How Much Can Training Accomplish?

I was invited to give a presentation for a very large, prominent software company at a conference of help desk managers from all over the world, and the topic of the conference was, “Creating a Better Customer Experience”. Different presenters focused on different ways to achieve this important outcome. Some, for instance, focused on how to reduce wait time by optimizing certain processes. The focus of my presentation was the impact of hiring the right kind of people.

The organizer of this conference had verbatim feedback from satisfied customers displayed around the room on large posters. Every participant could read several of these comments from wherever they sat. I read these posters as I prepared to deliver my remarks, and something struck me. Every single positive customer comment emphasized character traits. For instance, “Jorge was so patient in walking me through what I needed to do.” “Shirley really knows her stuff. But more importantly she was kind and understanding. She didn’t talk down to me.” “Amith did more than solve my technical problem. His sense of humor helped me get rid of my frustration. It was actually a fun conversation.”

You can give the exact same musical score to ten different singers. Some will deliver a simply dreadful experience. Some will do okay. But maybe one will create a performance so beautiful it brings tears to your eyes. The score alone cannot create an excellent experience for the listener. It depends on who’s singing. Talent matters.

When it comes to customer-facing employees, you can give them all the same training, the same information and the same support systems. But it’s character traits like empathy, patience, positivity and compassion that create an excellent experience for the customer. You can teach people to use your computer system, but you cannot teach them to be patient or positive. Those traits (and the others I mentioned) you must hire.

Would you like to verify this from your own experience? Think of the best customer-facing employee you’ve ever worked with. What made them so good? Take a couple of minutes and jot down a brief list of reasons why they were so good. When you’re done, read on.

Is your list mostly made up of things like positive attitude, good work ethic, good team player, liked to learn, etc.? You didn’t train those into the person. They were that way when you hired them. That’s what I’m talking about.

If you want to create a better customer experience, hire better people.

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

Larry Sternberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Larry Sternberg

Should You Hire People Who Are Better Than You?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be their champion. Celebrate their successes.

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

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

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

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

Larry Sternberg

Are You Surrounding Yourself With The Right People? – 2

One of my mentors, Sigi Brauer, frequently said, “Surround yourself with people who will make you successful.” You need to think beyond whether a candidate has the potential to excel in their role, you need to think about who’s the best fit for the culture, and who’s the best fit for you? In this post, I’ll focus on the latter: “How do you know who’s the best fit for you?”

First, you have to be aware of your leadership style. How would you describe it? See if you can write it down. It might be more difficult than you think. Go to associates you trust. Ask them to describe your style, and to describe the ideal direct report for you. Remember, there’s often a difference between whom you want and whom you really need.

Next, think about current and former direct reports who were (or are) a great fit for you. What are the first things that come to mind? What were they like? Why did they add so much value? Why did you look forward to working with them?

When you’ve done all this, see what themes emerge from these diverse perspectives. What did you learn? Have you refined your understanding of your style, and of your ideal direct report?

To make this more concrete, here are some random examples of possible insights. Do you want a person who constantly challenges the status quo? One who wants to execute established processes with excellence? Do you want a person who is highly collaborative? Intensely competitive? Relationship oriented? Thick skinned? Humble? Comfortable with confrontation?

If your style is aggressive and confrontational, the ideal direct report should be comfortable with confrontation and have a thick skin. If organization and attention to detail is not your long suit, seek someone who is strong in those areas.

During employment interviews, ask candidates to describe their style and their strengths. How close is the match to what you seek? Ask them to describe the best boss they’ve ever had. To what degree are they describing you?

You can also use scientific assessments to improve your ability to predict the degree to which a candidate matches your ideal fit.

As you think more about this, I believe you’ll come to the conclusion that your ideal direct reports will share certain values and character traits, AND will bring strengths that are complimentary to yours.

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

Larry Sternberg