Managing a group through major change is like running the rapids, fighting white water. You confront a completely new set of problems as you go along. People act differently. The world around you speeds up. There’s less margin for error, but more likelihood of mistakes and a bigger price to pay if you do fool it up. Many techniques that worked while you paddled along on a peaceful river no longer apply. Consider these tips for leading change in your organization.

Be decisive

If you are tentative during times of change, you are asking for trouble. If you must err, do so in the autocratic direction. Let there be no doubt about who’s in control. Your people need to have a voice, but you need to call the shots. Otherwise, you can expect anarchy.

Management by committee won’t work in groups that have been destabilized and changed. For one thing, it’s too slow of a process, and you don’t have any time to spare. Also, consensus management depends heavily on group agreement — something you will find difficult to achieve, simply because people are protecting conflicting interests.

Be credible

Your effectiveness depends heavily on your credibility among the employees, and you undermine that credibility when you wallow or waffle. People won’t rally behind a leader they can’t respect.

Don’t confuse respect with popularity. Everyone in your company doesn’t have to like you. Forget about being popular for now, and focus on getting results. Do what needs to be done. You can be authoritative without being overbearing. You can remain in control without over-controlling. Taking charge does not mean you have all of the answers, so be a good listener and hear the clues.

Be clear

Clear priorities are one of the first causalities of change. New problems compete for attention and people pursue conflicting agendas. Some previously hot projects die a sudden death, and other high priorities get put back on hold during this period of change. Common agreement on what most needs to be done gets lost in all of the commotion and confusion. Due to the confusion, your employees can head in different directions, their efforts too random to produce much good. Some people simply disengage and drift, waiting for definite marching orders rather than running the risk of doing something wrong. Others may work hard individually but accomplish little collectively, proving that good intentions can result in wasted motion unless they’re tightly coordinated.

Alignment and clarity of effort depends heavily on your ability to orient the staff and orchestrate a coordinated approach. It stands to reason that your employees can’t be effective without a clear sense of direction. As Gen. Patton said, “A good battle plan that you act on today can be better than a perfect one tomorrow.” Your plan of action should outline crystal-clear tactical objectives, giving your employees laser-like focus.

Map out priorities. Keep them pure and simple. Tie them to a timetable with short- and long-term goals that your team can achieve quickly. You defuse a lot of potential resistance when your instructions are clearly communicated and powerfully aligned to your strength as a leader. Even the people on your team who don’t like the plan are inclined to follow it when you make it simple, make sure every employee knows about it, and make your commitment clear.

You are the chief architect as the change agent but you need the key subordinates to play a meaningful role in sharing the priorities and objectives. Otherwise your team will wallow and lose precious time trying to find itself instead of turning the ship around.

Sherri Elliott-Yeary is the CEO of human resources consulting companies Optimance Workforce Strategies and Gen InsYght, as well as the author of “Ties to Tattoos: Turning Generational Differences into a Competitive Advantage.” She has more than 15 years of experience as a trusted adviser and human resources consultant to companies ranging from small start-ups to large international corporations. Contact her at sherri@geninsyght.com.

Published in Dallas

Many executives have asked me what our firm’s secret is to maintaining a long-term, high-performing staff. My response is this: the combination of finding the right cultural fit and supporting new employees through an integrated orientation process. This has proven to be an effective means for my firm to optimize our resources.

Often when we look to fill roles, we look for the outside experts, the stars that will come in with their worldly experience and solve all of our challenges. After watching a series of experts struggle, I determined that two things were major contributors to their demise, a mismatch between the employee and the corporate culture and an inability to quickly absorb corporate “tribal knowledge.”

The most common obstacle is an indifference to or a lack of understanding of the real corporate culture. Like dating, companies often present a different face during the interview process and the honeymoon, and it is several months into employment before your newcomer gets a real look at the way your company works.

The other obstacle is a lack of tribal knowledge. Whatever your company’s challenges, you have assets, practices and knowledge that have made you the success that you are. These are sometimes downplayed or entirely disregarded in the quest to bring in new competencies. New experts that are brought into your organization generally get started making changes right away, and therefore, they often completely miss cultural and knowledge content. As a result, they frequently make impractical recommendations with disastrous consequences. Alternatively, the people that are more conscious of the barriers may hang back and appear ineffective.

One takeaway from all of this is that carefully structuring the entry of new experts into the company can improve success. My firm has found that implementing a few basic methods helps management find employees that fit the corporate culture and assist them in gaining tribal knowledge quickly.

When we interview candidates, we provide ample opportunities for them to learn about our corporate culture. We spend time discussing our mission, values and corporate objectives with each candidate in an effort to ensure that they understand the culture of the firm. During each interview we explain the importance we place on growing and fostering our culture so candidates understand how critical our culture is to our business. Then, it’s important to ask several questions during the interview process to ascertain whether or not each candidate shares a similar corporate cultural mindset.

Once a candidate is hired, we address the challenge of passing on tribal knowledge. Tribal knowledge, or the learning curve, happens quickly in our firm. Employees that understand the processes, procedures and internal workings of the firm tend to be more successful than those that do not. We created an employee orientation program to help new employees acclimate to our firm. Our orientation program connects new employees with other staff while simultaneously integrating technical, cultural and management objectives. One unique aspect of the program is that all levels of new employees meet with someone in senior management during their first month of hire. The job of senior management is to reiterate our corporate vision, values and objectives as well as to check in on the employees overall orientation process. We’ve found that our orientation process helps employees immediately feel connected with the company, which helps to yield a long-term, satisfied staff.

I’ve always worked with growing companies, so effective staffing is a challenge that has always been a regular part of my management repertoire. As companies right size, I’ve found that optimizing your current staff can add enormous value to your firm.

Victoria Tifft is founder and CEO of Clinical Research Management, a full-service contract research organization that offers early to late-stage clinical research services to the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries. She can be reached at vtifft@clinicalrm.com.

Published in Akron/Canton
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.

Published in Dallas

With unemployment levels still high, it remains a buyer’s market when it comes to talent.

But Lisa Varga says that’s not the whole story. The founder, chairman and CEO of Phoenix Energy Technologies says you might be able to find talented individuals in the stack of resumes on your HR director’s desk. But finding the right talent — the right mix of skills and values that match your company’s mission — can become more of a challenge.

At her growing 41-employee company, Varga and her staff have needed to get creative and methodical when it comes to getting the best possible candidates in the door and sifting through them to find the right person for each open position.

Smart Business spoke with Varga about how to move from merely hiring to building a cohesive team of players who complement each other’s skill sets and share common values.

What is the biggest recruitment challenge you have faced at Phoenix Energy Technologies, and how have you overcome it?

The biggest challenge is we’re a growing firm with many positions to be filled, and we need to find qualified individuals to fill those seats and help execute on our plan. Many positions you’d think would be easier to fill with the unemployment rate where it is, but the percentages of the unemployable are something to consider, because they’re not just sitting out there knocking on your door.

So we’ve had to get creative with overcoming the challenge, particularly in the technology area, with the seats that we needed to fill — not only using recruiters but trying to get feedback from the individuals of quality that we were finding and how do you infiltrate their network. It’s almost like you’re interviewing the people in those fields and trying to figure out where they’re looking for new opportunities.

What did you learn from that experience about recruiting?

Definitely, you have to give yourself the proper ramp-up time to get those positions filled. And make sure you have a good, solid story, because you’re pretty much conducting a sales pitch to those individuals, selling them on your company. So you want to get your marketing team involved in putting some excitement into an ad for your positions that are open.

On my end, I try to get people excited about coming to work here by being as accessible as possible. I constantly engage our employees at all levels to make sure they know our successes and our vision, and let them share in the celebrations and wins we do accomplish. That is key for keeping everyone aligned and motivated and excited about what we’re doing.

As you go through the recruiting and interviewing process, how are you ensuring that you’re finding the right match?

It can be tough, but we have a multitiered interviewing process for every position in the company, and we have one person from our HR department who is in every interview, so that we are consistent in certain values. I think we are a very family-oriented company, and it is always good to see people who have a good, solid family life. It is good to see people who are used to working in fast-paced environments but are able to leave that behind at the end of the day and transition into their family life.

What questions do you ask of someone to determine if they’re going to be a cultural fit?

We want to know their likes and dislikes, what excites them, what drives them, what did they like to get involved in at the companies they worked at previously.

Some people like to be very strategic, some like to be very tactical, so we try to ask many different kinds of questions. Where do they see themselves in the future? Are they someone that likes to get in a position and just stay there forever? Or are they a growth-opportunity person?  Do they multitask well? How do they do in serving different scenarios?

Do you recruit first for the technical skills of a job or for a cultural fit?

They have to have the basic skill sets for the position. If they’re a programmer, they have to have certain technology applications that they’re able to do. But we actually weight it heavily on the cultural fit.

Years ago, we tried to hire people who were familiar with our processes, but we realized that it was just as easy to take someone with the core basic skill sets, values and cultural principles, and teach them our processes. That has helped us with retention and growth in those areas. So there is a lot of weight we place on culture.

How to reach: Phoenix Energy Technologies Corp., (877) 340-8855 or www.phoenixet.com

Published in Orange County

Do you know what, exactly, your employees do? Believe it or not, many executives haven’t taken the necessary steps to truly understand each position in their organization.

In today’s chaotic employment landscape, a job analysis should be the first step in every major human resources effort. A job analysis provides the objective criteria needed for executives to make informed decisions regarding staffing, selection, performance, succession planning and compensation.

While some people use the term job description interchangeably with job analysis, the processes are actually quite different, says Jody Wheaton, director of Organizational Effectiveness for Corporate College. “A job description is a written statement about the job,” she says. “A job analysis is a systematic process that captures the entire job in compliance with professional and legal guidelines. Ultimately, this helps you develop a selection system that is valid and legally defensible.”

Smart Business spoke with Wheaton about the benefits of a job analysis, what approaches are available and who should be involved.

How can an organization benefit from conducting a job analysis?

Conducting a job analysis is important because organizations are being asked to work leaner and more efficiently while developing growth and innovation. It’s important to be aware of the critical responsibilities for each position, especially those that are considered strategic in nature, and those that impact the customer and the bottom line. In addition to determining the critical tasks associated with each job, it’s crucial to identify the desired knowledge, abilities, skill sets and other preferred characteristics.

Job analysis serves as the foundation for helping select the right people into an organization, in terms of job fit as well as cultural fit. A job analysis allows companies to not only create better selection systems, but also create effective training development programs, compensation and talent management systems. Often organizations hire for technical ability and fire for personality flaws. Organizations should consider hiring for both experience and cultural fit. Job analysis provides the needed data. In the event an organization is challenged legally, the court will look to see if a job analysis was done properly and if the selection system was considered to be job-relevant. Organizations should take a proactive approach to minimize legal challenges.

What job analysis approaches are available?

Many companies begin with reviewing the Occupational Informational Network (O*NET), which provides comprehensive occupational descriptions and data under the sponsorship of the U.S. Department of Labor/Employment and Training Administration.

To build on the O*NET data, the first approach is conducting interviews and focus groups. Typically these are conducted with job incumbents and supervisors. The drawbacks to this approach include the time required, scheduling and large number of people that need to be included if there are a large number of incumbents serving in the role.

Surveys are another option. This method allows you to gather data quickly and summarize the data statistically. Drawbacks include the inability to ask clarifying questions and gain needed buy in.

Off-the-shelf job analysis systems don’t allow for flexibility and are often too generic. We believe a blended tailored approach is the best choice, gathering and leveraging multiple perspectives and methods. We also believe leveraging technology in the process is critical.

What kind of components should be included?

Knowledge, skills, abilities, work behaviors, tasks associated with the job, competencies and cultural aspects of the organization should all be part of the data collection process. Be sure to distinguish between essential and non-essential characteristics for Americans with Disability Act (ADA) purposes.

Who should be included?

You want to make sure you have a good sample of high performers who understand the job and do it well. You should include senior-level management, direct supervisors and anyone who has critical knowledge about the job. Finally, include those who understand the training and development function, because they can often best articulate where people go wrong after attending training.

How much time will it take?

It depends on your approach. It can take anywhere from a few weeks to three months. You don’t have to take a manual- or labor-intensive approach. Often, a manual approach involves time, resources, creation of job analysis questions, summarizing the data, availability of employees, travel, schedules, etc.

Having a systematic process and leveraging technology-based tools allow job analysis participants to go through the process in a more efficient manner. Such tools provide standardized questions that can be edited to ensure they are customized to that job, as opposed to off-the-shelf tools, which use generic statements that can’t be customized.

How can businesses ensure standardization and legal compliance?

The best practice is educating and training all employees on the process, the importance behind it, and why you do it. In some organizations, stakeholders get involved in the process, even becoming engaged in the selection measures that are chosen. With other organizations, the HR department bears the entire burden. For legal compliance, it’s important to follow professional guidelines regarding sampling — who you include, the type of information you include, etc. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) Uniform Guidelines and the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology’s (SIOC) Principles for the Validation and Use of Personnel Selection Procedures are a couple of good resources to help with compliance.

Jody Wheaton is director of Organizational Effectiveness for Corporate College. Reach her at jody.wheaton@tri-c.edu or (216) 987-5867.

Published in Cleveland

Over the course of the last century, managers and supervisors have been given the arduous task by HR departments to complete those ever-annoying documents called performance reviews. Employees dread them, managers hate them, and HR departments (made up of the people who administer the process) tend to loathe them. So if this seemingly universal dislike surrounds these reviews and processes, why do businesses feel compelled to continue using them year after year?

To learn more about these HR tools, Smart Business spoke with Brad Bjelke, an attorney with Jackson DeMarco Tidus Peckenpaugh who ran an HR department for more than five years and who has counseled small and large companies on HR legal matters.

How did the performance review process start?

Performance evaluations, in some form or another, have been used ubiquitously by businesses for a long time. Attorneys often counsel HR professionals on the need for good documentation, especially as it relates to employee issues, poor job performance, etc. Without that documentation, companies have a difficult time defending their positions in litigation. Over the years, this ‘need’ for documentation has morphed its way into performance reviews, since they are generally the only formal documents generated for an employee in any given year.

What is the general feeling by management toward the performance review process?

For the most part, managers dislike the entire review process. HR departments struggle to keep evaluations completed on time, and management tends to put off these tasks as long as possible. What I learned over the years was that this ‘procrastination’ was not a result of having to fill out the forms; rather it was the fear of having to meet with the employee and be ‘honest’ with that employee. Through experience, managers have realized that once they criticize one of their team members, the employee morale tends to sink and the employee generally becomes unproductive (looking for a new job). If the manager’s team starts to become unproductive, then the manager will look bad to his/her executives. As a result, I found that many managers would rather just give a positive evaluation (even if it is not deserved) rather than have to deal with the issues that arise from a negative review.

What do employees really want?

Most employees dread performance evaluations. First, it is not in a person’s nature to enjoy being criticized (even if it is the so-called ‘constructive criticism’). However, it is natural for any person (even a poor performer) to believe he or she is doing a great job. This is validated when employers use self-evaluations; most employees score themselves very high and very differently than the scores given by their managers. All in all, most employees only care about one thing during the entire evaluation process: whether or not they are going to get a pay raise. All of the emotion, the fear, the anticipation, etc., all center around the answer to that question, and once that question is answered, the employee tends to tune out anything else the manager says.

When companies realize the performance review process system isn’t working, how do they generally change it?

Most companies, when looking at the entire process, fail to change the performance review for the better. Instead, companies re-design the evaluation forms, draft new job responsibilities to be graded, or change the implementation process for the evaluation. The problem with these types of changes is that they make things fresh and new for the HR department, but fail to address the underlying problems of performance reviews or identify the real goals of having them.

What legal landmines should companies watch out for in performance reviews?

It is still sound legal advice for companies to document all employee problems and issues and maintain these records. However, because performance reviews often contain inflated grades or lack of information due to fear of upsetting the employee, attorneys are often faced with a certain set of facts coming from the company in an interview that can sometimes be the direct opposite of statements on the written performance evaluations. Companies must work hard to avoid these types of inconsistencies.

Is there a real alternative to the performance review?

Many companies I have worked with have implemented a policy whereby managers and supervisors meet with their employees on a regular basis (monthly/bi-monthly/quarterly). During these meetings, there is an interactive discussion between the employee and the manager, and because of the regularity of the meetings, there is less pressure on the manager to hold back true criticism and less worry with the employee because it is not that ‘one big meeting’ each year. Having these meetings regularly and subsequently documenting the details of the meetings allow the manager to stay on top of the employee’s progress and to be a part of fixing the issues, if any arise.

While no perfect situation exists for reviewing an employee’s performance, it is very important for companies to understand the dynamics of their employees. Generation Y expects a different work environment than Generation X, and it is up to companies to stay creative and keep the work force productive. Consulting with an employment attorney on a regular basis will help companies and their executives understand the legal ramifications of the procedures they are using for reviews and help facilitate new ways of doing business.

Brad Bjelke is senior counsel with Jackson DeMarco Tidus Peckenpaugh. Reach him at (805) 418-1927 or bbjelke@jdtplaw.com.

Published in Orange County

Nothing is more personally frustrating for a senior executive than regrettable losses. Learning after the fact that one of your most valuable employees has decided to leave for a “growth opportunity” elsewhere — or even “more earning potential” — is as frustrating as it gets for people-savvy leaders.

It’s a pull-your-hair-out moment where you ask yourself and your senior human resources person: “What signs did we miss on this one? Have you asked if she/he is willing to stay under any circumstances? What if we paid more — would that keep them here?”

Unfortunately, executives will see more of this turnover of top talent in the future, not less. The generation now in their first 10 years in the work force will work for an average of nine companies in their lifetime. These workers will chase opportunities for growth and development. They are a generation that has not experienced loyalty in their home lives or youth — and therefore they neither seek nor offer unconditional loyalty to their employers.

So, can anything be done to prevent unwanted attrition? Absolutely.

You have more influence over this than you may think. Absent a personal crisis or spouse relocation, leaders can significantly influence an employee’s decision to stay or leave. It starts with knowing the top five reasons why employees leave companies:

“I am not appreciated”— Employees report their hard work and contributions are neither appreciated nor valued by the company. They get little to no positive feedback for a job well done.

“No growth opportunities” — Employees report they see no growth or development opportunities in their current jobs or roles, nor are they being actively developed for their next role. They receive little to no career planning or development for the next job or role in the company.

“Peers” — Descriptions here range from peers behaving badly with no consequences to peers who exhibit a fraction of the effort yet receive the same pay and opportunities to peers who make life more difficult internally. Unacceptable behavior with no visible consequences drives away top performers.

“Values clash” — Employees reported being asked to do things that were incompatible with their own values. Examples: Being asked to sell products/services to people who didn’t need them; being asked to misrepresent facts or data. Honesty and integrity still matter a lot — people want to be proud of what they do and who they do it for.

“Compensation not commensurate with value creation” — This one is a post-bubble addition. Executives see the value of what they do to contribute to the company’s overall success but feel they are not rewarded commensurately. You have to ensure comp systems are differentially rewarding higher contributors.

These five should make your hair stand up. All but one reason resides in how people are managed, in how leaders lead. So if keeping your brightest and best talent is a priority for you and your company, be sure managers and leaders at all levels are taking the time to say and show how much they appreciate the contributions of the high performers. Engage those you want to keep, especially, in career-development conversations and development efforts.

Help them to actively learn, grow and prepare for their next role in your company. Act on bad and unwanted performance. Let the high performers see that you will not shy away from addressing bad behavior and performance in your organization. Lead by example, and they will repeat your same actions at their level. Demonstrate honesty and integrity in all that you do.

You don’t need to be a victim to unwanted attrition, but you do have to recognize that retaining your top talent just may require new leadership behaviors on your part.

Leslie W. Braksick is co-founder of CLG, Inc. (www.clg.com), author of Preparing CEOs for Success: What I Wish I Knew (2010), and author of Unlock Behavior, Unleash Profits (2000, 2007). Braksick and her CLG colleagues work with leaders at all levels to maximize performance in key areas—and to help executives do the right things to eliminate regrettable losses. Reach Braksick at lbraksick@clg.com or at (412) 269-7240.

Published in Pittsburgh
Wednesday, 31 August 2011 20:01

John Rotche: Keep your training wheels on

Start by asking yourself this: Are your employees excited to come to work? Passionate about your company? Do they believe in your leadership team and buy in to your philosophies?

If not, perhaps the reason goes beyond the day to day. Think back to their training.

Training is more than a beginning. It is a foundation. It is a time to teach skills, establish parameters and share company culture. This is your first opportunity to completely control the environment — take the time to truly make your training facility an extension of your company.

Design it from scratch

If you have the opportunity to do this, please capitalize on it. If at all possible, build your training facility on-site at your headquarters, and keep the following in mind: Understand typical class size and plan accordingly. A room too small can be uncomfortable, while a room too big can lose energy. Make the space versatile by utilizing room dividers and multifunctional furniture to reconfigure space for numerous uses. Implement turnkey functionality by installing a plug-and-play AV system that enables anyone to step in and assist with setup — even when the IT person is out. Change it up by creating more than one room for different areas of training — and change the theme, so long as each space uniquely represents your company culture.

At our franchise headquarters in Ann Arbor, Mich., we built a full-size house to recreate real-life situations in duct cleaning for Ductz. For Hoodz, we built a commercial kitchen to offer the most accurate simulation. Keep in mind, fancy is not a necessity — functionality is.

Focus on environment

If you do not have the luxury of designing from scratch, there are still many things you can do to enhance the training environment. Keep the thermostat steady. Think about the last time you were in a stuffy room with 25 or so other people — it’s hard to focus on much else. Up the tempo by playing appropriate, up-tempo music from the minute trainees walk in the room until the time they leave. Music does wonders to set the tone and keep the energy going. Mind maintenance — little signs of neglect like burnt-out light bulbs and a general lack of cleanliness can leave a negative impression.

Curriculum is core

Assuming you’ve taken steps to create an environment that is conducive to learning, make sure what’s being taught is worthwhile.

It starts with the trainer or instructor – it’s not enough for them to be knowledgeable. You need someone who is thoroughly prepared. If you value your trainees, value their time by not wasting it.

When you do the things above, it shows people that you care enough to go the extra mile. It communicates that you are vested in their success. In my opinion, if you don’t capitalize on this crucial time to make a proper and lasting first impression, you’ve already missed the boat.

Continued training

Although initial training is critical, by no means should it end there. As a leader, you should take every opportunity for a continued training moment. Take, for example, weekly staff meetings. Are you just gathering everyone to share your accomplishments from the past week? You can also work a deliberate message into the agenda — one that enables your staff to walk away with something useful, even if it’s just a reinforcement of your company culture.

Furthermore, make a point to send your employees and franchisees to continued training sessions. Within our organization, those franchisees who invest in their people by sending them to receive advanced training are the same offices with the both the highest success and the highest employee retention rates. So build that solid training foundation and continue to improve upon it every chance you get.

John Rotche is the president of Ann Arbor-based Belfor Franchise Group Inc., a multiconcept franchise system. The company’s two franchise concepts, Ductz and Hoodz, center on the compliance and proper maintenance of commercial kitchen hoods and residential and commercial air duct, carpet and upholstery cleaning services. For more information, visit www.belforfranchisegroup.com.

Published in Detroit

Like every company, each day at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP, all of the law firm’s employees walk out the door. They head home into the sunset to relax with their families, watch TV and pursue their outside hobbies and interests. And each night, as all of his employees leave, Ken Menges has to hope they’ll all come back the following day.

“The first thing that has to be accepted in a law firm or any other professional services firm, be it consulting or accounting, is that all of your assets are your people,” he says. “All the people leave every night and you hope they come back the next day. Having a real people-focused approach that tries to empower not only good quality work but also some creativity is one of my challenges.”

As partner in charge of the Dallas office of the $735.5 million firm, he strives to make sure his people are happy, and while a lot of leaders say that, Menges actually makes himself vulnerable to ensure that he really is doing that. So when the American Lawyer publication started polling lawyers across the country to rank the best firms to work for, many became skittish about it.

“Some law firms, reasonably so, saw that as potentially threatening — ‘What are people going to say about us? We have no control. Should we encourage people to participate or not?’” he says.

While other firms debated whether or not to allow their employees to participate, Menges sent a clear message to his team: Fill it out. But then he took it a step further and decided to create his own survey internally and ask questions about the leadership — meaning mostly him — and how different support functions were doing.

“I was greeted with some skepticism from peers that says, ‘Why in the world would you ask for an anonymous evaluation about you and others? It’s a free shot that people are going to take in terms of being critical,’” he says. “There have been a couple of free shots, but it’s been overwhelmingly constructive, and it’s another way of trying to experiment with initiatives that can expand how people see their own role and also, by the way, help us improve our delivery of services and the quality of life that we have.”

Create a system

While there was a risk in beginning to survey his employees directly, Menges was prepared to do things the right way, meaning he would have very little control over the process.

“Most of all, put it in the hands of people who have ownership of the survey, which is the associates,” he says. “Don’t be afraid to let these brilliant young people that you’ve hired … run something like a survey.”

He formed a committee composed entirely of associates whom his employees picked. He also had a few partners serve simply to be a resource for answering their questions and helping facilitate their initiatives.

He recognizes that it may be scary at first to put something like a companywide survey into the hands of your associates.

“The first time it happens, you hold your breath and cross your fingers,” he says. “You try to emphasize that we’re a professional organization, this is intended to be a constructive exercise, and then you realize that our clients are trusting these same people to handle multimillion-dollar matters in transactions and in lawsuits, and when you realize that you’re asking your clients to accept the quality and judgment of these same people, it becomes a lot easier.”

He challenged them to have questions that covered himself and the senior staff people in the Dallas office. American Lawyer typically doesn’t ask very many questions because it’s crucial they get a good response rate.

“The more questions you put out, the fewer people actually stick around to finish it,” Menges says.

But he isn’t interested in traditional logic — he wants to know as much as he can so he asks as many questions as will allow him to get the information he needs. This is typically about 45 to 50 questions centered on detailed aspects of the firm, including training, relationships with mentors and views of partnership chances.

The reason why there are so many questions is simply that they ask some of the questions in multiple ways to make sure they get a true understanding of employees’ feelings on the matter.

“You could hire a consultant to come in and talk to those same people and compile a report and pay a bunch of money or you could simply ask the people in a varied and intelligent way — not just asking the question one way but trying to get at different aspects to make sure you’ve covered the waterfront and really potentially improve the organization,” Menges says.

It’s also important to make sure you ask questions that will really help your organization improve.

“Think hard about what you already know about your organization,” he says. “What do you hear? What’s your reputation? Are you considered generous in terms of compensation or less generous compared to other firms?”

Using what you already know about your organization can help you frame the right questions to get the responses you need to make necessary changes.

Additionally, you can have all the questions in the world on your survey, but if people don’t answer them, you’ll never get the results you need, so you have to ensure you set up the survey in such a way that they’ll respond.

“Guaranteeing the anonymity of these surveys is critical,” Menges says.

None of the partners touch the surveys, and the results are sent to a separate website that only the associate committee has access to.

“They never see all the individual responses, because there’s a concern that the way a person filled it in or worded certain things, it might identify them,” he says.

Listen

After each survey is completed, Menges approaches the results with an open mind and willingness to listen.

“You always learn something when you ask for feedback,” he says. “You may not like what you learn and you may not agree with the statements that are made, but even in those cases, you’re learning about important, usually strongly held feelings that someone trying to manage your organization should be aware of.”

Within a month to six weeks after the survey closes, the associate committee will create a detailed PowerPoint presentation that shows the survey results. They present it through PowerPoint so that he and the leadership aren’t seeing actual surveys or accessing the site they shouldn’t have access to.

“We compare the results to previous years’ responses to similar questions so we can tell if, among the associates filling out the survey, the number of people who are more or less optimistic about, say, their partnership prospects, which way it’s moving,” he says.

Then he tries to correlate that to what’s actually going on in the firm and outside it. On that same topic of partnership chances, he’ll look at if the firm made fewer or more partners that year as compared to previous years to see if that affected the responses. He’ll also look if the economy got stronger or weaker and then try to figure out ways to improve their communications about that topic so employees have more clarity on the matter. He provides them with a quarterly update to talk about developments around the firm and address any issues he feels are important to focus on as a result of those survey results.

For example, if more than half the associates think they will make partner in the next five years, he may realize he needs to communicate more about what it takes to become partner, because the statistics regarding how many people are made partner would not support that many people reaching that level. As such, he may feel they need to be more realistic about their chances, because it’s such a difficult honor to achieve.

As they increase communication, make improvements and address things they learn in the survey, Menges’ committee adjusts the next one.

“From year to year, the questions are sometimes tweaked to address developments we’ve done in terms of firm policies or office practices to gauge our success at that,” he says.

Over the years, Menges has learned a lot about the organization and thinks that the survey has been extremely helpful.

“It’s been one of the best things we’ve done, because I think it’s critical in any organization, but particularly in one where you’re asking people to constantly monitor what’s concerning them and what’s motivating or demotivating them,” he says. “An annual survey is just one tool in that, but it’s a really good one.”

On top of that, having an annual survey helps ensure that his people continue to return each day.

“It’s just part of human nature that people like to have some influence over their environment, particularly when they work as hard as all of our people do,” he says. “It’s one thing for everyone to state they have an open-door policy — so whenever you have an issue, come on in my office, and I’ll always be there to listen. In practice, there needs to be some more formal, regular structure to bolster that, even if it’s a true statement that the organization’s leader has an open-door policy.”

Menges always professed to have an open-door policy, but he also recognizes that it’s usually a first- or second-year lawyer who would saunter in to give him a piece of his or her mind about something.

“The survey allows for that to happen,” he says. … “The questions aren’t preapproved or censored. If someone has something on their chest, they want to get off their chest, they can fire away. I think that’s just healthy for an organization.”

How to reach: Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP, (214) 969-2800 or (817) 886-5060 or www.akingump.com

Ken Menges, partner in charge, Dallas office, Akin Gump

Born: Louisville, Ky. My parents got tired of it and moved six weeks later.  My father was an electrical engineer, and it seemed that when I was growing up that he got a new and better job in a different part of the country every five or six years. So we moved from Louisville when I was 6 weeks old to Baltimore. We moved six years later to New Hampshire, and we moved five years later to Dallas, where I attended high school here in Richardson, and then they moved off again but they stopped in Arizona.

Education: B.S.B.A., Boston University; J.D., Harvard Law School

Did you want to come back to Dallas or did your career just take you there?

I loved both college and law school in Boston, but after seven straight years of Boston winters in student housing, I was cold, so I decided to look only at Sunbelt cities. Of all the Sunbelt cities I looked at, even though my family had moved away a few years prior to that, Dallas had just a fantastic prospect that it was unavoidable me coming here.

What’s the best advice you’ve received?

I’ve gotten a lot of good advice, and I know I need a lot more, but the best I’ve ever received was from my father who told me a long time ago, there’s always a better way to say it. I think that advice came to me in junior high or high school. It has stuck with me because I can think of no truer words. When I think of other people occasionally who say something out of emotion or without forethought, I’m thinking, ‘Yep, there’s always a better way to say it.’

What was your first job?

My first job ever was working as a warehouse clerk for a friend of the family who had a business selling gas grills and gas lights. As a seventh grader, I worked in an un-air-conditioned warehouse in Dallas moving the boxes and loading the trucks and unloading the trucks. It was hard work; it was good work. It gave me a lot of independence, and I graduated from warehouse clerk to warehouse manager by the time I was a senior in high school. I was still the only employee, but I called myself the manager because if I was the only one there, I could be the manager.

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

The first thing I remember wanting to be was either an astronaut or astrophysicist. I had a fascination with astronomy and Einstein when I was in my later years of elementary school and junior high school. In other words, I was a complete nerd, but I took the required course in American history when I was in eighth grade, and I became absolutely smitten by the law. I was fascinated by every aspect of the law from the legislative formation of laws to the appointment of judges and from that year on I knew I wanted to be a lawyer.

Published in Dallas

A lot of the conversation the past few years has been around how the Northeast Ohio economy is struggling, and as a result, employees across the region are seeing cuts in their workplaces.

While it’s true that the recession hasn’t been the kindest to employers in the region, what’s promising are the results of the 2010 ERC/Smart Business workplace practices survey. For the first time since 2007, survey respondents did not list “poor economy” as their biggest challenge.

As a result of the recession, many of the survey results for the past few years have indicated that salaries were holding steady or declining, benefits were getting cut, and resources for hiring and training were rapidly drying up. Those declining trends seem to be changing. While some numbers stayed about the same, you may be surprised to see others indicating that trends are starting to improve again.

Cyndi McCabe is the president of the board of directors for the Northeast Ohio Human Resource Planning Society, and she says that many workplaces are starting to change focus from surviving to thriving.

“There’s certainly an enhanced emphasis on innovation — encouraging all employees to have a renewed voice in the organization to help find new, efficient ways of doing business,” she says. “There’s also more of an emphasis on employee engagement and ensuring that everyone is in tune with the organization and is valued.”

The survey results support that, especially when it comes to financially encouraging employees. The average percent base-pay increase that was projected for salaried employees increased from 2.6 percent last year to 3 percent this year. On top of that, the percentage of both management and nonmanagement receiving cash bonuses both increased, as well.

It’s been difficult in recent years for companies to financially reward their employees, and many workplaces have become more frugal in an effort to show their staffs that they’re not just asking them to make cuts without trying to cut in other areas themselves. McCabe says that while the economy is improving, that mindset of frugality is likely to continue.

“There’s also a re-emphasis on identifying and maintaining and leveraging best practices, too,” she says. “We’re just needing to do more with less. Even though I think things are starting to come back, I think [we’ll see] a re-emphasis on being frugal or being more questioning of what we’re doing.”

One realm that’s most affected by this continued mindset is that of recruiting and training. According to the survey results, companies are opening their wallets in terms of both, with 77.8 percent of respondents using Internet job boards to find candidates this year, which is up from 71.5 percent last year. The results also indicate that more of companies’ recruiting budgets are being allocated toward online ads — 33.7 percent, up from 28.5 percent last year. In addition to simply going online to find qualified employees, companies will likely be using cheaper and free resources, as well.

“Certainly, there’s still the reliance on word-of-mouth and networking and relationships, but certainly you’re seeing more of an emphasis on some of the technology — some of the recruiting software packages that are out there — and certainly there is more emphasis on social networking tools such as the use of Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn,” McCabe says. “You’re seeing more use of those as ways of identifying and sourcing candidates and perhaps screening candidates.”

Not only does the Internet and social media provide some cost savings for your organization, but it has other benefits, as well.

“Using some of these tools opens up some doors that weren’t open before,” she says. “It’s not just the cost factor — it’s also the fact that it’s just creating a larger pool of talent.”

This is extremely helpful since survey respondents indicated that hiring and retaining employees was their biggest challenge, and this topic has been in the top-five challenges list the past 10 years.

Beyond increased efforts toward recruiting and new ways of recruiting, the survey results also indicated that companies will put more resources toward training employees.

“There’s certainly a heightened interest in on-boarding and ensuring that people come into the organization the right way and that they have a good grasp on expectations and the culture and the environment,” McCabe says. “There’s also a focus on the right training to do the job right now, so really asking the question, ‘What kind of training does a person need to be successful right now, and what does that look like?’”

The survey results indicate that 90.7 percent of respondents intend to provide financial assistance to employees to upgrade their skills, up from 81.5 percent last year. Additionally, the amount of participants utilizing Web-based training increased from 62.9 percent last year to 71 percent this year.

“Instead of long-term training, it may be segments of training — what do I need now to do the job kind of chunking of information,” McCabe says. … “If a person can do some training at their desk or in a slow period of time or do it in more segments rather than taking a whole day or a half a day to do training, there’s certainly some cost benefits there.”

With renewed efforts toward people, it also creates needs on the back end. In addition to businesses opening up their wallets for the more obvious things like training and benefits, they’re also starting to upgrade human resources systems and processes. Brenda Leisinger is the president of the board of directors for the Cleveland chapter of the International Association for Human Resource Information Management. The organization is composed of people who work on HR technology as well as vendors and consultants, and it focuses on people implementing new technologies and systems.

“There seems to be a lot of pent-up demand over the last couple of years, meaning there would be requests for projects at companies, but they’ve been put on hold because of the economy, and we’re seeing a lot more of those projects starting up this year and coming off a hold and actually being funded,” Leisinger says.

The encouraging aspect to this trend is that once these projects get started, they can last as long as three years, so they tend to be fully completed. The types of projects she’s seeing increasingly start also support the survey results for where companies are focusing.

“One of the hottest topics we see right now is the talent management side related to recruiting and succession planning,” she says. “Talent management can mean a variety of things, but it usually always means recruiting. There can be a lot of other stuff in there including performance management, compensation management, succession planning — anything related to acquiring, training and equipping their people to be successful in their current roles and then equipping them to take on more senior level roles. The name of the game is to keep the employees that are most valuable to an organization.”

With all of these new projects starting up, it’s also good for the employment outlook.

“Because things are improving and projects are coming off of hold and starting up, it’s actually making more job opportunities available,” Leisinger says. “Whether you’re a consultant or you want to be hired in as an employee, there’s a lot more in terms of technology projects to choose from right now.”

As 2011 starts to fade and companies begin planning for 2012, experts are confident that this year’s positive signs aren’t just temporary.

“Our expectation is that it will continue to grow,” Leisinger says of the increase in HR technology projects. …“Once a company has committed to moving forward, I rarely see any projects stop.”

As the economy improves and companies become more confident in their recoveries, it’s going to mean better things for all of Northeast Ohio’s workplaces.

How to reach: International Association for Human Resource Information Management- Cleveland Chapter, clevelandihrim.wordpress.com; Employers Resource Council, www.ercnet.org; Northeast Ohio Human Resource Planning Society, www.nohrps.org

Published in Cleveland