HR is as HR Does

person-human-child-girl-blond-long-hair-face

Those of you who know me are aware that I am biased toward action. Mulling things over? Nope. Researching a little bit more after the conclusion seems clear? Not unless you can convince me of the value in it. Talking something to death? Never.

I know a lot of folks in HR whose bread and butter is generated through speaking, generating content that others purchase or receive as part of consulting packages, and whose reputations are built upon their gravitas in the HR public sphere. I think these people are great. I admire them, learn from them, enjoy their work, and become a better HR professional because of my exposure to them.

Here’s the thing, though. I am what’s called a “do-er.” If words and actions disagree, actions are always what I believe. If there’s a choice between doing something and talking about it, I prefer to do. You may think that makes me “tactical” or even “transactional” in orientation, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. My work product communicates, adds value and is left behind, as words fade into the air. It can be referred back to, shaped, revised, and molded to fit the needs of tomorrow and the next day. I continuously communicate while I act-strategically, efficiently and, hopefully, helpfully.

Action is what matters most. HR is sometimes guilty of acting in a way that’s not consistent with what we say, as a result of burnout, lack of experience, or failure to speak truth to our clients. We say that our company’s employees are its most important asset. We talk about employee engagement like it’s a priority. We even spout messages about developing leaders internally and caring about retention. Then what happens? We complain about human problems and label people like we think we know their stories. We are complicit in treating employees like they are cogs in a machine because our shareholders need a teeny, tiny bit more value. We (sometimes haphazardly) label some people with monikers like “High Potential” (without recognizing the unconscious bias we all have in making this choice) and participate in numbering them in order of their perceived value. We allow our manager clients to get away with not coaching, communicating about performance or engaging in difficult conversations with their direct reports.

Are you as frustrated with this as I am? Let’s do something. Speak less, act more. Treat employees with dignity, no matter what they have done or said, or what consequences we must deliver. Everyone tends to find themselves in crisis at one time or another, and there are no walls around the workplace anymore. Recognize people, know them and appreciate them every day. Question authority when you think your wonderful, unique and human teammates are being mislabeled or made the victims of petty, poor leadership politics. Hold your manager clients’ feet to the fire when they avoid conflict or face to face communication, and remind everyone all the way up the management chain that they own the success or failure of their front-line employees.

Let’s agree that we’ll act. Our workplaces will be better for it, and the trust level in HR will go through the roof. And, ultimately, our organizations will be more successful, which is exactly what our business leaders need from us.

Photo credit: Foter.com

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The Lifers

prison cell

So, I’ve shared that I recently started a new gig at a big company that has a long, long history. Like other organizations I’ve worked in, it’s poised on the precipice of big change, so “change management” is front and center.

In my role, I get to see people every day who have worked with the organization for their entire careers. They aren’t at retirement yet, but they’ve been there for more than twenty or thirty years. They’ve seen HR people come and go, and heard about this or that change initiative that’s also come and gone. Some of it may have stuck, but mostly not.

Some of them know that they should get on board, but they are just tired: tired of working so hard to take care of their families, tired of worrying so much about whether they will be able to pay for their medical bills, and tired of hearing about this new idea that’s going to make things so much better. They also suspect that all this change will put money in the pockets of the people at the top, but won’t bring a lot of great things to them.

But others are actually energized by the change, even if they’ve been at the company for a long, long time. They know that the changes will make the company stronger and better, and when the company is stronger and better, we all benefit from greater security, pay raises, good working conditions, and the pride that comes with doing a great job and making the company successful.

Others still are just saying, “Let me do my job.” I don’t want to hear about any of this, and I just want you to leave me alone. And by the way, keep it down. You are disturbing my peace and quiet, and I was here first, long before you.

You can’t put the Lifers all in one bucket. They have different ideas, different feelings, and different motivations. But one thing they all have in common? They want you to recognize what they’ve already contributed and respect them for still being there. And I do.

Now, about those changes I mentioned…they’re still coming our way. And I’ll be there to help the Lifers negotiate them, the best I can.

Photo credit: Tim Pearce, Los Gatos via Foter.com / CC BY

High Potential Programs: Handle with Care

high potential

In theory, so-called “High Potential” identification programs make sense. Organizations and leadership should be aware of the employees who are most likely to become future senior leaders and who should be identified as potential successors for critical roles that may need filling. They should also be exposed to accelerated developmental opportunities to keep them engaged and prepare them for these future opportunities.

What I’ve observed in practice, though, is that these programs tend to be less effective than they are in the theoretical realm. Todd Warner recently wrote a brilliant article in the Harvard Business Review called Three Reasons Why Talent Management isn’t Working Anymore. Warner pokes holes in these programs as they are ordinarily implemented, pointing out how they tend to result in promotion of familiarity and compliance, and they proceed in lock-step according the plan instead of considering the complex contextual environment of your organization and evolving strategy, which tends to change over time. All of these issues are critically important and should be addressed when implementing any talent management and succession planning program.

There are additional issues that develop when implementing these programs that deserve some attention and thought. If leaders and HR managers consider these pitfalls, they are less likely to interfere with a thoughtfully conceived and effectively implemented program.

  1. “High Potential” talent management plans can alienate and drive away high performers who aren’t considered among the “chosen few” to be in the “HiPo” group. These high performers may have rightfully been excluded-or misidentified. After they leave for greener pastures, leadership tends to recognize this as an affirmation of their original choices-those who left weren’t committed, didn’t have the passion and talent that the “HiPo” group possesses, and their talent and performance fades in memory once they are no longer a part of the organization. This self-fulfilling prophecy can be a recipe for mediocrity.
  2. Perception is Reality. I have heard this come out of the mouths of managers in dysfunctional organizations, not as a warning, as in, question perceptions, and look for facts and analyze data to get true results. It has been spoken with a shrug and a sigh, as in, using your energy to promote the right perception among leadership is something we all have to do here. That is a complete waste of time and money, creates animosity and distrust among employees, and stands in the way of even small change initiatives. Just create the right perception of yourself and you will be in the “High Potential” group that is allocated greater Talent Management and development resources. This dysfunctional environment can cause even the most engaged team members to lose faith in the organization and can erase gains created by even a well-managed HiPo program. Once High Potentials are promoted, the rest of the organization hasn’t been set up to trust them as leaders. The lesson? A culture of transparency and trust is key.
  3. Playing the Game. If HR isn’t careful, instead of performing the critically important function of giving strategic advice on succession planning and developing identified employees to ready them for promotion, we will end up creating an elaborate game in which only the team members who are highly manipulative and political-minded will end up the winners. Meanwhile, team members who could challenge the status quo, show true leadership and bring real success are overlooked, lose interest and move on to contribute to someone else’s bottom line.
  4. The Extrovert vs. Introvert Continuum and Gender and Culture Differences. One of the critical elements of a High Potential employee as compared to a high performing employee is aspiration. Aspiration, ambition and striving to move up are all qualities that can be present but may be expressed in different ways by true HiPo employees, but may not be recognized consistently by evaluators. Consider the differences in your employees and how they may express themselves based on who they are.

What should a wise Talent Management and HR professional do to combat these tendencies?

  1. Widen the circle. Who is reviewing the information upon which you base your identification of high potential employees? Yes, managers will fill out the same forms, and give evaluations based on the same criteria-but if only one or two team members are charged with making preliminary identifications, then you are entrusting your organization’s future to their analysis of the collected data and their ability to conclude what it says about the potential for future success. Maybe that makes sense, since your HR team is well trained in making recommendations like these-or maybe it doesn’t, and you haven’t even thought about it. Unless you are making decisions in a blind process and based only on objective criteria like assessment scores (highly unlikely and not advisable) then the perspective of every reviewer could be quite influential.
  2. Expand the data set. Does your team think they have the right people identified? Broaden the criteria you are looking at and make sure consistent criteria are being used to identify High Potentials. Bersin by Deloitte has a maturity model for High Potential programs, and at the bottom are programs that are ad hoc in nature, with no clear criteria. Make sure your program is fully business-integrated and consistent in order to get the best results.
  3. Calibrate Initial Decisions. According to Korn Ferry, 70% of High Potential employees are misidentified by managers in their initial assessment. Two-thirds of those initially identified are actually high performers, but not necessarily High Potentials. Misidentifying participants can harm their careers and interfere with organizational success by setting people up to fail.
  4. Evaluate results. It doesn’t matter how top of the line your HiPo program is if it doesn’t deliver the results you need for succession planning. According to CEB, five out of six HR professionals are currently dissatisfied with the results of their HiPo programs. Evaluating results and changing direction when needed is a best practice.

High Potential programs can be a useful tool for identifying successors and allocating development resources for the greatest return on investment, but the potential downside risk is high if the program is not carefully designed, managed and evaluated. For more information on the criteria commonly used to identify High Potential employees, see this overview in Forbes.

Visit Solve HR, Inc.

Photo credit: Infomastern via Foter.com / CC BY-SA

If You Did Not Document It, You Did Not Do It

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Sabrina Baker recently put out a great blog post on the Three Reasons Employee Documentation is Necessary. Go read it-her reasons are all justified and worth considering.

I too hear a lot of complaints from management about having to document what’s going on with their employees. Managers are too busy for that, right? Often, there’s a very real employee performance situation that needs to be resolved, it goes on for a long time (maybe through multiple managers), everyone is frustrated and the manager gets to the end of her rope and wants to “finally” fire the employee, who has been a bad performer for years. Our first question in HR is always, “Where is the documentation?” The answer may be that the employee got average annual performance reviews and no notification that anything was wrong. Or the manager may have told him (verbally) repeatedly about some things he needed to improve.

Besides legal compliance, how does documentation help your managers?

Checking Understanding. The employee may or may not have understood what to do, had the tools he needed to do it, or understood the implications of not doing it. That’s where documentation comes in handy-as a form of communication that can serve as an opportunity to check understanding on the part of both the manager, who thinks she is being clear, and the employee, who could think it’s either no big deal or his manager is just nit-picky and/or won’t actually follow through with any consequences. This is especially true if the employee has been flying under the radar with mediocre or bad results for many years and has been rewarded with a raise or bonus.

Ensuring Consistency. Documentation also serves the important purpose of helping managers ensure they are consistent in delivering coaching and performance messages to all team members over time as well. When you’ve documented your communication and actions, you can go back and review them when you are working on a future, similar case, to eliminate unconscious bias or emotional interference that may cloud your judgment. And if there is ever any question about a manager’s motivation, the documented facts and observations are there to speak for themselves, instead of managers having to rely on a busy and sometimes faulty memory to retrieve information. It enhances a manager’s confidence when delivering difficult messages and dispel any sense among her team that team members are treated differently. She can focus on the human energy on her team and generate trust in her as a leader.

Not only is it legally risky not to use documentation in implementing discipline for violating policy, or managing performance on an ongoing basis, it’s a total waste of time and a morale killer for everyone involved. Managers need to understand how documentation benefits them in managing the performance of their employees, how putting in a little time to put it in writing will pay off dividends down the road, and also how it’s required as part of their expected performance as managers.

Guess who can help deliver and reinforce this message? HR! Don’t just tell managers that they can’t do what they want to do because documentation is required for legal or policy barriers-relate it to the business reasons that enhance the success of the organization. I’m always in favor of saying “Yes, and this is how you do it” as opposed to always being the “HR No Machine.” Bringing the “no, no, no” is a way to make sure you get tuned out and kept out of the loop. Be the the go-to resource to help your managers develop the documentation skills they need, and make it as easy for them as possible to do their best work and support compliance at the same time.

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Photo credit: Sean MacEntee via Foter.com / CC BY

Hair on Fire-Performance Management

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Hey Kelly-

I have a huge problem and I’m not sure what to do about it. I’ve been a manager for about two years. When I was first promoted, my team of five was fully staffed and functioning reasonably well. We had challenges, and although we were busy, we had enough time to get our work done and also look at how to address them.

Since then, I’ve lost my two most senior people. They left for better opportunities at other companies. I asked myself what I could have done to make them want to stay, and I realize looking back that I could have seen it coming. My management team wanted to move two more people to another office, and the two team members currently in those positions didn’t want to relocate, so they found other jobs. I was able to replace one of them, but I took too long to fill the other position, so now management has given that headcount to another team. Meanwhile, I’ve only been able to replace one of my senior people. The other opening has been sitting out there without any qualified applicants coming in.

The real problem here is my manager. She has been the subject of a lot of complaints within the company, mostly for targeting people and making them so miserable they leave. Now she is doing it to me, and she’s also hounding the last original team member and forcing me to try to manage her out the door. This employee stepped up to fill in the gaps while our team has been in tatters. The performance of my team has been dismal because we have been so shorthanded. My manager wants to blame this employee.

So not only do I now have a team of three people trying to handle the work of five, but I’m now on a performance plan and I am being forced to put my employee on a performance plan too, even though I don’t believe she deserves it.

Any help you can give me would be appreciated. I don’t know how much longer I can take this.

Hanging on by a thread,

Jackie

Dear Jackie,

Whew! That is quite a crazy situation. It’s not that uncommon that middle management has opinions about what front-line managers should do with their teams. What is kind of weird here is that your manager is trying to do your job for you. If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll ask why that is happening.

The factors you mentioned, like the repositioning of the two jobs, the moving on of senior employees, and the remaining team members struggling—all of these are things that can happen at every company. I agree that having them all happen at once is difficult, but they do happen and they are problems that every manager needs to know how to deal with.

Here’s the question, though: have you made it clear to your manager what your plan is to solve these problems? I’d imagine that your manager has to answer to executive leadership about the sorry state of your team’s performance and present a plan of action. In an ideal world, that plan of action would come from you.

It sounds like your manager may have a reputation for being difficult to work with. Heck, she may even be a bully and incompetent when it comes to helping you figure out what to do. However, that doesn’t absolve you from your responsibility here. You must come up with a game plan. I’d recommend it include the following:

  • A clear sourcing, recruiting and onboarding plan (in conjunction with your talent acquisition team) for replacing your other senior team member
  • Regular team meetings and one-on-ones with your team members, with clear goals for both the team and each employee
  • Appreciation for the great work that IS being done during this difficult time, but also a refusal to back down from the responsibility the team has to keep your work on track, even without being fully staffed
  • Remaining available and engaging in ongoing listening and responding to your team-being consistent and caring during this time is critical to their success
  • A communication plan to keep your manager (and executive leadership) informed about what you are specifically doing to address their concerns and creating and adhering to a timeline to get the team back on track

Once you get beyond the current crisis, then it will be time to evaluate how your team is aligned with the strategic direction of your department, and your organization as a whole. Take responsibility for understanding not only how your team fits into the big picture, but also planning for the tactical elements that will get you there. Then follow up to ensure that each one of your team members clearly gets it, and follows through with their part.

It’s not easy learning how to get work done through others, which is what a successful manager does. Your manager may be doing a pretty poor job of it, so you may need to learn what not to do by observing her. One final point-you mention that your remaining original team member “does not deserve” to be put on a performance plan. You didn’t say this, but I assume that being put on a performance plan is a first step that could eventually lead to dismissal, so that makes it a big deal. I’d be careful about treating any team member more harshly than others, simply because your manager commands you to do it. If you performance manage your direct report without understanding why, you will be highly ineffective in managing her, your team’s engagement and performancewill suffer, and you could even create legal risk.

You must, therefore, outline what you know about this team member’s performance, let your manager know that you don’t currently see the need for a performance plan, and that you are open to initiating one in the future if you see that it would be appropriate. Also let your manager know that you are undertaking some improvements (see the bullets above) and that you would like to see how that plays out before taking any action with regard to this specific employee.

She may say no. But if she sees that you are taking responsibility for your team, she may decide she can stop trying to do your job for you, and give you some time to figure things out on your own. It’s worth a try. If not, then you must get a clearer picture of what skills, abilities and competencies you need to help your team member develop, and be very clear in your expectations for improvement. Frame the conversation in terms of helping her succeed, and then do your best to do that.

And if all else fails, it doesn’t hurt to start looking for a new position. You may not be able to make your current situation work, but even if you move on, I’d encourage you to reflect on the situation, discuss it with a trusted mentor, and learn what you need to know from this experience. It will make you a better manager.

Best wishes,

Kelly

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Photo credit: marc falardeau via Foter.com / CC BY

Volunteer Leadership is Real Leadership

Volunteer Today

Reminder: volunteers don’t get bonuses or performance reviews. And they don’t give a hoot whether you are happy with what they do, unless they care personally about what you think and want to exercise their own integrity and motivation in carrying out their volunteer duties. This makes them an absolutely perfect practicing ground for honing your leadership skills!

I am participating in a volunteer committee through my professional group. When things go well, everyone is so happy to be together, contributing to the group and spending time together working on projects. But I noticed recently that the “masks” we might wear at work are not on when we get together as volunteers. When a volunteer doesn’t agree with something, or doesn’t like an outcome, he wears it all over his face. If someone is disengaged, the negative body language in response is immediate. We don’t hold the same level of patience for our fellow volunteers that we do for people who control our work destinies.

It’s easy to be annoyed in that situation, and get lost in the emotional response to others’ cues. But it’s such a fantastic opportunity to observe how people respond to the way you communicate. I asked myself these questions:

  • What communication approaches (in-person meeting, email, polls, social media) generate the most productive responses?
  • Do I need to listen more and talk less?
  • Am I using the right level of clarity, or assuming shared knowledge that just isn’t there?
  • Are there members who are hanging back, waiting for assignments, but feeling frustrated about their level of involvement?
  • Conversely, are there members doing too much work and feeling put-upon?
  • Do people need more information to connect the work they are doing to the mission of the organization?

All of these questions make me a better leader in projects and teams for “real” work, not just volunteer activities. The great bonus in my group is that I am working with a team of effective, motivated and successful professionals who truly care about their work (paid and unpaid) and about each other. It’s the kind of high-performing team that is fun to work with and generates great results.

If you want to be a leader and aren’t finding opportunities in your current role, consider a volunteer position. It’s “real” experience, learning and development, and helps your community too.

Visit Solve HR, Inc.

Photo credit: byzantiumbooks via Foter.com / CC BY

Ladder of Accountability

Have you ever seen this image?

Ladder of accountability

It’s actually a pretty good way to remind yourself of the best ways to keep your mindset open to solutions, and recognizing that there’s no way you can sit back and complain and snipe at the people working on solving the problems and still expect to remain gainfully employed (at least not in a high-functioning organization). To be successful, you should harness your power by taking responsibility for what you can control and work toward changing things for the better.

However, it only works when you have an organization that has a healthy culture based on trust, and everyone agrees to buy in, and hold each other accountable for using behaviors above the line.

I was once a part of a seriously dysfunctional workplace where leaders were clueless (or careless) about the engagement level of their employees, including high performers. They preferred to see their surroundings through the lens of fear-based control and power, and believed that they could impose this scheme on their teams.

In that setting, when managers shared the diagram above with their teams, they didn’t realize that those who were already on board were exhibiting these behaviors, and perceived the diagram as an affront, like their leaders weren’t paying any attention. Those who weren’t getting with the program by exhibiting power and responsibility received the message in an environment lacking in trust, and turned the diagram into a complete joke. It became a conversation piece symbolic of how clueless managers were. “Unaware” became shorthand for “unaware of any way this hopelessly messed up situation will ever change.”

Before you share great tools with your teams, get your ducks in a row and make sure they are going to be receptive and prepared to respond by utilizing them in a way that brings success to your organization. What if you have team members who are never going to be on board, no matter how positive, trusting and functional your work environment becomes? It may be time to invite them to succeed elsewhere. That’s part of your accountability ladder as a manager.

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