Super Bowl Sunday – Lessons to Apply to your Culture

Bill Belichick is known for going outside of the football world to draw inspiration for how the team is run. Whether it’s drawing from the military, grilling coaches from other sports, or playing an inspirational move – if there is an edge to be gained, he is open-minded. What can we learn from how the New England Patriots are run and apply in our companies?

Have a singular goal in mind

The New England Patriots are notorious for having one goal in mind: winning the Super Bowl. It is a big goal, but achievable. Every single person in the organization can tie their purpose to that goal. Whether it’s preseason workouts, staying late to review scout tape, working the salary cap or throwing on the pads late in the season after a sloppy tackling performance. On an employee-level, it gives a perfect filter for every single member of the organization to use for decisions. “Will this help us win the Super Bowl?” If the answer is “no”, they just don’t do it.

This singular focus is something companies aim for, but very few achieve because it’s really, really hard. First, pick a manageable time horizon; unless it’s a really purposeful goal that is easy for people to get behind (“we’re changing the world!”), you will have a hard time getting alignment if your end date is measured in years, not months. Give people ownership of their part of achieving the goals.Let them do their jobs. This creates shared purpose.

Talk about your goal all the time. If things don’t tie up to it, ask if those other things are worth the effort or pulling effort away from the most important thing. And lastly, if you hit your goal, celebrate it. Talk about all the little things that got you there. Highlight the adversity you overcame to hit it. Talk about your MVPs. Maybe even throw a parade … with confetti. And duckboats.

Simplify the task at hand

Belichick and his staff articulate their game plans very simply and specifically. While some teams may say things like “win in the trenches” or “score four touchdowns”, the Patriots staff chooses three to four really specific things that they think will give them the edge to win against their specific opponent. They do this for every single game. That may be “score first”, or “allow no yards after catch” or “stay in your lanes” (with a particularly shifty running back). But it is specific and measurable.

There is a lot of work required to filter down to the most important tasks to focus your efforts on to win. The higher level goals are much easier. So why bother? Breaking things into digestible parts serves a few purposes. It gives the players simple things to focus on – it gives them a job, so to speak. They don’t need to do everything, they just need to do these things to win. And because they know what others are doing, they don’t need to worry about the overall plan – just their role. You hear “Do your job!” all around the Patriots. This laser-like focus ensures you have the effort where you want it, and team accountability if you don’t hit your goals.

Fill your team with people who buy in

The Patriots have a very specific philosophy: winning above all else. That means individuals needs to buy into the system entirely or the entire system falls apart. It may mean a Pro Bowl player accepts a part time role. Or a defensive player sticks with the play call instead of taking a chance on an interception or sack because individual play makes the whole weaker.

The team has had to cut ties with players – both drafted and brought in – who weren’t able to buy into the team-first, all-business, no distraction culture because they weren’t fitting in and were undermining something very important to the organization. Similarly, they’ve brought in players known as trouble-makers or partiers who are now poster children for “The Patriot Way”. The difference isn’t talent. The difference is fitting into a culture and way of doing things to hit the goal.

Everyone has been in an organization with individuals playing by different rules than the vast majority. I suppose it can work, but it also undermines your strategy, culture and the heights your team can reach. With everyone after a team goal with a shared code on how to achieve things, you can weather the inevitable challenges without rocking your foundation to the core.

Have strong leaders … and know they aren’t always the people in charge

Your leaders are the people who buy into what you are doing, how you are doing it, why you are doing it and yell it from the rooftop and live it daily. They behave in a way you want all of your team to. This is different and distinct from people in leadership positions. The latter are your managers, directors and executives.

It is critically important that those in leadership positions also have leadership qualities. Most organizations elevate their highest performers. I would argue that it’s more important to elevate your leaders and invest in them. Yes, Tom Brady has long been one of the best players on the team, but you hear countless stories from people coming into the organization and realizing how hard he works and how much he buys into what the team is doing. That is what makes him a leader. If your top performer sees the value of running hills in the hot summer sun to improve conditioning, it’s really hard for anyone to complain too loudly and be accepted within the organization. There are plenty of teams around the league who have quarterbacks expected to lead a team, who utterly lack in leadership qualities.

Similarly, Matthew Slater has long been a captain for the Patriots. For those unfamiliar with the team, Slater plays a small, but critical role on special teams. While many would view such a role as a “demotion”, he has bought into his ability to help win the field position game, contribute to winning and dedicated himself fully to the role. Players follow his lead, despite the fact he’s not making the most money or in the flashiest role. You have these people in your organization. Retain them. Invest in them. Use them to help align your team and reinforce your message.

I’m going to get back to watching the parade, but thanks for indulging my fanaticism today!


The Hard Stuff – Terming Someone

I was talking with a friend the other day about a termination she had to do that she wasn’t looking forward to. Everyone with some semblance of a heart hates terminating people. It’s difficult. There is risk to it. It’s delicate. It sucks for everyone in the room. And, thankfully, it’s not something most people get a whole lot of “practice” doing – but that makes it even harder to get right. You should lean heavily on your legal/HR team, but here are a few tips I’ve shared with managers in the past.

Do: Make sure it’s not a total surprise.

When any manager has ever come to me about a performance-related termination, I ask what conversations they’ve had with the person and if/how they’ve followed up. This isn’t strictly for a paperwork-related, cover-your-ass reason. It’s more strategic and long-range than that.

If we as organizations want peak performance from our teams, our people need to be clear on expectations, if they’re meeting them, and how specifically to improve. It’s a manager’s job to drive performance and I feel strongly that there is some ethical responsibility for managers to put in a good faith effort to get everyone on their team where they need to be if there’s even a chance things can rebound. It certainly doesn’t always work out, but I think the investment is deserved.

Have the performance conversation(s), even though they are hard – you would expect the same level of candor from your manager. Give real time feedback. Follow up with an email summarizing to reenforce and create clarity on goals, strategies and timelines you talked about in the meeting. You would be shocked at the number of performance conversations where the manager emerges feeling they have delivered a ‘tough’ message, while the employee feels like they were just given some helpful development suggestions and has no idea, whatsoever, of the gravity of the situation. That is setting everyone up for a worse situation.

Keep in mind that your entire team is always monitoring you. You do not want your highest performers self-selecting out of the organization because they have witnessed and now fear a surprise termination. Even if performers agree 100% with the decision to let someone go, they will be monitoring the fairness of the process and how you treat someone on the way out.

Don’t: Say how hard this is for you to do. Or cry.

Ever. Some suggest never apologizing or admitting fault to avoid putting the company in more legal risk. That’s probably true, but not what drives this recommendation.

Research has indicated that job loss profoundly impacts people. Yes, even if you cut a big severance check and eliminate that initial financial concern. Think about it. In the US, one of the first questions we ask people is: “What do you do?” For better or worse, our jobs are a huge part of our identities. When you lose part of your identity, it can absolutely send you reeling.

I will admit that I don’t sleep well (or at all) before terminations. I get sick to my stomach for days. I usually need to go for a walk to rid myself of the shakes before and after. Most people have some level of emotional and physical response. But when you sit across from someone you are letting go, keep in mind what they are facing:

  • Income instability
  • Telling people they’ve been let go/have no job (over and over and over …)
  • Shame
  • Loss of purpose/identity is in any way tied to their job
  • Loss of relationships and interaction with co-workers
  • Loss of confidence
  • Logistics of getting their stuff and getting home
  • Shock
  • Having to explain job loss in search for new job
  • A million other things

This is a life changing event that, truthfully, some people never fully recover from. Nothing you are dealing with is in any way comparable to what they are facing. Crying or sharing how difficult this has been for you isn’t appropriate and won’t make them feel better. In fact, it could exacerbate and escalate the situation. Instead, the compassionate thing to do is to be empathetic in the room, listen to them (within reason) and try and remove or mitigate as many challenges as makes sense. If you don’t think you can hold it together, talk with HR about other options or approaches.

Do: Give reasons why you’ve made the decision to let them go.

Managers are really surprised to hear this from me. Several years ago, I was working with an HR consultant/mentor who strongly influenced my philosophy on terminations. She essentially said to me: “If people don’t understand why they are being let go, they are left to fill in the blanks themselves, they get more angry and you are at more legal risk.” When something bad happens, we cannot help but ask why it’s happening to us. For me, understanding the why helps me process, even if I disagree.

This isn’t to suggest that the termination is a time to get into the minutia of your decisions or lay it on thick. It’s not. Concentrate on two to three high level reasons why you are letting someone go that you’ve discussed with them in the recent past. Try to avoid focusing on the more emotionally-charged or subjective ones, if possible. For example, if the issues were treatment of peers, attendance and missing deadlines, focus on the later two.

For each reason, I like to have a very specific and simple example to share with them if, and only if, they ask. Depending on the tone of the conversation, it may even be appropriate to answer simple clarifying questions. However, once the discussion turns into a debate, it’s time to respectfully and calmly refocus on the reality that the decision has been made for multiple reasons and is final.

When companies hire people, I think there is an underlying agreement that both parties will do their best to make things work. This drives my desire to try and be specific about where that agreement fell apart.

Do: Summarize the conversation at a really high level.

It’s more likely than not that the terminated employee’s head will be spinning as soon as it’s clear they are being let go. They may not hear or process a thing you share with them after that moment as they start to think about all the repercussions. Account for this in your process. I prefer to send employees home with all the information we talked about.

This includes:

  • What’s going to happen with their benefits; what and when they need to do anything about them.
  • If there is any agreement, encouragement to review with an attorney and outline a timeline for questions and execution of the agreement.
  • What their last check will cover. If applicable, if and when they will receive any bonuses due to them (it’s interesting how a $100 commission check can be the difference between someone feeling like they were treated fairly or not).
  • If you don’t intend to fight unemployment, state that and help direct them to the right resources.
  • If they have stuff at the office, their options to get it all back.
  • Appreciation for their contributions and regrets it didn’t work out.

I typically don’t cover the reasons why in the termination letter. Rather, I focus on simplifying and clarifying a really difficult process.

Wrap up.

There is a lot to think about when going into a termination. I believe that in an HR role my job is to hold both employees (through performance and behavior) and managers (through their responsibility to coach, provide clear expectations and treat their teams fairly) accountable. The termination process is walking a fine line in a highly-charged situation when that social contract falls apart. Try to treat the impacted employee with empathy and kindness, no matter how crazy they drove you. The organization is watching closely. And, really, it’s just the right thing to do.

Building a benefits package

In so many job postings for HR-related positions, I see something along the lines of “review and administer benefits plans”. Certainly, administering plans is way down on the list of exciting things to do in the profession, but putting one together is pretty friggin’ important and exciting! Strategic HR folks see it as a great opportunity. Indulge me for a minute.

You exist in a competitive market – there are other companies out there fighting for the same customers. There are companies trying to steal your customers. So you look at product market fit. You do focus groups to see where you are falling short, and what influenced your customers’ decision to select you over the competition. Maybe it’s price. Or features. Or service. You look to establish what the minimum viable product is to even be in the conversation with prospects.

Then, you do some self reflection. What are you capable of building? Is it better to go all in on one big change, or do a bunch of smaller ones? You look at your current market and how you are messaging to them in what channels. You try to understand what the most effective messages are to convert sales. Ultimately, you make some strategic decision that will impact your success in hitting your goals going forward.

Viewing HR through this business lens makes sense to me because your goals and levers are very similar. Your customers are the talent you want to attract and retain. Your culture,  business problem, compensation and benefits all factor into the “product” you are offering. Let’s flush that out with benefits.

Minimum Viable Product

You want great talent, so you need to understand what it takes in the market. Take a look at companies you’ve lost employees or candidates to and understand their benefits packages. What insurances do they offer and what are they contributing to each? What is their PTO like? Do they match 401(k)? What perks do they offer? Your insurance broker or an HR consultant can give you a pretty good lay of the land, but so can your employees and candidates. Lastly, don’t forget to take a look at the law and what you legally must do for all employees.

Putting together the right package is a puzzle. Understand the whole picture of what’s out there to give you an idea of all the pieces you can work with and to frame what the bare minimum “product” is in your market. Then you can start the process of prioritizing and eliminating options.

Understand Your Demographics and Culture

Look at your existing demographics and intimately understand the usage of your current benefits. Are there demographic differences in usage (i.e. development budget is most utilized by mid managers; entry-level folks aren’t really utilizing anything)? You may flush out some inefficiencies or a better way to allocate efforts and budget.

Next, ask what is most important to who you are as a company? Factor in your corporate culture and core values when constructing a package. If you say you are about work/life balance, your benefit package should support that. Similarly, if you talk about wanting people to grow, make sure there is a tangible perk or benefit to reenforce its importance.

Lastly, think about your growth goals and the demographics of those you are looking to hire. What benefits appeal will make you uniquely competitive in attracting the best of the best in that group? For example, if you are building a call center and want to attract and retain entry-level folks for 2+ years, a loan reimbursement program, events and in-office snacks may be more strategic to add. If, however, it’s time to build out a senior management team, you may be looking at things like flexible hours, 401(k) and a very comprehensive health plan.

Leverage Your Budget

Your goal is to deploy dollars in the best way to support your business’ growth, throughout the organization. This includes benefits on a micro and macro level. I’ll explain both.

Now you have an idea of what you need to attract talent, what benefits matter to which demographics, and what your objectives are in terms of attracting and retaining talent. Take your benefits budget and spend accordingly. This may mean cutting certain benefits that appeal to a small subgroup of employees in favor of ones with more widespread use. Don’t forget to factor in administrative overhead associated with running certain benefits when going through your evaluation.

If you make changes, communicate the why’s behind it to everyone so it doesn’t seem arbitrary. Be prepared for changes to materially affect certain employees. If these are people you want to retain, consider adjusting their compensation accordingly.

On a macro level, look at how your business is performing from a people perspective. Are you attracting and retaining the talent you need to drive your business? Are your employees engaged and satisfied with their benefits and compensation? You want positions filled quickly, limited turnover, and performers capable of doing the job. If you are seeing deficiencies in any of these areas, it may be time to look at your budget as a whole and decide if you’ve allocated enough to HR to most effectively meet the needs of your organization.

Don’t Forget Compensation

Compensation and benefits work hand in hand with one another and should be part of the same strategy. For example, if you want to pay top of market, you may be able to skimp in benefits. On the flip side, many nonprofits are able to retain great people because their benefits are outstanding. If you are a company the grants equity, you need to factor that into the equation as well.

There are a million ways to build an effective benefits program. Be strategic. Be true to who you are as a company. Understand your objectives. Use benefits (and compensation) as a lever towards hitting business objectives. Companies (and HR teams) that see the value of the right package can exploit a market inefficiency to their advantage and get a leg up on the best talent. Make how you leverage your HR levers a competitive advantage for your business.


Talk Review: Why Leaders Eat Last (Simon Sinek)

“Why Leaders Eat Last” by Simon Sinek tied leadership qualities and our expectations of leaders to our evolutionary social systems and the release of neurotransmitters to reinforce those systems. While much of what he talks about in terms of leadership has been talked about in many different forums, I found this perspective to be helpful in better understanding why we see certain people displaying a very similar set of qualities to be good leaders.

It’s a 45 minute video embedded below that I encourage you to check out with some key takeaways and practical application thoughts below.

Key Takeaways:

  • There are four main neurotransmitters that are responsible for us feeling good: endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin.
  • Two – endorphins and dopamine – can be individually created. Endorphins from physical activity; dopamine from accomplishing a goal or a pleasurable experience. This could range from physically crossing something off your to-do list to pursuing a goal for a cash bonus. The pursuit of dopamine release can be highly addictive.
  • The other two – serotonin and oxytocin – balance things out and are triggered primarily from your interaction with other people.
  • When we stand together as a company with high levels of trust and support, we can unite to focus on the “dangers” from outside of the company. If that trust is broken, our employees must instead focus energy on protecting themselves from the “dangers” within (a boss, politics, etc). This prevents innovation and exceptional customer service. It is a leader’s job to make sure that even the lowest level employees within the company feel safe.
  • Serotonin exists with feelings of pride and status. Recognition can trigger the release of serotonin – both in the person being recognized, and in the people who helped them get there. This is a powerful social reinforcement tool.
  • If you are not willing to put yourself at risk for others, you are not a leader. Leaders are afforded special status with many perks, but the expectation in the social contract is that you will protect your group when things get difficult.
  • Oxytocin is released when you feel you belong within a group and/or have a deeper trust level that has been earned over time. It is released when you give you time and energy without expecting anything in return.

Practical Applications:

  • You can leverage the dopamine pathway and reward system by setting very specific and visual company goals. But be cognizant that this pathway is addictive and companies only leveraging this lever of reinforcement are ripe for unintentionally encouraging people to hit goals by any means necessary.
  • Great teams want to make each other proud. Leverage recognition to tap into this. Root out people with individualistic tendencies, as they can be destructive to the team dynamic. This is even more important with people in leadership roles who can undermine your productivity as a business.
  • Politics aren’t productive for organizations and refocus employee energy into fighting the “danger” within the organization.
  • When leaders offer their time and energy, it reinforces their leadership qualities and increases trust. Most organizations have leaders still in heavy “doer” roles. There may be increased value to the company if we ensure they have sufficient time to give to others. Consider trying to clear some of their “doer” tasks to give them this time.
  • Be deliberate about the competencies you look for when putting someone into a leadership role. Focus less on broad subject-matter expertise, and more on someone who can drive the best results from their team by creating a safe, trusting, and productive work environment.


Poached from Marketing. Tailoring your message to your audience.

I am thoroughly intrigued by what HR can learn and apply from marketing concepts and best practices. I was fortunate to spend most of my tenure at a tech company sitting with or near the marketing team, which afforded me the chance to creepily eavesdrop on their conversations and debates. I have spent many quiet moments thinking about what they do and I’m dying for the chance to experiment.

One concept our team in charge of converting website clicks to a trial or demo of our software (a huge metric in the software world) used is targeted messaging and landing pages. Depending on how you came into the website or the data you gave us, we’d direct you to a landing page and/or send a message tailored to answer the questions we thought you had, the features we thought you’d be interested in, and, potentially, a call to action tailored to you. All of this was driven by data. Cold. Hard. Impersonal. Data. And it was constantly being tested to improve conversion.

I’ve always been curious how to leverage this concept to help improve the recruitment process. Some ideas:

Job ads: I think it’s silly to see an ad touting the beer fridge and foosball table for a VP-level position because that’s really not what interests most VPs in an job opportunity. Target your message to the type of candidate you want. When you are crafting it, talk to people in similar positions within the organization and ask about what most caught their eye about the company, what benefits and perks mean the most to them, and what they most love now about the opportunity that they didn’t know coming in.

Leverage that information. You may end up with an entry-level ad that touts a great starting salary, office perks, the focus on individual career growth, and is written in a more playful tone. Your VP-level ad may instead highlight the specifics of the business problem they will be taking on, the impact it will have on the organization, autonomy, budget allocation, and talk about the 401(k) match and flexible working arrangements.

As you interview candidates, ask them what has piqued their interest about the role and incorporate or use to clarify your job ad if you feel you are missing something important.

Careers Page: A/B* test different ways of laying out your careers page. Chances are that you won’t have the resources (or web traffic) to do this as well as marketing does, so make due with what you have. Have two ideas fairly flushed out and ask your current employees what they’d be more excited to share with their network, or what they’d opt to click into if looking for a job.

You need to understand if your careers page is encouraging people to interact further with your company. In an ideal world where HR budget was infinite, it’d be great to see if certain quotes, benefits, pictures or videos increased interaction with your guests. In short, what you are trying to do is iterate to speak to what your visitors are most interested in and, ultimately, get good candidates to submit an application. Use whatever data you can to help tweak what you have.

Targeted Landing Pages: Combine the above two. I realize this is well outside of the reach of most HR teams on resource allowances alone. And frankly, only makes sense for really large companies needing to constantly fill similar roles. But, it intrigues me nonetheless.

Wouldn’t it be cool if you have someone click into a specific job ad (or come in through a specific job board), to drive them to a page with a picture, quote, video and highlights of the job and its benefits specifically tailored to what that demographic wants to know? Ok, yes, a little creepy in some ways, but also incredibly effective.

There is something really powerful about understanding your audience, what they are most concerned about, and making sure that message comes through loud and clear to sell the opportunity you offer. The less time candidates need to spend assessing your job before deciding to apply, the more effective the process is – particularly when you are competing heavily for their services. Listen to your employees about what the best part of the job is. Listen to your candidates about the most appealing aspects. And use that information to hone your message.

One last really important thing – resist the urge to dance around the truth or tell candidates only what they want to hear. It may get them in the door. It may even get them hired, but you are hurting yourself in the end for three big reasons. You’ve just eroded trust in HR/leadership by misleading them. You may not get the right fit for your job (i.e. someone who isn’t good in a turn-around situation is hired to right the ship in a department). And you’ll be hurting your chances at retaining people because of the first two. Be honest. It pays off in the end.

*A/B testing is when you mock up two options, send a portion of your audience to each, and see what behaviors occur. Is one converting people better? Are you able to get more emails from prospects from another? Are people closing the window at a higher rate?



Hiring an HR Leader

First, let me introduce myself!

I’m in HR. I love people. I’m an introvert. I am an idealist. I like thinking about how things could be done better. I like growth. I believe in people. I believe we can help businesses succeed and redefine the profession and workplace. Good lord, I’m pumped about what I do – even on the nights I can’t sleep because of the tough stuff this job regularly entails.

I’m excited to be a part of the profession now, when we are seen as valued strategic partners instead of strictly risk-mitigation, paper-pushers. It allows for innovation, thinking more holistically about solving problems and becoming a bigger resource for all employees, not just executives. After all, when you strip a business down to what really makes it tick, it’s the people. They service your customers, write your content, build and sell your product … they are the lifeblood of any organization. You need to attract and retain the best of the bunch.

To be competitive in the current climate, a CEO should look for an HR leader who is:

  • Inquisitive and curious. What can they learn from other companies? Other departments? What can be tweaked and improved? Is there anything that should be scrapped and rebuilt? Are they willing to listen and learn from others to find the best solution for your organization? A playbook of best practices is good to know, but it’s not going to help differentiate you in a hyper competitive talent market.
  • Approachable and empathetic. You want people across the organization to trust your HR team. You want employees to feel comfortable coming forward with issues that could leave you exposed or lead to retention issues down the line. You want managers to leverage the team to help them grow and navigate difficult situations. You want your executives to leverage the team in strategic decisions – nobody should know the ins and out of your employees and potential reactions better than your HR arm.
  • Excellent communicators with great EQ. There are a lot of tough messages that go out in an organization, and most filter through HR in some way. You can’t afford to have someone unable to “read the room”. You can’t have someone who delivers ambiguous messages. You need a person able to read the right tone, for the right audience, and communicate it in the most effective way possible.
  • Customer-oriented. Your employees are your customers. Put them in the right hands! Find someone who cares about service levels. You need someone who can listen as someone vents, and knows how to guide them through (even when that’s a tough message and not rainbows and unicorns). You want to be one of those companies where people talk positively about HR. That takes lots of good experiences and trust.
  • Smart. HR can help you run your company more effectively, if you pick the right person. Find someone that can learn and speak the language of your other leaders and have credibility. Confidence and the ability to dig in and believe in their principles are key, but you want someone also able to problem-solve and speak to the concerns of your other leaders.
  • A fit for your team. Get the right person for your leadership team. Look at your demographics. Look at your industry. Look at the personalities they will be dealing with and select accordingly. Fit is absolutely critical, but there’s no quick cheat for who the right person is because only you know what will fly in your organization.

There are so many other qualities to look for, but this where I’d start. Don’t be afraid to start your search over if you aren’t 100% excited about your options. This is a critical position. Make sure you get it right (no pressure!).