Monthly Archives: March 2014

Five Things to Avoid During New-Hire Orientations

For two solid years of my career, I designed and facilitated new-hire orientation.  The company I worked for was large, and it was my responsibility to welcome and train 10 to 30 new employees every Tuesday and Wednesday.  Throughout these two years, I redesigned and polished the orientation, discovering what worked and what didn’t.  As I was responsible for their first impression, I sincerely wanted them to do well.  I wanted success for each and every one of them. 

But, of course, not all were successful.  A few quit or were fired within 30 days.  And whenever this happened, I had to examine why and decide what I could have done differently during new hire orientation to ensure a better outcome. 

  1. Being unrealistic.  The trend at one point was to make orientation as fun as possible.  And I went through a short phase in which I had balloons, games, food and cake.  It was a blast.  And I was the rah-rah girl.   They were now part of the greatest company ever in the entire history of companies.   They were going to love, love, love working here.  By the time the day was finished, they were so excited to get to work, I really felt like I’d done my job well.  Unfortunately, work isn’t always a party.  It’s not always fun.  And rarely is there cake.   And some felt duped.  Hoodwinked.  That wasn’t my intent, but I had to revise my methodology fast.  And—after some retooling—I was able to keep it interesting.  And I kept some fun…to a degree.  I mainly made sure to be realistic on what they could expect. 
  2. Allowing executives to play hooky.  When the company hired new executives, everyone was anxious to meet them—and waiting for them was a long list of to dos ready to get done.   So they never had time to sit through orientation with the rest of the plebes.  Some thought they were too good; some were just swept away by other executives.   Big mistake.  I allowed the people tasked with driving forward or even changing the workplace culture, standards and brand to skip out on learning company fundamentals.  Of course, I was a lowly middle manager at the time, so who was I to tell anyone anything?  Allowing them to play hooky was another executive’s choice—probably one who didn’t attend orientation either. 
  3. Not bringing out the cane to speakers who yammered on and on.  I had a variety of speakers throughout the orientation who were there to present their particular department.  I’d always had time limits for their presentations, but about three quarters always went over—some by staggering amounts, which would set us behind for everything else.  And it’s not like these prattling gasbags said anything particularly relevant or inspiring.  And they would say the same insipid frippery week after week.  I would watch participants struggling to keep their eyes open.  I would watch them look at the clock.  I would watch them looking at me, as if I could rescue them from the stranglehold of boredom.  And I could have.  Giving strict time parameters and specifics—a matrix—assisted my speakers in tailoring their presentations for maximum impact and interest. 
  4. Relying too much on a text-stuffed PowerPoint.  In my first weeks conducting orientation, I used my predecessor’s yawner of a PowerPoint, which had slides of text that had been copied directly from the handbook.  It didn’t take me long to revise the PowerPoint and devise new methods of presentation.  Plus, I incorporated loads of participation.  There were at least three occasions during which the projector failed me, and I was left PowerPointless.  And those were probably the best orientations I’d ever facilitated.   
  5. Forgetting to give breaks or provide snacks and coffee.  In truth, I never made this mistake.  But I know plenty of orientations, seminars and workshops that do.  People retain more if they are given a short break every hour—I like seven minutes.  Random, I know, but it works for me.  If people know they’ll be able to stand, use the facilities and get some coffee, snacks or water at the end of each hour, they’ll pay attention and participate.  If they’re doomed to sitting in a chair for any longer than that, they’ll likely tune you out.  Plus, these little breaks help you organize material into bite-sized chunks.  I was at a seminar recently, and the breaks were every two and a half hours.  Water was provided, but that was it.  No coffee.  No snacks.  And the room was an icebox.  I was so cold, my bones ached.  While the speaker was lacking a certain charisma, the information was interesting enough.  If I could have just had a few minutes to process one portion before moving on to the next, I might have gotten more from the seminar.  But all I could think about was how much I wanted a break.  Just a few minutes to walk out into the sunshine and thaw out.  Was that too much to ask?  Incidentally, I’ll never attend another seminar from this company.  So what impression do new hires get when they have a similar experience?  Not a good start. 

New-hire orientation should never be treated as an incidental occurrence.  It should be well thought out and planned by a professional who knows what he or she is doing—and then it should be shaped and approved by an executive committee.  A great start stacks the odds in the company’s favor that the new employee will add value to the company and achieve results.   

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Three Truths about Training and Orientating New Employees during an Expansion

So you’ve planned your company’s expansion for years.  The details seem bottomless, yes?  While that wing, tower, or new office is opening, you’re hiring a whole new group of employees.  You think you’ve got your ducks in a row, and you’ve met all your deadlines.  The grand opening is two weeks away.  It’s exciting.  Incredibly exciting. 

But because those final technical details take every bit of your time, you’ve forgotten to create a formal and inspiring onboarding process for your new employees that introduces, polishes, and trains them on your brand.  Rather, you toss them the employee handbook, let them know what they can and cannot do, show them where the loo is and cross your fingers and hope to die that they’ll be able to learn on their feet. 

A month later, you’ve got disjointed productivity, confused workers and a fair share of time-sucking employee relations issues.  And you’ve got turnover, too.  “Some couldn’t cut it,” you’ll say. 

So all that other work you’ve put into your expansion is for naught because you’ve forgotten the simple truth that an organization is defined by its people, its workforce.  If you’re about to grow or expand, here are three ways to ensure you have a solid crew to make it successful. 

Thoughtfully Rejuvenate your New Hire Orientation.  It’s likely that your HR department already has a standard orientation that every new employee is mandated to attend.  An expansion is a perfect time to revisit your orientation process.  What’s unfortunate is how many executives forget about this first date for new employees.  In fact, I know quite a few who skip it themselves so have no idea what’s going on in the training room on their new hires’ first day.  Orientation is always a hot topic amongst trainers.  Theories swing from crusty nuts and bolts handbook-driven bore fests to virtual parties with little substance and loads of fun, fun, fun.  Both versions are weak and do little to accomplish an orientation’s purpose. 

But what is this purpose?  A recent study from Harvard and London Business School suggests that orientations that focus solely on integration into the company’s culture aren’t as successful as focusing on individuals and what value they will add to this culture.   However, you cannot simply have a skills gabfest.  You will need to codify and communicate the company’s brand and goals.  But a truly transformative and effective orientation will not only highlight the brand, it will also celebrate the individual’s value in growing this brand.

Too many orientations focus on the dos and don’ts rather than considering brand and employee value.  At its core, an orientation needs to make sure the employee’s work-a-day is meaningful because employees who consider their work meaningful will have an intrinsic motivation. And if they’re motivated from the inside, they’ll be fully engaged and committed.  If you tell them all the things they need to do in order to avoid being fired, well, congratulations.  You’ve just created a group of employees who need extrinsic motivation.  In other words, they’ll need to be told what to do every step of the way.  And you’ll have problems from the get go. 

An article on orientations by Susan Heathfield discussed how at one company, department managers were required to create a “120 day orientation” for each new employee that involved 120 events spread across a predetermined time period that would introduce a new hire into a company.  These could be anything from a lunch with the CEO to cross training.  An interesting concept to be sure, and something to consider when you’re revamping and honing that crucial first day for new employees. 

Select and Train Your Best Employees to Be Mentors.  An expansion is the perfect time to reward your best line-level employees with the mentor responsibility.  A mistake some make during growth is to only use supervisors and managers to train new hires.  But if you’ve just hired a hundred new employees, tap into the talent of your current employees.  This will ensure you surround your new employees with referential knowledge and superior role models.  These superstar employees will be the glue for your new hires.    

Some managers and business owners claim that expansions deserve a “fresh start” and don’t like the idea of using current employees in this role.  They commit to hiring a whole new lot of employees, who will form their own teams.  These managers are attempting to block any bad habits current employees might pass on like a virus.  But when they do this, new workers scramble to form a new workplace culture.  So rather than introducing and honing your brand to new hires during an expansion, these new workers are left, foundationless, to invent their own. 

What’s also good about using current employees is that you essentially create a marbling effect within the organization.  After all, even with an expansion, you are one company.  And you will need to maintain and strengthen your unity.  Using current employees in this respect will take steps toward accomplishing this. 

Of course, some current employees should be—what’s the word—quarantined.  But believe me, you certainly have a handful of fully engaged employees who will be great representatives of your brand and mission.  Introducing this core group of mentors in new hire orientation is an excellent way to create touchstones for your new employees.  These mentors will be capable of influencing these new employees so that your expansion is successful.   

Develop and Maintain a New Hire Training Program that Includes Job Skills and Soft Skills.  An expansion is a perfect opportunity to revisit the company’s new hire training program.  Sadly, some companies haven’t visited them in the first place.  Training was the first to go during the recession, and some executives still treat training as a superfluous expense.  But you know what’s expensive?  Turnover.  Poor guest service.  Drippy and oozy productivity.  And those three things are what you’ll get if you fail to develop a new hire training program that offers the technical training as well as the soft skills needed to make a business successful.   

What some companies do is design a one-size-fits-all program.  New hires will spend four days here and four days there until they master the technical aspects.  The problem with this is that some will learn in two days; others might take six.  A good new hire training program focuses on results.  For example, if a new hire needs to learn a POS system, develop evaluation tools to test if the new hire has mastered the skill. The new hire can request the final evaluation when he or she feels prepared.  After they’ve mastered one skill, they move on to the next, in which the process will repeat itself. 

A training department should assess a department’s expectations for each new hire by asking for a list of required job skills then developing the training/evaluation tools based on these required skills.  The department also needs to provide a list of soft skills.  For instance, sales ability or customer service.  Forgetting to train and evaluate on soft skills will set your new hires up for failure because all the technical skills in the world will be canceled out by lack of soft skills. 

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Dear Sirs & !: How Not to Write a Cover Letter

I’ve reviewed many a solid resume that have then been canceled out by a wonky cover letter.  When I say “wonky,” I’m talking about mistakes that range from mild to offensive.  When you’re tasked to review 50 to a 100 candidates a week, these cover letters are—unfortunately—deal breakers. 

So here’s a quick and harsh list of what will send your application to the shredder.   

Don’t use Dear Sirs or To Whom It May Concern.  When you make the dumb decision to alienate over half the human race by deciding only a man would be important enough to hire you, then you don’t deserve a glance.  Addressing me as “Dear Sirs” is your ticket to the bin.  I’m not a man.  Nor have I been knighted by the Queen of England.  As far as “To Whom It May Concern,” you’re a lot better off finding out the name of the recruiter or hiring manager.  I would certainly rather candidates call my department and ask to whom they should address it than reach out to anyone concerned.  What an archaic salutation.  Think about it.  Nowadays, we generally use the word concern as a synonym for sympathy.  But in the cover letter, the word means interested. I wouldn’t suggest writing “To Whom It May Interest” either.  All of it sounds so yesteryear.  So creaky and old.  Though whom is correct, it sounds very old timey in a salutation on a cover letter in which you’re trying to get a job in a modern workplace. 

Don’t use exclamation points!  I find myself overusing exclamation points all the time in text messages and Facebook posts.  My thank-you emails can get a little carried away, too.  And that’s because I’m super excitable and appreciative.  Annoyingly so.   I even annoy myself.  But darn it all, I would never use my beloved exclamation point in a cover letter!  Come on!  Who does that?!  It comes across as a weird combo of juvenile and intense—neither quality good for a stable workplace.

Spelling and grammar count.  They do.  I promise.  And if those aren’t your forte, I suggest you study up. There are loads of EBooks and podcasts that could help you.  If you need the job now and don’t have time to re-learn spelling and grammar, then get someone to help you revise your letter.  This at least shows you care.  And we all want to hire people who care. 

Remember that “Brevity is the soul of wit.”  That’s Shakespeare, and he knew more about workplace whatnots than most of us.  So keep it short, please.  Tell me what you did before and what you can do for my company.  And those two things should segue neatly into each other.  I do not have time to read your thousand-page biography. 

Ban fancy and tiny fonts.  If you’re the type who likes to play around with fonts, making them fancy or shrinking the size so you can fit your yammering onto one page, send your letters to someone else.  Keep your cover letter neutral and easy to read.  Okay, it’s true I have trifocals, but I’m not the only sight challenged person out there.  Tiny mottled fonts—electronically or on hard copies—make me gag. 

Sincerely is fine.  It’s been used for a long time, I know.  But it works.  It’s essentially you telling me that everything you’ve just written is the truth.  That’s why people also use Yours Truly.  Evidently, we’re all potential liars.  The truth is this—sincerely doesn’t stand out.  It’s just plain and simple and neutral.  Clean.  And because of that, I’m able to focus on the content.  And that’s what you want. 

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The Best Leaders are Alchemists

A zillion books and training materials exist to help you determine what your natural leadership style is while also describing all the other leadership styles out there. It’s sort of like astrology.  Some of us are Scorpios.  Some of us are Capricorns.  Only rather than using our birthday, our leadership styles are determined by quizzes and exams—these come in many forms, incidentally

If you’re in a leadership position, you’ve also probably attended trainings with the standard quizzes determining your particular leadership style.  You know the drill.  Are you autocratic?  Democratic?  Are you the delegator?  The free-reign leader? These styles have many names, and you’ve probably been trained on how to use them for different types of situations and employees.  Often, you’ll be advised to use the style like a golf club, pulling out the right one for the right moment.

So, let me get this straight, not only are we asking our leaders to run a business, we’re asking them to have the uncanny ability to change their personalities on a dime.  We’re asking them to be more intuitive than most psychiatrists.

We’re asking the impossible.

When I was a young trainer, I too handed out these quizzes and validated every style in the room—the autocratic, the democratic, and the delegator.  Older and hopefully wiser, I truly believe now that modern workplace landscapes do best under another style altogether—typically labeled “transformational leadership.”  There’s even evidence that employee health improves under the transformational leader.  With the expense of employer-funded health care, this should be reason enough for business leaders to perk up and hire these types of leaders whom I like to call Alchemists.

The alchemist leader commits to the following behaviors:

They promote creativity and ideas.  Rather than hog all the interesting work and being the sole decision maker, the alchemist encourages his or her staff to come up with new ways of doing things.  And if mistakes happen, staff isn’t chastised or blamed; rather, the alchemist allows staff to fix mistakes without penalty and encourages them to think up new strategies.  The alchemist isn’t a “my way or the highway” type of leader.  He or she is open and excited about new ways and won’t blink at abandoning one of his or her ideas in favor of a better one.  The alchemist’s staff is stimulated and excited about the work they are doing—they also have ownership.  Moreover, the alchemist is on a never-ending quest to develop his or her staff.  An ultimate goal is to ensure individual success for each member of his or her team.

They foster initiative.  It’s one thing to get others to do things for you under the threat of losing their jobs or receiving progressive discipline.  It’s another entirely to mentor and celebrate worker skills and achievements.  The Alchemist excites employees and instills an intrinsic drive for self-development.  This leader has faith and a firm belief in his or employees’ abilities and ideas.  The alchemist gets the highest performance because workers are self-motivated.  

They influence through modeling desired behavior.  The alchemist possesses desirable qualities and abilities and lives and breathes his or her values, mission, and vision.  Through watching the alchemist’s behavior, followers learn how to behave as leaders and coworkers.  The alchemist respects and celebrates abilities, and the staff will mimic and repeat the alchemist’s behavior.  This generates a new social construct of teamwork and high levels of commitment.

They aspire to inspire.  The alchemist has a vision for a brighter future, how everyone will contribute to this brighter future, and is able to communicate this vision in an optimistic and appealing way to his or her followers.  In short, they completely engage others and give meaning and purpose to the most mundane tasks—and they will find ways to make these tasks less mundane.  They essentially give workers something to look forward to.

So, are you an Alchemist?  Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Would you ever ask one of your workers to do something that you would never do?
  • Do you share business goals and plans with your team?
  • Do you celebrate the talents and successes of your employees?
  • Do you offer your team challenges that pull them from their comfort zones?
  • Do you encourage your staff to question your decisions?

So the opposite of the Alchemist would be those leaders who refuse to change the copy paper or file.  They might also hide business goals and accomplishments, thereby committing staff to working in a vacuum.  Staff will have no idea why they are doing what they are doing—which means no meaning or purpose is attached to the work at hand. These leaders also refuse to develop their people and don’t believe this is part of the job.  As far as challenging workers, these leaders feel comfortable with assigning people similar tasks and won’t rock the boat to give others the chance to learn something new.  The Alchemist’s counterparts are also the people who resent those who question or challenge their decisions.  They are always right even when they’re wrong.

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The Fish Rots from the Head Down: Why and How to Manage Management

Sure, people will leave your company if they have better or more profitable opportunities.  They’ll also leave if they don’t fit into the workplace culture.   What I’ve mostly seen, however, are people jumping ship because of poor management.  But losing star employees isn’t the only reason a company should make managing management a top priority.  A poor manager can numb profits.  They choke performance and innovation.  They are the tourniquets of excellent customer service.  My colloquial grandmother used to say that the fish rots from the head down when blaming parents for their naughty children.   Personally, I find her cheeky saying more applicable to poor performing managers. 

 Google—with its progressive employee-centric workplace culture—started up Google’s Project Oxygen in 2009.  Through much research, they discovered that employees were motivated by certain management qualities.  With these qualities in hand, they created an 8-point plan to help managers improve.  To follow through, managers are reviewed by their staff and held accountable for poor scores. 

There are some managers out there horrified by this possibility.  They are probably wondering why the employee has been given so much “power.” What sane company, these managers are saying, wants the monkeys running the zoo? 

As an HR Director, I can tell you hundreds of stories about the havoc wreaked by bad bosses, but I recall one in particular who had more complaints and employee concerns than any manager I’ve met before or since.  After several attempts of counseling and coaching this leader and expecting improvement, things got worse.  In Chris Mooney’s article “The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science,” he talks about how a lot of folks further dig in their heels and refuse to believe something different even when presented with facts.   Actually, when presented with facts, it seems to fully cement their misguided convictions.  I found this to be the case with the above manager, but when I went to the top and suggested—ever so diplomatically—that we might need to terminate him in order to save the department, I was told, “Employees don’t get to choose their boss.” 

And so I left it at that.  And when the employees continued to quit and complain, I listened but could do little else.  Ultimately, I too wanted to leave the company as any decent HR person would.  And let me quickly say that I am an HR professional who strives to support management and has little tolerance for petty whining.  But in the case above, something had to be done.  The response that employees don’t get to choose their boss was something out of Anchorman or Madmen.  It puts the organization at risk for grievances and lawsuits and denies that line-level employees are the ones who are actually touching our customers and doing the necessary work to keep the business rolling.  Employees absolutely should be able to have a fantastic manager—and, no, perhaps they don’t get to choose him or her, but in a professional environment they have the right to expect a professional manager.  Incidentally, your best employees do feel they have a choice because they typically do.  The best will leave.  They will actually run.  And you’ll be left with the poorest performing of the lot.   

Okay, so how do we manage managers?  I like Google’s simple matrix though most of us won’t have the technical capability to develop algorithms and codes that spit out data on each of our managers.  Let me suggest four things based loosely on Google’s example and from my own observation:

  1. After conducting a sturdy analysis, identify three major management flaws.  Google called them “pitfalls.”  For example, you might discover your employees are being unnecessarily micromanaged.  Or maybe they don’t feel they can approach management.  These three things need to be relevant to your workplace culture, and they also need to be clear. 
  2. Create a matrix of management expectations built from this same analysis.  Google has its eight points, but you can create a list of five to ten.  No more than ten, however, because managers need to know them backwards and forwards.  And these points need to be specific and clear.  They can’t be something murky like “inspire your team.” They need to say how to inspire.    
  3. Conduct training on your matrix.  Make it mandatory for all new managers—and provide one-on-one time for anyone needing refreshers.  During the training, you can explain how all managers will be held accountable for living up to the expectations.  Make sure to make this a “how” training.  It’s not enough to simply tell managers what you want them to do—you need to explain how.   To me, not explaining how is one of the biggest failures in corporate training today.  But that’s a topic for another blog. 
  4. Consider staff-generated performance evaluations.   If you have issues with management, you’ll want to fix it.  And even though pros and cons exist with subordinates evaluating their managers, if done correctly it can work.  The biggest fear is that managers will stop handling discipline issues, or that employees will tell pork pies (cockney slang for a lie).  You can prevent this with the right questions and proper communication.  Having a tool to measure managers will help them improve and grow.  Rather than sitting down with them and counseling on perceived behaviors, you’ll have data.  Data might work if the manager is open to improvement (of course, they may just dig in their heels).  As someone who used to teach at a university, I was used to being evaluated every quarter.  I absolutely knew I had to deliver quality education, or I would have had to speak with the dean, during which immediate improvement would have been a natural expectation.  But I knew I had to live up to those expectations.  It wasn’t a choice.  And to this day, I actually value my student evaluations more than any recommendation letter from my superiors. 

I have no scientific proof that fish rot from the head down, but I do know that a company does.  We all intrinsically know that.  And we’ll need to get a handle on how we manage managers if our companies are to survive the modern business landscape. 

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Chief of Whatnot or Vice President of Whatever: Why Your Title Shouldn’t Matter as Much as it Does

A pesky trend I’ve noticed in the last couple of years is when executives request a change in the title of the job being offered to them.  It’s not good enough to be a “director” or “general manager.”  Nope.  The trend these days is to request during negotiations some sort of “chief” or “VP” in their title even though the job responsibilities remain the same. 

I’m bothered.  It’s not that I don’t understand, mind you.  I do.  See, in these highest positions, people typically change careers every three to five years, so I can’t blame them for wanting to be the master of their fates and the architects of their resumes.  But I am worried about those reading these resumes and determining who they might interview and hire based on a title alone. 

Let me be frank and first tell you that I don’t give a hoot about your title—not on paper and not in real life.  I care about results.  And people who insist on being introduced by their titles annoy me.  So when I’m looking at a resume, I’m trying to find out what value they brought to their prior employer and what value they can bring to us. 

But that’s not the case with every hiring manager.  They really are ranking people based on title.  And titles are getting out of hand.  You never know what it means.  The manager at one company might have more responsibilities than a director at another.  Sometimes titles are simply invented to justify a pay increase for an employee.    So recruitment rankings based on titles is definitely a shaky science.  Besides, titles are all over the place.  We’ve got the Senior Vice president.  We’ve got the Executive Senior Vice President.  We’ve got the Senior Manager.  And then the Assistant Director.  What’s the difference?  The latest title trend is the Chief Officer mania.  These days, everyone and their mother is a Chief Officer of something.  It’s certainly not as impressive as it used to be. 

The whole idea of business hierarchies is shifting as we move forward in the twenty-first century, and I’m sure this is contributing to the confusion in our executive titles.  Getting rid of their hierarchy, Zappos now calls its executives “Monkeys.”  At first, I found this funny.  I guess they think titles are for chimps and chumps.  The truth, however, is that everything is a little strange right now.   Business is changing rapidly, and many are jockeying for a place high on the food chain.  A nice juicy title says success to some.  It just doesn’t say success to me.  In my view, you’ll need more than a title to prove you’re worth your salt.   

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