Thursday, May 30, 2013

Talk Talk

The previews for the movie, The Internship, already have me laughing.  I mean, getting in with Google's intern program is awesome, but to do so as Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn means hilarity will ensue. They say too much, share too much and expose too much.  So, it's a reality movie.

In the recent interviewing I have been doing for a variety of roles, I have found a few elements bubbling throughout which are very much from the movie.  Some candidates are sharing too much.  I don't mean as far as work-related or skill-related sharing.  I mean, telling me about a child's soccer team drama, a parent's goiter issue or a previous employer's unknown legal issues that could be brought to light.  Why are you telling me this?  I have kids, parents and previous employers, and I guarantee you that I will not be joining you on that path.  An employer wants to know what you can do, not the issues you swim in.

Too harsh?  I know there are some reading and thinking, "Well, I have to use those vignettes to show my personality so cultural fit can be known."  OK, let's say I give you that.  Where is the culture where town-league sports politics, parental health abnormalities and threatened extortionistic testimony is upheld?  If you find that place, please tell me so I can avoid it at all costs.

Candidates, be just as planned with the "personality" sharing as you are with the skill set sharing.  Put thought into what you will share and what you won't share.  The passing introductory mention of a love of the Phillies, for example, is fine as you and the interviewer take a seat if the initial conversation allows for it.  But don't throw it into the mix between aptitude and knowledge-related questioning.  I know that it's public knowledge that I am a Phillies fan.  Trying to bring it up forcefully so I can know that while you are floundering in the main questioning won't work with me.

And yet, I know that there are employers conducting interviews that spend too much time talking about the unrelated rather than the core competencies.  We like the "buddy" that can fit personality-wise and forget that there is actually a job to do.  Again, too harsh?  Consider the amount of complaints, lawsuits, and online write-ups from former employees concerning bad conditions, poorly explained job requirements and terrible management.  Who hired these people?  Someone interviewed them and hired them.  Regardless of whether every former employee is right in their post-employment view, initially he/she was hired for a reason.  There was something in the candidate that made someone hiring said, "yes, a fit."

The challenge is to be mindful of the talk.  What is it that you're talking about in an interview?  Why are you talking about it?  If you are the employer in the interview, consider this progression:

  • Ask questions related to the job description and based on the candidate's experience
  • Explain how the role works in the organization
  • Use some behavioral or situational questioning to get a sense of application
  • Allow for questions from the candidate

I am not trying to be overly-simplified in approach, but this short list might be enough to get an employer started on a right path of interviewing.  I would suggest a deeper dive once this progression is more comfortable and used.  There are some other techniques and tools to accompany this basic outline.

I have no doubts that the movie, The Internship, will be hilarious or at least have funny parts (let's be realistic), but in our organizations, we aren't hiring funny necessarily.  We're hiring for skill, for knowledge, for abilities, for fit - all of it.  The candidate ought to be looked at through the lens of growth - Can this individual make a positive difference in the advancement of our mission and vision?  How will he/she do that?  How has he/she demonstrated that previously?  It's a good flow and perspective to write down and keep in front of you as you interview.  

Hold onto those questions that aren't job-related for another day down the road.  Like the company barbecue.  Nothing like chowing down on some ribs while asking an employee how his mom's goiter is doing.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013


Often I walk into offices and am greeted by smiling people.  They are happy to see me.  They shake my hand heartily; some hug me as our relationship has been years in the making (don't worry, during work, it's an affirming side-hug that's HR-approved).  I am fortunate to know so many wonderful business friends and colleagues.  And yet, I was struck this week by the amount of time spent on relational issues.

At the workplace, I get to hear about how so-and-so told so-and-so about how such-and-such happened.  And from that, the hurt feelings, the anger, the retaliatory talk all began.  My opinion is then asked for in how to deal with it and how to make it so these types of incidents don't happen, or at least reduce in number. 

And so, I do some research into the company.  I look at how functions and processes flow.  I observe managerial interaction.  I look at how the executive team engages with all levels of employees.  And then I make some recommendations to better align or even fix some issues in process, procedure and/or organization.  And while I know those recommendations and action plans are used and appreciated.  There's often one item that I don't put on the list because it's too hard to manage.

We, as a people, struggle to be gracious.  I know, I know, we are the most generous country and help more countries than anywhere else.  I agree and there's no argument there.  We do know, to a degree, how good we have it.  However, those interactions are distant.  We can text our donation to the Red Cross and not have to engage any further.  It only cost us $10.

Graciousness is seen in action.  When it comes to an interaction with a co-worker, do you err on the side of grace in conversation?  Perhaps the person you are talking to is a dunderhead (tough word, I know) and it's all you can do not tell him/her so.  Count backwards from 10 and stay in the conversation.  Think of ways to help rather than tear apart.  Think about this: how can I impact this person for good today? If we're all about reacting and being nasty, what will that profit us?

More time, resources and money are spent on relational problems than any company would care to measure.  We should think like a business owner every day.  What will I do to make sure this company is moving forward and not mired in time wasting?  Extending grace to someone is not over-rated.  In fact, quite the opposite.  Consider the other person.  For as annoying as that person might be, think about what may have happened in that person's life for he/she to be this way.  I don't mean this judgmentally, but rather, compassionately.

If someone who was abused as a child is now defensive in most conversations, it is understandable.  If someone who had been stabbed in the back by a co-worker at a previous job keeps his/her guard up and won't engage with the rest of the team as desired, it's understandable.  Notice that I am using the word "understandable" rather than "excusable."  There will be reasons for these folks to move beyond the behavior they demonstrate or the language they use in order to contribute effectively in their role, but it's unlikely that those employees will be willing to do so without first being understood.

We might be too quick to jump on someone for something they say.  Please understand, again, that I do not find any inappropriate or conflict-starting verbiage or actions acceptable.  What I do know is that I would rather meet this person with grace to understand so that he/she would have the guard down to receive instruction and coaching.  I have had to train myself (not that I am a total expert by any means) to not assume the worst in conversations or to have my back up the moment a particular individual talks to me.  I realize this may be very tough for some, but it's something to examine.

Our time is valuable.  Our companies are trying to make money every day to keep the doors open and the lights on.  When we engage in marginal conflict with another employee, when we don't want to understand someone else, when we think we've arrived and everyone else has the problem, then we jeopardize the health of our company.

I do feel the need to mention, however, that if you are dealing with a co-worker who is clearly using offensive language or abusive engagement, then you ought to seek out your HR professional for assistance.  Something needs to be done about that.

So, the next time you feel tension coming on due to a co-worker's approach or due to something someone has said, breathe.  Count backwards and think big picture.  Offer grace and trust in the fact that the likelihood of repair and correction will come as a result of the initial reaction.  As Ms. Jackson says, "Nasty boys (and girls) don't do a thing for me."  Grace allows the attractiveness of relationship to be forged deeper and, in the business community, will allow for better investment of time, money and resources to move beyond the petty.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

You Don't Have To Be A Star (To Be In My Show)

One of my favorite places to be is Disney World.  I know, a bit cliche, but it's true.  Every time I walk down Main Street towards Cinderella's Castle, I have a bit of a lump in my throat.  As a kid growing up in the city of Philadelphia, trips to Disney theme parks were not in the cards.  Don't get me wrong, I did not do without, but vacations were an extra and our blue-collar family kept ends met and little else.  So, at 18 years old, when I first went to Disney World, the anticipation was high and, thankfully, my expectations were met. 

What struck me the first time was how nice and engaged the staff were.  Pleasant smiles, helpful directions and exemplary service were delivered across the board.  Again, coming from Philly, I wasn't used to that.  I mean no disrespect to the City of Brotherly Love, but seriously, most of the "helpful directions" given involved one finger and it always pointed up.  I could hardly grasp why these people were like this, other than through some sort of powerful Kool-Aid guzzled each day.

Now that I am a bit smarter about employee development (you see I said, "bit", right?), I realize that Disney is strong in culture and in personal ownership development for each employee.  The employees really believe that they are delivering a magical day to everyone.  Talent is deeply important to the entire Disney experience.  Corporate Disney spends money and time to find out how to capitalize every skill in every moment.

In Investing in People: Financial Impact of Human Resource Initiatives, Cascio and Boudreau (p. 224) use Disney Theme Parks to speak about talent.  To the common observer, one of the most important roles is that of Mickey Mouse.  Let me warn you that if you read further, I may be destroying a truth for you.  There is a person inside of the Mickey Mouse costume; it's not really Mickey (grab a tissue).  The demeanor with which Mickey engages with guests is important, but let's think about what Mickey does.  He waves, puts his hands to his mouth in a laughing gesture, poses for pictures and walks around certain areas of the park.  Mickey has bodyguards who help lead him around; those same people protect him from the throngs of fans and speak on his behalf.  There isn't much development happening once the basics of the role are mastered.  This role adds value to the experience and thereby, to the overall organization.  Think about it, how stinky would it be if Disney World had no Mickey Mouse (yeah, that's right, I said "stinky")?  

But consider this: How crucial is the Mickey role to the strategic value of the growth and development of that talent for the organization?  Not very.  Waving, laughing, posing - doable.  In learning, the charting would look much like a plateau curve - quick learning of the role at the beginning and then a sharp, flat leveling off.  Let's instead think of pivotal talent.

Pivotal talent is where the investment in development would produce organizationally significant improvement and value.  In the Disney example, think of the street sweeper.  This role is multi-faceted.  It's not about just sweeping; again, if only that, then the learning would be quick and then flatten out.  The process would be demonstrated, measured and affirmed/corrected.  The reality is that the sweeper is often asked questions by the guests.  "Excuse me, can you tell me which way to Tomorrowland?"  "Can you tell me what time fireworks will happen tonight?"  "What time does the park close?"  Direct guest interaction happens.  Street sweepers will even walk guests to the spot they've had trouble finding.  The street sweeper role is pivotal to the success of the experience at Disney World (and other Disney properties) and it demonstrates constant development opportunities for this talent.

The mission of Disney is is to be one of the world's leading producers and providers of entertainment and information.  They do this, in one way, by providing exceptional guest experiences.  The investment in the development of customer service, knowledge of services and offerings, recommendations for guest experiences and more will come to fruition through street sweepers.  This makes this particular portion of talent pivotal for Disney.  And yet, Mickey is the star.

Think about the companies you work for or with.  Consider the talent that they have.  What roles serve multiple purposes?  Is that role pivotal to the continued success of the company? Would investing more in those roles advance the strategy of the organization?  It's not about just being the celebrity or the main focus.  Do you think that Martha Stewart is pivotal or valuable?  Investing more in making Martha Stewart more "MarthaStewarty" would be a waste of resources.  Instead, in this case, developing that talent that serves to advance the brand and to make differentiation happen should be priority.

HR professionals can sometimes slip into the star-struck trap and focus more on Mickey Mouse rather than the street sweeper.  Measure the value the role brings to the organization.  Where would more investment matter?  Are the right people in the roles that are pivotal?  If not, how do you get them?

I can't wait to get back to Disney World this year.  I am planning on visiting Mickey and the rest of the characters, but I know I will be appreciating the street sweepers much more this time.  Mickey may be the star of the show, but the street sweeper makes the guest engagement enjoyable and worry-free.  Find the street sweepers in your organization and develop them!

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Show Me

Meetings.  How many are you having a day?  Are they productive?  Has it moved from productive to routine?

It seems like many companies love meetings.  I have been part of more meetings than I care to recollect.  When I was working hard in college (or hardly working, depending on the day), I didn't think that my professional career would be marked by so many meetings.  It's not that I mind, really, but I often think about how fruitful these times are.

When The Cover Girls sing "Show Me," they be-pop the lyrics "actions speak louder than words."  I know we're familiar with this phrase and we think it's true.  We would want our businesses to be measurably action-oriented.  We measure ROI on new hires, training programs and marketing strategies.  We should.  What if we were to measure the ROI on meetings?  What would that show our companies?

If meetings are held just because, then what is it that we are demonstrating?  Our ability to sit in a room and drink K-cup coffee?  Are all meetings just brainstorming?  Complaining?  Or are they motivating?  Do we leave with a sense of purpose and a direction?  Do we leave with actionable items?

And let's add to the distraction.  Now we can have meetings without ever leaving our desks - GoTo Meetings or Skype.  They are convenient, no doubt.  Productive?  Maybe not.  How many times have you worked on two or three other things while you are online "attending" a meeting?  Perhaps the meetings are not productive because you are not totally engaged.  Perhaps you're reading this and thinking, "yes, John, but you don't know how boring the meetings that the CEO holds are."  I guarantee you, I do.

So, let's think productively.  What are some actionable steps that can be taken to improve the ROI on meetings?

First, train the people who are presenting.  Crazy, right?  But let me ask you, how many employees have been trained in this?  Employees of all levels may be required to present reports, charts, projections or processes.  It should not be assumed that all people can naturally hold the attention of a room and can plan accordingly to do so.  I have heard well-meaning people say that practice will help them.  If you are doing something wrong and keep practicing it, won't that just help you perfect your wrongness?

Have you seen the Volkswagen commercial with the dad teaching his son to throw a baseball?  Click to watch this.  It completely proves my point about practicing doing something the wrong way.  In the business setting, we would rather complain about someone who gives poor meetings rather than help him/her to know how to get better at it.  We seem to forget how valuable our time is and that the meeting is meant to be informatively productive.  We should leave the meeting with something practical - a new approach, tools to make a process easier or faster, or a task to complete that will enable other departments to do their jobs better.  Poorly equipped people leading meetings are torturous and costly.

Secondly, decide as to whether a meeting is necessary.  Is it really prudent to hold this meeting?  Can one meeting be held together with another to reduce time spent away from actually working on the tasks to complete?  There is benefit in holding a meeting with three veins of information in one hour than three different meetings of 30 minutes each.  Who can make these decisions?  Can we encourage that person to consider such a request?

At the end of the day, the ROI on meetings should show how these meetings connect to the productivity of the company.  Can an employee take what's offered in the meeting and see it have an impact on the work he/she does?

I should also mention something that some of you may be thinking.  What about the intangible things a meeting gives - camaraderie, interpersonal relationship development, unity development?  I get it.  I agree with this actually.  My question in return would be: is the camaraderie developed concerning how much time is wasted in having these meetings?  Is that what your attendees are rallying around - complaining?  If the goal is to join folks together in unity for an eye-rolling summit, then perhaps you've met your objective.  I doubt highly, though, that this is what a company is having meetings for.

As HR professionals, perhaps we should speak into this area.  Can we serve as a resource for training for managers, supervisors, C-Suite?  Is that too scary?  I hope you're able to have an honest conversation with your CEO about how to make meetings better, even if part of the issue is your CEO.  Your insight might prove valuable to him/her.  I get how risky that is and so I'd advise you to tread lightly.  If you can make this a business case showing ROI, then that will help tremendously.

Time is valuable.  Companies want employees to show them results.  If at the end of the day, you've attended five to six meetings, that may not be a great day.  Haven't you had those days where you say, "What did I do today?"  I have.  I don't like it.  I bring value each day to the work I have been asked to do.  I don't want my time manipulated or wasted.  I like meetings that allow me to do my job better and equip me to achieve.  Meetings held just to hold them are dumb.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

I Would Die 4 U

In high school, I had hair.  I did, honest.  It was very dark, thick and had a certain Italian swagger to it.  There were times it was long enough on top to pull down over one eye (OK, I didn't wear it like this, I just could pull it down over one eye, geez).  When I would do that in the middle of Biology class, my friends would tell me how much I looked like Prince.  Now, mind you, I have no musical ability (although I do love me some Karaoke), so it was just the appearance that won them over to the Prince comparison.  I had never thought about any similarity between me and Prince before this.  My friends were serious about it.  I believed them because they were my friends.

I trusted them.  The deposits they had made in my life had shown me when I could believe them and when they were just joking.  Those relationships are great.  The differences in trust and relationship in the workplace vary significantly as compared to high school.  I think many experts would speak to avoidance of becoming great friends with co-workers as there are too many work-related factors which could stretch and break those relationships.  If that occurs, then future work situations would be difficult and awkward.  I understand this.  An appropriate set of boundaries allows for right communication and expectation for the relationship.  When a boss and a subordinate worker become great friends, there is the potential for relational strain, when the boss has to correct or reprimand the employee, or for managerial stagnation, when due to the relationship the boss refrains from engaging with instruction, correction or reprimand, often leading to frustration on the part of the boss.

And yet, the past five years have seen a variety of books, studies and articles concerning trust in the workplace.  These writers and researchers talk about the positive effect of trust and its influence on the productivity of employees.  Again, the research is valid and is worth looking at.  There is a correlation between trust and success.  Where I think the issue lies is in the composition of what trust is.

As managers and supervisors may attest, very little development is done in regards to relationship building and integration in the workplace.  We tend to revert back to what it meant for us to build relationships in high school.  We converse with relaxed language, we "hang out" with these employees after work, we grab drinks, have a barbecue, play pranks on other employees, etc...We act like we did when we were in high school.  Too harsh?  Maybe, but time and again, I know I hear about the loose boundaries between senior leadership and employees in the small to medium-sized business sector.  Think about how much is spent on sexual harassment, retaliation and hostile work environment cases - some of these cases read like 10th grade drama.

So what tools will help to guide the correct approach to trust?  A few to consider:

  • Choose a few to trust
  • Provide for open communication to establish the relationship
  • Find one peer to be accountable to
  • Bridge actions and words so that consistency in relationship happens

The thoughts here are about thinking wisely.  It may be easy to start talking to someone to get to know them, but it's quite a different approach to do that while maintaining an approach with boundaries.  Some articles talk about open communication in terms of management explaining every situation to employees so that they feel involved.  Well, guess what?  Sometimes that is a terrible idea.  That doesn't mean that you don't trust those employees if you don't tell them everything; it means that there is an appropriate level of communication and should only be shared with the necessary personnel.  I understand that some of those articles mean well, but we should not think that our businesses need to be open books.  It's inappropriate and it's a different issue than trust; it's wisdom.

Accountability is another overused term.  "Let's make companies accountable" was a phrase often heard after the banking crisis of a few years ago.  What does that mean?  Is accountability telling everyone everything?  No.  It is finding one or two that you can brainstorm with, share difficulties, express concern over your skill set, ask for advice; it's not something to be done with everyone.  Some of the best leaders of some of the most successful companies had people in their trust circles like this.  They could tell them how badly they had screwed up and then be willing to report back to this person how they've made changes or corrections.  Accountability folks are in your corner, but they also will not just let you be wrong and get away with it.  They hold you to a high standard and want to see you succeed.

Consistency is a beautiful thing.  Employees will enjoy consistency in word and deed, to the point of deep trust and loyalty.  They will appreciate knowing where the "true north" is by watching the deeds and listening to the message of a consistent leadership.  There is an air of integrity connected to this message and employees appreciate it.

Many of these points are not what typically describe high school relationships.  We were inconsistent gossipers with only our own self-interests to preserve.  And when we did want to go deep, we were too deep.  We would tell friends we'd die for them, when we knew we never would, or we'd tell people we'd never tell their secret, when we knew full well that we couldn't wait for next period to tell a few.  Very self-serving.

Our corporate leadership ought not to engage in the same manner.  A company needs to have employees who can trust in their leadership, their company.  It is a big responsibility, but it's one that can be managed well and appropriately.  When companies do act in a manner that is self-serving to the leadership or to a few, it's divisive and leads to poor productivity and higher turnover - signs that trust is out of kilter in the organization.

So let's leave our high school relationship building behind, along with leggings, over-sized shirts that say, "Relax," polo shirts with the collars up (although, I still love this) and our raspberry berets.  Gotta love Prince.