Category Archives: Leadership
Employees are sometimes heard to say that their workplace is, “like a family.” I always like to presume they mean that in a positive sense and they don’t mean, “like the Bain family.” But is it really a good idea to run a business like a family?
I’ve just completed MCing a series of regional awards dinners around New Zealand for the dairy industry. Hundreds of people from, or supporting, the dairy industry all scrubbed up and dressed up in places like Hawera and Awakeri. I wore a custom-made tuxedo but if I could have found one by Swandri, I would have worn it.
This was my second year of hosting them and, more significantly than just being around successful business people, I was exposed to the system that nurtures, develops and challenges them. You can wax romantically about some rose-tinted vision of families as much as you like but this industry’s consistent success is driven by a system deliberately designed to be progressive and improving continuously on a nationwide basis.
I’m not sure these days what mental images are struck in people’s heads when they think of dairy farmers but old stereotypes should be long gone. I estimate about half the category winners are women. They’re all very online. Many are not from a long line of dairy farmers.
That said, a lot of emotional acceptance speeches are given thanking mums and dads. (When I said “emotional”, I meant emotional. It wasn’t a euphemism for drunk, a.k.a ‘tired and emotional.’ There was only one really drunk speech and that was superbly hilarious for four minutes. I stopped him at four minutes. Trust me, no one ever finishes gracefully after four drunk minutes.) The genuinely emotional and sober declarations of thanks frequently cited the parents and preceding generations. Often there was a joke about providing babysitting services but it was quickly and demonstrably evident that it was much more than that. From capital investment, advice, motivation, assistance and connections, these business families help each other. It goes beyond help into intergenerational sustainability and this is where I think it can be truly powerful to run some businesses like certain kinds of family.
If you ever want to play an original drinking game at a dairy awards, just skull a shot every time someone says the word “sustainable.” You’ll be having an early night I assure you. They say it a lot because they mean it a lot. Environmental sustainability is critical to these best of the best, because it’s also about being economically sustainable. These people don’t have perverse short-term contractual incentives like some corporates designed to encourage the boosting of quarterly profits. This is about the long term in a truly inter-generational sense. I doubt many bank CEOs planting a tree will be in the job when that tree matures.
Forbes recently ran an article noting how the companies with the greatest combination of scale and longevity tend to be family businesses, or at least were family businesses originally. Many of these were over one hundred years old. A similar proportion of family businesses fail along the way as non-family ones but a disproportionate number of stayers are handed down on blood lines.
The NZ Institute of Directors estimates that about half of businesses are family businesses. They cite the advantages of adaptability, ingenuity and passion, strong relationships with employees, suppliers and customers, and the ability to retain corporate or specialist knowledge within the company.
My friend Mike has a model of family business that says the first generation has the idea and the passion, makes the sacrifice and gets it going. The second generation takes it mainstream and optimises production, distribution and marketing. The third generation has a sense of entitlement and wastes it away, embarrassing everyone along the way downhill. New Zealand has a few famous surnames conforming to this model.
Dairying aside, the first thing I thought of when writing an article about running a business like a family was The Sopranos. Tony’s management style was effective in the short run but it didn’t end very
I’m not suggesting that employees should be made to be miserable. Ultimately, that’s up to all of us individually. The point I’ve been trying to make for ages and this recent article captures nicely is that employee happiness and employee engagement are quite separate and different things. If you want to gift chocolate fish and back rubs (no non-consensual touching!) that’s up to you and your spare time and resources. Happy employees can be unproductive and unhappy ones can be productive. Engagement is about the observable application of discretionary effort at work that on average leads to greater productivity, revenue and profitability. Who knows how happy people are? (Including themselves.)
Here’s an extract. Note that happiness is cited as one of many components of engagement, so it’s not all doom and gloom. I don’t think they’re in order so don’t get excited that happiness is “number 1.” The article talks about a dashboard which also is an interesting idea. It’s all about trending.
Here are the 10 metrics that are proven to have the biggest impact on employee engagement:
How happy are employees at work and at home?
How much energy do employees have at work?
Are employees getting feedback frequently enough?
Are employees being recognized for their hard work?
Are employees satisfied with their work environment?
Relationships with Managers
Do employees and their managers get along well?
Relationships with Colleagues
Do the employees get along with each other?
Do employees’ values align with the company values?
Are employees proud of where they work?
Do employees have opportunities for career growth?
This HBR article about debriefing is one I wish I’d written. (From meglomaniacal me, that’s high praise.) I’m often directing participants in my training workshops to conduct debriefs. I tend to use experiential models a lot. For non-trainers (muggles?), that means we do things, then learn from them in a structured way. I favour a 3-phased approach, repeated over and over:
- Frame the activity
- Conduct the activity
- Debrief the activity
I hear a lot of people using the word ‘debrief’ and its meaning seems to vary wildly. In that sense, the word ‘debrief’ is much like the word ‘spicy’ or the word ‘love.’ I try to consistently summarise the meaning of it in my workshops, not just because we’ll use it in the workshops but because it’s one of the most useful things you’ll ever learn in life, not just for work, but for situations where things happen and you’d benefit from learning afterwards. That applies a lot outside work (hopefully.) Relationships and families could well do with that skill. It’d certainly give us something to talk about over compulsory sunday night family dinners.
To do something and to deliberately learn from it is what successful people do. That might even be a great definition of what success is. To do something and maybe learn from it or not learn from it is what most people do most of the time. Don’t be most people. They’re nice enough but…
The HBR article gives a great structure if you want to either learn debriefing yourself or communicate it to others:
- Schedule a regular time and place (ie make debriefing part of the way things are done around here!)
- Create a learning environment
- Review 4 key questions: What were we trying to accomplish?; Where did we hit or miss our objectives?; What caused our results?; What should we stop / start / continue doing? (I’m a big fan of stop / start / continue; That’s the name of one of my books ‘Stop Start Continue’!)
- Codify lessons learned (People after us will learn from our mistakes, not theirs.)
This recent article in the business section of the New Zealand Herald cites research conducted by a firm of recruitment consultants. I’m not suggesting for a moment that they have a vested interest in interpreting the results in any particular way, but they interpret the results in a particular way… that says employers aren’t recruiting effectively. (If only there was someone around who could help them?)
Sarcastic and cynical as I am, I’m not disputing the results of the survey – just their narrow interpretation of the cause. There’s never ONE cause. Maybe poor recruitment contributes. I bet it does.
The Hudson survey “paints a bleak picture for employers”, saying: “Of every 10 employees: four are not good hires, eight aren’t engaged in their work and six are actively seeking other employment.” Ouch! This is born out by other research I’ve been reading over years and around the world. There’s a bit of variation, mostly by industry, but this survey isn’t that surprising and New Zealand isn’t that bad. Nevertheless, there’s plenty of scope for improvement.
Apart from the recruitment tools being used which the recruitment company focuses on, the primary cause of the problem implied is that employers are recruiting almost entirely for skills – technical skills. It’s that old mindset of, “I’ve got a vacancy, I’d better fill it because it’s costing me money” without doing the correlating maths on how much it costs to fill that vacancy and get it wrong – to fill it with someone technically competent (and that’s even assuming they get that bit right) but quickly disengaged or a misfit in several other ways.
Bad luck? Like most games, you make your own luck in the recruiting game. I was meeting recently with a manager who hadn’t had a single instance of negative turnover for nine years. Yes, people had moved on but for the right reasons such as internal promotion. He used the usual suite of tools to find a pool of potential applicants, whittled them down through CV checking, interviews, reference checks and even the occasional behaviourial profile. But he added another step. Shortlisted applicants all got to sit in on some actual work with some people who, if their application was successful, would be their co-workers. Those co-workers got a right of veto. I used this myself in the past with some success in a call centre that wasn’t a typical call centre. It gave applicants a dose of what their potential working reality could be. Sometimes they got put off by us and our work; sometimes we got put off by them. Either way, it’s better for both parties that be known early and up front so neither employer or employee have to suffer the consequences of misfitting. And those are greater than the costs of vacancies.
Another means of increasing your odds is to encourage referral of potential applicants from existing employees. Some firms even offer a commission for this. BUT if you do that, ponder how this might affect behaviour and what exactly it is you’re wanting to incentify and provide commission on. Any commission should be for a successful applicant who is still there after a predetermined period and performing well. Not just for putting someone with a pulse into a vacancy. Rather than just advertising to the great untargetted masses for your specific vacancy, wouldn’t it increase the chances of success if you sought via an informed gene pool – the people who are already aware of what it takes to do the job and who is likely to prosper there?
Wringing the final life out of my luck metaphor, when it comes to those few shortlisted candidates who are demonstrably technically competent but you’re not absolutely certain that they’ll fit and be engaged, you’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, know when to run. Often it’s better to walk away and play another day. Cheaper in the long run even if baby needs a new pair of shoes.
Re-blog from Nov 2011 & my most read post ever
I found a short and snappy graph today about where workplace leaders are supposedly falling short. This is from the US, is a survey of a thousand workers and I haven’t delved into its methodology at all but it might be a conversation starter. It asked employees but it was clearly offering a pre determined list of options – I’m pretty sure someone isn’t going to refer to themselves as a “subordinate.” Myself, most days, I feel at least ordinate.
I’ll probably trial this in the communication workshops I run. I might give my participants that list (without the results) and ask them where they think most managers fall short, or where their own manager falls short, or where they feel they themselves fall short, or all those things. Then reveal the results. To start a conversation.
Pretty shocking that 36% result for bosses not knowing their own employees’ names! (Employees now, not subordinates. Consistency please.) I’m self-employed and I manage to remember my employee’s name.
This is a great post in Forbes by Josh Bersin. I’m always flapping my gums about the futility of ‘tick-box’ engagement efforts like annual culture surveys and such. He’s actually distilled into a useful and succinct summary some practical holistic strategies.
I especially like and agree with his thinking on building an engaging environment.
On survey efforts etc, he writes:
“While this is a good thing to do, most companies now tell us that this process is not keeping up. It’s not detailed enough, it isn’t real-time, and it doesn’t consider all the work related issues which drive employee commitment. A new breed of engagement tools vendors, models, books, and workshops has emerged – all focused on building what we call today’s ‘Irresistible Organization.’ “
There’s some links to interesting new research on how the old axiom that ‘people leave bosses, not organisations’ may no longer be the case.
Survey results can be misleading. And funny:
- The apocalypse – favoured by 4 out of 5 horsemen.
- Research shows six out of seven dwarves aren’t Happy.
This article is from a publication called BedTimes. That title piqued my curiousity as the article was about employee engagement. It transpired that BedTimes was a publication for the sleep products industry. I don’t know what else I thought it might be. And it was a very good article from an employer’s perspective, not a writer, journalist or expert, consultant, or commentator. Someone, as they say, with skin in the game. And that was kind of their point.
The phrase “skin in the game” has been attributed to Warren Buffett about having your own money in an investment, as opposed to just talking about it or investing for others. (It wasn’t Jimmy Buffett unless you count poker games as investments.) I’d kind of hoped it traced back to roman times and gladiators because then it would have something of a literal bent. But no. From an employee engagement perspective, it makes sense. People who actually own a company tend to work, as they say, like they own the company. It’s easy to offer glib advice to people wanting to work their way up corporate ladders to work like they own they company. I actually agree with the advice but it’s often just easy to say. You cannot make others feel like they have a genuine stake. But employers can set things up so that employees do have a genuine alignment between their own goals and that of the company. But it’s foundation stuff, not some ‘plaster over the cracks’ 2-month project.
For a start, Brain-Based Bosses can structure their recruitment processes to seek, hire and retain people who already have goals that align with the company’s. If the company succeeds, then they do. Part of that might be financial but not in isolation. There needs to be more. That’s a whole lot easier than changing people or changing goals or making other people change goals midstream. Those ways lead to a lot of pretending. And, you know, sometimes even that pretending leads to a short term uptick in engagement. ‘Fake it til you make it’ kind of thing. But it isn’t sustainable nor that much of an uptick.
I particularly liked this paragraph in the article about why, in many or most cases, such employee engagement improvement efforts do not work:
“Frankly, it’s because in many cases employees really don’t have a stake. Too many companies try to paste “engagement” initiatives on a foundation that’s fundamentally flawed. It won’t work. True engagement is a natural, organic extension of a company’s culture, and people can’t be cajoled, tricked or bribed into feeling it. There just aren’t any shortcuts.”
New Zealand’s gambling agency the TAB have a slogan, “It means more when you’ve got something on it.” That’s their version of having skin in the game. You can watch a sporting event and appreciate it. You can watch it and might even experience some vicarious emotions if you support the team that’s playing from your country, town, school or one you unilaterally and arbitrarily have chosen because you find their colours, mascot or swarthy south american star player aesthetically appealing. But nothing is quite like the effect on your biochemistry when the team’s loss causes you to lose something too. It might be the money you wagered. It might be you lose face at the pub or workplace the next day. But you lose or win something depending on the results.
It can’t just be the potential loss of a job or bonus if things go south. There needs to be potential wins too. Don’t underestimate the value of pride. When your employees are at parties (in their own time, of course) and others ask them what they do or where they work, what do they say? That’s actually quite a good indicator of pride and engagement, or the lack thereof.
How many employees feel that way about their workplace? Do yours? Does Jimmy Buffet? Of course, his lack of feeling might be due to other causes entirely…
A recent study conducted by Macquarie Graduate School of Management showed that Corporate volunteering improves employee satisfaction, retention and engagement.
Corporate volunteers were very satisfied with their volunteering experience (83% satisfied), very likely to continue (87%), and very likely to recommend it to their friends (75%). The most common barriers were ‘not being asked’ (38%), ‘being too busy (36%), preferring to volunteer privately (31%), and preferring to donate money than to volunteer (21%).
I presume “I don’t care” and “I can’t be bothered” weren’t provided as options. Therein lies yet another failing of surveys and prompted responses.
Successful organisms and groups in nature rely on diversity as a defence mechanism and to provide tools to deal with a wide range of situations – business is no different. Here’s the rest of that thought, expressed in my lead article from the Careers section of The NZ Herald on 20th July 2013. To save me re-typing it, here it is in image form with a link back to the Herald’s original online article.