That 6:30AM Factor – Scaling Drive and Commitment

“We used to have people here at 6:30AM everyday. How do we get our team back to that?”

“Mike, we’re bigger now. You can’t expect people to do that.”

I recently was having a discussion with an engineer at a growing medical device company about the issues her company has had scaling. Her boss was lamenting how they used to have a culture where he wasn’t the only person in the office at 6:30AM, with the underlying feeling being that it meant people just didn’t care as much or weren’t as driven.

Maybe the 6:30AM factor is defined differently at your company, but it’s such a common concern when scaling that I wanted to talk about it a bit. How do you make sure to keep the special something as you grow and aren’t afraid of shuttering your doors tomorrow? While I think it’s really hard to do, I think scaling that sort of drive (in this case) is possible if you are really deliberate throughout the process of growing your headcount. Here are some of the components you need to have.

Great hiring (and firing) practices. Your founders should define the characteristics they love in employees and the culture they want to have early on, then work with the HR or People Ops team to engrain them into the hiring process. The earlier, the better. You want to have it down to a science and learn from your mistakes before hitting a stretch of rapid growth.

Many companies wait too long to hire a strong person to build out the people infrastructure, so it’s not a surprise that it becomes an uphill battle. You should be interviewing for fit, work style, skills and experience early on, and exiting people who aren’t a fit for the culture you want to sustain. Your culture will naturally change as you grow, but you need to be vigilant about reinforcing the characteristics you want and avoid letting it slip into a bad place early on.

Purpose. Part of the reason you see such a vibrant culture in a lot of start-ups is that every person feels able to impact the company’s ability to sink or swim. Even the intern gets face time with the CEO to hear about the vision and strategy. How can you not be excited to come into work with that level of clarity and ability to impact great things?! As you grow, that doesn’t happen organically. Before you know it, you have a content writer writing about tax returns, who doesn’t see how what they does matters to the company and watches the clock until they can leave.

As you grow, you need to be much more deliberate about purpose and making people feel impactful. People further down the ranks are going to feel further and further from what the company is trying to do and top-level metrics. The content writer doesn’t see how this article impacts MRR or growth rate, but maybe they can see it impacting organic search results or customer satisfaction.

Your leaders should take the time to position tasks and initiatives very specifically, tie them up to department goals, and explain how that impacts company goals. Also, define the mission and goals of their teams. When you give people a task, show them the metrics it’ll move. Let them own it. People want to feel like they make a difference – it’s what gets them pumped to get out of bed in the morning and, maybe, show up at 6:30AM to try this new thing they think will move the needle.

Autonomy and growth. When you are a small company, it’s really easy for people to feel like they control their own destiny and get to take on stretch projects. It’s invigorating. When people are pumped about what they do, the time flies. As you get bigger, there’s less green field, more process, more specialization and things may move a little slower.

It takes a very deliberate effort by managers to distribute the boring tasks that nobody wants to do (and give them context so they are slightly less awful), and also distribute the stretch projects to members of the team so everyone still has something they are really excited about. No, your customer service rep probably won’t have a chance to run social media as you grow, but maybe they can be a team lead or run an onboarding program.

What happens more typically is that a couple of people get all the stretch projects, while others get the grunt work. So you have a smaller number of people feeling autonomy and the opportunity for growth. I think this adds to critical mass becoming less and less engaged. I think the only real way around this obstacle is good management. Unfortunately, many quickly-growing start-ups end up with a lot of first time managers (usually the people who got stretch projects and crushed it) who aren’t able to be as deliberate about divvying up work. Which brings me to …

Good management. Great managers are a differentiator. People join for them, excel under them, and stick around through the hard times because of them. They make work exciting. You need really good managers to hire and fire correctly. To give purpose as you scale. And to ensure autonomy and growth opportunities throughout their teams. If you have great managers, you can scale that start-up feel where people are invigorated by what they do. Every business struggles with this, but particularly growing ones where every day there are a million other things to take on.

The wrap. Even if you solve for all of the above, reality kicks in. When you are a small company, your demographics may be very different than they need to be as you grow. For example, with more experienced leaders, you likely will have more people who have families and other commitments outside of work than a fifteen person start-up with a lot of twenty-somethings. Having people in the office at all hours becomes less likely (and I’m not sure it’s the best measure of scaling success).

If your company grows, your dynamics will need to change, regardless. As a leader, you need to really get to the heart of what’s important, define it for your HR team, listen to their feedback (i.e. are you focusing on the right measures of success?), and let them get to work weaving it into the fabric of your company. That is, in my opinion, the best way to scale a really positive culture that reflects the wants of the founders while meeting the needs of the business.

Oh. And hire/develop good managers as you scale. That, too.

 

Thoughts for a new HR professional

Hey there. Sorry I’ve gone dark on you. My new job started and I’ve been immersing myself in meeting people, collecting feedback, and working on a plan going forward. It’s meant that few humans outside of work have gotten even a wink of my time (my dog has, though), and that I didn’t follow through on my goal of 1-2 posts a week.

However, with starting a new job, I’ve found my mind wandering at night with thoughts about what I’d tell a younger version of me to prepare myself for this role and opportunity. I figured I’d share those thoughts.

  1. This career is the right fit, but it’s hard. I never would have thought that as an introvert, the path that would drive me the most would involve interacting with so many different people. I care about people I’m close to so intensely, I suppose it makes sense that creating an environment for people to feel engaged and invigorated really excites me. However, it also makes the job challenging because it’s hard not to take every bit of failure or tough news very, very personally. You will need to sit on difficult information that you can’t vent to anyone else. You will hear things nobody else in the organization hears that you can’t un-hear or share. And you will need to deliver really bad news. There will be nights it’s hard to sleep, but in the end, you are (hopefully) impacting things in a really positive way.
  2. It’s lonely. People who have worked for me can attest to my philosophy on this. I think to be really good at this job, you need to be neutral. Nobody should fear coming to you because you are close friends with so-and-so. That means being lonely at work. Very rarely do you have a peer you can be totally open with and vent to. I am human and I develop soft spots for people. It’s always been hard for me to remain detached enough to maintain objectivity, while balancing the need to build trust with people throughout the organization.
  3. We need more creativity and passion in the field. There are a lot of amazing people in the profession and we need even more. I think we’re in the era where HR and People Ops go from risk mitigation to strategic partner to the organization. Anytime you see a function make that transition, creative thinkers are needed. Don’t give into the pressure to think inside the box. Dream big and push the envelope. Focus on creating an exceptional experience that you’d want to see.
  4. Network. You can speed your learning curve up by going to events and learning from others’ successes and, more importantly, failures. Ask the “stupid” questions you are afraid to ask. Introduce yourself to founders and execs and ask them what they like to see from the function (and hate to see). This is all info you’ll need to learn at some point – best get started on it early!
  5. Learn numbers and presenting. You will be working with a lot of data-driven functions. Learn to speak their language to sell your ideas and get buy in. You need more than “everyone is doing this” and “it’ll be great” at executive meetings – you need to paint the picture of value to the organization. You may thrive in the softer and more ambiguous side of business, but learn how your peers work best and you’ll be far more effective at impacting change in the organization.
  6. You’ll usually have an uphill battle to earn trust. While there are a lot of good people in the field, there are some bad eggs. Add to that the fact that the job requires us to deliver the worst sort of news to employees and you can understand why it can require a lot of upfront investment and consistency to earn trust. Don’t take skepticism or guardedness personally, just keep working and you’ll get there. Be as open as possible. Be genuine.

Accidentally landing in this career has been the best thing for me. I hope that’s helpful perspective!

Poached from Marketing – The Four P’s

I’ve been given the opportunity to really learn from different departments at my last two jobs. At Buildium, I was seated with customer support, marketing and finance at different times. It’s been incredibly valuable in shaping how I think about my field – I like to steal whatever concepts or systems I can from my peers and apply them to people strategy. I’d like to talk more about what we can learn from other functions in this and future blogs because I think it helps raise the bar.

Today, a bit from my friend Geoff Roberts, co-founder of Outseta. I asked him to talk to me about a core concept of marketing:

“The 4 P’s of the “marketing mix” is a foundational concept in marketing that’s been popularized since the 1950’s. The first “P” stands for Product, which is the good or service that is being offered. Product should fulfill existing consumer demand, or be compelling enough to create demand on it’s own. The second “P” is for Price, which is the amount of money the consumer is willing to pay for the real or perceived benefits of the product. Price has the most direct implication on revenue. Place is the third P. Place describes where a product is sold and how it is delivered. This could mean specific stores or geographies where the product is offered, or even the specific displays used within a physical store or the positioning of a product within an online store. The final “P” is for Promotion, which is the mix of activities related to advertising, public relations, or direct marketing or sales promotions that are used to promote the product. There is significant interplay between the 4 P’s with each needing to be carefully considered to effectively marketing a product.”

 

I’ve spent some time before talking about applying marketing principles to recruiting, but not how it can be applied to your people strategy. Let’s “redefine” some of the 4 P’s first:

Product: Your culture as a whole. What and how you are building a product for a customer factor into what your culture is. Ask yourself, what are we going to try to deliver and how are we going to do it from a people and behavior perspective?

Price: How much you want to pay to the talent that will build and deliver services to your customers. The stage of company will really impact this (think bootstrapped versus well-funded).

Place: Easy peasy. Where are you trying to draw talent from and why.

Promotion: Once you understand the culture you want and how much you can pay people, it’s time to figure out how to drive interest in the company and roles to get well-qualified butts in the seat.

Now let’s put those four together into a couple of examples to show why I think we can use them to drive a sound people strategy.

Scenario #1

Ginger is starting a consulting company to advise tech companies on how to scale their businesses with as few headaches as possible. Instead of just focusing on one function, she’s going to have a boutique shop with industry experts to provide clients access to many areas of expertise under one roof. She’s got functional experts lined up in different cities around the US, but still needs to add several functions and find a way to build her clientele list. She’d also like to develop prospective clients in Boston, Austin and the Bay Area. She has a little money in the bank thanks to three clients, but want to be cognizant of costs. Let’s look at the Four P’s.

  • Product: Her team is distributed, so openness and collaboration are key traits emphasized in the culture. Being spread across multiple timezones means they can’t share work hours easily; instead they establish a three hour “core-hour” window where everyone is expected to be online and responsive to the team. Otherwise, employees are able to set their own hours, so long as they are responsive to clients and hit their results. Ginger establishes generous vacation and leave policies to fight burnout.
  • Price: While there is some money in the bank, she’d like to keep salaries lower to hedge against business being slow for a bit. Ginger establishes bonuses based on company performance so that if the business meets or exceeds expectations, everyone shares in the success. Realistically, though, they cannot pay market rate in the most competitive markets.
  • Place: The business aims to penetrate tech markets in several areas, but will have a challenge paying market rate in those cities. Instead of looking for experts in those cities, she focuses on advertising on remote-focused boards. Not having critical mass in any one city also saves on real estate. One area where she sees a local presence as important is with the Business Development roles. For those roles, she posts only in the markets she’s trying to penetrate.
  • Promotion: The job opens up doors to working with some really exciting companies. Everyone who joins will have autonomy and the flexibility to build their work life around their personal life (outside of core hours). Ginger decides to focus on the flexibility, ability to work from anywhere, balance and autonomy as selling points for the job in ads and company postings, then taps into her network for referrals (and offers a referral bonus).

Scenario #2

Josh’s passion project – an app with thousands of subscribers and a large potential market – is off the ground. he wants to add customer-requested features quickly. He just closed on a massive round to hire more developers to push product updates, and sales and support teams to help grow and support their base. The people that helped Josh launch are all in Boston and like working together, so they’d like to hire devs solely in Boston. Josh has been at failed start-ups before. While he believes they need to hire devs in Boston to be successful, he’s looking for other ways to save money.

  • Product: The team puts in a lot of hours and wants their new office to have common space for collaboration and to let loose, but also quiet places to code. It’s clearly a “work hard/play hard” culture and they are investing in space, perks and benefits that make being in the office more enjoyable. Because they want to innovate, the team carves out time and development budget for all engineers to experiment with new technologies and take on pet projects. They want a performance culture and decide to have a quick hook with people not working out.
  • Price: They have money and want experienced devs able to contribute immediately in a pricey market, so they are willing to aim for the 75th percentile for roles in the short term. They can’t afford to spend this level of money for all roles, so the team decides to get creative elsewhere.
  • Place: While hiring the dev team in Boston is a no brainer, their investors suggest a different approach for sales and support – building out a team in Nevada or Utah where costs for real estate, salaries and business taxes are lower. This would allow the team to pay market rate for talent with favorable economics.
  • Promotion: For dev roles, the team focuses on popular dev job boards, sites focused on tech in Boston, and show up at tech recruiting events. They have a PR firm working to get word out about their new HQ, the fundraise, culture and the market for the app. People like to work on the latest and greatest tech, so they just need a little brand recognition.

Making Sense of it All

It’s easy to miss an opportunity to look at all the components and levers available in people strategy. The Four P’s may not fit like a glove, but it is a good reminder to take a step back and look at the whole picture. What are you trying to do? What do you have in place now? How do you want to get there? What can you do to get there effectively? Like marketing, the right mix is critical. Change one thing in “product”, and you need to take a look at if and how the other P’s should be adjusted.

 

(Closing) Thoughts on a Job Search

On April 5th, I’ll be starting a new job with a Boston tech company – Placester – that I’m super excited to join. But before turning the page on my search, I wanted to spend a moment reflecting on my experience while it’s still fresh. One of the cool things about being in People Ops and interviewing is you get to see what a range of companies are doing. You can incorporate aspects from the best experiences and use the less pleasant experiences as a cautionary tale and reminder to be vigilant.

The Best of the Best:

  • Were awesome communicators. Hiring involves coordinating a number of schedules and stakeholders. Delays, changes in the role and business needs can impact the process. All the while, you have candidates in the pipeline. The best teams kept me aware of what was going on in the process and where I stood – even when it wasn’t all positive information.
  • Gave lots of exposure. It’s particularly important for me to get a sense of culture and ensure to my philosophy aligns with the leadership team’s. The best candidate experiences for me involved meeting a cross-section of the company. It made me feel a greater sense of understanding what the demands of the role would entail and if I would be a fit for their goals.
  • Were transparent. Several companies were refreshingly open with me about both the appeal of the role and the challenges ahead. Often companies and candidates are reluctant to talk about failures or weaknesses (and what they learned from them); frank conversations are the exception. I find these talks most helpful for both sides, plus it builds a foundation of trust.
  • Were laser-focused. I loved the interviews where it was clear the team had a specific objective. Whether it was to assess competencies, flush out how I dealt with a situation, or get a feel for how I’d fit in the culture … I liked knowing that they were being really deliberate about what they wanted to know about me.

Detracted from the Experience:

  • No news. It’s frustrating to submit an application and never hear back; it’s infinitely worse when you invest real time interacting on the phone or in person, only to be ghosted. When candidates meet with your team, update them on their candidacy. You never know when your paths will cross again. One team went completely dark on me for a month after my final interview before asking me to consider joining. You can be sure my experience as a candidate impacted my decision.
  • Going in blind. There were a number of times where I found myself going into interviews with no idea who I was speaking with, how long I’d be there, or what the purpose of the meeting was. Letting candidates prepare means a more productive session for everyone. You can give an idea of the goals of the meeting without giving away all the questions and risking an over-rehearsed candidate.
  • Waste of time. You wouldn’t invest in marketing your product or service without expecting a specific result, but it still seems to happen when vetting candidates. Light questions to get to know the candidate and ease into the interview are fine, but make sure you maximize the value of the interview by talking about what the candidate has done or can bring to the role. Chances are, they want to talk shop. Let them – it benefits both parties.
  • Bashing employees. Nearly every company has something less-than-positive on Glassdoor. The reactions to semi-negative reviews varied widely amongst teams I interviewed with. A couple teams I spoke with were defensive and arrogant in a way that suggested little respect for employees or a lack of self awareness. I much preferred the discussions with teams that were realistic and expressed humility. It displayed they were open to feedback and interested in improving.

Overall, a lot of companies are doing a terrific job working with their candidates. I was able to meet a number of people I’d love to keep in touch with because of the quality of our conversations. None of the positive things above cost money to do outside of effort, but can really impact how candidates view you in the market. This was an awesome refresher for me but I’m definitely excited it’s over.

 

Retaining vs. Hiring – A Discussion on Salary

I was reading “Employees Who Stay In Companies Longer Than Two Years Get Paid 50% Less” in Forbes. One of the questions the author asks is: “Why are people who jump ship rewarded, when loyal employees are punished for their dedication?” While I think that implies intent to “punish” employees that I don’t believe is actually there, it does hit on a real question that has an impact on engagement and retention: “Are we over-prioritizing new hires in an unfair way? If so, why?”

The Greener Pastures Equation

Let me start by addressing why you are able to, often, command a higher salary by jumping ship. The company posting a job is feeling a very distinct pain in their organization that drove them to open a requisition. There is a sense of urgency to address it and a budget has been set for the role. Other employees are investing time they could be spending on another task in filling the requisition (your recruiting/hiring team) and/or potentially doubling up on their duties while the role is unfilled. This creates momentum behind the effort to add someone. So long as the role sits unfilled, it’s costing the company in some way. That’s an important motivating factor.

Early in the process, the recruiting team narrows in on people who match their target for skills, salary and start date. This is the company’s biggest leverage play – if you don’t fit, you aren’t moving on in the process. But once they find a candidate who fits, the leverage shifts a bit. It’s the candidate who decides the terms under which they’ll join the organization. The company must weigh the cost of continuing the search with being flexible in salary. It makes sense that this results in a higher level of compensation than an internal adjustment – a candidate isn’t often willing to assume the risk of a new organization without getting something in return.

It’s easy to forget in the overall equation that there is a very real cost (money and time) to candidates on the market. Candidates invest time sending resumes, networking, interviewing and researching – time that they could be spending on something else. They risk their current workplace finding out and need to prepare themselves for the emotional rollercoaster of pursuing jobs you like but don’t get. The search still isn’t guaranteed to result in an increase in salary. Heck, in many cases, the search doesn’t pay off in a meaningful way and the candidate abandons the search and sticks with their current company and hopes for an adjustment there.

The Devil You Know Equation

That header is hyperbolic, for sure, but let’s dig into the truth of it anyway. There is something to be said for any potential jobseeker staying in an organization they know and are comfortable in, instead of taking a risk on an unknown and ending up in a nightmare. I would argue that most people staying in a current job are actually getting something in return that has value to them. Maybe it’s the commute, benefits, work, pain of finding another job or their amazing co-workers. Each person assigns their own monetary value to that stability when deciding whether to go to market with their skill set; everyone’s risk tolerance is different.

So let’s talk about why it’s easier to get a 5% or 10% increase by leaving an organization than by staying – it all goes back to an organization feeling pain. When there is an open seat, work is just not getting accomplished. Progress is stifled. It comes up in leadership meetings and sometimes board meetings. Metrics are impacted and people are focused on fixing the issue ASAP. This gets a manager in with finance, where they can make a case for additional budget based on the current market rate for the role. And, voila, a role is open at a competitive rate.

A lot goes on in running a company, and it’s easier to focus on issues causing pain when you have limited bandwidth. A failed marketing campaign. A broken product feature. There is nothing more nefarious at play when new requisitions receive priority – it’s distinctly human. If you see a broken limb, you are more likely to go to the ER. Your high cholesterol could actually be a much bigger risk to your health, but you aren’t feeling it in the moment and we’re just not as good focusing on preventative measures, right?

Employees who are on board are performing a role. They may be feeling pain or the itch to hit the open market, but management isn’t feeling it, so management’s focus is elsewhere. After all, there is a process to look into salary regularly. It’s difficult and reactive to treat every single employee’s comp like a burning fire daily – you need to have some visibility into how changes as a whole will impact a business. But if there’s a lack of clear process and philosophy on compensation, you run the risk of employees wanting to leave.

The article I linked seemed to imply that companies keep salaries low because they can. I don’t think that’s the case. Compensation is really hard to balance and get right. I like to look at it like putting together a winning sports team. Your goal is to achieve great things, but you only have a certain pool of money to do so. Some companies have short term goals – they have a bunch to spend and need to succeed almost immediately. They’ll pay at the top of the market for other teams’ free agents and want “sure things”. Some others look long range and expect that if they are doing things correctly, they will lose people to free agency. But they focus on balancing it with bringing in the right free agents, retaining solid talent and drafting high-potentials that may be hit or miss (and may leave for another organization).

Neither is the wrong strategy, but it is felt differently on the employee level. Teams – and companies – are more apt to look at market data when a position is open and they need to compete with others to fill it. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a way to incorporate revisiting the market annually for non-open roles in a fiscally responsible way. But it’s neither practical nor prudent to pay at the top of the market for every role across the organization. And employees sticking around are receiving something worth trading off a higher salary for, or most wouldn’t be sticking around.

Wrapping in a Sentence (or Three) …

It’s a tough balancing act for both sides; each is trying to balance risk, short-term gains and long-term stability. The best companies straddle the line enough that there isn’t a steady stream of defections that impacts profitability; the best employees leave when they feel the mix of salary, growth and other benefits no longer matches their needs. It doesn’t, in and of itself, mean either side is wrong or disloyal for the tactics they’ve selected – it’s just sound business for both sides.

Employee Engagement – Addition by Subtraction

Employee engagement is a hot topic these days. New tools and technology platforms are being released to help companies monitor real-time engagement levels and make recommendations on how to improve. Companies are investing out the wazoo to make a meaningful impact with the hopes of driving recruitment, profits and productivity. And, yet, literature keeps being released indicating that Americans are not that engaged with their work.

I’ve struggled with how to keep engagement high in the tech industry. It’s really easy, in my opinion, in small organizations. Or in organizations that are innovating and doing really cool things. People organically feel they are making real contributions to something that matters to them. But as you get bigger, it gets harder. As you stop playing on the cutting edge, it gets harder. Why?

In the rush to keep up with the Google’s of the world, I think companies have spent more time adding perks and benefits than anything else – I’ve certainly been guilty of thinking this way. The kicker is that data shows these sorts of additions don’t increase engagement. These ‘nice to have’s’ certainly are capable of bloating the budget and sticking around for a while, though. When I reflect on my two or three most engaged moments in the workforce, here are the commonalities (hint: they aren’t perk-related!):

  • I was given a huge piece of work with little direction on how to do it, but plenty of cover and support from my manager. (Autonomy)
  • It was clear to me and those around me that this work was my clear priority. People understood the consequences of a missed deadline. (Permission to say no to other things)
  • Financially, my needs were taken care of. I wasn’t rolling in dough, but I was making ends meet and able to save. (Self-explanatory)
  • The projects were impactful to the business. (Purpose)

So these last few months I’ve been thinking about ways to create a workplace where people are highly engaged with a limited budget. Maybe the problem in the US isn’t that we haven’t added the right thing to the mix, we just haven’t really figured out how to effectively remove what holds people back from connecting to their work. Here are some ideas:

Meetings. I hate when my weeks are carved up dashing to ineffectively-run meetings  where it’s not even clear that I’m needed. There are certainly incredibly valuable and productive ones, but they seemed to be in the minority many weeks. When I was most engaged in my work, I had permission to decline all but the most essential meetings. And guess what? The business kept running. People sought me out when they needed my opinions. And I had larger chunks of time to dedicate to my project (which resulted in both a happier me and better work).

If we want a more engaged workforce, let’s explore a new level of discipline with meetings. Scope out the agenda, attendees and time needed. Let’s understand the politics at play that tend to inflate the number of attendees, and also work on our communication channels so we aren’t leveraging time together strictly for status updates, and are instead using it for important discussions and decisions best made collaboratively.

Micromanagement. To have a workforce committed to their work and invested in our goals, we need to give them skin in the game. They need to know they can make an impact. Provided you’ve hired the right team, your people will want any given project to be successful and want to take ownership of it. As managers, we tend to get in the way of that happening (usually unintentionally). For one, we may have a similar, but not identical, idea of how to execute – we just don’t have the time to do it ourselves and decide to ‘delegate’. It becomes very easy to give someone an idea to execute and become overly prescriptive in how it’s accomplished. Unfortunately, this removes some of the more engaging aspects of a given project.

Give your team clear goals and objectives and flush out strategy to take on the project. Once you are clear about the end result, and understand their approach, try to remove yourself a bit from the situation and let them do their thing. Check in regularly. A helpful trick for me is to make sure I’m asking more open-ended questions than making statements in check-ins on the project. Framed well, your questions can help coach. If the project is too big to allow failure and you need to be really involved in it, consider explaining that upfront: “Hey guys – I like to give you autonomy, but the Board is watching this one closely, so we’ll need to do it a little differently. Just bear with me on this one.”

Busy work. Every time I rolled out a new process or initiative, there was a certain amount of ongoing work to support it. Before I knew it, it felt like my team spent more time caught in the weeds with maintenance work than doing forward-thinking projects. That’s tough to remedy, and I’m not sure I have the answer other than it’s worth periodically looking at where your team is spending their time and assessing if there are things that can be eliminated.

Look at the purpose of your organization and team. If something doesn’t tie up to that or the basic function of running a business, it should be a candidate for review. This may mean a shift to automation, or empowering others to do the task without leveraging your team, or deciding to drop a task altogether. Make sure your team has time to do more than just busy work. And contextualize the less glamorous parts of the job by tying it up to company purpose or goals. People want to use their brains and not be on autopilot all the time. As managers and leaders, it’s our job to strike the right balance.

I think all of the above can truly impact the engagement of your team and give you a leg up on recruitment and retention. None require a real financial investment, but do require a much harder shift in thinking and management. Frankly, adding a beer fridge or foosball table is much easier to sell and execute. And the difference is noticed immediately. But none of that will keep your employees coming back for more and producing at a highly-engaged level.

 

 

AI and HR – Friend or Foe?

Artificial intelligence has been on my mind a bit, as its implications on our workforce and society are staggering. Our economy is moving towards automation – first came the programmable tasks, drastically impacting our manual workforce; now AI is replacing other jobs – whether it’s fund managers (for investment portfolios) or answering questions in customer service chat windows. Heck, with the rise of Siri, Alexa and similar products – the technology is going out to consumers in a way never seen before.

Several years ago, I saw a presentation of IBM’s Watson and potential HR applications. I’ll admit, it scared me a bit. With an HR bot able to handle a large chunk of questions, and automation/self-service taking up other aspects, that means a lot fewer HR jobs out there as technology penetrates the market. I felt defensive of my profession, and that a bot was incapable of duplicating the experience of a live human.

Recently, I read “The Future Of Work: The Intersection Of Artificial Intelligence And Human Resources” in Forbes. It helped reframed the debate to me from either/or to a partnership or an if/then situation. I’ll be honest, I hate the majority of paperwork associated with my job. It’s brainless work that’s less impactful to the business and its people. It doesn’t energize or engage me, but it needs to get done to provide a great experience for employees. Similarly, there are a ton of simple questions that get asked fairly often.

If we had an HR bot embedded in HipChat at Buildium, what would have been the impact?

  • I could have programmed reminders for deadlines, nominations and surveys to go out at specific times of the month or year. This would remove the possibility of me or my team sending it too late because of bandwidth issues.
  • We could have programmed the bot to answer questions about benefit eligibility and enrollment, rollover, time off, holidays, raises, perks and payroll. People would get these real time versus waiting for an email response or for someone in HR to be available to answer.
  • My Ops folks could have programmed answers about security codes, requesting travel, expense reports, ordering equipment, company events, etc.
  • Onboarding reminders, check-ins and surveys could have been automated. After a week, we could remind you to review the interview process on Glassdoor. After three months, we could ask you to review the company.

There is a defensive way of thinking about that … it costs a job on my team. We budgeted plenty of time each quarter for responsive tasks. Many of these would be replaced by a bot. However, because there was so much time allotted to customer service (our employees), many larger projects or initiatives never got launched because there wasn’t enough time. Others ran late because reminders or the process was manual.

If we had a bot able to handle even 50% of these tasks and questions, we could have kept our performance management process regular and innovative. We could have spent more time on figuring out career development and finding a learning platform that supported employee and business needs. We could have scaled some of the personal touches we had to eliminate because we just didn’t have enough time. We could have not missed opportunities for feedback. Training and onboarding could have been markedly improved!

Progressive companies will still want that work done, so the HR profession will endure and free up more time for professionals to focus on the big things. In this case, it likely would have drastically increased the productivity of my team in meaningful work. Their engagement and job satisfaction would have been higher. I see two downsides. One: Those drop-in interactions when people have a question are a great way to check in with how people are doing. HR needs to foster great relationships throughout the organization to be effective. Two: Companies that don’t see HR or People Ops as strategic will use it to cut costs.

I think I land in a place where I think bots could help increase the efficacy of the function, and increase the time spent on meaningful and potentially innovative work. HR will need to be more deliberate about finding other ways to have informal interactions with their employees. Personally, if it helps free up my time to think about and experiment with better approaches to improving the workplace, I’m all for it.

“The Power of ‘Why?’ and ‘What if?'” Applied to Performance Management

I recently read a great article in The New York Times called “The Power of ‘Why?’ and ‘What if?’“. The gist is that businesses need more people asking questions . Doing so may help us be innovative and solve problems better. I’ve been spending some time (on my couch, obviously) thinking about performance management. Almost universally-hated, people are finally taking a closer look at the system and solutions. This seems like a great system to attack the problem.

Why do we do performance management (in its current form)?

  • To help inform compensation decisions
  • To promote and coach growth
  • To address performance issues
  • To give feedback regularly
  • Because we’re supposed to do it
  • It helps “rank” employees
  • To “document” issues (HR made us do it!)
  • To review goals and progress

Why do people hate it so freagin’ much (in its current form)?

  • It takes too much time
  • Too much negative feedback
  • It’s demoralizing
  • Ratings or stack rankings (when used) suck for all involved
  • It’s not the full picture – often there isn’t input from those closest to performance
  • Comp decisions tend to overly-emphasize the most recent quarter’s successes and failures
  • The process isn’t a balanced two-way exchange of feedback
  • Feedback isn’t delivered in a timely manner – it’s coming way too late
  • Annual, in particular, is really tough
  • It seems like the review is structured to justify the compensation change to the employee
  • Pressure on managers to use the review to justify compensation changes they may not agree with

What if we … ?

  • Tied compensation to market data and trusted managers to put people within a market-based range depending on performance?
  • Looked at compensation more frequently?
  • Decoupled compensation and performance conversations?
  • Pay people a lower base plus regular discretionary bonuses based on performance or completion of projects?
    • What if this pushed under performers to self-select out?
  • Tied reviews to projects or initiatives wrapping up instead of to a quarter or annual schedule?
  • Let employees drive the process and ask for general or specific feedback when they want?
  • Focused on utilizing people’s strengths, versus calling out negatives?
  • Actively coached weaknesses?
  • Had regular, informal career coaching?
  • Judged managers/leaders by how much they helped their employees grow and develop?
  • Had managers receive coaching and feedback from their teams regularly?
  • Did away with the manager altogether and relied on peers and mentors to provide feedback?

It’s encouraging that some tech companies seem to be looking at the problem of performance management (and connected issues) differently and are building tools for a different type of solution. Similarly, it’s awesome to see companies looking at the data and impact of the “old” way of doing things, and using that data to drive changes. Adobe’s switch to Check-ins being a rather high-profile example.

What are your thoughts on performance management? Or, rather, what are your questions surrounding it?

An HR Reaction to the Viral Uber Sexism Blog

Forgive me for the rambling nature of this post – it’s a little bit of an exercise in venting.

If you haven’t seen it already, a former Uber employee blogged about her experience working for the company, including harassment, threats of termination and ridiculous politics. Frankly, I’m not surprised, but it still pisses me off. As a human. As a woman. As an HR professional.

I’m going to focus on the last one, though. Reading through comments and discussion on the blog post, I see versions of: “You can’t trust HR”, “HR is there to cover up management’s ass”, “Why did she think going to HR would help?” I hear this all the time when people are talking about the function. Hell, I’ve had people tell me in my work and personal life (paraphrased) “HR is awful. You don’t seem to suck. What’s the deal?” It makes me angry to see bad behavior reenforce these views because so many HR teams are worlds better than that.

I get it, really. Traditionally, HR has been a function to handle administrative functions and avert risk. In many organizations it rolls up to the CFO. I can’t help but wonder if running decisions through the filter of “which action will most benefit the organization’s bottom line?” for decades has had an impact on the function as a whole.* In organizations where values are a little blurry or not emphasized enough, of course HR decisions are going to play out towards the most financially prudent business move. This may mean ignoring bad behavior from an executive or high-performer (see: Uber). Or initiating a massive inquiry when word gets out and there are worries of lawsuits, loss of customers, or angry investors on the horizon (see: Uber).

I see the HR and People Ops function evolving into an advocacy team for all employees. Our job should be to reenforce values, improve communication, and maximize performance across the organization to hit business objectives. That means advocating for interns, individual contributors, managers and executives. That’s tough, for sure. And it’s far more nuanced than risk-mitigation or protecting management. Being an advocate for all means there are times you need to advocate for management (for example, a termination), fall in between (mediate a disagreement), or advocate for employees (dealing with a bad manager). None of that is cut and dry, but it sure makes it much easier to sleep at night!

While I’m an idealist, I have a healthy dose of realism in me. I know that a percentage of HR departments are still firmly entrenched in an outdated mindset. A complaint is filed and instead of investigating the perpetrator in power, the HR team goes through archived emails to find something on the person who filed the claim. Or someone suddenly stops moving forward in an organization. Or their performance reviews are impacted. You know … retaliation. Some of those companies are betting on that employees won’t go through the long, expensive process to prove that in court. This makes me absolutely livid.

There are also a good chunk of well-meaning HR departments that are also powerless to do anything in many situations. A complaint is filed and run up the chain. The HR team advises an investigation and/or immediate action taken. They lay out the ethical and legal reasons to do so, and the retention risks associated with ignoring the behavior. And are told to do nothing. That sucks too – for the employee and HR team.

Both behaviors result in the same shitty experience for an employee looking for help and stem from an executive team that fails to hold people to an ethical standard, including treating people with respect. In this case, Uber’s CEO failed to make standards of behavior both crystal clear and a priority that people were held accountable to. That trickles down through leadership and, before you know it, is the pervading culture of the organization. A frontline employee doesn’t usually come to an organization unafraid to sexually proposition a direct report, right?! New hires observe the climate and mimic what others are freely doing. The CEO needs to draw a firm line with his leadership team on acceptable behavior and ensure a fair and safe place to work with some ethical standard. Then that will become the norm.

On behalf of HR … I’m sorry to people who have worked in organizations like this. I’m sorry if you have learned to avoid HR at all costs. I get it. I hope some of the better teams out there can win you over. We work really hard to earn trust and advocate for you. We don’t get everything right, but please know that there are plenty of us in the field who get up every morning with a passion for creating a great experience for all employees and redefining the function entirely. Lastly, know that there are plenty of us in the HR field who were absolutely disgusted by what we read – just like you.

* I don’t think all CFO’s are this way, but with so much on their plates and being held accountable for the bottom line, there certainly is pressure to either look at things this way, or a lack of bandwidth to really focus on people. I’ve also met some CFO’s who really give people the energy and strategic, long-range thinking they deserve.

Article Reflection – “Why Bosses Should Stop Thinking of ‘A Players,’ ‘B Players’ and ‘C Players’”

Check out this article in the Wall Street Journal. The crux is that we may very well be doing a disservice to our teams (and companies, by extension), by separating our employees into A, B and C players. The writer does a much better job describing the why’s, so I highly recommend reading it, but a quick overview:

  • It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Once we’ve dropped someone in a bucket, they are going to have a really hard time switching to a new one. We give our A-players more support, opportunities and energy in development.
  • It fails to look at the entire picture. A-players may be receiving easier tasks, more support, or be under a better-functioning leader.
  • It feeds the assumption that A-players are great at everything and opens up doors for them that they may not be the right fit for. We’re better off identifying what people are good at.
  • Perhaps on a subconscious level, it feeds the egos of leaders: “If I’m in a leadership role, it must be because I’m an A-player.”

I think, like most people in HR-related fields, I’ve spoken in terms of A-players. For one, it’s almost like a common lingo – everyone knows exactly what I’m talking about. But also, it just make sense to me. You want the best people on your teams, you want to coach people up who can be coached up, and you want to exit under-performers and replace them with really solid talent. Easy peasy! But maybe I’m not doing right by an organization or its people by blindly accepting this approach. So let’s look at the workplace from the alternate perspective.

Moneyball – The Baseball Analogy

I’m a big baseball fan and found myself completely blown away by the Oakland Athletics’ Moneyball approach as it started impacting the product they put on the field. For those who aren’t baseball (or Brad Pitt) enthusiasts, basically the A’s were a poor team that needed to figure out how to win. The majority of teams out there took the approach of trying to assemble the best collection of A-Players to fill their roster. This worked great for teams with deep pockets, but how could a small market team potentially compete?

Billy Beane, the General Manager, had to learn how to build a team differently. Leaning heavily on stats, he’d find players who most teams viewed as “average”, but were actually exceptional in certain situations or with specific skills, and acceptable in other areas. For example, instead of looking at batting average, he’d look at how often people got on base (baserunner = runs … it doesn’t matter how they get there). Because most teams weren’t looking at this, he was also able to exploit a lower demand and get these players very affordably.

His managers learned how to play people – people many other teams would categorize as “C-Players” – when the situations they were exceptional in arose. Maybe someone was better against lefties with runners on. Or maybe a relief pitcher performed best in the 8th inning on two days of rest. Beane’s staff took the time to understand what every person on his roster was exceptional at, and deployed them in those circumstances – quite successfully. The legwork to understand at this level of detail was much more time intensive. But the team consistently competed against teams with bigger talents and deeper pockets. This would seem to be anecdotal validation to understanding what people are good at and using them appropriately. It’s easier to see the weaknesses, but are your “underperformers” always bad across the board? Maybe they are exceptional at something or aren’t being assigned the right work?

My Experience as an Employee

There are things I’m really great at. There are things I’m satisfactory at. There are things I stink at. I am sure multiple managers and co-workers of mine would swear to you that I’m an A-Player and I knock everything out of the park. But I’m equally sure there are managers and co-workers who would say I’ve dropped the ball and am definitely not an A-Player.

I don’t think the reason for that is is simple as “I’m great!” or “I stink!”. There are the types of work I’ve been assigned, my bandwidth at the time, what else was going on in my life, and how I was managed throughout the work. It’s easy for me to see that in myself and even in my team. But it’s much harder to avoid falling into the trap of sometimes thinking someone is an underperformer without actually looking at them and their work situation objectively. C-Players can be A-Players in a different work circumstance (and vice versa!).

 

Going Forward

People can absolutely be underperformers across the board – even the Oakland A’s released players. Maybe a different way of looking at the situation is seeing what skills and qualities your company needs and what skills your people have. If someone isn’t exceptional in specific area or enough areas for your business needs, then it’s worth addressing. At least that forces you to look at the skills of all your players, see if they can be put in a situation at your company to be exceptional, and make decisions after that.

If we as companies spend more time deploying our staff on the things they are best at, perhaps we can get better performance and higher engagement. From a competitive standpoint, there may be some value to building a company full of generally-good people who each are exceptional at a couple of very specific things. If you are strategic about how you fill those exceptional things across the board, I wonder if the Moneyball philosophy could work in business as well.