When other leaders opted for layoffs and furloughs to combat the recession, Ingrid Lamirault called for reinforcements.

“It didn’t make sense to make wholesale changes in the employees,” says the CEO of Alameda Alliance for Health. “They knew what they were doing and, more importantly, they understood our mission. It made more sense to bring in someone to support the organization. This was about making people see their own potential, boosting people’s self-confidence and helping people understand how to behave corporately.”

Lamirault hired a business coach, bringing Anna Scott on board to develop some of the 130 employees at the nonprofit managed care health plan, which had $227.5 million in revenue for the fiscal year ending in June 2010.

“If you’re going to develop somebody, it really sends a positive message to the company as a whole that they value their people,” Scott says. “It really helps the morale. It develops loyalty by the employees (because they see), ‘This company is investing in me and helping me grow.’”

Initially, Lamirault picked several employees with untapped potential.

“I recognized that there were some people I could promote, but they would need support in the beginning, because they’d never supervised a team of people before,” she says. “There were other people who had a really good work skill but they ran into a lot of interpersonal conflict. There were a couple who had really good potential, but they would make mistakes and wallow in them instead of learning from them.”

You may not be able to forecast someone’s potential but, as Scott says, you can tell when employees are getting in their own way of growing.

“Danny,” for example, was a high-level employee in the Alliance’s IT department. He was good at his job but didn’t handle interpersonal conflict well. On top of that, Lamirault worried Danny wouldn’t get any further in his field without a college degree. She suggested he attend both coaching and college.

“It’s not that he doesn’t have interpersonal conflict anymore, but he handles it in a very healthy way,” she says. “If someone’s not respecting him, he knows how to deal very directly and tell them that this is what he feels and this is what he thinks he brings to the project.”

When you approach those employees with the coaching opportunity, you have to frame it as just that – an opportunity. It’s not an assignment or a requirement.

“It’s a positive,” Scott says. “It’s a way to say, ‘I really believe in you, and we see that you have something to offer. We also see that there are ways that you’re getting beside yourself and we want to help you.’ It has to be mutual. (We) want to invest, but if they are not interested, (we) won’t force it on somebody.”

Coaching relationships at the Alliance begin with manager-imposed goals to help employees perform their jobs better. But you can’t separate your business initiatives from their personal motives.

“I get really clear about, ‘Here’s what Ingrid has said she’d like you to develop,’” Scott says. “Then I go, ‘What would make it worth it to have you do this? What else do you see in yourself that you would like to develop?’ It’s one thing to do something for somebody else, but when you’ve got your own skin in the game, (you’re) more willing to fully participate.

“If they don’t do those things that Ingrid wants, bottom line is, they’re not going to have a job. But if they’re not satisfied with who they are and what they’re achieving, they won’t do a very good job. By being able to focus both at the same time, people are so much more satisfied. When people are struggling in their personal lives, work really does suffer.”

How to reach: Alameda Alliance for Health, (510) 747-4500 or www.alamedaalliance.org; Anna Scott Consulting, (510) 919-2254 or www.annascottconsulting.com

What’s in it for you?

Investing in employees strengthens the overall organization, but who would have thought your leadership skills would benefit from the effort? Ingrid Lamirault, CEO of Alameda Alliance for Health, learned that when she focuses attention on her employees, she reaps some benefits herself.

“Anna had started telling people to be more direct and to say what they feel,” Lamirault says, referencing Anna Scott, who coaches her employees one-on-one. “It makes me have to speak very directly with them or she’ll tell me, ‘You seem to have some indecision about some changes you’re making, and it’s making people very nervous.’

“A couple of times, she’s told me the way I’m handling something is creating turmoil so it’s made me recognize how I need to improve my own leadership skills. It makes me aware of some of the language that I use. And so … I have changed, too.”

Be conscious of how you can grow along with your employees, because their development doesn’t happen in a vacuum removed from your leadership.

“No action is by itself,” Scott says. “If I’m not being clear, then my employee will not produce the results I want. If I’m leading and I need you to do something, then it behooves me to go, ‘What is it that I need to do to be effective with you?’”

Published in Northern California
Monday, 21 February 2011 17:33

Unlocking performers

If Kobe Bryant played for Greg Ashlock’s team, the star wouldn’t get much coaching about the fundamentals of basketball. Nor would he need it.

Ashlock knows that key players don’t need specifics about how to play the game. As the market manager and president of Clear Channel Radio Los Angeles, Ashlock has learned how important it is not to micromanage his 400 employees.

“You still need a coach to direct that a little bit … and think more strategically,” Ashlock says. “But as far as the day-to-day activity is concerned, I don’t really need to manage that in the same way Phil Jackson doesn’t really need to manage how Kobe’s going to get to the basket and score. He needs to orchestrate some of the plays. He needs to orchestrate the strategy on how they’re going to play against the Celtics.

“However, from a tactical level, they’re performers. They’ve proven to be performers and they don’t need somebody overseeing their minute-by-minute or hour-by-hour decisions.”

Ashlock has adopted that hands-off philosophy across the eight radio stations in the L.A. market of Clear Channel Communications Inc. By staying out of the way of his employees, he unlocks their creativity and makes the company stronger with their innovation.

A recent success story comes from Dan Granger, an account executive in Ashlock’s market who broke the radio mold to make his clients more successful. He took some tactics that have been popular in Internet advertising, applied them to radio and created what he calls audiolytics — radio ad campaigns founded on transparency, accountability and analytics.

Granger will be the first to tell you it’s not just about taking the ball and running — it’s about the result.

“All the creative ideas in the world don’t matter,” Granger says. “It doesn’t matter how much buzz you create. It doesn’t matter how many people laugh at your ad and are entertained by it if nobody’s buying your product. This economy is reminding people that we should be as accountable as we can be for the results we produce.”

Identify self-starters

Clear Channel encourages autonomy, but don’t assume employees just do whatever they want whenever they want.

“If you want that kind of freedom, then you have to have the successes to warrant that,” Ashlock says. “That autonomy’s not granted to everyone. You really do have to earn the right to get that autonomy.”

Employees have to prove themselves capable of the responsibility. It starts with bringing people on board who are already autonomous.

“It’s critical that you hire the right people, because if you’re going to grant autonomy to somebody, they have to be competent,” Ashlock says.

He looks for candidates who exhibit initiative and have some success to show for it. You have to dig to find that.

“The way you’re going to know somebody’s a self-starter is based on past experience,” Ashlock says. “Whether it’s the work they’ve done or through the people that you talk to that they’ve worked for, there’s no better example or backup for somebody on whether or not they take initiative.”

Start by asking candidates to elaborate on what they’ve done. But they can say anything. The real test is what their former bosses say, so check references heavily.

“I would never rely solely on an interview,” Ashlock says. “It’s going to be based on past work, reputation, past employers and what they have to say.”

Ideally, the reference will say the employee didn’t come to them with problems but solutions. Look for indicators that candidates are driven by results for the sake of personal achievement, not just to please a boss. When Granger talks about his project, for example, he’s so vested he’ll tell you he’s spending his money, not Ashlock’s.

“Some people crave freedoms, but they know that they’ve got to produce results to maintain that,” Granger says. “Those people put more pressure on themselves than you could ever put on them. For one, they don’t want to fail themselves, but they also don’t want to fail the people who have given them those freedoms and those opportunities.”

Once you hire self-starters, they should prove their ability to drive results before you loosen the reins. Don’t set new employees loose until they have credibility.

“Once you know they’re going to make good decisions, then granting them autonomy and freedom’s not a stretch,” Ashlock says. “Managers that don’t grant the autonomy means they don’t have a lot of confidence in the people below them.”

Assign homework

Once you have employees with initiative, you have to give them opportunities to innovate.

“The biggest thing is, at the top, you have to be willing to take some risks,” Ashlock says. “If you’re willing to take some risks, it actually encourages stepping outside the box and entrepreneurship. If you’re only willing to play it by the game and nobody is able to add their creativity or anything outside of the norm, then that becomes a stagnant culture.”

It’s a balance of encouraging innovation while emphasizing the expected result.

“Everybody knows that it’s a place where they can thrive on creativity and pushing the envelope,” he says. “I don’t mean you push the envelope without vetting the process out a little bit. You do it with a good idea of how and what the result’s going to be.”

In order to vet ideas, you need background. Set the expectation that employees do homework to make their case. Fortunately, self-starters tend to do that without urging.

“It started with just trying to answer the question: What works?” Granger says of his idea. “So many people spend money on radio and walk away and say, ‘Radio didn’t work.’ I wanted to find out why they would end up feeling that way when I knew that there was a way to make it work. So it came from a frustration, and it drove me to just start picking up books.”

Granger dug into “Tested Advertising Methods” by John Caples and “Confessions of an Advertising Man” by David Ogilvy, to learn how industry predecessors produced results. That research taught him about direct-response advertising and provided case studies for proving his idea to management.

“What it really required is just, No. 1, reading anything and everything that provides case studies — whether that’s from a recent online company that posts information about what they find or it’s reading a book from 85 years ago about what was done,” he says. “We’re all trying to accomplish the same goal, which is sell products for businesses. And it occurred to me that we could take all the same principles that are used in any form of advertising and apply them to our industry.”

Employees should have a plan for translating their case studies into your industry and your company specifically. To do that, they need a keen understanding of your core and future goals.

“We’re here to innovate, have fun and, at the end of the day, move product,” Ashlock tells managers. “And the way we move product is through the innovation and the encouragement of taking educated risk.”

Granger can recite the vision Clear Channel has had since it first began strategically purchasing radio stations in Texas to reach decision-makers in industrial regions — it’s about reaching advertisers and helping them sell. And he could tie that to his new model of tracking results to optimize advertising success.

“Dan, over time, took a very big-picture approach to not just getting an order on the air but, ‘How do I move somebody’s business?’ which is always the right way to approach any client,” Ashlock says.

Because Granger’s idea aligned with the corporate goal and he could illustrate how it would improve a service he already provided, Ashlock’s decision was easy.

“If it’s part of their core business model and they’ve come up with a plan to help with that, then nine times out of 10 they’re dead-on because they know their business so well,” Ashlock says. “If it’s an area that they’re looking to branch out into — maybe it’s something in the digital space that’s not as much part of their core business at this point — I’ll bring in other people more knowledgeable in that area for us to vet out some of the possibilities and some of the concerns.”

Once the pros and cons are on the table, it’s an evaluation of risk versus reward. Think of it as a seesaw where you want to maximize the reward — whether in terms of revenue or customer satisfaction — long-term while reducing risk.

“If the risk that they’re wanting to take is not going to reap that much of a reward, then (we say), ‘Hey, go back and revise your plan a little bit where there’s a stronger chance for us to benefit greater, whether it’s from a ratings standpoint or revenue standpoint,” Ashlock says.

The key here, from Granger’s perspective, is that managers don’t bluntly turn down ideas. Give employees a chance to make them better.

Then consider whether the idea lines up with your core. Ashlock relies on customers for that barometer.

“If there’s some kind of huge revenue potential, but it would damage a brand, I wouldn’t do it,” he says. “If it’s going to compromise our integrity, if it’s not going to resonate with the listener, then we won’t do it. There’s plenty of things that we’ve decided not to do, because they don’t fit what the station’s about and it would seem like a sell-out or a disconnect with our listener.”

Measure success

A great idea could have all the potential in the world, but that has to actually materialize.

“It’s not autonomy without some kind of measurement,” Ashlock says. “That autonomy … would be short-lived — and when I say short-lived, not a month or two (but) over a nine-month period — if there weren’t successes attached to it. Successes back up that autonomy.”

Ashlock gave Granger’s idea a thumbs up along with a timeline. When you give approval, you also give checkpoints that must be met to validate the proposal.

Those milestones will differ with each project, but obviously you’re looking for growth and improvement — whether that’s with your revenue or customer satisfaction.

“It really had to do with new and repeat business,” Ashlock says. “Are you able to sustain clients better under this model? Are you able to bring more new business on? [It’s] quite frankly talking to the clients and asking them about their experience. Is (the service) better than what they’ve had in the past? Are they getting better results? Are they moving more product? Is their return on investment better?”

When he got emphatic yeses across the board, Ashlock considered the model a proven success. That was easy to back up with facts because, due to the nature of audiolytics, Granger had built-in metrics. Along with a team of three others, he sets up unique phone numbers, landing pages and discount codes to track responses to clients’ ads. They also look at before-and-after trends, such as increases in overall Web traffic.

Legalzoom.com, for example, launched a pilot program with Granger in 2004. There was skepticism from an online company trying radio for the first time, but thanks to the success it has seen through audiolytics, it has grown to be the largest advertiser on the largest news/talk station in the country.

Now, Granger’s team grosses nearly $4 million annually in local radio spot sales.

He couldn’t have done it without an environment that supports innovation while stressing results.

“The biggest indicator whether something is working is if the client comes back,” Granger says. “There’s so much money wasted in the name of creativity, it makes me sick, when this is about performance. At the end of the day, if you perform, if you make (clients) profitable through their investment, they’ll give you more money.”

How to reach: Clear Channel Radio Los Angeles, (818) 559-2252 or www.clearchannel.com/radio/; Dan Granger, (818) 566-6419 or www.talkradiospecialist.com

The Ashlock file

Greg Ashlock

Market manager and president

Clear Channel Radio Los Angeles

Born: Dallas

Education: Undergraduate degree from Northwestern State University, La., and USC-Annenberg, for graduate school

What was your very first job, and what did you learn from it?

L.A. Dodgers PR department. It’s important to love what you do, and that still holds true today. As I look at business peers across multiple industries, those that are excited to go to work each day are the ones that are performing the best.

What’s the best business advice you’ve ever received?

‘Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.’ John Wooden

Describe your favorite radio station to listen to.

Hot 92.3 (old school and R&B). It just doesn’t get any better than Luther Vandross and Marvin Gaye when you’re looking to kick back and unwind.

What’s your favorite stress relief?

Hanging out with the kids, either in the pool, in the game room on the Wii or playing cards on the patio.

Published in Los Angeles

Legislators were undoubtedly well-intentioned when they set out to reform the nation’s health care system, but the lawmaking process often creates collateral damage, and this time the silent casualties may include your company’s absence and disability programs. The bill mandates specific provisions that weaken an employer’s ability to manage employee health, and ultimately their attendance and productivity. Because HR professionals are focused on revising the company’s current health plan and mitigating the upcoming cost increases, there is little time and focus remaining to manage absence and productivity.

“Employers can take some simple steps now to protect productivity while their attention is diverted between now and when the law takes full effect in 2014,” says Skip Simonds, practice leader for Absence and Disability Management for the Western Region at Towers Watson.

Smart Business spoke with Simonds about the impact of health care reform on employer absence and disability programs and the action steps that will help keep employee productivity intact.

How does health care reform weaken existing absence and disability programs?

The primary goal of health care reform was to provide benefits to a broader segment of the U.S. population and control costs, but it’s created additional administrative burdens for employers, and limits their ability to manage employee health by allowing employees to opt out of the company plan or purchase coverage in state-run pools. Employers have been able to drive substantial gains in productivity, because they’ve designed plans that influence and reward specific employee behaviors. And data shows that taking a holistic approach and creating complementary health, wellness, absence, workers’ compensation and disability programs is the best way to control costs while limiting abuses and absenteeism. If you remove a few pieces of the puzzle, you diminish the efficacy of the entire program. To make matters worse, the changes come on the heels of recession-induced staff reductions, so HR has limited resources to deal with the problem.

How should employers adapt current programs to drive productivity?

Switch to a paid time off (PTO) plan instead of allotting specific time for sick leave or vacation. PTO plans shift the burden and cost of managing incidental absences onto employees and boost productivity by reducing the use of unplanned sick days for questionable reasons. Studies show that employees are more likely to work through marginal illnesses and avoid taking ‘mental health’ days so they can save their time off for vacations. If you don’t switch to PTO, consider boosting the effectiveness of your current program by offering a bodacious prize for perfect attendance. One company increased perfect attendance from 10 percent to 50 percent of the employee population by entering the names of perfect attendees into an annual drawing for a new car. The car cost $40,000, but the incentive reduced lost time expenses by $450,000.

What other changes should employers consider?

Create an economic incentive for employees to return to work by reducing the short-term disability benefits from 100 percent to 60 percent or 66 percent of income. Simultaneously if supervisors are resistant to providing transitional work, charge the costs of that light duty to their cost center regardless of who provides it. The best way to reduce absenteeism and disability costs is by making sure that everyone has some skin in the game.

How can employers focus on this problem with limited HR staff?

Outsource the management of FMLA to an insurance company or third-party provider. Engaging a knowledgeable partner is like getting a free staff member, and an outsider has the freedom to quiz medical providers and find alternate treatments that reduce the need for missed time. Outsourcing also allows HR to focus on more important issues, and our experience shows that it increases compliance with a very cumbersome law that allows employees to take time off intermittently. This is especially true in California with its myriad of mandated leaves. A recent three-year study showed that intermittent benefits accounted for 19 percent of all FMLA taken, and employers with integrated FMLA/disability administration had lower costs than employers without integration that included 22 percent fewer lost work days and 36 percent fewer repeat users.

How can employers use data to boost the effectiveness of absence and disability programs?

Outsourced providers generally offer robust data collection, which illustrates the close link between employees’ utilization of sick time, short-term disability and workers’ compensation. Review the data on a quarterly basis to spot trends and hold vendors accountable to provide recommendations that will improve your program and results. Only 11 percent of employees that file medical claims also file lost time claims, but those employees drive 53 percent of medical and disability benefit dollars; so a decrease in disability costs can yield an even larger decrease in health care costs. But what’s most troubling is that 96 percent of CFOs say they understand the connection between employee health, lost time and productivity, but 78 percent don’t receive any meaningful data to help them analyze or manage the situation. Suffice to say that employers stand to reap tangible savings by simply collecting data and reviewing it on a regular basis.

Skip Simonds is the practice leader for Absence and Disability Management for the Western Region at Towers Watson. Reach him at (818) 623-4576 or skip.simonds@towerswatson.com.

Published in Los Angeles

The intersection of freedom, great work and technology.

At Ripple, everyone from the office manager to the CEO has complete control of their own time — no vacation days, no sick time, no mandatory hours at the office. Just get your job done and be great at it. And we're far from the only company that works that way. It's called a Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE), and it's a movement that's here to stay.

The origins of ROWE date back to 2005, when Cali Ressler & Jody Thompson convinced management at Best Buy that enforcing rules about when and where people work sucks — that people can be productive across time and place, just as people can sit in the office all day and get nothing done. Best Buy bought into their idea and implemented it across the corporate office of 4,000 people. Cali and Jody went on to write Why Work Sucks, and in the past 5 years, many companies, big and small, have become a ROWE.

The mantra of a ROWE is “Work where you want, when you want, so long as the work gets done.” It sounds radical, and lots of people think it won’t work at their workplace. But it really isn't that radical, and almost every company has one department that’s always been a ROWE: The sales department.

Most sales departments and most sales people are judged by one primary outcome — results. Sales people work from home, from the road, from coffee shops, in the middle of the night, over lunches, and in most companies enjoy a level of freedom and autonomy that no one else gets. Why?

Because management has figured out how to measure sales in a meaningful way. Working long hours might be one way to make lots of sales, but there are many other ways, and most managers don’t really care how sales people get there (within cultural and ethical boundaries of course).

At Ripple, being a ROWE has had amazing results. We do more work with less people, are more profitable, have virtually no voluntary turnover, and in general have employees with more fulfilling, less stressful lives.

Being a ROWE requires 3 things:

1. A very clear set of goals. I was used to making “proxy goals” for people. Things like getting to work on time, or limiting time off, or answering a certain number of phone calls. Of course the real goals are things like sales made, happy customers, and quickly resolving service issues. ROWE requires letting go of the small stuff, and focusing relentlessly on the big stuff.

2. A willingness to let people manage their own time, and the courage to remove the people that can’t or won’t. For most companies voluntary turnover in a ROWE approaches zero. But involuntary turnover almost always goes up. The people that need micromanaging don’t fare well in a ROWE. Rock-stars thrive.

3. Technology. It’s a false promise to tell people they can work from wherever they want, then to make the office the only useful place to work. To really embrace ROWE, we always have to make sure we have the easiest, most accessible systems. We make sure that communicating from home, the mountains, or anywhere with Internet access is just as easy as communicating from the office.

Creating the right goals is a peeling the onion exercise. For every assumption we had about goals, we just kept asking "why" until we got to the heart of the goal. If the old goal was “work 8 hours a day,” the new goal was “solve every help desk request.” Once we stopped dictating how people should handle those requests (be at your desk from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.), people became very creative. Now we solve more problems with less people, and everyone is happier.

Letting people manage themselves changes a leader’s role from "managing" to asking "what do you need from me to get the job done?" This is far easier, and a lot more fun. I spend 80 percent less time managing people. Mostly I focus on getting the right people in the door, then providing them with the tools and support that they need. It beats rule-making and supervising by a long shot.

The technology is critical but guided by one principle. The primary question becomes: "Can people use this from anywhere with the same result as they could if they were in the office?" If yes, then we have a ROWE-friendly technology. Some of the systems we use (and implement):

?    We have used both Exchange and Google Apps. We like Google Apps a lot, but for a many folks, Exchange is the better choice. Both can be configured to work well across the Internet using either Outlook or a browser.

?    Instant Messenger is critical to working in a ROWE. The kind of quick, natural conversations that people are used to having at the office are often just as natural by chat once people get used to adopting it as a work tool. We use Google Apps for chat, but there are many options.

?    Hosted VoIP phones. For Ripple, if the phones don't work the same remotely as they do in the office, people can't really work from wherever they want. There are a number of good VoIP systems that will work from anywhere. Companies like CBeyond and Speakeasy are good choices for hosted VoIP.

?    Easy VPN access. The more challenging the VPN is to use, the more we end up chaining people to the office. We find that SSL-based VPN works the best. It's very secure, but much more likely to connect from weird places like

coffee shops and hotels.

?    If you’re not an IT company, then you need a qualified IT resource to help get everything selected and integrated — and to manage the environment to prevent downtime. In a ROWE, technology becomes even more critical than it

is in a traditional work environment.

Working in a ROWE naturally brings out the best in people, and lets them take care of business in the most efficient way. With clear goals, a willingness to let go, and the right technology, freedom quickly becomes the most valuable perk you can offer — and one that goes a long way to making a great workplace.

Mike Landman is the founder and CEO of Ripple, an IT company that makes IT run smoothly for companies with under 100 employees. You can learn more about his ROWE experience here.

Published in Atlanta
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