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

Who Should You Put In Your Training Program?

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

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

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

Unbelievable. Sometimes life just hands you something good.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Larry Sternberg

How Can You Rapidly Fit In To A New Culture?

This is a question everyone must confront at some time, whether you’re a recent grad accepting your first career position or you’re a seasoned professional making a move after 20 years with the same company. What can you do to rapidly engage with the new culture? The following five principles will take you a long way toward success.

  1. Do your homework to ensure a natural fit between you and the culture.
  2. Demonstrate a consistent positive attitude.
  3. Work hard.
  4. Make your boss’ priorities your own.
  5. Cultivate positive relationships.

Do your homework to ensure a natural fit between you and the culture. The single most important thing you can do to fit in involves knowing yourself and learning about the company before you even get a job offer.

 

During the recruitment and selection process, you must make a determination about the natural fit between your values and style and the company’s values and style. You should look for a situation that requires the least amount of change on your part. You’re in a good fit when your natural style just happens to be what works in the culture. The more you have to change to fit in, the more difficult it will be.

 

Invest the time to clarify what’s important to you, and what your natural style is. During the interview process ask questions that will help you make a determination about your natural fit with the culture.

 

Demonstrate a consistent positive attitude. I realize this appears to be a platitude, but it’s not. Positivity matters, and it’s visible on the surface. It’s one of the first things people notice about you, and first impressions matter a lot. Because positivity is contagious, you’ll have a positive impact on the workplace, which means you’ll be adding value right away.

 

Work hard. This is another apparent platitude. But once again it’s immensely important. Everyone appreciates hard work and it’s very visible. It increases the amount of value you’re adding. If you work hard and you have a positive attitude you’ll immediately earn a positive reputation in your new organization.

 

Make your boss’ priorities your own. I’m indebted to one of my mentors, Sigi Brauer, for this insight. This is about adding value. Value, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Demonstrate a sense of urgency in moving forward those things that are important to your boss. Again, it’s extremely noticeable, and your boss will sincerely appreciate it.

 

Cultivate positive relationships. Unless you cultivate positive relationships, you won’t fit in rapidly, and you might not ever fit in at all. The topic of cultivating positive relationships has filled many books, so I’m just going to emphasize a few basics.

  • Build trust. Be open and honest. Deliver on your commitments. Act in accordance with the following principle, articulated by Jim Meehan: “I mean you no harm. I seek your greatest good.”
  • Get to know people, and invite them to know about you. Learn what’s important to them, both personally and professionally. Take the time to inquire about their weekend, their vacation, and their family.
  • Celebrate their successes and milestones, both personal and professional.
  • Find ways to be help them, to make a positive difference in their lives.
  • Ask them for help. This might appear counterintuitive at first, but it’s very effective. Find ways in which they can help you. This demonstrates that you see the value they can add. It’s a form of recognition. It actually causes them to like you more.

 

To summarize, if you do only these five things you’ll maximize your ability to fit in and achieve success in your new organization:

 

  1. Do your homework to ensure a natural fit between you and the culture.
  2. Demonstrate a consistent positive attitude.
  3. Work hard.
  4. Make your boss’ priorities your own.
  5. Cultivate positive relationships.

 

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

 

Larry Sternberg

Were You Fired Recently?

Some people never have to go through this experience. I’m not in that category. Getting fired is a painful, frightening, embarrassing experience. I don’t have any magic words to make you feel good about it. But I do want to encourage you to embrace it. Like any major loss in life, it happened. Embracing it doesn’t reduce the pain or sadness, but it does open you up to personal growth and wisdom. It does help you move into the future.

I once worked with a guy who told me – proudly – that he had been fired from his two previous jobs. He explained to me that he was not a quitter. He was completely determined to figure how to succeed. For him, giving up was not an option. If you wanted him off the job, you’d have to fire him. As his teammate I knew I could rely on him to give 100% every single day.

That conversation changed the way I thought about being fired. And subsequently it really helped me when I found myself working for a restaurant company and not succeeding in my role. I was a terrible fit for the culture. I told my wife I was not going to give up. It was extremely stressful. Every week I tried a new approach, but I couldn’t find the solution. Several months later, when the president fired me, I was enormously relieved. Although I’m not proud I didn’t succeed, I am proud that I didn’t give up.

Almost every person I know who has been fired finds a better job. And here’s why. What is the likelihood that the job you just got fired from is absolute best job you could find? There’s almost always a better job out there for you, but you’re rarely looking for it. When you’re forced to look, you find. This knowledge is of no help emotionally when you’ve just been fired, but it can help you embrace the situation.

Here’s my final piece of wisdom. At the time of being fired, you can’t tell whether it’s a good thing in your life or a bad thing. It certainly feels like a bad thing. But it’s only in hindsight that you can tell whether it was good or bad. It depends on where it leads you in your life’s journey. I know several successful executives who would tell you that being fired from a previous job was the best thing that every happened to them professionally.

Being fired is painful, and it might well kick off a very difficult period in your life. I encourage you to embrace it all – both the pain and the possibilities. Ask yourself what kind of person you want to be in this situation. Despite the pain, it can be a growth experience.

Thanks for reading. I’d love to hear your stories about moving on after being fired.

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

Why Do We Need Better Succession Planning At All Levels Of The Organization?

Many organizations have a succession planning process for top executives, but they overlook the lower levels. A robust system would identify entry-level employees who have the talent to be great supervisors, supervisors who can become great department heads, and so on. You’d wind up with a vertical slice of high potential future leaders. Unfortunately, most organizations don’t invest much to identify and develop mid-level managers. The goal of this post is to help you realize the magnitude of the opportunity here.

What would happen if everybody in your organization had a great supervisor? I’ll tell what would happen. Engagement and retention would improve, quality and productivity would improve, and customer loyalty would improve. Those outcomes would increase revenue and decrease costs. Investing money identifying and developing great mid-level managers has the potential to deliver a huge ROI.

The success of your mid-level development program will depend more on who you enroll than on the quality of the development experiences. Regrettably, most organizations aren’t very good at identifying people with the potential to become great supervisors and department heads. They rely on performance metrics that have absolutely nothing to do with leadership potential. The most common example is promoting the number one sales rep to sales manager. The ability to close a lot of sales has nothing to do with the ability to manage others. When a person is assuming a brand new set of responsibilities, past performance does not predict future performance.

What if you became world-class at spotting leadership potential in entry-level employees? You can accomplish this with properly designed psychometric assessments. Then you can look an employee in the eye and say, “Don’t go anywhere. You’re the future of our organization. We see your potential and we’re going to invest in you.”

If you commit to this, you’ll gain a reputation for developing people, empowering them to move forward in their careers. You’ll attract more entry-level applicants with leadership potential, thus increasing your pool of possible mid-level leaders. As you identify and develop better supervisors and department heads your pool of potential senior leaders will increase. In addition to the other benefits I’ve mentioned, these leaders will have grown up in your culture. They’ll know what your stand for. They’ll naturally enliven your core values.

Improving your ability to identify and develop mid-level supervisors presents a considerable opportunity to drive the success and growth of your organization. I hope you go for it. If your organization is already doing this, I’d love it if you shared your lessons learned.

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

Larry Sternberg

Why Should Employees Have To Pay Their Dues?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Larry Sternberg

11 Surefire Ways To Prevent Learning And Growth

Lately I’m seeing a lot of talk about the importance of developing future leaders. But I’m also seeing a disconnect between what people say and how they behave in the workplace. This post expresses my perspective on this disconnect. Here’s how to prevent learning and growth.

Please note that these items are not in order of importance. They’re merely in the order they occurred to me.

  1. Allow your employees to stay inside their comfort zone. Don’t let them advance too rapidly. Avoid giving them new responsibilities until you’re absolutely sure they will not fail. Go slowly.
  2. Stay inside your own comfort zone. Don’t set goals that require too much stretch. Don’t take unnecessary risks.
  3. Don’t empower employees to exercise initiative to solve a problem or improve your operation. Make sure they have to seek your permission first. You need to know what’s going on, after all. And your judgment is better than theirs.
  4. Make sure things are being done your way. Life is easier that way. If you do let people try things, make it risky for them. Make sure they know that they’ll be held accountable if those new things don’t work out.
  5. Discourage them from challenging the status quo or disagreeing with the opinions of the organization’s leaders (most particularly you). Expressing contrary opinions confuses other employees and undermines alignment.
  6. Don’t involve subordinates in making important decisions. Making those decisions is your job. Involving them just slows things down. Either you’ll have to spend time discussing ill-advised ideas, or even worse, their ideas might be better than yours, in which case why do they need you? Better not to involve them.
  7. Focus on what’s wrong with people rather than what’s right. Everyone has things they should work on. Make people work on their weaknesses. Make sure your coaching focuses on what they’re doing wrong. People need to accept constructive criticism.
  8. Invest most of your coaching time working with your worst performers. Everyone knows that a team is only as strong as its weakest players.
  9. If someone is doing an excellent job, discourage them from seeking a transfer or promotion. You could lose an excellent player, and you’d have to train someone new. It’s best for the business to keep them in that position. And it’s certainly easier for you.
  10. Make sure people know they’re accountable for their own growth and development. Advocate for a “self-development” culture, which relieves you of that responsibility, thus freeing you up to focus on more important aspects of your job.
  11. Make sure people know that if they don’t have a solution, asking for your help does not reflect well on them. You need people who bring you solutions, not problems, right?

Thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts. If you’re on the receiving end of these kinds of practices, I’d love to hear how they’ve affected you.

Larry Sternberg

Want Your Company To Be A Great Place To Work?

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

Peter Harrison, CEO, Snagajob

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

Michael C. Bush, CEO, Great Place To Work

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

Meaningful points from an excellent panel discussion

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

Amy Bastuga, Vice President, Human Resources, Radio Flyer

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

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

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

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

Larry Sternberg

Will You Please Quit Checking Your Phone Constantly?

These days it’s becoming more and more difficult to be a good listener. We (I include myself) always have our phones out, and we’re always checking briefly for incoming texts, tweets, emails, etc. Recent research suggests that just having your phone visible affects the conversation, and that people experience anxiety when they’re separated from their phones or can’t answer an incoming message. To read the research click here.

Many readers will rationalize this behavior, stating that briefly checking their phones does not detract from listening. But it does, and it impacts your relationship.

Remember, your relationship with another person is shaped by the way you respond to that person. Constant phone checking sends a message about how important (or unimportant) the person or the conversation is to you. Suppose your best customer stops in for a serious conversation. While she’s talking are you checking your phone? No. Suppose your CEO stops in to speak with you. Are you going to check your phone? No. How would you feel if your doctor checked her phone during your examination?

I understand that there’s a difference between casual conversation and other types of conversation that carry more significance. For instance, if you’re just talking about yesterday’s sporting event, it seems acceptable for both of you to check your phones. But if that same person is pouring his heart out about the recent terrible diagnosis of a loved one, please control the urge to check your phone.

My call to action here is to consciously, intentionally practice separating ourselves from our phones so that we don’t experience phone separation stress. When we’re in a meeting, let’s agree not to check our phones. This will free us to be in the moment and create the opportunity to engage in meaningful, human conversation. I think we’ll find that the world does not quit turning on its axis.

Here’s a great example. I have a friend whose social group gets together frequently for dinner parties. At the beginning of the evening they all put their phones in a basket and don’t retrieve them until the event is over. That’s a commitment to be in the moment with their friends. The more we do things like that the easier it gets.

I’m making a commitment to do better at this.

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

Larry Sternberg