Managing Seasonal Employees

Many businesses experience extreme seasonality. Resorts, sports venues and retail businesses immediately come to mind. Every year they must staff up for the busy season, and lay off for the offseason. I have worked in several seasonal businesses, both as an employee and as a leader. The purpose of this post is to explore the question, in managing seasonal employees, what adjustments should managers make?

One important aspect of this situation is the mutual understanding that the job ends when the busy season ends. This forces both the employee and the employer to decide whether they want to work together again. If a seasonal employee did not have a great work experience, she will almost certainly look for a job with another employer next season. On the other side of the coin, if the employer was not satisfied with the employee’s performance, it simply won’t extend a job offer next season. No written warnings, no performance plan, no hassle.

Although there’s a built-in opportunity to part company forever, it’s also easier for both parties if the employee returns every season. For the employer, the costs of recruiting, hiring and training are reduced. And for the employee, he or she doesn’t have to invest any time applying for jobs with other employers. So there’s an incentive for both parties to make this an ongoing, though seasonal, relationship.

This incentive for a relationship that continues from one season to the next leads to an interesting conclusion. Managers should manage seasonal employees the same way they manage “permanent” employees. They should develop close relationships with their people, and they should foster close relationships among employees. They should make people’s jobs engaging and fun. They should make sure that each of their employees is in the right fit for his strengths. Most importantly, they should truly care about each and every person who reports to them.

One additional difference between a seasonal and a permanent job is the prospect for promotion. Seasonal employees might see opportunities to become supervisors, but that’s about it. Unless they become permanent employees, seasonal people are not going to become department heads or vice presidents. But a great manager can still help them learn and grow and prepare to advance in their chosen careers.

If a manager is willing to teach, any seasonal employee can learn a lot about being a great team player, solving problems, taking care of customers, demonstrating initiative, improving morale and being an informal leader. An exceptional manager can help each employee make individual learning and growth one of her goals for the season.

So, even though this is a seasonal job, a caring, committed manager can make a positive difference in her employee’s lives.

Thanks for reading, and thanks to Marilyn Buresh for suggesting this topic. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

Larry Sternberg’s 2014 Top Ten

Happy New Year! Several people have asked me to list my ten most viewed posts of 2014. Here’s the list, in order of popularity:

Do You Know How To Spot Potential?

How Can You Create A Sense of Urgency?

How Can You Make Your Company A Great Place To Work?

Are YOU The Cause Of Employee Disengagement?

Are You Getting Too Close To Your Employees?

How Do You Welcome New Team Members?

How Do You Motivate People After A Big Loss?

How Do You Shape An Organization Culture?

How Do You Respond To Suggestions?

How Do You Maintain Enthusiasm?

As we move into this new year, let’s have the wisdom to understand that we’ll experience both victory and loss, for there can be no victory without loss. Let’s embrace both with enthusiasm. Whatever your goals, pursue them with great vigor. Whatever your values, live them with deep integrity. Whatever your gifts, use them to make a difference. A year from today, as we look back on 2015, let’s be able to say that we endeavored well.

Thanks to my best friend, Pat Mene who taught me so much. Doctor, I miss you dearly. Old acquaintances are not forgotten. You did indeed endeavor well.

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

Larry Sternberg








How Do You Manage A Leadership Transition?

I have a client going through a leadership transition. The former leader is gone and her successor has yet to be identified. Everyone is confronting the great unknown, and typically the direct reports are not in control of the outcome. It’s a scary, stressful time for these people. As usual, I don’t think I have the answer to how you should manage through this situation, but I do have some thoughts.

Communication is a very important factor for these direct reports. During the search for the replacement, complete transparency is most often not achievable – partially because candidates don’t want to jeopardize their current position. So you can’t announce who is under consideration. In addition, the candidate pipeline is in continuous flux, with candidates in different stages of the selection process. The moment you update your team, the readings on the flux capacitor will have changed. Although they’ll understand this intellectually, it provides little or no emotional comfort. But give them as much information as you can, as frequently as you can.

Listening is monumentally important. Ask them what they’d like to see in a new leader. Ask them about their concerns. Ask them for their thoughts and suggestions. Ask them how you can best support them during this situation. And most importantly, find things you can do immediately based on what you’ve heard.

Appoint an acting leader so team members have someone who’s carrying their flag, meeting their needs, setting direction and dealing with outstanding issues. This acting leader should make firm decisions, which will reduce the general air of uncertainty.

Make sure the former leader’s boss invests more time with these individuals, to give them strong support and to demonstrate their significance to the organization.

Do everything you can to keep people focused on productive activities, and highlight successes and progress. But be understanding and tolerant. Different individuals will deal with this stressful situation differently. You might see some behaviors you’d rather not see. Negative relationships and other forms of dysfunction could intensify. Teams that go into this situation with strong, positive relationships are better equipped to weather this storm.

One final note. I was in this situation once. I was a hotel human resources director at that time. The general manager, whom we loved and respected, got transferred. We, the direct reports, were really bummed out. Because we loved this guy so much, we couldn’t imagine a better future. It had to get worse. It was very stressful.

Well, after a while our new boss arrived. Short, German guy. Name of Horst Schulze. Although we could not conceive of it, our situation actually improved. Horst was much better than the former general manager. Under his leadership our business results improved, our service improved, our culture improved, and we all grew as hoteliers and as leaders.

So here’s the moral of the story. You must consciously remind people that this situation presents the real possibility for improvement and growth. In all likelihood, the team will be stronger and everyone will be better off.

The truth is that the future is always unknown. A leader welcomes the future. A leader instills hope. A leader encourages people to follow him or her into the future with the confidence that no matter what happens we’ll figure it out together.

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

Larry Sternberg

Is Giving Up Ever The Best Choice?

I watch a lot of boxing. It’s a dangerous sport. The primary job of the referee is to ensure the safety of two guys who are aggressively trying to hurt each other so badly their opponent can’t continue. Stepping in the ring takes a considerable amount of courage. Also, it’s a “sudden death” sport. Even if a boxer is losing decisively, one good punch can win the fight for him.

Last night I watched a fight in which the two boxers were not equally matched. One guy was getting the living daylights beat out of him. But he was a professional boxer — full of courage, determination and heart. He would not give up. Therefore, you cannot leave that decision up to the boxer. The trainer and the referee know that they must make that decision.

Often, our direct reports are full of determination. They’re not the kind of people who give up, even when they’re not succeeding, even when they’re in a bad fit, even when they’re miserable. That’s an admirable trait. I want people like that on my team. But sometimes, like a trainer, you have to throw in the towel. Sometimes you have to recognize when it’s not in the best interest of the employee or the business to fight on.

There’s no formula for knowing when it’s time. But ask yourself these questions. Does the situation require behaviors that are not in the employee’s repertoire? Have you taught, coached and given the employee ample time to learn? Has the employee tried his or her best? Do you believe, in your heart-of-hearts, that additional effort will turn the situation around?

On the day you realize that additional efforts will not lead to success, then you know it’s time.

Is someone who reports to you in this situation? If you care about them, do the right thing. It’s what trainers do when they care deeply about their fighter. It’s what you should do if you truly care about this employee.

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

Larry Sternberg

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

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

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

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

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

Do you know:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Larry Sternberg

How Do You Celebrate Thanksgiving?

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, and even if you aren’t American I invite you to participate. It’s not about religion, it’s not about patriotism and it’s not about gifts. It’s about thankfulness, appreciation and gratitude.

As leaders, we’re trying to make things better. So we spend most of our time focusing on problems, on what’s wrong, on what we’re dissatisfied with, and what needs to be improved. Our brains are wired to see what’s wrong and this wiring has great survival value. Furthermore, dissatisfaction is intensely motivational. People who are satisfied with the status quo are not motivated to pursue improvements. So there’s a very healthy sense in which leaders are never satisfied, and that’s a good thing. But we can overdo the focus on what’s wrong. We can become hyper critical.

Because of our brain’s wiring, we have to work to focus on what’s right. It requires intention. Think about the people you truly care about. Everyone else is focusing on what’s wrong with them. When it comes to people, you can make a decision to focus on what’s right about them.

And during this season of Thanksgiving, you can write them notes about what you like about them, why you appreciate them, and why you’re grateful to have them in your life. Think about it. When was the last time someone wrote you this kind of note? How did it make you feel? Doesn’t happen very often does it?

You probably think you don’t have time to do this, with all the time you’re spending on what’s wrong. But you know the truth. You make time for things that are important to you.

My mother used to say, “Larry, tell me you love me.” I’d reply, “Mom, you know I love you.” And she’d say, “Yeah, but I like to hear you say it.”

I’m sure there are people who’d like to hear you say it. This is an important part of leadership. So I invite you to participate in Thanksgiving. It only takes a few minutes. Write a couple of notes of appreciation and affirmation. I promise it’ll be richly rewarding.

Thanks for reading. Happy Thanksgiving.

Larry Sternberg

Are Your Customers Interrupting You?

Don’t you think the title question is ludicrous? Our purpose is to serve customers, right? When we start thinking they’re interruptions, we’ve become misguided. But what about employees who interrupt us? Do we treat them the same way we would treat customers?

Many leaders say that employees are their internal customers, but in too many cases that’s just empty language. When a direct report “interrupts” you, do you respond in the same way as if a customer asks for your attention? Do you stop what you’re doing (e.g., reviewing your numbers, writing an email) and give that person a warm welcome? Do you, by your actions, convey that he or she is more important than whatever you were working on?

Of course there are exceptions, such as when you’re dealing with an emergency. But let’s not focus on the exceptions. The basic issue here is whether you treat employees like valued customers. Be brutally honest with yourself. When an employee asks for your attention, do you really demonstrate the same sense of urgency to understand what that person needs and then act to fulfill that need? Whether you do this or not, you’re sending a message about how important that employee is to you.

What message do you want to send?

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

Larry Sternberg

Too Much Drama?

This morning I’m thinking about drama. It’s distracting, it’s time consuming, and it involves a lot of negativity. We’re certainly not going to get rid of it. Because we’re human. We have moods, we make mistakes, we mistreat each other, we judge each other, we make mountains out of mole hills, we catastrophize, and we worry. As leaders, we must be aware of how much drama we’re causing directly or enabling.

Here’s an example of time-wasting drama. I had a human resources director tell me that one of our waiters had HIV, but she couldn’t tell me the name due to the confidential nature of the information. I asked why she was telling me this, what did she hope to accomplish? She said, “I thought you needed to know.” She was just trying to create drama and cause me to worry. Our conversation was a distraction and a total waste of time. I did not follow up on it.

So raise your awareness. Recognize when you’re being sucked into a drama. Ask yourself whether it’s really a good investment of your time. Sometimes it is, by the way. I’ve worked with top performers who generate some drama. If I had ignored it, they would rightly have concluded that their concerns were unimportant to me. So in those cases I was happy to invest my time. Top performers always merit additional time, effort and tolerance. You might have a friend at work who’s going through a tough time, accompanied by some drama. This is another situation in which it’s a great decision to invest time even if all you can do is listen and express support.

But you might have people in your organization who generate more drama than work. You might even have a Drama Club. If you reinforce that behavior, you’ll get more of it. Refuse to participate. Ask yourself a tough question: Are they worth it? Would your organization be better off without them?

And for goodness sake, recognize when you’re the one generating the drama. Ask yourself why you feel like having this conversation, repeating this gossip, or whatever drama-related activity is. Ask yourself what you hope to accomplish. If you don’t find good answers, cut it out. Do something productive.

Remember this. As the leader, you set the standard. If you initiate drama or if you enable it, you’ll be certain to have more of it, distracting employees, wasting productive time, and damaging morale.

As always, thanks for reading. I’m interested to hear your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

Why Do You Care Where A New Idea Comes From?

Most of us (probably all of us) care where a new idea comes from. If it comes from someone we see as a respected authority on the topic, we immediately believe the idea is worthy of serious consideration. If it comes from a 21 year-old, brand-new employee we might not give it as much weight. Or, God forbid, it comes from a new-hire who just joined us from a competitor. In that case we might even be very defensive. So the subject of this post is: To what extent should the “where” or the “who” influence how we respond to an idea?

This topic comes up for me because I recently focused on the fact that in many organizations, experienced new-hires attract criticism when they say, “In my former company we did X, and it really worked well.” If that new-hire came from a highly successful company, they might discuss their former company frequently, particularly just after they’ve come on board. For some reason, many leaders find this annoying. Sometimes, in fact, these new-hires are told to quit mentioning their former company.

I suggest that leaders should welcome these statements. When we make people feel like these statements are unwelcome, we’re shutting out opportunities to learn. Do we think that we have nothing to learn from other organizations? These new-hires are sharing best practices (or at least practices that are better than the ones they’re seeing in our organization). What’s the danger? Where’s the harm?

Not only should we welcome these statements, we should give them serious consideration. Let’s not react with fear-based responses. Let’s not immediately dismiss them as, “Not a fit with our culture.” Let’s discuss these ideas on their merits. Let’s give them a try. If the actual practice is not a fit with our culture, is there a way to implement the fundamental idea in a way that does fit?

Here’s an example. I know of an organization that, as part of their initiation, gets new employees drunk. That doesn’t fit the culture of my organization. But properly done, a good-natured and fun initiation is a great way to welcome new hires. It can send the new-hire a positive statement, “You’re one of us.” I have some suggestions on the blog post How do you Welcome New Team Members.

Think of it this way. Suppose you’re just walking down the street and you find an idea written on a piece of paper. You’re with a couple of associates who work with you. There’s no way to know who or where this idea came from. Some of you immediately think the idea’s worth pursuing, and some of you don’t. Your only course of action is to discuss it on its merits.

We can approach ideas from any employee with the same mind set. Even though an employee might have no experience, we can still show respect by discussing it on its merits. In many cases we can give it a try. If we respond with statements like, “We tried that,” or “Based on my 20 year’s experience, that won’t work,” nobody learns anything. If we engage in open-minded discussion, or if we try the idea, somebody will learn something. It might be you.

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

Larry Sternberg

Who Should Have 51% Of The Vote?

The question in the title of this post can be expressed as follows: Who should make what decisions? We see this question constantly in government. For instance, all disputes about states rights vs. federal rights fall into this category. In business, all questions about empowerment fall into this category. What decisions are people in role x empowered to make? I love this question. To see one of my previous posts about empowerment, click here.

In this post I want to discuss the title question from a different perspective: effective collaboration. In today’s world effective collaboration is essential. Lack of clarity about who gets to decide what has detrimental effects on collaboration. Disputes about this question slow down progress, damage relationships and undermine the group’s ability to achieve excellence. I’m sure you’ve seen this happen.

In many cases a group can find clarity on its own. Sometimes an informal leader emerges organically because group members appreciate this person’s leadership. This leader helps the group reach consensus about decisions, which maintains forward momentum. That’s one possibility.

Also, groups can understand that not all decisions have to be made by the entire group. The group can “deputize” a person to make certain decisions on behalf of the group. The group is saying, “We trust you. We have confidence in you.” For instance, suppose a project requires a Web page. Instead of having every aspect of the Web page approved by the group (consensus approach), the group can deputize one person to make decisions about the look and feel, and another person to be in charge of how the site will function. A third person can be deputized to write copy, and so on. The other group members can critique prototypes and drafts, but at the end of the day the deputized individuals have 51% of the vote in their areas. Forward momentum is maintained.

This deputizing strategy is underutilized, by the way, because it requires people to relinquish control.

There will be situations where individuals in the group are competing for control. They cannot agree about certain decisions, and they are making mutually exclusive claims for 51% of the vote about those decisions. When they cannot resolve these issues internally, progress will stop and relationships will be damaged. In this case, a leader external to the group must step in to do what the group cannot do for itself: decide who gets 51% of the vote about what decisions. Individuals in the group will then be able to focus their energies on achieving the mission rather than fighting about who can decide what.

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

Larry Sternberg