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

Is Your Cure Worse Than The Disease?

I remember a situation where a department head in a luxury hotel really botched the employee roster, resulting in a lot of service defects, upset guests, upset employees and unnecessary costs. The department head’s supervisor (the Food and Beverage Director) was chewed out by the General Manager. The Food and Beverage Director’s response was to declare that henceforth she would review all rosters from all food and beverage departments before they became final.

Have you witnessed this type of over-response before? One person makes one mistake and the boss implements a new policy designed to ensure that that kind of mistake never happens again. This solution created a lot of extra work for the Food and Beverage Director, it slowed things down considerably, and it sent a clear message that the department heads were not trusted to make a proper roster.

Way too often a supervisor responds to a mistake by exercising more control, thus moving in the direction of micromanagement. If you do this too frequently, as time goes on you’ll become overwhelmed in your efforts to control everything – and mistakes will occur anyway.

Additional control mechanisms drive up costs and slow things down. If things are done right in the first place, control mechanisms add no value. When you’re thinking about implementing a new control mechanism in response to a mistake, consider the costs as well as the benefits. Take your emotion out of the equation. Consult with colleagues to get some outside perspective about whether it’s good business decision or an over-response.

People will make mistakes. That doesn’t mean that we should be complacent, but implementing additional control mechanisms is rarely the best answer. Don’t implement a cure that’s worse than the disease.

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

Larry Sternberg


How Can You Control Humor In The Workplace?

I recently encountered a person who’s researching policies to ensure that humor in the workplace remains civil. I’m a major proponent of humor in life, and there’s plenty of research verifying the health benefits of humor and laughter. It’s no surprise, then, that there are curmudgeons out there who want to control it. To read a Mayo Clinic article on the health benefits of humor click here. It’s a blessing to have people in the workplace who laugh easily and who like to make others laugh.

Of course we want workplaces where people treat each other in a civil manner. But the cultural value of treating each other civilly applies to all behavior, not just humor. An organization does not accomplish this by policies. Think about how you teach your children about civil behavior. What do you do when your child loudly proclaims, “Mommy! Look at how fat that man is!” You correct, you teach, and at times you punish.

Like many other cultural values, what’s considered “civil” varies from culture to culture, and that definition is constantly evolving. I remember when “Ms.” became the preferred form address for females in the USA. The old forms of address became uncivil — darned near overnight. No formal policy was enacted, but women made it clear, through relentless correction, that they found the old language offensive.

It seems to me that when problems of uncivil behavior persist it’s because the senior leaders in an organization condone or actively promote those behaviors. It’s commitment to the principle, not the written policy that matters. For instance, many organizations have written policies against sexual harassment, but tragically we see too often that senior leaders condone such behavior — in some cases even punishing the victim for reporting it!

If senior leadership sincerely wants to discourage uncivil behavior (whether or not it involves humor), they know very well how to do that. And so do you. You make it clear that behavior is unacceptable. You correct, you teach. You insist an apology is in order. You implement appropriate discipline if the person repeats that kind of behavior.

On this issue we need more leadership, not more policies.

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

Larry Sternberg

Can We Bring Back Good Faith Collaboration?

As I write this post on July 9, 2016, the USA is in the midst of bitter, extreme political partisanship. Our society at this moment is polarized. This post is not about that, but what’s going on in businesses and other organizations, it seems to me, reflects this larger societal trend. “Compromise” has become a dirty word. There are too many “us and them” mentalities, too many fear-based behaviors, too much demonizing of “them”, or him, or her, and too many adversarial relationships. It’s unhealthy and it’s very costly. People are out of focus. They’re diverting a huge amount of productive time to unproductive behaviors.

As usual, I don’t think I have the answer, but this is a classic situation in which the struggle to find answers — the struggle itself — creates immense value. We must not shrink from this challenge. Without the struggle, answers will not emerge.

I also believe that despite this general trend, there exist positive deviants – situations in which leaders have found a way to move beyond these unhealthy trends. Identifying and studying what they’re doing will help others find solutions that work for them. I hope readers post some best practices that could be helpful to others.

One typical manifestation of this adversarial, “us and them” mentality is the point of view that I’m right and they’re wrong. It’s up to them to change. Let’s let that thinking go. Start from the premise that you can make changes in your behavior that will improve the situation. As a leader, demonstrate the courage to take the first step.

The results you’re getting now are based on the ways you’re doing things now. If you want about the same results going forward, keep doing things the same way. If you want significantly better results, ask, “What can I do differently to improve this situation?”

Here are a few recommendations for your consideration.

As Steven R. Covey taught:

  • First listen to understand. Then be understood.
  • Find a win/win solution. Win/win or no deal.

If you begin by truly understanding someone else’s perspective and motives, it becomes easier to find a win/win solution. Even so, a solution might not come easily. But stay committed to that outcome.

Win/win requires good faith collaboration. Good faith collaboration requires a mindset that some of “their” ideas are better than mine.

Why not start with the intent to find what you can appreciate about “their” ideas? Why not show “them” true respect by soliciting their input about your ideas?

It’s entirely possible to engage in passionate debate without demonizing the other person. One can engage in passionate debate while still acknowledging that the other person has some good ideas. If your intent is win/win, and if you engage in good faith collaboration, passionate debate can lead to superior decisions.

Begin with your own intent and your own behavior. Influence others in your organization through your example.

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

Larry Sternberg

Is It Really Better To Ask For Forgiveness…?

I’ve been hearing this way too often lately. “It’s better to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission.” It’s catchy. It sounds just enough like wisdom to pass for wisdom. But does it have any substance? Does it give us any moral guidance?

I hope no one believes it’s always better to ask for forgiveness. That would justify, for example, date rape in cases where consent was not clear. So let’s consider the statement, “It’s sometimes better to ask forgiveness…”

But this statement is fraught with questions. How do we know whether this situation is one of the sometimes where asking for forgiveness is better? What do we mean by better? Better for whom?

Here’s a headline from an article in today’s issue of my local newspaper: “Native site may delay $3.8B pipeline”. A Native American archeological site has been discovered during the construction of an oil pipeline. Delay costs a lot of money. Should the pipeline company bulldoze right through and then ask for forgiveness? (Assume the penalty would be a fine rather than an order to stop the pipeline completely.)

Your answer reveals something about your value system. In all cases, when you’re asking this question you’re in a situation where you’re contemplating doing something that you believe A) is deemed to be wrong (or at least questionable), or B) will not be well received by certain people. Then you do a cost/benefit analysis. Once I take this action, does the probable benefit outweigh the probable cost to me?

For instance, suppose you have an opportunity to close a very large sale, but the prospect wants a delivery date that the production and service people will view as completely out of the question. Do you call them to discuss it, or do you promise the delivery date and close the deal? You know they’ll be pissed off, but you know you won’t get fired. You’ll get your anatomy chewed and they’ll have to figure it out. Again, your decision reveals something about your value system.

It’s also important to understand that this decision does not take place in a vacuum. There’s always a context. How often do you make decisions where you choose to ask for forgiveness? Is this a truly rare situation, or are you constantly doing it? The more frequently you ask for forgiveness, the more likely your associates will realize you don’t care about them. You care about only what you want and what you can get away with.

I believe there are indeed times when it’s better to ask for forgiveness. Suppose, for instance, that your driver’s license is suspended and someone you’re with suffers a life-threatening injury. Do you drive them to the emergency room? Of course you do.

It seems to me that this issue boils down to a matter of frequency. You might be proud of boldly moving your agenda forward. But be careful; this is a slippery slope. If you too frequently act in ways that require forgiveness, people will know you don’t really care about them. They won’t trust you. They won’t respect you. In my opinion, that’s too high a price to pay. But, of course, that’s my value system.

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

Larry Sternberg

What More Can We Say About Building Trust?

Just for fun, I Googled, “How to build trust.” Google returned 523,000,000 results in .38 seconds. I apologize, but I’m going to make it 523 million and one. Most of the conversation I hear or read on this topic focuses on being trustworthy, which is supremely important. But there’s another aspect that doesn’t get as much attention: being trusting.

Being trusting is more nuanced than being trustworthy. Let’s begin by acknowledging that it’s possible to be too trusting. Think about the purchasing function, for instance. The risk of malfeasance is so great that it would be foolish to forego rigorous controls and oversight. Everybody involved in that process understands and accepts this.

But some leaders see every situation like the one described above. This lack of trust is rationalized in various ways: I don’t trust their judgment; I don’t trust their knowledge or experience; I don’t trust their intentions; I’m worried they might commit malfeasance; I don’t trust them to follow up. I’m sure you can add to this list. The result is lack of empowerment and more control mechanisms. People hesitate to take initiative. The organization becomes less agile. Morale suffers. And most importantly relationships suffer. When trust is low, you cannot create a high performing team.

I’ve worked with way too many leaders who are quite comfortable telling me they don’t trust one or more of their direct reports. Does this sound familiar? Why would a leader choose to work with someone they don’t trust? Sadly, often the answer is: they wouldn’t trust the next person either because they can’t bring themselves to trust anyone.

When trust is high relationships flourish, the organization is more agile, morale improves, collaboration improves and productivity improves. Readers might be interested in reading, “The Speed of Trust” by Steven M. R. Covey and “I Mean You No Harm; I Seek Your Greatest Good” by Jim Meehan.

You can’t create a high performing team absent a high level of trust. Being trustworthy is not enough. You must also be trusting, which involves risk. But let’s be honest. It’s a choice you can make. Find direct reports you’re willing to trust. The rewards are well worth the risk.

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

Thinking Of Bringing Back Former Employees?

I’ve brought back several former employees, some of whom had resigned and some I asked to leave. I’ve had some successes and some failures doing this, so in this post I’ll share my perspective on the issue.

In all cases, you should start from scratch in your decision-making process. By this I mean that whatever your process is for considering a complete stranger, put this former employee through the same process. Consider everything you learned about this person during his or her employ to be extremely important information, but don’t make the mistake of relying solely on that information. You’ll learn new, important things when you go through your standard process.

No matter how much time has passed since this person worked for you, remember that the situation has changed. The more time, the greater the change. Even if very little time has passed, I assure you the situation has changed. For one thing, there are different people, internal and external, who are competing for this role. Your product mix might have changed. You might have re-organized. The person might have to report to a different supervisor. Your organization might be facing different challenges currently. You get the point. There are all kinds of changes that might well materially affect your decision.

You should also refresh your memory about why this person left. For example, a client recently re-hired a person who was very effective in his sales role, but had been fired for unethical practices about two years ago. In the interview process the candidate spoke eloquently about how he had changed. Sales were down and the client was a little desperate. I advised the client to pass, but they re-hired him. I predict they’ll end up terminating him again for similar reasons.

When the reasons for terminating someone are based on fundamental character traits like work ethic, integrity, or positivity, to name a few, DON’T re-hire the person. There is only a tiny likelihood that they’ve changed enough to make a difference. Every time you hire someone, you’re placing a bet. When you’re betting that a person’s character has changed, the odds against this bet are huge.

I saw this recently in our company. An employee left voluntarily, was gone for a few years, and inquired about whether he could return doing the same kind of work he had done previously. While he was with us, he produced an impressive amount of billable work, but he took shortcuts in his work and too often did not fulfill his commitments. He told us that he had been struggling with an addiction problem during that entire time, but now he was clean. He stated that the flaws in his previous performance would not occur. Frankly, if we could have enjoyed that level of productivity without the performance flaws, it would have been a terrific win-win solution.

We decided to give him a second chance. Sadly, it didn’t work out. We watched his work very closely, and his propensity to take shortcuts remained even though the addiction was gone. He was fully capable of doing high quality work without the shortcuts, but he simply wasn’t motivated to do so. The propensity to take shortcuts was part of his character, not part of his disease. He resigned.

To be honest, I might well make the same decision again. I believe that giving him a chance reflected well on our leadership and our culture. When a person’s previous performance was negatively affected by drugs, alcohol or similar problems, and they’re now clean and sober – that’s when I’m most likely to give that person a chance.

If a person left due to performance problems, you should ask, “What’s changed that gives us confidence the outcome will be better this time?” Becoming clean and sober is a good example. Or perhaps the person was in a very bad fit for their talent last time, and now you have a role that’s an excellent fit. Perhaps he or she had a terrible supervisor (who is now gone). Perhaps the person earned a relevant degree. These are all good reasons to give a person another chance. If you don’t have a clear answer to that question, “What’s changed?” I advise you to pass.

Before you re-hire a former employee, check their references with current employees who used to work with them. On more than one occasion, this step has caused me not to extend an offer to a former employee. I was enlightened about certain aspects of their performance, and I learned more about how the decision would be perceived. When you re-hire a former employee, you must be prepared to explain why.

One final thought. It’s often the case that while the person was with you, you tolerated certain less-than-desirable aspects of their personality or performance because in the big picture you didn’t feel like making them “deal breakers”. But now, when you’re considering re-hiring this person, those deficiencies might take on more significance. If the prospect of dealing with them again is unappealing, it’s okay to pass.

To summarize:

  1. Put this person through your standard selection process.
  2. Refresh your memory about why this person left.
  3. Check references with your current employees who used to work with this person.
  4. Ask what’s changed about the person or your organization that gives you confidence you’ll get a different outcome this time.
  5. Be prepared to explain your decision publicly.

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

Larry Sternberg

How Do You Keep Your Talent Bench Engaged?

When I use the term “talent bench” I’m referring to both internal and external people. Externally, people in this group are those you’d like to bring onboard when you have the right position. Internally, these are people you’d like to promote or transfer when the right position becomes available. While I’m happy to share my thoughts on this topic, I have no doubt that readers can share best practices beyond my awareness.

The people on your internal talent bench are the employees most likely to be recruited away. So you must be proactive in your efforts to keep them highly engaged. Here are some practical things you can do.

  • Invest one-on-one time with them and build close relationships, both in and out of work. Make sure they have no doubt that you truly care, and that you seek their greatest good.
  • Tell them clearly that you see their potential to grow and add even more value. Emotionally re-hire them from time to time. What’s emotional re-hiring? Click here.
  • Ask them what their career aspirations are. If their aspirations are in line with your thinking, collaborate with them on a career development plan. Share that plan with your supervisor to ensure support.
  • If you see them as a future leader, find “limited leadership” opportunities where they can improve a process, or lead a project of some sort. You have to be opportunistic here. Most of these opportunities cannot be anticipated and put into a plan. You have to notice them as they occur.

And let’s be honest. Despite your best efforts, another organization might have a career opportunity for them that you just don’t have at this time. If they take it, consider it a graduation. Celebrate the fact that you helped prepare them for that career move. Maintain a good relationship with them. If you do this, you might well be able to bring them back when you have the right career opportunity. At the very least, they’ll continue to speak favorably about you in the community.

If you build a reputation for developing people and preparing them to move forward in their careers, you’ll attract more high potential people to your team.

Regarding your external talent bench, I have a client who’s a genius at keeping them engaged. So here’s what I learned from them.

  • Be proactive about identifying people to put into this category. Solicit nominations from your top performers about the best people they’ve worked with. Sometimes you meet a candidate you like, but you don’t have something for them. Put them on your bench.
  • Have someone from HR call each person and ask them whether they’d like to be in this group. If so, collect career history and other information that will help the company know when they might have an opportunity for that person.
  • Have Human Resources or some other team write a periodic newsletter for the talent bench group, keeping them informed about company developments, and letting them know the company is thinking of them.
  • Have someone link in with each person, so you can stay current on their professional journey.

I hope I’ve stimulated some thinking on this topic, and I hope you post a comment sharing best practices you’ve done, seen or heard of to keep your talent bench engaged.

Thanks for reading. And thanks to Christie Calkins and Heath Stukenholtz for suggesting this topic.

Larry Sternberg

Are You Known For Your Ethics And Integrity?

Very early in my career, a senior leader said, “Larry, as you progress through your career, you’ll bring with you your experience and your lessons learned. But the most important thing you’ll bring is your reputation for honesty and integrity.” Those words have served me well.

Your reputation is built by your decisions and actions as you move through life. Doing the right thing is easy when it’s convenient and painless. What do you do when “the right thing” is not at all clear? What do you do when it’s inconvenient and likely to cause you some pain? What do you do when you’ve done something wrong?

In this post my goal is to stimulate your thinking about this supremely important topic.

Walk your talk.

Who you are speaks more loudly than what you say. Failure to walk your talk will earn you a well-deserved reputation for hypocrisy. Think about politicians who forcefully espouse family values while committing adultery. Disgusting. Who wants to follow a hypocrite?

Avoid even the appearance of impropriety.

A senior partner taught me this when I was practicing law. It’s not enough to know you’re doing the right thing. You must be aware of how others might see it. The appearance of impropriety often causes huge damage even if one’s innocence is later established. At the very least it tarnishes your reputation. If something will look wrong even though it’s not, don’t do it. If you’re called upon to explain why you’ve done something, you’ve already made a mistake.

Operate with transparency

As my friend and colleague Bill Kerrey says, “Sunshine disinfects.” People don’t trust mysteries. Transparency is the best way to avoid the appearance of impropriety.

Don’t do something just because you can get away with it.

Temptation is all around us. In many cases, a leader can do things that are not right because nobody has the power to hold him accountable. I knew a company president who forbade HR to record her vacation time. Here’s the thing. Once you see that you should ask, “What else is she getting away with?” It’s a 100% certainty this is not the only case of this sort. She’s doing it elsewhere.

And as a practical matter, others will emulate that behavior. You’ll have a culture where everyone will see what they can get away with. No ethics, no integrity, no honor, no trust. Don’t do this and don’t condone it.

Encourage your employees to discuss the question, “What’s the right thing to do in this situation?”

It’s not always clear what the right thing is. The world does not fit neatly into the categories we’ve created. Vigorous, candid discussion is healthy. And well-meaning, intelligent people can disagree. Ultimately, however, we must act. Not everyone will agree with the leader’s point of view. When you have to make these types of decisions ask yourself, “Am I comfortable explaining this decision in a public forum?” If not, find a different course of action.

Admit your mistakes, apologize and do your best to make things right.

Too many leaders think it’s a sign of weakness to admit a mistake. On the contrary, it’s a sign of strength. Who in their right mind believes their leader is incapable of error? Leaders who don’t admit mistakes undermine their credibility.

Adhere to your principles even when it’s difficult, costly and painful.

We have shining examples of this. To name just a few: Mohandas Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Socrates, Nelson Mandela, the demonstrators in Tienanmen Square, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the protesters who crossed the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, and Rosa Parks. I’m sure you can add to this list. These are the kinds of leaders who inspire people to action. When it comes to ethics and integrity, we’d all do well to emulate their example.

Thanks to my friend and colleague Kelly Moguel for suggesting this topic.

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

Larry Sternberg