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

Perfectionism Is Not a Flaw (1 of 2)

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Perfect 10: Source

If someone you care deeply about is having brain surgery, do you want a surgical team that says, “Done is better than perfect,” in the operating room? We don’t!

Too often, people focus only on the downside of perfectionism. Perfectionism, like almost all other character traits, is not inherently desirable or undesirable. It is not something people should work to overcome.  Furthermore, even if you want to overcome it, that’s extremely difficult to do because, like introversion, it’s a character trait.

If you are a perfectionist, we encourage you to embrace it as a strength, not curse it as a flaw. Instead of investing your time trying to shake off your perfectionism, you should seek situations in which being a perfectionist is a good fit. Look for an organization that is passionate about excellence, one that sets high standards for quality and aggressively strives for continuous improvement.

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Maribel Cruz, Ph.D.

One of our favorite perfectionists, Maribel Cruz, offers this advice, “Don’t be satisfied with simply finding organizations that accept or tolerate your perfectionism. Make a point of actively seeking out roles that utilize perfection. Think about the forensic accountant who lives for the moment when he finds that missing thousand dollars, or the editor who relishes her peers who embrace the Oxford comma.”

In Social Situations

In some situations, perfectionism can create stress, both for the perfectionist and for those around her. Social situations often come to mind first. As a perfectionist attending a dinner party, you might well notice several flaws in the way the hostess executes the event. Success in that situation requires that you acknowledge those flaws (just in your head, of course), but don’t allow them to diminish your enjoyment of the evening. (And for goodness sake, don’t share them with the host – not even later!) Your perfectionism goes to work with you, too. When a person or a team at work has created a great success, there were almost certainly flaws in their performance. Be conscious and intentional about celebrating the success instead of leaping immediately to focus on the flaws. Leave that to another time if you think bringing up the flaws could help that person or team have greater future success.

You don’t have to give up your perfectionism, but when it comes to the shortcomings of people you care about, accept them as they are. Consciously and intentionally focus on what’s right about them rather than what’s wrong. Also, keep in mind that not everyone shares your love for perfection.

Here’s Maribel’s advice for navigating social situations as a perfectionist: “I don’t judge other people (well, except when it comes to hygiene/cleanliness because I will not eat off dirty dishes). It’s far easier to accept others’ flaws than it is my own. I’m much harder on myself than anyone else would be.”

In fact, Maribel tells this story about a former roommate, “I can live with slobs as long as they don’t mess up my personal space or any shared space. I had a housemate in grad school who literally did not notice a 40-pound bag of dirt I left in his room purposely. It sat there all year!”

At Work

Work situations can also be complicated for perfectionists, especially when it’s not brain surgery, and success really is defined more by “done” than by “perfect.” When a project has a hard deadline, make the work as close to perfect as possible, but meet the deadline. It’s ok to acknowledge that the product is not perfect, and it’s ok for that to bother you. The “bothering” part is just a feeling. You don’t have to allow that feeling to control you.  And you don’t have to try to stop being a perfectionist either. Instead of trying to change this character trait, Maribel suggests that you should work on managing the situation and consider how your perfectionism can serve you well.

For many perfectionists, including Maribel, perfectionism is a way to maintain control in a chaotic world. She explains, “It soothes me to polish my windows until no spots are left. Your run of the mill perfectionist gets a charge out of creasing the pants or knotting a tie just so. It’s about asserting personal agency in the world and enjoying the feeling of being in charge.” If doing something perfectly motivates you and provides a sense of satisfaction, by all means, do it!

Maribel also notes that “re-living my ‘perfect’ moments helps me re-experience the moments where that perfection has been attained so I can recapture the elements of that perfect performance to make it repeatable.” She uses past perfection to drive future perfection

Perfectionism is not a flaw. If you are reading this and you’re a perfectionist, embrace it! Perfectionists can add great value to any organization, provided it is harnessed in the right way.

___________________________

Larry Sternberg and Kim Turnage are authors of  Managing to Make a Difference (Wiley), a handbook for hitting the sweet spot of middle management. Maribel Cruz, Ph.D. is Director/Senior Leadership Consultant at Talent Plus, and her perfectionism creates excellence every day.

This is Part One in a two-part series on perfection. Check back next week for Part Two.

 

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

How Are You Building Your Talent Brand?

Julie Campbell recently posted an excellent article entitled, “90 Days at LinkedIn: What I’ve Learned About Talent Brand.” She points out that a Talent Brand goes way beyond perks, and must be carefully and intentionally crafted over years. Talent Brand, she says, “… is rooted in everything the company does and is the foundation by which new employees are brought on board.” It’s “… what a company does to create employee opportunity and to make a difference in the community and in the world.”

It seems to me that the concept “Talent Brand”, as she describes it, overlaps a lot with the concepts of company culture and mission. However, I don’t want to engage in a semantic dispute. I heartily support Ms. Campbell’s points, and wish to add to the conversation.

In terms of a Talent Brand, do you view your organization through the eyes of your constituents? Here are some questions you can ask:

  • How do we want our employees to see us? What do we want them to say about us?
  • What do we want our community to say about us?
  • What do we want customers to say?
  • How do we want possible job applicants to see us?

I believe that how people see you and what they say about you – that’s your brand.

If you have clear answers to those questions you can identify areas for improvement. If you have clear answers to those questions an individual can make a high quality judgment about whether he or she would be a good fit for your organization.

Ms. Campbell asks this important question: “Where is the company investing in talent?” I believe talent investment should begin with selection.

Have you invested the time and money to understand the talent profiles of your top performers? Do you invest in scientific assessment to identify candidates who not only will perform with excellence, but also will thrive in your culture?

In terms of your Talent Brand, I believe that nothing is more important than selection. If you don’t invest the time and money to get the selection right, your subsequent investments in training and development will not bear fruit.

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

Larry Sternberg

Do You Individualize Your Coaching Practices?

Many leaders used to do the job of the people they’re coaching. And those leaders often were very successful in that job, and they’ve developed the belief that they know THE way to achieve success. Many sales training programs are based on this sort of belief. The limitation of this belief is that trainer or coach is unaware of her own talent. It doesn’t occur to her that others might not be capable of demonstrating the behaviors she’s recommending.

If you’re coaching someone, in any position, remember this: just because you were (or are) capable of doing something, that doesn’t mean that the person you’re coaching possesses those same capabilities. Of course there are some behaviors you can teach. But leaders routinely overestimate their ability to help others demonstrate behaviors that are not aligned with their aptitudes or character traits. Here are some examples. Maybe you’re comfortable with confrontation and he (the coachee) simply is not. Maybe you’re extroverted and he’s introverted. Maybe you have an eye for detail and he simply doesn’t. Or maybe you’re remarkably well organized and he’s not.

Great coaches begin by understanding the individual strengths of each person, and they implement the following principle, which is attributed to Peter Drucker: Build the strengths and make the weaknesses irrelevant.

Don’t worry so much about how you did it. Each person creates success by using his or her unique configuration of strengths. As a coach, you must understand that there are many paths to success. If you want to be a great coach, you must grow beyond helping others understand how you achieved success. You must help them figure out how they are going to achieve success.

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

Have You Re-discovered The Peter Principle?

Adam Vaccaro posted an excellent article on the Inc. Website entitled, “High Performance Is Not the Same as High Potential.” Click here to read it. This distinction was the topic of a wonderful book written by Laurence Peter and Raymond Hull in 1969 entitled, “The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong.” Peter observed that companies that base promotions on performance in the current job create a system in which all managers eventually rise to their level of incompetence. Click here to read a synopsis.

The solution to this dilemma begins with the insight that the job of supervisor, for instance, requires a different set of talents and skills than the job of an individual performer. To give a specific example, the role of sales manager requires different talents and skills than does the role of sales representative. But, as Peter observed, it’s the number one sales rep who gets promoted to sales manager. Often – sadly, very often in the world of sales – the newly promoted individual is not a good manager. The company suffers a double whammy. They’ve taken their best sales rep off the playing field AND they’ve given the team a poor manager. This is not a formula for increasing sales.

Whether it’s sales or any other type of role, we all know people who’ve been “Peter Principled”. This creates a huge amount of stress for the individual, because he’s trying to do something for which he doesn’t have the fundamental aptitude to excel. He’s been promoted into a job for which he’s not a good fit. This situation generates a huge amount of stress, which leads to burn out and numerous other health problems. It’s not good for the company, it’s not good for the customers and it’s not good for the person.

Therefore, as Vaccaro points out, we must look beyond performance in the current role and assess potential for excellence in the new role. Once you start focusing on potential you’re looking through a different lens, and something really interesting happens. You’ll notice that some employees who are not stars in their current role have the potential to be stars as leaders. They’re better coaches than players. Vaccaro gives some research-based behaviors to look for in assessing leadership potential.

However, the issue of cultural fit is crucial. We need to assess leadership potential in a much more specific way. As you know, every organization culture is different. A leadership style that’s a natural fit for one culture might not work well in a different culture. Which is a better business decision? 1) identify individuals who have high potential for leadership excellence AND who must make major changes to their leadership style in order to thrive in your culture, or 2) identify individuals who have high potential for leadership excellence AND whose leadership style is a natural fit for your culture?

There are well-known, scientific methodologies for studying the character traits and natural behaviors of top performing leaders in a specific organization (yours, for instance). By definition, these people thrive as leaders in your culture. Such a study will result in a benchmark you can use to assess the potential of both internal and external candidates. This kind of scientific study is the Gold Standard for succession planning.

This discussion brings to light a more fundamental issue in our society. It seems to me there’s a widely-held point of view that if one is not getting promoted something is wrong. We need to eradicate this perception. This causes people to seek promotions for the wrong reasons, and attain roles that are not a good fit. They’re driven to seek the Peter Principle. We need to ensure that people don’t need a promotion to feel truly valued and significant.

In considering people for promotion, shift from focusing on performance to focusing on potential. Make sure candidates have the potential to excel in the new role. When someone’s in the right fit, they’re spending most of their time doing things they’re good at and enjoy. They’re energized by their job, not oppressed by it. Everybody wins.

Thanks to Beth Bruss for suggesting this topic.

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

Larry Sternberg

Are You Struggling With Delegation? Do You Have Trouble Letting Go?

Recently I received an invitation (that is, a solicitation) to attend a seminar on the principles of effective delegation. The invitation targeted managers who are struggling with delegation, implying that they’ll delegate more if they learn more about the right way to do it. I think the hesitancy to delegate is about something more fundamental than the “how”. I think it’s about the “who”. That’s the topic of this post.

Newly promoted supervisors and managers often struggle with delegation. Previous to the promotion they were individual performers. They know they can perform certain tasks with excellence, but now they have to trust others to perform these tasks. This pushes many new managers way outside their comfort zones. You might be in this situation.

Certainly it will help to learn more about how to delegate, but it’s much more important to learn as much as possible about your people. Because identifying the right person is the most important aspect of delegation. And the right person is not only someone who will do the task with excellence, but also it’s someone you trust.

Build your plays around your players. First, think about who will do the task with excellence. The more you know about each of your people, the easier it will be to make this decision.

Do you know:

  • Their strengths and weaknesses?
  • What they’re passionate about?
  • What motivates them?
  • What their career goals are?
  • Whether they’ll find this assignment attractive and engaging?

If you know the answers to these questions, you’ll be able to determine whether this assignment is a good fit for them. If it’s a good fit, you’ll have confidence in their capability and motivation to perform with excellence.

In addition, you need to assess your personal relationship with that person. How close are you? Aside from the fit considerations, how much to you trust this person? This is a relationship issue. If trust is low, knowing more about how to delegate will not remove this barrier. If trust is low, ask yourself, “Why don’t I trust this person?” and, “Am I willing to work on building trust?” If you don’t trust this person, delegation will never go well.

Delegation always involves risk. No amount of knowledge about how to delegate will eliminate this risk. You must understand that mistakes will be made. Things will go wrong. But if you’ve delegated to the right people, you’ll find that they also so some things even better than you would have done. When it comes to delegation, that’s where the treasure is buried.

Growth always involves going outside your comfort zone. You might be apprehensive about delegating, but you don’t have to let that feeling control your behavior. Identify the right person and take a risk. Where would you be today if someone hadn’t taken a risk on you?

Thanks for reading. I have no doubt many readers have valuable advice about delegating. I’d love to hear from you.

Larry Sternberg

What’s the Best Way to Evaluate Cultural Fit?

When I use the term “culture” I mean a set of shared values and beliefs that form the basis for: 1) what we actually do, and 2) what we believe we ought to do. As I’ve said before, I think culture has more impact than strategy on the long-term success of an organization. That’s why it’s so important to select people who fit, whose natural values, beliefs and behaviors align with those of the culture. That’s what this post is about.

The challenge here is that culture is always in flux. Some elements of culture are more malleable than others. Some are deeply entrenched and extremely difficult to change. Furthermore, the description of an organization culture depends on where you’re standing. It depends on your perspective. That makes the endeavor of describing a culture a lot more complex than we typically acknowledge.

First let’s think about perspective. If you ask a wealthy New Yorker who lives on Park Avenue to describe the culture of New York City, we’ll get a very different description than the one given by the person who lives in a poor, dangerous section of that same city. If we ask the C-suite executives to describe the culture of their organization, we might well get a very different description than the one given by a rank and file employee.

Now let’s think about flux. (By the way, when was the last time someone asked you to think about flux?) The culture of any organization, any community is continuously evolving due to influences from both internal and external sources. Whatever a person’s perspective, their description of the culture is a snapshot in time. To further complicate matters, different parts of the culture are evolving at different rates of speed.

So when you say that you want a candidate to fit the culture, what culture are you talking about? The culture of a specific division or department? The present culture or the culture the CEO envisions for the future? This is immensely complex. It can make your head hurt. But there’s an easier way to determine cultural fit.

In my opinion, the endeavor of determining who’s a good fit for the existing culture is in some respects easier than describing the culture. Even if we’re not sure we can describe the culture, we can identify existing employees who are a good fit. These are individuals who thrive in the culture and who are widely regarded as exemplifying the desired cultural values and behaviors. We can create profiles of these people and hire to those profiles. This can be done for an envisioned culture as well. We can identify existing employees who exemplify the values and behaviors of the desired future culture, create profiles of those people and hire to those profiles.

Objectively and properly describing an evolving culture from multiple perspectives is a daunting task. But we don’t need to do that in order to answer the question, “What kinds of candidates would be a good fit?” Whether we’re focusing on an existing culture or a desired culture, we simply need to study existing employees who are a good fit and hire more people like that.

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

Larry Sternberg

Expense Or Investment? How Do You See Your Employees?

Recently Rick Newman wrote a very interesting article entitled, “Why most employers aren’t like Starbucks or Costco”. To read it click here. Newman states that employers who view their employees as expenses typically compete on cost (e.g., Walmart) whereas most companies who view their employees as investments typically compete on quality (e.g., Starbucks).

He points out that many companies whose business model is premised on keeping labor costs low could actually afford to pay people more, but doing so would risk the ire of investors and Wall Street analysts — despite the fact that numerous studies have established that the investment approach can pay for itself. There are lots of way to make money. I prefer to work with companies that take the investment approach, so in this post I want to address the how. How do you make the investment approach pay for itself?

Properly implemented the investment approach — which includes a focus on the quality of products and services — delivers several important outcomes:

  • Increased repeat business
  • Increased per transaction spend
  • Improved word-of-mouth
  • Increased productivity
  • Reduced employee turnover

As Newman points out, this approach begins with the recruitment of highly talented employees, which requires a sophisticated selection process. Conduct a proper study to understand the profile of top performers in the organization. These are employees who not only perform their tasks with excellence, but also they thrive in your unique culture. Then, recruit and select to this profile. In any job, top performers are way more productive than others, they make fewer errors (reducing costly re-work), and they miss fewer days of work. If you select highly talented people who fit your culture, you can have fewer employees, each making more — and your overall labor costs go down while quality goes up.

In addition, if you also select highly talented supervisors, your employee turnover will go down which not only saves the money associated with turnover (a VERY large number), but also improves your quality because a) more of your new hire training budget can be re-purposed, and b) employees who stay experience more practice, which helps them improve performance. Cost go down, quality goes up.

So how do you make the investment approach pay for itself? Select highly talent employees who fit your culture, pay them well, invest in training and development, and give each employee a supervisor who truly cares, who cultivates close, positive relationships. You’ll earn a handsome return on these investments.

But I have to be honest with you. I do care about the business case, but that’s not why I take the investment approach. I want it for its own sake. I want the employees in my culture to have no doubt that they are our most important competitive advantage, that I care deeply about each and every person who works with me, that I take great joy in facilitating both their professional and personal development, and that I will extend myself to meet their needs. A business case has no soul.

Thanks to my wife, Salli Sternberg, for suggesting this topic.

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

Larry Sternberg