Lois Melbourne

Tuesday, 29 October 2013 16:36

Building a culture of productive risk-taking

The truly wimpy have already written off this article because they are afraid of risk, so you are likely already beating them in the marketplace, or soon will be. Investment is risk, innovation is risk, creativity is risk, growth is risk. These are things that organizations and leaders say they want to include in their enterprise, but risk is a word they shy away from. This needs to change.

In order to encourage risk-taking that is productive in an organization, the environment needs to be right. This is where leadership is required. 

What does ‘almost’ look like?

When you take a risk, you don’t always succeed. It doesn’t mean that you fail; sometimes you just get “almost” the result you were looking for.

It is critical to understand what it looks like within the organization when something doesn’t quite reach the result. Is the team punished, embarrassed publicly, ignored, no longer trusted? Or is there acceptance, an ability to learn from mistakes, a quickening of the bond between the team so that they can avoid the issue in the future? 

Is calculated risk discussed and shared?

When an opportunity or challenge develops in an organization, one of the most powerful training grounds for the team is the discussion of the options available. When we broaden the team that gets exposure to the “what-if” discussions, we are training them on the critical thinking of risk-taking.

Within the discussions of the various options, the pros and cons and the comfort levels of each, employees get insight into the organization’s tolerance for various types of risks. Hearing the early data and seeing the decision-making process unfold will allow their future decisions to be more calculated to the balance of the enterprise’s principles. 

Innovation is risk

The true nature of innovation, solving a requirement in a new way, is taking a risk. An improvement is just doing something better, but an innovation is changing the game.

Sometimes people don’t like change. Sometimes the innovation is ready before the market is. But progress depends on innovation; giving an environment that allows risk-taking is critical to innovation.

It is never enough to only give the R&D department the risk-taking reins. Allowing voices to be heard throughout an organization fosters engagement. 

Does risk-taking require the death of accountability?

Contrary to the risk naysayer voice, accountability is a key element of risk-taking. Knowing where ideas are coming from and who owns resources and decision-making frees the innovators to navigate the organization and get progress pushed through.

Accepting risk does not mean mistakes are swept under the carpet and disregarded. It means the risk-takers are recognized for the bravery, tapped for their knowledge and when necessary, called on the carpet if they are reckless.

Risk and recklessness should never be considered the same thing. Accountability is the guardian of responsible risk-taking. 

In order to progress, choices are constantly being made. Recognizing that millions of decisions are constantly in flux aids in developing a productive risk environment. Accepting and constructively discussing the risks and results will allow for continual improvements to be made throughout the organization. And sometimes … we just have to lighten up. 

Lois Melbourne is the co-founder and former CEO of Aquire, a software company in the talent management space. After selling Aquire, she is exploring options with her co-founder and husband, while working on a series of children’s books about careers you can follow worthy of the things you love to do. 


It is amazing to me what gets measured in this world. Just say, Guinness World Records and you are now conjuring up outrageous tales of the biggest, fastest, most random anything.

What about when you need helpful measurements? It is interesting to me where measurements and metrics can go wrong. If you are thoughtful about your objectives when measuring data about your workforce, you will no longer look at all that human resource stuff as being the soft stuff.

Your people expenses are often your largest expenses. The metrics and workforce analytics are also the numbers attached to your only assets with self-awareness. Thus the asset and the numbers associated with them need to be managed even more carefully and in context than your more established management metrics.

Why first … then what

If we understand the goals for the organizations and the struggles the leaders are having, then we can start assessing what information would be helpful toward solving those problems. These conversations require a real dialog to get the best results.

Can you remember when you were a kid and were told to clean your room and you asked, “Why?” The result and motivation were very different if you got the annoyed parental, “Because!” Then if it was explained that Grandma was coming and she was staying in your room overnight, the latter answer received much more care to the details. The same is true when needing to understand why the organization or individual is seeking information.

The right ‘what’

After understanding the goals of your organization, you can design the proper information content and put it into context. Take a look at this real example:

A finance director is concerned about productivity and asks HR for the number of employees in each department. He runs his numbers and produces a cost and profit per employee and compares it to industry standards and his predecessor’s numbers.

He thinks he has the right picture of productivity, but there were several problems in this scenario. The finance director asked for the number of employees, and that is what he received.

However, the data didn’t include the differentiation between full-time and part-time employees, so his number was skewed. He didn’t include the number of contract workers being used in each department, thus he missed 8 percent of his workforce.

He also didn’t get a picture of the trends over time on this number; he just received a single data point. This is a problem because the snapshot in time was right after the busiest part of the season was over, and the student workers were no longer on the payroll, so his numbers couldn’t measure the busy season’s productivity.

How successful do you think his recommendations are going to be based on these numbers? Without context of the information and proper comparisons to the historical data, his analysis is going to be significantly flawed. He was focused on his HR metrics and didn’t focus on the dynamics of the organization’s workforce.

It is critical that the human resource department participate in the analysis of any details involving the workforce. It is also critical that managers and human resources are educated on how to interpret and design their reports. This will make a big difference in your decision-making.

Lois Melbourne is co-founder and CEO of Aquire, a workforce planning and analytic solution company based in Irving, Texas. Visit www.aquire.com for more information.


Company culture is an amazing thing. It shapes the way your organization is perceived. It sets the pace of work and the way decisions are made. It impacts the people you are able to recruit. It is the responsibility of everyone and no one at the same time.

How can it be no one’s responsibility? That may be an overly simplistic statement, but the point is that no single person can declare, change or be held responsible for the corporate culture. The culture does start at the top, because how the leaders treat their co-workers and their employees will resonate throughout the organization.

An individual treated with respect and trust is more likely to treat others with respect and trust. An individual berated by their boss is far more likely to turn around and do the same thing to others. But a single person can’t stand up and declare that a new culture will begin like they could with a new budget or product strategy.

So how do we impact and shape our corporate culture?

Assess your culture.

What is your culture now? How do people treat each other? How quickly do they respond? What is the pace of work? How willing are people to set deadlines? Are deadlines met? How do employees describe the company?

Evaluate the value of the current culture.

What parts of the current culture are productive? What parts of the culture appear to be creating problems? This is the delicate part. Beware of quick assumptions. Ask questions until you have the real answers to what is working or creating pain.

Reward the right behaviors.

When you recognize and reward behaviors, you will get more of that same behavior. Do you want speed? Reward the fastest producers. Do you want teamwork? Reward team players for helping others. Do you want innovation? Announce innovations that are added to the products or services you provide and innovations that help the company run better.

Communicate carefully but authentically.

Plaques and posters that don’t ring true to the team will destroy your efforts. But when you see a good thing happening repeatedly, promote it as part of the culture. Tie the stories of those successes to the culture of the business that helps make them happen. Tie the elements of the lore of the organization to the desired elements of the culture. This will reinforce the positive.

Hire for culture.

It often takes more effort to assess someone’s cultural fit in the organization than it does to test their skills, but the effort is worth it. Seldom do you hear stories about someone quitting or being terminated because they just didn’t have the right skill. It is almost always about their approach to dealing with others or the pace and style they use. If you can assess an individual’s ability to meet the cultural expectations of the organization, the result will be a more successful hire.

Trickle the good stuff into everything.

Unless the positive elements of the culture are widely agreed on and articulated, you are not ready to put a description of it on your coffee cups. But you can infuse the desired traits through all your areas of business. If speed is your need, then shorten your meetings and push the comfort zone to speed up the delivery of information. If innovation is spotlighted, then continually allow for new ways of doing things while applauding the risk-takers for even their small leaps of faith.

When a concerted effort is made to enhance the best parts of the culture, you will be rewarded with a stronger culture. ?

Lois Melbourne is co-founder and CEO of Aquire, a workforce planning and analytic solution company based in Irving, Texas. Visit www.aquire.com for more information.

Optimism and pragmatism can go a long way toward achieving success. If you strategically put optimism to work through a focused agenda and celebrate successes, you can see a positive influence on attitudes and results.

A great example is the story of the pessimist who argued the glass was half empty, the optimist that exalted that the glass was half full, and the college student who grabbed the beer, drank it and was the only one who quenched her thirst. The college student was optimistic, pragmatic and focused — and she achieved the desired result.

I was first introduced to a meeting concept called Positive Focus while attending a Strategic Coach session taught by Colleen O’Donnell of Strategic Wealth Partners and designed by Dan Sullivan. She revealed the importance of kicking off staff meetings with positive energy derived from the attendees themselves. This is not a New Age method or fluff but rather the celebration and recognition of successes as seen by the eyes of your employees.

How it works

In the opening of management meetings or departmental meetings, each attendee shares one item he or she feels is positive and deserves the spotlight. It should be quick and it should avoid dragging a lot of detail into the explanation. This meeting concept:

? Actually highlights challenges — and how they were resolved — without the dreaded “update” process that slows down meetings.

? Provides recognition.

? Gives managers the opportunity to congratulate their staff or others on the recognition and praise being given.

? Starts the meeting on a high-energy note.

? Shows that challenges can be overcome through teamwork and any challenges that are going to be discussed in the meeting have a positive precedent to follow toward resolution.

? Reinforces the culture of collaboration and communication.

Story examples

It is tough to say that there is a “typical” positive focus in our meetings. The majority of the comments include a shout out for an employee or a team of employees by name for what they have been able to achieve. We also have customer stories and the success that a great win or implementation is doing for the company. We have had cheers for an improved bill of health or a clear cancer screen after a long health issue. We have celebrated the refreshed feelings after taking a vacation.

The content is not controlled or restricted. The purpose is to reflect on what is making our work lives better. This purpose helps us focus on what is right in the world and reminds us that we are among great, talented people and we can tap those resources.

Positive attitudes are proven to improve results and health. I believe executive teams should spend additional time developing more of the “can-do” attitude in our approach toward business. By focusing on optimism, it’s easy to see the pragmatic benefits to the organization.

The next time you are facing the dreaded update drudgery of a departmental meeting, I highly encourage you to turn the agenda around a bit and start with a Positive Focus moment. Then incorporate the agenda of every appropriate meeting. There will be time to discuss and solve the challenges you are facing, but the mental approach to the problem will make a difference in the approach.

My Positive Focus

Today, my Positive Focus is that I have had this opportunity to share a tactic that really works and has changed the complexion of meetings in a highly successful business. I believe it can have far-reaching impact elsewhere, too. <<

Lois Melbourne is co-founder and CEO of Aquire, a workforce planning and analytic solution company based in Irving, Texas. Visit www.aquire.com for more information.

There are many interdependencies between people and departments at most companies. At times, communication breakdowns or inabilities of processes can stymie the best intentions. It is often difficult to diagnose the issues. Just like many health issues of the body, sometimes we in business have to go back to our roots.

When done right, an organizational chart can be a tool of enormous benefit. Let’s look at a homeopathic approach to diagnosing and fixing  problems within an organization using the organizational chart.

Visualizing structure

You may need to ask yourself the following questions if your company is experiencing inefficiencies, poor employee engagement, increased turnover, lack of responsibility for decisions, or bad communication.

  • Who has too many direct reports?
  • Where are the open positions?
  • Which managers are using contractors, and where do they fit?
  • Who has accountability?
  • Are the right positions reporting to the right people?

An organizational chart is a visualization of the structure of your organization. When you can see information visually in the context of the structure of the organization, the understanding of that information can often be instantaneously clear and impactful.

Some organizations claim they don’t need or want an organizational chart because they work in teams. Unless all workflow for decision-making  — expense reports, raises, promotions, disciplinary actions — are made across the entire team, then you likely have a hierarchy. Visualizing information about the reporting relationships in your organization can help you fix many issues.

Direct reports

There are a lot of issues that can come with the burden of too many direct reports. Managers can be stretched too thin to develop their direct reports, even if they can supervise that many people.

Your organizational chart should contain a roll-up of the headcounts. At a glance, you should be able to see how many direct reports and how many total reports a manager or executive has under his or her purview.

Companies often tout how flatly their organization is structured, but flatness can create painful consequences. Identify the span of control of your managers, and then analyze them for effectiveness.

Open positions

When open positions are tracked inside of an organizational chart, a world of opportunity opens. This communication of open positions allows employees to see where there is potential for them to move into a new role.

Developmental moves that provide exposure to new experiences create better-qualified employees for promotions in the future.

Visible open positions allow employees to recommend people they know for the job. This is an enhancement to your culture because people are more engaged when they have friends working at the same company. Referrals also reduce the cost of hiring. So keep those open positions visible in the organizational chart and in front of the entire company. It will save you money and frustration.

Using contractors

Your workforce probably consists of more than employees. Most companies have some level of consultants and contractors. This is often a great way to expand your capabilities without making an employment commitment.

It is important to know where you are supplementing your staff with contractors. The use of contractors, often to work around rules and budgets established for hiring, could actually cost the company more money.

Using contractors can also create an employee engagement issue if prime experience is being blocked from employees due to contractors filling positions. Track your contractors in the organizational chart and hold your managers accountable for your plan in working with these resources alongside their developmental plans for their existing staff.

Who is accountable?

There is a reason that regulatory agencies often require an organizational chart. They need to be able to identify who was responsible for decisions. The organizational chart may not be the official map of communication trails, but it should represent who has authority, and thus accountability, for decisions within the organization.

It is also helpful inside an organization to identify where you can go for the authoritative assistance you might need.

When you are feeling pain within your organization, evaluate your real organizational chart. It may diagnosis the source of your symptoms and provide healing answers.

Lois Melbourne is co-founder and CEO of Aquire, a workforce planning and analytic solution company based in Irving, Texas. Visit www.aquire.com for more information.

As a company leader, you are often confronted with nagging work-force-related questions.

First, are you prepared for your future work force? To prepare for the future, you must start with your current employees. To develop a solid work force and company, you must consistently re-evaluate your employees’ skills and make sure those skills are used properly.

Perhaps you’ve invested in talent management initiatives and training. But are the right people benefitting from those initiatives? If you want your company to continue to grow and be successful, you must retain and promote your best performers.

Size up new talent

When you hire employees, ask them how they heard about the company, where they received their degree and how long they were at previous jobs. This data will help you benchmark your best employees and predict how long your staff will stay with the organization.

If you start seeing turnover early within your new recruits, you can use this data to channel recruiting efforts toward employee profiles with longer staying power. Tracking and interpreting this data is crucial to effective recruitment.

Assess exiting workers

When people leave the organization, assess their demographic profile to enable you to better track trends. For example, employees who keep the same job title for more than three years have the highest rate of voluntary turnover. However, if the trends are skewing in a more unfavorable way, you’ll need to evaluate the situation and find the root of the problem.

You may find that your highest performers are leaving the company at a faster rate than your average or poor performers. If so, you should locate the red flags and take steps to improve unfavorable trends. You may discover that the feedback you provide isn’t enough to let them know they are appreciated.

Match skills to tasks

Make sure you always pay attention to the job attributes of those employees you consider key, high performers or high potentials. When you consider moving an employee into a different role or department, make sure your executives are aware of the job attributes of that employee to avoid shuffling poor performers on to a different department while hogging pet employees.

To show your top employees that there are opportunities for them to grow outside of their core function, break down the silos and allow them to grow elsewhere. Even when faced with uncertainty, the return typically outweighs the risk, and it’s a best practice that will benefit the entire organization and help you retain your skilled employees.

According to recent research (see DeVry University’s Career Advisory Board Job Preparedness Research at www.careeradvisoryboard.com), hiring managers at top U.S. companies perceive a large skills gap in job applicants who make it to the interview stage. Often all it takes is re-evaluation.

Challenge managers on why they have not developed those skills among current employees to fill the positions they have open. You may find that managers have not given employees the training time, or your managers may not even be aware of the possibilities the current work force brings to the table.

Promote your people

Movement across departments or job functions doesn’t have to be lateral. Managers can challenge the perspective that their staff should only be promoted within their chain of command.

Remember that an employee is an asset to the entire organization. A high-performing employee who seeks upward mobility may not have an available opportunity for promotion. Rather than risk losing the employee altogether, find a way to make upward movement available even if it’s outside their department.

Monitor mobility

You can only manage all of these areas through proper measurement of your talent pipeline. Monitor investments toward employee and manager development, employee retention, employee engagement, and better hiring.

With every development in your work force, it’s a best practice to see it through until the objective is met. After all, you’re dealing with your company’s most valuable asset.

Lois Melbourne is co-founder and CEO of Aquire, a work force planning and analytics solutions company based in Irving, Texas. Visit www.aquire.com for more information.

Picture your company a year from now. Then five years. Then ten. What will your organization look like? Will it be structured the way it needs to be for success? A clear understanding of how the work needs to be done and how communication needs to flow creates the foundation for good work force planning and the creation of strong decision-making structures.

Often the organic growth of a company naturally creates a structure that works. But the unchecked morphing of departments and hiring practices can also result in disjointed responsibilities within positions or departments. When these stress points become obvious and painful, someone inevitably shouts, “We need to reorganize!” But knee-jerk reactions can cause drastic shocks to the organization. By slowing down and thoughtfully evaluating the following structural elements, you’ll make valuable improvements methodically and without drama.

Who’s in charge?

People often take the structure of an organization for granted — until things start falling apart. Before breakdowns happen, take a critical look at the authority relationships in the hierarchy.

  • Do they support the best communication and decision-making?
  • Does the chain of command support local autonomy?
  • Do distant authority figures hinder productivity?

For example, if the team at an oil drilling site needs to make a quick decision in the field, communicating with and waiting for approval from a distant boss can jeopardize operations. But if the chain of command supports them, the team members can proceed based on their expertise and knowledge of the local conditions without a loss of productivity. In this decentralized organizational design, the team structure and a clear understanding of who is whose boss can create a very diverse group of job responsibilities.

In departments like corporate accounting, a centralized chain of command connects experts and those doing similar functions regardless of the geographic location of the individuals or the lines of business they support, providing standardization and efficiencies.

Too flat vs. too tall

Another potential pitfall in a company’s structure is how flat or how tall the hierarchy has become. A clear visualization of your structure can help you spot overtaxed managers or single-branch “stacked” levels of organizational chart boxes with too little distribution of management.

In a “flat” organization, potential issues include:

  • Too many direct reports for managers, often of very diverse work responsibilities, which stretch the managers too thin.
  • Not enough opportunities for career development and upward mobility.
  • Too wide a gulf between the planning and communication requirements of each level in the organization.

On the flip side, a too-tall a hierarchy can waste the flow of communication or decision-making with authority that is sliced too thin — think of bureaucratic organizations that have lots of red tape.

Analyze the flow

If you look at the organizational chart on both a macro and a micro level, you can evaluate whether the structure of the organization as a whole and the structure for each position make sense for the right flow of information and style of decision-making.

  • Are there isolated positions duplicated throughout the organization without bosses that can understand their needs — such as software help desk people reporting to nontechnical managers — just so that they can be stationed in the departments they support?
  • If decisions are made along the lines of client or product divisions, are teams grouped in reporting relationships due to their geographic location just so that a local boss can watch them work?

Visualization illuminates problems

Making work force data visible and easy to understand facilitates structural discussions. An organizational chart that doesn’t match the reality of decision-making helps pinpoint the choke points in your chain of command. Your organizational chart should not look like modern art that you have to squint at to interpret. Instead, it should be a realistic depiction of the authority structure.

By visualizing how the company is structured and evaluating its current design compared to the ideal, you can pinpoint barriers to positive interactions between departments and positions. Then you are ready to design your organization for a successful future.

Lois Melbourne is co-founder and CEO of Aquire, a work force planning and analytics solutions company based in Irving, Texas. Visit www.aquire.com for more information.

Monday, 31 October 2011 20:01

Lois Melbourne on work force reorganization

Whether you’re rebuilding an engine, painting a house or reorganizing a company, the amount of prep work you put in at the beginning makes all the difference in the project’s outcome. That said, let me ask you about your last reorganization:

-          Has it been successful?

-          Is the new structure outperforming the old?

-          If not, how much focus was placed on “putting the work force back together” before and during the “taking it apart” process?

Companies spend a lot of money on their on-boarding practices, performance reviews, succession planning and other initiatives. But when it comes time to lay off people, they too often look only at the numbers and focus on getting the cuts done as quickly as possible. Many times, they’re left with too few workers or too few workers with the skills and knowledge that they need to make the reorganization worth it. On the other hand, companies who devote time up front to work force planning for their post-reorganization needs have better results than those who quickly make cuts based solely on financial numbers. According to Peter Cappelli’s 2008 book, “Talent on Demand: Managing Talent in the Age of Uncertainty,” two-thirds of U.S. employers fail to plan for their talent needs.

Why work force planning is more effective than indiscriminate number cutting

The corporate machine doesn’t grind to a halt during layoffs and reorganizations. Even while downsizing, there are still widgets to make, software applications to code and marketing plans to execute. Keep that in mind as you create your work force plan.

Start by asking yourself what your company will look like after this reorganization. If you’ll still be in the widget business, it’s to your benefit to select the widget makers you want to keep. Will you be producing the same software applications or will you be dropping some of them? I’d suggest you seek out the coders who have the best skill sets for the new strategic plan — whether or not they are currently working on projects that will go forward.

There’s more to work force planning than terminating all employees attached to a product line that will be dropped. Do some research first and take the time to get input from managers — you’ll identify standout employees you’d like to find a position for somewhere. And the new company will be all the better for it. 

Whatever happened to the ‘P’ in ERP?

The “P” in ERP is supposed to stand for planning. Not all technology facilitates work force planning. Too often companies simply don’t plan when they execute mass changes — they run some reports, analyze some numbers and make sweeping cuts. That may be considered planning for the terminations, but it’s definitely not planning for the next phase of your organization.

Here’s a checklist to consider for a more successful reorganization outcome.

-          Before making cuts, begin work force planning for the company redesign.

-          Run work force scenarios to see more than just financial numbers for the emergent organization.

-          Model what the organization will look like, then step back and make sure the work force chemistry can still work.

-          Plan for various work force scenarios in the redesign.

-          Incorporate the go-forward plan during termination selection.

-          Use your talent tools to guide you in the termination decisions as well as the restructuring of the work force.

Before your next reorganization, make time for the work force planning prep work. People will protest that there’s not time for it, but just like all the sanding and taping prep for painting a house, the results will be cleaner, more effective and last longer.

Lois Melbourne is co-founder and CEO of Aquire, a work force planning and analytics solutions company based in Irving, Texas. Visit www.aquire.com for more information.