How Do You Create A Culture Of Feedback?

A client recently asked me, “How do we create a culture of feedback?” That question took me back to the following story.

I was the HR Director at a large conference hotel. We had a team of employees known as banquet housemen whose job was to clean, set-up and tear down the hotel’s many function rooms. It’s a very physical job which involves moving tables and chairs in and out of storage areas, setting rooms to precise specifications, and cleaning those rooms so that when you arrive for your meeting the room looks terrific down to the last detail. Banquet housemen, therefore, are deployed all over the hotel, and they work odd hours (so that you can dance until 1:00 AM at your awards banquet, and some other group can start their meeting in that very same room at 8:00 AM).

The banquet housemen team was suffering from low morale and high turnover. We tried several interventions/strategies to improve the situation, but nothing worked. It came to pass that the supervisor left, and we hired a guy named Frank to replace him. And Frank taught us something.

After about a week of assessing the situation, Frank created at short form performance evaluation. With a stack of these forms on a clip board, he’d randomly pop in to a room where a couple of housemen were working, he’d watch them work, and then he’d complete an evaluation on each person and hand it to them. He did this every single day.

The first 30 days, turnover was even worse. But within 60 days moral was very high and turnover went to almost nothing. The evaluations clarified his expectations and provided feedback so people knew the degree to which each person was meeting them. So creating a culture of feedback has the potential to bring about serious improvements.

These housemen needed the evaluations because there was no measurement system in place. A measurement system is the absolute best way to provide objective and helpful feedback. But for some jobs it’s difficult implement a practical measurement system. In those cases, frequent, candid feedback from a coach is very helpful.

These days, because almost everybody has a smart phone, it’s easier to get feedback from end users. In my story about the banquet housemen, today we could ask meeting attendees to answer one or two questions on their phones about the room set up. Or we could just ask the meeting planner. Or both. The point is we have options we didn’t have back when Frank was operating. These ratings would constitute measurements by which we could evaluate performance.

In my experience, when individuals or teams are given this kind of information, they make adjustments on their own. But there are plenty of times when the team doesn’t know what to do differently to improve their scores. That’s where the coach comes in. The right coach will … um … coach people as to what they should do. The measurement system will tell everyone whether it worked.

If you communicate clear expectations, implement a system to measure success, and provide frequent, candid feedback, you’ll establish a feedback system that works.

P.S. There’s one more very important thing. I once heard a client say, “Around here continuous improvement means constant criticism.” Feedback has to have some balance. Make sure you’re not just focusing on what’s wrong. Make sure you’re reviewing successes and high points, with the intent to figure out how to repeat those performances.

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

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

If You Can’t Figure Out How To Succeed Without Cheating, Then Choose Failure.

The recent Volkswagen scandal presents us with yet another example of intentional, enduring dishonest behavior by an organization. But it’s only the latest example. And it’s not just for-profit companies. This occurs in government entities, religious organizations, the Olympics, news organizations, sports teams and academic institutions, just to name a few. It’s everywhere. And it’s not going to stop. Root cause analysis won’t provide a solution. Increased regulation won’t provide a solution. More severe penalties won’t provide a sufficient deterrent.

However, we should continue to do those things. We can’t just throw our hands up and do nothing. But we must acknowledge reality. Despite our efforts, dishonest behavior continues with a depressing frequency. So what can we do? And more to the point, what can you, as a leader, do?

You must operate in your main sphere of influence – which is you. You must maintain impeccable integrity. Temptation is everywhere. Don’t try to see what you can get away with. It’s a very slippery slope. You must make how you accomplish your goals even more important than actually accomplishing the goals. If you can’t figure out how to succeed without cheating, then choose failure. If you’re ordered to do something that’s not right, refuse even if you’ll be fired. If everyone around you is engaging in dishonest behavior, leave the organization.

Don’t bend the rules, and don’t tolerate that sort of behavior. If you become aware of unethical behavior, report it. Become a whistle blower. Maintain your integrity, even if it’s unpleasant and costly. Remember the words of Edmund Burke: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

I’m not suggesting this is easy. In many cases, this takes a great deal of courage to operate with integrity. I think it’s worth the struggle.

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

Are You At Peace With Your Work/Life Balance?

I listen to numerous highly successful leaders who yearn for a better balance between their work life and their personal life. For some individuals, this lament can continue for years. Does this sound familiar to you?

There is much written about the importance of balance in one’s life. Don’t listen to others who prescribe an ideal balance. Don’t listen to those who might judge your choices. There is no right balance, there is no best balance, there’s only the balance that’s right for you.

You might be at a point in life where you’re making major sacrifices in order to progress in your career. It might be to make a lot of money (there’s nothing wrong with money). It might be to become the best in your profession. It might be to pursue a noble cause. It doesn’t matter why you’re making these sacrifices. The important question is whether you’re at peace with your choices.

The choice of one path necessarily eliminates the pursuit of other possible paths. For example, a friend of mine is a successful, professional musician. He’s decided to pursue a Doctorate in counseling. The program is quite rigorous, requiring him to reduce the time he devotes to his music and to social activities.

If you’re not at peace with your work/life balance you don’t have to feel trapped. Alternatives are available, but each choice comes with a cost. You have to answer the following question: What do you really want in life and what are you willing to give up to get it?

Choices have consequences. If you’re unwilling to pay the price for changing your work/life balance, own it. Make that choice consciously. Find a way to embrace the consequences. Find a way to be at peace with 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

Does The Board Take You (and your strategies) Seriously?

Many readers of this blog are human resources professionals. As I peruse various HR publications, I notice frequent articles on this topic. So I thought I’d chime in with my point of view. Although this post is directed at HR leaders, it really applies to leaders in any discipline.

Very early in my career I was one of several Hyatt Hotels’ HR Directors who were asked to review the HR operations of other hotels in their region. As part of my review I asked the HR Director what his/her most important priorities were. What did they do that added the most value to their hotel? There was a surprising amount of consistency. Almost all said availability to employees, employee relations, confidentiality, and resolving employee complaints.

I also asked the hotel General Manager how HR contributed to the success of the hotel. What did HR do that added the most value? In this case there was 100% consistency in their answers. “Find me good people.” Not one HR director said that.

Things might well have evolved way beyond that by now. For instance, I think I’d hear a lot about engagement these days. But the story still illustrates my point.

Value is in the eye of the beholder.

I suspect that too many HR professionals decide what they think adds the most value, and then they try to sell it to the Board, or even worse, simply hope the Board values those things, too.

But you have to meet the Board, the GM, or the customer where they are. Find out what they value and design your initiatives to address those areas. I know that over recent years more HR leaders have learned to design initiatives that clearly support the organization’s business plans and goals. We need more of that, and we need one more thing.

You must quantify the value of your initiatives in metrics meaningful to the Board.

You must be able to state what you intend to achieve and how you’ll measure success in terms of money, customer loyalty, productivity, or other metrics known to be meaningful to the Board (known because you asked).

I’m fortunate to know a handful of HR VP’s who work this way. For example, one HR VP invested about two years collecting data to establish the cost of turning over a department head and also a rank and file employee. At the same time he collected better data about why employees left voluntarily. It turned out that the top reasons for rank and file turnover could be addressed by targeted training for supervisors.

When he went to the Board to request the funds to deliver the training (it was not cheap) he did not refer to general studies about the cost of turnover. He did not refer to general studies about the reasons for turnover. He went to the Board with credible studies about their company. He made a business case, and he set a goal for how much money they would save by implementing the training program. He received his funding.

Perhaps you’ve perceived that getting support from your Board or your boss is exactly the same as getting a commitment from an external customer. You must make it all about them. You must know what they value, what their goals are, and what their problems are. Then you must bring solutions to address those goals or problems, and you must be willing to be held accountable to metrics meaningful to them. That is how it is done.

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

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

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

Do You Owe Someone An Apology?

I’ve worked with plenty of leaders who just can’t bring themselves to admit when they’ve screwed up in some way. And because they’re in a position of power, everyone who reports to them adjusts to it because they have no choice. These leaders just can’t say, “I’m sorry.”

Think about customers for a minute. When you’re dealing with an upset customer, and you’re trying to make them happy, you know that in many cases just saying, “I’m sorry” and meaning it is all the customer needs. Of course you want to fix whatever went wrong, but the point here is that sincerely apologizing almost always diffuses the situation. I’ve made numerous apologies to customers when we didn’t do anything wrong. I’m sure you’ve done this, too. Why? Not because the customer is always right. We do it to retain the customer. We want the relationship to continue. We want the customer to know we sincerely care about them.

In my former career, Horst Schulze taught me this, “Guest satisfaction is not about whether you spill the soup on the guest, it’s about what you do after you spill the soup.” A service recovery situation gives you the opportunity to demonstrate how much you care. In some cases, your relationship will actually be better after the unfortunate event.

Okay, now let’s think about employees. If you make a wrong decision, if you’re in error, do you own it? Do you apologize? Do you make amends? In other words, do you genuinely treat your people as you would treat a customer? That is, after all, the point of using the phrase “internal customers” to designate employees.

Or… are you the type of leader I described in the first paragraph? That type of leader wants to hold employees accountable, but won’t be accountable to his employees. I don’t know what’s gained by this behavior, but I know what’s lost. Respect. Your employees are not under the delusion that you have no flaws, that you don’t make errors. But if you don’t own your errors, they’ll draw the conclusion that YOU are under that delusion. Thus the loss of respect. If you’re that type of leader, apologizing is about power, not about caring.

It’s one thing to have power; it’s another thing how you use it.

Do you owe someone an apology?

Thanks for reading. As always, I welcome your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg