s time. Let’s quit making people pay their dues.

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

Larry Sternberg

How Do You Tell Someone They Didn’t Get The Job?

This question comes up repeatedly, especially with new managers and supervisors. Few people enjoy delivering bad news, so some people try to avoid the conversation altogether, and some go too far in their attempt to soften the blow. Either of these approaches can make the situation worse for the candidate and for your organization.

You have a candidate who’s trying to find a job. This is a very important life goal for this person. The sooner they know you’re not going to make a job offer, the sooner they can focus on other opportunities. You’re not helping them by procrastinating.

There is no way around the fact that this is a disappointing message for this person to receive. There are times when the message is communicated by email or some other electronic means, and there are times when it’s appropriate to do this by phone or in person. No matter the medium, be polite, be respectful, and be professional – but say as little as possible. Don’t beat around the bush. Don’t discuss the weather or last night’s game. That extends the suspense and makes it worse.

As I’m writing this, I’m visualizing a phone conversation. It might begin like this: “Hi, this is Larry Sternberg. I’m calling to let you know that we’ve decided to pursue other candidates for the position of X.” Then quit talking. You’re delivering bad news. There’s no way to change that. Most candidates will simply thank you and get off the phone. In fact, most candidates will appreciate that you called them at all. Even if you sent an email, at least you got back to them. Sadly, too many organizations don’t get back to unsuccessful candidates. The fact that you do this at all is good for your brand.

At times, a candidate wants more. He or she might ask why. Don’t respond with specifics. That takes you down the wrong road. You do not owe the candidate an answer to that question. You can simply say, “I’m not prepared to get into specifics. I know this is disappointing. I just wanted to let you know the outcome.”

Some candidates lose sight of the fact that they’re competing with others. On occasions where numerous people have applied, I’ve sometimes said, “When you apply for a job, you’re competing with everyone else who applied. On this occasion, you didn’t win the competition.” That perspective has proved helpful for many candidates.

Of course, you must convey this message in your own words, with your own style. It’s never going to be pleasant. But when you have to do it, don’t procrastinate, and don’t beat around the bush. Be polite, respectful and professional, and avoid getting into the specifics about why. If you follow these guidelines, you’ll minimize the pain for both you and the candidate.

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

Larry Sternberg

Want Your Company To Be A Great Place To Work?

Once again I had the privilege to attend the Great Places To Work conference. In this post I share some of the most meaningful points from various presentations. Please note that I did not have the opportunity to attend every presentation. These are not exact quotations, so this is my interpretation of what was said.

Peter Harrison, CEO, Snagajob

  • Invest the time and effort to bring in people who resonate with your mission, and then extend yourself to make sure they stay.
  • Referrals are still the most important recruiting source.
  • Don’t over engineer your values statements. Keep them brief and clear – easy to understand and enliven.

Michael C. Bush, CEO, Great Place To Work

  • People want to trust who they work for.
  • They want to be proud of the company they work for.
  • They want to enjoy the people they work with.
  • They want leaders who walk their talk.
  • They want to be treated with respect.
  • They want fairness – no preferential treatment.
  • They want a sense of camaraderie.
  • They want to be proud of the work they do.
  • Here are some things leaders do in companies that have built high trust cultures:
    • Thank people
    • Care about people
    • Speak to people
    • Listen to people
    • Inspire people
    • Trust people
  • People are motivated by the “why” of their work. They want to know the mission and vision.

Meaningful points from an excellent panel discussion

  • Culture must be the core of the company ethos.
  • Leaders must truly live the values.
  • It starts with who is selected. Build company values into the recruiting process.
  • Everybody owns the culture. Make it every employee’s responsibility to build the culture.
  • To reinforce your culture, share stories about instances where someone has enlivened one of the company’s values.
  • When considering promotions, think about whether the internal candidate lives the values.
  • If a person is not enlivening the company’s values, take action.
  • Companies must demonstrate that they have the agility to change when necessary.

Amy Bastuga, Vice President, Human Resources, Radio Flyer

  • One important purpose of orientation is to assimilate people into the culture.
  • There are no shortcuts to selecting the right person.
  • An open position is better than a bad match.
  • Every applicant for Radio Flyer receives a letter from the CEO explaining that one goal of the recruitment process is to ensure that the job with Radio Flyer will be the best job they’ve ever had.

Each presenter said much more than what I’ve shared in these few notes. These were points that resonated with me relative to the theme of this blog.

If you want to build a great place to work, I recommend you consider joining this movement. Check out their Website at http://www.greatplacetowork.com

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

Larry Sternberg

How Do You Know What Advice To Take?

This morning I’m thinking about harmony. Not harmony among different people, but the degree of harmony among the statements, decisions and actions of one person. For me, this goes beyond mere consistency, but as always I’m not interested in semantic disputes, so I’ll get to the substance of the topic.

When a leader makes a decision or takes some action, that action is perceived by others against the background of everything else they’ve seen the leader do. And people’s reactions to that behavior are influenced by how well it harmonizes with that background.

For example, years ago we were (appropriately!) excited about the book, “In Search of Excellence” by Tom Peters. Based on observations of successful managers, Peters described a practice known as “management by walking around”. Many managers changed their behavior by adopting this practice. For some, it harmonized with their management style and really improved their effectiveness. For others, however, it did not harmonize with their character or style. Their visits to people’s work spaces made people uncomfortable and confused.

As part of our quest to grow and improve, we seek advice from a variety of sources, including mentors, teachers, coaches and experts. It’s important to distinguish between two types of advice: 1) individualized advice, and 2) generic, one-size-fits-all advice.

If a coach or mentor has invested the time to get to know you, he or she is much more likely to make recommendations suited to your character and your natural proclivities. Their advice might push you outside your comfort zone, but it will harmonize with your style. Their individualized recommendations make sense for you, but might not make sense for someone else.

You must be more thoughtful about generic advice, such as the advice in this blog. You must decide whether it’s suitable for you. In some cases the answer might be readily apparent. But there will be some cases where the answer is not clear. In those cases I recommend you experiment. You’re in your leadership laboratory every day. If a piece of advice makes sense to you, give it a try. If it works for you keep doing it, and reflect on what you’ve learned. If it doesn’t work for you, quit doing it and reflect on what you’ve learned.

A final thought. One common way we grow involves identifying role models, and doing our best to emulate their behavior. It’s likely you have someone in your life you look up to. You observe their behaviors and you say to yourself, “That’s how a successful person acts, so that’s what I’ll do.” I hope you continue that approach, but don’t mindlessly assume that everything that works for them will work for you. Ask yourself whether a particular behavior harmonizes with your individual style. If you’re not sure, give it a try. Whether it works for you or not, you’re sure to grow.

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

Larry Sternberg

When Is Kicking Butt A Good Idea?

Kicking butt is a widespread leadership practice that has stood the test of time. I think it’s a valuable tool to have in your repertoire, and like any tool you have to know how and when to use it. So kicking butt is a good idea – sometimes. As usual, I don’t think I have the definitive point of view about this, so I hope you share your thoughts.

First, let’s acknowledge that some people are natural butt-kickers, and some are not. It’s easy to know whether this comes naturally to you. You’ve been in a leadership role for a while, you’ve done it, it felt like the right thing to do, and it worked. If you’re very comfortable with this technique and you have no doubt you’ll use it again, then this post is for you.

If kicking butt is not a natural part of your leadership style, that’s okay. I advise you against trying to learn this technique or improve your use of it because there’s some aptitude involved. Focus on using other techniques (those that come naturally to you) to accomplish the same outcomes.

For you natural butt-kickers, let’s assume that your intent is to improve performance. With that worthwhile goal in mind there are two situations in which this tool can be very effective: 1) to punish poor performance after the fact, and 2) to motivate people, to create a sense of urgency.

If a person or team has performed poorly (way short of their capability), they’re disappointed, and they know you’re disappointed. Kicking butt brings this to closure and therefore allows you to move on. It feels appropriate to everyone. Once you’ve done this though, leave it behind. Don’t keep punishing them.

If a person or team is not demonstrating enough urgency kicking butt is also appropriate. This is the most easily identifiable situation in which to use this technique. However, this is not the only motivational technique. Too many leaders overuse it when other techniques might be even more effective.

It’s important to understand what kicking butt can accomplish and what it cannot. It can increase someone’s sense of urgency. It can make them try harder. It can increase their desire to perform better. But it cannot increase a person’s (or a team’s) level of skill or talent. Kicking butt cannot and will not increase their capability to perform better.

If a person or team is truly giving their best, this technique will fail.

It’s also important to understand that when it comes to motivation one size does not fit all. The technique of kicking butt might work well on you and on some people who report to you. But it won’t work for every person on your team. The best leaders are intentional about understanding and responding to the uniquenesses of each person on their team.

In conclusion, kicking butt can be a desirable technique to have in your repertoire. However, make sure you do it only for people who respond to that particular technique, and understand what you can and cannot accomplish by using it.

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

Larry Sternberg

Is It Time For A Compassionate Bus Stop?

Lately I’m hearing the phrase, “Compassionate bus stop.” It’s another euphemism for firing someone. Sacking them. Terminating their employment. Involuntary separation. Many people find the terms “firing” or “sacking” too harsh, so we look for alternatives — which we then have to translate. For instance, “It was time for a compassionate bus stop.” What? Oh, you fired them. Whatever phrase we use, it’s a difficult and often painful transaction. The purpose of this post is to explore answers to two questions: 1) How do you know when it’s time? And 2) How do you do this professionally and compassionately?

I’m aware that in certain cases, such as intentional malfeasance, you might not want to be compassionate. I’m not addressing those types of cases in this post. I’m addressing cases where the reason for termination is failure to perform up to expectations, and you want to be compassionate.

By the way, it takes no leadership talent whatsoever to fire someone. The challenge and the satisfaction are attached to helping people succeed. If you have to fire too many people, perhaps you should question whether leadership is for you.

How do you know when it’s time?

I begin with the stance that when I have to fire someone, it’s my failure as much as it is theirs. After all, I invited them to join us on this bus, and I assigned them a seat. Once they’re on the bus, it’s my responsibility to help them succeed. So it was either a mistake in the hiring decision or I didn’t ensure that they were trained and supervised in a way that helped them succeed. Therefore, it’s my failure as well as theirs.

Also, I always remember that other employees are watching. They correctly assume this is how I’ll treat them if they ever find themselves in a similar situation.

For me, it’s not time until I know – in my heart-of-hearts — that I’ve done everything I can to help that person succeed. First, I’ve been bluntly clear that unless their performance improves they’re in danger of losing their job. And I tell them just as clearly, and passionately, that I’m their ally and I’ll do everything in my power to help them succeed. It’s not time until I’ve delivered on that promise, until I’ve put in extra effort and really extended myself.

I also ask the following question: “Is this person in the right seat on the bus?” Maybe a different job would be a better fit for their strengths and interests. Plenty of times in my career, I’ve identified a different and better role for a struggling employee.

Unfortunately, there are situations where my best efforts aren’t good enough. The person’s performance has not improved enough. I haven’t been able to identify another role for them. There is a day when I reluctantly come to the realization that I’ve done everything I can, and additional efforts are unlikely to lead to success. That’s when I know it’s time.

How do you fire someone professionally and compassionately?

Here’s an insight not often discussed. In the vast majority of cases, when an employee is not succeeding he or she knows it long before you do. If you can’t help that person succeed, it is NOT kind and compassionate to leave them in that situation. It will start to diminish their self-esteem. If it goes on long enough, the stress might well cause health problems. Don’t be a party to it. As unpleasant and painful as it might be, have the conversation. Despite the pain, it’s the most caring and compassionate thing to do.

When you have the conversation, don’t chat about the weather or the recent sporting event. Get into it right away. Briefly review the expectations and the shortfall in their performance. Tell them it’s not working out (which they know!) and that it’s time for them to leave. If you’re sorry, say so, but don’t say something you don’t mean.

This might be painful for you, and it might present you with some challenges in your organization, but for the person being fired it’s a life-changing event. In my opinion, compassion is called for. Explain the separation process. Answer their questions. But don’t extend the moment. After your conversation, proceed to the next step.

Remember, this does not have to be the end of your relationship with this person. You can continue to care about them. You can help them in their search for their next job. The best outcome is that they find something soon and go on to have great success. I’ve been fortunate to maintain positive relationships with many people I’ve fired, and I’ve been pleased to continue to support their success as they move forward in their careers.

In summary, when it’s time for an employee to leave, take action, as unpleasant as it might be. Do it with compassion, and own your failure to help them succeed. And don’t forget, you can continue to care about them and support them even though they don’t work for you.

Thanks to my friends Holly Olson and Cydney Koukol for suggesting this topic.

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

Larry Sternberg