Saturday, January 26, 2008

Your Toxic Stars Could Be Killing Your Culture

When it comes to high-impact recruiting, attracting and keeping industry superstars is hard enough. But that’s nothing compared with drawing the line with them if they start turning toxic on you. It may be one of the most painful things managers will have to do. But it’s essential, especially if you have built a company culture that is committed to an engaged, collegial workplace environment.

In the ideal world rules of engagement should apply equally to everyone. But who said this is an ideal world? Some employees are crucial to your company for a variety of reasons – or at least they make you believe they are. Because of their talents, abilities, network, fame, they’re gold in your hand. They know it. You know it. And they know you know it. You worked very hard to find them, attract their attention, negotiate a killer contract and make them all nice and comfy in their new company home.

But eventually signs start cropping up that this might be a bad fit. And a stain of demoralization is spreading through your company like food coloring in a glass of water. There’s no ignoring it, but, oh my gosh, what do you do? What kind of leverage do you have with someone who thinks he’s “all that?” If you lay down the law, they could quit in a huff. Or maybe you have to fire the person? Do you really?

David Russo, former svp/hr of the famously engaged SAS Institute (and now head of his own management consulting firm, Eno River Associates), says it’s possible to keep your stars and neutralize whatever toxicity some might bring to your organization. But, in the process, as the HR leader, you could be facing your own moment of truth as the respected advisor to the organization.

Last weekend we talked about it. Here are his thoughts.

Let’s define some terms first. What is a star?

Stars offer the promise of big thinking and big delivery. They have a tremendous record of achievement; they’re dynamic with remarkable and sustainable energy. And they offer your company access to extraordinary capabilities or customers. Any combination of those characteristics makes a person a star.

So what’s a toxic star?

Toxic stars are legitimate big-time A Players who play havoc on the organization. And as a result the organization suffers in the long term. Toxic stars have all the creds, all the talent, everything you would want in the package, but because of their behaviors, their ego, or lack of sensitivity, they rip the organization apart. They can’t keep a staff, and the organization suffers because good people leave. Or the star denigrates everyone else – hitting at their self-esteem and confidence, so the entire team can’t be all it can be. Or maybe the star’s brilliant, but you have to keep him or her out of the public eye or away from clients because their behavior is so abominable. And because they can’t be trusted to interact with clients and prospects, their value to the company is reduced significantly.

What kinds of problems do these people pose to the company’s organizational interests?

The company loses the ability to retain other good people because they’re either put off by the star’s behavior, or personally attacked by that individual, or their work is discounted. When someone is a jerk, especially when that person is a star with the power and influence that goes along with being a star, his or her ability to create and sustain a hostile work environment is real. This kind of behavior creates an atmosphere where people don’t concentrate well or they lose their enthusiasm. Or they’re fearful of making mistakes and being lambasted in front of others. Or they lose faith that the project they’re working on will be seen through to completion, and they’ll be embarrassed.

And, once the word gets out on the street that this person is in your company, you’re going to have a harder time attracting other good people – especially anyone who has worked with him or her in the past.

And you could actually lose business. If you have someone on staff who is brilliant, you naturally want him or her to meet your clients or prospects. But if their behaviors are offensive in any way, it’s a guarantee that your business will suffer.

Finally, the company’s reputation is on the line. Let’s say your company wants to establish itself as a wonderful place to work and conducive to people doing great work – a high performance work environment. If the company is willing to turn a blind eye to toxic behavior, it throws the authenticity of the company’s mission and message into doubt. Companies can’t broadcast themselves as a place with high respect for people and have these exceptions who are allowed to do whatever they want because of their brilliance.

So what do you do?

You use this as an opportunity to test the legitimacy of what kind of place you want your workplace to be. Identify what kinds of positive behaviors the organization wants to model. And then identify what negative impacts this person is posing to the company. Show this person what he or she has to do to match the positive model. And let that person know that failure to align with the positive model means he or she has to go. You take the risk of losing that individual brilliance to a competitor. But you go forward knowing two things for sure: 1) your former star is spreading his/her poison in the camp of your enemy; 2) that the energy that was focused on dealing with negative behavior can now be channeled to positive outcomes.

This is a major moment of truth for the HR person in that they may not necessarily have the authorization to terminate this person.

HR leaders should never have the authority to terminate. Their role is to be the advisor to the organization. Their job is to go to the management who oversees this person and say, “This is a problem. We need to recognize it, and deal with it. If we don’t deal with it, here are the downsides….”

Historically, though, management is absolutely scared to death of losing the talents of someone who is gifted. So HR can be ignored. Management can have the attitude, “Oh he’s not so bad. He’s producing. So let’s leave him alone. We’ll just isolate him.”

But then again you also see way too many times that HR fails to step up to the plate. Sometimes they’re the first to bail on the fact that there is a problem.

What do you recommend that HR people do to enforce the standard of an engaging culture?

First of all, there has to be a standard. The company has to be willing to say, “We want to be respectful and caring of our people. We have a way that we will behave as a group and as individuals.” If they can’t say that, HR would be crazy to step up when there’s no value system being violated.

But let’s assume that there’s a pronounced, aspirational value system that’s being violated. HR has to say, “Are we serious about this? If so, this is a problem. If we’re not serious about it, let’s not kid ourselves and try to kid anybody else.”

So HR, in this particular context, is the reality meter, posing the question to management, “How real are we really going to be in this particular situation?”

Right. You say, “This is our aspiration, this is the stuff we’re putting on our posters, website, branding messages. Now, here’s the situation we’re facing with this person. Let’s test ourselves: Are we willing to stand behind what we say?” This is how HR earns its pay.

Does tolerating the presence of a toxic star reflect badly on the HR leader, even if the HR person may have no authorization to fire that person?

Sure. What’s HR’s job? To help the organization build and sustain competitive advantage through people. If you’re not helping all the people be all that they can be, then you’re not doing your job.

Your job is to hold these negative behaviors up to the light. If management doesn’t want to hear it, even though you’ve done your advising, then you come to a different question: Do you want to work for a company in a role where HR cannot influence the organization to do the right things for the right reasons? I certainly wouldn’t work for an organization where I knew that someone was a superstar, but a toxic pain in the butt…and management would do nothing about it.

I would think it would be a scary decision to take action, especially when the chances are that the star might have to be fired…or would quit when confronted.

That’s not necessarily going to happen, although it certainly can. Most people behave that way because they’ve never been challenged. Some people just like to be controversial, or they have powerful personalities. But no one ever challenges them because their deliverables are so valuable.

I’ve personally seen many cases where these people were given ‘the word’ about behavior. Those people who wanted to stay got the counseling they needed, and at the very least dialed back on those behaviors. A lot of these people just need to have the line in the sand drawn for them. When they’re shown, in no uncertain terms, that their behaviors will have definite consequences as far as their own ability to stay with the company is concerned, many of them will conclude that their work with the company is more valuable to them than hanging on to the behaviors that aren’t helping anyone.

All their managers have to do is the thing that probably no one has had the nerve to do before: Which is to point out the behaviors that don’t align with the company culture. And then tell them to knock it off.

A note from Martha: If you’d like to contact David about his insights, consulting services and speaking engagements, email me at I’ll forward your emails to him. (I’m not being a control freak or anything. This way he won’t get spammed.)

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Self-Esteem is the Secret to HR Success (yeah, that's simplistic, just bear with me)

After more than 20 years of searching, I’ve finally found the secret to success in this calling called HR. And I found it reading the Sunday New York Times this morning. Well, actually I found it in the Sunday Styles section. Well okay, if you must know, I found it in this morning’s Vows feature.

Yes, that is my secret Sunday ritual. Instead of going straight to the A section, book review, week in review, the infuriating editorials that tell me the world and the economy are going to hell and it’s just a matter of which will get there first, I go straight to the Vows feature. Men smugly call it the “women’s sports page.” And Charlotte in Sex and the City cherished it as the ultimate goal of all her aspirations realized. But to me, that one deep story nested among the other blurbs of pairings is the treat feature of the week in that I get to read about the happiness of two accomplished people who have only added to their joy in the world. Sure, I’m interested in how they met. But I’m also fascinated by what life paths they’re following on their own. Go ahead, laugh. We all do what we can to keep the inspiration meter fed!

Anyway the last line in today’s feature blew my day apart (I had all sorts of To Dos – including cracking the A section – but here I am writing a blog instead).

It’s a quote from the phenomenally accomplished bride, Eve Thompson, who after serving in Jordan as the interim director of a UN leadership institute, has been leading a public-private partnership in Kinshasa to improve mining practices. (See what I mean about the accomplishment thing?) This is what she says about the transformative power of looking at herself in the eyes of her beloved, “When you feel wonderful about yourself, you can do things.”

I get it…it’s not exactly Schopenhauer. But sometimes the right thing is said (or read) at the right time and it hits you between the eyes. And so this got me to thinking: How many HR professionals truly feel wonderful about themselves? Not many, I would suppose. I mean, how many professions have been featured on the cover of a major national magazine as the target of derision…and actually agreed with the magazine’s sentiment? I’ve been annoyed about that for over two solid years.

It’s time that HR built its collective self-esteem by pursuing those things that make people leaders feel wonderful about themselves. How can you feel wonderful about yourself in HR? Allow me to count the ways:

  • You work for a company or company that holds great meaning for you personally.
  • You work for a boss you respect and who, by the way, respects you.
  • You are able to stay true to your values and morals.
  • You work for a CEO who totally gets the promise and power of HR.
  • You’re growing personally, professionally, financially.
  • You see evidence that your efforts are making the world a better place.
  • When you look in the eyes of your beloveds – I mean coworkers – you like what you see there. You see appreciation, respect, trust, honor.

Have those things in place, and you’ll feel wonderful about yourself. And then the power and success of HR is unlimited. There’s no telling what you’ll be able to do as a result.

Something out of whack? Fix it! Pronto! When you don’t have those things in place, your sense of self shrinks, and so does your confidence in your ability to make the world a better place.

Making the world a better place is implied in all our job descriptions. It’s the gig we signed up to when we drew our first wailing breath on this planet. Like Eve Thompson, we are all citizens of the world. As Dr. Seuss said in my favorite book, “Oh! The places you will go!”

And oh! The things you’ll do when you feel wonderful about yourself!

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Make 2008 the Year of the Toot!

I just had a fantastic experience with a call center rep! I had to call American Express this morning, and after going through the dreaded automated menu of multiple options, I heard a cheerful voice saying, “May I help you?”

I could go on forever about how fabulous this person was. No script, patient listening while I ranted in a somewhat disorganized way, she gave me more information than I thought I wanted. When I thanked her profusely for her wonderful service, she rhapsodized about how much she loves taking care of customers’ needs.

But she didn’t want anyone to know about what a great job she does. When I asked her her name (which she shyly gave me one piece at a time), I then asked her, “Who do I talk to about how wonderful you are?” After putting me on hold for half a heartbeat she came back with an audible sigh of relief to report that they have a “compliment line,” but it’s broken, she said. Which was just fine by her, she said, because she feels really uncomfortable being in the limelight of praise.

So, I did want anyone would do: I took the proverbial bull by the horns (probably the only bull available on Wall Street these days) and wrote a letter directly to AmEx’s chairman, Ken Chenault. (Won’t she be surprised if this little piece of news gets back to her.)

My point here is this: When employees are reluctant to haul their lights out from under the proverbial bushel, more than just themselves and their careers suffer. The entire company culture suffers, and, by extension, perhaps its bottom line. Here we have an employee who is positively over the moon about her job. And she does it so well that a fanatical customer blogs about it that very night, naming the company and everything!

How contagious could that enthusiasm be if she were encouraged to toot her horn – perhaps beyond her own limits of what she would consider appropriate? (I’m thinking that somewhere in her past an influential person told her that it is unladylike to seek attention and claim credit for a job well done.)

Some people just don’t like to brag or rhapsodize. And it’s easy for managers to overlook those quiet people in the corner. But a culture-wide emphasis on encouraging people to tell their stories of how they delivered over-the-top service to their customers will encourage these people to speak up. And when the chorus of joy grow and grows, so will what I call the passion literacy of your company culture.

When you encourage your people to brag, you’re discovering which employees are high-potential talent who deserve to be cultivated. You will find out what specific skills and passions solidify that bond between your company and your customers. And you’ll create a positive culture that celebrates high service and high passion.

If I were queen of the world, or at least the head of a large organization, I’d hand out little toy horns to everyone in my group, announcing that “This is the year of the toot!” And I would begin every meeting – preferably a weekly group meeting – with the question: “What great thing happened in your job this week?”

The change may be a little slow to take hold. But, boy, once those horns start blowing, you may be surprised who will step out of the shadows and let ‘er rip!

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Best Resolutions for a Great HR Career in 2008!

The year 2008 carries with it that old Tweedle-dee and Tweedle-dum of crisis and opportunity. We’re seeing layoffs, economic shifts of weight around the world, new demands and roles rise to the surface with new challenges, while old ones drift and sink away. So this seems like a pretty good time for resolutions. Resolutions for cultivating and sustaining a relevance – an essentialness, for that matter – that will see you through 2008 and beyond.

To prepare this article, I sought out successful HR leaders inside global companies and consultancies for their advice. Here are just a few their suggestions for the Best Resolutions of 2008:

I will keep it short and I will keep it focused. Less is actually more (with the possible exception of this blog entry, which is reeeeeaaallly long; you might want to print it out). In HR’s drive and pressure to consistently position itself as a relevant essential, HR leaders actually risk making a mistake at the other extreme: Embracing so many initiatives and projects that they lose their focus. MacGregor Burns, Chief Learning Officer of Citigroup, says, “Start with the issues that are keeping you up at night and what you would like to see differently a year from now.”

And when you talk about your efforts for each quarter, keep it relevant and quantifiable. Says Burns, “The most important box is around organizational initiatives. What did you do to change your business and help it achieve its goals? Keep your report limited to one page.”

I will remember that work is personal. With the increasing emphasis on metrics, balanced scorecards, return on investment, talent management, etc., it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that each job represents someone’s dream for security, for bills that get paid, for children who get educated, for potential that gets fulfilled. Yes, we could be talking about everyone in your company, but we’re also talking about you.

Says Eva Sage-Gavin, executive vice president of Human Resources and Communications, Gap Inc.: “The employee value proposition is really an individual value proposition. This is critical to understand. Especially when you have a cross-generational workforce. You must sustain a level of fluency about how passionate your people are about their own jobs. And keeping this in mind will make your own job in HR so much more fulfilling.”

I will continuously take my boss and partners by surprise. If you operate strictly from an HR frame of reference, the people you work with already know what you’re going to say before you open your mouth. If that’s the case, they probably only half-listen to you; which reduces your effectiveness significantly. Surprise them. Look at your job through the lens of a general manager of a company division and approach everything you do, every suggestion you make, every decision you must come to from a general business perspective. That will make your partners pay attention!

“HR people are either pigeon-holed into stereotypical roles, or they’re not,” says Jim Wiggett, director of The Jackson Hole Group, and formerly Executive Vice President of Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton (LVMH) Retail Group. “You’re not pigeon-holed when you’re perceived as a business person; when you understand the metrics of the business; when you’re looking at your business on a daily basis, and when the CEO sees you as one of the people who are helping him or her run the business.

But “if what you’re doing is running back to turnover numbers, or cost-per-hire, or training dollars, if that’s your frame of reference on the business, you’re in trouble,” he says. “HR professionals successfully reposition themselves and multiply their impact on the company when they’re suddenly seen as a business person who just happens to be in HR.”

That’s where the surprise element kicks in.

I will know my industry inside and out. While you’re studying up on the business model of your company and the essential variables that drive the unique decisions within your own walls, also commit 2008 to gaining a fluency about the industry you’re in.

Says Peg Wynn, former senior vice president of Adobe: “The more engaged you are in your company’s business, the more engaged your company’s leaders will be in your business. Subscribe to the trade magazines of your business. Track how the competition is doing. Attend as many industry conferences and meetings as you can – at least as many industry meetings as HR meetings in 2008. Volunteer to staff your company’s trade show booth.

“Once you help the people in your company see that your interest in the industry itself puts you on common ground with them, you can work together to move the world. And that’s what you want to have happen.”

I will use my imagination. HR is universally criticized for being mired in the tactical aspects of the people side of business. How ho-hum can you get? Says Kathie Lingle, director of the Alliance for Work Life Progress, “Focus more on the future, which actually is here right now. Pay much more attention to where you’re going than to where you’ve been. None of those things that have worked for us in the past will be worth a hill of beans before too long. So that past is going to be less and less useful.

“Business strategy these days has to have agility, responsiveness, speed, and the ability to attract and retain the absolute best talent. For that you have to have someone who is tasked with the job of looking forward, not gazing in the rearview mirror. So I would argue for the assignment of a Chief Engagement Officer in most companies.”

I will spend 80% of my time looking around the corner into the future. Dan Walker, former Chief Talent Officer of Apple, Inc., and founder of Walker Talent Group and New Venture Studios, is famous for his passion around urging HR leaders to consider themselves leaders of the company’s human capital supply chain operation. And that, he says, means you must be constantly looking into the future needs of the company, certainly with far more intensity than considering what you already have.

“The human capital supply chain involves everything having to do with HR: Acquisition, development, deployment, training, all those things,” he says, “And part of running an efficient supply chain is that you have to have the right product, the right parts, at the right place at the right time.”

And that means you have to be a prognosticator.

“HR people have to be the smartest strategists and long-term predictors of what the company will be and what it will need. To get that track laid the right way, they have to have a sense of the future. They also have to build maximum flexibility into the supply chain because if the company doesn’t make the shift it’s anticipating, or if anything happens that it didn’t plan for, it has to be able to adjust on the fly.

“I look at the efficiency of a lot of the companies in the United States and Europe. And so much of the failure and struggle they experience comes from the fact that they just didn’t put the rigor and science into the human side of their business as they did the other parts of their operation. When that happens, [this lack of forethought] bends around like a snake and bites them.”

Walker didn’t specify where, exactly.

I will keep my operation lean and efficient. Says Manny Sousa, Senior Vice President and Chief People Office of T-Mobile, “There is a linkage between the talent you bring into the business and the success of the business. The first thing you need to be attractive as a company is business success, typically as measured by metrics, good solid margins, high level of efficiency, a track record of achieving your objectives. HR needs to be really good at keeping a business as lean as possible and focused on keeping the business efficient in order to thrive during the bad times as well as the good.

“We’re entering into a world of highly competitive markets in every single industry. You must focus on leveraging your human resources for maximized productivity, at the same time keeping the place human, caring about people and their lives.”

I will dance with the one who brought me. With all the emphasis on being an HR business strategist, it’s easy to forget or devalue the emotional attractions of the profession – especially for those who originally felt compelled to HR as a calling. And that worries Sid Ferrales, Senior Vice President, HR, of RealNetworks. “I’m a big advocate of the position of acting like business people,” he says, but in the effort to establish credibility, he says, “we shy away from the emotional intelligence (EQ) aspect of our work. A lot of us entered the profession because of this strength around being able to communicate with people, being able to understand where people are coming from and our abilities to serve as coach and counselor to the management. They value that from us. Somewhere along the line, we made a shift toward learning the language of business and away from the emotional side of our work. We over-corrected.”

Ferrales says that the emotional strength the HR brings to business should continue to be valued as an essential competency of the entire organization. And HR is just the place to shepherd the emotional well-being of the company.

“Don’t be too quick to undervalue the EQ piece,” he says. “Many of the CEOs I’ve worked for value the EQ piece of what we bring to the table. Certainly they want you to contribute at the business level and understand the nature of business. But my boss often talks about EQ being very important in terms of how business gets done.”

I will strengthen my organization with flexibility. “I don’t think there’s a widget in the world that can’t be duplicated by another organization,” says Sharon Klun, director of Work-Life Initiatives for Accenture, which was named as one of Working Mother’s 100 Best Companies in 2007 for the fifth year in a row. “But it’s the people who are critical because of the intellectual capital that they bring with them. All those elements that enable them to be successful in their work lives are essential to their personal lives as well.”

Klun says that organizations that embrace the flexibility necessary to allow employees lead balanced and successful personal lives will see measurable outcomes in their ability to gain a competitive advantage with healthy and fulfilled people. “Flexibility has the most ability to change and serve the outcome of the organization at an incredibly good price. It’s the cheapest thing to do for the highest ROI that you’ll ever have at your fingertips.”

I will stay positive and strong so I’ll continue to keep up with business as it unfolds around me. Says Tom Mathews, Senior Vice President for Corporate HR for Time Warner Cable, “As I look to 08, there are going to be no fewer challenges than we’ve seen so far. We’re going to continue to see the escalation of costs. And competition is going to get more global and more challenging. It’s important to look beyond such countries as China and India toward places like Panama, Philippines, Costa Rica. Wherever there is a market that will offer the same services more cheaply, there is going to be competition for our businesses. So we have to stay with what’s going on in the world, above and beyond HR.

“I like to sign my emails with, ‘Onward!’ While it’s important to understand what has happened in the past, it’s essential to keep looking forward.”

I will remember the passion that brought me to HR in the first place. The true gift of HR is its ability to inspire people to believe in themselves; to passionately seek the gold in every single person; and help each person find, develop and celebrate that gold, says Mike D’Ambrose, senior vice president, Human Resources, for Archer Daniels Midland.

“Every single person has something unique and wonderful to contribute,” he says. “It’s my job to ask our people, ‘What are the things that you do great? How do we help you become this wonderful, unique contributor – not only to the company but also to yourself?’”

As companies increasingly focus on employee engagement in 2008, it’s essential that you remember that engagement must begin with you in HR. That is the gold of your profession. And that is the gift you bring to all the people you work with every day.

Happy New Year! And have a fantastic HR career in 2008!