Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Ethics of "Poaching"

I read an interesting article this morning about the ethics of poaching; not hunting animals out of season, but rather the idea of specifically recruiting or targeting key talent that works for another organization typically a competitor.I have to tell you that my initial reaction was "what"?

As the article went on it did differentiate between specifically targeting an organization with the intention of undermining them through recruitment of their key talent or recruiting with the intent of obtaining trade secrets or proprietary information, but short of that indicated it was ok. Thanks for permission.

It kind of takes to thinking that our lexicon has gotten to the place where we really have started to believe phrases like human capital. One small problem, our employees don't "belong" to us. We "rent" their knowledge, skills, and behaviors and for a period of time if we are skilled and lucky we create a bond of mutual loyalty because of respect and commitment, period.I think the timing is especially interesting now that it looks like the economy may be picking up. I see a lot of questions out there from organizations about what they should be doing about retention in the face of a more robust economy. I advise prayer.

I am only being semi sarcastic. I am stunned by organizations who do not make investments in engaging and retaining employees on an ongoing basis and then want to install a program to fix it when there are issues.Employment at will is a concept that most employers will defend with the ferocity of Charlton Heston over the right to keep and bear arms- as long as it is balanced in their favor. They don't like it when employees see themselves as free agents.I hear a lot about loyalty as well. I define loyalty pretty simply. We interact with trust and respect. We meet our commitments to each other and we take into consideration our actions on the impact of the others in the organization when making decisions, period.

Out in the Wild West where I grew up we called it "riding for the brand". While I was sleeping in your bunkhouse and eating your food I was present, you got my honest effort. There were no life contracts or pledges of fealty.

I guess I am a career poacher. When I see people who are really good at their jobs and whose skills might be transferable to an organization I work with or for I feel comfortable bringing to their attention that if they are interested in exploring options I would like to talk with them.

As you know I am a huge believer in the concept of engagement. I guess my model is the best way to keep your employees from being "poached" is to create an environment where they don't actively seek or entertain other options because of the relationship of mutual respect and trust you have created. If my employees find another opportunity that they feel meets their needs or provides them with a chance to expand a skill base I wish them well if it is the right opportunity. You see I have found ex employees to be one of my best sources of future employees, if I treated them well they remember it and share it with their friends and associates.

So I guess with the exceptions of targeting or attempting to take trade secrets we need to acknowledge there is no such thing as poaching. Mr. Lincoln freed the slaves well over 100 years ago, people can't "steal" something from us we never owned in the first place.....

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Employees for Life?

What inspired me to write this were two different pieces from people I respect in the business, Laurie Ruettiman at Punk Rock HR, http://www.punkrockhr.com/; and Margaret Heffernan at BNET, http://www.bnet.com/.

Laurie's always enlightening and entertaining post talked about what is wrong with the recruitment process, and props to her for stopping at less than a page because there is plenty. Margaret took a completely different approach and discussed the concept of never being able to fire an employee again!

Kind of makes your blood run cold doesn't it! I think most corporate employers look at Employment at Will the same way Charleton Heston looks at the right to bear arms, you will pry it out of my cold dead fingers.

I think sometimes that makes us sloppy and indifferent. Sloppy and indifferent to the tune of $5 trillion dollars in turnover costs annually in the U.S. alone. Add in another $200 billion for "presenteeism" and you are talking about real money, aren't you?

The things I read also say that a majority of employees are unhappy in their current jobs and performing at less than their potential and capability. So my question is-
  • We like to think of ourselves as the most advanced country in the world, why are we watching this unfold?

I see a lot of things out there on the net asking "Now that the economy is picking up what should I do about employee retention and my key people?". I also hear from employers at all sizes that in this economy employees don't have as many choices so "I can focus on other more "critical" things." Last, but not least when I discuss poor practices and the costs and efforts associated with poor hiring I get the typical "Shit happens, people come and go. If someone doesn't work out we can always terminate them or lay them off."

What if you couldn't? What if you were "stuck" with the employees you have, what would you do then?

I think one of the things you would do is to have a way better process. You would be much more careful about who you hired and who was involved in the process. You might ask questions about things like "fit", "potential", alignment with "values". I'll bet the people involved with the process would be more senior and better trained. You wouldn't rely on your "gut" or a computer program to make the decisions for you. Because these people will be with you forever, and forever is a very long time isn't it?

Margaret lays out some pretty good advice about how to do somethings differently;

  • Choose carefully at the start. We call this Hire Hard- Manage Easy. If this is a relationship not a "date" you should think it through.
  • When you see trouble, intervene early. Don't watch someone struggle or fail to address an issue because you didn't want to hurt someones feelings.
  • Stop waiting for them to quit. Studies show that actively disengaged employees are no more likely to quit than employees who are neutral or passively disengaged. They "quit", contributing that is. They stick around and poison the well.
  • Right person, wrong fit? Is it the employee or did we put them in the wrong job? How many times have we taken a good "technician" and turned them into an awful manager?
  • Are they being managed properly? My experience has taught me a lot of "performance" issues stem from mismanagement. You can't manage everybody the same way. Poor skills or application of skills at the front line manager level is one of the biggest contributors to turnover, litigation, unionization, etc. It doesn't matter if you are a "servant leader" if your front line supervisors are tyrants.

So even if we keep our right to employment at will, which by the way I am a fan of, shouldn't we at least consider making changes to how we hire and manage ? Especially if it can potentially save us over $5 trillion dollars a year. Doesn't that seem like good business?

Think about it, $5 trillion here and $5 trillion there and we are starting to talk about real money.....

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Twilight Zone

Isn’t it interesting how fine the line can be between a management strength and a management weakness. Do you remember the show “The Twilight Zone?” It’s that shadowy place where things could go right, or could go wrong; where things may not be exactly as they seem to be.

In one set of circumstances, an attribute of an executive might be viewed as a positive and valued; and in another set of circumstances that same attribute could be a real problem, significantly affecting their performance and/or judgment.

That doesn’t make selecting the optimal talent any easier, does it? But, if you just ignore this dilemma, your choice of key talent could be a real “crap shoot.”

Please consider:
A person who is excitable usually is high energy, passionate and enthusiastic. But, under pressure, they may be somewhat unstable and even display some anger resulting in others avoiding them.

Someone who is diligent is hard working, with high standards; maybe even self-sacrificing. But they can also be perfectionistic and hard to please. Have you ever worked for someone who is over controlling and micromanaging? I never found that particularly motivating or productive!

How about someone who is dutiful? What a wonderful trait. They are a good team player and considerate. They keep their boss informed. But, in the “shadows” they may turn indecisive, unable to make independent decisions or disagree with the boss.

I think understanding the dynamics of these types of shadows is critical in understanding management failure. It is in the shadows that managers have trouble building a team, forming alliances, gaining support for their vision, values and plans.

The most obvious way to reduce this risk in an organization is to screen out these types of issues in the selection, promotion or succession process. But, these contradictions are extremely difficult to uncover in an interview. It simply takes a process with more insight; a process with validated assessment instruments; a process with effective 360° reference checking; etc.

Does your executive evaluation process for potential or current executives illuminate the shadows? Where is Rod Serling when you need him?

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The "Right" Retention

I remember a number of years ago being in an a some what similar situation to the one is see now. Our current economy has lulled many employers into believing that focusing on recruitment and retention issues aren't important right now because the current economy has severely restricted employees opportunities to change jobs.

Back in the late eighties I was a human resources manager in a community where we represented one of the only viable high technology careers to people. I felt like we didn't treat our people very well and we were seeing issues that now I can clearly identify as disengagement and presenteeism. When I pointed this out to our then CEO his comment was "they aren't leaving, are they?" His point was as we didn't have a "retention" issue we didn't have an issue. I replied with a viewpoint that I still believe today. I said, "you know there is something worse than leaving employees can do if they are unhappy. They can stay." They can stay an produce the minimum, they can "poison the well" for others, and they can hold on to jobs and prevent your ability to attract "contributors".

I read a recent article by Kenneth Thomas at www.hreonline.com that expressed a similar viewpoint. His article, titled The Right Kind of Retention, explores that same idea almost twenty years later. He and I agree that the goal shouldn't be retention, but rather engagement. He points out that the 2008 study on Engagement by BlessingWhite found only 29% of North American Workers described themselves as engaged. If you look at the timing of that report is should be especially alarming, that was pre-recession. I wouldn't want to bet the ranch on the idea it has gotten better.

He also points out some other things we should know, but seem to continue to ignore- what it takes to create an environment of engagement. His model identifies four intrinsic elements that create or sustain engagement:
  • Meaningfulness. The opportunity to contribute to something with a larger purpose or context. Something that matters.
  • Choice. The degree of autonomy we get to exhibit in doing the work. Not necessarily choosing what the task is, but choosing the how.
  • Competence. A sense of satisfaction, pride, and mastery. Working towards flow.
  • Progress. A belief that your work is moving you and the organization forward. A sense of contribution.

The interesting or maybe not so interesting thing is that once again Thomas found that our old friends compensation and security are at best "break even" factors. In other words if you do them right the effect is neutral, if you do them wrong they are detractors.

How many of us are building these factors into our hiring and retention strategies? I would submit not many. We hire in most cases for KSA's or knowledge, skills, and abilities. You might call competence a KSA, but in the context that Thomas uses it I not sure it fits.

He points out another truism, we spend most of our time on the "poles" of our workforce, the top performers and the bottom performers. He and I agree there is a lot of opportunity to get significant contribution from the people in the "middle" who make up between 60 and 80% of our workforce.

So I guess my suggestions to you are that you build this in to your hiring and your retention strategies. Don't spend too much time congratulating yourself on statistics like tenure or a low turnover rate if you aren't sure why they are staying and how much they are contributing. If you hire for fit and include opportunities for meaningfulness, choice, competence, and progress you will see not only that your retention value goes up, but you are able to attract and keep contributors.

Oh yeah, to finish my earlier story. When other high technology employers entered our labor market our contributors left in droves. Turned out that had long memories and that they preferred choice to the "security" we provided them. Hope we all learn something from that experience.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Building In Flow- Hire Hard, Manage Easy!

My colleague made a great point about contributors in his post last week. As a practicing HR executive and consultant for over 30 years it has been amazing to see that most organizations squander a tremendous amount of resource- the 80% of a workforce that resides between the top performers and the folks we should move up or out. How many of us really spend time focusing on that group?

Daniel Pink, in his book, Drive, describes the phenomenon of "Flow". As Pink describes it flow is that place where your objectives and effort are perfectly synchronized. You have the ability to get immediate feedback without unnecessary external feedback and there is just the right tension between effort and ability. When you are in flow you are engaged fully in the activity. Pink and others including Seth Godin describe that as a big part of the Industrial Revolution we deleted flow from the mix. We didn't want employees distracted by looking for flow. We wanted to break things down to be simple and repetitive. That makes it easy and cheap to recreate the activity. The value of the labor content goes down and the "owner" enjoys the margin. You exchange personal competency for "security". Almost all of our educational and training systems are based on this model. When you control the economy or the balance of economic power this works pretty well.

The alternative to this model is building in engagement. Engagement requires recognizing things like organizational and individual values and synchronizing them. It requires a whole different way of hiring and training. Most hiring protocols focus a lot about things like KSA's- or knowledge, skills, and abilities. With the advent of the ADA or American's with Disabilities Act, we added a whole new level of psychological and verbal proctology with excruciating descriptions of the work environment and physical and mental capabilities. It doesn't talk about congruency, or values, or fit. I find most to be terribly two dimensional.

The statistics on turnover in the U.S. alone are horrendous. Estimates range as high as $5 trillion annually. Employee dissatisfaction is at historic highs with 55% of employees indicating discontent with their current job. The "efficiency" of the U.S. economy is estimated at 30%, and that was pre-recession. The biggest reasons for turnover and lost productivity are organizational "fit" and poor management.

A recent study I encountered says that our current approach to training has us spending $100 billion annually with less than 10% of the "training" translating into long term or sustained job performance.

Alternatively engaged organizations enjoy advantages in almost every key performance indicator including productivity, profitability, and sustainability. Their turnover rates are also much lower. Engaged organizations build flow in to their processes. They start with who they hire and then reinforce their values and culture throughout the rest of their "systems". They hire and reinforce contribution as a core value.

If you are a CEO, organizational leader, or an HR person tasked with the attraction and retention of talent to sustain your organization I would suggest you ask yourself some questions:
  • Am I addressing flow in my hiring and selection at all?
  • Am I trying to "bolt it on" if I am not building it in?
  • What would our organization and bottom line look like if 80% of our staff were experiencing flow?

I believe top performing organizations hire and manage for flow. What do you think?

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Feed the Lions, Ride the Horses, Shoot the Dogs

I have never met a business leader who didn’t want more high performers in their firm. How many of your direct reports are really high performers? Would it make a meaningful difference in your ability to reach your business goals if you had more high performers? What are you doing to turn your average performers into high performers? How do you motivate your high performers to keep them motivated and engaged so as to maintain high performance? When you are in the market to hire a key executive what do you do to insure that you hire a high performer?

If high performance is important to you, there certainly is a lot to think about.

I want to suggest, however, that a high performer is not what you really need. High performers are great, but there is even a more elite, a more coveted type of key executive to have on your team. And, the more you have, the merrier.

What you really need is the cream of the high performers, with the definition of performance being real financial improvement for your business unit. I call this breed of high performers…contributors.

Contributors are the people who really drive economic improvement in a business unit. They can be in financial, operational, sales…really, any type of position. They have ideas on how to grow the top line (without conceding margin), how to operate significantly more efficiently, how to reduce cost big time, and so on; and they can do it and/or lead a team to do it. They have what it takes to make it happen.

They can define, even foresee, a problem. They can fully and properly delineate it. And they can solve it. They can find an opportunity, contextualize it accurately and go get it.

Improving the economics of their situation is what motivates them.

A contributor walks into a job and when they leave, the profit contribution of the business unit is meaningfully better because of their ideas, their focus on profit contribution, their strategic and tactical reasoning abilities, and their leadership.

How many contributors do you have on your management team?

I don’t think that all high performers are necessarily contributors. High performers do well on the key attributes of their job. They perform well. You do need more high performers. Contributors do that, plus they drive the profit contribution up! You really need more contributors. Does this resonate with you? Let me know what you think?

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Building Congruency Into Your Hiring

A number of years ago I had the opportunity to become certified in several sales and customer service training programs offered by the Integrity Systems organization, www.integritysystems.com . One of the most impactful things that I learned from these programs and their founder, Dr. Ron Willingham, was the concept of congruency.

Dr. Willingham describes congruency as being made up of five elements:
  • Our view of the activity
  • Our view of our ability to do the activity
  • The relationship between the activity and our personal values
  • Our willingness to do the "work"
  • Our belief in the product, service, or organization

As I listened to this model what struck me is its applicability not only to sales or customer service to any role or job. Think about how difficult it would be to perform at a high level if your work was in conflict with one or more of these elements? Yet how often are we testing for congruence with these elements in our hiring process or in addressing deficiencies in performance between our expectations and their actual performance?

In another way you could look at this as cultural hiring. Companies that have developed high levels of engagement in their organization have explicitly or implicitly built this congruence into their culture. They have created an opportunity for people to "join up" with their organization rather than merely comply. Given that we are seeing "failure" rates of better than 40% in outside executive hires and new managers we might want to examine this, especially given that most failures are not occurring because of "technical" competence. I also believe that this is why technological interventions like Six Sigma or lean manufacturing do not sustain long term results. They don't address the "people" issue and organizations are made up of people.

So I would submit to you that hiring for congruency and recognizing that you are hiring a "whole person" should be a critical part of your hiring process. I would go further and recommend that you not rely exclusively on the interview process to validate that congruency.

As my colleague Joseph Skursky of Market Leader Solutions, www.marketleadersolutions.com, says "Hire Hard-Manage Easy". You will find that the payoff is there in the long term....