Picking a tool or vendor

Over the years, I’ve realized just how much my views on the ideal workplace impact how I select the vendors I work with. I remember selecting one of my first vendors at my last job and the CEO (a hugely-influential mentor of mine) suggesting I add a few questions to my vetting process. They stick with me today.

How big is the company? How quickly are they growing? There’s something to be said for selecting a vendor who is facing the same challenges you are as a business. For us, it was being a budget-conscious start-up trying to scale our team and culture quickly. I always felt just a bit better when working with a company our size or a little larger who had been through some of the challenges. It meant that any employee I spoke to – from sales-to-success-to-support had likely faced the same challenges our sales, success and support teams did. Their managers had the same demands. I just felt some level of comfort knowing my vendor knew my pain points really well.

How many customers do you have? What’s your target market? I tend to like start-ups with a solid base of customers, but not so many that I worry that once the sale is closed, they’ll vanish into the abyss and we’ll be up a creek for implementation and support. I also like to know that we’re in the market they are targeting or aiming towards – I don’t want to enter a relationship with a company if they are looking to move upstream from where I see my company in the near-future. If they are looking to really crush the market I’m in, I’m more likely to get service and see features related to my challenges.

Talk to me about your culture? What types of companies choose you? This is concert with me doing some research on my own about a company’s culture and values. I want to work with companies that care about creating a great experience for their employees, because I think it’ll mean better service for me and a product built to help me support an amazing culture. It cuts again to: “How can you serve me well if we’re trying to solve different problems or don’t align philosophically?”

I still look at tablestakes things like pricing and features, but with so many amazing HR Tech solutions on the market, I try to focus in on those supporting a similar purpose. I’m in the midst of selecting a performance management tool. There are dozens of solid options out there – each solving the problem a little bit differently and all potentially presenting a ton of value to my organization. The leading candidate, though, has about 150 clients and their content is really focused on culture more than performance management. Their tool does really neat things on its own, but it sure is reassuring to know that they are thinking about it as a solution not just to help with comp reviews or exiting people, but as a key component to building a high-performing culture.

 

Forget what HR tells you to do … do what works for your team.

Let me back it up a little bit. I’m not saying to not follow whatever performance management process your company has in place – we’ve worked really hard to put something in place as a baseline to ensure people are getting feedback in some scaleable format. I’m also not saying to not listen to HR’s coaching – many of us geek out about this sort of thing and love to help you become more effective at delivering feedback. I am saying not to let yourself be limited by whatever system is in place – see at as a framework to build off of.

We need to do a reboot of performance management at my current company, so I’ve been reading up a bit, studying new tools and thinking about how to best combine simplicity, regularity and efficacy in a scaleable system, while leaving room for teams to do what works best for them. Here are some key components for any manager thinking about performance management.

Regular feedback. I meet with everyone on my team once per week. Each person fills me in on anything they need help with, talks about things they have accomplished and asks any questions they have for me. I save the end of our time to ask questions about how they’ve taken on a project, why they’ve made the the decisions they have, or how well something went. Then I provide my feedback on anything that jumps to mind based on the prior week. Rather than forced feedback covering a long period of time, it’s timely little bits of highly-specific feedback (at least, that’s the goal … I have off weeks).

Career planning. Several times a year, an informal check-in on career goals is helpful (and greatly appreciated). Talk about their big picture goals; don’t dance around the fact (or get angry with the realization) that they likely won’t be with you and your company for forever; figure out the skills they need to hit their goals; and figure out the projects and coaching you can realistically provide for them right now. If you are committed to their growth long-term and figure out how to help them, you will almost certainly get more loyalty and effort from your team.

Ask for feedback. If you are helping your team grow, there is no reason for you not to leverage them to help you grow. Ask what you are doing and not doing well. Ask how they like to be managed and what is driving them crazy. Some of my biggest growing moments as a manager came from open feedback from my team. You’ll need to earn trust first – nobody is going to give tough (but helpful) feedback to their manager if they are worried it’ll come back to haunt them. Which also means that you shouldn’t ask for feedback if you aren’t ready to hear it (I’ve seen this turn sour a number of times).

Do an intake. If you take on a new team or new person, do an intro meeting. I have one I do 1-2 times a year that covers seven questions and helps me immensely as a manager.

  • What do you love to do?
  • What do you hate to do?
  • What are you awesome at (overlap allowed)?
  • What are you bad at (overlap allowed)?
  • What are your goals – career and skills to acquire?
  • How do you like to be managed?
  • How do you not like to be managed?

This allows me to deploy people on things in their wheelhouse, challenge them with projects that will build skills they’ll need to hit their growth goals, and saves me some hard lessons in managing them the right way. It also lets me give more helpful context to the projects I assign them (ie. “I’m giving you this project because I think it’ll give some skills needed to hit this goal”).

The wrap: Talk to your team about how they want feedback. Ask them about a system that works for them. Be open and honest with them. Commit to growing them. It may seem counterintuitive to be committed to getting someone promoted (or hired to a bigger role elsewhere), but it will pay off in performance and engagement. It’ll likely help with retention, too (because people ride out the hard times for a good manager). Being a good manager is a lot of work – giving feedback and managing performance are both a huge part of it. Find a good mentor, read up, experiment and ask for feedback. It’ll pay off in your career growth.

 

 

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.