Sunday, March 16, 2008

Just a Thought: What do you do with your dearly departed?

If you've been following this blog for a while, you probably already know that there's nothing I love more than the thrill and privilege of interviewing ordinary people who love their work. There's something wonderful about sitting down one-on-one with strangers, biding a little bit of time so they can forget the recorder is going (the geeks, of course, are always fascinated by my digital recorder and the mic that looks like a robot...the uber-geeks can't resist saying to me, "you still using that?" Then I have to cop to the fact that it was only in the last year I moved from magnetic tape).

Anyway, before too long, the two of us find a way to tap into the rich vein of what really makes them passionate about their work and then an anthem to joy springs forth. And I get the most amazing, soaring sentiments of what it really feels like to be in just the right place on this earth. It almost always ends up in tears (see Feb 22 posting on this particular topic).

So yesterday I was transcribing one of these interviews for a client, and this particular person was telling the story of how she left the company of her passion and then returned a couple of years later -- a transformed person returns to a company that also transformed in the interim and now the match is sweet and perfect.

That got me to wondering: How can employers keep a rich resource that has traditionally been put in the talent dumpster: The employees who leave -- either voluntarily or involuntarily? Sure, we have the traditional exit interview; but you and I both know how useless those things are. (I had one of those once, a dispirited, disinterested event governed by soulless questions on a clipboard. I wanted to lean over to my interviewer and say, "let's face it, you wish you were me, don't you?")

Then, of course, there are the post-exit interviews, which I suppose are even better. Most people are reluctant to burn bridges -- at least not right away. So they may be more forthcoming three to six months later, a time frame where their passion for (or rage at) the former employer is still fresh enough to get some salient details, but they're far enough away from the old job that they can be a little more thoughtful in their advice and insights.

And then, of course, there are the "why do you stay" interviews, which I especially like because they capture what's working in your culture by people who are still invested in making their work work. This way companies can build on those positive strengths.

But there's something else, something more, that can be done -- especially with those people who have truly left and don't necessarily expect to come back. Keep in touch with them.

What happened with my interviewee (let's call her Ann) is that, thinking she had reached a stopping place with the company, she resigned to take a growth job at her city mayor's office. But one of the people inside the first company -- one of her coworkers, but not someone in her department -- kept in touch with her. Just lunch now and then. No biggee.

But one day, a few years later, this coworker was tasked with writing the job description of Ann's dream. So what did she do? She asked Ann would she please, as a friend, help write the job description? And, oh by the way, would Ann consider taking the job herself?

Ann didn't say yes right away (she had obligations with the mayor), but she did say yes. And now here she is sitting with me rhapsodizing about how she still loves this company, how she loves her work and how she adores her coworkers. She's baaaaaack!

There are so many reasons why people leave. But those reasons aren't permanent ones. People change and grow. Companies change and grow. Stay in touch with all your people, especially the dearly departed. Even the ones you might have had to fire or lay off.

(Or even the ones who might have fired you! David Neeleman, founder of JetBlue, was actually fired by Ann Rhoades, when they both worked at Southwest Airlines. But when the time came to get JetBlue into the air, who did he tap to be one of the cofounding executives and to head up the HR function? The very person who gave him the boot years earlier.)

Time was once that when people quit or were fired, they were so gone. Not anymore. We now have boomerangs, but the only way they'll come back to you is if you keep track of their flight pattern and catch them on the rebound.

Just a thought.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Your Employee Awards Program May Be Working Against You

When I was fresh out of college I had a job that anyone would consider very cool, even today. I worked for a celebrity – better yet, a celebrity with a cause. Even better, a celebrity with an environmental and animal rights cause! In exchange for the cool factor, here was the deal: I would have to acknowledge the fact that the money coming into this celebrity’s “society” was best spent saving the planet and all the itty bitty critters who reside thereupon. In other words: the pay was way crappy.

Here were the numbers: I brought home one check a month. That check was made out for $525. Out of that check came my $275 a month rent in my West Village apartment in New York (you don’t want to know how long ago this was; but it wasn’t really that long ago, really. No. Really. See? No lines.). The rest had to go for everything else. By the time the end of the month rolled around, it was a question of quarters for the bus, or quarters for the Laundromat. Fortunately, I liked walking. (Still do, even though now my walking trail is 4 miles in the Santa Fe desert, as opposed to 40 blocks up Lexington Avenue.)

So when the holiday season came around, I did what any young New York ingĂ©nue did in those days: I was the seasonal help at Macy’s Herald Square store. So I worried about money some (a lot) but being new to this working girl business, the idea of getting any kind of holiday cheer from my celebrity boss hadn’t crossed my mind. Until I went to work one day in mid-December (no, I won’t tell you what year, but if you are reading this, chances are good you were alive then).

Sitting on my desk was one big honking crock of mustard, French no less – presumably a nod to my celebrity boss’s nation of origin, but most likely picked up on the fly at the local Gristede’s. Alrighty then. Mustard. Okay. Maybe if I watered it down, I could make some tasty mustard soup. A potage a la moutarde, as it were.

As I stood there staring at it, wondering how to take the red wax seal off the jar without damaging one of my two table knives, in swept the executive director of this organization. All of us coworkers in this room looked up from our identical jars of mustard and gaped at our boss.

“Look! Look what Monsieur Celeb gave me!” she crowed as she twirled in her full-length fur coat. “Next year I hope it’s a seal coat!”

The workplace is a gold mine for hurt-so-good stories, isn’t it? And this is one of my juiciest tidbits. I think all the players in this story (other than myself, of course) have long departed this planet, and I don’t want to say anything bad about the organization that has survived. (It's still doing great, important work.) So I tell this story only as an example of a really stupid management trick that caused at least one person to quit pretty much on the spot – well, after the Macy’s check cleared.

The reason why I’m telling the story today is to show one extreme example of how a thoughtless recognition gesture can really backfire. And now I’ll talk about how your rewards/recognition program can serve your organization by not only making your employees feel great about themselves and the group they work for, but also to reinforce your values and, presumably, a culture of engaged people working together for the same, shared goals.

Your rewards and incentives should absolutely mirror the values of your organization. So if you want employees to put original thought and creativity into their work, put original thought and creativity into the way you thank them for the work they do!

Run-of-the-mill acrylic or gold-toned doodads just don’t cut it anymore. Unless they’re, of course, really big and the recipients love to have larger-than-life trophies that acknowledge their record-breaking performance last quarter (I’m thinking of a few sales reps that I know who have zero worksplace left on their desks because of all their hard-earned trophies). But other than that scenario, I would guess that most high performers have enough coffee mugs and husks of deflated mylar balloons cluttering up their lives.

If you want to reward your employees for doing really thoughtful work for your organization and its common cause, make sure your rewards reflect that same level of thoughtfulness and originality. Here are some ideas from my new book (it’s out!): The Truth About Getting the Best From People.

Lavish the recognition; spare the rewards. When it comes to intangible forms of recognition (we’re not talking paychecks and pensions here), what really drives people everywhere is the knowledge that they’re being noticed for investing their individual efforts to the big picture mission. No one likes to be invisible or a number. Everyone has a name, face and a life story. That’s how we all prefer to be recognized first. Know your direct reports – and preferably their direct reports – by name. Know a little bit about who they are, what brings them to your team, and what their dreams are. And let them know you know.

When you do give tangible rewards, make those rewards specific to the person or to the accomplishment that’s being celebrated. Even a relatively “catch them doing something right” $20 spot reward should have significance that speaks to them personally. Challenge yourself to come up with specific ideas for each employee, with the idea of making sure the reward relates to something that gives them joy in life. Even if they love coffee, try to steer clear of the coffee mug solution. Get them a gift certificate to their favorite coffee store instead. Or if they’re readers, a gift card that’s sufficient to pay for one full-price hardcover book will tell them that you pay attention to who they are in addition to what they’re doing for you.

Give them a gift certificate to their future. When the reward is for a significant accomplishment or service, give them something that will help them build their future. Send them to a key industry conference, for instance. Or offer to pay for a college course of their choice.

Give them the chance to benefit the future of others.So many big winners of annual employee competitions go off-site to luxurious resorts where they party and listen to motivational speakers to pump them up for the next year. Since you’ve got all this great passion gathered in one place, give them the platform instead. Get someone to interview them about their secrets of success and gather their collective wisdom and insights to share with the rest of the company as an internal training program.

Let people see that you’re trying. Person-to-person appreciation doesn’t come easy for many managers. If saying nice things to an employee’s face makes you feel awkward and vulnerable, your employees probably already know this about you. So don’t hide it. Deal with it. Some managers who are struggling with this personal behavior challenge will put 10 pennies in one pocket, shifting a penny to another pocket every time they express sincere appreciation to an employee. Just because you may have to force yourself to do it this way, doesn’t make the appreciation itself any less authentic. You are working hard to integrate this habit into your daily worklife. And your efforts will be noticed. And your people might even recognize you for it.

No matter what form it takes, sincere appreciation is an essential part of a workplace culture in which people throughout the ranks behave respectfully and encouragingly to each other. This is a way of life, not just some program goal to meet. Your people will know if you’re speaking from the heart or reading from a script.

It really is the thought that counts. So when you want to recognize your employees in a way that’s meaningful to them, put some thought behind it!

(And pass the mustard.)

Monday, March 10, 2008

How to Keep Your Best in Uncertain Times

The business environment has been changing so rapidly over the last several years. And it's been said that the only thing we can count on these days is change itself. That's not entirely true. Another constant that you can absolutely depend on is the essential importance of being able to keep (and attract) top talent for your company. Whether the economy (or your industry or your business itself) is contracting or expanding, the principle is the same: Your future depends on passionate, dedicated, innovative top talent that is deeply and emotionally engaged in your company's critical mission. Here's how you can cultivate the true engagement of your employees and build your company's reputation as the place where their dreams go to thrive – no matter how bitterly the winds of change may blow:

Lose the carrot: You're putting yourself at a huge disadvantage if you're still thinking of employee motivation and compensation in old-fashioned, one-dimensional terms (well, two dimensions, because with the carrot comes the stick).

Today's employees are savvy consumers. They read the headlines. They know they're in charge of their own careers. They know very little is guaranteed in today's job market. And they can certainly spot smoke and “spin” a mile away.

As a leader, you know you don't need to be duped – or bribed – into performance. Nor do you need the threat of punishment in case of non-performance. It's the same with your employees. A truly world-class team doesn't need the old tricks. It needs inspiration, not motivation. And trust. And respect. And opportunities to remember how their own personal sense of purpose dovetails with your company's mission critical objectives.

Replace the carrot with value proposition: Inspire your employees with frequent messages about the intrinsic value of your company. How does the company and its products make the world a better place? In my research into joy in the American workplace, I discovered that value propositions boil down to three basic elements. Does your company relieve pain? Restore hope? Bring beauty into the world? There's a connection here somewhere to benefiting the human condition. Even companies whose products are far removed from individual consumption can make that connection. A current commercial for Lockheed Martin, for instance, celebrates its employees and the amazing amount of volunteer work they do. Not everyone buys a fighter jet on a daily basis, but everyone appreciates the chance to personally invest their efforts in improving the world.

Tell ‘em what they want to hear – the truth : Today's employees are savvy consumers. They read the headlines. They know they're in charge of their own careers. They know very little is guaranteed in today's job market. And they can certainly spot smoke and “spin” a mile away. If things are about to get hairy, say so (keeping within the boundaries of Sarbanes-Oxley, of course). In that environment of mutual trust and respect, your inspired top talent will more likely pitch in than jump ship. Give them the chance to make informed decisions for themselves and for the organization, and the company will benefit from the assembled brain trust.

Accept only first-rate performers: Like attracts like. And top employees like it when they work with people who share their standards, expectations of excellence and work values. Even at times when all the goodies, benefits and perks disappear, you'll find that your most cherished employees will hang in there because they're on a team that thrives on top performance and cutting-edge abilities. Don't dilute the excellence-quotient by hiring more affordable, or more readily attainable, candidates. You'll find out later how expensive they really are.

Don't tolerate the tyrants: Success doesn't necessitate either taking one's lumps or dishing them out. When you have a star performer whose talents and visions distinguish the company but who leaves a smoking trail of destruction and wounded feelings wherever he or she goes, it's a net loss. Companies that are widely admired for having cultures that foster dedication and innovation also have this in common: They insist on basic human decency. Even Google, the most recent of the splashy (and successful) Internet IPOs has as its basic operating premise: Don't be evil.

Listen as much as you talk – preferably more: Employee engagement programs are expensive. And the reason why so many fail is that the communication is all too often one-sided. Yes, it's important for your employees to repeatedly hear the message that they're sincerely valued in a company that's great to work for. And this is the message that most employee engagement programs are built around. But the second, most vital piece of the engagement initiative is to give the employees a turn at the proverbial microphone. No, this isn't about employee surveys (when was the last time you personally felt glad to be aggregated?). This is about creating a workplace environment where employees are encouraged to speak from their hearts about how and why they love their work – and why their jobs are especially meaningful to them at this time in their lives.

Create perfect work, not perfect jobs: Remember, your top employees are savvy consumers. They know the realities of the marketplace and the job world. They also know that no job is perfect. There's always some kind of drawback: money, working conditions, stability, you name it. But there is such a thing as perfect work – work that is so inspiring, so meaningful, so important to making the world a better place that it holds its own magnetizing spell on your team of top talent – regardless of the external conditions. The C Factor – its compellingness – is irresistible. And the C Factor can be found in the worst of all possible external conditions. Still, the joy and dedication prevail.

In my book, In the Face of Uncertainty, Curt Carlson, CEO and President of the Silicon Valley research firm, SRI International, said it best: “There's a real need for people to do a terrific job. It drives them forward in ways you can never force on them managerially. It's when you create an organization that taps into that need that you find people who are incredibly resilient. They'll work incredible hours. They'll wake up in the morning thinking about their work. They'll suffer a hundred defeats because they see an opportunity to make an impact...when the critical organizational ingredients are in place, it's remarkable how often they'll eventually succeed.”

And when they succeed, you succeed.