Calling all business leaders to paradigm shift yourselves, stat!

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Since leaving the Human Resources field I’ve been calling into question almost everything about how the people related work in an organization is done. I’m holding up the status quo up to examine it closely and get curious about who is served by that “way” of doing something. I have come to believe that the way HR does their work and how HR is structured is harming employees, therefore harming companies. And I have years of making up to do for my contribution to this mess.

Yes, we all know it, people are your most valuable asset as a company. There’s lots of company lip service to that overused and under delivered marketing statement. It’s a marketing statement because very few companies actually operate with the belief of employees being most valuable embedded in the way they do things – their policies, practices, beliefs and customs – their culture. In fact, the reason why building conscious businesses resonates so much with virtually anyone I talk to is that everyone has worked at a crappy company with a horrible boss with a bad culture. And many realized in going through that experience that there’s really very little you can do in that situation other than leave. You can’t change the soul sucking trifecta of a profit plundering company that permits bad leadership and doesn’t care about the culture. Those of us in the conscious business movement are bound and determined to do it another way. Conscious business principles apply a different lens to culture and leadership than our traditional models. And the conscious business revolution requires putting on trial everything we’ve done to get to this point in our business evolution – where the traditional, profit and growth maximizing model is only working for a small minority– and determining what we need to flip around and look at completely differently. The world is calling for a different model for business success, based on more than the financials. And by the way, this different model is actually more profitable! 

This is part 1 of a two part series where I’m proposing we redesign how to do our work. based on conscious business principles around culture, leadership, stakeholder orientation, and higher purpose. What we are talking about is not the job of HR, it’s the job of leadership to embody these principles and hold all leaders and HR accountable for architecting and carrying out the people related work differently. You know how applying the same thinking to a problem gives the same result? What we need is a paradigm shift. Ready? Let’s go.  

Candidates are your customers

I’m starting with the first entry point for employees because it’s everyone’s first experience of your culture so it’s incredibly important. And what you must do is stop acting like candidates are not worthy of the same respect as your customers. I wish I didn’t need to say this but postings on Glassdoor and other social media shows we need to talk. Look at your hiring process in comparison to your sales process. There should be lots of similarities. Your organization and your open positions are your products to sell. You want to attract customers that are interested in your products and would gain value from those products. You are looking for the same thing in an employee. How would thinking of the relationship with candidates akin to relationships with customers change how you advertise your positions? What would you do with the interview process if instead you were designing a series of meetings for an important customer? A candidate is more important than a customer because the right employee will impact your organization’s long term success far more than any one customer could. How did we all decide that candidates should be so grateful that we graced them with our awful recruiting experience rather than us being grateful to candidates for giving us the time of day?  

How do you really know what it feels like to be a candidate going through your hiring process? Go through it yourself! It’s like the mystery shopper that’s really trying to understand the customer experience or the CEO who shows up at work in disguise to get a real sense for what goes on in the place. You’ll learn a ton and become more emphatic to the candidate that applies for a job at your company. And you will make changes. If you don’t have enough recruiters to curate a stellar candidate experience stop making excuses and invest. It will pay off.

Employee experience = Customer experience

You check in with your customers regularly to see how they are feeling about your product and how you could further meet their needs. You don’t do this check-in using only one method, you have to be creative and gather insights in lots of ways to get customers to pay attention and give you actionable intel. It’s no different with your employees. You have to care enough to get creative and have many ways of trying to figure out what’s going on in your company – managers asking team members, team members comfortable sharing feedback, town hall meetings with questions submitted in advance, ask the CEO forums, anonymous surveys, an independent hotline. Variety gives you the most actionable insight. Most importantly, you have to actually care about what employees are saying and do something about it. If you don’t plan to take the feedback to heart and do something then don’t bother asking. It’s worse to ask and then ignore.

When a customer has an issue you solve it, or at least really try to solve it. When an employee has an issue it’s often covered up or they are told to not come with problems, come with solutions. If they could solve the problem themselves why would they be asking you for help? I have heard “don’t come to me with problems, come to me with solutions” throughout my career. I’ve even said it myself. It’s bunk. Inherent in the statement is that people are stupid and lazy and the almighty leader needs to push them out of their natural sloth-like state. The thinking is wrong. People want to do well, they want to succeed. They apply their talents to get as far as they can and sometimes need help. A leader’s job is to coach their team members to recognize solutions. That’s the amazing power of coaching!

When a customer buys your product and they are disappointed or don’t like it, do you blame the customer? If you are a successful company you learn from the feedback, make changes, and try to retain the customer. Yet when an employee is having a rough time we blame them, shame them, and often fire them. We rationalize our actions because they are “bad” or “don’t get it” or “aren’t cutting it”. A disengaged or poor performing employee is the equivalent of a customer who has stopped buying your product. Is this because something has changed for them, because they don’t know how to do their job, or because they no longer like your company? Or has something significant changed in their life that is causing them to change their behavior? Who knows until you actually ask them and really care about the answer.

There is no talent war, only an outdated way of thinking about talent

The traditional way of thinking about recruiting is that you have to find the best and the brightest that have the required skills and experience. If you follow this approach, there will always be a talent shortage or a “war for talent” because there is a limit on the “best and brightest”. We’ve created a self-fulfilling prophecy with narrow, uninspired thinking about what it takes to be successful in positions or at our companies in general. There are the leaders who will only hire people from the state they are in, won’t consider remote workers, won’t hire people over a certain age, or people whose first language isn’t English (yes, both are discriminatory, but you know this still happens whether consciously or unconsciously). This cuts off so many people with so much to contribute! The companies that truly value diversity, equity and inclusion believe that every person has special talents to share that can be cultivated. Instead of asking “is this person the absolute best for this job?” they instead ask “in what ways can this person make a contribution to our company – what is their natural talent?” with a belief that everyone has natural talents to contribute. Natural talents come easily to people. Things that come easily are enjoyed and done well. The best companies believe each leader has a responsibility to bring out the best in each person and help their team accomplish more than they ever believed they could.  

The paradigm shift is a shareholder to stakeholder shift

What I’ve highlighted only scratches the surface of the paradigm shift we need to make. Everything we do and all of the ways we think about people at work needs close examination. A key principle of conscious business is to add value to all stakeholders, not only your investors. You can dip into creating stakeholder value by asking yourself the question, “who benefits and who is harmed by this decision/process/policy?” When you pose that question about the traditional approaches to “managing” employees you see clearly that employees are often harmed for the “benefit” of the company, who is often prioritizing the investor above all. Can a company fulfill its potential and sustainably succeed if the employees are being harmed while working there? Nope. Question everything.

Photo by Magda Ehlers from Pexels.

Question what you think you know and your head will hurt, but it’s worth it!

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Reading Time: 6 minutes

My company partners with business leaders to build conscious businesses that operate in a different way. These companies are the best of the best – they care deeply for their employees and customers – in fact all stakeholders – and they are determined to solve a worthy problem in the world. Because they set out to do business differently they must think about most things differently. We know the model of running businesses in profit maximizing way at all costs can’t continue. Damage in one place damages us all. If you read my last blog you know that I’m questioning a lot of what I’ve learned over the years about running a company. This blog is a continuation of the same theme.  I hope you feel inspired to check your assumptions, think about who is best served by a specific decision, and never do anything just because that’s the way it’s always been done. Most of that stuff was wrong. Here are some more examples for you to ponder.  

When people don’t work out it’s always a shared responsibility

Remember when you interviewed the candidate and decided to hire them for the job? You knew the most about the job and they knew the most about their experience and somehow now it’s not working as planned. The employee did their best to determine whether this was the right role for them and you did your best to figure out if they could do the work and would fit with the company. Mistakes with this magical match making happen all the time. And if we acknowledged it for what it was – a mismatch for both parties – and came up with a plan together to solve it that would be such a different experience. What often happens now?Employee isn’t meeting expectations, the manager doesn’t tell them, the employee continues on unaware they are failing but also starting to feel miserable because they know something is wrong, the manager starts to get fed up and acts differently, the employee feels bad. Somewhere along the way if there is a progressive discipline process (ugh!) then the employee gets a verbal and written warning. By this point the relationship between the manager and the employee is not salvageable. 

What about if you just committed to doing two things as a leader – I promise to let you know how you are doing and if it’s ever unclear to you I want you to ask me. I want you to let me know when something isn’t working for you and let’s figure it out together. The figuring it out together might involve acknowledgement of the mismatch and giving the employee time and support to find a better match, recognizing that the reason they are in this mismatched situation is at least half your fault. Actually, it’s usually more the employer’s fault in my experience.

It is unacceptable to facilitate suffering

Seeing a person suffering and not doing anything about it is cruel. There are a couple of ways this plays out. It shows up as someone who is unhappy in their role but doesn’t know how to address it or someone who is failing in their position and everyone else is talking about it behind their back. I’ve seen both scenarios happen SO many times. Too often we stall thinking it will get better, or project that if it gets worse, we’ll do something then. But by that time the person is already written off, their reputation damaged, their confidence shaken. The likelihood of finding another position in the company is squashed. Don’t let this happen, as the fallout is seriously damaging to the person and your company. Be straight with people. When it’s not working out tell them. When other people are telling you that someone isn’t working out or isn’t pulling their weight, it’s your responsibility as their designated leader to tell them, even when it’s hard.  It’s your job to provide support and coaching. It’s your job to see if there is something that can be done. When this is handled well it’s a morale booster that spreads. When a leader takes the time to understand someone’s natural talents and advocates for them to be in a different role suited to those natural talents they demonstrate the company cares for the people that work there, not only cares about work getting done.

Emotions belong at work

Somewhere along the way we convinced ourselves that humans must become machines at work and drop their feelings at the door. I used to take great pride in my masterful ability to compartmentalize home and work so I could be ultra-focused on work. Where did the idea of being robots at work come from? Maybe it was during the industrial revolution when we started to clock employees and wouldn’t let them use the bathroom in the name of productivity. Dehumanizing people by asking them to put on a mask and act a certain way has psychological impacts on people. They have to shut down parts of themselves to survive. Repressed emotions manifest in many ways that will not help your business in the end. Don’t make the mistake of shaming those who express emotions. They have courage and are likely the untapped movers and shakers in your company.

We don’t have to be professional and get along

Many times over the course of my career I said to an employee having trouble with a colleague, “you don’t have to like the person, you just have to learn to work with them”. This is a favorite go-to of HR people because it shuts a perceived complainer down. Now I really wonder about this belief. Why should any of us have to work with people we don’t like? Yes, we aren’t going out to socialize with everyone we work with, but when you’ve worked with someone you don’t like what has it done to you? Definitely made you more negative about work, created a stress reaction in your body, drained you of emotional energy, and elicited a feeling somewhere on the spectrum of dread. Life is short. Find a team or company where you like the people so you don’t have to worry about “getting along” and “being professional”. 

Managers should be talking with their team members about their personal lives

This is a finer point on all us being human but it’s so important that it deserves its own call out. You should know the names of your team members, significant others, children, pets. If they are comfortable sharing, you should know their hopes, dreams and passions, even when they don’t align with the jobs they are currently doing. You should strive to build a relationship where your team members feel comfortable talking to you about something going on in their life that is impacting them. You should be checking in with them regularly about how they are doing as a WHOLE person, not just narrowly as someone at your disposal to get work done and meet deadlines. When people care about each other genuinely there are so many wonderful results, including research demonstrating your company performing better and improving financial results. Teach your managers to lead from the heart. 

You owe your employees as much as they owe you. Reciprocity!

Culture is science, not art

Would you bake bread without a recipe? Only if you want a pile of mush. The same is true with culture. Every organization has a culture. Do you want your culture to be built deliberately with a recipe or randomly without intention or guidance? Everyone knows what culture is but it’s hard to put your finger on it. And that’s just the point. A great bread recipe has combined all of the ingredients to work together to get the bread to rise, taste great, be the right texture and in the end make people happy. The same is true about culture. There’s not one ingredient that stands out, there are many ingredients working together to create a cultural experience at your company that is unlike any other. This is your distinct DNA. It takes you spending time determining the unique recipe that you need. This unique recipe would be experiences, processes, practices, principles, rituals, communications, space, policies. EVERYTHING. Each element has to be thoughtfully curated and aligned or else your culture will be mush. 

Your choice – a culture that engenders indifference or fuels  dinner conversation about the worst place to work or a culture that is bragged about and engenders a deep sense of commitment and pride.

Your title does not make you a leader

Titles are meaningful to people, particularly in the typical hierarchical structure we have in most companies. Once you have been designated with a certain title you might believe that justifies or confirms your value as a leader. Nope. Leadership has nothing to do with your title. Assuming you are a leader of a team, the only people that can confirm your value as a leader are the members of your team. Imagine that they were your constituents in a political process and each quarter they had an opportunity to vote you into your role or out of your role. What would they do? How would you know? Do you ask for feedback regularly? Do you know what your team needs from you? Do you know if they would vote for you again?

I’m sure you can think of many people with a certain title – whether in your professional life, friend and family experiences or media coverage– that were never worthy of a certain title. Remind yourself of these stories often because they will hopefully elicit humility. They will remind you that you have to earn your designated title every day. And if when reading this you have a fuzzy understanding of what great leadership is then let’s talk! No time to waste!

The time has come to reimagine organizations

There is much coverage in the mainstream press about how our business model over the last 60 years needs dismantling. From the August 2019 statement from the Business Roundtable to the November 2019 issue of Fast Company emphasizing that capitalism as we know it is failing us, the challenges to our ways of thinking are thankfully on the rise. Let’s keep the momentum going together.