June 02, 2011
I'm often hired to speak to companies about improving their people skills.
By this, I mean they want to practice what they are preaching: At Our Company, Our People Come First. This is a very popular CEO-mantra, because it's good business, and leaders are realizing it. When your company priorities people at the design level (not just announcements), recruiting gets easier, turnover drops off, service gets better and great ideas come to work (instead of competing startups). When people's mood is better, they are more productive and innovative (Mood State Matters). It's goodness, all ways around, but very hard to do.
Putting people first at a company, what I call being People-Centric, cuts against the grain of the short term profit, investor/owner mentality. They argue for balance, using the stakeholder argument: Customers, Owners, People all come first. Problem is, that customers/owners both have vested interests, which means companies often over serve them at the expense of its own people.
But if you make People First a design issue, you can program your culture to make it work. The key is to always measure your People Skills by understanding the employee experience. What emotional and financial benefits are you offering? What emotional or financial pain points are you creating or allowing? If you do this (like you should be doing for Customers), you'll see an immediate lift in people's attitude about the company. Here are five design hacks for a People-Centric company:
1 - Don't Hire High Jerks! As simple as this sounds, it's not lived up to when the Jerk has a stellar resume and exudes technical prowess. We hire him, think we can tame him, and be seduced by his performance. We'll praise him, forgive his lack of people-skills, and it will demoralize everyone he works with. They leave, the jerk stays, and before you know it your business implodes from poor customer experience. Read Bob Sutton's The No Asshole Rule for more on this. PS - Never promote a mean or overly-introverted person to manage other humans. They'll beat them up, passively injure or ignore them to death. Read Multipliers by Liz Wakeman for more.
2 - Reward People-Centric Managers. Why is annual bonus completely tied to financial performance? At some companies I consult to, a piece of the bonus is tied to "The Employee Experience" as measured by various Cultural Health surveys. At one company, a sophisticated process measures employee levels of happiness, holding managers accountable for lifting it. As an engineering based startup organization, leaders realize that the job is 75% of the employee's life, so if she's unhappy - it's on the manager! I know that's extreme, but you'll create the behavior you reward so take this into account.
3 - Program Work Life Balance. If your employees are thumb warriors, carrying their smart phones to bed, out on weekends or during vacations - you are out-of-balance. SAS Institute has a culture where it's inappropriate to interrupt employees off time with email (READ: Regarding Your People). Most companies have no policy for this, and due to overly long (useless) meetings, evenings and weekends are the only time they can reply to emails. BAD DESIGN. Reduce meetings to 45 minutes, prohibit off-time communications. NOTE: You are now being family or partner centric as a company. Remember, they have a huge influence on your ability to retain your top performers when competition comes hunting.)
4 - Install Empathy Triggers. I love the network reality show Undercover Boss. It demonstrates how leaders can be transformed by working in the field and getting to know employees at the human level. The exercise converts 'direct reports' into 'people' via the experience. At Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, employees are flown the Central America to work with the farmers that grow their beans (they call this Trip To Source). At Pizza Hut, former CEO Mike Rawlins had a practice of calling 3 customers a month to understand their life story. At Barton Protective Services, CEOs and Divisional leads spend Friday afternoon "Catching People Doing Something Right," then spreading the word. This is empathy by "walking around."
5 - Craft A People-Centric Mission. This is the big one, for the CEOs and founders of the world. Whatever the company's mission is better have to do with people. If it's about products, places or faceless groups (investors, partners) - you are serving spreadsheets not human experiences. Get this wrong and you've blown it at the meta-design level. PS - It's OK to tear up your crappy-comportment driven mission statement and start fresh. Your constituency is fine with this type of change, especially if it shows a new perspective on your part that's focused on PEOPLE.