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

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

Do You Feel Trapped In Your Job?

There are too many people who don’t like their jobs. Almost every day is a bad day. This increases stress and anxiety, which has a negative impact on physical, mental and emotional health. In many cases, these people bring stress and negativity into their homes, which negatively impacts their family and friends. If you don’t like your job, if you’re frequently experiencing bad days, if you feel trapped in your job, this post is for you.

I firmly believe that organizations and supervisors should be intentional and aggressive about creating a culture where people feel valued, significant and fulfilled, a culture where people truly look forward to going to work. HOWEVER, I also believe that each of us must take responsibility for the outcomes in our lives. Your life decisions have put you in your current situation. You might feel trapped, but you’re not trapped.

I encourage you to answer the following question, “Why do I stay in this job?” Here are a few common answers. “It’s the highest paying job I can find.” Or, “It’s a necessary step to get to my career goal.” Or, “It’s a meaningful mission. I’m really making a difference.” It doesn’t matter what your answer is, but be honest with yourself, why do you stay?

Next ask yourself, “What’s this costing me? What’s it costing my family?”

The final question is, “Is what I’m getting out of this job worth the cost?”

If the answer to the last question is “No,” change something external. Change some aspect of your current job or start looking for another job, a job where you’ll look forward to going to work, a job where you have no problem saying that what you’re getting out of it is worth the cost.

However, changing jobs involves great risk and often great cost. You might not be ready for a life decision like this. You might decide that at this time it’s best for you to stay in a job you don’t like. That’s 100% okay, BUT in that case I encourage you to change you’re thinking. You’re not trapped if you’ve made a conscious decision to stay in the situation.

Embrace the situation and remind yourself that you’ve decided to pay this cost in order to receive the benefits and outcomes you seek. Stress is caused by resistance to what is. I know this isn’t easy, but you can make a commitment to work on it.

Here’s a very practical call to action. When you leave work after a bad day, and your friend or significant other asks you, “How was your day?” – DON’T ANSWER THE QUESTION!!! Answering the question will cause you to create more stress for you and those in your company. Be aware — in that present moment nothing bad is happening to you. Don’t let today’s events poison your evening. Say this instead: “Let’s not relive those events. I’d rather focus on having a great evening with you.” Then, of course, have a great evening.

For the record, I’ve experienced both situations. I used to practice law. I made good money but I wasn’t fulfilled. After a long period of introspection, I decided to make a career change, which required a substantial pay cut. I got into a career I loved, and I’ve never had a moment’s regret about that decision.

Subsequent to that, I had a job where I traveled 200 plus days per year on business. I hated the travel, but I loved what I got to do when I arrived at my destination. I had to constantly remind myself that the unpleasantness of the travel was part of the cost for me to do what I loved. I’ve never regretted staying in that job.

If you’re feeling trapped in your job, change something. Change some aspects of your current job or look for another job. If you’re unable to change something external, change something internal. Change your thinking. You’re not trapped if you consciously embrace your situation.

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

Larry Sternberg

Should You Hire People Who Are Better Than You?

Are you kidding me? Can you believe this is even a topic of discussion in 2015? Recently I became aware that some leaders continue to wonder about this. So here are my thoughts.

The answer is, “Yes,” by the way. But let’s not naively believe that this makes the leader’s life problem-free. Every strategy brings benefits and drawbacks. Would you rather come to work every day dealing with the problems presented by leading a group of mediocre performers, or the problems associated with a group of high-potential people? I prefer the latter.

What problems do high potential people present? The most fundamental challenge for the leader is to answer the following questions:

  • How do I keep this person engaged and excited to come to work?
  • How do I help them explore their potential?
  • How do I help them progress rapidly?
  • How do I avoid feeling threatened by them?
  • How do I keep them from being recruited away?

Most importantly, cultivate close relationships with your high potential players. The closer you are, the more influence you have. The closer you are the more you’ll know about their needs, passions and aspirations. Make it clear that you seek their greatest good. Extend yourself to ensure that their needs are being met, and that they see a very desirable future in your company.

Tell them clearly you see their potential and your goal is to help them progress as rapidly as possible. Make sure you know what they want to learn and help them learn it. Take risks on them. Give them assignments that require them to stretch. While doing this, express your sincere belief and expectation that they’ll perform with excellence. Make sure these assignments enable them to add significant value to the organization.

Empower them to make decisions and try their ideas. Not only will this accelerate their growth, but also it’ll contribute to your growth. You must be willing to learn from them.

Be their champion. Celebrate their successes.

Don’t control them. Lead. Teach. Influence. But don’t control. Accept that they’re going to make some mistakes. If you control them, the outcomes are your outcomes, not theirs. No growth will result. High potential people hate micro management. Even if you disagree with a particular decision, ask yourself, “Does this decision bring the risk of great harm to the organization?” If not, let them proceed despite your misgivings.

If you’re threatened by high potential players, recognize that feeling threatened is only a feeling. It does not have to control your behavior. No matter how you feel, you can choose the right behaviors. It’s not always easy, but it can be done.

Great leaders want high potential players whose performance elevates the entire organization. They want to develop people who will lead the organization to greater heights after they’re gone. This requires recruitment of people who will be better than they are.

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

Larry Sternberg

Who Should You Make Friends With At Work?

OK, the grammar of the title is terrible, but that’s the way I’d say it in conversation. Sometimes proper grammar feels a little pretentious to me.

Recently an associate forwarded to me the following request from a media outlet asking for comments on making friends at work. Here’s their request:

We are looking for people who can comment for an article about the people you should make friends with at work, and why. Who are the people who are important to your career? Who are the people who can help you be happy at work? Who are the ones who can help you or be someone you can rely on? We are looking for tips on how to identify these people as well as how to know what level of friendship you should have with your co-workers.

The requestor wants to know who and why. I think the “why” is most important, because once you know why you’d like to make friends with someone, the “who” follows. Do you make friends with someone because you want something from them? Would you tell them that? If not, you have a hidden agenda. You’re using them. That’s not my idea of friendship.

I’m not saying it’s wrong in any way to pursue a relationship with someone who can help you with your career or bring you other benefits. There’s nothing wrong with saying, “I can bring you benefits x, y and z. And you can bring me benefits a, b, and c. Let’s start a relationship.” That might be a positive, mutually beneficial relationship, but it’s not a friendship. It’s a business deal.

Think about your current friends. Why did you become friends? Why does your friendship continue? Your answers likely are different than mine. Whatever your reasons are, why would they be different for people at work vs. people in your personal life?

Whether at work or in my personal life, here are some of my reasons:

  • The other person likes, values and appreciates me.
  • I admire the person.
  • I think I can help that person.
  • We have good chemistry.
  • The person has a good sense of humor and can at least tolerate mine.
  • I look forward to spending time with that person. We enjoy each other’s company.
  • I can be myself with that person.
  • We trust each other. We seek each other’s greatest good.
  • We’re loyal to each other. We can count on each other.
  • My situation requires me to work with or spend a lot of time with that person.

I could probably list more criteria, but you get the gist. When those criteria exist, I want to be that person’s friend whether we work together or not.

The requestor’s final question is what level of friendship should you have with your co-workers? My answer is: Do not place limits on the depth of your friendships with co-workers. The world is full of misguided thinking that passes for wisdom. People are taught not to get close with their co-workers or with their direct reports. Do not heed that advice. To read more on this topic, click here: Are You Getting Too Close To Your Employees?

What would your life be like if you worked every day with a group of good friends?

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

Larry Sternberg

You Could Fire The Person, But Should You?

This story occurred when I was General Manager of a luxury hotel.

It was Christmas season. Our hotel was elegantly decorated within an inch of its life. We had roaring fireplaces filling the atmosphere with warmth and that wonderful aroma you can only get from burning real wood. We had live Christmas music. Every function room was hosting a holiday party. Guests were dressed to the nines – tuxedos, evening gowns, minks and shminks. If you’re an hotelier, evenings like this are quite memorable.

One party, however, experienced a serious misfortune. Five mink coats were stolen from our coat check closet. Two of these coats were irreplaceable family heirlooms. Our investigation revealed that James, one of our banquet captains, pulled the coat check person from her post to help pour coffee for about 15 minutes. During that brief window of time, the coats were stolen. The thieves probably strolled right out the front door with them. On this evening no observer would have given it a second thought.

James’ poor judgment cost our hotel many thousands of dollars and damaged our brand. I could have fired him, and I was getting pressure from the corporate office to do just that. The HR people were concerned about consistency and precedent. PR and Branding people felt that firing him rapidly would send a positive message about the brand. Others wanted him fired just because they were pissed off.

I didn’t fire him. James was one of the most talented banquet captains I ever had the pleasure to work with. Leadership, people skills, professional knowledge, bearing – he had it all. He had worked for our hotel for many years. Over those years numerous guests told us they booked business with us because they knew James would take care of them with excellence. Yes, this was egregious, but James had never done anything like this before.

I had a rather stern discussion with James, who felt terrible and fully expected to be fired. I put a written warning in his file, and explained why I was not inclined to fire him when I balanced his overall value to the hotel against this one screw up. Tears surfaced. By the end of the conversation, I had re-hired him emotionally.

Decisions have consequences. Not firing him did in fact create some risks associated with consistency of discipline. In addition, many people felt that he needed to be held accountable. They disagreed quite vigorously with my decision, as many readers will, I’m sure. On the other hand, I retained a very valuable employee, I deepened his loyalty, and I demonstrated to all employees how they would be treated in a similar situation. They got a message about my loyalty. They knew I had their back.

I have several of these stories. One of them is about when my former boss. Phil Lombardi, didn’t accept my resignation for a screw up that wasted a lot of money, and caused him serious loss of face. That’s probably why I take this point of view. I learned and grew from that experience.

Sometimes, firing someone for egregiously poor judgment is the right thing to do. But I think there are too many times when a leader fires someone because it’s the easy way out. The extreme version of this is called “scapegoating”.

Do any of us think we go through life without occasionally exercising poor judgment, and sometimes very poor judgment? What I’m saying here is that some of these occasions present opportunities for learning and growth. I encourage you, as a leader, to look for them.

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

Larry Sternberg

Have You Tried A Positive 360?

I’m not a fan of the typical 360º review process for the following reasons: 1) reviewees often are allowed to choose their reviewers (everyone “games” this), 2) the questions focus on weaknesses, and 3) the follow-up focuses on fixing those weaknesses. The activity generated makes people feel like they’re “doing something”. All in all, however, most 360’s don’t add a great deal of value. It’s like taking bad-tasting medicine that doesn’t actually do you any good.

There is an alternative: the positive 360. Here’s a possible set of questions for reviewers:

  1. When X is really “in the zone” what is she doing?
  2. What are X’s most important contributions to our team/company/organization?
  3. What do you appreciate most about X?
  4. What does X really enjoy doing at work?
  5. What are X’s biggest strengths?
  6. How can we support X better in areas where she’s not so strong?
  7. How can we “job sculpt” X’s responsibilities so she spends most of her time doing what she’s good at and enjoys?
  8. How can we create more “in the zone” experiences for X?

Please note, this set of questions does not ignore areas of weakness. But instead of focusing X’s efforts on changing, we’re focusing everyone’s efforts on supporting her. So for instance, if X is not good at follow-up, we can send X to training on follow-up, but after the training if she’s only just a little bit better, we accept that and focus on how to support her. We avoid giving her assignments and responsibilities that require a lot of follow-up.

If you’re X’s supervisor, you need to struggle to find the answer to questions seven and eight. The more time each of your people spends doing things he or she is good at and enjoys, the more often they experience being “in the zone”, the faster you’ll accelerate your team’s performance and each individual’s growth.

Give the positive 360 a try. I’d love to hear your feedback.

Larry Sternberg

What’s The Best Gesture Of Recognition You’ve Ever Received?

A client recently asked me to discuss recognition programs, and I realized I believe that nurturing a culture of recognition, appreciation, and celebration is more impactful than implementing specific programs. For brevity, I’ll call this kind of culture an appreciative culture.

Think about the answer to the question in the title. Here’s a similar question: What’s the best gesture of recognition you’ve ever given? Were either one of these gestures the result of a program?

In cultivating an appreciative culture, you can start by focusing on the center your circle of influence – your own behavior. Make a personal commitment to express appreciation more frequently. Here are some inexpensive, easy ways to do this:

  • Say, “Thank you,” more often. Say it sincerely. What could be easier? After all these years, this is still number one.
  • Write a handwritten note. This takes about three minutes, on average. I’ve timed it in numerous classes. These are so valued people save them.
  • Walk a person into your supervisor’s office and tell your supervisor what they did that was so great.
  • Write a note and mail it to their home, so their family can read it.
  • Write a note to their parents. This is so unusual it really makes an impression.
  • Invest some one-on-one time with a top performer. Take them out for a cup of coffee.
  • If, and only if, the person likes public recognition, give them a round of applause.
  • Send cards to your direct reports on important days like birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, etc..
  • Go out after work or at lunch to informally celebrate individual or team successes.

Individualized recognition is the Gold Standard. Here’s a set of questions you can ask each of your direct reports, one-on-one:

  • What contributions/successes do you want to be recognized for?
  • When you accomplish something worthy of recognition, who do you want to know it?
  • What’s the best gesture of recognition you’ve ever received? Why was it the best?
  • What form of recognition is most meaningful to you?

Remember, if you ask these questions, the most important thing is to act on them.

One final piece of advice about individualizing recognition. If you’re buying a gift, buy something related to that individual’s personal interests and values.

Everything I’ve discussed, and everything you’ve thought about beyond what I’ve discussed, makes the recipient experience their significance as a human being – their significance to you and to the organization. This builds morale, motivation and engagement.

So go ahead and implement formal recognition programs, but don’t stop there. Nurture a culture of recognition, appreciation and celebration. There are no secrets about what to do or how to do it. You just have to do it.

Thanks for reading. I’d love to hear about your strategies and techniques for recognition and appreciation.

Larry Sternberg

How Are You Using Your Power?

A friend asked me to write about hierarchical authority versus influence. Hierarchical authority gives me the power to influence behavior through force. (Do X, or else I’ll create negative consequences for you.) I also have the opportunity to influence behavior through persuasion, where I convince you to do something willingly, without resorting to force. The two often co-exist. Politicians, for instance use persuasive influence (Vote for me) to gain hierarchical authority.

In all cases, we’re talking about the power to influence behavior. For me the most interesting discussion is about how you use your power and influence rather than how you gained it.

There are a lot of ways to misuse power. Do you do things that are contrary to your stated values because nobody can hold you accountable? Do you treat people in ways that they would not tolerate except for the fact that you can fire them or use your influence to damage their career? Do you make decisions that benefit you at the expense of the organization? Do you walk your talk?

I think the best leaders use their power and influence to move the mission of the organization, to make things better, to make a difference in others’ lives, to insist that people do the right things, AND to lead in a way that embodies the organization’s values.

It’s one thing to gain power and influence, it’s another to be conscious about how you use it.

The wise use of power is one of the most satisfying aspects of leadership. How are you using your power?

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

Larry Sternberg

How Do You Celebrate Thanksgiving?

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, and even if you aren’t American I invite you to participate. It’s not about religion, it’s not about patriotism and it’s not about gifts. It’s about thankfulness, appreciation and gratitude.

As leaders, we’re trying to make things better. So we spend most of our time focusing on problems, on what’s wrong, on what we’re dissatisfied with, and what needs to be improved. Our brains are wired to see what’s wrong and this wiring has great survival value. Furthermore, dissatisfaction is intensely motivational. People who are satisfied with the status quo are not motivated to pursue improvements. So there’s a very healthy sense in which leaders are never satisfied, and that’s a good thing. But we can overdo the focus on what’s wrong. We can become hyper critical.

Because of our brain’s wiring, we have to work to focus on what’s right. It requires intention. Think about the people you truly care about. Everyone else is focusing on what’s wrong with them. When it comes to people, you can make a decision to focus on what’s right about them.

And during this season of Thanksgiving, you can write them notes about what you like about them, why you appreciate them, and why you’re grateful to have them in your life. Think about it. When was the last time someone wrote you this kind of note? How did it make you feel? Doesn’t happen very often does it?

You probably think you don’t have time to do this, with all the time you’re spending on what’s wrong. But you know the truth. You make time for things that are important to you.

My mother used to say, “Larry, tell me you love me.” I’d reply, “Mom, you know I love you.” And she’d say, “Yeah, but I like to hear you say it.”

I’m sure there are people who’d like to hear you say it. This is an important part of leadership. So I invite you to participate in Thanksgiving. It only takes a few minutes. Write a couple of notes of appreciation and affirmation. I promise it’ll be richly rewarding.

Thanks for reading. Happy Thanksgiving.

Larry Sternberg